28 February 2022

Rolling With The Punches

 by Steve Liskow

The last two years have shown the wisdom of not asking "How can things get even worse?" Fortunately, most of us are learning to deal with social distancing and spending time alone, never a challenge for writers anyway. But Life can throw you a high hard one when you dig in.

At the beginning of this month, I went to the hospital for outpatient treatment I've had twice before in the last eight months. I'm usually in and out in six hours with no after effects. I can eat and exercise normally. The day before I went in, I was working on two stories, one a solid second draft I had backed up, and the other a first draft about 3/4 complete. I thought I knew the villain and ending, so I expected to finish that draft when I returned home, maybe even that day.

Barb drove me to the hospital and planned to pick me up again after lunch. Since I only expected to be there a few hours, I left everything at home except my driver's license and Vax card. No biggie.

During that routine procedure, my blood pressure cratered and my temperature soared from my normal 97.7 to 102.8. When I could finally process what was going on ten hours after being dropped off, I was in intensive care with so many lines coming out of my arms that I felt like a motherboard. Needles in both arms, my stomach, and my neck (more about that in a minute) delivered three antibiotics, two blood pressure medications, and two steroids into my system. I also wore a blood pressure cuff and a heart monitor. The doctors knew why and how it happened (and I suspected something less specific), but I spent the next four days in ICU before they discharged me on the eighth day. 

During that time, I forgot the ending for that WIP. I was home five days (and still on an antibiotic Barb and I administered through a Mid-line) before I could focus enough to look at it again. Five days later, I thought I remembered the ending, but it was too weak. Maybe I didn't really remember it. At this point, who knows?

Now the good news. Both nurses in intensive care were terrific. One, who moved from Chicago to take that job in Hartford only weeks before, is an avid reader. She was amazed to learn she was standing only two miles from the Mark Twain house, and she now plans to visit, maybe even taking one of the tours my wife leads. She also downloaded one of my books. 

Better still, she explained what the various tubes and drugs were doing. The line through my neck was threaded into a vein to convey a drug that shrinks veins and helps increase blood pressure. She told me they have to be careful because if they move the line too close to an extremity, it can close down the capillaries and cause tissue death.

"That sounds a lot like gangrene," I said. 

"It is gangrene," she said. "That is why we watch you so closely. It is not just because you are so handsome."

When the hospital discharged me four days later, they gave me a printout of everything they had done, including all the meds. On page seven, I found the name of that drug and remember the symptoms.  I have never written a medical mystery, but now I have a good new way to kill someone.

The other upside is that when Barb finally brought in my phone and I posted about the whole nightmare, I got lots of support from friends. Over 40 reactions came from former students.

Because of all the needles and tubes, my hands are still stiff and sore. I picked up a guitar for the first time in three weeks yesterday. Piano is still on hold. Typing feels like someone is stomping on my fingers.

The time off showed me again how much I love writing. I didn't write a word for over two weeks and it was like going through withdrawal. This blog is about 700 words, and it's the most writing-actually most of the writing--I have done since February first. It feels like being let out of prison.

Now I can hardly wait to look at that story with the weak ending again. 

27 February 2022

In Another Man's Shoes

There's a fellow member in our Denver MWA Chapter who keeps telling me that I write like Damon Runyon. In case you haven't heard of him, Runyon was a famous journalist from about the 1910s until the 1940s who also wrote short stories about New York characters who hung out on the streets around Broadway. If you are old enough, you have probably seen Marlon Brando in some version of Guys and Dolls based on a few of Runyon's story characters.

As for me, I didn't see the resemblance between my writing and Runyon's writing. If it was that some of the type of characters which I wrote about were similar to Runyon's, then fine. But the styles of writing were completely different in my mind, so I bought a couple of Runyon's collections of short stories to find out what Runyon and his street people were all about and how Runyon wrote, So now, let me introduce you to a few of Runyon's characters and his style of writing.

In More Than Somewhat the reader is introduced to people such as Judge Goldfobber, who is a lawyer, but not a real judge. It pleases him to be called judge and people like to please him because "He is a wonderful hand for keeping citizens from getting into the sneezer (jail), and better than Houdini when it comes to getting them out out of the sneezer after they are in." Furthermore,, "He is such a guy as loves to mingle with the public in these spots (night clubs and other deadfalls)), as he picks up much law business there and sometimes a nice doll."

The Unnamed Narrator of many of these stories "get(s) to thinking of Harry the Horse and Spanish John and Little Isadore, and the reason (he) figure(s) they must be suffering from the underemployment situation is because if nobody is working and making any money, there is nobody for them to rob, and if there is nobody for them to rob, Harry the Horse, Spanish John and Little Isadore are just naturally bound to be feeling the depression keenly." To remedy the Judge's most recent problem and the three criminals underemployment, the Unnamed Narrator reluctantly recommends the three criminals to the Judge for a job the Judge needs done.

On another front, we meet Dave the Dude. "Only a rank sucker will think of taking two peeks at Dave the Dude's doll, because while Dave may stand for the first peek, figuring it's a mistake, it is a sure thing he will get sored up at the second peek and Dave the Dude is certainly not a man to have sored up at you."

"But this Waldo Winchester is one hundred percent sucker, which is why he takes quite a number of peeks at Dave's doll. And what is more, she takes quite a number of peeks right back at him. And there you are. When a guy and a doll get to taking peeks back and forth at each other, why, there you are indeed." "Now this is bad news, because when Dave the Dude takes a guy out for an airing, this guy very often does not come back."

In Damon Runyon Favorites, along comes Big Butch the safe cracker. "It seems that there is a big coal company which has an office in an old building down in West Eleventh Street, and in that office is an old safe, and in that safe is the company payroll of twenty thousand-dollars cash money. Harry the Horse knows the money is there because a personal friend of his who is the paymaster of the company puts it there this very afternoon.

It seems that this paymaster enters into a dicker with Harry the Horse and Little Isadore and Spanish John for them to slug him while he is carrying the payroll from the bank to the office in  the afternoon, but something happens that they miss connections on the exact spot so the paymaster has to carry the sugar to the office without being slugged, and there it is now in two fat bundles."

To remedy this situation, the three criminals are trying to enlist the talents of Big Butch, however Big Butch has some reluctance to open said safe due to having already been in Sing Sing on three prior occasions for opening safes and should he go for a fourth time, he will be required to stay for life, no argument. Furthermore, he has to mind the baby, little John Ignatius Junior, who is now asleep.

Harry the Horse convinces Butch that this is an old pete box which he can open with a toothpick. "Listen, Butch," Harry says in a whisper, "we can take the baby with us, and you can mind it and work, too." In final negotiations, the sleeping baby gets cut in for five percent of the take, which all concerned figure is only fair since the baby will be going along. As it is, the baby turns out to be more than worth his participation.

And in turn, both story collections were worth the price of admission to Runyon's world. I tried to mimic Runyon's story telling ability and some of his style when I wrote "Most Important Meal of the Day." It sold to Black Cat Mystery Magazine and will be published in a forthcoming edition. Buy that issue when it comes out, read the story and let me know how I did. Thanks.

26 February 2022

What do we DO about Covid in our Fiction Manuscripts? Three Ideas for Authors

So here's a predicament.  You are writing a book that takes place in contemporary times.  You know it will probably hit the shelves two years from the time you start writing.  (Because that is the reality of this biz.  A year to write an 80,000 word novel, and at least a year for your publisher to get it out there.)

What, I ask you, WHAT do you do about Covid?

My authors friends and I have been perplexed by this for 18 months.  In the beginning (nearly two years ago) we thought it would be a passing thing, like SARS 1.  (Which by the way, I contracted in 2003 while supervising hospital staff.  It was pure hell.  Think cut glass in your lungs, for weeks and weeks.)

By the summer of 2020, I remember having Zoom discussions with writer friends about what the Thunderin' Jesus we were supposed to do with a worldwide pandemic in our novels.  Could we ignore it - blithely pretend it didn't happen?

But then the darn thing didn't end.

So here we are, two years after the start of Covid 19, still wondering when the bloody thing is going to be over, stuck in between a rock and a hard place when it comes to treating it in fiction.

Thing is, you can't ignore it now.  Covid 19 has been the most significant thing to affect all mankind, or even just our little niche in the world, since WW11.  Imagine being in Britain during WW11.  Six years of war hell.  And then a book comes out in 1947 that is supposed to be contemporary, but doesn't even mention the war years?  It's unthinkable!

So what to do?

1.  Pretend it's Over

Include it in your novel, with characters very grateful to be over the Covid years. 

But there's a problem with that.  What if Covid isn't over by the time your novel comes out?

That's what has happened to one writer I know.  His latest release talks about the bad Covid times of 2020 and 2021, and the bad times are over by the time his protagonist is telling this latest story in early 2022.

Except they aren't.  And I am sure said author (whom I adore) wished he could pull back that release until our Covid days are over.  (Yes, I know this will turn from pandemic to endemic, and likely to be with us for some time.  I'm a career health care executive, after all.  But you know what I mean.  Until a time we feel safe returning to normal, because God knows, I don't now.)

2.  Go Historical

That's what I've done.  Okay, I planned this book back in 2019 long before the word Covid was in our lexicon.  But after 16 published novels that take place in contemporary times, this was quite a departure for me.  You might also say it was prescient.  (Perhaps I should be dropping big money on lottery tickets...)

Writing a novel that takes place in the past is a perfect solution for a writer today.  You know how the world turns out. And there is a certain comfort for the reader in that.

Which will be the subject of a future blog on here, by the way.

3.  Do as another author friend of mine did:  Switch to Fantasy!

The ultimate cop-out!  Go different planet, Alt World, different time, different physical rules (magic etc.)  The desire for fantasy novels and fantasy shows on TV has never been greater.  We need a break from reality.  You'll be safe in a world you invent yourself.

How about you, seasoned Sleuthsayer authors?  What have you done to address Covid in your fiction?  We are all stumbling through this.  Comments welcome!

Melodie Campbell stumbles around the Toronto area, writing largely loopy fiction involving heists and capers that don't go according to plan.  You can get her books at all the usual suspects.  www.melodiecampbell.com









25 February 2022

Movie Titles as Mini-scenes

 Perusing Netflix and Amazon Prime and YouTube, I read through movie titles quickly and - wait – what was that? So I strung some together. The red lettered words are not in titles, they just keep the flow going.

I started with two movies: Waitress. Millie. And came up with this nonsense.

Waitress Mille had Something To Think About Lying Under The Tuscan Sun After Life in The Lillies Of The Field

Gilda Dressed To Kill Touched The Razor's Edge On Golden Pond and Dripped Water for Elephants Every Saturday as Maniacs Richard III The Great Gatsby The Great Waldo Pepper Took A Walk On The Wild Side

Marilyn In A Lonely Place gave A Naked Kiss to The Beast With Five Fingers Marty as The Voyeurs in The Rear Window of The House Across The Bay Saw What Just Happened so Marilyn Asked The Woman In The Window With The Ipcress File Can You Keep A Secret

The Hairy Ape from The Bride And The Beast Beat The Devil In From The Cold as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold The Two Popes and The Devil's Mistress went Under The Eiffel Tower at Midnight In Paris To Play Happy Go Lucky Words And Pictures

The Cool Of The Day A Boy And His Dog went Above And Beyond For Love Of Ivy Dr. Strangelove and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies To Live In L.A.

So This Is Love He Said, She Said Written In The Wind In The Heat Of The Night While The City Sleeps Between Heaven And Hell

The Man With The Screaming Brain Played Forbidden Games Felt Lust For Life with The Opposite Sex Under The Rainbow The Big Sky The Big Trees Big Daddy Big Fish Big Hero 6 Big Top Pee-Wee

Along Came Jones Too Late For Tears and Too Late The Hero to Go For Broke and Blow-Up Small Time Crime in Murderville

The Misfits had The Devil To Pay for The Missing Corpse Copying Beethoven with The Polka King Young Frankenstein The Wolfman Dracula and Mr. Peabody And The Mermaid

The Women Sing of Death Hang 'Em High How Sweet It Is! How To Save A Marriage And Ruin Your Life The Key To Rebecca 

The Right Stuff As Long As You've Got Your Health King Rat Love Has Many Faces Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number How To Murder Your Wife

Baby The Rain Must Fall Inside Daisy Clover Carry On Doctor Even The Wind Is Frightened

The Lost Daughter and Our Idiot Brother took The Thirty-Nine Steps to Afternoon Delight as The Watcher Watched!

Dear Brigitte The Girl Can't Help It If A Man Answers In Search of the Castaways on Boy's Night Out Up From The Beach

The Game is Over Running The Art of Love Inside the Forbidden City The Two Of Us Violated Angels Welcome To Hard Times on The Planet Of The Apes

Daredevil Hunted Spider-Man Thor The Hulk The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms Godzilla In Bruges with Ivanhoe Mandy My Six Convicts My Three Angels The Dirty Dozen while Gidget Goes Hawaiian.

Closely Watched Trains In Harm's Way The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! Run, Appaloosa, Run To Sir, With Love

ONeilDeNoux.comHelp! Panic In The Year Zero Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You In The Closet And I'm Feelin' So Sad You Only Live Twice

Is Paris Burning? Carry On Cowboy Tonight For Sure It Happened In Athens Don't Make Waves Far From The Madding Crowd Playing Soldiers

The Counterfeit Stranger Follow That Camel Half A Sixpence It's A Bikini World Don't Raise The Bridge, Lower The Water I Am Curious (Yellow)

OK. Enough. I have to stop and get back to work.


24 February 2022

Just Another Day in Paradise

First of all, RIP, P. J. O'Rourke, with whose writing I often disagreed, and almost always laughed. A couple of my favorite quotes from Parliament of Whores:

"The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it."

"A reporter needs to remember that any time a politician tells them they are 'present at the making of history', can achieve the same feeling by going around to the backside of a dog and being 'present at the making of earth.'" (That one's paraphrased – but close enough!)

It's been a hell of a month, so far, in South Dakota. Suddenly Marty Jackley and Kristi Noem are endorsing each other, for AG and Governor respectively.  Four years ago, of course, they were taking knives to each other on horseback.  

We had two successive Sioux Falls police officers arrested for possession, manufacturing and distribution of child porn on yet another app I'd never heard of, Kik Messenger, where apparently you can sign up and send anything you like without giving them name, address, email address, phone numbers, in other words, in near-total anonymity.  (Argus)  Rumor is that the feds are investigating.  The mayor and police chief are vowing to review hiring practices for the department. Good idea. And maybe check their cell phones every once in a while. After all, employers can check your social media online, right?  

I know everyone's saying Covid is over, but no one's told us up here.  We're averaging 6 people dying a day for quite a while.  Only 31% of South Dakotans have been fully vaxxed and boosted, which means - for those who don't do math – that 69% of the population have NOT been fully vaxxed and boosted. In fact, 30% haven't had even 1 dose. And people wonder why I still wear a mask when I'm shopping at the grocery store. That and the fact that there's always one person who's unmasked walking down the center of the aisle while sneezing and/or coughing up a lung without benefit of hands or inner elbows.  (Ewwww!!!) 

Meanwhile, Little Shrimp on the Prairie is back!

(For those of you who have forgotten my previous investigative journalism on this company - with the help of my dear friend, Dark Ally - see this walk down memory lane:  Little Shrimp on the Prairie)

Or maybe not.  Tru-Shrimp, the Ballaton, MN indoor shrimp farming company, which has been on hold for a number of years after getting a few million investment dollars from, among other things, Lake County, SD, announced a month ago that they would be offering an IPO – 1.5 million shares at between $9 and $11 per share. Among my inner circle, loud laughter ensued. And it's only continued now that – once again! – Tru-Shrimp is backing off, and once again, our dream of home-farmed shrimp for the masses is dying in a vat of stagnant water.  (SEE HERE.)

Meanwhile, on February 21, 2022, Jan Grape did a post about "Been arrested lately?" which was great. (HERE)

And my answer is yes, I have been arrested - way, way, way back in 1972, in L.A., specifically downtown Hollywood, in a police sweep that was meant to assuage shopkeepers who were tired of shoplifters and other kinds of trouble. 

So one night the police came through and arrested quite literally everyone in sight. EVERYONE. Including my then boyfriend. Well, that freaked me right out, but I knew better than to go running up and raise hell. So instead, I went home – which was about 3 blocks away, in the Blackburn Hotel (names changed to protect the guilty). And a cop followed me. Inside. Up the stairs. And walked right into our studio apartment and arrested me. Cuffs, a muttered Miranda, and down to the station, where I was booked and put in jail. 

That was Friday night. I spent the weekend inwardly hysterical, thinking of endless possibilities of never getting out, or getting lost in the system, while outwardly pretending to be calm, fasting, and doing yoga in the cell hallway whenever they let us out for a bit. God, I was a good actress. The result was that on Monday, I was let go along with almost everyone else against whom there were no real charges. (Just about everything that my arresting cop did that night was illegal.) No arraignment, nothing. Just led me out, gave me back my few belongings (including a crumpled pack of cigarettes), and out the door. That first cigarette was sheer heaven!  

The only problem was that I had no real idea where I was. The jail was not in downtown Hollywood, so I bugged some people, found a bus, got a ride, made it back to the general area, and got back home late that afternoon. Great reunion. All was well. 

BTW, the shopkeepers really reamed out the cops over that sweep.  They didn't want us, the residents, arrested. We were their customers. Poor as we were, we were the ones buying coffee, cigarettes, newspapers, donuts, in the morning, the Red Mountain wine at night, not to mention toiletries and generally keeping the bodegas and the coffee shops going. You know, regulars. The shopkeepers didn't want us locked up. They wanted more police presence in the stores, keeping an eye on the strangers coming and going. In the [short] remainder of my time in the area, there were no more sweeps. 

And that's been it for my official criminal record – and after 50 years, with no arraignment, I kind of think my non-existent record has been expunged.

23 February 2022

The Chicken or The Egg

I just finished a novella, set during the Battle of the Bulge.  I’ve been working on it for a while.  I realized that I can’t pin down my original impulse, that glimpse of something, the orphan intuition that tugs at your sleeve or plays hide and seek in your peripheral vision.  

Sometimes you know right away when you’ve got a workable idea, and once in a while not just workable, but inspired, and the fuse is lit.  We’re all familiar with getting in the zone, and the feverish clamor of momentum, but genuine inspiration comes from applying your ass to the chair.  You have to be there for lightning to strike.

Now, in the case of “The Lion of the Chama,” another long and time-shifting story, I can tell you exactly where it sprang from.  I read an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican about a local criminal lawyer who was retiring after forty years, and the interviewer asked him which was his most memorable case.  The guy said, I defended Reies Lopez Tijerina after the siege of the Tierra Amarilla courthouse. My mental ears pricked right up.  What siege was that?

Which is actually pretty widely-known history hereabouts, but I was only a wash-ashore in those days - as former Santa Fe mayor Debbie Jaramillo used to say, “You just got off the bus.”  I began to dig into it, and as research made the narrative more concrete, it also began to veer off in unexpected directions.  This itself is not unexpected.  But the more I learned, the less wiggle room I had.  In a way, it mirrors the writing process.  You begin with an empty canvas, but as you fill it in, your avenues of choice close off.  The narrative funnels down.

The expression is: Don’t spoil a good story for lack of the facts.  I stopped researching the facts of the courthouse siege, because they got in the way of the story I wanted to tell.

Now, coming back to my WWII novella, The Kingdom of Wolves, we have almost the opposite dynamic.  I knew I wanted the wider backdrop to be authentic, so I tried to stick to the chronology and movements of the fight, and who was actually where on the big map.  Patton and Bradley, for example, have cameos.  So does my Uncle Charlie, breaking down the ENIGMA traffic, back at Bletchley Park.  (My primary source was Antony Beevor’s terrific book, Ardennes 1944.)  On the other hand, I wanted my own story to slip between the cracks.  I had to make room for it, without playing the historical record false.  What happened in this case, is that I didn’t have a story of my own until I’d straightened out the facts.  That background determined the story.

So, here’s the question.  Or, at least, a framework for discussion.  Sometimes you have a situation, and you work from that; sometimes you start with a character.  But almost always, you have a difficulty to surmount.  The ring goes back to the fires of Mount Doom, where it was forged.  Not every story is a hero’s quest, of course, but is the narrative engine the hero or the journey?  Clearly the two influence each other.  I guess what’s interesting, and probably unanswerable, in this context, is whether we start with Frodo, or the Ring? 

It also probably doesn’t matter.  What counts is that we got to the finish line.  Still and all, I often wonder why and how.  The sudden and exact detail that shows up in high relief, and we say to ourselves, Now there’s a story!

22 February 2022

So You Want to be a Shoplifter

     I meet a great many small-time thieves during my work week. They shuffle into my tornado shelter of a courtroom located in the basement of the county jail. For most of them, I read a few details about their alleged offenses. The following is a list compiled from those encounters. 

    I've ranked the methods roughly by order of frequency. The list below only deals with retail theft. (If I expanded it to theft generally, I'd have to include defendants who take a reciprocating saw to the nearest apartment complex and begin collecting catalytic converters.)

    There is nothing scientific in the methodology. It's my list of observations over time. I'm also not vouching for the success of any of the below-listed techniques. I only meet my defendants when their attempts at thievery have been interrupted. Lastly, I'm not recommending any of the methods set out below. Local retailers have had a tough time the last few years. Give them a break. Pay for the merchandise before taking it from their stores. 

    That said, here you go. 

    1.  Just Grab It. This is the "See it--Want it--Take it Technique. (Or possibly, the See it--Think someone else will want it and therefore it has a resale value--Take it Technique.) The "grab and go" is the simplest and most common form of shoplifting I see during my workday. It occurs at Mom and Pop's and at the biggest of the Big Boxes. Some thieves grab individual items while others load up shopping carts and race out the door. A few have learned that if they steal a backpack, they can stuff it and keep their arms free for the sprint to freedom. The thieves who think about it, try to dash out through the Garden Center, or some other exit of the store considered less populated by Loss Prevention employees. 

    Although I meet middle-agers and senior citizens who attempt this most direct form of the five-finger discount, most of my grabbers are young. Occasionally, I see organized bands who sweep through a store, scooping up bags of merchandise. They are the locusts of the theft business. These crimes usually happen in clothing retailers. 

    2. Just Grab It, Oversized Clothes variation: Same technique as #1, but the thief wears baggy clothing. The fabric hidey-hole gets stuffed with merchandise. Since the thieves can't move as quickly in clothes stuffed with merch, concealment is necessary for success. Women wearing loose dresses many times head to the Electronics Department, while men with baggy pants seem to prefer the meat market of the grocer or warehouse store. If you're tempted to buy a discounted chuck roast from a guy on the street corner, think about where he might have hidden it shortly before you saw it. The mental picture might make you a vegetarian. 

    A baby stroller sometimes substitutes for baggy clothes. Kids also play their part in the next Method #3. 

3. Skip-scanning: Load up a grocery cart with items, push the cart to the self-checkout, and then only scan a portion of them. In the alternative, palm the bar code of an inexpensive item, and pass your hand beneath the scanner while you slide the T-bones and ribeye steaks into the shopping bag. A confederate often accompanies the thief. The skip-scanning method has some costs. The thief must pay for some of the merchandise. 

    If detected, the skip-scanning culprit will usually adopt a confused look and blame his or her children. The rug rats dropped those high-value items into the bag without the arrestee's knowledge. Much finger-pointing at the confederate is involved. Loss prevention officers frequently hear the phrase, "I thought you scanned that one." 

    Practice tip 1. Before you start waving your arms in an indignant claim that the kids did this, remember to peel the barcode off your hand. 

    Practice tip 2. If the store is on to you, sometimes they'll send a member of their helpful and courteous staff over and offer to assist you with the checkout. Unless helpful and courteous is a blood relative, expect to pay the full amount. They'll likely scan everything. 

    Practice tip 3. Contrary to street wisdom, bringing a child on a shoplifting adventure won't keep a thief from being arrested. It usually just delays the trip downtown until a guardian can be contacted. 

    4. Receipt Recycling: This technique most frequently occurs at the big box home improvement stores. Wander around the parking lot until you find a discarded sales receipt. Enter the store and collect the exact items detailed on it. Push the cart out, displaying the receipt as proof that you've already paid for the items. In the alternative, steer yourself into the Returns line. Bring back the items you've just loaded and seek a refund. Try to get cash for that hot DeWalt drill. 

    Receipt Recycling requires a certain attention to detail. It may not be the best method for defendants who shoplift while high. 

    Practice tip 4. If you're tempted to try it, don't deploy a receipt blackened with tire marks from having been driven over in the parking lot of the Big Box. 

    These are a few of the common methods. Since we celebrate human creativity and imagination in a reader's and writer's blog, it should come as no surprise that there are infinite variations to the above-described techniques. Methods change as rumors about what works swirl through the criminal community. 

    Remember: Don't try any of these at home. Thievery violates some of society's oldest commandments as well as the laws of every state. And I only get the details by observing people who have been caught. 

A while back, the above examples got me thinking about a story idea. In the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, I explore a fifth method for committing retail theft. The story, "DIY," is loosely based on a caper I read about while working in the jail. The story, however, is not intended as a theft tutorial, but rather a contest between the people involved. I hope that the questions you ask at the end are less about the larceny technique and more about the moral choices of the characters. Mostly, I hope that you enjoy it. 

    Until next time. 

21 February 2022

Been Arrested Lately?

They say write what you know.


How many of you mystery writers have killed someone? Raise your hand. I'll wait.


How many of you have ever been arrested? Raise your hands. Yeah. A number of you. For committing a crime? Or for joining in a protest or some juvie joy riding? Ok. I won't pry for details. Your secret is still safe.

I'm like many of you. I've never been arrested. I've never even come close.

Oh, okay. I'll confess. I was arrested once. I was asked for my driver's license, car registration and insurance, by this blonde female officer. I handed all the paperwork over. Next thing I knew, she told me to get out of the car, walk slowly to the rear of the vehicle then place my hands on the trunk of the car.

As I'm asking what I had done. She said there was a warrant out for me. I kept telling her she'd made a mistake. That I'd done nothing wrong. She paid no attention. When we reached the back of car, she placed her handcuffs on me and clicked them tight. I immediately began cursing her out. Calling her every obscene name in the book. You never heard such a potty mouth on a lady. She didn't answer, but she loosened the cuffs one click.

She began reciting the Miranda warning as she headed me over to a police car. I'm still cussing like a sailor. She covered my head with her hand and pushed me into the back seat.

Once inside I saw a male officer step out of another police car. He started talking to the officer who had arrested me. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but it looked like he was berating her.

A couple minutes later  the male officer came over and opened the door. I handed the astonished Training Officer the handcuffs. It only took me a couple of minutes to slip out of them because I have small hands and wrists.

You see, my arrest had been at the Police Academy Training facility. As an alum of the Citizen's Police Academy, we periodically help the new cadets by "role playing."

My group assignment was to be arrested, cuffed and put in the police car by the cadet. I also was supposed to cuss and yell at this female cadet. The TO wanted to know how she would react.  She had remained cool and calm.

But now he repreminded her for loosening the cuffs.  She was also told NOT to say anything about that to the other cadets.

I was arrested a couple more times that day.  No one else left any play in the cuffs. I found out later the word about "loosening the cuffs" had indeed been passed around.

Since that time, about twenty odd years ago, I've had pleasant relationships with law enforcement. That is until two weeks ago at 5:41AM on a Monday.

I was rudely awakened by loud knocking on my front door. I'd spent Sunday evening watching 5 episodes of the new REACHER series on Amazon Prime and it was after 2 am when I took my ambien, went to bed, and zonked.

When the banging started I thought I must be dreaming. Nope, they kept knocking and then ringing my doorbell. It was real. And certainly mystifying.

Who in the world would be so rude? I wondered as I noticed the time, got up and pulled on my robe. However, I had the robe inside out. So in my short nighty and trying to snap the front of my inside out robe, I stumbed down the hall. The persistent knocking and doorbell ringing continued. I yelled "I'm coming!"

Then I hear a male voice, "POLICE!"

I was still trying to snap my wrong side out robe and thinking to myself, this had better be good.

I could see red and blue lights flashing through the half pane of glazed glass, lighting up my hallway and living room. I flipped on the porch light and saw a  uniformed officer standing there.
I unlocked and opened the door, doing the best I could to hold my robe closed.

"Are you okay, ma'am?" The officer asked.

"Yes. I'm fine."

"Great," he says. "We had a call that a lady was in trouble, but we didn't have a complete address."

 As he turned, I heard, "Sorry to have awakened you, ma'am."

"It's okay." I mumbled.  I closed and locked the door and staggered back to bed.

I still to this day don't know what the whole deal was. I asked politely in a message on our police department FB page. The next day the answer back was to talk to the police chief in person. He wasn't available when I called the next day and I haven't had a chance to stop by the police station.

Now I know a little of how a person might feel being served a felony warrant in the wee hours of the morning.

Now plot lines are also running through my head for a story.
  1. A search for a murderer hiding in my back yard?
  2. A search discovers a young dead woman left on my side porch?
  3. My ex-husband's found murdered and I have no idea where I was whole the evening before the police woke me up.
Write what you know, they say. Killed anyone lately?

20 February 2022


This is the good part, the part you mustn’t miss. Later, you can skip the opinion stuff.

In the 1960s, scientist John B. Calhoun conducted a large-scale social experiment, Mouse Utopia (not to be confused with Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander’s much better known drug-related experiment called Rat Paradise or Rat Park). Mice were given everything life could want, endless food, water, medical care, toys, sex, nesting material, and 'condos'. Only a year into the experiment, society started to break down.

After a spate of violence, the rodents became less sociable, eschewed sex, abandoned motherhood, and spent all day eating, sleeping, grooming, and ignoring others. They gave up mating. They gave up socializing. The final birth occurred after only 20 months. After 2⅓ years, the colony went extinct.

At first, sociologists tried to draw conclusions about overpopulation and aberrant behavior, giving us the expression ‘behavior sink’. But as the utopian world declined, psychologists reached another conclusion– too much comfort isn’t good for us. We need challenge. We need adversity. We need want.

This concept is portrayed in the movie, Wall-e.

Worse than merely not being good for us, too much comfort is deadly. And it doesn’t take much to start the descent. We need challenges to remain strong.

Calhoun wrote that the animals died in spirit before they died in fact.

house mouse

19 February 2022

Deja Vu All Over Again . . . One Last Time

Today I'm doing something different: I'm posting a column that was previously featured almost ten years ago at this blog. I wrote and ran "Deja Vu All Over Again" in April 2012, less than a year after several of us former Criminal Briefers established SleuthSayers, and although the subject of this post is not original, I think it still applies to the fiction we write. Anyhow, since I've run into some unexpected health problems at the moment, I'm falling back on this reprint, and I hope to be up and functioning again shortly. If you remember reading this post I hope you'll indulge me in my repetition, especially since this is a column about repetition, and if you don't remember reading it I hope you'll find it informative. -- JF

Driving home from the post office the other day, I heard a newsman on National Public Radio say someone "shared something in common" with someone else. That bothered me. Not enough to make me switch to a rap or gospel music station, but it did bother me. I've forgotten exactly who he said was sharing something in common with whomever, but to use an example based on a Grisham book I'm currently reading, if you and your father are both baseball fans, you either share a love of baseball or you and your father have that in common. You don't share it in common, and if you say you do you've created a redundancy

This kind of error can be forgiven more easily in speech than in writing. Writers are supposed to know better, and to pay attention to things like that. (So are NPR newscasters, actually.) Not that I am guiltless. Right here at this blog, I recently used the term added bonus. That's a bit silly. If it's a bonus, it is by definition added, and to use both words is redundant. And in real life I'm always talking about something happening the exact same way it happened earlier. Other phrases I use a lot are final outcome, free gift, and plan ahead. Imagine how much time I would save and how much smarter I would sound if I cut out the words exact, final, free, and ahead

Alternative choices

I know what you're thinking. Sometimes phrases containing redundancies are used intentionally, to add emphasis. Examples might be completely surrounded, truly sincere, each and every, definite decision, cease and desist, direct confrontation, forever and ever, etc. Redundancies also come into play when using certain abbreviations, like UPC code, HIV virus, please RSVP, DOS operating system, and AC current. My favorite is PIN number. But I still use the term. The technically correct PI number just wouldn't roll off the tongue well. 

A working awareness of this kind of thing can be handy to writers, because cutting out redundancies provides us with yet another way to "write tight." An argument can even be made that such common and inoffensive phrases as sit down, stand up, nod your head, and shrug your shoulders are literary overkill as well, and do nothing except add extra words. Why not just say (or write) sit, stand, nod, and shrug? Where else would you stand but up? What else would you shrug except your shoulders?

Unintentional mistakes

Even if you're not a writer, here are a few more redundancies that come to mind:

  • twelve noon
  • sum total
  • commute back and forth
  • mental telepathy
  • advance reservations
  • drowned to death
  • merge together
  • observe by watching
  • armed gunman
  • visible to the eye
  • for all intents and purposes
  • hot-water heater
  • overexaggerate
  • false pretense
  • hollow tube
  • fictional novel
  • disappear from sight
  • myself personally
  • a prediction about the future
  • safe haven
  • during the course of
  • regular routine
  • a variety of different items
  • filled to capacity
  • pre-recorded
  • a pair of twins
  • unexpected surprise
  • the reason is because
  • originally created
  • red in color
  • few in number
  • poisonous venom

could also mean a pair of twins

Do you ever find yourself using these, or similar, phrases when you speak? More importantly, do you embarrass yourself by using them when you write? I try to watch out for--and correct--them in my own manuscripts, but I'm sure some of them manage to make it through intact. Can you think of others that I neglected to mention? Are there any that you find particularly irritating?

The end result

Time for a confession, here. I will probably (and happily) continue to use many of these redundancies in everyday conversation, and even in writing if they're a part of dialogue. Sometimes they simply "sound right." But I wouldn't want to use them in a column like this one. 

In point of fact, lest any of you protest against forward progress, past history reveals the unconfirmed rumor that a knowledge of repetitious redundancy is an absolute essential and that the issue might possibly grow in size to be a difficult dilemma. If there are any questions to be asked about the basic fundamentals, I'll be glad to revert back and spell it out in detail. And even repeat it again. 

Or maybe postpone it until later. 

Hoping to be back with you in two weeks.

18 February 2022

You Should Write...

My brother-in-law started writing. Pushing sixty, he's taken to it with a zeal I had in my twenties. At least he knows what he's writing. I dabbled in someone else's sandbox before sending out the first Nick Kepler short around the time we worried Y2K would end the world. Good times!

Since then, I've discovered I can write crime at a reasonable pace expected by traditional publishers. Holland Bay is done. It's sequel is off to the first reader, and I'm outlining the third in the series. One a year? We can do that. I also found I can spin out scifi pretty much in my sleep. It probably comes from that sandbox I played in during the 90s. The serial numbers are even original, not filed off, though I might rightfully be accused of my one protag aiming to misbehave. (If you've read my stuff and got that reference, you know those two characters would not get along at all.)

So while I've worked in relative obscurity for the past 20 years, I've had a decent output. This inevitably leads to that conversation. I'm not successful enough to get the "Hey, I have an idea. You write it. We split the profits" conversation. I have been in earshot of that conversation, and I cringe every time I hear it. The writer is usually well-known. If I know the person well enough, I can rescue them with, "Hey, [insert writer's name here], Ken Bruen's holding court over at the back table. Let's see if we can figure out who in Ireland he doesn't know." Sidenote: When I was temporarily single and at a mixers event, I rescued a woman who turned out to be a neighbor from a rather obnoxious suitor this way, pretending to be her date instead of using another writer's party as an escape hatch. Five minutes later, I was her date. Who says skills learned as a writer don't apply to real life?

 The version of the conversation I now get when someone looks at the combined output of Jim Winter and TS Hottle is, "You should write..."

Uh huh. Holland Bay took forever to write. And I spent quarantine dictating what is now called the Suicide Arc - 9 books, people. Add to that writing a scene that let me get into the heads of two characters, and last week's output - which was supposed to be a crime short - fell only 2000 words shy of a novella. And yet...

My brother-in-law started text bombing me one night about a character named Mitsuko. Mitsuko plays with swords and automatic weapons and hangs out with space marines. She is a supporting character in the two novels currently out and the star of a novella called Flight Blade. And BIL is a fan.

A huge fan.

I appreciate that. If I had the time to talk up my characters and stories in person, I'd probably sell a lot more books. But BIL took it one step further.

"Hey, I got an idea. You should do a whole series about Mitsuko's kids!"

Um... She's not married at this point or even looking to have kids.

"What if [other character] and her hookup?"

One, they'd kill each other, and two, both would say, "Ew!" at that idea.

It went on like this for about twenty minutes. I had to explain I had the entire arc in the can already, and the stories, including one needing a total rewrite, are pretty much etched in stone. I also explained that Down & Out is expecting a final draft of a novel this spring, and I would like to get a follow-up sliding across the keyboard by then.

And anyway, don't you have a novel to finish, too?

He's not the only one, and part of his enthusiasm comes from discovering writing only last year. It helped him forget a recent health scare, and it's also as addictive as I've found it. Maybe he'll start writing under two names, too. (I hope not. If I weren't married to a woman who's good at refocusing my attention, I'd have no life.)

Someone always thinks I'm the perfect vehicle for their political viewpoint. (Don't do that. It doesn't matter your politics. I hate pundits and will likely hurt your feelings.) Or they really do have an idea but don't want to do the work. Or they don't understand how writing works. It took a month to write Suicide Run but three to write next year's The Dogs of Beaumont Heights. Both burned a lot of brain cycles to create. Plus I'm trying to get back into short stories.

Plus, the way publishing works, were I to get enough traction under either or both names, a Baen, a St. Martin's, a Tor, or a Random House is going to want me to send something completely original. At some point, I have to build a new sandbox to play in, maybe two. I have a couple of ideas on the crime side that can go to the next level, maybe allow me to finish Branson's story eventually. Scifi may prove a tad more difficult. I can't seem to extract myself from my sprawling universe. Maybe I won't, just change characters.

But, reader or writer, we've heard that horror story about someone accosting a writer with "I've got this great idea, and you should write it." Many of them back off when they realize that's not how it happens. Others are a bit disheartened when they realize the idea is not what's copyrighted or what the publisher or readers pay for. It's the execution. My next scifi novel will owe a lot to Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse: Now. Unlike Copolla, though, I finished mine. But aside from a real piece of work named Kurz and a bunch of soldiers sailing upriver, the novel will bear little resemblance to either Joseph Conrad's novel or the movie. For starters, I seriously doubt either Conrad's gone-native madman nor Marlon Brando's incoherent colonel had cause to say, "And I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids." 

There are stories that come from headlines, from those documentaries on A&E and Netflix, and from stories I hear driving Uber that give me story germs of my own. Many who don't do what we do, and even quite a few who do, think that writing is typing. You can write 1000 words an hour, so you should have a novel in two weeks.

I wish it did work like that. For every Road Rules, though, which I wrote in 13 days, there's a Holland Bay, which I started in 2007, rewrote multiple times over the next 12 years, and finally published in November. Those are extremes. Road Rules was a clearly defined story written on a dare. Holland Bay needed a couple of drafts just to finish the world building. Yes, even crime stories need world building.

The stock answer, which has the answer of usually being genuine, is "Why don't you write it?" Sometimes, they take the bait, and off they go down the rabbit hole.

Like my brother-in-law did. He's on Book 2 and is still revising Book 1. Took me a few years to learn that.

17 February 2022

At Loose Ends

Lately I've been giving a lot of thought to the notion of being "perfectly imperfect" when it comes to writing. A psychological term intended to help people embrace the notion that perfection is a worthy goal but an unrealistic destination, attaining the "perfectly imperfect" strikes me as the best of sort of goal for writers attempting to write realistic fiction.

One of the most beloved of the tricks in any stand-up comedian's bag is the so-called "call-back." It's that move where the comedian signals the end of his set with a joke referencing a bit on which he'd earlier elaborated at some length.

Writers of crime fiction do this too. Usually at the end of the story.

One masterful extension of this particular literary form came from the late, great Philip Kerr. In March Violets, the opening book in his unforgettable series featuring Weimar/Early Nazi era Berlin P.I. and former homicide cop Bernie Gunther, Kerr introduces his protagonist to Inge Lorenz, an attractive lady muckraker journalist. The two join forces both professionally and romantically, and the lady reporter proves a welcome resource in Gunther's ongoing search for the stolen necklace of the daughter of a wealthy industrialist.

At one point Gunther leaves Inge waiting in the middle of a suburban Berlin street while he investigates the house of one of the leads in their case. When he comes back just a few minutes later, the street is empty. No sign of Inge.

Gunther looks for Inge, but to no avail. She has simply disappeared without a trace. The case moves on to its inevitable conclusion. The book ends with the case solved, but Gunther never having found out what happened to Inge.

It's a loose end. And a pretty sizable one.

I learned early on  in my crime fiction apprenticeship about the importance of the notion of "fair play with the reader," including, at least implicitly, the tying up of any and all loose ends. This is an unofficial rule of crime writing that goes back at least as far as Agatha Christie.

This "rule" arose in crime fiction writing largely in response to writers who employed all sorts of cheap maneuvers to cover for weak plots and lazy writing: you know, the detective reveals the killer and it turns out to be someone never mentioned, or even hinted at, up to this point in the novel, etc. Cheap bailouts of this type were not to be tolerated in a world where the Fair Play rule in effect.

And yet, is this sort of thing "realistic"?

Of course not. Life is messy. And while "real" and "realistic" are and never ought to be considered the same thing, realism requires at least the imitation of the rhythms and shades, lingua franca and cultural idioms of real life.

The Master
And this is where Kerr's brilliant dead end of the question "What actually happened to Inge Lorenz?" stands as both a hallmark of realistic fiction and a brilliant subversion of the Fair Play rule. Because in reality (as Kerr himself points out using Gunther's narrative in the novel itself), this is Berlin in 1933. The Nazis have just taken over. And people are disappearing without any explanation from Berlin's streets, often taken into custody by the state security forces themselves, frequently never to be heard from again.

And for his next trick, Kerr goes on to "unsubvert" the Fair Play rule. Without giving too much away, Gunther stumbles across evidence of Inge's fate in a later novel. The description of what happened to her is not only believable, but also provides Gunther incentive to take down a couple of nasty customers he is investigating at the time: a full year after Inge's disappearance.

Fair Play delayed for the sake of literary realism, and eventually achieved in a completely realistic way.

Further proof supporting my long-held belief that to read the likes of Philip Kerr is to take a master class in plotting, conflict and character development.

And how's that for being "Perfectly Imperfect"?

And yes, this IS my example of a "callback."

All of the above of course begs the question: "Loose ends; bad or good?"

In the day and age of the unreliable narrator (a trope of which I personally am not a fan), do loose ends left unexplained help or hinder the narrative? If so, how many are too many?

I look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments.

See you in two weeks!

16 February 2022

The Beat Goes On

 Mea culpa... I forgot to mention in this article that James Lincoln Warren also critiqued the current novella for me, for which I was very grateful...

Back in 2011 my friend James Lincoln Warren asked me to critique a piece he was submitting for the Black Orchid Novella Award competition.  I did and naturally "Inner Fire" won.  (Oh, all right.  It would have won even without my two cents worth.)

But that got me thinking.  Maybe I could come up with a BONA-worthy entry of my own.  The contest is co-sponsored by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and the Wolfe Pack, which is the Rex Stout fan club.  It celebrates the Novella form in which Stout wrote more than thirty adventures of Nero Wolfe.

While the contest does not require it, most of the winners have followed the classic Stout formula of having a younger narrator who assists an older detective.  Warren's did.

Design by James Lincoln Warren
So what I came up with was this: Thomas Gray, fresh out of business school in Iowa in 1958, moves to Greenwich Village to take over the coffeehouse founded by his late uncle.  There he meets Delgardo, he of the ever-shifting first name, a beat poet who supplements his shaky literary income by solving crimes.  The resulting story "The Red Envelope," won the BONA in 2012.

It was always my plan to write a sequel, and hopefully a series.  I set two rules for myself: 1) each title would be one word away from a Stout title (for example, he wrote The Red Box), and 2) each story would move ahead one month through time.

The first novella took place in October so I used my librarian superpowers to see if anything interesting happened in New York in November, 1958.  And I hit the jackpot: that was the moment when the great quiz show scandal hit the fan.

So I knew that my story would have Delgardo trying to help a friend who had been a big winner on a game show and  was now afraid of getting caught up in the scandal.

Next I needed a name for the game show, which could also serve as my story's title.  I realized Stout's penultimate novel gave me the perfect one-off name.  And so "Please Pass the Loot" was born.  You will find it in the March/April issue of AHMM.

As usual R.T. Lawton critiqued it for me and so did James  but I also owe a thanks to Steve Steinbock, mystery writer and critic.  I needed a particular kind of clue for the story and I knew Steve would be able to provide it.  He hasn't read it it and I hope he likes it when he does.

I hope you do too.

One added note: I haven't seen the issue yet but if I am reading the AHMM webpage correctly my piece is the last one in the magazine.  This gives me a warm and fuzzy nostalgic feeling.  Back in the late  1960s when I started reading AHMM the last story was always the one and only novella.  Makes me feel a connection to Fletcher Flora, Clark Howard, Bill Pronzini, Pauline C. Smith, George C. Chesbro,  and so many other greats...

15 February 2022

Continuum of Editors

I am currently reviewing and preparing some of my published short stories for a potential trio of collections, and I’ve realized that there are three types of editors. One type stands alone and the other two represent opposite ends of a continuum upon which most editors can be placed.

The first is the Compiler. The Compiler does no actual editing, publishing work exactly as received. Though this type of editor is often found at the bottom end of the publishing heap, I have worked with a few well-known editors who may be compilers. I wish I could say that my work is perfect and needs no editing—well, I could say it, but no one would believe me—but when editors provide no feedback beyond an acceptance letter and/or contract and I later discover mistakes (typos, for example) in the published work that match errors in my manuscript, I suspect that editor is a compiler.

The two ends of the continuum are represented by the Writer is God editor and the Editor is God editor.

The Writer is God editor has the writer confirm every change and correction, no matter how insignificant. A manuscript may pass back and forth several times before it is put into production, and then the Writer is God editor has the writer review and sign off on page proofs—no one produces actual galleys these days—before approving the finished product for printing.

The Editor is God editor never shows changes and corrections to the writer, and never shares page proofs. The writer only knows what’s happened once contributor copies arrive, if they arrive because the Editor is God editor sometimes doesn’t even bother to send contributor copies.


Most editors exist somewhere on the continuum, and I’ve worked with editors at or near both ends. Even so, I have probably been published by more Editor is God editors than Writer is God editors.

Regardless of where an editor may be on the continuum, a good editor will improve a writer’s work, regardless whether the writer’s input is sought. I’ve been lucky. I’ve only once had a published story harmed by editing—and that one did not have my byline on it.

Early in my career, I always compared my original manuscripts to my published work in an effort to learn from the editing. Many years ago I stopped doing that, though I do still read the published versions of most of my stories, sometimes surprising myself at how good they are.

Apparently, I should have continued comparing my published work to my original manuscripts. While preparing stories for the potential collections, I’ve discovered that several stories have substantial changes, and the ones that do were all edited by the same person. He published a few of them in a magazine and, after he left that position, published several more in a series of anthologies.

I grumbled when I first discovered all the changes he’d made to one of my stories, and then I grumbled even more when I realized how much he’d changed all the stories he published. I stopped grumbling when I realized how the changes had improved each of the stories, and I wonder how much I could have learned a decade or so ago if I had taken the time to do then what I’m doing now.


As a writer, I love working with Writer is God editors, but as an editor I understand why so few exist on that end of the spectrum.

Writers submit sloppy manuscripts, filled with weird formatting, extra spaces, improper quotation marks, backwards apostrophes, and the like, and a fair bit of time gets spent just cleaning things up. It’s a waste of time to ask writers to approve corrections of things they should not have screwed up in the first place.

Additionally, many writers do not follow—and may not even know—a publication’s house style. Is it Associated Press, Chicago Manual of Style, or something the publisher created specifically for its own use? And what about things like British spelling vs. US spelling or word selections such as “OK” and “okay”?

It takes time to convert everything in a manuscript to house style and, again, it’s a waste of time to ask a writer to approve the conversion to house style. Publishers establish and use a house style to ensure consistency of their products, and writers are not often given the opportunity to express an opinion about whether they like it or not.


The Editor is God editor is not an inherently evil entity. Deadlines, budgets, and corporate policies create situations where it just isn’t practical to touch base with writers every time there’s a change to a manuscript.

Despite the shock of seeing one’s words changed without one’s knowledge, professional editors often improve, and rarely harm, the material presented to them. Rather than being offended by what an Editor is God editor has done to a manuscript between submission and publication, it might be best to learn from it.

For example, many years ago I wrote short stories for a group of women’s magazines. I soon discovered that each time I used a brand name in one of my manuscripts, the brand name had been changed to a generic term in the published version. So, McDonald’s became “a fast-food restaurant,” a Quarter Pounder became “a hamburger,” and a Coke became “a cola.” This was not stated anywhere in the publisher’s guidelines, but as soon as I realized what the editor was doing, I stopped using brand names in my submissions.


I edit several projects—a consumer magazine, a mystery magazine, various anthologies, and miscellaneous other things—and each requires a different approach.

For the consumer magazine, which only publishes non-fiction, the approach is Editor is God. The magazine has three editors, each of whom takes a pass at every article. The only time writers may be involved in editing is during fact checking. For example, if a writer quotes “Steven Smith” and we believe the man’s name is “Stephen Smith,” we check with the writer to determine which is correct.

When editing fiction, I lean toward Writer is God, but do not fully embrace the concept. My approach is more like Writer is Minor Deity. After I’ve fixed all the wacky formatting and made the work conform to house style, I involve writers in more substantive changes. Usually, it’s a single pass: I return manuscripts with the changes indicated using Microsoft Word’s track changes function, and writers have the opportunity to accept the changes and/or to work with me on changes with which they disagree.

With Black Cat Mystery Magazine, the next thing writers see are page proofs, and I may or may not make additional minor corrections/changes to their work between the time I receive the edited manuscripts back from them and the time I deliver the files to production for typesetting and page layout.

With anthologies, there’s often an additional editing step. After I’ve delivered the fully-edited manuscript to the publisher, the publisher’s copyeditor takes a run through it, correcting errors the contributors and I missed and suggesting improvements (better word choices, sentence restructuring, and the like). I review all these changes, accepting the obvious corrections and some of the suggestions, before letting the writers review the copyeditor’s work. Sometimes this is the last thing the writers see; other times they also see page proofs.


Compilers aren’t really editors. So, because you never know if you’re submitting to a compiler or an actual editor, always strive to present your manuscripts as error-free as possible. You don’t want to be called to task by a reader blaming you for mistakes you thought your editor would catch and correct.

On the other hand, if you’re working with editors whose approaches can be placed somewhere on the God continuum, remember that their goal is to publish the best work possible. If they are Writer as God editors, appreciate their efforts to include you in the editing process. If they are Editor as God editors, learn from your final published pieces so that future submissions to those editors require little or no editorial intervention between your submission and the final publication.

My story “The Fishmonger’s Wife,” which first appeared in Pulp Literature, was reprinted in Black Cat Weekly #22.

14 February 2022

Love and Carnage

 by Steve Liskow

Valentines' Day. Flowers, candy, champagne, diamond rings and bended knees. Murder.

Love and Death are the two most important themes in art because once they happen, you can't take anything back. That goes double for mystery writers, both for the crime (motive) and context. A series romance is hard to pull off. Robert Parker had trouble keep Susan meaningfully occupied, and Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Don Winslow and other writers have ended relationships sadly. If both members don't have a stake in the case, someone has nothing to do.

Dennis Lehane may have done it better than anyone else. Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro knew each other before they became investigators in A Drink Before the War, so their adventures have a deeper contet and the relationship enriches both characters as they make terrible mistakes before they get it more or less right. I wish I'd learned from the instead of painting myself into a corner.

Between 1994 and 1999, Patrick and Angie loved and lost their way through five novels. Patrick is the son of a South Boston fireman who abused the family, and it left lasting scars on the boy. Patrick is a working-class smartass with a chip on his shoulder and a resentment for the rich. He understands that, though, which makes us like him and gives him insight into the people around him. He's very loyal and cagey, lessons he learned by living to grow up.

Angie's grandfather is a ranking member of the Boston Mafia, and she looks at that as little as possible. She's lovely, clever, tough, and lost her virginity to Patrick in high school--after which he dumped her. Since then, they've made every mistake you can imagine. Angie married an abusive husband. Patrick married Angie's sister. Angie divorced her husband, who died. When she and Patrick tried to get back together, she was shot and nearly died, too. During that same book, Darkness, Take My Hand, Patrick faced the demons of his childhood abuse. When Angie's external wounds healed, she went to Europe to figure things out.

Sacred, the third novel, puts the duo in a case involving dysfunctional families that make their own youth resemble Sesame Street. They become lovers again, the case shreds their psyches one more time. Psyche makes context. Patrick and Angie don't live in a vacuum, they interact with people and places, some of them even worse off than they are themselves. Even while you watch them screw up again, you have to give them extra points for effort. 

Gone, Baby, Gone deals with  abused and neglected children, something they know too well, and ampified because by now they are talking about having a baby themselves. Lehane gives us some of the most insidious characters you can imagine. Nobody is "bad," but they're self-centered, stupid, or worst of all, ineffectually well-meaning. The book's ending may be the most emotionally wrenching moment I remember since I walked home from the Court Street Theater after watching Tommy Kirk shoot Old Yeller. 

Prayers for Rain brings the pair together again for the first time in over 18 months. They're older and miserable, finally deciding that being together is better than being alone. Patrick has a hit put on him and Angie does something she's never done before: she asks her Mafia grandfather for a favor. By story's end, Patrick is in the hospital after being shot again. 

At that point, Lehane says that Patrick stopped talking to him (Can you blame him?). He left the couple behind and wrote Mystic River and The Given Day, maybe his two best novels, and let the couple slowly recover. 

Moonlight Mile appeared in 2010. Patrick and Angie are the same people, but the wounds are catching up and they're slowing down. After ten years, it's almost like meeting them at the high school reunion. That context is still there, and many characters from Gone, Baby, Gone come back. Some of them wiser, but most have merely perfected their own ways of screwing up. Patrick and Angie are married and have a daughter. Patrick thinks of joining a larger firm. The first few chapters are as good as anything Lehane wrote before, but the pace and craziness gradually resolve into something like closure, or maybe what Kubler-Ross would consider acceptance. 

Lehane always said that he was afraid that he would kill one of the two--maybe even both--before he got to the end, but they deserved better, and he found a way to give it to them.

Happy Valentine's Day.