05 October 2017

Born a Rebel

by Brian Thornton

"She picked me up in the mornin'
And she paid all my tickets.
And she screamed in the car,
And left me out in the thicket.
Well, I never would have dreamed
That her heart was so wicked.
Well, I'm goin' back tonight,
'Cuz it's so hard to kick it."

                        –Tom Petty, "Rebels"

"It was nearly summer,
We sat on your roof.
Yeah, we smoked cigarettes,
And we stared at the moon.
And I showed you stars
You never could see.
It couldn't have been that easy
To forget about me."

        -Tom Petty, "Even The Losers"

Someone a whole lot more articulate than I once said, in effect, that art was simply stepping into the spotlight and telling the truth. By that definition, rock icon Tom Petty, who died Monday at age 66, defined "art."

Petty probably wouldn't have cared for that description. Not a pretty face, uninterested in cultivating either connections or an artist's image, Tom Petty died counting the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks, Jackson Browne, Roy Orbison (until his death), George Harrison (ditto), and many, many others as friends and collaborators. It was an irony worthy of a Tom Petty song.

And it was a long, long road from his origins in Gainesville, Florida as the son of an alcoholic and abusive father who beat him mercilessly throughout his childhood. A brush with fame in the person of a meeting with Elvis Presley (who was in town to shoot a movie) during his early teens is supposed to have provided the spark that lit the fuse on Petty's towering ambition. Petty scoffed at the notion in later interviews.

"You Don't Know How It Feels"
This is not to say that Tom Petty was not ambitious. On the contrary, bandmates in the late-60s blues-rock outfit Mudcrutch marveled years later about how Petty had more ambition than native musical talent. Petty himself was known to joke about how as a lead guitarist he was actually a pretty good rhythm guitarist. He didn't play a solo on any of his albums until he laid down the lead track on "You Don't Know How It Feels" for his 1994 album  Wildflowers.

None of that mattered, though. Tom Petty's art was in the songs he wrote, and in the crystal clarity of how he envisioned them sounding in the final cut. In service of that vision he surrounded himself with musicians possessed of a particular set of chops. Two key players in Petty's long-time band The Heartbreakers were guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench.

Left-to-Right: Keyboardist Benmont Tench, Petty, & Guitarist Mike Campbell–core of the Heartbreakers' sound for decades
It's Tench whose swirling organ kicks off the iconic "Refugee" on 1979's Damn the Torpedoes, considered by many to be Petty's breakthrough album. Campbell's searing guitar leads provide the counterpoint of a call-and-response with Tench's keyboards, and hovering over it all is Petty, whose trademark wail both sells and punctuates the lines:

"Baby, we ain't the first.
I'm sure a lot of other lovers been burned.
Right now this all seems real to you, but it's
One of those things you've got to feel to true."

Petty's music contained on-going homages to the likes of country-rock stalwarts such as the Byrds (whose lead-singer Roger McGuinn, tapped Petty to collaborate with him on his 1991 "comeback" album, Back From Rio.), the Buffalo Springfield, Bob Dylan (another frequent collaborator, and not just with The Traveling Wilburys), Del Shannon (Ditto), and yet still managed to be strikingly original. And his lyrics dealt with universal themes usually having to do with the personal consequences springing from one's life choices.

"Refugee," his most recognizable song, is about not being a victim. Petty the child abuse survivor was many things, but never that. Other songs such as "You Got Lucky," "Change of Heart," and the above-referenced "Even the Losers" are often bitter ruminations on the cost of relationships. Still others, like "The Waiting," and "Deliver Me" are the exact opposite: hopeful, even optimistic:

"Oh baby don't it feel like Heaven right now
Don't it feel like somethin' from a dream                            
Yeah I've never known nothin' quite like this
Don't it feel like tonight might never be again
Baby we know better than to try and pretend
Honey no one could have ever told me 'bout this"

                                  –Tom Petty, "The Waiting"

"Sometimes I wonder if this is worth the trouble.
Sometimes I wonder if this is worth the fight.
I never have made my mind up about it.
I've just decided to let it all ride."

                                     –Tom Petty, "Deliver Me"


And Petty knew about fights. After suing his first record company over the disastrous deal he'd made with them (he won), he went on to immediately piss off his next one by nearly naming his latest album The $8.98 Record Album in order to keep the record company from jacking the price of his records to $9.98 in the wake of the success of Damn the Torpedoes. The record company caved, and the album (which contained "The Waiting") was eventually released as Hard Promises.

And his fans loved him for it.

When he died on Monday, Tom Petty was fresh off a 40th anniversary tour with The Heartbreakers. At 66, he had survived abuse as a child, exploitation by rapacious record companies, the destruction by fire of his large Southern California home, and the disastrous spiral of his first marriage downward into serious drug addiction for both himself and his ex-wife.

He had always come back with an answer to these big life challenges: leaving his parents' home at seventeen and decamping for California while "Runnin' Down a Dream," Damn the Torpedoes for his first record company. Rebuilding his burned-out house. And finding sobriety and love with the second wife who now survives him.

And when he was found in full cardiac arrest late Sunday, it even seemed as if he might pull back from the brink yet again, as reports of his death were initially hotly contested when they broke on Monday.

Not this time.

The refrain from the last song on Petty's 1982 album Long After Dark runs like this: "Don't have a wasted life." Looking back on his impressive body of work, it's pretty damned clear that Tom Petty took his own advice.

04 October 2017

The Librarian Murder Mysteries

by Robert Lopresti

Thanks for all the additions, comments, and corrections! All those received by October 6th have been added in red.  Keep them coming!

Crime-writing attracts people from many different fields, including crime-fighters and, of course, criminals.  I am working on a list of mystery writers, past and present, who happen to be librarians.  (I am limiting it to this to fiction writers with M.L.S. degrees.)

I went to the geniuses who dwell at Dorothy-L, the listgroup for fanatical mystery fans, and asked for their collective wisdom.  And boy, was I impressed with the list they came up with.  If you know of any we missed, please pass them along.

James R. Benn.   Benn served as the head of school libraries for West Hartford, CT, and then managed a private history library before going full-time into mysteries.  The history stuff might have helped him with his books about Billy Boyle, a Boston police detective who spends World War II as confidential investigator for his "Uncle Ike," Dwight D. Eisenhower.  

Jon L. Breen.  Jon is a retired reference librarian who is best known for his nonfiction, which has won him both Edgar and Anthony Awards.  His What About Murder? is a definitive (and continuing) guide to reference books in our field (it now appears in each issue of Mystery Scene Magazine).  He has written around ten novels and several collections of short stories. My favorite is Kill the Umpire!, a collection of fair-play mysteries starring Ed Gorgon, major league ump.

Barbara Cantwell.  With her husband Brian, she forms B.B. Cantwell, who writes the Portland Bookmobile mysteries.  She did work on a bookmobile in th 1980s, and now stays more in one place  at the University of Washington.

Donis Casey.  Casey has been an academic librarian in Oklahoma and Arizona.  Now she writes full-time.  Her first book was The Old Buzzard Had It Coming.

Jo Dereske.  My friend reference librarian Jo Dereske wrote a series of comic mysteries about Miss Wilhelmina Zukas, who works at the public library in a small northwestern city not unlike the one where I live.  Helma is in some ways a stereotypical librarian but she has enough quirks and spine to make her a pleasure to spend time with.  In one book the police want to know who borrowed a particular book and to protect her patron's privacy, Helma destroys the records.  Making this more interesting is  that her would-be lover is the police chief.

Amanda Flower is a librarian in Ohio.  So is her character India Hayes who works and sleuths at a college there.

Charles Goodrum.  Goodrum may have been the first librarian to write crime novels about a librarian.  Dewey Decimated (1977) and its equally pun-titled sequels centered on an institution reminiscent of the Library of Congress, where Goodrum worked for many years.


Dean James used to be a medical librarian in Houston.  Under the name Miranda James he writes the Cat in the Stacks books about a small-town Mississippi librarian.

Jayne Ann Krentz. Krentz was a school librarian in the Virgin Islands (which she considered a "disaster" of a career move), and then worked at Duke University.  She is a hugely successful author or romantic suspense and donates generously to libraries, setting up a foundation to provide money for UCSC's humanities collection, among other gifts.

Eleanor Kuhns is the assistant director at the Goshen Public Library in Orange County, New York,  She writes about Will Rees, a weaver in Colonial America.

Robert Lopresti.  Yeah, that guy.  I wrote three stories about a public librarian buit couldn't sell them.  I got some satisfaction by slipping the character into one of my stories about eccentric mob detective Uncle Victor.

Mary Jane Maffini.  How many people can boast of once being the librarian of the Brewer's Association of Canada?  Maffini can.  She authors three series with female amateur sleuths.  The most popular may be the books about professional organizer Charlotte Adams, as in The Busy Woman's Guide to Murder.

Annette Mahon.  Mahon has worked in public and academic libraries.  Now she writes novels about the St. Rose Quilting Bee. The quilters, like their author, live in Arizona.

Jenn McKinlay.  She was a librarian in Connecticut, then tried writing.  McKinlay switched from romance to mystery because "I'm just better at killing people than I am at making them fall in love."  Among her series are the Library Lovers' Mysteries.

Shari Randall.  Randall has had two short stories published.  Her first novel, Curses, Broiled Again,comes out in early 2018.

Robert F. Skinner.  Skinner was the head librarian at Xaver University in New Orleans.  He wrote a series of novels about Wesley Farrell, a nightclub owner "passing for white" during the 1930s.

Triss Stein.  Stein describes herself as a small town girl who became a children's librarian in Brooklyn.  Later she ran the library for DC Comics!  How cool is that?   She says that part of the inspiration for her books set in Brooklyn neighborhoods came from the places she worked in libraries there.

Marcia Talley.  Most of these authors worked in public, academic, or school libraries.  Talley represents another major category: special libraries.  She worked for corporations, a non-profit, and the government.  She writes about Hannah Ives, a cancer survivor now living in Annapolis.

Will Thomas.  Thomas is a librarian in Oklahoma.  His characters Barker and Llewelyn are private inquiry agents in Victorian England.

Ashley Weaver.  Weaver runs the technical services side of things at a library system in Louisiana.  Her books are set far, far away, involving an Englishwoman named Amory Ames who solves crimes with her playboy husband in stylish spots in the 1930s.


Of course, one reason there are so many librarians in mystery fiction - including ones not written by people in the field  - is that a lot of librarians are fans, and therefore potential customers.  How many?  Enough to make it worthwhile to have a Librarian's Tea every year at Bouchercon.  Next week in Toronto a lot of people in my field will gather for tea and cookies and the chance to hear some famous writers tell us how much they love libraries.  And no one will tell them to shush.

03 October 2017

Nailing the Interview

by Janice Law

Recently I did a morning drive time interview with our local a.m. station, WILI, following up stories in the Hartford Courant and the Willimantic Chronicle. This counts as a veritable PR blitz here in the Quiet Corner of Connecticut. It’s not exactly BSP ( Blatant Self Promotion) but maybe about right for a novel with local settings by a local author.

I know many of my Sleuthsayers colleagues are far ahead of me in the publicity sweepstakes, but I got thinking that a few tips for interviews might be useful for less experienced or less entrepreneurial writers.

Early a.m. at WILI 
First off, assume nothing. I was lucky. Wayne Norman, WILI’s long time radio personality, is a complete pro, well prepared and immensely experienced. He asked good questions, and he had done some preparation, although even he had not read the whole book. No offense! Remember that radio hosts have a guest or two a day, five or six days a week. Many of those guests have written books and articles. Who can read them all and still do the required prep for weather and traffic and sports reports and news breaks? No one.

So, make it easy for your interviewer. Have a PR sheet that describes your book and gives some interesting personal information.

For the actual interview, you will need to have a pithy statement of what the book is about. That was, in fact, the first question I was asked. While most of us hate the idea of boiling down our brilliant prose and profound insights to a few sentences, that’s what’s required. The TV listings are too short, but a Times review is definitely too long.

Figure three or four sentences mentioning your protagonist and his or her situation, emphasis on conflict. You need to do this without giving away the whole plot. Tricky? You bet, so if you are not an old classroom teacher used to thinking on your feet about plots and reader interest, plan ahead; even a few notes won’t hurt.

The next big question is, or should be, chief characters. Once again I was lucky. Mr. Norman had read enough to know who was important and to ask about them specifically. If your interviewer hasn’t cracked the book, find a way to introduce your characters. You don’t need to give their entire biographies, but an enticing villain, a charming child, romantic interest of one sort or another is good – if you can give short and interesting descriptions. Be prepared for this.

Morning WILI host Wayne Normal in parade mode
Sometimes, as in the case with Homeward Dove – and here a tip. Do as I say, not as I do: Mention your book title! I must confess that I left that to my interviewer. Points off! Anyway, in the case of Homeward Dove, setting was my friend. If your book features a particular area, you can sometimes interest a program that would otherwise be cool to your prose. People like to read about their own communities – or in the case of Homeward Dove – the surrounding parks, rivers, and forests.

The clincher for me was the fact that Homeward Dove ended with Willimantic’s famous Boom Box Parade. For those still ignorant of this event, it is a promotion of the local station and was designed to compensate for the demise of local marching bands. When it is time for the parade, the station cues up patriotic marches which are played by a couple of sound trucks but also, and here was the genius idea, by marchers and spectators carrying boom boxes. A description of this event and the creative costumes and floats produced by the locals was clearly a way to my interviewer’s heart.

Along the way, we talked about a number of things mentioned in the book, including the many references to the trades – a chance to talk about my father who was a skilled carpenter, and about whether a particular passage about fears of learning to swim reflected my own attitudes. Since I’ve always adored the water, we ventured into imagination and where ideas come from.  These are good topics and perennials when readers and fans meet writers.

Thinking about that, led me to consider the difference between what readers and critics and interviewers, too, are interested in as opposed to writers. The readers are interested in art, in ideas, in the meaning of it all. Writers, and from my experience, painters, too, tend to talk about money, markets, or, less often, technique. Who’s buying, who keeps your manuscript for ages, who writes snarky rejection letters, who pays promptly, who’s looking for submissions: these are the big questions for writers.

Speakers on for the start of the Boom Box Parade
So, once in a while, it’s nice to talk to some of the folks who love art with the capital A: the readers and fans.

02 October 2017

My 60th Class Reunion

by Jan Grape

Our class secretary, Orabeth White, asked me to read this poem at our alumni banquet.

The Class Reunion


Every ten years, as summertime nears,
An announcement arrives in the mail,
A reunion is planned; it'll be really grand;
Make plans to attend without fail.

I'll never forget the first time we met;
We tried so hard to impress.
We drove fancy cars, smoked big cigars,
And wore our most elegant dress.

It was quite an affair; the whole class was there.
It was held at a fancy hotel.
We wined, and we dined, and we acted refined,
And everyone thought it was swell.

The men all conversed about who had been first
To achieve great fortune and fame.
Meanwhile, their spouses described their fine houses
And how beautiful their children became.

The 20th homecoming queen, who once had been lean
Now weighed in at one-ninety-six.
The jocks who were there had all lost their hair,
And the cheerleaders could no longer do kicks.

No one had heard about the class nerd
Who'd guided a spacecraft to the moon;
Or poor little Jane, who's always been plain;
Why she'd married a shipping tycoon.

The boy we'd decreed 'most apt to succeed'
Was serving ten years in the pen,
While the one voted 'least', now he's a priest;
Just shows you can be wrong now and then.

They awarded a prize to one of the guys
Who seemed to have aged the least.
Another was given to the grad who had driven
The farthest to attend the feast.

They took a class picture, a curious mixture
Of beehives, crew cuts and wide ties.
Tall, short, or skinny, the style was the mini;
You never saw so many thighs.

At our next get-together, no one cared whether
They impressed their classmates or not.
The mood was informal, a whole lot more normal;
By this time we'd all gone to pot.

It was held out-of-doors, at our lake shores;
We ate hamburgers, coleslaw, and beans.
Then most of us laid around in the shade,
In our comfortable T-shirts and jeans.

By the 50th year, it was abundantly clear,
We were definitely over the hill.
And those who weren't dead, had to crawl out of bed
But be home in time for their pill.

And now I can't wait; they've set the date;
Our 60th is coming, I'm told.
It should be a ball, they've rented a hall
At the Shady Rest Home for the old.

Repairs have been made on my hearing aid;
My pacemaker's been turned up on high.
My wheelchair is oiled, and my teeth have been boiled;
And I've bought a new wig and glass eye.

I'm feeling quite hearty, and I'm ready to party
I'm gonna dance 'til dawn's early light.
It'll be lots of fun; But I just hope that there's one
Other person who can make it that night.

— Author Unknown

reunion of 16 people
photo courtesy of Debbi Ethridge Hanks
(whose dad is very tall guy behind me,)

As you can see by the photo that I wasn't the only one to show up at my 60th high school reunion in Post, Texas. (Post is 35 miles southeast of Lubbock.) It was a nice group of 21 from the class of '57.Thirty-three have passed away. There are three or four who were too sick to attend; fortunately two were minor illnesses. There are three who have never attended a reunion and we don't know if they are still alive.

We all had a grand time. Some of us attended the Post Antelope's football game on Friday night and met afterwards for coffee and doughnuts. Our banquet was on Saturday night There were many hugs and laughs and tears as we discussed our current lives and brought up the old days. Rumors were flying around the room faster than you could imagine about who did what in which class. We all denied the bad and laughed about the good. And the best part was we voted to do this all again in three years.

I'm so glad I got to go and look forward to 2020. Now surely I can come up with a good story from this adventure. In fact my travel buddy, Leslie who I've known since 2nd grade, fell as they were locking the door to the Fellowship Hall and severely broke her left arm. They took her to Lubbock by ambulance and she had surgery on Sunday. Her daughter came to Lubbock after her and brought her home. I had to drive back all by my self. Took me 7 hours from Lubbock because I stopped sever times to keep my legs and knees from getting stiff. (Leslie is the one in the photo in front, second from the end on the right. She's dressed in black and has very white hair. I'm in the front row, second from the left end in white capri pants in case you aren't sure about me.)



Velma says Leigh insists articles contain elements of crime or writing. Let’s see… There has to be a criminal tale about someone getting a broken arm at a class reunion. Maybe along the lines of “It was a dark and stormy alumni night…” Plus there's that little dagger thingie.†

01 October 2017

You, Identity Theft Victim

by Leigh Lundin

Today’s article outlines the massive Equifax identity theft that’s still surfacing today. For the first steps in protecting yourself, you can jump to the distant section on discovering whether you have been targeted and obtaining security features that have been made free for you.

Equifax investigated
Monetizing Your Body

Commercial law can be a peculiar thing, who owns what and why companies have certain rights you don’t. For example, you enter a hospital for surgery. Doctors snip out some piece of you. Likely, you never question who owns that removed bit of flesh or bone and you’re happy just to get rid of it.

Suppose doctors discover something unique and potentially highly profitable in that tonsil or toenail, your appendix or gall bladder. Your DNA might save millions of lives around the planet and earn billions of dollars… none of which you’re entitled to. Unless you signed an agreement otherwise, the physician or hospital owns that biological bit of you including the rights to exploit it. One woman actually applied for a patent on her own body for such a circumstance.

Monetizing Your Life


Financially successful corporations make tidy profits collecting information about you, not merely your earning and spending habits, but where you live, work, school, shop (or shoplift), if you’ve been to court and why. The peculiarity is you don’t own that data. Huge companies do and often their information is wrong and sometimes misused.

A few years ago, credit bureaus were finally forced to hand out credit reports to those who demanded them (a) no more than once a year or (b) if you were turned down for credit. But… odds are high you’ve never seen your full report, because it can contain information the bureaus don’t want you to know. When a mortgagee or a banker or employer receives your credit report, a line at the top might instruct them not to show the report to the subject (you or me), followed by information or opinions they don’t want shared with the… well, victim.

For example, the redacted secret part on my own credit report read “suspected of using false address.” This came about in two ways. First, I had been buying property, a dozen addresses were associated with my name, so I relied on a post office box, much as my grandmother had done. Second, the US Postal Service allows post box renters to use the post office’s physical address, quite handy for imprinting on checks. Such an address looks like:
Chandler Hammett
1201 Post Industrial Drive #107707
Los Angeles, Ca 90210-7707
In my case, the comment didn’t particularly affect me, but imagine someone applying for a sensitive job. The HR department reads the line “suspected of using false address,” and suddenly the potential employee is rejected with no reason given. The applicant should have a right to know about that careless assessment, but has no way of learning of or correcting the report. Why? The bureaus own the reports, you and I don’t.

Monetizing Miscreants

In a past article, I pointed out that curious hackers– the benign exploring kind– can receive severe prison sentences for merely poking around in data warehouses and behind the scenes in web databases. I argued that bankers and merchants who fail to secure vaults, leave doors unlocked, and don’t hire a watchman should be punished as well. If any major office didn’t lock its doors, could you blame kids for wandering in and looking around?

Let’s discuss Equifax, which has suffered an extraordinary data loss to a ‘state actor’… presumably China, North Korea, or Russia. Stolen is your name, social security number, credit card numbers, drivers licence, address, and all the minutia that makes you you. With this kind of data, thieves can lie low for years before springing into action.

I say that as fact, because thieves (state actors) stole the records of the vast majority of working and retired citizens in two separate breaches. The second theft (the first was acknowledged only after the second came to light) affects between ¾ and ⅞ of American adults. Equifax admissions have edged upwards from 153-million stolen files to 182-million; outside assessments estimate as high as 200-million or more.

Note: Canadian and British records have been stolen in the same breach. Equifax says they’re “working with UK regulators,” whatever that means.

Monetizing Misfortune


Equifax executives cashed in stock before the breach became public, attempting to option their knowledge for their personal profit. Then after the big reveal, the company offered to help protect user accounts through a subsidiary— for a fee. Equifax and their security pet since had their arms twisted into providing the services free.

Political response has been as antithetical as you might expect. Congressional members of one political party sent a demand letter to Equifax with a deadline for explaining details and corrective actions. Contrarily, in defense of Equifax and in fear of impacting deregulation, the other major party is working a bill through Congress to limit the liability of credit bureaus and other companies.

Have You Been Hit?   866-447-7559

Here Equifax estimates whether or not your data has been sucked overseas. Be cautious of similar links, because identity thieves are working those, trying to snatch whatever data they can. Use this link:
☞  Has my data been stolen?
Note that updates may still be made, so it’s possible an all-clear this week might turn into a false negative next week. Tap that link to see if you’ve become a victim:

Once you receive an indication, you can decide what to do next. Equifax can take several days to email you about options (now free) that they provide. The FTC offers suggestions and guidelines.

Equifax will provide ninety days of ‘fraud alert’ (notification of identity theft) and a year of monitoring, which can be renewed indefinitely. You may also choose to lock or freeze your account and ‘thaw’ it only when you apply for a loan or other use.

Use the phone number (866-447-7559) above if you have questions or need help you can’t find elsewhere. Contact the other credit bureaus to notify them your identity and data has been compromised.

Equifax Inc.
P. O. Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
800-685-1111
800-525-6285
1150 Lake Hearn Drive
Atlanta, GA 30342
fraud: 800-525-6285
web site
Experian
P. O. Box 2002
Allen, TX 75013-2002
888-397-3742
888-243-6951
701 Experian Parkway
Allen, TX 75013
fraud: 800-397-3742
web site
Trans Union Corp.
P. O. Box 1000
Chester, PA 19022-1000
800-916-8800
800-888-4213
2 Baldwin Place
Chester, PA 19022
fraud: 800-680-7289
web site

Let us know if you’ve been hit. In the meantime, be safe out there– state actors abound!

30 September 2017

Black Cats and Roosters



by John M. Floyd



Robert Lopresti mentioned here at SleuthSayers a few weeks ago that he enjoys reading behind-the-scenes reports about the writing of short stories. Where authors get their ideas, where they find their characters, how they come up with titles, how/why they construct plots in a certain way. And Art Taylor's column yesterday featured some of those stories-within-the-stories from the current Anthony Award nominees.

I agree with Rob, and Art too--I think that kind of thing is fascinating. Because of that (and because I couldn't think of anything else to write about, for today), I decided to post a "look-inside" view of my short story "Rooster Creek," which appears in the current, and debut, issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine.

First, a word about that issue. One of the thrills, for me, of being included there was the fact that just about every author in the story lineup is a friend of mine. I've always especially enjoyed reading stories written by people I already know, and this was a chance for me to do a lot of that. I'd like to take this opportunity to once again thank John Betancourt and Carla Coupe of Wildside Press for allowing me a spot at the table with such talented writers.


Story time

"Rooster Creek" is a 7500-word tale that combines three genres: western, mystery, and (to a lesser degree) romance. That was an easy choice for me, since (1) I've always been crazy about westerns, probably because I grew up watching so many on primetime TV; (2) I'm sappy enough to like a good love story; and (3) one of the job requirements of working in the SleuthSayers asylum is a fondness for anything with an element of mystery/suspense.

Here's a quick description of my story: After the death of her mother, twentysomething Katie Harrison is traveling cross-country by stagecoach to live with her older sister, and stops along the way to visit her childhood home. She runs into a multitude of problems, including the theft of her cash and luggage, and is forced to remain at the remote homestead as a servant to its current owners, Maureen and Jesse Carter, until she can earn enough in wages to continue her passage west. At the core of the story is a mystery: the Carters' former housemaid has disappeared, and Katie soon suspects that she's been murdered. With the help of two unlikely allies--a giant black handyman named Booley Jones and a traveling firearms-salesman named Clay Wallace--Katie burrows deeper into the strange lives of her employers/captors, and she eventually winds up alone and fighting for her life.

Structurewise, I decided early on that this story needed to be "framed" such that it begins very near the end then flashes back to the beginning and tells the story in the past. The action then builds to the point where the reader left off, and the climax and conclusion follow shortly afterward. This nonlinear approach--the first scene is sort of a glimpse-into-the-future prologue--doesn't always work, but when it does, I think it can make for more effective storytelling. I hope that's what I accomplished here.


Getting started

Having said that, here are the opening paragraphs of the story:


Katie Harrison swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and looked out at the greenish-brown plains and hills stretching away to the horizon. Sparrows flitted and chirped in the branches overhead, and even in the dappled shade the midday sun was warm on her shoulders. But Katie barely heard the birds, barely felt the heat.

Underneath her feet, the chair shifted an inch, and her heart lurched. She winced as the noose tightened around her neck. The fingernails of her bound hands bit into her palms, behind her back. Then the wobbly chair on which she stood stabilized and she let herself breathe again. Above her, although she couldn't see it, the rope was looped over the limb of an oak that had once supported a wooden swing that she'd played on as a child, twenty years ago.

Ten feet away and to her left, a silent and stonefaced woman with red hair sat and watched from a second chair. Beside the redheaded woman stood a huge black man in a battered hat and bib overalls. His face, usually relaxed and peaceful, had a pained look. Katie had met both of them only a month earlier, after she'd trudged empty-handed and muddy all the way up the wagon-rutted road from the town of Perdition. Only a month. In one sense, the time had passed quickly; in another, it seemed like years since she stopped down off the stagecoach from Lincoln Wells and asked the old fellow behind the counter in the stage office where she could hire a buggy to take her up the old north road.

Ain't much out that way, he had said to her, hunched over his paperwork.

I know, she'd replied. That's where I grew up.



And then we hop back to a scene with her in the stagecoach office, and the real adventure begins there.


Plot and characters

Another point, about the structure of this story. As in most novels and screenplays and in some longer short-stories, a lot of elements of the mythic-structure/heroic-journey model apply here. First, in Act 1, there's the heroine's usual and uncomplicated life, then a "disturbance" that upsets the routine (in this case, her inability to rent transportation to get her where she wants to go), then an unexpected encounter (with a young boy who needs her help) which delays her acceptance of the "call to adventure," and finally her eventual crossing-the-threshold transition into unfamiliar and threatening territory. Act 2 features the appearance of mentors and allies (a kindly hired hand and a traveling gun salesman), several run-ins with evil forces, steadily rising action, and finally a crisis/setback that paves the way for the climax. Then, in Act 3, there's the final confrontation between the heroine and the villain and the heroine's later return, as an older and wiser person, to her everyday, pre-adventure life. The old hero's-journey template still works.
I knew before I started writing "Rooster Creek" that I wanted the protagonist to be a strong-willed young woman, which is a little unusual for me, and it turned out later that the main antagonist was a woman as well, which was a lot unusual for me. But it seemed to fit, and the more I got into writing about the villain the more I could see her and hear her. I even had the villain always speaking of herself in the third person, which (as fellow SleuthSayer Janice Law and I discussed, when we talked about this), made her seem not only weird but even more sinister. These crazy little extra "quirks" can be the difference, I've found, between a merely okay character and a really vivid character. Janet Hutchings told me a couple of years ago that one reason she bought one of my mysteries for EQMM was that my main female character was seven feet tall. But that--literally--is another story.

The hired hand in this piece, Booley Jones, is a composite of a number of folks I knew, growing up in small-town Mississippi, and the same is true for some of the other characters. As for detailed descriptions of the players, I never do much of that. I can see these people clearly in my imagination as I'm writing about them, but I think it's important that the reader be allowed the freedom to also imagine what they look like. Stephen King once said, in his book On Writing, "I'd rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well." I'm no Stephen King, but I think that's good advice.


Entitlement

One more thing. The title of this story was a result of my not being able to decide on a satisfactory title even after the writing was finished. I tried using embedded phrases, characters' names, double meanings. and just about every other technique, and when nothing worked, I came up with the name of a geographical feature instead--Rooster Creek--and went back and set the house and farm and most of the action alongside its willow-shaded banks. Sometimes simple is best.

And that's the story of my story. If you read it, I hope you'll like it, and even if you don't read it (or don't like it), be sure to read the other stories in the magazine. John and Carla have put together a great debut issue.

Long live Black Cat Mystery Magazine.




29 September 2017

Anthony Award Finalists for Best Short Story

By Art Taylor

A few weeks back here at SleuthSayers, Paul D. Marks hosted his fellow Macavity Award finalists for Best Short Story for a chat about where their nominated stories came from—ideas, inspirations, etc. It was a fine post, and I was glad to be a part of it myself.

Following Paul’s lead in advance of Bouchercon less than two weeks ahead (!), I invited this year’s Anthony Award finalists in the same category (I’m honored to be among this group too) to choose a representative excerpt from their respective stories and offer a quick craft talk on the passage in relation to the story as a whole. Unfortunately, getting all the finalists on-board and on deadline proved a challenge; Megan Abbott, for example—whose story “Oxford Girl” simply blew me away when I read it last year—was gracious as always, but had travel looming and was on a tight timeline generally. (For those who might not know, she’s one of the forces behind the critically acclaimed HBO series The Deuce.)

Still, with other authors willing to join in, I thought it would be good to push ahead—with me offering some quick reflections myself on passages from Megan’s story and Lawrence Block’s as well, before sections from Johnny Shaw, Holly West, and me on our own respective stories.  And just a quick reminder for readers here going to Bouchercon: Four of us—Megan, Johnny, Holly and me, along with moderator Alan Orloff—will be on a panel at Bouchercon on Friday, October 13, at 2 p.m. in the Grand Centre room. We’ll be chatting more about our stories and about short fiction in general, and hope to see you all there!




In the meantime, here are the opening paragraphs of the first two stories, along with links to read the full stories for free!

“OXFORD GIRL” BY MEGAN ABBOTT
From Mississippi Noir

Two a.m., you slid one of your Kappa Sig T-shirts over my head, fluorescent green XXL with a bleach stain on the right shoulder blade, soft and smelling like old sheets.

I feigned sleep, your big brother Keith snoring lustily across the room, and you, arms clutched about me until the sun started to squeak behind the Rebels pennant across the window. Watching the hump of your Adam’s apple, I tried to will you to wake up.


But I couldn’t wait forever, due for first shift at the Inn. Who else would stir those big tanks of grits for the game-weekend early arrivals, parents and grandparents, all manner of snowy-haired alumni in searing red swarming into the café for their continental-plus, six thirty sharp.


So I left, your head sunk deep in your pillow, and ducked out still wearing your shirt.


“AUTUMN AT THE AUTOMAT” BY LAWRENCE BLOCK
From In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper

The hat made a difference.

If you chose your clothes carefully, if you dressed a little more stylishly than the venue demanded, you could feel good about yourself. When you walked into the Forty-second Street cafeteria, the hat and coat announced that you were a lady. Perhaps you preferred their coffee to what they served at Longchamps. Or maybe it was the bean soup, as good as you could get at Delmonico’s. 


Certainly it wasn’t abject need that led you to the cashier’s window at Horn & Hardart. No one watching you dip into an alligator handbag for a dollar bill could think so for a minute.


Prominent in each of these openings is that “you.” The second-person opening section of “Autumn at the Automat” seems to offer a bit of guidance or a set of rules to follow: You should look both ways before you cross the street, for example, or you should always try to make a good impression. It might be an outside narrator presenting insights to the reader or talking directly to the character, or perhaps it’s a sort of internal monologue the character at the core of the story is having with herself—the woman pictured in Hopper’s painting by the same name as the story’s title, sitting solitary with her cup of coffee in that hat and coat. Soon, the story shifts into a third-person narrative, putting into action all this advice.

In Megan’s story, that “you” serves a different purpose: a young girl at Ole Miss talking to a very specific you, direct address to her new love. And as the story progresses, the narrative shifts back and forth between the points of view of each side of this relationship. Even in these opening paragraphs, the effect is a combination of intimacy and isolation. How close our young narrator is to this young man, snuggled against him, watching his Adam’s apple, talking directly to him—and yet how far away, unable to wake him. It’s a distance that grows throughout this lyrical, heartbreaking, and ultimately haunting story.


“GARY’S GOT A BONER” BY JOHNNY SHAW
From Waiting to Be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak, Inspired by the Replacements

I had never attempted a long walk with a raging erection. I wouldn’t recommend it. It was awkward and painful, my dick bobbing up and down like a broken antenna. And the son of a bitch wasn’t going anywhere. Whatever they put in that pill, it had given me an invincible boner.

I started to stroke it as I walked. Figured if I could rub one out, it would lose its swell. I had never masturbated outdoors. I found it difficult to feel anything but shame. I worked it until my arm was tired, but got no yield. 


I thought of baseball. Football. All the balls. I did my income tax forms in my head. I even tried thinking about the day my dog Roscoe died. Up until that moment, it had been the saddest day of my life. I had hit a new low, holding my rock-hard dick while thinking about my dead dog.


I was stuck with the damn thing until it decided to surrender.


Johnny's comments:
Art asked me to write about how this passage speaks to or illuminates the story, as whole. 

I’m sitting here, rereading it, trying to come up with something clever to write about. I have notes on the connection between humor and empathy, about how fun isn’t inherently frivolous, about dramatic tone change that can amplify the believability of broad comedy or stark realism. I wrote some stuff about the impact of oral storytelling, particularly the art of the shaggy dog story, on my writing.

But I just can’t do it. I can’t in all seriousness write a thesis about elevating the dick joke. Mostly because the dick joke is fine right where it is. A tool like any other. (You see what I did?)
   
“QUEEN OF THE DOGS” BY HOLLY WEST
From 44 Caliber Funk: Tales of Crime, Soul and Payback

They found seats at one of the tables on the perimeter of the dance floor. Marisol waved at Dennis, her favorite DJ, spinning records from an egg shaped-booth overlooking the dancers. He winked and pointed a finger gun at her. A moment later, 'Dancing Queen" came over the speakers. He always played it when Marisol came in.

"C’mon, let’s dance,” Marisol said, pulling her friends to the floor. She closed her eyes, immediately lost in the music. She loved everything about dancing; the way the bass beat reverberated under her feet, how men watched her out of the corners of their eyes as they danced with other women or from the sidelines, working up the courage to ask her to dance. Here, she was no longer just a maid who cleaned other people’s toilets. She was a foxy lady, the object of everyone’s desire. A dancing queen.



Holly's comments:
"Queen of the Dogs" is a particularly meaningful story to me because its based on someone who was very special to me. By the time I met her she was in her sixties, but after emigrating from Guatemala in her twenties, she worked as a housekeeper in Los Angeles, taking a variety of jobs over the years to support herself and her two children. There'd been lots of them—cheap motels, maid services, individual households, whatever she had to do to get by. For a few years, she was a live-in housekeeper for a very famous Hollywood producer, until she was fired because another employee accused her of stealing a UK passport. And she arrived at one long-term job to find the man she worked for dead in his bed.

But most of her experiences were mundane, as you'd expect a lifetime of cleaning up other people's messes to be. She'd known extreme poverty throughout her life and always seemed to be on the edge of it. I don't know if she ever felt like a "Dancing Queen," but I hope she did, if only for a moment.


“PARALLEL PLAY” BY ART TAYLOR
From Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning

Walter’s glasses were still covered by rain, the drops so thick she couldn’t see his eyes, and somehow that troubled her nearly as much as having him show up on the doorstep. Jordan stood beside him, and there was something unreal about that too, as if the two of them had materialized there, same as they’d been standing back at Teeter Toddlers. Except he wasn’t the same, was he? No, he wasn’t holding an umbrella now and . . .

“The tire,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d make it all the way home, figured I’d have to play knight in shining armor again. But here you are.”


Too stunned to answer, Maggie tried to snatch Daniel back and shut the door, but her son pulled away from her like it was a game, poked his head around one knee, then the other, and then into the doorway again.


“Hey, Daniel,” Walter said, stooping down, leaning forward, releasing his own son’s hand to take Daniel’s instead. “It’s Jordan, your friend.”


“Jordan,” Daniel repeated, and Maggie could hear a mix of pleasure and surprise in his voice, like when he got a new Matchbox car.


Walter stared up through those smeared glasses. “I hate to barge in for a play date unannounced, but given the circumstances . . . ”


Maggie shook her head, tried to hold back the tears suddenly welling up behind her eyes, finally found her voice. “It’s really not a good time right now. My husband—”


“Away on a business trip.” Walter nodded. “I heard you talking to Amy, that’s what got me thinking about this, making sure you got home in one piece.” He looked at Daniel again, smiled. “Surely you could spare a few minutes for the boys to play.”


She nodded—unconsciously, reflex really. “A few minutes,” she said. “A few, of course.”


Her words sounded unreal to her, more than his own now, and even as she said them, she knew it was the wrong decision—everything, in fact, the opposite of what she’d always thought she’d do in a case like this. But really what choice did she have, the way Walter had inserted his foot into the doorway and held so tightly to Daniel’s hand?


And then there was the box cutter jittering slightly in Walter’s other hand, raindrops glistening along the razor’s edge, the truth behind that flat tire suddenly becoming clear.


My comments:
The section I chose—apologies for the length, two lines needed including—comes at about the 40% mark of the story but really marks the first dramatic uptick of the action here.

I’ve already written at B.K. Stevens’ blog “The First Two Pages” about the relatively slower start of the story, but I wanted to look at this scene here for two reasons. First, I think it encapsulates the mood and approach of much of the story—the intersection between an everyday conversation on the surface and the life-or-death stakes coursing under that conversation. Second, I wanted to focus on the decision to postpone the mention of that box cutter. My writing group was very divided about this scene when I brought in my draft: Wouldn’t mentioning the box cutter at the start—“an umbrella now and…”—add drama more quickly? get the reader into the conflict more quickly? Perhaps. But I continued to think (hope!) that readers would be drawn ahead by questions about Maggie’s reaction, wondering about the uneasiness she’s feeling, and perhaps sharing with her some small disorientation. What’s happening here? And could this really be happening at all?  

Again, I hope that readers here attending Bouchercon will come out to the Anthony finalists panel featuring Megan, Johnny, Holly and me and moderated by Alan Orloff—Friday, October 13, at 2 p.m. in the Grand Centre room. See you all in Toronto!

28 September 2017

The Goodfellas Return to South Dakota

by Eve Fisher

South Dakota made it to the national news this week, thanks to Rep. Lynne DiSanto, R-Box Elder, and State Legislature Whip, who posted an image earlier this month on Facebook or some such social media:

  


After people called her out on the meme, she took it down and wrote:  “I am sorry if people took offense to it and perceived my message in any way insinuating support or condoning people being hit by cars.  I perceived it differently. I perceived it as encouraging people to stay out of the street.” Yeah, right.  That's why she commented:
"I think this is a movement we can all support. #alllivessplatter"  

To be fair, as some of us have noted, she's from West River, where there's a wee bit of racism. That's where I was denied a motel room 27 years ago because they thought I looked Native American.

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, 
has the lowest per capita income in the country.
That's where, for 2018, the Native Americans of Tripp, Dewey, Jackson, and Buffalo Counties will be provided only 9 days of the official 46 days allotted for early voting at one satellite center each for the Rosebud, Cheyenne, Pine Ridge, and Crow Creek Reservations, respectively.  Why? you might ask. (Although you may also have already ferreted out the reason.) Because that's all that the county commissioners asked for, according to Secretary of State Shantel Krebs.

NOTE 1: There's $9 million in the kitty for early satellite voting centers for South Dakota Native Americans. "Buffalo County auditor Elaine J. Wulff requested $2,100 to open the Crow Creek satellite voting station on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for three weeks in October 2018."  (Dakota Free Press)  (Indian Country Media Network)

NOTE 2:  For those worried about fraudulent voters, I can assure them that each and every person on the reservations was born in this country, and their ancestors have been in the Americas for thousands of years.

And, in answer to the question you may not have asked, Yes, most SD county commissioners are white.

DiSanto did lose her job - real estate - and she was dropped by the group Working Against Violence, Inc., as a speaker from an upcoming event.  But our own South Dakota legislature refused to reprimand her in any way.  (Argus Leader 1 and Argus Leader2)  And no, I'm not surprised.  After all, it was just a couple of weeks ago that the Minnehaha County Republicans sponsored a "Liberty Rally" at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Sioux Falls. About 80 people, including five state legislators and two Republican gubernatorial candidates, showed up to listen to a New Zealand writer and filmmaker named Trevor Loudon urge South Dakota to pass laws labeling Muslim advocacy and student organizations as hate groups and block Muslim refugees and immigrants from even entering the state.  (I guess we need to build a wall around South Dakota, too...) Argus Leader 3

But enough about that.  What about money?

Remember Gear Up, the federal program to help give Native American students scholarships? Remember Scott Westerhuis, who apparently embezzled $1.4 million and then, when it was all about to come out, killed himself, his wife, his four children, and set fire to his house and destroyed everything (except for the safe, which is still missing)?  Well, the latest twist is that Legislative Auditor General Marty Guindon has done a new audit, and said that the funds used for the Gear Up grant were all returned, and South Dakota owes the feds nothing.  Huzzah!  (Argus Leader 4). Instead, Mid-Central owes $3.4 million that it stole from 14 central South Dakota public school districts via representatives of those 14 public school districts. Now, South Dakota not only wants the money back, it's suing... wait for it... the school districts! (Argus Leader 5)  Even a former Republican State Senator is appalled by this.  
Stace Nelson 2014-02-14 00-02.jpg
Stace Nelson
"The burden of ongoing corruption in SD just got real for the taxpayers in Armour, Burke, Colome, Corsica, Ethan, Gregory, Kimball, Mount Vernon, Plankinton, Platte-Geddes, Stickney, Wessington Springs, White Lake, and Wolsey-Wessington School Districts! On June 29th, the “Lead Grant Partner” to MidCentral Education Cooperative (MEC), responsible for the administration, management, and oversight of the GEAR UP grants since 2005, named those schools contracted to MEC for services in its $4.3 Million lawsuit to recoup monies fraudulently misappropriated. The “Lead Grant Partner?” The SD Department of Education (DOE)!...
"U.S. history is replete with political corruption like New York’s Tammany Hall, and the Chicago Daley political machines that robbed taxpayers from within government through cronies protected from prosecution. We are seeing the same subversion of law in South Dakota for protection of cronies, in an ever brazen fashion."  (read the rest of Republican State Senator Stace Nelson's op-ed here at Dakota Free Press)  
Tri-Valley school boardBut that's the big boys.  How can we, as individuals, do our part to participate in gaming the system? So glad you asked.  Meet Tri-Valley school superintendent Mike Lodmel, who figured out a quick way of getting more funding for his school.  He invited all the homeschoolers in the area to attend school on September 29 to receive a free laptop.  Interestingly, September 29th was the day that the state took its official student enrollment count to figure out the district state aid for next year.  Each and every homeschooler that showed up meant $3,000 more for Tri-Valley.  Well, the governor's office heard about this and shut it down. Mr. Lodmel sent letters to all the homeschoolers, withdrawing the offer of a free laptop. He also said that his attorney said the plan didn't break any laws. "Frankly, our district has rescinded the offer because (I feel) moving forward just wouldn't be worth it... I honestly didn't believe this would be 'such a big deal." (Argus Leader 6)  

Although it's irrelevant to Mr. Lodmel's funding idea, Mr. Lodmel is also the man who made Tri-Valley the first district in South Dakota to utilize the 2013 school sentinal law, allowing school employees to carry firearms...

Like I said, this is South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, act like Goodfellas, and the crazy just keeps on coming.

 

  







27 September 2017

Legacies



David Edgerley Gates

My pal Michael Davidson, himself a thriller writer and a former career CIA officer, remarks of John le Carré's new novel Legacy of Spies that it's up to his usual high literary standards, while going on to say, "...the work of MI6 is portrayed as exceedingly cynical and inhuman." I don't know about 'inhuman,' but 'cold-blooded' fits the bill, many of the characters all too slithery and reptilian, even for public school Brits with upper lips shot full of Novocaine. The book's dark heart is the chill of moral frostbite.


le Carre then
A Legacy of Spies is something of a swan song, or a curtain call. George Smiley takes his last bow. And a good many ghosts gather at his elbow. Alec Leamas, for one, the original Spy Who Came In From The Cold, along with Bill Haydon (Kim Philby's avatar), and Peter Guillam, one-time head Scalphunter and later Paris station chief, and even a cameo from Jim Prideaux. It's fair to say that if you're unfamiliar with Spy, and Tinker, Tailor, and in fact the earlier Call for the Dead - which first introduced the East German Steel Mission and Hans-Dieter Mundt - then this story's going to fall on deaf ears. Then again, it's unlikely you're going to push old ladies and small children into oncoming traffic to get hold of Legacy if you haven't already inhaled the ozone at the top floor of the Circus, and you need the icy rush it promises. Fear not. The old spook hasn't lost his tradecraft, and he can still wind the clock, before he starts shaking the tree.  

It's ill-advised, as a rule, to conflate a writer with his characters, but you suspect that George Smiley, if not le Carré's exact double, or even his reflection, does on occasion speak for him. There's the moment in Smiley's People when George, chasing an old asset in Hamburg, casts his mental eye East, along the shores of the Baltic, and imagines a prison empire and its subject peoples, a horizon empty of hope. This is the closest we ever get, if I'm remembering it right, to any kind of rationale on George's part, in any of the books. Is this le Carré's voice? Hard to pin down. Yes, it sounds right for George, the war generation, first Hitler, then Stalin. "One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic." Then again, we know better than to trust in absolutes, or orthodox certainties. Smiley doesn't. He's lived through a damaged century.

What about loyalties, though? Bill Haydon betrays the Service, and his country, and - perhaps most unforgivably - his friends. He sleeps with George's wife Ann, first because he can ("Love to Ann - everybody's love to Ann"), but under instructions from Karla. Curiously, too, everybody involved in Operation Windfall, and the Testify cock-up, give their loyalty personally to Control, or to Smiley, cutting out the Witchcraft circle, the tainted and suspect. And for the Mustache Petes, like Guillam, their institutional loyalty isn't to the present-day Service, the glassy cubicle farm on the Thames, but to the Circus of old, not just the ill-lit corridors but its habits of mind, its Druid impenetrability.

Le Carré uses Legacy of Spies to post his epitaph on the Cold War. Or more exactly, he has Smiley do it, and we can't be entirely sure who's speaking. But when Smiley tells Peter Guillam that it was all an exercise in futility, that the clandestine wars had no real result, no satisfying narrative coda, it rings false to me. It doesn't sound like Smiley. It sounds like le Carré. And this is where I have to part company with him. I know a few other people who were once in the secret world (the above-mentioned Michael Davidson, for one) who don't buy into this, either. I think that what we did in those years, not to put too fine a point on it, kept the Cold War from getting hot. Your mileage may differ.



This isn't to say that le Carré hasn't made his bones. For sheer operational skills, he's hard to top. I still think Little Drummer Girl is extraordinary, even if you take it purely as a roadmap on how to mount covert. Legacy of Spies doesn't disappoint, I don't want to give that impression at all. In fact, I wish the book were three hundred and fifty pages long, instead of two-fifty. I'm only saying that le Carré and I take different lessons away from our own histories, our own private fictions.

26 September 2017

Favorite Books of 2017

by Barb Goffman

I love reading, but I can't ever seem to find enough time to do it. And when I do read, I'm often playing catch up. When it's time to pick up a new title, instead of going to my personal library and picking one of the hundreds of unread books on my shelves, I'm going to a list of books and stories published in the prior year and nominated for awards.

Agatha teapots
If it's February, March, or April, I'm reading a work nominated for the Agatha awards that year. I don't vote in a category if I haven't read all the nominated books and stories, and between best novel, best first novel, best historical novel, best children's/YA novel, and best short story, my reading dance card is full. (Some years the nominated books are announced and I've read several of the finalists, but I still usually have at least a dozen books to read. And yes, there's a best nonfiction category, too, but I never get to those books.)

So Malice Domestic comes, the Agatha awards are given out, and then I have a month or two to choose my own reading. Heaven! Until the Anthony and Macavity award nominees are announced, and it's off to the reading races again. I read Anthony- and Macavity-nominated books, stories, and novellas until Bouchercon, which occurs in September or October. (And this is a perfect time to give a shout out to my fellow SleuthSayers Paul Marks and Art Taylor, who are up for the Macavity Award for best short story this year, and to Art once more, as he's up for the Anthony for best short story. And let us not forget the wonderful late B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens, who is up for the Anthony for best novella.)

Anyway, Bouchercon eventually ends and the awards season is over and I get to read what I want to read. YAY! Not that there's anything wrong with the books and stories I read for the Agathas, Anthonys, and Macavitys (they're usually great--that's why they're nominated), but there's something to being able to pluck a book off the shelf just because I want to read it. And that period is coming. I'll get to choose my own books!

But what should I choose? There are so many options.

In preparation for making my choices, I reached out to some friends and asked them what books they've read recently that they loved. I asked them to focus on newer books that I might not yet have purchased. There's always room for more books on my shelves. Here are their recommendations:

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz -- my friend described it as "a treat for any tea-drinking, Anglophile, Agatha Christie fan--or anyone who enjoys a traditional mystery."

The Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah -- the new Poirot

Pulse by Felix Francis -- this book comes out next month, but my friend got an early copy.

The Case of the Curious Cook by Cathy Ace

The Good Byline by Jill Orr

Double Up by Gretchen Archer

Whispers of Warning by Jessica Estevao

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Later Gator by Jana Deleon

The Ex by Alafair Burke

I've already read The Ex and recommend it heartily. How about you, dear reader? What books have you read recently that you adored? Bonus points for books published this year. I'd love to get ahead on my awards reading for next year!

25 September 2017

Nano, Nano

by Steve Liskow

At least one source claims that over 300,000 people signed up for National Novel Writing Month (November) last year, and I'm guessing that about 5% of them actually achieved the 50,000 word target by the 30th. If you're thinking about joining in this year, you have about five weeks to gird your loins, sharpen your pencil, or polish your keyboard.

I present workshops on preparing to write for NANO and I encourage people to sign up for several reasons.

First, if you're one of those people who has always believed you have a book in you, now's a good time to find out. Keep in mind that the catchy title is misleading. You won't write a book in a month, partly because a novel is longer than 50,000 words and partly because you're going to have to revise everything several times to make it coherent. If you don't believe that, maybe I can discourage you after all.

Second, trying to write 50,000 words in a month will help you find your most efficient process. Do you write more comfortably early in the morning or late at night? Do you work better in one long stretch or in shorter bursts of 30-45 minutes? Do you find it easier to type at a computer or use a pen or pencil and write your first draft out longhand? Can you simply jump in and start writing, or do you prefer to outline and create character biographies first? Writing, especially fiction, is a personal and intimate process, so nobody else can really tell you how to do it. You need to experiment and learn from your mistakes. Once you can get words on paper, you can learn more about plot and character, better point of view choices, and all the other mechanics.

But the first task, especially if you're new at this, is learning how much effort it takes to produce an average of 1667 words--roughly six and a half pages in 12-point font--every day. For the newbie, this is a daunting task. Even the act of sitting long enough to do it is rough, and you need to resist the urge to check your email, play computer games, or edit your picture files. Many established writers set daily word limits for themselves. Stephen King expects to write 2000 words, roughly eight pages, daily. I'm not sure, but I don't think he outlines. Neither do Dennis Lehane or Tess Gerritsen. Robert Crais outlines and plans, maybe because he got his start writing for television.

Keep in mind that if you're going to produce that much every day, not all of it will be brilliant. That's the biggest secret I can offer you. There are no obscure psychological tricks I know except giving yourself permission to produce lots of crap. Think of your first draft as a block of marble. The revision is the sculpting part: chipping away everything that doesn't look like an elephant or the Venus de Milo. Don't worry about whether what you're writing is good or bad. That comes later.

Some people (I'm one of them) like to do a rough outline or character background. I try to create a sequence of fifty scenes before I start the actual writing, then plan to produce at least one complete scene daily ( I NEVER quit in the middle of a scene because I'll lose the rhythm overnight). For whatever reason, my scenes average about 1600 words, so aiming at one a day keeps me on the target. By the time I write a complete first draft of the book, I'm often on the fifteenth scene list, or even more.

But sequencing and pacing come with practice and NANO is a great first step toward that goal.
If I write that quickly, I begin to find the rhythm of the book, too, and learn when a scene is in the wrong place or needs a different point of view. Then I change it on my outline/scene list. Actually, my first draft is that scene list.

Remember, if you write 50,000 words in a month, it's only the beginning.

But it's a great beginning.