30 September 2011

In the Shadows

C'mon in. Pull up a Bacardi and Coke, throw in a slice of lime, make yourself comfortable and let's talk. Some of you already know me and that's fine. Some of you may have heard a little about me amd that's fine too. And, some of you may be asking yourself, "Who the heck is this guy?" And, that's really okay. I don't mind at all.

See, I spent twenty-five years in the shadows using several different aliases on the street, trying to avoid publicity. In my prior business, if you became known then you'd best be working in a very large population area, else move on to other territory. There's nothing like walking into a house or a bar undercover and suddenly realizing there's somebody in the place who knows you and what you do. Yeah, it's happened, ...more times than I would have liked.

Oh sure, I had a gun tucked inside my belt and concealed back underneath my shirt, but I only carried one. The other side often had their own weapons, and there was usually more than one of those guys at our little get-togethers. Yes, I did have a surveillance team as close as they could get and still stay out of sight, but most of the time they were several minutes away when seconds might count. And no, I didn't like to wear a wire transmitting our conversation to the outside just in case the opposition decided to shake me down. Guns they didn't mind. After all, they had their own and half expected you to do the same, but wires tended to bother them. Plus, some of the more sophisticated organizations had electronic equipment to detect transmitting frequencies that weren't theirs.

Let's just say they were a very untrusting lot, so when I pretended to be someone else, I had to have my story straight. There were times in the old Kansas City days when I taped a piece of paper on the wall by the phone. The left hand column listed the aliases I was using and the right hand column had the names of potential defendants who'd be calling for that particular name. business was good. No doubt there're a few psychiatrists out there who have written dissertations on multiple personalities and therefore have strong opinions on the subject. As for me, to this day I'll still answer to a lot of different names if I think someone is talking to me. It's a different life, but you get used to it.

Don't get the wrong idea, the job wasn't all excitement. Our Rule of Thumb said it was ninety percent boredom: doing paperwork, or waiting for the snitch to call, or the potential defendant to show up at a pre-arranged meeting site. Seems a lot of them boys couldn't tell time very well even if some did wear a Rolex. Only about ten percent of the job was adrenaline: stepping into the criminal world with a made up story as to who you were this time, or kicking doors with an arrest warrant when the case was done and the object of your intentions might have made up his mind he wasn't going back behind the walls for another stint, or taking the wheel in a high speed surveillance breaking red lights and hoping nothing went wrong.

Anonymity was my friend back then. In any case, I think you can see why it's kinda difficult for me sometimes to step out into the bright lights where most authors go when they're seeking publicity in order to advance their writing career.

Turns out, even my first three short stories got published in an undercover fashion. In those days, the federal agency I worked for didn't allow its Special Agents to have any outside employment. Somehow, they even construed this policy to to prohibit the writing and publishing of short stories. However, since the agency also taught us how to construct an alias with appropriate documents, and how to work undercover, I merely put their training to use. The byline on those first three stories was a nickname I used on the street, the payment checks came to a Post Office box in the name of an undercover alias, and the checks... well, let's just say it was easier in those days to cash them under a name that wasn't yours. Obviously, the agency had an excellent training program because none of this came to their attention.

Now I'm retired, so I write short mystery fiction for fun and profit. Roughly a third of my stories have been sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine where I have four different series going. Where do I get my story characters? Most of them walk right in off the street from the old days and sit down for a little chat from the past. Them people haven't aged a bit, they're frozen in time. Plots and story lines? These guys are all scam artists and they want their stories told, even if it is the fictionalized version. Call it a form of immortality through the printed word.

Okay, here's my first installment on this blog, so if you got any questions or topics you'd like brought up, just shoot 'em in. Who knows, they could end up in one of our future talks.

Well, it's getting late, my glass is empty and I got to go. Be looking for you in a couple of weeks. Seems I signed up for this gig on the Fortnight Plan. Guess you could say that way I can still keep one foot in the shadows where I find life more comfortable. See ya around.

29 September 2011

Desperately Seeking Detectives

Consider the flood of detective novels, mysteries, and thrillers. Consider that, unlike the Victorians and the Edwardians, a jewel robbery or two is not enough to elevate the reader's heartbeat. Consider that, except maybe in the hands of Karin Fossum, a single victim is currently small potatoes. And consider that with only two sexes, the permutations of she killed him, he killed her, he killed him, etc don't go very far.

What's a writer to do for variety? There are the save the world thrillers of great ambition and small plausibility, and the serial killers that have just about displaced Nazis as an all-purpose menace. But the sovereign source of originality remains The Detective.

Here the profession has shown almost unlimited ingenuity. We've had all manner of police from every age and every nation. Monks and priests likewise, to be joined by Chinese scholars and Japanese potters. Little old ladies who haunt prize gardens and country houses share the shelves with little old men (and some not so old) who pontificate from their armchairs.

There are gumshoes of every type, ditto journalists, those other licensed snoops. Railroad engineers fussed about malfeasance along the rails and titled lords who find unpleasantness at their clubs rub elbows with Greek scholars navigating the shoals of the ancient world and their Roman counterparts loose in the Empire, not to mention swaggering Renaissance gentlemen abroad in low company.

Even species is no bar, either, especially for the feline tribe with cats as assistants, cats as narrators and witnesses. The mind boggles.

Of course, every detective needs a weakness and here, again, the profession has been creative. The old broken heart (Lord Peter Wimsey) and alcohol problems (Philip Marlowe) have been greatly expanded. One of Dick Francis's protagonists had a hand crippled from a racing accident. Jeffrey Deaver went several steps better with Lincoln Rhyme, his quadriplegic detective, while Jonathan Lethem gave his Lionel Essrog Tourette's syndrome, which certainly added an original flavor to the narrative.

But to the best of my knowledge no one before Alice LaPlante has attempted a mystery narrated by an Alzheimer's patient, although Faulkner had the profoundly retarded Benjy narrate part of the mysterious The Sound and the Fury.

The main character of Turn of Mind keeps a sign in her kitchen, informing whoever maybe concerned that she is Dr. Jennifer White, 64, suffering from dementia. A former top hand surgeon and a widow with two grown children, she is initially still able to read and capable of writing down the events of the day as Magdalena, her caregiver urges her to do.

But there are gaps and nowhere are those moments in the mental abyss more noticeable than when the murder of her long time friend and neighbor, Amanda O'Toole, is at issue. Dr. White forgets that her friend is dead; Dr. White grieves and is lonely, and then Dr. White forgets again. Not uncommon with a dementia patient, but this one is different. This one is not only a grieving survivor but also a 'person of interest' in the death.

Who knocked the formidable Amanda on the head, and then removed four of the fingers of her right hand? Surgically removed, that is. Does Dr. White not know? Or does Dr. White not remember? Or does Dr. White not want to remember?

These are the chief mysteries of Turn of Mind, although other questions emerge in the course of the novel, and LaPlante's skillful plotting creates a good amount of suspense. Almost everything is filtered through Dr. White's increasingly fragmented mind, and it is fair enough to call her both suspect and detective. Despite a capable investigating officer, the case is ultimately resolved through the doctor's almost dissolved memories. By the end, although she barely registers it, the doctor presents the reader with the truth.

The portraits of both women, and also of Dr. White's two problematic children, Mark and Fiona, are sharp and complex. The doctor's memories of her husband, James, and of her children when young and of her friendship with Amanda and her husband Peter are all imaginatively handled. Though broken up by plausible gaps in Dr. White's consciousness, we eventually get a good picture of a complex woman in complicated relationships.

If the good doctor occasionally seems to have retained too much - she gets loose in her old clinic and gives perfectly good medical advice for a half hour or so - the sense the novel gives of a good mind crumbling is more genuinely scary than any number of terrorist plots or serial killers. In Turn of Mind, LaPlante has scored a rare double, finding not only a unique 'detective' but a uniquely terrifying antagonist in Alzheimer's disease. The result is an imaginative and provocative volume.

28 September 2011

Missed Connections

Missed Connection 1 by ChildOfAtom
Missed Connection 1, a photo by ChildOfAtom on Flickr.

You’ve probably seen the ads in weekly newspapers or certain websites. They generally go something like this:

Where: Joe’s Grill. When: Last Tuesday night. You: The beautiful woman in a red dress. Me: The guy being punched by his girlfriend for looking at beautiful women. I was bleeding too hard to give you my phone number. Want to meet?

This is a story about a missed connection. (But I swear I was nowhere near Joe’s Grill that night.) Bear with me. We will get to crime fiction eventually.

They want your blood

A few years ago my siblings and I were asked to participate in a national medical survey. The object was to determine whether certain conditions had a genetic link.

And we were happy to do so. It was no biggy: just a blood draw. In fact, the longest part of the procedure was reading the list of cautions and warnings that the researchers provided in the name of fully informing their human subjects. Mostly they wanted to tell us not to expect instant cures to come out of the study.

But one paragraph fascinated me. I don’t recall the exact language bu it amounted to this: If it turns out you aren’t related to the people you think are your family, we aren’t going to tell you.

I was most amused that they found it necessary to plan for this circumstance. Very logical, really.

So how does this relate to missed connections? Or crime fiction?

What’s bred in the blood comes out in the bone

Doug Allyn has a story in the November issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and a fine story it is. “Bloodline” is about a fourth generation banker who participates in a study much like the one I was involved in, but the doctor in charge did not follow the rule above. In fact, he took gleeful pleasure in telling the protagonist that he was not the biological son of his wealthy (legal) father.

(By the way, this is the premise of the story, so I am not revealing salient plot points.)

I had mixed feelings as I read the story. Yes, it was a very enjoyable read, but I had the maddening sense of – you guessed it – Missed Connections. Why hadn’t I seen that paragraph of legalese as a story idea?

Not that I would have come up with the same story as Allyn. Maybe I wouldn’t have thought of any story at all. What bugged me was that it never even occurred to me to LOOK for a story idea there.

Go fish

When people ask where I get my ideas I usually reply with a parable:

Once a traveler was walking along the riverbank. He saw a man standing by the river with a pole in his hand, a baited hook on a line and the line in the water. The traveler noticed a creel full of trout.

“Gosh,” he said, “where do you get your fish?”

We all live by that river. Some of us have developed our equipment and some of us haven’t. I think mine is in pretty good condition.

But dagnabit, that was a big juicy fish that swam by and I never even knew it was there. Makes me wonder if the next Harry Potter idea was right in front of me today while I was trying to decide between a chocolate chip cookie or a snickerdoodle.

If it was and someone else grabbed it I hope they don’t tell me where they got their idea.

27 September 2011


Francis Nevins, courtesy of St. Louis University
      This past Saturday I drove up to Baltimore, Maryland in a pouring rain in order to enjoy a lunch with one of my favorite authors, Professor Francis (“Mike”) Nevins who had travelled to the east coast for a nostalgia convention.   Mike, as all fans know, is the author of six novels, two collections of short stories and several books of non-fiction. He has edited more than 15 mystery anthologies and collections.  Mike was a close friend to Frederic Dannay, one half of the Ellery Queen collaboration.  (Mike refers to Dannay as the “closest thing to a grandfather that I ever had.")  Mike also wrote one of the definitive Ellery Queen pastiches – “Open Letter to Survivors.”

       I know, I know.  At this stage you roll your eyes and think to yourself, “here goes Dale off on another Ellery Queen tangent.”  So, like any other mystery writer, let me attempt to pull the rug out from under your feet.  What caught my interest, among other things, was Mike’s ruminations on another favorite author of mine, John D. MacDonald.

John D. MacDonald
       Mike was one of the editors who oversaw the collection of MacDonald’s early stories that comprise the anthology The Good Old Stuff.  (Actually, as reported in a review by Bill Pronzini there were too many stories for one volume, and the rest were collected in More Good Old Stuff.)   What was particularly interesting about Mike’s recollections of working with MacDonald was the fact that the author was adamant that the stories needed to be updated in order to be re-published.  For example, references to radio shows became references to television shows.  “This is always,” Mike admonished from across our salads as we chatted, “a bad idea.” 

       I suppose that there are legitimate contrasting views on that point, although I side generally with Mike.   Reflections of the world as it existed at the time a story was written can become anachronistic, rendering a story “dated” in the eyes of some readers and therefore contributing to its demise from published literature.  As an example, it has become increasingly difficult to find John D. MacDonald titles in bookstores (and you might as well forget about finding any newly published volumes by Ellery Queen).   But Mike’s observation is certainly correct from a purist perspective – short stories and novels help us to understand the times during which they were written.  We cannot (as the philosopher Heraclitus observed) step into the same river twice, but historical context in the writings of a time get us as close as we can get to that river. 

        All of this is perhaps a minor issue when we are talking about John D. MacDonald’s insistence that a story should be rewritten substituting a television for a radio.  But the significance grows when we begin to slide on down the slippery slope. 

        Last January it was announced that a new edition of Huckleberry Finn, updated by Twain scholar Alan Gribben of Auburn University, would eliminate a now totally unacceptable noun that was used 219 times by Mark Twain to describe Huck’s companion Jim during the course of the narrative.  In the new edition that word would be replaced with “slave.”  I can certainly understand the problem and sympathize with the solution.   I would never use the deleted word, even in quotations, even in an “historical” novel that hearkens back to a time when the word was lamentably acceptable in everyday speech.  But Twain’s use of the descriptive noun nevertheless  shapes the novel because it reflects the time in which Twain wrote it.  Commenting on this, USAToday on January 4, 2011 quoted Jonathan Turley, a legal blogger, who calls the editorial decision an "offense against the original work." 
The editing of a classic raises very troubling questions from the right of an author to have his works remain unchanged to the integrity of literary and historical works. Like all great works, the book must be read with an understanding of the mores and lexicon of its time.
Aside from the fact that MacDonald was editing his own work, the MacDonald example and the Mark Twain example delineate what might well be opposite ends of a spectrum.  MacDonald’s updates seek to remove anachronistic references in the hope of making a story more modern.  The Twain example, however, seeks to supplant the admittedly unacceptable racial views of Twain’s present with the (hopefully) more correct approach of ours.  Is it right to do this, to take a book that was ultimately instrumental in fighting racial prejudice and revise it in a manner that suggests that some of the manifestations of that prejudice did not historically exist?  Is it right to apply present standards in a way that pretends to alter the past?

      Well, there is another recent median point on that same spectrum, an example more socially tinged than MacDonald’s re-write of his stories but less so than Twain’s.   The Washington Post reported last week that the Albemarle Virginia public school system has removed from the required sixth grade reading list at one middle school a Sherlock Holmes novel because a Mormon parent complained about the way it portrayed Mormons.  The book at issue is A Study in Scarlet, which first introduces Holmes and Watson.  And the “offending” paragraph reads as follows:
 [John Ferrier] had always determined, deep down in his resolute heart, that nothing would ever induce him to allow his daughter to wed a Mormon. Such marriage he regarded as no marriage at all, but as a shame and a disgrace. Whatever he might think of the Mormon doctrines, upon that one point he was inflexible. He had to seal his mouth on the subject, however, for to express an unorthodox opinion was a dangerous matter in those days in the Land of the Saints
 I mean, really.  Is this a reason to remove A Study in Scarlet from a reading list?

Colin Cotterill
        And what awaits us at the bottom of the slippery slope if we follow and apply the approach of the Albemarle Virginia public school system?   When I attended the Bouchercon mystery writers’ convention in St. Louis 10 days ago one of the panels I listened to featured Colin Cotterill. Cotterill, for those of you unfamiliar with his works, lives in Thailand and has written a series of mysteries featuring Dr. Sin and the Peoples’ Republic of Laos.  Cotterill explained at Bouchercon that while there is complete freedom of the press in Thailand, such is hardly the case in Laos.  In order to maximize his chance to have one of his books actually published in Laos, where it is set, he and a friend went through the mystery eliminating all pages that might conceivably be deemed objectionable by the Laotian government.  When they were done they were aghast to find that they were left with only 10 pages.  On a lark they sent these off to whatever Laotian governmental office oversees such things.  That office responded with a formal letter concluding that regrettably only 3 of the 10 pages could be published. 

     That, I think, is a good recent example of the bottom of the slippery slope.

A note to readers -- Next week my Tuesday partner in crime Susan Slater, well known author of Southwestern Mysteries, will be signing on to SleuthSayers with a multi-part article.  After Susan takes a few weeks in this spot I will be back, so see you in October!

26 September 2011

From 375 SQ Feet in 180 Days or Less

I’ll admit I was reasonably happy living in my 30 ft. 5th wheel RV with my two 14 year old cats, Nick and Nora, when my daughter, Karla, said she wanted to buy me a house. “Buy me a house?” said I. “I barely have energy enough to clean this trailer, how the heck will I be able to keep a house clean?”

“But, Mom. Just think how awesome it will be to live in a nice house, decorated with plants and nice pictures and nice furniture. You can have a real bathroom without dealing with emptying the black water tank. You won’t have to worry if your propane tank is going to run empty in the middle of the week-end and a Blue Norther is swooping down from Amarillo. You can have a washer and dryer and not have to use the laundromat at the RV park."

“Hmm.” She did make it sound enticing. Except all I could think of was vacuuming, mopping and dusting all that knick-knack sh** that I knew she wanted to decorate with to make the house look awesome. “But a house, a whole house. I’m just not sure.”

“Okay,” she said, “but you think about it and I’m flying down there next week and we’ll look around.”

My daughter came down from Nashville, where she lives, to Central Texas where I was happy as a lark in my RV and guess what? We found a great house, she and her hubby bought it and I moved in the last week in August. And I love it. Three bedrooms, two baths, a fire place, a bay window and a kitchen island. It’s decorated with plants, super pictures, positive sayings, and all that knick-knack stuff that make a place warm and awesome.

My late husband, Elmer and I had semi-retired in 1990, then decided to open a mystery bookstore. Mysteries and More was a wonderful store, and we featured our local Austin and Texas area mystery writers. Mysteries, because that was my first love and I was also writing mysteries.

In 1999, Elmer and I decided to retire and follow our dream of traveling the west and southwest so we sold-out the bookstore, bought a 5th wheel and took off for New Mexico and points west. We spent three summers traveling and coming back to Austin to our house, then decided to give up the house and live in the RV full time. We enjoyed every minute of it and so did Nick and Nora, who you might suspect were named after The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles.

I’d penned a Private Eye novel in the mid-eighties but it wasn’t good enough to be published although I did get close a couple of times. In the late-eighties I published a couple of short stories in a small subscription magazine that paid in copies. I was writing a column for Mystery Scene magazine, did interviews and wrote book reviews. Soon I began selling stories to Ed Gorman, Marty Greenberg and Bob Randisi for anthologies. The ones for Ed and Marty were for theme anthologies; the Cat Crime Series, holidays like Christmas and Mother’s Day, White House Pets, etc. For Bob Randisi who founded Private Eye Writer’s of America: stories for Deadly Allies and Lethal Ladies. In 1998, I won an Anthony for Best Short Story, “A Front Row Seat,” in the Vengeance is Hers anthology, which was also nominated for a Shamus award.

Dean James and I co-edited Deadly Women which had articles, interviews and stories by and about women mystery authors. We were nominated for an Edgar, an Agatha and a macavity. We won the macavity, given by Mystery Reader’s International.

I sold my first mystery novel in 2000, titled Austin City Blue, featuring Zoe Barrow an Austin policewoman. It was nominated for an Anthony for Best First Novel. The second Zoe Barrow, Dark Blue Death came out in 2005, and in 2002, Five Star, my publisher, released a collection of my short stories titled, Found Dead In Texas.

Last September, my third mystery, What Doesn’t Kill You, a non-series book was published by Five Star.

In 2009, R. Barri Flowers and I co-edited, ACWL Presents: Murder Past, Murder Present, an anthology of stories written by members of the American Crime Writer’s League, published by Twilight Times. In April, 2012 our second anthology, Murder Here, Murder There will be released by Twilight Times. I have a short story in both.

“What does this all have to do with my moving?” you ask. For one thing, I now have a room that is going to be a real office. With “Going To Be” being the operative phrase here. After living in an RV for over nine years, I had accumulated more books, tablets, pens, reams of paper, etc., than you could imagine and now I’m slowly, very slowly trying to get the “office” set up.

This entailed getting internet access, which isn’t always easy or affordable in the TX Hill Country, getting my old computers set up and operational. It’s just NOT that easy for a person who has the cyber-technology skills of a horned toad to do.

However, having said, all that I’m delighted to be joining my fellow writers in this great new blogging adventure and look forward to seeing each of you readers every other Monday. My writing partner is Fran Rizer and I certainly expect her to keep me in line, online and on time. So y’all come back now, you hear?

25 September 2011

Hello, This Is Me Coming At You

by Louis A. Willis

I am happy and nervous to be in the company of so many readers and published writers. When Leigh, my partner for the Sunday articles, asked me if I wanted to be a contributor, I said yes before I thought about it. Later, realizing that I had committed myself to write an article for a blog that will attract more readers than my own blog is when I become a little nervous. I asked myself Am I up to the challenge of writing an article that will interest so many readers, especially some of whom are published writes? Myself answered, well what have you got to lose? Accept the challenge.

I retired In 1995, and in 1996, after being away for 42 years, I returned to my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. In 2000, I enrolled in the Master Degree program at the University of Tennessee and received my degree in English literature in 2004. I thought about what to do next. I volunteered to edit my high school class newspaper. Next, I realized I had time to read as many books as I could and write about them. So, I began blogging.

In my previous hectic life, after graduating from college, I worked as a reporter for three months for a community newspaper in Chicago. I was not a good reporter because I didn’t like asking questions that people might not want to answer. My next writing job was several years later while I was working in the Social Security Administration. I was promoted to the position of Hearing Analyst in the Office of Hearings and Appeals, in which position for 15 years I analyzed and prepared synopses of disallowed claims from Social Security claimants for the Administrative Law Judges. After the Judge made his ruling following a hearing, I drafted the decision for his or her signature.

I had to follow the strict format demanded by the Office and the Judges, and to learn to write government legalese because the Judges complained that I didn’t “write like a lawyer.”  Creativity was usually not allowed. Occasionally, I was permitted, even expected, to be creative when a Judge knowingly made a decision, favorable or unfavorable, that was against the law and regulations. The motive for doing so might be he or she didn’t like the claimant’s attorney (unfavorable), felt sorry for the claimant (favorable), or disagreed with the law and regulation on certain issues (favorable or unfavorable). I had to construct an argument that I and the Judge knew did not meet the requirements of the law and regulations

I am more a reader than a writer. I read just about everything, but my favorite reading is mystery and crime fiction. I favor detective stories because as Borges has written “...a detective story cannot be understood without a beginning, middle, and end.” It is the ideal structure for any kind of storytelling. I am mainly interested in crime fiction by African American writers

I now have another reading assignment: to read the stories of my blogging colleagues.

I must end this article because I hear my high school teacher warning me, “Too many 'I's, Mr. Willis, too many 'I's.”

24 September 2011

Character, character, character

My new blog brother, John M. Floyd, with whom I will be alternating Saturday posts on SleuthSayers, said in his introductory post last week that what matters most to him as a writer and as a reader is plot. For me, it’s character. I can think of many reasons this is so, and they fit right into the task of introducing myself on this new blog.
I write what I love to read.

Complex personalities and intense emotions fascinate me. I love how series characters and their relationships develop over time. I go back over and over to character-driven novels in which the characters seem so real that I experience a longing to be one of them—not to be, say, Harriet Vane or Judge Deborah Knott, but to dine in Oxford with Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey, adding my two cents (shillings? “P”?) to the conversation, or to hang out with my guitar on that North Carolina porch with Judge Deborah and her family, preferably singing along.

I am a character.
A few decades ago, I was relaxing in a hot tub with a couple of women friends (there’s a great Charles Addams cartoon of three witches doing the same in a cauldron), and one of them said, “What do you really want to be—not do, but be, ultimately?” Without any conscious thought, I said, “A wisewoman and an outrageous older woman.” I’ve been working on both these roles ever since. First I got the “Outrageous Older Woman” T-shirt. Then I wrote the song. And now it’s the title of the album of original songs I’m about halfway through recording.

I’m a shrink.
That’s the wisewoman side of me. I know many people believe that most therapists are crazy. I disagree. If your therapist is nuts or has a disastrous personal life, you’re not getting your money’s worth. Therapy is all about character (although I’ve heard some rollercoaster-ride plots while listening to clients’ stories). Therapists thrive on connection. They love their work because it opens windows onto the intimate world of others. That makes therapists a lot like storytellers. When I was active as a poet, I used to say, “All my stories are true.” As a novelist and short story writer, I say, “I make things up.” (Alternatively: “I tell lies for a living.”) But it’s really the same thing.

I was born to schmooze.
I’m a New Yorker. If I can say it, with my voice, my hands, or my fingers on the keyboard, I probably will. I love book launches and book tours, conventions and conferences, not for the books I’ll sell or the craft and business secrets I’ll learn, but for the schmoozing. Yes, I’m on Facebook. And I do love blogging.

I want to make people laugh and cry.
I doubt that reading exactly which model of AK-47 a fictional assassin used moves even the most technophilic reader to tears. Nor is even the most ingenious locked room puzzle hilarious. Suspense arouses emotion, certainly, and good thriller writers can sure ratchet up the anxiety, frustration, and dread as the reader turns the pages. Suspense works even if the character is so flat that the only possible answer to the question, “What’s he like?” is, “Well, he was Tom Hanks in the movie.” But I don’t like to be scared. I want to be moved. It’s the characters, their emotions, and their interactions with each other that move me, and I want to move readers of my books and stories in the same way.

“So what have you written, Liz?”
Having given you a character-driven introduction, I guess I should mention my publication credits. My mystery series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler (and his friends, Barbara the world-class codependent and Jimmy the computer genius) started with Death Will Get You Sober and includes Death Will Help You Leave Him and four short stories, the latest just out in the anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. The third novel, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, is due in April 2012. My short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and various anthologies and e-zines. Three have been nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story. The two most recent, both in EQMM, featured Diego, a young marrano sailor with Columbus, whose story continues in a YA novel (so far unpublished). A standalone story about art theft at the Met will appear in EQMM next year. My author website is at www.elizabethzelvin.com. Along with SleuthSayers, I’ll continue to blog weekly at Poe’s Deadly Daughters.

23 September 2011

It's Friday. Thank God it's … Dixon Hill???

by Dixon Hill

First: For the Star Trek fans among us…

Yes, my name is Dixon Hill. That's not a joke; it's my name.

No, I'm not a fictional character. I am a real person.

No. I did not have my name legally changed from Bruno Jablonski to Dixon Hill after attending my first Star Trek convention--that's a vicious rumor! Dixon Hill is the name my parents wrote on my birth certificate when I was born in Phoenix, in 1963, long before TNG ever made it to the airwaves.

No. I am not related to the actor Patrick Stewart, who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Yes. I know that in the show, Captain Picard's character sometimes enters the holodeck and pretends to be a fictional detective from the 1940's named Dixon Hill.
This is not me.  I swear!

Yes. It so happens that I do often wear a fedora. I've owned one for many years. It's brown, and has a medium-width brown crepe ribbon around the base of the crown. And, it used to hold a feather.

Naturally the hat's a bit worse for wear these days, after having been crushed and stuffed into a duffel bag for trips to Central and South America and West Africa when I was in the army. Not to mention having been used as a Frisbee by my older son when he was a teenager, and my younger son when he was playing Raiders of the Lost Ark last week. (Thankfully, my teenage daughter has spared the hat, choosing to age me instead, by exercising her new driver's permit privileges while I cling to dangling strips of the headliner on the passenger side of our Jeep Cherokee. My wife shredded the headliner with her long nails during an earlier ride with my daughter, and frankly I'm grateful for the resulting handholds.)

However, the fact that I wear a fedora doesn't make me Captain Picard. Not anymore than the fact that I sometimes wear a leather jacket, while wearing my fedora, could magically turn me into Indiana Jones.

It doesn't; I'm not--nuff said.

Ah, good! You got it now, buddy: I'm a guy named Dixon Hill, who wears a fedora and writes mysteries.

What's that? Well… I don't know. Perhaps you're right, angry Trekkie: I may be a jerk. Sometimes, at least. After all, my wife once told me I had all the social graces of an Orangutan on steroids. But, my not being related to Patrick Stewart (or not having been named for a fictional character, or not being that fictional character for that matter) is not what makes me a jerk sometimes.

What occasionally makes me act like a jerk, is that I spent ten years in the U.S. Army--first working as a Military Intelligence Analyst, and later as a Special Forces Engineer Sergeant--and even now, over a decade later, I sometimes react to events as if I were still an army sergeant.

Surprisingly (to me, at least) this is not always a good thing in the civilian world, and is also what lies at the root of my wife's "Orangutan on steroids" crack. But, in my defense, it's an automatic reaction, and I work fast to correct it as soon as I realize old habits have kicked in where they don't belong.

To paraphrase Kermit the Frog: "It ain't easy bein' green."

Training that builds such ingrained habits is not easy to overcome. Those habits maintain a strong grip on a person's life, long after their usefulness has faded away. And, I suppose, this is where my writing comes in. Because it's the fourth thing that has such a grip on my life. (My family is the second thing. You'll have to figure out what takes first place--after all, this is a blog for sleuths. Right?)
"But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water."
Not me either. This is Rudyard Kipling
In case you don't know, the quote above comes from the epic poem Gunga Din written by Rudyard Kipling. I first discovered Kipling about six months after completing Basic Training. His words struck me like a cold slap, because they seemed to capture the army life so well.

Since then, I've learned to understand why some revile him. There are those who can only see the racial imperialism that mars his poetry. And, I can understand where they're coming from; I'm not happy with those aspects either. However, I can't help but love them for the truth of the soldier, which runs like a golden vein through so much of his works. Kipling understood the hard, hot back-breaking work that makes up a soldier's existence. He knew it was a life filled with long tracts of boredom, punctuated by brief furious violence and terror.

Still not me.
This is Walter Mosley.
After being honorably discharged from the army, I earned my BA in Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School. But, working for a newspaper quickly soured on me. It's tough to fit the whole truth into eight column inches. And, anything less than the truth... Well, you can decide for yourself. As for me, I didn't want anymore to do with it.

Instead, I decided (and I'm paraphrasing the great Walter Mosley, here) "to write fiction, because I wanted to write the truth." I'm not always sure how to go about doing this, but mysteries often deal in violence. I know the truth of violence, first-hand. And, I also know that portraying violence in a way that makes light of it, or of what it does to a person--the wounds, the psychological aftermath--runs against my grain. I don't believe in adding gratuitous violence to a story, but where violence belongs I think it has to be real. As honestly real as it can be written. Even though this disturbs people at times. (Comments or disagreement concerning that statement are certainly very welcome by the author. And, I should probably warn you that the next few paragraphs deal with my first combat experience, so some readers may wish to skip down to the paragraph beside the next picture, instead.)

Violence damages both victim and perpetrator; if I do my job right, this truth should come out. And violent death is neither clean nor efficient. (It's tempting to write that oft-read cliche that violent death is messy, but I don't really think I can. It's not messy. At least not just messy in a physical sense.) I learned that during my first deployment on an A-Team, which culminated in our participating in Operation Just Cause: the removal of Manuel Noriega from power in Panama. It was also my first time in combat.

It's difficult to put enough words on paper to evoke what it meant to run across a bridge that our side had been holding one end of all night. Running past the crumpled, stiff, bullet and shrapnel-torn bodies of men, whom my buddies and I had worked very hard to kill. And we had succeeded. Their blood lay thick like black rancid jelly, pooled beside and beneath the soldiers' corpses. One dead man's arm stretched stiff against the sky, hand open but fingers deeply curled, as if pleading. I hadn't even known a man could die like that.

But this was my first time, so I made myself look. Made myself see them, instead of turning my head the other way. It wasn't easy to do this while keeping one eye on the far-side bridge abutment, and the jungle beyond, searching for potential danger signs, but I figured they deserved it; turning away felt too much like turning my back on them. Facing them, looking at them: this was the only way I had, to honor their lives. And, let's be honest: these were men who had once been little boys. Maybe they'd played with toy cars, the way I had as a boy--that was the thought that ran through my mind at the time, because I was single (though these days, thinking of them makes me think of my own sons). So I made myself look at them as I ran past.
Yep!  This is me.
I'm not scowling, just squinting
in the bright Arizona sunlight.

And I figure that's what I've got to do whenever violence occurs in a story; I've got to write it in such a way that a reader sees the violence, comes to grips with it and is gripped by it. And gains a better understanding of the way it hurts--everyone involved. I know I don't succeed as well as I wish. But I keep trying.

And, I promise not to bring anymore dead bodies (unless they're fictional bodies) into the Friday blog post, since I'm sure most folks would find it an unsettling way to start the weekend. But--though I'm still trying to figure out what I've got to say, that you'll find worth reading--I also promise to do my best to write what I honestly feel.

Having been so kindly permitted to join such an august group of authors in this blog, I feel a lot like Leigh wrote that he did, when he first joined CriminalBrief: "I'm not sure my colleagues understood they'd invited an occasionally irrelevant, often irreverent rookie…"

I've written a lot of non-fiction, but when it comes to fiction--though I've sold several short stories--I'm definitely still a rookie. And, when it comes to blogging I'm a babe in the woods. I figure the only way I can honor a circle of such great writers, is to write the truth. So, I'll do my best to do that every-other Friday. Preferably, without turning your stomachs.

I'll see you in two weeks. Next Friday, R.T. Lawton will be here. He's my partner and counter-part for this da, and, though we've only recently become aquainted, it's pretty clear that he's a great guy and a fascinating writer--one who will undoubtedly bring you many great posts in the future.

So, until the Friday after next: Keep the faith, Buddy!


22 September 2011

Far to Go

by Deborah Elliott-Upton

This is my first post for SleuthSayers. For the past four and half years, I've had a posting at Criminal Brief on Thursdays. Being their Femme Fatale was fun and yes, I have also been known as Thursday's Child with far to go. As a Sleuthsayer, I am eager to start anew with a clean slate. Because this blog is comprised of experienced bloggers, we might be considered "new", but certainly not ingenues. That is both good and bad.

The good is though we enter this endeavor knowing not everyone is going to like every column, from what we've learned over the years, the odds are the readership will enjoy enough of what's here to return soon and often. We appreciate and need your feedback to find out what you'd like to see on this blog.

The bad news is -- wait! There is no bad news. We're ready to explore crime writing and getting to know mystery writers and hear what the mystery readers want.

Writers are like a combination between a magician and serial killer: we always have something new up our sleeve, but often the thoughts lurking deep in our mind aren't always nice and pretty, yet sometimes those are the most interesting.

I suppose I should introduce myself. I am a lover of the short story. My first love is mystery and I enjoy plotting crimes. I'd probably be a decent enough criminal except I'm too chicken to do the time if I got caught. Better for me to write my stories and stay scared straight.

As a fiction writer, it seems I sell a lot of nonfiction. I dabble in other realms of the writing world and have succumbed to poetry, screenplays and scripting a fashion show for the Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation. I've been a book reviewer, an office manager and spent time as an actual hired killer when I worked as an exterminator. I really do know how to get rid of the bodies.

I love writing, but probably do the work as much for getting speaking gigs as book sales. I love the stage and yes, I admit, applause. Writers usually sit in front of a computer and rarely get applause. In my opinion, we all need more applause in our life. So, right now, I am applauding you for having read something today just for fun and I hope that includes this blog. Go ahead and blush as I am now giving you a standing ovation. You're really quite wonderful and it's fine with me if you start feeling the same about me, too.

I'll be back here on alternate Thursdays. I hope you will, too. I have plans for you.

21 September 2011

By Way of Introduction

by Robert Lopresti

So here we are in our new digs. I miss Criminal Brief but I admit to a certain delight at a fresh start. It feels like all my crimes have been pardoned, my sins forgiven, my Permanent Record run through the shredder and the statute of limitations run out. In other words, all the mistakes I made at CB have been forgotten and I can make them all over again. I can hardly wait!

It is tempting to do now what James Lincoln Warren asked us not to do in the last weeks of CB: namely, get all weepy and nostalgic about the good old days back there. But a better idea might be to ruin James’ reputation by revealing to the world exactly how incredibly generous, hard-working, and thoughtful he was throughout the whole project. Wouldn’t that serve him right?

But no. Even James deserves a fresh start. And in that regard I am going to assume you may not be familiar with me so I think I should tell you a little bit about the person who hopes to steal a few minutes of your time on 76.9% of your Wednesdays. (Neil Schofield will be filling this slot on the second Wednesday of each month, and I am delighted to have him on board.) But getting back to me, here are some Fun Facts:
  • I am a librarian.
  • I live in the Pacific Northwest.
  • I am the author of forty-plus short stories and a novel.
  • My most recent publication is a non-fiction piece entitled How Overdue Library Books Caused the Civil War.
  • I am the winner of a Derringer Prize and a nominee for an Anthony. So far the Edgar, Oscar and Nobel have narrowly escaped my grasp.
  • I am considered by some to have a bizarre imagination.
  • I was Dashiell Hammett’s inspiration for the character Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon. (Frankly I don’t think Elisha Cook Jr. captured my innate charm.)
  • I have built a 1:20 scale-model of Nero Wolfe’s office, entirely out of popsicle sticks.
  • While I write under my own name now I am perhaps best known for my work under the names Ngaio Marsh and Erle Stanley Gardner.
  • I know who killed Roger Ackroyd, who framed Roger Rabbit, who Teddy Villanova is, who killed Cock Robin, what Mrs. McGillicuddy saw, and where Carmen Sandiego is.
But that’s enough about me. Who the heck are you?

20 September 2011

If It's Tuesday, This Must Be . . . An Introduction

            Introductions, awkward always, remind me of the opening lines of Emily Dickinson’s poem:  I’m nobody, who are you?  Are you nobody too?  While I am in august company on SleuthSayers, I am still pretty new to this game.

            I came to fiction writing later in life, near the end of my stint as a Deputy Assistant General Counsel for Litigation at the U.S. Department of Transportation.  There I wrote and (even more) edited the writings of others for over twenty years.  But those writings were not narratives, worse still, they were legal briefs!  I left all of that behind when I retired in 2009.  Since then I list my occupation as “recovering attorney.”

            Although I have some stories “making the rounds,” and others solidifying in outline form on the hard drive of my lap top, my published mystery fiction (as of this writing) numbers two stories.  “The Book Case,” EQMM May, 2007, was written with the assistance of Kurt Sercu, proprietor of “Ellery Queen, a Website of Deduction.”  (More on Kurt and his great website another week.) The story won second place in the 2007 EQMM Readers’ Award competition (missing first place by one vote) and was nominated for the 2007 Barry Award for best short story.  “The Mad Hatter’s Riddle,” a prequel of sorts, was published in the September/October 2009 issue of EQMM.  Both stories are pastiches, tributes if you will, to a character with whom I literally (pun intended) grew up – Ellery Queen. 

            In a November 2010 column in Criminal Brief, James Lincoln Warren, during the course of commenting on his own efforts to write a Nero Wolfe tribute, said this of my stories:

But is it really a good idea to write these tributes, to put one’s own spin on someone else’s idea?
Well, in the case of Dale Andrews, the answer is a resounding yes, because if he didn’t write an Ellery story or two, he probably wouldn’t have published anything at all in terms of fiction, and the stories are very good. 

I love the reference, and not because it is one of the rare comments addressing my writing.  Rather, I love it because it is quintessential James.  It is a compliment surrounding a cold, hard truth.   For he is correct – at least at this stage my fiction is comprised solely of pastiches.

Ellery Queen --  Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay
            As I pointed out some years back in a guest column I wrote for Criminal Brief, if you Google “pastiche” looking for a definition, the first one you will find is this: “a work of art that intentionally imitates other works, often to ridicule or satire.” You might guess, if you have been following this, that the definition I will offer up instead is one penned originally by Frederic Dannay, writing as Ellery Queen. Dannay wrote that “a pastiche is a serious and sincere imitation in the exact manner of the original author.” The readily apparent difference between the two definitions is that the former includes the parody – since it invites “ridicule or satire.” The latter, I would argue, correctly excludes both.

            My belief is that you have to approach characters created by other authors with reverence and with care.  My own rule for writing pastiches is also the basic cardinal principle for the practice of medicine: “first, do no harm.” To me this means that the protagonist who enters at the beginning of the story, and the one who emerges at the end, should be recognizable as the protagonist that you, the reader, expected.  Liberties can be taken, and I have done so in my stories, but it seems to me the author must always ask whether each of those liberties should be taken.  Constrained by Dannay’s definition, the writing style, the characters, and the plotting should, to the extent possible, emulate the original. As such, a strict pastiche is an homage, or as James Lincoln Warren notes in his aforementioned article, a tribute.  The pastiche, or tribute, is therefore a brittle form that calls for a deferential approach.

By contrast, liberties are taken regularly with Sherlock Holmes (a favorite subject of imitation since the Conan Doyle stories are now in the public domain).  Some of these I cannot read, and certainly would not write.  I remember as a teenager trying to read a Sherlock Holmes story that ultimately cast Holmes as Jack the Ripper and ended with Watson killing him.  I hurled the book across the living room and only picked it up again to deposit it in the trash.  Harm had clearly been done.

Benedict Cumberbatch as BBC's Holmes?
Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson?
Other transformations of Holmes are more difficult, perhaps, to judge.  Should Holmes be relegated to the role of secondary character to his “wife” (who isn’t even Irene Adler!) as Laurie King envisions the character in her very popular Mary Russell mysteries?  And what about the new BBC series, which cuts and pastes Holmes into 21st century London, relying on blackberries and laptops?  Inevitably it is up to the writers of pastiches to determine how far the rubber band can be stretched, and then up to the reader (or viewer) to determine whether the rubber band has, in fact, been snapped.

Jennifer Garner as Miss Marple??
            A new battle is currently brewing concerning the further adventures, if you will, of Agatha Christie’s timeless sleuth Miss Marple.  Christie (famously) did not like the portrayal of her character as envisioned by Margaret Rutherford in the 1950s. She reportedly complained in one letter: “[w]hy don’t they just invent a new character? Then they can have their cheap fun and leave me and my creations alone.”  One can only suspect the reaction Dame Christy might have to recently announced plans by Disney to cast Jeniffer Garner as a re-invented young, hip and sexy Miss Marple.  Seems to me harm may well ensue!

With Holmes there is no one to object when things go too far (as in the case of Holmes as the Ripper) since copyright protections have long since expired.  Recognizable or not, Holmes and Watson are now afoot in the public domain; not yet the case for Christie or Queen. 
 Thus, with Ellery even if I did not follow to the best of my ability the constraint of “doing no harm,” that constraint could nevertheless be imposed externally since each pastiche featuring Ellery as a character – whether by me, by Jon Breen, or by the late and truly lamented Ed Hoch –  must be read and approved by the surviving children of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee before it is allowed to see print.  I did not include Francis Nevins, author of “Open Letter to Survivors,” surely one of the greatest Ellery pastiches of all time, in this list since Nevins never explicitly identifies his detective as Ellery.  I suspect, however, that that story also only saw print after Frederic Dannay, then still very much with us, gave it his seal of approval.

So much for this Tuesday.  What to expect in future weeks?  Well, I like Golden Age mysteries, whodunits that are "fair play" detective stories.  I also like to discuss how everyday events (and funny mistakes) can be re-cycled into ideas for stories and clues.  However, I am not certain exactly where Tuesdays are headed since I have yet to hear anything from my partner in crime (fiction) TBA who, I am sure, is “TB” to his or her friends.  I’d certainly like to hear from him or her by next week since I didn’t sign on to be the only “weekly victim” in this particular whodunit!

19 September 2011

Peanut Butter on Monday

Greetings from your Monday SleuthSayers! I'm Fran Rizer, and my partner is Jan Grape, a Texas lady with an AWESOME background in mysteries. She'll introduce herself next week. Meanwhile, just remember:

Like the other Sleuth Sayers, I'm a writer of mysteries. My Callie Parrish Mystery Series, published by Berkley Prime Crime division of Penguin, USA, and Bella Rosa Books, are my best-known works, but I've also had articles and stories in magazines including Pages of Stories (Canada), Living Blues, Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Now, Ladies Home Journal, and Field & Stream. At the moment, I'm working on the first mystery in a new series.

Considering what to write about in this first essay, I began to think about peanut butter. Yes, that's what I said--peanut butter! Decades ago, I was a yo-yo dieter whenever I needed to fit into some special outfit for an important occasion. Before my wedding, I adopted a popular diet of the time--one of those so specific that it dictated every mouthful for each day of the week. It may have been the one that allowed steak and four ounces of ice cream one night a week or the one that required grapefruit every morning, but what I remember most was that on Mondays, the dieter was required to eat peanut butter.

There are all kinds of peanut butter--creamy, crunchy, extra crunchy, mixed with honey, and even swirled with grape jelly--but it's still possible to grow tired of peanut butter. I began to dread Mondays, not just because they signaled return to work after the weekend, but because of that danged peanut butter. I'm the total opposite of OCD and I've always tended to do things my way, on my own time. When on writers' panels, I stumble over the questions, "When do you write?" and "Do you have a routine?" The answer is that I write morning, noon, and night--just not on the same day.

What does peanut butter have to do with SleuthSayers? I, the queen of commitment phobia (unless it's a contract deadline for a manuscript), am making a vow to you. I promise not to give you the same old thing every Monday. I'll share ideas and stories about writing and words, but I guarantee you that each column will address something different--sometimes smooth and creamy, sometimes chunky.

At times, I'm sure I'll be tempted to write about my personal life, including stories about my grandson. He calls me "G-Ma" and I call him magnificent. (That's his picture at the head of this essay. Yes, the photo is posed. I don't let him eat peanut butter off spoons that big.)

I may even occasionally write about the origin of recipes from the Callie Parrish crowd. We can explore where story ideas originate, how characters develop, and what will make agents and publishers sit up and listen. I didn't begin writing fiction until after my retirement, and my next column will be about getting a late start in the writing business. I hope you will enjoy reading my blogs as much as I will enjoy writing them for you.

If you'd like to know more before I'm back here at SleuthSayers, please visit my website at http://www.franrizer.com/. Until we meet again– take care of YOU!

18 September 2011

Criminal Debriefing

by Leigh Lundin

For me, it started with a short story called 'Swamped'. To my shock, Ellery Queen not only published it, but 'Swamped' went on to win the Readers Choice award, a first for a first-time writer.

That resulted in my first MWA conference where I met *real* authors who, as a friend put it, climbed off the bookshelves and strolled around like they were people, not just authors.


At that conference, James Lincoln Warren invited me to join Criminal Brief. I'm not sure my colleagues understood they'd invited an occasionally irrelevant, often irreverent rookie, but they were kind, helpful, and tolerant.

Since then, I've written 228 articles. Tomorrow, CB completes an amazing 4½ year run. Five of us, including Deborah Elliott-Upton, Janice Law, John Floyd, and Rob Lopresti, decided we still had something to say, and that brings us to SleuthSayers.

Shades of Dorothy L

To be sure, I've mispronounced SleuthSayers' name more than once and Melodie Johnson Howe complained we chose a name that made her sound like Daffy Duck. But all five of us liked the title with its multiple plays-on-words.

Next came several decisions. At least three people asked that the look of the site not be too dark ("not as dark as the inkiness of thy forlorn disconsolate soul," they said). However, I wanted something classy and distinctive, subtle– no guns, guts, or guck. The look should be unique where unique isn't exactly blogging software's forte. A primary goal was a design that could represent multiple subgenres.

Criminal Conspiracy

Even with the fabulous pay, weekly articles can be emotionally draining and sometimes hard-earned, when other priorities compete. It didn't take us long to decide we wanted to share the burden, er, honor. We began a talent search.

Think of each day of the week as a mini-blog where two great writers choose their theme and manage their day, month in and month out, likely alternating articles. For example, Fran Rizer and Jan Grape really hit it off and tomorrow, they'll be off and running about cats, cosies, and chick-lit mysteries– clever commentary from two feminine powerhouses.
red rose
The Crime Fighters

The present line-up looks like this:

Fran Rizer / Jan Grape
Dale Andrews / Susan Slater
Rob Lopresti / Neil Schofield
Janice Law / Deborah Elliott-Upton
RT Lawton / Dixon Hill
John Floyd / Liz Zelvin
Leigh Lundin / Louis Willis

So there you have it.

Writing Wrongs

What can you expect from me? I'm notoriously shy writing about my own work.

My home state of Florida, the only state with its own Fark tag, is a constant source of bizarre material. Hey, we made Casey Anthony an industry.

Before I began writing fiction, I wasn't much interested in true crime, but in a quest for verisimilitude, I found I couldn't write crime stories in a vacuum.

Sometimes I share tips from great writers. If you're learning to write, why not draw from Elmore Leonard or George Orwell?

Finally, as James Lincoln Warren pointed out, I often write about injustice. And it will be an injustice if you miss a single article from SleuthSayers. We're glad you're with us.

17 September 2011

Plots and Plans

by John M. Floyd
32/365 The Idea Machine
Welcome to SleuthSayers!

My name’s John Floyd, I live in Mississippi, my wife and I have three grown kids, and I write mystery stories. Writing is actually my second career—IBM was my first, and as Clint Eastwood said after the final gunfight in Unforgiven, I was lucky in the order. If I had discovered my love for writing when I was twenty years old, my family would probably have starved.

I’d like to begin by making something clear: I’m not writing this first column at our new blog because I’m the best choice for that. I’m writing it because for almost four years I wrote the Saturday column at the Criminal Brief blog, and since we contributors to CB are finally turning in our badges and guns, and since several of us are migrating here from that site, and since today is Saturday… well, you get the picture. I’ll be alternating Saturdays with my friend Elizabeth Zelvin, who writes wonderful mysteries.

By the way, this is a blog for both readers and writers. Mostly readers and writers of mystery/crime/suspense. And when someone asks me what I enjoy most about the writing process, the answer is an easy one, because it’s also what I enjoy most about reading. It’s the plot.

Spin Me a Web

To me, coming up with the plot of a story is more fun than everything else put together. I don’t deny that characterization and description—and all those other things that you must do well to be a successful writer—are important. Of course they’re important. Without them your piece of fiction isn’t interesting and it isn’t marketable. But I think the pure enjoyment of weaving a good plot, one that’s suspenseful and believable and entertaining… well, that can’t be beat.

Since I write mostly short stories, much of that plotting is done ahead of time, in my head, before the first word of the story is put on paper. Is that outlining? Probably so—at least mental outlining. And what I’ve outlined sometimes changes once the writing starts. But to me, some measure of before-the-fact brainstorming is not only necessary, it’s fun.

My story process consists of three steps: planning, writing, and rewriting. For a typical short story, the research and planning (pre-plotting?) phase probably takes the longest, maybe a couple weeks; the writing of the first draft might take a day or so; and the rewriting and editing can take another few days, or as long as a week or two. These times are directly proportional to the length of the story. Then I let my wife read it, I incorporate (or not) her ideas, and I mail it off into the great beyond. And then I start on another one. I’ve gone through that cycle so many times it’s as natural as climbing out of bed in the morning.

Teachable Moments

I hope I’ve done it enough that by now I know what I’m doing. But anytime I start patting myself on the back, anytime I even begin to think I’ve mastered the art of plotting a mystery story, I think of the last time I read a novel by Nelson DeMille or Harlan Coben, or Block or King or Lippman or Deaver or Sandford—or the last time I read a short story by someone like Jack Ritchie, Bill Pronzini, Roald Dahl, Ed Hoch, or Fredrick Brown. These folks are, to use the current catchphrase, amazing. Their expertise in creating compelling plots can inspire amateurs and veterans alike. Read them and learn.

I also like the way great authors incorporate plot twists, not only at the end of a story but in the middle. Read a novel by Lee Child, for example. You might think you know what Jack Reacher will try next, and you might think the story will turn out a certain way, but at least two or three times during the book, the plot does a one-eighty and takes you in a completely different direction. Child’s talent for that kind of reversal, for keeping the reader off-balance, is one of the many reasons he’s so successful, and so enjoyable to read.

Fun and Games

I think most of us agree that a mystery (novel or short story) is essentially a puzzle. The writer is presenting the reader with a question to be answered, a puzzle to be solved, a situation in which a likeable character (cop, PI, ordinary Joe, whatever) faces a difficult problem. And the writer’s job is to somehow solve that problem for the character, and thus for the reader, in a way that is (1) satisfying and (2) unexpected. That’s not as easy at it sounds, and it’s always a challenge—and a thrill—to find a way to steadily build the tension and make things eventually “turn out right.

I love all kinds of puzzles, and I think almost anyone who likes puzzles also enjoys reading mysteries. And I think anyone who doesn’t like puzzles shouldn’t try to write one. He probably wouldn’t even want to.

Tell Me a Story

A quick word on the old argument about whether plot is more important than characterization, or vice versa. Both—obviously—are vital ingredients of good fiction. But I’m always amused when I hear fellow writers say, “Don’t worry about the plot. Just choose interesting characters and then give them something to do.” Well, here’s a news flash: What they do is the plot.

I like the following quote from Secret Windows, a collection of essays by Stephen King:
“All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance over every other facet of the writer’s craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else is forgiven.”
I wish I’d said that myself.