29 February 2012

There's a Hitch in it, somewhere

Sometimes a road trip can change your life.  I took one with my parents in the late sixties to upstate New York.  I think we went to Lake George, but I don't remember that at all.  What I remember is seeing a fat, familiar face on a newsstand.
I wish I remembered which issue it was.  I looked on this helpful but incomplete page and the oldest story I can be sure I read in the magazine was from the October 1969 issue ("Scream All The Way," by Michael Collins. I remember the illustration - a dramatic drawing of  a man falling out of a building - so I know it wasn't a reprint in a book).  But I am confident that I was reading it before then.

What attracted me?  I don't think at that age (roughly fourteen) I had ever seen a Hitchcock movie, although I had certainly enjoyed his TV show, and his children's anthologies,

 and the Three Investigator books,
   and I believe I had discovered the anthologies that often included stories from the magazine. 

Quite a cottage industry Hitch had going,  huh?  All of them might as well have been gateway drugs, preparing me for mystery magazines, I guess.

There were two other features back in those days that made AHMM unique.  First, each issue began with a note in solemn tones signed by Hitchcock himself, introducing all the stories.  I don't think that even at that tender age I imagined Alfred had anything to do with writing the notes, but it was another way of tying the mag to one of the most famous people in the world.

They also used to tuck him into a story illustration in most of the issues, like his famous cameo appearances in his movies.  There would be a tubby patrolman in the back of a crime scene, or a rotund waiter in a restaurant.   Or see this one, from 1981.

 By then AHMM  had been sold by H.S.D. and was published by Davis, the same company that owned  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Over the years I have heard the question a hundred times: what's the difference between Hitchcock and Queen?  My answer used to be: Hitchcock sometimes buys my stuff.  But since Queen gave in and bought one of my stories that distinction isn't as helpful anymore.  I usually say Hitchcock is fonder of humor, suspense, and twist endings.  Queen leans toward longer, darker, stories,  and is more concerned with the history of the field, so it features pastiches, fair play mysteries, and the like.

But I'm sure the main reason I have been published more often in AHMM than in EQMM (18 to 1, to be exact), is that I grew up on the former. My tastes in mystery stories were shaped by AHMM, so it is hardly surprising that my writing tends to match up with theirs.

How good are the stories in AHMM?  Well, here is a brief summary of the awards the magazine has collected:
*more than 20 Edgar nominations, including three winners.
*eleven Robert L. Fish Awards for best first short story.
*more than thirty Shamus nominations, and eight winners.
*more than twenty Derringer nominations, including three winners.
*nominations (and some winners) for the Spur, the Anthony, the Macavity, the Barry, the Agatha, the Arthur Ellis, and the Herodotus, the last of which I had never heard of.  

Impressive, you might say.  But you might also ask why I bring up this particular magazine in the first place.  If you don't already know all shall be revealed in the next few days, starting on Friday, when we will come back to AHMM in a big way. Until then, keep reading and writing.

28 February 2012


Typical Datura blossom
They believe what they are told, said Miss Marple.  “Yes indeed, we’re all inclined to do that,” she added.  Then she said sharply “Who told you these stories about India, about the doping of husbands with datura . . . .?”

                    Agatha Christie
                    A Caribbean Mystery

    In a previous article I listed a number of books that were inspired by trips to the Caribbean.  When I finished the article I realized that there was only one book on the list that I had not, in fact, read.   I remedied that by downloading Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery onto my Nook and read it while we were “down island.”  Half way through the book Miss Marple muses on a strange flowering plant – the datura. The reference struck a personal chord.

Areas where daturas are likely to be found
    I suspect that few readers know much about the datura.  The plant grows profusely in warm climates and, while indigenous to Latin America (on this continent) can be found in many aereas of the world.  The datura puts forth beautiful lily-like flowers, wonderfully fragrant, that blossom and then whither, each over the course of an evening and the following morning.  Sometimes, particularly in mid-summer, one datura plant can produce 20 to 30 of these one-day wonders.  At sundown you can watch the bees buzzing around the sealed flower buds, waiting for each flower to burst open.  A beautiful plant.  But, as Miss Marple alludes, there is a dark side to the Datura.  More about that in a little while.

    Why was I surprised to encounter Agatha Christie’s reference to the plant,?   Well, as rare as the datura plant is, it is hardly so on our block in Chevy Chase, in the District of Columbia.  Like many of our neighbors we have several datura bushes growing in our back yard, where they have been ensconced for the past thirty years.  It was surprising to find Miss Marple referencing this strange plant since my wife Pat and I, along with many of our neighbors, were, in fact, introduced to the datura by a lady not completely unlike Miss Marple.

    Shortly after we first moved into our home in Washington, D.C. back in 1982 there was a knock at our front door.  When I opened the door I was face to face with a ramrod straight 80 year old woman attired in a cotton dress and a huge straw hat, tied at the chin.  Our visitor announced (seemingly in one breath) that she was Mary Marsh, that she lived just across the street and that she had lived there since 1942.  "Back then," she said, "the street was not even paved."  Nodding her head once in punctuation she then marched through the door before I could even utter a word of invitation.  Mary walked purposely into our living room, seated herself on the couch, and explained that as the oldest neighbor on the block she wanted personally to welcome us to the street.  My wife Pat and I watched in awe as Mary prattled on non-stop about the history of our new block. 

    The next day Mary appeared again at our door, this time with a small white envelope.  “I thought you might like these,” she said, thrusting the envelope into my hand.  “These are datura seeds. I could see your back yard through the kitchen window yesterday, and I thought that a row of daturas would look lovely along your rear fence.” 

    Pat is more the gardener, but even she was perplexed.  “What are daturas?” she asked.  “Lovely white flowers, bloom only for a day,” Mary responded.  “You have to pinch the flower off then, you know, in order to be sure that the plant continues to produce and doesn't start going to seed. Bert and I,” she said, referencing her 84 year old husband who at the time we had yet to meet, “brought them back from Mexico years ago.”  Mary thought a minute and then added “you know, I have a book about daturas that I should lend to you.”  And at this she turned on her heel and trotted back across the street only to return several minutes later with what was probably the most dog-eared and heavily read book I have ever seen.  She handed the book to Pat and then left. 

    We closed the door, looked at each other and then down at the book.  The well-worn volume our octogenarian neighbor had pressed into Pat's hands was titled Narcotic Plants of South America.  Well, beyond that ominous title the book also confirmed the beauty of the datura's flowers.  That afternoon, like Jack and the beanstalk, we planted the seeds.

    So, we had a colorful introduction to Miss Marple’s (and Mary Marsh’s)  most unusual plant.  As Mary had assured us, the datura, more  technically the Datura Stramonium, without question, produces a lovely and fragrant flower. Each blossom is lilly-like.  The flowers open, like clockwork, just as the sun sets, and they last only until the next morning.  And as each flower opens it sends forth a beautiful fragrance, that often, in the height of summer, will flavor the air of our entire back yard.

    I never found another copy of that book Mary loaned to us, but in one of the few horticulture books on daturas that is easily accessible, Brugmansia and Datura: Angel's Trumpets and Thorn Apples, Ulrike Preissel, writes   
Datura, sometimes called Thorn Apples, are mostly annuals and are cultivated like summer flowers. The impressive bell flowers of both varieties -- in white, yellow, pink and red -- are extraordinarily decorative. It's no surprise that Brugmansia and Datura are prized by enthusiasts around the world. 
    But enough of this.

    Mr. Preissel also notes  that cultivation of daturas is unlawful in some places in the world.  (I understand this to be the case in Oklahoma, for example.)   Why?  Well, as Miss Marple observed, and as the title of that book Mary Marsh first loaned to us back in 1982 implies, daturas are not known solely for those lovely, lily-like aromatic flowers.  We can get an inkling of this from the name itself: reportedly  in Latin one meaning of the word "datura" is "send to die."

    The datura is, in fact, one of the most dangerous poisonous and hallucinogenic plants in the world.  Enno Freye in Toxicity of Datura Stramonium  has written:    
No other substance has received as many “Train Wreck” severely negative experience reports as has Datura.  The overwhelming majority of those who describe the use of Datura (and to a lesser  extent Belladonna, Brugmansia and Brfunfelsia) find the experiences extremely mentally and physically unpleasant and not infrequently physically dangerous.  
Datura seed pods 

    This beautiful flowering plant has historically been linked to numerous murders and suicides, particularly in India and in Europe, where it also grows in warm climes.  A 2002 study entitled Brugmansia and Datura:  Angel’s Trumpets and Thorn Apples by Ulrike and Hans-George Preissel (yep, co-authored by the same gentleman who, in the earlier quote, was extolling the datura’s beauty) reports that the between 1950 and 1965 the State Chemical Laboratories in Agra, India  investigated 2,778 deaths that were caused by ingestion of the datura plant. 

Datura seeds
    Most poisoning incidents involving daturas stem from the ingestion of the plant’s large potato-like root.  But it is not just the root that causes trouble.  The datura’s seeds, which diffuse from the plant in the wind after the first frost, are also highly toxic, and reportedly swallowing as few as a half teaspoon of the datura’s seeds will cause delirium and, in severe cases, death by cardiac arrest.  

    Closer to home (indeed, only a few miles from mine) the United States Center for Disease Control reports that in 2008 a family of six in Maryland were inadvertently poisoned when they ate  cooked datura root and leaves that they unknowingly added to a stew they had assembled using only “natural” ingredients found in the woods behind their home.  (Ahh, nature!)  While, thankfully, all six survived the ordeal, the Center, even in its characteristic dryly medical style, reports a harrowing experience:
The six affected persons came from one family and included three men and three women ranging in age from 38 to 80 years (median age: 42 years). All six shared a meal of homemade stew and bread at approximately 9:00 p.m. on July 8, 2008. No one else was at the home when the meal was eaten. Approximately 1 hour later, another relative arrived at the home and discovered the six affected family members laughing, confused, and complaining of hallucinations, dizziness, and thirst. One of the family members vomited. The unaffected relative called emergency medical services, and all six were transported to the hospital by ambulance.

On admission to the emergency department, two of the six patients were unconscious. The other four were awake and had altered mental status; . . . .  During the next 6 hours in the emergency department, the six patients continued to experience tachycardia [i.e. accelerated heart beats], mydriasis [i.e. severe dilation of the pupils], and altered mental status. One remained unconscious. The others demonstrated confusion, aggression, agitation, disorganized speech, incoherence, and hallucinations. All six were admitted to the hospital, five to the intensive-care unit.
    According to the Center, such effects are apparently not at all unusual in cases where datura, and principally its root, is eaten.  Typically ingestion of the plant produces delirium, a complete inability to differentiate reality from fantasy, violent behavior and prolonged amnesia. Without immediate treatment ingesting the root can prove fatal, particularly to children.

    You would think that such a plant would be very popular in the types of stories that spring from the computers of authors such as those who contribute to this blog.  But aside from Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, I personally know of only one other book in which the datura plays an explicit role –  The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel.  There the roots of the plant are ingested by the clan’s shamans to induce a hallucinatory religious experience.  The  datura also reportedly inspired the strangling plant that was a key element in the plot of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone (or Sorcerer's Stone depending on where you live).  Following publication of the book there was a spate of somewhat hysterical reports from folks in the English countryside who found that their gardens in fact contained the plant that had inspired the one used against Harry.  

    While the datura is not a common mystery device, it has made its presence known throughout history.  The chapter on daturas that is available on-line at the Poison Garden Website  reports the following:
In 38 A.D. Antony led another attempt by the Romans to subdue the Parthians and, as with previous expeditions, met with no success. Starving on the way back, his soldiers were reduced to living off the land and some of them ate Datura. As a result they are reported to have done nothing but ‘turn over every stone in his path with the greatest gravity, as though it were a difficult task.’ It is sometimes said that this incident leads to the saying 'leaving no stone unturned' to mean taking great care over a task.
    My favorite historical reference to daturas, however, that is quoted at the Poison Garden website, is from colonial times: 
In Jamestown in 1679, soldiers ate leaves in a salad and experienced ‘a very pleasant comedy’. In the “History and Present State of Virginia” (1705), Robert Beverly gives an account of what happened. “Some of them eat plentifully of it, the Effect of which was a very pleasant Comedy ; for they turn’d natural Fools upon it for several Days: One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another would dart Straws at it with much Fury; another, stark naked, was sitting in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making mows at them;  a Fourth would fondly kiss and paw his Companions and snear in their Faces with a Countenance more antick than any Dutch Droll. . . . A thousand such simple Tricks they play’d, and after Eleven Days, return’d to themselves again, not remembering anything that had pass’d.” This incident gives [to daturas] the [local] name jimsonweed (Jamestown Weed).
    Or consider, if you will, the strange case (sounding like Rod Serling, here) of Clairvius Narcisse, probably the most well-documented Haitian "zombie."  Narcisse "died" in 1962, lay in a refrigerated morgue for three days and then was buried.  Yet he turned up 18 years later, identifying himself to his sister on the streets of Port-au-Prince.  Narcisse claimed that after being buried alive he was dug up and then subjected to mind control that allowed him to be kept in forced labor all of those years.  According to Wade Davis' 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow, and a report at the Skeptoid website, this was accomplished by force feeding him "a paste made of sweet potatoes, cane syrup, and a plant called Datura"  The website notes that datura, popularly referred to as "the Devil's cucumber" in Haiti, along with nightshade and henbane, has long been used there as a hallucinogenic drug.

    All that having been said,  thanks to Mary Marsh -- who, notwithstanding her life-long proximity to these poisonous plants lived to be almost 100 -- our neighborhood is populated by many daturas, all relatives of the seeds Mary brought back from Mexico decades ago.  On our block daturas are cultivated only for the beauty of their flowers.   No mystery stories here,.  Certainly no zombies.

    Our daturas plants do seem to have a mind of their own.  They started out near our back fence in 1983, died out there but then re-appeared for several years at a side fence, only to desert that location for their present home  under a black locust tree at the rear of our yard.  There they die off every fall only to re-appear, like clockwork, in the first warm days of June.  By August they can be six feet tall.

    Throughout the summer we appreciate the beautiful flowers, and the aromatic fragrance each evening as the blossoms open.  Miss Marple, and our late neighbor Mary Marsh, knew both sides of the plant.  But for us it is all about the flowers. 


27 February 2012

What's In A Word?

by Fran Rizer

The young lady farded before leaving to meet the new man she'd met on the Internet.

She hoped he wasn't a grinagog. After all, she'd met one of those the previous night, and it had become a kankedort. That's why she'd chosen to make this a jentacular date, hoping it wouldn't turn out to make her niddick quiver.

The last man had been ambisinistrous, though eumorphous. Unfortunately, he'd insisted on going to a new restaurant and ordering for her. The spitchcock had almost gagged her. It was even covered with shitake. When she'd complained, the man insisted she taste his scrod. She thought it was quisquilious and certainly hadn't want to osculate with the man after he'd stared at her glabella and complained that his coccyx hurt after they'd run into a friend of his who debagged him.

Well, what do you think? Did you understand that brief scenario or did it make you want to run for the dictionary? Did you think parts of it might even be a bit "blue" or off-color? Unless your normal vocabulary far exceeds mine, you may have misinterpreted some of it.

Through the years, I've met writers who like to pull out every ten-dollar word they know when writing. I'm not referring to the jargon specific to a subject, just the habit of using a long, lesser known word when a regular old two-dollar word will do. A friend who wanted to critique each other's writings told me, "I want every paragraph to have a word that the reader has to look up in the dictionary."

I laughed and said, "Then I don't want to read what you're writing. Fiction should entertain, and unless you explain those words in context, I don't want to read what you write."

Unless I'm writing an instructional article, I try to write so the average adult reader will understand what I'm trying to say. I've been told that my Callie Parrish mysteries are great "Beach Reads," because they are easy reading. That comes naturally because I spent over thirteen years teaching fifth grade, so I tend to write on about a fifth-grade level in vocabulary. That doesn't worry me a lot because most newspapers are now written below fifth-grade level.

I used to "collect" unusual words though I don't use them in normal speech, nor in fiction. (Not even in the serial killer novel, which is a different style from Callie.) In case I've collected a few words you haven't, I'll give you these for your edification:

  • fard - to put on excessive makeup
  • grinagog - person who grins a lot
  • kankedort - an awkward situation
  • jentacular - related to breakfast
  • niddick - nape of the neck
  • ambisinistrous - clumsy, opposite of ambidextrous
  • eumorphous - well formed
  • splitchcock - a special way of cooking eel
  • shitake - a kind of mushroom
  • scrod - young cod fish
  • quisquilious - like garbage
  • osculate - kiss
  • glabella - facial area between the eyebrows
  • coccyx - bottom bone of the spine
  • debag - to pull someone's pants down as a joke

Until we meet again… take care of YOU.

26 February 2012

Meditation On Imagination and Logic

by Louis Willis

I’m not sure what adjective describes what I’m doing in this post. Brainstorming? No, it takes more than one person to do that. Speculating? No, wrong connotation; meditating is probably the word for what I’m doing. I got the idea of calling this post a meditation from an essay “A Few Thoughts on the Meditative Essay” by Robert Vivian in which he says the essay is more pondering and contemplation than opinions and ideas (I paraphrase).

After reading Dixon’s post on Print Zombies, and thinking about the post on whether to outline or not to outline, I couldn’t stop my left brain from thinking theoretically, which it does occasionally without any prompting from me. I sometimes read as much theory as I can stand without getting a headache, thinking it will help me understand and enjoy fiction on deeper level. You know what I’m talking about, all that headache-inducing stuff called deconstruction, postmodernism, reader-response, aestheticism, ethical criticism, and a whole lot of other theories of literature and criticism. All that theory stuff does is interfere with my enjoyment of a good story. 

Nevertheless, the theorist in me had to get out, so the left brain just kicked the right brain to the side and took over, and the result is this article. It is not about theory of storytelling but a meditation on the imagination and logic in the creative process, that is, their relationship to each other and function in the art of storytelling (okay, it is a meditation on the theory of imagination and logic). 

When you start a story, do you use logic and say I’ll write about so and so. Maybe, but at some point, your imagination takes over, whether you want it to or not, and your muse offers her help in letting your imagination roam where it may. The subconscious probably takes over at some point in the creative process before logic steps in. Thus, you have already told the story in your imagination but not in a coherent order—an outline puts it in order. If you don’t put the outline on paper, logic demands you think outline: how does this character function, what is the need for this scene; how can I make this character come alive? Logic edits and in some cases sanitizes what goes  in and what’s left out of a story. Whether to outline or not outline doesn’t matter because imagination and logic are at work no matter what, and if properly used can prevent those Print Zombies from remaining so dry.

Anxiety, the feeling that you might miss an editor-imposed or self-imposed deadline, or that for some reason, the story isn’t right, or maybe imagination has gone hog wild (a cliché and I don’t even know what it means), you stop and think, and logic sees an opening and rushes (well maybe not so quickly) in to provide answers.

As for the Print Zombies, what is missing is a lack of imagination and too much logic. And maybe a little laziness is present. 

25 February 2012

Getting Lost in a Good Book

One of the great joys of reading novels is the opportunity to “get lost in a good book.” As a mental health professional, I can tell you that the psychological phenomenon involved is dissociation. Getting lost in a book or movie is at the mild end of the dissociative spectrum, along with the long-distance driver’s road trance. At the other end is dissociative identity disorder: the pathological condition, resulting from extreme trauma such as childhood sexual abuse, that used to be called multiple personality. Getting lost in a book, while it’s certainly not pathological, produces the same effect of coming to with a jolt from a world that made the one you’re actually in vanish completely. There’s the same sense of having been somewhere else and having no idea how much time has passed.
People who don’t read miss this pleasure. So do those who don’t read fiction, or so I believe. My husband is a history buff and inveterate non-fiction reader. He’s always trying to involve me in his reading. He’ll chuckle aloud and say, “Listen to this!” as a preface to telling me some priceless tidbit about Napoleon or Frederick the Great. (Readers of my mysteries know I borrowed this trait for one of my characters.)

The standard answer to that or any other interruption in our house is, “Shush! I’m reading my bookie.” “Bookie” is our private baby talk for genre fiction, a novel on the light side of what the Brits call “a good read”—a story absorbing enough to sweep the reader away. It goes with teddy bears and cuddling up to read.

My husband sometimes complains that it’s not fair, since I don’t always refrain from talking to him while he’s reading. But the truth is that he’s more willing to be interrupted when he’s reading serious history or something dense and weighty. He’s absorbed, but not to the point of dissociation. I’ve noticed that when he lightens up enough to pick up a mystery, science fiction, or fantasy, he too says, “Shush! I’m reading my bookie.”

What lures me most intensely into an alternate world? My briar patch is the character-driven traditional mystery, but crime is not a necessity. Historical fiction with endearing characters and a dollop of romance can do it, as can character-driven speculative fiction or fantasy.
I remember gasping with pleasure the first time I read Diana Gabaldon’s outstanding time-travel historical novel, Outlander. It utterly pulled me into the 18th century. Dorothy Dunnett’s novels about Francis Crawford of Lymond take me just as thoroughly to the 16th century. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series, set in the galactic future and on an old-fashioned planet within it, does the same.
So do Sharon Shinn’s perfectly constructed Samaria novels about genetically engineered angels.

The common elements are lovability and the touch of romance, combined with highly intelligent writing, brilliant characterization, and superb storytelling. Of course, there’s plenty of that in mystery too. I don’t want to come back from Judge Deborah Knott’s North Carolina or Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’s England either. So shush! I’m reading my bookie.

24 February 2012

Generation: Encrypted

I have to admit it.

I spend quite a bit of time on sites like CraigsList. Because, I’m looking for a contemporary mystery story plot. And not just the “CraigsList Killer Slays Three” type of thing.

I can’t help thinking there are a million stories just nested there, on CL – all those people advertising for dates (or just sex), trying to sell an old Schwinn, or maybe looking to buy a house.

Just take this ad, for instance:

schwinn moutian bike - $45 (n/w)
Date: 2012-02-23, 4:04PM MST
Reply to: see below

cheap ride. call [REDACTED FOR PRIVACY] $45obo

• Location: n/w
• it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

I see an ad like this, and it makes me wonder. Was this bike stolen? Did the owner buy a new one? Or did the poster’s kid perhaps outgrow it?

After all, I bought a “tagalong” attachment for my own bike, on CraigsList, and used it to get my youngest son back and forth to school before he learned to ride his own bike. (Those unfamiliar with a "Tagalong" bike trailer, can see one attached to a larger bike's seat -- below -- just as ours works.)

When we got to the house in West Phoenix, where the poster of that tagalong CL advertisement lived, I found the tagalong still hooked to his own bike. He told me his daughter had recently learned to ride, and now they were getting rid of the old tagalong — but she’d wanted one last ride on it, that morning, for old time’s sake.

And there stood the little girl, dark ringlets of hair cascading onto her shoulders, blue eyes rid-rimmed from crying. My heart just about melted. Her dad asked me to ride my son around on it, a little, so she could see it was "going to a good home."

The two of us hopped on, and I peddled us up and down the block a few times. And that little girl came out to join us, riding her own shiny new two-wheeler. With a big smile on her face!

So, you see: I responded to an ad for a bike attachment, and got a story about a little girl growing up.

(My youngest son graduated to his own bike a couple of years ago, and I’ve been meaning to post the tagalong on CL ever since, but one thing or another has kept cropping up to stop me. Now that I’ve thought about it, though, I’ll have to try to get it up by Friday. Maybe we can have it sold by Saturday night. Who knows?)

m4f, f4m, m4m, f4f, mf4f, mf4m, mf4mf, f4mf, m4mf, mm4f . . .
Then, there are those ads in the Personals section. And I have a sneaking suspicion every one of them has a story behind it, as well — even if it’s not a story for little ears.

That m4f business is easy enough to break out, into “male looking for female.” But other acronyms and code systems sometimes take a little research. I had no idea, for instance, that cfnm meant “Clothed Female, Nude Male”— a naked man waiting slave-like on fully clothed women. Frankly, I had no idea such a thing excited people — well, maybe some women. But, men?? And, when I told my wife about it, she barely took time to glance over her book at me before murmuring, “No way we’re doing that, Joker!”

Nor did I understand that ABDL stood for “Adult Baby and Diaper Lover.” (These ads are evidently posted by grown men who enjoy dressing like babies, and being treated as if they are babies.) However, a google search of abdl led me to the following quote — surprisingly apropos for SleuthSayers — from a 2005 Phoenix NewTimes article, about a company called Adult Baby Furniture (which bills itself as the “Best maker of fine adult baby furniture”).

When the producers of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation needed props for a curious caper titled "King Baby" that aired back in February, they went to Baby Apparels/Adult Baby Furniture and there (AB/DL) business, And, yes, the folks at CSI had plenty of other options for their episode about the murder of a grown man who had a secret chamber full of oversize baby paraphernalia. But they went the best builder -- out of a few dozen adult baby furniture makers around the country -- to provide them with custom-made furniture: a $1,200 crib, a high-end $600 high chair with lots of extra room in the seat, a $700 playpen, and other accouterments. Michael also sells big baby accessories, and clothing "fun, simple and sophisticated" crib bedding, and rocking horses "built to last."

Now this is not any sort of baby furniture I’ve ever shopped for. But, CL certainly does provide a window of sorts on a world very different from my own. In more ways than one.

And the encryption just keeps getting deeper . . .

I was particularly perplexed by certain Personals posts that contained odd strings of figures and letters – until I spoke to my 22-year-old son, who laughed when he explained how to read it. An example
(not from CL, but from a CNN article a few years ago) is very reminiscent and looks like this:
1 w45 50 j4ck3d up l457 n16h7. 1 5c0r3d 50m3 cr4ck 47 7h3 p4r7y 50 1'd h4v3 17 f0r 70n16h7 4nd 70m0rr0w, 4nd 7h3n J1mmy 700k 0ff w17h 17, 7h3 455h03l! 1 4m 4ll j1773ry 4nd n33d 70 m337 up w17h y0u 70n16h7 4f73r my p4r3n75 7h1nk 1 4m 45l33p. c4n y0u m337 m3 47 b0j4n6l'5 47 m1dn16h7 ju57 f0r 4 f3w m1nu735? 1 ju57 n33d 4 l177l3 4nd 1 c4n p4y y0u b4ck 0n m0nd4y, 1 pr0m153.

At first blush, the message appears to be gibberish. And — to my mind, trained in standard and multi-level substitution system encryption — it just didn’t seem to work out right. But, if you forget standard encryption methods, then simply stare at the message and make believe the numbers are strangely-made (and sometimes reversed or truncated) letters, you’ll see that it actually says:
“I was so jacked up last night. I scored some crack at the party so I'd have it for tonight and tomorrow, and then Jimmy took off with it, the [expletive]! I am all jittery and need to meet up with you tonight after my parents think I am asleep. Can you meet me at Bojangle's at midnight just for a few minutes? I just need a little and I can pay you back on Monday, I promise.”

According to the CNN article, this is a common encryption system employed by teens while texting on cell phones. (I’m glad to say I haven’t run across anything so heart-stopping on my own kids’ phones!)

But, that still leaves me with a mystery concerning most of those figure-letter streams. Because, once I learned to read them, I found them few and far between. And, the samples I saw in CL Personals were not nearly as long as the sample above. In fact . . .

7h3y w3r3 l1k3 7h15 5h0r7!

The few I’ve spotted since then, have evidently been people looking for drugs. Their posts appear to be fake, in the sense that the ad blurb used usually looks as if it’s been copied and pasted from somewhere else online (something similar to: “the largest sea mammal in existence, it dwarfs the size of any land animal now walking the planet.”)

The real message is located down below in the post, and might look like:

w4n7 60 f457

“Go Fast” is assumed by many texters to equal Methcathinone, “crank” or methamphetamine. Presumably, a seller clicks on the CL contact link to set up a buy. I’m sure the folks at CraigsList have tumbled to this as well, and that’s probably why I can’t find many examples these days — because the CL watchdogs try to keep them off the system.

I know there are myriad higher-tech ways of hiding data in electronic messages. I’ve read reports about organizations hiding (nesting) encrypted message data in photograph html on websites, and in other places, for instance. But, that really is not part of why I’m writing this post. At least, I don’t think it is.

So, Why Should Mystery Writers Care?

At a time when I hear or read that many editors decry the lack of interest in mysteries, on the part of the younger generation, I think the information above is important—because it points up how disconnected older writers now are from younger readers. But, it also indicates one possible way to perhaps jump that gap.

I think it may provide older writers with a glimpse into the world-view held by younger readers. For example:

My older son and his friends use the word “Leet!” to mean “Cool!”, “Neat!” or “Awesome.” Leet is short for “Elite!” which is the word they really mean to connote. To them, Elite means: Cool, Neat or Awesome — something that stands alone by being pretty extraordinary. But, they never say “Elite.” It’s just “Leet, dude!” Or maybe a head nod, accompanied by a heart-felt, “Leet!”

They use that word so often, that when I wrote a recent story, in which I had a young man interacting with an older one, I had the young guy use the word. Then I had my son read it over, to be sure I’d used the slang correctly.

His comment? “You spelled it wrong.”

A lengthy conversation ensued, which resulted in my realization that – while my son may say “Leet!” — he envisions the word as l337! He doesn’t really conceive of it in standard English alphabet format.

To him, when he says “Leet!” it’s the verbal form of l337!


Which leads me to keep searching CL and sites like it, in quest of an avenue that would allow me to incorporate some encryption system used by these younger folks into the plot line of a good yarn. Seems to me, mysteries and encrypted messages are a natural fit. But, there would have to be a way to obscure the truth from the Electronic Generation, until just before they hit the denouement.

I haven’t figure it out yet, but I keep trying. What about you?

In an age when publishers sometimes seem to be running scared, maybe it’s time to focus not only on the platform we present stories to the E-Generation on (electronic or paper), but also to factor in younger reader’s interests and world-perception when we’re figuring out our stories. Maybe that way, we can write plotlines they’ll identify with, and want to read.

What I’m talking about isn’t a panacea, but perhaps it’s a part of the puzzle we need to figure out if we’re to capture younger readers.


23 February 2012

What weapon?

When someone offered me a penny for my thoughts, I laughed, but i didn't say what I was really thinking at the moment because his comment made me realize writers expect – or maybe it's just hope – to get paid a lot more than a penny for our thoughts.

In my original writing group, our members consisted mostly of beginners. We arranged to meet once a week on Tuesday evenings to read and discuss or current work. The feedback grew better with each meeting and I value the imput of those other writers struggling to find what works and doesn't in the publishing world. I don't remember whose idea it was to give ourselves a name, but somehow we decided on Tuesday Knight Writers.

Whether we considered ourselves a knightly realm of writers or simply thought we were being cute for making a play on the word "night" since we met in the evenings or both. I do know that as Texans, we almost always have to repeat our occupation to strangers that aren't from this area of the world. Often accents are misunderstood.

"Do you mean like a horse rider?" a lady asked me when we sat next to each other on a plane to Phoenix.

I remember smiling and being entranced as she knitted something delicate in a deliciously soft baby blue yarn. It wasn't her artistry I considered when I replied, "No, I mean like a mystery writer."

"Oh," she sat and started another row.

I waited a few seconds and asked the question dancing in my mind like sudden water sprinklers turning on as you walk across a lawn. My words tumbled out quickly, almost tripping over each other in my excitement of finding the answer since she'd first withdrawn her work-in-progress. I took a breath and blurted, "How'd you get those needles onto the plane?"

She stopped knitting and looked at me a bit puzzled.

"Couldn't those sharp ended knitting needles be considered a weapon?"

She shrugged. "I suppose so. Nobody said anything when they checked my carry on."

Her answer fed my mind with ideas, spilling over each other like the twisted loops she was making with the yarn, stirring up a plot for a short story I was already creating in my mind.

What sort of items are considered weapons in our modern times? A quick look at what is now vetoed from carry-on luggage provides a clue to some that are unusual to most of us.

One of the best weapons in a mystery – in my opinion– was the one used in "Lamb to the Slaughter", originally a short story by Roald Dahl. The story later appeared as the basis of an Alfred Hitchcock television episode.

I read that Dahl enjoyed horror and black comedy and it influenced his fiction writing. His writing certainly has influenced mine. Dahl thought outside the box when it came to weapons. I bet someone paid him a lot more than a penny for some of those thoughts.

22 February 2012

Get Me Rewrite!

by Robert Lopresti

So, I have been sitting in the 'ol rocking chair with my black notebook full of short stories, trying to do some rewriting.  My trusty assistant has been doing her best to help by stepping on the notebook and sticking her tail in my face.  Thanks, Chloe.  Don't know what I would do without you.  (And when can I start?)

I rewrite a lot.  I should count the number of times an average story goes through the mill but it would probably be too depressing.  Ten?  Easy.  Probably twenty is more typical.

I am old enough to remember the good old days when rewriting meant typing the whole damn thing from scratch every time.  Now the computer remembers it for me and I just have to put in the changes.  Bless technology.

But I still have to read the thing all those times.  As I have said before, my first draft is basically a full-length outline.  Barely literate.  Very few sentences will make it from there to the published (oh, please) version without being changed.  And that's fine with me, but it does  mean there is a long slow process of converting the dross to gold.

What I find most annoying are the notes I leave to myself as I go.  FIX.  CHECK GEOGRAPHY.  CALENDAR?  REWRITE!  I never know when to address these commands: when I am editing with a pen or later at the computer.  So the urgent notes tend to move along from draft to draft.

The music man

It is so much easier it is to rewrite songs.  That happens automatically.  After I write a song I sing it twenty or thirty times while I am doing other things - bicycling or washing dishes, for instance, - and then when I look back at the written version I find that extra words have dropped out, phrasing has improved, etc. That's one reason folk songs tend to be so memorable; hundreds of editors converting it into something better.

Unfortunately, I find that singing a short story over and over doesn't work very well.  However, here is a trick I do find helpful: when you're near the final draft and thinking about sending a story out to the editor, read it out loud.  It is remarkable how many times the ear will catch a gaffe that the eye stopped noticing.  Like a changed sentence that left a remnant behind: "It wasn't not going to be easy."  I thought that I had kicked that "not" out...   The ear will also catch style problems, like using the same word three times in a sentence.

And now, if you will excuse me, my assistant says I should get back to work.  Or feed her some Friskies.

21 February 2012

Animal Instinct

My last posting concerned the grey hinterland of human mind control and was extremely taxing to write, so I often found myself contemplating the family's fifteen year old corgi as a means of  mental relaxation.  She seldom appeared to have a lot on her own mind, but napped in apparent comfort as I labored away.  Occasionally, she might stir herself to stretch and shift positions, or sit up to peer out the window onto our street.  This last would only happen if something truly important roused her, such as a UPS truck going by (she hates UPS...don't ask me why, as I've always equated the truck with Christmas gifts and happy times).  She, on the other hand, has held a grudge against Big Brown since she was a pup many moons ago.  By people years she is 105 and, apparently, has a long memory when it comes to grievances, real or imagined.  She holds the vacuum cleaner (any model) in the same contempt, and just as inexplicably.

A good corgi--not Silke
In case you don't know, a Welsh corgi is an ancient breed of cattle dog.  I found this idea laughable, at first, as Silke (that's her name--she was christened by my offspring who also found her) has short little legs and I couldn't imagine her herding cows, or even sheep, for that matter.  But then, I am a low and ignorant knave.  Corgi means dwarf in Welsh (hence the short leggies) and this allowed them to nip easily at the ankles of their wards while avoiding being kicked--being so low to the ground they can drop quickly beneath the damaging arc of the cow's hoof.  The official book on these furry devils warns, "Not for first-time owners".  That's right; that's what it says.  Care to guess what we were?

It seems this invaluable breed of canine tend to be bossy and are prone to nipping.  Thanks, kids.  I guess that shouldn't surprise anyone who knew what they were bred for--being bossy to a bunch of cows and nipping their hooves.  But I had no idea what the kids were getting us into.  Corgis are highly resistant to Mind Control.  This last is my own admonition as, believe me, I have tried.  But Silke remains serenely impervious to all attempts at training or discipline.  I gave up years ago--Pavlov did not use Welsh corgis in his famous experiment .  This shouldn't have surprised me, really, as my own progeny have also resisted my every effort at mind control.  It makes perfect sense that they should somehow, while on a trip to Virginia, manage to find just this dog in a pet store.  The shop owners claimed that they had no idea what kind of mutt it was...sure they didn't.

Though resistant to all discipline imposed upon them, corgis happily impose their own special brand of rules on everyone else.  For instance, running, and other erratic movements, are greatly discouraged, as are overt signs of physical affection, unless those affectionate overtures are directed at the corgi.  Try cuddling up to your loved one and soon the thick, furry body of the Adversary inserts itself betwixt the two of you like a mobile chastity pillow.  As for games of chase when the kids were younger...this was strictly forbidden!  Silke would fly into action by rapidly circling the offending parties in ever-tightening spirals until all motion was halted.  I cannot recall how many times I have tripped over this beastie.  I suspect that this latter trait is why corgis are so favored by the Queen of England--the herding instinct insures that all in the royal party will move about in a decorous manner; assume a stately progress.  The alternative is to be either tripped or bitten.  I have read that many of her guests (and family) despise the little beggars.

Did I mention that Silke hates all other canines?  With a passion.  She admits of no other dog being an ally or kindred spirit.  She recognizes no kinship.  I don't know if this applies to her own breed, as they are somewhat rare this side of the pond, but I suspect she would be just as unforgiving with them as any other.

Well, of course, those same children who had to have this creature, grew up and went away to college and thence to their own lives.  Silke and me are still here.  She thinks Robin, my wife, is just swell, though I am the one left mostly in charge of her...did I say, "in charge"?  Well, you get the picture.  I do the walks, the feedings, and now, the insulin injections.  Mostly, anyway.  Yes, she has diabetes and has had for the past four years.  The vet gave her a year at most after diagnosing her--if  we gave her the insulin.  I came from a background that was less than sentimental about pets, being descended from farm folk who routinely slaughtered barnyard animals and hunted game.  There were no pets, as such.  Yet, Silke has prevailed even against my notoriously budget-minded ways.  We buy the hideously expensive insulin.  She yet lives.

She has also appeared in a number of my stories.  She has played the protagonist, victim, and villain with equal aplomb.  I get a kick out of working her into my efforts from time to time.  Because the truth be told, her completely uncompromising nature, besides being infuriating, also charms and intrigues me.  Animals have always had this effect on me, and probably a third, or better, of everything I've ever written involves animals and nature in various roles both great and small--by my count, fourteen out of thirty stories.

Sometimes they just provide a bit of atmospheric background, such as the clutch of neighborhood turkey vultures in "The Vengeance of Kali".  In other stories they provide warnings, or are harbingers of something terrible coming--a small dog (possibly a corgi) in "Spooky"; a lizard in "Tap-Tap", while in some they are the victims, as a cat and corgi each in "The Mole" and "Whistle".  But, in the interest of fair-handedness, animals are sometimes the victimizers as well: a cougar and spider in "Natural Causes", a zoo tiger in "Copy Cat", a corgi in "Little Things" and in "The Wisdom Of Serpents"...yep, serpents. 

I didn't start out to write about animals so frequently; it just happened.  In fact, for the first ten years of my taking up the pen, I was unaware that I was doing so.  It was only after I had built up a small body of work that I gradually became cognizant of the recurrent nature of...well, nature, in my stories.

It's not that I write animal stories, as such, it's just that they figure in so often.  I'm not alone in this, oh no; in fact, several Big Shot Writers in the mystery and suspense field have gotten there long before me--E.A. Poe and H.H. Munro of past renown, as well as Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Doug Allyn of more recent note.  I stumble along in the paths of others.  But, I wouldn't be able to exclude wee beasties, and great, even if I wanted to.  They are all around us and figure into our lives though we dwell in suburbs or great cities. 

Just this morning, I was beckoned by a sparrow to open the door to my garage and free her.  This was not an isolated incident.  For some time now, whenever the weather is rough with rain or heavy winds, a sparrow hides herself (or himself) I'll never know which, within our attached garage as we pull the car in.  Come the morning, she begins to sing...loudly.    This is our cue to open the damn garage door and release her from her voluntary confinement.  This is accomplished on a regular basis.  At first, I thought it was just a case of the sparrow having inadvertently entered the garage and become trapped when we shut the door.  But repeated experience has shown me differently.  Is it the same bird, each time?  I will never be sure, but it is always a sparrow.  Additionally, there is no nest in the garage.  And it never happens when the weather is nice.  Also, she never sings while in the garage until daylight comes and the weather has cleared.  Gives the pejorative 'bird-brained' a slightly different slant, doesn't it?  But it does make me think, and whenever I do that I start to have ideas that sometime become stories, and when I write stories I become a happier person.  So, my little sparrow may not be the bluebird of happiness, and my dog may not be Lassie, but they both do me a world of good.


20 February 2012


by Fran Rizer

When I was a young divorcee, there was a very popular singles club where many of us liked to go listen to the live band. A young, fairly good-looking man stood outside the door every Friday night. When I went with a date, he ignored us, but when I went on girls' night out, he propositioned us as we entered.

"Wouldn't one of you like to save some time, skip this place, and just go home and spend the night with me?" he asked.

One night, I stopped and said, "Don't you think you're being ridiculous? Nobody's going to just meet you at the door and go home with you."

The man smiled. "You don't understand," he said. "Girls and women are hardly ever rejected. Men and boys face rejection frequently. I don't bother wasting a whole lot of time and money only to be rejected at closing time." He winked and ended his comment, "This might seem ridiculous to you, but sometimes I get lucky."

As I've interacted with other writers through the years, I've often thought of that man standing at the door, hoping to get lucky without investing time or money. In the world of writing, females are rejected as often as males, and we hope that acceptances are more than just "getting lucky."

Now, I could go two ways with this opening. I might talk about folks who write without investing time to edit and rewrite, then can't understand why their manuscripts are rejected, or I could take this opening in another direction.

The word - R E J E C T I O N - echoes in my mind to the tune of Elvis Presley singing "Suspicion." But, speaking of Elvis (young photo on right), does everyone remember that when he went to Nashville, the big dogs told him, "Go on home to Memphis and back to driving a truck.
You'll never make it."

When a publisher was presented with the Diary of Anne Frank (photo on left), the reader's response was, "a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances, and adolescent emotions." He also thought the characters were unappealing and lacked familiarity. Continuing to justify its rejection, he wrote, "Even if the work had come to light five years ago when the subject was timely, I don't see that there would have been a chance for it." His conclusion was that publishing wouldn't be worthwhile.

Am I the only one who was required to read The Good Earth in high school? The book won a Pulitzer and its author, Pearl S. Buck (photo on right), won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The manuscript was originally rejected because, "Americans aren't interested in anything to do with China."

George Orwell (photo on left) had his novel Animal Farm (1945) rejected because "Nobody will print this. It's impossible to sell animal stories in the United States." This allegorical novella, along with the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four have together sold more copies than any other two books by any twentieth century author. George Orwell was a pen name. His real name was Eric Arthur Blair. BTW, if you like biographies, his life is fascinating.

Many of you are familiar with the fifth-grader who cautioned me that Dr. Seuss was rejected eighteen times before his first book was published. In researching this, I found out Seuss was actually declined twenty-seven times for the first book and additionally turned down for some of his works after becoming successful. I'll save Dr. Seuss for fuller treatment on another day.

Several other Sleuth Sayers have already addressed the subject of rejection, and Rob wrote a fantastic piece about being turned down on February 1, 2012. Why am I writing about rejection? To me, it's personal today. A deal that was almost closed fell apart. I comfort myself with the tales of people who were rejected yet made it bigger than I ever even dreamed.

What will I do now? Exactly what all those others did. I'll just keep on keepin' on. Talent and craftsmanship count, but success requires perseverance as well.

I could go on with stories like these forever, but the night is late and I feel the need to call it a day so this can be posted on time. I entitled this NO NAME BLOG because I couldn't think of a good title. My brief tale about Mick Jagger and his picture to the right have given me the perfect name for this article.

When The Rolling Stones sought a recording contract, they were told they'd never get anywhere with "that ugly lead singer."

Here's Mick illustrating my title: THE LAST LAUGH!

Until we meet again. . .take care of YOU.

19 February 2012

In Black & White

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi

Not long ago I watched a pair of late 1930s films featuring iconic names, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. I know what you're thinking, but you're wrong although one of the movies is monstrously awful. Both turned out to be locked room mysteries.

Mr. Wong Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)

This Karloff film is clever if you forgive a kind of police stereotype and the fact Karloff isn't Chinese, but it tied in with America's on-going fascination with the Orient.

I found myself smiling at a particular 'trope' (for lack of a better word), but discovered the plot hinges upon it. Given that wrinkle, the story turns out to be surprisingly satisfying. If you haven't seen it, it's worth watching.

As much as I like and recommend this film, I'll talk about another with a major failing.

Murder by Television (1935)

Murder by Television In contrast, the Lugosi flick was surprising awful. Bela himself seems resigned to struggling through the movie trying not to tatter his reputation.

What's not to like? It contains everything: corporate intrigue, high tech toys, a musical number, comic moments, and an imbecilic dénouement. Er, but wait, there's more: A half-hearted romantic flame flickers, sputters, and almost dies. Did they forget anything?

Movies in Black & White

The best part of Murder by Television was the cook, Hattie McDaniel, who stole the show with her gentle humor. I heard she sang in this film, though how and why remains a mystery– often films slipped in musical numbers on the flimsiest of excuses.

When I saw no singing, I shrugged it off until I came across a note in IMdb that suggested this particular print may have been intended for America's Deep South and deliberately omitted the scene.
Murder by Television
What a shame. I can't imagine that Miss Hattie singing would have offended Southern sensibilities, so I'm still mystified if she sang in the film and if it was subsequently deleted. If you know details, share them in the comments. Meanwhile, back in the studio…

Television in 1935

A character in the film makes this prediction: "Television is the greatest step forward we have yet made in the preservation of humanity. It will make … a paradise we have always envisioned but never seen."

Presumably they were thinking of Dancing with the Stars and not Jerry Springer or 'rasslin' (which can be synonymous).

In the early years, television was a hot topic in radio enthusiast magazines. Numerous technical contributions from around the world– Russia, France, Mexico, Hungary, Scotland, the UK and US– led to an explosion of television invention in the mid-1920s.

By 1928, General Electric began experimental transmission from two stations in Schenectady and New York City, the figure of Felix the Cat rotating on a turntable. The Great Depression may have devastated the working man, but technical development continued.

Murder by Television was released in 1935 at a moment when the exciting possibilities of TV appeared poised on the threshold. The following year, Germany would broadcast the Olympic games from Berlin and Leipzig and by November, the BBC tele-vising group would begin the world's first public regular 'high definition' transmission from the Alexandra Palace in London.

In that context, the underpinnings of Murder by Television weren't out of place. The value of the props– actual experimental television on loan– was $75,000 for a film budgeted at $35,000. For those familiar with competing technologies, a close look reveals the mechanical rotating aperture that was one thrust of development at the time.

Reel Problem (spoiler)

Professional Tip
First clue when writing a tech thriller: look up interstellar in the dictionary. Hey, I told you the plot was bad!
Most mystery writers go to a great deal of trouble to make the means of crimes realistic. We don't like deus ex machina or too much contrivance and this is where Murder by Television fails.

I won't reveal the howdunit of Mr. Wong, but I'll spare you the drudgery of Murder by Television, not the who, but the how. (Trust me: The movie will gel your mind and you'll forget I told you.) The inventor was murdered by– are you ready– "the interstellar frequency death ray". Verily, I say unto you.

A Noir Treat

From my CB files, I tender this little noir film from the Bristol band Portishead, which perfectly captures the tone and mood of a late 60s spy film. Like many noir films, To Kill a Dead Man is more ambience than logic, but it's satisfying. Fortunately Beth Gibbons doesn't sing until the closing credits, leaving the viewer with a mellow Ipcress File melancholy. Granted she's not so bad here or in Catch the Tear as on other tracks that cause one to wonder why so many bands have their Yoko Ono.

18 February 2012

Night Work

Some quick background info: For the past eleven years, I've taught six night courses every year in the Continuing Education department at Millsaps College here in Jackson, Mississippi. Each course is seven weeks long, and the subject is "Writing and Selling Short Stories." (Actually, there are two different courses. One's intro-level and the other's advanced. The second of my courses has the brilliant and original title "Writing and Selling Short Stories, Part 2.")

Class distinctions

Lest I misrepresent myself, I should explain that I have no formal training that would qualify me to be an instructor on these topics. I was, in earlier episodes of my life story, an Air Force captain and an IBM systems engineer. I am not an English major, I don't have an MFA, and my only journalism experience is that I drew cartoons for my high-school newspaper. What then, you might well ask, steered me to teach courses in writing and selling short stories? The answer is two things: (1) I simply love to talk to other writers about writing, and (2) I've sold a lot of short stories. An added bonus--one I never thought of before agreeing to this "job," long ago--is that it's brought me in contact with some of the most fascinating people I've ever met. At this point I'm three weeks away from finishing up the classes in our winter session, and--as usual--I've been blessed with a number of talented and interesting students.

How interesting? Well, I got to thinking the other day about the several hundred folks who have endured my courses, and what I came up with gives proof to the "from all walks of life" cliche. My students' ages have ranged from fifteen to eighty-six, and their regional and ethnic backgrounds are almost as varied. So are their occupations.

Odd Jobs?

On the remote chance that any of you are interested in this kind of thing, here are some of the day jobs of the writers who have subjected themselves to my instruction in the art (?) of creating and marketing short fiction:

Lawyers -- At least one per class, it seems.
Physicians -- Two dozen or so.
Accountants and engineers -- A LOT of these folks. I have no idea why.
A head chef
A nun
A limo driver
A cartoonist
TV newcasters -- Three of them, so far.
Artists and musicians
Full-time students -- Two in high school, several in college.
Stay-at-home mothers
Police officers -- Plenty of grist for the story mill, in that job.
English professors -- Enough of them to thoroughly intimidate me.
Computer programmers/analysts
Published novelists -- Maybe half a dozen.
Government employees -- Many, many of these. Why? Another mystery.

NOTE: I've never had a career politician as a student, which seems strange since fiction writers are liars by trade. (Not that I'm complaining.)

Things I didn't expect

One fact that's always surprised me is that of the 68 groups of students I've had so far, 66 of them included more women than men, and a few classes were made up entirely of women. Does that mean that there are more female writers, these days? Again, I have no idea. There are almost certainly more female readers.

I was also surprised to discover that the classes are usually equally divided in the following categories: (1) outliners vs. non-outliners and (2) literary writers vs. genre writers. The lit/genre proportions are a little puzzling because, as a nation, we obviously have more readers of genre fiction out there, than (so-called) literary fiction. Of those who are genre writers, though, I've noticed that many are fans of mystery/suspense, which is my first love as well.

Things I expected

Something that doesn't puzzle me is that these adult-education "enrichment" classes are so much fun for the instructor. I think there are two reasons for that. First, the subject taught is usually one that the teacher truly enjoys; second, adult-ed students actually want to be there. Attendance is voluntary, not mandatory. They're even paying to be there. Sometimes that makes a big difference.

I recognize that occasional seminars and workshops and conference sessions are fun to teach as well. But a regular, ongoing, classroom-environment course is especially good--at least for me--in that it always keeps me current and in-touch and busy with the kinds of things I like to do anyhow. It also makes me feel a certain responsibility to try to keep publishing regularly. Students in pilot training need the reassurance that their instructors still remember how to safely and effectively fly the planes, and I think that applies to other kinds of students as well. (Failure on my part, of course, only means rejection letters, not crash landings--but it's still failure.)

Another thing I sort of expected: Nonfiction writers don't seem to find it difficult to make the switch to short stories. Any writing experience helps, whether it's technical journals, legal briefs, self-help columns, or what--and writers who have previously done only nonfiction seem thrilled at the sudden freedom offered by fiction, in both content and style. Their imaginations can run wild. And even the English profs tend to welcome, rather than resist, the chance to occasionally splice commas, fragment sentences, and split infinitives.

Get out of there, Billy--your class is over HERE

The only drawback to this teaching gig is that my classroom happens to be down the hall from a class on belly dancing and another on French wines. Students who have to walk past those open doors (especially when the gyrating and tasting are in process--I'll leave it to you to figure out which group is doing which) are probably often tempted to stop in there rather than continue on to a place where we'll be talking about manuscript formatting and simultaneous submissions and kill fees and dangling modifiers. But continue they do, and I think many of them wind up enjoying this writing stuff as much as I do.

Question: Do any of you teach, or have any of you taught, these kinds of courses? Have you ever enrolled in them? Any insights you might want to offer?

By the way, it just occurred to me that terms like "added bonus" and "continue on" might be redundant. Maybe I should learn to practice what I preach . . .