30 October 2011

My Uncle the Bootlegger

by Louis Willis

My uncle, the younger of my mother’s two brothers, nicknamed “Belly,” was a bootlegger. He sold moonshine in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. He bought the moonshine in half gallon jars from the men who made it back in the hills and hollows of East Tennessee and brought it to the city where he sold it by the pint and half pint. To my uncle and the other Black bootleggers, bootlegging was a business, and they considered themselves businessmen, not criminals. 

The police, who admired my uncle for his ability to evade capture when other bootleggers were often caught, gave my uncle the nickname of “Whiskers” because he wore a large beard. He was tall, lean, handsome, medium brown skin and spoke in a low voice, even when angry. I think the fact that, at six feet, two inches, he was the tallest member in our family makes him stand out in my memory. 

I have no direct memory of the family story of how the police used my uncle to test the rookies. Two officers in a patrol car would bring the rookie into the neighborhood, wait until they spotted my uncle, then let the rookie out of the patrol car, and the foot race was on. My uncle never had moonshine or a gun on him, which made me think, in later years, the situation was prearranged. None of the rookies ever caught him because my uncle had the advantage of knowing the neighborhood. For me, the story shows how the White policemen used my uncle like the mechanical rabbit employed to get racing dogs to run. The police, however, respected my uncle and tried to get him to join the force. He refused because he didn’t want to arrest his friends, and especially his brother.

I remember a funny incident involving one of the Black policemen’s  attempt to catch my uncle, not by chasing him, but by outsmarting him, because I saw it happen. Only 3 or 4 Black men were on the city police force. One of them, I’ll call him GV, was a mean SOB and would arrest anyone he thought was breaking the law.

The part of the GV story I know from other family members suggests he didn’t like my uncle and considered him an embarrassment to the Black community. He decided he was the man to catch him. He didn’t know that the Black beat patrolman had warned my grandmother, and she had warned my uncle, who was watching for GV, as was others in the neighborhood. 

Looking across our backyard from our kitchen window, I could see the back of Doll Flats and the outdoor toilets attached to each flat. The doors of the toilets could be locked with latches on the inside and the outside. The toilets could be approached from the north through the space between our house and the house on the east side of ours, and from south through the space between Doll Flats and the back of the flats that were perpendicular to Doll Flats.
On the day the incident, I watched from the kitchen window as GV, who was not in uniform, approached from the south, entered the first toilet, and locked the door. From inside the toilet, you could see the back of our house through the cracks between the door and the door frame. Just before GV entered the toilet, I saw my uncle tiptoeing between Doll Flats and the back of the house next door to ours. He stopped, peeked around the corner of the flats, and saw GV enter the toilet. 

He left, and I next saw him ease around the south corner of the flats and throw the outside latch of the toilet GV was in. He strolled pass the toilet, looked back when he heard GV trying to open the door, smiled, and kept walking.

I never learned how GV got out of the toilet. He was fired from the police force for doing the unthinkable: he started arresting White folks.

My uncle went legit when the county became wet in the late 1960s or early 1970s. He already had a business selling kindling wood. He opened a store from which he sold sodas, candy, cookies, and beer. Strangely, he did not sell whiskey. He died of a heart attack in 1988 after discovering someone had broken into the store. I always thought he died of a broken heart because he believed no one would ever rob him since if anyone wanted something he would give it to them on credit. He was not aware that the new, drug dealing, drug using generation didn’t ask; they took.

29 October 2011

Truth (?) in Fiction

Mystery author Lawrence Block has written, in addition to many novels and short stories, several extremely useful books on the craft of writing. In one of those he mentioned the fact that "fiction is just a pack of lies." But, as Block of course knows, there's more to it than that. Successful fiction--lies though it may be--must ring true to the reader. We have to believe this is happening.

And Sometimes We Don't

For today's column I've put together a couple dozen things that I've noticed on the page and on the screen that always stretch my believability. Or, I should say, these are things that limit my ability to suspend my disbelief. I don't mind being lied to, you see--it's just that I expect the writer to make me enjoy it, and not make me think more about the lie and the liar than about the story he or she is telling me.

NOTE 1: Both Leigh Lundin and I have written about this kind of thing over the past few years, but I'm going to dive again into that same pool and see if I can come up with something new. (If I do surface with a find I've already shown you before, please forgive me and mark it down to overenthusiasm. Or maybe senility.)

Note 2: Some of these observations were stolen and paraphrased from one of the chapters in Loren Estleman's outstanding book Writing the Popular Novel. It appears that Estleman is irritated by the same kinds of mistakes I am, which makes me like him even more.

Anyhow, here are some things that I believe to be true, as opposed to what I've seen as a reader and viewer.

I'll Take Bloopers for Five Hundred, Alex . . .

1. Cartridges are loaded into a gun; bullets come out the other end. You shouldn't dig a cartridge out of a victim or load a bullet into a clip.

2. People on foot being chased by cars probably don't always run down the exact center of the road.

3. There's no such thing as a town sheriff. Sheriffs are officials of the county.

4. Not all space aliens and ancient civilizations speak perfect English.

5. Witches aren't burned. They're hanged.

6. Cars don't always burst into flame as soon as they hit something or plunge over a cliff.

7. Some hotel rooms in the Old West were not located on the second floor, overlooking the street out front.

8. Most people don't usually say things like "periodically," "frankly," "perhaps," "how dare you," or even "whom" in casual conversation. Unless maybe they're English professors, or mildly constipated.

9. When someone is shot riding a horse, he falls down. The horse shouldn't fall down too.

10. A parking space directly in front of the hero's destination is not always available.

11. Some people actually say "goodbye" when they finish phone conversations.

12. Western streets were probably not spotlessly clean. It's hard to picture Ben Cartwright with a pooperscooper.

13. Gifts aren't usually wrapped such that the tops can easily be lifted off without first unwrapping the whole thing.

14. Your P.I. hero shouldn't get knocked unconscious from a blow to the back of the head in every single chapter or episode, the way Richard Diamond did in the late 50s. That causes a concussion each time, and . . . well, you get the picture.

15. There are very few mafia hit-women. Tony Soprano & Associates held political correctness in low regard.

16. Most drivers watch the road ahead (at least occasionally) while talking with passengers.

17. Not every character in a given town attends the same church.

18. Revolvers don't use silencers, and they don't automatically eject shells. They darn sure don't eject bullets.

19. People do confess to crimes--but it doesn't often happen in the courtroom.

20. It is theoretically possible to climb all the way to the top of a chain-link fence without being shot or dragged back down.

21. Chairs in saloons shouldn't always break apart when used to hit someone over the head.

22. Some travelers actually get on their plane/bus/train before the final boarding call.

23. Starships and space stations, when they're destroyed, don't explode in a thunderous fireball. If you boldly go where no man has gone, there's no oxygen there, so there's also no sound and no fire.

24. Most gunshot wounds don't instantly kill the shootee.

The Audacity of Untruth

To quote Mr. Estleman, "Suspension of disbelief is a high-wire act, requiring plausibility on one end of the balance pole to counter the pull of audacious invention on the other." It ain't as easy as it looks.

This also applies to incorrect locations or dates, in your story or novel or screenplay. Near the end of the film version of Forrest Gump, Forrest states that his wife Jenny died on a Saturday. But I read someplace on the Internet that the date on her tombstone was March 22, 1982, which apparently was a Monday. (The guy who posted that fact mentioned that he probably needs a hobby.) And when I think of funny mistakes, I'm always reminded of a movie I saw in college called Krakatoa: East of Java. Why? Because Krakatoa was west of Java.

A Burr Under My Blazing Saddle

Rob Lopresti is always kidding me about my fondness for making lists, and he probably has a point. (Maybe I'm the one who needs a hobby.) But whether they're in a list or not, these kinds of story misfires and inaccuracies are one of my pet peeves. Be honest: Have you ever seen a movie where a bartender actually made change, or a rope was hard to cut with a knife, or the good guy's dog didn't growl at the bad guy? Surely that should happen, now and then.

Can you think of anything you find particularly annoying, when you encounter it in your reading or movie-watching?

Except lists, I mean.

P.S. Since Rob's column about emailed rejections/acceptances the other day, I've received two: a rejection from Woman's World and an acceptance from AHMM. In terms of the music one hears in one's head, I went from Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again, Naturally" to John Williams's "Olympic Fanfare" in a very short time. Is this a crazy business, or what?

28 October 2011

Playing the Game: Part 2

When you're playing a game of any type, your opponent will sometimes make mistakes that you can take advantage of in order to better your odds of winning. Of course when you're playing the undercover game, the outcome, or score, can often be more than points or bragging rights, so you need to be quick and very adaptable.

One Bad Informant

Here's an example from my early years. A city agency from the other end of the state called up the office one morning to say they had a couple of informants lined up and they needed an undercover agent. So, I packed my bags and went. I was to be the U/C guy and the other agency would provide the surveillance teams.

In a motel out on the Interstate, the city vice detectives introduced me to CI #1. Let's call him Benny. I debriefed Benny, wrote him up as a Cooperating Individual and ran with him for two days and nights. He duked me into several alleged criminals, but somehow, a deal never went down. I became suspicious as to what his game really was, soon terminated our relationship and strongly suggested he leave town so that we would not run into each other again.

Then, I went on to CI #2. This guy was a piece of work in progress.

The Street Family

CI #2 lived in a house where he controlled his own "street family." Being the paranoid guy he was about wire taps, he allowed no phones in the house. That meant whenever I wanted him to go do a deal, I had to park in a shopping mall, walk across six lanes of traffic and knock on his front door. So, early one evening just about dusk, I'm standing there banging on his front entrance.

Knock, Knock

"Who's there?" inquires a voice from inside the house.

"Eli," says I, because that was the name I was using at the time.

The door opens up, and who's the guy doing the opening, but Benny himself. Strange, he never told me during the debriefing that he knew CI #2, but I can tell by the sudden expression on his face that he definitely remembers who I am from our two days spent together. So what am I to do? I don't want my cover blown to the "street family," and I sure don't want to jeopardize CI #2's situation.

There was nothing else for it. Violence does indeed solve some problems. I instictively reached through the doorway, grabbed Benny by the throat, hauled him out of the house and dragged him over to the parking lot where we, shall I say, came to a mutual understanding of great portends. It must have been an effective lecture on my part, because I learned much later that Benny, on that very same night, proceeded to rip off a young entrepreneur for fifty pounds of pot in order to have travelling money out of the area.

One More Time

Of course my problem now is I still have to go back to the house because CI #2 is too damn paranoid to have a telephone in the place.

I knock on the door.

"Who's there?' inquires a voice from inside.

Seems like I've been here before.

"Eli," says I, cuz I'm still using that name.

The door opens up and there's CI #2. "Come on in," he says.

I walk into the living room and everybody in the "street family" is laughing.

"What's so funny?" I ask.

"About forty minutes ago," explains one of the street family, "there was a knock at the door and Benny went to answer it. Then this long arm reaches in, grabs Benny by the throat and we ain't seen him since."

At this point, I had to laugh too. It really was funny.

And, that's my "Long Arm of the Law" story. That night, CI #2 duked me into some righteous criminals, and those deals went down the right way. Sometimes, if you make your own luck, things work out. Sometimes they don't, in which case you'd best know a different tap dance. But then when you think about it, life's a gamble anyway.

Catch ya later.

27 October 2011

The Death of the Detective

by Janice Law

One of the sad facts of life is that relationships sometimes go bad. Out in the real world the old staples of greed, lust, and anger usually do the trick, with pride and sloth in the wings as needed. In the literary world, boredom seems to be the key, as writers cast out characters who have brought them pleasure and, occasionally, both fame and fortune.

The most recent victim of authorial malice is Kurt Wallander, the gloomy but persistent Swedish detective, who has fought off both depression and diabetes to solve complex crimes in Ystad. Henning Mankell has brought the series to a believable but cruel end with The Troubled Man, saddling Wallander with a modern fate worse than death, when he could have retired the poor man to a little time with his charming granddaughter.

Well, Mankell, who was obviously very ready to end the series, must know his mystery history. Detectives of the fictional sort, who live a precarious existence between their creators' little grey cells and the printed page, have proved to be surprisingly durable.

Consider the most famous of them all, Sherlock Holmes. Despite his immense popularity, his creator grew tired of him, believing that his adventures took time from what Arthur Conan Doyle considered the more important historical novels. Holmes had to die, and, given his intellect and his stature in the profession, he could have no ordinary death. Doyle settled on sending him over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, caught in a death grip by his nemesis Professor Moriarty.

As Doyle's mother had predicted, the legion of Holmes' fans were not amused, and in 1901, Doyle relented, returning with one of the best of the novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Moriarty had drowned, not Holmes. The detective had faked his death to elude other enemies, a twist so convenient that it doesn't take a Freudian to wonder if Doyle had not picked a fate for Holmes that left just a little wiggle room.

The list of resurrected detective (and thriller) heroes does not end with Holmes. Baroness Orzy's Old Man in the Corner was favored with a disappearance, not a death. And just as well. He returned for several dozen more adventures after his reporter friend assured us that she had never seen him again.

As befits a super secret agent, James Bond made an even more triumphant return from what looked like certain death. Whether or not Ian Fleming had grown weary of James Bond, he nearly dispatched him with a kick from Soviet spy, Rosa Klebb's poisoned shoe. For a time, 007 lingered near death, but, to the immense profit of what became the James Bond movie franchise, he recovered. Thanks to a core of thriller writers and movie impresarios, Bond has easily survived his creator's own demise.

Agatha Christie, she of the perfect plots, left no room for error when she dispatched Hercule Poirot. Indeed, thinking ahead, she killed Poirot off fairly early in her career but saved the novel in which he dies for her extreme age. Curtain was a big hit late in her career, and fans, who had enjoyed decades of his adventures, did not storm the literary barricades to bring him back.

Of course, there are writers of greater mercy - or greater ambivalence - who do not cry 'off with his head' quite so quickly. Dorothy Sayers was so fond of Lord Peter Wimsey that she spared his life and took what might be called the Romance Writer's Option. After many delays and tribulations, she married him to Harriet Vane, the love of his life and, following Busman's Honeymoon, sentenced him to domestic felicity.
A few short stories reflect his happiness with his wife and family but though pleasant, they do not rival the novels. Happiness, it seems, is not a requirement for a detective, and a happy marriage seems a positive detriment to the private eye.

Maybe that's why I finally retired Anna Peters, who had seen action in eight novels, and who, somewhat incautiously, I had aged along with myself. Being tenderhearted, I disliked the thought of killing her, but I felt written out and, easily bored, I disliked doing the back story that each new novel seemed to require. Besides, as we got into our fifties I could see trouble coming for a woman of action. She could get killed or she could turn into Miss Marple.

Marple having already been done to perfection, I took the modern tack of having her sell her now successful Executive Security firm to an eager young businessman, Skipper Norris, formerly an NFL quarterback. Norris had a small part in Crosscheck, the last of Anna's adventures and rather to my surprise, he was negotiating to buy the firm by the end of the novel.

I think I can say he saved her life. In any case, she has not reappeared in the neurons. I imagine she is occupying herself pleasantly around the art world with her artist husband, perhaps repairing her neglected education, and solving minor crimes that she does not need to confide to me.

26 October 2011

Hesitation Blues

by Robert Lopresti

Imagine, if you will, that I have been having a very bad day. Assume that the IRS has shown an unhealthy interest in my career, that the Klingons have fired disrupters at the starboard nacelle, and that Hittites are demanding apologies for my allegedly anti-Hittite rant at a nightclub. That sort of day.

Evening has fallen and I am checking my email. There is good news and bad news. Unfortunately the good news is all from strangers who want to improve my love life or want me to help them smuggle millions of dollars out of Nigeria. The bad news tend sto be from my nearer and dearer, and it is not improving my mood.

After reading and weeding the majority of correspondence I find a message from a familiar name. Specifically an editor. The subject line is YOUR STORY. My fingers reach for the Enter button, and then I hesitate. This is what you might call a binary dilemma. Either I am about to get an acceptance or a rejection. Good news or bad news.

And the way my day has been going there is no reason to expect good news, is there? I am really not in the mood for more gloom.

I know a lot of writers keep all their rejection slips. Do they print out the ones that come electronically, to add to the pile of misery? That seems above and beyond. I used to save mine, but it began to feel ridiculous. And the file was overwhelming my acceptances. (I got seventy-sox of the precious little beasts from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine before I collected one sale there.) So the rejection slips have gone away.

Nowadays when I get a paper rejection note I tend to crumble it, throw it across the room, and stomp on it before I throw it in the recycling bin. Call me Mr. Mature.

My favorite rejection note was from an agent, informing me that she had decided not to represent my diet book. Fair enough, but I had sent her a mystery novel. Perhaps she was making a helpful hint.

Of course, this current email might NOT be a rejection note. Perhaps the editor has seen the light and decided to share my masterpiece with her lucky readers. I DO keep all my acceptance notes, or contracts.

The first acceptance I ever got came with no letter or contract. I opened the envelope and out fluttered a check; there was nothing else. Fortunately the check had the title of my story on it or I might never have figured out what it was for.

Meanwhile the current email is still waiting for me to open it. I seem to be stalling.

Of course, the note doesn't HAVE to be a yes or no. Once an editor wrote to tell me she had lost the manuscript and would I please send another copy? I did, and she rejected it.

And once an editor wrote to say she liked part of the story and suggested that I rewrite the ending. I'm still thinking about that one.

Okay. I've run out of stalling techniques. Time to hit the button and see what there is to see. Cross your fingers.

Here goes...

Screw the Klingons. We're gonna party tonight.

25 October 2011

Fair Play Mysteries and the Land of the Rising Sun

 And on the Eighth Day by Ellery Queen,
 Japanese Edition
     Last spring I received a completely unexpected email asking for permission to publish The Book Case in a new anthology.  The volume is to be titled The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, and will include a number of Ellery Queen pastiches including, in addition to The Book Case, Mike Nevin’s classic Queen pastiche Open Letter to Survivors.

    There is sort of a surprise ending to all of this, but like most surprise endings if you think about it that revelation should have been anticipated:  The anthology will be published in Japan.  The stories will all be translated into Japanese.

    When last I posted on SleuthSayers it was back in September, and  I began by mentioning my lunch with Mike Nevins, emeritus professor of Law at St. Louis University Law School and noted mystery writer, critic and author of the fore-mentioned Open Letter to Survivors.  As mentioned then, Mike and I spent a good deal of time reminiscing about the writings of John D. MacDonald.  As our conversation turned to the growing lack of availability of MacDonald mysteries, even the Travis McGee series, Mike observed that with the exception of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle publication of a mystery writer’s work usually begins to disappear shortly after the author’s own demise.  I mentioned the complete lack of newly-published Ellery Queen mysteries in the United States and Mike shook his head dolefully and cautioned me not to expect any turn-around.

    Not in the United States, that is.

    But surprisingly the taste among readers for newly-published Golden Age mysteries varies drastically around the world.  My Belgian friend and sometimes collaborator Kurt Sercu, in his website Ellery Queen, a Website on Deduction, has noted that there have been new editions of Ellery Queen mysteries published in Russia, Spain and Italy during the last decade.  But the best exemplar of this is Japan, where the Golden Age fair play whodunit is alive and well, and where Ellery thrives. 

Iiki Yusan
    All of this was brought home to me yet again last week when Kurt asked me to edit an interview he conducted recently by email exchange with Iiki Yusan, who is the leader of the Ellery Queen Fan Club in Japan.  Kurt’s interview should be on-line in about a week, and can be accessed here when it goes on-line.  But I couldn’t resist offering up a bit of a prequel.

    First, by way of amazing statistics, Iiki estimated during the course of the interview that the percentage of books in print for Golden Age mystery writers in Japan looks something like this:

Agatha Christie: 90-100%
Ellery Queen: 80-90%
John Dickson Carr: 60-70%
Rex Stout: 10-20%

    While I do not know the relevant percentages in the United States, I do know that there are virtually no Ellery Queen works currently in print, and if you gave me $5.00 and required me to bet with it my wager would be that there are substantially more Rex Stout volumes available in the United States than there are Queen mysteries.   So what augurs a different result in Japan?  Why is Agatha Christie still popular in the United States while Ellery Queen has virtually disappeared?  Apparently there is something about fair play detective stories, and particularly those of Queen, that continues to resonate in Japan in a way that these stories no longer call out to the reading public in the United States.

Frederic Dannay and Ed Hoch 
    All of this goes beyond mere re-publication of the Ellery Queen mysteries.  For example, I was astounded to learn during the course of editing Kurt’s interview with Iiki that in Japan in 1980 there was a television series, modeled after Alfred Hitchcock Presents, that was hosted by none other than Frederic Dannay, just two years before his death in 1982. Queen works have continued to be the subject of movies, television shows and theatrical productions in Japan up to the present.  And Japan also has produced book-length treatises analyzing the works of Queen.  Iiki himself has authored Ellery Queen Perfect Guide (2004) and Reviews of Ellery Queen (2010).  In World Wars and Ellery Queen (1992) Kiyosi Kasai, traces the development of Golden Age murder mysteries in the context of the two world wars and concludes that the rise of the genre, in which well-developed characters were murdered, was a reaction to the countless faceless deaths of war.   And in The Logic of the Detective Story (2007) Kentaro Komori spends a full volume analyzing the deductive logic of detective fiction (especially Ellery Queen) by comparing the analytic approaches utilized in the novels with the philosophical reasoning of the likes of Bertrand Russel and Kurt Godel.  I doubt that such rigorous analyses of the works of Queen were ever undertaken in the United States, even when the works were in their heyday.

    Modern detective stories written by Japanese writers also continue to reflect the works of Queen.  In his on-line article Ellery Queen is Alive and Well and Living in Japan author Ho-Ling Wong reports that the new wave of fair play whodunits in Japan is referred to as the "new orthodox" detective story -- a story that hearkens back to Golden Age mysteries but does so by incorporating the fair play formula into modern settings.  And, as Ho-Ling Wong references, Ellery Queen's presence continues in these works.
 Other popular writers of the New Orthodox School are Norizuki Rintarō and Alice Arisugawa.  Both writers are strongly influenced by Ellery Queen. Both of them have named their protagonists after themselves, like their great example. Both writers often insert a Challenge to the Reader in their stories.  As one can derive from his first name, Arisugawa often delves into imagery of Alice in Wonderland, just like Ellery Queen, while Norizuki Rintarō’s characters mimic Ellery Queen almost exactly.  In fact, his protagonist is a writer, also called Norizuki Rintarō, who helps his father, a police inspector, mirroring the Ellery Queen – Inspector Queen dynamic.
    What is behind all of this continued interest in fair play detective stories in Japan?  Who can say?  But for whatever reason Golden Age mysteries have struck a chord there.  Mysteries founded on the deductive reasoning process continue to be one of the most popular forms of writing in Japan.  The following quote, still a bit stilted in translation, shows up often on the internet as an explanation for the popularity of the genre in Japan.  Predictably, it is offered up in an imagined conversation with Ellery Queen set forth in The Murders at the Ten-cornered Residence (1991) written by the popular Japanese writer Ayatsuji Yukito.

Ellery, the slim handsome young man says: 
To me, detective fiction is a kind of intellectual game. A logical game that gives readers sensations about detectives or authors. These are not to be ranked high or low. So I don't want the once popular “social sect” realism. Female employee murdered in a deluxe suite room; criminal police's tireless investigation eventually brings in the murdering boss-cum-boyfriend--All cliché. Political scandals of corruption and ineptness; tragedies of distortion of modern society; these are also out of date. The most appropriate materials for detective fiction, whether accused untimely or not, are famous detectives, grand mansions, suspicious residents, bloody murders, puzzling situation, earth-shattering schemes . . . .   Made up things are even better. The point is to enjoy the pleasure in the world of reasoning. But intellectual prerequisites must be completely met.    

    All of this makes me wish that I could read Japanese!  Be sure to check Kurt’s website in the next week or so for the full interview with Iiki. 

(Clip art courtesy of Kurt Sercu and Ellery Queen:  a Website on Deduction except as noted.)

24 October 2011

What's Up Doc?

by Jan Grape

It only recently occurred to me that the more I learn about this business of writing, the less I know. Okay, I guess that's not exactly earth-shattering and I think I've even concluded that before, but this time maybe it's really sticking in my mind.

Most likely, if anyone ask, I usually say I've been writing all my life. But I was a senior in high school before anything I wrote would be published. It was an essay on "What Christmas Means To Me." My English teacher published it in the high school newspaper and after class one day, a bunch of kids ran up to me telling me that my essay had been published. I don't remember what I wrote and my copy of the paper has long been lost, but I'm sure it was a grand and wonderful essay. (ha)

I wrote for my eyes only for a number of years and then when my children grew up and left home I decided I'd pursue my life-long dream of getting a book published. My favorite reads for years were mystery novels and specifically the private eye novel. When I was twelve or thirteen my dad handed my a copy of a Mickey Spillane book and I fell in love with Mike Hammer. Tough, no nonsense, bigger than life heroic guy and my fantacy was to be beautiful and voluptous like Velma. I browsed through my dad's paperbacks and read Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason, which I liked, but liked Donald Lam and Bertha Cool, private eyes even better. I devoured Richard Prather's Shell Scott books. Next came John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. I wanted to live on the Busted Flush boat with him.

No wonder then that I chose a female private eye character for my first novel, April Anger, featuring Jenny Gordan. By the end of that book Jenny had picked up a side-kick, a beautiful black woman, ex-cop, named Cinnamon Jemima "C.J." Gunn. My good friend for over forty years was Choicie Green and it was she who picked C.J.'s name. AA was never published, it came close a couple of times, but, it truly wasn't good enough. There have been about a dozen short stories with these two. I wanted to show that a deep siserhood and friendship could exist between these two women from different ancestry and backgrounds.

With the passage of time I wrote a number of short stories and articles and non-fiction about mystery and always I learned more and more about how to write. My writing improved the more I wrote. For me, a good opening is mandatory. I work hard to get my opening right and even when I go on with the story, I may rework and tweak that opening.

On of the best opening lines I've ever read is: "The last camel collapsed at noon." How can you not want to know more than that? And just look at everything that one short sentence tells you. First you're in the desert someplace because you're riding a camel. It's noon and bound to be 129 degrees in the shade and the last camel just died. What is going on? Who is telling this story and what in the heck is going to happen next? (The Key To Rebecca by Ken Follett if you want to read it.) Then Elizabeth Peters titled one of her Amelia Peabody books, The Last Camel Died At Noon

But my writing also improved the more I read other writers. Good and bad. Learning the good helped me be a better writer and the bad helped me learn what not to do. I've been priviledged to read books and stories for the Edgar Awards (given by Mystery Writers of America) and for the Shamus award (given by Private-Eye Writers of America) where I learned about good books and great books. I've also read entries for contests and I've been in critique classes where besides being critiqued, I also would critique other writers. Boy, can you learn a lot then.

Most importantly for me, I want a book that grabs me immediately. The opening sentence, paragraph or page gets my attention and I dive in hoping to keep being entertained. I'll give a new book/author about fifty to seventy-five pages to catch me and that's about it. But that's not what a reader will give you.

My late husband and I owned Mysteries and More bookstore in Austin, TX for nine years and time after time we saw customers come in and pick up a book. Usually they'd look at the back of the jacket or the inside flap of a jacket and if that intrigued them enough, they'd turn to the first page. Invaribly if they weren't hooked by then, they'd put the book down and that was it. Now I'll admit the cozy mystery usually leads you into a character or a set of characters, a location or setting, a mood or something besides an action scene, but there must be something that grabs you.

A good title often helps to sell a book and a good front jacket cover does wonders. Yet when that part is satisfied and maybe reading a synopsis or what others say about the book satisfies you, then the opening of the book should make you want to read the next page, the next chapter, until you finish the book.

So I work hard to come up with a good opening line and I find I'm more critical of myself and I keep hoping I'll find that special one that grabs my readers by the throat and doesn't let go until the end.

23 October 2011

Friends and Family

black orchid Five weeks ago, SleuthSayers launched from a core of five committed (in multiple senses of the word) writers to a greater family of fourteen. Coordinating fourteen members might seem a difficult task, but my colleagues are patient with me and their fun, enthusiasm, helpfulness, and professionalism worked miracles.

I list fun first because humor flourished early and easily. For example, Neil's ironic wit and the gentle humor of Jan and Fran melded like ivy in the brickwork of our joint project. I knew Dixon and RT were tough, cigar-chompin', kick-ass guys, but who guessed how riotously funny they are? A writer could do worse modeling characterizations after the criminally sane among us.

But there's more. Behind the scenes, SleuthSayers family members exchange crime notes, music CDs, tobacco tips, and successes. More about this last item in a moment.

Friends in Sly Places

We also depend upon friends such as Jon Breen, Bill Crider, and Women of Mystery, but especially our editors, Janet Hutchings of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Andrew Gulli at The Strand, and Darlene Poier from Pages of Stories.

Buying your favorite magazines pumps lifeblood into the imagination incubators of our genre. If you're not familiar with Pages of Stories, it's an eMagazine available in eBook format (Nook, Kindle, iPad, etc), PDF, and on-line, where you'll find works by Fran Rizer, John Floyd, and me, to name a few. If you want to taste a classic approach, Steve Steinbock has mentioned Arthur Vidro's Old-Time Detection and Geoff Bradley's Crime and Detective Stories, affectionately called CADS in its British homeland.Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, December 2011

Readers Choice Award

Speaking of magazines, if your December issue of Ellery Queen hasn't arrived, rush to your local bookstore to grab a copy now! It contains the ballot (last page) and list (page 83) of stories eligible for the EQMM Readers Choice Award. Listed is English by Leigh Lundin (that's me!), the parable James Lincoln Warren wrote about. Also featured is Elizabeth Zelvin's lauded Navidad. You'll find Neil Schofield's Detour and our friend David Dean listed. You'll notice other names like Doug Allyn and William Dylan Powell. I can't speak for the others, but if you comment with your eMail address, Elizabeth and I will make our stories available to readers upon request.

Wolfe Pack Black Orchid Banquet

The Wolfe Pack, an organization devoted to mystery writer Rex Stout and his most famous creation Archie Goodwin, er, Nero Wolfe, will hold its 34th annual Black Orchid Banquet Weekend December 2-4. Held at the Vanderbilt Suites in New York City, the Black Orchid Banquet will feature television personality and mystery writer Al Roker, introduced by novelist and past Nero Award-winner Linda Fairstein.

The bacchanalia features presentation of the Nero Award for the year’s best mystery novel and the Black Orchid Novella Award for best unpublished mystery novella, presented in conjunction with AHMM. The winning BONA story will be published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.
Black Orchid Perfume
Black Orchid Perfume– a beautiful excuse for a noir dame
Rumors and Rumours

After only a month on-line, one of our colleagues credits SleuthSayers with a major professional offer. Details are sketchy, but to the envy of Entertainment Tonight and People Magazine, we're promised a scoop if a major deal is inked.

Mark your calendar for a special guest article. On 4 December, we expect to feature a, ahem, wolfish announcement.

Next week, Louis Willis returns with a fascinating family story about bootlegging.

22 October 2011

Do writers write to market trends? Should they?

Writers know that the most important strategy for success is to write the best book they can every time. Countless successful authors, publishing professionals, and writing teachers tell aspiring writers, “Don’t try to chase a trend. The trend will be gone before you get your manuscript to market. And if it’s not what you passionately want to write about anyway, that will show.” At the same time, agents say, “I can’t sell this if the editor can’t tell the marketing department what shelf to put it on.” Some include in their submission guidelines, “Commercial fiction only,” or even, “I’m looking for the next big blockbuster.”

If anyone could predict what will next catch the public’s fancy, the publishing industry might not be in as much trouble as it is these days. On the other hand, none of us want to spend a year pouring our hearts and souls into an unsalable manuscript. So how do we strike a balance? Some writers do it by moving out of their comfort zone to explore subgenres that have a better chance in the marketplace.

Potential inspiration for at least three cozy series
I have several cosy writer friends who spent years writing and revising manuscripts that ranged from romance to thrillers to noir, querying agents, and in general doing everything they could to hone their craft and join the ranks of the published, before signing contracts for paperback series about suburban or small-town female amateur sleuths who trip over clues as they go about their daily business in a variety of occupations or pursuing popular hobbies.

These are good writers. They work hard to bring their characters to life, keep their dialogue lively, and provide fair-play plots with logical solutions. Some of them have made the New York Times bestseller lists, been nominated for and occasionally won awards, and signed contracts for extended and in some cases multiple series. Cosies are popular, and sales recently got a big boost when one of the big box stores (can’t remember whether it was Walmart or Costco) decided to start carrying them. That means big print runs, bigger readership, and bigger royalties. And if the price is for the author to include recipes and knitting patterns with each chapter, so be it.

I am not talking about potboilers here. “Potboiler” is a derogatory term for something that doesn’t exist: a novel tossed off effortlessly in a few weeks for readers the author despises, doing it only because its success is guaranteed, although the author could surely produce the Great American Novel if offered a big enough advance. The truth is, almost all of us do write the best book we can every time. It’s a necessary condition for publication, if not, alas, a sufficient condition in these difficult times for writers.

My own dilemma is that I don’t seem to be able to write fiction about anything but what I actually want to say. A few years ago, I heard a senior editor at a fairly big press say, during a talk to writers, that they published only serial killer thrillers and stories that you could put a puppy or a kitten on the cover of, even if there was no puppy or kitten in the book—nothing in between. Since I write precisely in between those two extremes, I crossed that publisher off my list on the spot. It’s not a matter of ethics or aesthetics. The particular gifts and skills of writers differ, and I can’t do either bloodbath or cosy.

21 October 2011

Writing Aweigh

Size Does Matter
"Dear Sir: We regret to inform you that 90,000 words is a little too long for a short story in our magazine."

Over the past couple of weeks, some of our blog posts here at SleuthSayers have really gotten me thinking about the differences between short stories and novels.

And there are quite a few actually. Including, of course, the length. Short stories are ... well ... short. Or, at least, they're supposed to be. And novels are (wait for it! ... wait for it!) longer.

But, there are greater differences than just the size, in my opinion; their structures seem quite different to me -- in ways I can't easily put my finger on, but definitely feel.

Now, I'm not stupid enough to believe that all these things that I perceive to be different, are necessarily perceived to be different by everybody else. Likewise, other writers may notice differences that I don't. Nor (contrary to anything you may have heard my wife say) am I egotistical enough to think I can provide an exhaustive list of the differences between the two formats. (Though there are undoubtedly entire libraries filled with writing books that strive to do just that.)

What I can do is share my experiences (aka misadventures) in dealing with short story writing vs. novel writing, and hope that it sheds some light on the subject-- particularly for the layperson. Writers, however, may also find my thoughts amusing. (My wife certainly seems to; she never stops laughing at me.)

Writing the Sunfish

I often think that writing a short story is quite like constructing a small sailboat -- like a Sunfish, maybe -- in your back yard. It's an activity undertaken in an almost carefree attitude of adventure. You get the equipment together, roll up your shirt sleeves, maybe crack a beer (or in my case: jam a cigar stump in the corner of your mouth) and dive right in.

You know how it is (or can surely imagine it): Laying the 14-foot keel, bolting the tall mast into place, cutting and fastening the framework together, steaming planks to warp them into proper shape for the hull siding, tapping the finish nails into place, giving the screw driver just the right amount of torque as you seal the deck boards to the frame, applying a few coats of high-glass marine-grade paint, attaching the halyards and other lines, attaching the sheets.

Then you load it onto a trailer, drive to a nearby body of water and slip the boat into the waves. You hold it close-in, keeping the painter in your hand, hoping it doesn't sink. And, if it stays up a few minutes, you tie her to the dock and drop the centerboard, slide in the rudder, and run up the sails for the first time.

Maybe she lists a bit to port. So, you check her for extra weight on that side, maybe add a counter-balance to starboard to fix her trim. You caulk over any small leaks, maybe tighten up the screws on that wobbly tiller, sand down the edge of a hatch cover so it will batten more firmly.

Finally, I think I've got something that's seaworthy, but a bit out of the ordinary. A sailboat that will catch a buyer's eye. So, I load it back on the trailer and haul it home. There, I ask my wife to take a look at it. She's willing ... but professes not to know much about sail boats (which isn't true; I know). So, she hangs the kids on the laundry line to keep them out of trouble, and walks over to take a gander.

After awhile I ask: "What's wrong with it?"

"Well. It's too pointy."

"Too pointy?"

"Yes. At the front part."

"That's the bow; it's supposed to be pointed--so it can cut through the waves. You know?"

She shakes her head. "Not that pointy. That's not like the front of a boat. It's more like the front of a supersonic jet fighter. It shouldn't be that pointy. At least, that's what I think." And she walks away to take our kicking and screaming kids down from the laundry line.

At this point, I invite a few members of my writers group to take a look at it. They read it and like it, but make some other suggestions. (Should the mast be that tall? One of them really likes the paint scheme; another one thinks the colors clash. I ask about the bow being too pointy. They discuss it, but decide they aren't sure, and can't be certain why they can't be sure--but somehow maybe something's wrong with it. Maybe I should sand it down a little, round it off a bit; that might be better. But it's hard to tell.)

Finally, my critique group leaves, and I park the boat in a storage shed -- along with notes about their comments -- and leave the boat alone while I work on something else for awhile. A month to six months later, I roll the boat back into the sunlight, and take a look at it.

That's the really nice thing about small boats -- or short stories for that matter: you can see the entire thing at once. Looking at the boat in the bright sunlight, now, I can see that the bow does seem a little too pointed, but the real problem is lack of balance between the lines of the bow and the lines of the stern. I very carefully make a small change to the stern, then invite my critique group out for another look. (At this stage, my wife balks at giving me anymore input; she'll just say: "It's a boat. I don't see any difference.") But, the critique group comes out and says: "That's it! You rounded off the bow, and it looks great. (followed by) Wait .... no you didn't. What did you do?"

I added a four-inch fantail on the stern; I think that balanced it. They nod and look it over again. Yeah. That was the problem, and this seems to have fixed it. Now, all I have to do is ship the boat off to a potential buyer, and see if s/he will bite. If not, I'll ship it off to another one, until somebody decides she's a keeper.

Writing a novel, however, is completely different in my opinion. To me, writing a novel is like...

(scroll down)

. . . That's right. You guessed it. Writing a novel, to me is like . . .

Building an Aircraft Carrier in my Backyard -- All By Myself!

Building an aircraft carrier is, of course, a much more monumental undertaking than building a small sailboat.

No genteel fashioning of wooden hull planks, here! Instead, I need steel-toed boots and a welder's shield. And, I have to constantly keep the principles of engineering in mind, in order to ensure the structure I'm building can support all the decks I'm going to add above it. This is not something that can be approached like a weekend hobby; building a carrier will take months (maybe even years) of concentrated work.

Still, my heart sings with the joy of craftsmanship (or else the finished product will be dull and lifeless, unsaleable. OR, "un-sail-able" -- sorry, couldn't pass up the pun!). I take pains to carefully cut and assemble the inlay tabletop in the officers' wardroom. Fashioning a large wheel in the bridgehouse, that hearkens to the days of the buccaneers, I make sure it also provides contemporary control response, so my work doesn't seem dated.

And here, we meet another difference between sailboat-like short stories, and aircraft carrier-like novels. A sailboat has relatively few moving parts; it's pretty simple in constructional planning and operational terms. But, an aircraft carrier requires multiple, seemingly unrelated task-units, which must all function correctly and interdependently if the carrier is to do its job. It needs a fully equipped engine room and a set of four gigantic props, in order to enjoy powerful propulsion. And, a steam-fired catapult on the flight deck, to quickly launch fighters. I need to install reinforced anchor points, and arrester cables to recover incoming aircraft. An up-to-date electronics system to monitor aircraft in flight, as well as enemy submarines lurking below the surface.

At the same time, I have to take care of the human aspect of the crew who will eventually staff her. They need places they can hang their hats while below decks, bunks to lie comfortably in when off-duty, and a few television stations and movie theaters for entertainment -- not to mention bathrooms ("the heads" I suppose, since this is a naval analogy). And what happens when some of them fall in love with each other? Even the navy isn't quite sure how to handle that one!

Editing in the Bowels

Before long, of course, I begin to realize that the carrier would move more rapidly if I changed out one of the engines. But, after making that alteration, I worry that the bow may not be able to handle the hull pressure generated by the increased speed.

I can't see the bow from where I'm standing in the engine room, of course, so I make my way forward, finally reaching the inner bow , where I examine the struts to ensure I've beefed them up enough.

(The inner bow would not be the part you're looking at in this picture . The inner bow would be inside that part. See those guys standing there, looking confused? Maybe they just heard me knocking, and want to know who's foolish enough to climb down inside the bow of an aircraft carrier. The answer, of course, is: A writer.)

This shot of the bow does illustrate one of the differences between novels and short stories -- I can't see the whole carrier (or novel) at a glance, the way I can look at a small sailboat (or short story). I've tried all sorts of ways to get a better look at it. I've even backed way off, climbed a scaffolding, and looked from there. From that distance, however--though I can see the entire carrier, from stem to stern--I can't see enough detail for my view to be useful. So, I grab a pair of binocs--but then I'm right back to only seeing part of it.

Plus, a lot of the carrier -- most of it, in fact -- lies concealed below decks. Trying to figure out what I can cut out, down there, without weakening the ship to the point where the entire superstructure collapses about my ears, is very difficult and time-consuming.

The Shocking Realization

But, finally the day comes -- I've completed construction! A massive aircraft carrier stands finished in my backyard. Since my wife is across town at work, I call up my parents and invite them over to see the completed project. After receiving a guided tour, they congratulate me on having had such wonderful parents, who made it possible for me to grow up and build an aircraft carrier all by myself. It takes me a minute to decide that there's a compliment buried in there, but finally, with handshakes, hugs and smiles all around, they depart.

My kids arrive home from school, and I greet them with the momentous news. My 3rd-grade son is excited, but when I tell him that no, he can't play on the aircraft carrier, he says, "That's okay. Can I go to Stephan's? He's got a new dog!" My 16-year-old daughter physically shrivels at the news. "Oh, God, I hope none of my friends can see it! You're such a dork." Then she runs to her room.

But, all is rewarded when my wife returns home that evening. She walks out back with me, arm-in-arm, and gasps at the enormity of what I've created. "Honey, that's fantastic! I knew you could do it!" She throws her arms about my neck and kisses me.

Then she asks, "How long before we get paid?"

My cigar drops from my fingers to smolder unnoticed in the grass. Because that's when it hits me: I've built an aircraft carrier -- hundreds of thousands of tons of steel, rubber, glass, plastic and wood! But, I live in Scottsdale, Arizona--a suburb of Phoenix--surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of miles of desert! How the hell am I going to get this thing to the ocean???

And that was what happened, a few years ago, when my wife asked me this. I realized that writing a novel is like constructing an aircraft carrier in your backyard, while writing short stories is like crafting a small sailboat.

Because: shipping a little sailboat to interested parties is pretty simple -- compared to moving a massive carrier cross-country to the ocean.

Thankfully, you don't really have to ship the whole thing cross-country. The powers that be don't want to see the whole thing, anyway -- at least, not at first. But, that's another subject.

I call that subject: The Hard Part of Writing.

Maybe I'll post about it another time. Meanwhile, let me know if anything I've mentioned sounds familiar (you writers) or if you are surprised by what I wrote here. Or, if you think I'm ready for the rubber room. (My wife just came in and says that's her vote.)

Until two weeks from now: I wish you smooth sailing, buddy! No matter what vessel you helm.

19 October 2011

Who Are Those Guys?

by Deborah Elliott-Upton

If a picture is worth a thousand words, it makes sense writers would find entire storylines within the photographic image. As a majority of my writing time is spent composing mysteries, people assume I must have tons of files of crime scenes. More often than not, my ideas come to me in tiny doses by reading between the lines of someone's old yearbooks, family scrapbooks and even history books. These are some of the places where ideas come rushing to meet my muse like star-crossed lovers running toward each other with outstretched arms in a field of flowers.

I don't want to know the facts behind the photographs, their names or anything that tells the truth about their lives. I adhere to the Lawrence Block truths in his book, TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT. I profess to inventing crimes and criminals, as well as law enforcement and have a lot of fun while doing it. Although I occasionally read true crime books, they usually give me nightmares.

At an auction, I purchased a family photo album from the early 1900's. I have no idea who originally owned this scrapbook or why no one in the family wished to keep it. There are no captions to identify the people in the photos. It is likely no living relative remembers who these people are and that keeping it was like keeping strangers' photos in your home. That may be why they sold it at auction and exactly why I wanted to own them.

In my mind's eye, the people having a picnic beside a creekbed are not simply having a leisurely afternoon lunch. I see someone watching them from a hiding place. Something sinister is about to be discovered near or in the creek. Perhaps a lover is about to be found out by a jeaous spouse.

I enjoy going to the mall, not to shop for a new dress, but for characters to occupy my next story. The Food Court is a breeding ground for wonderfully complex characters. If you aren't a writer, this could be considered stalking since a few times I did follow a couple from the food area to a store just to see what they might find attractive enough to make them stop and look closer. I don't do this often and have never followed anyone from the mall although I admit to being curious enough to want to know more about them. I didn't though. I do have some scruples and a sincere fear of being on the wrong side of jail bars.

Trying to see past the obvious, I wonder if the young mother with the fussy baby and a toddler who won't sit still looks more tired than the average mom on a mid-afternoon trip to the mall. Is she a Secret Shopper trying to earn extra money to make ends meet? Does she have a husband deployed overseas and she's doing double-duty as a parent? Is she running from something or perhaps someone?

The man at the next table is older and seems anxious. Is it because he's waiting for his shopaholic wife whose dragged him here when he'd rather be playing golf? Does he have bad news from a doctor he hasn't yet shared with his wife? Has he embezzled from his boss and is afraid he may be found out?

See the middle-aged woman in the matching sweater set? She's the type no one would suspect of poisoning her elderly mother she's taken over as a caregiver. While she's twirling a straw in a blueberry smoothie, is she thinking of her wasted life or simply that she wished she were sipping a chocolate malt ? Does she want to change her image and reinvent herself or simply buy another sweater set in another pastel hue?

No one is what I imagine. They are probably nice people living ordinary lives like the rest of us. None are likely criminals, nor planning to become one in the future. But those characters aren't suited for a mystery novel. In my stories, they'll become who I imagine them in a parallel universe version.

Would I rather be labeled a liar? In this instance, I say yes. Block is right: telling lies is fun and also, a bit profitable.

Delicious Disorientation

I don't know if you are familiar with Martin Limón. He is a Pacific Northwest writer who mostly writes about Sergeants Sueño and Bascom, two Army CID cops in South Korea in the 1970s. I highly recommend his books, but it isn't his novels I want to discuss today.

It's something he wrote in the June issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. No, it wasn't a short story, although he does appear there often. In this issue he chose and introduced a story for the "Mystery Classic" corner. His choice was "To Build A Fire," by Jack London. If you haven't read it, treat yourself. It is short and gripping (I almost said chilling, which would have been a nasty pun).

What it isn't, as near as I can tell, is a mystery. There ain't no crime in it. But let that go.

The reason I bring it up is one sentence in Limón's introduction. Like a lot of people who write these intro's he chose to describe his reaction the first time he read the story, and this is what stuck in my head:

"When I emerged from the story I suffered that delicious disorientation well known to avid readers. For a time, I had forgotten where I was, or even who I was."
I hope you know what he's talking about. I think every dedicated reader has had that wonderful sense of being truly lost in a book. At our old address I wrote about one memorable occurrence. But there were others.

Sitting in the children's room of the Plainfield, NJ, public library, under the memorable storybookland mural, and getting so involved in a book that the librarian tell me that it was closing time. I pedalled my bike fast but I was VERY late for dinner.

Having to stop reading and walk around the house to shake off the shock of discovering the murderer's identity in Rex Stout's A FAMILY AFFAIR.

Sitting in a Wendy's hanburger joint and feeling that at the same time I was in a London park with George Smiley, following the footsteps of an elderly Russian spy trying to protect his "three proofs against the sandman."

This, I think, is one of the things we work toward as writers: to create a world so real and a story so compelling, that people get lost in it, becoming "deliciously disoriented."

Want to tell us about the times it happened to you?

18 October 2011

The Class of Writing, Part III

Susan SlaterIn previous weeks, we answered three critical questions about writing fiction. We pick up this week with two more questions and then give you the opportunnity to participate.

• Question: Why is word choice so important starting off?

• Answer: You don’t get a second chance to do it right!

To establish mood, introduce character… Readers are unforgiving. They’ll often put a book down before they’ll make excuses for you and keep on reading… yeah, even your best friends will find it difficult to keep reading telling themselves it will get better. If you’ve disappointed them, there’s probably another book on the nightstand or already in the Kindle that promises to be better. It’s competitive out there— don’t forget that! Whether the reader continues is often “set” by the end of the first paragraph. The term “hook” is used when describing how the reader is roped in, committed from the very start. You have an obligation to your readers— a lot of things rolled into one—to entice, promise something worthy of their time, set up the framework (character, setting, plot) and you better deliver right from the very first word!

Consider what we know from the 5 word opening of April Sinclair’s Coffee Will Make You Black: “Momma, are you a virgin?”

We know the approximate age of the speaker (probably pre-teen or just turned 13); we know the extent of her sexual knowledge; we know she trusts her mother with “delicate” material; and because of this we know right up front “character roles.” And we know that the book fits into the “Coming of Age” genre. Whew! That’s a lot in just five little words!

• Question: What’s in a name?

• Answer: Everything!
The Pumpkin Seed Massacre
Nº 1 in Ben Pecos series

Would you have finished Moby Dick if the first line had read: “Call me, Larry”? Make names work for you and establish names upfront. If you write a series, give your protagonist a name that will last and be easy to remember: Kinsey, Walt Longmire, John Rebus, Harry Bosch, Ben Pecos, Leaphorn and Chee.

Names can establish age. For example, today 90% of those named Susan are 50 years of age or older. What about names like Edith? Nettie? Or Mame? They instantly suggest another era. While names like Britney, Misty Dawn, Amber and Tiffany might suggest younger women with tattoos. Likewise for men—those named Donald are usually over fifty, the same for Frank, Arnold, Arthur, Harold, Herbert, and Stanley. Those younger tattooed bikers might be a Josh, Brett, or Brandon. It remains to be seen if the Apples, Sparrows, Blankets, and Shilohs of the world will cause a stampede of like namings.

Exercise 1— Starting with Dialogue

He saw her leaving the Mall by the side door and caught up with her just as she slipped behind the wheel of the Mini-Van.

“Stephanie.” He caught his breath, “And Eric.” He hadn’t seen the man in the passenger’s seat at first.

Directions: Write a paragraph of dialogue among these 3 persons—identify them only by voice or action; do not use he said / she said.
* * *
Exercise 2— Identify Approach You’ve Used

Look at an opening paragraph from your own writing. How and why do you started the story where you did? Would you do things differently after today’s discussion?
* * *
Exercise 3— The Very First Sentence

The word beginning is a misnomer—you aren’t beginning something; you’re plopping the reader down in the middle of something that’s been ongoing.

Consider these first lines:
  1. “They were saying a new face had been seen on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog.” The Lady with the Dog, Anton Chekhov
  2. “She told him with a little gesture he had never seen her use before.” Gesturing, John Updike
  3. “I could tell the minute I got in the door and dropped my bag, I wasn’t staying.” Medley, Toni Cade Bambara
  4. “Jericha believed herself already an orphan—her mother was in the ground by the time she could walk on it—so the loss of her father when it came was not an exceptional thing.” Jump-up Day, Barbara Kingsolver
  5. “I got over to the side of the road as far as I could, into the grass and the weeds, but my father steered the car over that way, too.” The Undesirable, David Huddle

Write an opening sentence. It can be a part of dialogue, a narrative, a description of person or place; it can be first person or third.
* * *
Exercise 4— 10 in 10

Again, using something you’ve written, count the facts in your first paragraph.

Work on these fundamentals and you're well on the way to your first story.

Next Week

Dale Andrews returns!

17 October 2011

Speaking of Lists & Series

Recently I discovered a wonderful Internet site that displays the top 100 songs of each decade. I enjoyed traveling back in time, listening to favorite old melodies, even singing and dancing along with some of them. This led to a site about "One Hit Wonders," the songs by artists who had big hits with one song and were never heard from again.

One Hit Wonders exist in the world of literature also. For starters, can anyone name anything else written by Margaret Mitchell? Gone with the Wind is the only work that comes to mind. Same for Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and let's not forget Grace Metalious's Peyton Place.

I didn't find many One Hit Wonder mysteries. Googling 100 Best Mysteries of All Time (there are several lists, including one by MWA in 1995), I found that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and Robert Chandler were consistently in the top ten, and most authors on the list had written several successful mysteries. I also discovered that some books on that list were ones I wouldn't necessarily classify as mystery. To Kill a Mockingbird appears as number 60, making it one of the few mystery One Hit Wonders, though personally, I've always thought of it as straight literary. (Maybe we need a genre called "literary mystery." And please don't email me about the plot to explain the mystery classification. I almost know that novel by heart; I just never think of it as a mystery book.)

Mary Higgins Clark not appearing until number 50 was a surprise, but she'd probably hit somewhere higher if the list were made now in 2011. Dracula by Bram Stoker came in at number 70 showing what a broad approach was taken on the MWA list. I have no intention of linking the lists nor copying them, but they're interesting and easy enough to Google.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is number one on all the lists I checked. He created the Sherlock Holmes series. Most favorite current mystery writers have series. What's important in a series is an intriguing protagonist involved in tightly woven plots. (Who'd'a thought that?) James Patterson has detective Alex Cross; Patricia Cornwell, medical examiner Kay Scarpetta; Janet Evanovich, sassy Stephanie Plum; Alexander McCall Smith, employees of No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency; Jeffery Deaver, criminologist Lincoln Rhyme; and Sue Grafton, fast, fun detective Kinsey Milhone. (BTW, Grafton is on the list.)
My old friend Mickey Spillane is on the list, too. He created several series characters. My favorite will always be Mike Hammer though he's not someone I'd want to know personally, and, though fascinating, Mickey wasn't at all like Mike when I knew him.

Gwen Hunter, my mentor of long ago, told me my protagonists should never be perfect, but always have weaknesses, either physical or mental. I'd planned to name a few of those until Janice Law's "Desperately Seeking Detectives" a few blogs ago. She said it better than I would have, so to quote Janice, "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."

In today's society, most readers know their favorite series characters better than they know their next door neighbors. Sometimes readers attend launches and signings as characters from my books. Photo on the left is Charles Waldron as Cousin Chuck and Shannon Owen as Callie.

Fans also know what foods the characters eat and frequently, at library book talks, they serve refreshments of foods from the books. (They're shown on the webpage.) At the McCormick, SC, library, they even prepared a fake, but believable, casket with a floral spray for the speaker's stage. I brought it home with me, and it's in my storage shed.

At the Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, There's a Body in the Car book launch, Barbie Yeo came as Jane– pink glasses, mobility cane, red hair and all. The photo below right is Barbie as Jane and Fran as Fran. So far, no one has appeared at a signing as Callie's dad, but I'm waiting for the day since Callie describes him as "a sixty-ish Larry the Cable Guy."

Why is my mind on series characters today? Because I've begun a new series and am busy developing the protagonist so that I know every facet of her life. Tamar Myers, author of the Magdelena full-board inn (for heaven's sake, don't call it a B&B) series as well as the Den of Antiquity series, told me that she sketches her characters and hangs the drawings around the computer while she writes. With drawing skills limited to pleasing elementary school children, I don't attempt to draw my characters. I do, however, sometimes clip pictures from magazines when I spot my exact mental image of one of my people.

I'll introduce you to my new series stars, Stella Hudson and her daughter Billie Estelle, a few blogs from now. Meanwhile, see if you can guess what Stella's weakness or flaw is. Submit your answer through Comments when you answer the question of the day below. (Yes, there will be prizes, and no, Leigh and Velma can't guess Stella's weakness because I've already told both of them.) When the winners are determined, I'll announce them in Comments and tell how to submit private instructions for me to forward prizes.

Speaking of contests, last spring, I won the Criminal Brief contest for a year's subscription to Pages of Stories Magazine. The Autumn, 2011, issue came out this week, and I've read it start to finish. Let me call your attention to two of the wonderful stories in this issue: Continuation of "Untenable" by our own Leigh Lundin and "The Door Between Mary," a ghost story you need to read before Halloween by my good friend J. Michael Shell. Visit Pages of Stories website to learn more about this magazine which publishes quality fiction from all over the world.

Until we meet again, take care of YOU.


What did rocker Jerry
Lee Lewis and author
Edgar Allan Poe have
in common?