19 October 2018

Mystery Map

by Stephen Ross
I made a map. But before I tell you about it, let me explain why I made a map... in one sentence: Writers like to procrastinate. If you're a writer, you know that sentence well. You probably even have it printed on a t-shirt. You probably even took the time out to design and hand-make the t-shirt. I know this well. I have spent many happy hours designing t-shirt ideas: catchy, writerly phrases. Juxtapositions of images and words...

Anyway. 

It was the evening. It was raining. I had finished another chapter of the WIP, but rather than start on the third draft of the next one, I remembered something I had learnt during the week in my day job: how to create a Google map and populate it with custom location pins. So, armed with a mug of chocolate tea and a plate of late evening chocolate cookies (chocolate is always the best kind of procrastination), I set about making a map of the world identifying the locations where my published short stories have been set.

I created an icon/pin for each of the three categories I write in, assigned each story a category, and stuck in a pin where each was set; adding notation of when and where it was published.

It was an educational experience. I had this idea in my head that I had set only a few stories in New Zealand, maybe two or three. Wrong. There were in fact six.

I also had this idea that most of my stories were set in the United States. Wrong. Most of my stories are set in Europe, and even if the United Kingdom continues with its insanity and brexits away from continental Europe, the UK, alone, will still have the same number of stories set in it as the US.

Another interesting thing I learnt was that only two of my stories are set in fictional towns. Most of my stories are set in real, named places, typically cities, e.g., Los Angeles, London, Frankfurt. Bad Memory even drills down and mentions a whole cobweb of real street names and locations (it's set in West Auckland, where I grew up).

Some stories have no named setting, but it's reasonably clear and implied where it's set. The Man from the Future is set in the English countryside, near a river and near the coast, and the voice of the narrator (it's first person) is Snotty British. It's never said on the page, but in my head the story was set in Devon.

What's interesting about the two fictional places I made up is that both were for horror stories (with a young narrator). The youthful narrator of Feed the Birds departs Paddington train station bound for Abercrumble House in the Hertley Forest. There is no Hertley Forest in the North West of England. Or anywhere in the UK. The teenage boy in The Tall Ones finds himself swept up in a Lovecraftian nightmare in the small town of Redgrave on the shore of Lake Michigan. Yup. No Redgrave at Lake Michigan (unless you're thinking of Michael Redgrave in the movie Thunder Rock).

Probably my favourite location of all for a story, and in real life, is Metz. It's a small town in the North East of France. I've holidayed there a couple of times. It features two rivers, interesting architecture, a fantastic museum, coffee, 3000+ years of history (a woman in a bookstore there told me the town was the birth place of Gregorian Chant), and there's a dragon in cathedral's basement.

I set Monsieur Alice is Absent (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, 2010) in Metz. This has always been one of my favorite stories (a story dear to my heart, as they say) and now is a good time to mention it's being reprinted in the Terror at the Crossroads anthology that's being edited by Jackie Sherbow and Emily Hockaday at Dell Magazines. It comes out later this month. I can't wait!

My map of stories, of course, is rather sparse. I don't have that many published stories, compared to my fellow Sleuthsayers. I can image a similar map made by any one of them would be a carpet of icons. And by delightful coincidence, the day after I started making a map and writing this blog post, John posted an article about settings: A Whole Town--Imagine That. In which, he asked: As a writer, what works for you? Do you usually create your own town/city names, or do you install your characters in real-life locations? So, John, take this as my answer :)

So, what next? Oh, yeah, back to the next chapter in the third draft of the WIP. :P

Or maybe another t-shirt design.

Oh, and yes. You can look at my map here: Stephen's Story Map.


18 October 2018

While I Was Out...

by Jim Winter


Hey Gang- Here it is: history in the making. After a long hiatus from Adventures in Crime Fictioneering, my old buddy Jim Winter has agreed to pinch-hit for me on this go-round in the Sleuthsayers rotation.

A bit about Jim: "Jim Winter" is the witness protection name of science fiction writer TS Hottle. As Jim, he wrote the Nick Kepler series and Road Rules, a raucous tale about a trip from Cleveland to Savannah with a stolen holy relic in the trunk. At the insistence of his wife Candy, his original novel Northcoast Shakedown, will return to publication in the next few weeks, followed by his novels Second Hand Goods, and Bad Religion. As TS, he can be found at tshottle.com. As Jim Winter, he will be back on teh intrawebz soon and is shopping his EXCELLENT police procedural novel, Holland Bay, as we speak. He is a software developer and lives with his wife, Candy, in suburban Cincinnati.

(And by the way, I can say that Holland Bay is "excellent," because I served as a first reader on it, and let me tell you: it's a damned fine read!) And on that note, take it away, Jim! 
–Brian

OK, where was I before I absconded under my birth name to become the next James SA Corey. (Hey, could still happen! I've already been two people.)

Ah, yes, I was talking about real crime and fictional cities. And if I'm invited back, I'll have more to say on setting and characters and where events in crime fiction come from. Like listening to what led to the Jonestown Massacre.

But today, I'm going to talk about when crime staggered into my personal life. The year was 2015. When I got divorced, I had a property east of Cincinnati that I still own but haven't lived in for 11 years as of this writing. My original tenant moved out shortly after I locked myself into a lease on an apartment. The original plan was to take back the condo after the lease was up. My tenant had other plans and had bought his own place closer to the city.

So I rented out the house to a young couple. At the time, I failed to do two things: 1.) Have a coworker at the background check company where I'd just started look over the background check that came back, and 2.) realize that no credit is worse than bad credit for a reason. I thought they were a young couple starting out.

It was not an easy eight months when they lived there. They were slowly destroying the property and annoying the neighbors, most of whom actually liked me before they moved in. What I did not know is that the Union Township Police had been to the house.

Several times.

See, here's a quirk in Ohio law. You can be evicted for just suspicion of drug use. I did not know this nor did I know the first police report contained the word "opiates" six times. The boyfriend spent July in jail on a parole violation. (This is why I use my employer for background checks now. I did not even know he was on parole.) But the following month...

It was a terrific day. I was up early. Got a great shower. Was going to be to work very early and knock out a project that had been much neglected. I get out of the shower to find seven missed phone calls from the boyfriend and a text. "Please call us. Emergency."

Great. They burned down my house. And probably the neighbors', too.

I call back to get tales of a wild animal trapping them in the bedroom. Yikes! They wanted me to call animal control, which is privatized in Clermont County, Ohio. It was $300 just to come out there.

Well... I pay property taxes to fund these people who carry guns called "Police" and promptly called the Union Township Police. I told them my tenants believed a wild animal was in the house. I called back. The animal was now a raccoon. OK, believable. With all the trash these two kept leaving on the back deck, I would not be surprised. Then I decided to head over myself. Something told me I would need to. I called again to say I was on my way.

"It's a coyote!"

OK, there are two possibilities. Clermont County - Hell, the area I live in the northern Cincinnati suburbs - is lousy with coyotes. Only they hunt in packs and don't usually come out in the day. Still, there was an outside possibility that this wild dog was in my house pissing, crapping, and digging all over my carpet.

Occam's razor suggested these two were higher than kites.

I arrived at the condo to find an annoyed police officer coming around the corner. "You the landlord?"

I said I was.

"There is no animal in there."

"Will your police report reflect their suspected drug use?"

"Are you kidding me?"

I wasn't. And it did. My new favorite police term became "Using 69," code for, "Suspect(s) high on narcotics." I was told to run, don't walk to the Union Township Police Station to request two police reports from June and from that August day for the property. I had them within the hour, including the one that said their children had been removed for "presence of opiates in the infant's bloodstream."

Holy God, those poor kids.

The kids were with relatives, and I soon had the couple booted from the house. It cost me a large chunk of my retirement fund to fix the place up, but I got the place turned around.

I've since looked in on them from time to time via the court web site. The tragedy here is that they still aren't clean, and they still are frequently in and out of jail. Since they are both usually non-violent offenders, the court turns them loose rather than take up space needed for more violent criminals.

It's a tragedy, one that needlessly plays out every day. Mt. Washington, where I used to live, went from quaint pseudo-suburb to an epicenter of the opioid crisis. The slide was not pretty and was just starting when I moved out.

I currently live in Deer Park, where the worst crime seems to be  committed by those idiots who set off firecrackers at 3 AM every freaking night between Memorial Day and July 4. Do I count myself lucky?

No, I got burned directly by the opioid epidemic, and so did several neighbors. And this couple's children. And quite often, I ask myself what might have happened if I had said no or moved back in myself. Naturally, I would have had less aggravation, but would those two still have their kids if they had to move back in with mom and dad? Would they have ended up getting clean?

We'll never know.

17 October 2018

Based on an Untrue Movie

by Robert Lopresti

When the movie American Animals  came to town this summer it was pretty much foreordained that I would see it.  The subject is attempted theft of rare books from a college library, a subject with which I am not unfamiliar.  In fact, the flick was based on an event I had already blogged briefly about.

To summarize,  four college students decided to get rich by stealing some valuable books from the Special Collections room at the library of Transylvania University in Kentucky.  Their planning technique consisted mostly of getting drunk/stoned and watching heist movies.  The resulting event  was a disaster and about the only positive things you can say about it are: 1) The victims did not suffer lasting physical damage, 2) No books were destroyed, and 3) All four of the fools went to prison.

The movie is worth seeing but I want to bring up one specific complaint about it.  It begins by pompously announcing that: this isn't based on a true story; it is a true story.

And, of course, it ain't.

The gimmick that makes American Animals unique is that while the main part of the story is carried out by actors, it also contains interviews with the actual culprits, and sometimes even shows the same scene more than once, to reflect the version of whoever is talking.  It's clever and interesting, but like I said, you are not seeing a true story.

I have complained before about a better movie that played fast and loose with the facts.  So call me a serial grumbler.

The important things that American Animals got wrong, as far as I am concerned, involved (surprise!) librarians.  The burglars in the movie showed much more concern about harming the rare books librarian than their real life counterparts did.  And the "true story" completely erased the library director who put herself in harm's way to try to stop the theft.  Maybe she didn't give the producers permission to include her?  I don't know but leaving her out was not the truth.

A few more questions and I am not the first person to ask them: If instead of white suburban guys the crooks had been African-American urbanites would this movie have been made?  If so would the script have tried so hard to show them as Good Boys Gone Wrong?  Hell, would they have even survived their arrests?

Unanswerable, of course.

By coincidence I just rewatched another movie based on a true story, one I liked better than American Animals or Argo.  The Informant! concerns Mark Whitacre who is apparently the highest executive to ever voluntarily turn whistleblower about his company's wrong deeds.  In the 1990s Whitacre was a biochemist and high-paid executive for ADM, one of the world's largest food processors.

And he told an FBI agent that his company was involved in an ongoing world-wide conspiracy to fix the prices for corn syrup, which finds its way into everything. As one agent says in amazement "Every American is a victim of corporate crime before he finishes breakfast."  So Whitacre agrees to wear a wire.

This sounds like we are building up to a dark brooding movie with heart-pounding suspense.  That's not what we get.  The flick is full of bright colors and Illinois sunshine and most of the time Whitacre seems to be having a marvelous time doing his spy gig.  At one point he shows his secret recorder to a virtual stranger and explains that he is Secret Agent Double-oh-fourteen "because I'm twice as smart as James Bond!'

Whitacre often provides a running narration on events, which is not surprising.  But his narrative almost never relates to what's going on.  As he is about to plot price-fixing with fellow executives he tells us: "I think I have nice hands.  They're probably my favorite part of my body..."

By now you may have the idea that Whitacre was not playing with a full corn silo.  In fact, as near as I can tell the place where the movie may depart most from the facts is in choosing to show us whether he was crazy from the start, or cracked under pressure.  (As his lawyer points out, FBI agents going undercover get training on coping with a double life.  All Whitacre got was a recorder and a firm handshake.)

I have simplified the story considerably.  The complications are what makes it so fascinating.  I loved watching Scott Bakula and Joel McHale playing FBI agents looking on in stunned horror as shoe after shoe after shoe drops on their case.

One person who seems to have had a wonderful time with this movie is composer Marvin Hamlisch.  In keeping with the spirit of the film, his music usually has nothing to do with the plot of the film.  When a character is taking a lie detector test the accompanying music is -- a square dance?

In closing, let me just wish that if they make a film of your life it has a happy ending.

16 October 2018

The Obstacle Ahead is a Mirror

by Michael Bracken

Michael Bracken and Josh Pachter
celebrate September birthdays
while at Bouchercon.
I’ve been writing long enough to recognize many of the obstacles that interfere with productivity. I’ve experienced the death of a parent, the death of a spouse, two divorces, four marriages, multiple job changes and relocations, heart surgery, and any number of other consequential life events. Yet, I can’t recall ever facing the obstacle that blocked my writing path throughout the middle half of this year.

During 2016 and 2017 my writing took a great leap forward, and my work was recognized in unexpected ways—leading to a lifetime achievement award in 2016; having a story included in The Best American Mystery Stories in 2018; placing stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and several new publications; and having other mystery writing opportunities fall into my lap. Unfortunately, sometime this spring all that good news overwhelmed me.

For many years, my schtick was to tout my productivity. I was the back-of-the-magazine, middle-of-the-anthology guy, the writer editors relied on to fill pages because they knew I was likely to turn in something on time and on theme that required little or no editorial sweat to make publishable.

For years I pounded out stories because writing was fun, and my head was (and is) filled with more stories than I will ever put on paper.

And then I stopped being that guy.

PLAY BECOMES WORK

I don’t know exactly when things changed, but I began to view my writing through a different lens. Instead of asking myself, “Is this fun?” I began asking myself, “Is this important? Is this significant? Is this noteworthy?”

And the answer, too often, was “no.”

I didn’t stop writing, but I set stories aside because they weren’t important, significant, or noteworthy. Then stories I did think were important, significant, and noteworthy—stories I felt confident would sell the first time out because I knew my markets—bounced back from editors with form rejections.

My mojo was no mo’.

WORK BECOMES PLAY

I did not have writer’s block. I didn’t stop writing but writing became a job I didn’t want to go to and didn’t want to do when I got there because it had stopped being fun.

This is how I felt in early September when Temple and I left home for Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, Florida. Unlike New Orleans, where Temple and I spent almost as much time wandering around the French Quarter as we spent at the convention, and Toronto, where I participated in numerous events, St. Petersburg was more about hanging out.

Like many attendees, too many interactions with fellow writers were little more than “how ya doin’?” as we crossed paths on our way from one place to another. I did manage some interesting conversations about writing with Barb Goffman and Art Taylor, had some long conversations with Josh Pachter about all manner of things, and spent time with Trey R. Barker, both alone and in the company of our wives.

Michael Bracken, Frank Zafiro, and
Trey R. Barker bond over a mutual love
of taco truck cuisine.
I also spent a great deal of time hanging out on the veranda with a revolving group of editors and writers affiliated with Down & Out Books. Over the course of the convention, a joke Trey and I shared expanded into a project that we pitched to D&O Publisher Eric Campbell on that veranda. As we did, Frank Zafiro and other writers made suggestions that expanded the scope of our idea into something Eric liked so much he asked for a formal proposal.

By the time Temple and I reached the airport to leave St. Petersburg on the last day of Bouchercon, Frank Zafiro had already written several thousand words for the project, and within a week of returning home Trey and I put the formal proposal in Eric’s hands and began work on our own contributions.

As I write this, we have not yet received the go-ahead from Eric, but it doesn’t matter. I’m about 9,000 words into a 15,000+ word novella that isn’t important, significant, or noteworthy.

And writing it is damned fun.

“Mr. Sugarman Visits the Bookmobile” appears in Shhhh…Murder! (Darkhouse Books, edited by Andrew MacRae), and it’s the fifth story of mine to be included in Robert Lopresti’s list of best stories he’s “read this week” at Little Big Crimes.

15 October 2018

The Invisible Engine

by Steve Liskow

Saturday, I led a workshop on developing plot. It was the second half of my program on preparing for National Novel Writing Month, and I'll do a slightly expanded version (I have an extra fifteen minutes) at the same venue next week.

I know several people who do decent workshops on plot, and I can name more good books about building your plot than any other facet of writing fiction, but there's one idea almost everyone has trouble grasping. In fact, only two of the eight or nine books I often cite even mention it.

Concept and Premise.

Almost everyone understands that a plot is the stuff that happens to or around your protagonist, and most of them understand the idea of cause and effect. Most of them grasp structure and increasing tension, too. But making someone see that his or her premise needs more focus or oomph is hard. Maybe that's because everyone knows it when he sees it, but it's hard to define except by example.

Every story has a concept and premise, but unless it captures the reader's attention, the story won't sell. In fact, it won't even be read.

A concept is simply an idea. It can be a setting, a character, a story line, an imaginary world or practically anything else. But it has to develop into a premise, and that's tricky. The premise usually involves the "what if..." idea, the thing that "goes wrong." Michael Crichton's concept for Jurassic Park is that you can use the DNA from fossils to clone prehistoric dinosaurs. His premise builds on that: What if those dinosaurs get out of control and start eating people?

From that simple but specific foundation, you can build your plot because you have a conflict, setting and characters. You also have the beginning of your elevator pitch to an agent or editor. It even gives you a head start on your cover copy, which I always find hard to write.

I tell my classes that if you can put your premise into language a fairly bright ten-year-old can understand, you've got it.

Two of my books use Roller Derby as a loose concept. The premise of one of them is that a disgraced police officer finds redemption by protecting a group of women who help victims of domestic abuse, and, by extension, help themselves. That's more specific. More importantly, it helps me determine what will happen in the story. There will be roller derby and there will be at least one character who is being abused. The cop will help her. Sure, other things will happen, too, but that's the foundation.

Here is the back cover copy of The Whammer Jammers, which grew out of that concept and premise:

Chicks on wheels, dirty deals, and everything you never dared ask about roller derby. Suspended after a "questionable" shooting, Hartford cop Tracy "Trash" Hendrix hires on to protect the local skaters from vandals while they prepare for a match to fund a women's shelter. He suspects a skater's ex-boyfriend, but the guy has an alibi when that shelter gets torched--and an even better one when he turns up dead. Then a skater is killed in a drive-by, and Hendrix knows someone plays rougher than the roller girls. Unless he can figure out who it is before the match begins, the wheels really will come off.

The fire and the drive-by aren't in the original idea, but they grew out of it and raise the stakes.

Your premise has to generate conflict, and this one does. In my case, that matters because my thought process is far from linear. I can come up with dialogue or character traits on demand, but plot is hard. That's why I need a concrete--but flexible--concept I can turn into a premise. And it needs to promise the reader something she or he hasn't seen before.

Most people stare at me when I tell them there are currently seven women's roller derby teams in Connecticut, but it works. I self-published The Whammer Jammers in 2011. Two weeks ago, I sold out every copy I brought with me to an event because people still want to hear about it.

That's your ultimate test.

14 October 2018

The High Passion of a Woman: Men Are Victims Too

by Mary Fernando


“I’m embarrassed. I’m supposed to be the man of the house, and these things don't happen to a man.”

I’ll call him James because he doesn't want his real name to be used. However, James wants his story to be told: it is a story about a woman he was living with.

“She was charming. Sexy. Everyone wanted to be friends with her. My parents loved her, but her own mother was a nightmare. I felt sorry for her.”

The escalations were small, each a little more violent. Each incident was followed by abject apology. At first, her abuse was just verbal, then it became physical. She was a mean drunk. She would put away a litre of wine and then scream, throw things and hit and kick. Once she drove her car into James.

Out of his depth, he determined to leave, but each time, piteous tears and wretched apologies reopened his heart. One day at work, for example, he found a note from her with a little cartoon that said “Every child deserves love, especially when they don't deserve it.” His heart broke for her; it would be quite a long time before he recognised manipulation.

At first, James felt he could put his own needs on hold, compensate for her terrible mother and lend her some of his strength. He soon realized that the violent escalations were too much for him: “The constant dripping of water creates a gorge.”

One day he watched a T.V. show with a woman talking about her husband’s abuse. She said he had a dead look in his eyes when he would start abusing her. Afterwards, he would promise never to do it again.

“I understood that,” said James. “A dead look would come into her eyes and I would think that this was going to be one of those nights… Like the girl on the parapet, I'm convinced a kind of self-deluding madness overtakes the perpetrator. Like in a Russian novel, they can't change their behaviour no matter how mutually destructive their actions are… The language of perpetrators indicate they're at the mercy of outside forces– this or that event 'made' them do it.”

The next time she turned physically violent, James called the police. “She was in such a rage that she took it out on the cops. They warned her that this was a warning and there would be consequences.”

James found that there was no place in domestic abuse shelters for men. He started to spend time away from home. Eventually, she departed.

Looking back on this relationship, and one with a similarly needy and violent woman in college, James said, “I felt I was bigger, tougher and could outlast the hardships. But the difficulties didn't go away and, instead, became emotional black holes. My sympathy for her turned into my own misery.”

Once, in response to an email request by a research student on assault, he answered the questionnaire but had trouble with some of the questions because they were geared to women, such as “Who was the first man who assaulted you?” When James explained that he was a man and had been assaulted by a woman, the student said “Women don’t assault men. You’ve got to be lying.”

In fact, studies estimate that about 2 in 5 victims of domestic violence are men. They are less likely to report than women and less likely to be believed.

“Does stuff that happens in childhood affect what happens later in life?” asks James. He points to his parents, who loved him but also believed in physical discipline.

Raised by a extremely strict parents, James’ mother would use a switch to punish him, which is a branch with the leaves removed. It was painful and left large welts. This history of harsh corporal punishment in childhood is strongly linked with developing relationships in later life that involve domestic violence.

To date, 53 countries have banned corporal punishment because of the lasting impacts on children. I know this is a contentious issue for many who believe in corporal punishment, however, the evidence is unequivocal.

I am deeply moved that James told his story. It is a story that shows that men can be victims of domestic violence. Men are less likely to come forward and more likely to be dismissed when they do. Let’s change that.

I’ll leave you with another story about James. He met a very intriguing woman. She was sexy, smart and funny. She swore at him a few times. He asked her never to speak to him like that. She continued. She tried to sleep with him but he had concerns, so he refused to sleep with her. When he left her after she swore at him yet again, she said “If you slept with me, you wouldn't be leaving me now.”

James said “She was right. It’s easy to get sexually besotted and then emotionally unable to walk away. Enticing as she was, I realized she wasn't going to change. I felt I had grown up just a little. It is the high passion of a woman that draws me in, but that highly charged, highly sexual passion can be a cover for a whole lot of problems.”

Yes it can.

13 October 2018

The Fire, Baby....

by Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore
I came of age as a writer in a brief and beautiful era of crime writing—fiction, cinema and television—during the terror that was the Bush years and the War in Iraq.  Many of the films are considered modern classics, Inside Man and Children of Men, The Departed and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But the one I continually come back to, from the soundtrack  on my laptop to the print hanging over my desk as I write this, is Sin City.

Based panel-by-panel on Frank Miller’s 1991-92 Dark Horse comic series, the 2005 Robert Rodriguez adaptation was the third piece of the trifecta that put me on my life of crime (fiction writing). Starring modern-noir veterans Mickey Rourke, Benicio del Toro, Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, Powers Boothe and Rutger Hauer, as well as Rosario Dawson, Brittany Murphy, Carla Gugino and a whole host of others, populating the fictional Basin City with corrupt cops, gold-hearted monsters, hardware-slinging hookers, crooked politicians and a cannibal or two.