03 October 2022

Working With James Patterson


APOLOGIES: This is Robert Lopresti apologizing for the fact that my name appears at the top.  It should be Jan Grape, but I had a problem setting up the entry and had to create a new file, which thinks I am responsible.  Can't change it.  My apologies to Jan.  Now, here she is...

I was a little shocked to learn my time for SleuthSayers was to be twice, for this the "witching month." Fortunately, my magical powers were already working. I had just finished listening to an awesome thriller, BLOWBACK written by my long-time pal, Brendan DuBois and his co-author, James Patterson. Maybe Bren would have time to write an article for one of my turns. I actually had asked if he might be interested a few days before Rob sent out the October calendar. Brendan readily agreed even though the topic I chose was the inane, "What is it like working with Mr. Patterson?"

I had known Brendan years before he became famous: as a JEOPARDY champion and meeting the late incomparable Alex Trebeck. Neither of us are exactly sure when we met, except we both remember partaking in never-ending MWA board member meetings as neophyte Vice-Presidents of our regional chapters and attending numerous Anthony banquets. However, most of our fondest memories are attending PWA dinners. Our most recent meeting was sharing a memorable cab ride in 2018, helping our driver locate an East Dallas restaurant where the PWA banquet was being held. Brendan also kindly helped me enter the SUV taxi the morning I was leaving. I had fallen in my room in the wee morning hours and cracked four posterior ribs. That's the definition of friend who becomes and stays a keeper.

Since I was scheduled for two times this month, 10/3 and 10/31, I gave him a choice.  My pal chose the third and here it is.

-Jan Grape


WORKING WITH JAMES PATTERSON
by Brendan DuBois


 What's it like to work with James Patterson?

     That’s a question I frequently get at conventions, book signings, and at diners, minding my own business over a cup of coffee.
    What’s it like to work with James Patterson, one of the most famous and bestselling authors in the world?
    It’s like walking on a tightrope.
    With no balancing pole.
    And with molten lava beneath you.
    Hah-hah-hah.
    No, just kidding.
    Working with James Patterson has been a wonderful experience, from A to Z, with no complaints whatsoever.
    My first short story was published in 1986, and my first novel in 1994.  When 2016 rolled around, my writing career had had its share of ups and downs --- more downs than ups --- and I was relatively at ease with my lot, that of a mid-list author struggling from one book and one publisher to another.
    Then came that proverbial phone call that changes one’s life.
    A call came in from a friend of mine in the mystery publishing field, who told me that James Patterson was starting a new publishing line, called BookShots, which were to be co-authored tales no longer than 40,000 words.
    James was looking for writers who could write fast, write well, and meet deadlines.
    I auditioned with James’ business partner, and soon found myself writing three BookShots, a fun and quick experience.  When it came time for the fourth BookShots, I developed an outline from James and submitted it as before.  
When the outline was finished, James called me up --- for the first time ever, since my only earlier correspondence was with him via an editor --- and basically said, ‘This outline could be used for a full-length novel.  Would you be interested in doing a novel with me?  I’ll give you a few days to think about it.’

“I said, ‘No, I’m good, I’d be thrilled to work on a novel with you.’  That became our first work, The First Lady, and later, we worked on another novel called The Cornwalls Are Gone, which was followed by The Summer House and this past September, Blowback.   This January, the sequel to The Cornwalls Are Gone --- Countdown --- is coming out.
    But then I get the other question…       
What’s it really, really, like to work with James Patterson?
    A lot of work.
    I mean, a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.  
    We start with the initial idea, and spend about a month or so working out a detailed outline which can run up to 40 pages, and then we get to the real work.  
    It’s an intensively collaborative process where I learned a lot from the beginning, and continue to learn to this day, with phone calls, pages sent back and forth,     As an example, with The First Lady, when I sent him the first draft of the early chapters, he called me and said, “The first three chapters are well-written, but I think they’d work better if you condensed them down to one.”
    At first I was a bit jarred --- was I failing already? --- but when I looked at them with a clear and cold eye, he was right.
    The first three chapters were condensed into one, and we were off to the races!    
    Over the years I’ve learned a lot from James, including his wicked sense of humor, his generosity, and his devotion to charitable causes.
    As a writer, I’ve learned more in the past six years than the previous sixteen.  How to cut to the chase.  Quickly set scenes.  Make each page and piece of dialogue to work.    
    A while ago I re-read a thriller I had written a few years earlier and…
    Oh my God, what a bloated piece of work!
    So I went through and cut about 30,000 words, making it a much better book.
    What’s it like to work with James Patterson?
    Every morning I pinch myself, considering how fortunate I am.
    How’s that for an answer?

Brendan DuBois is the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of twenty-six novels, including THE FIRST LADY and THE CORNWALLS ARE GONE (March 2019), co-authored with James Patterson, THE SUMMER HOUSE (June 2020), and BLOWBACK, which was just published in September.  He has also published 200 short stories.

His stories have won three Shamus Awards from the Private Eye Writers of America, two Barry Awards, two Derringer Awards, and the Ellery Queen Readers Award.
In 2021 he received the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer for Lifetime Achievement from the Short Mystery Fiction Society.


He is also a JEOPARDY! game show champion.
 




02 October 2022

Dark Deeds Down Under


 

Amazingly, given the number of New Zealand mystery writers around today and in yesteryear, there's never been an anthology published of short kiwi crime/mystery fiction. 

I guess, because short stories have never been a focus here for kiwi mystery writers. Books are where the money and prestige lie in most minds. Me vexat pede, the Ngaio Marsh Awards (New Zealand's version of the Edgar Awards) has no short story category. There's also the fact that only a couple of local magazines print short stories, and they are solely literary magazines—they have no interest in plot twists, suspense, or Professor Plum in the library with the crowbar. 

New Zealand has a perfectly respectable history of short mystery fiction. Dame Ngaio Marsh had four short stories published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. And that paragon of New Zealand literature, Katherine Mansfield, graced the pages of EQMM (posthumously) in 1949.

Anyway, cutting to the chase, for the first time, there is now an anthology of New Zealand crime fiction. It was published in June this year, and its title is Dark Deeds Down Under. It's actually two firsts, because, as the title (Down Under) suggests, it's an anthology of New Zealand AND Australian mystery fictionthat's never happened before, either.

The anthology was the collective brainchild of Australian Lindy Cameron (mystery writer and publisher of Clan Destine Press), and New Zealander Craig Sisterson (founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, and author of Southern Cross Crime: The Pocket Essential Guide to the Crime Fiction, Film & TV of Australia and New Zealand).


Their plan was simple. Contact and invite leading mystery writers from both sides of the Tasman (the sea that separates New Zealand and Australia) to contribute a story. Fingers crossed; off they went. Bam. They got an enthusiastic response, such that two more volumes are planned. Which tells you, yes, mystery fiction is alive and kicking in this part of the world.


Many of the anthology's contributing authors have written a story featuring their book series characters: Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman, Garry Disher’s ‘Hirsch’, Vanda Symon’s Sam Shephard, Sulari Gentill’s Rowly Sinclair, RWR McDonald’s ‘Nancys’, Lee Murray & Dan Rabarts’ Penny Yee & Matiu, Katherine Kovacic’s Alex Clayton, Dinuka McKenzie’s Kate Miles, and a rare appearance from Shane Maloney’s Murray Whelan. The rest have written standalones, and I believe all the stories are brand new.


Here's the marketing blurb for the book (to give you a taste of what's inside):

Dark Deeds Down Under, a ground-breaking anthology, brings together internationally-renowned Aussie and Kiwi crime writers and their beloved characters.

This stunning anthology includes 19 short stories from some of the brightest storytelling talents from Australia and New Zealand: including international bestsellers and award winners.

Through the prism of page-turning crime, mystery and thriller stories you will roam from the dusty Outback to South Island glaciers, from ocean-carved coastlines and craggy mountains to sultry rainforests and Middle Earth valleys, and via sleepy villages to the underbellies of our cosmopolitan cities.

In these all-new stories you’ll spend time with favourite series cops, sleuths and accidental heroes, and meet some new and edgy standalone characters.

The anthology's perpetrators of dark deeds are: 

Alan Carter, Nikki Crutchley, Aoife Clifford, Garry Disher, Helen Vivienne Fletcher, Lisa Fuller, Sulari Gentil, Kerry Greenwood, Narrelle M Harris, Katherine Kovacic, Shane Maloney, RWR McDonald, Dinuka McKenzie, Lee Murray & Dan Rabarts, Renée, Stephen Ross, Fiona Sussman, Vanda Symon, and David Whish-Wilson.


I'm pleased to report that I have a story in the book. Mine is called "Mr. Pig" (excerpt above). It's a tale set in the rugged countryside north of Auckland in 1942. It's about a young girl, Mercy Brown. Her mother has gone missing, and her beast of a father is "grumpy." I had the ghost of Flannery O'Conner sitting on my shoulder when I wrote this one. I think Shirley Jackson breathed a few words in my ear, too.  

The anthology is available to buy via the publisher (Clan Destine Press), Amazon, and most major book retailers. 


August 1949







www.StephenRoss.net



01 October 2022

Fictional Mistakes (Onscreen and Off)



I watch a lot of movies, thanks to Netflix and Amazon Prime, and mostly from my La-Z-Boy in the den. I usually prefer mysteries, thrillers, westerns, etc., and tend to avoid message-movies, superheroes, and foreign films--but in the right mood I'll give anything a try.

One of the things I find myself looking for in movies are little mistakes in either the plot or the filming that somehow slip through. I don't necessarily mind them, I just seem to notice them more, lately. Worse than film mistakes, I think, are errors in printed fiction; I look for those, too. But I'll get to that in a minute.

Here's a list of movie goofs that come to mind, goofs that I'm sure some of you have noticed yourselves. Some are tiny, some are glaring, and I suspect all are embarrassing to the filmmakers.

Just for fun . . . remember these?


North by Northwest -- In the cafeteria at Mount Rushmore, Eva Marie Saint pulls a gun and shoots Cary Grant--but several seconds beforehand, a young boy in the background (who's looking in the other direction and doesn't even see her) covers his ears in anticipation of the gunshot.

Casablanca -- Dooley Wilson (Sam) didn't know how to play the piano--so his hand movements never match the music.

Shane --  While Alan Ladd is talking to the little boy in the shed, a dark-colored car can be seen through the window in the distance, moving left to right. The movie is set in the 1860s. 

Pulp Fiction -- In one scene a young man comes out of the bathroom and shoots at both John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson (and misses)--but before the bathroom door even opens, several bullet holes are already there in the wall behind Travolta and Jackson.

Gladiator -- A metal gas canister is clearly visible underneath an overturned chariot in one of the battle scenes.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach use dynamite to blow up a bridge in the Civil War several years before dynamite was invented.

Gone With the Wind -- More of the same. GWTW featured several scenes using not-yet-invented lamps with cords. In one street sequence in Atlanta, there are lightbulbs in what should've been gas fixtures.

A Streetcar Named Desire -- In a scene with Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter, he's obviously mimicking her lines with his lips while she's speaking them.

Double Indemnity -- Fred MacMurray's character is a bachelor, but his real-life wedding ring is visible on his finger several times during the movie.

Never Been Kissed -- A sign made by the math club that Drew Barrymore joins features an incorrect value for Pi.

Vertigo -- Kim Novak loses a shoe in the water and then has both of them on right after that.

Rear Window -- An injured and stationary Jimmy Stewart, a photographer with an expensive telephoto-lens camera in his lap most of the time, never takes a single photo of the mystery scene or of the neighbor he suspects has committed a crime.

Psycho -- As Janet Leigh lies dead on the floor, her pupils are contracted when they should be dilated. (Afterward, ophthalmologists told Hitchcock there were eyedrops that could achieve that effect, and he used them for corpses in later movies.)

Star Wars -- At one point, a tall stormtrooper bumps his head against the top of a doorway.

Pretty Woman -- At breakfast, Julia Roberts is eating a croissant she's holding in her hand; a few seconds later she's holding and eating a pancake instead.

Ocean's Eleven -- More food problems. The container for Brad Pitt's shrimp cocktail changes from a glass to a plate, and then back to a glass again.

It's a Wonderful Life -- The angel reveals that Jimmy Stewart's brother died at the age of nine, but the birth/death dates on his gravestone say he was eight.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory -- The candy man accidentally whacks a little girl under the chin when he lifts a countertop.

Twister -- Debris from a tornado crashes through the windshield of a vehicle containing stormchasers Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, but moments later the windshield is magically unbroken.

The Wizard of Oz -- When Judy Garland meets the Tin Man, she and the Scarecrow oil his rusty joints for him so he can move--even though tin doesn't rust. In the same movie, after the Scarecrow gets a brain, he states the Pythagorean theorem--incorrectly.

Braveheart -- A white van is visible in the background during a battle scene.

The Star Wars series -- Every single planet has the same gravitational force, which in reality would be almost impossible.

Quantum of Solace -- In one of the dock scenes, an extra with a pushbroom in the background behind Daniel Craig is sweeping the air several inches above the ground.

Titanic -- Leonardo DiCaprio mentions that he once went ice fishing on Lake Wissota, which wasn't formed until 1917. The Titanic sank in 1912.

The Great Gatsby -- DiCaprio enters a house soaked from the rain, but moments later his clothes and hair are completely dry.

The Aviator -- Leo again. As Howard Hughes in 1928, he requests ten chocolate chip cookies while editing his movie Hell's Angels. Chocolate chip cookies weren't around until two years later.

Grease -- A waitress tries to turn off a light switch with her elbow but misses it completely. Seconds later, the lights turn off anyway. 

Hitch -- Will Smith has an allergic reaction that causes the left side of his fact to swell. Later the swelling switches to the right side.

The Karate Kid -- Ralph Macchio wins the final tournament by kicking his opponent in the head, even though such a thing is an illegal move and would be grounds for immediate disqualification.

Mean Girls -- Lindsey Lohan is from Africa in the movie, but there's a picture in her room of her riding an elephant with small ears (Indian) rather than large ears (African).

The Shawshank Redemption -- Tim Robbins's prison escape is via a tunnel covered by the famous movie poster of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.--but that movie wasn't released until a year later.

American Sniper -- A fake baby is obviously substituted for a real one.

Spider-Man -- A mannequin is obviously substituted for Tobey Maguire when he rescues Kirsten Dunst and swings her to safety. (Her hair's even blowing in the wrong direction while they're in mid-swing.)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone -- A metal bicycle seat can be seen on Daniel Radcliffe's broomstick during the Quidditch scene. Later, when he's debroomed, the seat's gone.

Back to the Future -- The guitar Michael J. Fox plays onstage in 1955 is a Gibson ES-345 model, with didn't exist until several years later.

Clueless -- Alicia Silverstone crashes into another vehicle during her driving test and knocks her side mirror off--but a few moments later the mirror's replaced.

You've Got Mail -- Tom Hanks puts an olive into his father's martini, the camera cuts to his father and back to Hanks, and he puts the same olive into the same martini.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring -- When Sean Astin and Elijah Wood walk across a field in the Shire, a car is clearly visible in the background.

Raiders of the Lost Ark -- As Harrison Ford sits at an outdoor table in Cairo in 1936, a man in modern clothes (a T-shirt and blue jeans) strolls by in the background. Also in Raiders, later in the movie, you can see the cobra's reflection in the glass that's separating it from Indy.


As silly as most of those are, I think it's even more humiliating to make mistakes in a novel or short story. (Probably because I myself am sometimes the guilty party.) There are many examples of this, but here are a few:


One of the Jesse Stone novels (I forget which one) by Robert B. Parker lapses at one point from third-person into first and back again. My guess is that this happened because all his Spenser novels were first-person.

One of the murders in the novel The Big Sleep was never solved, or even mentioned again. When asked years later about who killed the chauffeur, Raymond Chandler said, "Damned if I know."

In The Tommyknockers, a gun used by Stephen King's protagonist was an automatic at one point and a revolver a few pages later.

The 1631 King James version of the Holy Bible says, in Exodus 20:14, "Thou shalt commit adultery."

In Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein has a character whose name switches back and forth between Agnes and Alice.

In the novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the Common Room is described as circular, but Ron and Lavender wind up in a "prominent corner" of the room.

The Story of Dr. Doolittle places orangutans in Africa, even though they're found only in Borneo and Sumatra.


There are many more of these, but the most painful mistakes for me are the ones I have made in my own writing. Most of them, thank God, I caught before the stories were submitted, but some of them were caught by editors who told me to correct them (embarrassing!), and a few made it all the way through to publication--in one I stupidly identified a horse as a mare and later tied "him" to a fencepost. The only good thing about mistakes that go all the way to print is that if/when you later sell the stories as reprints, you can correct them.


How about your own writing? Have you made any mistakes in grammar, structure, POV, character names, locations, plot, logic, etc., that wound up getting published anyway? Any that were particularly cringeworthy? How about movies you've watched? What are the worst goofs you can remember? Let me know in the comments section.

Meanwhile, if you're one of those folks who look for these kinds of errors . . . good hunting!

If you're one of those who commit them . . . well, go ye and sin no more.




30 September 2022

The Secret Inside You


If you grew up within driving distance of New York City during a particular period in history, you and your classmates would inevitably be bundled up at some point in your academic career and dragged en masse to the Museum of Natural History, so you could while away the hours peering at creepy dioramas of Neanderthals frozen in time, or rampant dinosaurs recreated from their fossilized remains, or a giant life-size blue whale dangling precariously from the ceiling.

When the time came, I too made the trek to that museum, but I didn’t have to like it. By the time I was in fourth grade, the only New York museum worth my time was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and all because of a book.

This is the actual book. I’ve kept it all these years. It’s called From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg, who died in 2013 at age 83. I’ve never read any other books by her except this one. Mixed-Up Files was enough to carry with me all these years. And only a few years ago did I realize the debt my writing owes to it.


The story doesn’t sound terribly remarkable. Feeling unappreciated in her white-bread Connecticut household, a young girl named Claudia decides to run away from home. She knows herself well enough to know that she requires money and comfort to pull off this caper. She enlists the help of her brother Jamie, a master card cheat, who has the princely sum of $24 to his name. The two run away to New York City and move into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By day, they educate themselves by tagging along with school groups. By night, they swipe pocket change as they bathe in the museum’s fountain and sleep in Marie Antoinette’s bed.

While living in their magnificent digs, Claudia becomes obsessed with nailing down the provenance of a mysterious statue of an angel, which the museum has recently acquired. Some evidence identifies the statue as the work of Michelangelo, but the experts beg to differ, as they always do. Claudia and Jamie spend the remainder of their money to travel to the home of the statue’s last known owner of record, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who just might know the truth. Eccentric, witty, rich, and marvelously perceptive, Frankweiler offers the children a challenge: The truth is hidden somewhere inside her Mixed-Up Files, a long bank of file cabinets in her office. If they are clever enough, they can find the answer. The children accept the wager, and what they discover in their search makes me want to cry like a baby forty years later.

I like two things about this book. It just took me until adulthood to figure out what they are.

One is that the book is written in first person by Frankweiler herself, who appears at the very beginning, writing a letter to her attorney, and saying that she feels compelled to explain the changes she is about to make to her last will and testament. She tells us that since she’s interviewed the two children extensively, she feels qualified to present this unbiased account. This narrative framework seems dodgy, but I’m currently using it with a book I’m writing. It seems to be working.

With that intriguing intro, she leaps into the story, though she will not appear as a character in the main action until the last quarter of the tale.

I think you should read Mixed-Up Files if you haven’t already, so I won’t give any spoilers. (If nothing else, see if it is suitable for the child in your life.) Suffice to say that Claudia and Jamie solve the mystery, and Frankweiler—a proxy for Konigsburg herself—manages to save one last satisfying secret for the book’s final pages.

The second reason the book charmed me is that it’s remarkably wise. The author understands that all children—young and old—want to feel special, and solving a mystery is one of the best ways to arrive at that specialness. This may partially account for the mystery lover’s addiction.

Here’s the quote that sells it. Frankweiler, in a conversation with Jamie, says:
Claudia doesn’t want ad­ven­ture. She likes baths and feeling comfortable too much for that kind of thing. Secrets are the kind of adventure she needs. Secrets are safe, and they do much to make you different. On the inside, where it counts.
Yes. Yes. Absolutely true. Konigsburg, throughout her long career, became known for spouting similarly profound gems in her writing. I sometimes like reading quotes people have pulled from her books. She was that good. Here’s another:
Some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up and touch everything. If you never let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you.
When I was still working at Scholastic, one of my office mates was lucky enough to interview Konigsburg about one of her new books. Like me, my friend loved Mixed-Up Files and so she was tempted to ask a few questions about that book. One too many questions, I might add. Konigsburg bristled, saying Mixed-Up Files was her second book, it was old, and puh-leeze, she was trying to promote the new book.

Today I know in my heart how she must have felt. But Mixed-Up Files won the Newbery Award in 1967 and has touched millions of readers since. E.L. Konigsburg wrote 21 great books, and I’m sure that in time I’ll read them all. But if I never do, all I need is this one. It is that special.

* * *

See you in three weeks!

Joe

29 September 2022

When Character Development Meets "The Real World"


Flat characters are two-dimensional in that they are relatively uncomplicated and do not change throughout the course of a work. By contrast, round characters are complex and undergo development, sometimes sufficiently to surprise the reader.

Stock character, a character in a drama or fiction that represents a type and that is recognizable as belonging to a certain genre. Most of the characters in the commedia dell'arte, such as Columbine and Harlequin, are stock characters.

         – Both quotations courtesy of The Encyclopedia Britannica

I have written at length in this space about the importance of character development in your writing. (If you're interested in reading some of my previous work on character, feel free to click here, here, here, and here.) And lately, I've returned to the well, and begun to consider the importance of the delicate balance of character development versus character continuity.

Take John Updike's Rabbit series of four novels, all featuring the same central character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. The series takes place over a span of thirty years, taking Rabbit from his mid-twenties to his death in retirement. Updike released the various novels an average of ten years apart (1960, 1971, 1981 and 1990). The final two novels (Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Over the course of the series Updike kept his character restless and angsty, while also showing both physical and mental changes in the character as he grew older. He did this against an evolving social backdrop (the early '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s, respectively) that dovetailed pretty seamlessly with the character's arc (see my post on the effective use of setting as another character in your work). And, obviously, "Rabbit" Angstrom would be an example of the "round character" defined above. Taken as a whole, the books are well worth your time.

Where Updike's series presents a collective masterwork of balancing development and continuity, it has in many ways presented an outlier bucking the last few decades of writing marketplace trends. This seems especially true in crime fiction.

Don't get me wrong. There are lots of great writers currently out there developing their characters, working their collective tails off, and producing really unforgettable stuff.

However.

The last few decades have seen the rise of the so-called "airport thriller." And where early practitioners of the art of thriller writing (then, as now, a sub-genre of crime fiction), such as Robert Ludlum and the immortal Elmore Leonard were masters equal to Updike in writing characters who showed growth, they have proven the exception rather than the rule. The emphasis in thrillers is on fast-paced plotting, and with the market growing more and more lucrative, publishers have shown a preference for thrillers as part of a series of books, rather than the stand-alones most favored by so many masters of the sub-genre.

I'm not giving examples because I'm not looking to call anyone out. Plus, were my agent to tell me tomorrow that a top five publisher was offering me a multi-book contract adorned with a whole lot of zeroes to write thrillers that adhered to these standards, I would not hesitate to dive into this end of the writing pool. Character development tends not to be a hallmark of thriller writing. It's delightful to see when you find it, but truth be told, thriller fans (my brother among them) tend to read thrillers for the action, first and foremost.

What I'm saying is that I have begun to see this "light" character development crop up more and more in other types of crime fiction, especially in any number of series. The character has a benchmark, and even in a series that runs for years, tends to vary little from said benchmark. In so doing, series lead characters which ought to be "round" tend to take on the aspects of so-called "stock characters."

Rather than give examples of this, let me go in the opposite direction, using a real world example.


There's this guy I used to know. We grew up on the same block. Neighbors and friends for years and years. We eventually lost touch (as people often do), and a few years ago, I happened across his social media presence. Here's a thumbnail of the "character" I found there:

My old friend worked in radio, eventually helming his own talk radio show. From here he took a quick detour into StartUpLand at one of the pioneer startups where he made a pile, then eventually found his way back into talk radio. Now in his fifties, his political and social positions seem to rely heavily on the foundation of his deep spiritual faith, and the importance of his family in his life.

And I say good for him. He was a great guy back then, and I have little doubt he still is.

What makes this thumbnail so interesting is the set of fundamental differences I see between the guy I knew back in early-to-mid '80s and his current self. When we were teenagers growing up together, my old friend was practically a socialist. And for all intents and purposes heavily agnostic (not irreligious so much as indifferent to religion). Something that hasn't changed at all is that he was a brilliant, and opinionated conversationalist then, as he still seems to be. One huge difference was that he loathed Ronald Reagan more than I did (I still do. If anything I loathe Reagan more in retrospect). Not sure what's changed there, but needless to say, my friend isn't exactly "anti-Reagan" (or anti-his memory, I guess) these days.

Some other things: he went on a family vacation with myself and my extended family, and developed his first real crush on a girl who came on the trip with one of my cousins. It was amusing to watch this most opinionated of guys basically abandon several of his previous opinions based on what his new love interest thought. 

And yet I never saw him in love again during the time I knew him. If anything I saw him protecting his heart, flirting with girls, never dating, plenty of "hanging out," but never making himself "available."

Here's the funniest part, though. I had another friend back in my teens. Conservative, grew up with a strong church background, also opinionated. Loved Reagan.

I've stayed in touch with this friend. He's got grown kids, a thriving career in a union construction job, climbs mountains and he frequently uses his free time helping build schools in Sub-Saharan Africa. I have no idea how feels about politics these days. We don't talk politics when we talk. We talk music. And it's always great.

That funny thing? My first friend back in the day heartily disliked this second friend. And nowadays my second friend reminds me of my first friend in his youth and that first friend reminds me much more of my second friend in his youth.

Heyyyyy I think I might have the germ of a story idea here....

See you in two weeks!

28 September 2022

A Dagger of the Mind


  

Things in Russia are going from bad to worse these days, and don’t look likely to get better anytime soon, but I’ll go out on a limb.  I think Vladimir Putin is circling the drain.  This is more of gut feeling than a considered analysis; still, there are indications he could be forcibly retired, or assassinated, or simply disappear. 

As you might have noticed, an awful lot of people have been falling out of windows, lately.  Former director of the Moscow aviation institute went head over heels down a few flights of stairs.  Another aviation guy, Far East and Arctic development, washed up off of Vladivostok – shortly after their CEO died of a stroke, aged 43.  Chief executive of Lukoil fell out a hospital window.  Another exec with the same company died while consulting a shaman, in a room supposedly used for “Jamaican voodoo” rituals.  The story goes he was looking to buy a toad venom hangover cure.  An oligarch hanged himself in Spain; one of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  Both of them associated with natural gas production.  A stabbing death.  A suicide by hanging in the UK.  A second one at a cottage outside of St. Petersburg (he’d reportedly been badly beaten, the day before).  The  previous month, another suspicious death, the same village, different dacha.  Kind of a mortality spike.

These events have been this year, and most of them since the invasion of Ukraine.  Also, mostly in the energy or defense sector, which are related.  Were they depressed, or under a cloud, out of favor with the Kremlin?  No way of knowing.  Russians tend to look for conspiracies and plots, when a simpler explanation might suffice.  But if this sequence of accidents and despair turns out to be Expedient Demise, or circling the wagons, who benefits? 

Putin has always understood the efficacies of terror.  The clear historical precedent is Stalin.  When you go after enemies real or perceived with poisoned umbrellas or polonium cocktails, it echoes the murder of Trotsky.  And it gets easier; after throwing a reporter down an elevator shaft, it’s not that hard to flatten Grozny, or sacrifice schoolchidren.  Putin enjoys plausible deniability - not taking credit, but winking at it.  We know he’s got blood on his hands, and in point of fact, he wants us to know it.  His missing signature is more conspicuous by its absence. 

Now, in this context, consider the Ukraine war. 

What, exactly, was the object here?  A quick and brutal decapitation of the Zelensky government and the total annexation of Ukraine, an Anschluss, to demonstrate Russian resolve and its inevitable historic destiny, and to prove once and for all the debility and fundamental lack of purpose in the American and European alliance.  None of which worked out, and what we might call a fundamental lack of purpose in the Russian military and political establishment has been fatally exposed.  Interestingly, while we can applaud the courage of Russians who’ve protested the war on humanitarian grounds, the more serious threat to Putin himself is coming from the Right, who are taking him to task for not prosecuting the war more vigorously – i.e., scorched earth.  We might take note that this group hasn’t been arrested or harassed, and perhaps they’ve found sympathetic ears in the military and security apparat. 

Some years back, there was a political movement in Russia called Pamyat’, which means Memory, and also called the National Patriotic Front.  It was ultranationalist, and to nobody’s surprise, virulently anti-Semitic.  The movement has withered, but the sentiment lingers, not entirely on the fringe, either.  A few contemporary Kremlinologists have pointed out that in the past, coups in Russia (or the USSR) haven’t hinged on policy differences.  Whoever’s going to push Putin down the stairs won’t make major institutional changes; they’re simply elbowing each other out of the way for more space at the trough.  They might find it convenient, though, to play on the revanchist grievances of the Right, and then discard them afterwards, but a bargain with the Devil always ends badly.  In any event, I don’t think it’s a matter of if, but when.  The toadies and bottom-feeders around Putin are going to stick the knife in him.  It could result in a net benefit, but the worrisome thing is that they dig themselves a hole, and pull it in after them. 

27 September 2022

The Gift of Writing—and Reading—Fiction


Families come in all shapes and sizes. Ideally, what keeps them glued together is love. With love comes understanding and acceptance and an inclination to give your family members the benefit of the doubt.

At least, that's how it should work. But life isn't ideal, at least not always. Sometimes people are selfish. Or immature. They could be rigid and stubborn and damaged. When such people clash, conflicteven crimecan be inevitable. 

In real life, it's sad. But in fiction, examining such people can give readers not only an opportunity to feelmaybe satisfaction or anger, sadness or joybut it can prompt them to examine their own inclinations, to think about what they'd be willing to do for others, especially when what's wrong seems right. Maybe they'll even find a better way to live. The prompting of such self-examination might be a lofty goal, but I think it's what many authors want. To entertain, yes. But also to make a difference with our words. To affect people. To make them feel and think.

It's what I hope to do with my newest story, "The Gift." It appears in Land of 10,000 Thrills, this year's Bouchercon anthology, which was published earlier this month by Down & Out Books. In "The Gift," Debbie has always believed in setting a good example for her grandson and the kids at her high school, where she toils as principal. But sometimes the line between right and wrong blursespecially when family is involved.

I can't say more about the story without saying too much. So instead I'll tell you a little more about the book. It's edited by the wonderful Greg Herren, and the call for stories required they be set in Minnesota (where this year's Bouchercon was held) or an adjacent state or Canadian province. My story is set in Iowa.

Knowing the quality of the writing of many of the other authors in the book, I expect I'm in for a treat with all of them. You too. These other authors are: Eric Beckstrom, Eric Beetner, Mark Bergin, Susanna Calkins and Erica Ruth Neubauer (co-writers), L.A. Chandlar, Meredith Doench, Mary Dutta, John M. Floyd (a fellow SleuthSayer; yay, John!), Jim Fusilli, R. Franklin James, Jessica Laine, BV Lawson, Edith Maxwell, Mindy Mejia, Richie Narvaez, Bryon Quertermous, Marcie R. Rendon, Raquel V. Reyes, Bev Vincent, Tessa Wegert, Michael Wiley, and Sandra SG Wong.

Here's an abridged version of the anthology's back-cover copy:

For years, the Midwest has been used as a stand-in for "average America." The sweeping Great Plains, the heavy snows of winter, ice fishing and mighty rivers and frozen lakes. Midwesterners have a reputation for being the salt of the earth, friendly and kind and helpful and nice. But is "Midwestern nice" merely a cover for what really goes on in this part of the country? John Wayne Gacy, the bloody Benders, and Jeffrey Dahmer were all Midwesternersbut that doesn't mean every Midwesterner has bodies buried in their basement ... or does it? 

Editor Greg Herren is proud to present a series of tales that will shock and surprise youand maybe make you think twice about that ice-fishing trip or before taking a snowmobile out after the sun goes down. Featuring authors from all over the Midwest who know just how dark and lonesome it can get out there in the country at night, these crime stories will entertain you with their trip down the dark side of the "real America"where the twilight's last gleaming has an entirely different meaning and feel.

You can buy the anthology in trade paperback and ebook from all the usual sources. To get it right from the publisher, click here. For Amazon, click here. For Barnes and Noble, click here. To get it from an indie bookstore near you, click here.

Happy reading!