31 May 2020

How It All Came Together



At the time, I had eleven short stories in my Holiday Burglars series. That's my humor series, at least as far as I'm concerned. All eleven stories had been sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and all of them had seen print in their magazine. Now, it was time to write another story in the series.

10 of the first 11 stories are
now available in paperback

So there I sat, with a list of holidays in one hand and a list of potential valuables to steal in the other hand while staring at a blank computer screen. No title, no plot. Just two burglars, Yarnell and Beaumont, impatiently waiting for me to tell them what shenanigans they are up to for in this next episode. I can hear Beaumont saying, "Get a move on, bud. We don't like being unemployed. We need to go steal something."

Okay, they need something to steal. Preferably an exotic item or an object which is out of the ordinary and reader-attention-getting. We'll have to work on that part. Normally, the holiday comes first in the brainstorming process and that leads to the item to be purloined which leads to the weird situation our two burglars subsequently find themselves in.

So far, we've used up eleven different holidays in previous stories. What's left on the list? Cinco de Mayo? Nope, no current ideas for that one. How about Chinese New Year or Vietnamese Ahn Tet? Sorry, nothing there for now. Well, St. Patrick's Day is on the horizon and you do know some people from your old Texas Street neighborhood in Rapid City, friends who really liked to party. Yeah, of course, the Texas Street Hereford Society.
L to R: Scott, Dan, Fast Eddie, R.T. (holding the tail) and Bob
L'il Tex is the bucket calf in front.
(he just got run through the car wash at the dealership
and doesn't have a clue what's going on)

Let's tighten the focus down to Fast Eddie in the middle. (How this five-member society came into being and some of its subsequent antics can be saved for another time.) Fast Eddie was the heir apparent to a car dealership, a Registered Black Angus ranch and a working commercial cattle ranch. He was also well known in all the bars in Rapid City. The rest of us society members always said that if Eddie died first, we would bungee cord his body to a refrigerator dollie, put a drink in his hand and wheel him through all his favorite bars for one last Grand Tour.

That gives us drinking, St. Patrick's Day and a story character like Fast Eddie after he has passed on. Time to brainstorm the story plot.

What if Yarnell has just entered an Irish bar on St. Pat's Day to meet with his partner in crime, Beaumont? Over green beers and loud Irish music from the jukebox, Beaumont informs Yarnell that they now have a contract to steal a body.  Yeah, that should grab the reader's attention.

Moving on. It seems that a fellow burglar (Padraig, or Paddy as he is known to his associates) has died and his widow has arranged to have the wake at a funeral home. Some of the deceased's long-time drinking friends got into the party spirit, stole the corpse from his coffin while the widow wasn't looking, bungee corded the deceased to a refrigerator dollie and took him on a bar tour. The widow then hired Yarnell and Beaumont to find her wandering deceased husband, steal him back and get him to the funeral home in time for scheduled services, else the contract is void and thus no payment. The story is now open for anything to happen.

As a side note, while the widow may have thought Padraig (Paddy) was a potential saint while he was living, by the time he is returned to the funeral home, there may be evidence that his reputation is tarnished beyond repair.

The resulting story, "St. Paddy's Day," 12th in the series, was submitted to AHMM on 06/13/19 and accepted by their editor on 04/16/20. If I had to guess, I'd say it will probably see print in their March/April 2021 issue.

And there you have it. Another brainstorming session turned into a salable story.

Wish they all turned out that well.

BUSINESS NOTE:   Normally, the acceptance e-mail says that a contract will be coming via e-mail in about 30 days, but I usually get the e-contract in about two weeks, print and sign two copies and immediately mail them to DELL Publishing's contract person. Then, I wait for the check. However, due to the pandemic, the e-contract for the above story took about 42 days to arrive and the instructions were different. For this contract, I printed out and signed one copy. This signed copy was then scanned and e-mailed to DELL's contract person. Saves me postage on mailing the signed contract back to them. We'll see how long it takes for this check to arrive. Hey, I'm just glad to still be selling.

30 May 2020

Do's and Don'ts, Wills and Won'ts, Part 1





I had planned a different column for today, but some things I've seen over the past two weeks have steered me in another direction. (As if what I do has any direction to begin with.) In this case, it was a discussion that's been running for some time now at the Short Mystery Fiction forum, which some of you might've seen.

One of the hot topics there has been the craft and so-called "rules" of writing fiction--grammar/style, manuscript formatting, submission guidelines, etc. Something most of us are familiar with, but  something that still raises questions for many writers.


Let me make a confession here: I'm not an editor. I've edited one crime anthology, years ago--it was a lot of fun and a lot of work--and I've edited my own writing and the manuscripts of hundreds of my students in my writing classes . . . but I do no editing for a living and have never edited for a fee and don't plan to, so even though I sometimes (on good days) consider myself a professional writer, I am not a professional editor.

BUT . . . I have blundered into enough holes and cowpatties in this field of fiction writing to remember where they are and point them out. Here are some of them--and yes, many are just matters of personal opinion. Feel free to disagree.

NOTE: I'm starting with the Don'ts that I've always tried to pass along to my writer friends and students. I'll tackle the Do's in my column here next week. (One of the Don'ts ought to be Don't write a 5,000-word blog post, so I'm taking my own advice and splitting this one up into two separate columns.)

First, a map of the landmines:


Don'ts

- Don't overuse adverbs (especially the "ly" kind), don't tell something when you can show it instead, don't use cliches, don't use passive voice when you should use active, don't switch viewpoints too abruptly (there's an adverb!), don't repeat words and phrases, don't use a big word when a small one will do. And so forth.

- Don't overuse adjectives. Three or four in front of a noun is probably too many, like all those speed-bump commas that separate them. Change The hot, dry, dusty, rutted, gravel road to The dusty gravel road. Or just The dusty road. Less is better.

- Don't underline to emphasize text. Italicize instead. Until fairly recently, there were still a few magazines whose guidelines said they prefer underlining, but I think almost all of them now prefer and welcome italics. Remember, underlining was popular when typewriters were the only way to write submittable stories.

- Don't use Grammar Check--or at least don't always believe what it tells you. Fiction writers sometimes do need to splice commas, fragment sentences, split infinitives, and start sentences with a conjunction. (More on that in the Do's section and the "Breaking the Rules" section of next week's column, here.)

- Don't capitalize relationships (mother, mom, father, dad, aunt, uncle) except when addressing those people directly. Yes, Mom, her mother said it's okay for me to go.

- Don't capitalize seasons. I like summer but I love spring.

- Don't say you're nauseous--or at least don't admit it. If you're sick, you're nauseated. If you're making me sick, you're nauseous.

- Don't say feeling badly (even if Trump says it at every opportunity). Unless you have problems with sensation in your fingertips, you're feeling bad, not feeling badly.

- Don't put unspoken thoughts in quotation marks. Italicize instead, or--if it's obvious that it's an unspoken thought--don't do anything to it at all.

- Don't overuse ellipses, parentheses, dashes, or any other marks of punctuation, at least not to the point that they're distracting. That's the biggest problem: snapping the reader out of the story.

- Don't use exclamation points unless the character's pants are on fire.

- Don't use an apostrophe for most plurals, including TVs, DVDs, UFOs, RVs, EMTs, VPs, MRIs, 1980s, and Don'ts. (Unless the apostrophe is needed for clarity, as in Do's.) And for God's sake don't use apostrophes with the plurals of names like the Smiths, the Clarks, etc. Also be careful to position the apostrophe correctly after plural possessives. Wrong: We're going to the Bennett's for dinner. Right: We're going to the Bennetts' for dinner.

- Don't overuse semicolons. I happen to like semicolons--they're perfect when two complete sentences are too closely related to be separated by a period--but editors usually don't like 'em, and I'm trying to cut back to two or three a week. I've found myself using dashes instead, or rewording the text entirely, to avoid using semicolons too often. And I never use semicolons during dialogue--I think it makes speech look too stiff and formal.

- Don't use that unnecessarily. She told me that she likes you. This should be She told me she likes you.

- Don't use that when you should use who. They're the folks who always vote Republican.

- Don't use in when you should use into. She went into the cellar. She's in the cellar now.

- Don't confuse less with fewer. Less involves mass nouns; fewer involves countable units. He has less cash in his pocket. He has fewer coins in his pocket.

- Don't overuse "action" words and phrases that are already overused. He shrugged, she rolled her eyes, he sighed, she frowned, etc. I still use them in my stories and will continue to--people do shrug and sigh and roll their eyes and frown--but I try not to go overboard with it.

- Don't overuse "lazy" words like suddenly, just, very, some, and really. I happily violate this advice as well, but it's still a good rule to know. Do as I say and not as I do.

- Don't misuse the word ironic. Rain on Betty's wedding day isn't ironic. It's just unfortunate. Getting run over by a tobacco truck on the way to buy cigarettes is ironic.

- Don't use postal abbreviations in your story narrative. Nobody enjoys spelling out Connecticut or Mississippi, but to use CT or MS in anything except a mailing address is incorrect.

- Don't use too many characters with soundalike names. Especially those beginning with the same letter, but this also includes anything that might call attention to your writing. For example, you don't want too many names that consist of only one syllable--Bob, Jim, Liz, Sue, Joe, Ed, Tom, Jake, Deb--or that rhyme, like Barry, Gary, Harry, and Larry.

- If you're submitting a short story, don't say anything about the plot of your story in your cover letter. No synopsis is needed unless that's specified in the guidelines.

- Don't say anything in your cover letter that's not relevant to your story or to writing. The editor of a mystery magazine might be interested in the fact that you're also a trial lawyer, but she won't care how many kids or cats you have.

- Don't use any colors, special characters, or weird fonts or font sizes in your manuscript. I don't even put anything in boldface type. (More on this next week in the Do's section.)

- Don't (if guidelines tell you to copy/paste your story into an email) do a straight copy/paste from a Word file--or at least send it to yourself first if you do. Usually it's best to convert your story to a .txt file first, then close the file, open it again, and only then do the copy/paste. Remember too that you'll lose special characters like italics when you convert to .txt, so you'll need to go back in and put an underscore (_) just before and after any words or phrases that need to be emphasized.

- Don't let your writing program put an extra space between your double-spaced paragraphs. Your manuscript should be evenly double-spaced throughout.

- Don't use widow/orphan suppression in your manuscript. It can do funny things to the length of your pages.

- Don't use alliteration unintentionally. My sister Susan saw Sally sitting in the sunshine.

- Don't "do" speech. "I'm fine," he smiled. "I'm not," she sighed. You can't smile or sigh words. Some editors are okay with this, but some aren't.

- Don't be redundant. Repeat again, shrugged his shoulders, nodded her head, shook his head no, exact same, basic fundamentals, free gift, best ever, unexpected surprise. Doubly redundant: nodded her head yes.

- Don't use incomplete comparisons. I get along with Mom better than my sister.

- Don't use too many synonyms for said. I probably sound like Elmore Leonard here, but Stephen King and many other respected authors advise this as well. Said and asked are transparent words--the reader's eye goes right over them. Words like stated and exclaimed and ruminated and queried and declared not only provide unneeded information; they sometimes cause the reader to stop and think about the writer and the writing instead of the story. (Exception: British authors seem to love substitutes for said. They love "ly" adverbs also. Check out the Harry Potters.)

- Don't feel you have to describe people, places, and things in infinite detail. Leave some of this to the reader's imagination.

- Don't supply too much information via dialogue. Are you going to your job at Regions Bank tomorrow, Dad?

- Don't overuse ing or as constructions. He picked up the gun and walked away is often better than Picking up the gun, he walked away or As he picked up the gun, he walked away. All are grammatically correct, but too many ing and as phrases, especially at the beginning of sentences, can give the impression of lazy writing. Read the successful authors--they rarely do much of this.

- Don't lose the reader by not using any dialogue "tags" at all. Nothing's more frustrating than having to count lines backward to see who's saying what.

- Don't use dangling modifiers (modifiers with no clear reference). Opening the window, a bee flew into the room. Crouched behind the fence, his eyes went to hers.

- Don't use misplaced modifiers, which is pretty much the same thing as the previous Don't. The instructor told us to work hard at the beginning of class. My company makes combs for people with unbreakable teeth.

- Don't write run-on sentences (no connecting word or punctuation). I thought the day would never end I was so tired I could drop.

- Don't use the word alright. Doing so is not all right.

- Don't use the word utilize. It might be the most worthless and needless word in the English language, and is heard mostly (of course) in political speeches. Use use instead.

- Don't use flashbacks in a short story unless you have to. If you must, write them as units of dramatic action and not as an information dump. If it's just backstory you need, consider providing it through dialogue. How long has it been now, since Lucy's mother died?

- Don't feel you have to describe every single thing that happens. If the phone rings, you don't need to tell the reader about your character picking it up and saying hello. Just start in on the dialogue. Same thing with a knock on the door.

- Don't only write what you know. Write what you like to read, or what you feel comfortable writing. Besides, research allows you to write what you know.

NOTE: I've heard the worst writing mistake you can make is to confuse it's with its. I've heard the worst public-speaking mistake you can make is to say with you and I or for you and I. (And everybody seems to do that--especially news anchors, who should know better.)



Pet peeves

I don't like reading fees, and I don't submit stories to places that charge them.

I don't like contests. (Most of them, anyway.) I've entered some and I've won a few, but I'd rather submit my original stories to paying markets. The chances of getting published in a respectable magazine or anthology are better than the chances of winning first place in a respectable contest.

I always use a singular verb with collective plural nouns like data and media. Also, as an old IBM guy, I prefer dayta, not datta. I like The dayta is correct. I don't like The datta are correct. In fact that always gives me the giggles, like a whoopee cushion.

When spoken, I think the word lived in short-lived should have a long i (as in arrive), not a short i (as in give). It just sounds more logical--if it's short-lived, it has a short LIFE. I think I'm one of maybe two people on the planet who like to pronounce it that way. If I remember correctly, James Lincoln Warren is the other.

I usually don't like it when nouns are used as verbs. Let's fellowship after the meeting. You two should dialogue about that. Exception: I went home and googled it.

I've grown desperately tired of words and expressions like I got your back, stunning video, iconic, ASAP, I'm all about (this or that), pushing the envelope, sense of closure, and giving it 110%. I'm guilty of using too many cliches anyway, in both speech and writing, so I sure don't use these. The same goes for adjectives like awesome and amazingThe view from the south rim of the Grand Canyon is awesome. My cousin's husband, no matter what she says, is not. He's not amazing, either.

I don't like to write in present tense. I'm not wild about reading present-tense stories either, but I've finally given in, and it no longer bothers me that much.

Other aggravations, while I'm thinking of it, are prescription-drug commercials, personal-injury lawyer commercials, robocalls, televangelists, coconuts, licorice, and almost anything on network TV. Then again, I'm getting old and grumpy, and these have nothing to do with writing.

What are some of your own don'ts, and pet peeves?


Wrap-up (thank God, right?)

The last thing I should point out is Don't overuse instructions about overuse. In other words, Don't pay too much attention to people who tell you how to write, because all of us think we know more than we do, and everyone's different.

Anyhow, in Part 2 next Saturday (June 6), I'll cover the Do's, along with an extremely biased discussion about breaking the rules.

See you then.






29 May 2020

Zero Dark Thirty


I have a confession to make.

Eleven weeks into our weird safe-at-home reality, and I've barely scratched the surface of my (admittedly) ambitious quarantine To Do list. Way back in mid-March, I had such grand plans with all the extra time on my hands.
   ~ Finish revising my WIP novel.
   ~ Draft a short story for an upcoming anthology
   ~ Read the TBR books that threatens to overtake my nightstand.
You may even remember my debut SleuthSayers post <here> wherein I suggested several productive writerly activities.

Did I listen to myself?  Nope.

As March blended into April, my day job commitments dwindled along with the tanking economy. I found myself with even more unstructured time available for writing.

Did I tick anything off my To Do list?  Double-nope.

Processing the pandemic seemed all-consuming. Instead of revising, I devoured a constant stream of COVID-10 news updates. I watched in horror as New York hospitals overflowed with patients. Instead of writing, I sewed masks to donate to frontline staff who were desperate for PPE. Instead of reading, I helped my kiddos with their online schooling.  Don't even get me started on Zoom-fatigue or strategizing about our family's once-per-week stealth grocery shopping adventures.

Honestly, I didn't think fiction--even the dark kind we crime-hounds write about--could get any weirder than our post-apocalyptic reality.

Then came the murder hornets.

Something weighed heavily on me, beyond the underlying anxiety from our crazy new normal. About a month into our quarantine, I had an ah-ha moment.

I missed writing.

For me, not only has writing always been my link to sanity, but it can be an escape from my day-to-day worries. Without it, I felt a little lost. But since my quarantine time seemed to be occupied from sunrise to way past sunset, how would I carve out a routine dedicated to writing?

The answer hit me in the form of my good ol' writerly friends at #5amWritersClub (a.k.a. my writing tribe).

In case you're not familiar with #5amWritersClub, it's an informal support group of early-riser writers on Twitter. If these pre-dawn writers could be stereotyped, I'd say they tend to be self-deprecating coffee-aholics who cheer each other on through missed alarm clocks, writers block, life's hiccups,and of course, chasing words.

How does one join #5amWritersClub?
Fortunately, it's easier than hitting snooze when your alarm
goes off.  This informal group works on a drop-in-when-you-can basis. Over the years, I've participated when my daily writing time vanished, usually when my kids' schools were on summer or winter breaks.  Here's how:

  1. Join Twitter. Have an account?  If yes, then you're all set to roll.  No? Just go ahead and setup your free account and Twitter handle. Don't forget to upload a profile photo.  Need help? Step-by-step instructions can be found <here>
  2. Tweet. Sometime between 5am and 6am in your time zone, Tweet a check-in note.  You can wish people good morning, mention your project, something motivational, or even complain about accidentally sleeping through your third alarm.  No pressure, just be sure to include the hashtag #5amWritersClub in the Tweet so other group members can find you.  Bonus points - add a humorous or coffee-related gif video clip to your Tweet.
  3. Write. Log those words. This is your golden hour.
  4. Like. Once or twice during the hour, hop back on Twitter to like other #5amWritersClub Tweets from that morning.  Pro tip -- if you're new to Twitter, this is how you will find lots of other writers to follow.
  5. Friday donuts. The group's tradition is to celebrate T.G.I.F. by sharing virtual donuts. Since the pandemic started, some members have even met virtually on Zoom on an occasional Friday.
  6. Done At the end of your hour, there's no need to report back or check out, but fee free to like a few more #5amWritersClub Tweets to support others in your same trenches.  And don't forget, the next time zone to the West's members will be checking in behind you.
Since rejoining #5amWritersClub, I've gotten my writing mojo back.

With even a few new words on the page each day, endorphins would rush through my psyche in a feel-good wave. In a world that was getting weirder by the day, writing was something I could control. I was creating again.

I've even checked off one of my To Do items, drafting the new short story.

Progress on several fronts!


What have you been doing in our New Normal to bolster your writing?


PS - Let's be social:

28 May 2020

The Big Cheese in the White House


Not that kind of cheese: THIS kind of cheese.
According to Vocabulary.com, the phrase "The Big Cheese" has the following meaning in English:

The big cheese is the person who holds the most power in any situation. If you overhear someone at work describe you as "the big cheese," it means that he thinks of you as the most important person in the office.

You might also call someone important the head honcho or the top dog. The idiomatic phrase big cheese comes from a definition of cheese that comes from Urdu, in which chiz means "a thing." The British colonization of India brought English speakers and Urdu speakers together, and one result was the phrase "the real chiz" to mean "a big thing or event." This evolved over time into big cheese.

Okay, yeah. The other kind of "Big Cheese," too.
So you might be forgiven for reading the title of this blog post, and thinking: "This is a political post about the biggest cheese occupying the White House. This is about the president, or at least about a president."

Well, it is, and it isn't. It's actually about an enormous wheel of actual cheese, four feet in circumference, and two feet high, which was given to the metaphorical "Big Cheese," at the time: the sitting president of the United States, Andrew Jackson as a gift.

So I guess you could say this is about that time the "Big Cheese" received the unexpected gift of a "Big Cheese." 

Except it wasn't the first time a sitting president of the United States received a huge wheel of cheese as a gift. Thomas Jefferson actually carries the title on this one.

In January of 1802 Jefferson received the so-called "Mammoth Cheese," which served the dual purpose of being both a gift from grateful supporters and also as an abolitionist statement. This block, it was said, was 100% the result of free labor, and the milk of every one of the nine hundred cows in the Massachusetts county that sent it went into its creation.

The Original Big Cheese-Receiving Big Cheese

The “Mammoth Cheese” was created for President Jefferson by members of the Cheshire Baptist Church from Cheshire, Massachusetts. The cheese weighed 1,235 pounds and milk from every cow in Cheshire—approximately 900 cows—was used to create this colossal cheese. According to the National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser for December 30, 1801, the cheese arrived in Washington, D.C. “in a wagon drawn by six horses.”  The Mammoth Cheese was so awe-inspiring, that it marks the first use of the word “mammoth” as an adjective spurred by a nationwide fascination with mammoths following the discovery of large prehistoric bones in the new world.

To be clear, Cheshire really was all-in for Jefferson. To say that the county was a center of Jeffersonian support in an otherwise overwhelmingly Federalist state is something of an understatement. Jefferson, after all, received every single Cheshire presidential vote in the election of 1800. There was one vote against him, but that one was quickly thrown out, on the assumption that it had been cast by mistake.

Jefferson was reportedly so moved by this cheesy gesture that he sent pieces cut from the Mammoth Cheese back to the Abolitionist minister who spear-headed the whole exercise, as a token of gratitude. Whether the cheese was still edible by the time it made it all the way back to Cheshire, Massachusetts, however, is not recorded.

Ironically the Big Cheese that Jackson received while he was Big Cheese in the White House (still more generally known at the time by its formal name, the "Executive Mansion.") came to him not from a supporter, but from a New York State booster who was showcasing the rising economic prowess of his state. In fact, said booster, Colonel Thomas S. Meacham of Standy Creek, New York, was reputed to be a supporter of Jackson's perennial rival, Henry Clay of Kentucky.

The 1,400 pound cheese Meacham packed onto a schooner in 1835 and sent by water all the way to Washington was actually one of six massive wheels of cheddar cheese which made the rounds at local county fairs that year. The locals, many of them Jackson men, hit upon the idea of sending one to Jackson, because, well, Jefferson had gotten one, and Jackson, being a member of the party Jefferson had founded, ought to get everything the Sage of Monticello had gotten out of serving as his country as chief executive (no mention is made of the crippling debt into which Jefferson put himself–or should I say, "into which he put himself deeper," since he was already in debt when he took office–during his eight years as president. Apparently the notion that "Everything Jefferson got, Jackson is due" only extended so far.).

Jackson was reportedly delighted by the cheese, especially the sheer size of it. But as could be said of many aspects of his presidency, Jackson seems to have been at a loss as to what to actually do with the cheese once he had it. So, as if by default, this wheel of cheddar found a home in a particular room in the White House, where it spent an entire year aging.

In Washington, D.C. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the city is famously built on swampland. It's also hot and humid for a goodly part of the year. Ever seen cheese in a humid room? It sweats. And if left there long enough–like, say, a whole year–it begins to stink.

Finally, in February of 1837, with less than a month left in office, Jackson hit upon a way to dispose of this by-now funky block of over-ripe cheese. As he had done when he was inaugurated in March of 1829, he had a big party, and invited the public into the Executive Mansion to partake of his questionable bounty.

As with Jackson's inauguration party, it did not go well. After Jackson's inauguration, there was so many members of the public eager to see and touch all the wonderful things in the White House, that they completely trashed the place. Breaking windows, stealing "souvenirs," including whole pieces of furniture. The only way the staff were able to finally get all of these partygoers to quite the building was to set up bowls filled with alcohol out on the lawn.

The White House: Inauguration Night, March 4th, 1829

This time around, though, it was the cheese, not the guests, which stank up the joint. As a correspondent for The Portsmouth Journal of Politics and Literature reported, when the cheese was cut, "there arose an exceedingly strong smell, so strong as to overpower a number of dandies and lackadaisical ladies."


One contemporary later recalled of the event:

For hours did a crowd of men, women and boys hack at the cheese, many taking large hunks of it away with them. When they commenced, the cheese weighed one thousand four hundred pounds, and only a small piece was saved for the President’s use. The air was redolent with cheese, the carpet was slippery with cheese, and nothing else was talked about at Washington that day. Even the scandal about the wife of the President’s Secretary of War was forgotten in the tumultuous jubilation of that great occasion.

A more "dignified" take on the aftermath of the Big Cheese's demise.

Even after its demise the cheese lingered, its smell hanging about the White House, and noticeable for several blocks in any direction. Described in one account as "an evil-smelling horror," the odor lasted into the administration of Jackson's hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren.

I guess you could say that, as with so many other aspects of his in many ways disastrous presidency, Old Hickory left this particular mess for Van Buren to clean up, too.

Van Buren, unable to escape the Panic of 1837–the hangover which followed on the heels of Jackson's ruinous economic policies and effectively wrecked Van Buren's presidency before it even began–was, however, able to exorcise of the ghost of Jackson's Big Ol' Wheel O' Cheddar.

As a senator's wife laid it out in an 1838 letter, no sooner had Van Buren rid himself of the stench, than the cycle repeated itself:

The White House has been put in order by its present occupant, and is vastly improved – (Van Buren) says he had a hard task to get rid of the smell of cheese, and in the room where it was cut, he had to air the carpet for many days; to take away the curtains and to paint and white-wash before he could get the victory over it. He has another cheese like that which General Jackson had cut, and says he knows not what to do with it. What a foolish thing for a man to have made such a present to him or anyone else.

Martin Van Buren, looking for all the world like he just got a whiff of something foul.

Whether Van Buren ever again ate a piece of cheddar (or camembert, or gouda, or...or...or...) is not recorded. Wonder what he did with the new wheel? It would have been a short roll down to the Potomac at the time. Hmmm....

So anyway, there you have it!

I know, I know...

Pretty cheesy story, right?

See you in two weeks!

27 May 2020

Another Day in Paradise


I used to have a theory that the defining characteristic of a successful television series was the comfort factor. I don't think this is actually an original idea of mine, but likely somebody else's observation I've appropriated. If you take a show like Rockford, or Murder, She Wrote, or Magnum, it's a relationship, and you build on familiarity. It's about your engagement with Jim Garner, or Angela Lansbury, or Tom Selleck. Pause for a moment and consider that Columbo was originally conceived as a vehicle for Bing Crosby.

So if first we have character, then we have circumstance. To what degree is any given series situation? The term was coined to describe the half-hour comedies that came after Lucy, and Gleason's Honeymooners - even thought those shows were ensembles, and very much dependent on situation. In this case, though, we're talking situation drama, distinct from soaps. These are programming definitions, and not all that useful, except as shorthand.

Taking, again, Magnum for our template. Tom Selleck says the concept was a kind of James Bond party boy, beating women away with a stick, hot cars and vodka martinis, and Selleck was, No, been there, done that. How about beer and a Tigers cap, or the guy gets conked on the head a lot, he's even kinda slow on the uptake, from time to time? In other words, more like the rest of us. Then we begin to discard the other generic conventions. Higgins is an awful stiff, with only one note, the aggrieved and aging queen. John Hillerman clearly loses patience with this pretty early on. T.C. and Rick are there for what, protective coloration? This, too, goes by the boards. The dynamic of the show turns collaborative. It's character-driven.

Selwyn 
Catherine


Now, what if we turn this back to front? Suppose we take a situation that's character-driven, and keep changing the cast? This is Death in Paradise. It has some similarities to Murder, She Wrote, for one. It's not singularly gruesome, and mostly has a light touch. Nor does it break new ground. It's formulaic, and follows an established pattern. But consistency works in its favor. It's closing out the ninth season, and headed for ten.

Poole
Camille


The premise is a fish-out-of-water story. A cop from London, a detective inspector, is assigned to a somnolent Caribbean oasis. There's a lot of French heritage mixed in, but it's part of the British Commonwealth. (The show is an Anglo-French co-production, and actually shot on Guadeloupe and nearby islands.)

We have the expected culture clash, but the charms of the place turn out to be irresistible, and even the flintiest of hearts begins to soften. The other underlying commonplace is that our visiting fireman has the nearly magical ability to read the runes, and rescue clarity from the jaws of disorder.

Dwayne
Fidel


I know I'm not alone in thinking the first two season were the best, because of Ben Miller in the lead. He seems to have made a career of playing anal-retentive Limey twits or chilly Whitehall mandarins - for which see his iceberg performance in Primeval, opposite the indispensable Dougie Henshall. Cast out of rain-soaked England into the sudden sunshine of the New World, the guy never loosens his tie or undoes the top button of his collar. When he finally unbends enough to take off his shoes and socks and wade barefoot in the surf, it's as much of a character reveal as Dorothy Malone undoing her hair in The Big Sleep.

Humphrey
Florence



The third season introduced Kris Marshall, who hid his light under a bushel of socially awkward mannerisms, which never convinced me or won my heart. Both the way Humphrey was written and the way Marshall played him were enormously annoying. Here's the weird thing. I kept watching the show. Kris Marshall put me off but not enough to give up on the rest of them, Fidel and Dwayne and Camille. The concept held my attention, and the ensemble. And then another whammy. Putting up with Humphrey, and having lost Fidel at the end of Season Three, we then lose Camille, and Florence Cassell moves up a notch.

Ruby
J.P.



We finally unload Kris Marshall in Season Six, and Ardal Hanlon steps aboard. Big improvement. Except that Florence leaves. Two new constables have been slipped into the mix, Hooper and Ruby, but the real blow is at at the beginning of Season Eight, when Dwayne has disappeared, and without ceremony. By this point, the entire main cast has rolled over twice. The only stable support personnel are Don Warrington as the police commissioner and Elizabeth Bourgine as Catherine. Oh, and of course Harry the lizard, a still point in a turning world.


Jack
Madeleine



I just find it strange, quite honestly, that I've stuck with it. The locations are gorgeous, the hot colors, the laid back island vibe. There's familiarity, shrugging into a well-worn set of clothes, your expectation that it's all going to be set right. Terrific guest shots - James Cosmo, Adrian Dunbar, Denis Lawson, Clare Holman, Peter Davison.

Who wouldn't give up a week in the clammy UK and fly to the French West Indies? Maybe that's it, in the end.


I've got no explanation. I can only suggest that you pick up the DVD's at your library, or stream it on BritBox. You may well be as pleasantly surprised as I've been.

26 May 2020

AloneStarCon


Though our friends are saddened by the cancellation of this year’s many mystery conferences and conventions, Temple and I spent Memorial Day weekend at AloneStarCon, the first-ever presentation of the Lone Star State’s premier mystery convention. We thought we would share some highlights with you.

This year’s convention was held in a modest venue selected for its proximity to the guests of honor. Convention staff went above and beyond to ensure that every guest felt welcome, and the many presentations were nothing short of exceptional. The distance between any two points in the event facility was negligible, the intimate setting allowed close interaction between writer and fan, and everywhere we turned we ran into our favorite writer. There was never a wait for a table in the restaurant, the food was excellent, and the serve-yourself bar allowed for generous pours of one’s favorite libations.


AloneStarCon
May 22-24, 2020
Hewitt, Texas

Guest of Honor By Default: Michael Bracken
Fan Guest of Honor By Default: Temple Walker
Surprise Guest: Kiwi

First event of the day was the Speed Dating Breakfast, where I had a scant two minutes per table to discuss my story “Sleepy River” in the current issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Here I am holding up a copy of The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods while moderating the panel on anthology editing.

Later, I moderated the panel on creating and editing a serial novella anthology series, and I’m showing the audience the first two volumes of Guns + Tacos.

The Fan Guest of Honor caught me in the lobby, taking a break between panels.

Surprise Guest Kiwi failed to adhere to social distancing suggestions when he joined me in the lobby.

The dealer’s room had quite a selection, and here I am with a copy of Password to Larkspur Lane, one of Temple’s favorite Nancy Drew titles.

After a hard day of paneling and book buying, we found a place at the bar for some much-needed libation.

When we finally made it back to our room the first night, we dumped out our swag bag and found many titles written or edited by the Guest of Honor.

Though we hope AloneStarCon does not become an annual event, we must express our gratitude to the organizers for putting together this stellar event on such short notice.

Until we see you all again, stay safe!


25 May 2020

What Are We REALLY Doing?


Warren Zevon's song "The Hula Hula Boys" features the Polynesian refrain

"Ha'ina I'a Mai ana ka puana." It means "Sing the chorus," or maybe "Get to the point."

In other words, just tell the damn story.

A few days go, I forgot to charge my Kindle and couldn't order another book. Obviously, in the time of Covid-19, I've had lots of time to read, but some publishers are still figuring out how to get digital copies to reviewers like me.

I went to my book case and pulled out a massive short story anthology I assigned when I taught English. This was a newer edition, but I like it because it has a mix of classic (Poe, Hawthorne, Chekhov, Hemingway) and new and multi-cultural authors (Sherman Alexie, Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, Gish Jen, Leslie Marmon Silko). I read some stories either I'd never read before or forgotten (Yes, that does happen).

I enjoyed them all, but I'd hate to explain what a few of them said to me or "meant." Remember getting that question on standardized tests? My first reaction then was, "Hawthorne's dead. How the hell do I know what he was trying to tell me?"

Then I made a terrible mistake. I looked at a few of the questions following stories. Some of them were so esoteric I suspect they became thesis topics when the author's first 75 better ideas were either taken or got rejected by his advisor.

Teaching literature is an odd occupation. We don't teach our students to read, we force them to read "critically," and while I was accused of being good at it a long time ago, I no longer think I could explain what it means in a way that would justify it. I thought I was teaching kids to read for "ideas" and "themes" (A term I still avoid as much as possible) and techniques. Now, I think all that matters is that we have the tools to appreciate a story and can explain why that did or didn't happen. If you're a writer or potential writer, we should understand how the choices and techniques make a story more or less effective, but that's about it.

Remember Zevon's song?

Maybe that's all we should worry about.

Does the setting help bring out the story's ideas? would it work better with a different point of view or voice? What would happen if the writer changed the gender of the protagonist/narrator? What about a different time period? Would more or less humor help? I'm not sure we can really teach any of these except by wide reading and lots of experience, much of it through failure.

Last week, the University of Connecticut announced that they are abandoning the SAT as an admission requirement. In the age of Covid-19, many students don't have access to various preparation sites and workshops, which gives other applicants a big advantage.

Wouldn't it be great if we went back to reading for pleasure and a wider vision of the world without having to take multiple-choice and essay tests to pigeonhole the great works, or even the not-so-great ones? Let Shakespeare, Dickens, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Cervantes, and Dorothy Allison stand on their own merits instead of trying to find a sometimes arcane or non-existent common denominator?

Let young people rediscover the miracle of those funny little marks on the page, like when were were younger parents and we held our kids on our laps before bedtime, watching Paddington or the Poky Little Puppy or Curious George discover how the world worked...

24 May 2020

The Murder of Me, part 2


Narrows Gorge Underwater
Narrows Gorge Underwater

Last week, a boating companion left Leigh trapped upside down in an overturned canoe in surging waters, fighting to free his ankles. If Leigh didn’t smash face-first into boulders rising from the depths, a whirlpool lay ahead.

He had been targeted for murder.

We return to the story…
— Editor

gorge map
Upside down in churning, freezing glacier melt, I fought to free my ankles. Threaded under the seat, my long legs proved difficult to extricate from a crevice not made for anyone over six feet. One foot pulled free… tug, twist… then the other. Still submerged, I yanked off my boots so I could swim.

My life preserver popped me to the surface. To my right, a ledge extended. I climbed like a wet rat, reaching that shelf, momentarily safe.

At a distance below, Jeff clung to the capsized canoe, orbiting the whirlpool. He screamed up at me, violently swearing.

Only one way off the ledge presented itself. I needed to plunge back into the freezing waters. It seemed a twelve-foot drop, but was probably half that.

I jumped. I swam for the circling canoe.

One of my boots bobbed there. I never knew hiking shoes could float. The other came within reach. Jeff cursed me the entire time.

“Shut it,” I said. “We need to empty the canoe.”

“How?”

“Give me the paddle,” I said.

“No.”

“The paddle, else stay stuck in this spin cycle.”

“No, you’ll leave.”

“I’ll leave if you don’t.”

He didn’t know how to get out of the predicament. He swore and tossed me the paddle.

“Rock the boat like this,” I said. “Slosh the water out.”

He followed instructions until we emptied much of the water. I stretched across and pulled myself into the stern. Jeff followed suit, clinging to a thwart. I ruddered the canoe until it separated from the grip of the whirlpool. It bounded down the rapids battering the hell out of the hull.

We spotted the portage. Bill, Sandy, and Lauren huddled there, stamping their feet against the cold.

“Where were you?” they said. “What happened to you?”

“Leigh fucked up,” said Jeff before I could speak. “He tipped us over. Leigh lost one of the oars and he’s fucking paying for it.”

The women hovered over Jeff, cooing and cawing. “You poor thing."

“Let’s hike,” I said. “Hypothermia. We need to get warm and dry.”

Moments later, Scott appeared. As the others climbed the trail, he and I hefted the canoe over our shoulders to portage it. In relative privacy under the shell, he spoke quietly.

“Weirdest thing, Leigh. I inched along the cliff face and kept you in sight.”

“You picked your way across that bluff?” I was impressed.

“Yeah. As the canoe aimed at those rocks, I remembered the stern guy steers. When Jeff started rocking the boat. I’m convinced he deliberately capsized it.”

I said, “Pretty much what happened.”

“Why do that? You could have been killed.”

“I don’t know, Scott. I can’t explain it.”

Jeff Summerfield's Malfoy sneer
The Malfoy sneer
The Cool

Back at camp, the only warmth arose from the fire. Jeff held court, regarding me with his down-the-nose Malfoy gaze.

He might have been practicing the campfire tale of my misfortune for hours, days, even weeks. His dramatic recounting horrified a sympathetic audience. He held my incompetence forced the canoe into the rocks. I panicked, lost my paddle, and needed rescuing.

“The great canoeing expert man,” he said. “Good thing no one else trusted lives to him. Guy can’t hold onto a paddle.”

Bill glared at me accusingly. “You almost got Jeff killed.”

A childhood defect often renders me speechless against untrue accusations.

Scott remained silent. I imagined he’d filled Sandy in as they glided back to camp, but her eyes showed doubt as Jeff told and retold his story. Who would deliberately capsize a canoe in dangerous waters?

The Cold

Lauren took my protests as churlish and unfair to Jeff. On the drive back to Minneapolis, she hovered under a blanket with him, not me, signaling the beginning of the end of a lengthy relationship.

Thereafter, she brooked no criticism of him. The more I sullenly avoided Jeff, the more Lauren cozied up to him. Except for curt, one-word replies, she stopped speaking with me.

The day came when Lauren called it quits over the phone.

Next morning, Sandy rang me. She couldn’t contain the breakup headline news update.

“We barely got her stuff moved into a condo and in waltzed Jeff with his backpack and ski poles. He sat in the easy chair and ordered the rest of us around, where to put this, where to arrange that. We can’t believe her. Can’t you stop this?”

“Not any more, Sandy. Not any more.”

The Ice

During those moments of the river ‘accident,’ I didn't have time for fear. The real impact came later, shock and internal pain… Once upon a time Lauren caused my world to revolve. Then the planet tilted, stopping dead in its tracks.

No way. I’m a tough guy, big, resilient, not gutted, not hurt, no bruised soft tissue, no seared scars, no brutalization of betrayal, nothing to see folks. No jagged spear tore out a wretched pulsing, pumping organ that couldn’t be mine. No salty water blinded my eyes, no unending oceans of agony, no treacherous waves hammered soft shoals, no dark tunnels flooded with torture and torment, no anguish, no fiery cauldron of pain, no. No problem, nothing, nothing at all, just a… just a fourteen-digit number on the Richter scale of heartbreak.

General Armstrong Custer, Jeff Summerfield look-alike
Custer, Jeff look-alike
Casting Stones

In the time I’d known him, Jeff had become an expensive acquaintance. The never-ending lending for lunch or dinner was the least of it. Around him, things broke, things disappeared, things died.

The year before, he’d mysteriously blown up the new engine in our little Triumph Spitfire. I never let him drive another car, but he persuaded Lauren to let him try out our newly purchased Dodge– an hour after midnight– while I was at work, when good little children should have been sound asleep. Claiming he hit a patch of ice, he’d slammed it into a guardrail on Interstate 494… at one in the morning.

Jeff manifested a couple of peculiarities, especially compulsive lying. Our expanded circle of friends merely wrote that off as Jeff being Jeff. But the cash bag from Lauren’s shop vanished in Jeff’s presence. And animals… critters left in his care curiously died.

The women in our larger circle noticed something else. They remarked how Jeff exhibited a penchant for dating young widows.

Lauren had nearly become one– a young widow.

Constant nightmares haunted me. With difficulty, I caught my breath and began to recover. I threw myself into my work.

That should have marked the end of the saga. It didn’t.

Sherburne County Sheriff
Castle Breached

A freezing January day found me consulting out of state. An emergency phone call rang in from Lauren, she was visiting the house. My peaceful home in the woods– a state forest– had been burglarized and badly vandalized.

Sherburne County’s Sheriff might have presided over a frozen rural fiefdom, but he was no slouch. While his fingerprint maven dusted enough powder to mount a community theatre production of Chim-Chim Cher-ee, the sheriff explained the situation over the phone.

Wood chips from the supposed point of entry were scattered inside, not outside the back door. The sheriff found no footprints in the snow, none, nor footprints anywhere around the house. The only trail was tire tracks straight into the garage. A large screwdriver left at the scene suggested a burglary tool used to break into the house, except… it had come from my toolchest… already inside the house.

“Kinda strange, doncha think?” the sheriff said.

“Very.”

“Anyone besides Lauren have access to your garage opener?”

I unloaded suspicions that had built from the moment she phoned. She’d mentioned Jeff acted particularly odd when she announced her intention of checking the house. Normally Lauren defended him tooth and nail. Now she hesitated.

The sheriff promised to call me back. He did, sooner than I expected. Deputies had picked up Jeff skulking along country roads… in January… in subzero Minnesota.

The sheriff said, “Thirty minutes after question one, our boy painted himself in a corner so tight, he confessed to crimes we never asked about. FYI, this guy hates your guts.”

I said, “Why? I gave him work, I lent him money for lunch and dinner.”

“That’s the problem. You need to pick better pals. He pretended to be a friend while he hung around your companions and targeted you. He invited himself into your group, into your shop, and into your home. He gave the women little gifts stolen from others, robbing from Petra to pay Paula.”

The sheriff continued. “This boy profiled you. He asked innocent questions, gathering personal ammunition. On your previous canoe trips, he said it was goddamn hard to get you talking about yourself, getting you to reveal the private you, but he managed.”

“Why so much effort to come after me? I never did anything against him.”

“He admits that. You gave him lifts when he didn’t have a ride. You often paid for his meals. What you considered generosity and sharing, he took as deliberately showing off and humiliating him. Jeff envied you, he hated you. You had material things he wanted: lovely woman, house, and a couple of cars. Your occupation allowed you to travel. What did you do with your advantages? Nothing, by his reckoning. You didn’t buy fancy stuff, you just kept working. It wasn’t fair, he thought. You didn’t deserve it, he did. So he set out to destroy you and take what he could.”

“Sheriff, did you ask about the canoeing accident?”

“Clearly no accident. He didn’t give us a thing to charge him, but he enjoyed mocking us. It was like he challenged us to prove anything. He fed us cocky TV dialogue and cute tidbits like, ‘An accident couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.’”

“Sheriff, I never intended him ill.”

“Son, you do not understand evil. No one believes you wronged him. He’s a total narcissist. His world has a population of one. He gets what he wants manipulating innocents. For him, screwing others is more rewarding than working. In the future, try not to be so damn trusting.”

Farmers Insurance
Castle Defence

Jeff’s game wasn’t over.

The sheriff’s office filed burglary, theft, and property damage charges. However, the state attorney wouldn’t prosecute until my insurance company weighed in, and Farmers Insurance hadn’t obliged. For months, they refused to pay for the damage and destruction.

My insurance agent resembled a red-bearded Hagrid. Two metres tall, 6½+ feet of Midwestern muscle, my rep sumo wrestled professionally in the US and Japan. He could have shaded Jesse Ventura, but he proved no match for Jeff. When he sat down with me, he looked morose.

He said, “Farmers won’t pay, they won’t subrogate, they won’t prosecute. This guy’s going to walk.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Jeff persuaded the company investigator you masterminded the burglary of your own house and snared innocent him in your scheme.”

“I’m the guy who wants to see this case go to trial. The sheriff wants to try him and so do I.”

The agent shook his massive Hagrid head.

“The adjuster’s convinced the sheriff got it wrong and you’re the bad guy.”

“How? On what evidence?”

He drummed fingers the size of hammers on his desk.

“The company investigator turned in dinner expenses for two. She said she needed to get Jeff to open up.”

“Why does she…? Oh, no, no. She wined and dined Jeff? He played her?”

“In-depth investigation, according to my secretary.”

“That’s a pun? They’re dating?”

“Who’s to say? Who investigates investigators?”

Farmers’ confidence in their private detective cost them. After I hired counsel, the underwriter realized their statutory window of time to sue Jeff had run out and they could no longer collect. The company begrudgingly paid my attorney and sent a check for replacement and repairs.

The investigator’s position caused further fallout. Because Farmers Insurance contradicted the findings of the sheriff, the prosecutor didn’t indict. His office explained the defense would simply call Jeff’s tame insurance investigator and undermine their slam-dunk case.

After mere days in jail, Jeff skated. A homicidal grifter now walked free.

Case Closed

For a year, nightmares haunted me. They didn’t stem from fear of Jeff, but fear of my inner rage. In my violent dreams, he died a hundred imaginative deaths. That wasn’t me, not the person I wanted to be. During waking hours, I clamped down my anger, but when freed to roam dreamscapes, my nightmares would have terrified him; they certainly horrified me.

For my own well-being, I needed to escape. I stravaiged around Europe, working, consulting, trouble-shooting. A couple of times, word drifted over from the States.

Lauren entered the hospital for a couple of weeks. Her parents confided that absent a meal ticket, Jeff promptly moved in with a younger girl, and then another, always another.

Last I heard, he married a wealthy widow. No word if Jeff was involved in her premature widowhood.

Leigh Lundin
Final Word

It’s taken years to write this, mostly because of my difficulty talking about myself. My words sound all wrong, I can’t properly document my emotions. Please, my apologies.

Ultimately to a writer, everything is fuel or fodder. I experimented, crafting nightmares into a story, which I might yet finish. In my version, the bad guy finally gets his comeuppance. Perhaps that dark chapter inside me could yet open to the light of day.



Years later, another man– this one a pillar of his church and the Orlando community– would tell me those same words, “You don’t understand evil.” Thirty days later, he and his wife would die violently.