05 January 2018

Where is more than the name of a place.

by
O'Neil De Noux

I was fortunate to learn early from a panel of editors: "Setting is the fictional element that most quickly distinguishes the professional writer from the beginner." These were acquisition editors at a couple publishing houses and magazines. Stories without settings did not make it out of the slush pile.

Setting is not just the name of a place or a time-period; it is the feeling of the place and time period. It comprises all conditions - region, geography, neighborhood, buildings, interiors, climate, time of day, season of year.

Setting should appear near the beginning of a novel or story and remain throughout by answering the questions WHERE and WHEN. Using sensory details, the writer can flesh out a setting: the visual, smells, sounds, taste, feeling of the atmosphere. All five senses should be used by describing the little things - what your character sees, hears, feels, tastes and smells.

Every story takes place somewhere. Setting is more than a backdrop, it creates mood, tone and can help establish the theme of a work of fiction. Like characters, it plays an important role in a story. Writers should not neglect setting.

When establishing a setting, get the details correct. You can't have azaleas blooming in Louisiana in December. In New Orleans, the weather is an important part of setting. We have only two seasons - steamy hot in spring, summer and fall - wet cold in winter. There are occasional mild days at the start of spring and the beginning of autumn. Tennessee Williams said these were the only good days in New Orleans.

Go to the place you set your story (or a place like it if you create a fictional city or village or whatever). Go there and watch, listen, take notes. It has helped me often in important scenes.

One of the most gratifying compliments I receive come from New Orleanians telling me how real the city seems in my novels and stories. They see people and places they know. Even The Times-Picayune (a newspaper notoriously indifferent to local genre writers) described my writing as, "the real thing," when it comes to the city.

The weather can come as a surprise as in real life. As I wrote my crime novel BOURBON STREET, I learned about the 1947 Fort Lauderdale Hurricane (hurricanes were not named back then) and how after hitting Fort Lauderdale, crossed Florida into the Gulf of Mexico and slammed into New Orleans. It flooded the city similar to the way the city flooded during Hurricane Katrina, only the water didn't stay as long since there were no lakefront levees to help turn New Orleans into a bowl as it is today. The water quickly receded. I had my characters use the hurricane to assist in their escape.

I do agree with Elmore Leonard to leave out the parts people skip over. A writer, especially a mystery writer, may want to make sure the description of the setting does not overwhelm the scene.

Research. Research. Research when you set a piece in a place you've never been. If you work hard enough you can capture enough of the setting to work.

As I began to write my latest mystery, SAINT LOLITA, I originally set it on a real Caribbean island and quickly saw I'd never get the details correct so I made up an island - Saint Lolita, which lies west of Grenada in the Lesser Antilles. I researched islands of the Lesser Antilles to get details of flora and fauna and architecture, populations, cuisine, architecture and weather and I think I pulled it off.


Setting. Don't neglect it, especially in longer stories and novels.

http://www.oneildenoux.com/index.html

04 January 2018

Cultivating Hysteria with Pleasure and Terror

by Eve Fisher

A couple of weeks ago, right before Christmas, I read "A Passion for Paris:  Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light" by David Downie, and learned a great deal about Parisian geography, architecture, and the Romantics.  I already knew most of the who was sleeping with whoms - as an historian, I've kept up with all kinds of gossip across the ages - but what fascinated me was the literary exchanges.

               "I have cultivated my hysteria with pleasure and terror." - Charles Baudelaire

For example, Charles Baudelaire (considered by many to be the modern French poet, and the French poet of modernity) was obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. 

Charles Baudelaire in 1848,
portrait by Courbet
"In...1847, I came upon a few fragments of Edgar Allan Poe, and felt a strange sort of shock...[.] I discovered, believe me if you will, poems and stories that I had already thought of, but of which I had only a vague, confused and disorganised idea, and which Poe had managed to pull together and perfect...."  (Source

And Baudelaire promptly dropped (almost) everything, and spent his most productive years (1856-1865) translating Poe’s works into French.  Now he wasn't the first to do translate Poe, but he was the one who made Poe's work sing in French.  (Baudelaire's Translations at Gutenberg Press for free.)  And his translations became the standard throughout Europe.

First note:  Despite his obsession with Poe, when Baudelaire named his poetry collection Les Fleurs du Mal -- Flowers of Evil in English -- it was in homage of Nathaniel Hawthorne's highly appropriate Rappaccini's Daughter.  (Link here to read on-line)

Second note:  In Memoirs of a Drudge, James Thurber reminisces about working at the Riviera edition of the Chicago Tribune in Southern France.  (And why didn't my guidance counselor ever tell me about this job?)  Anyway, there were regular printers' strikes, and after one of them, the whole press room, half-tanked, got on a train for Cannes.  Promptly another argument broke out, this time over which was better, the original or the French translation of Poe's The Raven?  And would a real raven be more likely to say, "Jamais plus" or "Nevermore"?  "He returned with the claim the claim that our fellow-passenger to a man were passionately on the side of Jamais plus."  Betcha the translation was Baudelaire's...

"Remarks are not literature" - Gertrude Stein

Another interesting connection was between Gertrude Stein and Gustave Flaubert.  Apparently, Stein set out to translate Flaubert's Three Tales into English to improve her French, but it turned into her own Three Lives, which is certainly nothing like Flaubert's subtle, supple prose.  (I have tried to read her work, but found everything other than The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas to be breathtakingly, redundantly boring...) 

On the other hand, praises be to Gertrude Stein, whose gatherings in the Rue de Fleurus brought together almost every artist and writer of the early 1900s, launching friendships, love affairs, movements, feuds, innumerable rumors, and most of what we consider modern art.

"Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work." 
             - Gustave Flaubert

G. LEROUX.jpgSpeaking about original violence, meet Gaston Leroux (1868-1927), the author of  original Phantom of the Opera.  Maybe you haven't read the book, but I'm sure you've seen one of the 14 film versions and 4 stage versions...  (I remember seeing Lon Chaney Sr.'s version when I was a child - nightmare city!)  BTW - Some parts of Phantom are based on reality:  the "Paris Opera House" is based on the real Opera Garnier in Paris, which has underground tunnels and an underground lake. (To visit to the Opera Garnier, go Here.)  A chandelier did fall and kill someone.  There are a couple of stories about the Phantom himself:   one is that it's the ghost of a man whose skeleton was used (I don't know why or how) in a 1841 production at the Paris Opera of Der Freischütz.  The other is the sad story of Erik, one of the architects of the Opera Granier (who may or not have been disfigured - depends on the legend), but who ended up living underneath the Opera Garnier in his own apartment, with his own passages that led to his own "Box Number 5". 

          Phantom.jpg

Phantom alone should have ensured M. Leroux's fame, but he wrote more than that.  His 1907 super best-seller The Mystery of the Yellow Room has the singular honor of having spurred Agatha Christie to write mysteries.  She and her sister Madge were talking about various detective novels they liked, and The Mystery of the Yellow Room came up, which they both loved.  Christie said she'd like to write a detective novel herself, and Madge said “Well, I bet you couldn’t.” “From that moment I was fired by the determination that I would write a detective story.” 
  • (A number of Leroux's works are available for free on Gutenberg here, some in French, some in English translation.)  
While I'm at it, a few more interesting bits about Agatha Christie:

Did you know that she was a surfer?  She and her first husband, Archibald Christie, went on a trip from South Africa to Hawaii in 1922, and along the way they learned how to surf.  It's speculated that they were the first English surfers to surf standing up.  Now if I could only find a picture of THAT.  

Studio publicity Gene Tierney.jpg
Did you know that The Mirror Cracked is based not just on Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott but on the actress Gene Tierney?  In 1942, she was volunteering at the Hollywood Canteen when a fan sneaked out of a rubella quarantine to meet her. Tierney was pregnant, and yes, she got rubella, and the result was that her daughter, Daria, was born deaf, partially blind, and severely mentally disabled. It broke her heart, and the child had to be institutionalized.  A couple of years later, Tierney was approached by the fan at a garden party who proudly told her what she'd done: "Everyone told me I shouldn't go," the starstruck woman told Tierney years later at a tennis match, not realizing what she was responsible for, "but I just had to go.  You were my favorite."  (Biography)  

Did you know that Agatha Christie qualified as a "dispenser" (a/k/a pharmacist) in 1917?  That's certainly one way to learn all you want to know about poisons...

Supposedly, she ‘saw’ Hercule Poirot twice in her life, once lunching in the Savoy and once on a boat in the Canary Islands.  And Miss Marple was based on her maternal grandmother who, just like Miss Marple, "always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and were, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right."  

Speaking of "seeing" a detective, how about "seeing" an author?  Look at the three portraits below. 


McKee Dagurreotype of Edgar Allan Poe  


These are all (supposedly) Edgar Allan Poe.  You tell me how Edgar Allan Poe's physical appearance went from the first daguerreotype (the McGee portrait, 1843 or earlier) to the middle portrait (an 1845 painting by Samuel Stillman Osgood) to the final, most famous, one (the "Ultima Thule" daguerreotype) taken in 1848.

And go a step further:  check out the various Poe portraits at the Edgar Allan Poe Organization website.  Frankly, most of them - except the last - look nothing like the image I've always had of Poe.  Who was this shape-shifter, anyway?  Was that why he was found delirious, in great distress, and in clothes that didn't belong to him?  Was there a possession of some kind?  I don't know.

“I was never really insane except upon occasions when my heart was touched.” ― 
Edgar Allan Poe

But he was always a master of cultivating terror with hysteria and pleasure...





















03 January 2018

Bizarre Bizarre

by Robert Lopresti


One of the dangers of the library biz is that you are constantly surrounded by attractive nuisances, by which I mean those flat things with lots of pages between their covers.  In a word, books.  You stroll on your merry way, glance at a shelf, and uh oh, there's something that will fill your lunch hours for weeks to come.

For instance, I recently noticed a biography of John Randolph, or as he preferred to style himself, Randolph of Roanoke.  I had heard of him before as a master of the instant insult, a sort of Winston Churchill for the Federalist period.  For example, here are his comments on a couple of politicians he didn't love:

John Randolph
"Like rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks."

 "Never were abilities so much below mediocrity so well rewarded; no, not when Caligula's horse was made consul."

I picked up the book looking for more such wit.  Instead I stumbled into one of the strangest true stories I have ever encountered.  If you wrote this up as a gothic novel your editor would say, sheesh, tone it down.  No one's gonna believe it.

Once I got interested I went looking for a book specifically on the topic and found Cynthia A. Kierner's Scandal at Bizarre, which is the main source of what you will read below.

This is a bizarre story in more ways than one, because most of the characters lived in a house called Bizarre.
 
Start with this: The Randolphs were one of the oldest families in Virginia, and like many of the aristocrats after the Revolutionary War, were sunk deep in debt.  John's big brother Richard, head of the clan, was married to his second cousin, Judith Randolph.  (That was her maiden name.  The plantations of Virginia were stinky with Randolphs.)

Living at Bizarre with the newlyweds were John and also Judith's sister Nancy.

On October 1, 1792, Richard, Judith, and Nancy spent the night at the home of some friends, Mary and Randolph (!) Harrison.   During the night Nancy began screaming in pain.  Mary went to check on her and found-- Well, what you expect?  That Nancy's sister Judith was looking after her?  No, it was her brother-in-law Richard.

In the morning the Harrisons found blood on the stairs.  Later that day the family slaves reported finding a dead newborn on the plantation.  The Harrisons, oddly enough, did not check up on that story.  (Perhaps they had  a very good - or very bad - reason for that, as we shall discover.)

Patrick Henry
It seems clear that unmarried Nancy had either had a miscarriage, or an abortion (a few weeks earlier Thomas Jefferson's daughter, Martha,  married to yet another Randolph, had  provided Nancy with a medicinal herb which supposedly could be used as an abortifacient), or else she gave birth.  The vital question was: had there been a live birth and if so, how did the child die?  Was this infanticide?

The scandal rocked Virginia and most people assumed that Richard was the father, which made it a case of incest.  (Not because they were second cousins but because they were brother and sister-in-law).  Richard finally demanded to be put on trial in an effort to clear his name.

Nancy, by the way, was willing to admit to a stillbirth  and to claim that Richard and John's other brother Theo, who had died months before, was the father.  But that didn't really help Richard: as head of the family he lost honor if he had permitted such things to happen under his roof.  He wanted a court to exonerate them both.

John Marshall
And the trial is where it gets even more interesting.  (Richard's lawyers were the aging but legendary orator Patrick Henry and future Chief Justice John Marshall.)  There were no witnesses who could testify that they had seen a dead baby.  Remember how the hosts chose not to go look?  The slaves had seen it, of course, but slaves could not testify.  (Interesting fact: later Richard turned against slavery, and freed his own slaves.)

A Not Guilty plea was delivered but the Randolphs remained under a cloud of disgrace.  Judith never forgave her sister and after Richard died years later she relegated Nancy to duties that were normally done by slaves.

Not surprisingly Nancy left her beloved Virginia and went north, where her fortunes changed dramatically when she met Governeur Morris.   Morris was quite a character in his own right.  He was a successful businessman and diplomat and one of the major writers of the U.S. Constitution.

Morris apparently told Nancy he was looking for a housekeeper for his home in what is now the Bronx. It seems apparent he had other plans for her as well.

Governeur Morris
Nancy arrived at Morrisania in April 1809 and apparently fit right in.  On Christmas day, to the astonishment of Governeur's assembled relatives, the lifelong bachelor took her as a bride.

The relatives were  not thrilled.  A kind interpretation would be that they were afraid this young poor woman of dubious reputation was taking advantage of their beloved kinsman who was, after all, a doddering old codger of fifty-seven.  A less generous explanation was that they had been expecting to inherit his considerable wealth and saw Nancy as an obstacle.  Which indeed she was, especially after giving birth to Governeur, Jr. three years later.

One niece, acting as what we would now call a concern troll wrote to her dear uncle worrying about what the world would think of his marriage.  He replied: "If the world were to live with my wife, I should certainly have consulted its taste; but as that happens not to be the case, I thought I might, without offending others, endeavor to suit myself."  What's the early nineteenth century term for "drop the mic?"

Some of Nancy's in-laws plotted against her (led, inevitably, by a crooked lawyer) and found a champion in no less than John Randolph.  Remember him?  It was his biography that got me into this whole mess.

Randolph of Roanoke wrote an 8-page letter supposedly addressed to Nancy but actually sent to her husband.  He warmed up by accusing her of infanticide, then suggested that she had poisoned Richard to death.  He claimed that she had slept around in Virginia, and even had an affair with a slave.  (This was apparently based on the fact that she had addressed a written work order to one with the words "Dear Billy Ellis."  Surely showing good manners to a slave revealed unbridled lust!) And when she went north, he said, she had been a prostitute.   Of course he was hinting that the Morris's son was illegitimate, a charge which if believed would boost the futures of  the spiteful shirt-tail relatives.

Morris apparently held on to the letter for several months before showing it to Nancy.  Now, I must admit I have become a fan of this guy.  For one thing he was the child of slaveowners but adamantly against that peculiar institution.  Secondly, he was a notorious ladies' man in his youth, but clearly wasn't the type who held women to a different standard than himself. So, my theory has to be a favorable one: I think he kept the hate note hidden until he suspected (correctly) that Randolph was spreading copies around.

Nancy did not suffer in silence.  Her cousin, the insult master, was about to have his timepiece sanitized, by which I mean she cleaned his clock.  Two can play at the nasty letters game.

The only known portrait of Nancy Randolph Morris
She wrote her own 7,000 word letter and circulated at least twenty copies.  Since Randolph had called her alleged slave lover "Othello" Nancy replied that by whispering lies in her husband's ear Randolph was playing "honest Iago."  Switching plays, she said his letter was "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Then Nancy  pointed out that he had provided no evidence for his charges and then demonstrated that his own actions contradicted his assertions: If she was so horrible why would John allow his sickly nephew to be under her care for months at a time?  She also said that when she was young he had pursued her romantically but had been rebuffed because of his "mean selfishness" and "wretched appearance." She called his recent behavior "unmanly," which had to sting since he was widely rumored to be impotent.  She even mocked his pompous preferred title, putting "John Randolph of Roanoke" in scare quotes whenever she used it.

These letters appeared while Randolph  was running for Congress and were no help to his political career.  At that point he retired from the Nancy-libeling business.

Governeur Morris died not much later.  In his will he ignored his ambitious relatives and left most of his estate to his young son, whose paternity he clearly never doubted.  He left Nancy an allowance to live on with the caveat that if she remarried the allowance  would be --

Increased.  You didn't expect that, did you?  Morris explained that if she remarried she might have more expenses so he wanted to provide for that possibility. I think he was hoping she would find a new husband.  As I said, I like this guy.

But Nancy never remarried.  She raised their son and arranged for the publication of  her late husband's letters, which demonstrated the domestic bliss they had found together.  As it turned out the strongest testimony about Nancy's fidelity was her son, for the boy looked more like his father every year.

Young Governeur became a successful businessman and when his mother died he built a church in her honor.  And so ends the bizarre story of the residents of Bizarre, back in the days when politics was clean and southerners were chivalrous.  Or something.








02 January 2018

Writer’s Resolutions 2018 – Fragile: Do Not Break

by Paul D. Marks

Well, since it’s the day after the New Year, I thought I’d come up with some writer’s resolutions. Not that I feel I need any as I’m so perfect – just ask my wife. But what the hell?


My prose will not be written in passive voice. I will not be plagued by this bad writing habit. This is one resolution that will definitely be kept.

And I’ll try to use “but” and “and” and “just” just a little bit less. But I like using them and they make me feel like the narrator is a real person talking like a real person does. Really.

Take criticism better: My wife, Amy, is my number one beta reader. And she’s a damn good critic and editor, but sometimes I just don’t like hearing what she has to say. Not that she’s wrong, just that she likes to make more work for me. I like to think everything I write is straight from the muse to the page. But she feels like she has to get between the muse and me. Most of the time, about 2/3 to 3/4, I take her advice, grumbling all the way. But in the end, I think the work is better for it.

Try not to be jealous of others’ successes: I’m always happy to see other people have success, but there’s always that tinge of envy. So I’ll try to squash the tinge and complain less. As others have pointed out, there’s always someone looking at you (me) wishing they had what I had. But I guess that’s the human condition.

Get up from the desk more often: Amy gave me a Fitbit, and it’s pretty-pretty cool. It buzzes to yell at me and tells me to get up and walk around, which I do just so it will stop shouting at me. And I do walk the dogs and other things, but sometimes when you’re in the zone you just want to keep writing. But it bugs me to get off my ass and walk around…so I do. Just to shut it up.


Do less Facebooking: Oh, yeah, that’s gonna happen. FB is my watercooler. Since I work at home and we live in the middle of nowhere (not quite as nowhere as the abandoned missile silo that I tried to talk Amy into, but that’s another story) it’s good to have a place to connect with people. It gives me a place to see what others are up to and thinking. Chat and feel like I have friends. Well, I could stand less posts about politics and more cute cat videos.

Stop calling surfing the net research: I love surfing the net. I love doing research. Sometimes when I’m surfing the net, looking up Indian head test patterns and how to murder someone and get away with it, I can talk myself into thinking I’m doing research. Or like when I was writing my 1940s homefront mystery and I spent hours just looking up big band leaders and listening to their songs on YouTube. Y’know, research, even though I only needed one song and already had picked one.

Spend less time on e-mails: I do tend to spend a lot of time on e-mails, reading them, responding to them, crafting them. It’s kind of like the Facebook thing, keeps me in touch with the outside world. Our phone hardly rings anymore. Uh, Take 2: Our phone rings many times a day…but it’s almost never from people we know. One telemarketer after another. So we don’t even bother to answer anymore, but we do feel we should keep the landline. Mostly I connect with people via e-mail or another type of electronic communication. But I’m not big on texting…yet. Still, every once in a while it’s nice to actually hear someone’s voice. But not too often!

Get back to the novel that’s been dangling for a couple of years now…and rewriting the first novel that was accepted by a publisher: I have a novel that I like quite a bit that’s about half-finished but for various reasons has been languishing. And I really want to get back to it, but something always seems to come up that takes priority. And I also want to rework somewhat the first novel that a publisher picked up. I may have mentioned this before, but the first novel I completed was accepted for publication at a major house. It was a satire on a screenwriter trying to make it in Hollywood. Eventually, the whole editorial staff at that publisher was swept out and, as a new broom sweeps clean, my book was swept out with them. And since the humor was topical it was pretty dated even after only a couple of years so it couldn’t really go to another publisher. The lesson: don’t write things that are so topical that their shelf life is shorter than yogurt left on the counter on a steaming, hot day. Remember what George S. Kaufman said, satire is what closes Saturday night. Story of my life. But I’ve learned a lesson – No Topical Humor.


Be kind to the computer: Like Amy says there are no dumb computers, only dumb humans. But I beg to differ. It’s usually the computer that makes the mistake – not me…

Write 10000 5000 2000 100 words a day. This one’s self-explanatory.

Well, there you have it. Gotta run, gotta hit Facebook. Gotta start breaking those resolutions. It wouldn’t do to have any of them unbroken after the third of January, would it?

What are your resolutions? And which ones do you plan to break first?


Happy New Year to Everyone! Now get busy breaking those resolutions.



***

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com



01 January 2018

What's Old Is New Again

by Steve Liskow

Happy New Year. Either online or in your local newspaper, you've probably seen one of those cartoons of 2018 in a diaper and 2017 with a long white beard, so I'm going to spare you another one. It expresses the idea that the old pass the world to the young and that there's still hope for the future if we build a strong foundation in the present. One of the great practitioners of that belief was also one of my favorite writers, Mark Twain.

And to prove it, this last September saw the release of Mark Twain's newest children's book, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. Yes, it's true, a new book from Mark Twain! And it's wonderful.

The Clemens family moved to Hartford, building the Farmington Avenue house in 1873-4 and living there until 1891, leaving forever after daughter Susy died suddenly of spinal meningitis. In the cigar-smoked study on the third floor, Samuel Clemens composed Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

He also observed the ritual of creating a nightly bedtime story for older daughters Susy and Clara.
In 1897, they made him continue a story they liked for five consecutive nights. He later jotted down notes and the first part of that story, but he never finished it. The new book includes the convoluted saga of how the partial manuscript was discovered in the Twain Archives at UCal Berkeley in 2011 and how the estate picked Caldecott winners Philip and Erin Stead to complete and illustrate the story--which they have done beautifully.

Prince Oleomargarine shows Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain at the peak of his powers, but used in a way we've never seen before. It combines elements of popular fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk, for one) and several quest myths with a poor boy named Jack as the unrecognized hero. We meet a chicken named Pestilence and Famine, a skunk named Susy, and a menagerie of other quirky animals, all tied together with prose that's lyrical, ironic, and often bittersweet. My favorite line: "He felt as though he carried on his back the weight of all the things he would never have."

Wow...just...wow.

I never would have heard about the book if it weren't for my wife, who has one of the coolest jobs in the universe. She is a "Living History" tour guide at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford,
which held the book launch last September. She portrays the Clemens' housemaid Lizzie Wells and shows guest the house as it "is" in 1887. She got the gig because we both worked with several of the other guides (and the script-writer) in local theater for years, and the mansion wanted to increase the number of guides and tours. The offered Barbara a spot and she grabbed it.
Virginia Wolf (her real name), my wife Barbara, Lisa Steier,
author Philip Stead, Tom Raines, and Kit Webb. We worked with
all the actors at some time or another.

According to National Geographic, the Mark Twain House and Museum is one of the ten most visited historical homes in the WORLD. In the 1920s, a developer purchased the vacant mansion, planning to raze it and erect an apartment building. A coalition formed to buy the house back--for less than that developer hoped to gain--and restore it to its former glory. Middle daughter Clara, who died in 1962 at age 88, helped track down the original furniture. She also gave Hal Holbrook a private audience when he was developing his Mark Twain impersonation and approved his performance. How's that for a reliable source?
Samuel Clemens...and
Kit Webb, who portrays him at various events

Clara and Susy showed Papa pictures from a current magazine and had him tell a story inspired by those pictures. Today, we would call that a "writing prompt," but I never heard the term until near the end of my teaching career. My wife tells of writing stories to accompany the pictures in one of her favorite childhood books--when she didn't think the story already there was good enough. Do kids still do that today? Do they get encouragement?

Clemens and his children created dozens of stories involving The Cat in the Ruff, a picture in the family's library, but none of those survive. It's only through a freakish stroke of luck that Prince Oleomargarine has come to light.

The image of a busy and often irascible father spending his evenings sharing the excitement and joy of creating fresh stories for his children is one I can't stop thinking about. We all need to pass on to our children and grandchildren the magic of creating something new, whether it's stories, music, or painting. How will they discover it for themselves if we don't show them where to look? Buy them books for Christmas and birthdays, preferably with great pictures. Read them and share them. Play games that help them make things up. Let them pretend. Help them dream.

Pass it on.

31 December 2017

Frankenstein

by Leigh Lundin

Frankenstein
When it’s New Years, folks think Frankenstein.

At least in 1818. Two hundred years ago tomorrow, famed writer Mary Shelley wrote her monstrously famous story.

A Literary Volcano

It was a dark and stormy summer, 1816, rather the year without summer. Fourteen months earlier in the Dutch East Indies, Mount Tamboro blew nearly a mile off its top, 1450 metres, the most powerful volcanic explosion in recorded history.

Twelve thousand people were killed immediately. Another 60 000 to 80 000 subsequently died of starvation.

Volcanic ash erupted high into the atmosphere blanketing the skies. Southeast Asia was plunged into the blackness of night for over a week.

More than a year later in the eerie half light of the Northern Hemisphere, birds nested at noon. The Americas and Europe experienced massive agriculture failures. Zealots predicted the End Times were nigh. Switzerland was not immune.
“Never was a scene more awfully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness; the vast expanse of snow was chequered only by these gigantic pines, and the poles that marked our road: no river or rock-encircled lawn relieved the eye by adding the picturesque to the sublime,”
recorded 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.

Kid Leigh, Mad Scientist
Frankenstein Jacob's Ladder (Leigh)
Frankenstein Jacob's Ladder (Leigh)
Frankenstein Jacob's Ladder (Leigh)
Frankenstein Jacob's Ladder (Leigh)
When I was a kid, I was an awesome mad scientist. Here are details from a Jacob’s Ladder– a traveling electrical arc prop seen in virtually every Frankenstein film– I built about the 6th grade. (Missing are ladder rails that look like television rabbit ears antennae, easily fabricated.) My brother Glen helped paint the original.
She would go on to write one of the most infamous monster tales in modern literature. Two days before her novel was published, she married another writer and poet she’d been living with for two years, Percy Shelley. Mary Godwin became Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

A Charming House of Horror

In that non-summer of 1816, Percy Shelley rented a house near Lake Geneva for himself, his fiancée Mary, their toddler son ‘Wilmouse’ (William), and her six-month younger stepsister, Claire Clairmont, sometime lover of (and pregnant by) Lord Byron (yes, THAT Lord Byron) who happened to rent a nearby villa. His entourage included his physician, Dr John Polidori, who played a part in events that unfolded.

That dark and dreary summer turned out to be a platinum mine of ideas as these innovative geniuses sat around drinking and talking philosophy, politics, and poetry. As candles flickered and lightning slashed the sky, Lord Byron seized upon the frightening atmosphere. He proposed they each write a ghost story.

Early in the wee hours, Mary awoke from a nightmare. She’d dreamt of a mad scientist who sparked new life into a hideous figure. Within a day, certainly within a week, she began jotting initial notes of a story that would become world famous.

Lord Byron, while failing to meet his own challenge of a ghost story, nevertheless wrote his famous poem, Darkness. Meanwhile, Dr Polidori began writing a supernatural story of his own that would also become well known.

Under A Frankenstein Moon

A small but intriguing mystery surrounded the dates of Byron’s challenge and when the writers actually set to work. Researchers became interested partly because of the prominent writers and poets involved, but also as a sort of test of the veracity of Mary Shelley’s writings: Could her claims of events be taken as factual, or was she prone to exaggeration or invention?

Academics from Texas State University, including literary specialists, astronomers, and a faculty physicist, descended upon Cologny, a canton of Geneva. From clues in the notes of Mary and her companions, scholars were able to verify Shelley’s notes and further pinned down dates of events detailed in the table below.

Frankie and Friends

Fans of early monster movies noticed considerable cross-pollination, particularly in Universal Studio properties circa 1931-1954. Time and again, Frankenstein would appear in a Dracula film or vice versa, often with friends like the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man and the Mummy (respectively starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, and Lon Chaney Jr in the latter two rôles. These characters also appeared in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Universal didn’t innovate the mixing and matching of monsters. I mention the Dracula character because that night in 1816 planted the germ of what would become the first modern, romantic vampire tale. Inspired by Lord Byron’s challenge, John Polidori began writing The Vampyre, eventually published in 1819.

Frankenstein
Here an unpleasant twist took place. Polidori showed the manuscript to Ekaterina, Countess of Breuss. Without the knowledge of Polidori, the countess, or more likely her friend, a Madame Gatelier, turned the story over to Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine, where it was serialized starting in April 1819 under Byron’s name: The Vampyre: A Tale by Lord Byron. Thereafter, it was published in book form, again failing to credit Polidori. Both men protested. By the second edition, Polidori’s name finally appeared as the author, but not before his premature death. Debt-ridden and depressed, Polidori had swallowed cyanide.

Three-quarters of a century later, Polidori’s story would influence an Irish writer, Bram Stoker. His renown novel, Dracula, appeared nearly eight decades after Polidori’s Vampyre.



Time Line and Context
    Notable 19th Century English Authors
1811 October 30
Jane Austen publishes Sense and Sensibility.
1813 January 28
Jane Austen publishes Pride and Prejudice.
1815 April 05-15
Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupts, most powerful volcano in written history, darkening skies nearly two years.
1816 June 15-16
Lord Byron challenges guests to write ghost stories.
1816 June 16-17
Byron’s physician, John Polidori, begins writing Vampyre.
1816 June 16
Mary Shelley experiences nightmare of scientist who breathes life into a terrifying figure.
1816 June 17
Mary Shelley begins outlining idea that would become Frankenstein.
1816 July 15
Lord Byron, influenced by the eerie summer’s half light, writes his apocalyptic poem Darkness.
1817 December 30
Mary Godwin marries Percy Shelley.
1818 January 01
Frankenstein is published by the firm of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones.
1819 April 01
John Polidori’s story, the first modern vampire tale, The Vampyre, is published without Polidori’s knowledge or permission.
1821 August 24
Dr John Polidori dies without his authorship fully resolved.
1836-1870
Charles Dickens’ body of works spans 35 years.
1847 October 16
Charlotte Brontë publishes Jane Eyre.
1887 November 21
Arthur Conan Doyle sees publication of first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet.
1897 May 26
Bram Stoker publishes Dracula.
Happy New Year, 1818-2018!

30 December 2017

Non-Vital Statistics: 2017 in Review



by John M. Floyd



Can't believe this year's almost done. All things considered, I thought it was a good year for novels (The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille, Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips, Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith, Artemis by Andy Weir, among many others) and also for TV (Longmire's final season, Stranger Things's second season, and a FANTASTIC series called Godless), and a so-so year for movies (I liked Wonder Woman and The Last Jedi, and haven't yet seen Dunkirk or Three Billboards O. E. M.). Surrounded by all this external fiction, I continued to pound away at some of my own. And since short stories are the only thing I know much about, I've put together some writing stats for 2017.


The story board

According to my little three-ring binder, I've had 34 stories published this year. I've listed them below, and since we at this blog have been talking a lot about mystery markets lately, I've also listed the publications they appeared in:

"Unsigned, Sealed, and Delivered" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Winter/Jan 2017 issue
"A Green Thumb" -- The Texas Gardener, Jan 4, 2017 issue
"Relative Strangers" -- Woman's World, Jan 16, 2017 issue
"Merrill's Run" -- Mystery Weekly, Jan 17, 2017 issue
"Gun Work" -- Coast to Coast: Private Eyes (Down & Out Books), Jan 30, 2017
"Elevator Music" -- Meet Cute, Feb 2017
"No Strings Attached" -- Woman's World, Feb 27, 2017 issue
"Movie Night" -- Woman's World, Mar 20, 2017 issue
"Flag Day" -- The Strand Magazine, Feb-May 2017 issue
"Doctor in the House" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Spring/April 2017 issue
"Sand Hill" -- Gathering Storm Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 2, April 2017
"The Red-Eye to Boston" -- Horror Library, Vol. 6 (Cutting Block Books), April 2017
"Special Delivery" -- Woman's World, May 29, 2017 issue
"Vanity Case" -- Mysterical-E, Spring 2017 issue
"A Thousand Words" -- Kings River Life, May 27, 2017 issue
"Witness Protection" -- Woman's World, June 19, 2017 issue
"Crow Mountain" -- The Strand Magazine, June-Sep 2017 issue
"The Rare Book Case" -- Woman's World, July 3, 2017
"Ace in the Hole" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Summer/July 2017 issue
"The Sandman" -- Noir at the Salad Bar (Level Best Books), July 18, 2017
"Trail's End" -- Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/Aug 2017 issue
"Mr. Unlucky" -- Woman's World, Aug 7, 2017 issue
"False Testimony" -- Woman's World, Sep 4, 2017 issue
"Rooster Creek" -- Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Sep 2017 issue
"High Anxiety" -- Kings River Life, Sep 9, 2017
"An Act of Deception" -- Woman's World, Sep 18, 2017 issue
"Travelers" -- Visions VII: Universe, Oct 2017
"Life Is Good" -- Passport to Murder (Down & Out Books), Oct 2017
"Knight Vision" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Fall/Oct 2017 issue
"Charlotte in Charge" -- Woman's World, Oct 7, 2017 issue
"The Tenth Floor" -- CEA Greatest Anthology (Celenic Earth Publications), Oct 14, 2017
"Teacher's Pet," -- Woman's World, Oct 30, 2017 issue
"Three Suspects and a Murder" -- Woman's World, Nov 27, 2017 issue
"A Christmas Card" -- Woman's World, Dec 11, 2017 issue

NOTE: I didn't count the current issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which appeared in December, because the date of that issue is Jan/Feb 2018. (It contains my story, "Scavenger Hunt," the second installment of a series I began with "Trail's End" in AHMM's July/Aug 2017 issue.)

More numbers

Of my stories that were published in 2017, 18 appeared in print magazines, 7 in print anthologies, and 9 in online publications. 30 of the 34 went to paying markets, 25 to repeat markets, and 9 to new markets. 28 of these stories were unsolicited submissions, and 6 were by invitation. Genrewise, one was a romance, one was humor, one was science fiction, and 31 were mysteries (although some were cross-genre--mystery/western, mystery/fantasy, etc.). 29 of these were original stories and 5 were reprints. As for settings, 21 took place in my home state of Mississippi, and 13 were set elsewhere. It surprised me a little that only 2 were first-person POV; 32 were third-person. 20 of the 34 were installments in a series (four different series, actually), and 14 were standalone stories. Lengthwise, 17 of the stories were less than 1000 words, 8 were between 1000 and 5000, and 9 were more than 5000.

At this moment, 13 more of my stories have been accepted and will be published shortly, 22 more have been submitted but have not yet received a response, and 30 have been selected by my publisher for a seventh collection of my short mystery stories, scheduled for release in hardcover next summer.

On the downside, I've also received 20 rejections this year, from 12 different markets. That's a lot of misfires, and yes, that means multiple rejections from some places. What can I say? Many of my friends assume that because I've been fortunate enough to sell regularly to certain publications, those places probably just accept everything I send them. I wish.


More wishful thinking

One would also suspect that I could digest all this information and make some kind of informed decision about which stories work and which don't, and where I should submit stories and where I shouldn't. But if one suspected that, one would be wrong. For the life of me I sometimes cannot seem to determine which stories should go where--the square peg doesn't always want to fit in the square slot--and even though I've come to know some of these editors well, I can't predict which stories I send them will be successful and which won't. I also don't seem to be able to foresee which markets will survive for generations and which will put all four feet in the air after a year or so. As the old saying goes, you spends your dollar (or, in this case, your time) and you takes your chances. Maybe I'll get smarter next year.

Questions

To all my writer friends out there, how was 2017 for you? Did you sell a novel or a collection or a story, or have one (or more) published? What great stories/novels did you read? What good movies/TV shows did you watch? Do you write an ongoing series, in either novels or stories? If so, do those seem to sell better than standalone works? Do you have specific writing projects in progress, or upcoming in 2018? If you're a short-story writer, did you try to target only paying markets?

Final question: Are the years passing faster now, or is it just because I'm getting old?

I think I know the answer to that one.












29 December 2017

Another Round of Resolutions? (And Better Luck Next Year?)

By Art Taylor

Around the last week of each year, I always find myself percolating over a new round of resolutions—and looking back over the previous new year's resolutions too, trying to tally how well I did.

To be honest, 2017's plans and promises (which I documented at SleuthSayers in early January) didn't get kept so successfully, despite some strong momentum early on.

Several small resolutions did get attention intermittently (eat more fruit, watch my posture, etc.), and I plan to be more diligent about those again continuing into 2018. One key component of keeping resolutions isn't just to develop a routine, but also to take clear steps toward maintaining that routine more easily; for example, like my fellow SleuthSayer Paul D. Marks, I'm thinking about some version of a standing desk to help that better-posture plan.

One joint resolution did get kept this year. My wife Tara and I are always cutting out recipes from newspapers, magazines, and more—saving them out more quickly than we actually make them, which I imagine others might do too. So this past year, we set out to either cook or discard at least one recipe a week‚ and in the process we ate very well and found a few favorites to save permanently.

But bigger resolutions unfortunately seemed hit-and-miss. I did keep what might best be called a gratitude journal through late summer—a daily reflection of something positive about each day—but our move this summer (the sale of our townhouse, purchase of new house, packing, unpacking, etc.) was so all-consuming that it threw that nightly routine out of whack, and I never regained traction. The same is true of my perennial "Write FIRST!" plans; my summer writing ambitions basically imploded. I did finish a few stories, but plans for the larger project—the novel—ultimately proved elusive.

Another year, another chance?

Clearly, better focus will be key.

One resolution I always enjoy planning relates to reading instead of writing. In years past, those reading resolutions have included finishing at least four new short stories each week (2014), tackling all of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels (2015), and pushing through War & Peace at the rate of one chapter a day (2016). I didn't make such a resolution this past year (for reasons I'll explain another time), but I'm currently considering several possibilities for 2018. The most rewarding thing about the chapter-a-day War & Peace wasn't just that I finally completed it (after trying and failing before) but also that I felt a deeper connection with the characters by inhabiting their world for a full year—enlightening in several ways to live with a book that long. In the spirit of that plan, I'm thinking about trying Dickens' Bleak House in 2018, and I've already calculated how to pace it out—basically a chapter every 4-5 days.

Another idea: With the just-released collection of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op stories, I could pace out over 12 months all 28 stand-alone tales and then the serialized stories that became Red Harvest and The Dain Curse; in fact, I've already made a head start of that one, since I read the first two stories aloud to Tara just this week. A final possibility: Because I have (like all of us) a stockpile of books I've bought and never read, I've considered some checklist of titles to pull down from the shelves and finally read—a resolution that Tara is considering for her bookshelves as well.

Any advice on which of these to pursue?

For those looking for their own reading challenges, check out My Reader's Block where Bev Hankins offers a list of fun possibilities each year, particularly good for folks interested in classic crime novels. (And Sergio Angelini at Tipping My Fedora has not only taken up these challenges but has also set the standard for charting your progress along the way, so check his posts out too.)

Do others have reading resolutions to share? Or resolutions generally? 

Looking forward to hearing about everyone's plans for 2018—and best wishes to all for a happy start to the new year!  

28 December 2017

A Better Way to Collect and Edit an Anthology

by Brian Thornton

Two weeks ago I talked about what NOT to do when collecting and editing an anthology. This week's entry deals with my next bite at the anthology apple, employing the lessons I learned while collecting/editing that first nonfiction anthology.

To recap:

1. Soliciting writing from amateurs opens you up to a whole lot of rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting.

2. Collecting and editing an anthology is a shit-ton of work, and if you're going to undertake it, you should make damned sure that it's on a subject near and dear to your heart, and that you've got something close to final approval on what the content looks like.

3. Creative control is worth taking less money for.

4. Don't work with a publisher who makes you do all of the contract wrangling in an age before DocuSign.

5. Part and parcel of being a good editor is being a good listener.
Cover art by Bill Cameron

The opportunity to put these lessons into practice came when my friend Mike Wolf approached me in late 2010 about collecting and editing a themed anthology of crime fiction. Mike, a successful business writer and consultant, was (and is) a huge mystery fan, intrigued by the then new(ish) notion of ebook publishing. He set up his own small press, (BSTSLLR) and asked me to collect and edit a crime fiction anthology which featured a West Coast setting.

A little under a year later, West Coast Crime Wave saw publication.

This experience was the polar opposite of my nonfiction anthology experience a few years previous. My publisher went out and commissioned a terrific cover from Bill Cameron (whose short story "The Last Ship" was truly one of the gems of the collection), and paid respectable fees to those authors whose stories made the cut.

West Coast Crime Wave was a lot of work. But it was also a lot of fun. The authors who showed up for this gig were a combination of members of the crime fiction community I'd gotten to know and admire over the years and authors who blind-submitted their work in response to calls for submissions I'd placed all over the internet.

One thing all of these writers had in common was that they were all willing to take chances.

They included David Corbett (whose first-person present-tense story "Returning to the Knife" is pure genius), Naomi Hirahara, who had several novels under her belt, but had never published a short story before (you'd never know that to read her submission, "Mrs. Lin's Art of Tea."), Scotti Andrews, whose "Blind Date" was later produced by Crime City Central as a popular audio piece, and Nick Mamatas, whose brilliant second-person, present-tense "The People's Republic of Everywhere and Everything" came to us via a cold submission. I accepted it gladly after requesting a single editorial change: the moving of a comma.

Other West Coast stalwarts include Sleuthsayer R.T. Lawton, Terrill Lee Lankford, a Hollywood refugee whose novel Earthquake Weather was a scathing indictment of the film industry and the studio system reminiscent of Robert Altman's darkly comic masterpiece, The Player, who is also a long-time collaborator with Michael Connelly, and has gone on to work on Connelly's Amazon series Bosch. And so many more, the very tall and very funny Steve Brewer; the very wry (and very funny) best-selling author Simon Wood; the very funny (and did I mention "very funny"?) Steve Hockensmith; Bainbridge Island's own Jim Thomsen, a refugee from the newspaper business for whom "The Ride Home" was the initial piece of paying fiction after the better part of two decades spent as a professional journalist: and Thomas P. Hopp, a biochemist whose story "The Ghost Trees" taught me as much about the impact of logging old growth forests as it did about human failings such as greed and envy.


As it turned out, the "collecting" of these stories was the easy part. The "editing" posed its own particular brand of challenges. Editing an anthology for an "emerging" press meant that this time around I did not have a publisher's in-house editorial staff serving as a backstop for me, especially when it came to the formatting of the book. Reading through the ebook we produced all these years later, the formatting shows its age, and I still wince at some of the editing errors I made and then missed (Like leaving the "s" out of "Hockensmith" in Steve Hockensmith's "About the Author" entry– sorry Steve!).

All that said, a great experience!

Check back in two weeks when I will have an update and an announcement on the always exciting crime fiction anthology front!

27 December 2017

Book of the Year

David Edgerley Gates

Guy's name is Don Winslow, his novel's called The Force.


North Manhattan Task Force. They target the drugs, the guns, the money. They work the barrio, the projects. They like to call themselves the Kings.

Denny Malone. Detective sergeant, gold badge, rock-star cop. The man. Top of the food chain. Malone's team gives good weight. They make cases, they make headlines. They make the suits look good. Malone delivers on his promises, puts meat on the table.

Here's the thing. Denny Malone is dirty. Do the numbers. 4th of July, his crew takes down a Dominican heroin mill, score a hundred keys and five million cash, waste the kingpin. Fifty kilos go in evidence, two million of the money. Malone's crew splits the difference. Call it the 401K. Something happens, on or off The Job, they've got extra benefits, cover your family in case of need. Malone and his partners have each other's back. Can't be otherwise, line of work they're in.

Short declarative sentences. Not a lot of wasted motion. Not a lot of adjectives, either. Skip unnecessary verbs, too. Keep it propulsive, present tense. Might put you in mind of early Lehane, a little, maybe Ed Dee. Not that this guy doesn't have a singular voice of his own. But the story, and the voice, belong to Malone.

All he ever wanted to be was a good cop. This is Denny's ambition, and his doom. It could stand as his epitaph. The Force is tragedy, in the classic sense - not an accident, but a fated choice. There's nothing hesitant or peripheral about it, it's front and center. Denny can feel the darkness closing in. At the same time, he can't help but try and work some angle, he's still thinking there's a way to save something of himself. Not because he's bad, either. He's basically good, or like most of us, he'd like to think so. He's just run out of moral collateral.

This is what gives The Force its center of gravity, but don't mistake it for ponderous. The book is a sheer, headlong adrenaline rush. (Malone's team suits up for a raid, and Dexedrine is part of the mix.) The dialogue, the human dynamics, the corrupt politics, the combat gear and the technical specs, the neighborhoods, the urban landscape and its discontents, is all convincing, and made familiar, but the brutally compelling action scenes are something entirely apart. Winslow makes it look effortless. Trust me, it ain't. The most basic principles of physical geography apply. Where is everybody, and where are they in relation to everybody else in the stairwell when all the lights go out? You can't leave it to chance. If you don't block out your fight scenes, they're incoherent.

I think the book delivers the knockdown punch it does because Winslow shows the emotional detail and human costs of The Job so effectively. The fierce loyalties and savage betrayals, the gallows humor, the scabrous vocabulary, the locker-room jive, the brittle tensions, the presence of death. There's this reflection. "Malone isn't a big fan of God and figures the feeling is mutual. He has a lot of questions he'd like to ask him, but if he ever got him in the room, God'd probably shut his mouth, lawyer up, let his own kid take the jolt."

Hard-boiled, and heartbreaking.


My suggestion for best mystery or crime thriller of 2017.

26 December 2017

Three Typewriters and a Desk

by Michael Bracken
Michael and his mother, Myrta, September 6, 1963.

My mother, Myrta, died when I was 17. She suffered from mitral valve stenosis and died during or immediately following surgery to correct this problem. She never saw my first professional publication, but she was instrumental in my success—not just for encouraging my dream, but also for repeatedly providing me with the tools for success.

This is the story of three typewriters and a desk.

THE BEAST

My mother presented me with my first typewriter when I was attending sixth grade at Sherman Elementary in Tacoma, Washington. I don’t know where she found the hulking black beast (it may have been an Underwood) that dominated my tiny desk from the moment it arrived, but on it I taught myself to type by hunting and pecking at the keys.

Though I did not know then that I wanted to be a writer, I was the only sixth-grader in my school typing his homework assignments, and I continued using the hulking black beast as its mechanical parts degenerated to the point where I had to type by striking the keys with the ball-peen side of a ball-peen hammer.

 On it, I typed my first short story, “The 1812 Battle at Two Rocks.” This is the story I showed my mother when I told her I wanted to be a writer.

THE PORTABLE

The beast did not travel with us when we left Tacoma and moved to Ft. Bragg, California, partway through ninth grade. That Christmas my mother gave me my second typewriter, a small blue portable (it may have been a Smith-Corona) that bounced across my desk when I typed because I still pounded typewriter keys as if I were assaulting the hulking black beast of my youth.

On it, I wrote “The Magic Stone,” which became my first professional short story sale. A children’s fantasy, elements of “The Magic Stone” were taken directly from an experience I shared with my mother when I was in grade school.

THE SELECTRIC

After my mother’s death, I returned to Tacoma to live with my grandparents, and later moved to Glen Carbon, Illinois, to attend Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. I dropped out during the first quarter of my second year and moved to Collinsville, Illinois. In early 1978, my stepfather and I settled the medical malpractice suit filed following my mother’s death, and I used some of the money I received to purchase two filing cabinets I still use, the desk at which I sit as I write this, and a blue, wide-carriage, IBM Correcting Selectric II.

On it, I wrote “City Desk,” which became my second professional short story sale and first mystery. I wrote a great many other stories on the Selectric before I replaced it with a DOS-based personal computer running WordStar. During the years since, I’ve owned and used many PCs and Macintoshes, and now use Microsoft Word rather than WordStar.

THE DESK
Ellie, Michael's frequent writing companion, under the desk.

Though I still own the Selectric, it no longer functions properly and sits on a shelf in the closet. The desk I purchased with money from the malpractice suit—a black steel office desk with a faux wood-grain top and a secretarial arm—has traveled with me through several residences in Illinois, two in Mississippi, and two in Texas, and I have written all or part of every story since 1978 while sitting at this desk.

THE RESULT

My mother did not live to see the writer I’ve become—and I’ve written a few things I never would have shown her if she had!—but she’s been with me for the entire journey. Her literal heart may have failed her, but her figurative heart—her soul—remains.