31 August 2020

Copy-Cat Blues


Back in the sixties, the best guitar player in my dorm couldn't read music. He played the first National steel resonating guitar I'd ever seen and he had old Library of Congress recordings of early blues players like Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis. He also had a turntable with a 16 RPM setting, which he used to play old LPs at half speed. It lowered the pitch one octave, and he could figure out the notes by ear at the slower tempo. He learned by imitation and nobody else on campus could touch him.


Remember the "Bad Hemingway" and "Faux Faulkner" contests, where participants had to produce writing lampooning the styles of those icons? I was one of two teachers in my department who encouraged students to enter the Bulwer-Lytton contest, too. One of my favorite student pieces is still a parody of Hemingway's "In Another Country" that began, "Most Saturdays, we girls would go to the mall, but this Saturday, we did not go to the mall."

You can learn almost any skill by imitation, but be sure to pick a suitable model. A decade ago, I was in a writing group with six other writers who critiqued each other's work in 40-page sections, and one member always gave us at least 30 pages of pure visual description. We kept telling him he needed more plot and action, but he never changed. After a few months, I told him I stopped reading five pages in because nothing was happening. A few months later, someone asked him to name his favorite novelist.

"Thackeray."

Mystery solved.

If you want to write, read authors in the genre or type you plan to write, too. If you want to publish, you need to understand what an agent or editor will buy. Today, that means models older than five or ten years won't help you. Tastes change and now there are even more distractions to reading than ever before: social media, streaming TV and film, sports, online music, games...the list grows longer every day.

I like some older short stories. When I conduct a short story workshop, I distribute a list that includes the old masters: Poe, Hawthorne, Chekhov, James, Crane. I stress that "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Young Goodman Brown" are good stories, but nobody would buy them today.

Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" is 92 years old, but feels much newer. Even that would be iffy. If you want to sell novels, look at books published in your genre or field in the last three to five years. For short stories, look at magazines and anthologies. Join writing groups that post submission guidelines. For mysteries, I like The Best American Mystery Stories because the book lists the market where the story appeared, so you can find places to send your own work when it's ready. Look at Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, Mystery Weekly and Black Cat, and anthologies, too. Ditto for Romance, Science Fiction, and Supernatural markets.



Would you go into a sports tournament without examining the other team? Of course not. Think of this as scouting reports for the championship. And don't rush.

30 August 2020

Talking to Strangers


From March through August is a long time to have a void in your socializing. It's enough to make you start talking to strangers in a park, regardless of what your mother told you about not doing that sort of thing.

The situation finally got so bad that one morning the wife and I decided to hit the drive-up at Starbuck's for coffee and lemon bread snacks. Of course, the people in line behind whoever is being served at the window tend to get a little perturbed if you pause for very long to converse with the window employee, so we soon knew it was time for us to move along. Now, we needed a place to enjoy our morning coffee. This led us to a nice, little, hidden-away park with some elbow room and a beautiful view of nature. A place called Fox Run.

We had barely settled in at a metal picnic table, sipped our coffee and opened our sealed packets of lemon bread, when a young fellow with camera and long lens walked up and inquired if he could use the far end of the table for a short while. Well, I had my large, red, Harley bandanna down around my neck and my wife had her surgical mask off so we could eat and drink in comfort, but it was a large table with plenty of room for social distancing, so we told him to go ahead and use it.

Naturally, one thing led to another and a conversation ensued. It started with cameras and photography. On this particular day, he was shooting photos of the turtles in the upper lake. That led to the usual where are you from, where did you go to college and what kind of work do you do. After all my years of subtly interrogating people as a Special Agent, I don't mind asking questions, and I've found that most people like talking about themselves if you can once get them started. Strangely enough, they get so involved talking about themselves that few of them ask questions back.

We soon found he was an artist painting in the abstract style and had also tried his hand at a little writing. We then had an interesting conversation on such topics as creativity and inspiration. At the end, we swapped get-in-touch information and went our separate ways.

Michael DePalma is his name.

WALKS -in the Goddess series
Over the next couple of weeks, I went to his two websites:http://www.waveformexpressionism.com/and http://www.thewaveformexpressionist.net/ . And, while I know very little about painting and the techniques involved, not to mention the various styles, I do know if something is pleasing to my eye. If we had the money to buy paintings, the wife and I would now be owners of a couple of Michael's paintings which spoke to our artistic interests one way or another.

In some of Michael's blog articles, I found pieces on inspiration, writer's block, creativity and other topics of interest for writers. For myself, I have always found it interesting and motivating to discuss creativity with someone in one of the other branches of the Fine Arts. It seems that the inspiration and creative process in other branches is often comparable to what writers go through for a completed manuscript. It is all art in different forms.

But, like all in the Fine Arts, success is a pyramid with limited room at the top for only a few artists (writers/musicians/actors/etc.) to make big money. Artists are lucky if they can even be high enough on the pyramid to make a living. Some don't become successful and their works valuable until after they are dead and gone, as if they were just then discovered. For many of us writers, it's a good thing we have a steady income, or 9 to 5, or even a retirement pension to pay the bills while we create. For those who don't have that safety net to fall back on, it can be an insecure world.

So what we have here, is a graduate from a prestigious university who is trying to exist on his creative talents, but still needs to live on more than thin air. What he is looking for now, is a job in the graphic arts field where he can put his creative talents to good use.

Check out his two websites, observe his artistic talent and read some of his blog articles. Then, if you like what you see and happen to know of an opening in the field of graphic arts, e-mail him through one of his two websites. Or, if you wish to remain anonymous, send the info to me and I'll pass it on to Michael.

In the meantime, keep on creating.

29 August 2020

Once Again in the Bargain Bin


Since I've been in pandemic mode like everyone else, I'm doing a lot of reading, writing, and movie watching. (As if I wouldn't be doing that in non-pandemic mode.) So, in preparing for today's post, I thought it'd be fun to list a few movies that might've flown underneath your radar. We all know there are plenty of good movies that are well known (and should be) and plenty of bad movies that aren't (and shouldn't be)--but in my experience there aren't many good movies that almost no one has heard of.

I did a SleuthSayers column on this subject several years ago, based on my fondness for browsing those big four-foot-wide tubs in Walmart that contain bargain DVDs. I haven't been rummaging around in there for a while--WallyWorld isn't one of the essentials on my COVID list--but I do remember finding some real jewels in those bins in the past, and have mentioned some at this blog. Consider this an update.


A note of caution. These recommendations are my opinion only. A lot of folks, including my wife, don't agree with me about what's worth watching and what's not, in the cinematic universe.

Another note. These are not just obscure movies that I watched and enjoyed. They're obscure movies that I watched believing I wouldn't enjoy them. So they were all pleasant surprises. I'm hoping they might be to you too.


So . . . here are some outstanding lesser-known movies, with a quick note about each:



Wind River (2017) -- A local tracker joins a female FBI agent to investigate a murder on a Native American reservation. Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene.

- From Noon to Three (1976) -- A delightful and unusual western about a bank robber and a mysterious widow. Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland.

- Idiocracy (2006) -- An average guy gets beamed into a dumbed-down future and discovers that he's now the smartest person on Earth. The more I watch the news, the more I'm convinced this could really happen. Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Terry Crews.

- Suburbicon (2017) -- A George-Clooney-directed tale of regular folks involved in quirky crime. Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac.

- Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) -- A simple jewelry-store heist takes a wrong turn. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) -- Murder and mayhem at a motel on the California/Nevada border. Jeff Bridges, John Hamm, Dakota Johnson.

The Gypsy Moths (1969) -- A skydiving team puts on a show in a midwestern town. Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman, Deborah Kerr, Scott Wilson.

- The Spanish Prisoner (1997) -- A mystery with Steve Martin in a serious role. And it works. Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon, Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara.

- An Unfinished Life (2005) -- Love and drama in present-day Wyoming. Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Lopez, Josh Lucas.

A History of Violence (2005) -- An entertaining (and yes, violent) look at current and retired/relocated gangsters. Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt.

- Lockout (2012) -- One of only a few science-fiction movies in this list. Sort of an Escape from New York in outer space. Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Peter Stormare.

- Magic (1978) -- A chilling adaptation of the William Goldman novel. I bet I've watched this a dozen times. Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Ed Lauter.

- Motherless Brooklyn (2019) -- A complicated police drama featuring a detective with Tourette's syndrome. Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe.

- Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) -- Not only is Elvis alive, he's a resident of a haunted nursing home. Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis.

In Bruges (2008) -- One of the quirkiest movies ever made, involving disillusioned Irish hitmen. Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes.

No Escape (2015) -- An American family is caught in the middle of a third-world coup. Pierce Brosnan, Lake Bell, and (in a dramatic role) Owen Wilson.

The Last Sunset (1961) -- An old western with a lot of heart, and several good plot twists. Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, Carol Lynley, Joseph Cotten.

- A Family Thing (1996) -- A southern bigot discovers that he has an African American brother. Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones.

- Leap of Faith (1992) -- The adventures of a traveling evangelist in Kansas during a drought. Steve Martin, Debra Winger, Liam Neeson.




And my absolute favorites:

- The Dish (2000) -- An Australian satellite-tracking station takes center stage during the Apollo 11 mission. Sam Neill, Patrick Warburton, Roy Billing.

- Galaxy Quest (1999) -- A science-fiction comedy that is (trust me) endlessly re-watchable. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Sam Rockwell, Alan Rickman.

- Rustler's Rhapsody (1985) -- The updated adventures of a 1940s TV-western hero and his sidekick. Tom Courtenay, G.W. Bailey, Andy Griffith, Sela Ward.

Medicine Man (1992) -- A doctor searches for a cancer cure in the Amazonian rainforest. Sean Connery and a pre-Sopranos Lorraine Bracco.




Again, your mileage will vary--but if you find yourself desperate for something to stream or put in your Netflix queue, consider giving one of these a try.

Do you have any barely-known, hiding-in-plain-sight favorites? Let me know what you think.



I'll be back next Saturday with a post about (of all things) writing.

28 August 2020

Getting Nailed


My last piece on SleuthSayers talked about nailing a story, getting goosebumps when you reread a story you've written before you send it out, a story which ended up better than you thought it would, a story you nailed.

Today, I'll talk about stories which nail you – hardheaded stories who fight you from the first paragraph.

In my 34-years as a pro writer, I've learned to never give up on a story, even the ones that don't work, even the story where you end up in a corner you can't get out of and you look around for Rod Serling because you're in the Twilight Zone.

I've worked hard on a number of stories which didn't come together. So what to do? First, I let it sit and move on to something else. When I go back and re-work it and it still doesn't work, I let it sit some more. I go back again and after a third strike, I study the piece and see if I can slip it into a novel. Most of the stories which nailed me are more scenes than stories and novels are made from scenes.

To my delight, I've been able to slide stories that nailed me into novels in progress, sometimes taking the novel in a different direction or relieving pressure in a story line or bringing a new twist to the novel.

It's all part of the creative process, a giant pot of gumbo stirred into something which works. I've seen it and when it's unplanned, it's extra cool.

If I write it, it's part of me and may sit a while but I'll find a home for it.

MacKenzie sculpture by Vincent De Noux from pieces of junk

That's all for now.

  
 www.oneildenoux.com

27 August 2020

A Shot in the Dark


by Eve Fisher

We live in a quiet neighborhood in what's called central Sioux Falls.  We're close enough to two universities that, pre-COVID-19, we saw skateboarders with dreadlocks heading home from class, students playing hackey sack in someone's yard, students walking through snow wearing parkas and shorts.  Late afternoons were always interesting; early mornings were always quiet.

It's a real neighborhood:  ages range from families with small kids to a retiree who lives in Florida.  People walk their dogs.  One of our neighbors has two cats that roam around and take turns hanging out on various porches, including ours.  Lots of old trees, old houses, old porches.  Mostly quiet.  The occasional fender bender or outright crash (especially when students are in a big hurry to get somewhere).  The occasional argument that reaches a crescendo out on someone's porch, sidewalk, or on the street.  Many of the latter are currently sparked by a Lothario in a rental who's running [at least] two women at the same time.

So it came as a shock when, a few weeks ago, the cops woke everyone up at midnight.  We were sound asleep, and it took me a while to realize it wasn't a dream:  someone really was banging on the door.  And wouldn't stop.  I pulled on my bathrobe and stepped gingerly toward the front door.  I could see numerous cop cars, lights going like crazy in the street, and someone walking up and down our porch in between bangs.  He stopped and shone a flashlight in through our living room window:  and I will admit, even though it is Sioux Falls, SD, and I am a rapidly aging white woman in a quiet neighborhood - I held my breath as I turned on the living room light and waved.  And went to open the door.

He was very polite.  He apologized for waking us up, but there had been a drive-by, with a lot of shots fired, and he needed to know if everyone in the house was all right.  I said yes.  He asked if I was sure.  I said, yes.  Then he asked if I would please go through my house and check for bullet holes in the walls, and if I found any, to please let him know.  And if not, I could just turn off the lights and go back to bed.  I said I would, and began turning on all the lights, looking at all the walls, and thankfully, found nothing.  (I did not check the detached garage - I figured it could wait till morning.)

I will say that there's nothing like checking the house for bullet holes to wake you up thoroughly, and it took me a long time to get back to sleep.  Not to mention that the cops didn't leave for another hour or so, and the lights...  And then it started to thunder...  And storm...

The next day the whole neighborhood was groggy.  But we all figured it was a one-off.  My personal suspicion was that the Lothario had gotten into another fight and he or one of the shes was venting.

And then, two days later, around 2 in the morning, we all heard more gunshots - but this time it sounded like they came from the street(s) behind us.  Turns out it did, a couple of blocks away.  So a lot of us called the police and asked for more patrols for a while. And they are apparently working - things calmed down, and we're back to pretty much quiet, so that's good. 

Along the line, we discovered that there's a house a few blocks away that recently became a rental and was rented (apparently) to people who've turned it into a drug house.  "The police are keeping their eye on it", I was told.  I drove by it a while back and it doesn't look nearly as trashy as you might expect.

Meanwhile, people are talking, worrying - and writing - about "what's happening to our wonderful community?"  But Sioux Falls isn't Mayberry any more.  Sure, back in the 1960s and 1970s it had only about 60,000-75,000 people.  Even in 2000 it was only about 125,000.  But today, metro Sioux Falls is around 260,000 people; it's the largest city in the state.  We're at the intersection of the two interstates that cross South Dakota - I-29 and I-90.  We're the medical center of the state - if you get in real trouble, this is where you'll be airlifted.  We're the financial hub as well.  And we have been promoted on national media a few times for being one of the best places to live.

Result?  People move here.  And with people comes trouble.  Drug cases are increasing; crime is increasing generally; and almost every week guns are stolen from unlocked cars.  Yes, you read that correctly - apparently people just aren't getting the memo that leaving guns in an unlocked car might not be a good idea.  In fact, last night the local news announced that it had happened again...  Sigh... 

Still, it's a lot safer than Philadelphia, Los Angeles, or Atlanta, all of which Allan and/or I have lived.  I'll stay put.  Granted, I'll also keep an eye on the drug house and on the Lothario...

And I'll keep you all posted.



26 August 2020

Exiles


From March through August is a long time to have a void in your socializing. It's enough to make you start talking to strangers in a park, regardless of what your mother told you about not doing that sort of thing.

The situation finally got so bad that one morning the wife and I decided to hit the drive-up at Starbuck's for coffee and lemon bread snacks. Of course, the people in line behind whoever is being served at the window tend to get a little perturbed if you pause for very long to converse with the window employee, so we soon knew it was time for us to move along. Now, we needed a place to enjoy our morning coffee. This led us to a nice, little, hidden-away park with some elbow room and a beautiful view of nature. A place called Fox Run.

We had barely settled in at a metal picnic table, sipped our coffee and opened our sealed packets of lemon bread, when a young fellow with camera and long lens walked up and inquired if he could use the far end of the table for a short while. Well, I had my large, red, Harley bandanna down around my neck and my wife had her surgical mask off so we could eat and drink in comfort, but it was a large table with plenty of room for social distancing, so we told him to go ahead and use it.

Naturally, one thing led to another and a conversation ensued. It started with cameras and photography. On this particular day, he was shooting photos of the turtles in the upper lake. That led to the usual where are you from, where did you go to college and what kind of work do you do. After all my years of subtly interrogating people as a Special Agent, I don't mind asking questions, and I've found that most people like talking about themselves if you can once get them started. Strangely enough, they get so involved talking about themselves that few of them ask questions back.

We soon found he was an artist painting in the abstract style and had also tried his hand at a little writing. We then had an interesting conversation on such topics as creativity and inspiration. At the end, we swapped get-in-touch information and went our separate ways.

Michael DePalma is his name.

WALKS -in the Goddess series
Over the next couple of weeks, I went to his two websites:http://www.waveformexpressionism.com/and http://www.thewaveformexpressionist.net/ . And, while I know very little about painting and the techniques involved, not to mention the various styles, I do know if something is pleasing to my eye. If we had the money to buy paintings, the wife and I would now be owners of a couple of Michael's paintings which spoke to our artistic interests one way or another.

In some of Michael's blog articles, I found pieces on inspiration, writer's block, creativity and other topics of interest for writers. For myself, I have always found it interesting and motivating to discuss creativity with someone in one of the other branches of the Fine Arts. It seems that the inspiration and creative process in other branches is often comparable to what writers go through for a completed manuscript. It is all art in different forms.

But, like all in the Fine Arts, success is a pyramid with limited room at the top for only a few artists (writers/musicians/actors/etc.) to make big money. Artists are lucky if they can even be high enough on the pyramid to make a living. Some don't become successful and their works valuable until after they are dead and gone, as if they were just then discovered. For many of us writers, it's a good thing we have a steady income, or 9 to 5, or even a retirement pension to pay the bills while we create. For those who don't have that safety net to fall back on, it can be an insecure world.

So what we have here, is a graduate from a prestigious university who is trying to exist on his creative talents, but still needs to live on more than thin air. What he is looking for now, is a job in the graphic arts field where he can put his creative talents to good use.

Check out his two websites, observe his artistic talent and read some of his blog articles. Then, if you like what you see and happen to know of an opening in the field of graphic arts, e-mail him through one of his two websites. Or, if you wish to remain anonymous, send the info to me and I'll pass it on to Michael.

In the meantime, keep on creating.

25 August 2020

The Next Best Thing to Being There


We’re all hunkered down these days under house arrest. Some people are binging on Netflix, others catching up on all the cute cat videos they’ve missed. Others still are too anxious to do much of anything productive. I’m lucky in that my life hasn’t changed all that much on a day to day basis since I’ve worked at home for ages. I still walk the dog/s. Do my writing. Listen to music. Watch the old black and white movies that I love. Read. The one big change is that my wife’s been working at home since March. Luckily we seem to get along. Blame that on her more than me ๐Ÿ˜‰.

But, as writers there have been some changes, most notably that in-person events have been cancelled. Most of the conventions and conferences that we enjoy have been zapped, Bouchercon, West Coast Crime (right in the middle of the actual convention), and others. In-store book events and launches have largely disappeared for now. But we live in an age of new-fangled thingies, an amazing age, an age of the internet, Zoom, Skype and other modern marvels.

My virtual acceptance speech for Ellery Queen Readers Award

So, the other day, as I was doing a Zoom panel for a writer’s conference, it dawned on me how cool it is to be able to do this. Not all that long ago it couldn’t have happened because the technology wasn’t there. With something like the Covid pandemic the event would just have disappeared. But with Zoom, Skype and others they just sort of morph into something virtual.

Since the lockdown began I’ve done several Zoom events. I haven’t yet hosted one though I’m thinking about doing that for the Coast to Coast: Noir anthology that I co-edited that’s coming out in September. That will be a new learning curve. But before that I had to learn how to Zoom as a guest. It’s not hard – and it’s really cool and fun. I also did a short (non-Zoom) video for Ellery Queen on coming in second in their readers poll since they, too, cancelled their in-person event in NYC. And I’ve done several panels and interviews and even virtual doctor appointments. As I write this a bit ahead of its posting date just a few days ago I did a Skype interview for a radio station in England. Could we have done that even twenty years ago? Maybe by phone, but with much more difficulty and expense.

E-flyer from Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles first House Arrest virtual reading
Remember long distance phone calls (and long distance could virtually be just across the street in some cases). They were ridiculously expensive. You’d call the operator before your call and request “time and charges,” then when the call was over the operator would call you back and tell you how long the call lasted and how much it cost. And you’d get sticker shock.

The "good old days".
In the near last minute my wife suggested doing a virtual launch for The Blues Don’t Care in June since there were no in person events happening. So we had to scramble to figure out how to do that. We weren’t sure if we should try Zoom or another service or stick to the old standby (yeah ‘old’ standby) of Facebook, which is what we ended up doing. And it turned out better than I had expected. We had a big group of people and questions flying back and forth. Plus I’d toss out tidbits of info on various things related to events that took place in the novel, like the gambling ships that lay off the SoCal coast back in the day. It was fun, if a little hectic, and I think people enjoyed it.

So we make do as best we can. And we don’t have to shower or drive to get to our meetings ๐Ÿ˜‰. It’s also kind of cool to just see someone when you’re talking one to one with Zoom or Skype or other services. My wife’s family reunion was cancelled this year because of Covid but her and some of her cousins get together semi-regularly with each other via Zoom. Like they used to say, it’s the next best thing to being there.

So what’s next? Virtual reality meetings? Holograms? Mind-melding? Beam me up Scotty! There seem to be no limits to technology, but there is still something to be said for meeting people face to face. Standing close enough to whisper something, closer than 6 feet apart. Laughing, talking, sharing good food (and drink!) and good stories. So until we can do those things again, at least we have the virtual world, which is the next best thing.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

I want to thank Living My Best Book Life for this great review of The Blues Don’t Care. Here’s an excerpt and a link to the full review:

"The Blues Don't Care by Paul D. Marks is a mysterious historical fiction set in the WWII time period. It tackles topics like corruption, racism, and many others that we are still facing today. I was taken aback by Paul D. Marks's talented writing style. This story is powerful and Paul did a wonderful job developing his main character, Bobby Saxon...

…I was captivated from the very start. This author tackled so many subjects that few care to bring up. The detail of the story gave me an insight on all the injustices in the 1940's. I appreciated the heart of the story; a person chasing their dream and never looking back. Bobby Saxon is a well-developed character that was able to learn, grow, and hone in on his craft. There is a main secret of Bobby's that I didn't see coming. This is such a fascinating historical fiction that I thoroughly enjoyed!”

https://www.instagram.com/p/CC3_3gxAZq6/
                           


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

24 August 2020

The Joys of Writing Alone


Some writers do their best work on their laptops in busy coffee shops. You can see them keyboarding away, latte, chai, or simple tea or coffee forgotten at their elbow as they take dictation from those voices in their heads that we all love to hear.

I am not one of them. I need silence and better than silence. I need solitude, and the more absolute the solitude is, the more easily I write.

I know I’m lucky in that I have ample access to privacy for writing. It’s not exactly Virginia Woolf’s “room of her own,” but in some ways it’s even better. It’s been twenty years since my last day job, and my other career is online and intermittent in nature. My husband still goes off to work every weekday, or did till the pandemic. And when he’s home, he’s usually at the computer in his room of his own with his headphones on. The rest of the apartment is mine.

In the summer months, I have the country house. The whole house, because my husband hates the country. It’s a tiny house, eight hundred square feet total. But it’s all mine.

As for children, that perennial drain on women’s writing time especially, my little boy is fifty with a family of his own. So when other women writers yearn for writing retreats and time alone, rejoice in a week or even a weekend away from the everyday lives that make writing such a challenge, I know how lucky I am.

Am I complaining anyway? Not exactly. I’m blogging. Complaining entertainingly is one of the basic categories of blogging. To complain entertainingly about one’s spouse (in case you’ve never heard this priceless writing tip) is to mine a particularly rich vein.

My husband and I have been together for almost forty-five years. He knows that interruption breaks my concentration. He’s been told that once a train of thought has been broken, that particular thought, that exquisite turn of phrase, that connection—especially crucial in plotting a mystery or building an emotional scene—may be lost forever.

And yet he interrupts. He asks me if I have clothes for the laundry. He’s a good man. He doesn’t ask me to do the laundry. He asks me what I want for dinner. Again, good writer’s husband that he is, he doesn’t ask me to make dinner. He knows I’m writing. But he’s still interrupting. Sometimes, what he interrupts to tell me isn’t practical at all. It’s something he’s brimming over with that he simply has to share. He’s so filled with the fascination of it that he forgets I’m writing and mustn’t be interrupted.

“Do you know that Frederick the Great called Maria Theresa the only mensch in Austria?”

Yes, dear, you’ve mentioned it before. You’re an original, and it's lovable, but I need you to control it when I’m in the midst of transferring a brilliant thought that no one’s ever had before and that I’ll never have again from my brain to the computer.

He’s gotten better at not talking to me when I’m writing. Unfortunately, this isn’t good enough. He tiptoes past. Tiptoeing is still interrupting. Sometimes he stops halfway through the room. He breathes. Doesn’t he know how disruptive breathing is? I’ll throw out a hand and bark, “WRITING!” My fragile and irreplaceable thought is already at risk. But if he’ll just go away, maybe I can retrieve it. No way. He says, “Sorry!” In other words, he finds a way to exacerbate the interruption.

When he’s out of the house, I can get some serious writing done. But the hours are limited by his schedule. First, I have to wait for him to get up. My creative thinking time in bed used to be nil because he thought 9 am was “the crack of dawn.” He’s had a major lifestyle change, so he now gets up at 5 am and goes for a power walk in the park. This helps. But I still have to wait till nine or later for him to leave for work before I can focus on my writing. And once he comes home, that’s it. There’s the key in the lock. The big sigh. And my Woolfian “apartment of my own” is gone for the day.

I know it makes a difference because the 24/7 solitude I get when I’m alone in the country has an entirely different rhythm. If I wake up at 4 am and find I’m still awake at 4:15 with Bruce or Rachel talking in my head, I turn on the light and find my slippers and go turn on the laptop and and let them take over. No one interrupts the flow by saying, “What time is it?” or “Are you okay?” Sometimes having an idea at four in the morning is like carrying a basket of eggs. You don’t want anyone to jostle your elbow until you’ve had a chance to set it down.

It’s the same for the rest of the day. I’m not talking about the time I’ve already set aside to write. But if I think I’m done, and then Bruce or Rachel starts talking again, I can reorder my priorities and go back to the computer without consulting anyone. If it’s 6 pm and I’m about to put dinner in the preheated oven, I can turn off the oven. No one says, “What about dinner?” If I’m still going strong at 11 pm, no one says, “Come to bed.”

I don’t need this unlimited freedom all the time, especially since I’m writing short stories rather than a novel these days. But it’s heavenly to have it for three months. And it’s wonderful—I do know this!—to have a husband whose wife the writer drives him crazy—the secret of a successful marriage is knowing that it's a trip for two, not one, to the loony bin—but who also understands.

23 August 2020

Small Claims 1


Leigh in pod capsule
“Open the pod door, Hal.”

“I’m sorry, Leigh. I can’t do that.”

“Hal, open the door.”

“Nope, sorry, no can do.”

“Hal, open the ¡@#$%£¢†€‡ door!”

“D’accord, Dave. It’s open.”

“Name’s Leigh, and no, it isn’t.”

“Is.”

“Isn’t.”

“Is.”

“Hal!”

“You can’t make me. Nyaa-nya-na-na-nah-nahhh.”

Geek Chic

This was not a conversation from 2001, but one in my own house in 2019. The name Hal has been changed to protect the guilty.

I’ve been upgrading my house with security features and smart home automation. Devices hooked up thus far include several lights and lamps, entry locks and garage doors, ceiling fans, air conditioner, water heater, thermostats, entertainment center, security cameras, a robot, a NAS storage device, and a number of talk-to-the-pod gadgets and displays.

My friend Thrush and I installed most of these as inexpensive, tinker toy, erector set, do-it-yourself doodads. I’ve avoided big, brand name products, which are less fun and trรจs cher. They’re also proprietary– they might reject third party add-ons or charge you subscription fees to maintain connectivity to your products after the first year.

But, for a critical component, I deviated from the DIY rule. It was not cheap. I bought the latest name brand thingamajig from a well-regarded manufacturer, the latter part of a $2.2-billion conglomerate with $2.5-billion in home automation and security sales. Also, *gasp* I paid for dealer installation instead of assembling it myself. I had to wait two months for the initial product to roll off the assembly line. I’m also well aware of ‘bleeding edge’ technology, but with an engineer and a couple of software gurus on the premises, how risky could it be?

As it turns out… there’s a reason I’ve not mentioned the product and brand name– I signed a settlement agreement not to. After a multitude of ‘Hal’ interactions not unlike the above, I sought remedies.

What Could Go Wrong? Wrong? Wrong?

The device would not obey Apple, Android, or Google demands. It often reported contrary information, e.g, it claimed the device was on when it wasn’t, and vice versa. Worse, I couldn’t tell it to turn on the doohickey because it thought it already on, and I couldn’t tell it to turn off the box because it was already off. The only solution was to reboot.

Mashing the on/off buttons often proved fruitless. I pictured some poor schlep in California helplessly watching his kitchen devices cycling on an off, his lights flashing, and his garage door bouncing up and down thanks to a signal routed from Florida.

Meanwhile, lights would go on and doors would unlock and open at three in the morning. Picture Captain Kirk slamming face first into Enterprise doors that abruptly open and close. Fortunately the blast from the rudely awakened entertainment center frightened away any curious burglars.

Internet capability either wasn’t installed or it refused to work. Even if internet had been fully functional, it was poorly designed. If the internet was down (as mine constantly is!), their version of software couldn’t operate the device. You’d have to get out in the rain to open doors and turn on lights, even if you had electricity.

I’d purchased battery backup that of course spectacularly failed. I’m hard pressed to think of anything that did work. Believe me, the situation was so much worse than I’m allowed to describe.

The Consumer’s Fault School of Customer Support

So call tech support, right? Exercise my warranty and call the installer too?

The first techie admitted they didn’t yet have manuals and guidelines, but agreed the unit wasn’t behaving as promised in promotions, including expensive video ads. He'd request a replacement.

Then the second guy I’ll call Dan, but his real name is Butthead. He aggressively began by insisting nothing could be wrong with the device. He said I expected behavior it wasn’t intended to do. Dan dismissed the lack of functionality as a misreading of their advertising. This ‘gentleman’ (Sarcasm cleanup on aisle 4) told me I was annoying, nasty, and abusive. (I never was, but we’ll return to that.) Joining in with the installer, Dan accused me of cheating his company and trying to get something for nothing. From there on out, he fielded subsequent incoming calls and refused to forward me to either the original tech guy or their boss.

People's Court Judge Marilyn Milian
Wow. Not only did I pay out $2500, but failure of the device was sucking $100 a month out of my (personal) micro-economy. Details might violate the settlement confidentiality agreement, but the point is that the device was slowly bleeding me.

Believe me, I’ve understated the problems. So what’s an American boy to do? I sued. I took the $2.2-billion conglomerate to small claims court.

Wait! What is she ➡︎ doing here?

In a subsequent article, I’ll explain my experience and offer tips to anyone considering this route. See you in two weeks!

22 August 2020

The Case for Award Juries (why checklists are not enough)


I was once on a jury for a major award with the late, great Ed Hoch.  We did the usual thing; each of us read the entries and came back with a longlist of 10 and a shortlist of 5, and then met by phone and email to discuss our choices.

I was shocked to find that my number one story - the one I thought was a shoe-in for the award - was not even on Ed's top five list.  (It was on his top ten.)

When I stated my dismay about this story not making his shortlist, Ed said two words.

"Convince me."

And so I did.  I pointed out the brilliance of the setting - a near perfect depiction of a famous train - The Canadian - racing through the Rocky Mountains.  You could feel the train moving, hear the squeal of wheels on track.  I pointed out that the plot was unique.  No, it didn't have car crashes like the typical thrillers that win. This was a locked door mystery - one of those clever, quiet stories that led to a smiler at the end.  I had never read that plot before, and neither had he, he admitted.

"You've convinced me," he said.  And it went on our top five list.

A similar thing happened when my book, The Goddaughter's Revenge, won two major awards in 2014.  After the Arthur Ellis ceremony, one of the jury members told me that there was some discussion about whether a caper with no gravitas should be considered for the top spot, even if "deliciously unique."  But one of the jurors pointed out there was indeed a darkly deeper theme in the book:  You are supposed to love and support your family, but what if your family is this one?  How far do you go, and no farther?

It's true that Gina Gallo, a mob goddaughter, struggles with this in every book.  She won't cross a line.  But what is that line?

After jury discussion, it was a unanimous decision.  The book won the award.

We can argue that a book shouldn't need to be serious to win awards.  There are numerous subgenres of crime writing, and surely heists can be written as well and be as entertaining as noir thrillers.  If not, why do we even bother to let them enter?

However, my point is this.  In both cases, jury discussion was necessary for these two stories to reach the podium.  If we went strictly by a checklist point system, with no discussion by juries, we risk the chance that some excellent stories would be lost to consideration.

Ed Hoch reminded me that jury discussion is valuable.  In discussing the merits of a story with others, we see things we may not have seen before.  This is a huge reason why we discuss stories in schools and universities.  Why have profs like me, in classrooms leading discussions, if sending everyone my lecture notes would accomplish the same thing?  Discussion is where the magic happens.

I would say the same for award juries.  Just like in a classroom, discussion adds richness to our comprehension.  Our appreciation of an entry can increase ten-fold by listening to what other jurors find in a story that we might have missed.

Checklists alone can never do that.

Melodie Campbell writes seriously funny capers that have won some awards.  She didn't even steal them.  Available at all the usual suspects.    www.melodiecampbell.com





21 August 2020

Travel Bug


You always want what you can't have.

When it comes to this old adage, I'm no exception. There's a lot that we can't have right now:
  • Hugs.
  • A morning spent writing in a cafe surrounded by the cheerful din of other coffee-drinking patrons.
  • The concert-on-the-lawn that I had tickets to attend tonight, but is now rescheduled for August 2021.
  • Browsing the book collection inside my local library.
  • Even a day so normal, that before last March I would've found it downright boring. Now, I'd consider it blissful.

I'm guessing I'm not the only one missing the old ways. Am I right? But, do you know what I really miss most?

Travelling abroad.

Back in my take-on-the-world twenties, I was bitten by the travel bug. Big time. There was something about wandering unknown-to-me streets, meeting new people, eating exotic meals, and exploring a country with my backpack, a map, colorful currency notes, and my dogeared multi-language translation dictionary that gave me a rush. I thrived on the adventure.

Four continents, thirty-seven countries, and countless foreign cities, towns, and villages later, I'd collected so many border-control stamps, the American Embassy in Prague added pages to my passport. Those were heady days.

Then came grad school back across The Pond, a mortgage, and kids...you know the story. My urban-trekking days became a thing of the past. I'd traded schlepping my backpack for a diaper bag.

Until...I started writing suspense fiction.

While I didn't fully resurrect my globe-trotting days again (I wish!), I've learned to virtually immerse myself in a new culture without leaving my town. I nerd-out on combing through satellite images of foreign cities, watching subtitled/dubbed movies, checking out documentaries, eating--and sometimes even attempting to cook--the traditional foods, reading travel books, blogs,  fiction written by local authors, and regional history books to learn historical context and evolution. I've listened to language-on-tape lessons and interviewed people from there and friends who recently traveled to my setting.

For the most part, I've conducted my travel research with a potential crime story in mind, usually contemporary. A few years ago, though, I wanted to write a story depicting the intoxicating days of Prague Spring, which restored freedoms to an oppressed people. It didn't last long. At midnight on August 21, 1968 (exactly fifty-two years ago today!), 5,000 Soviet tanks rolled across the borders to occupy then-Czechoslovakia and reinstate hard-line communism. The Czechoslovakians took to the streets to protest. Unsuccessfully. It would take another twenty-three years before they would finally free themselves from Soviet rule.

Despite having lived in Prague for three years and cultivating an understanding of a people who had suffered generations of oppression, I had much to learn about the circumstances surrounding Prague Spring. I'd only been an infant that summer of 1968, so even my Czech peers didn't have a living memory of the invasion or the soul-crushing aftermath.  So, I dug in hard to learn as much as I could. In all of my Prague Spring research, two videos I found online were particularly influential in helping me shape my story:


Thus, my short story of historical suspense was born. It was Romeo and Juliet set amid the crushing events that ended Prague Spring.  "Czech Mate" was published in Malice Domestic's MYSTERY MOST GEOGRAPHICAL (Wildside Press, 2018).  You can read my story here.

My current crime fiction research is taking me to Italy and Russia.  Where would you like to visit (virtually or in real life)?


PS ~ Let's be social:


20 August 2020

It's Better to Travel, Part Deux


Those who hold the highest posts under the Sultan are very often the sons of shepherds and herdsmen, and, so far from being ashamed of their birth, they make it a subject of boasting, and the less they owe to their forefathers and to the accident of birth, the greater is the pride which they feel. They do not consider that good qualities can be conferred by birth or handed down by inheritance, but regard them partly as the product of good training and constant toil and zeal. Just as they consider that an aptitude for the arts, such as music or mathematics or geometry, is not transmitted to a son and heir, so they hold that character is not hereditary, and that a son does not necessarily resemble his father, but his qualities are divinely infused into his bodily frame. Thus, among the Turks, dignities, offices, and administrative posts are the rewards of ability and merit; those who are dishonest, lazy, and slothful never attain to distinction, but remain in obscurity and contempt. This is why the Turks succeed in all that they attempt and are a dominating race and daily extend the bounds of their rule.

                                                                  — Turkish Letters, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq

Turkish Janissaries

Last time around I posted about the potential good travel writing has for providing writers of historical mystery with background material capable of providing color, flavor and context. In this post I highlighted the work of such storied "modern" travel writers as William Dalrymple and Patrick Leigh Fermor. This time around I would like to introduce you, the reader, to a man born nearly five hundred years ago, and the letters he wrote home from a diplomatic posting. These were more than letters, though. Travelogues constituted a popular literary form in sixteenth century Western Europe, and as such, they sparked public interest and consistently sold well. Especially those written about places far from the reader's home. And in the 1590s, when these letters were published in book form, the Ottoman Empire and its capitol city of Constantinople (Modern-day Istanbul) might as well have been the Moon, for all the familiarity most Western Europeans had with them.  Thus, these letters form nothing short of a treasure trove of background info for writers interested in exploiting them as a resource.

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522—1592)
Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522—1592)
Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq was born in 1522 in Flanders, which nowadays is split between the countries of Belgium and France, but at the time was a part of the Holy Roman Empire (which, as the philosopher once said, "was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire." Discuss!).  He was the illegitimate son of Georges Ghiselin, Seigneur ("Lord") de Busbecq, a Flemish nobleman who, like his own father before him, had a long and distinguished career as a diplomat.

Busbecq quickly showed an aptitude for languages which resulted in his father sending him to study in the Netherlands, with an eye toward a career in diplomatic service. Busbecq's illegitimacy did not seem to particularly hinder his career, although reading the quote which leads this post with the knowledge that it was written by someone who only became his father's legitimate heir at the age of 25, by act of the Austrian Habsburg emperor whom both men served, Ferdinand I does provide context as to his feelings about the then-uncontroversial notion of blood mattering more than ability amongst Europe's ruling elites and the nobility which served them.

Charles de l'Ecluse
In fact, Busbecq goes on to favorably contrast the Turkish court emphasis on advancement through meritwith the European obsession with favoring certain bloodlines over others. He wrote:

Our method is very different; there is no room for merit, but everything depends on birth; considerations of which alone open the to high official position. On this subject I shall perhaps say more in another place, and you must regard these remarks as intended for your ears only.

These remarkable statements were originally written as part of a series of long letters addressed to his friend the doctor and botanist Charles de l'Ecluse, while Busbecq was serving the emperor as his ambassador to the Ottoman Turkish court in Constantinople for two separate periods during the 1550s and 1560s. And while he writes about these statements being "intended for your ears only," it is difficult to square this statement with the fact that Busbecq himself saw to it that all four of these very long, highly detailed letters were published in a single volume over two decades later, towards the end of his life, and after he had retired from Habsburg service.

Statue of Suleiman the Magnificent in Trabzon
The Habsburgs and the Ottomans were at war during much of Busbecq's sojourns at the Sublime Porte, struggling over Hungary and Vienna itself, which the current Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, very nearly captured at the beginning of his forty-six year reign. This rendered Busbecq's position in the capitol precarious at best, and he spent most of his time there as a virtual prisoner under house arrest, only attending at court when called to do so.

But Busbecq's writings reveal him to have been an intelligent man with a deep and abiding curiosity both about the Turks and about the culture and natural history of the region they ruled–a region most Europeans only ever heard about. So he wrote about it.

Busbecq wrote about everything. Housing, clothing styles, the rampant corruption and culture of acceptable bribery which greased the skids of the "meritocratic" society he so lauded elsewhere in his writing. And Busbecq is credited with importing both the tulip and the angora goat back to his homeland (his friend l'Ecluse is credited with acclimating the tulip bulb to Northern Europe's colder, wetter climate). There is also some suggestion that Busbecq is responsible for exporting the lily to Northern Europe as well, but it's unclear whether that is true.

Tulip Festival at the Sultanahmet Mosque Park, April, 2008

Busbecq's writing is also replete with descriptions of the animals he acquired and kept with him at his house in Constantinople: bears, wolves, mules, weasels, deer, monkeys, and a pig. There are also countless stories which detail the workings of the Turkish capitol, such as the one he tells of how sailors would set parts of the city on fire so that they could get paid to work as firefighters run throughout his narrative.

Modern view of Istanbul (Constantinople) from across the Golden Horn at Sunset

He goes into some detail describing the city (modern day Istanbul) itself, saying of it: 

As for the site of the city itself, it seems to have been created by nature for the capital of the world. It stands in Europe but looks out over Asia, and has Egypt and Africa on its right. Although these latter are not near, yet they are linked to the city owing to ease of communication by sea. On the left lie the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, round which many nations and into which many rivers flow on all sides, so that nothing useful to man is produced which cannot be transported by sea to Constantinople with the utmost ease. On one side the city is washed by the Sea of Marmara; on another side with a harbour formed by a river which [the ancient Greek geographer] Strabo calls, from its shape, the Golden Horn. On the third side it is joined to the mainland, and thus resembles a peninsula or promontory running out with the sea on one side, on the other the bay formed by the sea and the above-mentioned river. From the centre of Constantinople there is a charming view over the sea and the Asiatic Olympus, white with eternal snow.

Not on the menu in 1550s Turkey

In writing of Turkish customs Busbecq gives the reader wonderfully useful details such as: "I may mention in passing that a Turk would rather have his tongue cut out or his teeth drawn, than taste any food which he looks upon as unclean—frogs, for example, and snails and tortoises." And this about Turks and alcohol: "The drinking of wine is regarded by the Turks as a serious crime, especially among the older men; the younger men can commit the sin with greater hope of pardon and excuse. They think, however, that the punishment which they will suffer in a future life will be just as heavy whether they drink much or little, and so, if they taste wine, they drink deep; the punishment being already deserved, they incur no additional penalty, and they count their drunkenness as all to the good."

Busbecq's curiosity led him to ask probing questions everywhere. On his journey through Ottoman territory in the Balkans on his way to Constantinople, he noticed that many of the buildings had vast quantities of wadded up pieces of paper stuffed into the chinks in their masonry. 

Another of Busbecq's exports to Western Europe: the Angora Goat

So he asked about it, and after being put off repeatedly, several of his Turkish guides confirmed for him that the Turks held a great reverence for paper, because "the name of God may be written upon it." And further, "so they never allow a scrap of paper to lie about, and immediately pick up any that they find and thrust it into some hole or cranny, in order that it may not be trodden underfoot," because they believed that on "the day of the Last Judgement, when Muhammed summons the faithful to heaven from the purgatory where they are being punished for their sins, in order that they may partake of eternal bliss, the only path on which they can tread will be a huge white-hot gridiron, over which they must pass with bare feet."

White Lily

Paper, Busbecq relates, can save soles (pun intended), because, "all the paper which they have preserved from being trampled underfoot in the manner we have described will suddenly make its appearance and adhere to the soles of their feet and serve them well by preventing them from receiving any hurt from the hot iron." How such paper will avoid bursting into flames upon contact with said white hot gridiron, Busbecq does not tell us.

There is much more to say about this riveting account of the life of a 16th century Flemish diplomat during his sojourn among a truly alien culture. And it's well worth a look. You can find it here or in a free online version (which is a pain to read: you're better off paying for it), here.

And that's all for me this time. See you in two weeks!