24 May 2017

Otto Penzler

by David Edgerley Gates

A nice piece about Otto Penzler just appeared in Atlas Obscura, an introduction and an appreciation, written by Dan Nosowitz. I personally don't think Otto can be celebrated too much. He himself might graciously suggest otherwise, but the rest of us, no. Credit where credit is due.

(I don't pretend to be impartial. Otto's long-listed me a number of times for Best American Mystery Stories, and I've made the cut in three of them, always in good company.)



I'm fairly confident the Mysterious Bookshop wasn't the first bookstore to focus exclusively on mysteries, but it's now the longest-running. There have been a lot of changes to the book biz since 1979, and brick-and-mortar have taken much of the hit. Mysterious keeps the faith.

Mysterious Press has been around since 1975. Sold to Warner, under the Hachette umbrella, later bought back by Otto and moved to Grove Atlantic. He used his own name for an imprint starting at Macmillan, ending up at Houghton Mifflin. Eric Ambler and Isaac Asimov, Len Deighton, James Ellroy, Patricia Highsmith, Ross Thomas, Don Westlake.


Best American Mystery Stories, beginning in 1997. The first guest editor was Robert Parker. Followed by, among others, Sue Grafton, Larry Block, Westlake, Ellroy, Nelson DeMille, Carl Hiassen, Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Child, Laura Lippman. The anthology's a benchmark, and the contributors number both brand names and newbies.

Otto puts his money where his mouth is. As an editor, as a publisher, as a bookseller and a book buyer. He doth make love to this employment. He knows everybody. Otto's enthusiasm - for writers, for books, for vigorous opinions - is actually his job description. He gets to share his own consuming passion, and I think he's added a room to the house. not that we had anything to be embarrassed about.



This is in aid of saying, if you don't know the guy, or didn't know of him, make his acquaintance in this profile. Otto Penzler has been carrying water for the mystery and thriller community for quite a while now, and had himself a good time doing it. None of us are the poorer.

23 May 2017

Don't Settle on Any Old Setting

by Barb Goffman

I was recently reading a comment on a novel on Amazon in which a reader said that she didn't like books set in fictional towns if the setting plays an important role in the plot. If the setting is important, she wrote, the author should take the time to research and properly use a real place. Not to do so is lazy writing.

Well, that stopped me.

I can think of a number of reasons why an author might choose to use a real place, a fictional place, or a fictional place based on a real place in his/her books. And none of those reasons are lazy reasons. But rather than expound on this point myself, I figured I'd go straight to some author friends who take different approaches to see why they do what they do. In all cases, they chose their settings with care.








Let's start with LynDee Walker's Headlines in High Heels mystery series. It's set in Richmond, Virginia, and features newspaper crime reporter Nichelle Clarke. LynDee lives in Richmond and chose to bring her adopted hometown to life in her books. She loves exploring the city and learning about, and sometimes using, local history as she works to get the details in the books right, she said.

But using a real city can be tricky. "I try to avoid mentioning specific businesses when I can, largely because if a place closes, it dates the book," LynDee said.

And she also doesn't want to make any real businesses look bad. "I get creative with made-up, non-specific, or abandoned public places for body discoveries. I would never put a corpse in the freezer at Capital Ale"--a popular Richmond pub--"or have someone get poisoned in a real restaurant. I don't want to hurt anyone's reputation, even if I am making it all up and it's clearly marked as such."

Sasscer Hill, author of the new Fia McKee mystery series, mostly uses real places in her books too. Doing so adds realism, but it also adds to the workload.

"The difficulty about writing a real place is you must get it right," Sasscer said. "That takes research by phone, internet, and road trips. If you don't carefully check for the accuracy of your setting's description, there are plenty of readers who will be happy to point out that you got it wrong."

Sometimes authors choose to use a made-up setting to avoid making inadvertent mistakes, as well as to avoid angering real people. Maya Corrigan is a good example.

"With a fictional town, I don't have to worry that the place where I set a scene (restaurant, secondhand shop, clothing store), will go out of business before my book is published," said Maya, author of the Five-Ingredient Mysteries series set in a fictional town on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "Also, with a fictional place, I won't get irate messages from actual town police and county sheriffs because my character interacts with less-than-ideal law enforcers."

These are legitimate reasons for choosing to make up a setting. But with these pros comes the possible con that readers familiar with the area in real life might find it hard to accept the fictional town.

"My main problem with a fictional location is with the interface between it and real places," Maya said. "How long does it take to get from Bayport, which doesn't exist, to Baltimore or Annapolis? I can't leave it vague because timing can be crucial in a mystery. I'm afraid a reader familiar with the area may complain that a twenty-minute drive from some real location will put me in a cornfield or in a real town, not my fictional one."

To avoid Maya's cornfield problem, some authors try to straddle the line. They make up a town to set their series in, but that town is based on a real place. And sometimes the fictional town is set in exactly the same spot on the map as the real one.

Sherry Harris, author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mystery series, sets her books in fictional Ellington, Massachusetts, including the adjacent fictional Fitch Air Force Base. Readers won't recognize these places by name, but they may by description.

"Ellington is based on the real town of Bedford, Massachusetts," Sherry said. "Fitch AFB is based on Hanscom AFB, which adjoins Bedford. Anyone familiar with Bedford or Hanscom will recognize places they know in the books. But by making a town fictional, I can move things around, add things, and change how buildings look as needed."

As any author knows, being able to manipulate the setting can be important. But it also can be dicey.

"People are very proud of their towns. Moving things around can cause outrage," Sherry said. "By fictionalizing Bedford I can add businesses, rearrange the base a bit, while staying true to the real versions. I wouldn't want a murderer to work at a real place and have the real place take offense (or legal action). I do use real places in the books, though. Sarah goes to Concord, Lexington, Bedford, and Boston."

Barbara Ross took a similar approach with her Maine Clambake mystery series, set in fictional Busman's Harbor, Maine, which is based on Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Barbara chose to create a town based on a real one "because I wanted to move some things around, borrow some shops and restaurants from nearby towns. The pros are that when I need a new business downtown, like a frame shop or a jeweler, I can add it to my Main Street without any worry. The con is, I am sure the bookstores and libraries in my town and other nearby towns could attract even more readers if I used the name of the real town."

So in Barbara's case, we see the author choosing to fictionalize a real setting in order to enable her storytelling to work better.

Sasscer Hill took that approach with two specific settings in her first series about a jockey in Maryland.

"Shepherds Town was based on Charles Town Racetrack in West Virginia, and Dimsboro was based on the old Marlborough Racetrack in Upper Marlboro, Maryland," she said. "Charles Town racetrack was significantly upgraded and rebuilt while I was writing my stories, and I wanted to write it the way it was, not the way it became. The old Marlborough Track, before it was torn down, had turned into the seedy training track I describe as Dimsboro. I didn't want to anger people who had fond, nostalgic memories of Marlborough Racetrack before it went downhill."

Jack Getze, author of the Austin Carr series, also relishes the freedom of writing a fictional town based on real places. "My fictional Branchtown is based on several towns near the ocean in central Jersey--Red Bank, Eatontown, Long Branch, Rumson, Sea Bright. My characters say bad things about a few of the local police and other authorities, much of the criticism based on real lawsuits and criminal trials. I figured I'd skip the chance of libel," Jack said. Plus "I like the 'feel' of my Branchtown encompassing all these different areas. Different kinds of people. [...] I wanted the fictional [town] to sound like one single town, not a conglomeration, and thus the wrong streets are in the right locations, and the police and fire houses are where I need them to be for my story."

And these are all excellent reasons why authors choose their settings. Whether their books are set in actual places, completely fictional places, or fictional places based on real ones, these authors all chose their settings with care. And that's really what's important when writing fiction. When making the decision of when to use real places and when to make them up, the goal should be serving the story. In the end, that serves the reader.

So, dear reader, do you have any books with settings that you find memorable? And are they real places, fictional, or fictional places based on real ones? Please share in the comments.

22 May 2017

You Come Here Often?

by Steve Liskow

Tell me what these sentences have in common:

Where have you been all my life?

What's a girl like you doing in a nice place like this?

If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?



You got it. They're all horrible opening lines. One of my favorite pieces of advice on openings is the tagline of the film Crossroads, from back in the eighties: Where second-best never gets a second chance.

More often than not, the opening is the last part of a story I polish. I need to get the rest of the story right (hysterical laughter from off-stage) and figure out where I'm going before I understand the best place to start. Three of my novels (four, if you count Hit Somebody, currently in final fixing) picked up a new opening along the way. In two, it was a completely new scene and in another it was a prologue--something editors tell you they hate--that also demanded an epilogue for a frame story. In the other case, I moved a different scene to the beginning.

Hallie Ephron offers solid advice for openings. Don't worry so much about a brilliant hook because that risks becoming a gimmick. Instead, try to present the idea that something is "wrong." It doesn't have to be huge, but suggest dissonance right away, sort of a "what's wrong with this picture?" ambiance.

Right now, my growing list of favorite openings/hooks stands at 34, and 26 are from novels. Others might qualify as novellas: Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," Cornell Woolrich's "Rear Window," and Kafka's "The Metamorphosis." Some other are comparatively old, like O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief."

What should a good opening do? Well, let's look at some that work.

The Grandmother didn't want to go to Florida.

This is from Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and right away we see that the story is in 3rd person POV, and the Grandmother, presumably an important character, has a conflict. Someone wants her to go to Florida against her wishes. Calling her "The Grandmother" makes her a specific grandmother, but not using her real name turns her into an archetype or symbol. The tone is detached. We get all this from eight words. It also makes us ask why she doesn't want to go, and O'Connor answers that in the following sentences. The early pay-off encourages us to keep reading until we reach the final pay-off, which, if you've never read the story, is worth it. The opening scene even sets up the ending, too.

That's a pretty good opening, wouldn't you agree? How about this one?

They throw him out when he falls off the bar stool.

That's from Laura Lippman's The Most Dangerous Thing. These eleven words tell us the story (or at least part of it) is in present tense, detached third-person POV, and the unnamed male is probably drunk in a bar. This sets up many potential problems: drunks get into fights or accidents. Maybe he will have a black-out and not remember important details later. We don't know the man's name, but is a safe bet that he will be the protagonist or a victim, maybe even both. The lack of a name (again) adds distance and detachment. If you're like me, you want to read on to see what happens to this guy next. We're pretty sure it won't be good.

Let's try one more. In the spirit of blatant self-promotion, this is from my roller derby novel, The Whammer Jammers.                          

Kevlar makes Hendrix itch.

Hendrix, the protagonist, is (present tense again) wearing a bullet-proof vest, which suggests he's not going to a backyard barbecue. We can infer there may be shooting (which there is), and it will lead to further problems.

The first sentence is important, but most people will read beyond that. Even agents will give the MS a page, but they expect something in return. These openings all show us the story's essential style (vocabulary, point of view, tone or mood), the presumed protagonist, and some tension or conflict. All these elements draw the reader into the story.

If you're writing a novel, you have more time, but begin your story as close as possible to the important action (inciting incident ) as you can without any back-story. Get the ball rolling before you slow down to explain. If you need to explain something, do it through action, not exposition. Look at the first ten minutes of the James Cagney classic White Heat (1949) for a great demonstration of how to do it. It's all car chases and shooting, but we understand the relationships of major characters without a lot of chatter. If you can't begin with conflict, at the very least introduce the element that will cause it. O'Connor does that in the grandmother example above.

O'Connor's opening sets up her ending, too, another good trick if you can do it. Songs end on the tonic chord, and your story can repeat or refine an image from your opening. If you're writing a mystery, this can be as general as suggesting that there will be a solution, preferably not the one the reader sees coming, or the lovers with end up together...or not. But that's another reason to polish your opening in your final draft...when you know where you're going.


21 May 2017

Imagination

by Leigh Lundin

You can learn a lot about story-telling from movies, but ounce-for-ounce, you might learn even more from short films. Much like comparing short stories to novels, these compact stretches of faux celluloid take a lot of work and often collaborative effort.

I've kept the examples short, partly because our time is valuable but also to demonstrate the impact of tight story telling. An issue seen in YouTube shorts is that student movie-makers sometimes haven't figured out the definition of plot. Instead, some present vignettes masquerading as stories. Undoubtedly our editors at AHMM and EQMM come across the same problem when parsing new submissions.

Following are three short samplings. Pick and choose as you will. I saved the most unexpected for last.

Print Your Guy


Old theme, new technology. You know what's going to happen, but it's still fun watching it play out.



Waltz Duet

This brilliant little film packs a lot into three minutes. You'll notice the music-box theme. I don't have sufficient adjectives to describe the plot and I've struggled to come up with a way of explaining it without giving it away. Let me know what you think in the comments.



The Future

You'll need 3-D VR googles (like a high-tech stereiscope) and  an Android or iPad tablet or smart phone. Google Cardboard goggles priced at $10-20 are very cheap and easy to use. Without the right gear, you'll only get a hint of what to expect, but imagine a modern-day ViewMaster and watch this Justin Lin short movie to see where the future or presentation technology is heading.

20 May 2017

Genre-Hopping and Conclusion-Jumping



by John M. Floyd



In one of the forums (fora? fori?) that I regularly read online, members have been reporting their writing goals for 2017, and whether their year-to-date progress is meeting their expectations. After all, we're almost halfway done. As for me, I'm not much of a goal-setter (or goalkeeper), but those discussions have made me, for a change, take a look at my own writing output.

Non-vital statistics

So far this year, I've had 14 short stories published and I have 12 accepted and upcoming. They cover several genres, but it's skewed heavily toward crime stories. Twenty of those twenty-six are mystery stories, two are westerns, two are fantasy, one's horror, and one's romance. The interesting thing is that even those descriptions are misleading, since all six of my non-mystery sales still involve some degree of crime and/or deception. So I suppose they're "mixed-genre" stories: western/mystery, fantasy/mystery, etc.
I don't think that's unusual. Most of the writers I know genre-hop from time to time (it's the only kind of exercise I really enjoy), and I suppose there are pluses and minuses involved. Yes, it helps to be consistent and market your fiction to a specific audience and "establish a brand"--but it's also fun to dabble in more than one kind of writing. Some of my favorite novels, movies, and stories are hybrids. The Princess Bride was a romance/adventure/comedy/fantasy, To Kill a Mockingbird was a mystery/literary/Southern/coming-of-age/courtroom drama, and one reviewer called The Man From Snowy River a romantic Australian western.

What always surprises me is that most readers, and some writers, don't buy into the widely-accepted definition of "mystery" fiction. As has been said many times at this blog, a short story or a novel can be considered a mystery if a crime is central to the plot. That's enough to get you into a mystery magazine or onto the mystery shelves in the bookstore. And some definitions are even broader: it's a mystery if the story contains even the threat or the implication of a crime. Even so, many reviewers of the well-known "best-of" mystery anthologies always complain because an included story was not what they consider to be a mystery. The conclusion to which they have jumped is that it has to be a traditional mystery, and that the identity of the villain must be kept secret until the ending. It doesn't. Mysteries don't have to be whodunits. They can be howdunits, or whydunits, or howcatchems. Or howtheygotawaywithits.

A juggling act

Back to the subject at hand. I recently saw an online piece by author Nathan Bransford, who pointed out that genre-hopping is not always the best move. He says, and rightly so, that switching from one genre to another usually works best after a writer has already achieved a certain level of success and recognition. In another piece, author Kimberley Grabas seems to agree: "Ideally, the 'wise' course of action is to specialize. To conquer your niche first. Then branch out (if you wish) after you've gained some mastery in one area and have developed a sizable following around that genre." Sure, John Grisham wrote A Painted HouseBleachersPlaying for PizzaSkipping Christmas, etc., none of which had anything to do with crime or courtrooms--but he's John Grisham.

I should mention here that some authors are incredibly good at switch-hitting. Who would believe, unless he/she knew already, that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was written by Ian Fleming, or Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry? Think about it: "3:10 to Yuma" was Elmore Leonard, Exit to Eden was Anne Rice, and Deliverance was poet James Dickey. And by the way, if you've not read the short story "The Last Rung on the Ladder" by Stephen King, I urge you to search it out (it was included in his collection Night Shift). It contains no horror or any kind of creepiness, and is one of the best "literary" stories I've read. It'll bring tears to your eyes.

Longs and shorts

Here's another point: I think genre-hopping is far easier for short-story writers than for novelists. Maybe the establishment of a brand isn't as important for shorties; we work on a much smaller stage and with a smaller potential audience. Also, we shorts writers obviously produce a lot more individual pieces than novelists do (unless maybe you're Stephen King), so wandering off the beaten path now and then isn't as serious a matter as it might be to a novelist or to a novelists's fan base. In any case, I've found that mixing and/or jumping from one genre to another makes the writing process a lot more fun. At least for me.
What do you think? Do you stick to one genre or pingpong between them? If you haven't tried writing/publishing in more than one genre, do you ever plan to? If you have, do you think it's hurt your sales or your ability to reach and keep readers? Do you think the don't-genre-hop "rule" applies more to novels than to shorts? Do you like to write and read "mixed-genre" fiction that combines one or more in the same story--or do you prefer your drinks undiluted and your colors primary? Again, I don't mind hybrids--which probably makes sense. I'm pretty mixed-up anyway.

To each his own.





19 May 2017

I Never Intended to be a Writer

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

by Janice Law

I never intended to be a writer. My aspiration was to be a reader, a much more relaxed, lounge-in-the-hammock occupation, and this for two reasons: I liked to read and I did not much like to write. Let me amend that. Writing was tears and anguish right through my Master’s Degree, an educational experience that left me determined to teach writing completely differently than I had been taught– or mis-taught.

First serious writing 

It was the visual arts that attracted me. I apparently drew well long before I could read or write and to this day, painting seems more natural and easier than writing. I only escaped the hard life of the serious painter because I lacked confidence and because I knew I was too thin-skinned to stand about while potential buyers sniffed that a picture “wouldn’t fit over our sofa or match the drapes.”

In fact, I probably would have missed the curse of the arts entirely if I hadn’t married my husband, one of a family of writers. When I met him as a college freshman, he was already working as a sportswriter. I can well remember my astonishment when on a date at a game (a lot of our dates involved going to sports events) I watched him take notes on a little reporter’s pad then go to the pay phone and dictate his story, complete with paragraphing and punctuation without any written copy.
With this terrifying example of literary competence, I probably should have taken up golf or bridge.

My husband's book on soccer
However, the opportunity to see movies for free by doing reviews – an opportunity my husband promoted energetically – proved to be a crucial learning experience. There is nothing like having to write to length and to deadline, to see one’s work promptly in print, and to find a check in the mail. I recommend this over any writing workshop, course or seminar anywhere.

Reviews, of course, count as journalism, suitable for a family where my father-in-law wrote texts on Social Work administration, my husband did sports writing and his brother, sports promotion. I eventually did a range of non-fiction, including feature articles, scholarly pieces and history books. My husband and my in-laws showed me that writing could be a business, but as it turned out, I strayed from profitable non-fiction to the altogether riskier realm of fiction.

For the reasons, I think I must look to my own folks, both of who were good story tellers with all sorts of reminiscences about the Auld Country and about Aberdeen in my dad’s case and Cowdenbeath in my mom’s. Mom’s stories, like her, were very human and realistic. My dad had a tendency to embroidery.

Our son's adventures at the World Cup
I remember our son interviewing him for a genealogy project at his middle school. My dad, who had a fondness for a theory positing an Iberian influence in Scotland, invented Don Alonzo Law, a survivor of the Armada, who was supposedly a founder of our line and the source of a lot of dark eyes and black hair. The resulting report received an A.

I don’t want to read too much into this episode. I think our son would have entered the family business in any case. He showed an early aptitude for writing and for journalism, which became his profession. Like his father, he has published a well-received book on soccer, as well as numerous articles on a wide variety of subjects in both print and digital formats. Very sensible writing.



But my side of the family carries a powerful strain of eccentricity, and lately our son has shown signs of exploring the primrose path of fiction. I am hoping that a glance at my latest royalty statement will bring him back to terra firma, but who knows? The Muse sometimes calls unlikely folks like me and her gifts can disturb even the most practical of minds.

18 May 2017

Mad Dix Finds a Home

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

by Dixon Hill


It's been a while since I last posted, and it feels nice to visit again.

Hope some of you feel the same! LOL

As you may recall, my wife, Madeleine (aka: "Double-Clutch Click," "Mad Dog" or simply "Mad") and I bought a house last year. (In case you're wondering, Click happens to be her maiden name.)

And, unfortunately, I was having a hard time finding a place to write, because we simply had too much stuff.

Of course, it also had do with the fact that I tend to smoke cigars when I write, and I didn't want to smoke inside the house.

Which, landed me on the back patio – not a good solution during the Phoenix summer.


So, I've been pretty busy since I last visited with you, working to make myself a new backyard office, which is very nearly done.

The photos below show how our backyard has looked for most of my absence …




And, what it looks like now.



We still have a lot of work to do: plants to install (as well as a drip system), retaining walls, etc. But, I'm almost done with my office. Only have to sand the "mud" then paint. After that, I'll move in and start work in earnest ... though, in truth, I've already been using it. I've sent out a short story to a magazine I've long wanted to land a spot in, and I think I've got a fairly good chance of being picked up, having done my homework. (Of course, you never know! Do you?) And, I've sent out a revamp of an old novel, to see to if it can stick to somebody's wall. We'll see what happens.

My office porch and steps, as well as the interior wood trim will come later. First, I want to crank out a large number of stories that are sitting in limbo on my computer. Meanwhile, I'm taking classes on desert landscaping at the Desert Botanical Garden which is just down the road from our house.

In April, we went to the Garden Sale there, and here I am toting home a Totem Pole Cactus. I've also brought in a half-ton of sand stone slabs, which you can see as the stepping stones in that picture above.

But, this post isn't really just about me letting you know what I've been up to. It's really about the way my suffering from "The Writing Bug" affects my marriage, and what my wife has to deal with because of it.

Writing, for me at least, isn't a thing I can turn on or off. Plots and ideas slosh around in the back of my mind, and sometimes parts of them slip out into my conscience thought when I least expect them to. Sometimes when I wish they'd have stayed floating around in whatever sludge inhabits my "little grey cells" a certain fictional sleuth might put it.

I don't know how many times I've been simply driving down the road, or sitting in a chair in the living room, only to hear my wife ask: "Oh, my God! Who are now? And who are you talking to with that look on your face? You look like you're getting ready to choke somebody to death."

See, this is part of my problem, one of the ways it manifests itself when I'm not expecting it. I might have a problem with one of my stories -- a scene, perhaps, in which I've gotten everything on paper, all the little boxes are checked with all the little scraps of information that I needed to get into that scene, but it just isn't right. Maybe it's too mechanical in its writing. Or, perhaps one of the characters just doesn't feel true. Sometimes, one or more of the characters fight me, wanting to do things, other than, or in a very different manner than, the parts I've written them into. And, about that time, it's usually necessary to start dinner. So, I set it all down, shut off my computer, and go in to cook.

But that scene, those characters, their actions, and their feelings: All those things are whirling around in my mind while I cook, as I eat, when I'm trying to talk to my wife and kids.

And here another little puzzle piece fits itself in. See, when I was in high school, I took acting classes at my school for two years, but I also took professional on-camera acting classes at a private academy. I'm not sure if it's fortunate, or unfortunate, but that academy stressed method acting, in which an actor tries to become the character who's persona s/he is trying to assume. And, this can have rather odd effects when I've got a scene whirling around in the back of my mind.

And, as I said earlier, sometimes it slips out. Often, this means that I've gone from just thinking about the scene, to thinking about ways to rewrite it, sometimes by looking at it through the eyes of one of my characters.

Which is why, I'll suddenly hear my wife asking me who I'm talking to, who I'm being, and what the hell I think I'm doing. And, I realize that, though I haven't uttered a word (though I sometimes evidently sort of growl) I've been silently yelling, or telling another character off, or even just letting the angry character silently vent through my face.

Madeleine and the kids have come to accept this (I think) though I'm sure they're not terribly comfortable with it. As for myself, I seldom realize it's happening until I'm brought up short by my wife. At which point I apologize, but can seldom explain my actions in any coherent way.

That's not all my family has to put up with, of course, but I thought I'd give you this example, just to provide a little taste of the weirdness of living with me.

Now, to explain her view of things, I'd like to introduce my wife: a woman of great courage and moral fiber, whom I met in the army; mother of my three children; a woman who fought in the First Gulf War driving an unarmed fuel truck deep into enemy territory; the woman who puts up with my personal eccentricities and (most important to me!) the one and only woman I love:

Madeleine Hill:

When people ask me what my husband does, I tell them he's a freelance writer. Almost immediately, their eyes go soft and look of wonder comes over them. To most people, a writer is the maker of worlds and the ultimate creator. They live in awe of writers and most people wish they had been given the gift of writing.

I seldom reveal the truth to them. I would not steal from them that look of childish wonder, and my lips remain sealed. I will, however, share it with you as what I am going to tell you is probably already known to you. I married Dr. Jekyll, but I LIVE with Mr. Hyde. There it is ... the truth.

The man I married, Dr. Jekyll, is the perfect spouse. He is kind and patient. He is extremely intelligent and full of fun and laughter. He is always reading and gains knowledge by the day. He loves me and our children. He will spend hours with us in perfect harmony. Whatever happens he is rational and forgives easily.

However, when he is in the middle of a writing project, he is transformed into Mr. Hyde.

Mr. Hyde is quite different than the good doctor. Mr. Hyde has little patience and is quick to anger. He is restless and is partial to self-loathing. He is a man in agony. We try to treat Mr. Hyde like the doctor but we rarely succeed. Mr. Hyde will hide himself away for days taking breaks only for meals and the little sleep he allows himself. The work he does, his ART requires nothing short of parts of his soul which he is all too ready to render. To the outside world such a being can be terrifying to see but it is all part of the man we love.

This may all seem a little dramatic but it is the way I can best describe living with a writer, my own creator of worlds.
Mad w/ New Tree

Madeleine



Well, that's it for this visit. You might find it interesting to note that this was written on Mother's Day, while the new hot tub was being filled and fired-up for the first time.

See you some time in the future!
Dixon

P.S.: This is my office at night:

17 May 2017

Family

  Family Fortnight +   Following the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you another article in a series about mystery writers’ view on families. Here’s Fran’s take on the family of her original character, Callie Parrish. Settle back and enjoy!

by Callie Parrish

When Leigh Lundin invited Fran Rizer to participate in Sleuth-sayers' celebration of families, she encouraged her older son, who is in law enforcement, to write the blog. He has a great fiction voice and has been published, but he declined. She consulted her younger son, who after teaching in Japan for years, returned state-side and now works in a nationally acclaimed library. He specializes in children's literature. Turned down again, Rizer asked her teenaged grandson. He replied, "Aw, G-Mama, just use the essay I did before."

What to do? Rizer considered writing about a true crime family like Ma Barker's brood, the James brothers, or any one of numerous others she Googled. In the end, she got busy, and like she's done most of the time since 2007 when the first of eight cozyesque mysteries about me was published, she shoved the writing off on me.

I'm Callie Parrish. After graduating from USC in Columbia, South Carolina, I married and was teaching kindergarten when my then husband did what he did that made me divorce him. He is NO longer part of my family. Robert Frost wrote, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." I came home to St. Mary, on the coast of South Carolina, where I was raised. (I know "reared" is the correct word, but we southerners don't always speak proper English.) Didn't take long living with my redneck father and most of my five older brothers, who also move back home between relationships and jobs, to convince me to get my own place.

My mother died giving birth to me, which is why I'm called Callie. Daddy got drunk, really drunk, after my mother died. When he filled out the papers, he tried to think feminine, which he equated to pink. He couldn't think of anything that color except the stuff folks put on poison oak rash. He named me Calamine Lotion Parrish, which is bad enough. Thank heaven he didn't think of Pepto Bismol.

Role playing at a book signing--left to right: Callie Parrish,
Fran Rizer, Jane Baker.
After my divorce, I realized I was tired of five-year-olds who wouldn't lie still for naptime. Back home, I used the SC Cosmetologist License I earned in high school voc ed to work at Middleton's Mortuary as a cosmetician (Funeraleze for cosmetologist). I like my work because my clients don't get up and run around, nor need to tee tee every five minutes.

Okay, so that's my immediate family--Daddy and five brothers, but to me, my family is much bigger. My bosses, Odell and Otis Middleton, are no longer identical as they were at birth. When they began losing hair, Otis got hair plugs; Odell shaved his head. Otis is a vegetarian who put a tanning bed in the prep room at the funeral home
--not for the dearly departed, but for his personal use. Odell is addicted to barbecue and weighs about forty pounds more than his twin. They treat me so well that I consider them family, also.

Jane Baker has been my best friend since ninth grade when she came back to St. Mary from boarding school. Some folks say Jane is visually challenged, but I call a spade a flippin' shovel. Jane is blind. She works as Roxanne, whom Jane describes as a "phone fantasy actress." What this means is she spends her nights on a 900 line to support herself without depending on anyone for transportation to and from a job. My other best friend, a gorgeous Gullah lady named Rizzie Profit, owns G-Three, which stands for Gastric Gullah Grill. Rizzie has a teenaged brother named Tyrone. I count Jane, Rizzie, Ty, and even Roxanne, as family, too.

To be truthful, and I try to be (most of the time), I used to be a little green-eyed about Jane and Rizzie. Both are better endowed than I am. Inflatable bras and padded fanny panties solve that problem for me.

I don't have any children (yet), but I do have a fur-baby, if you can call any animal his size a baby. That's him with me in my author photo above. When my brother's girlfriend gave me a puppy, I had no idea how large Great Dane dogs grow. Like Topsy, Big Boy just grew and grew and grew. He's an important part of my family, and it terrifies me when he's kidnapped in Ring Around the Rosie, A SKULL FULL OF POSIES, scheduled for publication in September, 2017.

Thank you for letting me introduce you to the most important people in my life. I consider all of them family. To paraphrase my favorite quotation about families: "Family are the people who love you when you're least lovable." The people I've told you about have definitely shown me love over the years, frequently when I probably didn't deserve it.

My employers are Otis and Odell Middleton, but Fran Rizer bosses all of us around. She told me to close with this true anecdote.

An adopted child asked his mother, "Do you love my sister more than me? She's your biological child, and blood is thicker than water."

The mom replied, "I love you both, and love is thicker than blood."

Fran Rizer with two friends who are like family to her.
Left is Richard D. Laudenslager, her collaborator on
SOUTHERN SWAMPS AND RUINS. Right is Gene
Holdway, her "partner in rhyme," with whom she
co-writes music. No, Rizer is not a "little person."
Her writing partners are both over six feet, three.

Until we meet again, take care of … YOU!



In addition to the Callie Parrish mystery series, Rizer's published works include KUDZU RIVER (a southern serial killer thriller), SOUTHERN SWAMPS AND RUINS (a collection of haunting tales in collaboration with Richard D. Laudenslager), and THE HORROR OF JULIE BATES.



PS - Happy birthday today, Rick.

16 May 2017

Until a Split Infinitive Do Us Part

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

by Amy Marks
As we close in on the end of family fortnight at SleuthSayers, I’d like to introduce my wife Amy. Some of you may know her already. But whether you do or not, hopefully you’ll get to know her a little better here. Over the years she’s become my editor, my “Max Perkins”. I think every writer needs a Max Perkins and I’m very lucky to have her. And lucky, too, that she likes editing. We’ve had some “discussions” about some of her suggestions, but she’s a great and intuitive editor, and I go with about 75-80% of what she suggests. Our 30th wedding anniversary is coming up in June, so something must be working. And they said it wouldn’t last. —Take it away, Amy:
— Paul





I’m not a writer, but I’m married to one. Which is kind of like that old commercial, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” In fact, I’m not really much of a reader either—or wasn’t when I was a kid. Don’t get me wrong, I love books and I love reading. But when I was a kid I stubbornly refused to wear the glasses that had been prescribed to me from the age of six. I hated them, but without them, reading was a chore. The only time I would wear my glasses is when the lights went out in the movie theater and I would sneak them out of my purse and put them on, hoping no one would notice. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school when I got contact lenses that I began to enjoy being able to see clearly…and read.

So how did I end up married to a writer? Well, it wasn’t because I was hanging out at literary events. It was because both of us had friends who roped us into “volunteering” to make phone calls to raise money for Unicef. They were doing an old-time, live-audience radio show on Halloween and needed volunteers to call people up and ask for donations. Phone calls, and particularly phone calls asking for money, is not something I enjoy doing… But my one good deed led to meeting Paul, so I guess it was good karma.

When I met Paul he was a screenwriter/script doctor, I’d never read a screenplay before and was curious, so I asked if I could read some stuff. Paul said I could only if I agreed to give him honest feedback and criticism. He didn’t need someone just to tell him how wonderful it was (he had his mom for that). I said, “Sure! No problem.” So I read a couple of screenplays and Paul asked me what I thought of them. And I said, “They were great. I enjoyed them!” And then he asked me why. And I said, “I don’t know, I just liked them.”

Paul "cracking the whip" in the early days.
Well, that didn’t really help and I knew I wasn’t doing him any favors if I just blindly liked everything he wrote.

It took me a while, but I started to learn how to read critically. In fact, one story Paul wrote I didn’t like at all and I told him so. He asked me why I didn’t like it. And again I said, “I don’t know.” I realized it was just as hard to define why I didn’t like something as it was to define why I did. I had to learn how to think critically and how to articulate those thoughts.

At some point I started not only reading and providing feedback, but doing actual editing on Paul’s work. While my day job is as a trust administrator for a bank, I like having this sort of alter-ego, creative side that I can change into when I get home. I love my day job, but I also like being able to stretch out and be an editor. Sometimes it’s a challenge and Paul and I don’t always agree on things. I’ve learned to speak my mind and stand up for my point of view. Sometimes I win and sometimes I don’t.

Paul and I arguing about edits.
I guess I could have not gotten involved in Paul’s writing at all. I could have said, “I’m not a writer. That’s your thing, not mine. I’ll just sit here and do my own thing while you write.” But I wanted to be involved in his work. I loved his writing. I loved his ability to create stories and characters. To turn words into experiences and feelings. I wanted to share in that experience. So we became a partnership, a team, a rock band (without all the break-ups or the replaceable drummers).

Over the years of our marriage, and as Paul transitioned from screenwriting to short stories and novels, I’ve had to learn a lot of things that I never would have had to learn or experience if I hadn’t met him. I’ve had to learn why I like something and why I don’t. Why one book is memorable and another is a bore. I had to understand my own tastes and preferences and learn how to be objective (if one can be objective). I’ve also had to learn a whole bunch of things that might not mean a lot to most people, but that to a writer are important: the difference between an en dash and an em dash. When to use a comma (well, sometimes, I still struggle with when a comma is really necessary). The three act structure. The difference between a shot and a slug line. The difference between it’s and its. What’s a character arc? What’s purple prose? What’s a plot twist? A reversal? And even the difference between a revolver and a semi-automatic. And I love being able to keep learning new things.
Paul and Amy in the early years

Some people have asked me if I’ve ever wanted to write my own stuff. No way. I get my fun out of reading and editing, contributing ideas and thoughts. My creative juices flow more towards visual arts, I like to paint and draw, and problem solving and brain storming, just as I like solving real puzzles. In fact, when we were in New York just a few weeks ago when Paul won the Ellery Queen Readers Poll award, I met Peter Kanter the president of Dell Magazines/Penny Publications and told him how much I like their logic puzzles. When we got home, there was a package waiting at our P.O. Box full of Dell puzzle books and logic puzzle books in particular. How cool is that? Thank you! Yes, I’m a puzzle geek and in another life I probably would have been a mathematician or a detective.

And there are a lot of other perks. Meeting cool and interesting people, other writers and people in the publishing industry, traveling. And tons of free books all over the place. So many that we’re being “booked” out of house and home…

If I hadn't met Paul I wouldn't have met that other Paul
and had backstage passes for Paul McCartney.
And that was really cool!
I’ve read some of the other blogs from family members over the past few weeks and it’s struck me how everyone has the same challenges. I just read Art Taylor’s interview with his wife Tara Laskowski and realized we’re not alone in how time-crunched we are. And we don’t even have a five year old, but we do have two big dogs and until recently two cats! That’s like having a five year old or two… And I related to Robyn Thornton’s story about being frustrated when her husband Brian was too busy to help her put together a stool. It can be hard to put up with the demanding writing “mistress” taking up all their time.

But I also love coming home at night where Paul and I will plunk ourselves down in front of our side by side computers and dig into the writing work. We usually don’t break for dinner until around 8 or 8:30 pm. Dinner is often microwave frozen stuff—nothing that takes more than 10 minutes, maybe catch the end of a murder show on TV and try to get to bed by 10 pm. And, I have a confession to make: our house doesn’t get cleaned very often… If you meet a writer with a clean house, I would suspect writer’s block has something to do with it.

Paul and I at a Sisters in Crime Holiday Party
- photo by Andrew Pierce.
Have there been times when I’ve wondered what it would be like to not be married to a writer? What it would be like to come home and sit in front of the TV, veg out for a couple of hours, take a leisurely bath and sleep eight maybe nine hours? Yes, and to be honest, I think I could do that for a few days (it’s called vacation). Then I’d probably be bored out of my skull.

We work hard, but we have fun doing it. We get to work on stuff together, learn stuff together and sometimes (or often) make mistakes together. And we are never, never bored.


Oh, yeah, we have fun!
And then there’s that other thing that many of the other family members who’ve blogged this past few weeks have mentioned: understanding that writing is not a job, it’s not a nine-to-five vocation. You don’t turn off the lights and lock the office door at 5 o’clock. You don’t put it away for the weekend. You live and breathe it every day.

So, it’s crazy and fun and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love that we can work together and that we understand each other. I understand his need to write. And he understands my need to not be a writer, but to be the one figuring out where to put the commas and how to keep the machinery running smoothly.




And now for the usual BSP:

My story Twelve Angry Days is in the new Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magaine that just went on sale at newsstands on April 25th. Or you can click here to buy online.





15 May 2017

The Ties That Bind

  Family Fortnight +   Today, the 15th of May, marks the International Day of Families. For the past two weeks, our mystery writers have written of kith and kin, of loved ones and dear ones, and we have more articles to go plus some follow-ups. We’re happy to invite David and daughter to celebrate this world holiday. Settle back and enjoy!

by David Dean and Bridgid Dean

Today is International Family Day, an occasion that I was unaware of until Leigh Lundin made me so. He also asked if I would consider writing an article on the subject. Being an internationally recognized expert on the subject of families, this was agreeable to me.

Most of us have families, whether through blood, adoption, or, in some cases, through convenient, and hopefully beneficial, social arrangements. I wouldn't be going out on a limb if I also added that most of us have, or have had, conflicting feelings about these same families. It's safe to say that much of the stress, anguish, and worry we experience in our lives comes as a result of these unruly, and often ungovernable, social units. Growing up we can hardly contain our exuberance when thinking of that blessed day when we, too, will be adults like our awful parents… and free! Then, for reasons both unclear and diabolical, we finally do leave home, find a mate, produce children, and become truly awful parents ourselves. Maybe not every moment of every day (we do have to sleep after all), but in the invisible yet meticulously maintained ledger of infractions kept by all children, we are judged sadly lacking in all the important categories. Clearly, the only thing learned from our own awful parents was to reproduce their sad failings. And then there's adolescence…

When children enter into this infernal stage the very gates of family hell swing wide emitting foul odors and spewing forth imps and devils, artfully, and awfully, disguised as your own issue. Entering into this dark region slays and tramples all remaining hopes but one– that someday, and God willing, someday soon, those children of the damned will also be visited with adulthood and leave the family manse… if it still stands!

And yet, for reasons that are mostly unreasonable, we find ourselves dreading that day, as well, and saddened when it finally does happen; comically nostalgic for the days we were a young family. Even those children turned adults, having now tasted the dubious freedoms they once longed for, purr like contented kittens during visits home. It has even been remarked by my children that their mother and I have grown more intelligent and reasonable with the years, a possibility none of them had foreseen.

So how did we weather the tumultuous years that we now look back so fondly to? There were two methods employed to save us from the lengthy prisons terms we all contemplated from time to time. The first was a dog. Not just any dog, but a Welsh Corgi. We are a Celtic-derived family and therefore must have a Celtic canine. Silke, as she came to be called, fit right in, being both untrainable and demanding. She was just as uncompromising as the rest of us, only probably smarter. Yet, the kids adored her, and their mother and I were roped in as well.

Corgi
In a very Celtic way Silke became our sin-eater. No matter how badly we behaved toward one another, she was always available to be stroked and petted, somehow soothing and calming us in the process of tending to her unending need for affection. By being so needy and demanding, she drew us out of our own selfishness. And because she was inadvertently comical and endearing, she was a subject we could always talk about. Silke was a movable conflict-free zone.

But it is the second method--reading, that is more germane to this blog site. The family I grew up in did not often indulge in the written word. My parents were not well educated and, having grown up working, had never had the leisure time for recreational reading. It was my good fortune, and through their hard work, that I was provided with that very luxury– a gift beyond rubies. Not that they encouraged me to read, but seeing that I had a knack for it, they did not oppose it. In fact, when they observed that I was becoming a voracious reader of stories, novels, newspapers, and comic books, they were mildly amused, if somewhat cautious, being unsure of the results of such indiscriminate mental activity.

At greater family gatherings it was sometimes pointed out with a certain pride that I read a lot of books. My relatives' reaction to such an announcement ran the gamut from mild astonishment as to why anyone would do such a thing, to concern for my mental health and spiritual well-being. Still, I pressed on, and many years later looked about me one day to find that all of my own progeny had picked up books from somewhere and were reading them. It must have been the silence and unaccustomed peacefulness of my suddenly unfamiliar surroundings that tipped me off. I had failed to notice the start of this phenomenon and was, like my relatives before me, mildly astonished at the development. Could it be that my children and I shared some common thread beside DNA, I asked myself. Was it possible?

Like an animal trainer that's been bitten and mauled, I proceeded with caution, gently inquiring as to the subjects of their readings, while sliding books of my own choosing through the bars of their theoretical cages. Mostly, after a sniff or two, these were rejected– though not with snarls or bared fangs, just shifted back to me without comment. I was encouraged and found that with patience and literary forbearance we soon began to use the spoken word to discuss authors and stories, even progressing to the ideas and inspirations that might have motivated them. And all of this without heated argument or emotional eruptions! I questioned my own sanity. Could this really be happening? My wife assured me that it was all real.

Julian and J. Joyce in Dublin
Oh, how I wish I could say that the Dean household's serenity was nevermore disturbed by a voice raised in anger, or shrill with indignation. Alas for all you hopeful young parents out there, it cannot be done. We devolved on more occasions than I would willingly recall… but now there were bright oases that we arrived at from time to time in our family journey, like restful, green isles scattered across a turbulent, grey sea. Just when it seemed that my mutinous crew would finally toss me overboard, we would wash up onto a wide, warm beach and peace be restored with the opening of a book.

Many years later, I still discuss stories, books, and writers with my adult children. And it's rare I come away from visits to their homes without a book selected from their shelves.

Our son, Julian, is turning his love of reading into a profession, having just been accepted into Notre Dame University's PH.d program for literature. He will be specializing in Irish works. It seems Ireland has produced some decent authors over the years. Who knew?

My eldest girl, Tanya, still waxes nostalgic over our reading of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when she was but a child.

Her sister, Bridgid, not only retained her appetite for literature, but has become a writer, as well, having produced her first novella, The Girl In The Forest. (You'll hear from her in just a moment.)

So here you have it, on this International Family Day, all of my wisdom and experience contained in these two exhortations: Get a pet and scatter books about like landmines! It worked for us and could for you.



Bridgid’s View of Things

While it is hard to argue with the notion that my parents have grown more reasonable over the years since we've left home (probably because they didn't have us kids around, irritating them to distraction!) I would like to point out that I always thought they were intelligent. This point was particularly impressed upon me when, at the age of eight, I heard that my dad was going to have a story published for the first time.

My sister was already in college and my brother was only five, but I was at home and just old enough to be in the midst of really discovering reading for myself. I recall eight as the age when the books no longer had pictures, becoming, instead, thin novels with exciting covers, full of amazing plot twists. They were peopled with characters that made you wonder who you might one day be, what you might do in those unfathomable years ahead. I was probably in the midst of devouring yet another John Bellairs book when I heard the news of the my dad's first story being published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magzine. And, as though someone had opened a window in the house, a fresh breeze scented with possibility wafted through, rifling the pages of my book.

This was also the year in school when we first had to keep a journal as an assignment, writing for some designated period of each day. It soon became apparent that I loved to write; my classmates would gladly close their notebooks once they had completed the minimum requirement but I kept going, filling page after page, stopping only when the teacher said we had to move on to something else. Later in the year, while talking about occupations, my teacher said she could see me becoming a writer. Right then and there I decided that that this was exactly what I wanted to do. Quite thoughtfully, my dad had just begun proving that this was an achievable goal for readers like us.

As my dad mentioned, books were always present in our house. Book shelves were stocked like bomber pantries, the library was visited twice a week, and favorite books were passed between us like sacred gifts. My sister's gift of the Hobbit, decades later, still sits on my shelf, read many times. From my dad I got Graham Greene, from my mother, Jane Austen. To my brother I bequeathed Anne Rice, though he might not care to admit it to his fellow doctoral students.

Happy International Family Day
Even when distance or time kept us from discussing a book that we had shared, the act of sharing it always felt significant. My older sister is the fantasy reader amongst us, with the Hobbit she offered me a doorway into a world to which I had not yet entered, but one that I knew was very significant to her.

Books felt, sometimes, like keys in this way. Keys to the inner worlds of our family members, keys to what they loved, and a means of sharing in it. Books have provided a common ground, a shared interest, and, at times, something else to argue about. What could be more significant?

Well… okay. Maybe a Corgi.

14 May 2017

Opposites Attract

  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the sixteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy this Mother’s Day article!

by Leigh Lundin

My parents were complete opposites. Dad was tall and enormously strong at 6’4 and 240 pounds. Legend said he once lifted a tractor off a man. On the way into the city for my world debut, their car slid off an icy Iowa country road. Dad shouldered the car back onto the track, and they continued to the hospital.

Mom weighed a hundred pounds and topped a shade over five feet. Even so, she could be ferocious. Dad was easy-going; Mom was anything but. The word ‘feisty’ was one of the milder applicable adjectives.

Dad was slow-talking and patient. Mom wasn’t. She could fit a couple of paragraphs in between any two words of his. As for patience, I think she ripped that page out of the dictionary.

Animals, children, and women of all sorts loved Dad. Mom could stare down lions and tigers.

Dad farmed and was gifted at mechanics, but unexpectedly, he was a self-taught polymath. It’s difficult to discuss his range of interests, because they included pretty much everything– math, science, psychology, philosophy, literature, art, poetry, and world events. On Sundays, he’d listen to opera on the radio followed by baseball. He was a google before Google– it seemed impossible to name a subject he either didn’t know or know where to find it.

Each year, my mother purchased a Playboy subscription for my father. She often pointed out pretty women on the street. When her friends questioned her sanity, she said she liked that her husband appreciated beautiful women and preferred her most of all.

In these days of parental hysteria, if little Johnny or Jane sees a bare boob or bottom, the child’s life is considered ruined. This seems so alien to the way I was raised given not only my parents, but my artist Aunt Rae. Nudity in art hung on walls and appeared in books all around us. We weren’t actually proffered Playboy, but being kids, we discovered where they were kept and we caught up on the ‘articles’ from time to time. We learned the lesson that sex was natural and part of a loving environment. When I moved to New York, many residents appeared repressed to me. Bear in mind that New York then had restrictions on selling of condoms and even discussions of birth control.

Swelter Smelter

Dad slept two to four hours a night. Mom could sleep twelve and take an afternoon nap. My father owned pajamas, but apparently never wore them. My mother would appear in the late morning swathed in his oversized PJs, a fuzzy towel pinned around her neck, an ancient green cardigan buttoned over that, boy’s argyle socks… and that’s merely the part we could see. If Dad slept nude, Mom covered up for an Arctic winter.

Once a year, Mother made an exception when Dad’s mother visited. My mom and grandmother loved each other, but they also loved to annoy each other. During her mother-in-law’s visits, Mom wore short-shorts and a halter top, clearly hoping to needle Granny. How Mom survived those freezing 98° temperatures, no one knows.

Mom’s broken thermostat and susceptibility to chills carried over into the car. On a summer day with the windows rolled up and no air conditioning, we kids gasped for oxygen. If we dared roll down the window a crack, Mom would say, “There’s a draft… I can feel it.” Dad typically responded with a dry admonition. “Boys, it’s only 98° and your mother’s chilled. If your flesh isn’t melting, roll up the window.”

Supercharged Action Heroine

Dad usually drove an old truck or car that interested him at the time, but he made sure Mom had a nice car. He bought Mom a Packard with a supercharged V-8 and the acceleration of a Lear Jet.

Mom sat on a cushion to peer over the hood. To a casual observer unable to see a driver, the Packard must have looked like it drove itself.

For such a tiny thing, Mom had a lead foot. Her gas pedal had only two positions– off and full on. One of my grade school classmates described a Sunday morning when we met at a highway crossroads. Both vehicles politely stopped at the stop signs and then Mom rocketed off. Roger claimed that by the time their family reached the town limits, we were sitting in church singing hymns.

Mom versus Chuck Berry

Two branches of a local Everhart family turned out wildly divergent. One exhibited a wicked sense of humor, the other had no humor gene at all. Naturally this latter bullying branch, Lloyd, Floyd, and Lester, rode our school bus and made life miserable for the rest of us. Actually Lloyd wasn’t bad, but the other two had the girth and temperament of constipated Cape buffalo. Flexing arms the size of 55-gallon drums, they boyishly liked to stress-test the reflexes of kids three, four, five years younger. As long as they didn't get blood or body parts on the seats, our school bus driver was content to ignore their playful antics.

Slight relief came about when Floyd reached high school age and bought an old Studebaker junker. He souped up the engine and from there on out, terrified citizens on the highway instead of us kids on the bus.

Studebaker versus the Packard
1951 Studebaker Commander 1958 Studebaker Packard Hawk

One fine day on a ride with Mom, she swept up on the bumper of Everhart, who wasn't used to seeing anything arrive in his rear-view mirror. About now you can start humming Maybellene.
As we was motivatin’ over the hill,
Everhart was whuppin’ a Coup de Ville.
His Studebaker a-rollin’ out of the gate,
But nothin’ outrun Mom’s Packard V-8.
Mom swung out to pass him, again not something bully boy Everhart was used to seeing. He leaned forward and gripped the wheel.
His Studebaker doin’ about ninety-five,
She's bumper to bumper, rollin’ side by side.
He punched the accelerator. The barrels of his carburetor opened, gulping raw gasoline into the cylinders. The gutted mufflers roared flaming unburned fuel.
Next thing I saw that Studebaker grill
Doin’ a hundred and ten gallopin’ over that hill.
Off hill curve, a downhill stretch,
We and that Studebaker neck and neck.
Realizing she wasn't passing as expected, Mom goosed the accelerator. Thrown back in our seats, my brother and I, mouths agape in horror, were petrified– NO ONE messed with an angry Everhart. Seeing he was losing ground, he plunged his pedal to the floor. He was determined no broad was going to pull ahead of him.
The Studebaker pulled up door to door,
Struggling and straining, it wouldn't do no more.
The sky clouded over and it started to rain.
Mom tooted her horn from the passin’ lane.
Still in the left side of the road, Mom glanced over and said, "What is that boy doing?" She floored it. The supercharger clutch engaged. Its rotors whined as it spun up, pressurizing air, vaporizing fuel, taching 6000… 7000 RPM.
The motor wound up, the shift went down
And that’s when we heard that highway sound.
The Studebaker lookin’ like it’s sittin’ still
She passed Everhart at the top of the hill.
Everhart faded to a dim speck on the horizon. Uh-oh.

My brother and I, half the size of Everhart, fully expected him to corner us and beat us to death with a rusty tire iron. We hadn’t, however, counted on his embarrassment. Everhart was so mortified, so humiliated to be out-raced by our tiny mother, he avoided us, turning away whenever he saw us coming.

Gossip of the escapade reached my father. He quietly removed the belt from the supercharger, claiming its bearings had overheated. Mom noticed something amiss and complained its get-up-and-go had got up and gone.

Just another day in the life of my family. With characters like my parents, how could anyone not expect me to write?