31 July 2013

Vacationing with old friends

by Robert Lopresti

My wife and I vacation in Port Townsend, Washington most years, as I have written before (and before).  She spends most of the week taking music lessons and I spend mine communing with the muse, or trying to.

But sometimes the best part of a week off is spending time with old friends.  That is certainly true of this trip. Not only did I see various music buddies, but I also ran into two writing friends: Elizabeth Ann Scarborough and Clyde Curley.

However, those aren't the friends I want to write about today.

I first met Leopold Longshanks almost thirty years ago in a coffeeshop in Montclair, New Jersey.  I didn't really meet him there; I just got an inkling that he existed.  It took many years for him to solidify into enough of a character to write a story about.

I spent two days on vacation writing a story about Shanks and his wife and had a great time visiting with them.  After a dozen tales, they are like old pals and it is great to catch up with them, see what trouble they are getting into.

Then there are Thomas Gray and Delgardo.  They have only appeared in one novella and it is by no means certain that I can turn them into series characters, but I got 2000 words into a new piece, and had a lot of fun with them.  Since they have had only one outing I am still trying to figure out what is essential to their stories and what is, so to speak, accidental.

These are pleasures you only get by writing about a character more than once.  I was thinking about this recently as I read Janice Law's third story about Madame Selina in AHMM.  As I recall Janice said she had never talked about reusing a character until I suggested this dishonest but oh so clever spiritualist needed a return voyage.

So, hwo do you guys feel about revisiting your old friends/enemies?

30 July 2013

Show and Tell

       Show. Don’t tell.
       Every aspiring writer has encountered this admonition. Campfire stories are “told” (“suddenly it turned out that he was the murderer!”) but good short stories and novels require a stepped up game plan. “Showing” rather than “telling” requires more than relating a plot; it requires building the story, revealing the plot through the interaction of believable characters. This rule can sound simple. In practice it can be anything but.

Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee
        Every writer has his or her own approach to building a story and breathing life into characters. A particularly unique approach was that employed by my favorite mystery writer(s), Ellery Queen. As explored in previous articles, it is well known among the fans of Ellery Queen’s mysteries that the authors behind the curtain, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, wrote as a divided team. Dannay supplied detailed plot outlines that “told” the underlying story in a bare-bones narrative, and from these Lee wrote the finished mystery novel, building the story and giving life to the characters who, through their actions, “showed” the mystery to the reader.

        This division of labor was certainly a peculiar one. Dannay, the consummate editor during his tenure as editor-in-chief at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, was nonetheless seemingly uncomfortable with the narrative process. And Lee’s son Rand has observed that, by contrast, Manfred B. Lee “could not plot to save his life.” But it was Lee who was gifted with the ability Dannay lacked, to build the stories and the characters that would ultimately breathe the needed life into Ellery’s escapades. Bickering aside, it was a particularly symbiotic literary marriage. Little wonder, given this, that after Lee died in 1971 there were no further Ellery Queen mysteries even though Dannay lived on for another eleven years. His plots would not have been enough standing alone.

       All of this is not to belittle Dannay’s contributions. The outlines he prepared were anything but inconsequential. They set forth the intricate and at times downright convoluted plot lines for which Ellery Queen is famous. They were also no small enterprise. We know from an article by Frederic Dannay’s sons Douglas and Richard, which appears as a chapter in The Tragedy of Errors (Crippen and Landru, 2000), that the outline for The Player on the Other Side was 42 pages long, the outline for And on the Eighth Day, 66 pages, and the outline for The Fourth Side of the Triangle ran 71 pages. The Random House first editions of these novels, in full, run 213 pages, 191 pages and 183 pages, respectively. In other words, each novel was only three to four times longer than the Dannay outline on which it was based.

     While Dannay's outlines for those three Queen novels have never been published, the outline for what would have been the final Queen novel, The Tragedy of Errors, is set forth as the first half of the Crippen and Landru volume of the same name. From that outline it is easy to understand how much Lee would have been expected to add to a final work. Dannay’s outline is 52 pages long. The story? Well, it’s intricate and clever, as one would expect of Queen. It is premised on allusions to the works and life of Shakespeare, and it gives us numerous characters who strut and fret their time on the mystery’s stage. But in outline form the characters are cardboard. They needed Lee, who died before the outline could ever be transformed into a full fledged novel. 

       A note to the purists out there -- I recognize that The Player on the Other Side, And on the Eighth Day, and The Fourth Side of the Triangle (discussed above) were largely drafted by other writers during the time that Lee suffered from writer's block. But the point remains that Dannay’s ingenious plotting, standing alone, was never enough. It was the addition of character and descriptive prose, generally Lee’s province, that gave the breath of life to the mysteries. 

       An analysis of the works of Queen is interesting since the Queen library, unlike most other works, was constructed under this formula that clearly divided the two building blocks of narrative writing: plot, on the one hand, and story and character development, on the other. The ability of Dannay and Lee to separately allocate these tasks is not a luxury to which the rest of us can resort. We, by contrast, usually have to do the whole thing ourselves, even if we are better at one half than we are at the other. No matter how great our plot may be, it won’t capture the reader without believable characters through whom the story progresses. And no matter how developed our characters may be, they can’t propel the story without an underlying imaginative plot. 

       Two recent mystery novels illustrate this principle all too clearly. Each focuses on a nonagenarian central character, each involves a story with flashbacks to that character’s youth, and each centers around an underlying mystery that is probed by the other characters in the story. One of these mysteries works. The other (sadly) does not. 

       I don’t like saying anything negative about someone else’s work, particularly when that someone is Hallie Ephron, award winning mystery writer and mystery reviewer for The Boston Globe, but her recent mystery There Was an Old Woman (not to be confused with Ellery Queen’s 1943 novel of the same name) just did not work for me. I thought the central character, a spry ninety-two year old, and the underlying story of strange happenings in a shore community on Long Island, were intriguing; certainly enough so to make me commit to handing over the full price of the novel after reading the free sample offered up on my Barnes and Noble Nook. But ultimately the story fizzled -- Ephron tells the story but she doesn't show it. Had I been asked to review this work prior to publication my advice would have been that even at 273 pages it may be too short. Either that or those pages weren't utilized efficiently. When I reached page 273 I left behind two dimensional cardboard characters, many of whom had behaved bizarrely and with motivations that were “told” to us by the author but not “shown” through the actions and interaction of the characters. When secrets were revealed I wondered why would the character have done this? What justifies behavior that differs from that which we have seen before? When flashbacks to 1945 occurred, centering on the famous Empire State Building airplane crash, I was perplexed: how does this progress the story? Why is it important to the plot? When characters revealed a hidden agenda I was confused -- where was the evidence of this aspect of the character’s personality? Where were the clues to this? The book is unfortunately only an outline of what it could be.  The author tells us a lot, but shows us very little. 

      By contrast, Kate Morton’s new mystery, The Secret Keeper, at 445 pages, is a marvelous gem of a mystery. Here, too, the central character, a matriarch approaching her 90th birthday, is at the heart of a mystery that her children must solve. Here, also, the narrative shifts between the central character’s youth, in World War II England, and present day London. During the course of the novel we watch as characters who behaved one way in their youth change, and behave differently over the course of time. But Ms. Morton puts so much time and care into the development of her characters that we, the readers, know them. We listen to them, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and appreciate, even anticipate, the changes they undergo during the march of time. We understand where they have been, why they react to matters as they do, and why they ultimately change as the world around them changes. By the end of this lovely mystery we leave enchanted by what we have read. The loose ends have been successfully tied, and we are sad to say goodbye to characters with whom we feel we have lived.

       When I read There Was an Old Woman I found each plot twist jarring and inexplicable. I was rolling my eyes. When I read The Secret Keeper the plot twists made perfect sense and I found myself constantly nodding my head and smiling in agreement. As between the two, most readers, me included, prefer the latter. That’s what well developed characters will do for a story.

29 July 2013


Two weeks ago, I said that today I'd talk about voice in writing.  At that time, I had a general idea what I wanted to say, but I hadn't researched it.Since then, I've checked out several references, and found that it would be easy to spend hours and hours talking about this topic.

First, I want to narrow the subject for today. Dale Andrews gave us an excellent article on the narrative voice referring to first person or third person, and Terence Faherty followed up with more great info on that subject.  

That's not my topic.

We've all probably heard more than a life time's worth of discussion of passive voice and active voice.  

That's not my topic.

Donald Graves
The topic today is a characteristic of writing that many teachers as well as writers have difficulty in defining.  The term was coined by Donald Graves, Professor Emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, and author of numerous books on writing including A Fresh Look at Writing in 1994.Though some people use the term synonymously with style or tone, that's not what Graves meant, though "personal style" is close.

Another authority tells us that voice is the personality of writing while tone is the mood.  Voice may affect word choice, sentence and story structure, even punctuation.

Since Graves introduced the term, writing instructors have prompted their students to, "Find your voice," just as so many of them insist, "Write about what you know."  I differ with both of those. So far as writing about what you know, why not research and find out what you need to know to write about what you choose? 
I believe a writer can have more
than one best voice depending
upon the subject.

My response to "Find your voice" is that it's incomplete. I think it should be "Find your voice for the piece you're writing." 

We recognize the voices of writers we know just as we recognize the sound of voices of people we know. We would all know the difference in two descriptions of the same thing written by two authors such as Faulkner and Hemingway, and we would be able recognize the difference in how Agatha Christie and Mickey Spillane wrote the same scene.
Ernest Hemingway

Voice refers to the aspects that give the writing a personal flavor, and that personal flavor changes within a writer's works.  Not only does the voice change depending upon the intended audience, it varies with the author's purpose to inform, entertain, or motivate readers to take action. 

Writing to inform readers of the time and location of funeral services in an obituary does not require the same voice as the review of a book on etiquette, nor of a eulogy.

Mark Twain wrote frequently to entertain.  His writing voice is well developed, but note the difference in the voice of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.       
Mark Twain

Opening paragraph of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.  There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.  That is nothing.   I ain't never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly--Tom's Aunt Polly, she is--and Mary, and the Widow Douglas, is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

Huck Finn uses atrocious grammar, breaks rules, and interrupts himself.  All of these plus the choice of words enable us to hear and see the boy before the first paragraph is completed.

Opening of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:

No answer.
No answer.
"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"
No answer.
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked THROUGH them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not service -- she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:
"Well, I lay if I get hold of you I'll --"
She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom, and so she needed breath to punctuate the punches with. She resurrected nothing but the cat.

The immediate difference noted is that Tom's adventures are told in third person, while Huck tells his own story in first person.  The voice of both is Mark Twain, but he changes not just the person, but the vocabulary, correctness of grammar and punctuation, and structure of the pieces. 

A writer may change
and further develop voice,
but please don't ever
lose it!
My personal definition of voice has become:  The individual writing style of an author is a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development and dialogue within a given body of text.  The totality of that style is voice.  

One of the best explanations I've read of voice is that it's what Simon Cowell is talking about when he tells American Idol contestants to make the song their own and not just a note-for-note karaoke version.

What do you think about voice?  How do you define it?  Is your voice different for varying projects?

Until we meet again, take care of … you!

28 July 2013

The Detroit PI

“A. Walker Investigations” is the opening sentence in the short story “Bodyguards Shoot Second” in Loren D. Estleman’s Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection. Amos is Estleman’s Detroit PI. 

I sometimes choose books from catalogs based on the title or the name of the author. In this case, the name of the sleuth was what attracted me to Estleman’s collection. Rather irrationally, I expected a PI named Amos to be easy going with a deceptive personality plying his trade in a small southern city, or in the open spaces of Texas. Then I opened the book. Surprise, Amos is a hardboiled gumshoe with a wry sense of humor whose turf is the menacing streets of Detroit.

Loren Estleman
Loren Estleman
Estleman, a prolific writer of detective and western fiction, has been nominated for and won a load of awards. In addition to Amos Walker, he created two other detective series featuring professional detectives Ralph Poteet and Valentino. Amos first appeared in his 1980 novel Motor City Blue. The 33 stories in the collection were written in various magazines between 1982 and 2010. As I read 15 of the stories for this post, I felt Estleman was channeling Raymond Chandler (no pun intended), one of his favorite writers, because the wisecracking Amos reminded me so much of Philip Marlowe.  Reading the stories and finding fault with some but enjoying them made me think about my tendency to over analyze, which interferes with my suspension of disbelief. 

One aspect of detective stories that always puzzles me is the need for the shamus to work free. In “Fast Burn,” an ex-Ford auto plant employee dies of natural causes sitting in the chair in Amos’s office before he can tell Amos his problem. Amos, though he will collect no fee, investigates anyway because the dead man “came looking for help with something. I’d like to know what it was.” Okay, but working for free doesn’t pay his bills.

“I’m In The Book,” shows Amos is as tough as his hardboiled predecessors. Since his “main specialty is tracing missing persons,” a rich man hires him to find his wife. The ending didn’t surprise me since I expected it. What surprised me was Amos slaps the smart-mouthed former maid when she gives him some lip and refuses to answers his questions. Up until this story, I pictured him as a hardboiled gentleman and not likely to hit a woman. Of course, some of those predecessors not only hit women but killed them too. 

Although it was appropriate, I didn’t like the ending of “The Anniversary Waltz.” Geraldine Tolliver, daughter of a woman who escaped prison 8 years ago and is presumed dead, believes her mother, Adelaide, is alive and hires Amos to tell her to give herself up when she appears at Geraldine’s father’s grave on their silver anniversary. The problem is a sheriff who doesn’t believe Adelaide is dead has been watching Geraldine. He takes Adelaide into custody when she shows up. Amos later finds the Sheriff’s car with him in the trunk, dead. Adelaide  has an IQ of 160, and apparently had no problem  outwitting the sheriff. I know Amos, the narrator, couldn’t know how she got loose from the sheriff, so, I was forced to use my imagination and, of course, over analyzed the story. Sorry about the spoiler.

Amos even taught me some new words. In “Deadly Force,” homicide Lieutenant Alderdyce asks Amos did he “Get a hinge at the sapper?” Translation: did he see who hit him over the head? A bad guy in “People Who Kill” plunged “kiyoodling” down an elevator shaft. Does it mean he fell head over heels or was screaming as he fell?

Estleman’s defines short stories as “miniatures, where flaws of any sort are immediately obvious.” His miniatures, flaws and all, are worth the effort of reading. Unfortunately for me, he has written so much that I’ll never be able to read all of his novels and stories, though I wish I could because I feel I’m on a first name basis with Amos. Who wouldn’t be with a name like that? 

I wonder what Amos would think about Detroit today? 

27 July 2013

Swimming in the Ocean

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I’m reveling in the all-too-brief season when you don’t have to be a polar bear to immerse yourself in the vast, salty playground that covers more than half of our planet and entices folks like me to cavort in the foaming surf around its edges. Yep, I’m talking about going to the beach, which to me is synonymous with swimming in the ocean.

I’ve been an ocean lover since childhood, when we used to visit an aunt and uncle who had a summer house in Hampton Bays, which back in those days was too working class to be considered one of “the Hamptons.” My grandmother, mother, and aunt were all indefatigable swimmers. To this day, I look incredulously at women on the beach who obviously have no desire to wet their hair, their bathingsuits, or even the polish on their toenails. Aren’t they hot? Do they know what they’re missing? How can they stand it?

Adolescent girls, on the other hand, plunge happily into the breaking waves. When I’m swimming alone, without a spotter, I sometimes elect a bunch of them my buddies. I ask them to keep an eye out for me in case I get in trouble. And I tell them to cherish the moment, because when they get to be my age, they may no longer have either the nerve or the companionship they’re enjoying now.

The Atlantic’s face is always changing. Every day is different. (I remember going to the beach in La Jolla, CA and being amazed at the reliability of the Pacific, at least between the frequent jetties: the waves were exactly the same from day to day.) My favorite set of conditions is when the tide is at the right height for me to stand beyond the breakers and sail across high rollers for that heavenly moment of weightlessness, then land on my feet again. To make it perfect, the water has to be warm enough not to shock me but cool enough to be exhilarating, and there can’t be any undertow to taint my mood with fear or make it difficult, when I’m ready, to get back onto the beach on my feet.

How different people like to take their ocean water seems to vary, to some extent, by gender. Most of the body surfers are guys, who catch the breaking wave and ride it toward shore, arms extended like aquatic versions of Superman in the air. Most women, like me, seem to prefer riding the rollers, calling “Under!” and “Over!” as each wave invites them to dive or soar. Lap swimmers seem to be evenly divided. I used to body surf myself—out of sheer competitiveness and a burning desire not to miss anything—but that was thirty-five years ago. I do swim laps in the ocean occasionally—a day when the water is safe and smooth enough for me to do a half-mile of the crawl, with breathing, is even more rare than a day when the waves are perfect for jumping.

The ultimate: clear day, perfect water temperature, waves just high enough to be exciting but without enough power to make getting back to shore difficult—and the company of someone who enjoys both ocean swimming and schmoozing as much as I do.

26 July 2013

Mystery Photo Fun!

SleuthSayers is a Mystery Web Site. To that end, today, I’m presenting a short mystery. 
Inspired by Leigh’s fascinating photo essay on the 21st, I’m presenting my mystery with both text and photo clues intended to permit readers to exercise multiple mystery-solving techniques, so they can choose the method(s) that play to their own strengths. 

 The mystery is: 
[A] Where was Dixon Hill yesterday (Thursday), and [B] what was he doing there? 

 Perhaps you’re a techno-sleuth, for instance. Though I took most of these photos with my cell phone camera, some were captured from online sites. If you can find the origin of these particular pics, you’ll be able to easily solve at least half the mystery. 

If digital manipulation is not your bag, there are other clues and hints to help. But … what was I doing in this place yesterday (aside from taking pics on my phone camera)? 

Are you a walking UNIVAC data collection master? Have you read and compiled things about me that might give you a clue – particularly when you couple this with my location? And don’t forget to consider extraneous factors that may lead you to success, such as the season and what you know about me. 

Even if you’re not a walking computer, switch into sleuth mode, turn on those “little gray cells” and… 

Let the sleuthing begin! 

(But ... watch out for red herrings. While everything included here does exist at the site I visited yesterday, some of these photos are designed to obfuscate or confuse. ... Though I don't expect you to have too much difficulty.  After all, I designed this for morning coffee fun time!) 

Here come the clues!

I took these photos outside Scottsdale, Arizona – even though the name of the place I photographed might make the unwary believe that I’m inside the city limits. 

 Below is a photo date/time hack, taken at Entrance One of the place I visited yesterday. Maybe you’ll find it helpful. 

Yes, it was fairly cool in The Valley of the Sun, yesterday -- though not as cool as it was for most of last week, when temps hovered in the mid to high 90's and a breeze blew through while a layer of clouds blocked the sun's burning rays.  Felt almost like Christmas!

Does the photo on the right give you a hint where I was, or what I was doing there?

 Many businesses and institutions have logos or symbols that represent them. Below are two symbols that represent the place where I spent much of yesterday. 

This fellow sits out in the hot sun all summer long!

And, here is what he's guarding.  And, this is ABSOLUTELY a part of the place I was visiting ... though I never spent much time here, because I'm not good at growing more than the grass in my front yard.

     Nearby are these interesting artifacts (seen on the right). 

But, be forewarned: they have nothing to do with the sort of plants you grow in a garden.

Below is part of a sign on the ring-road around the place.  Is it really directing folks to Mr. Toad's home???

The structure in the pic below isn't really on the grounds of the place where I was yesterday (though I took this shot from the ring-road), but it runs just along the western boundary -- so I thought it might be a good clue if you used Google's satellite view (or street view) in part of your work.

The symbol seen in the vertical circle (below) is not a symbol for the place I visited, but it is the symbol for where that place resides. The reddish thing you're looking at is a sculpture sitting in the median of the road that bounds the southern edge of the property.  

This median sculpture designates entry to a certain land, which is actually (perhaps) a very good clue.  I took this shot from the ring-road.

Below is a great place to get 5-star food at 2-star prices.

People who have sat in these seats went on to create films that won accolades at the Sundance Film Festival and other venues. 

If you know women’s pro basketball, maybe you know that Ryneldi Becenti once played on this court. (Sorry it's blurry.  I was being chased off by security! LOL)

The photo below shows just a door and window in a wall.  To me, however, it's the place where I took the first step on a long, crooked road that brought me out the other end as a writer.

Below: At one time, I wrote (probably rather poor) news stories about activities at this place. In fact, before I had a computer of my own, this is where I wrote.

A few more shots, which just might tip the ballance. (The first shot is over-sized for those who love looking at the desert.  On my computer, it's possible to pan right by grabbing the little bar just below the photo.  You may need to click on the photo and open it, however, before you can pan, depending on your setup.)

 Got it figured out? Know where I was and what I was doing there (or at least feel you can take an educated stab)? Click on the “comments” link below, and tell us . And PLEASE! In your comment, tell us what tipped you off. In this manner, maybe we’ll all gain some smidgeon of fresh insight concerning contemporary sleuthing. I’ll post the answer, right in that same comments thread, later in the day so you can check your solution. 

See you in two weeks! 

25 July 2013

The Pros and Cons of Writing Who You Know

by James R. Winter

Hi Gang- friend and colleague Jim Winter will be pinch-hitting for me in my regular turn on the Sleuthsayers blog, as I prepare for a couple of writing-related conferences that are currently sucking up my creative bandwidth. Jim's got an interesting take on an all-too-prevalent problem for writers everywhere, and he's agreed to share it here with the Sleuthsayers readership. Please make him welcome! 

Some info about Jim: 

Jim Winter was born near Cleveland in 1966. In 1991, he moved to Cincinnati marry the love of his life. He finally met her in 2008 and married her before she could change her mind.  Jim has written both series stuff and stand-alones, with the series work featuring Cleveland-based P.I. Nick Kepler. He is the author of the novels  Bad Religion, Road Rules, Northcoast Shakedown, and Second Hand Goods, as well as the anthology The Compleat Kepler. He has previously reviewed for Crimespree, January Magazine, and Mystery Scene. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife, Nita, and stepson, AJ. Visit him at http://www.jamesrwinter.net

I'll be back for my next scheduled entry in two short weeks! -Brian

A friend of mine who bought an early copy of Northcoast Shakedown told me there was no way my characters were completely fictional, that they had to be real people with different names. I explained that a person may inspire a character, but that making the character behave exactly like that person actually makes for stilted and sloppy writing. Occasionally, however, you find yourself including a real figure or a real event into a story to connect the fictional world somehow to reality.

I had to walk a fine line with this when I wrote Bad Religion. Originally, I wanted to set the story in Kirtland, Ohio, a small town about thirty miles east of Cleveland. One of the reasons involved a bizarre cult killing that happened in 1988, when I still lived in the area. On a trip back to Cleveland, I paid the town a visit, very much liking the layout and the atmosphere of Kirtland. It’s a small, heavily-wooded village (It says “city” on the corporation limit signs.) dotted with churches and looking very much like the New England villages that provide the template for most towns in that corner of the state. As I did further research, however, it occurred to me that some of those close to the incident might not appreciate it being integrated into the story.

So Kirtland, which gets mentioned as a neighboring town, became the model for the fictional Chamberlain, Ohio. The killings became backstory for police chief Katherine Conway, whom I used as the voice of the first responders who actually discovered the bodies. So instead of exploiting a tragedy, I simply wove it into the local fabric. Conway’s comments paraphrase some of what Lake County deputies said when they found the murdered family, and it gave Conway a reason to worry about Nick Kepler’s investigation, especially when people start dying.

When I finished the story, however, I still worried. Would I have to write it out? At the time, one of my beta readers was a former Cuyahoga County prosecutor and, by then, a municipal court magistrate. He tended to be pretty sensitive to using real-world events and people. It passed his stringent test. So when I dug the story out for an ebook edition, in the cult references stayed, and I was free to concentrate on more weighty matters, like ending sentences in prepositions. (There are too few in the last draft.)

Where it may have gone wrong is in Eric Teasdale’s backstory. Teasdale first appeared in the second Nick Kepler novel, Second Hand Goods. Aside from running his own one-man agency out of a rural village not far from Cleveland’s airport, Teasdale supplemented his income as an on-call detective for neighboring Lafayette Township. I grew up in the same school district as Lafayette Township. It made news early in the last decade when the township police chief was convicted of rape and sent to prison. What disgusted me was that I played Little League with that same police chief. As a poke in the eye, figuring he would never read the book anyway, I had Kepler explain that Teasdale’s job came about when “the filthy animal” went to prison, and, as happens frequently in suburban counties, the local sheriff and the township police would get into turf wars. I ran this by a handful of former classmates who knew both me and the former chief fairly well. Most people shrugged, and Second Hand Goods went off to the publisher just in time for that small press to go out of business. No problem, right?

Last week, on my private Facebook account, I got a friend request from a woman I graduated with back in 1984.  It was the ex-chief’s twin sister. Ouch. Does she know about Jim Winter Fiction? I’m not inviting her to like it. While I think her brother’s crime was deplorable, and justice most certainly was done, I now started to worry about my rather angry poke at the hornet’s nest might come back to haunt me.

Do I go back and change it? I haven’t done the print version of Second Hand Goods yet, and all it takes is a quick upload to the three ebook services to change with little effect on the book itself. So, what do I do?

Nothing. I’ve always had a problem with authors going back and “correcting” the original versions of their works. Stephen King is a notorious offender. However, that’s an artistic choice. Some writers go into a novel now expecting to adapt to new events or to retrofit later works into the backstory. But that’s not why I’m not changing it.

I’m leaving it because it would be disingenuous to change it for any reason other than I wanted Han to shoot first. That refers, of course, to George Lucas’ clumsy editing of the bar scene in Star Wars to make Han Solo less cold-blooded. It may not have worked, but it was a legitimate change nonetheless. No, if I change it because, suddenly, the chief’s twin sister friended me in real life, I’m being dishonest. I wrote that. I still don’t like her brother, and for some very good reasons. Changing it would be hiding something I said and pretending it never happened. Was it wrong? Probably. But I have to own it.

I’m a little more careful these days. It’s not hard to do this with celebrities. They’re seldom major characters, and even when they are, you’re seeing a fictional person named Marylin Monroe or Bill Clinton or Vince Vaughan, based on their personas, urban legends, and, once in a while, talking with the celeb himself or herself.  It’s the lesser known people you have to be careful with. Trashing Axl Rose (or even just having him walk in and say hi) is free PR. If I do that to my accountant or a local school teacher, especially in our Facebook-Twitterized world, I could really damage someone’s career or personal life.

As for real events, you have to ask yourself, am I exploiting this? Is this cathartic? Is it something that has to be addressed because it’s part of the setting? It took me two years to write a story about 9/11.  And that’s still pretty raw.

24 July 2013

The Lives of Others

It's a commonplace that Germans don't like being reminded of their all-too-recent history, and like much received wisdom, there's some truth in it. Nobody likes it thrown in their face that they were complicit with deep human evil.  Every once in a while you might bump into some guy in a bierstube (I have) who served in the Wehrmacht, and makes no apologies for his war service, but we're talking about a soldier, not Waffen SS or some functionary who played his small part in the Final Solution. Young people, born after the war, get their back up if you mention Hitler and the Nazis, and demand why they should take any responsibility for the buried past---look at what you white Americans have done to the Negro, is the favored response. And of course there are people of a certain age who blame the Jews, for keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, without feeling any embarrassment or even a twinge of irony. There's a victim psychology at work, resentful that they've been unfairly singled out, and tarred with too broad a brush. (This is second cousin to the enduring fiction that the French didn't collaborate with the Occupation, or that America First wasn't riddled with virulent anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers.) "That was another country, and besides, the wench is dead."

So it's a fascinating development, to me, that a few German film-makers have begun to explore this willed national memory loss. DOWNFALL (2004), THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006), and THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX (2008). It amounts to a public airing of dirty laundry, and predictably, these guys have taken heat for it.

DOWNFALL is about Hitler's last days in the bunker, and the final Russian assault on Berlin. In a sense, it's a war movie, the fighting in the streets a counterweight to the claustrophobic self-delusion of the Nazi leadership, sealed off underground. It's also deeply, viscerally frightening to be trapped with these people, the impossible hope of rescue, Magda Goebbels poisoning her children, Hitler, to the end, consumed by the perfidy of the Jews. It plays like black comedy, this feverish unreality, toxic with evasion and denial, but there isn't any comic relief in sight, only bitter disgrace, and suicide, and lasting shame for the survivors. The movie was attacked by critics in Germany, not for fudging the historical record, but for 'humanizing' Hitler. A curious complaint. Bruno Ganz, a Swiss, as it happens, manages the weird trick of seeming to shrink inside his clothes, wasting away as you watch. He makes Hitler human, all right, and if anything, all too familiar. This is not a monster, or an alien presence, but a mirror of our own weakness for hatred. Hitler, seen in the flesh, and without disguise, isn't a figure in some distant landscape, the diseased nephew safely hidden in the family closet. No wonder it made Germans uncomfortable.

THE LIVES OF OTHERS and THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX navigate a shifting historical landscape as well. Both are about betrayal. Both are about how Germany defines herself. And both are about doubtful orthodoxies. THE LIVES OF OTHERS takes place in East Germany in the 1980's, when Stasi informants were everywhere, and on the large scale, it's a study of life in an oppressive police state, although the major characters are actually people of privilege. In detail, though, small things matter, choices of honor, or compromise, guilty secrets, proofs of love. The moral punchline comes in a coda, after the Wall is torn down and the East German regime collapses, and old choices, large or small, can be handled like talismans.

BAADER MEINHOF is something of a cautionary tale, a Cold War story from the 1970's, about the zeal of a convert. Politics are radical and undisciplined, and a splinter faction on the Left turns to violence, a terror campaign against the neo-Fascism of the Old Guard. The security services, reading the Devil's handwriting, react with increasingly brutal tactics. The right-wing press, led by the Axel Springer newspaper chain, impatient with civil liberties, egg them on. They give the Baader-Meinhof gang its name, which over-inflates their importance, and actually generates public sympathy. The ringleaders were captured after a nationwide manhunt. Four of them were later to commit suicide in prison, which gave rise to, shall we say, unanswered questions. The legacy of Baader-Meinhof is mixed, at best.

Taken together, these three pictures don't amount to a critical mass, and nobody expects the Germans to rend their garments and beat their breasts over the crimes of their fathers, any more than you'd expect it of Americans---and everybody, let's face it, is guilty of something. The past is never a closed book. But the unexamined life, Plato tells us, isn't worth much. We don't need to be haunted by regret, or brood on the wrongs done us, or weep for the sins of men. We do require of ourselves an accounting. Choices of honor, or compromise, guilty secrets, proofs of love.

23 July 2013

Who's On First

Last Tuesday, Dale Andrews published a thought-provoking piece in this space about the first and third person points of view.  In it, he listed some innovative things recent writers have done with the first person, which I found especially encouraging.  In my own writing, I've always favored the first person point of view, and it rankles to occasionally hear it dismissed as simplistic, as a stage a beginning writer works through on his or her way to more mature narrative techniques.  As Dale's examples demonstrated, first person can be pretty complex.

Marlowe and (Almost Certainly) Treacherous Client
And it's the point of view used by Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, writers who made me love the private eye subgenre.  First person is part of the traditional private eye story's deceptively straightforward structure:  a problem is posed and a hero sets out to find a solution.  It's like some ancient epic, except that the challenge isn't being set for the hero by some god or demigod, who may be treacherous, but by some client, who is almost certainly treacherous.  Chandler and Macdonald's take on this simple formula required that the private eye also serve as bard.

Covers Held at Bay

Unfortunately, even a simple formula can lead to some hard work for the writer of book-length mysteries.  Think of the challenge like this.  Your job as a mystery novelist if to hold the front and back covers of your published book about three quarters of an inch apart.  That may not seem too hard.  What, after all, is three quarters of an inch?  But the only thing you can use to get that job done are sheets of paper, none much wider on edge than a human hair.  And you can't scrunch the pages up, either.  (Leave that to reviewers.)  You have to lay them perfectly flat.  You'll need hundreds of them, about three hundred, in fact, to keep those covers at a safe distance.  Start writing.

Waiting for Godot
If you start writing in the first person, you've made the challenge even harder for yourself.  Everything that happens in those three hundred pages has to happen to or be witnessed by one person, the narrator.  The exceptions are stories told to the narrator by other characters, and you'll get a few of those in a mystery novel, as witnesses come forward and suspects try to clear themselves.  You can't overdo that, though, or your readers will start to feel like spectators at a play in which the only thing that happens on stage is talk.  Waiting for Godot, perhaps.   A less esoteric example is the Sherlock Holmes story "The Copper Beeches," which features not one but two long recountings by the client, Violet Hunter, and almost no on-stage action until the closing pages, when Watson shoots a dog.  (The doctor was provoked, but he was also probably tired of listening to Violet prattle.)

To keep the action on stage, you have to twist the plot and twist it again, because holding your covers apart isn't the only challenge you face.  You also have to fool your protagonist (and hopefully your readers) for three hundred pages.  The result can be a very complex plot, the kind Chandler and Macdonald were known for.  (One of my plots was called "labyrinthine" by a reviewer.  I didn't mind the adjective, but not being able to pronounce it still embarrasses me.)  After all, your detective hero is no dummy--it would be another turnoff for your readers if they were always way ahead of your Holmes, waiting for him to catch up.  So you'd better have convolutions within your convolutions.

It's no wonder that many writers relieve the pressure by filling their mystery novels with non-mystery material, like bread crumbs in the meatloaf.  The bread crumbs can take the form of romantic subplots, comic subplots, and updates on an extended cast of supporting characters that can start to read like a Christmas letter.  ("A funny thing happened last fall to Uncle Ollie at the state fair. . . .")

Another pressure relief valve that's been popular for a while is for the writer to slip out of first person to write passages or chapters or every other chapter in third person, often from the killer's point of view.  This approach offers the writer the chance to have it both ways, to have the distinctive voice and convincing inner life of first person and the fly-on-the-wall aspects of third.  For me, though, this technique "breaks the fourth wall," to borrow a motion picture term.  That's when Groucho Marx or some other comedian directly addresses the
Groucho, Breaking the Fourth Wall

camera to get a laugh.  ("I have to stay through this, but there's no reason you folks shouldn't leave.")  Breaking the fourth wall reminds the paying customers that they're watching a movie--or in the case of a mystery novel, that they're reading a book.  It can wake the reader up from the continuous dream that the writer works so hard to create.  And this is an even bigger sacrifice in a first person story, since this point-of-view shift can shatter the illusion that a Marlowe is sitting next to you at the bar, telling you his story himself.
And that's the great thing about first person, the thing that makes it worth all the effort it takes to stay in character for three hundred pages:  its intimacy.  And it's also the best answer to the charge that first is simplistic.  Creating a character like Marlowe from the inside out, who's familiar to the reader not because of some external trappings but because his inner voice is recognizable and believable and, on some level, not unlike our own, is anything but a simple job.  But if you pull it off, the reward is immortality.

Actually, it isn't.  But you do get to feel like you've done a day's work when you knock off for your martini.  Cheers.

22 July 2013

Books On Writing

Jan Grape
I've often found that books that talk about how to write are useful. Through the years I've bought quite a few of them. I honestly don't use them much anymore, but they sit there on my bookshelf and make my office look writerly.
To name a few: Writing the Novel, From Plot to Print and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, both books are by Award winning author, Lawrence Block; From Printout to Published, by Michael Seidman; Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain; How to Write a Mystery by Larry Beinhart; Break Writer's Block NOW, by Jerrold Mundis, Writing the Thriller by T. Macdonald Skillman.  Then I have The Crime Writers' Practical Handbook of Technical Information, Edited by John Kennedy Melling.  There's also The Courage to Write by Ralph Keys, Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico and Stephen King's book, On Writing.

All of these books are 12-15 years old but the information is still excellent. I'll admit I don't look at any of them very often, however, if I do feel stuck when starting a new book and I'm trying to work out characters or plot, I'll pull out one of these oldies but goodies and see what I can relearn.

I think it's satisfying to pull out a book like Block's book on novel writing and reading what he says on building characters. The main reason readers keep turning pages of a book is to see what happens next, and the main reason a reader cares what happens next is because they like the characters or a least the main character and they care what happens to that character. It's not easy to make your characters real or as editors often say three-dimensional. Your  characters must have something about them that a reader can relate to, or understand, or laugh with or at least care about.

We all know that we draw from real people we know. A certain look, a mannerism, a gesture yet we seldom incorporate a real person into a character. We could be sued for something like that. I once had an author tell me he's used a mannerism of mine for a character in his book. This was back when I used to smoke (20 years ago) I would set my elbow on a table with a cigarette in my hand. It was a small thing that I didn't realize that I did but I obviously did it often enough that the writer noticed it and used it. Of course, I had to buy the novel when it came out just to real that tidbit.

I like to people watch and used to go to big shopping malls to watch. One day, I noticed a man who kept rubbing his hands, both of them, over his almost bald head. I don't know if he was checking to see if he still had hair there or if it just felt good to feel his head. It was a gesture I used in a story I was writing at the time. If I remember correctly it was a minor character but I think it added to that character becoming more real.

Some times you write about a small town where people know just about everyone and although you are NOT writing about any town you where you may have lived, you'll probably be asked if Jane Doe is really Jane Smith that everyone know is a gossip. Or they'll say your town is really Georgetown or Johnson City or Kingsland isn't it?  And no, you really made up the whole town. Or someone will ask, where is Pioneer City and like my late friend, Barbara Burnett Smith used to say, I just smile and say it's about forty miles west of Austin.

Time is running out and I need to sign off as I can't sit still too long. I'm on my new computer and it has Windows 8 but since I'm only writing on our blog site, I'm not having any big trouble. And class if you ever have any doubts when starting a new book or a new story, look  on your bookshelf  or look online and see if you can find a good book on writing to download. I'll bet you get some great ideas. Until next time. Keep Writing.