31 March 2013

Surrounded by Bigfoots

In my November 2012 post on Bigfoot, I discussed the upcoming search for the legendary and elusive creature in the Great Smoky Mountains by the team of Bigfoot hunters from the TV program “Finding Bigfoot” on the Animal Planet channel. The episode aired on Sunday, February 24, 2013. Since I’m in bed at 10:00 PM, I DVRed it (okay, made up the word with hope of earning a place in the history of new words coined).

The hunters came to Knoxville because, according to them, East Tennessee has a history of Bigfoots, and Knoxville and the surrounding areas are Bigfoot haven. Bigfoots like the terrain, especially the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains, a quick and easy way for them to travel north and south without coming in contact with “human civilization.”

The lady on the team is the skeptic. The team couldn’t verify that the creature in a picture an interviewee took was Bigfoot because of the blurred image. The skeptic explained that people sometimes see what they want to see, like seeing images in clouds. She had a name for this phenomenon but I couldn’t spell it, so couldn’t look it up.

On the Animal Plant website are two 2-minute videos of the team’s visit to East Tennessee. In the first video, “Peek-a-Boo in Tennessee,” a man claims he woke up in the middle of the night and saw a face looking at him through his bedroom window. He got up, went to the window and made faces at the creature. The creature mimicked his facial expressions and finally walked away. The team skeptic suggested the man was looking at his own reflection and thought he saw the creature. I like her explanation. His claim put him on TV for his 15 minutes of fame.

Apparently, the hunters have never themselves seen a Bigfoot. Their evidence, other than stories from people who claim to have seen one, is the sound of trees falling in the woods. In their first attempt to attract Bigfoot, the team placed several Payday candy bars on a fallen tree trunk. When they returned later, the candy bars were still there. So, they decided to do what they do on every hunt, make weird sounds. On key, everybody stopped making sounds and in the silence they supposedly heard a tree falling. Yippee, Bigfoot responded by knocking down a tree. I didn’t hear the tree fall.

The “Hog Calling” video is my favorite of the two. Since Bigfoots like deer and hog meat, the team employed two of the best hog callers in East Tennessee, a man and a woman. The man did his hog calling thing, and next the woman did her pig calling thing. Again, the hunters heard a tree crashing. More joy, for Bigfoot had knocked down another tree. The hog callers agreed but didn’t seem convinced.

The hunters didn’t go toward the tree crashing sound because it was over a mile away, and they’d have had to cross a ravine and climb a steep hill. How could they tell how far away the sound was? No one said and no one asked.

Farmers in these parts don’t take kindly to creatures stealing their hogs. It’s likely that had a Bigfoot raided a farmer’s hog pen, the farmer wouldn’t have come to the door with a digital camera. No sir, he would have had a shotgun in his hands, and Bigfoot would’ve gotten a taste of buckshot.

What puzzles me is why, if East Tennessee has a history of Bigfoots and there’re so many of them here, didn’t the team ask the Native Americans in Cherokee, NC about Native American legends and possible Bigfoot sightings? The hunt, of course, was on the Tennessee side of the mountains, but the Cherokees lived on both sides before the “Trail of Tears” removed some of them to Oklahoma.

For more information, see Leigh’s November 29, 2012, comment on my Bigfoot post in which he posted the story about a veterinarian claiming to have DNA evidence of Bigfoot’s existence. I leave it to my fellow SleuthSayers using their detective skills to decide if the veterinarian is pulling our legs.

My dog is barking. A Bigfoot may be inviting himself to Easter dinner. If you don’t see my next post, send for the Bigfoot hunters.

Happy Easter!

30 March 2013


by John M. Floyd

Question: What does it take for a movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture? If I were doing the selecting, the main requirement--maybe the only requirement--would be entertainment value. But that is of course not enough; any of us who follow movies know that Best Picture contenders should also have at least some of what we might call "literary" merit. In other words, they should be illuminating as well as entertaining. (Sometimes they apparently only have to be illuminating, period--but I won't go down that road today.)

A requirement for actually winning Best Picture is usually that the film has already, several minutes earlier in the ceremony, also captured the Oscar for Best Director. The two awards often go hand in hand, and only four times--including the Oscar ceremony held earlier this year--has a film won Best Picture when it was not even nominated for Best Director.

And the winner is . . .

What I'm leading up to here is that the other night I finally watched, for the first time, the movie Argo, and saw what all the fuss was about. And let me say right now, I thought it deserved its Best Picture Oscar. In my opinion, Ben Affleck should also have won for Best Director. I have no idea why he wasn't even nominated, but--again--that's a different matter.

Another question. Assuming some of you would agree with me that Argo was a good film, what was it that made it so good? There are many possible answers here: the script, the performances, the cinematography--all of those were extremely well done. But I think its strongest point was its level of suspense. (Which, to me, translates into "entertainment.")

How to do a howdunit

Argo is not a mystery/crime story. It's a story about a plot to rescue a group of embassy staff members from a foreign country, under the very nose of a hostile government, by pretending that they are members of a film crew planning to shoot a fictitious movie. That premise itself was fascinating: Hollywood working undercover with the CIA? But what made the story great was the tension, the anticipation, the fear that these people might be discovered and captured. Failure in this case would have meant certain death--probably death by torture--and there were many, many different ways that what they were attempting could fail. The final twenty minutes of the movie involved some of the best armrest-gripping, sphincter-tightening suspense I've seen in a long time.

Part of this was the old "ticking clock" technique. At one point the escapees were at the airport and their plane was about to leave, and if it left without them they would die. They realized it, and we as viewers realized it. If the ticket agent at the counter couldn't find the reservations that the Washington folks had supposedly made for the group, the hero and all the people he was trying to rescue would die. If the telephone didn't get answered quickly enough in Hollywood when the Iranian security officer phoned the fake number to check the escapees' fake story, they would all die. If any of those being questioned about their phony identities/jobs/backgrounds didn't respond correctly and promptly and convincingly, they would all die.

Adding to this feeling of tension was the fact that we had come to know and understand and sympathize with the characters--especially those in the CIA who were risking everything to try to bring the good guys home. And the familiar setting didn't hurt. Few of us have been to Iran, but all of us have been in airports at one time or another, wondering if we'd make our plane.


Another plus was that the writing was excellent. Here are a few (paraphrased) examples of the dialogue:

CIA guy: There are only bad options. It's about finding the best one.
Official: You don't have a better bad idea than this?
CIA boss: This is the best bad idea we have, sir.

Movie guy: So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot--
CIA guy: Yeah.
Movie guy: --without actually doing anything?
CIA guy: Yeah.
Movie guy: You'll fit right in.

CIA guy: Can you teach somebody to be a director in a day?
Movie guy: You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.

CIA boss: If you want applause, you should've joined the circus.
CIA employee: I thought I did.

Movie guy: Okay, you got six people hiding out in a town of what, four million people, all of whom chant "Death to America" all day. You want to set up a movie in a week. You want to lie to Hollywood, a town where everybody lies for a living. Then you're going to sneak 007 over here into a country that wants CIA blood on their breakfast cereal, and you're going to walk the Brady Bunch out of the most watched city in the world.
CIA guy: Past about a hundred militia at the airport. That's right.
Movie guy: Look, I gotta tell you, we did suicide missions in the army that had better odds than this.

True Lies

One thing surprised me a bit. I was afraid that since this story was based on real events, and since most of the viewers already knew (via either media hype or a good memory) what would eventually happen… that could be a disadvantage. It turned out it wasn't. Prior knowledge of the outcome didn't hurt Titanic, Seabiscuit, The Perfect Storm, or The Day of the Jackal--and it didn't hurt Argo either. What kept it interesting was the storytelling process itself. Even so, it's no small feat for moviemakers to keep an audience properly worried for more than two hours about the ending when the audience already knows the ending.

My point, if there is one to be made, is that we mystery/suspense writers can learn a lot from movies like this. What did the writer and director do to make us care deeply about the characters? How did they make us want so badly for the protagonist to succeed? What did they do to make us so concerned that he might not? How did they manage to tell a humdinger of a suspense story without making it an "action" story?


I can't help mentioning here that for years it seemed that the two Good Will Hunting guys had gone off in separate directions: Matt Damon was making all the right career decisions (Saving Private Ryan, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ocean's Eleven, The Bourne Identity) and Ben Affleck was making all the wrong ones (Reindeer Games, Gigli, Paycheck, Jersey Girl). Then, somewhere along the way, Affleck started doing things like Hollywoodland and Gone Baby Gone and State of Play and The Town. Now, he's widely recognized as one of the best directors and actors around.

In closing, I would rank this movie right up there with other Best Picture "suspense" winners and nominees like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, The Departed, The Green Mile, and The Silence of the Lambs.

My advice: Argo see it.

29 March 2013

April's Fools

by R.T. Lawton

Charlie the 9th
Going back at least as far as the Romans, people have designated a certain day to celebrate fools and foolishness. The Romans called their celebration Hilaria. It's a short step to say this is where the term hilarious came from. Somebody must've had a funny thing happen to them on the way to the Forum and right away, it was party time. Back then, nobody could party like them Romans.

Other festivals celebrating fools can be found in several other countries and cultures, most of which go back for centuries and are obscure as to how or why they started. Not all of these celebrations fall on the exact same day, but it appears that most of humans liked to have a time when seriousness could be set aside and let foolishness reign. Many of these similar celebrations fell about the end of March when the seasons were changing from drab winter weather to the new life of Spring. In other words, people were fed up with cabin fever, they just wanted to go outside and let it all hang out, go a little crazy for a while. Maybe play some humorous tricks on their neighbor, so everyone else could have a few laughs at whoever ended up looking like the Fool.

Greg the 13th
Coincidentally, the new life of Spring was also the start of the calendar new year for most western countries many centuries ago. However, in 1564, after touring his kingdom, King Charles IX of France discovered that different cities under his control celebrated the New Year at different times, anywhere from January 1 to April 1. Preferring a common New Year date for all Frenchmen, 14-year old Charlie added an article to his Edit of Roussillon, which then moved the official start date of the New Year to January 1st. That took care of the Kingdom of France, yet still left their day of fools set at April 1.

Eighteen years later, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian Calendar which was actually invented by an Italian, but Greg liked the new calendar so much that he appended his own name to it. This new calendar also set the New Year date to the 1st of January. Of course Charlie and the French were already there. Not wishing to be seen as out of favor with the church, several European countries quickly signed on for the date change, thus April 1 continued its foolishness by itself.

There was one small problem for the masses. Due to a lack of social networking media at the time, it's possible that Charlie and Greg, being the fun loving guys they were, had played the largest April Fool's joke the Western World had seen. Since few people could read and there were no televisions, radios, e-mail systems or telephones with which to communicate the date change to the unwashed masses, naturally the educated elite got the word first. In this manner, the "smart ones" knew which day to celebrate the New Year, while the "fools" were left still welcoming in the New Year on April Fool's Day, three months behind the times. Chuck and Greg sure did like their laughs. If the Romans had still been around, they'd probably have gotten a kick out of them two guys.

For some more modern day Top 100 April Fool's jokes or hoaxes, go to: http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/aprilfool/

28 March 2013

A Piece Missing

by Eve Fisher

  • "I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.  Some you can see, misshapen and horrible...  And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born?  ...As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience." ...  "A man who loses his arms in an accident has a great struggle to adjust himself to the lack, but one born without arms suffers only from people who find him strange. Having never had arms, he cannot miss them. To a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must be even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.”           John Steinbeck, Chapter 8, "East of Eden"

This is a description of Cathy in Steinbeck's "East of Eden", which is imho one of the best portraits of a sociopath that's ever been written.  And it's easy (once you have experience) to recognize her from without (much of the time, but we've all been fooled) but, as he points out, what about from within?  Yes, we can figure out ways to recognize the problems, the missing pieces in others - but for us...  how can we tell?  Something is left out, and we will never know it until we're surrounded by people who have it.  And even when we recognize that we're missing something, we still might not "get it":  can a completely color-blind person really grasp Franz Marc's "Blue Horses"?  Can a completely deaf person really understand why I weep uncontrollably at "Un bel di"?

File:Franz Marc 005.jpg

Now years ago, when I first read "East of Eden", I knew that Cathy was a true portrait, and that there are moral monsters.  But I also realized that there must be a whole range of possibilities, from the truly monstrous to the relatively minor.  I came to believe that, just as almost no one is born physically perfect and flawless, so almost no one is born morally, spiritually perfect and flawless.  We are all born with at least one piece missing, and our only hope is that it isn't a big one, and it is just one, and if not, that there aren't too many missing pieces. And I started to look around me, wondering, what's missing from him?  From her?  From them?  And, eventually, from myself?

The most obvious thing to me missing from me is a sense of home, of place, of rootedness.  Now I don't know if this is a missing piece, or something that was burned out of me when I was a child. I was born in Karditsa, Greece, to an unmarried teenaged mother who hoped the father would marry her.  He was rich, she was poor, it was (then) a small town, it was the 1950's, and there was no way in God's sweet green earth that he would ever marry her.  Instead, after a year of negotiations, (in which I am sure some money changed hands...) my father took me down to Athens, where he put me in an orphanage.  Move #1.  Within six months, it had been arranged for me to be adopted to a Greek-American couple in Alexandria, Virginia, but even back in the 1950's adoptions took a while, so I was put in a foster home for the duration.  Move #2.  A year later, the formalities completed, I was put on a plane, by myself, in Athens, with a note and a charm against the evil eye pinned to my dress, and shipped over to my parents in Alexandria.  (Side note:  doesn't that sum up a paradigm shift in treating children between the 1950's and today?)  Move #3. My parents and I lived in Alexandria for three years, and then we moved to southern California.  Move #4. 

Now each time, I was moved from everything and everyone I'd ever known, and I'm not whining, but I'm sure that has to be at least part of the reasons I don't get attached to places.  Or perhaps I was born that way, and all those moves just added to it...   It wasn't that noticeable in the cities I've lived in, where most people are wanderers, and we all share in our own version of "the unbearable lightness of being."  I didn't even realize it until I moved first down South, and then out here to South Dakota, where people are rooted in the land, and it strikes them as a bit odd that I don't seem to miss any place I've ever been.  I tell them what is true:  I save my attachments for people.  And for books.  And for music.  I look at all the people around me, rooted in their homes, their farms, their ranches, who cannot even think of moving, and I cannot grasp it, because that's a piece I'm missing.

And here comes the other side of it.  I don't really care, other than as observation.  I'm perfectly happy traveling, moving, living here, living there...  Which I think is normal for abnormality.  I'm not sure we care about any piece we're missing, for a variety of reasons.  So what if people claim to have pleasures, or abilities, or visions that we will never have?  They might be lying.  They might be wrong.  They might be self-deluded.  And does it matter?  We've done just fine as we are.  Perhaps better than they are.  What does it matter?

Unless you're a writer, in which case, it's fascinating to think that each of us occupies our own worlds.  I'll never forget when I first grasped that what I call orange and you call blue may actually be the same color, and we'll never know it because we cannot truly express what we see.  Or hear, taste, feel, experience...  All we have is words, and words are assigned so young that we never ask, well, what do they describe?

Years ago, I taught a creative writing class at a community center, and the first exercise I did was to ask each person to write down the image they saw in their head when I said a word.  "Apple."  And then I had everyone read aloud the image.  Red apples, green apples, golden delicious, Apple logo, Apple Records, Boone's Farm Apple Wine (it was a long time ago), almost everyone had seen a different image.  And then we wonder why it's so hard to communicate what we want to say, whether in poetry or prose.  What if I said "disappointment"?  "Joy"?  "Beauty"?  "Desire"?  No wonder Flaubert used to roll around on the floor for three days in agony, looking for the right word.  But he had a piece missing, too…

27 March 2013

Left Coast Crime 2013

Left Coast Crime is an annual conference that gathers together writers, fans, agents, and editors, and runs for three-and-a-half days, with interviews and panels, and awards among other prizes the Rocky, for best mystery by a writer in the West---or west of the Mississippi. This year it was held in Colorado Springs.
LCC logo

I drove up from Santa Fe, not on the interstate but on Route 285, a road a friend of mine told me is called The Shotgun, because it runs straight as a bullet from Espanola up to Alamosa, just across the Colorado border, where you bump smack into the Rockies. It was a great ride, through wide-open ranch country, grazing beeves and horses, and lots of wildlife, pronghorn, mule deer, wild turkeys, and I even spotted a small herd of elk.

I got there Wednesday afternoon, and met up with Deborah Coonts, author of the Lucky O'Toole novels, and Chuck Greaves, nominated for a Rocky for his book HUSH MONEY. Deb took us out for dinner at the Broadmoor, a resort hotel dating back to the 19th century. Good time, good company.

The conference and the panels started Thursday, but we played hooky. Along with Chuck Rosenberg, who's written a legal thriller called DEATH ON A HIGH FLOOR, Deb got us out of the hotel to drive up to the Garden of the Gods, a spectacular geological formation with Pike's Peak looming in the background at 14,000 feet. Then through Manitou Springs, and a short detour into the canyons. (I should mention that these three writers happen to be lawyers, for what it's worth, but Chuck Rosenberg is the only one with a still-active practice.
Pike's Peak from Garden of the Gods

Okay, enough of that. You want to hear about the trade show, and who was there. Among others, Margaret Coel, Ann Parker, Linda Joffe Hull, Manny Ramos, and Janet Rudolph---I'm leaving a lot of people out, go to the LCC website for the complete list, along with a couple of lesser lights, Craig Johnson and Laura Lippman.

There were of course some conflicts with the panels and workshops, i.e., you had to triage when two things you wanted to see were scheduled opposite each other. So it happens. There was a really interesting discussion, to me, about social commentary or politics in mysteries, or in fiction, generally, whether it's the financial crash, or poisoning the environment, or Mormon polygamy, or the drug war in Mexico, or whatever. The consensus was to tread lightly, one of the guys mentioning Samuel Goldwyn's quote, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." Another cool one was about the anti-hero, and during the Q&A, one of the questions from the audience was whether you could have a female anti-hero, the guys on the panel all men, to which the moderator, Simon Wood, popped right back with Charlie Fox (this is a shameless plug on my part for Zoe Sharp, of course). Then we had one on humor, that Deb Coonts moderated. Chuck Greaves, Rochelle Staab (a later winner of the Watson, for best sidekick), Brad Parks (winner of the Lefty, for best comic mystery), and Harley Jane Kozak. Deb wasn't able to moderate them much: a very funny and good-natured bunch who stepped on each other's laugh lines without apology.

Deb's panel

Deb's posse, by the by, had now grown in include Sally Anne Rosenberg, Chuck's wife, Paul Levine and his girlfriend Marcia Silvers (another pair of ambulance-chasers), as well as Rochelle. We had lunch Friday with Beth Groundwater, one of the other Rocky nominees, and Thomas Perry, somebody I've been queer for ever since he published THE BUTCHER'S BOY, thirty years ago. A very genuine and gracious guy, in no way full of himself.

Deb's posse

Saturday morning led off with a panel about writing other cultures, Margaret Coel and Craig Johnson in the mix. Murder in Hollywood, both the movies and the town itself, Harley Jane and Paul Levine among the participants. After the lunch break, Twist Phelan interviewing Laura Lippman, an utter hoot. Then a legal thrillers panel, Chuck Rosenberg, who was the script consultant on L.A. LAW, as well as other shows, holding his own. I got to moderate a panel myself, with Tom Perry and Mark Sullivan, both of them big guns in their own right, but talking about the collaborations with, respectively, Clive Cussler and James Patterson. The most interesting thing they said was that in spite of the many books they've each written on their own, working with those other guys was very much a learning experience. Old dogs, new tricks. The final panel I looked in was the Rocky nominees.
Rockies - Craig, Darrell James, Beth, Chuck, Margaret

At the awards banquet, there was the added suspense of Lou Diamond Phillips being among the missing. A winter storm had blown in, a real whiteout, closing the interstate south, and Lou had been sitting on the tarmac in Albuquerque since seven in the morning, waiting for clearance for take-off. In the end, he made it, about eight o'clock that night, to a standing ovation for being such a mensch. He interviewed Craig, finally, long after both their usual bedtimes.
Robert Taylor, Craig J, LDP - LONGMIRE wrap party, Santa Fe

Sunday morning was the finish line. I did get to see one last, and also very funny, panel, moderated by Catriona McPherson (who'd won the Bruce Alexander memorial award for best historical), about first breaking into the business. By this point, most of us were running on fumes. This kind of rodeo is, to put it gently, an endurance contest.

My takeaway? Well worth the trip. I'd have to say, though, it wasn't so much the big-ticket events, as the stuff that kind of fell through the cracks. My time with Deb and her gang, first and foremost. My lunch with Tom Perry. All-too-brief conversations with Clark Lohr, about place, and mining disasters, and with Leo Maloney, a former black ops guy who hails from the Boston area, so it was cool to hear that home-grown accent again, and not least, a chance encounter with our own R.T. Lawton, at the last minute. In other words---a nod to the lawyerly crew I hung with---it was all about the sidebars.

26 March 2013


                                          “I’m your number one fan.”

                                                     Stephen King 

    Last week The Washington Post ran an obituary of Ruth Ann Steinhagen.  Time can wrap layers of obscurity around events, and it is doubtful that many readers who first spotted that obituary actually remembered who Ruth Ann Steinhagen was, or what happened during her fifteen minutes of fame, on June 14, 1949.

    From when she was just 11 years old Ruth Ann was transfixed by a young Chicago Cubs player, Eddie Waitkus.  Waitkus was something to watch –  his defensive abilities at first base were among the best in baseball, and his offensive skills were increasing every year.  After finishing the 1948 season with a .295 batting average Waitkus, likely at the top of his game, was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.

    Unbeknownst to Waitkus, Ruth Ann was watching his every move.  She attended many games in which he played, she began watching for him on the streets of Chicago.  She mourned that trade to Philly.  And slowly her fan interest turned into an obsession.  Ruth Ann established a shrine in her house, an area cluttered with pictures of Waitkus and other memorabilia, including canceled baseball tickets.  Learning that Waitkus was of Lithuanian descent Ruth Ann attempted to master Lithuanian, even going so far as to call in to late night Lithuanian radio talk shows, posing questions in her halting second language.  She became obsessed with the number 36, which Waitkus wore on his team jersey.  She began setting an empty place at the dinner table for her hero.  As her obsession grew, her parents, with whom she lived, became increasingly uneasy, eventually sending their daughter to a psychiatrist.  It didn’t help.  Ruth Ann began papering the ceiling of her bedroom with pictures of Waitkus.  Soon she quit her job as a typist so that she could devote more time to following Waitkus and tracking his career.

    On June 14, 1949 the Phillies traveled to Chicago to play Waitkus’ former team, the Cubs.  Ruth Ann, who was then 19 and still lived with her parents in Chicago, packed a suitcase full of Eddie Waitkus memorabilia, including pictures and canceled baseball tickets, and then checked in to the nearby Edgewater Hotel, where the Phillies were staying.  She left the following note for Eddie Waitkus on the door of his room:
Mr. Waitkus–
It's extremely important that I see you as soon as possible
We're not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about I think it would be to your advantage to let me explain to you
I realize this is a little out of the ordinary, but as I said, it's rather important
Please, come soon. I won't take up much of your time, I promise

Ruth Ann Steinhagen in prison, with a photo of Eddie Waitkus
The note was signed “Ruth Ann Burns.”

    Eddie, who had been dating a woman named “Ruth” while on the road, thinking the note must be from her, showed up at Ruth Ann Steinhagen’s room.  She invited him in, excused herself for a minute, and then came back into the room carrying a 22 gauge rifle she had purchased the week before.  According to the Associated Press Steinhagen then said “If I can’t have you no one can.”  The Chicago Tribune, by contrast, reported in a 2001 story that Steinhagen yelled at Waitkus, who she had never previously met, “you’re not going to bother me anymore.”  What is clear is that she then shot the Phillies' first base man in the chest, and that the bullet lodged just below Waitkus’ heart.

    Ruth Ann Steinhagen immediately called the front desk of the hotel to report the shooting, and was cradling Waitkus’ head when medics arrived a few minutes later.  Ironically, her speed in reporting her own crime likely saved Eddie Waitkus’ life.  He survived six operations, a grueling rehab and returned to the field in 1950. 

    Eddie Waitkus did not press charges, but Ruth Ann Steinhagen was nevertheless arrested, tried on the charge of attempted murder, and was found innocent by reason of insanity.  According to police reports her justification for shooting Eddie Waitkus was simply that she was “infatuated with him” and “wanted to feel the thrill of murdering him.”  After three years of electric shock treatments Ruth Ann was declared sane and released.  She returned to live with her parents, and then with her sister after their death.  

    The story of Ruth Ann Steinhagen is interesting not only for its intrinsic drama, but  more widely because it reportedly was one of the very first publicized instances of a  “stalker crime.”  Although the shooting of Eddie Waitkus would be illegal under any jurisprudential system, the stalking events that precede the violent act in such crimes have proven difficult to prosecute on their own, prior to the violence, since they often constitute, on their face, a series of otherwise innocent activities.  What is wrong with collecting pictures of someone you idolize?  What is wrong with saying hello to them on the street?  What is wrong with watching them at the ballpark (or stagedoor) exit?  The difficulty in defining a crime in stalking circumstances is that to do so requires an analysis not of random events, each innocent standing alone,  but rather of a congeries of events that collectively point to an obsession that threatens others.

   Stalking is now a Federal crime under the terms of the Violence Against Women Act, a fact not without irony in the context of today's article.  In support of the passage of the law, researchers Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes reported that 8% of all U.S. women and 2% of all U.S. men at some point will be the victims of a stalker.  We need not look very far to find evidence of this.  There are many other analogs to Ruth Ann Steihagen’s story, and they run the gamut – the woman who repeatedly broke into David Letterman’s house, at one end of the spectrum; the murder of John Lennon by his “fan” Mark David Chapman at the other.

    An obsessional crime perpetrated by an otherwise “adoring” fan provides the backbone of Stephen King’s Misery, quoted above. But there is an even more direct example of a novel inspired by the Steinhagen stalking crime and its aftermath.  The story of Ruth Ann Steihagen and Eddie Waitkus was the direct inspiration for the 1952 baseball novel The Natural by Bernard Malamud, which was made into the 1984 movie of the same name starring Robert Redford.

The story differs from reality in that the central character in Malamud’s novel was poised on the edge of greatness when he was shot, and in the arc of the story returns from near death to claim that greatness (although more so in the movie version than the book).  While Waitkus had just completed a personal-best season when he was shot, and while he returned to baseball in 1950, winning the Associate  Press award for best comeback player, he was not The Natural.  As Sports Illustrated recently concluded in an article prompted by Steinhagen’s death:
The timing of that peak season might prompt one to wonder if the shooting did dash his promise on the diamond, but, . . .  Waitkus was already past peak age by then. Malamud built his now-iconic character around what was by far the most interesting thing about Waitkus’s career, the shooting, but the similarities between fact and fiction ended with the last reverberation of that gunshot.
Eddie Waitkus played professional baseball through the 1955 season, after which he retired.  During that time, and following his retirement, he reportedly battled post-traumatic stress disorder related to the shooting, but re-gained his health and ended his days coaching little league with the Ted Williams baseball camp.  He died in 1972. 

    His assailant, who never came face to face with him again, lived on.  As is often the case, the tides of time slowly washed away from the beach the footprints of this 1949 cause célèbre.  Even Ruth Ann Steinhagen’s obsession proved ephemeral, fading as she aged.  Over the years she reportedly led a reclusive life, shunning all interviews.  Few today remember Eddie Waitkus; fewer still remember Ruth Ann Steinhagen. 

   Although her obituary appeared nationwide last week, prompting several retrospective articles, she in fact died at the end of December, shortly after her 83rd birthday.  Apparently no one even noticed until last week.

25 March 2013

SleuthSayers, SleuthSayers

by Robert Lopresti

In today's advanced poetry class we are going to deviate from our continuing examination of post-Plutarchian limericks and contemplate, instead, the form of verse known as the double dactyl, or higgledy piggledy.   It is so rigidly structured that it makes a Shakespearean sonnet look like free verse, and so devoid of meaning that it makes a knock-knock joke look like bomb disposal instructions.

A double dactyl has eight lines; most of which consist of two dactyl feet (LONG-short-short, LONG-short-short).  LInes four and eight consist of one choriamb (LONG-short-short-LONG).  The first line is always nonsense.  The second is a proper name.  The sixth is a single word.  And the fourth and eighth lines rhyme.  Easy-peasy, no?

To make it more of a challenge each of the examples I created below relate to mystery fiction. I encourage you to put your own contributions in the comments. Unless... you're chicken.

Higglety Pigglety
President Kennedy
Told a reporter he
Liked to read Bond.
007 gained
Boosted by Camelot's
Magical wand.

Higglety Pigglety
Gilbert K. Chesterton,
Raised as an Anglican
Under the crown,
Made a conversion most
After inventing that
Clergyman, Brown.

Higglety Pigglety
Sitt Hakim Peabody
Solved all Elizabeth
Peters' wild schemes,
Murders and mysteries
Aided by Emerson,
Man of her dreams.

Higglety Pigglety
Michael Z. Lewin writes
Books about you,
Starring a private eye,
One Albert Samson, un-
Lucky but true.

24 March 2013

The Dame Herself

Susan Isaacs
by Susan Isaacs,
    introduced by Leigh Lundin
I've long realized I read more women mystery writers than I do male writers, especially British authors. To make my favorites list, an author must meet either of two demands: Either the novelist must plot a puzzle as keenly as Arthur Conan Doyle or craft characterization so well we come to know and enjoy the characters.

Ellis Peters and Dorothy Sayers could do both, as well as the light of my life, Lindsey Davis. The mystery plots of Elizabeth Peters and Janet Evanovich are thinner than a felon's underwear, but they create the most amazing characters. Indeed, women consistently hold the edge over men in characterization, although a master like John Lutz certainly holds his own.

When it comes to SleuthSayers' own authors, I've read virtually everything Fran's written including works in progress. I do love Callie and Jane. I've been reading Jan's short stories, which shine with her wit and sharp eye.
Compromising Positions

I recently read my first story by Elizabeth, and I confess I enjoyed her humor and clever asides that tickle an awake and aware reader. And Janice's recent novel is underpinned by her cloaked intelligence and knack of observation.

Quality and quantity: Without women writers, the body of crime literature would be a small fraction of its size. Without women writers, our genre would be far less rich. The best list of female mystery writers I've stumbled across comes from Christchurch, New Zealand City Library, although it contains one stunning omission, New Zealand's own Queen of Crime, Ngaio Marsh, but perhaps their librarians considered she'd be taken for granted.

Returning to Agatha Christie, she's not merely the premier British author, she's most people's favorite, so much so that some readers like Yoshinori Todo study her with passion. Through Emma Pulitzer, we have a guest article from Susan Isaacs about Agatha. Susan’s most recent bestseller is Compromising Positions and she is currently at work on her next book, a mystery.

— Leigh

A Note on Racism

To understand if not defend Christie's use of the infamous n-word in a title, a reader must understand British Victorian and Edwardian use is not the same as current North American use, and sadly many Americans once used the word out of ignorance rather than racial hatred. That said, many British of the time regarded themselves with superiority, that any citizen of the Empire was a cut above anyone elsewhere in the rest of the world. Indeed, they thought of those outside the sophisticated sphere of Europe as savages. I recall an English tale in which an important American ate without fork or spoon, using only a huge knife to stab his food at a formal dinner.
Agatha Christie

But words that tripped casually off the white man's tongue and may have started out innocently enough have become verboten in today's world: The N-word in North America, the K-word in South Africa, the S-word in Germany, and the H-word amongst the Dutch. Sometimes people project or misconstrue: I heard a white person insist the words Oriental and Negro were just as offensive. That would be much more convincing should an Asian or person of color make that claim. In the most recent census, thousands wrote in those very words. People may innocently use words without intending offense, but it's incumbent upon everyone to be sensitive to what wounds and demeans.

Perhaps Agatha didn't intend offense. The absence of evidence is not evidence– we don't truly know. Like Yoshinori and Louis Willis have opined, I give Christie the benefit of the doubt. As our guest points out, one should focus on her writing. And now, Susan Isaacs.

The Dame Herself: Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie
God knows my admiration for Agatha Christie is not based on her character development. Her recurring protagonists, Jane Marple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, Hercule Poirot, et al, are only slightly less thin than the paper they’re written on.

And I despise her biases. Frankly, I’d like to punch her in the snoot for the offhand anti-Semitism and racism she displays, especially in her earlier books. (And Then There Were None’s original title was Ten Little Niggers.)

But while I wouldn’t take tea with her, were she still around, I must acknowledge her virtuosity in plotting. Murder on the Orient Express has been read, filmed, and imitated so many times it now seems old hat. Yet she not only provides that gratifying narrative rush, but also shocking endings. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd broke one of the cardinal rules of the genre—a twist ending and a major no-no for any pedestrian writer. But Christie, with genius and hard work, pulled off that cheat with a brilliant casual audacity.

Her play The Mousetrap also twisted the standard rules of the whodunit forms: gasps, applause, stellar reviews. It’s been running steadily on the London stage since 1952. Her astonishing plotting made The Witness for the Prosecution a winner as a short story, play, film (should be #1 on your must-see list), and TV play.

So boo-hiss for Christie’s prejudice and many of her protagonists’ utter lack of depth. But yay for her skill in making a story not only hurtle along, but end with a big bang.

23 March 2013

A Paradigm Shift in the Collective Unconscious

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I never understood the term “paradigm shift” until everything started changing, and I got it: a change in the general culture that’s so massive that nothing is ever the same. I don’t have to spell out the paradigm shift we’re going through today: the explosion of technology—and its miniaturization, which I consider its least anticipated aspect—that has made mysteries and even science fiction of the 1980s and 1990s utterly outdated. New inventions in both communication and transportation have changed everything about how we connect with one another on our shrinking planet.

For my parents, born shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, it was World War I. When they were born, there were no airplanes and few automobiles. People functioned without radios or telephones in the home. As those of us who love British mysteries and historical novels know, before the War, the hierarchical class structure separating Upstairs from Downstairs was intact. After the War, it started to crumble, and after World War II, it had essentially vanished.

For the generation just ahead of mine, the watershed was World War II and plastics. My ex-sister-in-law, twelve years older than I, was a teacher, and for some reason I have a vivid memory of her telling about a conversation with her class about the world before plastics. “What were picnic forks made of?”
“What were raincoats made of?”
What were pens made of?”
“What did people wrap things in?”

It’s odd what memory latches onto: I remember my son, now in his early forties, telling me about a new development called the World Wide Web. “It’s going to revolutionize how people use computers,” he said, and so it did. A couple of years before the ubiquitous cell phone appeared on the streets of New York, I remember an online mental health professional colleague saying on an e-list, “The last two revolutions in the Philippines couldn’t have been conducted without cell phones.”

Until quite recently, as, once again, British novels bear witness, educated people had a cultural common ground based on literature that they could draw upon and refer to in a reasonable expectation of being understood. Everybody who read had read Shakespeare and Alice in Wonderland. Lord Peter Wimsey could quote from either, and we knew what he was talking about. We had even read Homer, if not in the original like Lord Peter (when I went to college, the Iliad and the Odyssey were required reading in Humanities 1), and could field a reference to Achilles or the Trojan War with ease. In contrast, I remember a conversation with a fourteen-year-old cousin in 2004 or so about the movie Troy, which reduced that epic conflict from ten years to three days and took many liberties with the plot. “Have you read the book?” she asked.

Nowadays, not only have our culture’s reading habits changed dramatically, but there’s too much to read. Politics have decreased the attention in the school curriculum that was once paid to “dead white males” like Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll. This is not all bad. I would have loved to be made to study Little Women or The Help instead of Silas Marner and Giants In the Earth, the two most stultifyingly boring novels I can remember being assigned in school.

As the fact that a billion people worldwide watched the Oscars this year attests, movies occupy the space in the collective unconscious that used to belong to books. Movies provide the material by which we communicate through common points of reference. Most people know The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind and The Godfather from the movies they became, rather than the books they were based on. Instead of “To be or not to be, that is the question,” “My kingdom for a horse,” “I can believe six impossible things before breakfast,” or “It was the best butter,” we all resonate with “We’re not in Kansas any more,” “Tomorrow is another day,” and “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” How many people nowadays know that Dorothy originally had silver shoes, not ruby slippers? Some of us have read the books. But the reason everybody knows these references with all their implications is that we’ve seen the movies.

22 March 2013

Theory on the Origin of the Muse

(or: Character/Idea Generation Eccentricities Pt. II) 
Terpsichore (a muse), marble, John Walsh 1771 


About five weeks ago, Louis Willis posted an article concerning character development and the impact it has on a writer’s sanity. In the Comments section of that post, I cited earlier comments made by Fran, Elizabeth and R.T., and explained that my system of character creation/development was sort of a “rough hybrid” of certain ideas they had espoused.

Inspired by Louis’ post, I wrote my own post (2 weeks ago), in which I explained how I sometimes incorporate daydreaming and play into my methodology for character development. This post partially clarified what I meant in my own comments on Louis’ post. And, I mentioned something Fran had written, in her comments about Louis’s post, to hopefully help facilitate my explanation.

Today, I will expand that explanation by noting how some comments made by Elizabeth illustrate ideas that sometimes figure into the “primordial stew” of my character development. Additionally, I’d like to touch on the importance of “non-daydream dreaming” -- as I believe it factors into the equation.

(I’d like to take a moment to make it clear, here, that: Though I might quote Fran, Elizabeth or RT in order to use their quotes as springboards for my own ideas, they are just (and ONLY) that -- Springboards. You should not think I am speaking for them. I can only speak for myself, in this realm, and would not want anyone to think I’m trying to convey what Fran, Elizabeth or RT may actually believe concerning the subject at hand. Such clarification, I would leave up to them.

Further: This series of essays concerns the manner in which I have sometimes created characters and/or plot in my own successful writing. The reader, however, should not construe this as meaning that I believe the methods outlined are the “right ones” or the “only methods” that a writer may use. Instead, my objective is merely to share methods I have used in the past -- for those who may have an interest in such techniques – and to possibly theorize about the psychological origins of these methods, as well as their possible link to the origin of the Greek term “Muse.”)

That Being Said . . .

Elizabeth wrote, in her comment on Louis’s article about character creation: "...the character starts talking in my head. I simply write down what he or she says..."

This sometimes happens to me, too. And, I always think I’m really lucky when it does. Because, a character who starts talking in my head usually has a humdinger of a story to tell, and s/he tells it very forcefully.

In my opinion, such “character force” really adds punch to writing -- even in the first draft. A character like that is often angry, hurt and bursting with story. You cut ‘em, man, and they just spill their guts all over the place. It spews out hot and strong; they’re not shy. And, what they say will cut a reader to the emotional quick. Very powerful stuff.

What is this voice?

Well, the voice is my imagination, of course. But, in a very important way, it’s more than that, because -- while each voice is inarguably a part of me, generated by my own imagination -- it also stands apart from me, extremely alien to the thoughts that had, moments ago, been dominating my conscious mind.

This sort of voice is what I often think the ancient poets were speaking of, when they coined the term “muse,” perhaps because it seemed as if the gods must have injected the thought -- wholly unexpected by the thinker -- straight into the thinker’s mind.

My belief, however, is that these voices in my head are generated by my subconscious. I suspect that the reason I’m often startled by them, and surprised when they speak out in my mind, is because they’re created when a subconscious thought bubbles up into my conscious mind.

"Three Sphinxes of Bikini"  Salvador Dali
Vast areas of the human brain and intellect remain uncharted. In many cases, we currently don’t even have an inkling of what questions we should be asking -- concerning thought, the mind, or the brain -- in order to get the answers we would need, if we are to increase our knowledge in this realm.

One thing I believe most researchers agree on, however, is: Among other tasks, our “subconscious” is that portion of our thinking which generates dreams. And, our dreams (mine, at least -- and I assume yours also) are populated by people and creatures that are not silent. They speak to us. In some cases, even when they don’t use words, their body language and facial expressions leave us feeling that they desperately desire to communicate some intangible idea to us. This can sometimes be an idea we (our dreaming selves) intuit as having great importance of some kind.

I often find that the “voice” comes when I’m looking at something that ignites my interest. A few seconds or minutes later, as I’m concentrating on that visual “igniter” (or catalyst), a voice suddenly, and surprisingly speaks out in my head. Conversely, on rarer instances, when I’m listening intently to some auditory catalyst, an unexpected image (or “vision”) will suddenly explode across my mind’s eye.

I believe the intersect between the conscious mind and the subconscious is one of those largely-uncharted areas I discussed a few paragraphs earlier. And, the theory I would postulate (I know of absolutely no scientific evidence to support this theory, I might warn you!) is that, when the subconscious tries to communicate with our conscious brain, it does so through it’s dream-generation mechanism.

When I’m looking at a visual catalyst, my eyes and the visual centers of my brain are already fully engaged, so I hear a voice -- the auditory portion of a dream (according to my theory) that’s generated by my subconscious, and communicated to my conscious mind through that portion it can access: a sort of “bridge to conscious thought,” if you will. Likewise, when my auditory senses are already engaged by a catalyst, I receive the visual portion of a waking dream, because my visual senses are not engaged, leaving that pathway open to my subconscious’ intrusion on my thoughts.

In other words, I believe these “voices” and “visions” are the result of my subconscious using dream-mechanism-stimulation to communicate with my waking mind, along pathways that are not (at that moment) tied-up in the reception of catalytic stimulus.

This is why I say that the voice I sometimes hear is created “when a subconscious thought bubbles up into my conscious mind.” Additionally: I believe, this is why -- while the thought obviously comes from my own mind -- it also seems alien, and apart from me. Who has never encountered a disturbingly alien landscape in a dream? When the audio or visual portion of a dream suddenly intrudes on one’s waking mind, that can be just as disturbingly alien in nature.

What can act as a catalyst for these voices?

For me, at least, that varies greatly.

The protagonist’s voice in my short story “Dancing in Mozambique” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, July 2010), for instance, first spoke to me when I sat looking at a “Mysterious Photograph” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

For those unaware: AHMM runs that Mysterious Photograph page as a contest, asking for short-shorts around 250 words, and they publish the winning entry a few months later. The photo in that month’s issue showed a staircase in what seemed, to me at least, to be a haunted house, or a spooky old tumble-down hotel.
Not the AHMM photo, but you get my drift.

I looked at the photo, and suddenly heard a gravelly voiced man in my mind say: “When a pineapple came bouncing down the steps of that spook house staircase, I knew we’d found Jai. He’d seen us coming.” The voice had a rough, haunting and “hunted” edge to it that spoke of exhaustion after long foot-slogging and prolonged bombardment of adrenalin. It wasn’t a voice I’d ever heard before, but I instantly knew the man behind it.

I knew him, because I’d known a lot of men like that. I’d met them while I was in the army. At times, in fact, I’d been that man. My subconscious knew him inside and out, which (I believe) is why -- though I didn’t recognize the voice, itself -- I KNEW that man! And, knew him WELL.

As I am wont to do, I let the voice continue its tale as I typed the words into my computer. This is similar to what’s often called “stream of consciousness” writing, though, in a case like this one, based on the theory I postulated earlier, I would tend to deem it a “stream of subconscious.”

First, the man told me what happened immediately after that grenade (“pineapple”) had been tossed down a dilapidated staircase at him.

Later, I listened as he told me what had happened to him previously, how he had come to find himself in this dark place.

I knew, when I met his voice, that the man was a soldier. But, I didn’t know what kind of soldier. Over time, as he told me his story, I realized that he’d spent many years working as a mercenary in Africa.

At that point, I remembered an old adage I’d once learned. This adage, a sort of short limerick, or “mantra,” is a mnemonic device designed to explain (and help people remember) how to ensure that a person who is shot does not survive the wounds. It is a method named, I believe, for the place where the technique was born: “The Mozambique*.” And, I knew then that I’d discovered the axle around which my story’s helix could be entwined, as well as the name of the tumble-down hotel in which the action took place.

After the voice in my head finished speaking, I went back through what I’d written -- cognizant of the Mozambique axle I wanted running through the center of the story -- and put down the lines that fit into 250 words, yet still strongly told the man’s story.

The 250-word version of the story was probably not terribly good. I don’t love it, because, to my way of thinking, it is a skeleton. And, though there is suspense, there is little mystery -- particularly at this length. It certainly didn’t win the Mysterious Photo contest, either. But, I wrote it more as an exercise in teaching myself to write shorter, than as an attempt to win a contest. [As readers of my posts on SS may know, I’m not somebody who has been successful with short-shorts. In fact, the shortest story I’ve written, that sold, was submitted at 1,500 words (to a magazine that wanted 1,000 to 1,500 word fiction), but later -- after I cut it further, at the editor’s request -- finally ran just under 1,000 words.  And, serendipitously, that story "Buffalo Smoke" came out in this month's (April 2013) issue of Boy's Life.]

The initial (250-word) version of “Dancing in Mozambique” is posted below, so you can see the results of the above process. As I wrote earlier: I don’t love it. The voice in my head is still there, however, for you to “hear” as you read it.

Readers who wish to do so, and who have access to the July 2010 issue of EQMM, may read the final product for comparison and contrast -- which may prove interesting, particularly in light of my next post.

                                                      Dancing in Mozambique 
                                                           (250-word version)

The Hotel Mozambique, Chicago. Aptly named, I thought.

When a pineapple came bouncing down the steps of that spook house staircase, I knew we’d found Jai. He’d seen us coming.

Jai was a tricky bastard—learned that the day I met him. We fought as mercs in Africa. His last trick was stealing our pay, leaving us to die.

But Claw and I survived.

Now the pineapple. We dove right and left; as effective as hiding behind a sheet of paper. The grenade hit bottom, but didn’t go off.

Claw shouted, “Dud!” scrambled up the stairs, feet pounding on the hollow, rotted wood. I saw the pin still in the grenade; Jai always was a tricky bastard.

I started to shout. My warning died stillborn, executed by a heavy-caliber double-tap from above. The slugs kicked Claw’s body half-way down the stairs.

Blue smoke curled down the staircase. A step groaned.

I side stepped, saw a jeans-covered hip between rail and ceiling. I fired; blood geysered and Jai fell, weapon bumping down the steps. I vaulted Claw’s body and rounded the landing, pumped a round into Jai’s torso—center mass—as he struggled to pull his backup piece. My third shot drilled his head.

I walked away, recalling that long-ago training mantra learned in Africa, when I still called him friend, before he betrayed us: “Twice in the body, once in the head; that’s the way you know he’s dead—when you dance in Mozambique.”

I shut the door behind me.

In two weeks, I will explain how R.T.’s comments on Louis Willis’ post (the one that set all this in motion) illustrate the manner in which characters organically changed, in order to add depth and life to the piece, fleshing-out the 250-word skeleton into the final story of nearly 8,000 words, which sold to EQMM. This explanation, however, will necessarily evolve from a discussion of “character creation” into a discussion of how character action and interaction sometimes blossom naturally into organic plot. Which is why I’ll save it for next time.

See you in two weeks! --Dix

*Please note: Though I learned of the “Mozambique” during my tenure in the army, neither the Mozambique technique, nor the limerick that accompanies it, are taught in any US Army schools, nor is the technique considered acceptable practice.

21 March 2013

Setting as Character

Setting. Everyone knows about it. Few people actively think about it.
And that's a shame, because for writers, your setting is like a pair of shoes: if it's good, it's a sound foundation for your journey. If it's not, it'll give you and your readers pains that no orthotics will remedy.

Nowhere is this more true than with crime fiction. In fact strong descriptions of settings is such a deeply embedded trope of the genre that it's frequently overdone, used in parodies both intentional and unintentional as often as fedoras and trenchcoats.

Used correctly a proper setting can transcend even this role–can become a character in its own right, and can help drive your story, making your fiction evocative, engaging, and (most importantly for your readers) compelling.

Think for a moment about your favorite crime fiction writers. No matter who they are, odds are good that one of the reasons, perhaps one you've not considered before, is their compelling settings.

Just a few contemporary ones that come to mind for me: the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. The Chicago of  Sara Paretsky, Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey. Boston seen through the eyes of Robert B. Parker. Ken Bruen's Ireland. Al Guthrie's Scotland. Carl Hiassen's Miami. Bill Cameron's Portland.

And of course there are the long gone settings highlighted in the gems of the old masters. These and others read like lexical snapshots from the past.Who can forget passages like:

The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.
—Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

Or this one from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely:

1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poisettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.

And no one did it better than Ross Macdonald:

The city of Santa Teresa is built on a slope which begins at the edge of the sea and rises more and more steeply toward the coastal mountains in a series of ascending ridges. Padre Ridge is the first and lowest of these, and the only one inside the city limits.

It was fairly expensive territory, an established neighborhood of well-maintained older houses, many of them with brilliant hanging gardens. The grounds of 1427 were the only ones in the block that looked unkempt. The privet hedge needed clipping. Crabgrass was running rampant in the steep lawn.

Even the house, pink stucco under red tile, had a disused air about it. The drapes were drawn across the front windows. The only sign of life was a house wren which contested my approach to the veranda.
— Ross Macdonald, Black Money

In each of the passages excerpted above the author has used a description of the setting as a tip-off to the reader as to what manner of characters would inhabit such places. Even hints at what lies ahead for both protagonist and reader.

With Hammett it's the stink of the corruption that always follows on the heels of a rich mineral strike. With Chandler, it's a life worn-out by too much living. And with Macdonald, it's a world and its inhabitants as out of sorts as those hedges that need clipping.

Brilliant thumbnail sketches each. If you haven't read them, you owe it to yourself to do so. And each of them was giving the reader a glimpse of a world they had experienced first-hand, if not a contemporary view, then at least one they could dredge up and flesh out from memory.

With the stuff I write it's not that simple.

In his kind note introducing me to the readers of this blog, our man Lopresti mentioned that when it comes to fiction, my particular bailiwick is historical mystery. In my time mining this particular vein of fiction I've experienced first-hand the challenge of delivering to readers strong settings for stories set in a past well before my time.

How to accomplish this?

It's tricky. Here's what I do.

I try to combine exhaustive research with my own experiences and leaven it all with a hefty dose of the writer's greatest tool: imagination.

"Counting Coup," the first historical mystery story I ever wrote, is about a group of people trapped in a remote southwest Montana railway station by hostile Cheyenne warriors during the Cheyenne Uprising of 1873. I used the three-part formula laid out above.
  1. While pursuing my Master's in history, I'd done a ton of research on the western railroads, their expansion, and its impact on Native American tribes in the region, including the Cheyenne.
  2. I've visited southwestern Montana many times, and the country is largely unchanged, so I had a good visual image to work from.
  3. Imagination!
An example of the end result:

Wash and Chance made it over the rise and and into the valley of the Gallatin just ahead of that storm. It had taken three days of hard riding to get to the railhead, and the horses were all but played out.

The entire last day finished setting their nerves on edge. What with the smoke signals and the tracks of all the unshod ponies they'd seen, there was enough sign to make a body think he was riding right through the heart of the Cheyenne Nation.

Stretching away to north and south below them lay the broad flood plain of the Gallatin. The river itself meandered along the valley floor, with the more slender, silver ribbon of rail line mirroring it, running off forever in either direction. The reds of the tamarack and the golds of the aspen and the greens of the fir created a burst of color on the hills that flanked the river on either side, their hues all the more vivid when set against the white of the previous evening's uncharacteristically early snowfall. 

"Suicide Blonde," another of my historical mystery stories, is set in 1962 Las Vegas. Again, the formula.
  1. I did plenty of research on Vegas up to and including this time when Sinatra and his buddies strutted around like they owned the place.
  2. I lived and worked in Vegas for a couple of years and have been back a few times since. I am here to tell you, Vegas is one of those places that, as much as it changes, doesn't really change.
  3. Imagination!
Which gets you:

Because the Hoover boys had started tapping phones left and right since the big fuss at Apalachin a few years back, Howard and I had a system we used when we needed to see each other outside of the normal routine. If one of us suggested we meet at the Four Queens, we met at Caesar's. If the California, then we'd go to the Aladdin, and so on. We also agreed to double our elapsed time till we met, so when I said twenty minutes, that meant I'd be there in ten. We figured he had a permanent tail anyway, but it was fun messing with the feds, regardless.

The Strip flashed and winked and beckoned to me off in the distance down Desert Inn as I drove to Caesar's. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference the combination of black desert night, millions of lights, and all that wattage from Hoover Dam made, because Las Vegas looked so small and ugly and shabby in the day time. She used the night and all those bright lights like an over-age working girl uses a dimply lit cocktail lounge and a heavy coat of makeup to ply her trade.

Howard liked Caesar's. We didn't do any of the regular business there, and Howard liked that, too. Most of all, Howard liked the way the place was always hopping in the months since Sinatra took that angry walk across the street from the Sands and offered to move his act to Caesar's. Howard didn't really care to run elbows with the Chairman and his pack, he just liked talking in places where the type of noise generated by their mere presence could cover our conversations.

You may have noticed that in both examples used above I've interspersed description of the setting with action, historical references and plot points. That's partly stylistic and partly a necessity. I rarely find straight description engaging when I'm reading fiction (in the hands of a master such as Hemingway, Chandler or Macdonald that's another story, but they tend to be the exception), so I try to seamlessly integrate it into the narrative. Also, since I'm attempting to evoke a setting that is lost to the modern reader in anything but received images, I try to get into a few well-placed historical references that help establish the setting as, say, not just Las Vegas, but early 1960s Las Vegas. Doing so in this manner can save a writer of historical mysteries a whole lot of trying to tease out these sorts of details in dialogue (and boy, can that sort of exposition come across as clunky if not handled exactly right!).

So there you have it: an extended rumination on the importance of one of the most overlooked and powerful tools in your writer's toolbox: setting. The stronger you build it, the more your readers will thank you for it, regardless of genre, regardless of time period.

Because setting is both ubiquitous and timeless. Easy to overdo and certainly easy to get wrong. But when you get it right, your story is all the stronger for it!