30 June 2022

Little Church on the Prairie

First of all, & at last, we knew it was coming:  Jason Ravnsborg has been impeached on both counts in the death of Mr. Boever, after damning testimony on the part of the DCI, etc.  He's also been removed from office, and barred from ever running for public office again in the State of South Dakota.
“The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.”
                    Sir Walter Scott, "The Lay of the Last Minstrel"
And now on to other stories.

Sometimes these blogs just write themselves.  In this case, it was written by Angela Kennecke at KELO-News.  (I clearly note when I'm putting in my two cents' worth.)  Stay with it - this is quite a story.


“One of the gentlemen had seen someone we didn’t know, completely unaware who this person was, with what was described as an AR-15 rifle. And they took it out of their vehicle and walked into the church building. At that point, with the amount of back story and personal safety concerns, we were very hesitant to go in the building,” Jay Nelson said.

An armed guard stands on the steps of Singsaas Church near Astoria, South Dakota, looking over a crowd assembed to attend the annual meeting of the church's cemetery association, June 12.
Contributed / Marlene Kjelden

We’ll get to that back story in just a moment.

“I apologize for law enforcement and everything showing up,” Attorney Dennis Evenson said during the meeting. 

KELOLAND Investigates obtained a video from June 12th. An annual meeting was underway for the Singsaas Cemetery Association. The people outside, mostly descendants of those buried on the grounds, wanted a say in what was happening. But they found the armed men at the door intimidating.

“I did talk to some of the congregation that said the reason for the security was that they had a previous meeting and it got out of hand and they felt there were threats made and they needed some type of security,” Sheriff Stanwick said.

“Never, ever could I have imagined it could have escalated to the point where you have an AR-15 in a church building and men with revolvers sitting outside,” Jay Nelson said.

Life-long member Jay Nelson says it all started after Jason Hartung took over as pastor in 2020.

“The church was already in the process of becoming non-Lutheran, but becoming non-denominational” Singsaas Pastor Jason Hartung said.  

MY NOTE:  I don't necessarily believe this.  As we proceed, I hope you will see why.

Singsaas Church Pastor Jason Hartung

You need to know that Hartung’s congregation does not own the church building, the cemetery or the surrounding land. There is a separate fund for donors to the cemetery association, many of whom are buried at Singsaas, to maintain the cemetery and grounds, a fund that has more than $200,000 in it.

From the Mitchell Republic: "The Singsaas Cemetery association lies at the heart of the conflict due to an unusual relationship between the well-funded association and the church itself. Whoever controls the cemetery association controls its finances — and the church's physical future.  At stake is not only what Singsaas Church is now, but what it means as a historical location and pioneer legacy."  (LINK)  

My Note:  This is very common with country churches in South Dakota.  The church may have closed, or dwindled to almost nothing, but the Cemetery Association is well funded, by purchases (of cemetery sites) donations and legacies, and they take care of the maintenance of the cemetery and church grounds. Sometimes of the church.  Nothing unusual in this.  But, they are sitting on a chunk of change, which may have some import to what comes next:

"There were rumblings that the church was going to make changes to Singsaas that would eliminate its spot on the National Register of Historic Places, where the church was placed in 2003. Recently a cemetery association member noticed the plaque indicating the church's status had been removed from the front of the church." (LINK)  

“So this is my mom and dad. And there’s my grandma and grandpa,” McHugh said.  Nadine McHugh’s maiden name is Knutson and you can find that name all over this cemetery.  “We’d ring the bell an hour before church started. And before us, my grandparents also were the caretakers here. It’s just in the Knutsons that we’ve been taking care of this church,” McHugh said.

Despite her history with this place, McHugh stopped attending services here when Hartung took over.

“There are things that are going on that perhaps we don’t really understand and perhaps scripturally it doesn’t really sit well with us. And so we haven’t been going here now since 2020,” McHugh said.

"Hartung is no staid Lutheran preacher, and Singsaas is not a quiet Lutheran church. Congregants recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag and hear a reading of the U.S. Constitution during Sunday services. And the church has become stridently vocal on social issues of the day."  (My emphasis)  (LINK)   

MY NOTE 1 - I have never heard of a church where they say the Pledge of Allegiance and/or read the US Constitution during Sunday services.  Sounds more like the Aryan Nations or militia movement "services" to me... 

MY NOTE 2 -  So much for separation of church and state.  Looks like tax fraud to me.

Jay Nelson says he didn’t leave the church voluntarily:
Nelson: There was a congregational meeting held at which me and four other people–none of us were told about the meeting; none of us were told about what was going to happen at the meeting–it turns out in that meeting they voted all five of us out as members.
Kennecke: You got kicked out of your own church?
Nelson: We got kicked out of our own church.

Hartung: We pleaded with them to reconcile with the church. They knew that I was following and church leadership was following the doctrine of the word of God according to Matthew 18.*
Kennecke: Did they know they were going to be voted out?
Hartung: Did they? Yes, they did. They knew they were going toward that direction.

MY NOTE:  Probably Matthew 18:15-22.  

It was the direction that the church was going that led to the fallout in the first place. Nelson and two others have filed a petition with the court over the church’s constitution being thrown out.

“We want to make sure there is integrity in the process of changing the church constitution so that everyone is on board and everyone is represented,” Nelson said. 

MY NOTE:  A unsurprising reason to change the church constitution and the church membership and the Cemetery Association membership would be that $200,000 in the Cemetery Association Fund...  

“There is no such thing as having a church constitution that is unchangeable in any way shape or form,” Hartung said.

Meanwhile, the Singsaas Lutheran Church Cemetery filed a suit against Nelson and two other men, demanding they turn over any cemetery records they may possess. 

MY NOTE:  $200,000, sitting there...  

It’s a battle that has divided this community.  “It’s pitting lifelong friends against lifelong friends; people I’ve been friends with my entire life that won’t make eye contact with me,” Nelson said.

KELOLAND Investigates obtained a letter from Hartung where he asks his flock to pray for God to deal properly with the enemies of Singsaas. 

Kennecke: Are you an enemy of the church?
Nelson: I do not consider myself an enemy of the church at all. But we’ve been made aware that the pastor is communicating within his congregation, citing enemies of the church, which we would take to mean ourselves.

Kennecke: So who are the enemies of the church?
Hartung: Satan.
Kennecke: Not the people that…
Hartung: The people may allow the enemy, be used by the enemy to go against a church that preaches and teaches the word of God. I love these people and I’ve given my life for them.

MY NOTE:  Given his life???  He's only been there a couple of years.

Kennecke: Have you divided this community?
Hartung: It has revealed this community.
Kennecke: Tell me what you mean?
Hartung: It has revealed where people stand on the word of God.

Remember that Sunday meeting where all the guns and “security” showed up at church?

Kennecke: Was it an appropriate response, do you think?
Hartung: Is it an inappropriate response? Not according to the Constitution of the United States, the Second Amendment.
Kennecke: You’re allowed to have guns.
Hartung: Absolutely.
Kennecke: You didn’t break the law.
Hartung: Absolutely
Kennecke: But was it appropriate?
Hartung: Yes.
Kennecke: The sheriff said there was a rifle in the church. Was it an AR-15?
Hartung: Absolutely not.

But that’s not what a Brooking’s County Sherriff’s Deputy saw. According to his report, there was an AR-15 rifle with an inserted magazine leaning in an AV closet to the rear of the church’s sanctuary, and it was in a secure location. The owner of the rifle told the deputy he brought it to church at the request of the pastor to be armed security for the vote.  (My emphasis)  

“It’s not against the law to carry. It’s not against the law to carry into a church. No reason to secure any guns or anything. It’s just something you don’t come across, especially in this part of South Dakota,” Sheriff Stanwick said. 

At the end of the meeting that day the congregation’s attorney, Dennis Evenson acknowledged there wasn’t any real threat posed by the crowd of mostly older people who had gathered.

“Just let them clear out first. We can sit here all day. They’re good people, they’re good people. It’s not a problem there,” Evanson said in the video of the meeting in the church.

Hartung: There was a desire for order and management of the crowds, the potential crowds and there was a request by Dennis Evenson for security due to previous threats.
Kennecke: Have you been threatened personally?
Hartung: Yes I have.
Kennecke: What kind of threats?
Hartung: Death threats.
Kennecke: Have you reported those to police?
Hartung: I have talked to the sheriff’s department yes.

However, the Brookings County Sheriff tells KELOLAND investigates his office has not received any reports of death threats against Hartung. (My emphasis)  Nelson says there is an easy solution to end the conflict.

Nelson: If they wanted to go off and start their own non-denominational congregation with their own constitution, they were always free to do so. They could leave. 

Kennecke: Wouldn’t it just be easier, with this controversy you’re dealing with, to pick up your congregation and move them to a different building, a different site?
Hartung: That’s what some of the controversy; that’s what they want us to do, but the point is why?
Kennecke: And why not?
Hartung: I ask them why? What do they want the building for?

MY NOTE:  Because their ancestors built it?  That it's their building?  Not yours?  But, let's face facts - there's $200,000 just sitting there...

“We’re all a big family here and we’ve never had any issues with this until just the last few years. I just don’t want anything to hurt the cause of Christ in this situation. It’s a church and we’re here to worship God almighty. It’s just really a sad day for there to be so much confusion,” former Singsaas caretaker Nadine Knutson McHugh said.

Kennecke: What is it going to take to resolve all this?
Hartung: The truth.
Kennecke: And the truth is what?
Hartung: The truth is that, instead of having control, manipulation, and lies, we need to go, first of all, How do we honor God in this.

A lot of people on both sides of this issue have mentioned to me that none of it seems very Christian-like.  I spoke to pastors at a couple of previous churches where Hartung served in South Dakota. Both told me he brought more division than unity to their churches. In fact, one church ousted its long-time pastor shortly after he arrived.  (MY NOTE:  That would probably be Spearfish. LINK) Hartung told me that had nothing to do with him. 

Thanks, Angela!

MY NOTE:  $200,000, just sitting there, waiting...  Just one more thing that seems a little rotten in South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, and act like Goodfellas...

29 June 2022

The Powers That Be

At the risk of sounding unAmerican, I have never been a big fan of comic books or graphic novels (with one notable exception). 

Superhero movies don't do much for me either.  In spite of that I think I have seen a dozen of them, and half of those were about Batman.  (Yes, I know he isn't a superhero.  But he is, of course, the World's Greatest Detective.)

I believe I have only seen one superhero movie in a theatre, and that was by accident.  The film I came to see broke so I agreed to see Superman II instead.  Didn't much care for it.

But a few years ago I was thinking about the public's love for such characters and an odd thought popped into my head: What if someone thought they had a super power?  Well, that might be interesting.

Of course, it would have to a pretty minor super power.  If you thought you could fly or become invisible you would soon be disillusioned.  After some thought I wrote this opening:

When Randolph was six years old, he discovered he could control gravity.   

Not completely, of course.  He couldn’t make things fall up, or even hover in the air.  But once something started to drop, he could influence its direction.

He figured this out one rainy day when his mother told him that, no, he couldn’t go outside, so he should find something to do and stop complaining or she’d give him something to complain about.

Randolph had sat by the window, looking into the street, and noticed a drop of rain poised on the glass.  It began to slip and he thought: Go to the left.

And it did, shimmying down to the far end of the pane.  So he could do that.

The rest of the story follows our hero (?) through his life.

Is Randolph delusional or does he really have a form of psychokinesis?  That is one question that lies at the heart of "The Lord of Falling Objects" in the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, on sale now.

The other question is of course: Why does this story belong in a magazine for crime fiction?  Read it and the pieces will, ahem, fall into place.

28 June 2022

Law Class

I’ve been thinking lately about lawyer archetypes. (I don’t often sit around musing about Jungian psychology, but I needed to give a short talk on the legal profession, and one thing sort of led to another.) The topic comes up occasionally. An internet search leads you to a good CrimeReads article by Christopher Brown. The American Bar Association devoted an issue of their magazine to the topic in August 2016.

    Every occupation has its types: doctors, priests, teachers, and even assassins have predictable buckets for fiction and movies. I’m sure accountants and farmers have them, too. I just haven’t read enough books or seen those films. 

    For today’s conversation, I will identify five different types of lawyers. I focus primarily on criminal practitioners because that’s where I live, but I think the types are equally applicable to civil law.

            #1. The Crusader:

    When asked about a lawyer archetype, this is the one most commonly named.

Think Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. The truth-seeking champion of the downtrodden speaking truth to power. She can be found seated at either counsel table in the courtroom. The Crusader may be the prosecutor seeking justice for a traumatized victim or a defense attorney fighting a lonely battle on behalf of a wrongfully accused social outcast. She might be a plaintiff’s attorney giving voice to a powerless litigant suing a giant corporation with a team of deep-rug lawyers.

    The Crusader doesn’t have to be good at the job. This type is based on passion, not talent. Although she will have to find a legal nugget somewhere. Nobody wants to watch/read the story where the true believer gets steamrolled by the mighty empire unless there is a twist.

            #2 The Shark:  

    Maybe getting runover enough times has led to cynicism. The Shark sacrificed early zeal for the pursuit of wealth. Perhaps the idealism never existed to begin with. The Shark has learned the courthouse’s back passages and traverses them for his own enrichment. A reasonable doubt for a reasonable fee.

    Sharks represent the profession devoid of any nobility. Maybe they are skeptical about whether anything like justice exists, or perhaps the Shark has just become detached, substituting the luxuries purchased through success for any moral examination.

    Perhaps you’ve seen the Shark’s billboard on your morning commute. They can usually be found near the emergency room entrance to the hospital.

            #3 The Sleazy Drunkard:

    Abandon hope all ye who enter here. The Sharks or The Crusaders might journey down a path leading to Sleazy Drunkard. Drugs or alcohol might serve as the balm for a Crusader who must confront frequent disillusionment as the system disappoints and ultimately crushes him (and his clients). Alternatively, the absence of a moral compass might lead to unrestrained hedonism. The lawyer’s downward spiral leads to professional lapses—the decline may be marked by the diminished quality of the Drunkard’s scotch.

    To be fair, perhaps the archetype should have a slash, Sleazy/Drunkard. This attorney might still dream of nobility through an alcohol fog or, alternatively, have substance abuse as but one of a collection of issues, the others more sinister.

    Sleazy/Drunkard stories might be about redemption. Think Paul Newman’s Frank Galvin in The Verdict. (There are more recent examples, but that’s where my mind went.) The Crusader who tumbled is resurrected. Alternatively, the story might make the Sleazy/Drunkard the villain. Clients come to an attorney’s office needing help. That need makes them vulnerable and subject to exploitation. Every courthouse I’ve ever worked in has rumors about lawyers who took in-kind payments for their services. Characters who prey upon the weak in their hour of distress make first-rate villains. 

            #4 The Buffoon:

    My final categories get a bit muddled. The Buffoon could easily be subdivided into several distinct buckets. I think that they arise from our shared understanding of courts. We know the tropes of a courtroom. The lawyer who runs afoul of those established practices can generate either
laughter or cringes.

    J. Cheever Loophole, played by Groucho Marx, might mock the theater of the
courtroom with an over-the-top portrayal. John Gibbons, the public defender in My Cousin Vinny, might set up Joe Pesci through his ineptitude. We know what they’re doing or failing to do because we have learned through books and movies what to expect from a courtroom.

    The Buffoon might also just be very bad at his job. There is an element of talent, experience, and instinct in a successful attorney, just as in any other profession. A case in the hands of a Buffoon might produce an unjust outcome. The story might, therefore, set the stage for vigilante action to balance the scales. Every revenge story is about righting an unpunished wrong.

            #5 The Pettifogger

    This type takes the conversation in a different direction. To this point, the types have been more about degrees of cynicism toward the criminal justice system. The Pettifogger may fall anywhere along the scale. This is a classification based on tactics.

    By etymology, the Pettifogger may seem synonymous with the Shark, the Drunkard, or the Buffoon, depending on where the emphasis lies. A combination of “petty” (small) and “fogger,” an obsolete Dutch expression for a cheater. (You might think of an English profanity that sounds something like it.)  A pettifogger became a “small cheat,” a substandard practitioner of law. One who handles only small cases or employs questionable methods, according to the website Lexico.

    Instead, I’ve seen the name employed and use it here to describe the attorney who makes every question a struggle, every point a battleground. To illustrate, consider the following exchange.

            Lawyer #1: “Tell the Court your name.”

            Pettifogger: “May I take the witness on voir dire?”

            Judge: “Briefly.”

            Pettifogger: “How do you know your name?”

            Witness: “My parents called me that.”

            Pettifogger: “Objection, hearsay. No personal knowledge of the fact.”

            And with that, the bloodletting begins.

    I’ll hasten to add that there is a place for focusing on the details in court. Witnesses may want to describe with broad strokes and attention to the specifics is how inconsistencies may be reconciled and conflicts resolved. Reasonable doubt is created in the details. Excessive focus on every detail, perhaps using the pain of court to deter seeking an appropriate legal remedy, creates the world where “lawyer” becomes a pejorative.    

    We’ve split the lawyering world into five classes. You might find other categories as you look across the expanse of fiction. We might also think about how these categories affect fiction. That will have to be a topic for another day.  

    Until next time. 

27 June 2022

Lois McMaster Bujold, Queen of Genre-Bending Fiction

My apologies to readers for getting this post up late. I could blame either my granddaughter's high school graduation this weekend or the fact that the keyboard on my big computer died and the replacement we rushed in wouldn't "recognize" my iMac (hmmph!), but instead I'll hope none of you got up too early this morning.

Some of my favorite authors don't live on the crime fiction shelves in bookstores and libraries. This doesn't mean they don't write crime fiction. Lois McMaster Bujold, a brilliant writer however you categorize her, writes novels and novellas in which the structures of mystery, thriller, and suspense are embedded in science fiction or fantasy. While she's at it, she creates characters that not only leap off the page but burrow into our hearts and builds worlds rich in history, politics, sociology, and theology as well as physical environment. She's funny, clever, and compassionate, and oy, can she create a crisis.

She's the author of several series, but her masterwork is the Vorkosigan Saga, which has won three of her four Hugo and two Locus awards for best novel, a Hugo for best series, and both the Hugo and Nebula for best novella plus a ton of nominations, not to mention winning all three awards for best novel in an unrelated fantasy series and a Hugo for best fantasy series.

The Vorkosigans are one of those families that you fall in love with and wish would adopt you and take you home with them. Home is the planet Barrayar, a lost colony of Earth that endured a prolonged Time of Isolation from the rest of the galaxy, during which it developed an aristocratic warrior caste called the Vor, who have rigid notions of honor and a backward attitude toward the role of women. This ends when their wormhole is rediscovered by way of invasion from the planet Cetaganda. The Cetagandans were definitely human until they did some very sophisticated tinkering with their genetic material. The citizens of Komarr unwisely let them through and got conquered by Barrayar in revenge after they repelled the Cetagandans. Komarr is rich in wormholes and thus a gateway to the rest of the galaxy, which has space travel and a lot of up-to-date technology, including uterine replicators, which will radically change the lot of women on Barrayar by freeing them from "body births." Komarr is a planet that thrives on commerce, opening the way to stories about financial intrigue on a grand scale as well as political and sociological intrigue. Another prominent planet is Beta Colony, egalitarian, advanced in science and not at all military-minded, and offering to its citizens and visitors all sorts of freedoms, including sexual exploration. Old Earth plays a role, and there's also a planet devoted to corruption, chicanery, and the art of the deal. In other words, it's a huge canvas, and Bujold and her readers have a wonderful time with it.

But the real draw is the Vorkosigan family. They're brilliant, funny, and superb at inspiring loyalty, making friends, and doing the unexpected. The first two books feature Cordelia Naismith from Beta Colony, captain of a scientific team hoping to claim an uninhabited planet, and Aral Vorkosigan, commanding a Barrayaran military team bent on the same mission. He takes her prisoner, but she quickly figures out that the reason he's alone is that his crew has mutinied. Thrown into survival mode together, they make a good team. Not surprising they start to like each other...

The protagonist of most of the series is the couple's son, Miles Vorkosigan. Born stunted and with brittle bones thanks to an assassination attempt involving poison gas during Cordelia's pregnancy, he has a hard time not only being fragile in a military culture but looking like a mutant on a planet that has a horror of mutants in the aftermath of the nuclear attacks by the Cetagandans a generation earlier. But Miles is not only the smartest person in the room, the space ship, or the planet at any time, he's also the most determined, and he proves it in an infinite variety of ingenious ways. He has the brain of a genius, the soul of a hero, and the heart of a romantic. His friends refer to him as a "hyperactive little git." A Civil Campaign, my favorite book, is space opera + comedy of manners. There's a moment I love after he's made an egregious, public, and deeply embarrassing faux pas in his courtship of the woman he wants to marry. To no one’s surprise, she never wants to speak to him again. My favorite bit is when his mother suggests a remedy.

"The—the kindest word I can come up with for it is blunder—was yours. You owe the apology. Make it. I realize you don't do abject very well, but I suggest you exert yourself."
He went back inside Vorkosigan House to his study, where he sat himself down to attempt, through a dozen drafts, the best damned abject anybody'd ever seen.

While still in his teens, Miles accidentally finds himself in command of a mercenary space fleet and invents a persona to fit. At one point, he plays the role of the fictitious Admiral Naismith and not one but two imaginary clones. Eventually, he finds a job for which he's even better suited: Imperial Auditor for the Emperor of Barrayar, ie an investigator with unlimited powers who's been picked precisely because he's a loose cannon, but one Emperor Gregor has known his whole life and trusts completely.

I started with Shards of Honor and Barrayar, the two Cordelia books, and they pulled me in just fine. For thriller and mystery lovers who want to meet Miles right away, I'd recommend starting with Komarr, which is space opera + political thriller and Bujold writing at the height of her powers. It starts with what appears to be a routine crash that damages the solar mirror essential to the domed cities of the planet with its unbreathable air. The plot thickens into one in which bumbling terrorist conspirators and kidnappers whose plans have gone awry may unleash enormous powers of destruction. It's a perfect job for Imperial Auditor Vorkosigan. An abusive marriage and a moving love story of great complexity are seamlessly tailored into the interstices of the political plot. Its sequel is A Civil Campaign, which has more politics and sociology, including some issues that have come more into the open in our own world since Bujold wrote it, more brilliant characterization, and a feast of laugh out loud moments.

26 June 2022

The Aftermath

This will be my last post on the Edgar and/or my Edgar story. I promise.

Okay, so I've been wondering why "The Road to Hana"? I've read the other nominated stories and they were all great, so why mine? I can't say that my style of writing was literary or exemplary, because in my mind, the way I write is like me telling stories in a bar to friends over drinks. Or maybe like swapping stories with fellow cops (in a bar over drinks) after a raid or large operation. Seeing who can tell the best ones based on what happened during that raid or operation.

I've thought about it a lot because I would like to duplicate whatever it was that I did. The problem is that I can only come up with the possibility that the story resonated for some reason with the reader. I can't tell you how many people came up to me before and after the Edgars to say they have been on that road and the story made them feel it all over again, plus the few who said they could feel the road in the story even though they had not driven that road themselves. If that's the case, then I'm screwed for coming up with another story which resonates with the reader to that same degree. How to come up with a story situation which has the same impact, or resonates with the reader? I am working on it though, cuz Michael Bracken has already challenged me to meet him as a Nominee at the Edgar Awards Banquet next year. Talk about pressure.

Now, on to other items in the aftermath.

About two days after we flew home, I received an e-mail from Hiroyuki of the Hayakawa Publishing Corporation, Tokyo.  They were interested in publishing my Edgar story in their Mystery Magazine, June 25th issue. I have no idea if this is a new thing, or if they have been doing this for some time with the Edgar Best Short Story. Their contracts for reprint rights are very, very simple and they pay more than U.S. editors tend to pay. I don't read Japanese, but do plan on getting a copy or two of that issue for my personal library.

You see, I once thought I was published internationally when I sold a story to Swimming Kangaroo where the editor was named Dindy. But then the check came from Texas and that took care of that. I think we got to keep an eye on that Texas contingency.

Just to keep me humble, the woman sitting across the aisle from me on the 4-hour airplane ride from LaGuardia to Denver coughed on me all the way back. She wore no mask. Yes, I know the airline companies claim that their air circulation systems screen out all the germs and viruses, but those little fellas didn't make it direct to the filtration units. First off, they crossed the aisle to me.

A few days later, the severe head cold hit with a vengeance. Kiti finally dragged me to one of those little mobile huts in the shopping mall parking lot and we both got the lower side of our brain swabbed for Covid. Four days later, the results were negative, but I was still coughing and blowing. Almost healed now. I think I'll live.

I still have to write a story good enough to get nominated in 2023. May have to ask that Naked Singing Cowboy, whose photo I showed you in last month's post, how he keeps from catching cold in that cold, damp weather they have in Times Square and Central Park. Especially if I'm planning to go back there again. What a way to make a living.

25 June 2022

What Makes an Author a Hero? Paying it Forward

 I love that term, Pay it Forward.  It speaks of giving selflessly, but also of planning for a future.  

Really, we're talking about Hope.  When you pay it forward, you are believing in Hope.  Hope that the world will continue to be a good place in future - or at least, a good enough place for you to invest some time NOW helping others who will be around later.  In our case, helping them to continue the literary tradition.

Recently, I got an almost tearful email from a former student who has been picked up by a traditional publisher.  Her book comes out this month.  I couldn't be more thrilled.

She has been generous in her thanks to me for serving as a mentor and cheering squad, and that got me thinking about the people who influenced me in my publishing travels.

I've had maybe a dozen students do really well as writers, in my 30 years of teaching the craft.  Each email telling me of one's success does something to my heart. This is why we teach!  What joy I am given by a student's success.  

But it also does a very curious thing for me.  It reminds me of my own first successes, and the people who helped me on my way.

It's lonely out there, on that author journey.  You basically have to travel it yourself (writing for hundreds of hours, alone at a keyboard.)  Writing, as we all know, is a solitary exercise.  Unless you co-write a book, no one else will have the same investment in it.

It's a journey, no question.  But along the way, you may come across some seasoned travelers who give you the benefit of their experience.  Generous people who take the time to encourage you, when there is no tangible benefit to themselves.  

I started writing for money in my 20s. As I look back on a thirty-five year writing career it suddenly struck me that few of my mentors or people who encouraged me are still alive.  And thus the circle has completed.  They mentored me.  I mentor others younger than me, who will go on to support the next generation of writers, when I am long past.  

God Bless all those who mentor and encourage writers.  You are important and appreciated long after the fact.

A few of mine:

Marilyn Laycock:  Marilyn was a columnist for her local paper.  She died last year, after serving as an older sister to me for almost forty years.  It was she who encouraged me to 'go pro' and take college writing courses in 1986 and 7.  Marilyn told me where to send my first essay (it got published) and provided all the 'Attagirls' I needed in those early years. She sponsored me for membership in the Mississauga Writer's Guild, and introduced me to well-published fiction authors there who would be instrumental in encouraging my fiction career.

Michael Crawley:  The head of the Mississauga Writer's Guild was Michael Crawley, a professional veteran fiction author of horror, erotica, and other genres, under several pen names.  Michael saw potential in me, took me under his wing, and made it his job to see that I tried writing and publishing in several genres, some of which I don't admit to these days :)  Michael died several years ago, but is still fresh in my mind - he lives on in a way I don't think he ever would have anticipated.  

And finally, one who is still alive:

Linwood Barclay:  Sometimes a simple act of kindness can make all the difference.  After some early humour column publications, I brazenly wrote to Linwood Barclay, who was then editor of the Life section of the Toronto Star (Canada's biggest newspaper,) asking if he would consider publishing one of my pieces.  This was completely unsolicited.  I marvel that I had the guts.  But here's the thing:  Linwood wrote back.  This was before email.  So he actually *wrote* back.  He told me the piece was definitely funny, I had talent, but the Star didn't take freelance.  Why didn't I try my local paper?  So I did.  They took it.  They took more.  I got syndicated.  And that launched a humour career of columns, standup and comedic fiction that has spanned thirty years.

One simple act of kindness that has lasted a career.  He didn't have to do it. Most wouldn't have.  It took a bit of effort on his part.  And I have never forgotten it.

 How about you?  Are there people who made all the difference to you as a newby writer?

Linwood Barclay in Conversation with Melodie Campbell, Burlington Public Library, May 19, 2022

24 June 2022

The Sound Of Music

Music can be a powerful motivator for a writer. Years ago, I heard Annie Lennox's cover of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down." The image of a dead man lying at the side of a highway as semis (or "lorries," as Young puts it in his lyrics) at sunrise crystalized a series of unconnected scenes. Years later, after putting it on the shelf and dusting it off again, that project became Holland Bay.

Of course, you hope a song exploding in your brain like that pays off sooner. Holland Bay took so long to write that I spun up an entire trilogy and adjacent arcs of novellas by the time I sent it to Down & Out Books. In fact, I had no idea I would be getting back into science fiction when I started.

In the early days, when I wrote about PI Nick Kepler, I wanted a series of prompts to keep short stories flowing. In my misspent youth, I had an obsession with, along with Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, heavy metal gods Deep Purple. I decided I wanted a short story named for a song title from each of their (ever-growing) list of studio albums. That was a start. But "Hush," which spawned a short story about hush money, became "Just Like Suicide," as the hush money involved a murder made to look like suicide. The obscure "Chasing Shadows" involved a witch and a graveyard (the former making a return appearance in the novel Bad Religion) became "Full Moon Boogie," another obscure song by a later iteration of the Jeff Beck Group. So music led to music. But some were obvious.

Deep Purple's second hit, an instrumental called "Wring That Neck," has a title that calls to mind chickens meeting an untimely demise before ending up in a bucket with eleven herbs and spices. Nick Kepler was a creature of Cleveland and its suburbs. However, I had lived briefly in what I now dub Amish Mafia territory, specifically Holmes County, Ohio, where my parents spent their final years. I remember I was culture shocked being fifty miles from anywhere. So Nick went looking for a Romeo and Juliet couple who run off to more rural than rural Ohio. It ends a bit better than Willy Shakes' tragic tale, but Nick is a fish out of water, even slipping in chicken poop at one point. He is less than charitable to his client after that.

Then there's "Flight of the Rat," written about two years after 9/11. Many of us struggled to deal with that event without hitting the reader over the head with it. The song, from Purple's In Rock album, gave me an obvious title. Nick chases a bail jumper into Cleveland's Hopkins Airport on 9/11 and gets away with things he would not be able to do twenty-four hours later. That one, I played the source song over and over while writing it.

Lately, one song came up on Tidal, my streaming service of choice. "Last Plane Out" by one-off band Toy Matinee has shown up several times on Daily Discovery. While inspired by Yes, UK, and, to some extent, Asia, the band featured Guy Pratt, aka Roger Waters' replacement in Pink Floyd. The song, however, has more in common with Radiohead and Coldplay but doesn't take itself nearly as seriously. "Last Plane Out" begins with the line "Welcome to Sodom. How we wish you were here." It goes on to tell the tale of someone living in a land of decadence and vice but hoping for a seat on the titular last plane out. Edge of the apocalypse stuff.

The song is quite catchy, but the lyrics suggest the second season of Jack Ryan, as Ryan and Greer seek to navigate a fictionalized Venezuela. Currently, I'm pondering either going with a thriller and accessing my inner Lee Child or making this a second outing for my science fiction space spy Eric Yuwono, who may return to the land of sin and vice already in a pending novel. "Welcome to Sodom," the Biblical land of violent hedonism, seems an irresistible jumping off point for either a present-day character or a futuristic spy finding himself on a planet about to implode under the weight of its own over-indulgence.

These aren't the only examples. Our own Brian Thornton edited two anthologies inspired by the music of Steely Dan while the same publisher just released one based on Warren Zevon's. (How can you not do crime fiction with a title like Lawyers, Guns, and Money?) And music is all through Stephen King's books, quoted, as themes, and even in the meta fiction. (The Dark Half's main character wrote a literary novel called Purple Haze that may or may not have had an intrusion by his violent dead twin pseudonym, but clearly channeled Hendrix in its tone.)

And why wouldn't music weave its way through our writing? Some writers listen to specific music to set the mood for a scene. Others want a wall of sound to keep the world out so they can concentrate. And sometimes, it just helps you think.

23 June 2022


 Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. 

         -John Hughes, Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

As regular readers of my turn in this blog rotation (both of them!*rimshot*) will no doubt recall, my day gig for the past twenty-five or so years has been teaching history at the secondary level. For the past twenty years I have taught solely at the middle school level (and in the same school, no less). 

What's more, I have loved nearly every minute of it.

As of this time last week, I had every intention of coming back to this same position in this same school and teaching 8th grade history for the eighteenth consecutive year. The only changes would be a shift in the era taught (from Ancient and Medieval World History to American History, 1790-1920), and a one-year move to teaching part-time as a single-year concession to some on-going health problems (both my own and those of a close family member). 

In short I'd be teaching American History (my MA is in 19th century American History) three periods per day, rather than Ancient and Medieval World History five periods per day. At least, that was the plan. And it has been a long-standing precedent in both my building and my district that this sort of part-time schedule is a morning gig, wrapping up around Noon or shortly thereafter, leaving my afternoons free to take care of myself and my family.

And then last Thursday happened.

At 8:58 AM I received an email from my vice-principal informing me that not only would I not be teaching in the morning, but I wouldn't be teaching 8th grade. My building administration had scheduled me to teach three 7th grade classes from 11:19 to 3:20 every day.

What's more, my administrators had made this radical change to my on-going schedule without once doing me the courtesy of consulting me about it. That is just not done. 

In fact I had filled out the required end-of-school-year wish-list for the coming year and made it clear that I was only interested in continuing to teach 8th grade Social Studies. Early in my career I had taught multiple subject areas and grade levels in different classrooms over the course of school day. This went on for the first several years of my teaching career-just paying my dues, nothing more, nothing less. As I gained seniority within my subject area and within my building, that changed. 

I don't need to tell anyone who has a family member either attending or working in the public school system during the COVID-19 pandemic that the past three years have been some of the most stressful for all concerned in the history of public education. And that stress has taken a toll on my health. Hence my taking a partial leave in the first place.

To say that working a mid-day schedule would do nothing to support my attempts to address my on-going health concerns is an understatement. In point of fact, it would cripple them. As for teaching 7th grade, that too was a minefield.

My district recently changed the 7th grade curriculum to one provided by an education nonprofit. To call it "history" is to misname it. It's barely social studies. Without getting too deep into the weeds on this, I'm a trained historian, published in my field, and cannot, in good conscience, agree to teach this curriculum. Period.

So there are two nonstarters.

Which meant I was suddenly faced with a choice: "What do I do about it?"

I briefly considered reaching out my to building admin to ask why they had done this, and whether there was wiggle room to change it up to something more palatable, something that would work better for me and my needs. I did not consider this option for long.

After all, when I first began to consider taking a partial leave of absence for the coming year, I immediately consulted with my building administration, as a matter of professional courtesy. This was three months ago. When I decided on this course of action two months ago, I also immediately notified my bosses. I was able to confirm this shift in my work assignment had been in place for at least a month by the time I received my career-changing email last Thursday.

That begs the question: why did my bosses not afford me a similar courtesy? I would think at the very least my twenty years' working in this building merited an in-person conversation as soon as the decision had been made, and not simply announced in an email several weeks later.

Draw your own conclusions as to what these actions on the part of my building admin say about my value as an educator within a building I've called my professional home for two decades. I know I certainly did.

So I did the smart thing. I went home and talked it over with the wisest, brightest, kindest person I know. My wife. (Yes, she's all of the above and more, and NO you CAN'T have her. She's all MINE!).

My wife expressed concern for my health (as she had before many times) and for what toll the stress of this new schedule and struggling with this new curriculum might take on me. Her proposed solution was an astonishing combination of love, compassion, empathy, and concern for my well-being.

She suggested I simply expand my leave for next year to a full-time leave. She made the case that we could afford it, and all she asked in return was that I honor my obligations to address my chronic health issues, help my family, and one other thing.

I have to finish my current novel, outline and write another one, and write and publish a yet-to-be-determined number of short stories and novellas.

What writer in his right mind (no cracks, now!) would not take that deal?

So that's what I did. 

The next day I informed my principal (a wonderful lady, new to our building this year, but someone whom I very much enjoy and toward who I have not one shred of ill will). Her dismay at my decision frankly surprised me.

I mean, no one talked to me about this. Literally for weeks.

So when she started bartering, trying to keep me on-staff at least part-time, I had to stop her. After all, I didn't do what I did as the first move in a series of negotiating ploys trying to "get what I wanted."

I made a decision. An informed one. And truth be told, as I explained to my principal just last Friday, they did my a favor. Their scheduling me to teach afternoon 7th grade classes forced me to take a good hard look at my plan to work part-time in my building and try to address my health concerns piecemeal.

The realization that I have the option (thanks, again, I hasten to add, to the loving support of the World's Best Wife) to step back and focus on my own needs full-time for at least the next twelve months has been incredibly freeing for me.

And I am beyond grateful. Thanks all over again, honey. I love you more than words can wield the matter.

So that's it. For at least the next year it's get healthier and write, write, write!

See you in two weeks!