28 February 2023

Guest Post: Failing Up

I’m uncertain when I first met Sandra Murphy, but I am certain that we’d crossed paths online for many years before we met in person at the Dallas Bouchercon in 2019. Before we met in person, though, our writing careers intersected in an unexpected way: I posted a smart-alecky remark on Facebook that I wanted to become the James Patterson of short story writers by collaborating with other writers to increase my productivity. Sandra called my bluff and offered to give it a shot. Since then, we’ve finished and sold five short stories, have one in progress that shows great potential, and have a few more that, while not actually dead, are clearly on life-support. Here she explains how her non-writing failures have led to her writing successes. 

— Michael Bracken

Failing Up

By Sandra Murphy

Sandra’s love of learning new things—in this
case learning to create things with mixed
media—has inspired many of her stories.

I speak Spanish and Chinese. I love to dance. As a kid, I signed up for all kinds of after school lessons—swimming, piano, ballet, tap, and baton twirling. In adult education classes, I learned to make a meringue Christmas tree, spinach quiche, and the paper frills that go on a crown rib roast. Such a variety of skills and yet, they all have one thing in common.

I am astonishingly bad at all of them.

Four years of high school Spanish and I can ask what’s your name, how much does this cost, and what is the location of the bathroom. In Chinese, I can let you know, I am tall. There is no doubt that these are not my native languages. To my credit, I never harmed anyone with a misguided baton toss. There was an incident with that quiche and too much Tabasco sauce which apparently reaches fiery levels after baking.

As for as dancing, I have no rhythm and cannot hear the beat except when the Bee Gees are singing. So far, I’ve not harmed anyone on the dance floor either. There’s still time.

I was reminded, double-digit years ago, how much I enjoy the written word. It was also pointed out, I wasn’t limited to reading. I could write as well. Rather than writing well, I scribbled an untold number of articles and stories that will never see the light of publication. As soon as an editor could stop laughing at my pompous attempt to sound like my idea of a writer, an instant rejection would have followed.

I kept writing. There was a short romance story where my main character was deemed to be a stalker rather than a nice guy, chatting up a nice gal. My mystery had no hook, dragged along at a pace compared to that of a snail with a limp. I wrote descriptions of weather, scenery, and characters, just to see if I could.

Surrounded by other writers, I got better. And I began to notice how often my fictitious alter ego used my real-life experiences to tell her stories.

Despite not being able to roll my r’s or sing a tune, I do speak fluent Dog. After years of pet sitting for dogs as small as a three-pound Pom and as large as a 250-pound mastiff, I’ve learned to not just listen to the canine voice but to respond in kind. I shouldn’t have been surprised when a cocky, some might say conceited, Jack Russell Terrier turned up as a drug sniffer in an early story, titled “Arthur.” A mama cat and her litter of four kittens made their debut during Hurricane Harvey, in “Lucy’s Tree.” Denali, a large, rowdy pup of indeterminant parentage, introduced a lonely woman to a shy man. When her ex assumed he was welcome to return, Denali showed him the door, literally. “Denali” is in the Dogs and Dragons anthology. Dogs just run full tilt into my stories, skid to a stop, and refuse to leave. Good dogs!

Cooking bloopers were brought to light in “The Chicken Pot Pie Fiasco,” “The Tater Tot Caper,” and “Bananas Foster.” I swear, I’ve never set anyone on fire with a flaming dessert in real life. I’ve been more into nuking than cooking from scratch since that Tabasco incident.

My unintentionally non-profit business of creating jewelry for drag queens meant time in their dressing room before a performance. Details of those eye-opening visits turned into scenes in “The Exterminator.”

When the words become rowdy and uncooperative or worse, go on break, I resort to playing online gin rummy with avatar Bill, who I suspect cheats. If a couple of games doesn’t set my creativity free, I move on to YouTube videos. My favorites of late are mixed media demos. The artists use paint, junk mail, and expired credit cards to make art. I can’t say I understand it but watching them layer odd bits into a finished piece makes me think of how words on the page, in the right order, layered with emotion, bring a story to life.

In “The Mixed Media Mess,” published in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, issue #13, one of the main characters is a mixed media artist, the other a writer who has a Corgi in her book. Once again, my life oozed into my writing.

I may never hear the beat in music, but reading a story aloud at writers group, I hear the cadence of my words.

In one instance at least, I got rhythm.

In St. Louis, Sandra’s enthusiasm and love for bright colors, textures, and shapes, far outweighs her talent for mixed media. Raised by a mother who could turn canned biscuits into hockey pucks, Sandra managed to win the Betty Crocker Homemaker of the Year award in her senior year of high school. Luckily, it was a written exam.

She’s editor of Peace, Love, and Crime: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of the ’60s (Untreed Reads), and her story “The Mixed Media Mess” appears in the just-published Black Cat Mystery Magazine #13.


27 February 2023

You Can't Make Old Friends

If you’re a writer – even the shuttered, introverted stereotype – it’s nearly impossible to not have any friends.  You can add up all the MFAs in Creative Writing and they don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, unless you factor in your friends.  Maybe some of your friends are also relatives – a brother, sister, dog or lunatic uncle.  But there’s no better source of creative nutrition than the nutty real-life characters who orbit your private sun.

I had two brilliant instructors in grad school, who became my friends. Did they bestow the same generous help and encouragement on my haughty, self-absorbed classmates?  I’ll never know.  

I have some vague recollection of the academic instruction I received in college, though the real learning came from hanging out at the snack bar with the motley crew of screwball personalities and social deviants with whom I kept company.  We might have ridiculed the pompous professoriate, but we all eagerly debated what they were trying to teach us, and it was through this lively filter that I absorbed most of what my father was reluctantly paying for.   

The late 60s, early 70s were an ideal time to be in college, with permissive administrators, hip young professors trying (unsuccessfully) to be cool, a full buffet of intoxicants and the opportunity to get tear-gassed at an anti-war demonstration. 

A common complaint about the liberal arts heard today is this type of education has little relevance to ones ultimate career ambitions.  The usual rejoinder is that it teaches you how to think and process complex information.  Maybe, but I’m sure it taught me how to keep my student deferment with as little effort as possible, as least until the draft lottery scared the crap out of all of us and sent a few of my classmates directly to Southeast Asia (not me).   I also learned how to write convincing term papers with scant supporting research under ugly self-inflicted deadlines, some just a few hours away, meaning the wee hours of the night. 

My roommate and now longtime friend famously wrote a paper on Boris Pasternak based entirely on the liner notes of the Dr. Zhivago movie soundtrack.  I think he got the A.  My finest effort was writing a paper overnight in heroic couplets, with a little help (okay, a lot of help) from my friends.  I got a B+, but no complaints.     

This type of improvisation was a bedrock capability that allowed for my career in advertising, and greatly abetted writing lots of novels, essays and short stories.  Though if the tactics provided the skills, the culture was the wellspring.  None of my friends have ever recognized themselves in my fiction, though they’re all there, in spirit if not direct description.  The rhythms of their language, their senses of humor, their insights and inexplicable behavior.   

Every novelist mines his or her friends and families to develop characters.  Amply enhanced by imagination and judicious resorting of traits and qualities.  I feel particularly blessed to have an Empire Mine of associations from which to extract limitless fodder and inspiration. 

I’m pleased to report that I appreciated it then, and throughout my life, and treasure it now as we compose those remaining chapters. 

Photo credit: Pierce Bounds

26 February 2023

Get Involved

Okay, so you're writing the next great American novel or short story. It will be published and you will become famous. At least that's your plan. Well, hold on there a minute, Shorty. What's your track record on prior publications, plus who knows you?

To begin, you need to finish what you're writing. That program may consist of writing courses, how-to books and/or critique groups. Whatever keeps you writing and learning your tradecraft. Next, you have to submit that manuscript to the appropriate agent, publisher, editor or magazine. AND, you had better get yourself out into the rest of the writing community and get involved.

Attend a few writers conferences. Go to the conference bar and strike up a conversation with someone else at the bar. Writers are a pretty friendly group, and you may be surprised who you can meet that way. What's that, you say you're an introvert? Then talk a friend into going to the conference with you. That way, you can work as a team. There is courage in numbers. Face your fears and force them.

Also keep in mind that conferences are very happy to get volunteers to man the registration tables, be timekeepers for panels, work the book room, take care of the Green Room, etc. Once again, you will be surprised who you can meet that way. At the Austin, Texas Bouchercon, I worked the Mystery Writers of America table for a couple of hours and ended up talking with several published authors and a couple of agents. They had questions and I had been briefed on answers to help them, which meant they remembered me the next time we met.

Often times at these conferences, various writers organizations will sponsor a breakfast or a cocktail reception. Free food and sometimes free drinks. Get out of your hotel room and socialize at these events. It's called networking and you never know when one of these new contacts will be impressed enough with you to provide an opportunity. I once received a proposal over drinks in a NYC bar to write a non-fiction book. Prior to that, I didn't know the lady across the table from me was an editor. It turned out to be a nice contract for a book I wrote under an alias.

Go to author panels that interest you. See how they are run. After you do get published, try to get on one of the writers panels for the next conference. If attendees like the way you talk on the panel, they will look for your book or short story and probably buy it. It's a way to get known.

Do you have a special talent or expertise that mystery writers might be interested in? Write up a proposal for a workshop or class on that talent or expertise and discuss it with the officers for the next conference. For instance, I ran hands-on Surveillance Workshops for three different writers conferences. Not only did the participants learn something, have a lot of fun and acquire stories to tell, but I still have attendees from prior conferences come up to me to say how much fun they had in those workshops. Other presenters have put on workshops or classes about firearms, drug dogs, raids, novel writing, etc. Inventory your skills to see if you have any topic to interest mystery writers.

Join your local writers organizations, AND actively participate in the running of that organization. Years ago, I ran for vice-president of our local MWA chapter on the platform that I would line up speakers for our monthly supper meetings. From VP to Prez was a natural step, and the Chapter President is automatically on the national MWA Board of Directors. Talk about networking with influential people in the mystery writing and publishing business. Now, you are on a level to impact guidelines on the operation of the organization.

Know that our very own Michael Bracken is currently on the national MWA board as a first term Director at Large. He will be a great advocate for short stories and their authors when it comes to establishing rules and requirements.

These are some of my suggestions for getting involved and helping to make a difference in the mystery writing world. Life is short, so have fun with them.

And, for you old hands out there, if you have any other suggestions, feel free to chime in. 

25 February 2023

I wanted to start a gang,
but it turned into a book club...

"I wanted to start a gang, but it turned into a book club..."

I don't know the kindred spirit who first said the above quote, and I've probably butchered it somewhat, but...Guilty as charged!  Which is saying a lot, because usually I write about the mob...


I love my current book club.  We don't do the 'buy one book and everybody read it' thing.  Instead, we have a list of categories (30 in all) and are expected to read one book that satisfies each criteria in a calendar year.  We can each read a different book that fits the category.  We also give each other two free outs, meaning you can skip two categories if you absolutely hate them.  Bless those outs.

Love this club, because I am pushed into reading things I wouldn't normally pick up.  Other genres, past classics, even cookbooks.  Plus they come with recommendations from people I trust.  We all read more than 30 books a year (I'm close to 100.)  So there's still lots of time to read new releases from favourite authors beyond those 30 on the book club list.

That said, I'm a crime writer and crime reader.  Whodunits are my trade, and I shy away from anything that sniffs of Chicklit.  So you can imagine my surprise when I am pressured to read a book that reaches me in a way I didn't expect.   "What Alice Forgot" by Liane Moriarty, is a perfect example, and I'm exceedingly grateful.  That book made me think about my own past and future, at a time when I had just lost my first husband to cancer (decades earlier than it should have been.)

And let me also say, that I am thrilled that people are reading.  If they want to read things I don't find pleasure reading, that's terrific!  Please, please keep reading, young people.  It doesn't matter what books you cherish, as far as I'm concerned. 

Still, there's the guilt. Yes, I feel guilt.  I should like reading everything.  I should at least recognize that reading diverse books is 'good for me,'  and thus be an enthusiastic participant.

Confessions, confessions.  What things have I learned about myself, through that seemingly innocent little social activity?  Three things come to mind.  Let me take a moral inventory, and feel free to cast aspersions on my virtue.  It wouldn't be the first time (wink).

1.   Non-fiction sucks.

University type here.  Prof at college for 30 years.  Read a lot of non-fiction in my time, in order to be able to teach the stuff.  Guilty secret?  For me, reading non-fiction is work.  I don't want to work in my off-time.

I know.  I can hear the collective gasps from here.  Non-fiction is good for you! It makes you smarter! 

I doubt very much if anything at this stage could make me smarter (much as that might be desirable for all concerned...)  It might make me more knowledgeable, that I accept.  Do I care?  Not much.  My brain is precariously close to full now, and putting more into it threatens to dump other things already lodged there out my ears.  (Medical fact.  I read it online.)

2.  And on that note, I rarely enjoy reading memoirs and biographies.  

Our book club requires us to read one of the above, once a year.  It's not fun for me.  I really don't like spending my time reading about other people's lives, especially the white-washed versions.  Ditto, the poor me versions.

Why?  I read to escape reality. Which brings me to the final point (some of you will gasp.)

3.  I don't care much for fiction written from (many) multiple points of view.

There are some extremely popular books out now that are written from several points of view (I'm thinking The Thursday Murder Club and like.)  I like humour and crime together, so I gave it a try.  And I can see why people would like it. I thought some parts of it were great fun.  Thing is, I kept putting it down.  I could read a chapter and put it down.  Pick it up a few days later and read another two scenes.  Then put down the book and forget about it.

What this tells me:  For me, it wasn't a compelling read.  I didn't care enough about the protagonist to keep reading to find out what would happen.  Wait a minute - to tell the truth, I couldn't even tell who the protagonist was!

And that's the key.  The protagonist.  God Bless Book Club.  I've learned a lot about myself and what I treasure reading.  To wit:

I want to become the protagonist when I read a book.  

(Please let me know in the comments below if you relate to this.)

I want to slip into the skin of the main character and have a rollicking adventure. I want things to happen. I want there to be a satisfactory conclusion to the adventure, so I close the book with a smile on my face.

On the memoir front: For the record and just to be fair, I have no desire to write a memoir myself.  Have the general public read all about my misspent youth and totally embarrassing past mistakes?  Gulp.  Would rather go public on my bra size  (weight is off the table.) In fact, I am puzzled that others do want to share their dirty linen in public. 

 Mine is stuffed into drawers that hopefully my kids will never open.

Melodie Campbell writes fiction (swear to God it's fiction!) from the shores of Lake Ontario.  Book 17 is now available for preorder.  On AMAZON

24 February 2023

The Software That Thinks Like You

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

There are two experiences everyone that every writer or creative person is familiar with. One is frustrating, the other pleasurable. 

The frustrating one has to do with “idea capture.” Every day ideas for stories pop into our heads. In the course of our days, we also stumble across great quotes, interesting observations, clever articles that spin our heads in new directions, compelling us to keep a copy or write down a single germ of an idea for future use. If you’re like me, you end up with a pile of Post-Its, scraps of paper, or old envelopes on your desk, or PDFs, links, photos, or screenshots buried somewhere on your hard drive. If you’re not careful to tuck these precious morsels away somewhere safe, you’ll have a devil of a time finding them again.

Just a few weeks ago, my fellow SleuthSayer Rob Lopresti dropped one such gem. In a post entitled “On a Winter’s Night, A Writer…” Rob talked about this dilemma and shared this interesting idea:
Decades ago I remember reading that Buckminster Fuller said that from the moment you have an idea you have 17 minutes to do something physical with it—write it down, tie a string around your finger, sing it out loud until it's stuck in your head—or it will disappear.
I loved that Fuller quote. It touched on a few of my interests. For one, I’m a productivity geek, probably because—who are we kidding?—I’m spectacularly unproductive most of the time. But I nevertheless love hearing about ways that creative people work with ideas. I also have a local connection to Fuller. In the late 1940s, Fuller taught at Black Mountain College, a liberal arts college that once operated not far from where I live in North Carolina. The school closed in 1957, but is remembered fondly because it’s where Fuller and his students first began experimenting with geodesic domes.

Could there be a short story about Bucky in my future? Maybe, but I’m not ready to deal with it now. But I wanted to keep this little nugget of an idea. Where do I put it?

In the old days, I would have saved a link to Rob’s piece in a Word doc somewhere, and instantly forgotten where I slipped it into the bottomless morass of folders on my hard drive. Worse, I would have printed out the post and tucked it into a file cabinet, where it would also be lost forever.

These days, I create and devote a page to this single idea in my Obsidian app. Obsidian is an interesting piece of software that works on Mac, Windows, and Linux systems. You can load it on your phone or your desktop. It’s also absolutely free, unless you are buying it for everyone at your business and want access to future developer support.

To save a note, you open a blank window, type your note, then code the text as well. I’m a Luddite, so when I say I’m “coding,” you can bet that doing so is pathetically easy. Tags are generated using the hashtag (#), highlighted/underlined words are generated using double brackets [[like this]]. This is known as a Markdown program, but you don’t need to know that to use Obsidian.

Here’s how the Buckminster Fuller quote page looked when I got done with it. 

Notice: Fuller and Lopresti are underlined and highlighted. Concepts like the 17-Minute Rule, geodesic domes, idea, and Black Mountain College are tagged.

If I’m in a hurry, I don’t bother coding. I’ll do it another day. That’s one of the things I like about Obsidian; you can always return to your collection of notes to see what you’ve collected. I use those sessions to prune, code, and tidy my files. Doing this helps jog my memory and remind me what I’ve amassed. (You can also correct or update old files if new information comes to light. Quotes, for example, are often attributed to the wrong people. In this case, I could not quickly find a source online that could verify that Fuller uttered the observation about the 17-minute-rule. Rob said as much in his post.)

That caveat aside, if you follow through and diligently code your ever-expanding collection of notes, Obsidian establishes connections between all these things. When you underline Robert Lopresti, for instance, the software instantly creates a Robert Lopresti page elsewhere in the software. I can return to that page and drop in other factoids I know about Rob. (For some reason I forgot to add that Rob is a folk singer who has released an actual album.)

Likewise, in the future, if I click on Fuller’s name, the software will pull up the dedicated Fuller page that it has so kindly generated. If I click on a tag, it will find all the references to that item that may be lurking in my otherwise mixed-up files.

Which brings me to the pleasurable experience I referenced above. Imagine a dinner party with good friends in which you and your companions chat well into the night.

“I saw this article on geodesic domes,” one person will say. “And did you know—”

“That’s cool,” another person says. “My great-aunt Gertrude actually dated Buckminster Fuller!”

“No way!” says another, “you know, I heard that he said you can only remember new ideas for 17 minutes. That kinda makes sense! ”

“I hate forgetting ideas. I keep a notebook near my bed at night!”

“I have a tape recorder!”

“I use my phone!”

In any conversation where the speakers are actually listening to each other, everyone starts free-associating, tossing off whatever pops into their head about the current topic of conversation. Granted, the connections between what you are all saying may only be tangentially linked, but you can go hours mining the recesses of your subconscious for factoids that touch upon the central topic. 

This sort of interaction is one of the great pleasures of human relationships. If the conversation goes well, everyone returns home at the end of the night thinking that had a great time. Why? Because they bonded with their fellow humans over a great meal, a glass of wine, and a rich tapestry of ideas.

Obsidian mimics the way our minds draw connections in those situations. The more pages of notes you add to Obsidian, the deeper, richer, better, and, ahem, Fuller, those connections become. Then, when you click on the software’s graph view, you get a picture that resembles drawings I’ve seen of neural networks.

This can be useful if you’re accustomed to writing essays or blog posts. The graph view reminds you of connections you’ve probably forgotten, and suggests ones you haven’t even thought of. In this scenario, the center node—How Long Ideas Last—is the central idea around which slighter connections (Fuller, Lopresti) revolve.

You’ll find videos on YouTube that can help you master Obsidian. At the end of those tutorials, the productivity gurus often say that while it’s fine to just use Obsidian as a file cabinet to collect all your notes in one place, its true value lies in tracking your own ideas—not just ones you picked up in your reading or mined via a SleuthSayers post.

Obsidian hasn’t completely banished paper from my desk. But these days that pile has been reduced to daily to-dos. Creative ideas are collected swiftly. If something pops into my head at night, I can always groggily snatch the phone off the bedside table, type a note into the app, and drift back to Snoozelandia long before that 17 minutes has elapsed. Somewhere, Bucky is smiling.

See you in three weeks!

23 February 2023

Where's Sancho?

A fellow AVP facilitator said she'd learned a new word at the last workshop:  Sancho.  They were doing role plays about going home from prison, which gives inmates a chance to work out some of their fears and hopes in a controlled setting.  It's one of the most popular exercises.  Anyway, various people asked, before and during the role play, "So where's Sancho?" and "What are you gonna do about Sancho?"

  • Sancho:  The generic term for the man (or woman) who moves in with your girlfriend / wife while you're in prison.  
SDSP, photo by Alexius Horatius, Wikipedia

There's a lot of slang in prison.

  • Fish: Brand new inmates.
  • Fishtank: Where the new inmates are kept.
  • House: Cell.
  • Cellie:  Cellmate.
  • Going on Vacation:  Going to the SHU, which is:
  • SHU (or the Hole):  Solitary Confinement
  • Duck: A guard / staff member / volunteer who's being groomed to get an inmate something the inmate wants.  From the phrase "Downing a Duck", which in turn describes how inmates manipulate non-inmates without the latter realizing it.  Flattery and attention can get you surprising things in prison.  Watch this and learn: (SEE HERE)
    • BTW, It works better than you might think, otherwise COs and staff wouldn't get fired from prisons for providing drugs, cell phones, or other contraband, or for having sex with inmates, or for helping them escape...  See my 2015 post "What We Do For Love". Sigh…
  • Shot Caller:  Leader of a gang.  Often not the person you think it is.  They don't necessarily want an outsider to know who's really in charge. And it's generally not the loud mouth who's telling you "I run everything 'round here."  Yeah, right.
  • Punk:  An inmate who is considered weak and can be used, including sexually.  Sometimes especially sexually. If used as an insult to the wrong person, there will be a fight. See also "Bitch".  
  • Prison Wolf:  Gay to the gate.  Lot more of that around than anyone ever admits. 
  • High Class:  Hepatitis C. 
  • The Monster:  HIV.
  • Chomo: Child molester.  Very dangerous term to use about someone. It could get them - or you - killed.
  • Apple:  VERY insulting term for Native Americans (Red on the outside, white on the inside).  There's gonna be a fight. 
  • Drive By:  You walk by an inmate's cell and fart.  Less lethal than a
  • Lock in a Sock: Just what it sounds like, a combination lock in a sock. A very common weapon to cold-cock someone.  
  • Back Door Parole: to die in prison.  
  • Soups:  Ramen, available through commissary, one of the common currencies of the cells. 
  • Burrito:  Feast food of the cells, which uses no tortillas and rarely beans.  It's made of ramen noodles, Doritos, and whatever processed meat and flavoring is on hand.  Mix together in a specific order in a garbage bag, pour boiling water over it, shape it as preferred, and after 10+ minutes it's ready to be cut up and served.  
  • Kite: A note passed between inmates; also the term for a genuine request sent by inmates to any staff member. 
  • Flat: "I'm going to flat next month", i.e., I will have served my sentence and get out without needing parole.  
  • Ninja Turtles:  COs in riot gear.
  • Road Dog:  Inmates who are friends, especially those who were friends BEFORE prison.
  • Catch:  "So what did you catch?" "I caught a case" or "I caught ten years" - I got sentenced.
  • Toochie:  One term for synthetic marijuana, K-2, etc.  The truth is, the slang for drugs changes every time you turn around, especially as new drugs come out, so… this may be old by now.  "Paper" is also used, because a lot of drugs come in as paper that's been soaked in liquid K-2, etc.  Anyway, I used the term in Cool Papa Bell, where one of the softball teams calls themselves "The Toochie Tucks".
  • Tucks:  A term for hiding contraband or a weapon up one's ass. Keister, is or was another term for it, and I've rarely heard that one used.

Other teams in "Cool Papa Bell" are:

  • "CTQs" (Confined To Quarters), i.e., on cell restriction;
  • "Spider Monkeys", i.e., doing hard time;
  • "5150s" mental health cases;
  • "Soup Skippies", i.e, eating a lot of Ramen and wearing the state-issued tennis shoes, i.e., broke. 

Well, that's a start to understanding what you might overhear when inmates talk among themselves.

And now for some BSP:

My story, "Cool Papa Bell", is in Josh Pachter's Paranoia Blues;

Just because you're in prison doesn't mean there's no more crime.  Or opportunities to commit it.


And on Amazon HERE

My noir novella, Cruel as the Grave is in Crimeucopia:  We'll Be Right Back

There's nothing like toxic friendships, murder, an unidentifiable body, and a South Dakota winter to make everybody crazy.

Available on Amazon HERE.

And "The Abandoned Bride" (with a wise-cracking Linda Thompson telling more of Laskin's family secrets) is in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #13:

You can keep a secret for a long time in a small town, but eventually it will come out… And always at the wrong time...

On Amazon HERE.

22 February 2023

James and The Giant Peach Tar Baby

Sorry to say, but I’m clutching my pearls, here.  Roald Dahl’s publisher, Puffin, an imprint of Penguin, has released new editions of Dahl’s children’s stories with the nasty bits smoothed out. 

We can concede, from the get-go, that Roald Dahl wasn’t the nicest guy, and a lot of it leaks into his writing.  His heavies, primarily bullying adults, are thoroughly unpleasant and scary, but in a way that kids can identify with.  His grotesques are all too genuine; they rival Dickens.  The darkness, however, and the violence, are part and parcel.  Roald Dahl isn’t Roald Dahl without them. 

Now, we know Little Black Sambo is offensive, and it wasn’t all that long ago that the Nancy Drew books were edited to make her more relevant to the contemporary audience, and to eliminate the more egregious racial and class stereotypes in the originals.  For that matter, has anybody read Dr. Dolittle lately?  I thought they were wildly inventive, when I read them (I was, what, eleven or twelve?), but I’m guessing they don’t pass the smell test, nowadays, at least in terms of the way native peoples, say, are presented. 

I’m talking more about bowdlerizing stuff that doesn’t seem to require it.  The Telegraph published an exhaustive list of the changes made the Dahl’s books, and Helen Lewis has a terrific piece in the Atlantic.   [Links below]  One edit that caught my attention was in Matilda, where her choice of reading is changed from Kipling to Jane Austen.  I have nothing but respect for Austen, but eliminating a reference to Kipling – because he’s now considered an apologist for colonialism, or white supremacy? – when with all his faults he’s still one of the great children’s writers, is petty.

Roald Dahl, while we’re on the subject, is one of the most borrowed writers in the British library system.  He’s consistently in Amazon’s top five best-selling children’s authors. 

 His sales to date are reported to have topped 250 millions books.  Why does he need re-branding? 

Thirty years after his death, Dahl’s family publicly apologized for his perceived anti-Semitism.  I don’t mean “perceived” to be a weaselly adjective; he said a lot of ill-thought-through and provoking things, and it’s safe to say he subscribed to any number of cruel stereotypes.  Many of his villains, and especially villainesses, are grossly obese.  He’s a fat-shamer, no question.  He draws an equivalency between obesity and moral weakness.  A close reading probably demonstrates casual racism and a reflexive misogyny. 

I’m not trying to excuse any of this.  But why whitewash it?  What seems to catch and hold Dahl’s younger readership is his anarchy and irreverence.  Leave it be.



21 February 2023

Canine Inspiration

A couple of years ago, I was brushing my teeth, getting ready for bed, thinking how grateful I was that in our current home, my beagle/basset dog, Jingle, couldn't escape from our backyard. Things had been different at our prior home. The six-foot-high split-rail fence in the backyard had wire over it, and that wire was secured into the ground, so you'd think Jingle would have been contained. But where other dogs would see an obstacle, Jingle saw a challenge.

Regularly, he pushed at the wire, testing it for weak spots at ground level, then shoved through when he could. Friends nicknamed him Houdini. Over and over, I took steps to prevent Jingle from escaping, but he kept besting me. One day, after yet another escape, my good friend Donna Andrews (yes, Donna Andrews the author, who lived two miles away from my old house) suggested I buy some large heavy rocks to put on both sides of the fence wherever it was weak. She was going to the garden store and could pick them up for me. I said, yes, please. Soon, I found myself the proud new owner of a lot of rocks.

The dog otherwise known as Houdini
The dog otherwise known as Houdini

So, circling back to the start of this story, I was brushing my teeth and thinking about how Jingle used to escape from the backyard at our old house. After spitting my toothpaste out, I said, "Before I owned a dog, I never would have imagined I'd spend $37 on ROCKS." (Yes, I often talk aloud to myself.) Then I started thinking of all the other things I never would have done before I owned a dog, like buy a pink pig outfit--that was for my prior dog, Scout. It had been October when I adopted him, and that was the only extra-large Halloween costume I could find at that late date.

My old neighborhood had a Halloween party each year in our cul de sac, and when I took Scout that first year, one of the neighbors laughed at him--not with him, at him--trying to make me feel bad for dressing my large male dog in a pink pig costume. I brushed it off, but all these years later, I remember. So, I was thinking about all of this as I finished getting ready for bed that night, and my writer's brain kicked in. What if I created a character who adopted an escape-artist dog? And what if she had a mean neighbor who did worse than laugh at the dog? What might she do next? And "The Joys of Owning a Dog" was born. 

Look how cute he was!
The story is written in listicle format. It opens with: "Fifty things I never anticipated doing before I owned a dog." The rest of the story is told via a list, including buying rocks to contain my houdini of a dog, dressing my dog as a pig for Halloween, and dealing with a neighbor who hates my dog. (You gotta love real-life inspiration.) It's a crime-fiction story, with each element of the tale building on the prior one. Lest you fear, no animals were harmed in the writing of this story. I can't promise the same about mean neighbors. 

Thanks to editor Michael Bracken for publishing the story. You can read it in issue 13 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, released last week in trade paperback. You can purchase it by clicking here. The ebook should be out soon. The issue also includes stories from fellow SleuthSayers Eve Fisher and John Floyd, which I'm looking forward to reading.

And now, I have to go. Jingle is demanding royalties for partially inspiring this story. Thankfully, he takes his payment in treats.

20 February 2023

Never Too Old

My birthday is February 28th, the end of our shortest month. I was born way back in the 1900s. I don't intend to tell you the exact year but it was after the Great Depression. What I will tell you is after having published over thirty-five short stories, three novels, co-editing two anthologies and co-editing two non-fiction books. After nominations for several mystery awards and winning a couple, I now have a new publishing credit. I've co-authored a song. 

My good friend, john Arthur martinez, singer/ songwriter/ guitar player/ musician/ producer and I wrote and published a song titled "The Phone Call." 
It's now out on his fifteenth CD, titled Three White Spanish Horses, yes 15th. This on the heels of number 14, For The Love of Western Swing which was awarded Western Swing Song of the Year in 2020, by The Academy of Western Artists. He also performs the song and if I'm in attendance at his gig,  gives me recognition as his co- writer. Which is nice.
I first became aware of john Arthur (and yes, he usually doesn't capitalize his first or last name) in 2003 when he was a contestant on Nashville Star, an American Idol-styled country artist television show, set in, you guessed correctly, Nashville TN. My husband, Elmer and I visited our daughter and family in Nashville and Karla asked if we had watched this television show. I said, "no." So happened it was playing and she turned on the TV while telling us about this young man from the Texas Hill Country. Actually, he'd said he was from Marble Falls. We were living in our RV and camphosting at a State Park twenty miles away. After we got back home, we continued watching the show and voted each week for john. He came in 2nd on the show, beating out 3rd place, who was a 19-year old Texas girl named Miranda Lambert. You may have heard of her because she is the one who became and still is really FAMOUS.

Flash forward to 2007, I was newly-widowed, had gone thru a mastectomy, 4 months of chemo, to insure against re-occurance, which worked because I am still cancer free after 17 years. I was still in my RV but was 10 miles closer to Marble Falls. A mystery writer friend, Russ Hall who  Elmer & I knew from our bookstore days,  knew of my Elmer's passing, knew of my cancer & chemo. He also knew I had recently fallen smashing my right humerus, which needed surgery, and that I was looking for ways to keep busy. 
Russ had encouraged me for a couple of months to go a local restaurant, he often attended, which featured local singer/songwriters. One, john Arthur, from the aforementioned television show, was gigging on Thursday nights, and the other Mike Blakely, also a western/historicalnovelist, sang on Tuesday nights. I had met Mike  several years before when he and I were on a writer's panel one night at Austin Community College.  We both had been invited, along three other writers of different genres to talk to a creative writing class. Plus when Elmer and I owned Mysteries & More bookstore in Austin, we had carried some of Mike's books.

I began attending both music nights at River City Grille and over time became fairly good friends with both Mike and john Arthur.  They each had previously been offered a record contract in Nashville but each had decided on their own to go the outlaw way of previous Texas outlaw singers, like Merle, Waylon and Willie. That meant some leaner times but they are free to write, sing and record their own work at their own pace. They were friends who wrote songs together and harmonized on each other's CDs. 

In 2011, I moved into a house in Cottonwood Shores and realized JAM lived five streets over and almost directly behind my house. I banked where one of  john's sisters is Vice-President, and where his mom also works. His wife, Yvonna, is my hair stylist. She  is one of my BFFs and the Martinezs are my Hill Country family.

For several years, JAM & I have talked about writing songs together, but it seemed as though the time was never right. He gigs in Central Texas locations, several afternoons or evenings each week, sometimes traveling to Fort Worth, Waco, or Austin. He also sings in New England, Florida, Montana, California or Arizona each year. Once a year he toured France, Germany, Austria & Switzerland until Covid shut down travel. European tours in 2020, 2021 & 2022 were cancelled. During that time, he upgraded his home studio becoming a producer for several central Texas artists. It also gave him more time for writing songs so we got serious about writing together. 

One song idea I had was about a person you loved who could sense your mood or thoughts. Sort of like a mindmeld.  JAM's creative brain sent him to remember a long ago friend who kept him on the phone one long night when he needed reassurance about his music. We chatted or texted & he wrote the music, then we had to rearrange or change some words to fit the rhythm or to make the words rhyme. 

"The Phone Call" is that song and just out on john's latest CD, titled Three White Spanish Horses  available now on his website; johnArthurmartinez.net.  Or you can buy the song for 99 cents here.

19 February 2023

Florida News – Fakes and Frauds Edition

Florida postcard

Whenever I finish one of the Florida news articles, out of sheer exhaustion, I doubt I’ll write another. But when one lives in such a state with a cornucopia of crazies, it’s impossible and ungrateful not to embrace such riches.

As before, items here are ‘news’ only in the sense events have transpired since the previous edition. If nothing else, you must read the last item.

No Dead Lawyer Jokes, Please

Pinellas County, FL.  The attorney who defeated the state’s helmet law dies in a motorcycle crash while, wait for it, not wearing a helmet.

That Father-Daughter Relationship

Nassau County, FL.  Two stand-your-ground road-rage warriors decide to settle matters with a gunfight. Their aim is as poor as their judgment as they accidentally shoot each other’s daughters.

The War Postponed

Putnam County, FL.  Dude wants to ignite a war on Sunday. He’ll have to wait– he got himself arrested.

The War Continued

Polk County, FL.  Good Samaritan rings doorbell to deliver mis-delivered medication … stand-your-ground something …  recipient and son arm themselves, figuring the coming Sunday war has arrived … shoot up innocent woman on her cell phone … Celebrity Sheriff Grady Judd explains it better than I.

Mathematics in Black and White

Leon County, FL.  You may have heard our governor banned more than 4 out of 10 math books (7 of 10 under grade 6) because of BLM and CRT and, um, dark arithmetic stuff. People who actually read all 54 rejected books found only one possible reference to the dark arts and sciences… but one commonality seemed to be black authors. Meanwhile in response to think tank recommendations, the governor said he is considering shutting down all advanced placement programs to prevent indoctrination of our precious students.

FBI Raids Orlando Museum of Art

Orange County, FL.  In a town in a county in a state that confuses family entertainment with the arts (or the lack thereof) and confuses black with binomial, the FBI forged ahead with a raid of Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings (or not) that raises interesting questions.

Yo-Yo Car Dealers

Sumter Co, FL.  Know that feeling when you purchase a bright and shiny automobile and before the new-car smell wears off, the dealer calls you back in, saying you have to negotiate a new deal with worse terms? No? You must not live in Florida.

Thieves Call 911

Polk County, FL.  Genius criminals call 911 for help hauling goods and catching a flight.

Operation Nightingale

Date County, FL.  FBI raids again! This time they’ve taken on a number of nursing schools in South Florida, which have churned out 7600 falsified nursing certificates amid a number of legitimate certificates. (Reports claim three schools are affected, but the real number is five or six schools under three different legal entities.)

Sign of the [Tampa Bay] Times

Hillsborough County, FL    At Brad Raffensperger’s press conferences, I found myself fascinated by one of his sign language interpreters, the bald guy with the white beard. His listen-up, wimps, don’t make me repeat myself, no-nonsense demeanor hammered home the rivets of the Georgia Secretary of State’s message.

Not Florida (Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger press conference)

That’s sign language! Here in Florida, uh, not so much. A television press conference sign language interpreter volunteers for the Sheriff’s department and turns out to be… well, not an interpreter. She is a fake, a marvelous forgery in the flesh. Note: Authorities aren’t certain if she was a former nursing student.

18 February 2023

A Sense of Entitlement


Creating titles is something all writers have to tackle at some point, whether you do it before or after the story, whether you want to or not, whether you're good at it or not. Every baby has a name and every story has a title. And yes, some sound better than others.

I enjoy the process of coming up with story titles. I guess I do an okay job of it--I think my titles accomplish what I want, and that's to describe (at least to some degree) what the story's about or to make a reference to something in it. Having said that, I confess I'm not madly in love with some of my own titles. I do like a few of them--one was "The Early Death of Pinto Bishop," the title of a story I first published in a Canadian literary magazine and is still available (I think) at Untreed Reads. Others were "The Starlite Drive-In," "The Daisy Nelson Case," "Rhonda and Clyde," "A Surprise for Digger Wade," "Eight in the Corner," "Andy, Get Your Gun," "The Delta Princess," and a few more. I also liked "Take the Money and Ron," the title of a story about a robbery/kidnapping, but the editor chose to change that one. I wasn't thrilled about the substitute, but I happily took the money and ran (leaving Ron behind).

As for other writers' titles, there are many, many of those that I love. Some are classics that I would guess everyone likes: East of Eden, Gone with the Wind, Atlas Shrugged, The High and the MightyDouble IndemnityBack to the Future, etc.--that list is as long as a politician's nose.

My absolute favorites, though, are those I've listed below. Some are funny, some have double meanings or hidden meanings, some are just cool. All of them are titles I wish I myself had come up with.

NOTE: The titles of movies and books are in italics, short-story titles are in quotes, and movies have the release dates attached. There's a lot of overlap--some are movies adapted from novels or stories.

See if you remember these:

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia -- 1974

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot -- 2018

"The Perfect Time for the Perfect Crime" -- Edward D. Hoch

Let's Hear It for the Deaf Man -- Ed McBain

The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun -- 1970

Here's Looking at Euclid -- Alex Bellos

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead -- 2007

"The Saints Go Stumbling On" -- Jack Ritchie

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- 2005

Tequila Mockingbird -- Tim Federie

"Lamb to the Slaughter" -- Roald Dahl

Don't Look Up -- 2021

Apocalypse Pretty Soon -- Alex Heard

Once Upon a Time in the West -- 1968

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl -- 2015

"The Kugelmaas Episode" -- Woody Allen

A Walk Among the Tombstones -- Lawrence Block

Shangai Noon -- 2000

Lie Down with Lions -- Ken Follett

"Mary Poppins Didn't Have Tattoos" -- Stacy Woodson

At Play in the Fields of the Lord -- 1991

A Big Hand for the Little Lady -- 1966

"The Last Rung on the Ladder" -- Stephen King

"Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed" -- Ray Bradbury

The Devil at Four O'clock -- 1961

The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker -- Ron White

Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead -- 1991

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai -- 1984

Midnight in the Garden of Evel Knievel -- Giles Smith

One-Eyed Jacks -- 1961

Shoot Low, Boys--They're Riding Shetland Ponies -- Lewis Grizzard

"Boo Radley College Prep" -- Karen Harrington

A Hearse of a Different Color -- Tim Cockey

How to Win Friends and Influenza -- Edward Kurtz

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? -- 1970

That's the kind of list an avid reader/moviegoer could update several times a day, and I probably will, but for now that's my best effort. 

To wrap up this title wave . . . What are some of your favorites? Let me know in the comments below (include your own titles, if you like).

And make your next title your best ever.

17 February 2023

More Random Thoughts


When I was a real-life private eye, I worked a lot of insurance cases, some divorce work, but I was hired on a few homicide cases because I was a former homicide detective. My brother, a former NOPD detective who has been a PI for over thirty years, has worked some high-profile investigations involving white collar crime, corrupt politicians and missing person cases. Things were different in the 1940s and eraly 1950s where PIs worked a myriad of cases. From what my old NOPD detective friends told me, the quality of detective work in the first half of the twentieth century wasn’t that good. Many police detectives then were hard-nosed, fisticuff street cops put in suits to do follow-up work in a suit. Only a few were brainy, which is one of the traits of the fictional Private Eye.

I've kept this in mind in writing my 40s-50s private stories and novels.



As for New Orleans, she is so complex, different from any other American city, more European. She is not big and there’s nothing easy about her. Many, MANY writers get her wrong. I blame editors and publishers of the big houses for much of this. I had a number of editors prod me to write more touristy books about the city (Murder at Mardi Gras, Death in the Above-ground Cemeteries, Killings at Jazz Funerals), rather than more accurate depictions of New Orleans.


Screenwriters are worse. Cliché after cliché. No one here speaks with a southern accent unless they migrated here. I speak with a Brooklynese flat-A accent. Mardi Gras is only a small part of the city and the French Quarter is small as well (although the Quarter is the heart of the city). My only character who lives in the Quarter is PI Lucien Caye and he lives on the edge, in the run down lower Quarter of te 1940s.



I started writing erotica when I began writing short stories in the late 1980s. It paid better than regular fiction, unless one was fortunate enough to sell a story to a big magazine. Writing erotica taught me to write short, descriptive pieces without any fluff. It was just scene after scene. Sex sells and the billions of humans on this planet came into existence because of sex. I’ve heard of only one virgin birth.


Most of my novels have a love stories and the characters get intimate. Covers have been titillating over the years.


I'm a pain in the ass. I dislike promoting myself on social networks, although I have to. There's nothing wrong with a writer promoting their work. It's the only way to get word out sometimes. I'm just not good at it.

Couple days ago I received an offer to be interviewed on an international English Literature site. I replied I might be interested. They came back with it would cost me $50 to be interviewed on their site. I have never paid to be interviewed. Have any of you?

I declined.

I thought I'd posted this earlier but cannot find it on SleuthSayers, so here are more quotes from actor/stand-up Comic Dimetri Martin (I like this guy). He jokes about putting up flyers in coffee shops:

So, you want to learn how to play the saxophone?
I can stop you
call immediately

Babysitter Available
good at keeping secrets

Spacious. Clean. Cheap
good luck, Dipshit

That's all for now.