31 August 2012

Copyedited by Tekno Books

by R.T. Lawton

Last month, I got an e-mail from Larry. Larry was writing to give me Tekno Book's copyedit of my story, "The Delivery," which will be published in MWA's 2013 anthology, The Mystery Box. Attached to his e-mail was a file containing five documents:
1) My story, naturally, with their edits, naturally
2) My bio, with their edits
3) The "front matter" consisting of the story copyright and the Table of Contents
4) A nine page pdf document with step-by-step instructions on how authors should use various forms of Word Track Changes to reply to the copy editor's editing
5) The Style Sheet

I poured a morning cup of coffee and hunked down for a long sit.

First, I read the step-by-step instructions all the way through. This should be a no-brainer for most of you, however some men have an inherent reflex to think they already know how to assemble a project or complete a task without messing with instructions. And yes, I have sometimes had a few extra pieces left over at the end of a project and then had to backtrack to find out where they should have gone the first time. Let's just say I'm learning. This time, as it turns out, I really did know how to do this part.

Next, I read the Style Sheet. This was a new one on me, having never seen one of these animals before. The first section was alphabetized for various words cropping up within the entire book. Words which the copyeditor thought needed to be determined in advance as to which way was the preferred spelling and/or usage according to certain references on the correct writing style. Webster's and The Chicago Manual of Style were references I was at least aware of, but I had never heard of Words Into Type. The rest of this document addressed each individual story and listed words within that story which the copyeditor had evidently researched for correct spelling and/or usage. Fascinating. I didn't truly appreciate this Style Sheet until after reading over the three other documents and seeing how it was applied.

Figuring the "front matter" would be an easy one, I tackled it next. Twenty seconds and there was nothing more for me to do here. No changes.

Okay, time to read the bio. Hey, I've been writing these short blurbs for years and nobody's ever said anything about them so what problems could there possibly be? Whoa! Turns out I capitalized some words I shouldn't have, and whereas it's long been decided there is no longer an 's after Hichcock in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, there is still some discussion as to an 's after Queen in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. These Teckno Book people as serious about getting everything right. Good for them, but now I can't help wondering how they even let me in.

Only document left to read is my copyedited story. Best get a second cup of coffee just in case the document is bleeding red ink. Turns out later, I'm gonna have coffee left over in the cup when I'm finished. Not that I'm good, mind you, but most of their copyedits are for words I didn't hyphenate when they evidently should have been. I know, I'm an anachronism and the world has changed during the last unpteen years, yet I sure don't remember so many hyphens being used for those words in the distant past. Rob's been trying to enlighten me, but that's part of my long learning process before it takes. (You'll probably find some words in this article which should have been hyphenated.)

It merely took a cup-and-a-half of coffee  (I assume those three hyphens belong there) before my copyediting was finished. I only had to make two edit changes on my own, but learned some new stuff from them guys. Hope it sticks. I still like the English spelling of grey instead of gray.
Bottom line: Those Tekno Book people sure make it easy to work with them on copyedit matter. I may have to try this MWA anthology thing again next year.

30 August 2012

My Favorite Characters, Part I

Since I live in a small town and write about a small town, there are some people who claim that they recognize every character as a local.  They're wrong.  Most of my characters - and I assume most of yours, dear readers, as well - are a mixture of people I've met, people I know, people I've seen, people I've read about, people I've invented, and, of course, myself.  Some characters grow on me more than others.  Some I use more than others.  And some I like more than others.

Martha Jane Stark, better known in Laskin, South Dakota, as Matt Stark, is a sixty-something woman with a bad past. The first line I ever wrote about her was that "when she was 16, she ran off with the lion tamer from the circus, and he finally met his match."  The first story I ever wrote with her in it, she had just returned to retire in Laskin, after about a 20 year absence, and got into a huge fight with a former lover.  Since at the time of their affair she'd been in her 40s and he'd been in his late teens, now that she was in her 60s and he was in his 30s, he really didn't want to be reminded of the old days when they couldn't get enough of each other in the back booth of the Norseman's Bar.  Things happened.  I haven't sold that story yet, and I am beginning to suspect that it isn't that good - time to take it out for a rewrite, perhaps.  I figure the world must be ready for a hard living, hard drinking, unrepentant, bad-tempered woman in her 60's:  Think Bogart with sagging breasts...

Today, Matt still drinks, still smokes, still gambles (a bit), but has given up men.  Instead, she sticks with dogs, who she admits she likes better than people.  She is mostly honest, and she is loyal.  She drives her brother Harold - a dyspeptic accountant - absolutely nuts, but then he plays life very safe.  For very good reasons.  He is an accountant, and years ago, their father robbed the Laskin bank, and his mother turned into the town hermit.  Harold's been trying to live down his whole family for years.

My source material for Matt is two-fold.  Calamity Jane (whose name was Martha Jane Canary) is a definite inspiration, but even more than that colorful woman is my Aunt Katt, who never married, loved dogs, and lived wild.  Aunt Katt was the one who, while living in Chicago, woke up late one night to find someone either had killed or was killing her dogs.  Whichever it was, she got up and, dressed only in her nightgown and a hatchet, went out to find the dog-slayer and have vengeance.  I'm not sure what the outcome was, but in our family the story always ended with "and everyone got out of her way."

Matt Stark is one of my favorite characters, because she is who she is.  She is my truth teller:

Matt about the victim in "Death of a Good Man":  "He was the type that leaves everything behind.  Walks away clean.  Or so he thinks."  And of one of the victim's lovers, "Maria can't believe a man loves her unless he sleeps with her."

Matt on two juvenile delinquents she tends for a while in "School Days":  “They’re okay.  They kept stealing stuff at first, but I nailed them on it.  Now they know they can have toilet paper for the asking, they can eat anything I got, and I turn a blind eye when they snitch a smoke.  Anything else, there’s hell to pay.”

Matt when Carl Jacobsen shoots Jack Olson in self-defense in "Rights":  “Look, a lot of people think you got to take sides.  Cause if Carl made a mistake, then Jack’s dead for nothing, and that just pisses everybody off.  And if Carl’s wrong, that messes with being able to defend yourself.  So Jack must’ve done something, because otherwise Carl wouldn’t have shot him, so Jack’s a son of a bitch, and all’s well with the world.” 

I use her sparingly, but I always enjoy it when she shows up, usually having a red beer at the Norseman's Bar, playing euchre at Mellette's, or walking her last remaining dog, Whisper, down the street.  She will do something outrageous, and then she'll say what no one else will.  And order another beer.  And light another cigarette.  And walk her dog.  As long as I'm writing her, she'll never change. 

29 August 2012

Limitation of Statues

I don't know if you have seen this picture of the statue Boston is planning to erect near the birthplace of Edgar Allan Poe.  It appears to show the founder of our field going for a stroll with his giant pet raven.
People have disagreed on the quality of this work.  I won't say more than this: it will never be my favorite statue of a bird in Boston.

But it got me wondering which other mystery authors have statues in their honor.  Frankly, I was surprised at how few I was able to locate.  But take a look:

This is Arthur Conan Doyle in Crowborough, England.  It's surprisingly recent, having been created by David Cornell in 2000.
And here is Dorothy L. Sayers standing opposite her home in Witham.  I like the cat, don't you?

This bust of Agatha Christie stands in her birthplace of Torquay (which I will forever remember as the location of Fawlty Towers).

Here is Georges Simenon as seen in Liege in Belgium.

And below you will find the creator of Father Brown standing proudly in Chesterton Square.  Can you guess what city this piece by David Wanner can be found in?  Would you believe New Orleans?

And now that we have made it to the United States I would like to show you some photos of sculptures of American mystery authors.  Unfortunately I can't because a search of the web turned up no statues or even busts of Hammett, Chandler, Gardner, or Stout.  What likely candidates am I missing?

I suppose creating sculptures of authors may be more of a European thing than an American, but frankly I was expecting to find at least a bust or two created by schools that had been honored with the archives of one or another author.  If anyone knows of some, let me know.

Meanwhile I have a pedestal just my size if anyone is feeling inspired.  And let me close with what has to be the most coveted sculpture of any mystery writer...

28 August 2012

Ellery Queen's Backstory

    Two weeks ago I received one of those emails that everyone at SleuthSayers hopes for when their computer goes “Bing!”  The email was from Janet Hutchings accepting my latest story, Literally Dead, for publication in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

    The time period between a story’s acceptance and its publication – measured in months, usually measured in many, many, months – always reminds me of what it felt like as a child waiting for Christmas.  You know it’s coming and there is great joy in the anticipation.  Part of that also is because at that stage you know you have made it.  You came up with an idea, tinkered with it until you were pretty sure it would work, fleshed out the characters in your mind, drafted, edited, re-edited, circulated it to those around you and finally took a deep breath and sent it off.  And Lo:  It wasn’t rejected.

    When my younger son Colin (one of my tougher critics) read Literally Dead his first observation was that he was surprised at the detail I went into concerning the New England town that is the setting for the story.  Why, he asked, did I explain that the town square was in fact round?   Why did I mention the nearby Mahogany mountain range, or the fact that the next town down the road was Shinn Corners?  And why was it necessary to mention that the statute in the middle of the square (err, the round square) was the town’s founder, Jezreel Wright?  Colin knew that most of my short stories are, in fact, Ellery Queen pastiches.  But Colin (alas, like many of his generation) had not in fact read Queen.  So he did not know about Wrightsville.
Wrightsville -- As depicted on the inside coverplate of Double, Double

   If you have read Ellery Queen you will be very familiar with Wrightsville, the small upstate New York town that was created by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee back in the 1940s to get Ellery out of the city on occasion.  The Wrightsville mysteries begin with Calamity Town, published in 1942, and thereafter the little town with its recurring characters is the focal backdrop for a host of Queen mysteries, all the way through the penultimate Queen novel The Last Woman in his Life, published in 1970.

    During the almost 30 years that we see the town through Ellery’s eyes we watch it change.  Characters come and go; Police Chief Akins retires, only to be replaced by the flinty Anselm Newby, with whom Ellery will spar in “Literally Dead.”  In the Queen retrospective portion of Tragedy of Errors Richard and Stephen Dannay, sons of Frederic, have noted that the town itself was inspired by the poetry of Edgar Lee Masters in Spoon River Anthology.   One episode of the NBC Ellery Queen series was situated in Wrightsville, and Ed Hoch also chose the New England village for his final Ellery Queen pastiche, The Wrightsville Carnival (EQMM September/October 2005).  So I was not the first interloper to return to the town in search of the further adventures of Ellery.

    One of the more difficult tasks in writing an Ellery Queen story is dealing with the backstory that defines Ellery.  In all of the Ellery Queen stories there are virtually no descriptions of Ellery himself.  But boy, there sure is a lot of other background for a writer of pastiches to grapple with.  Some of the Queen backstory is easy – Wrightsville either stays the same or grows along predictable lines.  But Not so Mr. Queen himself.

    The Ellery Queen we first meet in The Roman Hat Mystery, published in 1929, is young, foppish, and at times rather insufferable.  He wears pince-nez glasses, carries a cane, tools around in a Dusenberg, and spouts erudite but hopelessly obscure references from the classics.  We are told by the mysterious “J.J. McC”, who provided the introductions to the early Queen novels, that Ellery eventually retired with his wife and son in Italy.  (By the way, anyone paying careful attention when reading Queen’s Face to Face, published decades later in 1967, can stumble upon the true identity of Mr. J.J. McC!) 

    In any event, all of this early Queen backstory changes abruptly and radically half way through the Queen library.  From the appropriately-named Halfway House, published in 1936, on Ellery, morphs into a young middle age man, and takes on a more vulnerable and likeable character.  He ditches the pince-nez and cane and discovers self-doubt.  The spouse, the son and the idyllic life in Northern Italy disappear like fingerprint dustings in the wind.  So unlike the previous Ellery is this incantation that the late Julian Symons, in his omnibus The Great Detectives, speculates that the Ellery of the second half of the series was in fact the son of the Ellery of the first half, a theory that Frederic Dannay scoffed at when he met with Symons at Dannay’s home in Larchmont, New York.

    In any event, having brought about this phoenix-like change, Ellery proceeds to stay basically exactly the same for the next thirty-five years.  This is true of Ellery’s father, Inspector Richard Queen, as well, who is almost always nearing retirement, but never getting there.  I had to say “almost” and “basically” because there are still rents in the Queen backstory fabric.  Thus, the Inspector does retire in Inspector Queen’s Own Case, published in 1956, the same volume in which he becomes engaged to Jessie Sherwood.  Further confusion ensues, however.  By The Player on the Other Side, published in 1963, the Inspector is not retired, and Jessie is nowhere to be seen.  And then in The House of Brass, published in 1968, Jessie is back, and Richard Queen is (again) retired.  Thereafter in the final books of the series – The Last Woman in his Life, (1970), and A Fine and Private Place, (1971) Richard Queen is back at work and, again, Jessie has disappeared like that pair of pince-nez.

    Which brings us back to Ellery,  As noted, from around 1936 on he is portrayed uniformly, and in fact appears almost not to age at all.  But with one notable exception:  The Finishing Stroke.  That mystery, (probably my favorite Queen novel) was published in 1958, and was reportedly planned as the final Ellery Queen mystery.  The story opens in 1905, jumps to 1929, where we find a slightly re-invented version of the early Ellery, and ends in then present-day 1958, where Ellery is portrayed as a man in his early 50s.  In fact we are explicitly told in The Finishing Stroke that Ellery was born in 1905 (the same year that both Dannay and Lee were born).  But after the careful construction of this backstory in The Finishing Stroke, the rug is again pulled out from under us:  With the exception of And on the Eighth Day, a 1964 throwback novel featuring a young Ellery, complete with his Dusenberg, set in 1942, all of the remaining Ellery Queen novels feature Ellery as a young man, in the year the novels were published. 

    My philosophy in writing pastiches, as I have mentioned before, is the same as the physician’s charge:  “first, do no harm.”  I think that if you are going to attempt to bring back the creation of others you must be as loyal as possible to the original.  But still, with Ellery, as we have seen, there are choices.  An author  attempting to recapture Ellery in a new story has some varying paths that can be followed.  Many Ellery Queen pastiches basically follow the majority of the works of Dannay and Lee and portray Ellery as a young man in a present-day world. This is how Ed Hoch and Jon Breen, for example, chose to portray Ellery in pastiches that they wrote.

The Mad Hatter's Riddle as illustrated in EQMM Sept./Oct. 2009
    Perhaps because The Finishing Stroke is a personal favorite, I have always followed the strictures of its time-line and have therefore set a course different from that of the majority of the Queen mysteries.  Thus, in my Ellery Queen pastiches Ellery has always been born in 1905, and is portrayed in any given time at the correct age.  Ellery therefore was 102 when he solved the mystery of the double murder in The Book Case, and he was 70 when the NBC Ellery Queen series was being filmed and the The Mad Hatter’s Riddle took place.  Ellery’s age is a little more difficult to discern in the upcoming Literally Dead, but those paying close attention should be able to approximate it from at least one clue in the story.

    But, in any event, when you set yourself the task of writing a Queen story this is the type of baggage that comes along with the project.  Some years back Leigh Lundin commented to me that the great thing for about writing new Ellery Queen stories was the fact that the detective came with a pre-packaged backstory.  Perhaps you will understand why my response was laughter.


27 August 2012

What Do You Do?

Jan Grape
Since I have been lazy and unproductive and not feeling like my usual self (and who do you feel like, Jan?) I decided to see if my fellow SleuthSayers will help with this column.

What do you do when you have writer's block. Or you sit down to the computer to work on your latest project and your muse is asleep or your brain is empty or whatever you might happen to call the weird thing that happens to all of us at some time or another?

What Do You Do?

I remember hearing Sue Grafton speak at a conference once and she said sometimes she sits down at her desk, fires up her computer, and sits there and sits there and sits. After a while she types "The." And maybe that's all she types for several minutes, maybe even a hour. But, she has committed to sitting at the computer for four hours each day. And some days she just types nonsense after "The." The quick red fox jumped over the fence… maybe. And somehow words start popping into her head and she starts typing.

So I decided to test Sue's theory, "The…" I sat here for a while and suddenly I began typing. "The man sat down, ordered a drink, talked small talk to the bartender and after a few minutes the man tells the bartender 'I just killed someone.'" Okay, that's pretty good. Who is this man? Who did he kill? Why did he kill? And why would he tell a stranger, the bartender this? Maybe Sue's onto something here? Who knows?

I also looked at a book on my shelf called Break Writer's Block Now! by someone named Jerrold Mundis. I don't know who this person is and have no idea when I bought the book, but it's autographed so I probably bought it at some mystery con I attended years ago. He sorta gives the same idea. After telling you to have a few minutes of meditations or relaxation before you start writing, then sit down and just start writing. He advises to use a pen whereas nowadays we almost all use a computer. But he says just keep the pen moving. It doesn't matter if your words make sense, or what you're writing about. You can write about last night's dinner, or a part of a letter or a journal or just stream of consciousness, whatever. Just keep the pen moving. After a few minutes, finish your sentence and put a period. Then sit back. You have finished this exercise. Now read the next chapter in the book.

Another wonderful book I have it titled Techniques of the Selling Writer, by a man named Dwight V. Swain from Oklahoma. I met Dwight at a writer's conference and later when we had our bookstore, Dwight came to Austin and did a book signing. This book was first published in 1965 and the copy I have is from the 5th printing in 1988, but most of his techniques are as true today as then.
He specifically mentions how as writers, we allow other things in our everyday life take over. The kids, the bills, the spouse, the headache. And one big thing you have to try your best to do is realize there is a creative part of the brain and a critical part of the brain. You have to keep those two apart if possible. Face your fears. Build your self-esteem. Don't demand too much. Again, it's almost the same as others have said.

What are your fears? That no one will like your work? Okay, so maybe no one likes this book, but what about the next one? Is the earth going to shatter if you don't sell this one?

Build yourself esteem. That's often easier said than done. But try to be around people that you like and that like you. Tell jokes and listen to them laugh. Have coffee with people that make you happy. Keep thinking you're a writer and a good writer and soon you'll feel like you are.

Don't demand too much. Accept yourself as you are today. You're an okay writer, but you know if you keep this up for 5 years or 10 years that you'll be a better writer. Don't get frustrated because you're not Sue Grafton or Stephen King. You may not ever be in their category but you still can be a damn good writer if you keep writing.

And finally, my last word. Give yourself permission to write. You may have obligations, family, spouse, job, bills whatever that keeps you busy with that other life but if you intend to keep writing, then give yourself permission to do so and keep writing.

Anyone have ideas, suggestions, thoughts, fellow writers?

26 August 2012

I'm Now …

by Louis Willis

… a Stephen King fan, which I owe to you. I wasn’t a fan before reading that many of you admire his writing. It’s not that I didn’t like his stories, I just never felt compelled to read them. I liked the movies based on his stories. My favorites are The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. My least favorites are The Tommyknockers and The Dreamcatcher. The movies showed his storytelling skills but didn’t persuade me to read the stories. 

I read The Dreamcatcher when it was first published because of the title and the negative reviews. I wondered how anyone could catch dreams. Also, I knew King was a prolific and popular writer who usually received positive reviews, so, I wondered, why the negative ones? After I read the novel, I agreed with the reviewers, it is a bad novel, and the movie didn’t improve the story. 

I decided to read more of his stories because of your admiration. I bought two of his books at random: The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower and Just After Sunset. The third book, Different Seasons, I bought because it contains the story on which The Shawshank Redemption is based

For this post, I read the 13 stories in Just After Sunset. The protagonist in the story titledN,” describes better than I can what King’s stories are like: “Reality is a mystery, … and the everyday texture of things is the cloth we draw over it to mask its brightness and darkness.” 

“N” is the best and most enjoyable story in Just After Sunset. N, an accountant, sees a psychiatrist for his obsessive compulsive disorder after a weird experience he had while taking pictures of rocks in Ackerman’s Field. When he looks with his naked eye, he sees seven rocks and strange shapes, but when he looks through his camera’s viewfinder, there are eight, and things appear normal. The aftermath of the experience causes him to see even numbers as safe, odd as unsafe, and he must make sure there are an even number of objects on tables, etc.. Although he fears whatever he sees or thinks he sees in the field, he returns again and again. No spoiler, so I won’t tell you how it ends, but the end is scary.

“A Very Tight Place,” involving a conflict between two men over a piece of land, proves that you can still enjoy a story even when you foresee the protagonist will escape a trap his enemy has laid. Such a story satisfies the reader’s anticipation. The incident in “A Very Tight Place “ involving the protagonist’s escape from a portable toilet occurs about a third of the way in the story and kept me on the edge of my seat. I knew he would escape – his being trapped was nowhere near the end of the story. Not only did I want to see how he would escape, I wanted to help him. King’s prose is so good that I felt right there in that sweltering, stinky toilet with him.

“The Gingerbread Girl” is the poorest story in the book where implausibility overwhelms credibility. A young woman who lost her child and is thinking of divorcing her husband goes to her father’s cabin in a deserted resort where she encounters a serial killer. To flee his house, (no spoiler here) after escaping from the kitchen chair he'd taped her to, she runs into the bedroom/office with him pursuing close behind, where she bars the door with a chair. She throws an old school desk through a window, wraps a blanket around herself, and jumps out the broken window. In escaping from the chair, she sprained her wrist and lower back. It seems to me that those injuries would have made it rather difficult for her to escape though that window. I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief.

I haven’t decided which book to read next. I am certain of one thing, I shall not read more of the stories on a dark and stormy night.

25 August 2012

Playing Nashville

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I’m in Nashville this weekend. I drove the 900 miles from home in New York City, not to try my luck on Music Row, but to attend Killer Nashville, a mystery conference sponsored by conference founder Clay Stafford’s American Blackguard Film and Television along with Mystery Writers of America’s and Sisters in Crime’s national organizations and local chapters and a roster of bookstores and authors. It’s my second time at Killer Nashville, and the first time was such a grand adventure that I’m thrilled to be back.

I hadn’t yet started recording my own album, Outrageous Older Woman back in 2009. In fact, I had managed to forget both the lyrics and the melodies of the songs I’d written over the years. I spent long stretches of the two-day drive re-learning them by singing along to cassette tapes that I was lucky I managed to unearth in the mountains of stuff in my apartment. Along with the kind of urban folk songs I write myself, I’m a fan of the best of country music. So I’d always wanted to visit Nashville. But I didn’t expect to have the opportunity to perform.

At the awards banquet that year, guest of honor J.A. Jance was presented with a gorgeous black silver-inlaid acoustic guitar. I had to get my hands on that guitar! I’m unlikely to reach guest of honor status as a mystery writer in this life. So I sidled up to Clay Stafford and whispered, “Can I sing a paranormal murder ballad?” To my great pleasure, he said yes, and so did J.A. Jance. So I got to sing “Long Black Veil,” one of the greatest wailers ever. It was written in 1959, and everybody has sung it, including Lefty Frizzell, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, and the Chieftains. I think the fact that I sang surprised all the mystery folks, and the big surprise for me was that I hit the high notes without effort—thanks to those 900 miles singing along in the car.

You could say that the journey to release my Outrageous Older Woman CD started that night. This year, the trunk of my car held a box of my CDs as well as copies of my three mysteries, and all are available in the book room at Killer Nashville. Even better, I got to sing a couple of my own songs at the Sisters in Crime reception on Friday night. None of my songs have murder in them, but they’re about a lot of the issues that provide motives: love, ambition, family, alcoholism, and abuse, among others. I just happen to write about the up side: love, perseverance, family support, recovery, and healing.

I ducked out of the conference for long enough to have lunch with a Nashville songwriter buddy, Mike T. Lewis, yesterday. He and his wife, MaryBeth Zamer, perform as the Twangtown Paramours. The panel I’m participating in comes up this afternoon: “Talk Is Cheap; Effective Dialogue Is Priceless.” Music at the banquet tonight will be provided by special guest and bestselling author Jeffery Deaver’s XO Band. Yes, he’s got an album. In Nashville, that surprises no one.

24 August 2012

Pot, Boiler . . . where'd the "Space" come from??

I mentioned that there sometimes seems to be disagreement concerning the term potboiler -- at least, to me.

Does potboiler have only one meaning, or two meanings?  And, is it a term you want applied to something you write, or not?

Examining several dictionaries, I found similar definitions for the word, each indicating a potboiler is a mediocre or inferior work produced solely for financial gain.  Googling the term, however, took me to an Amazon webpage that described several well-respected mystery/suspense novels as potboilers.

Faced with this conundrum, I did what I often do, when faced with a difficult problem …

I headed for the cigar store.

There, over a period of several shifts, I took a non-scientific straw poll (I hesitate to call it an actual survey), asking customers if they had heard of a potboiler story or novel. And, if they had, what they thought the term  meant.

 Below, are the Polling Questions as respondents saw them on sheets of 8.5 x 11 inch paper:

 Gender: M F (circle one)
 Age: ______
 ( )Smoker  ( )Non-smoker

 I am a:
 ( ) Regular Ford & Haig Tobacconist customer
 ( ) Visitor (out of town)
 ( ) Visitor (live locally)

 On average, I read approximately:
 ( ) One or more books per week
 ( ) One book every two weeks
 ( ) One to two books per month
 ( ) One book every month or two
 ( ) I read books, but not that often.
 ( ) I read magazines and/or newspapers, but don’t usually read books.

 Please check the appropriate response:
( ) I am certain I know the meaning of the term potboiler as it pertains to literature.
( ) I am uncertain of the meaning of the term potboiler as it pertains to literature.

 Please check the appropriate response:
( ) I believe the term potboiler has a negative connotation, in literature.
( ) I believe the term potboiler has a positive connotation in literature.

 Please check the appropriate response:
( ) I would not read a book described as a potboiler on the back cover.
( ) I might read a book described as a potboiler on the back cover.
( ) I would definitely read a book described as a potboiler on the back cover.

 A Potboiler is best described as:
 ( ) A book about cooking.
 ( ) A book written by an author just to make money. It’s not usually very good.
 ( ) A suspense or thriller with great tension, in which the main character is under a lot of pressure.

Is that a TURKEY in the pot???
The Results

I asked dozens of customers, but only 52 were willing to fill out a Polling Sheet. The rest were in too much of a hurry, disliked reading all together, or simply thought I was a loon. (Go figure!)

Of the 52 respondents: 43 were male, 9 female. They ranged in age from 19 to 74 years. 41 of them smoked tobacco, the other 11 being friends of somebody who smoked (hence their presence in a tobacco shop).

Among the respondents, 30 were regular customers of the store, who knew me, while 6 were visiting The Valley of the Sun in July/August -- meaning that one must question their sanity! -- and the remaining 16 were residents but not regular customers of the cigar store.

Two respondents claimed to read at least two books a week. 14 said that they read one to two books a month, 29 said they read about a book every month or two, 5 said they read fewer than one book every two months, and the remaining 2 said they read newspapers or magazines, but not books.

Thus, as can be plainly seen: this survey is in no way random — the respondents all being smokers or friends of smokers, who happened to find their way through the door of the shop where I work. As such, the survey probably bears little real relation to cultural norms across the United States. On the other hand, my friends on the newspaper staff sometimes construct entire articles around similarly flawed surveys. So, let’s follow suit.

Of the 52 respondents, only 11 stated that they were sure of potboiler’s meaning, while 40 confessed to some amount of confusion, and one person initially thought I was asking his opinion about Chinese dumplings. (This person was provided with clarification between the terms Potboiler and Pot Sticker, at which point he confessed to some confusion concerning the term Potboiler.)

Of the 11 who were certain of potboiler’s meaning, 8 felt the connotation was negative, while 3 said potboiler had a positive connotation.

Of the 41 who expressed some doubt concerning potboiler’s meaning, 14 thought the term had a negative connotation, while 31 said they felt potboiler was a positive description of writing. (14 + 31 = 45 This is greater than the total number of respondents who expressed doubt about the meaning, because some respondents marked both answers.)

Of the 11 who were certain of potboiler’s meaning, 8 defined it in terms of a work created solely for profit (dictionary definition), while 3 marked that a potboiler was a suspense or thriller novel with great tension (how Amazon appears to define the term).

All 34 respondents who saw potboiler as positive (3 sure of the meaning + 31 unsure of the meaning), thought the term referred to a work with great tension.

Of the 22 respondents who thought it had a negative connotation (8 sure of the meaning + 14 in doubt), 13 indicated it was a work created solely for profit, while 13 saw it as a work of great tension (5 marked both responses), and one person marked “A book about cooking.”

12 respondents said they would not read a book described as a potboiler, but 31 said they might read such a book, and 9 respondents (over 17 percent!) said they definitely would read one.

Out of 52 respondents, the majority saw potboiler as having a positive connotation  referring to a mystery/suspense or thriller with great tension and an explosive climax. 

 And, 17 percent of respondents indicated they would be highly motivated to buy such a book. (And, like many a contemporary reporter, I’ll ignore the fact that 12 people, or roughly 23 percent of respondents, indicated they would NOT read the book.)

Thus, these numbers -- which in reality are quite meaningless, though I'm pretending they aren’t — would seem to indicate a trending change in perception concerning the phrase potboiler. Today, people’s perception is transforming the word Potboiler into something that hasn’t yet been officially recognized (by the dictionary folks, at least): the idea that a Potboiler isn’t just a negative idea for a work that puts food on the table; it can also be a sought-after high-tension suspense thriller.

One word: two almost diametrically opposed meanings (in the minds of many literati, at least).

 In the words of one respondent (a lawyer), “Maybe we should clarify things by writing it as one word Potboiler when you use it one way, and putting a space between Pot and Boiler when you use it the other.”

Hence the title of my last post:  Pot, Boiler . . . add a Space??

What do you think?  Should we start adding a space (i.e.: pot boiler) when using the term to describe a high-tension thriller or mystery?  And, if we do, can we get this practice to spread??

If that should happen, remember:  You saw it HERE first!  On Sleuth Sayers.

See you in two weeks,


23 August 2012

Time with Art

 by Deborah Elliott-Upton

What's better than spending time with people you admire for their skills? Last week I had a leisurely lunch with a creative group of women. The assortment of talent ran the spectrum of the genres in the writing arena: one was a playwright, one a singer/songwriter, another a novel-length young adult writer, a children's author who handles novels and picture books, a historical fiction writer, a romance writer and me, the lone mystery author. (For some unknown to me reason, although my area in the state is known for its abundance of writers, few choose to write mystery.)

An eclectic gathering, we spoke of our current works in progress. A few won't discuss their work until it is finished, several only with their personal critique group members and a couple said it depended on which work at which specific time.

I am one that falls into the latter choice. At the beginning of  project, I tend to talk more about the basic idea with a few close individuals. This is more my way of seeing if the idea holds attention with the public as much as with me.

At that point, I tend to mull over the details of the plot and allow the characters to come to me with their own viewpoint. They need to talk to me!

Writing after this is usually kept more to myself until I am ready for someone else with a critical and unbiased eye to take a look.

This group -- like so many others in the writing community -- is less about stroking egos and more about supporting other artists in their artistic endeavors. Talking about writing to us is like finding a lifeline in a stormy sea.

Life hands out rejections like election ads during a campaign year: too many seem to bombard us at once. Many ads and rejections are too negative and lean on the nasty side. Negative remarks whether they are meant to received as such or not can bruise talent. I've heard each artist must suffer to find the truth in his work. Maybe. But I don't believe they must be beaten beyond recognition. Spread some of that random kindness around. Compliments are inexpensive and means much to the receiver.

Writers gathering to talk about writing is uplifting. It's good to hear what others are facing in their journey.

I enjoy spending time with people "new" to discovering their talents. Nothing is as contagious as passion.

The young playwright is reading every play she can find and attending avant-garde theatre productions. The singer is performing some new songs at a small town cafe. The young adult writer sings backup in the group. They're also collaborating on new songs together. The historian is finishing her novel and ready to take the next step to find a publisher. The children's author is finishing a six book series. The romance writer is new to writing and is fresh with anticipation. I advised her she is my newest protege and she didn't even laugh. (I like that in a writer!) I'm working on a hush-hush project I'm not ready to talk about to the masses. Soon though.

We laughed as we discussed introverts and extroverts and how even our small grouping was a combination of both. Writers don't come in one size fits all.

By the end of the lunch, we were full -- not just of the delicious food served (our singer is also a caterer -- lucky us!), but also of eagerness to get back to our own writings. Our own genres. Our own art.

Time spent with art and artists is never dull and always so very worthwhile. I think I just may mull on that thought for a few more days.

22 August 2012

The Name Is Familiar

I recently stumbled over a book in our library called WORD PEOPLE, by Nancy Caldwell Sorel.  The first thing you are likely to notice about the book is that the illustrations are by her husband, the great cartoonist  Edward Sorel.

It is a book about eponyms, people whose names became words.  I was intrigued by how many of them are related to crime.  Some of them will probably be familiar to you, others not, so try to guess them before you read the definition.  I’ll start with the easiest.

Joseph Guillotin – He did not invent the world’s fastest haircut machine; he merely popularized it in France just as a whole lot of people were about to get de-lifed..  Dr Guillotin noted that noblemen were executed by sword, while peasants were hung, and suggested that it would be both more egalitarian and more merciful if all convicted criminals were decapitated.  The first guillotine was a bargain at 300 francs, plus another 20 for a bag to catch the head..

Sir Robert Peel -  Founder of the London police force, gave us the word Bobby.

Henry Deringer – Inventer of the banjo.  Just kidding.  His small gun was so popular that fakes were made in lifetime, including French guns called Derringer, a name that seems to have stuck better than his own.

Captain Charles C. Boycott – Agent for English landlords in Ireland.  Irish leader Charles Parnell said of such people “leave him strictly alone!”  People refused to work for Boycott, or even sell him food.  He and his family had to flee.  Interestingly enough, years after the reform laws the Irish had demanded were passed, Boycott returned to Dublin on a visit, where he was recognized and cheered.  People wanted him to know it had been nothing personal.   

Colonel William Lynch.  According to no less an authority than Edgar Allan Poe, the colonel started a vigilante gang in Pittsylvania, Virginia in 1780, thus giving rise to lynch law, and later to the verb.

William Burke – Irishman of Burke and Hare fame, They killed people in Edinburgh in order to sell their bodies to a medical school for autopsies.  To burke is to smother.

E.C. Bentley – This mystery writer’s middle name was Clerihew, the handle he hung on a form of poetry he created: a quatrain about a person, whose name is the first line.  For example:
E.C. Bentley
To put it gently
Earned no disgrace
With Trent’s Last Case

James Granger -  Never heard this one, but it is fascinating.  Granger was a British clergyman with a rather horrible idea.  His Biographical History of England had no illustrations.  Instead the reader was encouraged to buy OTHER books and slice them up to illustrate your copy of his book.  To grangerize means to mutilate one book in order to create another, ie. I personally prefer Monsieur Guillotin’s contribution.

And here’s one that didn’t make Sorel’s book (possibly because the word is trademarked!) but which I use from time to time.  I’ll bet Dale recognizes it, if no one else does:

Frank Shepard – in 1873 he invented Shepard’s Adhesive Annotations, which allowed attorneys to slap changes or revisions to laws and court cases directly on the page that contained them.  Today lawyers still shepardize  cases by checking Shepard’s Citations or competing services to see if legal opinions have been overruled or otherwise altered.

And here are a few more from the book you might not have thought of as eponyms: quisling, mesmerize, cardigan, derby, sideburn, silhouette, and dunce.

21 August 2012

Breakfast On The Boardwalk

by David Dean

Morey's Pier Wildwood, NJ
 Last Monday (July 30), Robin and I started our week by having breakfast on a Ferris wheel.  This simple feat may sound difficult, but the magic of the Jersey Shore and it's signature boardwalks are more than a match for such challenges.  It was not, as you might imagine, the scarfing down of an egg and scrapple wrap (What... You don't know what scrapple is?) while trying to balance a cup of coffee on your knee...oh no.  We had a table with a white linen cloth and a breakfast that had been prepared to order, with actual plates, silverware, and the juice of our choice.  The operators even had the Ferris wheel rotate slowly for our dining pleasure; allowing us to stop near the top and enjoy the view of the great Atlantic on one side, and the bustling boardwalk and streets of Wildwood on the other.  Nature cooperated, as well, and we had a sunny morning with a cool breeze coming off the ocean.  Not a bad way to start your day, I can tell you.  It's moments such as these that make everything seem worthwhile.

There's something about shore towns that are engaging and evocative.  And they run the gamut here in New Jersey, we have everything from the hustle and bustle of such blue-collar destinations as Wildwood and Asbury Park, to the glitz and glamor (of a sort) of Atlantic City and its casinos by the sea, and just about everything else in between.  Looking down from my white linen breakfast, I was impressed with the sheer number of people hitting the boards and the beaches by nine o'clock in the AM.  I worked so many nights as a cop that I had almost forgotten that there is a morning out there.  It sure looked nice this day.
Haunted Freighter
To our north rose a great roller coaster, beneath which squatted a rusting hulk of a haunted freighter, while east of us lay a vast network of pools and slides comprising a water park.  Kids were screaming, splashing, sliding, and having the times of their lives.  If it had been up to them, the park would have opened at dawn and they would have been there since.  It made me nostalgic for my own family's youth and the raising of our children.  It also reminded me of how much all this ebb and flow of humanity at the seaside had influenced my life.  Besides my policing a shore town, my son had been a lifeguard for ten years, and Robin still teaches at an island school.  My first stories were set in a mythical Jersey Shore town, and many still are.  Yet, I grew up in Georgia, two hundred miles from the nearest salt water.  Life has a way of taking you places you never planned on.  It all began with a Jersey girl named Robin...but that's another story altogether.

Today is my birthday, and as you read this I have run away to the sea.  In fact, I am aboard a 43 foot sailing catamaran heading south through the Bahamas to Great Exuma Island.  I bet you didn't see that coming!  The captain has warned me that the Internet is often out-of-reach in these turquoise waters, so I may not be able to respond to comments in any kind of a timely manner, or at all.  I'm sharing the boat with my Jersey girl, Robin, my brother, Danny, and his wife, Wanda.  We are the merry crew of the "StrayCat."  Like I said earlier, life has a way of taking you places...

20 August 2012

She Said WHAT?

Helen Gurley Brown, 1964
by Fran Rizer

A week ago today, Helen Gurley Brown died on August 13, 2012, in New York, at the age of ninety.  Wikepedia describes her as an "American author, publisher, and businesswoman...editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine for thirty-two years."

When Brown took over the magazine in1965, it was rapidly declining.  When she was replaced as editor-in-chief in 1997, Cosmopolitan ranked sixth at newsstand sales and, for the sixteenth straight year, ranked first in sales at bookstores on college campuses.

Numerous articles about Brown appeared last week, and though I read a lot, I won't try to summarize them.  Suffice it to say that among Brown's accomplishments in addition to developing the Cosmo girl image and making the magazine such a success were ten published books as well as winning numerous awards.

Personally, I quit reading Cosmopolitan when I grew old enough that I thought I knew as much about sex as writers of the articles whose lead lines appear in the upper left of each issue's cover--you know, the ones like "How to Please a Man."  Bet you thought I was going to say, "When they quit publishing quality fiction."  The truth is that prior to Brown, the magazine DID publish fiction, but the fiction disappeared when popularity rose.

Brown as successful writer of Sex and the Single Girl
Before taking over Cosmopolitan, Helen Gurley Brown became known worldwide in 1962 when her book Sex and  the Single Girl was published.  She claimed women could have it all--love, sex, and money.  The book was filled with advice, opinions, and anecdotes on why being a single girl didn't mean being a celibate female.  It also was filled with info about "catching" men and even suggested settling for an affair with a married man if necessary. Needless to say, I disagreed with a lot of what she said in the book, but then, I'm not so sure she believed it all herself. One thing is for sure--the book got a lot of attention and sold lots of copies.  Later feminists such as Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer didn't support her philosophy any more than the traditionalists who saw June Cleaver as the ultimate accomplished female.

I remember reading that book, but the main thing I remember is that she recommended using Jello as a substitute for candy.  Five feet, four inches tall, Helen Gurley Brown kept her weight at about a hundred pounds her entire adult life, and one of her recommendations was to make sugar-free Jello using only half the recommended amount of water.  Pour it on a cookie sheet and conjeal.  Cut into small squares and use to satisfy that urge for a sweet bite.  I tried this way back when.   It's a lot like Gummy Bears.

While many young women (and young girls like me who snuck that book to read it) thought Helen Gurley Brown was younger than she was when she wrote Sex and the Single Girl, she was actually forty years old and didn't originate as the slick city woman she had become.  Born in Arkansas, she moved to LA at fifteen, to Georgia for a while, back to LA, and then to New York.  After working at the William Morris Agency, Music Corp of America and Jaffe talent agency, she went to work for Foote, Cone & Belding where her writing skills were recognized and she was moved to copy writing and became one of the nation's highest paid copy writers of the early sixties.

The Middle Years
Some readers assumed that Helen Gurley Brown was single herself and lived a wild life.  Her book titles would support that idea, but she was married over fifty years to David Brown, who produced The Sting, Jaws, Cocoon, Driving Miss Daisy, and other well-known movies before he died in 2010. Married in 1959, he suggested she write Sex  and the Single Girl.  He also wrote those sexually explicit cover lead lines for Cosmopolitan.  More than a decade older than his wife, David Brown was no doubt a strong influence in her success, but she made her own way, and part of that way was marrying successfully.

In her 1982 book  Having It All, Helen Gurley Brown wrote, "I never liked the looks of  the life that was programmed for me--ordinary, hillbilly, and poor--and I repudiated it from the time I was seven years old."  She is credited with numerous quotes, most having to do with sex, money, appearance, and success. 

A few of the better-known lines attributed to Helen Gurley Brown:

What you have to do is work with the raw material you have--namely you.

Never fail to know that if you are doing all the talking, you are boring somebody.

Nearly every glamorous, wealthy, successful career woman you might envy now started out as some kind of schlepp.

Money.  If it does not bring you happiness, it will at least help you be miserable in comfort.

After you're older, two things are more important than any others:  health and money.

My success was based not so much on any great intelligence but on great common sense.

Her most famous, most quoted line sounds a lot like Mae West:

Good girls go to heaven; bad girls go everywhere.

Helen Gurley Brown in her eighties
Into her eighties, Helen Gurley Brown still loved big hair, big jewelery, short skirts, and textured or fishnet stockings.  Not only did she still love them, she still wore them to her office at  Cosmopolitan where she remained a workaholic as international editor until near her death.
Her boldness in following her own style is only one of the reasons I admire her enough to write about her.

The females I most admire are those who knew what they wanted, went after it, and succeeded while creating their own styles along the way.  Among those women are, in addition to Helen Gurley Brown, Dolly Parton, Liz Taylor, and Tina Turner. Their styles, outrageous; their successes, phenomenal.

I may be wrong, but I don't believe Helen Gurley Brown believed everything she promoted.  I think she was a good writer and fine PR person who knew that sex sells and had the talent to sell it.

Rest in Peace, Helen Gurley Brown! You made Cosmo girls out of a lot of mouseburgers.

Please be sure to check here two weeks from now for a very special column from a very special guest writer.

Until we meet again… take care of YOU!

19 August 2012

Florida News– Mermaids, Murder, and Mayhem

by Leigh Lundin

mermaids in Orlando
Mermaids in Orlando © Orlando Sentinel

On the positive side, Orlando's hosting the Mer-Palooza Mermaid Convention. No matter how I try to prevent it or at least ignore it, Florida madness abounds, sometimes funny, often not. So, grab your coffee and let's check the headlines.

No Good Deed…

Hallandale Beach, FL.  You may have heard about the heroic lifeguard, Tomas Lopez, who saved a life and lost his job. His Orlando employer, Jeff Ellis and Associates, fired him for saving a man outside the area he was paid to oversee. When six fellow guards said they'd do the same thing, Ellis fired them too. After bad publicity, Ellis tentatively offered Lopez his minimum wage job back, which he declined.

You can save a life, but you can't save a company without soul.

Which Way the Wind Blows

Miami, FL  In what's called 'mob seduction', an Eastern European criminal ring imported women from former Soviet Bloc countries, making them collude in fleecing men at the notorious Club Tangia. Victims included a weatherman, taken to the tune of $43,712.25.

The memory forecast is dull to partly cloudy.

Amateur Detective (for Real)

Summerfield, FL  I wish I could say this is a light-hearted story– it isn't– but it's one of possible vindication. In 2008, Rodney Stanger murdered his long-time girlfriend, Chrystal Morrison. Her sister, Bonnie Kiernan, finally arrived a few months ago to clean out her sister's things… and believes she uncovered evidence Stanger kidnapped and killed a teen lifeguard twelve years earlier. Now the pros have arrived and among other things, opened a safety deposit box Ms Kiernan uncovered.

Losing a family member is a horrid event, but I hope Bonnie's investigative work helps others.

Shoot First / Stand Your Ground Law

Sanford, FL  SleuthSayers was one of the first sites to report on the Trayvon Martin case, in particular detailing Florida's senseless Stand Your Ground law. George Zimmerman's attorney will appear at a preliminary hearing, seeking to have charges dismissed, arguing Florida law is clearly on their side. After allegedly lying about finances, Zimmerman and his lawyer purportedly plowed through support and defense funds, some apparently raised via neo-Nazi groups, and is now asking the public to pay for his defense.

To recap, the Shoot First / Stand Your Ground law, reviled by police and prosecutors, supplants the castle doctrine, which meant you have a right to defend your home and your person. But the new law sets a far lower, more aggressive standard, which results in approximately a hundred acquittals and dismissals a year, triple what it was. This law allows people to get away with murder by claiming (like Zimmerman) they were afraid.

We mentioned previous incidents including an unprosecuted case of a double homicide of two unarmed men. Since then, Floridians continue happily shooting one another. Read on.
Sanford, FL  A woman in Sanford– the town where Trayvon was shot– invoked the Stand Your Ground law when she killed her husband. She eventually admitted she self-inflicted a knife wound. Her hearing is being conducted by the same judge assigned to the George Zimmerman case.

Cape Coral, FL  A man reportedly shot an unarmed door-to-door salesman, once in the torso and then in the back of the head. Invoking the Stand Your Ground law, he told officers, "I was in fear."

Port St. Joe, FL  When a Florida Panhandle man knocked on the door of another to complain about racial epithets, the resident shot the complainant in the face, then sat down to dinner. He seemed surprised by all the fuss.

Bithlo, FL  Robert Pascale and Michael Garay weren't able to invoke the new law due to a couple of technicalities. First, they claimed their fear was for neighborhood children. Second, they killed the wrong man, thinking he was a sex offender. Pascale doesn't feel remorseful, apparently believing God is on his side.

Pulling Deadly Strings

Largo, FL  The owner of a children's entertainment business called Puppets Plus was arrested, apparently hungry for children… literally. It may have been a close call, but crime students might remember Albert Fish who had a taste for children. It's been suggested Fish became the inspiration for Hannibal Lector.

Setting the Bar Code Low

Lauderhill, FL  A mother had a nice little eBay business that pulled in more than $30,000 a month. The only problem is that she's accused of effectively stealing the products from Target and WalMart by switching UPC labels.

And you thought those greeters weren't paying attention.

Tit for Tat

Fort McCoy, FL  Police tried to stop a speeding Ford pickup that accelerated, precipitating a high-speed chase. It turns out the speeder was a half-naked teaching assistant on the wedded side of married.

Despite an annoyed husband, boyfriend, and employer, she still managed to update her Facebook status saying it ain't so. (Oops, wedding anniversary next month)

The Internet Cloud

West Palm Beach, FL  And now, a peaceful wrap-up more suitable for a pleasant Sunday. Here's a 'fire rainbow' over Florida, not a true rainbow, but an iridescent cloud.

iridescent cloud
© 2012 Ken Rotberg, WPTV