22 February 2020

No More Downer Books! (aka Does anyone else out there hate unreliable narrators?)


I’m tired of downer books. I don’t want to be depressed after reading for three hours. Bear with me: I’ll explain further.

The problem is, most of the downer elements of grim books involve women who are victims. Either victims of crime, or victims of a patriarchal society. Scandinavian Noir is full of the first. In fact, most noir novels include a female who is murdered and often hideously mutilated. That’s so much fun for women to read.

So here goes:

I don’t want to read any more books about women who are abused or downtrodden. I know there are several good books out there right now featuring such women. Some are historical. Some are current day. It’s not that they aren’t good. It’s just that I don’t want to read any more of them. I’ve read enough.

Imagine, men, if most of the books you had read involved men who had been victimized, or relegated to second class status by another gender. One or a few might be interesting to read. But a steady diet of these? Would you not find it depressing? Not to mention, discouraging?

I don’t want to read any more books about neurotic women, or women who can’t get it together.

I dread more ‘unreliable narrators.’ Salient point: did you notice that most (okay, every single one I can think of) unreliable narrators on the bestseller lists recently are women? Does that say something to you about how society views women? It does to me. No more ‘girl’ books.

I don’t want to read any more books this year with female protagonists that are written by men. Yes, that means some of the bestselling crime books out there. They may be very well written. But these rarely sound like women’s stories to me. They aren’t written with the same lens.

What I want: books with intelligent female protagonists written by women. I want more women’s stories. Books that I can be proud to hand on to my daughters, and say, see what is possible? She isn’t a victim! She’s someone like you.

Trouble is, I can’t FIND many books like that. The bestseller lists today are filled with protagonists who are unstable, neurotic women. Let me be clear: a lot of people enjoy these books. They may be very well written. They wouldn’t be on bestseller lists, otherwise.

But I’m tired of them. I want a ripping good story with a female protagonist, written by a woman. I want a strong, admirable protagonist I can relate to and care about. Hell, I want to *be* the protagonist for a few hours.

And not come away feeling downtrodden.




Bad Girl writes loopy comedies to blow away the blues. And she guarantees that the women protagonist and secondaries in her books kick butt.

THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS - latest in the "Hilarious" (EQMM) mob goddaughter series - no blues allowed! On Amazon

21 February 2020

More about Opening Lines


More about Opening Lines

I feel the opening line of a short story or novel is the most important line in the piece. First impressions are the strongest, especially for a beginning writer who wants an editor to read beyond the first page of a manuscript.

"The first page sells your book being read, the last page sells the one you're writing." – Mickey Spillane."

The same goes for short stories, maybe more so.

Over the years, I put together information given by writers and editors. As I've said so many times before, there is no one way to write anything and what follows are just suggestions.

The opening of a novel or short story could capture the attention of the reader with an original hook.

1. THE OPENING SHOULD PROMISE ... SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN

How?
a. By presenting compelling events
b. By presenting an unusual character
c. By presenting a vivid setting
d. By using striking language or dialogue
e. By an unusual presentation of ideas

It should arouse expectation with a promise of more to come.

It should let the reader in on WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, or WHY.

In your opening scene(s) you may want to establish:

a. Who is the main character?
b. What is the situation (the problem)?
c. Where is the story taking place (setting)?
d. When is the story taking place (time frame)?
e. Why did this situation happen?
f. How did the situation happen?

You may want to include a cliffhanger that makes the reader want to read on.

You opening should set the tone of the story.

The strongest type of opening usually hooks the read with action (physical or psychological).

The story does not generally open at the beginning of a situation. It usually opens at the high point of action.

EXAMPLES:

Character Opening – If you are writing a character-driven piece.
Atmosphere Opening –Take your reader to a unique setting.
Action Opening – Start in mid-scene.
Dialogue Opening – Promises the reader there is a emphasis on communication between characters.
Philosophical Opening – Prepares the reader this may be a reflective piece.
Emotion Opening – Promises emotional conflict.

In a 2013 interview, Stephen King stated, "... an opening line should invite the reader to begin the story ... it should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this."

King went on with, "For me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about 'voice' a lot, when I think they just mean 'style'. People come to books looking ... for the voice. An appealing voice achieves an intimate connection – a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing."

Award-winning short story writer John Floyd gives us, "I've always heard that ideal openings should (1) introduce you lead character and/or (2) establish the setting (time, place) and/or (3) introduce conflict. A fourth goal is to make the reader curious about what might happen."

Important Note:
A good opening line is like the opening move in a battle. If you do not follow up a good opening, you could lose the battle.

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Editor Janet Hutchings gives us, "Some writers have told me they have an attention-getting opening line as the seed for the story. That's fine. But from a reader/editor's perspective what makes the opening good or bad is how it serves everything that follows in the story."

Writing novels and short stories is a trade. A profession. Not a philosophical exercise.

OK – we have all read excellent novels and short stories which did not have a good opening line, which proves again there is no one way to write. In the epigraph in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury quotes Juan Ramón Jiménez – "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way."

Hey Paul,
Here is Charley. Gone but never forgotten.



Thats all for now –
http://www.oneildenoux.com

20 February 2020

No Other Choice


Greetings from the February Break Porch Annex of The House of Sick. Thank God for azithromycin!

(More on that in a bit)

So, not too long after the publication of my first book (The "Lincoln Book"), I went to a party thrown by my friends Tara and Chad. Tara and Chad throw the BEST parties. And this one was a Halloween party, to boot.

I met Tara in law school two decades ago, and we've been pals ever since. She is one of those friends everyone ought to have: Tara celebrates her friends like nobody's business.

And this night was no exception. She introduced me around as her friend who just had a book come out. It was nice. I mean, who doesn't like to have a fuss made over them once in a while?

Now, we live in the Seattle area, and that means that there are a whole bunch of people around here who work in or adjacent to, the tech industry (full disclosure, my wife is one of those people who works "tech-adjacent." Love ya, Honey!). So it stands to reason that there were a fair number of tech industry people at this particular party.

One of them was a Microsoft guy who told me what his job was in such a way that to this day I still have no idea what he actually did. I couldn't tell you anything else about this guy (In my defense, it was fourteen years ago.), but the one other thing I recall aside from him being a Microsoft guy, was his interesting response to Tara's announcement that I was a newly published author. It's a line I've heard countless time since, but I distinctly recall this being the FIRST time:

"I'm gonna write a book."

Not, "I have an idea for a book" (heard that, too, btw), not, "I'd like to write a book." Nothing aspirational, nothing that embraces the notion that he possessed one tenth of one percent of a clue of how hard it can be to write something, let alone get it published.

So I asked him the obvious question: "What's stopping you?"

Oh, he said, he was going to write it once he'd spent a few more years making sure all of his MS stock options vested, and then there was his boat, and then...and then...and then...

I knew before we finished talking and each drifted off in to other conversations, that this guy was never going to write that book.

Why?

Well, because he didn't need to. Because he had other choices. Other priorities.

And there's not a single thing wrong with that.

Put simply: writers write.

No matter what I've been doing over the past two decades, I am always turning something over and over in my head, either a current project, or something I've got in the works. It's kinda my thing.

I had a stretch when my son was very little, where I didn't produce much, but I've never stopped writing. Why? Because I can't.

Because writers write.

My wife (Love ya, Honey!) maintains that I am much easier to be around when I'm writing. I can attest to the fact that a productive day writing makes everything better for me.

As evidence of this I offer the past month, when I've been deathly ill, unable to take time off of work, and behind on a deadline for a project I can't yet say much about. What did I do?

I wrote.

How'd Shutterstock get this picture of me trying to hit my deadline?
When I didn't have anything in me, when I didn't feel like there was anything left in the tank, I wrote. Late at night, early in the morning. Page after page of my notebook filled, word count in my Word doc high. I gritted through it.

I am more proud of the draft I recently turned in than I am of other stuff that I'm sure is more polished (that's why they call it a "rough draft," right?). Because it came at significant cost.

But hey, that's what writers do.

They write.

To circle back around to my friend Tara, I'm going to see her next week. Her book club has invited me to come talk with them about my work. How great is that?

See you in two weeks!

19 February 2020

Premises, Premises


I recently had an amazing insight into my own writing.  You might say: Well, after forty years it's about time.  To which I reply: Don't be obnoxious.

And the insight which, as I said, amazed me, may strike you as blindingly obvious.  Even tautological. That's a problem with great discoveries: like magician's tricks they can be boring when they're explained.  But let's give it a shot.

I have always said that I am strong at characters and premises, but weak at plot.  So, what's the difference between a premise and a plot?  Think of the premise as the elevator pitch for the story:

The Premise: An orphan boy discovers that he is a wizard and goes off to wizard school.

The Plot (greatly condensed): At the school he makes friends and enemies, learns about magic and his family history, and struggles with a sorcerer who is plotting to kill him.

Or, to move into our own field...

The Premise: A private detective seeks to find who murdered his partner.

The Plot (greatly condensed): He learns that their client is mixed up with an international gang searching for a priceless medieval artwork.

This reminds me of Donald E. Westlake's Drowned Hopes.  In the middle of a complicated caper (which almost kills him)  John Dortmunder bails out and refuses to participate.  His partner hopes one of the other members of the gang and take over:

May said, “Andy?  What about you?  You have millions of ideas.”
“I sure do,” Andy agreed.  “But one at a time.  And not connected with each other.  A plan, now, a plan is a bunch of ideas in a row, and, May, I’m sorry, I’ve never been good at that.”

I feel for you, Andy. As I said, I am pretty good at coming up with premises for stories, but working out the details of a plot is a struggle.  That may be why I have a whole notebook full of ideas that don't seem about to bloom into publishable woks any time soon.

Now, another fact: I tend to write shorter-than-average stories.  I currently have eight tales that have been purchased by magazine or anthologies but not yet published.  They average out to about 3,900 words.  The Derringer Awards separate their Short and Long Story categories at 4,000 words, so you can see where I fall.  (And my median is even lower: 3,600 words.)

So now we get to the blazing discovery I just made.  Ready?  The reason I write short is that in very short pieces the premise is the plot.  For example, consider my story "Why" which appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

The Premise:  A cop resigns because of a discovery he made while investigating the motive of a mass murderer.


The Plot (Not at all condensed): Same as the above.


See what I mean?  Now, I don't blame you if you're reaction to this shocking insight is: Well, duh.  But it was news to me.

I have to sit with this discovery for a while, and try to see if it helps me with my plotting problem.  Meanwhile, I hope some of those eight stories find their way into print in the coming year.  At least most of them won't take up too many pages.





18 February 2020

All Dogs BETTER Go to Heaven


by Paul D. Marks

When I started writing this I thought I’d make it funny. But for the most part that didn’t happen. I guess I’m just not feeling too funny right now.
Pepper and me

We recently had to put our dog Pepper to sleep. It was hard and, unfortunately, not the first time we’ve lost an animal and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Many writers have dog or cat companions. Ours is a lonely life sometimes and it’s good to have other beating hearts around. I’m pretty good being alone and very disciplined about getting work done. But when my wife is gone it’s nice to have animal companions around. Over the years we’ve had various combinations of dogs and cats. Most recently Pepper and Buster, who is still with us.

Pepper was great company, got along with all our other animals. And, of course, loved to walk. And if I wasn’t on the ball she’d nudge my elbow saying, “Hey, bud, it’s time to go for our walk.” And we would.

She was old for a big dog, 14½, and she had a good life. When she came into our house at around 8 weeks old we had another dog, Audie, who immediately fell for her. We also had two cats, Curley and Moe (I wonder who they were named after). The cats had grown up with dogs. They were feral when we brought them home as tiny little black balls of fur. We had a dog at the time, Bogey, a Rottweiler. And my wife, Amy, was afraid to let the cats and Bogey be together. But on that first day, I insisted that we put them on the bed and let Bogey sniff them out. Not only did she do that, she cleaned them up and they became fast friends. Then, when we brought Audie into the house as a puppy, the cats took to him like ducks to water. And Moe, the female, especially loved him and loved playing with his tail. Which he tolerated…barely.
Pepper at the creek
When Bogey died, we waited a while and then got Pepper as a pound puppy only a few weeks old. We brought her home in a cat carrier—that’s how small she was. Audie sniffed around but decided she was okay and they became the best of friends. She even brought out a maturity in him that we hadn’t known was there as Bogey was always the alpha dog with him. It reminded me of the scene in Bambi, if I remember correctly, where Bambi’s father tells him he has to grow up after his mom is killed. Bambi did—and Audie did to take care of Pepper.

Audie (left), Pepper (right)
But the cats, Curley and Moe, were scared of this new Pepper creature in the house. Pepper was having none of that. She insisted that they be friends. She drove them nuts, in a friendly-playing way, until they decided if you can’t beat her and can’t hide from her you might as well join her. And she and Curley, the male cat, became great friends. I think they bonded over tearing our family room couch apart. We’d come out of the bedroom in the morning, before Pepper had the run of the house, and it would be like it snowed in there there’d be so much couch stuffing all over the place.

Pepper and Curley

When we lost Audie, Pepper was pretty depressed. But shortly afterwards we got Buster. He was three years old or so when we got him from the German Shepherd Rescue and we—and they—think he was abused before they got him. Pepper accepted him into her house no problem. And they became friends, if not as good friends as she and Audie had been. Curley and Moe were curious, but both died before they could really bond with him. And now he’s all we have left, though we’ll probably get another dog and maybe more cats in the future.

Pepper (left), Buster (right)
She was a particularly wonderful dog in every way. Of all our dogs I explored more with her than with any other dog. We walked up into the forest and down by the creek. She was curious and fun and playful. And when we got surrounded by a pack of feral dogs, which was a pretty scary situation, she was cool and calm. She didn’t seem scared and she didn’t act aggressively. We just stood there until the dogs started peeling off one by one. Then we began to head home. Some of the dogs followed, but they also peeled off until the only one left was the alpha. He followed us almost to our house, but he, too, eventually peeled off. I’m glad to say no blood was shed on either side that day, and I think a good part of the reason for that was Pepper’s demeanor, calm and steady. On other occasions we came across coyotes, and let me tell you the feral dogs were much scarier than the coyotes, who never bothered us at all.
On the road again...
Pepper, whose full name is Sgt. Pepper (I’ll let you figure out what that’s an homage to), was a warm and wonderful and welcoming dog. She just wanted to be friends with everyone. She was good for inspiration and a terrific writing buddy.

Pepper (front - after an operation), Buster (behind) and me
When Pepper or some of our previous animals have gotten sick or injured some people would say to put them down and just get another. But we don’t see it that way. We don’t see our dogs and cats as interchangeable cogs. They’re very much individuals with distinct personalities, and very much part of the family. And you can’t just replace one when the parts start to wear out.

And some people say that the only reason they like us is because we feed them. I read an article once where a woman argued that and it made me crazy. Yes, they like to be fed—don’t we all. But they, just like us, want more than that. They want companionship and security. And, imo, what they really want is what most of us what: to love and be loved.

But the point I’m leading up to here is the title of this piece: Pepper, and all our other critters, better be up there in heaven waiting for us—this of course assumes there is a heaven, but I think that’s a question for another time. Because if all dogs and cats don’t go to heaven, I don’t want to go there either.
My girl
And my idea of heaven, not that I’m in a hurry to check it out, is a comfortable place, with Jacopo’s pizza on their best day flowing freely, abalone and other goodies—cause I think in the other place all you get are C rats. And, of course, Amy and I and all our critters would be there. But then I start to wonder: what the hell (oops, maybe not the best word to use in this context…) do you do up there for all of eternity? Would you get bored? Would you have TV? And if you do would you get Turner Classics on a big screen? And would the History Channel or whatever it’s called these days still be running endless reruns of Forged in Fire (or maybe that only plays down below—hope so as it seems appropriate). Or the other “history” channel running endless reruns of black and white Nazis. Hmm… And would the Beatles be creating any new songs? Now that would be heaven!

Or is it gonna be like Meat Loaf’s* Paradise by the Dashboard Light, where I’m prayin’ for the end of time… Let’s hope not.



~.~.~

And now for a little BSP:  I’m running a free promotion for people who subscribe to my newsletter. You can get a FREE e-copy of my novel Vortex. Just subscribe. And if you’re already a subscriber and want the novel contact me via my website or e-mail and I’ll send you the link for the download.


I'm also excited to announce that I've got a new book coming out in 2020: The Blues Don't Care. It's a little different for me. It's set in 1940s Los Angeles jazz scene during World War II. I hope you'll keep checking in for more news on this exciting new release.


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

17 February 2020

When They Say It's Not About Politics...


by Steve Liskow

My daughter gave me The Last Widow, Karin Slaughter's newest novel, for Christmas and I tore through it in about three days. Slaughter is one of my favorite writers, and the first half of the book felt like a freight train with no brakes careening down a steep hill. I turned pages quickly enough to leave a trail of smoke and risk uncountable paper cuts.

I seldom pay attention to online reviews, but when I finished this one, I looked on Amazon out of curiosity. Slaughter is one of several authors I read who gathers mixed reviews because she takes chances and doesn't adhere to the standard template. Sure enough, The Last Widow had 795 reviews, 63% five-star, and 9% one-star.

The one-star reviews often complained that Slaughter let her politics get in the way of the story. Well, a group of white nationalist kidnaps Sarah Linton, the female protagonist, as part of their deadly plot, and, given that premise, it's hard to be apolitical.

That's why I usually ignore online reviews.

In one way or another, MOST art is political because artists deal with important issues in life.

Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King as a reaction to the contemporary debate about predestination. His play takes the issue head-on, and his opinion is clear. Euripides leaves no doubt what he thinks of war in The Trojan Women. Nice people don't throw the child of a vanquished rival off the battlements and turn the surviving women into sex slaves.



Shakespeare's 37 (or 40, or 50, depending on whose count you believe) plays constantly involve politics.
Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear discuss, among other issues, who succeeds to the throne. Measure For Measure asks tough questions about women, love, sex, and relationships, and offers no easy answers (The main "good guy" has a creepy voyeuristic streak, too).
All the histories involve kings and, usually, war. Even comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night discuss the roles of women in society, and the misuse of power, still timely as the Me Too Movement and Roe vs Wade are still crucial issues.

Jane Austen and Emily Bronte present the situation of women in the 1800s, unable to vote, own property, or inherit. Pride and Prejudice features Mr. Bennet with five daughters who will starve if he can't marry them off to husbands who will support them. Wuthering Heights is built around the British Law of Entails, a devious way to control who inherits property if no sons succeed.

In America, Twain looks at slavery through bitter eyes in Huckleberry Finn, one of the most banned books in our country's schools, along with To Kill A Mockingbird, which looks at the same issue from 80 years later...although we haven't advanced much. Uncle Tom's Cabin, far more racist than either of the others, was a blockbuster best-seller before the word existed.

Robert Penn Warren gives us All The King's Men, a fictionalized vision of Huey Long, the Louisiana Governor who used graft and kickbacks left and right...and used the money to build highways and hospitals. Alan Drury won the Pulitzer in 1960 with Advise And Consent (102 weeks on the NYT Bestseller list and later a film with Henry Fonda), and that's all about politics.

Other novels, off the top of my head: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (if you haven't read these, do so before the second of the three books appears next fall on HBO.)

I know almost nothing about painting, but even I can point to Picasso's Guernica.

Plays: Lee Blessing's A Walk In The Woods is about two arms negotiators meeting to talk during the Cold War. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible (maybe my least favorite play of all time), All My Sons, A View From the Bridge, and Death of a Salesman. Miller always looked at the shafting of the little guy by big business or bigger government. Lawrence and Lee's Inherit the Wind, which the Religious Reich should go see sometime.

Films: Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.

The classic western High Noon asks if we deserve freedom and law if we won't fight to defend them.Many in that production were blacklisted because of their involvement, and I still don't understand why. What about The Grapes of Wrath? Steinbeck dodged a death threat after writing the novel, and the film, made on an 800K budget, still gives me chills when I listen to Henry Fonda deliver
Tom Joad's farewell speech in that flat monotone.

Beethoven first called Symphony #3 the "Bounaparte," but changed it to "Eroica" after Napoleon became Emperor.
Where would American folk music be without Woody Guthrie,Pete Seeger, and the Weavers?  Or their descendants, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, The Doors ("The Unknown Soldier") and Country Joe & The Fish (I Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag--remember "Gimme an 'F'?).

Politics should be separate from art. Yeah, right.

Maybe flavor should be separate from food, too.

This list barely unscrews the lid from the jar. What other works can you name?

16 February 2020

All in the Fingertips


bad girl
Did you ever wish you could peer into the past? In a way, anyone with a smartphone can, especially bad guys. With the help of technology, they can apply a trick to steal codes from digital locks, safes, secured buildings, even your ATM and credit card PIN numbers.

FLIR Systems specializes in infrared technology. They sell thermal cameras, attachments for iPhones and more recently for Androids, gadgets that gaze into the past. When it comes to PIN codes, this accessory can tell what keys were last touched. They accomplish it by sensing residual heat from your fingertips.

The Polite Lady

At the ATM, the woman rummaging in her purse waves you to go ahead. Twenty minutes earlier, her boyfriend had hot glued a fake card reader over the real one, Chinese made to blend with the original.

The lady finds her iPhone and politely waits while you complete your transaction. You step away, nodding to the nice person. She steps forward to attend to her business… reading your keystrokes with her smartphone.

How? A simple filter records the presence of your fingertips from the first, the coolest, to the hottest, the last digit you entered. Can you guess this all-too-common PIN number?

10-key pad with telltale reddish heat signatures
keypad with telltale heat signatures

If you said, “What ninny uses 1-2-3-4-5 for a PIN?” you’re right. The answer to that question is about 10-12% of the population.

The Smart Lady

Like most people, I normally work a 10-key device with three fingers like an accountant. With PIN code theft on the rise, I’d adopted the practice of pressing keys with my fingers out of order. It probably looks awkward to an observer, but I might press a key in the left column with my middle finger, and a key on the right with my index finger. Clumsy but hopefully confusing to unwanted eyes. I’m also not afraid to cup my hand around the keyboard if it doesn’t have a cowl. None of those actions solves this new personal identity attack.

So I mention to my girlfriend I’m writing an article on the topic. I barely get the question on my lips before Haboob says, “Now you have to touch other keys to fool the camera.” Did I hint she’s pretty damn smart?

And yes, either let your fingertips pause on unused keys or touch other keys once you’ve pressed Enter and finished the transaction. And don’t start your PIN number with a 1. Or a 0. Just don’t do it. Bad guys love suckers who use dates for PINs or lazily use 1234… etc.

Natually, this makes fodder for fiction. It’s all in the fingers. Here’s a video with more detail, 3¾-minutes, geeky but worth it.

15 February 2020

Building "Crow's Nest," Jan/Feb 2020 EQMM





Some of my favorite columns by my fellow SleuthSayers have been those that give us a sneak peek into the creation of the mystery stories they've published. I suppose it makes sense that I would like that kind of thing--I'm also a sucker for those little behind-the-scene "bonus" features included on most DVDs. I enjoy finding out where scenes were filmed and who else was considered for the roles and how the screenwriters got their ideas in the first place. Trivia galore.

So . . . what I thought I'd do today is talk about my short story in the January/February (current, at least for a couple more weeks) issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It's called "Crow's Nest," and is a standalone tale about an old guy who gets involved by accident in a conflict between a bunch of local gangsters and a couple of amateur criminals. Bottom line is, it's about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, which is, by the way, a pretty good definition of commercial fiction.


Character stuff

Quick setup: The "hero" of this story isn't a hero at all. Amos Garrett is a regular guy, a retired farmer who lives with his wife out in the boonies and doesn't have a lot of thrills in his life, which is just fine with him--until he stops his truck one day to help a young lady with a flat tire and no spare and a dead cellphone. Afterward, there's more than enough excitement to go around (or I hope there is). Robbery, murder, lies, betrayals, revenge, etc.

One of the things I wanted to do with this story was feature an older protagonist. Amos is pushing seventy-five--older than I am, but not by much--and so is his wife, and they live high on a hill in a house that's fairly ordinary except for one thing. It has a railed platform on top that allows an unobstructed view for miles around. They use it as sort of a patio, and call it their Crow's Nest, like the perches on the masts of tall ships where sailors watched for whales, or enemy vessels, or dry land. In this story, it comes in handy for something else.

Amos is an uncomplicated guy. He drives an ancient pickup, goes fishing and hunting now and then, owns an old fifty-caliber buffalo gun that he inherited but hasn't fired in years because the recoil hurts his shoulder, and still likes to go to cattle auctions even though he's long since sold all his cattle. He's also old-fashioned in his thinking: he loves his wife, he helps those in need, and he believes in trying to do the right thing.

The other protagonist (heroine?) is a woman named Wendy Lake ("Sounds like an apartment complex," she tells Amos, when they meet), and she IS complicated--sweet and meek at times and scary-tough at others. I won't say too much about her because she's the basis of most of the twists and turns the story takes--but I will say she's the exact opposite of Amos. He's old, she's young; he's local, she's an outsider; he's calm and cautious by nature; she's not; he lives pretty much by the rules; she doesn't. The POV alternates between these two for the entire story.

Plot stuff

As has been discussed often at this blog, writers get their initial ideas from a lot of different places, and those starting points usually fall into three categories: settings, characters, or plots. I usually begin with the plot, partly because I think story is more important than anything else and partly because the plot just seems to be the first thing that pops into my head. Then and only then do I come up with characters who I hope are interesting and settings that I hope are convincing and appropriate. Lots of folks do it the other way around--characters first, or settings first. Different strokes.

In the case of this story, my first glimmer of an idea came from a movie I watched years ago, an Australian "western" called Quigley Down Under. It won no Oscars and maybe didn't deserve any, but it was a riproaringly good story in terms of action and excitement. It had a great cast, a great plot, a great score, a great setting, and one scene in particular that stayed with me long afterward.

Picture this. American-in-a-strange-land Matthew Quigley, played by Tom Selleck, has been beaten senseless by the villain's men and carted off into the outback, to be left for dead. He and a young lady (Laura San Giacomo, if anyone remembers the TV series Just Shoot Me) are dumped unconscious from a buckboard in the middle of nowhere, and the two henchmen climb back into the wagon and prepare to leave. As Captain Kirk would say, the situation is grim.

Then Quigley comes to, lures one of the bad guys back down off the wagon, and--still lying down--kills him with a hidden knife. Thug #2, thankfully smarter than he looks, sees this and takes off in the wagon alone, headed away across the flats, but (also thankfully), Thug #1, now dead, was carrying Quigley's Sharps long-range rifle when he got stabbed, so our hero, trying to clear his head, wipes the blood and sweat and dirt from his eyes, loads the gun, crawls into position, props the three-foot-long barrel of the Sharps on the dead body of Thug #1, and takes careful aim. Meanwhile, Thug #2 is going hell for leather, flying across the desert, scared to death and leaning forward in his seat and looking back over his shoulder and whipping the horses as hard as he can and getting smaller and smaller and smaller in the distance. Knowing that he'll have only the one chance and knowing that if his bullet doesn't hit its tiny target Thug #2 will get home safely and report what happened and a small army will come back and kill him and his lovely still-unconscious companion, Quigley takes his time and squeezes off his shot and blows T#2 right out of his wagon seat, half a mile away. Heavy sighs of relief, fading music, end of scene. All is well.

So, using that as sort of a launch pad, I built a present-day plot whereby the young Wendy gets rescued from her car troubles by Amos Garrett, and he takes her home with him to call for roadside assistance. But of course the power is out at the house and so is the landline and she stays the night as the guest of Amos and his wife, and since Wendy says she and her brother are gun collectors Amos shows her his old .50-caliber Sharps--the one that buffalo hunters used in the Old West--and lets her have some target practice out back before supper. She's a surprisingly good shot. The next morning when phone lines are repaired she makes her call for assistance . . . but of course she isn't exactly who she claims to be (who is, in a mystery?) and she didn't call who she'd claimed she called, and the two people who come for her aren't car-repairmen and they definitely aren't friendly, to either her or the Garretts. A lot happens from that point, and part of it involves a long-range shot by Wendy with the buffalo gun, with time running out and everybody's lives hanging in the balance. (Sorry that preview ran so long.)


I should mention here that the scene I remembered from the movie resulted in less than one page of the twenty-one pages of my story manuscript--but it did serve as a starting point, the tiny match that lit the fire. It happens that way sometimes.

Theme stuff

If pressured, I guess I would say there are several "themes" featured in this story--crime doesn't pay, lend a hand to the needy, the end can indeed sometimes justify the means, there are varying degrees of good and evil, love is more important than money, villains should get what they deserve, and so forth--but I admit I don't usually give much thought to illumination and life-lessons in fiction. I just try to tell an entertaining story, and if there's something to be learned form it, fine; if there's not, I might've at least saved you from half an hour of network TV, and believe me, that can be a blessing. I've never understood writing instructors who say you must come up with the theme first, before you start writing. My feeling is, don't waste time worrying about that. If you write a story and it turns out good, then it'll have a theme.

One more thing. One kind reader told me the other day, via email, that she liked my foreshadowing of a couple of things that happened near the end of this story--one of them involved an early view of several old mailboxes on the same post, something you see a lot in rural areas of the south, and which turned out to be meaningful later. I appreciated her noticing that, because I love doing that kind of thing in a story. Some of my writer friends seem to think foreshadowing is hard in short fiction because the stories aren't long enough for it to work. That's not true. It just depends on when and how you do it.



And that's all, folks. Thanks for indulging me. If you happen to read my story, I hope you'll like it. If you read it and don't like it, hey, maybe you'll have learned something not to do in your own stories.

Two things I know for sure: (1) I'm grateful that EQMM liked it, and (2) it was a lot of fun to write.


See you in two weeks.



14 February 2020

Crime Scene Comix Case 2020-02-008, Not-so-Healthful Spa


Once again we highlight our criminally favorite cartoonist, Future Thought channel of YouTube. We love the sausage-shaped Shifty, a Minion gone bad.

Did I say sausage shaped? Without clothes, our little villain doesn't have much shape at all. On the run, our none-too-bright criminal drops into a health spa. Uh-oh. What could go wrong?


That’s today’s crime cinema. Hope you enjoyed the show. Be sure to visit Future Thought YouTube channel.

13 February 2020

Revoked


by Eve Fisher

Woollcott in 1939 photographed by Carl Van Vechten
Alexander Woollcott
One of the reasons I dig around in old books - especially old miscellanies - is that you can find the most amazing things.  Take Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943):  critic & commentator for The New Yorker, radio personality, occasional actor, and constant pain in the ass.  (He was the inspiration for Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner.)  He was also obsessed with murders, past and contemporary, and he spoke and wrote about many with that acidulous wit that has been equalled only by Dorothy Parker (whom he once described as "so odd a blend of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth").  

So I was rereading Woollcott's While Rome Burns, and - thinking of us, dear SleuthSayers and fans! - headed straight for the section "It May be Human Gore".  I struck the motherlode.  The following - from the chapter "By The Rude Bridge" - is one of my favorite murders of all time.  

Let's just start off by saying that in September, 1929, Myrtle Adkins Bennett, Kansas City housewife, shot her husband, John G. Bennett, to death over a hand of contract bridge.  Where's the mystery, you ask?  Well, read on:  


*********************
(From While Rome Burns.)

"The Bennett killing, which occurred on the night of September 29, 1929, was usually spoken of, with approximate accuracy, as the Bridge-Table Murder. The victim was a personable and prosperous young salesman whose mission, as representative of the house of Hudnut, was to add to the fragrance of life in the Middle West. He had been married eleven years before to a Miss Myrtle Adkins, originally from Arkansas, who first saw his photograph at the home of a friend, announced at once that she intended to marry him, and then, perhaps with this purpose still in mind, recognized and accosted him a year later when she happened to encounter him on a train. That was during the war when the good points of our perfume salesman’s physique were enhanced by an officer’s uniform. They were married in Memphis during the considerable agitation of November 11, 1918. The marriage was a happy one. At least, Senator Jim Reed, who represented Mrs. Bennett in the trying but inevitable legal formalities which ensued upon her bereavement, announced in court—between sobs—that they had always been more like sweethearts than man and wife.

Bridge declarer.jpg"On Mr. Bennett’s last Sunday on earth, these wedded sweethearts spent the day playing a foursome at golf with their friends, Charles and Mayme Hofman... After dark and after an ice-box supper at the Bennetts’, the men folk professed themselves too weary to dress for the movies, so the four settled down to a more slatternly evening of contract bridge. They played family against family at a tenth of a cent a side. With a pretty laugh, Mayme Hofman on the witness stand referred to such a game as playing for “fun stakes,” though whether this was a repulsive little phrase of her own or one prevalent in the now devitalized society of a once rugged community, I do not know.

"They played for some hours. At first the luck went against the Hofmans and the married sweethearts were as merry as grigs. Later the tide turned and the cross-table talk of the Bennetts became tinged with constructive criticism. Finally, just before midnight, the fatal hand was dealt by Bennett himself and he opened the bidding with one spade. Hofman hazarded two diamonds. Mrs. Bennett leaped to four spades. Discreet silence from Mrs. Hofman. Stunned silence from Bennett. Hofman doubled. That ended the bidding and the play began.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/
wiki/User:Newwhist
"Mrs. Bennett put down her hand. At her trial it was the policy of the defense, for strategic reasons, to minimize the part the bridge game had played in the ensuing drama, but the jury could not be confused on this point and three of the jurors went so far as to learn bridge in the long leisure of the jury room. Nor could the mind of that stern realist, Mayme Hofman, be befogged. When summoned as a witness by Senator Reed, she knew she was really coming to the defense of Mrs. Bennett as a bridge player.

“Myrtle put down a good hand,” she said staunchly, “it was a perfectly beautiful hand.”

"In any event, while she was dummy, Mrs. Bennett retired to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for her lord and master, who would be leaving at the crack of dawn for St. Joe. She came back to find he had been set two and to be greeted with the almost automatic charge that she had overbid. Thereupon she ventured to opine that he was, in her phrase, “a bum bridge player.” His reply to that was a slap in the face, followed by several more of the same—whether three or four more, witnesses were uncertain. Then while he stormed about proclaiming his intention to leave for St. Joe at once and while Mr. Hofman prudently devoted the interval to totting up the score, Mrs. Bennett retired to the davenport to weep on the sympathetic bosom of Mayme Hofman...:

“No one but a cur would strike a woman in the presence of friends.”

"I have not as yet been able to learn whether the game was ever settled, but when Mr. Hofman had completed his work as accountant, he ventured to reproach the host for unseemly behavior, to which comment Bennett replied by a strong suggestion that it was time for the guests to go home. Mrs. Hofman—one can imagine her bridling a good deal and saying that she considered the source—had got into her wraps and Mr. Hofman was tidying up in the bathroom, when he saw his hostess advancing through the den, revolver in hand.
Image result for james thurber cartoons new yorker
James Thurber, The New Yorker
via Pinterest (Link)
“My God, Myrtle,” he cried. “What are you going to do?”

"He soon learned.

"There were four shots, with a brief interval after the second. The first went through the hastily closed bathroom door. The second was embedded in the lintel. The next two were embedded in Mr. Bennett, the fourth and fatal shot hitting him in the back.

"The next day the story went round the world. In its first reverberations, I noticed, with interest, that after her visit to the mortuary chapel Mrs. Bennett objected plaintively to her husband’s being buried without a pocket-handkerchief showing in his coat. To interested visitors, she would make cryptic remarks such as “Nobody knows but me and my God why I did it,” thus leaving open to pleasant speculation the probable nature of her defense.

[Seventeen months passed, and finally Woollcott asked a Kansas City friend what happened to the case?]

“Oh!” the good doctor replied, “she was acquitted. It seems it was just an unfortunate accident.”

Natty couple in 1929
Wikipedia Source
"It seems the dutiful Mrs. Bennett had merely gone for the revolver because her husband wanted to take it with him to St. Joe; that in stumbling over a misplaced chair in the den she fired the first two shots unintentionally and that her husband (pardonably misreading her kind intentions) had sought to disarm her. In the ensuing Apache dance of their struggle for the gun, it had gone off and wounded him fatally.


"The defense was materially aided by the exclusion on technical grounds of crucial testimony which would have tended to indicate that at the time Mrs. Bennett had told a rather different story. It was also helped no little by the defendant herself who, in the course of the trial, is estimated to have shed more tears than Jane Cowl did in the entire season of Common Clay. Even the Senator was occasionally unmanned, breaking into sobs several times in the presence of the jury. “I just can’t help it,” he replied, when the calloused prosecutor urged him to bear up.

"The Reed construction of the fatal night’s events proved subsequently important to Mrs. Bennett, in whose favor her husband had once taken out a policy to cover the contingency of his death through accident. Some months after the acquittal a dazed insurance company paid her thirty thousand dollars.


"Footnote: Protesting as I do against the short-weight reporting in the Notable British Trials series, it would ill become me to hoard for my private pleasure certain postscripts to the Bennett case which have recently drifted my way. It looked for a time as if we all might be vouchsafed the luxury of reading Myrtle’s autobiography, but this great work has been indefinitely postponed. I understand she could not come to terms with the local journalist who was to do the actual writing. That ink-stained wretch demanded half the royalties. Mrs. Bennett felt this division would be inequitable, since, as she pointed out, she herself had done all the work.
"Then it seems she has not allowed her bridge to grow rusty, even though she occasionally encounters an explicable difficulty in finding a partner. Recently she took on one unacquainted with her history. Having made an impulsive bid, he put his hand down with some diffidence. “Partner,” he said, “I’m afraid you’ll want to shoot me for this.” Mrs. Bennett, says my informant, had the good taste to faint."
************

Back to my musings:

For the more curious among us: What bridge hand could be that bad? See Snopes' reconstruction HERE.

Source: 
https://www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/the-carlyle-new-york/gallery
As for Myrtle's later years, and there were 61 of them, she died in Miami, Florida, in January, 1992 at the age of 96. "After World War II and throughout the 1950s, she worked as executive head of housekeeping at the elegant Hotel Carlyle in New York City, living alone there in an apartment. At the Carlyle, she developed friendships with the rich and famous, including the actors Mary Pickford and Henry Ford II." Later, she traveled the world, working for a hotel chain, and left an estate - valued at more than $1 million - to family members of the late John Bennett. (Wikipedia)

Final Note: According to Woollcott, "It was Harpo Marx who, on hearing the doctor’s hasty but spirited résumé of the case, suggested that I make use of it for one of my little articles. He even professed to have thought of a title for it. Skeptically I inquired what this might be and he answered “Vulnerable.”"

But personally, I prefer the title "Revoked."

 


12 February 2020

Man Without a Star


Kirk Douglas. He wasn't the easiest guy to work with, by all reports. He was driven, and not a little of that leaks into his performances. His acting was muscular - not in the sense of beefcake, but the physicality, his center of gravity, the weight. And the restlessness, an inner engine, a furnace. Anger, certainly. He was trapped by it. If one thing defines Douglas, as a presence, it's that he seethed. He gave off heat like molten glass.



Like anybody else, he made his share of stinkers, but in the main, he brought something to all of his pictures. Most of them are solid, some are extraordinary. Once or twice he played a real skunk, Ace in the Hole, The Bad and the Beautiful. More typically, a guy who was fatally flawed, In Harm's Way, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Arrangement; most famously, van Gogh in Lust for Life. Occasionally, he actually got to be the good guy, Last Train from Gun Hill, and Seven Days in May, notably Spartacus, but by and large, his characters are ambiguous.



He made Man Without a Star in 1955. In brief, it doesn't sound like much. A drifter wanders into a range war, and sides with the little guys, even though he hates barbed wire and what it represents, the end of the Old West, getting crowded in by rules and fences. You've ridden this trail before. Excuse me, no.



The big reveal, when Douglas tears his shirt open to show his scars - roped up in the hated wire, and dragged - isn't simply physical. It's bottled-up psychic fury. This is Douglas balanced on the edge of psychosis, the buried past, the unforgiven injury, the animating event. Nobody is better at this, Like his Holocaust survivor in The Juggler, a much underappreciated movie, this is a guy who isn't simply bruised, but in torment. The thing about both pictures is that they're about redemption. The characters Douglas plays haven't always gotten a second chance. And the other theme in Man Without a Star is the promise of the distant horizon, of escape and reinvention.



There's a darker alternative, of trying to find rescue in flight, and when Douglas to all intents and purposes remade Man Without a Star in 1962, Lonely Are the Brave was 'heroic' on a more intimate canvas, black-and-white, composed in shadows. It was tragedy, absolutely and utterly formal. Douglas exec produced, and this darkness was no accident. He later said it was his favorite among his pictures.




*

Douglas was instrumental in breaking the blacklist. He might have exaggerated his part, but credit where credit's due. Just as it took a collective cowardice, and turning a blind eye, to sustain the blacklist, it took a collective will to beat it. Nobody did it singlehanded. Kirk Douglas did his share.

He hired Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay for Spartacus. (The novelist Howard Fast, who'd written the book, was himself a former Communist, turned apostate.) They had issues with the script. Trumbo wanted it to reflect the contemporary Red Scare. Douglas wanted it to be more universal. It was a message picture, yes, but not a sermon. Douglas fired his original director, Anthony Mann, and got Stanley Kubrick on board, his guy from Paths of Glory. Maybe he thought Kubrick was more likely to tug his forelock.

Didn't happen. Toward the end of the shoot, they had a conversation about how to credit the screenplay. Trumbo was blacklisted, the kiss of death. Kubrick suggested he himself take script credit. Douglas said fuck it, let's give it to Dalton and take the heat.  Heat they got. Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons did columns telling moviegoers to boycott such a Commie picture, but Spartacus ran the table at the box office. Otto Preminger followed suit with an on-screen credit for Trumbo, with Exodus.

It was the beginning of the end, no question. It was about money, of course. The blacklist was bad for business.

*

Kirk Douglas had an unquiet heart. A guy with a chip on his shoulder. He was a romantic, how not? And just below the surface, some deep and unknowable sorrow. He may never have made peace with himself, but now he rests.  


11 February 2020

Life of Crime Leads to Writing Crime Fiction



Several fellow crime fiction writers, including a handful of SleuthSayers, became crime fiction writers while working in, or after retiring from, law enforcement occupations. I approached my crime fiction writing career from the other direction.

I stole cars.

I don’t remember exactly how many I boosted during my relatively short career, but I would venture to guess at least a dozen, all different models from the same manufacturer.

These weren’t well-planned thefts; they were crimes of opportunity. Though I was too young to legally drive, that didn’t stop me. I saw cars I wanted, waited until the owners were distracted, and took them.

Back at my place, where I had the tools necessary to alter the vehicles’ appearances, I repainted them, and I turned at least two hardtops into convertibles. Then I wheeled them around for a few weeks until another opportunity presented itself.

And another opportunity always presented itself because the boys in my neighborhood were careless, always leaving their Matchbox cars unattended.

FROM CARS TO MOTORCYCLES

I came by my criminality honestly. My stepfather was an “Honorary Hell’s Angel.” At least, that’s what the card in his wallet said.

I don’t know if that’s a real thing or if it was some sort of gag, but my stepfather co-owned a service station, back when service stations did more than sell over-priced snacks and make you pump your own gas, and he actually employed Hell’s Angels as mechanics. Every time I visited the station, usually in the company of my mother, the bikers were there, sometimes working, sometimes not, and their choppers were parked behind the building along with several cars awaiting repair or awaiting pickup after being repaired.

The rest of this story may or may not be true, but this is the way I heard it, and there’s no one left to confirm or deny any part of it.

A group of Hell’s Angels lived in a house across the street from my stepfather’s service station. One night, one of them looked out the window, realized the service station was being robbed, and saw that the guy working that night was in trouble.

So, he shot the robber.

I don’t know if that event was the impetus, but shortly after that, my stepfather sold his part-ownership of the service station and we moved to another state.

FROM MOTORCYCLES TO BICYCLES

My junior high school was probably not as rough as I remember, but I wasn’t the only student who carried a knife for protection, and I once had a revolver shoved in my face while waiting at the bus stop after a school dance by a kid who wanted my bus money.

I was, by that point, building badass bicycles from parts I found in a ravine below a bridge a few miles from my home. I don’t remember what all I discovered during my initial visit, but I returned to the same spot several times and, over the following months, collected frames, handlebars, seats, wheels, and more.

I was much older before I realized I had probably stumbled on the dumping ground of a bicycle thief and that I might have been in possession of stolen goods.

FROM BICYCLES TO STORIES

I was going to wrap this up by suggesting my life of crime led me to write crime fiction, and then I remembered the story of my first professional fiction sale, which I wrote about in my initial post as an official SleuthSayers member. “Smooth Criminal” began “I wrote my first professionally published story when I was 17, sold it when I was 18, and saw it published when I was 19. That’s the story I tell, and the story I’ll continue to tell, but it isn’t the truth. The truth is more complex and involves my committing one of the worst crimes a writer can commit short of plagiarism.”

So maybe my life of crime didn’t actually end when I began writing. Maybe it was just the beginning.

Coming April 14: The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe: Parodies and Pastiches Featuring the Great Detective of West 35th Street (Mysterious Press), edited by Josh Pachter and featuring “Rollicking new stories written especially for this collection by Michael Bracken and Robert Lopresti.”

10 February 2020

My Own Medical Thriller


by Steve Liskow

I don't write medical thrillers because I only like to do research up to a point, and the amount of research I'd need to write in that field is well beyond that point.

We all can name a few biggies, though. Robin Cook and Michael Palmer each wrote several. I first met Michael Crichton through The Andromeda Strain, and learned years later that he won the Edgar for A Case of Need, originally published under the pen name Jeffrey Hudson. Tess Gerritsen, also a doctor, wrote several thrillers before she unleashed the Rizzoli and Isles series.

I'm now involved in my own medical thriller without planning it at all. So far, it has a happy ending.

Two Sundays ago, I finished my workout at my health club and returned to my car. I had found a space ten feet from the entrance, and now I was sandwiched between two SUVs, each slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey. Looking behind me was like looking through a soda straw.

The entrance driveway lay at about 7:00 to my space. The driveway is narrow, especially when cars park on both sides of it, so a sign proclaiming "One Way [right turn only]" guards the entrance. It was almost directly behind me. Another sign says "Do Not Enter" and stands to the left. This makes sure all traffic in that narrow driveway moves counterclockwise. Theoretically.

I eased out, looking to my left, where traffic should come from, and a driver who decided to turn around and take the short way back hit my car. Damage to both vehicles was minor--I have a broken taillight and a dented quarter panel--and I got the worst of it. We exchanged insurance information and notified the appropriate people, then went on our way.

Several hours later, my left arm felt heavy and weak. I've hosted a bad back since 1971, and this felt like the mild collision aggravated the long-standing problem. Oh well. Then my wife noticed I was having trouble using that hand to type at the PC and insisted that we go to the hospital.

The staff looked at my symptoms and medical history (both my mother and grandmother had strokes) and sent me for a CAT scan. Over the next several hours, I got lots of practice telling various doctors, nurses, interns, nurses, technicians and administrators my age (72), the month (January) and that we were in New Britain, Connecticut. I became expert at repeating "Today is a sunny day" and touching my index finger to my nose the other people's fingers in turn.

Every two hours, a nurse or tech asked me for an encore. I had to resist their pushing and pulling with my left hand, which was discernibly weaker. I had no indicators of being a stroke risk: I weigh 15 pound more than when I graduated from high school in 1965, I quit smoking about 15 years ago, my cholesterol level has pleased my primary-care physician for years, and I don't use cocaine. I average about half the "tolerable(?)" amount of alcohol allowed to men my age, and women are more prone to strokes anyway.

So what? The staff decided to treat the issue as a Transient ischemic attack (TIA), in which the blood supply to the brain is blocked for a short period of time and produces symptoms that resemble a strok. In my case, that was the weak arm.

My listening station for The Eagles
 By about 5 am the following morning--roughly 17 hours after the accident and ten hours after my arm first felt weak--I felt fine. But the night felt like I was a shooting scene with police scouring me for shell casings, blood spatter, footprints, and a partridge in a pear tree. I lost count of how many people asked me to answer those questions again and tested my arm and leg strength and coordination. They were like different detectives asking the same questions to see if my story changed.

By early afternoon, they also gave me an MRI, which is kind of cool if you're not claustrophobic. The kids running the machine both looked like former students. Truthfully, when you teach in the area for 33 years, everyone looks sort of like a former student. These two guys let me choose the music to listen to while they ran me through the tube. I picked the Eagles over Katy Perry, Adele, and someone else I'd never heard of.

Back in my room, I talked to two more doctors, three more nurses, had my sixteenth and seventeenth blood pressure checks, and told my age, location and the month again. Finally, the lead doctor told me he was pretty sure I did not have a TIA, but they wouldn't definitely say my troubles were related to the fender-bender, either.

The MRI and CAT scan ruled out a thrombotic stroke, but he wanted to be sure I didn't have an embolic stroke (a clot forming in the heart and traveling to the brain instead of originating in the brain itself) and ordered an echocardiogram, basically a heart sonogram. It was fun and the woman administering it was young, attractive, ultra-competent, and hilarious. She let em hear what my heart sounded like during the procedure, more of a gurgle than the lub-dub I expected. She also apologized for the coldness of the gel she spread on my chest and for having to rip the sensor contacts off my chest and taking all three chest hairs with them.
An echo-cardiogram (posed by model)

They finally discharged me about 24 hours after Barb drove me in. I spend the next month taking Plavix, Lipitor (They both sound like Superman villains, don't they?) and aspirin. They don't think I had a TIA, but they're taking no chances.

I still blame the minor accident. On the other hand, it was cool watching a bunch of people who really knew their stuff give me a first-hand tutorial on medical mystery research.