31 May 2012

Trifling Through "Trifles"

The play, "Trifles", is a one act play written by Susan Glaspell based on a true story of the murder of John Hossack. Glaspell was working as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News and covered the case. The wife was accused as the killer and convicted, with the verdict later overturned on appeal. A year following the play, Glaspell used the play's storyline to compose her short story, "A Jury of Her Peers."

Reading this mystery play inspired me to be more observant and look to the little things to make a better assessment of what is really going on in my life and those around me. It is the little things we normally dismiss as irrelevant that accurately tell the true story often hidden beneath the obvious like an extravagant gift beneath wispy and inexpensive tissue papers. It is the little things that happen in our lives that gathered together comprise who we become. How and more importantly why a person chooses to do the things they do are subliminally addressed in this play where it is indeed the little things, the trifles, that count.

The historical setting of "Trifles" engages the reader in a look back at a not-so-distant time when women were supposed to be like children: seen and not heard. A woman's worth was less than a man's in more than wage earnings in these early twentieth century days. She was important as a bearer of children, keeper of the home and to pleasure a man. Other than that, she probably gained some recognition among other women by her homemade jams, quilting expertise and attendance at church, but rarely for her intelligence of reasoning skills. Though smart women surely were in abundance, they were stifled by men who were more physically strong and in charge. By the setting of this story, women had not had opportunity to exercise the right to vote much less be a voice heard in a community unless it dealt with child rearing or recipe collections.

Thinking like Sherlock Holmes in an investigation, it was the women who emerged as the true detectives due to the fact they unearthed the truth of the crime and its motive by seeing what the men could not: the little clues left behind to follow like Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs.

The women also acted as the self-appointed jury by deciding to allow her to get away with the murder, especially since the crime seemed justified to another woman, the men weren't wise enough to pick up on the not-so-hidden clues and a jury of the women's peers would surely not be her own, but a panel of twelve angry men who would more likely view a woman killing her husband as guilty without consideration of the circumstances leading to the crime.

Taking a cue from the men, the women left them to make their own evaluations as the men studied the crime scene in their Barney Fife manner undertaking the homicide analysis enough to formulate what had happened in the household leading to the husband's death. In their arrogance, the men didn't consult with the women on what a woman may have thought or done in such circumstances. Instead, believing themselves smarter than the fairer sex, the men brought the women along only to gather some clothing items for the widow in her jail cell awaiting their investigation report.

Irony runs rampant through the play as the men repeatedly give little relevance to the women and their mentions of the little things they notice in the household. The men overlook the importance of no outside communication via the party line telephone not hooked up to this home because the husband was too cheap to invest in the service even though his wife had once been a very social type whose isolation had robbed her of more than a cheerful song to sing. The dead bird who would sing no more was reminiscent of the new widow who had also been trapped, caged and no longer allowed to sing by a stingy and jealous husband. The men could not see beyond the empty birdcage with a broken door. The half-cleaned table should have been something to note in an otherwise clean household, but the men overlooked its importance.

History shows the strides women have made in being taken seriously for their choices whether they decide to become homemakers, astronauts, detectives or merely portraying ones on television. The true worth of any of us is by how we choose to define ourselves and not what others say we are or should be.

We've come a long way baby, and a lot of that was accomplished by not overlooking the little things in life. Sometimes the little things really are a matter of life or death.

30 May 2012

Flunking the Oral Exam

by Robert Lopresti

Those of you who turn on your computer with trembling hands every Wednesday morning, eagerly awaiting my latest contribution to civilization, will no doubt recall that last week I was rushing to get a piece of fiction into shipshape before a deadline.

Yesterday I decided it was just about perfect, and that it was almost time for me to kiss it goodbye and set it on its merry way.  But first came the final test I give every story: reading it out loud.  It is amazing how often the ear will catch what completely glides past the eye.  This time I decided, on a whim, to keep track of how many corrections I made.

Big mistake.  Would you believe I made 94 changes in my near-perfect manuscript?

Now, to be fair, only a few of them could be called mistakes.  Instead they were exactly the type of infelicities the oral reading is intended to catch.  For example, the same word showing up three times in a paragraph.  Maybe that's a good opportunity to bring in a synonym.  Not errors, just improvements.

But let's talk about the genuine boo-boos, because they amazed me.

* In my last draft I added a sentence about "the awful Iowa waters."  Waters? I thought I had written "winters."
* I wrote "the colors would have magnificent."  
I swear, I noted the missing word "been" at least five times and somehow forgot to add it every time.
*  When my character thinks someone is reaching for his money, "his hands folded reflexively over it."  Which would be fine, but what I ACTUALLY wrote was "folded reflectively..."  
Maybe he had mirrors on his fingers?

What drives me nuts about that last one is that I know for a fact that I wrote it in the first draft, which means it slid past me in at least twenty rereads.  Almost as bad was one I caught a few drafts ago, in which the same character was complaisant about a compliment.  No, dammit.  He was complacent.

I think I need to reread Adrian Room's Dictionary of Confusable Words.

And we won't even discuss the afternoon that shifted from rainy to sunny in the course of one page without anyone commenting on it.  Sigh...

I was so depressed I didn't have the gumption to print the story out for one more read.  But I will.  Sisyphus and I have our stones to roll.  Watch out below!

29 May 2012

It's Alive!

Have you ever noticed that, as an adult, good news always seems to have a catch?  When I was a kid it was very different.  When something good happened, such as getting great presents on my birthday or at Christmas, I never questioned it and didn't have to hold my breath waiting for the dreaded catch.  After all, what more could be asked of me when I had lived up to my end of the bargain?  If I got a birthday present it was because I had survived another year--done!  As for Christmas, well, if I hadn't been good all year, then what were those presents doing under the tree?  Hah!  No take backs, no conditions.  Then I grew up and became a writer.
Writing, as we all know, is a odd profession that begins with a solitary writer pecking away somewhere all on his lonesome.  Then, once his/her muse has been properly summoned and appeased, said writer produces a manuscript.  This creation, upon subsequent readings, suddenly develops a life of its own and has to be wrestled to the ground in order to regain mastery.  This sad contest can go on for days, weeks, even months or years.  Meanwhile, our chastened writer must write anew, repeating the process over and over, thus populating his world with dozens of clanking, questing creations, some of which he may never drive forth into the greater world and readership.  Instead, they occupy dusty corners of his home, and worse, his imagination, occasionally sitting up and looking about in confusion at having been left behind and glaring with hatred at their creator; rattling chains and straining to have at him.  I believe I read once that the talented James Lincoln Warren has succeeded in having every story that he has written published.  And he should have...if you've read his work then you know that he's very good at what he does.  I have not fared quite as well, yet I persist.  And sometimes this persistence pays off...but there's the catch.

A few years back I wrote a horror novel set in southern New Jersey.  I know what you're thinking, "A horror novel?  Have you lost your mind--what do you know about horror...or even novels?"  Not much, I'm thinking, but that has never stopped me in the past, and it didn't this time.  I wrote it and was moderately pleased that I had come up with something fairly unique and readable; maybe even commercially viable.  Even my editorial board (Bridgid, Julian, and Tanya) didn't condemn it outright, but deemed it "entertaining".  I was encouraged by this ringing endorsement. 

Every agent I submitted it to disagreed.  Dozens...actually more than dozens (I don't think it benefits anyone to go into actual numbers), managed to turn down my generous offer of partnership on this merry voyage.  "Fools!" I cried.  "You damned fools...I'm letting you in on the blockbuster of the year and you say...no?"  They did.

Univeral Pictures "Frankenstein" 1931
After a while, I coaxed the monster back into its cell and padlocked it.  For months afterward, I would be awakened in the night by its cries, threats, and laments.  I drank heavily.  At some point, I can't recall when, the cries, which had been growing fainter and fainter, faded away altogether, leaving the house in silence.  I tried to forget.  I wrote and wrote.  There were successes and failures, but the "Novel" as I had come to call it, kept returning to haunt me at odd, unguarded moments.  Finally, one day when Robin was away for the afternoon, I dug the key out of the clutter of my desk drawer and went down there.  I opened the door...I opened the damned door!  It was still there, barely alive; covered with dust and cobwebs, breathing faintly, with a thready, uncertain pulse.  I dragged it out into the light.  And, of course...it all started again!  I made a few rewrites, a different beginning, tightened up a sentence or two.  It groaned and flailed weakly, but was still unable to rise and stand on its own.  What had I been thinking leaving it alone for so long?  I blamed Robin, she had never cared for horror and made no secret of it.  Perhaps her disdain (for now I could see it for what it was), had seeped into my work, poisoned my best efforts.  I found her watching me in unguarded moments; quickly looking away when I caught her at it.  She hated my novel!  I knew it!  She wanted me to put it away again!

But I schemed and plotted and soon I had found a way around both her and the damned agents!  E-publishing!  That's the ticket.  I contacted a reputable firm recommended by MWA to help me prepare my creation for its entry into the virtual world.  I e-mailed my manuscript to their proofreader.  I didn't need any stinkin' agents, or even a publisher.  I'm the publisher now, baby!  I'm my own man!

The firm contacted me a few weeks later.  After having read my novel, they wanted to publish it.

Say what?

Now this really screwed things up.  I had this all figured out; I didn't need anybody!  But as the words of the email sunk in, I began to chuckle, then laugh aloud.  The irony of it all!  And the wonderful feeling of smugness at being backed in my opinion by a perfect stranger.  This, I suddenly realized, was the gift...the perfect gift!

But then I continued reading...there was more--there was a catch.  The publisher deemed that for us to go forward together more work was required.  My manuscript was in desperate need of a good developmental editor.  If at the end of six months it failed to meet his requirements, then all bets were off.  Oh, how skillfully he had thrown out the bait, how cruelly he had set the hook.  How dare he!  More work?  And what the hell is a developmental editor?

So you see, my friends, there is always a catch.  They know us writers...they know what we want and what we'll do to get it.  We want our creations to stand up and walk on their own.  To breath and bellow!  To be allowed to walk in daylight along with all God's creatures.  But "they" always want more work, and then...more and more work! 

So now I have been graciously granted six months to accomplish what he wants, and he calls the shots--I'm just the writer again; little more than a temporary employee sans benefits.  But there's a chance now...just a chance, I admit, that my baby will yet be set free.  And on that glorious day the whole world shall hear me cry, "It's alive...it's alive!"

Universal Pictures "Frankenstein" 1931
By the way, I know that a lot of you have already been down this road and I'd appreciate hearing your experiences, especially about working with editors. 

28 May 2012

A Lesson in Digression

Recent events in my personal life have led to many kindnesses from relatives, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers.  Thinking about this made me consider kindness in literature.  As some of you know, great lines I find in reading tend to earn permanent homes in my digressive mind.

"Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, be kind."  What a great line after an older woman restores a young  man's sense of masculinity by bedding down that virgin.  The closing line's been with me since I first read the play Tea and Sympathy while in seventh grade though not as assigned reading. 

On the left is Deborah Kerr as Laura Reynolds (the older woman) and John Kerr as seventeen-year-old Tom Robinson Lee in the movie produced by Vincente Minnelli in 1956, an adaptation of the 1953 stage play by Robert Anderson.

The plot of Tea and Sympathy created an uproar in the uptight fifties since it dealt not only with an older woman seducing a teenager but included accusations of homosexuality.

During eighth grade, I discovered I could go into school, store my books in my locker, go out the back door, and catch the city bus to the Five Points Theater where they showed old movies of many of the plays I'd read and loved. I caught the city bus back to the school right before dismissal. I spent most of my high school time downtown watching movies at least two days a week.  I was only caught once.  When the principal pulled my records and saw I was a straight A student, he patted me on the hand and said, "Now, Francie, don't do that again." (Kinda like cases when the jury says "guilty," but a judge gives a ridiculously light sentence because it's the first time the defendant's been in trouble.)

Vivien Leigh as Blanche when the man who'd
fallen in love with her reacts to learning that
she's a woman with a past.
I read plays by Eugene O'Neil. Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen and others, (I confess I thought The Iceman Cometh was going to be off-color.) I still enjoy reading plays, but I was (and remain) especially fond of Tennessee Williams's work, and  my favorite Williams play was A Streetcar Named Desire. The movie had been out several years before I first saw it at the Five Points. 

This one included rape and everyone's refusal to believe Blanche's accusations though they accepted the rumor that dismissal from her teaching position was because of sexual misconduct with a student. Blanche's last line, when the authorities come to take her to a mental institution because she "hallucinated" that her sister's husband raped her is,  "Whoever you are, I've always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Personally, I don't depend on the kindness of strangers, but I do appreciate them.

Are you, like me, wondering where I'm headed?  After all, most SS posts have something to do with mysteries or writing.  I seem to be digressing all over the place.

I began this blog thinking of kindness and could be headed toward something I learned long ago:
When it doesn't hurt anyone, sometimes it's better to be kind than right.

Both of the movies I mentioned dealt with older women seducing teenaged students--Laura, the coach's wife in Tea and Sympathy and Blanche who'd lost her teaching job for that offense before the action begins in A Streetcar Named Desire. Heaven knows we can't turn on the news these days without hearing about something similar, but as a retired teacher, this violation of professionalism and, in my opinion, decency, leads me to *&^*(*&^%$$# words, so I'm not going there.

I told you about skipping school and the principal's reaction.  Perhaps I was headed toward telling you my parents' reaction, which wasn't at all like the school's.

My mind is digressive. I've already warned you.  Having a digressive mind means that thoughts jump from one subject to another, frequently straying from the main subject.  In the extreme, it's not easy to even identify the main subject.

What were we talking about?  Reading plays.   How is that related to mystery or writing? Live drama and movies are entertaining, but reading plays is more beneficial to prose writers.  The structure of most plays is acts divided into scenes. Though the structure is there in performances, it's more obvious when a reader is looking at a print form.   Having trouble with plot sequence and pacing?  Think of your story as a three-act play.  It has a beginning, middle, and ending.  Scenes are the smaller parts of each act.  Thinking in those terms also helps in chapter division in longer works unless you're James Patterson.  I like his short, short chapters, an easy task because it's just making each scene a chapter. My last manuscript to my agent was "Pattersonesque."  It's only been a few days, and I'm eager to see his response. 

Now, what else did I want to write?  Danged if I know, so I'll just say

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

27 May 2012

Oh Memory Where Hast Thou Gone

HEADLINE: Computer use plus exercise may reduce age-related memory loss 

A study by researchers at the Mayo Clinic shows that the combination of computer use and moderate physical exercise appears to decrease one's odds of suffering from age-related memory loss.
I wish the Mayo Clinic researchers had included me in their 926-person study. I would have told them their data were suspect because I’ve used a computer for many years, exercised for about a year, and my short term memory has neither improved nor worsened. I don’t fall into the 36 percent cognitively normal or the 18.3 percent that showed signs of MCI (mild cognitive impairment). 

As I have grown older, my short term memory has seemed to gradually disappear. Sometimes the loss has not served me, a reader and sometime writer, very well. In my last post on literature and genre, I forgot to include the URL of the essay to which I referred. My biggest sin in that post was not acknowledging my debt to Janice Law for her article on the subject in Criminal Brief on May 16, 2011. Also Deborah for her January 26, 2012 article in SleuthSayers.

Loss of my short term memory is annoying because it interferes with my reading. Memory is necessary in reading any type of narrative but it is especially important in reading fiction. E. M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel says that fiction demands intelligence and memory. He goes on to say, “unless we remember we cannot understand.” The loss of short term memory can be disastrous in reading mysteries, for if it misses a clue and doesn’t recognize the red herring, the twist, or the surprises enjoyment of the story is also lost.

Thinking about memory and reading, I did what I always do, googled and binged the words “memory” and “reading” to get more information on the relation between them. I learned that two types of memories are involved in reading, and I suppose writing also, short term and working.

A definition: “Working memory refers to the processes that are used to temporarily store, organize and manipulate information. Short-term memory, on the other hand, refers only to the temporary storage of information in memory.” 
I tried wrapping my mind around that definition and concluded that it is a difference that is no difference. It certainly doesn’t help me with the problem of sometimes being unable to remember what I read on page 3 that now connects to what I’m reading on page 10. In my reading experience, I find that I not only must recall information stored in my memory, but also manipulate and organize that information if I’m to participate wholly in the story.

Like a writer whose creative juices have dried up, a reader whose short term memory has deserted him may slip into deep depression if he doesn’t do something to compensate. To compensate, when I’m reading pbooks, I put a pencil check mark near a word, sentence, or metaphor that I think I’ll need to remember later, and then mark the page with a paper clip or post-it. The system works reasonably well for me. Reading ebooks, on the other hand, I’m struggling to find a way to mark what I think I should remember.

The narrator in Stephen King’s short story “The Things They Left Behind” says “Memory always needs a marker....” I suppose it does. My problem is the marker has disappeared taking my short term memory with it.

26 May 2012

A Lady of Many Talents

I first saw Melodie Johnson Howe in the Varsity Theatre in Columbus, Mississippi.  Well, wait a minute, let me clarify that.  I was in the theatre; she wasn't.  She was in the movie.  While I and my goofy college buddies sat there in the dark, wolfing down popcorn and staring goggle-eyed, Melodie was up there on the big screen, smooching with Clint Eastwood.  The film was Coogan's Bluff, back in the late sixties, and I remember it to this day.

Little did I know (nor would I have believed) that years later I would actually meet this actress-turned-writer, and would be one of her colleagues and co-conspirators at the Criminal Brief mystery blog. The four years that I spent dreaming up weekly columns for CB were great fun, and one of the biggest perks was getting to know Melodie and the others in our motley gang--and learning from them.  Very honestly, reading her work has made me a better writer.

Which brings me, finally, to the reason for this column.  Crippen & Landru published a collection this year of some of Melodie's short mystery fiction, called Shooting Hollywood: The Diana Poole Stories.  I just finished reading it, and even though I figured beforehand that I would enjoy it, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

Experience counts

In the book's introduction, Melodie says: "When I was twenty-one I was put under contract to Universal Studios.  I was one of the last starlets; one of the last contract players.  The times were changing and soon the entire studio system would be a free-for-all of lawyers, accountants, and independent production companies … This is the new Hollywood that the actress Diana Poole knows."

The fact that both Diana and her creator "know" Hollywood is one of the things that makes the series so much fun to read.  Diana's always either shooting a movie or auditioning for one, and the stories are packed with insider information about the film industry.  But remember, they're not just about Hollywood.  They're also about crime.  These are delicious and delightful little mysteries, and the resourceful Diana finds betrayal and deceit and dead bodies at every turn.

Shooting Hollywood contains nine Diana Poole stories, eight of which first appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  The ninth, "Dirty Blonde" (the first story in the book and the first Diana story ever) made its debut in the Sisters in Crime 4 anthology.  I think my favorite story in the Poole collection might be "Another Tented Evening," which also appeared in a Criminal Brief anthology--but I enjoyed 'em all.

Other talents

Besides writing shorts, Melodie is the author of a play (The Lady of the House) and two novels (The Mother Shadow and Beauty Dies).  The Mother Shadow was nominated for an Edgar, an Anthony, and an Agatha, and The Lady of the House was produced by the Los Angeles Theatre Center and starred Salome Gens, Nan Martin, and Carol Lockatell.

Breaking news: Melodie just told me that she has finished a new Diana Poole novel, City of Mirrors, and that her agent has sent it out to various publishers.  She also said she's on pins and needles, waiting for one to say "Yes."

Dewey, Thrillum, and Howe

I am of course not the only one who likes her fiction.  According to The Boston Globe, "Howe spins a yarn that is precisely and intelligently paced, with broad and subtle humor, a plot that reminds one of just enough Ross Macdonald to be a compliment to both."  And EQMM says ". . . Howe is one of the genre's best short story writers and novelists."  If there are any of you out there who aren't familiar with Melodie and/or her writing, I hope you'll start reading her.  You won't be disappointed.

A final note: When I first met Melodie face-to-face in Baltimore a few years ago, I was not at all surprised to find that she's just as impressive in person as she is on the page and screen.  Seriously.

Melodie, if you're reading this, I hope to see you again soon--maybe at this year's Bouchercon.  Meanwhile, I'll try to catch you in an old movie or two.  (I found The Ride to Hangman's Tree awhile back on YouTube; Jack Lord looked a little out of place in the Old West, but your song-and-dance numbers made the movie fun to watch.)  And I'm always on the lookout for more of your stories in EQMM.

Keep up the good work.

25 May 2012

Poet Lariat

by R.T. Lawton

For nine years, I rode with the Custer Trail Riders along portions of the route Colonel Custer took on his 1874 mapping expedition through the Black Hills of South Dakota, roughly two years before he rode into history at the Greasy Grass over in Montana. Some historians say he rode for glory, others contend his big ego had him in a state of denial. Either way, the boy appeared to have trouble doing his estimations when it came to math.

Each of our rides brought along a local historian to talk about points of interest, such as the wagon wheel ruts still visible in some spots, or the large stones used by the cooks to bake bread, or the exact places the expedition photographer placed his old tripod to take photos of the landscape and expedition members. Ours was a four day camp with about 150 horses and riders, plus for authenticity, a few members brought along some mules, which usually brayed all night, and if you rode up too close behind them, they would quickly send some rear hooves in your horse's direction. That made for a few impromptu rodeos, which could be amusing as long as it wasn't you sitting on that particular horse.

In Custer's time, there were three types of mules. Some were for riding, some for pack animals and some for pulling wagons. When the muleskinners got up about three in the morning to start sorting out the mules, they had to be able to distinguish in the dark which mule went where. Thus a system had been developed in which each mule's tail was cut in wedges of one, two or three cuts to tell the muleskinner which was a riding mule, etc. The skinner would run his hand down a mule's tail, count the wedges and know whether to saddle him, hitch him to a wagon, or slap a pack on his back. Them boys obviously had more guts and sense of adventure than I do, cuz there's no way I'm running my hand down a mule's rear end in the dead of night. That type of action could definitely lead to a short career with livestock.

Since Custer allegedly didn't have any women along in the expedition (actually, history says there was one black female cook), the organization is restricted to members of the male sex. (That's me on the light grey, Danny in the middle and Eddie standing far right.)

Naturally, being all male means there is a certain amount of horse play (pun intended), rough housing, card playing and liquid libation in camp. Like the time a bunch of us were sitting around a table playing poker and waiting for the cook to ring the triangle for supper, when here comes Danny. He's returning from watering his mare down at the creek. With just a lead rope for reins, he's riding bareback and has a tumbler of Crown Royal in his other hand. Seeing that friend Eddie sitting at the table has his back turned, Danny rides his mare up close so that the mare's wet nose is slobbering all over the back of Eddie's neck. Without turning around, Eddie calmly takes off his cowboy hat with one hand, throws a two dollar bet into the pot with his other, and then quickly slaps the mare across its nose with his cowboy hat. Startled, the mare commences to crow hop. Not wanting to spill his Crown Royal, Danny rides it out one-handed until the mare catches him short with a sudden spin. Danny ends up flat on his back in the tall grass, staring at blue sky. The lead rope is still clutched in one hand and he appears not to have spilled much of his Crown Royal in the other. In recognition of his expert abilities, our poker table crowd gives him a standing ovation. At evening campfires, these were the type of tales that got related in the years to come. To commemorate some of these events, I started writing cowboy poems about particular incidents. Here's one that got published.

For the Rypkema Ranch ride, Dub Vannerman borrowed a horse from Ray Fuss. Ray claimed that his wife rode this horse often and it was quite gentle, but when Dub went to mount, his right boot caught on his slicker tied behing the saddle, at which point he quickly had a rodeo on his hands. This one's for Dub.

GONE TO GROUND (published in the Rapid City Journal, August 5, 2001)

I took that old red roan
and snubbed him to a post,
cuz it was getting kinda hard
to tell who hated who the most.

I blinded up his eyes
with a kerchief from my neck
and cursed myself for paying cash,
shoulda bought him with a check.

I threw the saddle on
and the jughead bit me from behind.
Just tightening up the cinch
took all the strength that I could find.

I stuck my boot into the stirrup
and swung high upon his back,
while he bunched up all his muscles
with all the power he could pack.

I rubbed my glove with rosin,
gripped the saddle with my thighs,
reached down beside his head
and ripped the blindfold off his eyes.

He kicked and bucked and hollered.
I screamed and prayed and cussed.
And when we both were done,
he throwed me in the dust.

Lyin' there spread-eagle,
agreein' man's not meant to fly,
I saw that roan go rearing up
with the devil in his eye.

That's when I lit out a runnin'
and things got really tense,
cuz I was just one step ahead
when I ran right through the fence.

Yessir, that horse was crazy,
tryin' to stomp me into goo,
but when I made it to the house
I knew just what I had to do.

So now Ithink about them dogs and cats
caged up at the county pound
and I know they're happy with the butcher
cuz that old roan has gone to ground.

On later rides, after Alan Platt's paint took him out into the middle of a pond when he was trying to water her and he then had to swim ashore, chaps and all ("The Painted Lady"), and Danny Warren's mare, with hobbles on, broke through the lunch line scattering cowboys up and down the hillside ("The Horse that Came to Lunch"), campfire attendees started requesting these poems to be recited so they could relive past events. It was a rough and tunble, but fun time. The Old West almost lived again.

24 May 2012

Notes from the Penitentiary

     I’ve been offline for the last 8 days, because I was down at the state penitentiary. 
Believe it or not, a postcard from the Sioux Falls State Pen - circa 1910

     Three of those I was helping to facilitate a workshop as part of the Alternatives to Violence Project – for more information about that VERY worthy organization and concept, please see here http://www.avpusa.org/.  We had a good workshop.  Exhausting.  You can’t just stand up there and lecture at inmates, because that isn’t going to work.  Instead, you try to get 18 to 25 inmates fully interested, invested, participating for 8-12 hours a day for 3 days – and that keeps you hopping.
     The other five days I spent doing training for a higher security clearance at the pen and other state correctional facilities.  (The hope is some day to take AVP to the women’s prison in Pierre.)  Anyway, I learned all kinds of stuff at the training.  Not just the routine and the ritual and what’s expected of correctional officers. who were the main cohort of the training.  Believe me, volunteers are not the center of training, and why should they be?
     Actually, the answer to that is, at least up here in South Dakota, is because the prisoners cannot have any AA, NA, AVP, Al-Anon, etc. meetings, church functions (of any religion, from Native pow-wows to Buddhist meditation), or other non-state provided functions without a fully vetted volunteer present.  And, since South Dakota is currently as broke and in debt as any other state, and has cut everything to the bone, about all the prisoners get is GED classes, and a 12 week chemical dependency treatment.  Basically, without volunteers, the prisoners don’t get much of anything. But enough of that rant.
     Anyway, the training was mainly directed at newly hired correctional officers, and after five days of that…  well, I believe that institutionalization can happen on both sides of the cell door, and we’ll leave it at that.  They went over things like the daily routine, various security/safety priorities and procedures, talked about suicide awareness (and hopefully) prevention, about rape prevention (from what I hear, good luck with that one), the endless counts (standing, emergency, and other), what the various inmate shirt colors indicate, and all about con games, including the 14 steps of a set up which begin with observation and end with the sting.  Most of the 14 steps appeared to me to be fairly obvious, but… 
     Among the other tid-bits, and if all of you know all of this already, forgive me:
  1. Never give your full name to an inmate. NOTE:  As a volunteer, my full name is printed out on my ID card along with my photo for all the world to see, so I had a good laugh about that.
  2. Some of the gangs in our prisons are the Mexican Mafia, Sorreno, MS-13, the Bloods and the Crips – although up here these are Native American, not black. 
  3. The question to ask a newly released inmate is are they “flat” (i.e., done their time) or “on paper” (i.e., on parole).
  4. Prison burritos have nothing to do with tortillas.  They’re a mixture of Ramen soup, mayonnaise, chips, refried beans, jalapeno peppers, chili, and other ingredients, mixed up, packed up in wet towels, cooked over whatever heat source the inmates can manage to find.  It’s then cooked up in slices with an ID card or other sharp utensil and sold for $5.00 a slice.
  5. Ramen soups are one of the main inmate currencies, and are worth $5.00 each.  (They get them at commissary at an obviously inflated price and inflate more.)  Why Ramen?  I have no idea.  I always thought the only reason students lived on them was they cost about 10 cents each.
  6. Among the main things every inmate wants are chew (in a tobacco free environment, chew is VERY pricey) and a cell phone.  The prison has dogs that can sniff out both.
  7. Another thing inmates want is drugs.  Now the inmates are given prescribed medications, but they have to take all their meds crushed, in suspension (water, whatever), in front of a nurse.  This doesn’t stop the entrepreneurial inmate from putting a wad of toilet paper in his cheek and sucking all the liquid there, and then later taking that soggy crap out of their mouth, drying it, and selling it to someone desperate for a high.  
  8. One of the main drugs is welbutrin, because the state has a program that gives it away free to people who want to quit smoking.  The inmates can get it (for a while), and inmates get their families to get free welbutrin from the state, and smuggle it in to them.  (How?  Let me count the ways…  as one trainer put it, the first place to search is always the crotch.)  A welbutrin pill goes for serious Ramen inside, and is crushed and snorted for a quick high.  
  9. Our South Dakota prisons are very, very clean.  I mean that.  They don’t smell of dirty socks.  They have inmates cleaning constantly.  There’s a whole group of them called bleachers who go around rubbing bleach on every surface, every handle, every bar.  
  10. A “punk” is someone who’s been/being persuaded/forced to provide sex for…  protection, help, whatever.  
  11. Our South Dakota prisons are crowded, but they’re not full yet.  I already knew this.  As I told a lawyer, years ago, who was telling me about his fresh-from-California client, who wanted a plea bargain for his big lump of cocaine, “Go back and tell him this is South Dakota, and we have room for him in the prison.” Still do. 
Anyway, I passed – we had an exam – which is good.  I have my clearance, which is better.  And I got to go home, which is best of all.  

23 May 2012

Send me in, Coach!

by Robert Lopresti

I am working like blazes on a piece of fiction I hope to finish before a contest deadline, so don't expect a long, well-thought out masterpiece this week (as opposed to every other week, of course).  But the work did bring a subject to mind.

You see, I have run my piece past two of my fellow writers, and that has been an interesting and useful experience.  R.T. Lawton and I have been swapping stories regularly for a few years, and I know my work has benefited from it.  (I hope he feels that his has too.)   Last year James Lincoln Warren asked me to preview his entry in the Black Orchid Novella competition, and, since he won, I am prepared to take all the credit.   Sorry, I meant to say, that since he asked for my help I felt free to request his. 

Both of them offered helpful insights into my story, including:
* typos (no matter how many times Spellcheck and I have gone over the damned thing)
* unclear sentences (one was so difficult  to clarify I wound up having my narrator address the reader directly: "now, hear me out...")
* flashback confusion (this is the one point I am still struggling with... telling the story chronologically will lead to a dull patch.  But REtelling it is complicated.)
* a great big honking plot hole that needed to be fixed.

If and when this thing gets published I will bore you more detail about this.  But right now I am just interested in the coaching experience.

For more than a decade I have been a member of a songwriting group.  Every month we get together, sing new or at least unfinished songs, and let our fellow members have at them.  We always warn newcomers not to make the classic rookie mistake: "I'll bring my best song and wow them!"  Since we are in critical mode we WILL find something wrong with your song.  Otherwise, we aren't helping, are we?  So, we emphasize the need to bring something unfinished.  And the songs do improve, sometimes remarkably so.

Of course, when I send a story to a coach it is as close to finished as I can make it.  I want them to be brutal.  (Hey, the editors won't by the story because of my charming personality.)  And both James and R.T. have been very helpful and constructive.

(But I do have a question for them: how is it that all three of them missed the fact that my character Andrew changed his name to Anthony twice with no explanation?  And Victor, perhaps out of sympathy, decided to become Richard at one point.  Ah well.)

Unfortunately, my dear friends have carried me as far as they can.  Now, alas, my fate all in my hands.  So, why am I wasting time talking to you guys?

But you have a moment to spare you can tell us about your experience with writing groups or partners.  I will try not to critique you. 

22 May 2012

Hell's Bellows

ACCORDION, n. An instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
    Back in March Deborah Elliott-Upton posted an article focusing on attorneys who write detective stories.  Deborah’s column cleverly (Dale wrote, grudgingly) juxtaposed examples of attorney authors with examples of attorney humor.  As the only attorney author on SleuthSayers I couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous over Deborah’s article – sort of like a Southern Baptist dropped into the middle of a senior prom.   But the column did get me to thinking about the wealth of attorney jokes that are out there, and that led me to speculate as to whether there might be another outlet for this comedic enthusiasm, an outlet that could shield, at least at times, the nation’s advocates from these slings and arrows. 

    My creativity in this area was a bit hobbled.  I have this thing about making fun of others – I don’t mind targeting a class of people so long as I am also a member of that class.  Otherwise I get nervous that I am on the wrong side of “nice.”  So my suggested vector away from all of this attorney hilarity needed to be in a direction that would also leave some weight on my own shoulders.

    The answer was obvious.  I am an attorney, but I am also someone who completely fulfills Oscar Wilde’s definition of a gentleman.  “A gentleman,” Wilde wrote, “is someone who knows how to play the accordion but doesn’t.”

    That’s me.  I do,  And I don’t. 

    It took me seven years of training to become a good lawyer – four years of college, followed by three years of law school.  By contrast it took me eight years of training to become a bad accordionist – lessons every Friday from the age of 10 through the age of 18.  What, I often wondered, were my parents thinking?

     If you stand back and contemplate the accordion you can come away awestruck at what a tremendously bad idea the whole thing is.  You can sort of see where they were going with it – the bass buttons on the player's left produce different sounds than the keyboard on the right, so it sort of accompanies itself.  But at what price?  
The Stradella Chord Arrangement Chart  (ARGGHH!)
    Anyone who has actually taken accordion lessons learns very fast that there is absolutely no relation between the progression of the scales on either side of the instrument.  The right hand side follows a standard piano arrangement – the scale, played in “C” simply requires the right hand to move one note at a time down the keyboard.  But the left hand incorporates a completely different arrangement – the Stradella bass system – which requires a completely different route, where the poor left hand has to find and push the correct button (out of the 120 that are over there) without being able to see the buttons and with only three keys out of the 120 that provide any direction at all – one with a curved in top (C) and two others with rhinestone tops (E and A flat).  The result of this is that while the accordionist’s right hand transfers well to the piano, the left hand inexorably goes mad.  Over time it atrophies into a stunted idiot savant capable only of blindly producing “oom pah pahs.”  (I ended up taking two years of piano lessons when I was in my 50s simply to unlearn the demented trails my left hand had come away with from its years of bouncing around blindly amongst those 120 buttons.)

    But I digress.  The take away point is that I am more than willing to make fun of accordions.

    In suggesting accordionists as a substitute butt for lawyer jokes it is a little difficult to precisely follow Deborah’s lead.  Her article cleverly contrasted attorney mystery writers with attorney jokes.  But, present company excepted, it is pretty difficult to find an accordionist who has become a mystery writer – well, at least one who is willing to admit to it.  And it is also difficult to find examples of accordions playing (no pun intended, Leigh!) a prominent part in mystery novels or short stories.  Probably the best example out there is Annie Proulx’s 1996 novel Accordion Crimes, which traces a century of immigrants each of whom at some point owns the same little green accordion.   A more recent example is the short story collaboration by David Crobett and Luis Alberto Urrea, “Who Stole My Monkey?” which chronicles a Texas Odyssey in pursuit of a cherished, haunted accordion. The story is included in Best American Mystery Stories of 2011 edited by Harlan Coben and Otto Penzler.

    But while there is a dearth of accordion mystery stories, accordion jokes, on the other hand, abound.  In fact, in many cases you can take a lawyer joke and simply substitute the word accordionist.  As an example, here is one of the jokes that appeared in Deborah’s previous column: 
If you are stranded on a desert island with Adolph Hitler, Atilla the Hun and a lawyer, and you have a gun with only two bullets, what do you do?
Shoot the lawyer twice.
Or try this one, also from Deborah’s earlier column:
What's the difference between a dead dog in the road and a dead lawyer in the road?
There are skid marks in front of the dog.
See what I mean?  Cut and paste “accordionist” for “lawyer” and the jokes continue to work just fine.  There are, in any event, a wealth of accordion jokes just sitting out there ready to be mined.
  • An accordionist parks his car in a sketchy part of town.  When he has walked several blocks he realizes, in a panic, that he has left the car unlocked and that his prize 120 bass accordion is sitting on the front seat.  He runs back to the car and sees, in horror, that the back door is now standing open.  He approaches his car and peers inside.  Someone has left three additional accordions on the rear seat.
  • How do you make a chain saw sound like an accordion?  Add vibrato.
  • How do you make certain that a song is played in time when you have two accordionists?  Shoot one of them.
  • How do you protect a valuable instrument?  Hide it in an accordion case.
  • How is playing an accordion like throwing a javelin blindfolded?  You don't have to be very good to get people's attention.
  • How many accordions can you fit in a hope chest?   Roughly one hundred if you chop them fine enough.
  • What is the difference between an onion and an accordion?  People cry when they chop up onions.
  • What is the difference between an accordion and a cat?  Only the cost, they both make the same kinds of sounds when you squeeze them.
  • What's the difference between an accordion and a trampoline?  You take your shoes off before you jump up and down on a trampoline.
  • What do a true music lover and an accordionist have in common?  Absolutely nothing.
  • What do you call an accordion player with a pager?   An optimist.
  • What is the range of an accordion?   Twenty yards if you've got a good arm!
  • What is the difference between an accordion player and a terrorist?  Terrorists have sympathizers.
  • What is the definition of perfect pitch?   Closing your eyes, turning your back and throwing an accordion into the bin without touching the sides.
    While the gist of this column has been to offer up an alternative to using lawyers as the butt of all jokes, in the end I return to my dual identity.   As I stated at the outset, I am both a retired attorney and a retired accordionist.  So in that spirit, and as a testament to thick skin, I offer up this final observation.  The lawyer and the accordionist have this one thing, at least, in common:  With each you can expect an audible sigh of relief when the case is finally closed.

21 May 2012

Departure of an alien, and other thoughts

Jan GrapeThe Alien in my house has returned to his home planet, taking the captured female humanoid with him.  She practically lived here with us for the past 2-3 months. No, they didn't get married, but the Greyhound Bus carried them both away this past Wednesday evening. I gave them both a hug and wished them luck in their new adventures.

Some Aliens and some grandmothers probably just weren't meant to live in the same house. Too much age difference.  His music didn't make sense to me and mine was all too country for him.  His constant, "Whaaazzup Nana," grated. All those squawks and beeps and raps from those things stuck in his ears were nerve-wracking. I guess if I'm totally honest, I'm just too ancient to be around aliens anymore. My sense of time and space, right and wrong, good and bad is just not geared for the teen-age male and I was probably too quick to react to warnings of "Danger, danger."

So life at my house is slowly returning to normal, whatever normal means.  A friend once said, "Normal is just a setting on the clothes dryer."  Nick and Nora are now my only and best companions.  They do talk back but "Meow," is fairly easy enough for me to understand.  Food, water, clean litter box and many nice strokes and face rubs keeps them happy.

I am excited to think about getting back to a more organized writing schedule. Something about other people in my house and my brain sometimes had trouble focusing on my work.  Some people write in any situation, but it's always been hard for me to focus when I'm constantly interrupted by  other noises and talking and trying to manage a taxi service.  I know writers who have small urchins who live in their homes and who seem to be able to turn them out and keep to their writing schedule.  I think I could do things like that when I was younger but that's been so many years ago I'm not sure I remember.

I have a feeling that after a few weeks I'll be able write a good story about dealing with aliens in my house and most likely it will be a good story.  Young aliens seem have a particular love of drama. Almost everything they want to see and be and do has to be the most important thought and deed of the day.  They also live only in the moment. I can barely get through a day without a little bit of planning and routine. 

In the meantime, the anthology that I co-edited, MURDER HERE, MURDER THERE is due out any moment.  I actually received author copies in the mail and was able to hold the book in my hand. That's always an awesome experience.  I'm very proud of the work my co-editor, R. Barri Flowers and I did on this anthology.  He and I both feel it's better than the first, although, MURDER PAST, MURDER PRESENT was excellent.  We have nineteen writers, all members of the American Crime Writers League, all award-nominated, and/or award-winning authors.  The stories are actually set from East to West Coast and points in between with some overseas locales thrown in for extra added flavor. Our publisher, Twilight Times, brings out lovely books and our editor/publisher Lida Quillen is a delight to work with. 

Today I attended the Heart of TX Sisters In Crime meeting and our program was by the Barbara Burnet Smith Mentoring Authors Foundation. Barbara was a mystery writer, mother, grandmother, mentor, wife and friend. She authored the Purple Sage mysteries, a short novel and several short stories and had started a second mystery series with a wonderful character whose hobby was beading.  Barbara and her son, WD had loved and traded and played with beads for many years. She was a member of HOT-SinC and was President of Sisters in Crime International, 1999-2000.

Before she was ever published and I only had a couple of short stories published, she, Susan Rogers Cooper, Jeff Abbott and I formed a critique group. Susan and I were the only ones published at the time. Susan had three or four novels to her credit, all in the Milt Kovak mystery series.

After Barb was published she began mentoring other mystery writers, helping to inspire new comers to the field. With this foundation, we honor her each year.  Aspiring writers send a few chapters and an short synopsis to published mentor authors.  I've been mentoring almost every year. Each year W.D. Smith, Barbara's son and the SinC chapter give out the Sage Award, named for Barbara's Purple Sage series. Chosen by a group of writing peers, the foundation honors the mentor chosen and to show appreciation for their mentoring.

Barbara was one of my best friends and I miss her, but am pleased and excited to help mentor new and up-coming mystery writers each year.

20 May 2012


Dixon's stealth article Silence is Golden reminded me of men I grew up around, the last of the naturally rugged. Many came through WW-II one way or another, and more than a handful didn't much like what they'd seen of man's treatment of man while others were determined to do something about it.

The Right Reverend

One of the latter was Reverend Sommers. This kindly man liked working with boys– a phrase that didn't have the taint it does in today's world of paedophilic hysteria. I think he liked getting out of the house– he raised three brilliant, beautiful daughters, Treva, Trilby, and Aloha, and in a house of four females, he may have felt the need to top off the testosterone tank.

Don't let the 'Reverend' fool you. He never committed the sin of evangelizing nor did he let religion get in the way of doing the right thing. Lloyd Sommers was a retired preacher and professional printer– his hands were permanently stained from printers ink– and collected arcane knowledge and odd acquaintances like other guys collect baseball cards. He co-led Boy Scout troop 222, got involved with myriad community projects, and could cook up a fund-raiser on the smell of an oil-rag.

He loved to talk. I don't remember many of his lectures because I was counting fingers. He had the speakers' habit of emphasizing numbers by holding up fingers… except the digits he held up never matched the numbers in his speech. He would say, "You must remember three things…" and he might hold up two fingers or four, but never three.

What does this have to do with Dixon's article on stealth? I'm getting there.

Those Who Know

One of the great assets of Rev. Sommers was the unusual array of people he knew. Most were men, but a few were women. After we boys finished our mile swim and lifeguard training with a beautiful, deeply tanned woman, Sommers asked us to guess how old she was. Fourteen-year-old boys didn't have a clue, but she seemed an ancient 35 or 40. Nope, the lady was in her mid-70s and could out-swim any of us.

But the men… these were men who lived off the grid long before there was a grid or a name for it. They weren't People Magazine people but Argosy with pages from Popular Mechanics. They weren't antisocial, but they preferred their own company.

Some were expert bow hunters. The State of Indiana had (and may still have) a two-week deer season for bow hunters followed by two more weeks for solid-slug shotgun hunters. Bow hunters were so good– remember this was before the compound bow– that bang hunters lobbied for the seasons to be reversed: they claimed bow hunters thinned the herds before they got their shot.

Borderline and sometimes actual hermits, some of these men would go to ground in winter and emerge in spring looking as if they'd hibernated those few months. Some carved birds indistinguishable from Audubon paintings. A few were self-taught machinists who could build engines from scratch. Others collected 'points' and 'birdstones' meaning arrowheads, spear tips, and a type of sling or throwing stone Indians used to bring down birds.

This might be hard for people to understand, but the interesting part wasn't what they did, but what they knew.

Parental Guidance Suggested

I need to add my father to the list of male influence. At 6'4 and 230 pounds of muscle– he once lifted out a tractor stuck in mud– he was gentle with children. Animals trusted him. Women loved him.

A note about my mother: As World War II ended, rationing was still in effect when my parents married. They were farmers, but they refused to cheat. While their fruits and vegetables came straight from the orchard, most farmers and ranchers felt they didn't deserve better than soldiers or city folk.

My newlywed mother struggled to put meals on the table until she remembered her carbine. From time to time, she supplemented rations with squirrel and rabbit, pheasant and quail. Don't mess with my mother.
He had no patience with cruelty or waste– if you hunted, you ate what you killed.

Although he owned a couple of shotguns, he disdained them. He insisted if you couldn't bring a duck down with a rifle instead of a scatter gun, you shouldn't be hunting. After one 'hunter' from the city proudly offered Dad a brace of rabbits he'd nailed with a 20 gauge, Dad drawled, "Thoughtful of you to strip the meat off." Later he muttered, "Gives a whole new meaning to choke."

You've seen movies and television where the hero sets a tin can or bottle on a fencepost for target practice. Not for Dad. He lined up spent .22 shells on a fence post. "That's your target, son. Don't miss."

He didn't 'collect' guns, but he accumulated a few: Spencer and Marlin and Remington and a couple of octagonal barrel antiques. Between Dad and the mentors provided by Rev. Sommers, we learned to disassemble and reassemble Colts, Springfields, and even an M-1… blindfolded. It's not as hard as it sounds, but they felt 'field-stripping' was important to learn.

I'm woefully ignorant when it comes to modern (semi)automatics and frankly the idea of a Glock without a safety scares me. But one day if I meet up with David, Dixon, or RT, perhaps they might teach me the basics.

Shades of Sherlock

I value a comment from a New Yorker who said "Leigh can talk with anyone, banker or biker, Wall Street, Main Street, or Park Avenue." It goes hand-in-hand with a philosophy I do my best to remember, that everyone in some way is my superior.

Back to these quiet men: One was a 'deer stalker'. Squirrels would descend from trees and climb on his shoulders, poking their noses into pockets of his flannel shirt. He was good with animals, but his true art was silent stalking. Through a fringe of trees, he could slip up on an unsuspecting doe and stroke her back or slap the rump of a surprised buck.
A note about animals: In the country and in the wild, people are often obligated to aid injured animals– a fox, a rabbit, a cow in breech-birth. It's surprising how often animals– even wild animals– will trust a human– perhaps a demi-god to them– especially when they're in great pain. It's possible the story of Androcles and the Lion has a factual basis.

Unlike humans, animals given over to trusting a human almost never scream but simply endure. It's amazing to me.

The Indian Brave

I have distant Algonquin blood, as my parents sometimes reminded me usually when it came to braving pain. Physical pain I can tough out– it's emotional pain that's my weakness. In a hospital or on a roller coaster, I can't stand males who scream.

But we kids tried to learn from the handful of old Indians. They called most of us, me included, 'heel walkers'. They meant we clomped through brush like a marching drill team, clapping heel down first. Dixon's article describes how to 'toe' the ground and then rock the rest of the foot into place. The rule is: quick isn't quiet.


I'll add another point to Dixon's article. My sense of smell isn't terrific, but mentors hammered home the point that humans stink. It might be a good scent or a bad stench, but humans emanate body odors like few other animals.

The effect is worse in forest or field, but odor can be a give-away even in an urban setting. A seductive perfume, the manly aftershave, that new 'fresh scent' deodorant can make one's presence known. My ability to smell may be attenuated, but even I can detect cigarette smoke in parts-per-billion.

It's not merely colognes and unwashed bodies. In tense situations, breath turns sour and sweat floods the skin. If terrified, the very frightened may not be able to maintain control over the bladder and bowels. It just happens.

When sexually excited, pheromones change again. How that might be used in a mystery, I don't know, but there you have it.

In the meantime, shhh

19 May 2012

Shooting the Severed Hand

by Elizabeth Zelvin

One of the things I enjoy most about being a mystery writer is the license it gives me to be cheerfully gruesome on occasion. It’s a lot of fun to talk over with fellow literary ghouls (preferably over dinner in a crowded restaurant) what kind of gun will fit into an evening purse or which toxic plants you can grow in your garden and brew up when needed. (Part of the fun is not even hinting you’re talking about fiction.) Researching a mystery isn’t always lively, but it’s invariably informative. After hearing the Poison Lady, Lucy Zahray, wax enthusiastic about arsenic, which she said you could obtain by buying Grant’s ant poison at Walmart for $2.69, I went online (New York may be the only city in America that doesn’t have a Walmart) and found that, at least a couple of years ago, Walmart didn’t sell household chemicals online. I just googled the product again. You can get Grant’s Kills Ants on Amazon, and the product description doesn’t say a word about arsenic. So you’re good to go. Just don’t use your credit card!

My all-time favorite bit of online shopping was the purchase of my severed hand. Before the e-book market exploded, creating a widespread need for authors to design their own covers, I was already creating covers for short stories that had been published without illustration in anthologies and magazines, but which I wanted to give out as chapbooks for promotional purposes.
I needed the hand to execute the bright idea of showing a victim buried under a tangle of Christmas lights for “Death Will Trim Your Tree.” I wasn’t thinking “severed” at the time. I googled “bloody hand,” and after scrolling through book titles and historical arcana, found what I needed among Halloween and theatrical props. Arms were more expensive than hands, and I economize on promotional expenses when I can. So the image came out a little more gruesome than I had originally intended. I love it. Don’t you?

Now I needed to amortize the $6.95 I’d spent on the hand by using it again. In fact, it inspired further bursts of creativity, like the illustration of “Death Will Tank Your Fish.”
I took these photos in my own apartment. But I took the severed hand show on the road when I needed an image for Death Will Extend Your Vacation that I could put on bookmarks months before the book’s publisher was ready to design a cover. So I packed up my hand and my digital camera and took a trip to the beach.

In Chapter One of Death Will Extend Your Vacation, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends find a body on the beach. My first shots were taken at the waterline, where the victim is found in the book. That presented several problems.

First, I had to frame my shot so I got the ocean in the picture without risking a wave washing the hand away.

Second, I didn’t want the footprints of passersby providing unintended clues. Soft sand leaves no footprints, but the damp, hard-packed sand above the low tide mark, while perfect for strolling, is both visible and pristine only for a moment.
I had to tramp along the shore to find a quiet spot, and fascinated rubberneckers kept coming by. I could ask them to stop for a minute while I shot my photo, but I couldn’t spend the whole afternoon shooing people away.

Third, while surf crashing into foam and running up the beach and down again is one of the most beautiful sights in nature, it’s hard to turn into an interesting composition.
So in the end, I took my hand to higher ground, where dunes and spiky grass provided a more dramatic setting. It’s not a literal illustration of the text, but the image works. Even better, it turned out my publisher was willing to use it for the cover of the book.

18 May 2012

Silence is Golden

    I read a best-seller, about a year ago, which I know a lot of people liked.  But, unfortunately I just couldn't make myself believe the premise. The back-story about a world-wide cataclysm didn’t cause me any difficulty, nor was I troubled when I found the plot-line to be a sort of inverted Western (in my opinion, at least). My problem was noise.

    In the book, the protagonist is making his way across an inhospitable, and very quiet, countryside. He carries his belongings in a metal shopping cart, which he pushes down the road as he walks. Sadly, humanity has largely been reduced to practicing cannibalism, in this novel, so there really are people out to get him. Well, in this case, I suppose they’re actually out to eat him.

    What did I not find believable about this scenario?

      The shopping cart. 

    I live about a block from a supermarket. And, I can hear those shopping carts quite clearly, when folks push them out to their cars. Sometimes it’s the squeak, squeak of the little wheels. But, more often, it’s that constant metallic rattle of the cart cage (I guess you’d call it that; the metal cage basket you put the groceries into.). I can hear that rattle a block from the store, even over the thrum of traffic on a major street that runs about four houses away from mine — particularly in the evening, when traffic dies down a bit but the store is still open. I just couldn’t make myself believe that anybody pushing a shopping cart through a land of cannibals would make it farther than a mile or two, before being caught and cooked.

    I mean: Assume you’re a hungry cannibal of the near-future, and you hear the rattle of a shopping cart in the distance. The sound harkens back to the supermarkets you used to shop in, and you shake your head in sorrow because they’ve all been raided, their shelves now barren. Along with those memories come increased hunger pangs. And then you realize: “Wait a minute! Shopping carts don’t move on their own. There’s a person pushing that cart!” And, off you go on a hunger-induced cannibalistic manhunt.

 To my way of thinking, the guy with the shopping cart might as well be ringing a dinner bell.

The Problem is Noise 

    Unfortunately, I all too often run across a similar problem in mysteries. I’ll read a terrific book, or watch a great movie, fully engrossed by the protagonists' struggle to find a way out of their predicament. At some point, they’ll try to turn the tables on their adversary, sneaking up on (or ambushing) him/her/them. And then … in the midst of this Sneaky Pete activity, they start talking, or cracking jokes.  Or, they start doing something else that makes a lot of noise. And my suspension of disbelief comes crashing down.

    Thus, in the interests of literary noise suppression — and following in the wake of a recent spate of lists here on SS — I present my own list. It’s short, and not nearly conclusive.  And, some of the items on it may seem obvious, but perhaps some people haven’t thought about some of them.

Things that make noise, when you want to be quiet: 

1. Car Keys         Keys jingle. They can be heard at least twenty or thirty feet away on a dark night. Before sneaking up on the bad guys, keys should be taken out and left behind, or taped together so they can’t jingle. I used to keep my footlocker keys on my dog tags, which hung around my neck on a GI necklace, but I taped everything together whenever I went into the field. Otherwise, I jingle-jangled when I walked.

2. Talking             I’ve patrolled through jungles, forests, swamps and deserts with eleven other guys. We seldom spoke, usually relying on hand & arm signals. When speaking was absolutely necessary, we whispered — usually with one man putting his mouth up against the other’s ear. This sort of whisper can’t be heard beyond a foot or two. A group of people laughing and joking as they walk up on the bad guy’s lair, is not going to achieve surprise. Or anything else they want. Unless the bad guys are deaf.

3. A Canteen         A full canteen or water bottle usually isn’t much problem, as long as it’s tied down so that it doesn’t flop around. A partially-full canteen makes a lot of noise when a person moves, because the water sloshes around and splashes inside it. One of those round canteens that people sling around their necks or shoulders can be really loud — especially when it’s half-full and the person wearing it is moving quickly. That round canteen will beat against the body, and the water inside will bang around; the result is similar to the beating of a drum.

4. Footsteps           Most authors seem well aware of the noise a snapping twig makes. But flat-bottomed shoes “slap” against pavement. Rubber soled shoes squeak on flat surfaces such as wood or concrete, particularly when someone pivots in-place. Sand or gravel will groan when a foot pivots on it. Thus, it’s usually best to lift one foot when turning the body, then lift and reposition the other foot. Practice walking on quiet nights, and you’ll probably find that the best method to keep noise down, is to place the foot tenderly toes-first on the ground, then “roll” the rest of the foot down. A person can actually walk quite quietly over ground with many sticks and dry leaves, if care is taken in this manner. Particularly in the beginning, silence will be increased as walking speed decreases, giving the stealthy person time to tentatively quest with the toes and seek a firm, relatively noise-free footing on each step.

5. Branches             Pulling two branches apart to look through, seems to be a time-honored activity in some mysteries. So, I’m not about to suggest that a character shouldn’t do this. However, I’d like to suggest that this character maintain constant control of those branches, hanging onto them until they’re back in their original starting places, when s/he backs out of the overwatch position. Manhandling those branches back into place will keep them from snapping back with whiplash force, which can create a loud clack-clack sound that can be heard at some distance. Additionally, smaller branches and leaves, on the branch a person tries to move, are often entwined with other branches and leaves. Consequently, my experience at moving branches, is that — all too often — I wind up making a nearby bush dance a noisy Hula. The suggestion? Move branches sparingly. And slowly, while maintaining constant control.

6. Clothing                 Ever been annoyed by the whip-whup sound of your pant legs, as the fabric whines against itself when you walk? That noise can be pretty loud on a quiet night, but a character can address it easily with duct tape. Two wraps of duct tape around each thigh, and around each calf, will usually hold the material tight enough against the body to eliminate this problem. (That’s “two wraps”, because of the Duct Tape Rule: Duct Tape Sticks to ITSELF!! Two wraps ensure it’s sticking to itself, not just to your character's pants.) Anything on the body that dangles needs to be removed or taped down. (Can't wait to see Velma's comment about that one!)  Dangling earrings can go into pockets. A necklace can be taped, the way I used to tape my dog tags. A purse should be hand-carried, with constant control over any straps. Shoe laces should be tied tight, and any excess should be tucked into the tops of shoes or boots.

7. Hair                        One of my daughter’s teachers had long hair in sort of Corn Rows, with beads on the end of each row. It looked very pretty, but when she turned her head, all the beads clacked against each other. That’s not a problem under most circumstances, but when trying to sneak up on the bad guys, a character with hair beads should probably clump his/her beaded hair together, in fist-sized clumps, well apart, then securely fasten each clump with rubber bands. The character may end up looking like a demented porky pine, but at least he can turn his head without waking the dead — or the bad guys.

8. Gum                        Many people enjoy chewing bubble gum, and popping the bubbles. However, it seems to me that bubble popping is often a nervous habit. And, little can be more nerve-wracking than the final moments before confronting an adversary. If the nervous gum chewer forgets … . Well, one POP! and the element of surprise is forever lost. At which point, huffing and puffing lungs -- in the terror of running for one’s life -- may rebel at the idea of trying to breath in bubble gum.

9. Snapping                  Yes, I’ve occasionally snapped my fingers to get the attention of one of the other guys on my patrol. Yes, stealthy people in movies do it all the time. But . . . the bad guys can hear it too. And, unless they’re stupid, they know what it means.

10. PLEASE . . . don’t let your characters push shopping carts when they’re trying to be stealthy.

 I invite you to add to this list in the comments section if you wish. And, as usual, all remarks will be welcomed.       Smart-a** remarks will be warmly welcomed!

See you in two weeks,