02 June 2020

Outside the Three-Mile Limit

by Paul D. Marks

As many regular readers here know, I’m fascinated with Los Angeles history. I post about various aspects of it from time to time. I use it as background in much of my fiction. And one of the most fascinating aspects of L.A. history are the gambling boats that used to anchor off the shore, just outside the three mile legal limit.

The Rex
Bobby in the just-released (yesterday) The Blues Don’t Care has more than his share of adventure on one of those gambling ships. In the novel, Bobby and the band he’s in get a gig on the Apollo, one of the gambling ships off the Los Angeles coast. They find more than a little trouble there that really sets the plot in motion.
Cops dumping slot machines off the Rex
The Apollo is based on the real gambling ships that used to lay off the SoCal shore, just outside the three-mile limit. I’ve taken a few liberties with the Apollo. It’s much nicer than the real gambling ships, which, while they had their amenities, weren’t always as glamorous as you might think. But when gambling was illegal I guess they were good places to go and get your fix.

                  The interior of the Lux
The most famous of the real gambling ships was the Rex, run by Tony Cornero, A.K.A. The Admiral. Cornero had a checkered career, to say the least. During Prohibition in the 1920s he was a rum-runner (I wonder if he knew Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.?). He moved much of his illegal booze on ships, so had a background on the bounding seas for when he decided to open up the gambling ships later on.

When Prohibition was repealed, Cornero made the easy slide over to gambling. In 1931 when gambling was legalized in Las Vegas, he and his brothers set up there, opening up The Meadows Casino and Hotel, beating out Bugsy Siegel’s Vegas venture by over a decade. Unfortunately, Lucky Luciano got wind of it and, since Cornero wouldn’t pay extortion money, the Meadows was torched. Hmm, no connection to old Lucky there, right?

Tony Cornero aboard the Lux
So back to L.A. Cornero went. And in 1938 he bought two ships, the SS Rex and the SS Tango and converted them into gambling boats. By running them outside the legal limit he could skirt US law. The ships included gourmet chefs, gunmen to keep the peace, waiters, waitresses and—wait for it—orchestras. And that’s where Bobby and the Booker ‘Boom-Boom’ Taylor Orchestra come in.

Cornero was a constant thorn in the side of authorities, but things went along swimmingly until The Battle of Santa Monica Bay—yeah, that’s a real thing. The authorities tried raiding the ships. The Rex held them off for nine days, but eventually lost and Cornero, to make a long story short, hightailed it back to Vegas, where he built the Stardust Casino and Hotel, which I stayed at many times. At the time, way back when, I knew it was mob-connected, but I didn’t know then about the Cornero connection, which I find intriguing.

The Battle of Santa Monica Bay
And, of course, some pivotal scenes in The Blues Don’t Care are set on the Apollo, just a water taxi ride from the Santa Monica Pier:

“A fine briny mist bit Bobby’s skin as he waited in the throng of people on the Santa Monica Pier for the water taxi that would take him to the gambling ship Apollo. The little cartoon-like ‘Kilroy Was Here’ drawing glared at him from the water taxi shack. Kilroy was everywhere these days. He had to shield his eyes from the fiery late afternoon sun, wished he had a pair of sunglasses. Only movie stars and musicians wore sunglasses. Maybe he’d get a pair of shades.”

Below, Bobby describes seeing the Apollo’s ballroom for the first time:

“Bobby peered over the sea of faces in the ballroom—white faces in expensive suits and chic dresses. The Apollo wasn’t the biggest or fanciest or the most seaworthy ship in the world. But if she went down, half of Hollywood, the Los Angeles political establishment, and business movers and shakers in the Southland would disappear into Davy Jones’ Locker. That didn’t stop the people who ran her—gangsters everyone knew—from decking out the main ballroom as if it were Versailles. The ceiling was tall and sparkled with lights under a false ceiling with a gauzy, azure-painted sky. Below it, the dance floor in the center of the room, surrounded by gambling tables—craps, roulette, blackjack, and the like. And in rows behind the gambling tables, dining tables.”

The La La Land gambling ships also make appearances in one of my favorite books and a movie from one of my favorite series.

Raymond Chandler talks about them in Farewell, My Lovely. In the novel, Philip Marlowe is told that Moose Malloy might be hiding out on one of the gambling ships outside the three mile limit. Marlowe sneaks aboard and persuades Brunette, the gangster who runs the ship, to get a message to Malloy. Farewell, My Lovely was made into the movie Murder, My Sweet (1944). The 1942 B movie The Falcon Takes Over is also based on the plot. And in 1975 Robert Mitchum starred in a remake.

And much of Song of the Thin Man, the last Thin Man movie (co-written by my friend Nat Perrin) is partially set on one of the ships. A benefit is happening on the gambling ship Fortune. The bandleader is murdered. Guess who has to figure it out. Song of the Thin Man should be called Farewell, My Thin Man as it’s the last in the series and unfortunately not the best by far, but it has its moments.

Mr. Lucky
Another movie that takes place on a gambling ship is the Cary Grant-Larraine Day flick Mr. Lucky. Not his best, but I like it. And you can check out my close encounter of the first kind with Cary Grant at my website.
The book was released yesterday. Hope you’ll want to check it out. Here’s what some people are saying about it:

"This is a beautifully noirish book, set firmly in the dark days of wartime and offering a sharp insight into the life and times of Los Angeles, 1940s style. Yes, it’s a mystery thriller, but The Blues Don’t Care is so much more than that, with historic detail, chutzpah, a cast of hugely entertaining characters, a really unusual protagonist and, best of all, a cracking soundtrack too."
    —DeathBecomesHer, CrimeFictionLover.com

“Award-winning author Paul D. Marks hits it out of the park with this finely-written novel bringing WWII-era L.A. alive with memorable characters, scents, descriptions, and most of all, jazz. Highly recommended.”
     —Brendan DuBois, New York Times bestselling author

“Paul D. Marks finds new gold in 40's L.A. noir while exploring prejudices in race, culture, and sexual identity. There's sex, drugs, and jazz and an always surprising hero who navigates the worlds of gambling, music, war profiteers, Jewish mobsters, and a lonely few trying to do the right thing. Marks has an eye for the telling detail, and an ear that captures the music in the dialogue of the times. He is one helluva writer.”
      —Michael Sears, award-winning author of Tower of Babel, and the Jason Stafford series

"While The Blues Don't Care is a complex, sometimes brutal, story, it also has its glimmers of beauty and joy. Those glimpses come from Bobby's passion for music, and his awe when he sees celebrities such as Clark Gable and Billie Holiday. Wander into Bobby Saxon's world in Paul D. Marks' latest book. It's a world you won't easily forget."
      —Lesa's Book Critiques, lesasbookcritiques.blogspot.com


And now for the usual BSP:

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

01 June 2020

Where Does It Come From?

Most writers regard "Where do you get your ideas?" as the wrong question to ask a writer or at least not the most interesting question, as they get it far too often—and too often, the honest answer is a less than scintillating, "It depends." But I know the answer can be interesting when applied to a single story. I've seen John Floyd do it more than once right here on SleuthSayers. So I'm going to give it a shot— a double shot, because I keep confusing two standalones, both written in 2018 and published a year or two later in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine: "A Work in Progress" and "Reunion."

My series stories are inevitably based on characters first. When a new Bruce Kohler Mystery bubbles up, it starts with Bruce and Barbara and Jimmy wisecracking in my head. If I hear Diego and Rachel or any of their kin or descendants, I know another entry in the Mendoza Family Saga is on the way.

My standalone short stories are another matter. In them, character grows organically from the ineffable yet essential quality we call voice and from ideas for plot elements and situations. The two, plot and situation, are not exactly the same thing, although situation fuels plot.

My series stories are both told largely in the first person from the point of view of a male protagonist. Bruce and Diego have strong voices that are entirely different from each other's and also entirely different from mine—one of the great advantages of writing in a gender not one's own. Bruce might say, "Jimmy thinks I'm leading with my dick again." Diego might say, "I talked seriously to Rachel about the possibility of rape, because if she were taken by soldiers, I did not want her to be taken unawares." Anyone still not understand what "voice" is?

When I wrote "A Work in Progress," I started out by setting my scene in Florida, which was the theme of the anthology I planned to submit the story to. I wrote:

Giant fans rustled all around me: high overhead, the vast leaves of the palm trees, and on either side of the creaking wooden walkway under my pounding feet, saw palmettos in constant motion as armadillos threaded their stealthy way beneath them. The only other sounds were the jingling of crickets and the occasional cry of an unseen bird.

Very pretty. Evocative. The only trouble was that it wasn't my voice. There was an "I" with "pounding feet" hiding in there among the palms and palmettos. But I knew at once that I couldn't write a whole story in that voice. I wrote:

I had to admit the little literette could write. She had certainly captured the ambience of the terrain around the North Florida center for the arts where we had both been awarded coveted associate residencies for three weeks, with the proverbial room of our own and daily workshops with an acclaimed Master Artist. Calendula Faulk was one of that rare breed, a crime novelist whom the literati took seriously. Along with her Edgars and Daggers, she'd been shortlisted for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. The eight associate artists she'd hand picked came from all over the country. We ranged in age from twenty-two—the precocious Miss Muppet—to sixty-two. That would be me, currently refusing to divorce the man who'd left me for this clever little tart.

And so Hester the rejected wife, in whose tart (sorry!) voice I certainly could write a story, because it resembles my own narrative voice, was born.

What's any Bruce Kohler mystery about? A recovering alcoholic with a smart mouth and a heart of gold in New York. A Mendoza Family Saga book or story? A Jewish brother and sister who were kicked out of Spain in 1492, sail with Columbus, and end up in Istanbul where Rachel gets a job in the Sultan's harem—not that job. In my standalones, no matter how strong the protagonist's voice is—or the narrative voice, if the story is in the third person—that's not what animates the story.

"A Work in Progress" is about a love triangle that erupts during a writers' workshop at an arts center in North Florida. "Reunion" is about how the past strikes a woman who encounters two old friends at a college reunion. See? The characters are important. But the story is about the situation—inevitably, one with potential for conflict—on which a plot will be built as the author writes the story.

I'm going to list a series of statements from elements of the two stories that came from life—or from my head as I write. True or false? Answers will not be provided below.
I've attended several college reunions.
I've attended a writing workshop at an arts center in Florida.
I've attended a writing workshop at an arts center in Georgia.
I've been the master artist at a writing workshop.
I've had a man I loved stolen by another woman.
I've had a friend sleep with a man I was seeing after I asked her not to.
I've been rejected by a man I was in love with.
I've been rejected by every man I was in love with.
I've been widowed.
I got pregnant in college.
I had a close friend who got pregnant in college.
I've had an abortion.
I had a baby and gave it away.
I had a close friend who had a baby and gave it away.
I've had a baby by a married man.
Someone I know refused to give her husband a divorce.
Someone I know refused to give his wife a divorce.
I've had a major car accident.
I've tried to commit suicide.
I was an English major.
I wasn't an English major.
I have a graduate degree in English.
I've never taken the Graduate Record Exams.
I quit school to support a husband who later divorced me.
I've swum with sharks.
I've swum with dolphins.
I've been in a love triangle that included three-way sex.
I've been in a love triangle in which everyone got hurt.
I've been in a love triangle in which I got hurt the most.
I've never been in a love triangle.
That's thirty, and I could go on till the cows come home. Where do my ideas come from? They just keep pouring out of me.

31 May 2020

How It All Came Together

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

10 of the first 11 stories are
now available in paperback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wish they all turned out that well.

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

30 May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, a map of the landmines:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pet peeves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrap-up (thank God, right?)

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

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

See you then.

29 May 2020

Zero Dark Thirty

I have a confession to make.

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

Did I listen to myself?  Nope.

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

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

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

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

Then came the murder hornets.

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

I missed writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress on several fronts!

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

PS - Let's be social:

28 May 2020

The Big Cheese in the White House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Original Big Cheese-Receiving Big Cheese

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Washington, D.C. 

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

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

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

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

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

One contemporary later recalled of the event:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So anyway, there you have it!

I know, I know...

Pretty cheesy story, right?

See you in two weeks!

27 May 2020

Another Day in Paradise

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

26 May 2020


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

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

May 22-24, 2020
Hewitt, Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until we see you all again, stay safe!