20 January 2022

Bloody Scotland


 My dad's reaction to genealogy ranged between dismissal and fantasy. When I was quite small, I remember asking him about our more distant relatives. "Horse and cattle thieves," he said promptly. That, with the addition of the detail that three of his four grandparents had lived into their nineties, was the sum total of his genealogical information until, years later, assisting our son with a school project, he invented Don Alonzo Law, surviver of the Spanish Armada, to account for the "Iberian Influence" in Scotland and for our dark hair and eyes.

Well, a grain of truth in both cases, as there was a prehistoric connection with the Iberian peninsula, and the Laws were lowland people originally and probably engaged in one way or the other with the long unrest between Scotland and England. 

Whether or not Dad's throwaway remark was a sign of my future career in literary crime, I was certainly not surprised when Scandinavian Noir was followed a few years later with the recognition of what wags called " Tartan Noir." Far from being a late comer to the mystery game, Scotland had long played an important role in the development of our favorite genre.

Consider that the world's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, was not only written by Edinburgh-born and bred Arthur Conan Doyle, but was inspired by one of Doyle's medical school professors, Joseph Bell. Add Robert Louis Stevenson, who, besides historical thrillers, wrote the greatest of all supernatural mysteries, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His slightly later countryman, John Buchan, helped create the modern thriller with The thirty-nine Steps, while working in government service, including a stint as Governor General of Canada.

All three have had important successors. Ian Rankin and Val McDermid are probably best known to Tartan Noir fans, but they are not alone on the evidence of Bloody Scotland, a recent anthology edited by James Crawford, publisher at Historic Environment Scotland, a heritage organization in charge of some 300 sites and buildings. The anthology presents an interesting group of mystery writers, Scots and a few of what my Aberdonian relatives would call Sassanachs: English who write about or in Scotland. 

Most of the usual suspects are included with the exceptions of Rankin, Kate Atkinson and Alexander McCall Smith. Each writer has taken one of the organization's properties, ranging from pre-historic Mousa Broch in the Shetlands (Anne Cleeves naturally) to The Forth Bridge (Doug Johnstone) and Edinburgh Castle (Denise Mina – a truly terrifying story). 

Because the structuring device of the anthology is architectural and archeological rather than thematic, Bloody Scotland gives an unusual range of styles and types of stories.

We do have a revenge tale and a rather unusual serial killer, but we also get a glimpse of Viking life, a contemporary fellow coming undone, a frighteningly feral child, a murder at an early textile plant, and what is probably the closest one can come to a comic hostage taking.

As a result the mood ranges from gruesome to understated with plenty of stylistic variety. Historic Environment Scotland probably conceived this volume as a fundraiser, and there is certainly a story for just about every taste. Including the frankly antiquarian. 

It will not spoil Craig Robertson's "The Twa Corbies of Cardross" to say it references a work in one of Scotland's earlier claims to literature: the famous border ballads. Sir Walter Scott collected many of these and published them in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, first edition 1802. That puts "Twa Corbies" (Two Ravens), an account of a murder in a handful of stanzas, a few centuries ahead of Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

Robertson updates this stark little ditty and recasts it in prose but he keeps the two ravens, big carrion-feeding corvids for the non-birder, showing that in our genre, at least, there's always a place for a good plot and good detectives.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.

19 January 2022

Go Poe! Yo ho ho!



  Joyous felicitations of the season.  I wish all of you a happy Edgar Allan Poe's birthday!  He entered this world of wonders on January 19, 1809.  I trust that in his honor today you will all do something appropriately Poe-ish, such as:

* Marry your thirteen-year-old cousin.

* Become a champion broad-jumper.

* Get court-martialed out of West Point.

* Inspire Robert Louis Stevenson to write Treasure Island, thereby becoming godfather to what everyone imagines is the way pirates spoke. 

* Apply for a position as a customs official and then fail to show up for the interview.

* Write the only poem to inspire the name of a professional football team.

* Join the army and become a sergeant major, the highest  rank available to a non-commissioned  officer.

* Be the author of 425 movies, according to IMDB

* Drop out of college due to insufficient funds.  (This may be the easiest item on the list for modern Americans.)

* Get fired from an editing job for drunkenness.


* Write an essay that seems to describe the Big Bang Theory, eighty years before it was formally explained. 

* Die at age 40 after being found wandering around Baltimore in someone else's clothes.

* Be slandered as a madman in your obituary by a rival who also became your literary executor. 

Or if all that seem like too much hassle, how about this easy one?

* Invent a genre of literature that is still going strong 170 years after your death, and have its major award named in your honor.  (And congratulations to everyone who was nominated for an Edgar today!)

Happy 213th, Eddy.  You don't look a day over 200.

18 January 2022

My American Project – Where does the story take place?


Dutch author Anne van Doorn first joined us back in August. He is a regular reader and commentator here at SleuthSayers. He's also a friend of mine. I'm pleased to share his guest column with you today.
— Barb Goffman

My American Project – Where does the story take place?

 by Anne van Doorn

When I challenged myself to write a mystery novel in American English, I confronted myself with an important question: where will my story take place? Most writers would recommend staying on familiar ground. Write about what you know. I’ve followed that advice for over twenty years. Many of my stories are set in the area where I live, in the Netherlands.

However, I discovered that few people outside this area are interested in stories taking place here. At least, bookstore owners elsewhere don’t sell my books. National newspapers don’t pay attention to them—and my country is roughly the size of New Jersey. I honestly don’t think anyone would be interested in a mystery novel set in my area, written in American English. That’s just too…outlandish.

However, write about what you know is solid advice. That's why I’ve decided to set my story in the only part of the United States I’ve ever visited: Manhattan, a borough of New York City. Even though it has been ten years ago now, in April 2011, I still have vivid memories of my time there. I have many photos and some video footage to refresh my memory. I stayed near the UN Headquarters, in a small apartment in the New York Tower on East 39th Street, just off First Avenue. I walked the streets, traveled on the subway, rode the avenues and streets, and saw many places, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New Amsterdam Theatre to see Mary Poppins the Musical. Central Park was like a magnet to me.

The advantages

My choice for Manhattan offers, in addition to my experiences, some advantages. First and foremost, everyone around the world knows New York, whether they have visited the city or not. It’s easy for a reader to imagine the place. We’ve all seen pictures of the high-rises, the avenues, the bridges spanning the East River and the Hudson. I don’t choose New York to gain a readership there, but for everybody’s familiarity with it. The readers who love the kind of story I want to write—the whodunit—will recognize the city in their mind’s eye.

A second advantage is that New York City is a town of immigrants and ex-pats. For me, as a Dutchman, it would be difficult to write convincingly about Americans in the rural parts of the country. New York City, however, is a melting pot of nationalities and cultures. Perhaps portraying the main character with European roots—a first- or second-generation American—is easier. If he behaves in a non-American way, it’s easy to understand why. Besides, didn’t Agatha Christie have huge success with her novels about a Belgian refugee living in England? And what about our very own Josh Pachter? Didn’t he write stories about Mahboob Chaudri, a Pakistani working as police officer in Bahrain? I think he did that convincingly—an inspiring example!

A third advantage: there are tons of information on the internet: photos, videos, and firsthand experiences, including about a place I once stayed. Visiting Google Maps allows me to read dozens of reviews written by people living there. Did you know there are dead cockroaches in the laundry room? And the elevators are consistently out of order. That’s what the reviews say, at least. Oh, the internet is a voyeuristic delight!

And last but not least, wasn’t Manhattan once a colony of the Netherlands? I think it’s appropriate to firmly plant a Dutch flag on New York soil, again!

 Discovering the city

I haven’t decided yet what part of Manhattan I'll use as a base for my American Project. But what I could already do is study how other writers portray the city and its police force. I don’t think I will fool the New Yorker into believing I’m one of them, but I want to get as close as possible.

Since I started working on the American Project, I’ve read and learned from the Rex Stout and Ellery Queen books. What strikes me is that their descriptions of the city are scarce. But with only a few of them, they conjure up recognizable images. I think that’s the way to go, as I want to write a plot-oriented story—definitely not a travel guide!

On my TBR-pile are books about New York that will help me discover interesting places. In this regard, my friends, I can do with recommendations. Which book should I buy to get to know New York? What websites are worth checking out? Do you know a YouTube channel that shows Manhattan as it is: the good, the bad, the ugly?

17 January 2022

Next to Last Step


I always read my work aloud as the last step in my editing/revision, but there's one last step I take before that. It's the "Readability Statistics" in the review menu of Microsoft word. When I "Review" with "spelling and grammar check," this chart appears after I've made or ignored all the corrections. This is after my final pass-through on the most recent Woody Guthrie novel, Words of Love.

We see a word count, character (letter) count, sentence count, paragraphs, sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and characters (letters) per word. I don't pay much attention to these, but Microsoft uses them to determine the values below them: Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level. The grade level is in grade and months as a decimal : 7.3 means seventh-grade, third month.

The Reading ease is the percentage of readers at that grade level who can understand that passage. Basically, long sentences and long words are harder to understand, especially if they appear in a long paragraph. My average paragraph is probably five or six sentences. But sometimes, you want something longer.

This is the same tool applied to a long paragraph at the beginning of the late Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, which tells how she rebuilt her life after both her husband and grown daughter died unexpectedly within months of each other. John Gregory Dunne suffered a heart attack, and she called 911.

This paragraph is 310 words, or 23 sentences long, more what I think of as Henry James or James Joyce terrain. You could "correctly" divide it into several shorter ones, but Didion uses one long paragraph to show how the events and her thoughts jumble in a huge confusing rush. Her last understated sentence wraps everything up like a hammer blow to the chest.

That long paragraph is short words, averaging four characters each, and 13 words per sentence. It works out to fifth-grade-seventh-month reading level, and 77.9 % of readers at that level being able to understand it.

Reading level is somewhat arbitrary. It uses the number of syllables in a 100-word sample to measure level with no regard to content. Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time occasionally sounds like My Weekly Reader because the text tries to reduce complex math and quantum physics to layman's terms.

All of this is interesting, but SO WHAT? Well, look at the last statistic on the chart. I care about it because it shows how your writing will "sound." It's the percentage of PASSIVE verbs in your selection. Didion's is 8.6, which is very high, but it's appropriate because she is powerless in the scene, at the mercy of forces beyond her control. Strunk and White say to use the active rather than the passive voice, but Strunk made that same distinction.

My novels are usually at about a 4th grade reading level (It doesn't sound dumb, trust me) and I strive for no more than 2% passive verbs. Summaries and shorter selections tend to be higher. Most of my blogs are more, but I can live with it. For fun, type about 200 words from Hemingway, Crane, King, Fitzgerald, Lippman, Rozan, or Child into your computer and see what their stats are.

The newer Microsoft programs include the readability stats in the review. If you have an older Microsoft program, you can add that command in your editing. I'm not sure you can do it with a MAC, because I've never used one. Here's how:

Click on the little carat to the right of your command icons, and you'll see the drop-down menu. Click on the top line "customize quick access toolbar." (Picture on the left).

Then highlight "More commands," at the bottom of the drop-down list. That's the picture below this paragraph.

When you choose "More commands," you'll get another screen with "quick access toolbar" highlighted, and a long list of commands to the right of that.

At the top of that list, the picture below this paragraph, you'll see "popular commands." Click on the arrow to the right of it, and you'll get three choices. Click on "All Commands."

This is what you'll see, a very long list. Scroll down to Readability Statistics (It may have a new name now, Microsoft keeps changing it, so I have to look for it every time I get a new computer. It might be Reading View Research now, or something else).

When you find it, highlight it, then click "Add," the button in the middle between the two columns. The command will appear in the right hand column, which is the commands you use, and you're ready to go.

Obviously, since this is a computer program and we all use idioms in our writing, it's not foolproof. But I like to have a sense of how active or passive a work is before I do the final read-through-aloud. If I see a lot of passive verbs, I make a point of changing some to active. I don't take the reading level too seriously because it's so arbitrary. Once upon a time, the New York Times read at about a tenth-grade level, but that was decades ago. I have no idea what it– or any other publication– reads at now.

The stats give me a sense of how my writing SOUNDS, and that's crucial to me. I want it to sound like a human voice speaking.

Remember Elmore Leonard's rule: If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

16 January 2022

Company Town, Part 1


A staple of Westerns features small towns embroiled in takeovers by criminal gangs or religious cults or power-hungry land/cattle/mining/oil/railroad barons not above skulduggery, the Greek tragedies of our era: Giant, Billy Jack, There Will Be Blood, Dallas, Yellowstone. Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood crafted the movie subgenera into a cottage industry.

In modern times, we need look no further than Florida. Numerous developers and con artists have molded lands into their image. Some built monuments to themselves… literally castles. Roughly a dozen castles (including Cinderella’s) dot the Florida landscape. Two infamous local examples have been torched with redneck lightning in recent years, Glenn W Turner’s Turner Castle in Winter Park and the scandalous Mikey Busey’s Sausage Castle in St. Cloud. (Home of Sharon, who prompted this two-part series by sending me the following CIA article.)

Sanibel postcard

Sanibel

Friends in Minnesota loved vacationing on Sanibel Island, which was the extent of my knowledge at the time. It gives new meaning to ‘company town’, assuming you’re au fait with espionage parlance.

I confess I wasn’t familiar with author Randy Wayne White’s Marion ‘Doc’ Ford series. The protagonist is a marine biologist and not-so-retired former spy based in– you guessed it– Sanibel.

It turns out the island is loaded with former spies including some brought out of retirement from time to time. And when backed into a corner by county commissioners, they came out fighting. They built this city, not so much brick by brick, but with legal filings: “Don’t condo our island, you snot-wipes!”

So enjoy the article before we move on.

Stereotyping an Article

The COVID quarantine has taught me something about myself– I’m a mystery character cliché. The forced alone-time drives some people crazy, but others thrive. I’m one of the latter– solitude suits me. Roots probably extend back to childhood where plowing and planting, haying and harvesting, feeding, milking and mucking didn’t provide time or proximity to people. And it stuck.

But it worries me. The age line is very fine between solitude guy and crazy old coot.

Live on a boat, live on a secluded island, for me that’s paradise. As delineated below, one person’s heaven is another man’s hell.

15 January 2022

A Hundred a Day, and Expenses



A funny thing happened to me three years ago: I wrote my first contemporary private-eye story. At that point I'd been writing short stories for 25 years, mostly mystery/crime/suspense, but during that time I'd written and published only two PI stories--both of them about an investigator with an office in San Francisco in the 1880s. In other words, Westerns. I'm not sure why I had avoided 20th- and 21st-century PIs; I love puzzles of every kind, and I'd certainly read and seen a lot of fictional private detectives in novels, stories, movies, and TV--Holmes, Poirot, McGee, Spade, Hammer, Spenser, Robicheaux, Mannix, Magnum, Rockford, Millhone, Scudder, Marlowe, etc. Looking back on it now, I wonder if I was afraid of falling into the trap of using too many old and tired PI cliches. I didn't want to only create dark and moody stories with cheap offices, trenchcoats, cigarettes, AA meetings, whacks on the noggin from behind, helpful buddies on the police force, and grieving-widow clients. That's the only reason I can come up with, for not attempting stories closer to the present day.

What finally forced me further into the subgenre was an invitation from writer/editor/friend Michael Bracken in early 2019, or thereabouts, to write a story for a PI anthology called The Eyes of Texas (one of the best double-meaning titles I'd ever heard). As I recall, the only firm requirement, except for some length guidelines, was that the story's protagonist had to be a private investigator in the Lone Star State. I figured I should be able to handle that. 

The whole process turned out to be fun. I quickly came up with a plot I liked, and made sure my hero--although he did have a pretty crappy office--wasn't a drunk, didn't run around in an overcoat and a bad mood, didn't smoke, wasn't a womanizer, had no ex-partners to fall back on in the PD, and had a client who was neither widowed nor grieving. He wasn't a wimp, though; he did have a moral code, and carried a gun that he used a few times in the plot. The story was called "Triangles," which sort of had a triple meaning, and the anthology was published in September 2019, just in time for the Dallas Bouchercon. 

Since then, I've written and sold PI short stories to several magazines and anthologies. Two contemporary stories in the same "series" were published in Black Cat Mystery Magazine (two years ago) and in Strand Magazine (last month), and two more in that series are finished and yet to be submitted. Also, a standalone story featuring a 1940s PI in New Orleans has been accepted and is upcoming in a themed anthology later this year, another with a '60s Detroit PI is scheduled for a second anthology, and I'm now working on a Prohibition PI story set in the early '30s for an antho with a May deadline. And I've found that all of these have been great fun to put together, in a way that's somehow different from my usual mystery/crime writing.

What's your history with PI stories/novels? Have you written or published any? Are any planned or in the works? If you do write them, are they usually installments in a series? If short stories, are they targeted for magazines or for anthologies? Were you, like me, hesitant at first to try that subgenre? Have you had any luck with them at the top mystery markets?

As a writer with dim but enjoyable memories of private-eye TV shows like Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond and 77 Sunset Strip (I'm humming that theme music now), I can't leave this subject without mentioning favorite PI movies. My top six are, in order: Chinatown (1974), Knives Out (2019), Harper (1966), Night Moves (1975), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Twilight (1998). 

How can you not love PIs? Sure, the daily fees have gone up, over the years, and the expenses too, but their strange adventures remain fun to read, and watch. And write about.

In closing, here's a silly poem of mine that was published in the Spring/Summer 1997 issue of Mystery Time, a magazine some of you might remember. It's called "A Public Look at Private Eyes":


Most fictional private detectives are men

(And are always unmarried, of course); 

They have rugged last names and a grumpy old friend

Who's a homicide cop on the force.


They're hit on the head every chapter or two

But they suffer no lasting effects,

And survive gunshot wounds that would kill me or you

While they spellbind the Opposite Sex.


Though they never earn much, PIs always have cash

To persuade some informant to leak

More strange and enlightening clues in a flash

Than the cops could obtain in a week.


Knowing that, our detective will often proceed

To the villain's mysterious lair,

Where he's captured, along with his romantic lead

(Don't ask me what she's doing there).


But all's well--the old pal in the local PD

Will at last come to help save the day;

For the heroes aren't killed off in fiction, you see--

Like the cops, sequels aren't far away.


And neither am I. See you in two weeks.



14 January 2022

When to set a story


The six series characters I write about are set in different times, from the 1880s through today. The fast pace of things today with science and technology and the evolution of humans from the slower-paced 20th Century to the run-amok 21st Century, I find myself preferring to write stories and novels set back in time. The research needed to write stories set in the 19th Century is time consuming but keeps me focused on the characters and the story rather than what's happening today.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, it took me a while to write a story set around that time. Janet Hutchings at Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine inspired me to write a Katrina story for EQMM's Salute to New Orleans Issue (Vol. 128, No 5, Nov 2006). It was a dynamite issue and I was happy to see my story in it.

I've written a few Katrina and Hurricane Rita stories after. Eight years after Katrina, I finally wrote a Katrina novel – City of Secrets (2013). Needed time to reflect.

Which is why I have written nothing about the pandemic and don't plan to anytime soon. Y'all can to that and I see many of you have done a good job with it.

Which brings me to the topic of this piece – when to set a story.

Editor Malcolm Cowley explained the four stages of writing a story:

1. The Germ of the Story where the idea for the story inspires a writer

2. The Conscious Meditation where the writer thinks of a way to present the story

3. The First Draft where the writer writes the story

4. The Rewrite where the writer gets it right 

When a writer like me gets inspired, I need to figure which character is right for the story. And just as importantly, when do I set the story. A product of the last half of the 20th Century, I am more comfortable writing about that time. I know the people (I am one) and what was going on then. My history degree helps me go back in time with my stories set in the 19th Century.

I'll probably still write stuff set in the 21st Century but the main characters with not be Gen X or Millenials. For sure, dude.

Side Note:

The sculpture Mackenzie, a product of my artist/sculptor son and the LSU School of Art, stood in our front yard since 2011. We used it on the cover of City of Secrets.

Mackenzie was destroyed last year by Hurricane Ida when she blew a large sweetgum tree across our yard.



Hey, the tree trunk missed our house at least.

That's all for now.

www.oneildenoux.com