23 September 2019

Retreat!

by Travis Richardson

First off I want to thank everybody for the kinds words that all of you sent me regarding my recent struggles to write. The kind words of support mean a lot. (And thank you Leigh for the Mac/Chrome advice, I still need to follow up on a few things over there.) I'm still a work in progress, but things are looking better.

Now on to this week's topic. A week ago I woke up on Monday morning in the Sierra Nevada foothills well-rested, but sad. I was about to leave an amazing writer's retreat hosted by Holly and Mick West. I had to go back to work and adult responsibility. Ugh. The weather apparently picked up on the sentiment. Up until then, the days had been hot and cloudless. In the night, there were thousands of stars to gaze up at before the harvest moon obscured the more distant celestial wonders. (Even then the view was better than anything you could see in LA.) But on that Monday morning, a light mist greeted the soon-to-depart-writers on the patio and soon it picked up from there, dumping a torrent of rain as we packed our bags and then our cars. All that was missing was a piano playing a melancholy yet inspirational tune as hugs and farewells were given before the credits roll. But I'm starting at the end. Let's jump to the beginning of this tale.

Back in June SoCal MWA and Sisters in Crime Los Angeles sponsored the every-other-year California Crime Writer's Conference. This conference is geared towards crime writers with law enforcement agents, publicists, publishers, agents and acclaimed writers making presentations. 
Sarah M. Chen, Stephen Beuhler, Holly West and I attended and made plans to go out to out for dinner after the conference was over. (It was also at CCWC two years ago that Holly came up with the idea to put together a Go-Gos themed anthology, Murder-a-Go-Go's.)

Sarah, Stephen, Holly, and Travis at Dinah's Chicken, where plans were hatched. 
Exhausted and enthused at the end of the conference we headed over to Dinah's Chicken where Holly invited us to visit her place up north for a writer's retreat. She and her husband, science writer, Mick West, had lived in Los Angeles for several years before moving up north to a gorgeous home outside of Sacramento. We said yes and unlike a lot of fake promises made in LA, we meant it.

Flash forward to September 12. Sarah and Stephen carpooled and I took my family up the I-5 for roughly 390 miles through the Angeles Mountains down to the central valley's almond orchards, grapes, and smelly cows into original gold mining country with old, middle 19th-century buildings still intact along windy roads. The six-plus hour drive while tiring also energized and readied my mind for the writing ahead.

That night Holly made spaghetti complemented with wine from the region. Tales travel and genial conversation went into the night. In the morning we wrote. I took a spot at a table outside until the heat brought me inside. When my wife and daughter returned from a kid's museum, all of went out for lunch in Placerville followed by ice cream at an old saloon near where a hanging tree of the early settlers had been.   

Having ice cream in an old saloon where a hanging tree used to be. 


That night we had different flavored moon cakes that my wife, Teresa, had brought. We sat outside looking at the stars (and passing satellites) as a full moon rose.

Saturday was all-day writing. I ended up waking up first and watched deer grazing the dining room table. I ended up writing there, unintentionally kicking Sarah out of the place she had been the day before. (Sorry Sarah.) While I'd like to say I wrote the entire time, the truth is I did a lot of research. More than necessary, I'm sure, for a short story. But it was clear, uninterrupted time that was amazing.


Where I researched and wrote. 
That evening we went out after critiquing some of our works. First stop was Fulsom Prison. Little known fact that Johnny Cash forgot to mention, deer are all over the place. Holly and Sarah got to feed them with crackers from a security guard. Also, I almost stole merchandise from the prison museum. After talking to the guard who let us in (to the museum) after hours, I walked out with a book about Folsom I had been holding but hadn't bought. I walked several yards outside before I realized what I did. Fortunately, they were lenient on me since I returned the purloined item without any damage.
Fugitives 

We went to downtown Folsom that night for burgers, beer and a sense of the early evening nightlife. Cute stores with interesting curios, a biker gang (Devil's Disciples) and an outdoor piano were many of the things we encountered around the town.

Cheers

Sarah plays on the olde tyme piano
We wrote again on Sunday morning. I forced myself to only write, not read. Later, when it was time for a critique of my work, the scenes I had worked revealed what I had done. I'd gotten too specific with government officials, departments, agency rivalries, etc. (My plot is what would happen if Gore had been president in 2001.) I needed clear conflict, not multi-level pre-9/11 bureaucracy. It was good to hear. I felt the weakness, but they clarified it.

When my daughter returned from an outing, we went swimming in the pool. Later Mick barbequed delicious chicken shawarma and friends came over. We talked into the night about what we got out of the retreat and goals for the future.

The last night
Then we went to bed. The bittersweet morning, as explained above, happened. We said our goodbyes with the hope to return next year with a few check-ins now and then.

Final group shot

You know a place is magical when it has the Maltese Falcon
 
I am fortunate that Stephen and Sarah live here in LA and we get to meet in a writer's group almost every week. Holly provided us with a great location to dig in and take writing seriously again and to enjoy time with good friends. Of course, I came back to work to find myself overwhelmed and having to prepare for a work "retreat" the following day. But I'm more centered and focused now. Thank you, Holly and Mick, for a wonderful time.

Have you ever been on a retreat before? Would you want to go on one or have a staycation instead?
















Travis Richardson is originally from Oklahoma and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. He has been a finalist and nominee for the Macavity, Anthony, and Derringer short story awards. He has two novellas and his short story collection, BLOODSHOT AND BRUISED, came out in late 2018. He reviewed Anton Chekhov short stories in the public domain at www.chekhovshorts.com. Find more at www.tsrichardson.com


                                                                           


22 September 2019

Florida News – Boobs, Bars, and T-Shirts

by Leigh Lundin

Florida postcard
An Eagle, a Fish, and a Dolphin walk into a sandbar

There’s this baseball game, see, and an osprey carrying a fish– ospreys look quite a bit like bald eagles– but, well, and this Dolphin catches the fish…

Wait. I’m way behind bringing news of the nation’s craziest state, stories both current and of recent history. Amaze your friends at your foresight not living in the land of the loony. Better read it for yourself.

To ride, you must be this high.

An out-of-state great-granny saves her shekels to vacation with her family at Walt Disney World. Like others her age, she suffers various aches and pains, shrugged off in a nation that hates to hand out pain medication. Fortunately, her home state of North Carolina allows her to medicate with CBD oil, an extract of cannabis, the hemp plant. Unfortunately, Florida forbids. A Disney security guard spots the bottle with tincture of THC and arrests the dangerous felon. The good news: our local controversial assistant state attorney, Aramis Ayala, refuses to prosecute.

Flintstone car © Hanna-Barbera
Yabba-Dabba-Doofus

Not just grandmothers. What other place would arrest Fred Flintstone for speeding? (Check the photos. I love the guy’s imagination, I really do.)

Battling Boobs

Waddya do when you think another mother dresses too sexily? You expose her, of course… literally.

Bouncing Boobs

Bouncing off the pavement, in fact. In the early morning hours, a drunk guy leaves strip bar and falls from his truck. Truck continues without driver, not good news.

And Still More Boobs

In the back of a police car, no less. Lordy, lordy, how drunk must one be. Thanks to Sharon for this one.

Revenge, a Dish best served with a Tip

Girl-boy argue. Girl takes boy’s credit card. Girl dines alone. Girl leaves tip. Girl arrested.

Facebook, I keep warning you!


Dummy burglars steal a safe. They can’t resist bragging on Facebook. Helpful hint: Cops visit Facebook too.

@ University of Tennesee T-shirt by Florida 4th grader
Volunteers

We go all the way to Tennessee to find a Florida feel-good story. A 4th grader who makes his own fan T-shirt finds himself derided by the mean girls. When the University of Tennessee hears about the bullying, they buy the design and offer the child a free scholarship eight years from now. Got to love my new favorite university.

21 September 2019

Acronyms and Backronyms


by John M. Floyd


Today I don't want to talk about mysteries or novels or movies or short stories or the writing process . . . but I do want to talk about words. Specifically about three kinds of words: initials, acronyms, and something called backronyms--and things that I found interesting about them. Bear with me, here.


Initials

Definition: The first letters of a name or of words forming part of a phrase.

Most are instantly familiar to us as readers and writers: FBI, CIA, IBM, JFK, LBJ, BYOB, POW, MIA, ADHD, DOA, DOB, SUV, UFO, AKA, DVD, TNT, TGIF, DNA, AM/PM, CST, YTD, ETA, MBA, VP, CEO, IQ, IOU, FDIC, IRS, ATM, AARP, BS, NFL, PGA, CBS, NBC, UHF/VHF, and many, many others. And, more recently, OMG, WTF, BFF, LOL, IMO, IMHO, TMI, BTW, FYI, BCC, and so on.


The words associated with some initials, though, are not so well known:

CVS -- Consumer Value Stores

BMW -- Bavarian Motor Works

WD-40 -- Water Displacement--40th Attempt

3M -- Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing

ESPN -- Entertainment and Sports Programming Network

FAO Schwartz -- Frederick August Otto Schwartz

M&Ms -- Mars and Murrie's

CD-ROM -- Compact Disk Read-Only Memory

RSVP -- Respondez S'il Vous Plait

NOTE: These are not acronyms, because they aren't actual words. The term here is initialism.


Something that's also interesting, I think, is that there are now so many shortened words--abbreviations that have become, in some cases, more familiar than the expanded versions: limo, ad, photo, dorm, stats, hippo, rhino, email, ref, grad, exam, decaf, memo, lube, auto, flu, gator, croc, rep, sub, gym, vet, fridge, bike, semi, sitcom, deli, combo, etc. I doubt that some younger folks even know what a limousine is.



Acronyms

Definition: A pronounceable word formed by the initial letters or other parts of several words.

Again, some acronyms and their component words are well known: POTUS, NASA, ASAP, MADD, AIDS, NATO, etc.

In other cases, we might know the acronym better than we know its parts. Examples:

NERF -- Non-Expandable Recreational Foam

TASER -- Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle

LASER -- Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation

RADAR -- RAdio Detection And Ranging

SONAR -- SOund Navigation And Ranging

SCUBA -- Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus

CANOLA oil -- CANada Oil, Low Acid

CARE package -- Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (later changed to the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere)

PAM -- Product of Arthur Meyerhoff

GEICO -- Government Employees Insurance Company

NABISCO -- NAtional BIScuit COmpany

NASDAQ -- National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotation

SNAFU -- Situation Normal, All F***ed Up

AWOL -- Absent WithOut Leave

HUMVEE -- High Mobility Multi-purpose wheeled Vehicle (actually HMMWV)

SWAT -- Special Weapons and Tactics

KISS -- Keep It Simple, Stupid

BIT -- BInary digiT

PIN -- Personal Identification Number

MODEM -- MOdulator/DEModulator

JPEG -- Joint Photographic Experts Group

SIM card -- Subscriber Identification Module card

SPAM -- Shoulder of Pork And Ham, or SPiced hAM

AFLAC -- American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus

EPCOT -- Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (or Every Person Comes Out Tired)


Backronyms

Definition: A constructed, deliberately formed word whose initial letters are made to fit a previously determined word or phrase. They may be invented with either serious or humorous intent, and are sometimes called reverse acronyms. Examples:

GROSS -- Get Rid Of Slimy girlS (from Calvin and Hobbes)

TEA Party -- Taxed Enough Already

ZIP code -- Zone Improvement Plan

BASE jumping -- Building, Antenna, Span, or Earth (fixtures you can jump from)

SHERLOCK -- Sherlock Holmes Enthusiastic Readers League Of Criminal Knowledge

RALPH -- Royal Association for the Longevity and Preservation of the Honeymooners

BISON -- Biodiversity Serving Our Nation

COLTS -- Consumer On-Line Transaction System (named for the then-Baltimore football team)

JOVIAL -- Jules's Own Version of International Algebraic Language

GEORGE -- Georgetown Environmentalists Organization against Rats, Garbage, and Emissions

NOISE -- Neighbors Opposed to Irritating Sound Emissions

COBRA -- Cabinet Office Briefing Room A

And, from movies/TV:

SPECTRE -- the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion

UNCLE -- United Netword Command for Law and Enforcement

THRUSH -- Technical Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity

KABOOM -- Key Atomic Benefits Organization Of Mankind (from the Naked Gun movies)

MASH -- Mobile Army Surgical Hospital

FIST -- Federated InterState Truckers

WALL-E -- Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class

RED -- Retired, Extremely Dangerous

CHUD -- Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller


Some backronyms are misleading (words mistakenly believed to be acronyms). Examples:

SOS -- Does not mean "Save Our Ship." It was chosen merely because its letters have a simple Morse code representation (three dots, three dashes, three dots).

YAHOO -- Did not come from "Yet Another Hierarchical Official Oracle." Its founders liked the word's meaning of "rude, unsophisticated, uncouth," from Gulliver's Travels.

COP -- Is not "Constable On Patrol."

NEWS -- Is not "North, East, West, and South."

CABAL -- Did not come from King Charles II's five ministers: Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale. Its use predated them.

POSH -- Is not "Port Out, Starboard Home." It's derived from a word for "overdressed dandy."

GOLF -- Is not "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden."

PING -- Is not "Packet InterNet Groper." It's a utility to test (via packets) connectivity between computers.

WIKI -- Is not "What I Know Is." It's derived from the Hawaiian wiki-wiki, meaning fast.

TIP -- Is not "To Insure Promptness."

ADIDAS -- Did not come from "All Day I Dream About Sports." Its founder was Adolf "Adi" Dassler.

AMBER alert -- Did not come from "America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response." It was actually named after a missing child, Amber Hagerman.

Some goofy backronyms:

FORD -- Fix Or Repair Daily

BING -- Because It's Not Google

NAVY -- Never Again Volunteer Yourself

DELTA -- Don't Ever Leave the Airport, or Don't Expect Luggage To Arrive


In closing, two of my favorite acronyms/backronyms from my days in the Air Force;

FIGMO -- A soldier who's happily being discharged or transferred (F*** It, I Got My Orders)

OMGIF (FIGMO spelled backward) -- A soldier whose expected discharge/transfer was canceled (Oh My God, I been F***ed)


And a backcronym I found for Lee Iacocca: I Am Chairman Of Chrysler Corporation America. (Couldn't resist mentioning that one.)


OK, FYI, I'm off to the ATM, and then I'm AWOL for two weeks.  See you then.







20 September 2019

When the Muse Takes a Powder

by Janice Law

Although there are authors of unrivaled productivity, nearly every writer comes to periods when the Muse is unavailable. She’s pitched her hammock somewhere on the slopes of Mount Olympus, or if your favor a more modern goddess, she’s on a beach somewhere drinking pina coladas and checking her smart phone. But don’t try to contact her – she’s not taking your calls at the moment, whether you’re sacrificing at Delphi or chasing ideas on the web.
Muses by Eustace LeSueur

I’m not talking about writer’s block here, although that is another and probably more famous affliction. Joseph Conrad left two vivid descriptions of this malady. In a famous letter to Edward Garnett, he apologized for his slow correspondence. “I ought to have written to you before, but the fact is I have not written anything at all. … In the course of that working day of 8 hours I write 3 sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair.”  In another letter he noted, surprisingly, that his imagination was extremely active during these bleak periods: “Everything is there: descriptions, dialogue, reflexion—everything—everything but the belief, the conviction, the only thing needed to make me put pen to paper.”

Joseph Conrad
Most of us would be happy to have descriptions and dialogue not to mention reflection in the hopper, but when the Muse takes a powder, it’s not will that’s lacking for most of us but ideas. Perhaps we can take some comfort in the fact that inspiration can desert even the great. I recently came across a quote from T. S. Eliot in a review of a new volume of his letters. Declaring “ it is a nuisance to be a poet”, he continues, “When it is a life work, you are sure to find from time to time that your inspiration is exhausted, and that you either repeat yourself, or stop writing. These are painful, but necessary periods.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The last sentence is the one I find most significant, especially his comment that these unpleasant dry periods are necessary. I think I agree. At the same time, I suspect that I am not the only writer that faces these fallow times with a touch of dread, fearing rationally or not, that this time the Muse and all her precious ideas are gone for good. It’s certainly possible and, at my age, increasingly likely.

On the other hand, she’s always come back before which gets us to the next question. If she cannot be summoned directly is there anything that helps? Well yes. Effort does sometimes work. Conrad, you will note, was seated at his desk for eight miserable hours a day struggling. Blocked as a poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote voluminously, turning out much admired essays and criticism, but while Conrad managed more novels, Coleridge’s poetry did not return.

On a much humbler level, I have found over the years that ideas come directly from work, particularly when the work is non-fiction or shorter prose fiction. One trains the subconscious to notice what will make, say, a good feature piece or a good short mystery story. In a slightly different way, work on a novel, which begins in a burst of inspiration, enthusiasm, and pleasure, dwindles about the second week to a slog not too different from Conrad’s misery at the writing desk.

Muse regarding a MS
with some skepticism
This is when persistence and craft have to take over until around week 3 or 4, one makes the happy discovery that more copy is waiting each morning. The Muse has been called back by hard work and conscious thought and now the subconscious can do its job.

But sometimes even dedicated persistence does not work. I started a novella a couple of years ago with the usual enthusiasm, wrote several nicely crafted sections, and came to a shuddering halt. Everything was set up nicely, prose was good, voice interesting, characters all right – but the story went nowhere.

It was only a few months ago, that, trying to clean out my file drawers, I read it over, thought it was pretty good, and after a couple weeks of struggle, got back on track and finished the thing. So, while I always encouraged students to try regular habitual writing, I must say that I also believe in the hydraulic theory of composition. The subconscious takes time to fill up. There is only so much energy, inspiration, enthusiasm and confidence available at any one time. Deplete them, and you have to let the Muse lounge in her hammock for a while.


19 September 2019

The Roman Emperor Elagabalus & His Big Stone God

by Brian Thornton

[Today's entry is the latest in my on-going miniseries cataloging infamous bastards throughout history. For previous entries, click herehere, and here.]

I will not describe the barbaric chants which [Elagabalus], together with his mother and grandmother, chanted to [Elagabal], or the secret sacrifices that he offered to him, slaying boys and using charms, in fact actually shutting up alive in the god’s temple a lion, a monkey and a snake, and throwing in among them human genitals, and practicing other unholy rites.

                                                                                                                                — Dio Cassius



If you’re going to catalogue historical bastardry throughout the ages, you’d better plan to touch on that colorful period in the historical record known as “Imperial Rome.”  As with the Papacy, the sheer number of men who wore the emperor’s purple robes over the empire’s five-plus centuries lends itself to the likelihood that the throne would occasionally be occupied by someone so “eccentric” that he stood out in a crowded field of “personalities” like Michael Jordan playing basketball with a bunch of kindergarteners.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Varius Avitus Bassianus, a young, Syrian-born aristocrat who ruled the empire under the very Roman-sounding name of “Marcus Aurelius Antoninus” from 218 to 222 A.D., but was better known by the nick-name “Elagabalus.”

Elagabalus was so much more than an emperor.  He was also the hereditary high priest of a Syrian sun god cult that worshipped a craggy, two-ton phallic-shaped meteorite as the actual physical incarnation of his god (“Elagabal,” or “El-Gabal,” from which he derived his nick-name).  He was also a transsexual cross-dresser who wore more make-up than most strippers, and allegedly worked as a hooker out of his rooms in the imperial palace.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg (or, if you prefer, the meteorite).

Elagabalus was a shirt-tail relation of the great (and ruthless) emperor Septimius Severus.  His grandmother was Severus’ sister-in-law.  When Severus’ direct line died out (and the story of how that all played out is grist for a future post), Elagabalus’ grandmother (Julia Maesa) and mother (Julia Soaemias) schemed along with a eunuch named Gannys to put the boy forward as a plausible claimant to the imperial throne.

The kid was all of fourteen.  But, a couple of battles, an army proclamation declaring him emperor and an execution of the unpopular if effective Gannys later, and Elagabalus (along with his mother and grandmother) was on his way to Rome.

When he got there he made quite a splash, not least because he brought his god with him.

Literally.

This massive “sky stone” was ensconced in a new temple complex built expressly for it, right next to the old Flavian Amphitheatre (what we know today as the “Colosseum”) on Rome’s Palatine Hill, and named the “Elagaballium.”

The big rock even got its own coin!
During Rome’s annual Midsummer Day festival, the ancient writer Herodian reports:

[Elagabalus] placed the sun god in a chariot adorned with gold and jewels and brought him out from the city to the suburbs.  A six-horse chariot carried the divinity, the horses huge and flawlessly white, with expensive gold fittings and rich ornaments.  No one held the reins, and no one rode with the chariot; the vehicle was escorted as if the god himself were the charioteer.  Elagabalus ran backward in front of the chariot, facing the god and holding the horses’ reins.  He made the whole journey in this reverse fashion, looking up into the face of his god.

Aquilia Severa
As if that weren’t shaking things up enough for his new subjects, Elagabalus promptly swept aside the old Roman pantheon of gods, and “married” his god Elagabal to the Roman goddess Minerva.  As a mortal “echo” of this Heavenly union Elagabalus then did the truly unthinkable: he took one of Rome’s Vestal Virgins as his wife.  Dedicated to the Roman mother goddess Vesta, whose service obliged these priestesses to remain virgins during their thirty years of service.  If one of them didn’t, the punishment was for her to be buried alive.  And Elagabalus took one of them, a woman named Aquilia Severa as his wife not once, but twice!

In the four years he was emperor Elagabalus took at least three different women as his wife.  These marriages were likely arranged by his grandmother and mother (“the Julias”) in order to help preserve the fiction that “Imperator Marcus Aurelius Antoninus” was a solid, dependable Roman citizen and emperor, rather than the capricious Syrian drag-queen high-priest of a bloody-thirsty sun-worshipping cult.  It was hoped that keeping up this appearance would help cement support for his reign.  In fact, these two formidable women proved themselves to be particularly shrewd and capable administrators.  Put simply, things ran so smoothly in Rome and throughout the empire that for a while people didn’t seem to mind how much of a “free spirit” their emperor appeared to be.

And a “free spirit” he definitely was.  Although Romans had tolerated the tendency among some of their previous emperors to take male lovers, homosexuality in ancient Rome was by and large frowned upon.  Elagabalus flouted this attitude by taking as his “husband” a big, burly slave from Caria; a charioteer of some skill named Hierocles.  One of his favorite roles to play was that of the “cheating wife,” allowing himself to be “caught” in bed with another man by Hierocles, who then beat the emperor (who apparently enjoyed “rough trade”), at times so badly that ‘he had black eyes’ for days afterward.

Probably transsexual, Elagabalus seemed obsessed with becoming more like a woman, not with just taking men to bed. The Historia Augusta reports that the emperor “had the whole of his body depilated,” and according to the disapproving contemporary historian and senator Dio Cassius, Elagabalus “had planned, indeed, to cut off his genitals altogether,” but settled for having himself circumcised as “a part of the priestly requirements” of his cult.

By the time Elagabalus turned seventeen his continual nose-thumbing at Rome’s religious, social and sexual norms began to take a toll on his public image.  In 221 two different legions mutinied and just barely missed proclaiming their respective generals “augustus” (“emperor”) in his stead.

The formidable Julia Maesa
This unrest did not escape the attention of Elagabalus’ grandmother, the Augusta Julia Maesa.  Her hold on the levers of power depended on her grandson staying in the good graces of both the people and army, and his increasingly erratic behavior and eroding popularity with his subjects made the dowager empress very nervous.

She opted to advance Bassianus Alexianus, another of her grandsons, as Elagabalus’ co-ruler and “heir” (he was only four years younger than Elagabalus) with the ruling name “Severus Alexander.”  He too had a strong-willed mother named “Julia” (Julia Mamea), who “guided his actions.”

At first Elagabalus and his mother went along with the move.  Within weeks, however, the senior emperor had changed his mind and tried to have his younger cousin killed.  A power struggled ensued.  The modest, retiring Alexander was popular with the people, and especially with the army.
Don't make demands while standing in their camp!

It all finally came to a head in March of 222, when Elagabalus flew into a rage during a meeting with the commanders of his personal bodyguard (the Praetorian Guard, which also acted as the city of Rome’s police force).  Having been reminded again and again of the “virtues” of his younger cousin, Elagabalus once more called for Alexander’s arrest and execution, bitterly denouncing the Praetorians for preferring his cousin to himself.

It was not a smart thing to do this while still standing in the middle of their camp.

The emperor, only just eighteen years old, was chased down by his own bodyguard and killed in one of the camp latrines.  Supposedly his last words were, “Leave my mother alone!”  If those actually were his final wishes, they were ignored.  His mother was killed right alongside him.  Their bodies were beheaded, and dragged through the streets of Rome.  The corpse of Elagabalus wound up in the Tiber River: the sort of burial that contemporary Roman law reserved for criminals.

Later historians (especially Christians) whipped up improbable tales of human sacrifice conducted by this teenaged demagogue, and speculated wildly about the various depravities in which he might have indulged.  This speculation included the unlikely story of how “Heliogabalus” (sic) invited several very important people to a dinner party only to have them smothered to death under the weight of several hundred pounds of flowers.  This painting trades upon that myth.



The truth as we can divine it about Elagabalus is far more interesting.  After all, what gender-confused, hormonally addled teenager wouldn’t go off the rails if handed the literal “keys to the kingdom”?  It sure makes for one fascinating bastard.

A modern artist's (rather tame) vision of Elagabalus' entry into Rome, complete with dancing girls and his big stone god
See you in two weeks!

18 September 2019

All the World's a Con, Dublin Style


by Robert Lopresti

Two weeks ago I wrote about my recent trip to Ireland.  We finished up at the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin.  Imagine 5,000 plus dedicated fans spending five days discussing books, movies, writing, science, and related issues.  Bouchercon on steroids.  So here are some highlights, and a few, uh, sidelights.

As it happened the first panel I attended was "A Portable Sort of Magic: Why We Love Books About Books."  Oddly enough, it turned out to NOT be about books.  It was mostly psalms in favor of libraries; not that I complained about that.  Genevieve Cogman writes a series of books called the Invisible Library, which (as I understood it) features people collecting books from around the universe.  A.J. Hackwith has written The Library of the Unwritten, about the place that books go if their authors never get around to writing them.  Tasha Suri, who is also a librarian, made useful distinctions between a library and an archive (briefly: an archive stores the only or original copy of something).

She also pointed out that those beloved "little libraries" that pop up on so many street corners are not libraries either.  They are book swaps.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course.  And I learned that almost every bus in Hamburg, Germany, has a book swap shelf.  What a great idea!

For some reason I wound up seeing a lot of panels featuring editors, and they were full of startling moments.  For example, one important book editor was not familiar with the phrase "Kill your darlings," which astonished me.

At one panel someone mentioned elevator pitches and editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden quoted what seemed to be a standard joke pitch for (I assume) a TV series:  "He's a chimp.  She's the Pope.  They're cops."  I'd watch that!

There was a panel of anthology editors and I asked: when they solicit stories from authors, what do they tell them about payment?  The editors seemed astonished.  "Nothing!" they declared.  Apparently science fiction authors are much less tied to petty materialistic things than mystery writers...

But the highlight for me was when I attended a panel featuring Wataru Ishigame, who edits science fiction for Tokyo Sogen.  Afterwards I went up to introduce myself and explain our connection but I never got the chance.  As soon as he saw my name tag he said "We publish your books!"  So we had a lovely chat.

I attended interesting science panels on "The Future of Food" and on DNA testing.  I won't attempt to summarize that stuff.

But honestly I didn't attend as many panels as I hoped because the Convention Centre Dublin was overwhelmed.  If you wanted to attend a session at noon you had to forgo any 11 AM session and get in line by 11:30.  It was that kind of crowding.  And the security staff was pretty unbearable, especially on the first day.  (The week before had been Comicon and I wonder if they were, in effect, fighting the last war?)

My favorite example of the problem.  My wife had been waiting in line for half an hour when a security guard came up and told her she was facing the wrong way.  Not that she was in the wrong place.  Not that she was in the wrong line.  But that she had to turn around and face the same direction as everyone else.  Daring rebel that she is, my wife said "No," and the guard backed down.  But, sheesh.

One more story.  I volunteered to work at the Registration Desk on Wednesday and Thursday morning.  During my four hour shift on Thursday my daypack vanished.  I didn't think any member of the public would have been able to steal it so I figured one of the other registration mavens had relocated it.  But no one could find it.

The good news is, it turned up on Saturday, literally minutes before I was going to leave to try to purchase a replacement.  I am very grateful to everyone who hunted for it and made an effort to get it back to me.

But, as they say in management school, it is possible to distinguish between process and product.  While the product was great (got my daypack!) the process had a few bumpy patches.  To illustrate, let me imagine a discussion that must have occurred.  I will try to refrain from sarcasm.

"Hey! Here is the daypack that charming and devilishly handsome volunteer was looking for.  I will take it across the foyer to the Lost and Found desk."  
"No, don't do that."
"Ah, I understand.  Because it is the end of the day you think I should take it directly three flights up to the Ops Office where lost objects are locked safely away for the night."
"No, don't do that either.  I happen to know that that volunteer's wife was working in the Finance Office, so take it up there."
"Are you sure she will volunteer there again?"
"No, but it stands to reason if she did one shift she will do another, doesn't it?"
"I suppose so.  Very well.  I will carry the daypack up the five flights and leave a note for her so she  knows it's there."
"Don't be silly!  No need to waste trees with paper notes. Just tell whoever is in the Finance Office about it and if/when she returns I'm sure one of the people you mention it to will happen to be there at the same time, will recognize her, remember what you mentioned, and be able to find the pack in the office, which, of course, is not set up to store missing items."
"Yes, that makes perfect sense.  But first I will stroll over to the Lost and Found Desk and tell them so they can stop looking for the pack and delete it from their database of missing objects."
"Again, why this obsession with direct communication?  I'm sure if we simply float happy thoughts in their direction they will grasp that the object has been found and make the corrections to their files."
"Thanks.  Now I understand.  I will  carry the daypack up five flights on the overcrowded escalators the nice security guards asked us not to overuse, rather than simply walking across the foyer to the Lost and Found Desk where any sensible person would expect a missing object to be returned."

Possibly a smidge of sarcasm slipped in there.  I hope you didn't notice.

To be fair, a Worldcon attendee whose opinion I greatly respect told me she would have also decided to bring the bag up to the Finance Office.  I replied: would you have told the Lost and Found folks that it had been recovered?  No, she said, but it would have been a good idea.

I think so too.

Those of you have seen my reports on other events can guess that I am about to include some quotes from panels.  There aren't so many this time because of the issues described above, but here you go...

"We can't put stuff back in Pandora's box but we can slip a warning label on the side." - Aimee Ogden

"A library is essentially a place of possibility." - A.J. Hackwith

"He's the sort of person you have to go into business with or you have to have him killed." - Patrick Nielsen Hayden

"When I originally wrote that novel I had a main character who I fired.  We had a labor dispute." - Benjamin Rosenbaum

"If your voice goes up at the end that doesn't necessarily make it a question." - Ginjer Buchanan

"I love that book.  It should not work.  It annoys me that he's that brilliant." - Laura Anne Gilman

"I am a science fiction writer and that is why I'm not having my DNA tested." -Aimee Ogden

"You have to blame something and it can't be me." - John R. Douglas

17 September 2019

Pithy and Thought-Provoking...or Not

by Michael Bracken

I’ve been so busy the past month that I’ve not had time to draft something pithy and thought-provoking. In August, I traveled to Colorado to attend the debut of a play written and directed by my youngest son. Then Temple and I traveled to Indiana to visit my daughter—whom I’ve not seen in eight years—and her family, which includes grandchildren we met for the first time. Before, between, and after the trips, I’ve been reading through submissions to a special issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and working on Season 2 of Guns + Tacos (due out in 2020) and Mickey Finn 2 (due out in 2021).

So, I dove into the files and found the following, a presentation I gave to the Mystery Writers of America’s Southwest Chapter at their September 2018 luncheon in Houston.


SHORT STORIES: FROM CONCEPT TO SALE, HOW THIS FORM CAN SATISFY

I write short stories. A lot of them.

In a publishing environment where many writers bemoan the lack of markets for short fiction, I’ve placed more than 1,200 short stories. That’s 4.2 million words, give or take, or the equivalent of 70 short novels.

When I began writing as a teenager in the 1970s, short story publication was considered the first step to becoming a genre novelist. Writers learned their craft by publishing short fiction in the popular magazines of the day before grappling with the complexity and length of novels. They established writing credentials, providing heft to their query and cover letters, and developed a readership before their first novel ever hit the wire racks at the grocery store.

That doesn’t seem to happen much today, and many writers, perhaps encouraged by the ease of publication offered by low-cost self-publishing, leap directly into novel writing without first establishing their writing skills and publishing credentials. Among those who succeed as novelists, some write short stories as an afterthought and some established novelists write short fiction only at the invitation of anthology editors. Whether they succeed or fail as novelists, few writers make a sincere effort to write short stories and fewer still earn a significant portion of their income from short fiction.

That’s a mistake.

Writing short fiction has several advantages over writing novels. A writer who devotes time and attention to short fiction can explore different genres, can experiment with different styles, and can develop a familiarity with several genres faster than most novelists. Additionally, short story writers quickly discover which genres play to their strengths and can avoid, or at least mitigate, the career damage caused by spending too much time dabbling in inappropriate genres.

As high school students, my best friend and I were determined to become the next Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. For several years I kept science fiction short stories circulating among all the professional and semi-professional science fiction magazines, but I achieved only modest success. On the other hand, after encouragement from the editor of a men’s magazine, I sold the first three mystery short stories I wrote. I have since sold short fiction in nearly every genre—with particular success in crime fiction and women’s fiction—and I continue to try new things.

Markets for short fiction no longer assault you at every magazine rack the way they did during the heyday of the pulp magazines or even during the 1970s when I began my career. Back then I could easily locate several dozen magazines devoted to short fiction—mystery, science fiction, and women’s fiction the most prevalent.

While some genre magazines remain—Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s among them—and new genre magazines come and go, the best markets for short stories may be publications not known for publishing fiction. The weekly publication Woman’s World, for example, publishes 104 short stories each year, one romance and one mystery each issue.

Finding markets for short fiction, therefore, becomes a literary treasure hunt, one that only the truly dedicated attempt. I regularly stand at magazine racks and thumb through magazines I don’t normally read, looking for evidence of short fiction. I also search for on-line publications and print publications that maintain an on-line presence, looking for publications I can’t find at local newsstands. Sometimes what I find is clearly identified as fiction; sometimes it isn’t. For example, the short stories I used to write for True Story were presented as if they are, in fact, true.

Literary and small press publications—both on-line and in print—also publish fiction. Unfortunately, they often pay little or nothing. Prior to submitting to small press publications, I examine them carefully to determine if the stories they publish are well written and presented in a professional manner, if the contributors include writers well-known in their genre, and if any stories they have published have later been nominated for awards or been included in best-of-year anthologies.

General interest magazines are increasingly hard to find as publishers target narrower and narrower demographics. So, one of the most important things to remember in today’s publishing environment is the need to write to market.

While many writers prefer to write first and seek appropriate publications later, I’ve found it beneficial to target my markets before I begin writing. Targeting markets is a two-step process that involves understanding the conventions of the genre or sub-genre in which I write and then understanding the publications for which I wish to write.

Many of today’s publications seek to address a particular audience. A close examination of any magazine will reveal a great deal of information about the publication’s readers or, at least, the readers the publication is attempting to reach. Often the fiction contained within these publications presents characters the readers see as “just like me” or an idealized “just like me,” so the more I know about the readers, the better I am able to develop appropriate characters and plots when I write for these publications.

On a more practical level, I determine how many short stories the magazine publishes each issue, the length of the stories, what genre or genres are represented, and any stylistic requirements the magazine may have. Once I’ve done all that, it’s time to write.

The keys to successfully placing short stories—presuming basic literacy and some minimum level of talent—are high productivity and dogged determination. Beginning August 2003 and ending May 2018 I had one or more—sometimes as many as nine!—stories published each and every month. That’s 178 consecutive months. And beginning in July I’m three months into a new streak. That doesn’t happen without producing a lot of material.

While I don’t write fiction every day and don’t set daily page count or word count goals the way other writers do, I do set goals. I determine how many sales I’d like to achieve in a given year, and then I determine how many short stories I must complete to reach that goal. When I first began pounding the keyboard as a teenager, my goal was to sell one story. To anybody. After I achieved that, my goal was to sell a second story. Back then I completed dozens of short stories for each one that finally reached publication. My odds have improved since then and I now complete approximately eleven stories for every ten that sell.

I also keep manuscripts circulating on the firm belief that my work will be published eventually. These days some of my stories are written on assignment and many others are accepted by the first or second editor to read them—in part because I’m a more experienced writer and in part because I have a better understanding of the markets—but a few of my published stories were seen by dozens of editors before acceptance and one story—“I Can’t Touch the Clouds for You” (Sun, July 25, 2005)—spent thirty years visiting slush piles before reaching print.

Writing short fiction has allowed me to entertain many readers, to work with editors across multiple genres, and to generate steady income from writing while developing my craft.

And, if I ever decide to write another novel, I’m going to have one hell of a cover letter.

My story “Love, Or Something Like It” appears in the forthcoming Crime Travel (Wildside Press), an anthology of time travel mysteries, edited by fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman. Learn more and preorder here.