31 July 2018

The Things We Do for Our Art

by Paul D. Marks

We all do various forms of research for our art, our writing. And we all make sacrifices for it. Some are big, some are little. There’s the standard research in books and on the net. Then there’s first-hand research, going to a particular location, talking to people who might have been involved in a certain event, or maybe taking on certain experiences ourselves, etc.

I’ve hung out in dive bars and other dives (including SCUBA dives). And spent years doing things that would make your hair curl and mine, too…if I had any, all so I could have a life and some life experience to eventually write about. Well, maybe I didn’t think of it as research at the time, but in retrospect it came in handy for things I wrote later on. And I’ve turned down invitations to go places, anything from a movie to parties, with friends so I could write—and have lost friends over it. Ah, the sacrifice.

But here I want to focus on a handful of things that I think are kind of funny in retrospect. At least these are a few of the ones that are light enough and that I’m willing and comfortable enough to talk about at this time, but they’re really only the tip of that sacrificial iceberg.

The Den of Nazis: Okay, maybe Nazis aren’t fun, but here goes: In ye olden days, before the
internet, I was doing research for a project set in the near past. I needed info about the daily life and costs of items and such from the 1930s, 40s, etc. Time-Life had a book series called This Fabulous Century. Each volume covered a decade and had that types of info in them. I had a few of the volumes  but not the whole set—how I managed that I’m not sure. Anyway, I wanted to get the rest of the set so I saw an ad from someone selling it. I responded and they gave me their address in a middling L.A. neighborhood, not great, not horrible. I drove down one afternoon. Nice old brick or other classic-type apartment buildings, like something Philip Marlowe would be comfortable in. I go to the people’s apartment. A young woman answers the door and lets me in. I walk into this beautiful old living room with fancy crown molding and gorgeous original wooden floors and the biggest motherfucking Nazi swastika flag hanging on the wall that you can imagine. It took up the whole wall. Now, maybe they were just into humungous historical flags…or maybe something else. The rest of the place was filled with all kinds of other Nazi stuff too. Now I’m wondering if the books were just a scam. Will I get out alive? Her boyfriend comes to me “You want the Time-Life books?”—Yeah, and I want to get out of here in one piece. I also didn’t want the whole set of books as I had some, and, long story short, I bought the ones I needed, the people were actually nice and we didn’t talk politics. I left but it left an impression on me.

Mobbed Up: I had a spec script I was trying to push that dealt with a delicate issue, which I won’t go into here. And there was a nightclub in L.A. at the time that catered to a certain type of clientele that were in my story. So I made an appointment to go talk to the owners as I thought maybe they’d like to finance a movie. In those days I’d talk to anyone or try anything to hawk my stuff—see my Cary Grant and Gene Kelly stories on my website: https://pauldmarks.com/cary-grant-gene-kelly/ , and those are just a couple of my more fun stories. Anyway, I went to the club for my appointment and was led into the back offices where I met Murray: The Gangster. Straight out of Central Casting, gray pin-striped suit, carnation, Brooklyn accent. Well, Murray was interested but he needed to talk to his partners (hmm, who could they be, Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel—well, no, ’cause they were goners by then—though I did grow up across the street from Bugsy’s brother and his family, but that’s another story…) Long story short, nothing came of it in terms of getting financing for a movie, but my then-writing partner took to calling me Murray and on occasion I used that and  another last name as a pseudonym.

Stolen Identity – before it was even a term: I was working for a small newspaper. The editor called me and asked if I had called NASA to request press credentials to attend a Space Shuttle landing. He continued, saying NASA had called him to verify if someone from our paper had faxed them to request press credentials for the landing…using my name. Talk about your “Oh shit!” moments.
What? No. I covered local stories, movie reviews and entertainment, not space shuttle landings. I was alarmed. Was someone impersonating me? Had they stolen my identity? Were they terrorists? What the hell was going on? I called the FBI and talked to an agent with the lowest, deepest voice I’d ever heard, lower than I ever imagined possible. He didn’t seem concerned. But I couldn’t let it go. So, I did some of the best detective work of my career…I called Ma Bell and had them trace the fax number where the credential request came from to a local Kinko’s. Then my Mata Hari (Amy) called Kinko’s pretending to be the secretary to a Colonel Severin. They gave her the name and phone number of the imposter who’d sent the credential request. Then I called NASA and told them about the ruse and gave them the information we had tracked down. Hey, they should have given us medals for this, but they also seemed kind of blasé about the whole thing. But if this had been post-911, I’m sure they would have had a different attitude and a different ending…or maybe not. Who knows? At least I didn’t end up at Guantanamera, I mean Guantanamo.


The Mossad: I was working on a script for a producer (who was also an actor, more on this later). The woman who hooked us up warned me about him ahead of time—I should have heeded the warning. He was a pain in the ass to put it ever so mildly. One time in our previous house where the houses were closer together than where we are now, I was screaming at said producer on the phone. Amy was home and since I didn’t want her to think I was the lone psycho on that call I put it on speaker so she could also hear him screaming at me. I was also concerned that our neighbors would think I was yelling at her as the houses were close, but luckily no cops were called. To say my relationship with this guy was contentious would be the understatement of the century. But we worked together for a while…until things got so bad that one day he threatened to send his friends in the Mossad after me. Quaking in my boots, I couldn’t sleep for years, waiting for the stealthy Mossad operatives, who I’m sure had nothing better to do than to come after me. And, as for the actor part, well, since he is an actor I see him in things now and then and it makes it hard to watch them. On occasion I’ve turned them off. And I’m still looking over my shoulder every day…

The Bondage House: Aside from working for other people on their properties or rewrites I was always trying to find money to do a film of my own. To that end, someone I knew said, Hey, I know a producer and maybe he’d want to invest in your project. This is someone whose work I knew and you might know his movies too. So we went to this guy’s house in the hills and it was a really cool house, kind of like a huge Spanish-Mediterranean castle. But on the inside it was more like a Spanish-Mediterranean dungeon. You walked in the front door and there were very sexily and scantily clad mannequins chained to the wrought iron staircase and anything else you could attach a chain to. There were dressed in leather bustiers and wearing high heels. For some reason I can’t remember anymore, my friend and I got the tour of the house and the chained mannequins were everywhere. This was another one where I wondered if we’d get out unscathed, but we did. And, of course, he didn’t want to invest in my film—he wanted me to invest in his. Ah, Hollywood.

The Joan Crawford House: Or should I say museum? Someone wanted me to meet this guy—I can’t remember his name anymore—who had been Joan Crawford’s publicist before she died. She/my friend thought maybe he could help me raise some money—like I said, always looking for money. I wish we had Go Fund Me back then… Anyway, we go to this guy’s house, a nice, Spanish style house in Bev Hills (my favorite architecture by the way), though not nearly as big as the bondage house, and you walk in the door—no, no bondage gear this time—but the house was totally decked out in everything Crawford. He had several of her dresses displayed, every little thing she’d ever touched it seemed like, cigarette lighters and shoes. It was a total museum and homage to Joan Crawford. If her ghost wasn’t haunting that place I don’t know where it would be. And no, he didn’t end up investing either.

There were also other pleasant experiences like a trip to New Orleans and other places for research and other things. And then the Top Secret things that I’m not ready to talk about. But good, bad and indifferent, we all make sacrifices for our writing. What are some of yours?

***
Broken Windows – Sequel to my #Shamus-winning White Heat drops 9/10/18. A labyrinth of murder, intrigue and corruption of church and state that hovers around the immigration debate. #writers #mystery #amreading #thriller #novels  



Available for pre-order now on Amazon.



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com

30 July 2018

A Tiny Little Foot

We have a special treat today. Jim Thomsen, a newspaper reporter and editor for more than twenty years, has been an independent editor of book manuscripts since 2010. His short crime fiction has been published in West Coast Crime Wave, Shotgun Honey, Pulp Modern and Switchblade. He is based in his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Learn more about him at jimthomsencreative.com  

I should point out that this piece is about true crime and includes language and deeds you would not find in, say, a cozy novel. - Robert Lopresti

A TINY LITTLE FOOT

by Jim Thomsen

On June 28, 2018, a disgruntled reader walked into the newsroom of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland and shot several people, killing five. That evening, the survivors pushed aside their shock and grief because, as one reporter put it, there was no other choice. As he put it: “We are putting out a damn newspaper.”

That quote brought back to mind an incident that happened almost twenty years before, one with strong echoes of that tragedy. One to which I bore painfully intimate witness. This essay is adapted from a Facebook post.

August 20, 1998, just before nine a.m. on a sunny Thursday morning. I'm a reporter at the Bainbridge Island Review. Our offices are on the ground floor of a two-story building on Winslow Way West, at the edge of the excruciatingly touristy downtown, the sort of place where you can walk off the ferry from Seattle and buy a chunk of lacquered driftwood for $225 in any of a half-dozen shops. It’s my hometown. I love it and despise it in almost equal measure, which is a useful tension for a newspaper reporter to work from.

Most mornings, as I pulled into the parking lot in my battered pickup, I greeted Marge Williams, a retired city councilwoman and the building’s owner. I almost always saw her outside her second-floor apartment, tending to her plants and flowerbeds, or toting a tray of baked treats to the reception desk. But not this morning.

I walk inside to find our publisher, Chris Allen, staring at a damp red stain on the ceiling above the newsroom. Below Marge's bedroom. We think at first it might be spilled paint — after all, the building was a dark red in color and for the last week, Steve Phillips, a longtime islander and local handyman, had been pressure-washing and repainting the exterior. But it doesn’t look like that, quite.

"I don't think that's paint," Chris says.

"Maybe we should check with Marge," I say.

Chris frowns. "Maybe we should check ON Marge."

So we go upstairs. We knock. No answer. The door's unlocked. We go in. Nobody in the living room or kitchen. That left the rooms in back, including the bedroom. Chris tells me to wait as she goes down the hall. A few minutes later she returns, looking hollowed out and sick. She'd found Marge. Not in her bed. But wrapped in her bedding. Everything mummified from view except for —

"A foot," she says to me. "A tiny little foot."

*****

Things happen fast. Cops, everywhere. I didn’t know Bainbridge Island had so many cops. Flashing lights. Bursts of radio chatter and static. Miles of yellow crime-scene tape. I stand on the sidewalk with my colleagues, notebook in hand, all but forgotten. We're in little clusters, murmuring, eyes fixed on some invisible middle distance. Doug Crist pulls up as close as he can get, motions me over. He's in charge that week, as Editor Jack Swanson's on vacation. "What's going on?" he asks.

"Somebody murdered Marge," I say.

"Oh," he says.

And I understand, in that moment, why, when Paul McCartney was told about John Lennon's murder, he said, "It's a drag."

At moments like these, 99.99999 percent of you is somewhere else.

*****

Things happen fast. A couple of hours later, we're in nearby offices belonging to local PR guy/movie theater owner Jeff Brein, who's graciously given us space to work. We've managed a few notebooks, pens, computers, stuff from our own office, before Police Chief John Sutton politely, even apologetically, kicks us out. Jack, who's been vacationing at home, comes in, takes over. We watch from the parking lot as Seattle TV cameras set up at the edge of the perimeter.

We huddle up: Jack, Doug, Chris, education reporter Pat Andrews, photographer Ryan Schierling, I forget who else. Me.

We agree right off on a few things:

One, we’ve got a job to do. No losing our shit till later. Much later.

Two, it’s OUR story. It’s a Bainbridge Island story. It doesn’t belong to The Seattle Times or the Seattle P-I or the Kitsap Sun, the daily in Bremerton, an hour away. It doesn’t belong to KOMO-TV, or KING, or KIRO, or Q-13. Or anybody else. It belongs to the Bainbridge Island Review, a twice-weekly with a circulation of about 10,000. We don’t talk to the interlopers, we don’t make their jobs easier, we don’t act like eager freshman frat pledges for their fucking journalism farm team. Fuck them.

We plot out avenues of attack, and get to it. But first we meet individually with the cops and give our statements. Mine takes more than an hour.

*****
John Sutton is a smart cop, and beyond that, he’s a community cop. He gets it. That night, late, he lets us back into our offices once, I soon learn, he clears me as a suspect. He sits down with us and says, “OK, you guys, and you alone. What do you want to know?”

Why was I a suspect? I ask. Because, he says, I was at the newsroom late the night before, working, and then puttering around so I could listen to the Mariners beat the Blue Jays in extra innings. I later went to a friend’s house, and she verifies when I arrived and when I left.

We move on to questions about the autopsy, and it’s then that I learn that I missed the murder by two hours, three at most. It’s then that I wonder for the first of roughly 48,023 times what I would have done, or not done, had I been there when the killer started up the stairs. Always.

John patiently answers all our questions as best as he can, way past midnight.

Once we learn that Steve Phillips was arrested with a bloody golf club in his trunk, our Bainbridge-ness kicks into fifth gear. Steve’s estranged wife is a childhood classmate of mine. She agrees to talk to me, tells me about Steve, whose half-brother JayDee Phillips, a childhood classmate and occasional pal, was one of the island’s last murder victims, nine years before. She tells me about years of anger and abuse that go back at least that long. Jack gets some great stuff on Marge’s background; Doug, Pat, everyone does heroic work. And, as we learn the next day, paying loose attention to the TV stations and the other papers, mostly exclusive work. Chris gives us everything we need to function, and above her, Sound Publishing President Elio Agostini pledges every possible resource.

Friday afternoon, after stretching press deadline as far as possible, we put the Saturday edition of the Review to bed. Then we keep reporting. There are press conferences. Prosecutorial maneuvers. People who hug me in Town & Country and have something to share, sometimes something worth chasing. We keep chasing. We’re too tired to stop.

*****

Somewhere around 7 p.m., someone in the newsroom says to knock it off. It’s time to give ourselves a break. We did it. We kicked the living shit out of the story sixteen ways from Sunday. We did it. Now it’s time to stop looking at the stain on the ceiling and grieve our friend Marge. And drink. Drink heavily. We take over an outdoor table at the Harbour Public House, or maybe it was Doc’s Marina Grill. There’s fifteen or so of us. We’re grubby, weary, not especially articulate.

But we toast to Marge, and we toast to ourselves. We had a damn newspaper to put out, and by God, we put out a damn newspaper.

A few months later, Steve Phillips was convicted of aggravated, premeditated first-degree murder and sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. I testified at his trial. It turned out that he finished the painting job, drank and gambled it away at the tribal casino just across the bridge from the north end of Bainbridge Island, and decided in that state that he hadn’t been paid enough. He drove back to Marge’s apartment, angrily confronted her in the middle of the night, and when she refused to give him more money, he beat her to death with a golf club.

I stayed on at the Review for another year, then moved on to other papers and other places. I finished my newspaper career with a long run as the night news editor at the Kitsap Sun, the paper I helped misdirect during the pursuit of the Marge Williams story. I have no regrets about that. That’s what a good newspaper person does, and I hope I was a good newspaper person. Or at least one who got out the damn newspaper every night. No matter what.

29 July 2018

The Modular Story

by R.T. Lawton

So far, all of my 100+ published short stories have been what is known as straight line stories, those told in chronological order. But then in the May/June 2018 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, I read "Suspect Zero" by Benjamin Percy. His story is called a modular story, one which is told out of sequence, but the modules are related by thematic meaning. It's not that the author can just rearrange the segments in the telling of the story and call it good. If the author has done his job correctly, then the reader can find the connection from one story module to the other.

And yes, I did have to read the story twice to pick up some of the elements, however, I will chalk that up to the slowing of my brain function due to advancing age rather than upon Percy's abilities. Frankly, I found his story to be very well written. Intrigued by the concept, I researched what goes into the making of a modular story. Then, I dissected "Suspect Zero" to see the details of how this particular story worked. Below are my short notes. Of course, you as a different reader may find other items of interest in your own reading and dissection of this story.

The story modules in my dissection are presented here in the same consecutive order that the story reads from the first module to the last one. The numbers in bold (#4, #2, etc.) are the way that the story segments would read if they were put in chronological order if it had been written as a straight line story. Thus, the note labeled #4 5:32 am is the first module in the story, but would be the 4th set of events in chronological order.The times, dates and locations in bold are the same ones the author used as headings for each module. The subsequent notes are my condensing of the action or events happening in that module.

#4  5:32 am 11/20 Chip County, WI
     Train moving through the early morning, stops, conductor checks cars and finds a foot sticking out (from a dead man) in a coal car.         Conductor's POV

#2  1:00 am 11/20 Steele County, MN
     Man watches train go by, remembers laying pennies on the track as a kid, remembers hints of him getting in trouble when a girl disappeared, no proof against him, but his mother knew and threw him out of the house. Train passes, he parks the truck out in the country. He's dressed as a shadow, gloves, sneaks up on a house, tries the windows, then breaks out sliding glass back door as train noise covers his sounds. Reader feels he's going to kill/rape someone.
        Man's POV (reader sees as potential killer)

#1  3:01 pm 11/19 Steele County, MN
     Laura in house thinks she's far enough out in country that no one would bother her, but she has four visitors come to door: deliveryman, Girl Scout, Mormon boys, and meat truck driver/seller with Pete's Meat Truck. Truck driver/seller comes in house w/o permission, asks questions about her living way out here. As she pushes him out, train goes by like a banshee cry.
         Laura's POV (NOTE: she ends up being the criminal protag)

#5  10:30 am 11/20 New Auburn, WI
     Funeral director Mildred is also the coroner of a dying town. Sheriff asks her to look at dead man found on top of RR car. She says dead about 12 hours. Corpse has no teeth and no hands. Mildred says that was because the killer was looking for time to get away without being discovered.   
         Mildred's POV (NOTE: sex of corpse is not disclosed)

#6  4:16 pm 11/24 Steele County, MN
     Templetons return home from Europe to find that someone has been in their house. Call deputies. Talk about what has been disturbed. Deputies ask if they have dogs or cats. Why? They found blood by back door, but no bodies.             Homeowner's POV

#3  2:00 am 11/20 St. Paul, MN
     Jimmy, a fence with a room below his pawn shop, meets with a female maybe named Laura. He shows a pistol in his belt. They dicker on price for stolen merchandise, then go to the truck (Pete's Meat Truck) to show Jimmy the stolen goods. She gives him the truck keys. He wants sex with her before he pays, tries to force her. She pulls a knife, stabs his wrist to the table and takes his gun. She also takes the security footage and all his money. "Already, Jimmy understood that she was in fact the blade and not the meat to be butchered."                   Jimmy's POV

It is only in the final module that the readers, if they have followed the clues, realize that the body on the train was the man/truck driver/seller in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th modules of the story and that the house in the 2nd, 3rd and 5th modules is the same house. The final module also reveals that Laura is the real killer and not some innocent housewife as the reader is led to believe she is based on information in the 3rd module (chronological segment #1).

So now, assuming you've read this far, you have probably figured out why I had to read the story twice. In any case, I enjoyed the story so much that I laid out a plan to write my own modular story, "The Band Played On." It is now almost ready to submit. Unfortunately, we won't know for about eleven months whether or not my modular story gets accepted for publication. Regardless of the outcome, I had fun with the modular story structure and fleshing out the details.

As long as we're talking about different story structures, did you know there is also the Rashomon method for telling stories?

28 July 2018

A Million Tiny Steps

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

I'm paraphrasing Jane Friedman here, when I say:
"Success takes a million tiny steps."


People always ask me what's the hardest part of being a college fiction writing teacher.  Is it all the marking?  Having to read student works in genres you wouldn't choose to read?  The long hours teaching at night, at the podium?

I don't teach that way (at the podium.)  I'm a desk-sitter.  But it's none of that.

By far, the hardest part of being a writing instructor is telling my students about the industry.  And in particular, that they aren't going to knock it out of the park with their first book - the one they are writing in my class.

It's hard, because they don't want to believe me.  Always, they point to one or two authors who make it to the bestsellers list on their first book.  "So and so did it - why won't I?"

What they don't know is that the book on the best-seller list - that author's "debut novel" - is most likely NOT the first book the author wrote.  Industry stats tell us it will likely be their 4th book written.  (3.6 is the average, for a traditionally published author.)

My own story works as an example.  My first novel published, Rowena Through the Wall, was a bestseller (yay!)  But it wasn't my first novel *written*.  It was my third.  And before that, I had 24 short stories published, which won me six awards.  (Six awards, students. Before I even tried to get a novel published.) 

Each one of those short stories, each of those awards, was a tiny step.

About that first novel: it was horrible.  So horrible that if anyone finds it on an abandoned floppy disk and tries to read it, I will have to kill either them or me.  It was a Canadian historical/western/romance/thriller with a spoiled, whiny heroine who was in danger of being killed. No shit. Even I wanted to kill her.  The second book was also horrible, but less horrible.  It was a romantic comedy with a "plucky heroine" (gag) and several implausible coincidences that made it into an unintentional farce. 

By the time I was writing my third and fourth novels, I got smarter.  Apparently, I could do farces.  Why not deliberately set about to write a humorous book?  And while you're at it, how about getting some professional feedback?  Take a few steps to become a better writer?

I entered the Daphne DuMaurier Kiss of Death contest.  Sent the required partial manuscript.  Two out of four judges gave me near perfect scores, and one of them said:
"If this is finished, send it out immediately. If this isn't finished, stop everything you're doing right now and finish it. I can't imagine this wouldn't get published."

One more tiny step.

That book was The Goddaughter.  It was published by Orca Books, and the series is now up to six books.  (Six steps.) The series has won three awards, and is a finalist for a fourth, this year. (Four more steps.)

I'm currently writing my 18th book.  It comes out Fall 2019.  Last summer, for the first time, I was asked to be a Guest of Honour at a crime fiction festival.  It may, just may, be my definition of success.

If you include my comedy credits, I have over 150 fiction publications now, and ten awards.

160 tiny steps to success. 

Conclusion:  Don't give up if your first work isn't published.  Take those tiny steps to become a better writer.  Take a million.

How about you? In what way has your writing career taken a million tiny steps?





27 July 2018

Harlan Ellison Wrote in Public

Harlan Ellison Wrote in Public
by O'Neil De Noux

In public, in the window of a bookstore with customers milling around, clerks ringing up sales, passersby gawking at the man behind the typewriter and interrupting him with questions – Harlan Ellison wrote short stories. He did this in bookstores around the country, wrote over a hundred stories this way to demystify the writing process. He also did this to promote a book or a bookstore.


Harlan Ellison (in black vest) in Bookstar Bookstore, New Orleans, March 31, 1990

As author-editor-publisher Dean Wesley Smith recently posted, "Harlan called bullshit on the rewriting myth. And he not only called bullshit, he showed clearly, in public, another way."

I witnessed Harlan write a story when he came for the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival in 1990. Typically, a stranger was enlisted to provide an opening line and Harlan would sit behind his Remington typewriter and write the story, having someone tape the pages to the bookstore windows as he progressed.

On Saturday, March 31, 1990, New Orleans nightclub owner and exotic dancer Chris Owens presented Harlan the opening line for a story which Harlan took, sat down and wrote a 4,700 word story entitled "Jane Doe #112," The story of a man haunted by six wraiths, six sickly white faces, not ghosts but figures "as if made of isinglass."


Chris Owens and Harlan Ellison at Bookstar

I watched, took pictures, listened to people ask the writer questions as he wrote, a couple asking extra questions in a gleeful attempt at derailing Harlan, which did not work. I remember him sending me off through the bookstore to look up a fact he needed for the story.


Harlan Ellison and his Remington typewriter

I'm paraphrasing Harlan here. He explained he wrote this way to rebuke the belief writing is mystical, a special process reserved for the few who know the rules, know the secret handshake, wear the invisible super-secret decoder ring. He wanted to show a writer did not need an outline or writing in support groups, critiquing, did not even need re-writes.


Harlan Ellison writing "Jane Doe #112

Dean Wesley Smith is correct in his description of Harlan – "He was a performer, a carny, a man in need of a reason to write a story." As the publisher of Pulphouse Publishing, Dean and Harlan put together a three-volume project called ELLISON UNDER GLASS, to include all the stories Harlan wrote in pubic. Unfortunately, Pulphouse went out of business and the volumes were never published.

In 1990, I was awaiting the release of my second book, THE BIG KISS. For a writer like me who writes in spurts (some long spurts), a writer who re-writes and tweaks and fine-tunes each story and novel, I was amazed as Harlan's feat. I write like a sculptor chiseling a marble slab. Harlan wrote like a painter using delicate, lethal, awe-inspiring brush strokes.


4-year old Vincent De Noux thumbing through his autographed copy of the graphic novel
VIC AND BLOOD: THE CHRONICLES OF A BOY AND HIS DOG by Harlan Ellison

That's all for now.
www.oneildenoux.com




26 July 2018

Nightmen

by Brian Thornton

I used to have a girlfriend who believed in reincarnation.

Neither Hindu nor Buddhist, she was actually "New Age" back before it was a cliche. She practiced astrology (Jungian archetypal astrology, not that parlor trick stuff) and tattooed her sun, moon and star signs over her right kidney.

She also read Tarot, dug crystals, studied gnosticism and read a lot of stuff by Rosicrucian religious scholars.

So she took her "New Agism" seriously.

Now, I've always been very "live and let live" when it comes to spiritual beliefs. I sincerely believe that there are many paths to God/Jesus/Buddha/Muhammad/Shiva/Flying Spaghetti Monster/Head-of-Lettuce-Named-Bob, and am uninterested in proving anyone wrong. In other words, we all have our path to tread.

So I kept an open mind about her New Age beliefs, and after a good six months, had been unmoved by any of them. They didn't work for me, but they seemed to make her happy, so I discussed them with her on a fairly frequent basis. The resulting greater familiarity with this subset of spiritual beliefs only served to harden my indifference.

It couldn't last.

The beginning of the end came one day when she was talking about past life regressions, and how she felt there was untapped value there.

I tried the old riposte: "Everyone I've met who believes they've experienced a past life thinks they were someone famous: a Napoleon or an Eleanor Roosevelt. No one ever seems to think they were Eleanor Roosevelt's tailor, or Napoleon's nightmen."

I mean, come on. I have to use my history degree for something. And if I've learned one thing over a lifetime of studying humanity's shared past, it's that most people who lived on this planet before the mid-20th century likely lived short lives filled with drudgery and misery and unending, back-breaking toil. Usually on farms. And they tended to die mostly from disease, starvation, childbirth, or some frightful combination thereof.

So what are the odds that any single one of us was Julius Caesar or Fu Hao or Madame Curie, assuming there actually is any such thing as reincarnation?

We're all more likely to have been a dung beetle.

But my girlfriend wasn't having any of that. Instead she keyed on: "Nightmen. Sounds mysterious."

"Does it?" I said, amused.

"Edgy," she went one. "Like the name of a rock band."

"Or a group of superheroes," I said helpfully.

"Or a secret society!" she enthused.

"Or a shadowy government agency!"

And from there the conversation veered in another direction. I quickly forgot about it.

Until, that is, a couple of weeks later, when my girlfriend said to me apropos of nothing; "I did a past life regression last night. My mom helped me with it."

Her mom worked "professionally" (Okay, more like "semi-professionally") as an astrologer. Also bear in mind, at this point the internet was still in its infancy. Google hadn't even been invented yet.

When I asked what her past life regression had told her about her previous selves, she said that she'd had glimpses of two distinct lives: as a Japanese fighter pilot in World War II (all she really saw was his moment of death, she said, just pieced it together from the things she saw in her dream state.).

The other, she said, had been that of a "nightman."

I immediately recalled our previous conversation, and was positive she had never heard the phrase "nightman" until she met me. So, trying not to smirk, I said, "Oh? You? A nightman?"

She said yes.

"Never-ending quest for nightsoil, eh?"

She nodded sagely.

"It was a select breed of men who went out at night in search of 'nightsoil.'"

"That's where the name comes from," she said.

"'Nightmen'?"

She nodded again, even more sagely this time.

"We think," I said.

"I know," she said, this time more smugly than sagely.

"What did the nightsoil look like? Smell? I've always been curious," I said. "Did you get a chance to taste it?"

"Looked like verdigris, tasted earthy."

"'Earthy,' huh?" I said. "And that's odd. Nightsoil is almost never green. And you've said nothing about the smell."

"Pungent," she said, smiling. Neither sagacity nor smugness touched this smile. Just pure enjoyment of the experience.

I smiled back, and then agreed that "pungent" was one way of describing the stuff in which nightmen trafficked.

And then I called her on it. I just couldn't help myself.Told her what nightsoil really was, and what nightmen really did. Even sent her to Alta Vista (again, pre-Google!) to confirm it with a highly targeted search.

(For those of you who have not already flipped over to Google to see what the underlying joke is here, you can find out more than you ever really wanted to know about "nightmen" and "nightsoil" here and here.)

She broke up with me on the spot. (As you may be able to grasp, we weren't that serious. It was a long time ago, and we were both very young, terribly callow, and possessed of little of the generosity of spirit that seems to only come in the wake of decades of life lessons. All that said, it was still totally worth it.)

Serves me right for letting the facts get in the way of a good story!

See you in two weeks!

25 July 2018

An Upstart Crow

David Edgerley Gates

Bernard Cornwell's newest book, Fools and Mortals, is a romance about Elizabethan theater, in particular about Shakespeare and the first production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. A lot of Cornwell's books are swashbucklers, the Sharpe novels, the Last Kingdom stories, and this one has its share of derring-do and hair's-breadth escapes, but much of it is theatrical in the literal sense, how a play was staged in 1595, thirty-seventh year of Elizabeth's rule.



Shakespeare isn't uncharted waters. He's had leading parts and cameos before. The yardstick is the Anthony Burgess novel Nothing Like the Sun. Burgess himself calls the period "a word-drunk age," and his novel is a headlong rush of language, told in Shakespeare's own voice, both confident and sharing confidences. (One of my personal favorites is Bitter Applesa novel within a novel, John Crowley's reimagining of that tiger's heart, wrapped in a player's hide, in the first book of his Aegypt quartet, The Solitudes.)


Cornwell gives us a convincing and fully-realized world, the rivalries between the acting companies, the politics of religion, the sexual opportunism, and the internal dynamics of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, onstage and off. In their petty intrigues and their generosity, their authenticity and pretense, a mirror of their betters, and the audience.  Cornwell does his homework, and his careful detail pays off. He always gives it flesh and bone, smoke and odor and tallow. It smells, and not of the lamp.


Which leads to a different question. Using real people in fictions. It's one thing if they're a walk-on (Hitler overheard in the next room, say), and we've likely got more freedom of invention the further off they are from us in history, but whether in the wings or front-and-center, they still have to ring true.

Gore Vidal in Burr, to take an example, confounds our expectations of the Founding Fathers. It's a poisoned-pen letter, but a salutary corrective to the hagiography of Parson Weems. Mary Renault, The Last of the Wine. Socrates is entirely plausible, and no doddering old fart or department store Santa, either. Cecelia Holland. Robert Harris. Philip Kerr. Janice Law's sly mystery series featuring that unapologetic dissolute Francis Bacon. Here lurks a clue, perhaps.


If we don't know for certain what Francis Bacon was doing on a particular Monday morning (although we know he was an air raid warden, during the Blitz), we can make it up. The same goes for Shakespeare or Socrates. Or if we do know, we can fit that into the timeframe and fabric of the story. The trick, it would seem, is putting them in a plausible circumstance. I've used real people, although not in the lead, as a rule. Gen. Leslie Groves has a bit part in "The Navarro Sisters," which is about the Manhattan Project. Owney Madden makes an appearance in a couple of the Mickey Counihan stories, and so does Bumpy Johnson. It's local flavor. I've even hired Elfego Baca as a lawyer, once upon a time, to get a kid off a murder rap in El Paso.

You don't spoil a good story for lack of the facts. Then again, you can't bend the facts to suit yourself. The best case is when you can fill in a few cracks in the existing narrative. There's a famous deleted scene in Ford's movie Young Mr. Lincoln, when Abe Lincoln first rides his mule into Springfield. Another young man steps out of a doorway, onto the plank sidewalk overlooking the street. There's a playbill on the wall next to him, advertising an upcoming theater performance. The two young men make eye contact briefly, and then glance away from each other. The second guy is of course the actor John Wilkes Booth.

*

Best wishes and Godspeed to Art Taylor, who's taking a sabbatical from this forum, picking up the reins of the blogsite First Two Pages, as well as becoming new assistant director of creative writing at George Mason University.  

24 July 2018

Just Like Starting Over

by Michael Bracken

Beginning August 2003 and ending May 2018 I had one or more short stories published each and every month. That’s 14 years and 10 months (178 consecutive months), and I know of no living short story writer who has come close to accomplishing a similar feat. (Edward D. Hoch accomplished something similar—and far more impressive—with a story in every issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine beginning May 1973 and continuing through March/April 2009.)

The streak began with the August 2003 Hustler Fantasies, which contained “Married vs. Single” and “Slice of Heaven,” and ended with the May 2018 publication of the anthology A Wink and a Smile (Smoking Pen Press), which contained my story “Too Close to School.”

During this run, my stories were published in nearly every genre; in anthologies, magazines, and newsletters; electronically, in print, and in audiobooks; in several countries and in at least three languages. They appeared under my own byline, under a variety of pseudonyms, and, in the case of confessions, without any byline at all.

Excluding self-published work and those months when I had collections released, my best months were April 2008 and June 2012 (nine stories each); July 2006, December 2010, and November 2012 (eight stories each); and April 2011, May 2011, September 2011, November 2011, January 2012, and August 2014 (seven stories each).

During this multi-year streak, 132 stories appeared in True Story and 125 in True Confessions. My longest single-magazine run was 29 consecutive issues of True Story, which is only slightly longer than a previous run of 26 consecutive issues of the same magazine.

Thirteen times I had three stories published in a single issue. This happened most often with True Confessions (May 2012, July 2012, March 2017, and April 2017). I had three stories in three issues of Ruthie’s Club (June 19, 2006; July 17, 2006; and April 28, 2008); three stories in two issues of True Love (April 2011 and May 2011); and three stories in single issues of True Romance (March 2005), Black Confessions (August 2006), True Story (January 2012), and The Mammoth Book of Uniform Erotica (Running Press, 2015).

My wife can attest that I grew nervous as month-ends approached without anything published, and at least twice I had single-story months in which that month’s lone story was published only a few days before the month ended.

HOW I DID IT

If I can trust my personal blog, I first noticed this streak at the three-year mark in May 2006, and I began to pay attention to what was happening.

Because editors determine which stories to accept and which issues to put them in, this is a publication streak over which I had little control. Even so, there are a few things I did that helped maintain the streak once it began:

Maintained high productivity. The more stories I wrote and submitted, the greater the odds that I would publish regularly.

Targeted multiple genres. There aren’t enough paying markets in most genres to support a highly productive short story writer. So, I wrote in multiple genres.

Targeted multiple publications. Even within genres, I spread my work among multiple publications.

Wrote themed and seasonal stories. I wrote several stories tied to themes or seasons, thus producing stories most suitable for specific magazine issues. For example, I had good luck with New Year’s Eve stories (published in January), Valentine’s Day stories (February), St. Patrick’s Day stories (March), Halloween stories (October), Thanksgiving stories (November), and Christmas stories (December).

NOW WHAT?

As the streak lengthened, I began to believe I had control over it. I believed the sheer momentum of my achievement would propel it forward, and writing to the streak (themes and seasons!) would ensure its continuation.

It didn’t.

Editors changed. Markets disappeared. Anthologies tanked or missed scheduled publication dates. My productivity faltered. I can identify any number of reasons why the streak ended, but rather than assign blame for its end, I prefer to be amazed that it happened at all.

And now that the streak has ended, the pressure’s off. I no longer feel driven to write to the streak, and I wonder how that will impact my writing going forward.

The count starts over. With the July publication of “Good Girls Don’t” in Pulp Modern (volume 2, issue 3), the publication of “Decision” in the Summer 2018 Flash Bang Mysteries, and the release of “Fissile Material” as a stand-alone audio release, I have now had one or more short stories published for one consecutive month.

23 July 2018

Why Workshops?

by Steve Liskow

I loved teaching. If it were still about interacting with the kids and helping them grow and develop--as opposed to getting them ready for a pointless standardized test that keeps getting dumbed down and is only used to gauge a teacher's performance instead of the kids it pretends to test--you'd still find me in the classroom, funky tie loose and sleeves rolled one turn below my elbows, 183 days a year. But it isn't and I'm not.

That's why I still conduct writing workshops. Sure, I get paid almost enough to cover my gas to and from the event, but the truth is I still have a major teaching jones. It took me a long time to learn this stuff, so I want to help other people learn from my mistakes.

When I turned in the key to my classroom for the 33rd time, I knew how to write a decent sentence and even a passable paragraph. But I didn't know how to tell a good story. That's harder than it sounds. You probably have at least one friend or relative who can mangle a knock-knock joke or put everyone to sleep telling about something that happened to them, don't you?

Once my writing collected enough form rejection letters to make the point, I went back to what my adviser on my sixth-year project (A novel, by coincidence) told me years before. He directed me to the paperback racks in the local drug store (If you're under about forty, you may have to Google those terms) and read the first chapter of ten or twelve books at random.

 "Don't read Austen and James and Conrad," he told me. "Read Arthur Hailey and Irving Wallace and Jacqueline Susanne and Mickey Spillane. Read Michener (He hated Michener). Figure out what they do in those first few pages that you don't. You don't have 'first-chapterness.'"

Plumbers, carpenters and electricians all train apprentices. So do doctors and teachers. People take dancing lessons, music lessons, golf lessons and painting lessons. We know that one-on-one training works. How do fish learn to swim and birds learn to fly? You can buy a bunch of books and read them, but a good writing workshop is even better.

Many writing conferences offer sessions by writers who are also excellent teachers. They may even feature a one-on-one manuscript critique. At the New England Crime Bake, Kate Flora analyzed an early version of my own Blood On The Tracks and turned problems into opportunities. At the Wesleyan Writers Conference, Chris Offutt looked at an even earlier draft of that same book.

When I met him over coffee (We both wanted beer, but we were on campus), he said, "You write excellent dialogue, and you probably know it. But that's both good and bad."

"How can that be?" I asked.

"Well," Offutt said, "it's good because it is good. But it's bad because you know it, so you try to make that dialogue do too much of the work. Have you ever done theater?"

At that time, I was acting, directing, producing or designing for four or five productions a year.

"You need to learn to write better exposition and description. Even plays aren't just the dialogue. The other stuff is the context that gives it meaning. And that's even truer in novels and stories."

My bookshelves sag under the weight of fifty or sixty books on writing, including a few on dialogue. None of them ever said that. The fifteen-minute chat helped more than all those books.

Now I pay it forward. I have five workshops scheduled through mid-November, and I'll share handouts with examples, both good and bad, and leave lots of time for people to experiment with them and ask questions. We do group activities, too: creating characters, punching up plots and premises, sharpening dialogue. Every time we encounter a problem (Which I often recognize in my own stuff, too) we figure out how to fix it. Mistakes are the best teachers I know, and I'm still learning every time I teach.

Most of the venues invite me back, which is great, but I don't do it for the money. Fortunately.

I do it because I still love it.

22 July 2018

Dis Content

Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Ingalls Wilder
by Leigh Lundin

The Long Wilder Winter

The Little House
A couple of weeks ago, friends Darlene and Sharon sent me articles about the literary fall of the author of the Little House series. One column was titled ‘The Savaging of Laura Ingalls Wilder’.

That sums up my attitude, that and a rift of anger. Maybe the family trace of Indian blood runs too thin to take exception to Wilder’s writing, but what the hell. I wrote back:
“Bah! Humbug! Political correctness has always been so stupid that even the name says serves as a warning like rattles on a diamondback… and still people embrace it. … Some people look for excuses so they can say, ‘Look how woke I am.’”
When questioned about the last sentence, I replied:
“‘Woke’ is the most annoying, grammatically poor, pompous, self-inflated, politically correct term to brag about how socially conscious and aware one is. ‘Look how “woke” those who trashed Ingalls be! They be woke!’”
A Cold, Cold Prairie

My thoughts rushed back to Soviet era renunciations. Politically suspect, out-of-step authors, artists, actors, and poets found their lives erased not merely from the rolls of the living, but from the public record as well. At the other political extreme, they followed upon the Nazis and fascist committees.

This is nothing new. Ancient Egyptians chiseled names and cartouches (personal seals) from walls and tombs. We know of one pharaoh only because ‘political editors’ happened to overlook a single instance of his name.

The Lost Years

An unforeseen consequence of bowdlerizing works or ripping literary accomplishments from public view is that we also edit history. Obviously that’s a goal when striking public enemies from the record, but consumers of saccharinized works lose touch with that distant historical landscape. A snowball effect causes desensitized to the thinking of the era.

Both sides of the issue often cite Huckleberry Finn. The one issue they agree upon is that words exert power.

Fahrenheit 451 flamers trip over the N-word, completely losing the fact that Twain was anti-slavery and sympathetic toward the disadvantaged. We can be thankful the bonfire folks haven’t discovered Pudd’nhead Wilson, sort of a Prince and the Pauper in colorful black and white.

Wilder Rose
Out of the Big Woods

SleuthSayers have written about Wilder and I doubt most have taken kindly to the Library Association’s attempt at rewriting history. However, credit for our most interesting Little House article, the solution of a mystery, goes to author Susan Wittig Albert.

Within our own ranks, Eve Fisher and Bonnie Stevens have expressed deep fondness, even love for Wilder’s Little House series. Eve in particular gives the impression the books for her proved formative, perhaps transformative.

Politically correct me if you will. What is your take? Was the ALA right or wrong to purge Wilder’s name from the ranks of American literary greats? And where does a sensible society draw the line?

21 July 2018

Full Disclosure


by John M. Floyd



One of my former students asked me a good question the other day. It was a question I've heard before--all writers have--but it's still an interesting one: How much backstory should I include in my work?

As it turned out, she was asking about short fiction, and that's a whole different animal, but the answer's the same. My take is, you should include enough backstory to explain to the reader why your characters might later act the way they do. Sometimes it's a lot and sometimes it's not. Done well, backstory can give depth to the characters and make the plot more believable and strengthen the reader's connection to the story. Done poorly, it's a prime example of telling instead of showing.

My favorite definition of backstory comes from Story author Robert McKee. He says it's "an oft-misunderstood term. It doesn't mean life history or biography. Backstory is the set of significant events that occurred in the characters' past that the writer can use to build his story's progression."


Spelling it out

If you want to see backstory galore, read almost anything written by almost any old-time author--Daniel Defoe and Edgar Rice Burroughs come to mind. Not only was there a ton of backstory, it often happened at the very beginning of the tale--something contemporary writers are warned not to do. (Remember the first chapter of Hawaii?) But that was a different era, with very few things competing for one's time and attention. A reader was more apt to hang in there and wade through pages and even entire chapters of a character's (or a setting's) history before anything really happened. Today, it's a good idea to have the dinosaur eat one of the scientists on the first page.

(Maybe it's a sign of the times. When my 92-year-old mother meets someone, she likes to know (beforehand, if possible) where he's from, who his parents were, where his parents were from, and what church he attends. Folks of my generation, and certainly of our children's, don't worry about all that. Just the facts, ma'am.)

While there are many, many authors who prepare and forewarn readers with a lot of character history (the first page of The Great Gatsby was almost all backstory), I can also think of many who don't. My most recent SleuthSayers column discussed two of these. The late Fredric Brown and Jack Ritchie both had a spare and straightforward style that included almost nonstop action and not much exposition or description (or backstory). For them, that worked well. Also, of course, they were short-fiction writers as well as novelists--Ritchie wrote almost nothing but short stories--and most shorts don't need much in the way of backstory.

Motivation, anyone?

How much, one might well ask, DO short stories need? And I think the answer's still the same: enough to make it clear why folks later take the actions they do. If your protagonist experienced a traumatic event during her childhood, or has lived his entire life in an Eskimo village, or recently won the state lottery, or lost both legs in Desert Storm, or was just released from a mental institution, etc., those things are important to the story. They influence the way that character thinks and acts and reacts in certain situations. (And this goes for the antagonist as well as the hero.)

Again, though, this doesn't have to be revealed in an information dump at the beginning. It can be filtered in later, when needed, as a part of the narrative or via dialogue. A question from one character to another, like "How's Joe doing, since his wife passed away?" can be considered a piece of backstory.

One more thing: properly-timed backstory can be one of the tools that allows the writer to increase the suspense of the plot.


True confessions

That student I mentioned earlier also asked me how much backstory I use in my own stories, and cornered me a bit when she suggested I give her some examples. Before sending those to her, I pulled out my story file and did some quick research, and what I found surprised me a bit. Most of the recent stories I've written that somehow went on to achieve at least a bit of after-the-fact recognition did include backstory.

Some of the examples I gave her, from my own creations:



"Dentonville," a story that appeared in EQMM and won a Derringer Award, featured a full page of narrative backstory about the main character, although not at the beginning of the story. First, I introduced the three main characters and got the plot going. (And while one page doesn't sound like much, it amounted to about five percent of the story.)

"Molly's Plan," written for The Strand Magazine and later chosen for Best American Mystery Stories' 2015 edition, included maybe half a page of detailed narrative backstory about the two main characters--and pretty early in the story.

"200 Feet," another Strand story--it got nominated for an Edgar that same year--had a fair amount of backstory, but all of it was injected via dialogue between the two lead characters throughout the first half of the piece.

"Driver," yet another Strand story that won a Derringer and was shortlisted for B.A.M.S., crammed all of its backstory into the opening two pages, as soon as the three main characters were introduced, and it was mostly revealed through their dialogue.

"Gun Work," which appeared in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes last year and is upcoming in Best American Mystery Stories' 2018 edition, included substantial backstory about its protagonist, but this was sifted in through both dialogue and exposition throughout the story.

But, having said that, I've also had several earlier stories (four shortlisted for B.A.M.S., one Derringer winner, and two nominated for the Pushcart Prize) that included no backstory at all. What the reader saw onscreen, happening right then, was all he got.



One size seldom fits all

Bottom line is, I think backstory can be useful but isn't always necessary. Too little can be confusing and too much can be boring. Because of all that, this whole discussion is one of the more subjective issues in writing fiction, and especially short fiction.

What are your thoughts on backstory, in both novels and shorts? Do you find it difficult to write? Tedious to read? Do you welcome it because of the clarity it provides? Do you think editors do? Any examples from your own works, or the works of others?

Speak up--don't be shy.  Full disclosure!







20 July 2018

Summertime Writing, A Semester Looming, and Bidding Au Revoir (for now)

By Art Taylor

As I've said before (too much likely), I'm a slow writer—and I think that my inclination toward writing short stories stems in part from that slow writing pace as well. While my process can vary somewhat from story to story, across the board I generally write in a piecemeal fashion—letting plot and character percolate in my head, sketching scenes at various points in the story rather then working through the draft in order, filling in bits and pieces of scenes as I discover myself what's needed or what's missing, slowly urging the whole mess into shape until it looks like something complete. (And then trying not to read it again after it's published so I won't be reminded of all the spots I should've done better.)

Earlier this summer, I worked on drafts for two stories—one possibly finished (a collaboration with my wife, Tara Laskowski; we'll see what our editor says) and the other set aside yet again because of aspects of it I couldn't figure out to my satisfaction (this one, a novella, has been lingering for years, sadly). Over the last few weeks, I've turned my attention more fully to a novel I've been working on intermittently over years as well—promising myself to dive into it deeply, immerse myself in it, push through a full draft, try to finally get it done.

Applying my approach to short stories to this novel is... well, part of my problem maybe, though I think it's probably still truer to how I work than what I've tried before with this manuscript. In my previous attempts to draft the novel, I've attempted to write through scene by scene, chapter by chapter, building it one block at a time—and lost both perspective and steam. Lately, I've just given myself over to writing it like I write short stories, crazily all over the place. The scene I wrote yesterday, for example, is from probably two-thirds of the way through the book, and I don't have the scenes or chapters immediately before it or immediately after it written in any form. But in my head, I know what needs to happen in this specific scene, and so I got it down on paper—one piece in a bigger jigsaw, and I'll find/make the other pieces later.

Keeping track of a book-length story in my head, though.... well, that's tough sometimes. (Thanks Scrivener, for giving me space to pin things down, placeholders to figure out later.) And the scattershot approach to writing this isn't just about figuring out the order of plot points, but also discovering the full depth of characters, sharpening voice and style, then going back and fixing the disconnections between plot points, the slips in character, the imbalance of voice and style and....

And again, doing that for a 25-page short story is different from doing that to what's likely to be a 300-plus page novel manuscript—a bigger mess. How much of a mess? Well, that scene I wrote yesterday is in third-person, while everything else I've written is in first person, and I found that I like third-person better. Much to go back and rework already.

Still, my wife Tara—who  recently completed her own novel, now on submission to publishers through her agent—has told me time and again to push through, get it all down, that it'll work out in the end.

I'm trusting that she's right.

But I know it's gonna take time and focus and persistence, and while summer has given me a more flexible schedule to explore and indulge, I've also agreed to lead sessions at two big programs in August—the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival and Deadly Ink—and the new semester is looming just beyond those events. In a little over five weeks, I'll be back in the classroom and I've already been taking on new responsibilities over the summer, having recently been named assistant director of the creative writing program at George Mason University—more admin duties ahead on top of the schedule I currently keep. And as many folks here know, I've also been maintaining another weekly blog, having taken over the First Two Pages blog series after the death of B.K. Stevens, long a part of this group as well.

All that said, I'm recognizing that I need to streamline commitments in other areas... and so I've told Leigh and Rob, our fearless leaders here, that I need to step away from SleuthSayers, at least for a while. While time is part of the issue, the other is that too often I've found myself struggling to come up with ideas for new posts. When my week looms on the calendar, I often end up asking Tara "What should I write about this time? I've got nothing new to say, nothing to offer"—and that too takes a lot of mental energy, energy that I might need to keep in reserve a little for my slow slog through writing this novel.

I feel like this might come across as complaining; it's not meant that way. Just recognizing that I've kept a couple of projects on the back burner for too long and need to give the novel at least some less-divided attention.

Leigh and Rob have been kind enough to say that I could come back for guest posts, and maybe once I finish up the book, find myself on firmer footing, I might ask to get back in the rotation as space allows. And in the meantime, I'll still read regularly the posts by my fellow SleuthSayers—always a highlight of each morning.

See you in the comments sections! And at Bouchercon in a couple of months too, celebrating the award attention that Barb, Paul, and I have received this year on the Anthony, Macavity, and Shamus slates—hooray!

And in the meantime, thanks so much for letting me be a part of this fine community of writers.Y'all are the best.

19 July 2018

Yet Another Innocent Abroad

by Eve Fisher

I got back from vacation June 28th and walked straight into the arms of grocery shopping, laundry, mail, e-mail, and jet lag.  It took me a good week to climb out and start getting on top of things again.  We've all read that Americans take less vacation time than anyone else in the industrialized Western world.  Well, I think it's because we all know we're going to have to work twice as hard when we get back to catch up.

We went on a European cruise, and it was great.  I'm not going to give you all a travelogue, other than the fact that I won
"Stump the Tour Guide!!!" 
in Ghent, when I asked where John of Gaunt (medieval pronunciation of "Ghent") was born.  The son of Edward III of England and Philippa of Hainault (medieval Belgium/ Netherlands), John of Gaunt fathered eight children by 2 wives and 1 mistress (Chaucer's sister-in-law, you might remember) who became his wife in old age.  Anyway, the guide had no idea where he was born, but the answer is in the abbey that used to be behind the St. Bavo Cathedral church on the right in the photo.

Actually, it was a John of Gaunt kind of trip:  I also saw the tomb of one of his sons, Cardinal Beaufort, in Winchester Cathedral in England (see photo at right).

Just as exciting, Winchester is where Jane Austen is buried, and I paid my very deep respects to her.  Let us never forget that, at heart, "Emma" is a mystery story, and "Northanger Abbey" is a satire of a Gothic thriller.  Add in the fact that Miss Austen practically invented the romantic comedy, and you have an incredibly versatile author who is still a delight to read.

And read I did:  "Emma" was my traveling companion this vacation, mainly because of something someone, somewhere wrote (and I cannot remember where), that if you really want to know what's going on in this novel, you need to listen to Miss Bates.  I thought I'd double-check.  And they were right.  Tucked into all those garrulous monologues is the absolute truth, rarely found anywhere else.  Everyone else is an unreliable narrator.  Witty, but unreliable.  After a hard day's sightseeing, it was the perfect vacation novel.

All in all, it was a great trip, and my only real moments of horror involved people with smart phones.  At least in the old days, when cameras required expensive film, there were fewer photographers, less photos were taken, and most people bought postcards instead.  (Believe it or not, the postcard and calendar manufacturers can still produce better photographs than the average person with a smart phone.)  Now, everyone has a smart phone, and they cannot put it away for one second, but have to snap 100 shots per minute of anything and everything that is directly in front of them, and don't even think of trying to see around them or asking them to move.

And the selfies!  I now truly realize that, to many people, if they don't have a selfie of it, they weren't there.  Now I know that egomania has never known any bounds, but I still think that selfie sticks should be declared hazardous to everyone's health. For one thing, sooner or later I'm going to wrest one out of someone's hands and start beating them with it.

And, finally, the video games.  We were on a nine-hour bus tour of the Scottish Highlands:

Ben Nevis (Wikipedia)

Fabulous.  Beautiful.  I saw deer.  We saw Loch Ness.  We saw Ben Nevis and other "Munro" mountains.  And, in front of me, was a lady who spent the entire 9 hours on her cell phone, playing Tetris.  At one point she wanted to close the bus curtain, so she could see the game better.  Her husband (thank God!) objected, so I didn't have to, and she moved across the aisle, where she continued doggedly with her game.  Whenever we stopped, for photo ops, a little walk, comfort, lunch, etc., she got up and went outside and posed as if she were thrilled to be there - including taking endless selfies! - and then went back to her seat, and back to Tetris.


Image result for head pounding meme


Meanwhile, in keeping with Miss Austen's wit, a few common phrases heard on cruises:
"The food was better last year."
"I've never told anyone this before."
"It looks smaller in real life."
"I think they're cheaper in ___"
"When's happy hour?"


BTW - Breaking news tells me that Mariia Butina has been indicted and arrested for being an unregistered Russian agent, i.e., a spy.  For those of you who have followed my blogs on South Dakota politics, you may remember that I talked about her in Just Another January in South Dakota.  I'll be talking about her South Dakota speaking tour, and her arrest, and who knows what else in my next blog post on August 2nd!

18 July 2018

The Big Neurotic meets the Big Easy

O'Neil De Noux and I at the Cafe Abyssinia for lunch
by Robert Lopresti

In June my wife and I visited New Orleans for the first time.  It was great fun and quite a change from  my Northwest home where we were still celebrating what we call Juneuary.  (As I write this it is Febjuly.  The temperature is 64 degrees and it is drizzling.)

One of the highlights was meeting O'Neil De Noux in person for the first time after years of digital friendship.  O'Neil was kind enough to take us on a tour of the city where his family has lived for hundreds of years.  Boy, was that great.  He is quite a raconteur.

But here was the best part.  O'Neil stopped the car in front of one building and announced that this is where Lucien Caye had his office.  Caye is one of O'Neil's series characters, a post-war private eye.

Just beyond the building there is a park and I immediately remembered the beginning of O'Neil's Shamus-winning short story "The Heart Has Reasons."  Lucien Caye looks out his window and spots a girl sitting in the park.  And that was the  park.

I actually shivered.  It is weird how fiction can do that to us.  It explains why fans have put up marking locations of Baker Street, West 35th Street, and the Reichenbach Falls.

Several friends assured us that the best thing about New Orleans was the music so when my wife and I had a free  evening we decided to see what was on offer.  I'm not a big fan of jazz or Cajun (sorry) but there was one performer listed as folk.  Through the miracle of Youtube we were able to check her out and I would say she was more Bonnie Raitt than folk, but that was fine.

So we strolled over to the French Quarter to the bar where she was playing.  There was nobody and nothing on the stage.  Not so much as a piccolo.  We were greeted by a man at the end of the bar who appeared to be the owner.

"When is the music supposed to start?" I asked.

He smiled.  "Eight thirty."

"And what time is it?"

"Eight thirty."

"But she's not here yet, huh?"

"Nope."

So we strolled about the Quarter for half an hour.  No sacrifice, I assure you.  Coming back at 9 PM we found the stage was still empty.

I looked up the singer's Facebook page and found a notice to her fans that the gig had been cancelled.  I showed it to the apparent-bar-owner who was quite astonished by the news.

So, on the whole, I was not that impressed by the music in New Orleans.

Resident of the Audubon Zoo
I have to get serious now.  That weekend was the 45th anniversary of a famous crime in the city: the UpStairs Lounge arson.  A gay bar was burned and thirty-two people died horribly.  While no one was ever convicted, it is considered pretty certain the culprit was a gay man who had been thrown out of the bar earlier.  (He killed himself a year later.)

A tragedy without doubt.  But the main reason it might be of interest today to those who knew no one involved was the response.  The news media generally ignored that it was a gay bar.  Radio shows made jokes about it.  No government officials mentioned the death of thirty-two citizens.

Many churches refused to hold funerals for the victims.  One Episcopal priest did and was criticized by his parishioners and bishop.  (Unitarians and Methodists stepped up too.  More power to 'em.)  Some families never claimed their deceased's remains.

If there is a positive side to that story it is comparing it to how the nation reacted to the Pulse massacre of 2016.  Looks like we had matured a little since then.

I haven't mentioned the actual reason we were in New Orleans, which was the American Library Association conference.  That's the topic for next time.