30 June 2014

Twenty-Four, Maybe Forty-Eight Hours

by Fran Rizer

A few weeks ago, I shared some of John Floyd's hints and tips about writing for Woman's World. Today I'm adding one of my own tips, not just for WW, but for all creative writing.  First, please travel back in time with me.

Many, many years ago, not long after my divorce, I fell madly in love with a smooth-talking charmer. He said he'd been divorced once and had custody of his two teen-aged sons.  My boys were five and ten at the time, and a man with custody of his kids fit right into my ideal–someone who was family oriented. He was financially secure and lived in a beautiful home right on the lake. We went to his older son's football games.  We took all four boys places as well as having romantic weekends when both sets of sons were with their non-custodial parents.  Head over heels, gloriously in love, I accepted an engagement ring and his marriage proposal which came one night on the dock fairly quickly after we began dating.

Six months later, I learned that not only was he seeing someone on the side, he had lied about almost everything.  To sum it up, he'd been divorced six times, always on grounds of adultery.  Being a natural redhead at the time, I reacted in red–a fine point red-tipped pen.  I told him what I thought of him, called him a few nasty names, and shouted in red ink where he could go and what to do when he got there.  Then I dropped that ring in the envelope with my letter and drove forty miles in a blinding rainstorm to put it in his mailbox before he got home from work.

He called me when he read the letter and began with how shocked he was because he didn't know I knew such words.  When that didn't elicit a response from me, he apologized for the lies about his past but denied seeing anyone else.  When he said, "I love you," I hung up on him and didn't answer any more of his calls. (Thank heaven for caller ID even back then.) He began waiting for me outside the school where I taught, but I turned my back to him, got in my car, and drove away.  Don't know what I would have done if he'd followed me--probably driven straight to the police station.

No, I'm not writing for True Romance.  I'm headed toward a lesson learned, and yes, it has to do with both personal and professional writing.

Five years later, I ran into that first love after my divorce and being far beyond any caring or hurt or anger, I had a cup of coffee with him.  We talked about our children and shared a friendly conversation.

As we stood to leave, he pulled his wallet from his pocket and along with money to pay, he took out a folded piece of paper--a piece of paper with angry red words.  He'd saved that letter. At that moment, I vowed to never again send anyone anything I'd written before holding it twenty-four hours.

Here's the tip:  Like a good steak, writing benefits from a rest period.

From the time I finish what I consider the final rewrite, I don't send out anything I've written until I've waited at least twenty-four hours. At that time, I read it again.  Inevitably, I'll find at least one thing that can still be improved. Frequently, what I change is simply one word, but last week, I let one of those solve-it-yourself mysteries rest and when I went back to it, I realized that the protagonist's name was wrong.  I'd needed a name that began with the letter D and called her Deborah when she was actually a Delores.

We teach that stories need conclusions, so here's the conclusion to my opening tale.  The last I heard about him, he was on his tenth marriage and his older son was creating a track record very much like his dad's. Children learn what they live (and so do writers).

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

29 June 2014

Guilt and Vengeance

After finishing the Naguib story in Murder & Other Acts of Literature, I read two stories by women who commit literary murder on the page in the anthology. Guilt, not a woman scorned, fuels the desire for revenge in the stories by Alice Walker and Isabel Allende.

Alice Walker

  “How Did I Get Away With Killing One Of The Biggest Lawyers In The State? It was Easy” is a long title that identifies the 17-year-old narrator as the killer, leaving only as a surprise the motive. She is 14-years-old when the prominent lawyer Bubba (her name for him), the husband of her mother’s employer, rapes her. After the first encounter, they began a consensual relationship that lasts three years. Her mother constantly nags her about what she is doing with the man whose father is a segregationist. That he is a segregationist doesn’t matter to the teenage narrator because she thought, “he loved me. That meant something to me.” She knew nothing about civil rights; what she wanted was “somebody to tell me I was pretty, and he was telling me that all the time.” After three years, fed up with her mother’s constant nagging, with the help of the lawyer, she has her committed to an insane asylum. Three months later, she sees her in court when the mother’s lawyer challenges the commitment. To her surprise, her mother is really insane.  
Vapid was my reaction when I finished the story. It was difficult for me to objectively analyze it because of my anger at Alice Walker for the way she treated male characters, black and white, in The Color Purple, the first novel of hers I read a few years ago. I read two more novels and realized that she is a very good novelist. Not all her male characters are monsters, but I can’t shake my anger. So, I didn’t trust my reaction to the story.

Isabel Allende

  Isabel Allende, a Chilean writer has written numerous novels and received several awards. “An Act of Vengeance” is the first and only story of hers I’ve read. Like Walker’s story, it is about rape, guilt, and vengeance. During a violent time in a South American country, as his last mission, guerrilla Tadeo Cespedes comes to her village, kills her father, and rapes the 15-year-old Dulce Rosa Orellano. For 30 years, she thinks only of revenging the death of her father, who had sacrificed his life to save her. 
After 30 years, Tadeo, a powerful and important man in the new government, haunted by the image of the 15-year-old beauty he raped, returns to the village to find her.
The story is dissatisfying because of the predictable twist and easily guessed ending.
I enjoyed the stories, but, unlike the  Naguib story, which left me with the desire to reread, they did not invite rereading.

28 June 2014

What happens next?

by Elizabeth Zelvin

What's the question authors of fiction most want readers to ask? (No, it's not "How much?") I submit it's "What happens next?" Or as we say in New York, "So what happens next?" We're storytellers, and we want to engage our readers so completely that, like Scheherazade's husband, they wouldn't dream of shutting us up, much less killing us, before they find out how the story ends and, even better, how the next one starts.

I'd already thought of writing on this theme before I knew that today's would be my last for SleuthSayers except for an occasional guest slot in the future. Yes, this is my farewell to my delightful SleuthSayers blog buddies and the readers who have been kind enough to keep up with my rants and disquisitions on everything from cellphonismo to the latest crop of clichés, from murder ballads to mayhem in the Hamptons, from stalkers to stuffed animals. After more than two and a half years blogging here every other Saturday (and seven years of weekly posts, until this past January, on another mystery blog), I've decided to take that creative energy and apply it to the writing of my next novel.

That's the barebones version of what happens next in my writing career. There's a lot more to it. Until mid-February 2014, I thought that Voyage of Strangers, my historical novel about what really happened when Columbus discovered America (and sequel to two short stories that appeared in EQMM a couple of years back), was going to be my last novel. After 150 agent and editor rejections, I put the novel up on Facebook as an indie e-book, where my best efforts weren't enough to take it viral and I felt unwilling to pour my heart and a year of my life or more into the same discouraging process all over again.

What happens next? Enter my very own fairy godmother, in the unlikely guise of a senior acquisitions editor at Amazon Publishing. She loved Voyage of Strangers! Amazon's Lake Union imprint (literary and commercial fiction) wanted to give it "the audience it deserves"--magic words if ever I heard them, and they weren't the only ones. They said "advance." They said, "It's your book. You'll get thorough editing, but you're free to reject any and all changes you don't want." Best of all, they said, "Leave the promotion to us." After I'd finished pinching myself and asking if I was dreaming, I found myself more than willing for "next" to be writing another novel: the sequel to Voyage of Strangers, in which readers can find out what happens next to my protagonist, the young marrano sailor Diego Mendoza, and his sister Rachel.

What could not happen next was a continuation of Diego's and Rachel's relationship with Admiral Columbus in the New World. At the end of Voyage, they are heartsick at the genocide of the Taino, which they can do nothing to prevent, and sail back to Europe at the beginning of 1495. Nor can they return to Spain, where the Inquisition is pursuing any Jews who might not have complied with the Expulsion in 1492 or converted to Christianity but whose sincerity might be tested by torture.

Just as the backbone of crime fiction is the progression from crime to investigation to solution, the backbone of historical fiction is what really happened. Here's what really happened to the Jews: many of them fled to Portugal and parts of Italy where Jews were still tolerated, such as Sicily and Firenze (Florence). In Voyage, I sent Diego's parents and older sisters to Firenze, where the Medici were willing to harbor them. Diego and Rachel expect to find them there. Oops. Early in 1494, King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, including Florence. The Medici fled, and so did the Jews. Many of them ended up in Turkey, where Sultan Bayezid II of the Ottoman Empire allowed them to settle.

In Portugal, within eight months, King João decided he didn't want the Jews after all. They were given a choice between leaving, converting, and being killed. Worse, he ordered the abduction and enslavement of two thousand Jewish children, who were forcibly converted, thrown onto ships, and transported to São Tomé, a pestilential island off the west coast of Africa, where those who survived would work the sugar plantations alongside slaves from the Guinea Coast.

So Diego and Rachel will have to cross war-ravaged Europe (where starving, unpaid soldiers would descend on villages like locusts in miles-wide swarms) and then to Istanbul in search of their family. Meanwhile, a young girl is torn from her family on the Lisbon docks and marked for slavery in São Tomé. Don't you want to know what happens next? So do I! And that's why I've got to give up blogging and write Journey of Strangers.

The new edition of Voyage of Strangers--e-book, trade paperback, and audiobook--will be out in September. My Bruce Kohler mystery series--Death Will Get You Sober, two more novels, a novella, and several short stories--is all available on Amazon. You can find me on my website at elizabethzelvin.com and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/elizabeth.zelvin. Finally, I have new short stories coming out soon, one in AHMM and two in Sisters in Crime anthologies.

Note: As this post appears live, you're seeing my new headshot, taken on my 70th birthday, and getting the first look anywhere ever at Amazon's wonderful new cover for Voyage of Strangers. Highly motivated once more, I'm 35,000 words into the sequel, which tells an even more dramatic story of the Iberian Diaspora. I can hardly wait to share it with you all!

27 June 2014

Explosive Theory and the Impact of Romance on Mystery

by Dixon Hill

Four weeks ago, I posted here, asking what readers thought of mixing romance and mystery genres. I wondered: When do the two genres make a good fit, why does this happen (or not), and how can a writer mix the two genres to best effect?

Readers provided excellent comments, ranging the gamut of romance/mystery collusion.

  • Leigh mentioned the difference between the concepts of a story categorized as ‘romance with mystery elements’ vs. one presented as a ‘mystery with romance elements’—a very large difference, indeed, it seems to me, particularly in terms of structure and emphasis, where writing is concerned, as well as readers’ expectations. 
  • Fran and Janice pointed to a connection between the essence of dance and the essence of mystery—a concept that may, perhaps, be more important than it might at first appear—while Fran went on to provide an interesting “visual” in her comment. 
  • Elizabeth gave us some excellent specifics, stating that romance and mystery elements work well together, depending on story characters and plot conflicts, as well as story arc, stressing the need for these elements to organically fit the story, serving the plotline, instead of being gratuitously tossed in.   
  • An anonymous reader broached the subject of mysteries enjoying a romantic tension, even when the story arc doesn’t necessarily conclude with a Happy Ever After ending. 
  •  And, C.S. Poulson, a reader I’d not encountered before, but warmly welcome, asked how the addition of romance to any well-written story could ever be a bad idea. 

Ms. Poulson's question surprised me, frankly, because it so closely resembled the question in my own mind, which had set me on this track of thinking in the first place.

A properly executed romance subplot should—at least it seems to me—provide added depth to the story and help us get to know certain characters a bit better. Surely, I’d think, injecting the protagonist into a romantic relationship of some kind—even if it’s never acted upon—ought to provide a writer with ways to illuminate aspects of the protagonist’s philosophy and behavior that might otherwise be difficult to mine in a mystery without this flavor.

On the other hand: 

While I’ve read many mysteries in which romance elements increased story depth and fleshed-out characterization, sometimes even raising plot stakes and ratcheting-up dramatic tension, I’ve also, unfortunately, encountered those in which romance elements seemed at odds with the mystery, breaking the mystery’s tension at inopportune moments or simply tripping-up the flow of the storyline.

Which is why I found myself asking almost exactly the question posed by C.S. Poulson, in her comment: I wondered how the addition of romance to any well-written story could be a bad idea, and why?

Looking for answers to this question, as well as wondering how to prevent the aforementioned problem, is what led to my last two posts, and this one today.

Explosive Theory and Romance/Mystery Interplay 

In my last post, I told you about an experience I had, in the army, experimenting with impromptu explosive sine wave modulation. These shock waves, created when explosives are detonated, manifest themselves as sine waves that travel through those items targeted for demolition. In fact, according to explosive theory, they are largely the force that does the dirty work: tearing steel girders apart, punching holes through reinforced concrete, or throwing dirt high into the air while creating large holes in the ground.

Sine Waves, properly combined,
can result in great beauty.
I wrote that post because, having ruminated about this subject, I’ve become rather convinced that there is a relation between what I view as sine wave modulation and mystery/romance genre interaction.  It's a simple truth that has undoubtedly been quite obvious to many of you reading this. I, however, hadn’t given it any thought before. And, consequently, the idea is new to me.

In short, it seems to me that success or failure in genre-mixing, in general, is not only concerned with points made by readers in the above-mentioned comments, but is also reliant on something I would call “genre harmony and resonance” and the resultant “amplitude modulation” incurred by the story’s dramatic tension.

That mouthful may be enough to make you cross-eyed, though your own experiences may naturally have led you to internalize the same idea, but couched in a very different manner. I tend to think in fairly mathematic or scientific terms, however, and therefor think it might be a good idea to express myself visually.

We’ve all seen drawings of story arcs, and these drawings come in many different versions:

These plot diagrams look rather blocky in nature.

 But, others seem to model along a curve, or general curve . . .


 . . .  some of which tend to resemble sine waves or modified sine waves.

We've all enjoyed books or stories that employed mutiple layers of plot or depth.  One of the more complicated story arc diagrams I encountered rather closely resembled my own mental picture of story arc interaction within such a multi-level, or -- as in our case -- cross-genre, story:

And this mental picture, which existed in my head long before I ever found this diagram online, is what led me to think about successful genre mixing in terms of sine wave propagation.  Which, naturally (for me, at least) called explosive theory to mind, and made me remember that experience I had modulating sine waves at Ft. Bragg all those years ago.

In diagram terms, this is what the visiting blaster was trying to train us to:

(Example 1) Locate and time our explosive charges so that their resulting sine waves would cancel out.

(Example 2) Meanwhile, my friends and I managed to locate and time our charges so that the resultant sine waves piggy-backed on each other, thus increasing the sine wave's amplitude -- which got us in hot water with a couple of generals.

(Example 3) A more realistic example of what we achieved, however, probably more closely resembles this: The sine waves we created probably didn't quite piggy-back, being slightly out of phase (i.e.: the purple and blue waves are out of sync with each other), resulting in a sine wave (red wave) with increased amplitude, but not a sine wave with amplitude increased to the level we were targeting.

This interaction of sine waves, that are out of phase with each other (Ex. 3), or else in direct conflict with each other (Ex. 1), became of particular interest to me when considering mystery/romance cross-genre pieces that did not seem to work.

I'm still thinking about ways in which mixed-genre story arcs might be combined to create "sine wave" arcs of increased tension, or perhaps sometimes accidentally cancel each other out--resulting in reader disappointment.  I'm also thinking about how to properly locate and time disparate elements, within a single story that enjoys a mix of two or more genres, with their tension arcs arranged in proper phase.

And this question of Phase seems potentially crucial to me.  Sometimes, when sine waves interact, the result is a wave with perhaps a greater amplitude -- that wave is no longer regular.  It's no longer a sine wave.

As I explained earlier, I really don't understand music.  Don't get me wrong: I enjoy listening to it.  I like singing along, even.  But, I've never been able to truly understand it.  Which is why I'm a writer and not a musician.

On the other hand, I do enjoy dancing.  A LOT!  And, I also know that musical notes or tones involve waves, and that these tones may be altered by modulating the frequency or amplitude of these waves.

Another design created by sine waves.
Harmony and resonance are two terms most people probably identify with music, thus I believe we begin to see why the concept of interacive wave theory (such as the one I practiced that day on the demo range) and dance come into play here.

I used a dance metaphor in the pictorial portion of an earlier post, to illustrate my thoughts about the interplay of mystery and romance. This wasn’t a conscious decision my part. However, I’ve since come to think it may well have sprung from my unconscious (and not necessarily correct) understanding of the mixed-genre relationship.

I'm sure that anyone who constructed a book with all the pieces fully plotted on a graph would only succeed in creating something too static to appeal to most readers.

Literature is not math.  Yet, I can't help wondering about sound waves (which I understand ARE mathematical) that combine in harmony pleasing to the ear -- as well as the phase, frequency and amplitude of their component notes --wondering if this might help serve as a model for the preferable shaping of literary wave forms when combining plot elements or other genres.

While doing my research, I was surprised to run across site about perfume fragrances at http://www.indieknow.net/2013/08/a-beginners-guide-to-fragrances.html  in which "Lisa C." writes:  “Ever learn about a story arc? It starts off with your intro, leading to rising action, punctured with a climax and then falling action tying everything up in the conclusion (obviously there are more complicated arcs as well).

“Your perfume has a similar ‘adventure’ while sitting on your skin.  You might see the anatomy of perfumes' notes depicted as a pyramid, but I find I understand it better when I give my perfume its own story arc because your perfume is constantly in a state of evaporation and change while on your skin.”

Some interesting videos I found may be located at the following URL's.


 Discordant and canceled sine waves on this page: http://www.math.umn.edu/~rogness/math1155/soundwaves/ 


Let me know your thoughts.


26 June 2014


by Brian Thornton

Growing up I was a fan of the BBC television show Connections.

Hosted by noted British science historian James Burke, it traced the historical connections between two events/inventions/technological innovations that seemed at first blush to have no connection whatsoever.

I'm going to attempt to do something similar, although not technological, and on a much smaller scale.

We begin near the dawn of the 19th century, at sea, with a naval barrage. We will conclude near the
end of that same century, also at sea, also with a naval barrage.

Luckily they set the abridged version to music!
Let's begin with the "rockets' red glare" and see how that leads us eventually to the Spanish American War.

The quote above is, of course, from America's national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." Originally a long poem written after the all-night pounding that Fort McHenry, which guarded Baltimore Harbor, taken at the hands of the British fleet during the War of 1812, "The Star-Spangled Banner"'s author Francis Scott Key is famous for that piece of writing, and for little else.

Never mind that he was an accomplished lawyer who came from a wealthy, accomplished, and deeply religious, Maryland family. Key was, for decades, the United States Attorney for Washington, D.C.

THIS was Washington's handsomest man???
By the 1840s, the upstanding Francis Scott Key had retired, making way for his widowed (and, as it
turns out, far less upstanding) son, Phillip Barton Key. Dubbed "the Handsomest Man in Washington," the younger Key was a notorious flirt, and widely suspected of committing adultery with any number of willing, lonely married women in the nation's capital.

One of these lonely women was a dark eyed beauty of Italian extraction named Teresa Sickles.

The daughter of expatriate Italian parents (her father was a noted musician and music teacher in New York City), Teresa initially met her future husband Dan Sickles when he rented a room in her family home while studying law at N.Y.U.

Dan was twenty years old.

Teresa was three.

The tragic Teresa Sickles
Thirteen years later Dan, now thirty-three, got the sixteen year-old Teresa pregnant and they eloped.

Some who study 19th century American history would describe Dan Sickles as a product of his age: a machine politician of the first order who never saw a bribe he wouldn't take or a skirt he wouldn't chase.

Put simply, he was a skunk.

No less an authority than New York lawyer and diarist George Templeton Strong, a contemporary of Sickles, once said of him: "One might as well try to spoil a rotten egg as to damage Dan's character."

Sickles got himself elected to Congress, moving his young family to Washington, D.C., where he continued his philandering, his drinking, and his dabbling in wholesale graft. It was at this time that Teresa, bored, lonely, in a strange city, where she knew few people, embarked on an illicit affair with none other than "the Most Handsome Man in Washington," Phillip Barton Key.

The Sickles family lived on Lafayette Square, within sight of the White House (at the time still known as "the Executive Mansion"), and Key was wont to take up station on a park bench across the street from his paramour's house, signaling her discreetly with a handkerchief, when he wished to "get together."

Sickles got wind of the affair when he received a poison pen letter from an anonymous source (likely a jilted lover of Key's, or perhaps a jealous husband?). Enraged, he confronted Teresa, who tearfully confessed all.

And then Dan Sickles made history.

After forcing his wife to write down her confession, Sickles hid in his house, lying in wait for Key to take up his customary spot on his customary bench. When the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia showed up, sat down and waved his handkerchief, Sickles took up a pistol, rushed out of his house, into the street, and shot Key multiple times.

Key did not die immediately, but suffered in great pain for several hours before expiring.

"Crazy"? Not so crazy as to leave the house in order to murder his wife's lover without his top hat!
Sickles immediately turned himself in and made history with his affirmative defense: he claimed "temporary insanity."

And he got off!

Sickles actually got more heat in the court of public opinion for publicly "forgiving" his wife for her affair than for cold-bloodedly murdering a man a stone's throw from the White House!

This all took place in 1859, on the eve of the Civil War. And while Sickles "forgave" his wife, he never again lived with her or allowed her to see her children. She died a broken woman in 1867.

For his part, Sickles quickly got himself appointed a brigadier general in the army once war broke out. He was the worst kind of "political general": insubordinate, arrogant, thieving, and not above lining his own pockets at the expense of the welfare of his men.

Sickles' military career ended in July of 1863 when he disobeyed orders at the Battle of Gettysburg
General Sickles, hat still on.
and led his troops into a trap that led to heavy casualties under murderous fire. Sickles was one of those casualties, losing his right leg to a cannon ball during the battle. He later received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his act of willful disobedience.

Now how many palms do you suppose he had to grease to pull of that coup?

(Sickles eventually donated both the leg and the ball that severed it to the Smithsonian Institution.)

After the war Sickles returned to politics and used his influence both to defend his actions (usually by libeling such superiors as George G. Meade, who commanded all federal troops in the battle) and to ensure that a river of federal dollars flowed toward the establishment and maintenance of a national battlefield site at Gettysburg. During one of his frequent visits to the battlefield, Sickles was asked why, with all of the statues to various heroes of the battle dotting the landscape, was there no memorial to Dan Sickles?

Sickles' reply? "This entire battlefield is a memorial to Dan Sickles."

Slick, huh? A politician's answer, right?

Absolutely. And a whole lot sweeter sounding than the truth: a memorial for Sickles had been planned, with money both appropriated by the government and donated by third parties.

And then Sickles, who was tasked with overseeing the project, stole the money.

After his wife's death in 1867, Sickles was appointed U.S. Minister to Spain, where he spent six years flirting with the dowager Queen Isabella II (rumor had it he slept with her), married for a second time, and, through bellicose dispatches back home over incidents such as the Virginius Affair, did his level best to get the United States embroiled in a war with Spain over that old sore spot, the island of Cuba.

The problem for the United States was that her navy was nowhere near the equal of Spain's then state-of-the-art, steel navy.

Cooler heads (in the person of U.S. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish) prevailed, and war was avoided. At the same time the United States government, realizing its current navy was unable to adequately defend its coasts, embarked on a race to update its navy which culminated in the Battle of Manila Bay over two decades later, during the long-delayed Spanish-American War, where the by-now decrepit Spanish fleet was destroyed in a single afternoon by a single American naval squadron. Had that battle place in 1874, instead of 1898, the outcome would have likely been the absolute reverse of what history has recorded as a resounding American victory.

Manila in 1898: the direct opposite outcome of what likely would have happened in 1874!
And Dan Sickles? He survived it all, filling a succession of government plum posts, from several of which he was dismissed for looting the coffers he had been set to oversee. And he went on visiting his leg at the Smithsonian until his death in 1914 at age 94.

25 June 2014

Skid Marks (for Carole Langrall)

I thought I'd lighten it up a little, and get away from all that deep thinking, wading around in shallow waters.

My dad got me my first real job when I was fifteen. It wasn't my idea, but he obviously thought it was high time I didn't spend my summer idle, and I was getting too old for camp. I was going to start boarding school in the fall. Boy needed some life lessons. So he cooked it up with Mrs. McCartney to hire me at her garage.

Some back story. Hazel McCartney and her husband Sewell left a small town in Maine and came down to Cambridge, Mass., during the Depression. They started their business on a shoestring, but made out. Then, a few years later, from what I hear, he decided he didn't like it in the city, and went back upcountry. She stayed.

S.H. McCartney's was a fixture, outside of Harvard Square. Everybody used it for car repair, and I remember getting air for my bike tires there from the time I was off training wheels. It wasn't an unfamiliar work environment. What was unfamiliar was work.

The shop floor itself was guys, entirely guys, and tough working-class guys, Irish, Italians, Polacks. [Years later, I wrote a story called "The Blue Mirror," and used one of my personal heroes, Stanley Kosciusko, who survived the bombing raids over the Ploesti oil fields in WWII, but cancer killed him, in the end. He was the body man, not a mechanic. It's a special skill set.] They didn't treat me too rough, even though I was the FNG, and just a kid, but they didn't baby me along, either. Nobody sent me to find a left-handed wrench, or some other tom-fool errand, but they expected me to sink or swim, and get up to speed. I thought they were awesome. It was the first time I'd been put in a situation where everybody knew their business back to front. They were professionals. They could lean down and listen to an engine running, and tell you all it needed was a new set of points. To me, it was a different world.

Now. Mrs. McCartney. I think, by then, she must have been into her early sixties. And here in her shop, you have this overwhelmingly male presence, all of them people who knew their stuff, but I never heard a disrespectful word from any of them, in or out of her hearing. She came to work at 7 AM, and slipped into a white duster. We had a uniform service, so all the guys wore coveralls with their name over the pockets. I got a set of my own, too, after a month on the job. The boss had her name stitched to her uniform. It read MRS. MAC, and that's what we all called her. She was, maybe, the iron hand in the velvet glove, or more to the point, the iron hand in the iron glove. I admired her beyond words. If you asked me who my first and strongest role model was, I'd have to say it was her.

Now, a digression. Or not. Anybody who's ever run a small business knows that it stays afloat on endless paperwork, invoicing and payroll, tax liabilities, all that crap. So aside from the mechanics working on the floor, and the body shop, and the parts department, the nuts and bolts, no pun intended, there was an office upstairs, and it was run by a gal who was the first true Butch I'd ever consciously met. Not that I snapped to it, then. She was a chain-smoker, Camels or Luckies, and she smoked them down until the ashes fell behind her teeth. She was an intimidating figure. I didn't know at the time that she and Mrs. Mac owned a house together. What used to be called a Boston marriage. I have no idea what went on between the two of them, outside of work, and it's none of my business. The point is that Mrs. Mac trusted this woman absolutely, to handle the money end. Their relationship, in that sense, was transparent.

So we fast-forward about ten years. I'd dropped out of college, I'd been in the military, I'd had my heart broken. I slink back to my hometown, Cambridge, Mass., licking my wounds. I take my mom's car into Mrs. Mac's, and the first thing, she offers me a job. She needs a front-end guy. I say yes, don't even think about it. She wants somebody who knows their ass from a hole in the ground, and I need a comfort zone. I start the next day.

Here's the deal. Every morning I come in at 7, and take over from the night guy, Harry Truman, who's there to keep things safe. ('Mr. Truman.' she calls him, carefully formal. The only black guy on the payroll. Not somebody who tugs his forelock, either. Along with Stanley, another of my private heroes.) Then the shop foreman hands me the day's tickets. Out front, we got maybe fifty cars, stacked up with only enough room to get to the gas pumps. My job is to rearrange those cars. Which ones go to the tire station, who's in for an oil change, who has to get on the lift for a muffler job. You know that little hand-held puzzle, from when we were kids? It's a plastic pad, with thirty-five tiles, and thirty-six spaces, so you've only got one empty space, and you have to shuffle the tiles around and get 'em in order. Sort of a two-dimensional Rubik. Not all that hard. But that's what I did in the parking lot, first thing in the morning, shift the cars and line up the customers for the shop, by work order. Who's on First? Not rocket science, but attention to detail. If a hole opened up on the shop floor, you wanted to fill it.

Mind you, this place was right on Mass. Ave., and there were gas pumps, so I'm the gas jockey, too, and basically your first point of contact. I'm representing, not my strong point, I admit. I caught some odd details. There was a grocery store, right next door, for example, and this woman comes, threading between the cars, and she's got a three-year-old boy in tow, baffled, and a girl, six or seven, who's scrubbing her eyes and collapsing in tears. Not hysterics, although the mom's near crazy. "I think she must have touched a pepper in the supermarket, and rubbed her eyes." I reach over a car and scoop the kid up and get her into the bathroom, and have her splash water in her face. The mom is right behind me, wringing her hands. It passes. I give the little girl some soap, to clean up. Everybody takes a deep breath. The kid, her face red, a little embarrassed, I guess, thanks me. Her brother is looking at me with enormous eyes, like, What just happened? Their mom is of course relieved. Not that serious. The kids are okay, nobody's delinquent, she's not a bad mother, her daughter's not going to go blind. Today's good deed.

Then there was the bum.
  Because we were on the main drag, there was a lot of foot traffic, as well as cars going by. College kids, hippies, street musicians, office workers, stoners, who knows? Jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts the fashion. It was a parade. Hell, it was a zoo. I mean, come on, this was back in the day, everybody smoking dope and careless of the future. We thought we were the heroes of the Revolution.
  And this one particular morning, a guy shows up, somewhere past fifty, but hard to tell, the mileage on his tires. Burned brown as walnut, clothes worn but clean, not walking wounded. You get a read on people. He might have been down on his luck, but he had self-respect. He asks me if he can use the Men's Room.
  Well, okay. I hesitated. And then I thought, gimme a break. He's just a guy on his uppers. I say sure.
  Goes in, takes a leak, cleans up after himself, washes his face, doesn't piss on the seat. We're cool. He comes out, thanks me for the kindness, and then as he's going out the door, he turns back and flashes me this enormous grin.
  "It's a great life if you don't weaken," he says.

I think about that encounter. I think about it a lot. What if you didn't have a pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out of? And what if some kid in a gas station paid you the courtesy of treating you like you weren't some piece of gum on his shoe? You could be there.
  It's a great life if you don't weaken.


24 June 2014

Kill My Landlord, Kill My Landlord (or How Eddie Murphy Sparked a PI Novel)

by Jim Winter

One afternoon in 1999, I was watching reruns of Saturday Night Live from when Eddie Murphy was the only reason to watch the show. Outside, my upstairs neighbor was up on a ladder doing some balcony work for our landlord. On SNL, Eddie Murphy began doing one of his most famous bits as a prison poet. The poem had the refrain "Kill my landlord, kill my landlord." Most people would just laugh and say, "Wow. Eddie Murphy used to be funny before Pluto Nash." And that thought did cross my mind.

But I also wondered if my landlord instead of my neighbor did the balcony work, could one getting away with shoving him off the ladder?

Kill my landlord, kill my landlord.

Naturally, I started scribbling notes. What was the landlord's name? (Not mine. I usually dealt with his wife, who was a very nice lady.) How do you shove him off the ladder and make it look like an accident? I spent the evening banging out the basics of a story and had 14 pages of an outline by the time I got shut down the computer. I even tacked on Eddie Murphy's poem at the beginning for inspiration.

Kill my landlord, kill my landlord.

All this went into my first novel, Northcoast Shakedown. I guarantee when people finally read it, they weren't thinking of Eddie Murphy. They might have wondered if my landlord looked over his shoulder or if I had a blonde neighbor who entertained me with chicken wings. (I had a blonde neighbor. Never saw her eat wings.)

It's one of the more unusual places someone has found an idea for a story. Pink Floyd's The Wall might be the most odd. The classic album sprang from an incident where Roger Waters spat on an obnoxious fan. It wasn't even the most memorable incident that night. (Waters hurt his foot later horsing around backstage.)

I talked before here about where stories come from. There were the usual sources: Snatches of conversion, ripping from the headlines, what if scenarios. It's these strange moments that grab a writer's mind that are the most interesting. Sometimes, there's not even a story in the beginning. There are only disparate elements that a writer finds interesting and keeps mixing them up until he has a story. Think Caddyshack. The original story about a caddy trying to get a scholarship is still there as a polite suggestion, but Harold Ramis had no clue what his movie was about until he realized the real conflict was Bill Murray vs. the gopher.And that was after the movie was finished.

23 June 2014

Are You A Cop?

Jan GrapePeople often ask if I am or was ever a police officer since I write a policewoman series. My answer is "No." However, in 1991 I took some classes offered by the Austin Police Department. It was the Austin Citizen's Police Academy. The training was a four-hour, once a week for twelve weeks program, set up mainly for people wanting to belong to their Neighborhood Watch Program. When I filled out my application for the classes I said I wrote mysteries and was interested to learn more about policing in order to write more realistically. That got me into the classes and I enjoyed them a great deal. So much so, that I encouraged my husband to attend, which he did and I also joined the Citizen's Police Academy Alumni Association or the CPAAA.

The instruction was comprehensive and each week different departments were covered by either the head of the department or the next person in charge. The sessions covered Communications, Patrol, SWAT, Robbery Homicide, Fire Arms, Fraud, Canine Units, and General Training. Each session consisted of lectures, demonstrations, tours and the last session was a riding in a patrol car with an officer for a ten hour shift. Mine was a fairly easy shift but I did soon realize that every single call an officer responded to could be dangerous. Even the ones that were supposed to be nothing more than a suspicious vehicle parked on a neighborhood street.

The CPA's slogan was "Understanding through Education." The goal was to provide enough information to help dispel misconceptions about policing and establish rapport between citizens and the police officers. Besides the knowledge and understanding I gained, I also met several officers I was able to call on when I needed detailed information on a particular subject.

Once the training program was complete we had an actual graduation ceremony and were given a diploma. We were then able to join the Alumni Association if we wished to do so. I did and one of the perks for alumni members we were called out during at least one of the regular police academy sessions to be a "bad guy" in a practical exercise training. To me, that was great fun to pretend to be a scumbag, and really  get a cadet into a situation. They knew they weren't gong to actually get hurt but we could rag on them and cuss them out. The only time in my life I was able to cuss out a police officer and get away with it. I had a training officer tell me to get really mouthy with some cadets to see how they would react… especially if there was a cadet the T.O. needed to be sure that cadet would be able to keep their cool and handle the situation correctly.

In my book, Dark Blue Death, I wrote the first chapter of a scene that took place almost word for word in a training session. My training officer that day was a outgoing, very personable female officer who had been on the Austin police force for several years and in fact, was one of the first female patrol officers. She told me "war stories" of stopping a car for speeding and putting her police hat on. Her hair was pulled back in a pony tail and she had a bit of a deep voice. The culprit would be shocked to discover she was a woman. Sometimes walking up to the car, with a female driver, that female would be all ready to flirt with the officer, maybe pulling her skirt up a bit to show her legs. The idea being to get out of getting a speeding ticket. More than one driver showed real disappointment when the officer stopping her was female.

I actually went on a drug buy with an officer who told her Confidential Informant that I was a DEA agent helping on a special task force. The CI was given money by my police officer buddy and told what to buy. The CI went inside the suspect house and made the buy. The CI came back out with the drug and was sent on his way. The police officer put the crystal meth rock in an evidence bag, labeled and dated it, then she and I returned to headquarters and she showed me how they stored the drug in the evidence locker, marking the time and place and the action. It was all totally fascinating to me and still is. Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to get to accompany an officer in that manner nowadays. The CPA still exists but now is a fourteen week program and a number of the alumni work in a volunteer capacity where needed.

To be honest, I don't think I'd like to be a police officer but it's fun to write about being one. Strangely enough, I was writing Private Eye short stories before I wrote my first Zoe Barrow novel. And even after becoming an alumni of the citizen's police academy I still was working on a PI novel. I was out at the academy, getting ready to participate in a practical exercise when this policewoman character began talking to me.  Yes, I'm one of the weird ones who often hear voices in my head. My characters start talking. Zoe began talking and she was very determined that I tell her story. So I did. The first is Austin City Blue, and as I mentioned earlier, that Dark Blue Death was the second.

 Oddly enough when my husband passed away and I had a number of health problems, Zoe quit talking. She does have one more book to tell and it was half-way complete when my life changed. It's even got a great title, Broken Blue Badge. I just have a strange feeling that she's on the edge of my conscious and will show up one day soon and begin taking again.

Until then, I'll keep seeing all y'all fairly regularly.

22 June 2014

There was a Crooked Village

Little Stomping

Picture a village whose reason for being is a criminal enterprise. Imagine its entire raison d’être, its very existence hinges upon fleecing the public. Typical of such towns, as many as one in fifteen to twenty of residents– men, women, children and chickens– are part of its politico-judicial machinery: crooked cops, municipal machinators, and corrupt clerks.

And not ordinary crooked cops, but heavily armed with the latest in high-power assault weaponry and shiny pursuit vehicles. Police– poorly trained but still police– yet some may not have been certified officers at all. One fancied himself Rambo and stopped tourists with an AR-15 slung across his chest like that inbred couple in Open Carry Texas.

Village authorities arbitrarily moved town limit signs beyond the actual town’s boundaries in a bid to increase exposure to radar patrol… and revenues. When cops sat in lawn chairs aiming their radar guns and sipping from their open containers, they turned a blind eye to the citizens who dried their marijuana in the convenience store’s microwave. Oh, and those shiny police cars? The town often didn’t bother to insure them, this in a village where the police department wrote more tickets than Fort Lauderdale but still outspent its budget.

speed trap
First of three speed traps in
a 20 mile stretch of US 301.
AAA believed to sponsor sign.
Speed Trap

Set this supposition aside for the moment.

When I was a kid who couldn't yet drive, a short story left an impression on me. The plot centered around a man traveling to Florida who was caught in a small town speed trap. The police tossed him in jail.

Andy Griffith they weren't: they kept him imprisoned as the authorities systematically drained his assets like a spider sucks juices from a fly. Who do you turn to when the law is corrupt?

Florida sunshine has always attracted northerners during the icy winter months. In the first half of the 20th century, snowbirds filtered south through the highways and byways of America. Before the 1950s, towns and villages in the arteries of early tourism discovered they could make money fleecing tourists  passing through their area.
Lawtey, Hampton, Waldo
Lawtey, Hampton, Waldo speed traps
US 301
US 301: Jacksonville ↔ Gainesville
Atlantic at right, Georgia border at top

Some places in the Deep South considered northern travelers carpetbaggers and therefore fair game. Even so, town fathers and others found it easy to offset moral compunctions when considering the sheer profit involved. Could they help it if a Yankee ran a stop sign obscured by tree branches or failed to notice the speed limit abruptly changed from 55 to 25?

Where’s Waldo?

In the tiny towns of Lawtey, Hampton, and Waldo, that’s exactly what happens as the speed limits bounce every block or so from 55 to 30 to 45 to 25 and back again. If you have the time and patience, you might try locking your cruise control in at 25mph, hoping to beat the system. But they have an answer for that too– tickets for failing to maintain a safe speed.

In the early 1990s, it dawned on Hampton that nearby US 301 was an untapped piggy bank with the emphasis on piggy. The highway had been a source of resentment when it passed within a few hundred metres of the town limits, but devious minds found a way to make the road pay. The village annexed a strip of land 420 yards (384 metres) along the federal highway and began hiring candidates for police officers. Hampton’s speed trap was born.
(See maps below.)

In a state with a governor who committed the largest Medicare/Medicaid fraud in history, it takes a lot to outrage the Florida Legislature, but over time, Hampton succeeded. Their downfall started when they had the audacity to ticket State Representative Charles van Zant. Thanks to him, Florida lawmakers drew up plans to revoke the city's charter and revert the village to an unincorporated plat of county land.

Hampton with annex
Hampton with annex
Hampton with annex
The events that set Hampton above (or below?) its speed trap neighbors, Lawtey and Waldo, is the corruption that took place off the highway. The village can’t account for monies in the high six-figures while at the same time failing to provide basic maintenance and repairs. Under one free-spending family that ‘managed’ the little city, it ran up large debts at local stores and on the municipal credit card.

While the town failed to properly bill residents for the water utility, the clerk collected cash– Sorry, no receipts. The water department can’t reconcile nearly half of the water actually distributed, telling auditors the records were “lost in a swamp.” And if residents complained about inefficiency and corruption, their water supply was cut off altogether, prompting Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith to refer to the situation as “Gestapo in Hampton.

As CNN suggested, the town became too corrupt even for Florida to stomach. State and federal auditors agreed and wheels started turning to unincorporate the town and strip it of its charter. The road to perdition seemed inevitable.

Road to Recovery

But not everyone saw it that way. Once corrupt authorities slunk back into the shadows, good citizens of Hampton stepped forward. A former clerk took over the reins. A new resident made plans to run for mayor, replacing the current mayor who resigned from his jail cell. Volunteers put together a plan to bring the town into compliance and moreover, they acted upon it. Among other things, the town plans to de-annex the strip of land encompassing US 301 although the ‘handle’ part of the town’s griddle shape will remain.

At present, efforts to revoke the town’s charter remain in abeyance and it looks like the town may have saved itself. We can only wish legislators had the political gumption to rid the state of speed traps altogether in places like Waldo, Lawtey, and Windemere.

Short Story Bonus

And, in case you were wondering, Jacksonville is probably not named after Shirley Jackson, despite her [in]famous short story about a small town. Read it on-line | download eBook PDF | download audiobook.

21 June 2014

Ruminations of a Senior Citizen

NOTE: Please join me in welcoming my friend Herschel Cozine as our guest blogger.  Herschel is well known to the writers and readers of both SleuthSayers and its predecessor, Criminal Brief, as an accomplished author of short mystery fiction. His credits include AHMMEQMM, Woman's World, and many other publications, and his book The Humpty Dumpty Tragedy was nominated by Long and Short Reviews for Best Book of 2012. (I'm currently on the road and will be back in two weeks--meanwhile, I've left you in good hands. Herschel, thanks again!)
-- John Floyd

In the past few months several of you have commented on the fact you are getting old. Not fifty or sixty type oldies. Let's face it, that's kid stuff. We are talking "old." It should be a four-letter word. Maybe that's why the British put an "e" on the end. On the other hand, with age comes wisdom, or so the saying goes. Speaking from personal experience, I question that. Some people never learn.

But that is not the purpose of this discussion.

I have a birthday looming on the horizon. Another one. That's the third one this year, or so it seems. I suppose I should be grateful. After all, studies have shown that birthdays are good for you. The more you have the longer you live. But I'm at a point in my life where they start to hurt.

I have a T-shirt that reads: "I plan to live forever. So far, so good." An old Steven Wright joke. But at times I feel I have accomplished that goal.

There is no polite way to put it. I am an old man. It certainly is nothing to be ashamed of. It happens to everyone if they are lucky. But it is a sobering time of life, a time when one comes face to face with his mortality. I recently had a financial guru give me a tip on an investment that would double in value in five years. I turned him down. I am no longer a candidate for long term investments.

What has that to do with writing? When I was young and innocent--well, young anyway--I had the irresistible urge to write. As fellow writers, you need no explanation. But I didn't write for any specific market or, for that matter, for any market at all. I wrote because it was something I had to do. I got a certain amount of recognition for this hobby, or whatever word you care to use, when I was in high school. Class writing projects in English usually resulted in my effort being used by the teacher as a model. One of my class projects found its way into the yearbook. It felt good to get this recognition, but in high school no self-respecting boy would admit it. A football hero? Yes. Drag racing champion? Certainly. Writer? Are you kidding me?

Eventually, after college, I was told by someone that I should try my hand at writing for--how crass--money. I had been writing poems and stories for children, but never submitted them to magazines. The thought was intriguing. I found an ad in a writing magazine about a contest being sponsored by the Society of Children's Book Writers. First prize was $100, a princely sum at that time. I had just completed a children's story, in verse. So I typed it up, put it in the standard package of the day--a manila envelope--and sent it in. Lo and behold, it won!

I was hooked. For several years I wrote and sold a fair number of poems and stories to the children's magazines of the day. But, being a big fan of adult mysteries, I eventually turned my attention to writing them. My first success in that arena was a Department of First Stories sale to Ellery Queen.

I won't bore you with any further successes and failures. I have had some of the former and more than my share of the latter. I mention them only as a prelude to what I really want to say.

I have reached a stage in my life where writing for money is no longer important. Oh, I won't turn down a check if some editor wants to buy my story. But this is now merely a fringe benefit and not the main purpose for continuing to write. (Come to think of it, it never was.)

What is important to me is to have the respect of those who take the time to read my efforts. I particularly cherish the recognition afforded me by other writers. They, after all, are fellow travelers who know and appreciate the slings and arrows of this business. They have hit the same bumps, felt the sting of rejection and the giddiness of acceptance. You, my friends, matter.

As I said in the beginning, I am an old man. I no longer write with the fervor and eagerness of youth. Ideas that used to come in torrents now dribble in grudgingly. I continue to write. But it is not the same. I am more critical of my work, often deleting it after several attempts to make it work. But enough of it remains to keep me going. And that will never change. I don't question why. All I know is that I am a writer; whether a good one or not I leave for others to decide. But a writer--a true writer--cannot quit. To paraphrase, neither sleet or snow or dark of night, or old age, will keep a writer from his word processor. And now to bed.

NOTE: A special thanks to Jim Williams, a lifelong friend, for his cartoon. In addition to being a cartoonist, Jim is a fellow writer. His book, Cattle Drive, published by High Noon Press, has just been released and is available on Amazon.