16 December 2018

No Good Deed
Goes Unpublished

by Leigh Lundin

I detest being lied to, I really do. Worse, I sometimes can’t tell when I’m lied to. Take the following case in which a tenant spun fanciful stories I found all too believable. Eventually, her tales grew so fantastic, they gave even me pause. The fact women could see through her when I couldn’t gave me greater appreciation. It’s undoubtedly the reason female defendants prefer all-male (and very gullible) juries.

Come to think of it, I had a problem with a previous tenant, a stripper who’d wrap males around her little finger. Those problems came to a close when a female deputy, immune to her abundant charms, took her in hand.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, I discovered my internal lie-detector is broken.

The Never-Ending (First) Storey

After 22 months, I’ve finally succeeded in an eviciton. Almost… the deputy hasn’t yet executed the Writ of Possession, so it’s still possible the tenant may pull off another coup.

Part of it’s my own fault– I was out of state for lengthy periods. The tenant fought vacating the property with everything she had. I’d been contracting kitchen and bathroom renovations– new oak cabinets, new granite counters renters might find hard to damage, and new flooring. This coincided with Hurricane Irma (life in Florida’s defined by hurricanes) and subcontractors proved hard to find.

Peculiarly, replacing cabinets and counters requires four distinct kinds of workmen and ne’er the twain shall meet. Cabinet installers won’t work with electrical, plumbing, or (shudder) cabinet tops. The granite and marble people won’t touch electrical, plumbing, or God forbid, cabinets. Needless the say, electricians and plumbers don’t handle the other stuff either.

The tenant disliked that I was permanently removing the garbage disposal, a practice I began long ago thanks to abuse by renters. Mats of hair and buckets of bacon grease don’t work well inside pipes… and disposals. Tenant insisted a garbage grinder, along with air, water, and cable television, constituted an essential part of basic human rights.

We also underwent a conflict with the dishwasher. I don’t know why, but I’ve had more than one tenant who eschew using dishwashers. The machines need to be used every week or so to keep seals moist and the mechanism working. In this case, the tenant wanted to store dishes in her machine and complained about water pooled around the central pump.

I explained that was normal; she disagreed. She argued it was a health hazard. What might happen, she said, if water should leap out on the floor. I know, I know– weird, huh. I stated I’d much rather she follow the terms of the lease by changing air conditioning filters once a month so our new a/c wouldn’t break down and maybe dump water on the floor.

As the lease was expiring, new cabinets went in, new counters went in, wiring was finished, and new plumbing… never happened. Plumber A reported he tried several times to schedule an appointment and she refused. Plumber B reported he tried several times to schedule an appointment and she refused. WTF? as the blogger wrote.

Hook, Line, and Sink

Most strangely, the original kitchen sink and its new faucet went missing. Oh, said the tenant, the cabinet people put it on the curb for trash pickup. WTF? The tenant claimed installers wouldn’t put discarded cabinets on the curb, but they specifically toted out the sink?

We wouldn’t do that, said the cabinet folks. We wouldn’t do that, said the granite people. Both said the tenant told them not to reuse the sink and faucet.

Belatedly sensing I’d been lied to, I asked the tenant if her boyfriend/caretaker took the sink and faucet for his flea market business. Lo, a miracle happened. Said boyfriend found a matching sink complete with identical faucet on a neighborhood curb and brought it home, too late, of course, to be inset and sealed by the counter workmen.

Trashing in Public

The homeowner’s association complained about junk in the front yard. The cabinet installers said the tenant told them not to put the old cabinets and refuse on the curb. Once again, WTF?

The tenant told me HUD Section 8 called in her friends in Code Enforcement, aka the decorating police. That seemed peculiar since the house recently passed inspection predicated upon finishing the plumbing.

The tenant told me the electric company turned off the power because her electrical cords were sparking and she needed new light bulbs. I explained I kindly replaced bulbs during my visits, but electrical cords, light bulbs, and taking out the trash were the tenant’s responsibility, as explained in the lease. The tenant disagreed.

In fact, the tenant disagreed so much she stopped paying rent. Ma’am, I said, you can’t live here if you don’t pay rent. The tenant disagreed.

The tenant announced I’ve been such a bad landlord, lightbulbs didn’t work, the electrical cord for her television didn’t work, the garbage disposal didn’t work and, thanks to unfinished plumbing, the kitchen sink didn’t work. Oh, and according to her, Code Enforcement was coming after me for all of the above plus piles of trash in the yard. You try make me move, she said. She own my ass. Her friends want her to sue me, she said, but she tell them I’m a nice man. Bad landlord, but nice man.

Tenant for months refused to take my calls. Tenant also refused the property manager’s calls. The property manager, a wise woman I trust, told me the tenant had been lying her ass off to me.

I posted 3-day rent notices and 7-day notices to cure. The latter included an extensive list of property and lease violations, much of it related to her boyfriend/caretaker wrecking the back yard and cutting down trees from a lovely grove to further his lawnmower, appliance, and car engine repair business.

Tenant complained I’m such a bad landlord, the air conditioner no longer works. She claimed Section 8 called in Code Enforcement yet again because shower heads went missing. Likewise, electrical switch plates disappeared. A tiny corner of linoleum under the cabinets’ kickplate curled ever so minutely, constituting a dastardly dangerous hazard to life and limb. If I took her to court, she said she’d bring Code Enforcement, whom mortals fear more than Lord Voldemort on a bad hair day.

As a landlord, as a male, I’ve learned to be leery. My reasons not to visit an XX chromosome tenant alone are a little different from persnickety Mike Pence’s, but it pays to be cautious. This time I took my friend Geri. After that meeting, she said, “I’m too much of a Southern lady to say she’s lying, but she doesn’t have a Godly relationship with the truth.”

For the first time we learned Section 8 was paying for another apartment in a nice downtown building while simultaneously hanging onto my property with all her devious might.

I’d divined two reasons the tenant refused to move. She’d piled the house full of her treasures from hoarding. The living room housed a half dozen washers and dryers from her boyfriend’s business, suggesting another primary reason for clinging to the property. Where would he house and practice his lawnmower and appliance repair business?

Geri, a teacher, figured out a third and possible principal reason. By keeping my address, she was able to keep her girls in the well-regarded school next door, and not send them to the inner city school that went along with her new apartment. In Florida, enrolling children in schools outside the tax district is considered fraud.

The property manager, using a different phone number, made one last stab at getting the tenant out, specifying a cutoff date. The tenant refused but, armed with the our target date, phoned me the morning of.

“Are you really going to court today?”

“This afternoon, yes, I am. You have a final chance to leave quietly.”

Unsurprisingly, she declined, but phoned me minutes before I departed for the courthouse.

She said, “I slipped and fell. The lawyers for the clinic want an initial $50,000 to treat me.”

“What? Where? How did you fall?”

“In the kitchen, that curled piece of linoleum.”

“How could your toe reach it? It’s under the cabinets. Did a seizure cause the fall? Wait… Lawyers for the clinic? Don’t you have Medicare or Medicaid?”

“Yes, but I no use it for this. I need $50,000.”

“Convenient it happens on the day I file the paperwork.”

“Did I say today? I mean recently, since I saw you last.”

“After you were asked to leave?”

“Maybe a year ago, yes, that’s it. You know my seizures cause memory problems.”

“Last year after your lease expired and you were supposed to move out?”

“I mean two years ago, yes, two years.”

Instead of filing that day, I made an appointment to see a lawyer. He said dryly, “A surprising number of slip ’n’ falls happen during evictions. If she persists, come back and see me.”

A-Courting We Will Go

Finally, I spent a small pot of money to fund the eviction in court. The clerk of court’s rules lay out four requirements a tenant must follow to contest an eviction.

My tenant did none of them.

Instead, she wrote a 37-page letter to the judge that was shielded from public view (including my own) under a lock called VoR… view on request. That meant I had to execute a number of steps including a notarized affidavit and then wait for the clerk to determine if I was a deserving lad allowed to read it. When I finally found I could peep at it, all I could download was the first page. (The judge later kindly explained the remaining 36 pages were made up of letters and notices from various government agencies.) Curiously, that first page contained yet another version of the slip ’n’ fall, this time in the bathroom on a wet floor caused by a missing shower head.

At the end of page 1, the tenant made an innovative argument that the landlord owes her money for taking care of the property for him.

The morning of the hearing, my friend Thrush suggested I drive by the property to photograph the tenant’s trash. To my surprise, a white cargo van and a large trailer sat parked in front, doors open for loading. Another friend snapped photos for me.

With friends and witnesses, Darlene and Geri, I girded our loins and set forth to wage righteous battle in the courthouse.

I hardly said a word. I didn’t need to.

The judge was a smart lady, very, very astute. She asked the tenant and her boyfriend/caretaker if they still lived at my rental address.

The tenant said no, she’d moved to a new apartment paid for by Section 8. The judge cocked an eye at me.

I said, “As we speak, Judge, a cargo van and extended trailer are loading goods from the house. I brought photos.”

The tenant hadn’t expected that. Quite unconscious of her previous contention, she proceeded to justify why she still lived at my address, mainly that I was a bad landlord but, she insisted, she didn’t live there.

“Did you give the landlord the keys?” asked the judge.

“No, I changed the locks. He’s a bad landlord. He won’t take our trash to the curb and…”

Time and again, the judge brought her back to the subject at hand. “So you do live there?”

“No, Your Honor, I just stay here so my girls can go to school. I keep it as my residence.” (Geri nailed the student residency issue.) “And Mr Leigh complains about our cutting trees down and he don’t want my boyfriend, I mean caretaker, working no more on cars and lawnmowers and he no fix my light bulbs and plumbing and he took away my disposal and I slip on the wet kitchen floor and I no wear my arm sling in public but I hurt my wrist and no use my Medicare so I call Code Enforcement who say he’s a bad landlord and…”

The tenant had just told yet another version of slip ’n’ fall. I wondered if the judge caught the differences between her testimony and the version she gave the judge in the letter. I need not have worried.

“Stop.” The judge made the basketball timeout T-signal. “I find you do live there.”

“No, Your Honor, He’s mean to say that. I only…”

“Stop right there. I’m granting the plaintiff a Write of Possession.”

“How long does that give me before I move, Your Honor?” asked the tenant.

“Once a deputy executes it, you have 24-hours to depart.” With the upcoming weekend plus assignment to a deputy, the tenant had a few days grace period.

The unhappy tenants departed.

As I packed up, the judge leaned to the clerk and said, “That woman lied from the moment she opened her mouth and didn’t stop. I hate being lied to.”

Damn, every woman sensed her lying. Score: Women 6, Leigh 0. I’m not a bad landlord, but I am a terrible lie detector.

Oh, wanna buy a house? Sandwiched between two schools, it’s a great rental unit.

15 December 2018

A Series Conversation


by John M. Floyd



Today's column is about reading and writing. On the reading side, I've lately found myself reading more novels than short stories, for some reason, and more standalone novels than series installments. Some novel series, though, are close to my heart, and when I discover new ones that I enjoy, I usually buy every book in the series and consume them like a chain-smoker, lighting another from the butt of the one I just finished and forging ahead until I'm done. Sort of like watching those maddeningly addictive Netflix and Amazon Prime series. (I just started on the latest season of Westworld.)


The reading list

Not that it matters, but here are twenty of my absolute favorite novel series:

1. character: John Corey -- author: Nelson DeMille
Plum Island, The Lion's Game, Night Fall, Wild Fire, The Lion, The Panther, etc.

2. Jack Reacher -- Lee Child
Killing Ground, Die Trying, Trip Wire, The Visitor, Echo Burning, Without Fail, Persuader, The Enemy, One Shot, etc.

3. Hap Collins and Leonard Pine -- Joe R. Lansdale
Savage Season, Mucho Mojo, The Two-Bear Mambo, Bad Chili, Rumble Tumble, Captains Outrageous, Vanilla Ride, etc.

4. Gus McCrea and Woodrow Call -- Larry McMurtry
Dead Man's Walk, Comanche Moon, Lonesome Dove, Streets of Laredo

5. Hannibal Lecter -- Thomas Harris
Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Hannibal Rising

6. Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch -- Robert B. Parker (and successor Robert Knott)
Appaloosa, Resolution, Brimstone, Blue-Eyed Devil, Ironhorse, Bull River, The Bridge, Blackjack, etc.

7. Roland Deschain (the Dark Tower series) -- Stephen King
The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizards and Glass, etc.

8. Penn Cage -- Greg Iles
The Quiet Game, Turning Angel, The Devil's Punchbowl, Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree, etc.

9. Arkady Renko -- Martin Cruz Smith
Gorky Park, Polar Star, Red Square, Havana Bay, Wolves Eat Dogs, Stalin's Ghost, etc.

10. Anna Pigeon -- Nevada Barr
Track of the Cat, A Superior Death, Ill Wind, Firestorm, Endangered Species, Blind Descent, etc.

11. Spenser -- Robert B. Parker (and successor Ace Atkins)
The Godwulf Manuscript, God Save the Child, Mortal Stakes, Promised Land, The Judas Goat, etc.

12. Stephanie Plum -- Janet Evanovich
One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly, Four to Score, High Five, Hot Six, etc.

13. Myron Bolitar -- Harlan Coben
Deal Breaker, Drop Shot, Fade Away, Back Spin, One False Move, The Final Detail, etc.

14. Jason Bourne -- Robert Ludlum
The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum

15. Jesse Stone -- Robert B. Parker (and successors Michael Brandman and Reed Farrell Coleman)
Night Passage, Trouble in Paradise, Death in Paradise, Stone Cold, Sea Change, High Profile, etc.

16. Lucas Davenport -- John Sandford
Rules of Prey, Shadow Prey, Eyes of Prey, Silent Prey, Winter Prey, Night Prey, Mind Prey, etc.

17. Dave Robicheaux -- James Lee Burke
The Neon Rain, Heaven's Prisoners, Black Cherry Blues, A Morning for Flamingos, A Stained White Radiance, etc.

18. Alex Cross -- James Patterson
Along Came a Spider, Kiss the Girls, Jack and Jill, Cat and Mouse, Pop Goes the Weasel, Roses Are Red, etc.

19. Katniss Everdeen -- Susanne Collins
The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay

20. Travis McGee -- John D. MacDonald
The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, The Quick Red Fox, A Deadly Shade of Gold, etc.

NOTE: I didn't like all the film adaptations of these series--some were great and some were disasters--but that's another matter, and a post for another day.

And yes, I left out Rowling, Connelly, Chandler, Hammett, Christie, Doyle, Clancy, le Carre, McBain, Forsyth, Larsson, Wouk, Paretsky, Wambaugh, Westlake, Leonard, Tolkien, Follett, and many, many others whose series novels I've truly enjoyed. But I had to stop somewhere.


The writing list

Meanwhile, on the writing side of things--and on a much smaller scale, in both wordcount and dollarbillcount--I have tried to use what I've learned about series and series characters to write five different series of my own short stories. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Angela Potts and Charles "Chunky" Jones

This series is about a bossy retired schoolteacher and a guy she taught in the fifth grade, a lazy and not-too-bright kid who grew up to be the lazy and not-too-bright sheriff of their small southern town. She enjoys helping him with cases, correcting his grammar in front of his deputies, and stealing goodies from the candy jar in his office. Most of these stories have been published in Woman's World magazine.

2. Fran and Lucy Valentine (the "Law and Daughter" series)

In this series of stories, former teacher Frances Valentine feels it's her duty to help her happily unmarried daughter Lucy, who's a sheriff, (1) solve crimes and (2) find a husband. One of these appeared in Woman's World several years ago, but most have been published in Flash Bang Mysteries, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Mysterical-E, and Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine.

3. Private investigator Will Parker

This Old West series stars a former gunfighter/Pinkerton agent who now works for a PI firm run by his brother in San Francisco. The first story in this series, "Redemption," appeared in a 2013 collection of my mystery stories called Deception; the second story, "Gun Work," was chosen for the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes From Sea to Shining Sea (Down and Out Books) and was later selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2018. (By the way, this might not qualify as a series, since it so far consists of one story and its sequel. But I do plan to write more of them.)

4. Katie and Anna Rogers

This series features accountant Katie Rogers and her younger sister Anna. Since Anna's a police chief, they of course team up to solve crimes in their small town. (Do you see a trend, here?) Woman's World published the first installment of these a few weeks ago and the second and third stories have been accepted and will appear within the next month or so. Several more are in the queue and awaiting a decision.

5. Sheriff Ray Douglas

This is a series about Raymond Kirk Douglas, the practical and easy-going sheriff of Pine County, Mississippi, and his super-smart girlfriend Jennifer Parker. The first two of these stories, "Trail's End" and "Scavenger Hunt," were published in AHMM in 2017 and 2018. The third and fourth installments, "Going the Distance" and "Quarterback Sneak," have been accepted by AHMM and are upcoming, and the fifth and sixth installments are finished and sitting in AH's to-be-read queue.


Pluses/minuses

Advantages of writing a series (at least to me):

- Series installments are sometimes easier to sell. When writers, readers, and editors are familiar with a certain set of characters, those stories are a known quantity, and less of a financial risk for the publication.

- Series stories can be less work for the writer. When and if characters and their setting become well known, less time has to be spent on things like backstory and description. A writer can get the reader quickly into the plot.

Disadvantages of writing a series:

- If the publication that's running one of your series decides to reject the latest installment that you've submitted, that story will need major renovation (and possible demolition and rebuilding) before it can be sent to a different market.

- Publications that have successfully featured one of your series might be reluctant to have you write a non-series story for them.

Questions

For those of you who are authors of novels and/or shorts, do you prefer writing standalones or writing series? Which have been more profitable for you? Which is more fun? Have you ever had pressure from an editor, publisher, or agent to stick to one or the other? Of series stories and standalones, which do you most enjoy reading? What are some of your favorite book or story series?

And that's it. Keep writing--and have a great Christmas!




14 December 2018

Fleshing Out The Past

Ladies and gents, we are delighted to introduce our newest SleuthSayer.  Lawrence Maddox will be appearing every third Friday, and we are delighted.

I met Lawrence at Bouchercon in Long Beach years ago and we hit it off.  His gripping and eccentric stories have appeared in 44 Caliber Funk and Orange County Noir. He scripted the Hong Kong kickboxing flick RAW TARGET and the indie musical OPEN HOUSE (and how often have you read about those two genres in the same sentence?). PUBLISHERS WEEKLY called his FAST BANG BOOZE (published earlier this year by Shotgun Honey),"offbeat noir." I called it "a wild ride."  Please give Larry a warm SleuthSayers welcome! - Robert Lopresti

FLESHING OUT THE PAST

by Lawrence Maddox
 

Ian Fleming once surprised a Polynesian dancer by reaching out and touching her while she was performing. It’s not noted where, exactly, he touched her.  As for why: he was doing research. Through travel, research, and first-hand knowledge, Fleming loaded his Bond novels with sumptuous detail. He was one of the first authors to use actual product names in his fiction. Fleming was a master at describing the world he lived in, but what are the tools an author uses to flesh out the past when, unlike Fleming’s dancer, it’s no longer there for one to touch? I asked crime fiction authors Christa Faust, Robert Lopresti and Paul D. Marks how they brought the once-was into the right-now.

Before New York’s Times Square was cleaned up in the 1990s, it was a sleazy and dangerous place. Travis Bickle’s “All the animals come out at night” monologue from Taxi Driver sums it up. Christa Faust, Gary Phillips (and artist Andrea Camerini) faithfully recreate Times Square, circa 1986, in their thrilling graphic crime comic Peepland (Titan Comics, collected as a paperback, 2017). Roxy Bell is a Times Square peepshow worker, performing one-woman sex shows behind a glass window. Powerful forces will stop at nothing to retrieve a criminally incriminating VHS tape that has fallen into her hands.


Peepland is based on my own lived experience as a kid growing up in Hell's Kitchen and as a young woman working in the Times Square peep booths,” Christa says. I consider the rich and authentic rendering of Times Square, and ask Christa if she needed to do any research for Peepland. “No research was necessary, just memories.” In an interview with Crime Fiction Lover, Christa explained that “all of the characters are based on real people I met while working in the peep booths. The central main character Roxy Bell is definitely semi-autobiographical.” In the same interview, Christa succinctly said why memories of Times Square were all she needed to create Peepland: “It’s in my blood.”

Roughly two miles away and two decades earlier, Greenwich Village was the epicenter of American folk music, a movement in sound that put political dissent on the airwaves. In Robert Lopresti’s evocative murder mystery Such a Killing Crime (Kearney Street Books, 2005), coffeehouse manager and war vet Joe Talley sifts through the many characters circling the folk revival scene in search of the murderer of his friend, an up-and-coming folk singer. Robert gives a sightseeing tour down MacDougal Street, detailing the people and points of interest along the way. Folksinger Tom Paxton, who makes a cameo, said of Robert’s writing, “If I'd known he was watching us all so carefully, I'd have behaved much better.” 


I ask Robert how he brought 1963 Greenwich Village back to life. “Since I’m a librarian the obvious answer was research.  That was more challenging than I expected because all the New York City newspapers were on strike that spring.  The Village Voice was the main source of information.”  Robert says he also spent hours at the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library scouring the main folk rags of ‘63, Sing Out! and Broadside. Robert was after more than just facts in his research. “I got to interview several people I knew who lived in that time and place.  That was partly to get facts but mostly to get feelings.  What was it like?  What did they remember the most vividly about that time? Then there was the matter of trying to think like an early sixties person.   Women were ‘girls,’ whatever their age.  Smoking in a hospital was perfectly normal.” I ask Robert if his research forced him to rethink past assumptions. “I was well into editing before an article in a recent newspaper pointed out that back in 1963 women were not allowed to drink in most bars in the city!  After confirming that with a woman I know who went to school there I had to rewrite a whole lot of scenes.  But part of the fun of the book is showing you this strange and distant culture.”


Paul D. Marks explores early 1990s Los Angeles in his two Duke Rogers private eye novels White Heat (Down & Out Books, re-issued 2018) and Broken Windows (Down & Out Books, 2018). In White Heat, Duke finds himself in the heart of the 1992 LA riots while investigating the death of an actress. Broken Windows, occurring two years later, has the Prop 187 battle over illegal immigration as the backdrop. Marks grew up in Los Angeles, and his Duke Rogers books explore how myth and memory are at odds with the often violent, seedy and corrupt LA that Duke encounters while plying his trade.

“The Internet, as well as memory, comes into play to try to get the reality of that time, but even with a good memory it’s wise to verify with multiple sources.” I ask him if there were any challenges recreating the not-so distant past. "In some ways it’s
almost harder to write that than something set in the more distant past.” Earlier in the 20th century “there were no cell phones, personal computers, answering machines or televisions at home. But all of that stuff existed in the ’90s, but in very different form than we have today. So, while someone might have had a cell phone it looked different and worked differently – some of the early ones were as big as walkie-talkies. Same with computers. So you have to be careful if you lived through that era not to transpose modern versions of the technology onto the tech of that day.”

I had similar issues with my novel Fast Bang Booze (Shotgun Honey, 2018), which takes place in the early 1990s as well. I had to rethink a lot of what I thought I remembered about cell phones from that period. A fun cell phone fact: the first commercially available handheld cell phone (made by Motorola) was nicknamed “The Brick,” and cell phones pretty much kept that design until smaller flip phones came along in the mid-nineties.


Paul D. Marks and I are both native multigenerational Angelenos, and we’ve had that “Do you remember” conversation a few times. LA, as well as being a sprawl, is also the kind of city that lets a legendary place like Schwab’s get torn down and be replaced by a Crunch Gym, so sometimes the landscape of our memories doesn’t overlap. When I’ve met fellow Angelenos and we realize that we’ve both been to the same forgotten dive bar or long-gone taco truck, there’s a bond. We belong to a dwindling club, and when the last of us shuffles off, it will be like a point in time and place has been wiped off the map. 

When I wrote Fast Bang Booze, I wanted to impart what it felt like to be young, barhopping, and maybe a little out of control in the early ‘90s in LA. I just couldn’t do it all from memory, because my protagonist (a grungy twenty-something with a fantastically souped-up nervous system) is a fictional construct, and my tale is pure pulp. I had to do my research, which included buying old issues of LA Weekly and re-reading old diaries. Like Robert Lopresti, I even interviewed people. I wanted the facts and the feel.

I drove to Salt Lake City some years ago for a job. When I unlocked the door to my hotel room and stepped in, I was hit with the odor of cigarettes and Glade air freshener. It struck me in a way I still marvel at today. I would walk to my Grandmother’s house everyday from elementary school, and that was exactly how her place smelled. I swear for a moment I could picture all the objects in her living room, down to the glass fish statuette with the green tint. However briefly, I could feel the past. A piece of writing that can accomplish what Glade and cigarettes did for me, bringing the past alive, is powerful indeed.

13 December 2018

In No Particular Order

by Brian Thornton

In my last post I made the point that our holiday season here in the United States begins not with Thanksgiving, but with the parent-teacher conferences which immediately precede Turkey Day across the nation.

Two weeks on from that post we find ourselves collectively less than two weeks out from Christmas. And I personally find myself less than three weeks out from a New Years' Day deadline on a big project I've been at work on for a good chunk of 2018.

If you're interested, you can read more about it here.

So I find myself pressed for time, and since I have one more post in the works for 2018 (I drew Boxing Day this year: that's a post which writes itself!), I am going to resort to that cliche of end of year cliches: the end of year list.

With a twist.

This won't be one of those lists of the "Best Books of 2018," or the "Best Mystery Books of 2018," or anything like it. I don't understand those sorts of carefully curated (dare I say, "manicurated"?) lists.

I mean, come on. Taste is personal these days. We customize our diets, our vacations, our kids' play schedules, what we watch (or binge watch) on TV, why the HELL would we consume whole cloth the lists someone else made up about books we're likely not ever going to read, or worse still, may well start but never finish?

So here's my completely personalized, absolutely random, deeply meaningful, End of Year List:

(One last note: there will only be positive things here: "Bests," "Mosts" no "Worsts." There's plenty of negatives skulking around out there. I'm sure someone's made a list of them. Just not me.!*grin*)

Most Important Lesson I Learned This Year:

I can never work too hard at listening to people.

Best Book I Read This Year:

Prussian Blue, by Phillip Kerr.

Best Writing-Related Tip I Have For Those Getting Into The Game:

Not to be glib, but "be a pro." That covers a ton of bases: show up, work hard, respect deadlines, accept feedback, don't quit.

Most Welcome Sound I Heard All Year:

My six-year-old's laughter.

Best Writing I Produced This Year:

My novella expansion of "Suicide Blonde," a short-story I sold to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine a decade ago. Down & Out Books is publishing it as part of a three novella collection next fall, so watch for it beginning September, 2019!

Best Friend I Had This Year:

My wife, same as every other year since I met her. Those of you who have the privilege of knowing her get why. I definitely married up.

Most Fun I Had Listening to a "New" Band This Year:

When Greta Van Fleet's album dropped.

Best Movie I Saw All Year:

DeadPool II.  Just typing that made me laugh.

Best New (To Me) Historical Mystery Series I Discovered This Year:

Robert Olen Butler's Christopher Marlowe Cobb series.

Best Book On Writing I Read This Year:

Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman (And yes, I meant to read it earlier, but his recent passing proved the kick in the butt I needed to make the time to read it. And boy, am I glad I did.).

Best Writing-Related Advice I Got All Year:

From my wife: "You ought to ask Libby Cudmore about that..."

Best Long-Time Favorite Book I Revisited This Year:

Ross MacDonald's Black Money. My wife is reading MacDonald's canon based on my recommendation. I've been pressed for time with various writing stuff this year, so I haven't re-read all of them as she's been working her way through them, but I made time for Black Money, as that was the author's favorite of his own work, is an homage to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and we're both fans of that book as well.

Those of you familiar with MacDonald's oeuvre will be not at all shocked to know that his stuff still holds up!

*          *          *

So that's what I've got this time around. Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate it, and see you all with my not-to-be-missed Boxing Day post in two short weeks!

12 December 2018

Skin in the Game

David Edgerley Gates


William Goldman died this past month, the week before Thanksgiving. Predictably, his obituaries led with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He wasn't crazy about his own writing, he admitted, but there were two things he wasn't embarrassed by, the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and his novel The Princess Bride.


I remember reading The Temple of Gold in the late spring of '63, and being knocked out by it. It was a coming of age story - Goldman himself was 24 when it was published - and it had a cocky, mischievous attitude, kind of like Dick Bissell's early book, A Stretch on the River, but Bissell was my dad's age. As lively as his stories were, they had a period feel, a little removed. Goldman's voice was right there, immediate, confiding, intimate.


I liked the next couple of books I read, Soldier in the Rain, Boys and Girls Together, but when I recognized his name in the credits for Harper, my mental ears pricked up. (Goldman adapted a second Ross Macdonald mystery, The Chill, but it never got made. Somewhere in the mists, I hear Sam Peckinpah's name attached to this, or maybe that's just wishful thinking.) And then, of course, Butch and Sundance. You might think, looking back, foreordained, In point of fact, not.


It's obvious Goldman was a movie nut, it's right up front in his first book. The Temple of Gold, the title, comes from the RKO swashbuckler Gunga Din. The two best friends in the novel are just kids when they see the picture, and it becomes a metaphor for their lives. The loyal Gunga Din, in his loincloth, climbing to the top of the golden dome to blow his trumpet and sound the alarm. Yes, it's as corny as it sounds.


Goldman wrote some good novels, but he stopped writing novels altogether after Brothers, in 1986. He'd found his metier in movies. Look at his credits. He's the guy who turned in the script when nobody thought a movie could even be made - the example is Stephen King's Misery. He always gave good weight. Interestingly, he isn't rigidly prescriptive when it comes to writing screenplays. His advice (Adventures in the Screen Trade) is sound. The basic template is three acts, and it's all about structure. But he clearly demonstrates that these conventions don't confine the narrative, they sharpen it. They burn away the inessential.


Are they all home runs? No. Chaplin is long on good intentions. The Ghost and the Darkness somehow just rolls over and plays dead. Hard to say, really, what makes a picture work. There's that ineffable something, and Goldman caught lightning in a bottle more than a few times. A few more times than most of us.


There's a footnote in Bill Goldman's filmography I find striking. Among his unproduced screenplays are several for movies that were later made, but written by somebody else. Goldman's original scripts were discarded. He probably got a kill fee, but that's not my point. I'm thinking more along the lines of what might have happened if they'd used Goldman's scripts. Not that they didn't turn out to be good pictures, in the event. Charly. Papillon. The Right Stuff. Shooter. (And now you're thinking about it, too.) 

11 December 2018

Would You Eat THAT?

by Barb Goffman

All my life I've been a picky eater. When I was very little, my mother tried to force me to eat foods I didn't like in order to encourage me, I'm sure, to not be so picky. But after I vomited beets all over the kitchen floor, she let me make my own choices.

Fast forward to adulthood. I'm still a picky eater--less so than in childhood but more so than many other adults. I know this from dining out with friends, though the point always hits home whenever one of those food quizzes comes up on social media. You know the ones: How many of these weird-sounding foods have you tried? I always surprise my friends (well, maybe not some who know me really well) because I score soooo low. Despite knowing I'm picky, the extent of it always seems to surprise people.

For instance, I once took a quiz about vegetables; how many had I tried? The grand total: 18 of the 110 vegetables listed, putting me in the lowest two percentile for the quiz. (Eighteen was actually a higher number than I'd expected.) I also took a quiz about Jewish food. I'd tried 38 out of 100 of  'em. Friends had thought I'd score higher on this quiz since I'm Jewish, but 38 was pretty darn high for me.

Oh, no! It's Mr. Bill! (You see it too, right?)
But those are specialized quizzes. What about overall pickiness? Here, Buzzfeed came in handy. They had a quiz to look at just how picky I am. All I had to do was check the foods I wouldn't touch, and there were a lot of them: hard cheese, soft cheese, blue cheese, goat cheese, cottage cheese. (You must be thinking I don't eat any cheese, but it's not true. Grilled cheese, good. Pizza, good!) And there were more foods on the quiz that I find it hard to believe anyone would eat, because I sure wouldn't. Bone marrow. Nuh uh. Tripe. No way. Sweet bread. Are you kidding? Blood sausage. Just the name makes me queasy. Bull testicles. Oh, come on! And last, but not least, the evil cilantro. No way, no how. Not gonna happen. At least soap doesn't pretend to be a food group.

Yet even as I write this, I know there are people out there who have probably tried all these foods and asked for seconds. I know this because I am friends with a particularly adventurous eater: author Catriona McPherson. She and I have a game we play. She tries to find normal foods I've actually tried or will eat again. I try to find a weird (at least to me) food she hasn't tried. A round might go like this:

Catriona: "Have you tried a pear?" She's probably thinking, I've got her here; everyone has tried pears.
Me: Buzz. As I do the Rocky dance, I proudly proclaim, "I have never had a pear. That's a point for me."
Now it's my turn.
Me: "Have you tried bull testicles?"
Catriona: "Sure have. Yum! That's a point for me, and the round is tied!"

Actually, I don't recall if I've ever asked Catriona about bull testicles. Catriona, get ready for the next round.

It's usually difficult for me to score any points off Catriona because she is so adventurous. That vegetable quiz, the one where I had tried 18 of 110 vegetables--Catriona had tried 103 of them! I once asked her about a whole bunch of Jewish foods, but she had once attended a seder, so she trounced me in that game. And she's Scottish, so she's eaten all these foods I'd never even heard of before I met her--foods I wouldn't go anywhere near now that I have heard of them. (Tripe. Really, Catriona?) Amazingly, I've found one food she's never tried but I have: candy canes! Not that I like candy canes. I don't think I'd ever eat another one. And I'm sure I only had a bite of the one I tried in the past. But I tried it!

The beauty of being a picky eater is I read a lot of article about food. Not to learn to make them, of course, since cooking is something else I don't do. But I'm fascinated by foods other people will eat that I won't go near with a giant fork. And learning about foods sometimes gives me story ideas. That is partly how I came up with the idea for my most-recent story, "Bug Appétit," which appears in the current (November/December) issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  It involves what I would deem weird food, but not everyone agrees (based on my research), and that makes for an unusual plot (and unusual Thanksgiving dinner!).
Bug Appétit!

If you want to read "Bug Appétit," it's not too late. The current issue of EQMM should remain on sale until around Christmas. I've seen copies at Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million. And you can order digital copies through Magzter. Or you can subscribe to the magazine, in print or electronically, here: http://www.elleryqueenmysterymagazine.com/.

As to the quizzes I mentioned above, here they are, in case you want to try them out. For the vegetable quiz, click here. For the Jewish food quiz, click here. And for the Buzzfeed overall pickiness quiz, click here. But I wouldn't put a lot of stock in the Buzzfeed quiz. After I answered all their questions, they told me, "You're not too picky." They clearly don't know me at all.

10 December 2018

The Fast First Draft

by Steve Liskow

Between about 9 and 10 am Thursday morning, I wrote 1534 words on my current WIP. I'm not bragging because (1) I'm sure everyone else who blogs here can do the same and (2) I'll probably revise everything except the proper nouns over the next nine or ten months. That's my normal approach. But it's worth noting because while it takes me two or three months to assemble my scene list--my version of a storyboard or outline--I expect to write a scene a day, normally in less than two hours. In most of my books, the scenes average around 1500 words. For contrast, in my senior year of high school, my honors English teacher gave us eight weeks to produce a research paper of 1000 words. If we taught children to walk the way we teach students to write, the human race would crawl on all fours.

Years ago, Graham Greene produced 300 words a day. Books were shorter then. Now, the average thriller clocks in at 100,000 words or more. My own books average 83K. I plan on eight weeks (or more) to create the outline, then another six to eight for the first draft. I revise the entire text four or five times with at least a month between drafts, so my novels usually take me about 15 months.

Jodi Picault says that a writer has to learn to write on demand. When you sit down at the keyboard, desk, legal pad or clay tablet, you job is to produce words. Stephen King and Lee Child expect to produce 2000 a day. None of those authors mentions how many of those words change, but that's a separate issue.

How can writers write so quickly?

Well, part of it is being able to type or write quickly, of course. The other part is easy once you know about it. Alas, pretty much everything you learned in school gets in your way.

Back in the mid-80s, I stumbled on a few books that completely changed my way of teaching writing. We had a copy of Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers in our English department bookshelf, but I don't know if any of my colleagues read it. I didn't until about 1990, and I had to blow dust off it. It was a landmark book that few people appreciated when it appeared.

The book I did appreciate (All the books I mention here are available on Amazon) was Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico. She introduced me to clustering or webbing, a quick way of connecting apparently random and disparate ideas for writing. She also pushed free-writing (Elbow's idea first). She offered a series of techniques and writing prompts students could grasp and apply quickly. I was struggling with kids who read five or six years below grade level, hated grammar, and were terrified at putting anything more than their name on paper. For years, they'd known they were stupid because their teachers and their grades told them so.

The following September, I stared using Rico's exercises. By the end of the first semester, many of the kids wouldn't admit it, but they wrote more clearly, more creatively, and with more pleasure and less fear. Rico encouraged them not to worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. I spent the first month of classes encouraging them to write fast for five or ten minutes without worrying about making sense or being correct. If they got something down on paper, we could fix it later.

Remember, a first draft is like the block of marble before you sculpt an elephant. That first few minutes is chipping away everything that doesn't look like an elephant. Rico does that. So does Elbow. The beauty of free-writing is that the only wrong way to do it is to think about it. Just write. If you go fast enough to outrun the constraints, an idea will present itself. That was the hardest sell for my students, but they finally discovered it was true.

Henriette A. Klauser's Writing on Both Sides of the Brain uses many of the same techniques. The left side of our brain is sequential, literal, and organized. It also judges. The right side works in patterns, sounds, and images. It's creative without judging. We're trained from day one to be correct, but we don't learn to let go. Those books showed me how to help my students let go.

Years later, I discovered Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird with her priceless advice on the value of the "shitty first draft." Don't think about spelling, grammar, punctuation or making sense. Just push yourself. If you don't know what you want to say, the cluster or web will help you. If you do know what you want to say, don't worry about how to start. Jump in and listen to the words. Maybe even say them out loud. But turn off the editor.
A character web for my WIP. Over half the names have already changed.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I checked the spelling) published Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience around the same time as the other books, and James L Adams gave us The Care and Feeding of Ideas with the same message. Their findings work for almost any field you can name. Athletes call it being in the zone and musicians talk about finding the groove. Time stands still because you focus ONLY on the task at hand, whether it's shooting the free throw, following the chord changes or staying in the moment without worrying about the result...yet. Very Zen, yes?

For me, once I know what should happen in a scene, I write a first sentence (usually telling where or when it's happening) and keep going. Maybe it's a great sentence, but more likely it's junk. It doesn't matter because I can fix it later. I no longer listen to music when I write (I used to like Baroque Largos because the slow tempo helps concentration) because I have to hear the words. Sometimes I even say them out loud and the scene becomes a dialogue or group discussion. I can type about 85 words a minute and I don't worry about typos or grammar. That's what the next five or six drafts are for. If I get lost, I type whatever comes to me and cut it or move it later. A few years ago, I wrote a scene


that had a half-page of "where the hell am I?" over and over until I found it again.

It's energizing and it's productive. The hardest part is letting go of everything you were taught to worry about in school.