30 April 2022

Building a Dollhouse


As writers, we all have ups and downs, and so far this year I've been fortunate at Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine: they've published two of my stories--one in their Jan/Feb issue and one in their current (May/June) issue. Not since 1999, when I had stories in AHMM's March, May, and June issues, have I had stories appear there so close together. (I once went 3 1/2 years between publications at AH--unlike some of my superhero friends who seem to have a story in almost every issue.)

The funny thing is, my two recent Hitchcock stories, "Mayhem at the Mini-Mart" two months ago and "The Dollhouse" now, are quite a bit different from each other. "MatMM," which was originally titled "MacGuffins," was fairly short, was made up almost entirely of dialogue, and included no real mystery except for some deception in the way the two protagonists overcame the villain. "The Dollhouse" was longer and contained not one but two mysteries, real mysteries that the hero had to solve and that (if I did my job) the reader could figure out as well. There were a few similarities, too, in that both were set near where I live and neither had a lot of on-screen violence--but otherwise they were worlds apart, especially in that the first was a standalone story and the second was a series installment.

A series situation

The series/standalone difference is a big one. "The Dollhouse" was the eighth story I've sold featuring Mississippi sheriff Raymond Kirk Douglas and his ex-lawyer girlfriend Jennifer Parker--five have appeared in AHMM and one in Down & Out: The Magazine, and two more have been accepted at AH but haven't yet been published--and all those stories were written in a certain way. (More about that later.) Also, the stories in the series always have a sideline about the two main characters and their crazy on-again/off-again relationship. My standalone stories at AHMM are a whole 'nother ballgame. Those might be Westerns or science fiction or fantasy or humor or YA or anything else as long as they contain a crime, and they might be any length from flash to novella. During the writing process, the series stories provide more structure, the standalones more freedom. Both are fun to write, though, and I really can't say which I prefer. I think the series stories are probably easier to write, because in those the only thing I have to worry about is the plot. The main characters have already been created and can usually be depended on to act the way they're supposed to.

As I've mentioned, "The Dollhouse" features two puzzles in the same story. Investigating one of them is done as a favor to a high-school principal who's an old friend of the sheriff's, and involves nothing earthshaking or life-threatening. The other mystery is serious: the death of a local lawyer who left behind a vague clue to the identity of his killer. As usual the sheriff''s lady friend takes an active though unofficial role in the murder investigation, and (as is often true in real life) she provides most of the brainpower.

NOTE 1: My choice to include two mysteries instead of one in the same story is typical of the series, and I hope that adds a little extra oomph. Of my eight Ray Douglas mysteries so far, three of them--#1, #3, and #5--contained only one traditional mystery each, but #4, #6, and #7 contained two separate mysteries each and #2 and #8 featured three each. Making those multiple storylines interconnect was challenging but fun.

Building blocks

In "The Dollhouse," the less-important, school-related crime is introduced in the opening scenes and resolved in the final scenes, with the homicide investigation taking up the entire middle section of the story. My obvious reason for that is that I wanted the law-enforcement folks to spend most of their time on the more serious of the two matters. I did figure it was reasonable, though, to include the less-urgent mystery in order to offset and "bookend" what would've otherwise been a more intense story. Who knows if that was the correct decision--but  it felt right to me, during the planning and writing and re-writing.

I also wanted the story title to tie into both of the plotlines. I did that by having one of the players in the more minor crime have a background as a dollmaker and letting that be meaningful to the solution of that part of the story, and also by giving the murder victim's law firm the name Dahl, Hauss, Stanley, Wells, and Yates--Dahl Hauss for short, so it's known as the Dollhouse to everybody in the county. This kind of thing is part of the fun of writing, and, as my wife can tell you, I'm easily amused anyway.

Also, like all the other stories in this series, it used an inside-joke Tuckerism in that it featured a sheriff's deputy named Cheryl Grubbs, which is also the name of one of my childhood schoolmates. I think I've mentioned before at this blog that I ran into Cheryl a few years ago at a booksigning after having not seen her since high school, and she told me she'd been a longtime fan and had always wanted to be in one of my stories. Well, be careful what you wish for; I told her I was about to start a new series and promised her I'd put her in it. (Truth is, Deputy Grubbs is now such a big part of these stories the sheriff can't fire her, so the real-life C. G. might've gotten more than she bargained for.)

NOTE 2: Since a lot of writer friends seem to be interested in these kinds of statistics, I submitted "The Dollhouse" to AHMM on 11/20/19, it was accepted on 8/25/20, and it was published on or around 4/15/22. This one took a little less time than usual from submission to acceptance and a little longer from acceptance to publication, but otherwise it was a pretty typical timeline, for my stories there.

Wrapping this up

A few quick questions. If you write "series" short stories, have you found them to be either easier or more enjoyable to write than standalones? Why? Or is it the other way around--and, again, why? (Nosy SleuthSayers want to know . . .)

In closing, sincere congratulations to my friend R.T. Lawton for his Edgar win this past Thursday night. What a huge honor. Well done, R.T.! 

See you next Saturday.

29 April 2022

Gilded Time

Trade Paperback and eBook published by Big Kiss Productions, March 2022

Fascinated by the Gilded Age, I started putting a story together a few years ago. The germ of the idea involved interactions between a wealthy family and a working-class family. I began with the main characters.

The Den Helder family, a railroad tycoon and wife, along with their 21-year old daughter Alicia and 18-year old twins Elspeth and Matthew, lived in a mansion across the street from a elegant municipal park in the wealthy part of town.

Mike Labruzzo, a 27-year old police detective, a single father raising a 4-year of daughter, lived along the edge of the poor side of town.

Setting? Couldn't use New Orleans. The years after the Civil War until the end of the 19th Century may have been a Gilded Age for many Americans but the south was going through Reconstruction. So I thought of New York only I didn't know enough about NYC to set the story there. So where? Chicago? I know less about Chicago.

Hell, I'm a fiction writer. I made up a town called Noressex in Westchester County, New York, about forty miles up the Hudson from NYC. Spent a couple months laying out and naming the streets, building the mansions, houses, tenements, industries, parks, churches, schools.

Added supporting characters – the Den Helder household servants, relatives and friends and fleshing out the Noressex Police Department where Detective Labruzzo worked, and his friends and relatives around the rooming house where he and his little girl lived.

Started the story with a bang, Labruzzo and his partner rescuing Matthew Den Helder from a brawl at a bawdy house in the part of Noressex where young men secretly frequented. Labruzzo has the injured 18-year old taken to a nearby hospital. Visting him later, the detective meets Alicia and eventually Elspeth Den Helder and the rest of the family.

Once the charaters were set in motion, I went along and wrote down what they did until they reached the climax of the story I had laid out in a two paragraph outline. It took 102,000+ words but man, I enjoyed every minute of the ride.

Lot of crime fiction in this historical novel.

That's all for now.


28 April 2022

Questionable Choices: Roman Emperor-Style

Somebody a whole lot smarter than Yours Truly once said: "Actions reveal character." And a lot of people who have come along afterward and read that sentence have agreed with and quoted (or mangled) said sentence.

Speaking as someone with a background in historical/biographical analysis, I can say from experience that history is replete with examples of this sort of thing. Some of the more amusing (and horrifying) ones come down to us from the annals of Imperial Rome. Let's take a look at a few of them, shall we? Specifically those of the emperors themselves. Bear in mind that each of the actions referenced below was the action of the most powerful man in the Mediterranean world at the time.

The "Mad" Emperor Caligula
Let's start with a pretty obvious and telling example.

The emperor Gaius (Nicknamed "Caligula," Latin for "Little Boots," a nickname no one dared call him to his face) at one point in his brief four-year reign, appointed his favorite race horse a member of the Roman Senate.

Roll that one around in your head for a minute.

* Was Caligula just nuts?
* Was he making a larger point about the irrelevance of the Senate and what he thought of its members?
* Both?
* Was Cassius Dio (the writer who left us with this anecdote), who wrote about Caligula hundreds of years after his death, making the whole thing up?

(For the purposes of this discussion: an illustration of actions revealing character, let's assume the veracity of each set of reported facts.)

You can likely draw your own conclusions.

A Couple of Other Examples:

Agrippina crowning her son emperor and him looking less than grateful.

We have a whole host of this sort of telling anecdote about that most infamous of Roman emperors, Nero. Including these choice nuggets:

Once flew into a rage and assaulted his pregnant wife, knocked her to the ground, and kicked her in the abdomen until she began to hemorrhage. She died in the midst of the subsequent miscarriage.

* Had his overbearing, power-hungry mother Agrippina murdered. She, more than anyone else, paved the way for Nero's rise to the imperial throne. Not least by marrying the previous emperor (her uncle, Claudius) and then poisoning him with a plate of his favorite food: mushrooms.


Galba: the embodiment of "penny wise, pound foolish."
A martinet to shame all other pretenders to the title, the wildly successful general (and later wildly unsuccessful emperor) Galba is probably best known as the first of four generals whose troops proclaimed him emperor and marched on Rome to have him installed within the following year. It was Galba whose march on Rome led to the death-by-suicide of his erratic monster of a predecessor, Nero.

Yet Galba's most telling action was first offering a bribe to the members of the Praetorian Guard (the emperor's personal bodyguards, and the only military unit allowed to go armed within the walls of the capital city), and then reneging on the offer, once he got to Rome and saw how utterly Nero had bankrupted the Roman treasury.

Note to any would-be usurping strong-men out there: if you're going to offer the guys whose job it is to guard your body a hefty bribe in order to buy their loyalty. You probably want to really think before you decide not to follow through on that offer.

Galba didn't, and paid the price. The Praetorians assassinated him, and then backed another general. This one paid off on his promised bribes.

Tune in next time for more tales of Roman emperors and their questionable choices, and what they reveal about character. See you in two weeks!

27 April 2022

Performance Anxiety

Talking to a guy I know – we’ll call him Mike – who was once upon a time in the same trade I was, and who still has skin in the game, I wondered what he thought about how badly the Russians have stepped on their dicks in Ukraine.  There were in fact two parts to the question: why Russia has underperformed so fatally, and why Western intelligence so overestimated their war-fighting capacity beforehand.

Mike happened to be on his way to Ft. Huachuca for a workshop, or a briefing, or a roundtable, at the least a guarded conversation with some other stakeholders on this very subject, so he already had his ducks lined up, and was ready to share them. 

The chief impediment is that Russian command authority is rigidly hierarchal.  The culture and doctrine are top down.  Initiative is career suicide.  And the weakest link is simply that there’s no professional NCO class, not in the sense that an American combat soldier would understand.  Russian junior enlisted are cannon fodder; their sergeants are brutal, indifferent, and corrupt.  Morale is clearly in the toilet, unit cohesion near collapse. 

Where, then, did the intelligence consensus come from, that the Russians were going to kick ass in Ukraine?  Mike had an answer for that one, too.  We put a lot of faith in the hardware.  That’s because intelligence analysis mirrors our own presumptions.  In other words, NSA looks at the performance specs for, say, the MiG-31, and the obvious question is how it stacks up against the F-16.  Same thing with tanks, or infantry weapons: the AK-47 is one of the most copied guns in the world.  Our attention is fixed on the platform.  Mike’s point being that less weight was given to the personnel, the existing skillset of the pilots or the tank crews or the ground-pounders, or in support.

Like a lot of things, once you hear the explanation, you slap your forehead and tell yourself it makes perfect sense.  Nor do I think it’s Monday-morning quarterbacking.  For me, it actually conforms to what I learned back in Berlin, in the 1960’s, during the Cold War, when our target was the Soviet occupying forces in Eastern Europe, and the Warsaw Pact.  Poland and East Germany and Hungary and the other satellites were being trained by Russians, on Russian equipment, so there was a lot of overlap. 

The reason we were there, if I haven’t made it clear before, or if you’re new to this space, was to provide a basic profile of what the Russians could throw at us.  In military vocabulary, it’s called an Order of Battle.  A specific example might be: How many aircraft are at Zossen Wunsdorf? - Are they fighters or ground attack? – And how many pilots? - What’s their readiness posture?  This is all numbing detail, but it kept the Cold War from going hot.

Here’s why I don’t think the Russians have learned anything in fifty years.  Back in the day, they had sophisticated systems and platforms, but they didn’t trust them, or they didn’t trust their people, which adds up to the same.  They scrambled fighters, for drills, using Ground-Controlled Intercept, or GCI.  MiG-21’s and Yak-28’s were fitted with on-board pursuit radars, and a ground station tracking their targets could transmit encrypted signals directly from the ground radar to the pursuit radar on the aircraft, and the radar would vector the plane to target, all done electronically.  Hands off.  Fire and forget.  We, meaning your humble servant and his crowd, were listening to the pilot chatter, we could image the Russian ground radar, we could follow the encrypted signals, we intercepted the frequency shifts from the aircraft’s radar and knew when it went from Lock to Launch.  In effect, we were in the cockpit, too.  And not a single one of those pilots, or their command structure on the ground, believed the system would work on its own.  Every instruction the pilots got, every course correction that was transmitted, over a secure network, the pilot would repeat, in the clear, on Voice.  “Roger that, turning to heading 270.”  At which point you watched him on radar, changing course to 270.  I kid you not.  And you wonder why Russian generals are getting blown out of their shoes in Ukraine?  They’re using open comms.

I think there are other reasons for what’s going on.  I think the Ukrainian defense is heroic.  Volodymyr Zelensky has bigger balls than Vladimir Putin.  And the resolve from NATO has been unexpectedly solid.  But at its most basic level, the Russian disaster is a character flaw.  Arrogance defeats empires.


26 April 2022

Doubts and Questions

     In my childhood home, the family television stood in the living room. A thick box on four spindly legs, our tv offered us the choice of three networks. In the living room, Mom had her chair, and Dad had his. I had my choice to either flop on the sofa or spread out on the carpeted floor. I usually chose the couch.

    I don't remember many of the major news events of the 1960s. Those were my single-digit years and I had more important things to worry about than the war in Vietnam or peace protests. What exactly most of those things were, I can't recall. I'm sure they involved elaborate plans composed along with Tim and Chuck and the rest of the guys whose houses stretched up Cloudas Avenue.

   I have the barest memory of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. I recall few of the details, but all three networks covered the convention. Their focus on Chicago meant that there was nothing worth watching for seven-year-old me. I missed the protests and the chaos. Hubert Humphrey, the sitting vice-president. The presumptive Democratic Party nominee had been born in Huron, South Dakota. Many around Sioux Falls wanted the local boy to make good. Not me. I backed Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate. The reasoning was simple. My nine-year-old cousin Steve supported Nixon, and Steve was my polestar. 

This little memory came back to me as I considered submitting a story in response to Michael Bracken's call for submissions to Groovy Gumshoes, an anthology of private eye short stories set in the 1960s. Other possibilities spun around in my head. I thought about a Woodstock-based story. Woodstock seemed the quintessential 1960s moment. I rejected the idea. As I was sitting down with fingers on the keyboard, a story of Michael's ran in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. He'd set his tale at Woodstock. It seemed to me that my story would be competing against not only every other submission but also the editor's already formed image of how the ideal Woodstock story should read and feel.

    The other reason I stayed away from Woodstock had to do with a bagpipe lesson.

    My elder son plays the bagpipes. When you're a high school bagpipe competitor around here, the enemy is always St. Thomas Episcopal School in Houston. They have an elaborate Scottish arts program and can overwhelm any contest in which they appear. Like Bob, my son's Glaswegian bagpipe teacher said, "on your best day you can beat any of them, but there is always another one coming over the hill." (It sounds better if you say it with a thick brogue.)

    Woodstock as a topic felt too center of the plate. I imagined another story always coming over the hill. Number theory suggested that every similar submission reduced the likelihood that my story would get accepted. I abandoned any further thought about Woodstock and sought a tale from the margins, a place fewer people might choose to go. 

    I returned to my little memory and began typing. "Case #5 From the files of the Mood Dog Detective Agency" emerged. The story came together quickly and I got it off to Michael well ahead of the deadline. 

    My bagpiping theory of numbers arose again shortly after I hit "send." Netflix released The Trial of the Chicago 7. I couldn't turn on my television without a promo for the movie. An optimist might have seen the brilliant opportunity, an important historical event filling the air just as the editor read my submission. I, however, chose the negative and fretted over all the submissions covering the topic inspired by watching the Netflix film. They'd all be streaming into Michael's inbox.

    I'd submitted my story. I could do nothing but sit on my hands and wait. At least I had a movie I needed to watch. 

    I'm honored that Michael chose to include Case #5 in the recently released Groovy Gumshoes anthology. I hope that you like it. Do the same sorts of doubts and questions plague your thought process when you sit down to write? 

(On the day this posts, I'll be untangling my life following my return from Malice Domestic. I hope we've had the chance to meet in person.)

    Until next time. 

25 April 2022

Style NEVER Goes Out of Style

Years ago, I gave my honors American Lit students a summer writing assignment that was a little outside the lines. I had them read Kerouac's On the Road and selections from Thoreau's Walden, then write the flogged-to-death essay on "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" twice, once imitating Kerouac's style and the other imitating Thoreau.

Some people did brilliantly, capturing Kerouac's riffs and imagery like a Wardell Gray sax solo and Thoreau's pseudo-King James majesty. Others wrote essays so interchangeable that I don't think the writers could have told me which was which.

We fail to teach students an important lesson about style. The style must fit the mood of the piece, which is determined by the content. If style, mood, and content don't work together, that story, essay, or letter will fail.

I can't find the quote now so I may be paraphrasing, but Sinclair Lewis once gave my favorite definition of style. Style is how the writer conveys emotion in his writing. It depends upon two factors: the ability to feel, and the vacabulary to express those feelings. 

When readers say they don't like a book, they often mean that they don't like the style. Style is voice, and it carries the narrator's attitude and feelings about the material. If you don't like the feeling, it's fair to expect that you won't like the story. 

How do you create style? You don't. You just write the truth about how you (or your story-teller) feels.

Extreme examples make it clearer. Read a paragraph by Ernest Hemingway and notice the generally short words a child can understand, combined into short punchy sentences that are equally clear. Hemingway could convey deep feelings and ideas, but in a deceptively simple style. It's hard to write so many short sentences without sounding choppy and abrasive, sort of like riding in a car when the transmission drops out. I see lots of writers try it and fail.

Now, read a paragraph from Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I have three graduate degrees and taught for over 30 years, but McCarthy often sent me to the dictionary. His words were always precise and conveyed his meaning more exactly than the synonyms I knew, and they never felt forced. McCarthy loved language and used it to serve his own purposes. I can't imagine anyone trying to imitate him.

Style is the way you use words to tell your story. We expect certain moods in certain kinds of stories, too. Noir writing is pessimistic. The weather is rainy or will be soon. Peopole will die and justice may not be served. Fairy tales usually have a happy ending and whatever ogres occupy the landscape may be frightening, but the hero will prevail with wit and courage.

The writer's job is to help the reader experience the events and emotions that the characters go through. It doesn't matter how clever or creative or beautiful the writer is. If the writing calls attention to that instead of the story, it fails. 

Most of my writing is revision. I want the reader to see the events as my character sees and feels them, so I tend to use first person or detached third person POV and avoid opinion adjectives like "Nice," "Kind," "Beautiful" or "Evil" unles they get filtered through the character. Short stories don't have room for generalities, so it's vital to convey mood/attitude briefly. Mood matters. A few days ago, I decided a story I was writing for one publication didn't work because the story was supposed to be a cozy and the narrator was a gambler. Gamblers aren't cozy, they're noir.

Modern writers use more narration and less exposition than writers up until about 100 years ago. Think of long passsages of backstory and explanation in Dickens, Trollope, the Brontes or Hawthorne, then look at how Lehane, Lippman, Alison Gaylin or Don Winslow handles the same material.

I pinpoint the beginning of the change with Fitzgerald's description of the Buchanans' yard in chapter 1 of The Great Gatsby. Instead of static visual details, Fitzgerald makes the yard come to life so it runs from the beach, up the hill, jumps over a birdbath and sundial, and drifts up the walls of the house as "bright vines."

You can look at a picture as Hawthorne would describe it, but you can experience Tom and Daisy's yard. The average reader won't notice the difference, but he or she will feel it.

That's style at its best.

24 April 2022

Breaking It Down

As some of you already know, my story, "The Road to Hana," was one of six to be nominated for an Edgar in the Short Story Category. Plus, there's some of you who may have read my article in The First Two Pages after Art Taylor asked me to write an essay as part of his program to get essays from those short story authors who were nominated this year. So now for the rest of you, I'm going to break down some of my reasoning for the sentences I wrote for the beginning of my story.

The Background

My wife and I had vacationed on the Hawaiian island of Maui for two weeks in February for several years. No, we aren't rich. It's just that we learned how to do it on a lower budget. We got a special (return) rate at a small condo on the beach, rather than staying in an expensive resort area, cooked most of our own meals (it's a budget killer if you eat out a lot, unless you eat where the locals eat) and we found some of the little secrets of Maui. For instance, did you know that native Hawaiians  get a Kamaaina discount at many of the shops and stores? Seems my wife with her suntan at that time was often mistaken for Kamaaiana (local). And, did you know there's a writers open critique group that meets in an old stone church on the road leading upcountry from the old hippie town of Paia? You have to look hard for some of this stuff.

In any case, during our many stays, we traveled the road to Hana on the other side of the island several times, a couple of those times even going beyond Hana to other sites.

Photo by Jim Evans on Wikipedia
On one visit, while reading the local newspaper, I ran across an article about a young man who had smoked some of the petals of the local Trumpet Flower, a known hallucinogenic. The young man then made the decision to go deep water swimming. He was never seen again.

I was intrigued. He will never know it now, but that young man started the brainstorming for a story, even if it did take years before the story actually got written.

And now the opening sentences

There's only one road from Kahului's airport going over to the small town of Hana on the eastern side of the island.

This opening sets the place and tells the reader that the protagonist, or anyone else, going to or from the town of Hana only has one choice of roads to take if traveling by vehicle.

And then, the next line. This Hawaii highway has 59 bridges and 620 curves for the 52 miles it takes to get there. This sentence foreshadows that the road and its curves can be dangerous to drivers if those travelers are not careful. Call it atmosphere, call it background, call it setting, this is a situation where the topography of the land becomes an important part of the story and crucial to the plot, as the reader will soon realize.

I've got no idea who took the time to count the number of curves in the road. This emphasizes the curves and sharp turns to keep that image in the reader's mind for when our protagonist must travel that road, first to Hana and later back to the airport for his flight home.

Whoever he was, he must've been really bored that day and had nothing else to do. Fine by me, I was looking for boredom right about now. There's nothing like being shot on the job to make you want to stop the world and smell the roses, hell, smell any kind of flowers and thank your lucky stars the other guy wasn't a better shot. Okay, now the savvy reader knows the protagonist is some type of law enforcement who has come to the island paradise for peace and recovery from his injuries. Will he find it? A mystery reader already knows the answer to that and reads on to find out what happens next.

After more description of hairpin turns, old one-way cement bridges, deep jungle ravines on one side and steep drops to the ocean on the other, our protagonist notes: If you go off the edge here, you'd best be able to fly.

Later: It was at one of these quick turns reaching out towards the ocean where I saw flashing lights in late afternoon.

Our protagonist gets out of his rental car to check on the situation. Looked to me like two tow trucks were trying to winch a wrecked car out of the foaming surf and drag it up the slope. Also looked like a slumping body was seat-belted behind the steering wheel. Evidently, some poor schlub had tried to take a straight line where the asphalt took a bend.

Was this an accident or murder? The reader has suspicions and journeys on with our hero to find out alongside him as he slowly discovers what is going on.

So now, you tell me, did I do my job? Did the opening sentences draw you in? Is this a story you want to read? I know the opening worked well enough for the editor of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine to accept the story. 

I submitted it on 07/21/18. It was accepted on 09/29/19 and published in the May/June 2021 issue of AHMM. On 04/28/22 at the Edgar Awards Banquet in Manhattan, we will see if the story is good enough for an Edgar.

In the meantime, I, along with everyone else, will keep on writing. There is always next year and who knows which new story will get nominated and which author will win the Edgar. Maybe I'll get another chance at Ed… yeah, I've got this great idea for a story in mind about this…

23 April 2022

Enough with the Murderer's Point of View, Already!

Some people may not like this post.  Some might even call me a 'cranky author.'  And that's just fine, because I'm all about open discussion when it comes to fiction writing.  In fact, I think the main thing wrong with the world these days is too many people want to shut down open discussion on every subject.

So here goes:

Was gabbing by phone with my friend Cindy, another writer, about the usual Covid-Writer fare.  What are you writing… what are you reading… what disasters have befallen your publisher, etc.

(And just to give you an example… Remember last November, when all the ships were crowded around the docks off California for weeks and weeks, unable to unload their goods in time for Christmas.  Well, remember at the same time there was one container ship foundering off the coast of Vancouver, that dumped 117 containers into the ocean?  One of those containers contained the second reprint of my 16th book with Orca Book publishers.  Yes, I couldn't make this up.  Hope the fishes enjoy eating my royalties.)

Back to the main beef of today.

This discussion with Cindy inevitably led to what 'What do we hate' in fiction these days.  Cindy surprised me by saying: "You know what I really hate?  Books written in third person, that all of a sudden dump the murderer's point of view in the middle of everything!  In first person, no less.  Drives me nuts."

"Me too!"  I said, delighted to find another fellow cranky writer.  "Not to mention, it breaks all viewpoint rules."  (Okay, the cranky college prof can't resist the opportunity to lecture.)

What are we talking about?  You're reading a book - police procedural, usually - that starts with the protagonist - a cop - in third person.  The book carries on very nicely in third person for several chapters, and then suddenly, you get a chapter written in first person, by some unnamed character, that is completely self-focused.  Gradually you figure out it must be the murderer talking, because he's going on and on about his awful childhood.  Oh Sweet Jesus.  How the heck did that get in there?

It's like they wrote the whole book and then thought, I'll just go back and plop in some chapters of a completely different book into random spots.  The critics will love it!

I say police procedural because the last book I read - Oranges and Lemons by Christopher Fowler - did exactly this thing.  Now normally, I love the Bryant and May detective series by Fowler.  (The Peculiar Crimes Unit takes place in England.)  It's a hoot.  But I didn't like this added 'device'.

I say police procedural, but I've also seen it done with an amateur detective novel.  In fact, I read a recent book by a very well known Canadian author who used the same 'device' (note how nice I am in calling it 'device' instead of the words I am really thinking.)

'Recent' is the key word here.  The first time I came across this was about five years ago.  Really threw me the first time. Who the hell was speaking?  I thought it was a misprint.  No, truly.  I thought the printer had made a mistake and inserted part of another book into this book.

"Why do they do that?" said Cindy.

Believe it or not, being in the middle of writing my 18th novel, I had a logical explanation for that.

"Word count," I said confidently.  "They finish the novel at 70,000 words, and they've got to get it to 80,000.  I know from wence they came."

Some famous crime writer - it may have been Spillane - said that most crime books are perfectly written at 50,000 words.  In other words, a lot of mystery or crime stories end themselves naturally at that word count.  And that pushing them to 70 or 80 thousand means adding stuff that doesn't have to be there (which is a nice way to put it, I think.)

I ascribe to the Spillane school of thought.  My own work settles nicely between fifty and sixty thousand words.  I have to work hard to get it to 70,000.  And my agent and publisher usually push it to 75,000 in the editing process.

So I figure these writers who slot in the murderer's point of view are doing so to add word count.  What a nice way to avoid thinking of another plot twist.  Problem is, these chapters are usually static.  They are internal monologue.  All narration.  They interrupt the story.  And worse, they don't exactly move the story forward.

Not to mention, they break viewpoint and drive me and other cranky veteran authors crazy.

Not that we have far to go.

How about you, Sleuthsayers?  What do you think about this newfangled device in fiction?

Melodie Campbell sticks to the viewpoint rules in her otherwise loopy crime fiction that almost always involves the mob.  You can find her books at all the usual suspects.

22 April 2022

Writing a PI

The first real novel I wrote could bear the label "in the tradition of Hammett, Chandler, and McDonald." Nick Kepler did have a lot in common with the Op, Philip Marlowe, and Lew Archer. Yet, unlike those three, I actually immersed myself in Sue Grafton, Robert Parker's first ten or so Spenser novels (After that, Parker was just having fun with the characters), and dabbling a bit in Elvis Cole. Of the three, I liked Kinsey Millhone the best. She was a loner who, despite protestations of having no life, had a more interesting personal life than the other two. Really, I've had Amstel. It's not that great. Neither is Rolling Rock. Sorry, Spenser.

Being a noob, I didn't realize that all I was doing was driving this year's less impressive model of a classic. Sure, I was driving a Mustang, but was it the forgettable eighties Mustang? Or the Pinto with "Mustang II" slapped on the side? (I actually owned one of those. We shall never speak of it again!!!) Really, Nick was more like the 1990s Mustang - sleek, powerful, but lacking the soul the original and New Millennium versions had. Nick swapped out blues for the jazz of earlier PIs. He had a psycho helper a la Joe Pike, Hawk, and Bubba, but he was a minor character among several. He shared a working arrangement with Kinsey, scoring office space from his former employer in the same way. So... Different. Right?

Well, I come not to bury the PI. People are still churning them out, seeking a new spin on the knight errant. The day of the thriller has also brought story tropes that require the archetype change. And besides, I've met a few PIs over the years. The one I met in the 90s while working at the Computer Stuporstore (which we shall also not speak of again) had a vastly different approach to his job than the lady who knocked on my door looking for a woman who lived here before I bought the house.

By the time I wrote the third Kepler novel, though, I realized it would never be traditionally published. It was time to move on. I wrote Road Rules as a dare, channeling my inner Elmore Leonard. I wrote Holland Bay, partly mourning the end of The Wire, partly because I had seen and read so much about police in the late 2000s, and partly because Christopher Nolan built a new Gotham City, prompting me to build my own city. To me, the PI was dead, despite later botching a dive into the Kindle revolution to get out those last two Kepler novels.

But would I go back? I sort of did. I wanted to know what happened to Gypsy from the short story "Roofies," wrote a novella called Gypsy's Kiss (still sort of in print), and have a novel that needs expanding about Nick facing down Katrina in New Orleans. Actually, he's facing down the aftermath and a guy who thinks he's Jim Jones. Only Nick doesn't like Flavor-Ade. 

But the New Orleans novel, still in second draft, awaits a deeper rewrite. My focus in crime has been Holland Bay and its follow-ups. 

But is the PI dead? No, he's just morphed. Again. Like he always does. One need only look at Jack Irish, by the late Peter Temple. I've been watching the Australian series on Acorn. Guy Pearce's disheveled ex-lawyer isn't really a PI per se. He's a woodworker. He's a debt collector. He's kind of a lawyer. And he spends most of is time trying to piece his life back together. (And I will never forgive the antagonist of Season 2 for destroying that beautifully restored Studebaker.) But it's hard to compete. After all, James Bond continually reinvents himself, adapting to Jason Bourne and inspiring numerous spins on the character, including female agents. Marvel dominates, and DC profitably sputters on the big screen. And let's be honest, between the return of Star Trek (literally, in a couple of weeks with Captain Pike's last crew and James T. Kirk slated to appear next season) and more Leonardesque streamers like Better Call Saul and Ozark, the PI sometimes gets relegated to supporting character or even minion.

But can he be reinvented? I don't see why not. If we ignore Mark Wahlberg's Spenser (Really, a love letter to Boston with two familiar character names slapped onto the story), Spenser or even Marlowe are the perfect vehicles for the ten-episode season format. And to be honest, I prefer this. Britain, Ireland, and Australia have done this for decades instead of the long, hard-to-maintain 26-episode system used in the US and Canada. But an updated or period-set take on either character makes a very doable way to introduce to PI to a new generation. 

Hmm... The last Holland Bay novel I wrote is written like it's a ten-episode season. And the follow-up is outlined the same. Maybe there's hope to revive Nick after all.

Sidenote: I say that both the real and fictional PI have changed. Except, one morning not long after I moved to my current home, I drove through the neighboring town of Silverton, Ohio. The PIs I've met over the years occupied suites of offices in New York City or cookie-cutter offices in suburban office parks adjacent to law practices and insurance companies. I just happened to look up on my way to pick up a pizza when I saw a second story window with pebbled glass that read "Private Investigator" and had the phone number. Don't know who the person was, male or female, old or young, white or black, but there has to be a story there. It was like Archer stepped out of a battered paperback and into our world.

21 April 2022

Twickenham Garden

The last couple of weeks were wild. Last week, I was exposed to Covid at an AVP workshop at the pen (which was a really excellent workshop), and so, out of an abundance of caution (because I'm fully vaxxed and double boosted) I isolated for 5 days except for brief forays for necessities with an N-95 mask firmly in place.  Covid test was negative, praise God. Boosters work!

Even wilder was the weather - we had 3 days of 50-60 mph wind gusts, and we all now understand why Beret in Giants in the Earth went mad from the wind. Seriously, semi-trucks were being blown over on the highway. 

And the South Dakota House Legislature voted to impeach AG Jason Ravnsborg for killing Joe Boever. This surprised a lot of us because the House Judiciary Committee voted against recommending impeachment. But then a lot of information leaked - such as the fact that the investigating officers were convinced that Ravnsborg lied, lied, and lied some more, and wrote it down, but the House Judiciary Committee refused to hear any of their evidence. (If you're surprised by this, you haven't been keeping up with my reports from South Dakota.)  It also didn't help that Ravnsborg put out the most incoherent, whiny letter you ever read defending himself (See HERE.) South Dakota can put up with a lot of misbehavior, but the key virtues up here are hard work, more hard work, and no whining. Ravnsborg's impeachment trial in the Senate will begin June 21st. 

Anyway, Allan and I began watching the Irish shows recommended by David Edgerly Gates in his The Irish & Their Discontents. The opening episode of Single-Handed had Jack Driscoll coming back to the rural Northwestern Irish community he grew up in, and finding out that nothing is as simple as he hoped it would be. The line that stuck with me was "I thought I knew the place. But it's a cesspit." 

And that is so true. Any community can seem beautiful, carefree and innocent on the surface. Look long enough and all the cockroaches come out; the mold's ankle-deep; and innocence - what happened to that? And it is, apparently, always  more shocking when it's a rural area, a small town, where everyone knows everyone and they appear - from the outside - to be all happy families together. (That's why Agatha Christie set so many of her stories in the countryside.) Our illusions die hard. 

  • Familiarity can breed contempt, but when you're stuck with the same people in a small area for life, what it really breeds is secrecy.  
  • It's pretty easy for the biggest bully and/or the richest person to take over, like the boss cow, because how are you going to stop them? Think of what's going on in Ukraine right now. At the beginning a lot of pundits said that NATO and the US could not even think about going in militarily - i.e., help to defend Ukraine - because Putin might use the nuclear option. Well, that's how bullies win and take over - they threaten to do something and everyone (see above) goes along or ignores it. 
  • There's always a group of wealthy and/or powerful (usually men) who run everything. If they like you, you get jobs and contracts and help and protection. If not... 
  • There's always a gossip, dripping with venom and spite, who's willing to let everyone know any little nasty tid-bit s/he finds out. (They're just as likely to be male as female.)
  • No one will ever talk about domestic or sexual abuse at all. "That doesn't happen here." If the victim runs away, there will be a lot of whispers. If they ever return for a visit, well, they won't be admired for their courage. That's a big can of worms, and no one wants it open.
  • For that matter, if you leave a small town to go make your fortune in the big city, at least some people will hold it against you. How dare you make us look bad? What's good enough for us should have been good enough for you.

All because humans are humans, whether rural or urban or in a monastery:

Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister
Gr-r-r--there go, my heart's abhorrence!
  Water your damned flower-pots, do!
If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,
  God's blood, would not mine kill you!
What? your myrtle-bush wants trimming?
  Oh, that rose has prior claims--
Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?
  Hell dry you up with its flames!
             - Robert Browning

(See the whole diabolical poem HERE)

John Donne © Wikipedia
Twickenham Garden
Blasted with sighs, and surrounded with tears,
Hither I come to seek the spring,
And at mine eyes, and at mine ears,
Receive such balms as else cure every thing.
But O! self-traitor, I do bring
The spider Love, which transubstantiates all,
And can convert manna to gall;
And that this place may thoroughly be thought
True paradise, I have the serpent brought.
                - John Donne

(See the entire poem - with interesting commentary - HERE)

We all carry the serpent with us, don't we?

20 April 2022

Common Senses

  A decade ago I wrote a story called "Shooting at Firemen," inspired by some events in my childhood.  Because one of the characters resembled my sister Diane Chamberlain I sent her a copy before submitting it for publication, to make sure she was okay with it.  She was, but besides being my sibling she is also a bestselling novelist, so naturally she had a few suggestions.

And the one that I remember best was this: I had written a story about a twelve-year-old boy set in 1967 and never mentioned music.  

Well, duh.  I put in some references to hits of the day and sold the story to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (July/August 2015).

But since then I have always tried to remember the advice offered by some writer (not, I believe, my sis): Your story should connect to all five senses.

Sure, you will describe what your characters are seeing.  But have they heard any sounds besides dialog?  Music, car noise, bird calls?  What do they taste or smell?  When they sit down, how does the fabric of that chair feel?

A few months ago I set a story in the Peloponnese and so I found myself trying to remember what the Lousios Valley smelled like.  (In brief: woodsy.)


Of course, you can put in too much detail about this (as you can with any other element) of the story, but a little of it can make things feel more real to the reader.

And let's not stop with five senses, shall we?

 No, I am not referring to the sixth sense, unless we are about to enter a Bruce Willis movie  (And don't get me started on non-paranormal fiction in which a person miraculously and accurately senses that they are being watched.)

But here are some other senses I found listed on various websites:






Proprioception.  (Where your body parts are in relation to other body parts.  It is how you can touch type.  It is also what cops are testing when they ask a possibly intoxicated person  to touch their nose.)

Thermoception.  (Heat and cold.)  



You probably include many of these in your fiction without giving them a second thought.  But when you are trying to add depth to a story, you might run down this list and learn more about what your characters are feeling.

19 April 2022

Schrödinger’s Edgar

The grooviest editor holding the
grooviest anthology.

Until the envelope is opened and the winner announced a week from Thursday, I am simultaneously an Edgar winner and an Edgar loser. Though there is no radioactive substance within the envelope and no feline is likely to die if there is, the situation calls to mind Schrödinger’s classic thought experiment, wherein a cat in a box that also contains a radioactive substance and a small flask of hydrocyanic acid is simultaneously alive and dead.

I first learned that “Blindsided” (co-authored with James A. Hearn and published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s September/October 2021 issue) had been short-listed for an Edgar Award when Art Taylor messaged me on January 19 (an event closely followed by a telephone call from Barb Goffman). My first phone call was to my co-author and the second to my wife.

Unfortunately, beyond the euphoria I felt the first few days, I’ve not been able to fully enjoy the nominee experience. Real life—you know, the things that happen outside the made-up worlds we writers create—has been a stressful highwire act for the past several months. So, I’ve been unable to relax and fully contemplate all that it means to be a Edgar nominee.

(Some of the stress is self-generated and none of it is inherently negative, so I’m not in need of thoughts and prayers.)

Part of me wishes I could travel several months backward in time to undo or clear away the things that have recently stressed me so that I could have spent my time wallowing in nomineehood. Alas, time only travels in one direction.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy nomineehood is to ensure that the envelope is never opened. Just as Schrödinger’s cat remains simultaneously alive and dead as long as the box is never opened, I remain simultaneously an Edgar winner and an Edgar loser as long as the envelope is never opened.

I can live with that. Even if Schrödinger’s cat may not.

In other news: Two of my stories—“Aloha Boys” (Hallmarks of the Job/Aloha Boys, P.I. Tales) and “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” (Only the Good Die Young, Untreed Reads)—have been shortlisted for Derringer Awards. Two stories from projects I edited or co-edited—Mark Troy’s “Burnin Butt, Texas” (Black Cat Mystery Magazine) and Stacy Woodson’s “Two Tamales, One Tokarev, and a Lifetime of Broken Promises” (Guns + Tacos, Down & Out Books)—have also been shortlisted.

And hitting the virtual newsstands last week was Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties (Down & Out Books), fifteen private eye stories by Jack Bates, C.W. Blackwell, Michael Bracken, N.M. Cedeño, Hugh Lessig, Steve Liskow, Adam Meyer, Tom Milani, Neil S. Plakcy, Stephen D. Rogers, Mark Thielman, Grant Tracey, Mark Troy, Andrew Welsh-Huggins, and Robb White.

Attending Malice Domestic this week? So are Temple and I! Stop us and say howdy. To find me, or to find any of my fellow SleuthSayers, use Barb Goffman’s handy guide to where we’ll all be: “Have Mask, Will Travel — I’m Ready for Malice Domestic.”

18 April 2022

Crime Scene Comix Case 2022-04-013, Up and Away

Let’s enjoy another cartoon from the Future Thought channel of YouTube. Check them out.

In this episode, Shifty, a none-too-bright crook who looks like a Minion in zebra stripes, takes flight… and fright. Poor Shifty meets the truly cold-blooded.

  © www.FutureThought.tv


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

17 April 2022

What the Casually-Dressed Writer is Carrying

I intended to write about a Mexican thriller/mystery series, but after reading Mark Thielman’s column, I considered an article in his shadow, and then Friday Joseph D’Agnese came along with his advice about organizers and notebooks. Okay, okay, so I have the attention span of a squirrel and… something, something.

That’s why James Lincoln Warren dubbed me the ADD Detective. If anyone needs an organizer, I do, and thank God for Rob Lopresti and Janice and secretaries and assistants and adjutants. I’m worse than a squirrel burying his nuts and…

Hey! Eve! Stop giggling! You too, Melodie. Oh Liz! Y’all are a klatch of incorrigible children.

Anyway, before I was so roooodly interrupted… What was I saying? Oh, squirrels. I’d make a terrible squirrel because I don’t remember where I put things.

I’m aware of the problem (I should be by now), so I consciously think: Where should I put this or that so I can find it next time?

I come up with a genius place to store it.

And then I can’t find it.

My chosen tuck-away place was so brilliant, I’ve completely lost it.

Assisted Living

I’m fortunate to live in this age. As a child, I built my first simple ‘computer’ (a gated circuit) and started programming in my teens. I realized computers could help with some my attention deficit problems:

  • Computer-storable items would reside in one place… a computer.
  • They would be searchable. Hey Google: When is girlfriend's birthday?
  • They could help me organize: calendars, contact lists, homework.

So there I was, a teenager using half-million dollar computers to save my name/address book. Life was good. Until the computer crashed. But still…

Aids, Aides, and Accessories

Computers can't solve everything. I can't yet say, "Hey Google: Where are my glasses?" which is why I keep a half dozen pairs scattered around the house in 'known' locations. Damn squirrels.

But we come ever closer. Apple markets AirTags, which look like half-size key fobs. Attach it to my key ring and, if I happen to misplace my keys, I can say, "Hey Siri: Where are my keys?"

(You might think I often lose my keys or wallet, but I don't. I have one place for each and I'm well-trained to put them in place.)

They're also useful for items that might be potentially stolen– purses, briefcases, luggage, someone’s wandering child. ("Mrs Lundin, dis is Benny de Snatcher. We got your boy. How much we gotta pay if we return him?")

Aids, Aides, and Assistants

Amid all this verbal perambulating, I offer my methods of using computers to help organize and write. Sure, we know the obvious: proper formatting (real tabs, double space, etc.), spell checking and sometimes grammar. That’s handy, but computers shine at research.

Sure, we have Google, Bing, Yahoo, Duck-Duck-Go, and DogPile, but I need to collect notes. I want to copy articles in case they go away. What to do? Excel and text processors are 'okay', but I wanted more than a digital filing cabinet. Cross-platform could be a great goal too: Mac, Windows, Android, iPad.



I snapped awake one night (all right, one afternoon) and realized I could apply my programming background to create sort of Post-It notes on web pages. Before I began, I swept the web to find out if anyone else had hit upon the same idea, and it’s happened indeed. Some very smart person not only had created web page Post-Its, but also provided marker-style high-lighting! Better yet, they introduced a free version.



What if I wanted to organize and store articles? I tried Pocket. My phone and tablets had limited space back then and Pocket was large, comparable to OneNote. That might not be a concern today, but back then when I needed the space, I deleted it.

Like OneNote and similar to Diigo, Pocket plants a Pocket icon in the menu bar. To bookmark or copy an article, click on the Pocket icon.



I can never remember the name of the EverNote app, only its logo, an elephant, which presumably never forgets. They're light on free storage, but it is popular with students. Check it for yourself.



Microsoft sells OneNote and way back, they should have been ashamed. Using it brought back those caustic jokes that Microsoft uses their customers to stress-test their programs, and Microsoft doesn’t recognize a bug until every single user on the planet has reported it. Oh Lord, OneNote was horribly buggy. Ofttimes the Android version wouldn’t save articles. On other platforms it lost data, but when following up, I found a remedy of sorts: Sync the data each time the program opens. This prevents the Android version trampling on the iOS data and crushing the laptop versions.

Microsoft spent years to get a handle on OneNote problems. These days it’s fairly clean, although I continue to hit the Sync All command whenever I open it. Reading between the corporate lines, Microsoft would love to sell the product but it had been so troublesome, they permit customers to use it for free. OneNote fits in nicely with the paid Mac version of MS Office, so I’ve settled upon it.

Its interface is idiosyncratic but no longer erratic. Unlike other offerings that copy articles and not much more, users can create notebooks, sections within each notebook, and pages within each section. Pages can contain pretty much anything: rich text, pictures, audio recordings and videos, snippets of conversation, and sketches you might make. Clicking the OneNote icon in the menu bar or the Share button on mobile devices offers a number of choices for saving articles. It stores data in Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud, which allows the user to access it multiple ways.

I create notebooks for each project I’m working on, a notebook named SleuthSayers that contains sections on news (with a subsection for Florida news), writing, fraud, and miscellaneous notes, and a personal notebook with multiple sections. The interface is quirky, but you may find it suits you.

But wait, there’s more!



One product that didn’t pass my research test I keep around… In fact, it’s called Keep introduced by Google a few years ago. When they proposed discontinuing it, a public outcry kept it alive.

Compared to the other programs above, it’s not especially suitable for writerly research, but it is perfect for personal use in several ways. Its interface resembles those Post-Its we spoke of above. Double-clicking on a note expands it for better readability and editing. Notes can use any color with or without to-do-type checkboxes. Checkbox items can have sublists.

I keep (see what they did there?) a couple of general reminders, technical notes I picked up whilst wandering, security alarm codes for friends (without personal identifying information), field notes, a couple of items to ask my doctor on the next visit, library book list, and shopping lists… multiple checkbox shopping lists for groceries, hardware, Costco, Walmart, and so on. Moreover, many of them are linked to friends, so whoever arrives at a given store can pick up items for me or vice versa. If one of us thinks of an add-on item, we enter it on our device and it appears automatically on theirs.

Note: The above link is the general Google Keep page where you can download mobile apps. To visit the web page for notes from your computer, you’ll use:

Bad News / Good News

Common to all these programs, if you lose your phone or drop your tablet off a Pacific Coast cliff, your data is still available. And it all can fit in your pocket.

Have you tried these? What do you think?