30 June 2021

Lending Library


 Last summer we had a minor household disaster.  The water heater burst and half of our possessions spent several months in a storage unit in our driveway while flooring was removed, new doors installed, etc.  Everything is fine now, better than ever.

But I had an interesting experience when I was reorganizing the fifty or so shelves of books that reside on our lower floor.  Specifically I noticed a certain category of books scattered throughout.

These are the books we have more than one copy of.  There are a few books that I buy an extra copy of whenever I spot it in a used book store.  Why?  So I can give them away, and not worry about getting them back.

As a dedicated reader and a recovering librarian I have a strong desire to proselytize, to tell people "You just HAVE to read this book!"  Not surprisingly they tend to be books I reread every few years.  So let's talk about a few of them, in chronological order.

Don Marquis.  archy and mehitabel.  (
1930)  Marquis wrote a newspaper column which, by God, had to be filled with something every day.  And so one morning he claimed to have found a cockroach jumping up and down on his typewriter keys.  The literary insect was archy (he couldn't reach the capital letters), a free verse poet who had been reincarnated as a bug.  mehitabel was his friend, an alley cat who claimed to have been Cleopatra in another life.  "you want to know / whether  i believe in ghosts / of course i do not believe in them / if you had known / as many of them as i have / you would not / believe in them either"

Walter M. Miller, Jr. A Canticle For Lebowitz.  (1959) One of the great post-apocalyptic novels, and a very Catholic one.  It concerns the bookleggers, an order of monks who salvaged the few remaining books from the anti-intellectual, anti-scientific riots that followed nuclear war.  Canticle consists of three novellas spread over a thousand years  - and one character appears in all three. 

H. Allen Smith. The Great Chili Confrontation.
(1969)  One of the funniest nonfiction books I have ever read.  Smith wrote an article about chili which so offended some Texans that they challenged him to a contest.  And so the Terlingua Chili Cook-off came into existence - and Smith fell in love with the Lone Start State.  Here is a Texan discussing his wife's views on religion: "She believes things a mud turtle would blush to believe."

Donald E. Westlake.  The Hot Rock. (1970)  One of the funniest crime novels ever, it concerns a gang of burglars who have to steal the same emerald over and over.  "I've heard of habitual criminals, but never the habitual crime."  Westlake intended it to be a standalone novel but John Dortmunder was such a great character, the smart but luckless sad sack, that he appeared in a dozen books.

Russell Hoban.  Riddley Walker.
  (1980) Another post-apocalyptic novel.  Thousands of years after a nuclear war progress is just beginning to show its head.  And that ain't necessarily a good thing.  What makes this book unique is the language it uses, a simplified English that is just starting to be written down again.  Take for instance one phrase that appears in the book several times: "the hart of the wud." Depending on context this could mean a deer in the forest, a kiln (hearth of the wood), charcoal (heart of the wood), or the human spirit (heart of the would) - or all of them at once.  It will blow your mind, just as it destroyed Hoban's ability to spell.

Thomas Perry. Island.  (1987) Harry and Emma are conmen who steal a ton of money from a very bad guy and flee to the Caribbean.  Their problem is how to invest their loot.  So they take an unclaimed island, barely high enough out of the water to stand on, and pile junk on it until it's big enough to be a country.  The plan is make a fortune off loose banking regulations and no-extradition laws.  But it turns out you have to think about other things, like: What should be illegal?  Do you accept refugees?  Turns out running a country is complicated.  Who knew?

Terry Pratchett.  Small Gods.
(1992) A British reviewer said Sir Terry is the greatest satirist in English since Chaucer.  His Discworld books consist of at least seven separate (and interconnecting) subseries. I urge people to start with Small Gods because it is one of the best and because it is a standalone.  Brutha is a very minor novice in the Omnian religion so he never expects to meet the great god Om - especially in the form of a tortoise.  Om is having a bad millenium...  “The trouble was that he was talking in philosophy but they were listening in gibberish.”

Harry Turtledove.  Guns of the South.  (1992) The greatest alternative history novel I know.  Some Afrikaners build a time machine and decide to nip Black independence in the bud by selling machine guns to the Confederacy.  A brilliant piece of fiction and a meditation on American history.

So, what are the books you try to talk people into reading?

29 June 2021

Bad Contracts

During the forty-plus years I’ve been writing professionally, I’ve heard no end of complaints about the bad contracts writers have signed.

I’ve also signed bad contracts, but I’m not about to complain. The difference between most complainers and me: I signed bad contracts knowing full well they were bad. I knew what I was getting into, and, when I balanced short-term benefits against long-term benefits, short-term benefits won.

Mostly during the early years, but continuing up until the mid-2010s, I sold all rights to more than 400 short stories because the promise of immediate payment meant food on the table and a roof over my family’s head. The possibility of potential additional income from the licensing of reprints and other subsidiary rights at some indefinable point in the future was insufficient to counter-balance immediate income.

(“Immediate” is a relative term: even with “pay on acceptance” publications, there’s often a several-week gap between returning a signed contract and receiving payment, and one publisher I worked with slowly stretched weeks into months before finally ceasing all payments.)

The stories for which I sold all rights were often published under pseudonyms or without any byline at all, and they were written in genres for which there was no perceived life after initial publication. So, unless I told you the titles of those stories and where they were published, you might never know they were mine, nor were you likely to see the stories in any form other than original publication.

Until now.

Print-on-demand and electronic books have changed publishing, making it easier and less expensive to release collections of reprints. At least two publishers that own defunct magazines that published my work are doing just that, gathering stories from their archives and assembling them into POD anthologies and eBooks available from various online bookstores.

During the past few years, I’ve been keeping an eye on these publishers’ releases, using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature and my wife’s Prime account to search for reprints of my stories. Often the story titles remain unchanged, so my work is reasonably easy to identify. Even so, I occasionally find stories by other writers with titles identical to mine, which is why I use my wife’s Prime account to dig deeper than just examining story titles.

Recently, I discovered eight of my stories reprinted by two different publishers in three different anthologies: Falling in Love...Again (BroadLit) contains one story, Stroke of Midnight (True Renditions, LLC) contains one story, and Cupid’s Day (True Renditions, LLC) contains six stories. And this isn’t the first time I’ve found stories reprinted without my knowledge. So far, I’ve identified at least twenty.

I don’t expect to be notified when one of these stories is reprinted. The original publishers presented me with all-rights contracts that I willingly signed, and the current owners of those rights can do with the stories what they wish.

Even so, I likely will never sign another all-rights contract (which, for those who don’t know, is not the same as a work-for-hire contract), but, who knows, there may be another bad contract in my future. And if I sign it, I’ll have no one to blame but myself.

In other reprint news: “Mr. Sugarman Visits the Bookmobile,” 
originally published in Shhh...Murder! (Darkhouse Books, 2018) was released in May 2021 as one of Wildside Press’s Barb Goffman Presents titles, and “Feel the Pain,” originally published in Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin (Mysterious Press, 2003) was reprinted in Modern Mayhem, June 7, 2021.

28 June 2021

Why I Still Don't Outline

I am not and never have been an outliner. Short story writers don't use the contemptuous word "pantsers" (for "writing by the seat of the pants") for people who don't outline as much as novelists do. I prefer the term "writing into the mist." There's nothing wrong with writers who outline. I believe that most of us, the more experienced we become in our craft, realize that each of us has a personal process, applying structure and intuition in varying proportions, depending on what works.

Is it honing our craft to keep re-examining our own process, or is it gazing into the mirror à la Narcissus? Maybe a bit of both? With more certainty, I can say it's always worthwhile to hear about the process of others. If a writer admits to using a bit of intuitive magic, it helps me understand why I can't get the same results—I don't have the same gifts. If another writer shares a technique, I can try it. Maybe it will work for me. If it does, I've added to the tools of my craft. If it doesn't, I've gained understanding of the nature of my process and how it differs from that of other writers.

Here's how it works for me. I'm not saying I start by sitting down to a blank page. In fact, I never sit down to a blank page. That doesn't work for me, which is why some writers' tenets of writing every day, writing at a certain hour, or writing a certain number of pages daily wouldn't work for me. There's an "out of the mist" as well as an "into the mist," and "out of the mist" (otherwise known as inspiration, the Muse, the unconscious, or a Higher Power, depending on your belief system and what century you live in) is where the ideas that get me going come to me. It may be a title, a theme, the rough idea for a story, a line of narrative, or characters talking in my head.

This burst of creativity usually comes when my mind is relaxed—and when it's inconvenient to rush immediately to the computer. Some of my best stories have been born while I was lying on my back on the living room floor doing my stretches. But as soon as possible, I get down these initial thoughts and take them as far as I can until the mist closes in again. Sometimes I end up with a page of notes for a story, sometimes with the first page or two of the story itself with notes for where it's going. Now I know what I have to work on next time I sit down to write.

Why don't I outline now? you may ask. Wouldn't it make my task easier? Not if I want to bring the story to life. Over the years, I've finally learned to plot a twisty tale. But I know my greatest strength is character and all that goes into it: dialogue, humor, emotion, and relationships. And the process of creating them is completely intuitive for me. Until the main characters meet and interact with the secondary characters, and until I know who they are and what they'll say, I don't know exactly what the scenes will be and how the story will arrive at what I think will be the conclusion. I have a lot of "maybes" in my notes. But I know there'll be surprises.

I have two major sets of series characters with distinctive and entirely different voices. And I write standalones, mostly in first person, in voices that I try to make distinctive enough that they don't sound like my contemporary series protagonist's voice. I am bemused when I come across writing workshops that suggest aspiring writers learn to "build a character." Even when my notes identify the secondary characters in advance, an unexpected one may pop up—lively, quirky, even important to the plot. As for "building"—I could pre-plan appearance, but who cares about appearance? I could plan personality traits, but I want to "show, not tell." Nothing irritates me more than to read that a character has "a wicked sense of humor," and have that character say nothing more exciting than, "Pass the peanut butter."

There's a certain amount of anxiety in writing into the mist. Until I complete the first draft, even if I have an idea of the outcome, I'm never quite sure I'll make it until I get there. But the joy of creation is very much alive for me in the writing. I haven't squandered any of it in advance.

27 June 2021

Blue Light Special

Back in the summer of 1980,Miami was an open town. The Cocaine Cowboys were riding high with cash, guns, killings and lots of product. Enterprising pilots, flying under the radar, clandestinely dropped parcels of cocaine and bundles of marijuana into the swamps to be recovered by ground crews. Mother ships loaded with marijuana out of Colombian ports ran the high seas headed north. Dealers used grocery sacks to take their money to the bank. Get in a wreck with a van load of marijuana on the Interstate? Walk away, there will be another load. Homicide cops responding to killings of major league dealers found large quantities of money. Temptation set in. After all, the owner of all that cash wasn't alive to complain about his loss. But, when those big payouts went dry, some entrepreneur cops decided to make their own killings. And, guess who did the homicide investigations on those deceased dealers? It could be an exciting time...... if you lived.

That summer, I caught a special and got loaned out to our office in Miami for a few months. Twelve of us agents from various offices across the U.S. were temporarily assigned to the same task force to replace the group of local agents who were being relocated further south to conduct surveillance on clandestine landing strips known to be on several islands in the Caribbean.

Part of our duties were to partner with U.S. Customs out of the port of Miami in order to intercept smugglers along the Florida coast at midnight as they tried running in from the Bahama banks. We hunted in wolf packs with go-fast boats and a Customs tug boat which operated a radar set. Whenever the tug's First Mate got a speeding blip on his radar screen, he radioed the information to the appropriate go-fast boats and the chase was on. At the time, Customs used a flashing blue Kojak light to signify their presence. Some smugglers then idled their engines and trusted to their hidden compartments to get them through. Others goosed their engines and ran for it.

Meanwhile, on the Gulf side of Florida a few enterprising redneck entrepreneurs who didn't have the cash nor connections to purchase large quantities of controlled substances on their own came up with the bright idea of acquiring their own flashing blue lights. This situation made for confusion and adrenaline, not to mention what you might call a touch of modern day piracy conducted under a false flag.

With all of this fodder for a short story, I couldn't resist when Mystery Weekly Magazine put out a submission call for humorous stories to publish in its Die Laughing anthology. My story, "Blue Light Special," was accepted earlier this month, the e-contract has been signed, PayPal has delivered the payment and now I'm somewhat patiently waiting to have the anthology in hand.

Yes, you may sleep easy in your beds at night. Worse thought-out plots of nefarious action have occurred on the high seas in the dark of night. So, pleasant reading to you and yours, and have a few laughs while you're at it.

PS ~415 stories were submitted to the anthology, 44 were accepted. A hearty congratulations to SleuthSayers Rob Lopresti and Bob Mangeot for making the cut.

26 June 2021

How to Create a Great Villain

Ah, those students of mine.  Here I was, doing the lecture thing about motivation, how ALL your characters need to have believable motivation for what they are doing.  Especially, doncha know, your antagonist (villain, if you prefer.)  "No Cardboard Villains!" I profoundly announced.

And then the question...

"So, how DO you create a great villain?" he asked.

Bless his little heart.

"Em...." I said with scholarly conviction.  "Just what I'm going to cover next week!"

Next day, prof frantically writes a brand new handout, here presented.  With thanks to my beloved students for keeping me on my toes....


Let's go back to basics.  How many characters do you need for a novel?

Melodie says:  a minimum of three  (and yes, there are always exceptions.)

Your Protagonist.  This is your main character, your main viewpoint character.  We will be experiencing the story through her eyes throughout.

Sidekick.  Your protagonist (and your story) will likely benefit from having a sidekick, some friendly soul to share the journey with.  If you don't give your main character a sidekick, then she will be spending pages and pages talking to herself, which is boring for the read.  

Examples:  Sherlock Holmes and Watson.  In my Rowena Through the Wall series, Rowena and Kendra.  In The Goddaughter series, Gina and her loopy cousin Nico.

Antagonist.  Yes, usually you need someone to provide the conflict.  We might call them a villain.  Your protagonist wants something that isn't easy to get and often there will be a villain standing in his way.


So many times, villains seem cardboard.  This is because the author hasn't spent time building them into believable characters.  Sure, your villain can be a psychopath who is simply insane, but that gets pretty boring for readers.  

The most interesting villains are those who have desires that we can relate to.

Have you ever wished someone harm?  Villains do so as well.  Why do they act on those desires when we would hold back?  THAT's what makes them interesting.

Checklist for creating a Great Villain:

1.  KNOW HOW A VILLAIN THINKS - The number one thing to keep in mind when creating your antagonist?  Villains never think they are villains.  To them, their actions are justified and rational.  They are acting in their own self-interest.  Others simply stand in the way of what they want and deserve.

Get that last word:  deserve. Often, villain feel they have been cheated of what they rightly deserve.

2.  BELIEVABLE MOTIVATION - Make sure your antagonist has adequate motivation.  Don't neglect this!  Why is he doing what he's doing?  What does he want?  Why is he taking the risk?  In many countries and past ages, murder comes with the death penalty.  What is so important to him that he would take that risk?

Motivations for villains:  Revenge for past wrongs, safety, monetary gain, business or professional gain, power of overs, sexual desire (particularly for the protagonist.)  All the traditional motivations for murders:  Revenge, sex and money.

3.  GIVE HIM BACKGROUND - Your villain didn't get the way he is out of nowhere.  He didn't start out a villain.  Make him three-dimensional, and for goodness sake, avoid using trite over-used dialogue ("Now I have you in my clutches...")  I advise doing a character sketch for your villain as well as your protagonist.

4.  A LIKEABLE VILLAIN?  Can you make your antagonist likeable?  Of course you can!  Soren, in Rowena and the Viking Warlord, is a demon summoned from Hell.  Old religions knew him as Baal.  He is scary as all get-out, when first introduced to the reader.  But as you get to know him more and learn his motivations, you might even start to like him.  He's not ALL bad.  Let me repeat that. Not all bad.  Think about that, when creating your villain.

5.  MAKE IT PERSONAL - Finally, when possible, give your villain a history with the protagonist.  Yes, you can write about a psychopath who picks victims at random.  But isn't if far more interesting if the antagonist has a history with the protagonist?  The bad-boy past boyfriend who returns suddenly to your heroine's life and puts it in turmoil?  The girl you hated in high school who is now the defense attorney standing in the way of your solving the crime... Past unresolved emotions can add more power to your manuscript.

Remember:  Your villain is there to provide CONFLICT in your novel.  Will your protagonist get what they want?  Readers keep turning pages to find out, so make sure you maintain that conflict until the very end.

Melodie Campbell has written several series in many genres, but you can always count on them being funny.  Books available at all the usual suspects.  www.melodiecampbell.com





25 June 2021

Ugolino Revisited

It’s November 2020. The weather’s warm on this, the weekend before Thanksgiving, so we decide to drink a bottle of wine outside on the patio. For eight months we have patronized a wine shop that delivers right to our door. The wine guy knows our tastes so well that he now just picks bottles he thinks we will enjoy. My wife grabs a bottle of white out of the fridge and brings it outside with two glasses. We pop the cork and pour the wine. My eyes flit across the label, and suddenly I’m traveling back in time.

You know this kind of moment, don’t you? Marcel Proust wrote his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, on the strength of a single, now-legendary memory—experienced by his protagonist. When writers bandy about the adjective Proustian, they are referring to this scene.

Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer via Unsplash

“I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me.”
In Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh employs not taste but a word and a sight to trigger the reverie of his narrator. In the middle of World War II Charles Ryder awakes one morning in his army tent to find that his unit is encamped on the grounds of an old country estate. He asks someone where they are.
“He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long forgotten sounds: for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.”
They’re at Brideshead, of course. Ryder will now take 14 chapters to tell us why the place evokes such a profound feeling (largely of loss) in him. I suppose 14 chapters isn’t a bad length to milk a memory. Proust needed seven whole volumes to do the same.

Most people would call these moments flashbacks, but Proust called them involuntary memory. In creative works such experiences have three important components: 1) they trigger a memory of one’s youth, 2) accompanied by feelings of melancholy/loss, and 3) that memory has to be so freaking important that your plot lives or dies by it.

In The Sopranos, mob boss Tony Soprano suffers panic attacks whenever he sees, smells, or eats meat. These puzzling attacks trigger medical intervention, and eventually psychotherapy—which becomes the entire conceit of the show. In therapy, Tony realizes that as a kid he first witnessed his father’s violence in the back room of a butcher’s shop, and later watched his parents become amorous after Pop brings home meat from that pork store. Sex, meat, violence—madonna mia!—no wonder the guy’s screwed up.

In my family, we refer to such moments as “The Ratatouille Whoosh Scene.” In the Disney/Pixar film, our tiny protagonist—Remy, a rat who dreams of being a chef—finally gets his big chance to cook a meal for the snootiest (and aptly named) Parisian food critic, Anton Ego. The critic is primed to hate the work of this new, unknown chef. The waiter brings out a plate of the classic peasant dish. A puzzled Ego pops a morsel into his mouth. Whoosh!—he’s transported to his childhood and some memories of his sweet Maman. The entire plot of the film—and the lives of all the characters, including the critic—are transformed by that reverie.

I’m unsure if my whoosh moment last November lives up to the Proustian ideal. It was far from life-changing, but it did remind me that as much we strive to live in the present, the past has a hold on us that we can never shake. And when we write fictional characters, it’s wise to layer in these types of memories.

The wine, you see, was Italian, and bore the name Ugolino.

When I was a kid in high school, learning Italian for the first time, our teacher had us read selections from Dante’s Inferno. And so we learned that in the Ninth Circle of Hell resided the tortured spirit of Ugolino della Gherardesca. In real life he’d been an Italian noble and military commander who was tossed in a dungeon with his sons and grandsons for the crime of treason. In Dante’s scene, Ugolino recounts how his starving kin begged him to ease his own pain (and theirs) by killing and eating them.

Apologies for inserting the grisly specter of cannibalism into a story that up to now has featured subjects as lovely as baked goods, vegetable dishes, country estates, capicola, and wine. Cannibalism appears in true crime, journalism, fiction, fairy tales, and filmed dramas, but this is the only example I can think of where the subject figures in epic poetry. Archeologists say the real Ugolino (and his family) did not resort to cannibalism in their cell. But Dante hints at it in his lines, and depicts Ugolino as chewing on the skull of his enemy, the archbishop who had him imprisoned.

Our teacher asked for volunteers to read these passages aloud. Finding our attempts lackluster, our teacher demonstrated for us what he considered to be a lively, animated declamation. He threw his arms in the air, and cried to the heavens in a high-pitched wail: “Ugolino!!!! Save yourself! Eat us! Eat us, father!” (Paraphrasing the heck out of this passage.)

The whole class burst out laughing. The teacher, you see, was morbidly obese. Probably one of the largest people I have ever known. The sight of his gigantic, quivering, gesturing body at the head of the room moved the entire class of pubescent shits, myself included, to moist-eyed peals of laughter.
And now, forty years later, my eyes were moist again for a different reason. Now, I could only feel how much that teacher cared about us. I recalled his proficiency in four languages. And remembered how he’d died when barely into his forties, a victim of his own overworked heart.

I hadn’t thought of that lesson in years. That the memory should pop into my mind in all its freakish glory—cannibalism and poetry entwined—because of a strangely named bottle of wine drunk eight months into a pandemic is one of those stranger-than-fiction scenes you’d never attempt to stick in a story. Or would you?

Photo by MadMax Chef on Unsplash

* * *

See you in three weeks!


24 June 2021

Kids These Days, Revisited....

I'm up against a couple of deadlines, and it's also the end of the school year this week. Yes, that's right: this infernal three-year-long School-Year of COVID is finally drawing to a close. I had intended to wrap up the thread I began with my post about the death of American diplomat and scheming gadfly Silas Deane and the man who may have killed him, British man of letters and spy Edward Bancroft, by talking about the man Deane hired to create mayhem in Britain and who also nearly got Bancroft hanged: revolutionary arsonist-for-hire, John the Painter. 

That will have to wait until next time.

Instead, I'm doing a call-back to a post I did five years ago, in the midst of a divisive presidential election-also an end of the school year post, one that reflected my unshakeable faith in this country. And here we are, half-a-decade later, having come through on the other side of any number of traumatic experiences, and that faith remains strong.

Which is why I'm reposting this below.

*     *     *     *     *

So, about my day gig.

I teach ancient history to eighth graders.

And like I tell them all the time, when I say, "Ancient history," I'm not talking about the 1990s.

For thirteen/fourteen year-olds, mired hopelessly in the present by a relentless combination of societal trends and biochemistry, there's not much discernible difference between the two eras.

I wish!
It's a great job. But even great jobs have their stressors.

Like being assigned chaperone duty during the end-of-the-year dance.

Maybe you're familiar with what currently passes for "popular music" among fourteen year-olds these days. I gotta say, I don't much care for it. Then again, I'm fifty-one. And I can't imagine that most fifty-one year-olds in 1979 much cared for the stuff that I was listening to then.

And it's not as if I'm saying I had great taste in music as a fourteen year-old. If I were trying to make myself look good I'd try to sell you some line about how I only listened to jazz if it was Billie Holiday or Miles Davis, and thought the Police were smokin' and of course I bought Dire Straits' immortal Making Movies album, as well Zeppelin's In Through The Out Door when they both came out that year.

Well. No.

The sad reality.
In 1979 I owned a Village People vinyl album (Cruisin', with "YMCA" on it), and a number of ElvisPresley albums and 8-track tapes. I also listened to my dad's Eagles albums quite a bit. An uncle bought Supertramp's Breakfast in America for me, and I was hooked on a neighbor's copy of Freedom at Point Zero by Jefferson Starship, but really only because of the slammin' guitar solo Craig Chaquico played on its only hit single: "Jane." And I listened to a lot of yacht rock on the radio. I didn't know it was "yacht rock" back then. Would it have mattered?

But bear in mind we didn't have streaming music back then. And my allowance I spent mostly on comic books.

Ah, youth.

Anyway, my point is that someone my age back then may very well have cringed hard and long and as deeply if forced to listen to what I was listening to at eardrum-bursting decibels, and for the better part of two hours.

That was me on the second-to-the-last-day of school a week or so back.

Two hours.

Two hours of rapper after rapper (if it's not Eminem, Tupac, or the Beastie Boys, I must confess it all sounds the same to me) alternating with heavily autotuned "singing" by Rihanna, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, etc.

Thank God we got some relief in the form of the occasional Bruno Mars song. Bruno, he brings it.

All Hail Bruno Mars - Savior of My Sanity

And through it all, the kids were out there on the floor. Mostly girls, and mostly dancing with each other.

Great album, great cover, great band.
One group of these kids in particular caught my attention. Three girls, all fourteen, all of whom I knew. All wearing what '80s pop-rock band Mr. Mister once referred to as the "Uniform of Youth."

Of course, the uniform continues to change, just as youth itself does.

But in embracing that change, does youth itself actually change? Bear with me while I quote someone a whole lot smarter than I on the matter:

"Kids today love luxury. They have terrible manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love to gab instead of getting off their butts and moving around."

The guy quoted (in translation) was Socrates, quoted by his pupil Plato, 2,400 years ago.

And some things never change.

Getting back to the three girls mentioned above, their "uniform of youth" was the one au courant in malls and school courtyards across the length and breadth of this country: too-tight jeans, short-sleeved or sleeveless t-shirts, tennis-shoes. They looked a whole lot like so many other girls their age, out there shaking it in ways that mothers the world over would not approve of.

In other words, they looked like thousands, hell, millions of American girls out there running around today, listening to watered down pablum foisted on them by a rapacious, corporate-bottom-line-dominated music industry as "good music", for which they pay entirely too much of their loving parents' money, and to which they will constantly shake way too much of what Nature gave them–even under the vigilant eyes of long-suffering school staff members.

Yep, American girls. From the soles of their sneakers to the hijabs covering their hair.

Oh, right. Did I mention that these girls were Muslims? Well, they are. One from Afghanistan. One from Turkmenistan, and one from Sudan. At least two of them are political refugees.

You see, I teach in one of the most diverse school districts in the nation. One of the main reasons for this ethnic diversity is that there is a refugee center in my district. The center helps acclimate newcomers to the United States and then assists in resettling them; some in my district, some across the country.

So in this campaign season, when I hear some orange-skinned buffoon talking trash about Muslims, stirring up some of my fellow Americans with talk of the dangerous "foreign" *other*, it rarely squares with the reality I've witnessed first-hand getting to know Muslim families and the children they have sent to my school to get an education: something the kids tend to take for granted (because, you know, they're kids, and hey, kids don't change). Something for which their parents have sacrificed in ways that I, a native-born American descendant of a myriad of immigrant families, can scarcely imagine.

(And it ought to go without saying that this truth holds for the countless Latino families I've known over the years as well.)

I'm not saying they're saints. I'm saying they're people. And they're here out of choice. Whether we like that or whether we don't, they're raising their kids here. And guess what? These kids get more American every day. Regardless of where their birth certificate says they're from.

Just something to think about, as we kick into the final leg of this excruciating election season.

Oh, come on. You didn't think this piece was gonna be just me grousing about kids having lousy taste in music, did ya?

(And they do, but that's really beside the point.)

Seems an appropriate way to tie it all together.

See you in two weeks, with the sordid tale of John the Painter!

23 June 2021

Hunter's War


Stephen Hunter’s new novel, Basil’s War, dropped in early May, published by Mysterious Press.  Later in the month, Book Passage put together a video interview, with Steve and Doug Preston.  You can check it out here: 



Basil’s War is a lot of fun, kind of a John Buchan send-up, with a lot of derring-do and Brit insouciance.  The net gain for me, though, was to lead me back to some of Hunter’s earlier stuff.  My first experience of Hunter was Hot Springs, which is a doozy, but as often happens when you run into somebody new to you, who’s got back-list, you start at the beginning.  I picked up The Master Sniper, his début thriller, and the spell was cast.


Hunter hit his stride in the 1990’s, Point of Impact, Dirty White Boys, Black Light, and Time to Hunt.  Not that he’s fallen off since, but going back and picking these books up again, after an absence, you find your earlier enthusiasm  reinforced, even while you notice different things, and for different reasons. 


We know our strengths, as writers, and we naturally play to them.  One of Hunter’s surpassing gifts is a feel for the physical, an ability to read the room, or the landscape, and adjust to threat posture.  John McPhee wrote a terrific book about Bill Bradley, the college ball player, called A Sense of Where You Are, a reference to kinesthetics.  An athlete will know his position on the court, the geometry of the game.  Hunter is fluent in setting up a physical description.  You don’t need a schematic.  You inhabit that space. 


The gunfight in the darkened tattoo parlor, in Dirty White Boys.  One of the most astonishing set-pieces in anything I’ve ever read.  It’s told with multiple POV, and the guys in the dark, with the gun flashes blowing up their night vision, can’t triangulate each other’s position.  But the reader is never disoriented.  You can feel the physicality, the geometry, the ground shifting under your feet.


OK, the guns.  It’s true that you can’t talk about Hunter without talking about guns.  Black Light is very much about guns; so is Time to Hunt.  Bullet weight, point of aim, subsonics, and the rest.  It’s all pertinent, mind.  The gun that kills Earl, in the cornfield – or the gun they think killed Earl – is a .38 Super.  A real gunfighter’s weapon, Bob Lee points out: Dillinger carried one.  But not that common, not in 1955, not in Arkansas.  You’d likely find a lot of GI guns, surplus .45’s left over from the war, but that hot caliber?  It sticks in Bob Lee’s mind, an anomaly.  And he’s right, of course. 


Somebody once asked Hunter, couldn’t you get rid of all that gun crap?  Which reminds me of a story about Tony Hillerman.  He was shopping the first of the Leaphorn books, The Blessing Way, and one agent he sent it to said she thought it was good, but there was an awful lot of that Indian crap. 


Hunter says he was reading about The Wild Bunch, and it turned out you couldn’t get blanks to cycle reliably in a .45 auto, but blanks would work in a .38 Super, which were readily available in Mexico.  Armed with this piece of movie lore, the first thing Hunter does is go on GunBroker and see if he can’t find one.  I did the same thing, me.  I have to say, your .38 Super’s a damn good gun.  Anyway, that’s how come it turns up in Black Light, and later on in Havana.  Writers are magpies, stealing bright things. 


So.  I took a trip down memory lane.  I also, however, unreservedly recommend Basil’s War.  It’s mischievous, for one, not something I generally associate with Hunter’s books.  And it’s a puzzle.  (Alan Turing, brought in from Bletchley Park, has an extended cameo.)  I’d almost call it a lark.  Hunter clearly had fun with it.  I did, too.

22 June 2021

How Assumptions Can Affect Your Writing

I'm under a time crunch, so I'm recycling a column I wrote in 2015, with a few changes, including some new examples. It's about how assumptions can impact your writing and be used in it. I hope you find it helpful. 

There's a famous episode in the original version of TV's The Odd Couple in which Felix Unger (the late, great Tony Randall) appears as his own attorney in court. Under Felix's questioning, a witness testifies that she assumed something, at which point Felix interrupts her, grabs a blackboard (conveniently sitting right there in the courtroom), and says, "You should never assume because when you ASSUME"picture him writing the word in all caps on the blackboard"you make an ass of you and me." Picture him now circling the ass, then the u, then the me. It's a wonderful scene (available on YouTube here) that makes a good point about assumptions. Problem is, people often don't realize when they're making assumptions.

Take the simple moist towelette. You know, the little damp napkin you get in rib joints and other messy places to help you clean up. The towelette comes in a little square paper wrapper. And on the back are instructions: Tear open and use.

How helpful.

Tear open packet and use.
Whoever wrote those instructions assumed you know what the towelette is for and how to use it. Why the writer then figured you needed to be told to actually use the darn thing is beyond me, but what's clear is that an assumption was made. At least this assumption is funny. But assumptions can also be dangerous.

I recall visiting family when my oldest niece was twelve. She was going to make her own lunch for the first time. Her mom was proud, said she knew the kid could handle it, and left the room. My niece picked up a can of something, placed it in a bowl, set that bowl in the microwave, closed the door, and was about to turn on the microwave when I screamed, "No! You'll burn the house down." She was quite surprised because the can's instructions had said to put the contents in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for a certain time period. The instruction-writer had assumed my niece would know to open the can and pour the contents into a bowl, not put the can itself inside the microwave. Ah, assumptions.

They also can be a bane of fiction writers. I once wrote a short story in which a character was given a pie and she remarked that she knew she'd love it since she adored blueberry pie. A member of my critique group said, "She hasn't cut it open. How can she know it's blueberry?" I had pictured the pie with a lattice crust so the character could see the inside, but that information hadn't made it onto the page. I just assumed the reader knew my intentions. Tsk tsk tsk.

I often see assumptions in the novels and stories I edit for other authors. They know their plots so well, they assume they've told or shown the reader everything necessary for their scenes to make sense. Alas, that's not always the case, which is why it's always good to have an editor or beta reader who can point out when assumptions have weaseled their way in.

But assumptions can also be helpful in stories. We know that people wrongly assume things all the time, so it's believable when characters assume things, too. For instance, in my story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" from the January/February 2016 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, three men are murdered in New Jersey, one dressed as Santa, one as Frosty the Snowman, and one as the Easter Bunny. Assuming the men's costumes were relevant to their deaths, Santa decides Jersey is too dangerous this year; he's not coming for Christmas. That assumption sets the stage for my sleuth (the head of everything magical that happens in NJ) to investigate the murders and try to save Christmas. 

Assumptions can also be a bad guy's undoing. In my story "Bug Appétit" from the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, a con man tries to finagle an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. When his mark starts talking about the meal, he doesn't pay attention. He assumes it doesn't matter what she is going to say about the food, and that assumption comes back to bite him in the butt. 

Another example about how assumptions can play out comes from my story "James," published earlier this year in the anthology Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel. A rock star returns home for a family funeral and stops by his old best friend's home. The old friend is now married to the rock star's ex-girlfriend. After some conversation, the rock star thinks his old friends, who he hasn't seen in decades, need some help, and he can be the one to help them. He invites them to dinner the next day but asks his ex to come a little early so they can talk privately. She assumes he wants to get back together. That assumption kicks off the rest of the plot.

So, does that mean assumptions are a good thing or a bad thing? Felix Unger cautions us to "never assume." I think that's good writing advice. Keep an eye out for assumptions worming their way unintentionally into your stories and novels. But as for plotting, let your characters assume away. And then let them face the consequences.

21 June 2021

Nice Shoes...NOW WHAT?

Remember when you started dating? I was shy in high school, and talking to girls was much harder than any test I ever took in a classroom. Except physics.

If I could get beyond the first few sentences– throw the first strike, so to speak– I'd be all right. It took me a long time to get those first few sentences down, though.

It's the same with writing stories.

That first pitch…

We all have a list of our favoirte opening lines, and we probably agree on many of them. The first few lines of a story or novel are crucial because they need to make the reader keep reading. That's even more important now than it was years ago because we have so many other distractions. If someone doesn't like your book– which he's reading on his phone– he'll switch to email or social media, and you're gone.

Openings should accomplish several things.

Getting the reader's attention is first, of course, but there are other concerns, too.

An opening should establish the ground rules, how the writer is telling the story and how the reader should make sense of it. That means showcasing the style, especially the tone, mood, and point of view. It should introduce the protagonist and antagonist as soon as possible. If the story is in first-person, it's reasonable to assume that the narrator is the protagonist.

The opening should introduce the basic conflict or problem. If it doesn't do that, at least give the impression that something is "wrong," a dissonance that will become important as we keep reading.

That's a lot to demand of a few words, isn't it? Look at how some writers accomplish all these thngs.

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.

John D. MacDonald sets a tone to open Darker Than Amber. He implies a setting (If there's a bridge, we're near water, so maybe the narrator is fishing. At any rate, he and his companions are outdoors.). We wonder who dropped the girl and why he did it. MacDonald has given us the basic mystery and conflict.

"I poisoned your drink."

This is how Duane Swierczynski introduces "The Blonde." We are probably in a bar, and the conflict is clear. The narrator wants to live, so he (presumably a male) needs the antidote. Who is this blonde, and why has she poisoned this particular person? Curious? I know I am.

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

Circe, Madeline Miller's retelling of The Odyssey, begins with these words. We wonder what particular word Circe has in mind… and who coiined it. We know The Odyssey, so we expect certain other characters to appear eventually, too.

It's never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying.

Air Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan probably begins on an airplane. Why is the flight attendant crying? Is the plane going to crash? The tone makes me want to know more about the person who phrases the observation this way, too.

Kevlar makes Hendrix itch.

This is from my own The Whammer Jammers. We know what kevlar is, so Hendrix is a police officer. He's worn kevlar before and now he's facing a dangerous situation, maybe a raid? Notice that the last two examples are in present tense, too.

MacDonald's book appeared in 1966 and Miller's only three years ago. Some things don't change.

Your opening should begin to set up your ending, too. That's easier than it sounds. If you're writing a romance, your reader already expects that the lovers will end up together. If you're writing a mystery, we expect to find a solution. If you can put a clue in immediately, that's even better because your reader may overlook it while she or he is getting used to the rules of engagement. Sometimes, you can repeat a line or phrase from the beginning at the end to give structural closure, too, like finishing a song on the tonic. 

All the examples I gave are opening sentences, but the "brilliant first sentence" quest may be a trap. DO NOT use a gimmick. Readers will catch you and feel manipulated. They won't like it and they'll stop reading. A gimmick makes it hard to move on without a jarring shift. 

Instead of obsessing over one great line, give yourself a paragraph or even a page to get things rolling. If you can suggest that there's trouble in River City, you're fine. The characters and setting will help you show more and find your rhythm and tone. 

The best advice I can give is to open your first draft whenever and wherever you want. Tell your story. When you know the plot, setting, and characters more fully, you can find the best way in. Then go back and rewrite your opening when you know the best place to start. My last revision and polish is usually on the opening when I have everything else in place. When I'm finding my way, I often write lots of back-story at the beginning, too. I will cut or move most of it when I revise, but it gives me direction. 

Go back and look at my title and opening paragraph. See what I did?