14 December 2018

Fleshing Out The Past

Ladies and gents, we are delighted to introduce our newest SleuthSayer.  Lawrence Maddox will be appearing every third Friday, and we are delighted.

I met Lawrence at Bouchercon in Long Beach years ago and we hit it off.  His gripping and eccentric stories have appeared in 44 Caliber Funk and Orange County Noir. He scripted the Hong Kong kickboxing flick RAW TARGET and the indie musical OPEN HOUSE (and how often have you read about those two genres in the same sentence?). PUBLISHERS WEEKLY called his FAST BANG BOOZE (published earlier this year by Shotgun Honey),"offbeat noir." I called it "a wild ride."  Please give Larry a warm SleuthSayers welcome! - Robert Lopresti

FLESHING OUT THE PAST

by Lawrence Maddox
 

Ian Fleming once surprised a Polynesian dancer by reaching out and touching her while she was performing. It’s not noted where, exactly, he touched her.  As for why: he was doing research. Through travel, research, and first-hand knowledge, Fleming loaded his Bond novels with sumptuous detail. He was one of the first authors to use actual product names in his fiction. Fleming was a master at describing the world he lived in, but what are the tools an author uses to flesh out the past when, unlike Fleming’s dancer, it’s no longer there for one to touch? I asked crime fiction authors Christa Faust, Robert Lopresti and Paul D. Marks how they brought the once-was into the right-now.

Before New York’s Times Square was cleaned up in the 1990s, it was a sleazy and dangerous place. Travis Bickle’s “All the animals come out at night” monologue from Taxi Driver sums it up. Christa Faust, Gary Phillips (and artist Andrea Camerini) faithfully recreate Times Square, circa 1986, in their thrilling graphic crime comic Peepland (Titan Comics, collected as a paperback, 2017). Roxy Bell is a Times Square peepshow worker, performing one-woman sex shows behind a glass window. Powerful forces will stop at nothing to retrieve a criminally incriminating VHS tape that has fallen into her hands.


Peepland is based on my own lived experience as a kid growing up in Hell's Kitchen and as a young woman working in the Times Square peep booths,” Christa says. I consider the rich and authentic rendering of Times Square, and ask Christa if she needed to do any research for Peepland. “No research was necessary, just memories.” In an interview with Crime Fiction Lover, Christa explained that “all of the characters are based on real people I met while working in the peep booths. The central main character Roxy Bell is definitely semi-autobiographical.” In the same interview, Christa succinctly said why memories of Times Square were all she needed to create Peepland: “It’s in my blood.”

Roughly two miles away and two decades earlier, Greenwich Village was the epicenter of American folk music, a movement in sound that put political dissent on the airwaves. In Robert Lopresti’s evocative murder mystery Such a Killing Crime (Kearney Street Books, 2005), coffeehouse manager and war vet Joe Talley sifts through the many characters circling the folk revival scene in search of the murderer of his friend, an up-and-coming folk singer. Robert gives a sightseeing tour down MacDougal Street, detailing the people and points of interest along the way. Folksinger Tom Paxton, who makes a cameo, said of Robert’s writing, “If I'd known he was watching us all so carefully, I'd have behaved much better.” 


I ask Robert how he brought 1963 Greenwich Village back to life. “Since I’m a librarian the obvious answer was research.  That was more challenging than I expected because all the New York City newspapers were on strike that spring.  The Village Voice was the main source of information.”  Robert says he also spent hours at the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library scouring the main folk rags of ‘63, Sing Out! and Broadside. Robert was after more than just facts in his research. “I got to interview several people I knew who lived in that time and place.  That was partly to get facts but mostly to get feelings.  What was it like?  What did they remember the most vividly about that time? Then there was the matter of trying to think like an early sixties person.   Women were ‘girls,’ whatever their age.  Smoking in a hospital was perfectly normal.” I ask Robert if his research forced him to rethink past assumptions. “I was well into editing before an article in a recent newspaper pointed out that back in 1963 women were not allowed to drink in most bars in the city!  After confirming that with a woman I know who went to school there I had to rewrite a whole lot of scenes.  But part of the fun of the book is showing you this strange and distant culture.”


Paul D. Marks explores early 1990s Los Angeles in his two Duke Rogers private eye novels White Heat (Down & Out Books, re-issued 2018) and Broken Windows (Down & Out Books, 2018). In White Heat, Duke finds himself in the heart of the 1992 LA riots while investigating the death of an actress. Broken Windows, occurring two years later, has the Prop 187 battle over illegal immigration as the backdrop. Marks grew up in Los Angeles, and his Duke Rogers books explore how myth and memory are at odds with the often violent, seedy and corrupt LA that Duke encounters while plying his trade.

“The Internet, as well as memory, comes into play to try to get the reality of that time, but even with a good memory it’s wise to verify with multiple sources.” I ask him if there were any challenges recreating the not-so distant past. "In some ways it’s
almost harder to write that than something set in the more distant past.” Earlier in the 20th century “there were no cell phones, personal computers, answering machines or televisions at home. But all of that stuff existed in the ’90s, but in very different form than we have today. So, while someone might have had a cell phone it looked different and worked differently – some of the early ones were as big as walkie-talkies. Same with computers. So you have to be careful if you lived through that era not to transpose modern versions of the technology onto the tech of that day.”

I had similar issues with my novel Fast Bang Booze (Shotgun Honey, 2018), which takes place in the early 1990s as well. I had to rethink a lot of what I thought I remembered about cell phones from that period. A fun cell phone fact: the first commercially available handheld cell phone (made by Motorola) was nicknamed “The Brick,” and cell phones pretty much kept that design until smaller flip phones came along in the mid-nineties.


Paul D. Marks and I are both native multigenerational Angelenos, and we’ve had that “Do you remember” conversation a few times. LA, as well as being a sprawl, is also the kind of city that lets a legendary place like Schwab’s get torn down and be replaced by a Crunch Gym, so sometimes the landscape of our memories doesn’t overlap. When I’ve met fellow Angelenos and we realize that we’ve both been to the same forgotten dive bar or long-gone taco truck, there’s a bond. We belong to a dwindling club, and when the last of us shuffles off, it will be like a point in time and place has been wiped off the map. 

When I wrote Fast Bang Booze, I wanted to impart what it felt like to be young, barhopping, and maybe a little out of control in the early ‘90s in LA. I just couldn’t do it all from memory, because my protagonist (a grungy twenty-something with a fantastically souped-up nervous system) is a fictional construct, and my tale is pure pulp. I had to do my research, which included buying old issues of LA Weekly and re-reading old diaries. Like Robert Lopresti, I even interviewed people. I wanted the facts and the feel.

I drove to Salt Lake City some years ago for a job. When I unlocked the door to my hotel room and stepped in, I was hit with the odor of cigarettes and Glade air freshener. It struck me in a way I still marvel at today. I would walk to my Grandmother’s house everyday from elementary school, and that was exactly how her place smelled. I swear for a moment I could picture all the objects in her living room, down to the glass fish statuette with the green tint. However briefly, I could feel the past. A piece of writing that can accomplish what Glade and cigarettes did for me, bringing the past alive, is powerful indeed.

13 December 2018

In No Particular Order

by Brian Thornton

In my last post I made the point that our holiday season here in the United States begins not with Thanksgiving, but with the parent-teacher conferences which immediately precede Turkey Day across the nation.

Two weeks on from that post we find ourselves collectively less than two weeks out from Christmas. And I personally find myself less than three weeks out from a New Years' Day deadline on a big project I've been at work on for a good chunk of 2018.

If you're interested, you can read more about it here.

So I find myself pressed for time, and since I have one more post in the works for 2018 (I drew Boxing Day this year: that's a post which writes itself!), I am going to resort to that cliche of end of year cliches: the end of year list.

With a twist.

This won't be one of those lists of the "Best Books of 2018," or the "Best Mystery Books of 2018," or anything like it. I don't understand those sorts of carefully curated (dare I say, "manicurated"?) lists.

I mean, come on. Taste is personal these days. We customize our diets, our vacations, our kids' play schedules, what we watch (or binge watch) on TV, why the HELL would we consume whole cloth the lists someone else made up about books we're likely not ever going to read, or worse still, may well start but never finish?

So here's my completely personalized, absolutely random, deeply meaningful, End of Year List:

(One last note: there will only be positive things here: "Bests," "Mosts" no "Worsts." There's plenty of negatives skulking around out there. I'm sure someone's made a list of them. Just not me.!*grin*)

Most Important Lesson I Learned This Year:

I can never work too hard at listening to people.

Best Book I Read This Year:

Prussian Blue, by Phillip Kerr.

Best Writing-Related Tip I Have For Those Getting Into The Game:

Not to be glib, but "be a pro." That covers a ton of bases: show up, work hard, respect deadlines, accept feedback, don't quit.

Most Welcome Sound I Heard All Year:

My six-year-old's laughter.

Best Writing I Produced This Year:

My novella expansion of "Suicide Blonde," a short-story I sold to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine a decade ago. Down & Out Books is publishing it as part of a three novella collection next fall, so watch for it beginning September, 2019!

Best Friend I Had This Year:

My wife, same as every other year since I met her. Those of you who have the privilege of knowing her get why. I definitely married up.

Most Fun I Had Listening to a "New" Band This Year:

When Greta Van Fleet's album dropped.

Best Movie I Saw All Year:

DeadPool II.  Just typing that made me laugh.

Best New (To Me) Historical Mystery Series I Discovered This Year:

Robert Olen Butler's Christopher Marlowe Cobb series.

Best Book On Writing I Read This Year:

Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman (And yes, I meant to read it earlier, but his recent passing proved the kick in the butt I needed to make the time to read it. And boy, am I glad I did.).

Best Writing-Related Advice I Got All Year:

From my wife: "You ought to ask Libby Cudmore about that..."

Best Long-Time Favorite Book I Revisited This Year:

Ross MacDonald's Black Money. My wife is reading MacDonald's canon based on my recommendation. I've been pressed for time with various writing stuff this year, so I haven't re-read all of them as she's been working her way through them, but I made time for Black Money, as that was the author's favorite of his own work, is an homage to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and we're both fans of that book as well.

Those of you familiar with MacDonald's oeuvre will be not at all shocked to know that his stuff still holds up!

*          *          *

So that's what I've got this time around. Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate it, and see you all with my not-to-be-missed Boxing Day post in two short weeks!

12 December 2018

Skin in the Game

David Edgerley Gates


William Goldman died this past month, the week before Thanksgiving. Predictably, his obituaries led with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He wasn't crazy about his own writing, he admitted, but there were two things he wasn't embarrassed by, the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and his novel The Princess Bride.


I remember reading The Temple of Gold in the late spring of '63, and being knocked out by it. It was a coming of age story - Goldman himself was 24 when it was published - and it had a cocky, mischievous attitude, kind of like Dick Bissell's early book, A Stretch on the River, but Bissell was my dad's age. As lively as his stories were, they had a period feel, a little removed. Goldman's voice was right there, immediate, confiding, intimate.


I liked the next couple of books I read, Soldier in the Rain, Boys and Girls Together, but when I recognized his name in the credits for Harper, my mental ears pricked up. (Goldman adapted a second Ross Macdonald mystery, The Chill, but it never got made. Somewhere in the mists, I hear Sam Peckinpah's name attached to this, or maybe that's just wishful thinking.) And then, of course, Butch and Sundance. You might think, looking back, foreordained, In point of fact, not.


It's obvious Goldman was a movie nut, it's right up front in his first book. The Temple of Gold, the title, comes from the RKO swashbuckler Gunga Din. The two best friends in the novel are just kids when they see the picture, and it becomes a metaphor for their lives. The loyal Gunga Din, in his loincloth, climbing to the top of the golden dome to blow his trumpet and sound the alarm. Yes, it's as corny as it sounds.


Goldman wrote some good novels, but he stopped writing novels altogether after Brothers, in 1986. He'd found his metier in movies. Look at his credits. He's the guy who turned in the script when nobody thought a movie could even be made - the example is Stephen King's Misery. He always gave good weight. Interestingly, he isn't rigidly prescriptive when it comes to writing screenplays. His advice (Adventures in the Screen Trade) is sound. The basic template is three acts, and it's all about structure. But he clearly demonstrates that these conventions don't confine the narrative, they sharpen it. They burn away the inessential.


Are they all home runs? No. Chaplin is long on good intentions. The Ghost and the Darkness somehow just rolls over and plays dead. Hard to say, really, what makes a picture work. There's that ineffable something, and Goldman caught lightning in a bottle more than a few times. A few more times than most of us.


There's a footnote in Bill Goldman's filmography I find striking. Among his unproduced screenplays are several for movies that were later made, but written by somebody else. Goldman's original scripts were discarded. He probably got a kill fee, but that's not my point. I'm thinking more along the lines of what might have happened if they'd used Goldman's scripts. Not that they didn't turn out to be good pictures, in the event. Charly. Papillon. The Right Stuff. Shooter. (And now you're thinking about it, too.) 

11 December 2018

Would You Eat THAT?

by Barb Goffman

All my life I've been a picky eater. When I was very little, my mother tried to force me to eat foods I didn't like in order to encourage me, I'm sure, to not be so picky. But after I vomited beets all over the kitchen floor, she let me make my own choices.

Fast forward to adulthood. I'm still a picky eater--less so than in childhood but more so than many other adults. I know this from dining out with friends, though the point always hits home whenever one of those food quizzes comes up on social media. You know the ones: How many of these weird-sounding foods have you tried? I always surprise my friends (well, maybe not some who know me really well) because I score soooo low. Despite knowing I'm picky, the extent of it always seems to surprise people.

For instance, I once took a quiz about vegetables; how many had I tried? The grand total: 18 of the 110 vegetables listed, putting me in the lowest two percentile for the quiz. (Eighteen was actually a higher number than I'd expected.) I also took a quiz about Jewish food. I'd tried 38 out of 100 of  'em. Friends had thought I'd score higher on this quiz since I'm Jewish, but 38 was pretty darn high for me.

Oh, no! It's Mr. Bill! (You see it too, right?)
But those are specialized quizzes. What about overall pickiness? Here, Buzzfeed came in handy. They had a quiz to look at just how picky I am. All I had to do was check the foods I wouldn't touch, and there were a lot of them: hard cheese, soft cheese, blue cheese, goat cheese, cottage cheese. (You must be thinking I don't eat any cheese, but it's not true. Grilled cheese, good. Pizza, good!) And there were more foods on the quiz that I find it hard to believe anyone would eat, because I sure wouldn't. Bone marrow. Nuh uh. Tripe. No way. Sweet bread. Are you kidding? Blood sausage. Just the name makes me queasy. Bull testicles. Oh, come on! And last, but not least, the evil cilantro. No way, no how. Not gonna happen. At least soap doesn't pretend to be a food group.

Yet even as I write this, I know there are people out there who have probably tried all these foods and asked for seconds. I know this because I am friends with a particularly adventurous eater: author Catriona McPherson. She and I have a game we play. She tries to find normal foods I've actually tried or will eat again. I try to find a weird (at least to me) food she hasn't tried. A round might go like this:

Catriona: "Have you tried a pear?" She's probably thinking, I've got her here; everyone has tried pears.
Me: Buzz. As I do the Rocky dance, I proudly proclaim, "I have never had a pear. That's a point for me."
Now it's my turn.
Me: "Have you tried bull testicles?"
Catriona: "Sure have. Yum! That's a point for me, and the round is tied!"

Actually, I don't recall if I've ever asked Catriona about bull testicles. Catriona, get ready for the next round.

It's usually difficult for me to score any points off Catriona because she is so adventurous. That vegetable quiz, the one where I had tried 18 of 110 vegetables--Catriona had tried 103 of them! I once asked her about a whole bunch of Jewish foods, but she had once attended a seder, so she trounced me in that game. And she's Scottish, so she's eaten all these foods I'd never even heard of before I met her--foods I wouldn't go anywhere near now that I have heard of them. (Tripe. Really, Catriona?) Amazingly, I've found one food she's never tried but I have: candy canes! Not that I like candy canes. I don't think I'd ever eat another one. And I'm sure I only had a bite of the one I tried in the past. But I tried it!

The beauty of being a picky eater is I read a lot of article about food. Not to learn to make them, of course, since cooking is something else I don't do. But I'm fascinated by foods other people will eat that I won't go near with a giant fork. And learning about foods sometimes gives me story ideas. That is partly how I came up with the idea for my most-recent story, "Bug Appétit," which appears in the current (November/December) issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  It involves what I would deem weird food, but not everyone agrees (based on my research), and that makes for an unusual plot (and unusual Thanksgiving dinner!).
Bug Appétit!

If you want to read "Bug Appétit," it's not too late. The current issue of EQMM should remain on sale until around Christmas. I've seen copies at Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million. And you can order digital copies through Magzter. Or you can subscribe to the magazine, in print or electronically, here: http://www.elleryqueenmysterymagazine.com/.

As to the quizzes I mentioned above, here they are, in case you want to try them out. For the vegetable quiz, click here. For the Jewish food quiz, click here. And for the Buzzfeed overall pickiness quiz, click here. But I wouldn't put a lot of stock in the Buzzfeed quiz. After I answered all their questions, they told me, "You're not too picky." They clearly don't know me at all.

10 December 2018

The Fast First Draft

by Steve Liskow

Between about 9 and 10 am Thursday morning, I wrote 1534 words on my current WIP. I'm not bragging because (1) I'm sure everyone else who blogs here can do the same and (2) I'll probably revise everything except the proper nouns over the next nine or ten months. That's my normal approach. But it's worth noting because while it takes me two or three months to assemble my scene list--my version of a storyboard or outline--I expect to write a scene a day, normally in less than two hours. In most of my books, the scenes average around 1500 words. For contrast, in my senior year of high school, my honors English teacher gave us eight weeks to produce a research paper of 1000 words. If we taught children to walk the way we teach students to write, the human race would crawl on all fours.

Years ago, Graham Greene produced 300 words a day. Books were shorter then. Now, the average thriller clocks in at 100,000 words or more. My own books average 83K. I plan on eight weeks (or more) to create the outline, then another six to eight for the first draft. I revise the entire text four or five times with at least a month between drafts, so my novels usually take me about 15 months.

Jodi Picault says that a writer has to learn to write on demand. When you sit down at the keyboard, desk, legal pad or clay tablet, you job is to produce words. Stephen King and Lee Child expect to produce 2000 a day. None of those authors mentions how many of those words change, but that's a separate issue.

How can writers write so quickly?

Well, part of it is being able to type or write quickly, of course. The other part is easy once you know about it. Alas, pretty much everything you learned in school gets in your way.

Back in the mid-80s, I stumbled on a few books that completely changed my way of teaching writing. We had a copy of Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers in our English department bookshelf, but I don't know if any of my colleagues read it. I didn't until about 1990, and I had to blow dust off it. It was a landmark book that few people appreciated when it appeared.

The book I did appreciate (All the books I mention here are available on Amazon) was Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico. She introduced me to clustering or webbing, a quick way of connecting apparently random and disparate ideas for writing. She also pushed free-writing (Elbow's idea first). She offered a series of techniques and writing prompts students could grasp and apply quickly. I was struggling with kids who read five or six years below grade level, hated grammar, and were terrified at putting anything more than their name on paper. For years, they'd known they were stupid because their teachers and their grades told them so.

The following September, I stared using Rico's exercises. By the end of the first semester, many of the kids wouldn't admit it, but they wrote more clearly, more creatively, and with more pleasure and less fear. Rico encouraged them not to worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. I spent the first month of classes encouraging them to write fast for five or ten minutes without worrying about making sense or being correct. If they got something down on paper, we could fix it later.

Remember, a first draft is like the block of marble before you sculpt an elephant. That first few minutes is chipping away everything that doesn't look like an elephant. Rico does that. So does Elbow. The beauty of free-writing is that the only wrong way to do it is to think about it. Just write. If you go fast enough to outrun the constraints, an idea will present itself. That was the hardest sell for my students, but they finally discovered it was true.

Henriette A. Klauser's Writing on Both Sides of the Brain uses many of the same techniques. The left side of our brain is sequential, literal, and organized. It also judges. The right side works in patterns, sounds, and images. It's creative without judging. We're trained from day one to be correct, but we don't learn to let go. Those books showed me how to help my students let go.

Years later, I discovered Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird with her priceless advice on the value of the "shitty first draft." Don't think about spelling, grammar, punctuation or making sense. Just push yourself. If you don't know what you want to say, the cluster or web will help you. If you do know what you want to say, don't worry about how to start. Jump in and listen to the words. Maybe even say them out loud. But turn off the editor.
A character web for my WIP. Over half the names have already changed.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I checked the spelling) published Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience around the same time as the other books, and James L Adams gave us The Care and Feeding of Ideas with the same message. Their findings work for almost any field you can name. Athletes call it being in the zone and musicians talk about finding the groove. Time stands still because you focus ONLY on the task at hand, whether it's shooting the free throw, following the chord changes or staying in the moment without worrying about the result...yet. Very Zen, yes?

For me, once I know what should happen in a scene, I write a first sentence (usually telling where or when it's happening) and keep going. Maybe it's a great sentence, but more likely it's junk. It doesn't matter because I can fix it later. I no longer listen to music when I write (I used to like Baroque Largos because the slow tempo helps concentration) because I have to hear the words. Sometimes I even say them out loud and the scene becomes a dialogue or group discussion. I can type about 85 words a minute and I don't worry about typos or grammar. That's what the next five or six drafts are for. If I get lost, I type whatever comes to me and cut it or move it later. A few years ago, I wrote a scene


that had a half-page of "where the hell am I?" over and over until I found it again.

It's energizing and it's productive. The hardest part is letting go of everything you were taught to worry about in school.



09 December 2018

Part Two: Physician Burn Out and Suicide - The Road She Forged.

by Mary Fernando

Dr. Mamta Gautam developed complications in her pregnancy and, after delivering twins in 1991, she was in a coma for days. She was soon forced to return to work with an open abdominal wound. She realized then and there that, “Medicine doesn't care about the health of their healthcare workers.”

What Dr. Gautam did with this knowledge was to carve out a new way to do medicine. A psychiatrist by training, she became the “Doctor’s Doctor” and, in the 1990’s, began work with individuals and organizations to address burnout and suicide before it was on anyones radar.
A pioneer in the field of Physician Health, Dr. Gautam founded the University Of Ottawa Faculty Of Medicine Wellness Program, the first in the world to deal with physician health issues. She is now an international expert in physician health and leadership. 

So, when I was searching for answers on how to help reduce burnout and suicides in physicians, I reached out to her to find solutions.

Dr. Gautam said, “Before I answer, I want to talk about complexity theory.”

At this point, I had my pen poised. When interviewing people, I always wait for what Virginia Wolfe eloquently asked of them: “…to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece forever.” I was a little disappointed to be sidelined by a theory I hadn't heard of, rather than an actual solution to the serious problem we were discussing.

Luckily, my disappointment was short-lived because that theory, and how it applies not just to medicine but all professions, actually was a nugget of pure truth. So, here it is for you to wrap and put on your mantelpiece. Forever. Whatever your profession.
  • Dr. Gautam explained that some problems are Simple and can be solved by following simple instructions, like baking a cake. There are instructions, and if they are followed, we have a cake.
  • Some problems are Complicated but can be solved by following more detailed instructions and require expertise, like sending a man to the moon. With the right expertise, we can again have a solution that we can replicate.
  • Some problems are so Complex that their solution cannot be boiled down to a list of steps and and expertise doesn't always help, like parenting. If you add people in, we have different outcomes depending on the person (in this case both the child and the parent). So, we are better off with guiding principles, rather than strict recommendations and rules. 

With physician burnout and suicides, prevention is best thought of in terms of guiding principles, at the level of the individual physician, the culture of medicine, and the healthcare system.
One key principle is the need for community. For some this may be implemented by re-creating the doctors’ lounge. This where we can gather and talk about the day; the hard parts, the best parts and the funny parts. It is the ability to break out of the isolation and connect. For all of us, no matter what profession we are in, the trauma of our day can haunt us. For physicians, this might be the patients who died despite our best effort, the metallic smell of the blood that covered the patient, the room and us in surgery as we struggled to save a trauma patient, the young baby who fought valiantly and the breathless sobs of her parents after she died. Those traumas we need to talk about. 

The next part - and the crux of the matter: doctors are human. They should not be so tough that their hearts aren't wrenched when patients suffer. We can and should viscerally feel the often soundless sobs of the families that mourn. That is who we are, and that is the best of us. So, there must be an end to the ‘tough doctor’ and a new opening for the human doctor.

This is a principle for all healthcare workers and for all professions. We have many ideals that we strive towards, never being able to truly fulfil them but always keeping them in mind as we move through life. Many are worthy ideals. However, the ideal of the very strong, very together, never broken and beaten down person is an ideal that many of us hold dear. That person, that ideal, is actually a Trojan horse: if we let it into our lives, it will become stuffed full of all that will defeat us. It will be filled to the brim with the guilt of not living up to this ideal and the feelings of vulnerability that we stuff in it because we are terrified that the feelings are not worthy of the person we should be. It will be filled with the trauma we face, the small and large wounds we suffer but do not speak about. So, it is time to find another ideal and recognize the Trojan horse for what it is. We need to be human, striving to be strong when we need to be and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, weepy and sad, infuriated and needy too. Because our empathy, our compassion, that makes us vulnerable, is actually the true iron in our spine. Wholly and wonderfully complexly human.

So, how to recreate community where we are allowed to be fully human?

Dr. Gautam said, “There is not one answer. If people accept the need for community and allow each person to be human, how they create that community depends on where they are and what they need.” 

So, Dr. Gautam asks for solutions to this, from each of us. The principle matters, the execution of the solution, like all good answers to difficult problems, is written on water and open to life. 

She sees this article, and others like it, as an opportunity to ask each person what they need and how to carve out this solution. It is a beginning of a conversation we all need to have.

08 December 2018

Saying Good-bye, part 2

by Janice Law

I’ve written before about saying good-bye to important characters, but recently I have taken farewells to a whole other level. Let me explain. When we moved into our old farm house thirty years ago, I built book cases. We had already lightened ourselves of several dozen boxes of books before we moved in, but no writer can live in a house without bookcases and our new ones were quickly filled.
My husband had runs of Wisden Cricket Anthologies and Rothman’s Football ( soccer) Yearbooks, as well as rows and rows of reporters notebooks. Our son had a vast comics collection, and I had – well, more or less everything – favorite children’s books, philosophy tomes from my undergraduate days, Norton anthologies, those tools of the trade of English teachers, art books, novels, histories – and a growing number of manuscript boxes.

They went onto the shelves, and since I have more or less a truce with dust, there they stayed until a month ago when the planets aligned, the karma was right and I decided to wash the woodwork and weed the books. If you can possibly avoid such a ridiculous impulse, by all means do so.
Piles of discarded books 
I was not so wise and began emptying the shelves. It is quite amazing how many books can fit onto a ten or twelve inch shelf, especially if one doubles up paperbacks and smaller volumes. It is also surprising and depressing how dirty books get and how even gently-treated volumes begin to fade
and develop foxing. In short, books age like the rest of us and after a number of decades some, even those holding the wisdom of the tribe, are too worn, dirty and depressing even for the library book sale. Say good bye to them!

And then, writers do accumulate paper. Now, of course, everyone stores their novels and short stories digitally. But those of us old enough to have lost manuscripts or who have discovered that word-processing programs can become obsolete will always insist on at least one paper copy. Published novels go off to a university archivist who probably unwisely requested my manuscripts. But the unpublished, even ones close to my heart, are unwanted. There they are, first and second drafts, additions, corrections, second and third thoughts, taking up shelf space in their big white cardboard boxes.

I didn’t have the heart to discard them entirely, although one ancient mystery, the second I wrote and a hard luck book, joined the pile. The day the contract for it with Macmillan was due to be signed, the department was terminated. I am beyond retyping a manuscript decades old!

Otherwise, cheered on by my husband who quite rightly points out that just about everything one needs is available on the web, I was ruthless. Would I ever read Kant again? Highly unlikely. What about Hume? I’d consulted him within a decade, give him a pass. Out- dated atlases and reference books? Gone. Various anthologies, well marked for classroom use? Out. Variorum editions of Shakespeare? Ditto. A paper copy of Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear, dusty with the cracked spine and underlining that I’d studied before writing my first novel? Out, although I was seriously tempted to rescue it at the last moment. I think any book lover will understand my hesitation.

Space for new volumes!
At last, after days of breathing dust, the shelves were washed and clean, and the  reprieved books installed again. Quite a tribute to good housekeeping. My husband repeats that after all, you can find whatever you need on the internet, that the physical book is a thing of the past and that the Kindle is a very nice reader.

All true, but I look at my tidy shelves with their newly freed-up space for family photos and souveniers, and I have another thought: I have space for more books.

07 December 2018

Opening Lines: Best and Favorite

Opening Lines: Best and Favorite
by O'Neil De Noux

OK, we've had a few posts about opening lines but I do not think we SleuthSayers put up a post about the favorite and the best opening lines of a short story and novel we have written. So here is my subjective opinion of mine.

The Best opening line of a novel I've written is:

The wail of bagpipes echoes through the cold fog and silences the men at the earthen rampart behind the Rodriguez Canal.
– from BATTLE KISS (2011)

American breastworks at The Battle of New Orleans battlefield, Chalmette, LA
Photo ©2011 O'Neil De Noux

My favorite opening line of a novel I've written is:

There is no trick-or-treating Halloween night, two months AK – After Katrina.
– from CITY OF SECRETS (2013)


Photo of sculpture Mackenzie by Vincent De Noux used on cover of CITY OF SECRETS

The Best opening line of a short story I've written is:

It was a kiss with promise behind it, as much promise as a good girl would give, enough to make my heart race as we stood under the yellow bulb of her front gallery.
– from "Too Wise" (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Vol 132, No. 5, November 2008 Issue

My favorite opening line of a short story I've written is:

The black German shepherd wasn't a cadaver dog but she found the skeleton in the hideaway closet under the stairs of the unpainted, wooden shotgun house.
– from "Just a Old Lady" (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Vol. 60, No. 9, September 2015 Issue)

Lagniappe. How about a Worst? Here is the Worst opening line of a story I wrote that was published:

It was a dark and stormy night with the wind barking through the mangroves like the voices of angry two-year olds fighting over crayons and I dreamt of a land far away, very far away, a helluva distance away, probably on the other side of the world where it wasn't dark nor was there a storm barking through the mangroves, a place where the mangroves were peaceful and green and I could sit reading Shelley or Keats or maybe Sidney Shelton without the wind whipping the pages of my book or the rain pelting my eyes, blurring my vision of Daphne in a see-through dress with the sunlight streaming through the diaphanous material and I could see all her goodies and make yummy sounds as she slinked up to me like a skank in the night (no, it wouldn't be night because we would be on the other side of the world and the sun would be shining – through her dress).
– from "Like a Stank in the Night" (Hardboiled Sex 2006 Collection)

So what are your favorite and best opening lines? What about your worst?

www.oneildenoux.com



06 December 2018

A Corporate Christmas Carol

by Eve Fisher

It's December, and we've had a lot of news to deal with over the last year, so some things have just gone under the radar.  But it's time to let some of those rats out of the woodwork, and the current scene with nursing homes around the country - including 19 of them here in South Dakota - has enough rats to kill every cat in the country.  That and make Ebenezer Scrooge wonder why he ever listened to the Ghost of Christmas Future when there was money to be made out of starving old folks. 

Now I'll admit, I'm fascinated by nursing homes.  My parents lived in a massive retirement center complex in Knoxville, TN, that allowed you to buy a house, then a town home, then an apartment, get assisted living, and then go to their nursing home premises. For ten years, I spent my vacation visiting them and living on-site, and I always found it somewhere between fascinating and scary as hell.  And yes, I've set a few stories in that milieu.  A lot can happen in retirement centers and nursing homes.  In fact, the same things happen there as happen among any other group of people.  Just cause you're old doesn't mean you haven't stopped working on your life, for good or ill.  But it's better when the crazy stuff happens at the instigation of the residents, and not come down from on high. 

Back in May, 19 nursing home facilities were going bust in South Dakota, thanks to their (mis)management by Skyline Healthcare of New Jersey. Skyline had gone on a nursing home buying binge between 2015-17:  110 nursing homes in six states at bargain prices, mostly from Golden Living, a large national chain that was sued by the Pennsylvania attorney general in 2015 for providing poor care. Golden Living wanted to lease out a lot of its nursing homes, and Skyline gladly took them over. 

This is the picture you get when you Google
Skyline Healthcare
Now here's one of the problems:  Skyline Healthcare was and isn't a large corporation with the kind of bucks to run 110+ nursing homes. Instead, it's owned by a single family, the Schwartzes (Joseph, Rosie, Michael and Louis), and nursing home industry watchers used to joke about the fact that their office was above a pizza joint in Wood-Ridge, N.J.  

But it wasn't so funny when Skyline quit paying the bills to, among others, nursing home vendor Health Care Services Group in Pennsylvania for housekeeping, laundry and dining and nutrition services. Then they stopped paying in Massachusetts, Florida, Arkansas, Kansas, and most lately, South Dakota. (Kansas City News
According to the complaint argued by Pierre attorney Margo Northrup, Skyline did not pay bills for the facilities, including from vendors and employee salaries. More seriously, “there are hundreds of patients currently residing at the (nursing facilities) who receive varying levels of care and whose health and safety have been put directly at risk by Defendants’ many defaults,” according to the complaint. On April 26, Skyline, the defendants, notified the state health department “that they no longer had sufficient funds to purchase food for the patients.” (Capital Journal)
The former Golden Living Nursing Home in Madison, SD
The result is all the Skyline nursing homes were put in receivership, and most of them are going to close. Where do the residents go? God only knows.

What the hell was the deal? Well, apparently Skyline Healthcare was a classic example of buy, gut, and sell - or outright abandon. And none of the sellers - Golden Living, among them, apparently bothered to check the Better Business Bureau ratings (D+, and God only knows how they got that) or their employee reviews (HERE).   So Skyline Healthcare bought the nursing homes using borrowed money, hosed up all the money in the nursing homes' accounts to repay their debt (and pay themselves, and their investors, of course), and then dumped the nursing homes.  And leaving the residents holding nothing but eviction notes.

And - WARNING, WARNING, WARNING! - this appears to be a (relatively) new trend in elderly care. Witness this article from The Washington Post. Back in 2011, The Carlyle Group bought the ManorCare nursing-home chain - the second-largest nursing-home chain in the United States. The financial deal "extracted $1.3 billion from the [ManorCare] company for investors... Shortly after the maneuver, the company announced hundreds of layoffs. In a little over a year, some nursing homes were not making enough to pay rent. Over the next several years, cost-cutting programs followed, according to financial statements obtained by The Post." 

Among those costs were staff, utilities, rent, and patient care:
"The number of health-code violations found at the chain each year rose 26 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to a Post review of 230 of the chain’s retirement homes. Over that period, the yearly number of health-code violations at company nursing homes rose from 1,584 to almost 2,000. The number of citations increased for, among other things, neither preventing nor treating bed sores; medication errors; not providing proper care for people who need special services such as injections, colostomies and prostheses; and not assisting patients with eating and personal hygiene." (The Washington Post


The Carlyle Group is disputing all of these claims.  But the result was bankruptcy and sale, this time to non-profit ProMedica Health.

The Washington Post points out that private-equity firms have been moving - like sharks - into businesses serving some of the nation’s poorest or most vulnerable people, including payday lenders, nursing homes, bail bond providers, low-income homes for rental and prison phone services.

"Ludovic Phalippou, a professor at Oxford who wrote the textbook “Private Equity Laid Bare,” says it is a question of whether private-equity methods are appropriate in all fields. He has praised the ability of private equity to streamline companies but he has also described the firms’ approach as “capitalism on steroids.” (my emphasis)  He said, for example, that while private-equity ownership of nursing homes is accepted in the United States, people in some other countries would be “aghast” at the idea. “People will wonder whether this pure capitalism is appropriate in nursing homes,” Phalippou said. “The health and welfare of the old people who live there depend on them.” (The Washington Post

But who cares about health and welfare?  That's so oldfashioned!  From The New Yorker:
Ron Shaich, founder of Panera Bread
"Wall Street has embraced the idea that companies exist solely to serve the holders of their stock. Under this way of thinking, managers of companies should focus their actions on driving short-term value for their shareholders, and should pay far less (or no) regard to other constituents who may have a stake in the business, such as employees, customers, or members of the community. [Ron] Shaich... believes that the fixation on short-term profits is jeopardizing the future of American business, and creating social instability that has contributed to our current state of political polarization."

And adding to the fears and worries of a lot of elderly people in nursing homes who literally have nowhere else to go.  Up here in South Dakota, there were 111 nursing homes, so closing 19 of them is taking away 17% of all the nursing homes in this state.  There aren't enough beds left in this state to take all the residents.  Where is Granny going to go for Christmas, this year, anyway?   Does anybody care? 







05 December 2018

Two Guns, No Waiting

by Robert Lopresti

Two guys came through my door with guns in their hands.

Logically I should have been terrified but for some reason I was mostly irritated.

"What the hell!" I said, pushing away from my desk.  "Who are you?"

The first one, a yegg, sneered at me.  "You know who we are.  The great Raymond Chandler said 'When in doubt have two guys come through a door with guns in their hands.'  That's us."

"Yeah," said the other one, a goon.  "That's us."

"I don't care what Chandler said." They gasped. "You can't just come barging into my office whenever you want."

"It's what you want," said the yegg.  He covered a corner of my desk with a corner of his sizable tush. "Obviously you're stuck on what you're writing or we wouldn't have appeared."

"Yeah," said the goon.  "You're stuck."

I frowned.  "What's the difference between a yegg and a goon, anyway?"

The yegg waved his non-gun hand in a professorial way.  "Well, the word 'yegg' comes from the argot of hobos.  It meant a criminal who traveled by train and often preyed on his fellow tramps.  Later it came to mean any low gangster."

The goon seemed fascinated.  "What about me?"

"Goons are muscle men.  Not as erudite or articulate as yeggs."

"Huh," said the goon.  "What do those words mean?"

The yegg shrugged.  "You see what I'm working with here."

"Poor you," I said.  Then I remembered that my work table was a standing/sitting desk.  I pushed a button and the motor tried to lift with the yegg sitting on it.  Irritably, he jumped off.

"Listen," I said.  "I appreciate the trouble you two have gone to but I don't think you can help me much."

"Are you saying you aren't stuck?"

"I am, but I'm writing a love story."

"A love story?" The yegg frowned.  "I thought you wrote mysteries."

"I do.  But a man can try something else."

"Sure, but you risk diluting your brand."

I stared at him.  "Where'd you get your M.B.A.?"

"Oh, a wise guy."

"The point is, having two guys coming in with guns doesn't help in a love story."

"Maybe," said the goon, "maybe you could have two beautiful women come in with... With..."  He went silent.

"Are you blushing?" said his partner.  "For Pete's sake!"

"I don't show up in many love stories," said the goon.

"That's no surprise."  The yegg glared at me.  "So we came here for nothing.  And you have no respect for the words of the great Chandler."

"That's another thing," I said.  "I just looked it up and Chandler was criticizing that gimmick, not recommending it."

"How did you look it up without us seeing you do it?"

"It's a literary device.  And another thing.  He didn't say two guys.  He said a guy."

"So," said the goon,  "you've been quoting it wrong all these years."

"I guess I have."  I did a double-take.  "Where did your friend  go?"

The goon shrugged.  "Turns out there's only supposed to be one of us.  He's probably gone off to harass some other mystery writer."

"You're suddenly much more articulate."

He scratched his forehead with the barrel of his gun.  "Probably more erudite too.  Good luck with the love story."

"Thanks."

Halfway through the doorway he paused to look back at me.  "Personally, I always preferred Hammett."