13 August 2022

There Will Be Math (or, a Few Story Statistics)


2010, Aix-en-Provence, and I'm standing at a velvet rope in the Musée Granet. The rope is the only thing between me and a manual inspection of any painting in the gallery. I could have a right good art appreciation lesson before the guards swarmed. I stayed lawful and legit, but what if someone hadn't? What exactly would swarm? A story idea was born, and it started me on an unexpected path.

My first crime story. My first good crime story submitted, anyway. And my first acceptance in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.. There are ten more AHMM acceptances since that museum caper and 29 others out or headed your way. If by now you're thinking there will be math in this post, you're right.

That first AHMM (2014)

In all honesty, I didn't start out writing stories with any count goal in mind.

I was drafting an ambitiously doomed novel and hoping for credits to pad my queries. A fine plan, other than the doomed novel part.

The novel is shelved. The stories still trickle out a few per year. A person learns a few things on a path like that. The stories get better, I hope, or the author gets smarter. Talent is a factor in acceptance, but I'm being honest here. Luck gets involved. Tons of talented writers are out there writing tons of great stories. Not all of those catch an editor's eye.

Which mean it's important to share the wisdom. Math-style. Buckle up.

WORD COUNT IS NO ACCIDENT

We're a crime blog, so I'll filter the acceptances down to crime stories. I prefer to read printed stuff, so I'll filter again down to crime stories run or contracted to run in a print edition. I'll filter a third time for paying markets plus a conference anthology with charity proceeds. I want to see y'all printed and paid.

A print edition means print production costs. These constraints should inform a submission strategy. Precious few crime markets--or any markets--take novellas and novelletes these days. AHMM is one of those, to include the annual Black Orchid Award. Still, magazines have only so much room for magnum opus novellas. And for every long story, a print market needs multiple shorter stories to balance the issue. Not too short. Flash stories can create inverse balance issues. I go for the middle ground.

Oh, that Goldilocks zone, 3500 to 4500 words. Convert that word count to time, and you have a ten-ish minute, single-sitting read--nicely suited for my kind of character build and high note.

The average length in this group is 4,200 words. The eleven AHMM stories average 4,500, mostly off two longer stories featuring the same character. The eight in other markets average 3,800. Long pieces wear me out (more below), and shorter pieces are hard for me to nail. I don't spend much time on either.

READING IS CARING

Often, what goes without saying should be said most. Print markets have sample issues, either the current one or a back issue. Read them. Reading a market is essential to submission prep, or else I don't give the submission much chance. Respect-wise, markets can and should have editorial tastes. Not to sense a given market's taste is to be unprepared. As for AHMM, Managing Editor Linda Landrigan recently gave a lengthy interview to Jane Cleland here that is gold for anyone wanting to submit.

I'm molasses-in-winter slow at getting a piece ready. Six to nine months is warp speed. For AHMM, I'm usually in the eighteen month range before I feel confident enough to submit. Why rush something when AHMM prints six editions each year?

The numbers in red above are earlier manuscript versions floated to anthologies. These calls can be great motivators to get a draft finished. Deadlines are a thing with anthologies, whether I'm ready ready or not. Those early rejects did me a huge solid. A version of the French caper story went first to a MWA call. Rejection provided a chance to slow down and rewrite my AHMM breakthrough story.

STORIES OF DISTINCTION

Here's the thing about story variety: You have to be a varietal. At least bring a twist on something not done to death. If you're playing it tried and true, other someones have already bombarded these markets with a similar idea. I mean, distinctiveness is to break through that crowd. By side-stepping it.

Avoid–avoid–the first or easiest thoughts. People have been writing stories for a lo-ong time. That first idea has been done. But five or eight or so ideas down a brainstorming list is a prime nugget.

Inching out on a limb involves risk. Checking the mail has risk, too. Paper cuts. Wasp stings. Meteors. I say go for it.

"Two Bad Hamiltons and a Hirsute Jackson" (AHMM, 2015) is about twenty bucks in counterfeit. Twenty bucks. The difference maker is how the main character can't let an easily recoverable loss go. I've used hot chicken as an unhealthy religious experience, lottery audits as a stardom dream, and the surprisingly real phenomenon of walnut-jacking.

Another path to distinctiveness is approach, or how a story is told. Who takes center stage, how events are structured, what's the emphasis and slant. This path is inexhaustible. I'm character-centric. Premise follows, yin and yang. Plot and structure are the scaffolding. "The Cumberland Package" has a dark moment scene where main character literally disassociates for 412 words

. 412. In a short story. But whenever in angst I deleted that dark moment, the story fell apart. I kept the fugue, as to go down swinging. The story was a Derringer finalist.

Art theft and organized crime in the South of France isn't exactly original ground. To Catch a Thief got there first, among others. My thief in that French caper story had a turn of phrase, though, an Eeyore outlook on life but committed to the craft, like if Dortmunder had gone upscale and failed at that, too.

Speaking of Westlake, there's the dying art of style. I invest in a voice, broadly and for each story. I'm not afraid to use this for hijinks. But style is another risk. Style adds editing work. Maddening work, and style can backfire with an editor. AHMM's famed openness feeds my luck--but so does the energy put into each submission.

A MILLION CRIMES IN THE CITY

Murder in deft hands makes for awesome whodunnits.

Clues, red herrings, evidence, science, suspects. That's a lot. In that sense, I'm lazy. And also realistic. Writing a clever mystery isn't what draws me to the chair. Character is. Other writers bring more passion and skill to the whodunnit. I'll read those A-gamers' work and write in my wheelhouse.

This faux body count might surprise. Nine. That's on purpose. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, murder is a means to another end, or it's a desperate reaction to something way out of hand. I start with the small change--relationship friction turned toxic, street robbery, drug muling, art capers that should've stayed clean--and see how out of hand things should get. If the character has to solve a crime, fine. Sometimes, I shake my lazy bones loose and write a mystery.

I've tried hard to learn from success and failure. I know first person is more my thing. Crawling inside a main character's head and way of speaking rewards my approach. I've learned to keep the vocabulary simple. A thesaurus is a great place to find the wrong words. And I track story stats so there's an objective way to keep improving. Okay, also I'm compulsive. But mainly the objectivity thing.

IN ALL

  • Pros submit to pro markets. To compete, write and submit professionally.
  • Don't rush a piece. It only gets one chance with a dream market. Be surer than sure you're researched and ready--ready ready--to click send.
  • Don't settle on an easy plot or premise. If you've read it before, so has the editor. 
  • When in doubt, mid-range length is your friend.
  • Read what you love. Write where your skills are.

If breaking in to these markets is your dream, keep dreaming. Don't be discouraged. Be intentional. Put in the work. I'm Exhibit A that there comes a moment. Mine was at that French velvet rope and wondering who might hop it.

12 August 2022

Time to go to the movies again


It's fun to make lists. Here are some movies lists. What does this have to do with writing? Movies have scripts, don't they?

1. Movies I’ve watched many times and will watch again.

    Amadeus
  • AMADEUS (1984)
  • ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930)
  • BATTLEGROUND (1949)
  • BLOW-UP (1967)
  • BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)
  • CASABLANCA (1943)
  • THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)
  • Blow-up
  • DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID (1982)
  • THE DEPARTED (1984)
  • DR. ZHIVAGO (2006)
  • FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966)
  • FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)
  • FUNERAL IN BERLIN (1967)
  • THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947)
  • Ghost and Mrs Muir
  • THE GODFATHER (1972)
  • THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
  • I MARRIED A WITCH (1942)
  • THE IPRESS FILE (1965)
  • JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959)
  • LAURA (1944)
  • LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
  • The Godfather
  • THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)
  • THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975)
  • MY FAVORITE YEAR (1982)
  • THE PRODUCERS (1967)
  • REBECCA (1940)
  • ROMEO AND JULIET (1968)
  • SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)
  • Ipcress File
  • THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)
  • SHINDLER’S LIST (1993)
  • THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965)
  • THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)
  • THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942)
  • VERTIGO (1958)
  • YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)
  • This Gun for Hire
  • ZULU (1964)

This list is incomplete as I keep remembering good movies.

2. Movies I’ve seen once and will never watch again.

  • AUSTRALIA (2008)
  • AVATAR (2009)
  • THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
  • A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1972)
  • Laura
    Laura
  • CRASH (2004)
  • LOVE STORY (1970)
  • THE DEERHUNTER (1979)
  • FATAL ATTRACTION (1987)
  • GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)
  • MRS. DOUBTFIRE (1993)
  • SAW (2004)
  • THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2008)
  • WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998)
  • Every superhero movies I’ve seen except
    • THE PHANTOM 1996)

3. Movies I’ve fallen asleep while watching and won’t try again.

  • All of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies.
  • The HARRY POTTER movies my daughter was able to drag me to

4. Movies I’ve walked out of to get a cup of coffee and waited for my wife to finish watching and join me at the coffee shop

  • THE CONSTANT GARDENER (2005)
  • THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996)
  • SOLARIS (2002)

That's all for now.



11 August 2022

Murder in the Chapel - 1935


First of all, many thanks to John Benting, Associate Director of Emergency MGMT/Security Audit Control, at the South Dakota State Penitentiary for his notes on this case.  Mr. Benting is working on a history of the South Dakota State Penitentiary, and I hope he gets it published soon.  All the factual material & material in quotes is from his notes, and all the rest is my own experience and fervid imagination.  

On September 17, 1935, Florence Turner (aged 32), inmate #7164, was killed on the chapel stage by her partner in crime and love, Glenn Murray (aged 33), inmate #7163. Both were doing time for burglary: Glenn got 20 years, Florence 10. They'd robbed a gas station in Rapid City and for some reason kidnapped two people. They took the two out to the country and tied them up with barbed wire. Proving that  Houdini lives when there's enough desperation, the two victims got out of that barbed wire and notified the police of the crimes. After that, it wasn't long before Glenn and Florence were captured north of Belle Fourche (which is only 55 miles away).  They arrived at the penitentiary on July 7, 1933. 

So why did he kill her, two years later? And how?

Well, the "how" is easy:  

"The day after the murder Murray was interviewed by Warden Reilley and State's Attorney Crill. Murray said that the female inmates (there weren't that many of them back then, and they lived in "the cottage") passed notes over the wall."  

My note:  The cottage was a small pipestone building added on to the east side of the main prison. It's still there, it's just been repurposed. 

"The previous Thursday Murray had another male inmate working out on a roof of one of the Hill buildings throw a note over to a female inmate who gave it to Florence. During that Sunday's church service Florence signaled Glenn that she'd received the message. Glenn said the message he had sent to her was that they were going to commit to a suicide pact and that she would show up to sick call on that Tuesday the 17th to carry out the deed."  

So, on Tuesday, Florence went to the prison hospital, which back in those days was reached through the chapel. Murray was waiting there - some say on what's now the stage - with a half pair of scissors he had stolen from the grain house, and stabbed her in the heart. Then he pulled out the blade, dropped it, and walked away.  NOTE:  Murray never, ever attempted to kill himself.  

Glenn's file for Sept. 17, 1935 states: "Stabbing Florence Turner with a dagger M.Sol. 9:15am."  Florence's file page for Sept. 18, 1935:  "Died September 17, 1935. Was stabbed in the heart by inmate Glenn Murray (sweetheart) when going to hospital for treatment. Died instantly."  

Fourteen days later, on October 1st, Glenn's file says "Released from Sol. Confinement 10:30am. Murdering his so called wife by stabbing her in heart." 

Fourteen days: Not that long for killing another inmate, is it?  

Glenn was convicted of murder and given a life sentence, but back then, life wasn't always without parole in South Dakota as it is now. He got out in October 1960, but came back on a violation in 1962. He died two years later in prison of a heart attack in December 1964.   

I'm still puzzled as to why Florence agreed to a suicide pact.  True, she and Glenn were childhood/high school sweethearts (hard to say which), who were going to get married back when she was 17.  Somehow her parents blocked it. Some time later, she married William T. Turner, 20 years her elder, and had five children with him.  After Donna, the fifth, was born, she left Turner and went back home to her parents in Brownsville, Iowa.  When Glenn got out of an Iowa prison in February, 1933, he found Florence, and convinced her to run off with him. She did, taking Donna with her.  They only had one month together, because they were arrested in March. (One month. I hope it was a good one.)

Anyway, at the time of her death, Florence was still married to William T. Turner (then 55). He was living in Waterloo, Iowa, raising the other four children. (NOTE:  Donna was adopted by an unnamed couple in Rapid City a couple of months after Florence's arrest.)  William Turner stated that he exchanged letters with his wife about every two weeks: she would write a letter to him and include a letter for the kids. He also stated that a year before the murder he'd tried to get her out on parole so she could come home and help raise the kids, but the request was denied.  

From the I Am An Evil Person Files:  What leaped to my mind was, "You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille" - and that maybe this was why Florence agreed to the suicide pact. Anything but going home to Mr. Turner. 

Then again, I'm not convinced that there was any note about a suicide pact - maybe it was a note about an escape attempt.  I don't know that anyone ever found the note. And if Florence thought that they were going to escape, and he killed her, well, that would explain a lot of what comes next:

Florence haunts the Hill chapel and the offices, hallway, etc., around the chapel.

John Benting:  "For years people have talked about a ghostly presence in the chapel area. Those who have had encounters have considered it to be a female presence, which is odd for a male dominated prison. More importantly these people who have considered this "ghost" a female presence had no knowledge of Florence's murder. I didn't uncover this story of Florence Turner until around 2015. It had been a story that had been lost in time for many decades as I have spoken to many people who have worked here as far back as the 1970's who didn't know the story of Florence's murder. There are still a handful of stories from a couple different people that come out every year on happenings in the chapel area. I have never personally had an experience here, but I know I have been hearing these stories of the female ghost going back 15 years before we rediscovered Florence's story."

I know a few stories myself. For one thing, there's a cold column of air on the stage of the chapel that isn't a draft: you can shut all the windows, close all the doors, and that column of air is still there. I've experienced that.  

Occasionally things move - not while you're watching, but when you look back up it's not where it was. I've experienced that, too.  

Other people (including a couple of staff I know) have seen a face or more behind a door, or reflected in the glass on a door.  

And, unlike the Loch Ness monster, Florence can show up on videotape:  There's a door in another room that leads out to a small catwalk. That door is ALWAYS kept locked, because that room has been repurposed. Well, there's video cameras everywhere in prison.  So there is a tape, very late one night, when all the inmates were locked down in the cells, and no one was even in the chapel area, that shows that door opening, all by itself, and then closing, all by itself.

I wonder what she was looking for…

10 August 2022

This Immense World


 

I’ve been reading a book a friend gave me called An Immense World, by the British science writer Ed Yong.  If the name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s a regular at The Atlantic, and won the Pulitzer for his writing about COVID over the past two years, an island of common sense and clarity in the general chaos of misinformation.  I might go so far as to say Ed Yong’s columns kept me sane. 

The central theme of An Immense World is how we encounter our immediate environment, how we separate the familiar from threat, how we register light, heat, pain, movement, and even magnetic fields – and by we, it includes every creature of the earth, the air, or the oceans.  The immense world is exactly that, not confined to our species alone.

Yong borrows a conceit called Umwelt from the German, the world which appears to us, and each of these worlds appears differently to different animals.  But our world feels to us like the whole world: since it’s all we know, he writes, we easily mistake it for all there is to know. 

Light is electromagnetic radiation.  Sound is pressure waves.  Smells are small molecules.  Our senses transform those signals into a sunrise, a voice, the scent of baking bread.  Biology tames physics.  It turns external stimuli into information we can act on, to eat, to find shelter, to survive, and reproduce, and to evolve.

[The above is not me writing; I’m paraphrasing Yong.]

No animal can respond to everything, too much information is as bad as too little.  We imagine it to be a superpower, that Spidey sense, but it would be overwhelming.  So each animal filters their signals at the source.  Which work to our advantage, which work against us?  Natural selection is the obvious mechanism.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

What fascinates me about this is how clearly it applies to human social interactions, how it’s a physical model for relationships, functional and not so.  If this is the way the brain works, the way it processes signals from the physical world, and makes them kinetic – fight or flight, for example – is this also the way the brain processes what we might call the less substantial world, language, ritual and religious belief, the interpretation of spirits, family and kinship?  Does it develop from our sensory input?

Yong has an example from neurobiology.  400 million years ago, certain species of fish left the water to live on land.  In the open air, they evolved to see longer distances than they could underwater, and he suggests this spurred a greater adaptive leap.  By seeing farther ahead they could think farther ahead; they could plan, instead of simply reacting to what was immediately in front of them. 

This isn’t biological determinism, that’s not where I’m going.  I’m talking about the common tendency we have to analyze other people’s behavior in terms of our own.  I see you acting in such-and-such a way, and if it were me, my motive or reason would be thus-and-so.  I therefore ascribe that motive or reason to you – and I’m totally off-base. 

The metaphor Yong puts forward (he credits Jakob von Uexküll, fabulous name) is a house with windows overlooking a garden, and each window has a different view, so our perspective of the garden shifts from window to window – a smell, a sound, a touch – but the garden we sense is the only real garden.  The garden from a tick’s point of view, or a bee’s, or a sparrow’s, will be different from ours, but just as real.  We’re each of us inside the house, looking out on a landscape.  The windows are of course our physical senses.  Is it plausible that the reach, or limits, of those senses, are reflected in the reach, or limits, of our imagination, our myth-making, our theology - our understanding of human destiny? 

Our world feels to us like the whole world, and if it’s all we know, we easily mistake it for all there is to know. 



09 August 2022

Weather or Not


    Some immutable truths live in the basement of the jail, the place I call my work home. I'd like to explore some of them in the next few column inches. The following comments are not
supported by scientific research– no lab rats were killed in the writing of this blog. Rather, it is a compilation of observations.

    1. Hot weather makes criminals more aggressive.

    High temperatures are associated with bad moods, jittery behavior, irritability, and negative feelings. The jail staff certainly believes it. They keep the jail chilly to lessen aggressive behavior. As I've mentioned before, if you plan to get arrested, think ahead and bring a sweatshirt.

    When the weather gets extreme in either direction, cold or hot, we see a few anecdotal examples. As I discussed in my last column, some of my criminal trespassers go full Otis (That's an Andy Griffith Show reference and not the elevator). The homeless present themselves to the jail and force an arrest. This is a tactic for survival and not necessarily aggressive behavior.

    Rarely does a 4th of July pass that I don't see at least one man who attacked his brother with a barbecue fork. He apparently missed the note on the calendar identifying this as Independence Day.

    As I mentioned above, I'm not a social scientist. But we need to think about causation and correlation. In the summer, personal violence rates climb. Ice cream sales also do. Before we require Blue Bell (or whatever the leading ice cream is in your region) to slap a warning label on each half gallon, we need to consider whether the change in one produces a change in the other or if they are only statistically associated.

    So what about cause? Hot weather makes a person grumpy and, as a result, they are quick to wield that two-pronged, long-handled fork. Although we tend to think so, I'm inclined toward a different explanation. People are out more in the summer. They tend to hydrate with beer. When the siblings gather for the holiday, alcohol and family become the secret sauce. The barbecue fork is the weapon of convenience. The hot weather takes the blame. Check back at Thanksgiving; the knife used to carve the turkey will be involved.

    Personally, cold weather makes me grumpier. That's why I chose to move down to Texas and visit Minneapolis in early September before the northern gales bring the ice and snow.

    Consider rain. My climate criminologists tell me that rain and low barometric pressure also lead to a higher incidence of violence. My jail staff, however, love rainy days. (After they get to work and dry out their clothes.) They are hopeful for an easy workday, believing that rain will make fewer people go to the bars. They also think that police officers, not wanting to get out in the rain, might let a few behaviors slide that would otherwise result in traffic stops or out-of-car investigations.

    Of course, it has been so long since it rained in north Texas, that most people might just stare at the sky, getting soaked by this phenomenon that they've read about on the internet. We're living the reverse of a Ray Bradbury short story.

    2. There was a Covid effect. 

    In the early days of Covid-19, the crime pattern around Fort Worth shifted. The bars were closed. People didn't go out, and my driving while intoxicated cases fell precipitously. Instead, malefactors drank at home. They still acted out their aggression on the people around them. Spouses bore the brunt of the anger.

    The bars are back in business. We've grown accustomed to Covid. These days you can get punched by a stranger and infected all at the same time.

    3. A full moon makes everyone crazy.

    At the end of this week, August's full moon will fill the night sky. All manner of disturbing behavior will be attributed to this celestial power. I'm not sure that the statistics bear out lunar lunacy. Many of my jailers believe it, as do police officers and emergency medical workers. When the frontline observers attribute criminal behavior to a full moon, the people will persist. They can talk a phenomenon into existing.

    There may be a practical element to this one. A full moon might provide enough light for a burglar to practice his or her trade more easily. On that night, the concealing darkness of the shadows remains, making it harder for the victim's doorbell camera to get a good picture of the thief. The opposite of crazed behavior, the incidence of crime under a full moon might be perfectly rational when viewed from a certain perspective. The bomber's moon has become the burglar's moon. Just don't howl.

    For the astrological incline, by the way, Saturn will be at its yearly brightest a few days following the full moon. The tug of Saturn influences a person's moral boundaries. The next week may be a seriously dangerous time to be outside.

    As for me, I'll use the excuse to stay indoors and start planning for Bouchercon.

    Truth be told, I'm traveling the day this posts.

    Until next time.

08 August 2022

Sidekicks and Wingmen


Few things are more helpful to a detective than a good assistant. Dr. Watson ranks as the first among equals in this useful category, being not only a helper and the recording narrator, but also a stand in for the reader when the great man's mind gets ahead of the rest of us. He was followed up by the likes of Archie Goodwin of Nero Wolf fame and the obtuse but brave and cheerful Captain Hastings, friend of Hercule Poirot.

I have been thinking about assistants of one sort or another since I have recently watched several of the Cormoran Strike TV dramatizations while reading a number of Abir Mukherjee's mysteries set in 1920's India. Both feature lively and highly intelligent assistants who are crucial to the stories' success.

Strike, created by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) is a fine character, a one legged Afghan war vet who hires pretty Robin Ellacott as his secretary and office manager and gets the bonus of a trained driver, a superb undercover operative, and a fine detective. While Cormoran has some rough edges and is not at his best in social situations, Robin is a smooth operator, although, in what I consider a retrograde touch, she doubles as the woman in jeopardy when the action lags.

Robin is well acted on screen and well drawn on the page, as is Mukherjee's Sergeant Surendranath (Surrender-not) Banerjee, assistant to another war wounded detective, Captain Wyndham. The Captain

is a man of the Empire, only partly disillusioned about the Imperial project after the horrors of trench warfare which have left him addicted to opium. That he evolves from acceptance of the colonial power structure to a considerably more complex attitude is due to his assistant, Sergeant Banerjee.

Banerjee, a Brahmin, was superbly educated in England (Harrow and Cambridge) and he has family connections with the top of Indian society and with supporters of Ghandi's independence movement. Both these circumstances make him an unlikely, as well as a conflicted, policeman in a colonial set up. Nonetheless, he is good at his job, if a touch naive, and he clearly foresees a need for good police work in any future India. 

Banerjee's education gives him perspective on both cultures. He is a key to Wyndham's (and the reader's) understanding of Indian politics, religious beliefs, and customs up and down the social scale. He is certainly better educated than his Captain and perhaps more intelligent.

What Banerjee does not have and what he will certainly learn from Wyndham is a more cynical and realistic view of human nature, especially of its criminal elements. And just as rapport with his Sergeant modifies the Englishman's view of the Raj, so the Captain's trust and their evolving personal relationship strengthens the sergeant's confidence in himself and in an independent India.

Signs of this evolution were very clear in their most recent outing, Death in the East, which also highlighted Banerjee's importance as a character. The Sergeant's arrival was delayed for more than half the novel, and at least to this reader, he was sorely missed. Wyndham with his bad memories and his addiction is best taken in smaller doses. His obvious affection for Banerjee lightens the mood of the novel, even as the Sergeant provokes him to reassess the done thing and British attitudes.

They are a good team, and Mukherjee, who was raised in Scotland and now lives in London, has himself the bicultural heritage and background to bring them both to life, as well as a host of Colonialists, revolutionaries, princes, opium purveyors, servants, and even ladies of the zenana.

***

The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina StoriesThe Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations and The The Dictator's Double, 3 stories, 4 illustrations are available from Apple Books.



07 August 2022

Grammar Nazi


Even the best of us make grammatical mistakes although it’s difficult imagining Stephen Fry flubbing floating phraseology. He manages to educate without being overly pedantic. He doesn’t belittling lecture like grammar police.

TL;DR: If you’re in a mad rush, jump to the second video featuring grim Gestapo grilling, gore, and gunfire, but if you have 6½ minutes, the fabulous Fry makes an entertaining case for not being too… er, Fryish.

But what if Goebbels or Göring controlled the language? Imagine no more. A comedic critic has done exactly that. Picture The Producers language coach. So with apologies to Mel Brooks and almost everyone else (you may have to turn on sound in the lower right), we bring you:

06 August 2022

My Stranded Stories


  

For years now, anytime I'm the focus of a Q&A session--at a conference, booksigning, writers' meeting, wherever--I'm asked to address some of the same questions. The most-often-asked so far has been, without fail, "Where do you get your ideas?" (It would seem that I'd have a good answer for that one by now, at least an answer better than the old "ideas are everywhere." But I don't.)

Two more often-asked questions always surprise me a bit, because they deal not with writing style or writing processes but with two specific markets. Many of my fellow writers, whether we already happen to know each other or not, ask what tips I might have for submitting short stories to (1) Woman's World and (2) Strand Magazine.

On the one hand, they're fair questions. I've been fortunate at both publications ever since I sold my first stories there, which happened in the same year: 1999. On the other hand, as all you writers know, any answer to "How do I sell stories to a certain market?" is as difficult and subjective as the answer to "Where do you get your ideas?"


Stranded in Storyland

Since I've attempted in several different SleuthSayers posts (here's one of them, from a year ago) to steer writers in the right direction with regard to writing mysteries for Woman's World, I decided to try, today, to do the same kind of thing with Strand Magazine. Bear in mind that the very best way to learn what stories a market likes, whether it's The Strand or WW or anyplace else, is to read the stories in the magazine--but failing that, or maybe in addition to it, I hope this might be of at least some help. Bear in mind also that I don't have all the answers. I still get rejections too, even after all this time, from both these markets. 

Having said all that . . . what I've done is put together a list of the stories I've sold to The Strand so far, along with their wordcounts, a quick summary of each story, the types of crimes that were involved, and, as an afterthought, some notes about any later recognition given to those stories. (It's a fact that stories published in The Strand often show up in annual best-of anthologies and award-nomination lists.) And after that I'll talk about some other submission pointers.

So here are my Strand stories. I can't guarantee that you'll be published there if you write stories of similar length and with similar plots and crimes, but I can tell you what has worked for me. 


"The Proposal" -- About 4600 words. A Texas oilman who's being blackmailed discovers a way out of his dilemma. The type of crime: murder. This story was later named as one of the year's "Other Distinguished Stories" in Best American Mystery Stories 2000.

"Murphy's Lawyer" -- 2400 words. An engineer for a chemical company convinces an attorney to help him fake a laboratory accident. The crimes: murder, insurance fraud.

"Debbie and Bernie and Belle" -- 4500 words. A lovesick law student enlists the help of a mysterious ten-year-old girl to try to repair a break-up with his fiancee. The crime: robbery.

"Reunions" -- 4100 words. Two airline travelers, one of them on a secret mission, meet and then drift apart, neither realizing they'll soon meet again. The crime: murder.

"Turnabout" -- 4800 words. A highway rest-stop near the site of a recent bank robbery soon becomes a battleground. The crimes: robbery, murder. Named as one of the year's "Other Distinguished Stories" in Best American Mystery Stories 2012.

"Bennigan's Key" -- 4400 words. When mob employee George Bennigan is rewarded with a vacation to a remote island resort, he finds himself wondering about the possible reasons. The crime: murder.

"Blackjack Road" -- 4000 words. Two loners--one a convict, the other a man considering suicide--are thrown together in a chance meeting. The crimes: prison escape, murder.

"Secrets" -- 3200 words. Two ferry passengers with dark secrets discover a surprising and deadly connection. The crime: murder.

"200 Feet" -- 4400 words. One man, one woman, and a narrow ledge on the side of building twenty floors above the street. The crime: murder. Nominated for an Edgar in 2015.

"Molly's Plan" -- 5000 words. Most successful bank robberies are simple. Owen McKay's was not. The crime: robbery. Selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2015

"Driver" -- 9500 words. When a U.S. senator's missteps lead to what could be a career-ending scandal, only one person can save him: his limo driver. The crimes: blackmail, fraud, murder. Won a 2016 Derringer Award and was named as one of the year's "Other Distinguished Stories" in Best American Mystery Stories 2016.

"Arrowhead Lake" -- 7500 words. A robbery in a hi-tech company's remote headquarters comes down to a battle using primitive weapons. The crimes: murder, robbery, manslaughter.

"A Million Volts" -- 4500 words. Two romantic affairs on a college campus turn violent. The crimes: murder, assault, terrorism.

"Jackpot Mode" -- 7900 words. A pair of ATM experts--one in software, one in hardware--attempt to steal a small fortune from a local bank. The crime: robbery. Named as one of the year's "Other Distinguished Stories" in Best American Mystery Stories 2017

"Flag Day" -- 6500 words. The employees of a suburban ice-cream shop stage a false theft in order to hide a real and bigger one--and run into problems. The crime: robbery.

"Crow Mountain" -- 4100 words. A handicapped fisherman encounters an escaped convict in the middle of nowhere. The crimes: prison escape, murder.

"Foreverglow" -- 2400 words. Two young sweethearts plan the heist of a special jewelry exhibit from a local department store. The crime: robbery.

"Lucian's Cadillac" -- 2400 words. Many years after their graduation, three classmates come together to fight an old enemy. The crime: murder.

"Biloxi Bound" -- 4800 words. Two cafe owners in a crime-infested city neighborhood decide to relocate . . . but not soon enough. The crimes: murder, robbery. Selected for inclusion in Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021 and in Best Crime Stories of the Year 2021.

"The Ironwood File" -- 3100 words. A tyrannical boss, an employee, and a former employee bent on revenge converge one day in a downtown office building. The crimes: industrial negligence, attempted murder, sexual harassment.

"Nobody's Business" -- 2300 words. Two strangers--a man fleeing from his debts and an old woman hunting alligators--team up in the woods against other kinds of varmints. The crimes: loan-sharking, murder. 

"The Road to Bellville" -- 6200 words. A female sheriff transporting an inmate between prisons stops for a break at the wrong roadside cafe. The crimes: robbery, prison escape, murder.

"Sentry" -- 6700 words. Private investigator Tom Langford hires on as a bodyguard to the wife of a mob boss. The crimes: murder, racketeering.


 

Other info

For what it's worth, none of the above stories were locked-room mysteries, none were whodunits, none had supernatural elements, only one was a PI story, none were written in present tense, and they're pretty equally divided between first-person and third-person POV. Also, all of them were contemporary crime stories, not historicals, BUT this market does seem to like Sherlock Holmes stories and historical mysteries.

As for other submission pointers, remember that The Strand usually doesn't publish stories with otherworldly elements, although its guidelines say they'll consider them, and they frown on too much sexual content and strong language. Another thing: they prefer stories of between 2000 and 6000 words. The guidelines say they're occasionally receptive to stories of less than 1000 words as well, and my own experience has shown me they'll sometimes take stores longer than 6000--see my list, above. You'll also see that the first ten stories I sold them were safely in that 2000-6000 range, so I wasn't taking any chances; after that I tended to sneak in much longer stories now and then. 

One of the biggest things to keep in mind is that The Strand almost never responds to a submission unless it's with an acceptance. That means that you must keep close track of your submissions--something you're probably doing anyway--and that after a reasonable wait (three months or so, in my opinion) you should probably withdraw a story that hasn't gotten a response and submit it elsewhere. Woman's World works the same way.

Last but not least, The Strand's editor is Andrew F. Gulli and the submission email address is submissions@strandmag.com.


Have any of you tried sending stories to The Strand? Any successes? Anything you can add to the observations I've made? As always, comments are welcome.


I hope this helps. If you do choose to submit a story there, best of luck!



05 August 2022

Can't Happen Here


 It happened in January. On my street, we park our cars along the street. There are big, wide spaces that are clearly not part of the road, but do give us enough space to park one or two cars. Not surprisingly, we get possessive of these spaces. The guy across the street, universally considered the nicest guy in the neighborhood, can get nasty about someone parking in front of his house. Never mind that it's actually public parking.

After five years living in this house, someone hit my car. Alcohol was not likely involved. No, it was one of my own neighbors from literally up the street. I had taken late December and early January off from Uber and had planned to go out the next evening. I would not drive again until March. My response?

BUT THAT NEVER HAPPENS HERE!

It's a fender bender. So, naturally, I'm not nearly as skittish about parking out front. It took five years for someone to hit my car. Plus, if you'd seen our driveway, for which I still haven't forgiven the previous owner, you'd understand why I'm still risking it. And no one was killed. Though there's a black cat my neighbor attempted to miss that's in danger of landing in the violin factory.

Yet, as I type this tonight racing a deadline, I'm watching a news story from nearby Arlington Heights. The towns surrounding Lockland, including Arlington Heights, have fallen on such hard times since the disappearance of Lockland's industrial heart that some of them no longer have police departments. A woman was attacked inside her home despite her street now patrolled heavily by neighboring Reading. The woman says, "You hear of this elsewhere, not here." 

She wants to leave. Granted, someone knocking in your car's door because their driving skills leave a lot to be desired doesn't compare to an assault inside your own home by two strangers. Violence traumatizes people. It's a leading cause of PTSD. If someone beats the hell out of you where you live, leaving is not an unreasonable reaction.

It happened to me once when I first moved to Cincinnati. Taking my girlfriend on an afternoon trip downtown, we wandered around the late, lamented Skywalk. Walking between Carew Tower and the Westin, a guy came up and started muttering about violence to someone who did him wrong. Then he asked us for a couple dollars. My response to the homeless had been sometimes to give them money to make them go away. There is a subset of people who will make intimidation or aggravation a means of getting money out of hassled passersby. This guy did not go away. Back in the Tower, we thought we'd grab lunch. Only our friend was back. With a friend of his own. We thought it was because that was his territory. Only he followed us. We went down to the food court. He and his new friend followed. We crossed to the elevators. He made a beeline for us.

We escaped by taking an elevator up a floor, then jumping into another car, taking it up ten floors. It bewildered the people at the law firm on that floor, but we were able to leave in peace. We had lunch across the river in Kentucky. 

That was 1992. I did not visit Carew Tower again for five years. By then, my experience with the characters downtown had deepened. I could spot the bad actors, the harmless cranks, and those who actually needed help.

It only takes one incident, no matter how rare. My stepson AJ will not ride his motorcycle on Ronald Reagan Highway after a hit-and-run sent him to the hospital. His mother won't drive in nearby Covington alone after a carjacking. We like to think we understand the risks, but especially these days, we've become risk averse. If it happens once, it's hard to imagine it won't happen again.

04 August 2022

Some Writing How-To Links


Earlier this week, R.T. Lawton, fellow Sleuthsayer, Edgar Award winner and one of my oldest and dearest writing friends, mentioned in a blog entry that he had recently taken on the challenge of writing his first ever P.I. story, and that he was naming both his protagonist and the P.I. firm he works for after Yours Truly.

To say I was touched by the gesture would be an understatement. What an honor!

But that's not why I have linked to said blog post. It's because in it he pulls aside the curtain and shows how the sausage gets made. I find these sorts of "where writers get their ideas"/"how to do XYZ in your writing" posts fascinating. And having done a fair number of them myself (including most recently the one about seeing the Buddhist monk playing the Lotto.).

So I got to thinking that it might be helpful to post a few of my own favorites here as a resource for fellow writers. And on that note, here they are in no particular order:

Three Tips For Organizing Your Writing










And I think that will do it for this go-round. I hope these links are half so instructive for anyone browsing through them I found the writing of them to be.

See you in two weeks!

03 August 2022

To Protect the Innocent, and Other Reasons



About a decade ago at a mystery conference a friend told me about an anthology he had been invited to write a story for.  Hmm, thought I.  I could create something for that one.

Instantly I had an appropriate story idea (and that's the way it always works, kids, ha ha).  I pulled out my notebook and wrote down the title and a one-sentence summary.  I believe I even wrote down the last paragraph.

Now as it happens, the editor never invited me to submit for that book.  And that's fine.  You can't ask everyone to the dance.

But I wrote the story and since then it has been looking for a happy home.  No luck, until Maxim Jakubowski announced he was going to edit a book called The Book of Extraordinary Femme Fatale Stories.  

Jakubowski is a well-known author and anthologist in Britain. Back in the nineties I had stories in two of his books (and am very fond of them, since one earned me my only Anthony Award nomination, and the other got me my first recognition from Publishers Weekly).  So I figured I might have a chance.

"The Dance of Love and Hunger" is narrated by a young man who is not the brightest and a bit too malleable.  His friends already talked him into a jail sentence.  Now he has fallen in love with a beautiful musician and when both of their families have financial troubles... well, stuff happens.

I originally set the story in Bellingham,WA, where I live, but the story is just so  bleak I couldn't bear to impose it on my lovely city, so I changed the names to protect the innocent.  Bellingham was named for one of the people involved in George Vancouver's expedition to the Northwest, so I magically changed it to Broughton, an officer on the ship.

Cornwall Avenue drifted east on the English coast and became Devon Avenue.  Indian Street turned into Treaty Street.  Which brings me to an interesting anecdote, because Indian Street also changed its name in real life.

Back when I worked at the university library I spent some time on the search committee.  One day it was my duty to drive a candidate to campus.  He was actually an alum of the school but had been out of town for several years.

The streets in this neighborhood were: Forest, Garden, High, Indian, and Jersey.  But when we reached the appropriate corner he said "They changed the street name." 

"That's right," I said.  "Indian Street is now named for Billy Frank, Jr.  He was an important Native American leader in the state."  

We drove for another block and then he blurted out: "But now the streets aren't in alphabetical order!"

"I know!" I said.  "Why couldn't they find a Native American who's name began with I?"

Something only a librarian (or someone with OCD) would even notice.

"The Dance of Love and Hunger" made it into The Book of Extraordinary Femme Fatale Stories, which was released on July 26.

 



02 August 2022

Deadlines, Shmeadlines


One of the many attributes of successful writers and editors is the ability to meet deadlines, and the ability to meet deadlines is one of the ways I have managed to sustain a multi-decade writing and editing career. I try not to over-commit my available time, and I try to plan large projects with built-in buffers in case unexpected events—family emergencies, for example—demand my attention or a high-value project with a tight turn-around drops into my lap.

How do you keep track of projects
and meet deadlines?

On the rare occasions when it looks like I might miss a deadline, I work with my editor, publisher, or client to find a satisfactory solution. Not to be too cocky, but it’s been a long time since I missed a hard deadline.

Until three weeks ago.

Y’all were treated to one of Shifty’s animated adventures on July 12 because I whiffed the ball. I wish I had a great excuse—while on a humanitarian mission to rescue zoo animals from Ukraine, I resuscitated a penguin that had choked on a sardine, midwifed the birth of twin albino Siberian tigers, and taught a malformed baby porpoise to swim with a prosthetic tail I crafted from Mountain Dew bottles—but I don’t.

My excuse is far more mundane: I entered my SleuthSayers deadline on the wrong calendar date.

By the time the secret master of SleuthSayers emailed a reminder that my blog post was due that night, I had already shut down my computer and had shifted my attention elsewhere.

LEARNING TO JUGGLE

Meeting deadlines means learning to juggle. I edit a bi-monthly consumer magazine and a weekly newsletter, and I’m associate editor for a weekly magazine. These publications all have hard deadlines, as do the anthologies I edit. I also edit a quasi-quarterly mystery magazine, which has spongy deadlines, and I create marketing material (TV, radio, and print ads along with brochures, flyers, social media posts, and more) for a professional orchestra with constantly changing deadlines determined by concert dates and media requirements.

And in the nooks and crannies between all these deadlines I’m also writing new stories, some of which have hard deadlines (when I’m writing to invitation, for example) and some of which don’t.

Once upon a time I was able to keep all these deadlines in my head and remember what I ate for breakfast. No longer. I’ve grown older at the same time I’ve become busier, and I just can’t remember every deadline. I’m now relying on my computer’s calendar and a to-do list I keep next to my computer.

But when I fail to add something to the to-do list or I enter a deadline incorrectly into my computer calendar...well, that’s when I risk missing a deadline.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DESK

I have found ways to ensure that I (nearly always) meet my deadlines, but as an editor I find it difficult to ride herd on writers. Professional writers know that editors have deadlines. We can’t publish anthologies, magazines, and newsletters with blank pages. And, unless you’re George R.R. Martin writing the next volume of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, not many editors are willing to wait until you get around to putting words on paper. We’re going to press with you or without you.

But beginning and early career writers don’t always understand how important it is.

Get a reputation as someone who fails to deliver promised manuscripts on time, fails to approve copyedits and page proofs on time, fails to show up on time for a panel, or fails to meet any of dozens of other deadlines and commitments that are part and parcel of being a professional writer and the opportunities will slowly disappear.

And that once-promising career becomes nothing but memory dust.

I stumbled. I’ll recover. And I’ll turn in this post several days early.

But what about you? How do you keep track of your deadlines?


My story “Sparks” appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Vautrin.

My co-authors’ blog posts for AHMM and EQMM appeared the same week. Read Sandra Murphy’s “Add (Your) Life to Your Writing” at Something is Going to Happen and James A. Hearn’s “A Writer’s Tears” at Trace Evidence.

And I’m moderating a panel at Bouchercon next month. “Groovy Kind of Death: Murders Set in the 60s/70s” is scheduled for 1:45-2:30 p.m., Thursday, and panelists include Lou Berney, Wanda M. Morris, Richie Narvaez, Marcie Rendon, and Gabriel Valjan.

01 August 2022

What I Didn't Know Then (Pretty Much Everything)


I was nine when the Mickey Mouse Club serialized the first Hardy Boys book. For my tenth birthday, my parents gave me the first five in the series, and I devoured the rest of the 36 in print over the next year or so. I read the Rick Brant series and the Ken Holt books, too. I just discovered that those books still exist on Kindle. Who knew?

With those tales as my model, I wrote my own mystery stories. One chapter took both sides of a wide-ruled tablet page, and they usually ended with the burning car plunging over the cliff or someone getting hit on the head and "everything went black." My mother, who had been a secretary before she married my father, typed the stories, and when I saw my words in print, there was no going back. I knew I wanted to be a writer.

Over the next ten or fifteen years, that idea always lurked in my subconscious even though my parents discouraged it. They were probably afraid I'd starve, and they were probably right. I started college as a pre-dentistry major, hated it, and changed my major to English. In grad school, I took a course on the American short story that unleashed the urge to write again. That fall, I picked up Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust, and the opening set-up--combined with a scandal in my own senior year of high school--gave me an idea for a novel of my own.

By then, I'd taught English for two or three years and was working toward my Master's. I knew how to write a decent sentence and an effective paragraph, so I thought I knew how to write a book. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Steve Liskow

Yes, I could write a paragraph, but I couldn't tell a story. Plot and pace were unexplored terrain. Over the next three years, I used summers (around more grad courses) and Christmas vacations to finish that first book. I had no outline and only a vague idea where I was going. At one point, I went back and discovered I had named over 150 characters, most of whom only appeared in one particular scene. I cut most of them. I bought the collection of writers' markets from The Writer and sent my MS out to publishers I knew were waiting with palpitating hearts and bated breath.

I didn't know about a synopsis or a query letter. I simply sent out the whole MS (I did know about the fourth-class postal rate for books) and was disappointed when it came back unread. I put the book away for two or three years, then took a writing workshop at a local college and got some advice. I did a massive revision of the horrible first version and sent it out again, still with no synopsis or query letter. Guess what?

I got another idea and wrote a mystery over the course of the next school year.  I think the characters and some parts of the plot were much better than the first book, but I still didn't know how to approach agents or publishers and I still had no outline. It would never sell now because a crucial plot point was a double-exposure photograph. That was a big deal in 1978, but now you can get the same effect in seconds on a computer.

In 1980– eight years after starting to write that first book– I finagled Wesleyan's Graduate Studies center into letting me use the book as my sixth year project if I could find an advisor. Joseph Reed, the Chair of the English department, remembered me from his Faulkner seminar and when I asked if he'd be interested, he said, "Probably not, but why don't you come in and we can discuss it."

For the first time, I wrote an outline, incorporating the changes I wanted to make. I tightened the plot and cut or changed several characters. That outline was simply a list of three or four events that would happen in a chapter, but it was a lean clean roadmap. Reed studied it, then told me to give him a chapter the following week and he'd make his final decision. Then he offered the best advice I'd had so far.

"You have an outline," he said. "So you don't have to write this in order. If you're stuck on chapter five, write chapter ten. You're going to go back and re-write transitions anyway, so it won't be a big deal. And learn to compose at the typewriter. You're too busy to waste time writing everything out longhand and re-typing it."

He was right. I was teaching five high school English classes a day, taking a political novel class with a heavy reading load that met Thursday nights, and working weekends for a photography studio. I had nine months to write the book, revise it, and type two final copies to submit to the grad center.

I did it. Between 1972 and 1980 (I still have a bound copy of that final draft) the book went through at least six title changes. Almost everything except the main premise changed, too. Dr. Reed encouraged me to send the book to publishers, but ten or twelve of them rejected in seconds. I wonder if someone would have read it if I'd sent a proper query letter or synopsis. We'll never know, will we?

The following summer, using my experience composing at the typewriter, I pounded out a 400-page novel in three weeks. It was awful, but I kept it for a few years, telling myself I'd fix it until sanity prevailed and I tossed it. By then, I'd written five unsold novels in about nine years while teaching full-time, earning two graduate degrees, and going through a divorce.

The followng summer, I got persuaded to take part in a play, and loved it. I dove into theater head-first. Between 1982 and 2009, I acted, directed, produced or designed for 100 productions throughout central Connecticut (and took several graduate courses in theater arts, too). I met Barbara, who still acts, too. When our theater lost its performance space in 2003– the same week I retired from teaching--I pulled out that sixth-year novel to fix it one more time.

This time, I attended writing workshops and read books on how to get published. I learned about a synopsis and a query letter. I learned how to write narration (I depended too much on dialogue, probably because I'd done so much theater) and description. My daughter learned of the New England Crime Bake and the Al Blanchard Story Award, so I submitted a short story. It placed in the top ten and the contest co-ordinator encouraged me to re-submit it to the publisher of an anthology of New England writers. It became my first published story, and I attended the conference the next five years, selling a few more stories and meeting agents, editors, and loads of other writers who helped me do it right. I sold my first novel in 2009.

I self-published the sixth-year novel in 2014, and it averages a 4-star rating on Amazon.

I'm an overnight success.