04 December 2021

The Z-Files


  

We've seen a lot of recent posts at this blog about mystery short-story markets--their editors, content, guidelines, response times, pay rates, preferences, etc.

Today I'd like to talk about preferences again, and specifically about a story of mine that was accepted by Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine earlier this week. It's a 6000-word story called "The Zeller Files," one I wrote and submitted to them just over a year ago. It includes a crime that's essential to the plot--all mystery submissions should have that--but it's not your usual mystery/crime/suspense story. In fact it's as much science fiction as mystery, which as the months passed led me to suspect it might not stand much of a chance. But it also features something else that I thought made it an even bigger longshot, for publication: It's set during the pandemic.

I don't just mean it was written during the pandemic, although it was. I mean it includes references to the wearing of masks, social distancing, and other things most of us never even thought about until early last year. Some of that ties into the crime itself, which in this story is a bank robbery and its aftermath.

The plot

Here's what happens: Software engineer Eddie Zeller and his wife Lisa find out from their local newspaper's gossip-column that a couple named Fairmont from another part of the country are moving to their small town. The problem is, Andrew Fairmont and his wife were once famous because of their highly publicized report of being kidnapped and observed by aliens many years ago--and so was Eddie Zeller. (Lisa jokingly refers to Eddie's story as The Z-Files.) He and Lisa also know that the number of self-professed alien-abduction-survivors in the U.S. is tiny, and Eddie suspects that the federal government keeps a file and a close eye on all these victims and their activities. So, what are the odds that not one but two of these people would wind up in the same town as a third who already lives there? Could the Feds--or even the victims' otherworldly kidnappers--somehow be trying to gather all of them together for some reason? If so, why? 

Eventually the Zellers, who are unemployed and struggling because of the impact of Covid on their careers, resort to extreme and criminal measures to try to get the funds they'd need to get out of town, possibly even out of the country, to avoid whatever disaster Eddie is now convinced is being planned for them. During all that, they of course run into the Fairmont family, who have their own mysterious agenda, and Eddie soon comes to understand that it's not only the government who's been tracking them, all these years. 

Concerns and conclusions

My point is, this story has two liabilities. It is (1) mixed-genre and (2) set during the pandemic. The first oddity, since what I mixed in was science fiction, would automatically make the story unsuitable for mystery markets like EQMM, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, the Strand, and others, and I was afraid the woo-woo element would make acceptance doubtful even for places like AHMM, which is a little more receptive to the occasional western, humor, fantasy, or SF story. Mostly, though, I was worried that the second odd thing--the Covid angle--might prevent it from being accepted anywhere.

Let me explain that. Since the pandemic began, I've written several mystery stories featuring the virus and the restrictions and requirements it presents. (After all, that's been the reality of our world for the past two years--and besides, how could a crime writer resist using a situation where everybody's already running around with masks covering their faces?) But alas, no matter how much I liked those stories and how much fun I had writing them, all were rejected soon after I'd submitted them. Some of them were rejected immediately, and some more than once. 

Since Mama didn't raise no fools, I finally got the message and started changing those stories by removing any and all references to the pandemic (enter Dr. Watson, exit Dr. Fauci)--and when I did that and submitted them again, every one of those stories sold. All, that is, except one. I had submitted "The Zeller Files" to AHMM almost fourteen months ago, on 10/6/20, so that particular story had not yet been changed. It had also not yet been rejected, since the jury was still out--and then, lo and behold, it was accepted by AH this past week. Say Hallelujah.

Here's what I learned from this: Never say never, with regard to questionable or controversial story content. If you believe it works, and if the guidelines for the market(s) you're targeting don't specifically say no, give it a try. The odds of success might be less, but--and I truly believe this--if a story seems to the writer to be good enough, it probably is good enough, and will eventually find a respectable home. As for "The Zeller Files," if you happen to see it when it comes out, I hope you'll have half as much fun reading it as I had writing it.

Questions for the class

Now . . . what's your opinion on writing pandemic-based or pandemic-setting stories or novels? Have any of you tried it? Have you even wanted to try? I've heard some writers say it would be too depressing, for both the reader and the writer. And if you have written those stories, have you seen any success at placing them in a magazine or anthology? If you've created a novel containing pandemic references, have you been able to find a publisher for it? 

How about mixed-genre short stories? I feel sure you've written those, but have you submitted any of them to mystery markets? Any successes, there? What about stories that include both a different genre AND a dose of the virus?

In summary, I can certainly understand if the only masked characters you choose to put into your fiction are either committing a crime, skiing in Aspen, trick-or-treating, or riding a white stallion to the tune of "The William Tell Overture." But I'm here to tell you, you might want to try writing a Covid story now and then, and see what happens.

Sometimes it works.





03 December 2021

Ellison's Titles


 Came across a Harlan Ellison short story I'd read before and stopped to look at the title again – "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes" and marveled at another of his great titles. I went through my Ellison books and thought I'd share some of his titles:

"I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream"


"Come to Me Not in Winter’s White"


"Shattered Like a Glass Goblin"


"Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54’N, Longitude 77° 00’ 13” W”


"Mefisto in Onyx"


"City on the Edge of Forever"


"Soft Monkey"


"Pennies, Off a Dead Man's Eyes"


"Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled"


"The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World"


"Shatterday"


"Angry Candy"


"The Deathbird"



"Again, Whoredome at a Penny a Word"


"Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World"


"Someone is Hungrier"


"All The Sounds of Fear"


"I See A Man Sitting On A Chair, and The Chair is Biting His Leg"


"Gnomeboy"


"The Very Last Day of a Good Woman"


"Nothing for My Noon Meal"


"Deeper Than The Darkness"


"Wanted in Surgery"


"One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty"


"Delusion for a Dragon Slayer"


"White Trash Don’t Exist"


"Croatoan"


"The Wine Has Been Left Open Too Long and the Memory Has Gone Flat"


"Lonely Women are the Vessels of Time"


"The Diagnosis of Dr. D’arqueAngel"


"All the Lies That Are my Life"


"Escape Goat"


"Paladin of the Lost Hour"


"Prince Myskhin, and Hold the Relish"


"The Function of Dream Sleep"


"Count the Clock That Tells the Time"


"The Executioner of Malformed Children"



"Twilight in the Cupboard"


"With Virgil Oddum at the East Pole" 


"The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore"


"Anywhere But Here, With Anybody But You"


"Darkness on the Face of the Deep"


"How Interesting: A Tin Man"


"Demon with a Glass Hand"


"The Lingering Scent of Woodsmoke"


"Where Shall I Dwell in the Next World"


"Chatting with Anubis"


"Djinn, no Chaser"


"She’s a Young Thing and Cannot Leave Her Mother"



"Never Send to Know for Whom the Lettuce Wilts"


"Objects in the Mirror are Closer than They Appear"


"The Toad Prince; or, Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure-Dome"


"Loose Cannon; or, Rubber Ducks from Space"


"Jeffty is Five"


"A Boy and His Dog"


"Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes"


“Repent Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman

and my favorite – "The Whimper or Whipped Dogs"


No, they are not all speculative fiction. Two won the Edgar Award – "Soft Monkey" in 1988 and "The Whimper or Whipped Dogs" in 1974. Four were awarded a Writers Guild of America Award.

I've said it before. Titles are critically important, not just with books, but short stories as well. How many times have you thought about a good movie you've seen, then asked yourself – what was the title. Was it Blood something or Fatal something or a one of those instantly forgettable one-word titles like Contagion, Inception, Deception, Conception, Affliction?

I've quoted Walker Percy before – “A good title should intrigue, without being too baffling or too obvious.”

I would add a good title should be memorable.

02 December 2021

Yesterday's Gossip is Today's Headline


The problem with living in a small state (or town) is that it's almost impossible to keep a secret.  You can try, but you're not going to succeed.  The stories float out on the wind, like the breath between your neighbors' lips.  But it's also a gift, because there is endless entertainment. 

A few examples:

(1) Back in October the South Dakota Supreme Court unsealed the search warrant records for South Dakota's own billionaire, T. Denny Sanford, but most of us had heard about this and have been discussing it, and what it was for, 2 years or so.  So, you who aren't South Dakotan might ask, "What were the search warrants for?"

"Sanford’s electronic devices came to the attention of investigators with the South Dakota attorney general’s office after a technology firm reported that child pornography had either been sent, received or downloaded on his device, according to one of the people who spoke to AP. Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg determined there was sufficient evidence to move toward prosecuting Sanford, but passed the case to the U.S. Department of Justice because it spanned to Arizona, California and Nebraska, according to both people." (AP News) (my emphasis added – also, that's quite a span, don't you think?)

There has since been fallout, including National University in San Diego putting a hold on changing its name to Sanford National University specifically because of the charges.  And a lot of executives at Sanford Healthcare have quit, some with 8-figure golden parachutes. And… Well, any more would be just repeating the gossip. I'll report more when it finally comes out on the news.

(2) Corey Lewandowski. Everyone's been talking about that hot mess since 2019.  

(3) The Covid-19 outbreak at Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls back in 2020:  I (and others) first heard about it well before it came out in the news, from people who were desperately trying to get the word out and warn everyone what was coming, while the CEO and other executives (and certain SD officials) were trying to cover it all up like a cat in a litter box.

My note:  This is why I don't have my knickers in a twist over China's supposed malfeasance about Covid-19, because I don't remember many cities, states, or businesses in America being really open and forthcoming about having a Covid outbreak in early 2020… Everyone tried to cover it up here in the United States, too.

(4) The story of Governor Kristi Noem's 2020 meeting with Executive Director of the South Dakota Appraiser Certification Program to discuss her daughter's getting an appraiser's certification had been circulating for some time. It finally made the news in October of this year, as someone pointed out that the same executive director was apparently urged to retire and given a $200,000 payout. (Argus)  The investigation is ongoing.

BTW, my favorite story about Governor Noem is an on-going lawsuit by "Blue State Refugees" (hereinafter referred to as the BSR) who wanted to protest Covid vaccine mandates at the Capitol on Pierre. Now the BSR is an unofficial organization of people who responded to Governor Noem's call last year to "Move to South Dakota and enjoy your freedoms!" And they came. And they want to protest. "The state, though, says it has banned all political demonstrations from the capitol grounds in November and December to accommodate the annual holiday and Christmas displays and decorations at the Capitol." Well, Governor Noem  quickly announced that they would indeed allow the Blue State Refugees to assemble, and the Blue State Refugees – via their lawyer – announced “We resolved the issue whether the protest will take place next week. The lawsuit is not dismissed. It’s going forward.” Why?  "We need to have some kind of assurance that they will not be enforcing this policy, not just now but into the future." (KELO) (Argus) If you're surprised that the BSR can't take "yes" for an answer – I'm not. If you invite people to come, promising them total freedom to do anything they want…

Speaking of doing anything they want:

(5) Our State Senate Majority Leader Gary Cammack was arrested for a DUI and driving without a license on January 18, 2020, and (after spending the night in jail) plead down to a misdemeanor of careless driving (a popular charge given to powerful people arrested for various problem driving incidents, see AG Ravnsborg), and then on October 4, 2020 got the court to seal the records.  But word got around:

“The sealing of Mr. Cammack’s record was the final step in a common and lawful process occurring thousands of times a year in South Dakota,” Nelson wrote. “But the coincidental timing of those events did nevertheless appear suspicious, even though it was not.”   (Cammack: Sealing of Court Case...)  (My Note: I'm trying to think of anyone who is not a politician or mover/shaker who has gotten a record sealed and can't think of one.  Thousands? I doubt it.) 

 And from "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" file:

(6) Cammack's son, Chris, received more than $700,000 in state coronavirus relief funds designed to help businesses in South Dakota recover losses suffered during the pandemic, plus more than $300,000 in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans from the federal government to keep 10 workers employed. His business? A taxidermy business called Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios.

BTW, up here in South Dakota, the first question that most people asked was, "What taxidermy place has 10 workers?" Seriously, try 3.  Maybe 4.

Anyway, Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios was listed as being in Union City, SD, and it once was - but in 2014 or 2015, Chris and his family and the business all moved to Cypress, Texas. 


NOTE: This image from Google Maps shows the Cypress, Texas properties owned by Chris Cammack. The Brush Country/Prairie Mountain studios building has a red roof at the top of the image, and the home just to the south has a gray roof. Photo: Google Maps See the link at SD NewsWatch below.

Not only that, but back in March, 2020 Chris lobbied hard for special hunting licenses for non-residents (like him) of South Dakota to hunt on land they still owned in South Dakota.  Oh, and Chris also received PPP loans at the same time in 2020 and 2021 for two taxidermy businesses that have nearly the same names in both South Dakota and Texas totaling $798,217 to pay employees at both locations.  And it gets worse - but read it all for yourself at (SDNewsWatch).  We'll see if any of the money - loans, relief funds, etc. - gets clawed back.  I'm not holding my breath.  

And a reminder that domestic abusers are dangerous to more than the folks at home:

(7) I read with shock, horror, and absolute revulsion the story of the man who ran through the Christmas parade up in Waukesha, WI. Apparently the driver had a history of violence at home and abroad, and had used his fists, his gun(s), and his car as weapons before. No surprise to me, because back in the 1990s, I experienced sitting in my car, trapped between a berm and other cars, as a man gunned his car directly at me. He was a domestic abuser, with an expired license, who'd just smashed out the windows of his house, and, still angry, decided to use his car as a weapon against the first woman he saw. Which was me. I was lucky: at the last moment he swerved away. But it was still pretty damn scary.  I wrote my fourth blog with Sleuthsayers on it - read it here:  (The Circuit Administrator's Tale)  

And now for something completely different!

A true Thanksgiving-ish story: 

A few years back, I was walking on a trail in Lake Herman State Park here in South Dakota. Now that park has wild turkeys, deer, fox, coyotes owls, hawks, seagulls, pelicans, and once in a while some eagles, roaming free. And this day, the flock of wild turkeys was right there, in the middle of the trail, eating and gobbling. Well, I did a big loop around them, because I didn't want to disturb them. And I got back on the trail further up, and walked on.  Well, after a while, I realized there was this tremendous rushing sound behind me, almost like water. So I looked over my shoulder, and by God, there was the whole flock coming towards me. RUNNING towards me. So I stopped. And they all skidded to a stop around me.

So there they were: gobble-gobble-gobble. Hooking their necks and looking up sideways at me. Gobble-gobble-gobble. I mean, it was interesting, but I didn't have any corn with me or anything, so after a while I said, "Well, you caught me, now what are you going to do with me?" Gobble-gobble-gobble. And after a while, they finally got tired and went on. And so did I, chuckling away. But later, I thought, "I wonder if that's how a wooly mammoth felt, surrounded by humans in the Ice age?" and then, "If turkeys ever learn how to make and use tools, we're screwed." 




BTW, one of the ways we South Dakotans can tell a BSR is by the 4-way stop test.  There aren't a lot of traffic lights in most small towns around the state, because we (used to be) frugal, and low population, so what we have is a lot of 4-way stop corners. A South Dakotan knows to pull up to it, stop, and take turns, starting with whoever got there first or the person on the right. A BSR invariably just blows on through, leaving us all shaking our heads and muttering under our breath...  

01 December 2021

Greece is the Word


 


 In October my wife and I took a trip of Greece.  To be exact we toured the Peloponnese with 10 other adventurers and two guides.  Had a great time.  I want to tell you a few things about the trip from a writer's point of view.

One point that kept recurring was the influence classical Greece had on our culture, and especially our language.

Take for instance, the stoa, which is a roofed colonnade.  For those of us who are architecturally illiterate, that means a wall-less roof supported by columns.  Nice public building for hot climates.

Corinth 

There was one in classical Athens called the Royal Stoa and a group of philosophers hung around there so often that the name of the place was hung on them: the Stoics.  And that's where we get the word.

Leaving Athens for the Peloponnese peninsula you have to cross a narrow strip of land where Corinth was located, and on it you will find a place called Isthmia.  Which is why a narrow strip of land connecting two larger parts is called an isthmus.

Sparta Museum


In the peninsula you come to Sparta, whose residents were well-known for their no-frills lifestyle.  In other words, the Spartans led a spartan existence.  

They were also famously stingy with words. (They even sent the first TL:DR message.  Another city sent a long letter asking for their help in a war and the Spartans replied that the missive was too long to read; send something shorter.)  Sparta is in the Laconia region, which is why we describe people who don't talk much as laconic.

See the pattern?  I could add marathon but we didn't visit that site.

On a different but related note:  When we visited the Acropolis we passed the Theatre of Dionysus and our tour guide casually pointed out that this was the theatre.  It took me a moment to grasp what she meant.


Oedipus Rex
premiered here.  The Oresteia had its opening night (well, afternoon) on this spot.  Athenians sat on these stone seats to watch Lysistrata, Aristophanes' satire on sex and war.

In other words, everything the Western world thinks of as drama started in this very space.  Made me shiver.

It is interesting to remember that those drama festivals were competitions.  Each year the man who paid for the production of the winning play would put up a monument boasting of the fact.  Unfortunately for scholars all that was included was the man's name and the year.  Petty details like the author and title of the play were not deemed important enough to mention.  It seems like theatrical producers haven't changed much in 2,500 years.

Let's move on to another topic we love: Crime!  Fortunately, we did not experience any on our trip, except...  In Athens I saw something I never expected to witness in real life.  On a busy pedestrian walk there was a young man with a small table on a high stand.  On the table were three cups.

It was the shell game, live and in person!  The thimblerig has been recorded all the way back to  ancient Greece, and here it was in allegedly modern times.

If we hadn't been with a group I would have walked closer for  a better view, with my hand firmly on my wallet - not because I would have been tempted to bet, but because pickpockets love to orbit these scams.  

And speaking of crime, the photo on the right shows the street (?) in Nafplio where our 17th century hotel was located.  Before you reach it you pass a church with a plaque commemorating Ioannis Kapodistria, the first head of independent Greece, who was assassinated there in 1831.


Which reminds me... Jeffrey Siger is an American crime writer who spends part of the year in Greece and writes about an Athenian police detective.  (He has also written for SleuthSayers.) I told him about our itinerary and asked which of his novels we should read for background.  He recommended Sons of Sparta, which is set in the Mani (and I recommend it too).  

There are three little peninsulas at the south end of the Peloponnese and the Mani is the middle finger, geographically and also figuratively, you might say.  It has a certain reputation. When we arrived in the Maniot town of Areopoli, one of our tour guides solemnly told us: "The Mani is famous for vendettas, so please be very polite.  We don't want to start any blood feuds."  But our other guide replied: "You are being more than usually stupid."  So take that with a grain of salt.

But maybe not too much salt.  The statue you see here was right in front of our hotel in Areopoli. It commemorates Petrobey Mavromichalis, the Maniot who started the Greek War of Independence.  Ten years later, his brother and nephew were the very men who assassinated Kapodistria in Nafplio.

Interesting place, the Mani...



30 November 2021

Supreme Grammar


  As I've mentioned previously, my employed hours are spent in the criminal courts of Texas. Consequently, I normally don't invest much time thinking about Supreme Court cases on topics outside of criminal law. That becomes apparent every time someone asks me a question about copyright or wills or contracts. 

    This past April, however, the Supremes handed down an opinion that I stumbled into while looking for something else, Facebook v. Duguid. The background of the case follows: As a security precaution, Facebook sends an automated text alert when a user logs in from a strange device. Duguid apparently had a recycled phone number of a Facebook user. He got alerts from Facebook even though he had never created a FB account. Duguid sued, claiming that the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 protected his privacy from this invasion. The act was written to prevent robocalls. (Who couldn't possibly be riveted by a case interpreting the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991?)

    The case turned on the sentence within the act defining what the statute meant by an "autodialer." Spoiler alert--Facebook's notification was held not to be a statutorily prohibited "autodialer." As defined by the TCPA, an "automatic telephone dialing system" is a piece of equipment with the capacity both "to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator," and "dial those numbers." 

    What I found fascinating was not the outcome but rather the discussion. The nine justices focused on whether the clause following the comma "using a random or sequential number generator" modifies both verbs "store" and "produce" or just the one closest to it. The opinion is an argument about the significance of the comma. 

    Justice Sotomayor offered up the Series-Qualifier Canon of statutory interpretation. She argued that under this "conventional rule of grammar, "[w]hen there is a straightforward, parallel construction that involves all nouns or verbs in a series," a modifier at the end of the list "normally applies to the entire series." She used commonplace sentences to illustrate the interpretation. 

    "Imagine if a teacher announced that "students must not complete or check any homework to be turned in for a grade, using online homework-help websites." It would be strange to read that rule as prohibiting students from completing homework altogether, with or without online support."

    Justice Alito agreed with the outcome of the case. He wrote a separate opinion, however, to criticize the reliance on the Series-Qualifier Canon. He threw down his own sentences to support a contrary position, including a Biblical quotation.

    "He went forth and wept bitterly [Matthew 26:75] does not suggest that he went forth bitterly."

    Justice Alito does not put forward a different interpretive canon, he argues that these are guidelines and are not ironclad. Interpretive canons are helpful in understanding language, but they are not to be applied as rigid rules. 

    This is the Supreme Court having a bare-knuckle brawl about commas and reading English. 

    Rest easy, the nation's brightest legal minds have resolved the burning question of an auto-dialer. Be forewarned, however, in the future, other words will surely come up for interpretation.
 
    To this point, Justice Alito suggests a data-driven approach to grammar rules, word usage, and definitions.

    "The strength and validity of an interpretive canon is an empirical question, and perhaps someday it will be possible to evaluate these canons by conducting what is called a corpus linguistics analysis, that is, analysis of how particular combinations of words are used in a vast database of English prose."

Jebulon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
 
In the future, therefore, we might crowdsource law. Corpus linguistics employs language usage databases to answer legal questions. When judges are called upon to interpret a word, they often begin with the question of 'what it means to the public?' To answer this, they might Google the word or look it up in a dictionary. Corpus linguistics seeks to systematize the approach. 

    (I've read short stories that put AI in the courtroom, usually as a substitute for juries. Here is a not-too-distant alternative use for AI.)

    If, for instance, a judge wanted to discern the meaning of "to keep and bear arms" and she wanted to know what the zeitgeist of colonial America was regarding firearms, she might look to the Corpus of Founding Era American English. Brigham Young University released the database with nearly 100,000 texts from the period beginning with the start of the reign of George III and ending with the death of George Washington. From a variety of texts, she could read how the words were employed. 

    Depending on her judicial philosophy, the original intent of the framers may not be the judge's desire as the tool for interpreting words and phrases. Consider this example: When the Earl of Sandwich wanted a bit of food that he might eat while gambling, the "sandwich" became meat between bread. That's what period literature would describe. An Originalist, therefore, would not include PB & J in the definition of a sandwich. As times change, our words, and language do also. (I thank Slate for this example 4/8/21) The scope of the applied corpus might also bake in race and gender notions no longer appropriate. 

    Corpus linguistics may be a great beginning to legal interpretation. (Much like the dictionary definition would be a great start.) The problem in a data-driven world is that judges might easily let quantitative analysis become the end rather than the start of the examination. 

    Few reading the post will ever engage in much statutory interpretation. What then might be the take-home point? Your commas matter. And, the story you write today may become part of the corpus, the database, that the computers of tomorrow's lawyers draw from. Choose your words carefully. 

    Until next time.
    


29 November 2021

Post Harlem Shuffle– the Uses of Mystery


A number of famous folk have been turning out mysteries and thrillers lately. Both Clintons have published political thrillers with a little help from James Patterson and Louise Penny, while double Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead has produced Harlem Shuffle. Technically this is an historical novel that wraps a portrait of Harlem in the turbulent early 1960's around a heist scheme and a revenge plot. Our guide through this tangle of events is one Ray Carney, a good man, a faithful husband, a devoted dad, who, as the novel puts it, was "only slightly bent when it came to being crooked."

If the inhabitants of Whitehead's much praised The Underground Railroad were light on characterization and heavy on allegorical import, Ray is a man in full, hopeful, contradictory, vengeful, generous, and clever. In a word, complicated.

And he'd better be. Harlem in the '60's was a complicated place. New York City as a whole has never suffered from an excess of good government, and the Black city within the city was no exception. Stratified by wealth and color, impoverished by bias in nearly every facet of life, poorly educated, badly housed, and beset by crime, Harlem's vibrancy, creativity and vitality came despite danger and corruption.

Ray knows all about that. He owns a small furniture store, supplying a variety of new and used sofas and dinette sets, recliners and lamps. Much of his clientele buys on time and their payments are not always timely. Worse, the whole city appears to run on bribes to white cops and protection money to black gangsters or, in the lingo of the times, on the circulation of  "the envelopes."

With money going out the door, it is no surprise that Ray, whose late father, Big Mike, was a career criminal, does not look too closely at the source of the second hand radios, TV's, and appliances that cross his path. Indeed, shortly after the novel begins, what was happenstance begins to seem like fencing in earnest, thanks to his charming but feckless cousin Freddie. 

Freddie hangs out with the likes of Miami Joe, an ambitious but maybe unreliable thief, and Pepper, an ultra professional hitman. One foolish thing leads to another with Freddie, who involves his sensible but devoted cousin with Chink Montague, the big mobster of the moment.

If that is not complication enough, Ray is simultaneously attempting to move up the social ladder. He wants to grow his business and handle really quality furniture. He also wants to improve his standing with his snobby in-laws, disdainful of both his impoverished background and his dark skin.

Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead

His attempt to join the Dumas Club, the prime organization for Black movers and shakers, provides more than he bargained for, namely another route to the underbelly of Harlem. There characters like Cheap Brucie and Miss Laura have interesting connections with the cream of Harlem society, presenting both danger and opportunity.

Soon Ray is juggling any number of tricky situations, endangering his marriage by flirting with criminality and endangering his life by making enemies of both outright mobsters and the seemingly legit, some of whom are white. His path through these dangers presents a picture of a society under extreme pressure. Riots that he understands 100% threaten hard-won prosperity, while the corruption that saps the economy of Harlem also provides a vital source of income.

It clearly takes a man of Ray Carney's particular talents and background to survive. His decent impulses and work ethic are as essential as his ingenuity and ability to compartmentalize, driving the novel, along with his imprudent loyalty to Freddie, the brother he never had, the companion of his youth and the spark plug of innumerable adventures.

28 November 2021

Using All Your Resources


I was in the process of writing this blog article about how writers should use all of their creative resources to get a new story started and then I got sidetracked. Was the correct word sources or resources? Might be best to have a look. I went to Google as the deciding judge. Sources vs. resources.

Uh huh.

They lost me in their definition examples when they used the sun as both a source of energy and as a resource of energy. So, I'm just going to use the word resource and you readers can decide on your own which word is correct under these circumstances, source or resource.

Anyway, to get back on track, I don't know how the rest of you authors get your ideas going in order to create a new story. Short story or novel, take your pick.

I usually go to sleep putting my brain on notice to come up with something and then wake up with a character in trouble in whatever type of scene, write the scene down that morning and then come up with a plot at a later time. Or take a walk and daydream along the way. That's probably why I have so many story starts setting in computer files waiting to be finished. Of course, this way I always have something to continue writing on.

Even so, my brain doesn't always cooperate at sleep time or on walks, in which case the well runs dry and any lowered bucket hoping to fill up with fresh elixir only bumps against moist sand. But, working undercover and with sly criminals for twenty-five years, I learned early on that it was best to have more than one trick in the bag.

So, I've got this Huey pilot buddy who has done a few things in his time that I'm not allowed to talk about and has a fine brain of his own. He is not a writer himself, but he does understand some of the basics and he likes mysteries. So, we get together every so often and bounce story ideas off each other. Maybe five percent of what he comes up with is pure gold. For instance, a few years ago, he came up with an Archimedes science solution to apply to one of my stories set in the 1660s Paris Underworld series. This solution gave me the second half of the story and an ending. AHMM subsequently published the story, "Of Wax and Watermarks."

And then, a couple of years ago during one of our brainstorming sessions, he produced two main characters and several very visual scenes set it modern day Italy. All I had to do was stitch the scenes together, add the dialogue and come up with the ending. It was like being handed an outline. The story felt like it almost wrote itself.

Did it get published?

Yes it did.

Mystery Weekly Magazine (now known as Mystery Magazine) snapped it up and placed it in their September 2021 issue.

I don't know if any of you writers out there have someone you can bounce story ideas off of as a resource, but you might consider the concept.

As for me, I'll keep the guy around as a resource. I might even ply him with a little Vanilla Crown Royal from time to time to loosen up the corners of his mind for creativity. As a sometime resource, he's gold.

So, what resources do you have in your bag of tricks?