06 June 2023

Your Story Idea Here

I was driving over the weekend and saw a billboard that prompted me to widen my eyes and think, what the ______ (fill in the blank as you deem fit; my word started with F). The billboard was so startling that I immediately thought: there's a story there. Not only what must have happened in real life to prompt that billboard but a fictional story I can create inspired by the billboard and/or using a billboard just like that. It's a great jumping off point.

What did the billboard say, you're wondering. Sorry. Not telling. I hope to make use of it. But it suggested the idea for this blog. Billboards as story prompts. So I went looking and found some billboards that I hope might inspire you. 

This has crime story written all over it.

Prompt for a Thriller?

I'm not even sure how to use this one.
What do you think?


Have you ever written a story inspired by a billboard? I'd love to hear about it in the comments. And what do you think of these three? I hope you can use one or more of them in your writing.

05 June 2023

Write the next chapter, or install a new mailbox? Hmm.

I always want to be doing anything other than the thing I’m supposed to be doing.  This is the impulse that drives my productivity.  It’s why I have so many irons in the fire, because there’s nothing like a fresh iron to take your mind off the ones already in the forge. 

The problem with working on the thing I’m supposed to be working on is it’s hard.  It’s hard because people are usually waiting for it to be finished by a certain deadline.   It’s much easier to be working on something no one is waiting for, because no one but you knows it’s being worked on.  These projects are always my favorites.  They’re only between me and my anonymous impulses.  Since I always feel compelled to write stuff, this is a happy state.  I get to do what I want with no danger of pressure or reproach. 

I think most writers are the same way.  Procrastination yields tremendous results.  There’s nothing like a short story deadline to get a person out there in the garden transplanting shrubbery, or calling up neglected relatives to learn how they’re doing, even if the response is to wonder why the hell you’re calling them in the first place. 

The urge to procrastinate is behind all my re-writing.  I tell myself I can’t possibly write anything fresh, but I can always invest screen time going over existing material.  The result is very useful rejiggering, which often stumbles into fresh composition, despite myself. 

I don’t fear the blank page.  In fact, I like it.   What I fear is hard work, which original writing always is.  I know I can do it, since so far I always have, though that doesn’t mean I don’t resist launching the effort.  I feel the same way about preparing my taxes or hauling out the trash.  All past evidence proves I can do these tasks, and when I’m done, will feel richly satisfied.    But getting started is a drag.  And since I’m an inherently energetic person, I look for something else to do instead, like study the Ming dynasty or repaint the living room.  

I’ve published 18 books so far and written about 22.  Not to mention all those short stories and essays.  And written countless lines of commercial copy.  Enough writing to have cleared a few acres of Southern pine and done some damage to my elbows and carpel tunnels.  But I marvel at people like Isaac Asimov, who would wake up in the morning and just write all day long, rolling his chair from typewriter to typewriter writing several books, or scientific papers, simultaneously.  Did his fingers ever get tired?   The late, great Donald Bain published 125 books.  How many more did he actually write?  How did he keep his elbows going?  

Did Asimov, Bain, and that other freak of productivity, Stephen King, feel drawn to write because they were avoiding something else they thought they should be doing?  Origami?  Cleaning out the garage?  Learning French?

All the best writing advice says you should sit down in front of the keyboard every day for a subscribed amount of time and write something.  I never do this.  My subscribed amount of time appears willy-nilly, often when I’m avoiding doing something else I really should be doing.  Suddenly, there I am, sitting down in front of the keyboard.  This could happen at any time day or night, any day of the week.  As it constantly does.

Now that I’m done writing this, I’ll go split the wood that’s been calling to me.

04 June 2023

The Week in Pictures

For friends who claim I don’t reveal much truly personal, pfffft. End of month, I’m getting a colonoscopy. So there. That’s personal.

It’s not my first and afterwards, like Poe, I bought a pallet of bricks and walled up the bathroom remains in an attempt to protect future archeologists from planetary collapse.

Those so-called flavor-packs… what are they thinking? Brake fluid would taste better. At least this doctor, a gastroenterologist, allows Gatorade in the prep. And he has a sense of humor. Note this sign in their parking lot:

But what really prompted this article was a license plate on a nearby car. As I snapped the photo, a lady came strolling up, nicely, not aggressively. I explained why I was taking pictures of her car.

Nancy didn’t mind and explained it was her husband’s. He’s a writer, a real one, not merely professionally published, but award winning. Peer closely at the license tag and notice the frame around the plate. He’s a winner of the Bram Stoker award for Best First Novel and a Stoker award for Lifetime Achievement. Pretty damn cool.

Obviously he writes in the horror genre. He goes by Owl Goingback and happens to be the only other non-romance fiction writer I’ve come across in Central Florida.

Computer programs that generate tag numbers are designed to weed out certain combinations. Obscenity is an obvious category, whether automatically generated or requested by a car owner. Florida rejects about 500 request a year, not counting those manufactured by the state in the format of XYZ•123.

But vulgarity isn’t the only filtered category. You won’t see plates with certain combinations:

  • FBI-123     CIA-123     IRS-123
  • DEA-123     ATF-123     IBM-123
  • and so on…

IBM? True. It’s among the many forbidden combinations. Thus I was surprised to pull up behind a vehicle bearing a tag certain to outrage Florida’s book-banning obscenity police.

As I returned home, a traffic light caught me at Lee Road (they misspelled my name) and I-4, I noticed a license tag.

I can’t wait til the governor discovers this affront to book burners across the state. It must be a conspiracy. Its left part is as pornographic, lascivious, lecherous, licentious, libidinous, and scabrous as the right. Our governor will clutch his wee pearls. Surely, that cannot be an accident.

Will the governor’s appointees plan a plate burning? Or bonfire the entire car? Or torch the hapless party who allowed this… this… this lewd, rude, dirty, filthy, vulgar, foul, coarse, crude, gross, vile, nasty, disgusting, offensive, shameless, immoral smut to sully America’s roads?

That’s personal.

03 June 2023

Springtime Stories

I live in Mississippi--the land of magnolia blossoms, blues music, and gator-related accidents (just kiddin'), and where spring thankfully sprang early this year. That was fine with me--I'm one of those folks who absolutely hates cold weather, and when temperatures start to rise it helps not only the greenery but my mood in general.

I've also been fortunate in the story department, this spring. For my SS column today I thought I'd take a look at the different kinds of stories of mine that were published in the past two months, and where they appeared. (This is also the kind of post that requires no work or research, so there's that, too.)

Here goes.

April 1 -- "A Bad Hare Day," Mystery Magazine, April 2023 issue. Most of my stories at MM and its predecessor, Mystery Weekly, have been regular, traditional crime stories between 2000 and 5000 or so words, but this is one of what Mystery Magazine calls You-Solve-It mysteries, flash-length puzzle stories written with an "interactive" format that lets readers try to figure the solution out for themselves. This story involves an attempted robbery by a guy in a bunny costume who performs for a birthday party at the mansion of a Southern big-shot, and is an installment of a series that I long ago labeled my "Law and Daughter" stories, featuring Sheriff Lucy Valentine and her amateur-sleuth mother Fran. "A Bad Hare Day" is about 1000 words and was submitted and accepted back in February 2022. I understand there's a fairly long queue for the You-Solve-Its, so--as in this case--it can sometimes be a while before accepted stories show up. FYI for those writers who don't already know this: Mystery Magazine is one of those publications that pay on acceptance, and they do it promptly--so, many thanks, Kerry!

April 3 -- "Theft at the Rest Stop," Woman's World, April 3, 2023, issue. Editor: Alexandra Pollock. Woman's World's guidelines say their mini-mysteries--which they call Solve-It-Yourself mysteries--should be 700 words max, though mine are always much shorter, between 500 and 600 (once those started working, I've stayed at that length ever since). This particular story is a whodunit involving a crowd of people at a rest stop on an interstate highway, one of whom has stolen a fellow traveler's wallet. On hand to do the police work are Sheriff Charles "Chunky" Jones and his former fifth-grade teacher Angela Potts, a duo who have served me well at WW (thank you sincerely, Alex Pollock!). A reader once told me Chunky and Angela remind her of Sheriff Taylor and Aunt Bee, which I took as high praise--but in truth, my sheriff is far lazier and larger than Andy, his "assistant" is smarter and nosier and bossier than the TV sheriff's mild-mannered aunt, and both of my crimefighters live in a town that so far has never been given a name. For those who're interested, "Rest Stop" (my original title) is 529 words and is my 127th story at WW. It was submitted in February 2023 and accepted later that month.

April 10 -- "Summer in the City," More Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties, Down & Out Books. Editor: my psychedelic fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken. As I told Michael while I was writing this story, I probably had more fun plotting it than I've had with any in a long time. Required content for this anthology was (1) a private-investigator protagonist and (2) a plot involving a notable event from the 1960s. I think the moon landing and Woodstock were taken, so I chose the Detroit riots, a crime-spree of looting and arson and violence that took place there in July 1967. One of my story's unlikely heroes is a college student from the South who's taken a summer job selling Webster's Dictionaries door-to-door in Flint, Michigan, one of the places that saw spinoff riots that same month. The crime in this story, though, isn't looting and shooting--it's diamond smuggling, which was big business in certain areas back then, and the plot involves a missing delivery of South African jewels, the bad guys' efforts to find them, and a private eye hired to locate and rescue the dictionary-salesman kid who's gotten himself caught in the middle of it. I gave the story the title of a song: "Summer in the City," by The Lovin' Spoonful, which was recorded the year before but was still popular during what would come to be known as The Summer of Love. The story is about 5800 words, was submitted in January 2022, and was accepted that same month. (Michael, it's always a pleasure and honor to be in one of your anthologies.)

April 25 -- "The Florida Keys," Crumeucopia: Strictly Off the Record, Murderous Ink Press. Editor: John Connor. Florida stories are always fun to write because it's such a crazy place (just ask another fellow SleuthSayer, Leigh Lundin), and most of this one takes place at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, a setting I loved and knew well from my IBM days. The story features a vacationing exotic dancer named Roxanne Key, her husband Dennis, their daughter Jacqueline, and a world-weary detective team named Mason and Biggs. This is more of a whydunit than a whodunit, and includes plenty of clues that were great fun to plant and hide, and also the kind of goofy humor that wouldn't fit into a lot of the mystery/crime stories I've written lately. "The Florida Keys" runs about 2500 words, was submitted in October 2022, and was accepted in January 2023. Big thanks to John Connor (!), who also edited my five previous Crimeucopia stories.

May 1 -- "Shadygrove," Get Up Offa That Thing: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of James BrownDown & Out Books. Editor: Gary Phillips. This was the first of two of my stories published this May that were written for music-themed anthologies. This one was based on Brown's song "Try Me," but I gave the story a different title--in fact the title is the name that one of my characters gave to the setting of the story: a small stand of cottonwoods on the edge of a stream in Central Texas. It features a bounty hunter, the woman he loves (or thinks he loves), and several deadly members of an outlaw gang. The thing that made this story fun to write, for me, was its plot twists: there are at least four surprise reversals in the course of the story, which I hope are as entertaining for folks to read as they were for me to create. All of us know you have to be careful with this kind of thing--it's easy to put too many twists in a story--but I hope it worked, here. "Shadygrove" is around 3200 words, was submitted in October 2021, and was accepted a month later. Though it took awhile to get into print, it was worth the wait--Gary's a great editor.

May 23 -- "The Devil's Right Hand," Weren't Another Way to Be: Outlaw Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Waylon Jennings, Gutter Books Rock Anthology Series. Editor: Alec Cizak. Outlaw fiction?--How could I not want to write a story for a book of outlaw fiction? And who doesn't like the music of Waylon Jennings? For this antho, Alec wanted us to use the song titles as the titles of our stories, and that seemed to work well here. Mine's about a regular guy who gets mistaken on the trail for a famous outlaw in the 1880s, and an ill-advised plan to have him use that uncanny resemblance to rob a bank in the prairie town of Longbow. Like "Shadygrove," this one has twists and reversals galore. There are some bad folks who start out good and good folks who start out bad--I always like that--and a setting that I found myself sad to leave when the writing was finished. Characters include an aimless drifter, a snake-oil salesman (saleslady, actually), a tired sheriff, a smart deputy, and a legendary but reluctant gunfighter. It wound up around 5500 words, was submitted in August 2022, and was accepted the following month. I've had the good fortune to work with Alec on three stories before this one, and he came through as usual. Matter of fact, just about all the anthologies I've been in for the past several years have been blessed with fine editors.

May 26 -- "Last Day at the Jackrabbit," Strand Magazine, Issue #69. Editor: Andrew Gulli. A reader/friend told me this past week that this story reminded him a bit of Hemingway's "The Killers" (I was flattered but I suspect the similarity came from its being set in a diner). In my case it was the Jackrabbit Diner, named for its owner, Jack (you guessed it) Hopper. Jack doesn't show up in the story, though--he's at home drunk as a skunk, as usual--and his head waitress, Elsie Williams, is this story's protagonist. Her less-than-brilliant boyfriend, Mike McCann, has just robbed the players of a high-stakes poker game in a nearby city, never realizing that they're also members of a much more dangerous group--and now they're after him. The lovebirds try to fly the coop, but complications ensue. Another FYI: This story idea began with its ending, and I worked backward from there. It was an ending inspired by the final scene of the 1974 movie adaptation of John Godey's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three--and it's stayed on my mind for more than forty years. I also divided the story up into five parts, which I don't usually do. The sections were: 1. Extermination, 2. Redirection, 3. Coverup, 4. Killing Time, and 5. Termination. More than you wanted to know, right? Anyhow, "Last Day at the Jackrabbit" was my 25th story at the Strand--it's 4000 words, it was submitted in October 2022, and it was accepted in January 2023. Andrew Gulli, by the way, is wonderful. (Hope he reads this . . .)

I have several more stories coming up this month, and I 'm sure my feelings about those will be as fond as my memories of the ones above. I've said this many times, and I truly mean it: One of the reasons I love writing short stories is that every one of them is so different. I get to try lots of varied plots, places, characters, etc., and do it over and over and over again, without having to wait months or years between projects. No offense, novel writers--you're still my heroes--but I dearly love writing these shorts. 

If you're a writer, what are some of your recent published stories? Any we might not have heard about? Which are your favorites? Which markets are you most attracted to lately, with your submissions? What kinds of stories are you working on now--or waiting to have published?

I hope you're having as much fun with this stuff as I am.

02 June 2023

Favorite Stories

Favorite short stories

Since my story "Cruelty the Human Heart" (first published in Argosy II magazine, 2004) ) was included in the college composition textbook WORD AND IMAGE (Pearson Learning Solutions, Boston, MA) the occasional college student will contact me about it and other topics. The other day, I was asked to name my favorite classic short story. I said there were too many to have a favorite but I mentioned Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

"That's old English. What about current English?"

That cracked me up. I gave the student a short list and moved one. The question lingered and I thought about it, went to my bookcase and brought down a few collections and one story hit me (again), and I re-read it as slowly as I could, to experience the well-written tale and feel the same charge with the opening lines and the same emotion at the end.

The story – “The Tonto Woman” by Elmore Leonard, one of his western tales.

Here are others:

“One” by George Alec Effinger


“Shambleau” by C. L. Moore (Catherine Moore)

"The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" by Harlan Ellison

“I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison

 “The Fog Horn” (alternate title: “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) by Ray Bradbury


“The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl” by Ray Bradbury


“The Saliva Tree” by Brian W. Aldiss


“A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum


“The Doors of His Face; The Lamps of His Mouth” by Roger Zelazny


“Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov


“Cat’s Paw” by Bill Pronzini


“The Perfect Crime” by Max Allan Collins


“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce


“The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft

“A Scandal in Bohemia” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes


“The Wall” by Marcia Muller


“Crazy Horse” by Cornell Woolrich

“The Dog of Pompeii” by Louis Untermeyer 

I have to stop for the moment. There are too many favorites.

That's all for now.


01 June 2023

Rumors of the Lost Ark

History is a mystery, and I think that's why there's a number of us - Rob Lopresti, Doolin' Dalton, myself, and others - who are fascinated with history, archaeology, and all that old, old stuff.

Rob Lopresti wrote a great blog post a couple of weeks ago about hypnogagia, literal patterns that your eyes see just before you sleep (or when you shut your eyes extremely tight:  mine are black patterns on a yellow background), and their relationship to the symbols at Newgrange burial chamber in Ireland. (HERE) I've had hypnogagia all my life - in fact, last night I was awakened by a rattling, like of bones in a cup; twice.  

And Rob's piece yesterday was on archaeologists' interpretations of what they find, which (especially in the olden days) sprang more from their own ideas of what they should find and not what was already there.  And this post is sort of along the same lines - stick with me on it.

A while ago, I wrote a blog post on Paleolithic Languages (Older Than You Think), where paleolinguists have determined that there are 23 ultra-conserved words, "proto-words," that don't just still exist in almost all current language families, including Inuit-Yupik, but still sound remarkably alike. They go back at least 15,000 years, and are a window into a time of hunter-gatherers painting in Lascaux and trying to survive the end of the Younger Dryas (the next-to-the last mini-Ice Age):

thou, I, we, ye, who, what, this, that, not,
man/male, mother, hand, old, black,
give, hear, pull, flow, spit,
bark, fire, ashes, worm

BTW, I've always wondered what worm they meant– a snake (like in the Newgrange / Knowth sculptures)? A garden worm? The dog's worms?  The worm you put in uisce beatha (whiskey) to make it stronger?

So, a very long time ago, almost everyone in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe spoke the same language.  Or at least the same trading language.  The exceptions might be Australia (which had been cut off from the rest of the world back around 50,000 BCE) and the Americas, about whose isolation from the rest of the world is undergoing more and more under debate.

NOTE: Everyone talks about the Bering Land (really Ice) Bridge being the way that people got from Asia to Alaska to drifting down the Americas to Tierra del Fuego, BUT – there's more and more evidence that people settled across the Americas earlier than is allowed by that theory.  (Latest evidence is 23,000 year old footprints at White Sands, New Mexico.)  Plus they'd have been freezing all the way.  

Much more likely is by boat.  Our modern world is obsessed with land travel because (unless you cruise a lot) that's what we do.  Planes, trains, and automobiles. But before the combustion engine, most major hauling and travel was done by boat, barge, canoe, ship, skiff, etc.  And Thor Heyerdahl, for all his quirks, proved you could sail from South America to the Polynesian islands.  

And I say, why not from / to China?  For one thing, while Africa and Europe see a human in the Moon, Chinese, Aztec, and much Native American lore sees a Rabbit in the Moon.  

But the real mystery isn't how a tiny core of hominids communicated with each other via a common language.  The real mystery is why, once the Last Glacial Period (c 115,000-11,700 years ago) ended, all across the globe - husbandry and agriculture begin? By 9,000 BCE, From the Fertile Crescent to Papua New Guinea to the Yangtze Basin, people we have hard-core evidence of humans growing crops.  Raising domesticated animals for food.  And that's probably not the true date of the beginning the "revolution", because pottery for storage and processing (including the fermenting of certain grains, i.e., alcohol! Something to drink, people!) dating back 20,000 years ago has been found in China and Japan.  We don't know the half of it.  

So:  how did everyone know what to do, in such widely disparate places, once the weather let up?  We don't know.  One Hundred Thousand Years of Ice is going to grind up a lot of evidence that we will simply never find.  But we have the oral traditions...

Well, my old friend and frequent thinking / drinking buddy John Franklin and I have discussed this many a long hour, and we both believe that 

(1) Humans (of any species / subspecies) have been in touch with each other for a very long time.  

(2) Before the Last Glacial Period (c 115,000-11,700 years ago), there were technologically advanced hominid civilizations.  For all I know, advanced enough that they caused a nuclear winter, because that is apparently what civilizations do: we grow and grow and grow and then one day we grow ourselves right out of our habitats.  As Jared Diamond once wondered, what was the man who cut down the last tree on Easter Island thinking?  Probably about the [equivalent of] money he was about to make selling it.  

(3) Anyway, over 100,000 years ago, something happened, and what followed was 100,000 years of Ice.  

But we have the stories of what came before:  stones walking themselves to their sites (Egypt and Easter Island)! People flying through the air on magic carpets! Rings / stones (Solomon's Seal) that allowed people communicate with the animals and around the world!  Stones that talk!  And the myths / fairytales!*  Those are memories, passed down for so long they became myth, of technology that used to exist. Just as in 10,000 or 100,000 years people (should the human race survive) will remember planes, cell phones, Zoom meetings, etc., as stones, rings, rooms, etc. 

John Franklin says the civilization(s) undoubtedly knew what was coming.  So, you're facing extinction by massive climate change, and it's a crapshoot as to how long it will last and who's going to survive it.  What do you do?  Give up? Or try to out ways to condense important information to something that will be understandable for literally millennia, and training people how to pass it along?**  (Of course, there's always denial...  If you don't think about it, Maybe it will go away.)

And we've discussed what powered these ancient civilizations.  Most of technological history has been humans trying to replace muscle power with anything else that will work.  Windmills, waterwheels, levers & fulcrums, railroads, cars, computers, etc.  But to run these things you have to have some kind of fuel.  So what did they use 100 millennia ago?

Franklin says that the best way to figure out what fueled pre-Last Glacial Period technologies is to look at what's considered rare but valuable today. He plumps for gold.  Gold is an excellent conductor and holder of electricity.  I remember reading once that the Ark of the Covenant could well be a description of how to build a battery:

“First let them make a Chest using acacia wood: make it three and three-quarters feet long and two and one-quarter feet wide and deep. Cover it with a veneer of pure gold inside and out and make a molding of gold all around it. Cast four gold rings and attach them to its four feet, two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Make poles from acacia wood and cover them with a veneer of gold and insert them into the rings on the sides of the Chest for carrying the Chest. The poles are to stay in the rings; they must not be removed.  Place The Testimony that I give you in the Chest. Now make a lid of pure gold for the Chest, an Atonement-Cover, three and three-quarters feet long and two and one-quarter feet wide.  Sculpt two winged angels out of hammered gold for either end of the Atonement-Cover, one angel at one end, one angel at the other. Make them of one piece with the Atonement-Cover. Make the angels with their wings spread, hovering over the Atonement-Cover, facing one another but looking down on it... I will meet you there at set times and speak with you from above the Atonement-Cover and from between the angel-figures that are on it, speaking the commands that I have for the Israelites.  (Exodus 25:10-22, The Message Bible)   

I pointed out to Franklin that the Ark is empty, except for "the Testimony," and usually a battery has more technical stuff in it (look it up yourself) than a scroll.  

His reply:  "Who says 'the Testimony' was a scroll? That could be a code word for some practical knowledge. And those aren't angels: they're cherubim.  Fairly frightening creatures - four faces, two wings, definitely nonhuman. Transmitters? Receivers? Perhaps. Consider that no one's supposed to touch the Ark, except the specially trained Levites, and even they're only supposed to carry it using poles overlaid with gold.  No hands on.  Uzzah, the one man we know of who reached out and touched it dropped dead. Sounds like electrocution to me."  

I've heard worse theories.  

So say he's right, and before the Last Glacial Period, their technology was fueled by gold. It would explain why the racial memory of gold as the source of power and wealth.  Granted, it's beautiful, but it's not especially useful... Anymore. And yet, since ancient times, alchemists have tried to transmute lead into gold (Zosiumus of Panopolis, c. 300 CE provides the earliest record to survive) via the philosopher's stone, which is / was ...????  Who knows? 

It would also explain why gold today is generally hard to find, in low concentrations, and expensive to process - the Old Old Ones*** used most of it up.  

Franklin:  "So, imagine a world, ten thousand, fifty thousand years from now, where there are whispers of a powerful energy source, that gave immense wealth and power to those who could control it. A dark energy, a black energy, dark oil, night coal, that harnessed the dark forces of the universe and gave unimaginable power. And there are still remnants of it:  the Tears of Saturn and the Blood of the Moon, the Night Gifts are horded by Kings. The nobility and wealthy wear it, in their hair, on their faces. Priests sacrifice it to the gods, kings are embalmed in it, buried in caskets with it. A vial of it is immensely precious. A necklace of jet or obsidian is like diamonds today. And no one has any idea that these once fueled an entire civilization. They just know it's valuable. Powerful."   

"Okay," I said. "So they revere oil and coal. But what are they using for fuel?"

"Something we've never thought of, of course." Franklin said. "Depends on what survives the Pyrocene."

Global map of average annual area burned (percentage of cell burned) 
for 1960 to 2000; data from Mouillot and Field (2005). LINK

* And all the old myths.  And some new ones.  There's a Great Flood in every oral tradition, along with a blind king, a Cinderella, and the oldest are of a blacksmith cheating the devil.  

** BTW, Gregory Benford's non-fiction Deep Time:  How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia (1995) is worth a read. I recommend the first part (Ten Thousand Years of Solitude), about a government project he was involved in, trying to figure out how to communicate the danger of buried radioactive material to people far in the future. The last part (Stewards of the Earth) is about what future peoples (say, 100,000 years from now) will think of what we leave behind. 

*** With apologies to Cthulhu…

Now for some BSP:

Josh Pachter's Paranoia Blues is one of the five finalists for the Anthony award in the Best Anthology category, and Ed Aymar's "Still Crazy After All These Years," from it is a finalist in the Best Short Story category! And I am honored to have "Cool Papa Bell" in it!

Available at https://downandoutbooks.com/bookstore/pachter-paranoia-blues/

And on Amazon HERE

31 May 2023

A Thousand Stories Deep


Not the author

I mentioned last time that my wife and I are archaeology buffs.  This led to us spending part of April on the island of Crete, our second tour of Greece.  And that trip got me thinking about stories.  No surprise, right?

I wrote one story on the trip (a little piece of flash fiction) and came up with two ideas for other tales which may or may not get finished.  But what I really want to talk about is the relationship between storytelling and archaeology.

Someone in the field once told me "an archaeologist is someone who can dig a square hole and tell a story about it." The second part is important because the contents of the hole do not speak for themselves.  Whatever you find needs to be interpreted, or "read."

An Evans rebuild.

Of course, the relationship is more complex than that.  Many people enter the field because of their fascination with certain stories. Crete provides excellent examples.

No doubt you are familiar with the story of Theseus fighting the Minotaur in a labyrinth.  That story is set in Knossos, the capital of ancient Crete, but  it is not a Cretan story.  Theseus is the hero of Athens and that is where the story comes from.

But it led Sir Arthur Evans, a British archaeologist, to go to the island in hopes of exploring the legendary site of Knossos. He bought the land and spent more than three decades digging up the Minoan palace there.

Evans called them "Horns of Consecration"

I should actually say "Minoan" "palace."  Our guide put air quotes around those words every time he used them.  

You see, Evans called the civilization of which Knossos is an example Minoan because King Minos was supposedly the king who was stepdaddy to the Minotaur.  We have no idea what the people actually called themselves.

And as for palace, well, a palace is a big building where royalty live.  What Evans found at Knossos appears to have been an administrative complex with large meeting rooms and storage chambers (for food supplies?), and no sign of residential space.  As our guide said, "Nobody lives at city hall." The same holds true for the other large Minoan sites on the island.  

Evans recreates a doorway

But Evans had a story to tell and tell it he did.  He decided he knew what the "palace" looked like and he reconstructed parts of it, right there on the ruins.  Today even suggesting doing this would get you kicked out of the archaeology biz.  The pictures you see here are Evans' guesses as to what the place looked like 3500 years ago. 

Now let's move to another Minoan palace (please assume I put in the quote marks) at Phaistos.  The diggers there were careful not to rebuild it according to their dreams.  In fact, where they had to make repairs they put dates on their work to avoid confusion.

Phaistos Disc, Heraklion Museum.

Nevertheless we have a very strange story there.  Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier was managing the site in 1908.  Here is the story the way my guide (an archaeologist) tells it.  Wikipedia has a different version.

Pernier suffered from an archaeologist's nightmare scenario: He left the site for a few hours.  When he came back his workers showed him a box they found while unsupervised, containing an assortment of objects whose origin covered more than a thousand years, from the Minoan era to the Romans.  One item was like nothing that anyone had seen before: the so-called Phaistos Disc.  It is a piece of fired clay about six inches in diameter, embossed on both sides with symbols.  No one knows what they mean.  

And notice one symbol that appears on the disc exactly once.  Tell me that doesn't look like a flying saucer!

Is the disc real?  Is it a forgery?  (And if so, a modern one or possibly dating all the way back to the Romans?)  Opinions vary. Think of all the stories you can write about that mess...

And here's one more object begging to be explained.  This kouros (boy) statue was found in a site called Palaikastro.  It's another unicorn - meaning nothing else like it has been found, but no one denies that it is authentic.  The context and condition convinces the scientists that someone grabbed it by the legs and smashed it against a stone.  In the name of the gods, why?  You could get a whole book of stories out of that.

One final thought: If this sort of thing interests you I recommend you read Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox.  It tells the true story of the three scholars who, over a forty year struggle, deciphered Linear B, a script of the Mycenean age that was first found on Crete.  Imagine translating a text when you have never before seen the symbols it is written in, and have no idea what language is being transcribed.

Now that's what I call a mystery.