31 March 2023

Wasting time by watching stuff on the internet

What I learned from wasting my writing time by watching stuff on the internet:

Lions are mean. They kill for food primarily but will kill to prove they are king of the jungle (and the veldt).

Hyenas are gangsters, stealing prey from other predators, ganging up on other animals, even lions when the male lions aren't around.

Horses like cats. (I already knew that but watching them killed time).

Road runners can run up to 26 miles per hours in short spurts while coyotes can run up to 40 miles per hour for long distances. What the fuck? Shoulda known. Coyotes are canines. Don't wolf-pack run down their prey?

There are people who go into forests during the winter, struggle through the snow to build an LFC (little fuckin' cabin) from logs and mud and tree branches and stay in their little cabin for days, cooking fish they catch from half-frozen streams and animals they manage to kill. Animals who have been avoiding natural predators and trying to survive the frost only to have a bored human with a compound bow and arrow come along.

I learned from watching professional pokers play that I know nothing about poker and glad I don't play cards, even for no money.

The Bee Gees song Tragedy is as bad as I remember, while Stayin' Alive still rocks and K.C. and the Sunshine band takes me back to when life was just a playground for guys and gals in our twenties – young, good looking, our whole lives in front of us. So I daydream and my writing waits for me to come back. Is there a story in my daydream. Maybe, so it's not all a waste. Maybe.

Watching an LSU football game on TV with the sound muted while listening to the game on a Spanish language radio station (sportscasters who normally broadcast soccer – futbol – games) is a BLAST. Greatest commentators. Don't know what they are saying but their enthusiasm is electric.

Comedians from Scotland, Ireland and Australia are speaking English, I think.

Humans fall down a lot and many are recorded on house video cameras.

Puppies are cute, so are baby opossums, raccoons, squirrels – hell, most baby animals. But kittens are the cutest by far. Just my opinion.

Wasting time. We all do it. Writers writing on computers need to be cautious. It's so easy to waste time. Too easy.

I conclude with a reference to one of my favorite songs from Crosby, Stills & Nash, a song written by Graham Nash – Wasted on the Way.

LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWlEsta4xS8

That's all for now.

30 March 2023

Marlowe on TV

And here it is, the fourth installment in my four-part series, delving deeply into the back catalog of Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective, Philip Marlowe across media other than the printed word. You can find previous installments here, here, and here. Now let’s get to it!

As television came to prominence during the mid-20th century, it can be of little surprise that fictional characters and their stories from previously established media (books, short stories, plays, films, etc.) began to find a place on TV.

After all, for a lot of the owners of these intellectual properties, selling the TV rights amounted to so much free money. As was the case with so many who went before him, Raymond Chandler had no qualms about licensing his famous detective for television.

However, television has proven-with one notable exception-to be a problematic medium for Marlowe.

Oh sure, there were the early one-offs. Reliable movie villain–of the effete, cultured variety–Zachary Scott played Marlowe in a 1950 adaptation of The Big Sleep for Robert Montgomery Presents. And four years later Dick Powell reprised the role for the initial episode of anthology series Climax! in a live adaptation of The Long Goodbye (with Caesar Romero as Mendy Mendez!). These were one-offs for anthologies and adaptations of existing Chandler properties (and as nearly as I can tell, unavailable anywhere to view). In 1959 ABC television launched Philip Marlowe a thirty minute crime drama starring Philip Carey in the title role, it lasted a single season.

The coolest thing about 1959’s Philip Marlowe was that fake scar on Philip Carey’s cheekbone.

Carey was a decent choice for Marlowe, and he really gave it his all, but his presence was really all the show had going for it. Filmed using many of the same sets as Perry Mason, the show had a thin supporting cast (avuncular character actor William Schallert played Marlowe's cop pal Lt. Manny Harris), and most importantly, bore nearly no resemblance to the source material. The series clocked twenty-six episodes before being cancelled in 1960.

As was the case with the BBC's attempts at bringing the original Marlowe novels to the radio, TV's second bite at a Marlowe series succeeded where the previous one had failed. It took into the early 1980s for it to happen, and it was subscription cable service Home Box Office that pulled it off, with its first originally produced series, Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, with the great Powers Boothe as Marlowe.

Produced at Twickenham Studios in England, the series premiered on April 16, 1983 with a terrific adaptation of the Chandler short story "The Pencil." Where the Carey series suffered from a shoe-string budget and little interest on the part of the production team in aligning the TV show with the source material, HBO lavishly funded Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, and in two separate seasons (1983 and again in 1986) adapted a total of eleven of Chandler's Marlowe stories for the small screen. Here they are:

Season One:

1. "The Pencil"

2. "The King in Yellow"

3. "Nevada Gas"

4. "Finger Man"

5. "Smart Aleck Kill"

Season Two:

1. "Blackmailers Don't Shoot"

2. "Spanish Blood"

3. "Pickup on Noon Street"

4. "Guns at Cyrano's"

5. "Trouble is My Business"

6. "Red Wind"

The definitive TV Marlowe

And there's not a clunker in the bunch. Even weaker, earlier Chandler material such as "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" and "Smart Aleck Kill" gets an effective make-over as part of the screen adaptation process. And through it all Boothe shines as Marlowe. Anyone familiar with Boothe's work will recognize that he was more than capable of playing the good guy who tapped into a darker side. His Marlowe is always engaging, interesting, and when on the screen you can't take your eyes off him.

The series' budget is also evident in the production values, including authentic sets (although they do sometimes seem a bit too clean for 1930s/40s Los Angeles, but that is a minor quibble) and costumes. Solid supporting casts helped round out the product. At a lean eleven episodes, this series really is worth your time. It's not free, but you can stream it here.

Danny Glover as Marlowe in "Red Wind"

At around the same time as the HBO series was running, cable competitor SHOWTIME ran a one-off adaptation of a Chandler story in its crime fiction anthology series Fallen Angels. Danny Glover, hot off his success in Lethal Weapon portrayed Marlowe in another adaption of "Red Wind."

Changing up Marlowe's ethnicity (and that of several other characters in the story) while staying largely true to the action of the original story, really does create a different narrative. Marlowe's motivations change with his identity, and as a one-off experiment, it really does work and is also definitely worth your time. If you're interested, you can watch it for free here.

Jason O'Mara as a modern "Marlowe"

Lastly there is the never-picked-up pilot for a series titled Marlowe, produced in 2007 and starring a pre-Life on Mars Jason O'Mara as a modern-day version of the title character. I enjoyed the story, and the acting was good (especially O'Mara), but this modern Marlowe is very modern (he even has a secretary!), and really bears no more resemblance to the source material than I do to a wire haired schnauzer. In fact, I think the problem with O'Mara as Marlowe (aside from the fact that the pilot does not pay even lip service to the source material) is similar to the one I had with Garner in the role. I saw Jim Rockford in the film. And in this pilot I see Sam Tyler, O'Mara's character from Life on Mars (although his Marlowe seems less bemused/confused, and actually smiled more). Still, if you're curious about what might have been, you can check it out for free here.

And there you have it! As a quick recap, for my money Liam Neeson's turn as Marlowe is a proud entry into the canon, Toby Stephens' turn as Marlowe for BBC Radio might well serve as the definitive take on the character, and when it comes to Marlowe on TV, nobody does it better than Powers Boothe.

Agree? Disagree? Curious? Drop a line in the comments and let us know what you think.

And as always, see you in two weeks!

29 March 2023

Keep It Under Your Hat (Your Crimesolving Ability, That Is)

by Michael Mallory
Paget's Original Deerstalker Illustration

Here’s a simple experiment: draw a stick figure, like a “Hangman” victim, and then ask anyone who it is. 

They will not know. How could they?

Now cover the round circle head in a cap with a front and back brim and a bow on top, and ask again.

The reply is guaranteed to be “Sherlock Holmes.” 

Once a symbol of country life, the common deerstalker──a tweed cap with ear-flaps worn by hunters in rural areas of England as they (wait for it…) stalk deer──has incongruously become synonymous with one of the most renowned Londoners of all time.

How did this turn of events come about?

Blame it on the illustrator. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never mentioned a deerstalker by name in any of his 60 Holmes adventures, though in the 1891 short story “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” Dr. Watson described Holmes as traveling to a village in Hertfordshire wearing “a close-fitting cloth cap.” That could, of course, just as easily have signified a flat “newsboy” cap. But one year later, when “The Adventure of Silver Blaze” first appeared, Watson got a little more specific in describing Holmes’s headgear, stating he wore “his ear-flapped travelling cap” to Dartmoor. While flat caps of the era sometimes came with ear protectors, the “Silver Blaze” description certainly sounds like a deerstalker, so Strand Magazine illustrator Sidney Paget took the inference and ran with it. 

Paget first depicted Sherlock Holmes wearing a deerstalker for “Boscombe Valley,” and then recreated that illustration nearly verbatim for “Silver Blaze.” As a result, the cap immediately became shorthand for the appearance of Holmes, so much so that he was rarely depicted in any stage or film incarnation without it. This was despite the fact that a deerstalker in London would have looked as out-of-place to a fashionable Victorian as would a Native American war bonnet.

Bernhardt in Fedora

A half-century after Sidney Paget’s iconic drawings of Holmes, another form of headgear started to be identified with a detective, albeit a tougher, harder-boiled one. This was the fedora, whose origins were anything but tough…or even male.

French stage star Sarah Bernhardt wore a unique hat in her starring role in a popular 1882 play by Victorien Sardou: it was a soft felt hat with a narrow brim (narrower than most women’s hats of the time, anyway), and rather lavishly decorated. 

The play was called Fedora and the hat caused a sensation. Parisian women raced to their milliners to request “a Fedora hat,” which is how the name got pasted to the style. In short order the chapeau became unisex, though men’s fedoras tended to be less-showy, except for the one sported by Oscar Wilde. His signature version of the fedora, which was always worn at a dramatic angle, featured a tall, dented crown and a wide, turned-down brim.

Bogart in The Big Sleep

By the 1920s, the fedora was well on its way to becoming the default hat for city men, edging out the derby, the more formal homburg, and the straw boater. By the ‘30s, it was hard to find a man who was not wearing a fedora, either a weather-durable felt one for autumn and winter, or a chic Panama straw fedora for spring and summer. Derbies and boaters were more commonly seen on film comedians of the era than the average man on the street.

How, then, did the fedora become de rigueur for a 20th century gumshoe──usually accompanied by a trench coat? The answer is time plus the march of fashion.

In the period between the two World Wars, fedora hats were so universal that they were not even referred to as such. One could read every novel written between 1930 and 1960, and watch every film produced within that time, and encounter the word “fedora” less than two-dozen times. The lids were referred to simply as “men’s hats” or “soft hats.” As widespread as they had been, though, by the late 1950s, classic fedoras were on the way out.

Andrews in Laura

Many blame President John F. Kennedy for this since he famously chose not to wear hats (he did carry a Cavanagh brand fedora for photo ops, though, since the head of the Cavanagh Hat Company was an old Navy friend of the president’s). But the truth is that fashion sense had been changing for some time prior to Camelot. 

The porkpie hat──not the comically flat one worn by Buster Keaton, but taller ones made of felt or straw that also bore snap brims──had become prevalent. What remained of the fedora morphed into the “trilby,” a hat that was similar in shape but with a shorter, tapered crown and a much narrower brim, and sometimes made of leather.

By the end of the 1960s, most men did not wear hats at all, and those who did often preferred the more casual lids such as fishing hats, bucket hats, or “skipper” hats.

Yet the images from the movies remained. Humphrey Bogart decked out in a fedora and trench coat in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1943), and The Big Sleep (1946), plus Dana Andrews similarly attired in Laura (1944), solidified the connection. Just as “ten-gallon” hats defined the look of the Westerner in people’s eyes (the classic “cowboy hat” being more a product of Hollywood than reality), so did the fedora and trench coat become the de facto uniform for a private eye on screen, though that connection would not really enter into the collective consciousness until a generation after the fact.

Eddie Constantine in Alphaville

As the wartime trench coat gave way to sleeker rain coat, and the classic straight-crowned, wide-brimmed fedora went the way of pocket watches and spats, what was normal daily dress evolved into a costume, one that was resurrected by later filmmakers who wanted to evoke that lost time. 

French director Jean-Luc Godard revived the look in Alphaville (1965), his bizarre, futuristic homage to film noir, while Peter Sellers lampooned it as Inspector Clouseau.

And while some might argue that Indiana Jones rescued the fedora from total association with detectives, it was the kind of rescue that lasted only until the next Indy film. 

Downey in Sherlock Holmes

Through no fault of their own, the humble, practical deerstalker and the once-ubiquitous fedora defined more than a century of fictional sleuths. So iconic have they become to their archetypal characters that the decision to put Robert Downey, Jr. in a Wildean fedora in Sherlock Holmes (2009) seemed somewhere between an anachronism and a sacrilege.

28 March 2023

Recklesser or More Reckless

         Last week, Barb Goffman devoted her SleuthSayers blog to a conversation about Reckless in Texas, an anthology she edited. Reckless was released earlier this month. The book's selection committee kindly included a story I'd written, "Steer Clear." The tale allowed me to talk a bit about my city, Fort Worth. 

    In 1849, Major Ripley Arnold of the United States Army was ordered to establish an outpost in northern Texas near the confluence of the Clear and West Forks of the Trinity River. He, and the 2nd Drogoons he commanded, chose a site on flat ground at a bend in the river. This place, part of a line of garrisons, was to mark the boundary between the lands of settlers and those of the Native Americans. Arnold named this new site Camp Worth in honor of Major General William Jenkins Worth, a hero of the Mexican War and the recently deceased commander of all U.S. Army forces in Texas. 

    Arnold discovered that the advantage of the camp's location, ready access to good water, quickly became a drawback. Flooding of the Trinity moved the Dragoons to higher ground. The new outpost was built at the top of a bluff overlooking the river. Here, Fort Worth was established. 

    Following the Civil War, with that broad plain for grazing and the available water, Fort Worth developed into a stop on the Chisholm Trail for cattle drives. Hell's Half Acre emerged as the local entrepreneurs built a bustling and brawling place to separate herders from their money. They established "Cowtown." Later, along with the surrounding communities of the Dallas/Fort Worth area, we colloquially became a part of the "Metroplex." 

    Dallas/Fort Worth. Although we get half the names in this relationship (or two-thirds if you're a strict word counter), Fort Worthians sometimes feel overlooked in our paired relationship. The residents of St. Paul may well understand. 

    I blame alphabetical ordering. Dallas precedes Fort Worth in the dictionary. Hence, we get D/FW. And we became part of the "Dallas" area. 

    Army regulations distinguish between "camps" and "forts." Forts were permanent facilities, while camps were temporary. Would this region look different if my community had sprung from that original camp? If the sprawl of cities and suburbs dotting North Texas was known collectively as CW/D. If "The Camp" came to a reader and speaker's mouth first, would they be the Camp Worth Cowboys? After all, the team plays football in my county, not Dallas. 

    Perhaps not. Dallas sits on the eastern edge of our twin cities. As settlers came west, they stopped there first. Dallas had been established for nearly a decade by the time Major Arnold pitched his tent on that Trinity riverbank. Even with our name first, we might never have overcome their head start. Still, it's something I ponder now and again. 

    When Sister's in Crime North Dallas announced the anthology, Reckless in Texas, I knew where I'd set my story. My city needed a shout-out. "Steer Clear" does not delve into the history I've outlined. Nor do I have a villain bitter over Dallas's name primacy. I do, however, steal a prize-winning bovine in a locked barn mystery. I tap into Fort Worth's celebration of our cattle-driving heritage. Through the story, I hope to
remind readers about our links to the Chisholm Trail and, hopefully, Fort Worth's place in North Texas's rich crime fiction tradition. 

    The area's crime fiction offerings now include Reckless in Texas. I am happy to join my fellow authors in telling stories about North Texas. Thanks to Barb and the local SINC chapter for putting this volume together. 

    Now if I can just get them to change the chapter's name to Sister's in Crime--Camp Worth. 

    Until next time. 

27 March 2023

Never give in to lazy fact checkers.

I wonder if Winston Churchill would be amused or annoyed if he knew of all the brilliant quotes and witticisms attributed to him that he never actually wrote or said. 

I’ll answer my own question.  I think he’d find the assumption that any clever statement be automatically attributed to him as entirely appropriate, while being insulted by the reckless propagation of the mangled misrepresentations or outright fictions posing as the genuine article.  If you Google “Never give up – Winston Churchill” you’ll get literally thousands of references to an alleged commencement address in which he stood up, repeated “Never give up” three times, and then sat down again. 

Didn’t happen.  What he did was deliver an impromptu talk to students at Harrow School, his alma mater, which contained these words:  “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never--in nothing, great or small, large or petty--never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Humphrey Bogart never said, “Play it again, Sam.”  He said, “If you played it for her, you can play it for me.  Play it, Sam.”

We don’t know for sure if Pablo Picasso said, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”  Or any of the numerous variants which people also report via Google as if it’s absolute, irrefutable fact.

Except for those who attribute that quote or something similar to T.S. Eliot, who we do know for sure wrote:  "…one of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows.  Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different."

We know this because it’s written down, and we can look it up.  As is Churchill’s speech. 

You might say, what’s the harm in a little misquoting?  These are all famous smart guys, and the quotes are close enough, and worth repeating.

Maybe no harm.  Except to the truth.  It seems to me that the lines between truth and fiction are in danger of a permanent blurring with the flood of unexamined information coming over the internet, and the passive disregard presumed professional journalists and commentators seem to have toward accuracy or clarity of meaning, especially when the pesky facts get in the way of their bold assertions or hypotheses. 

We’ve arrived at a point where Rudy Giuliani asserts that “Truth isn’t truth,”  people make jokes about alternative facts or have to pledge their allegiance to the “reality-based community”, or have most of the country still believing that Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden were golfing partners (they weren’t), or that Democratic operatives printed up millions of fake ballots (they didn’t), it might be a good time to reassert the importance of knowing and telling the truth. 

I did some time as an editor, and I had to make these judgement calls between what is legitimately imagined, and what should stand as facts, things that exist within the world of the book's context that we all recognize.  One recalcitrant writer accused me, after I corrected a blizzard of factual errors and misapprehensions, of not understanding that this was just fiction.  "I can write anything I want," he wrote.  "It's all made up."  

Well, not really.  I believe writers, even mystery writers, have an obligation to get as close as possible to the things in the world that are true, and confirmable, even if we’re writing fiction.  The stuff you make up, of course, is all yours.  But if you’re chasing a car heading uptown, you’re going north.  Camden is across the Delaware from Philly to the east.  (I’ve seen both items improperly reversed.  Fire the copy editor!)

Historical novelists are masters of this.  They know that sweating the details of their period of choice, getting all the essentials as correct as possible, makes their stories that much more believable and fulfilling.  

My personal standard is I never want a lawyer, investment manager, car mechanic, gun expert, forensic scientist, archeologist, drug dealer or cowboy, when reading a relevant passage of mine, ever think, "That's not how it happens. "

By the way, William Manchester, in researching his biographies of Churchill, claimed to have run down every one of those popular attributions.  He insisted that Churchill did indeed tangle with an opinionated English lady one evening who told him, “Winston, you are drunk.”  To which he replied, “Madam, you are ugly.  In the morning I shall be sober.”

That one I choose to believe is true. 


26 March 2023

A I on Short Story

robot reading

Artificial Intelligence once was a concept of science fiction, a thing of the future. Now, it's a creature of the present and we are still learning how to use it.

With the right AI software, anyone can type in "write an article on the elements needed to write a great short story" and then hit ENTER. The software will proceed to write an article on what the software considers to be the elements necessary to write a great short story. If the submitter doesn't like the article for some reason, then he or she can enter the same information and hit ENTER again. The A I software will turn out a different article, ad infinitum.

Okay, so let's see what the software wrote for the first inquiry.

Writing a great short story can be challenging, but it is also an incredibly rewarding experience. Short stories can be powerful tools for exploring complex themes, capturing a moment in time, or simply entertaining readers with a well-crafted tale. Whether you are a seasoned writer or a newcomer to the craft, there are several key elements that can help you create a compelling short story.

   1. A strong opening: The first sentence or paragraph of  your short story should grab the reader's attention and set the tone for what's to come. It should establish the setting, introduce the main character or characters, and hint at the conflict or tension that will drive the plot forward.

   2. Compelling characters: In a short story, there is limited space to develop characters, so it is important to make every word count. Create characters that are unique, interesting, and relatable. Give them clear motivations, distinct personalities, and flaws that make them feel like real people.

   3. A well-developed plot: Your story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. The plot should be structured in a way that keeps the reader engaged and interested. Avoid predictable or cliched storylines, and strive for a unique and surprising twist or resolution.

   4. Conflict or tension:  Your story should have a central conflict or tension that drives the action forward. This could be a physical or emotional obstacle that the main character must overcome, or it could be a moral dilemma that forces the character to make a difficult decision.

   5. Effective pacing: In a short story, pacing is critical. You need to keep the reader engaged and interested from beginning to end, without rushing or dragging the story out. Use pacing techniques like dialogue, description, action to create a sense of momentum and tension.

   6. A clear theme: A great short story should leave the reader with a clear sense of what it's all about. It should explore a theme or idea that resonates with the reader, whether it is a universal truth about the human condition, a commentary on a current issue, or a personal reflection on life.

   7. Skilled language: Finally, a great short story should be written in skillful and precise language. Choose your words carefully, and use imagery, metaphors, and other literary devices to create a vivid and engaging story. Avoid cliches and overused phrases, and strive for originality and creativity.

In conclusion, a great short story requires careful attention to many different elements from character development and plot pacing, theme, and language. By honing your skills in each of these areas, you can create a story that is both memorable and powerful. Remember that the most important element of any story is its ability to connect with readers on an emotional level, so be true to your own voice and vision, and strive to create a story that will resonate with your audience.

Personally, other than some repetition, I would say the A I software did a good job and covered all the necessary elements. At  this stage in my career, I tend to write instinctively without consciously thinking about the basics, however there are times it probably would not hurt for me to be reminded what the basics are. I think I'll keep this article on file.

I have not played around with having the A I software write a short story to see how well it does. What do you think, will A I programs eventually acquire the ability to put us human writers out of business?

And, if an Artificial Intelligence program does write a short story, who then owns the copyright?

25 March 2023

Award-winning or Bestselling?
Which would you choose?

As we approach award season time, the old existential question is coming up at hotel bars, dives, and other dubious but cheap places that serve alcohol to bitching and whining authors…

If you could be an award-winning author OR a bestselling author, but not both, which would you choose?

And has your preference changed over the years?

Mine has.  I was all about the awards when I was younger.  I wanted to be recognized, and was leery about 'selling out' to the masses (a ridiculous idea, as I see it now.  Why would a book that everyone likes not be a good book?)  

To that end, I didn't consider writing certain genres and actually turned down a lucrative series contract with one of the big five 15 years ago because they wanted to change it from epic fantasy to paranormal romance.  Honestly, I can be an idiot.)

In the thirty years since my first publication, I like to think I've grown up.  With 17 novels, 60 short stories, and a couple hundred comedy credits behind me, my outlook has changed.

Now, ten awards later, I want money.

(I hope you're laughing now.  Has she given up her ideals?  Hell yes!)

This change of heart has prompted me to examine what it is that each accomplishment does for one.

Here's what I've concluded:

Award-winning means you are lauded by your peers.

Bestseller means you are appreciated by the reading public.

No question, a lot of awards are judged by professional authors and professional reviewers.  I've sat on a number of juries myself.  And there is no greater thrill I've found than having professionals in your own field laud you as 'the best' in a category.

But that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to earn a poop-load of money.

Why is it so hard to attain both?

I have an author friend - actually two of them- who consistently make bestseller lists.  One is a million-book seller.  The other, in the tens of thousands per book, but with over thirty books, that amounts to a lot of sales.

Am I envious of the money they make?  Hell yeah!

Neither have won an award.  And I know it gnaws away at them. Does the money compensate?  I expect it does.

But somehow, as authors we crave both. We strive for both.  We want to be acknowledged by our peers as well as loved by the public.  We want to see our names on the bestseller lists, and on the awards list.

At least, that's how I see it at this point in my career.  But to be fair, I've gone to a younger author with Harper Collins, for his take. Here's what he says:

     "It's an age-old question and I have to admit that I'm rather boring when it comes to the side of the fence I fall on. Writing has always been my passion. It's a privilege to be able to do it professionally. And if that means that my work becomes bestselling, or it garners the attention of my peers in awards, then it's an added bonus.
     "I'm envious of other authors - just because they all do such magnificent work. So, to be the ultimate fence sitter, I'll say that either is a welcome and monumental achievement. And one that should be cherished and celebrated far and wide!"  (Jonathan Whitelaw, author of The Bingo Hall Detectives - "a sharply funny read")

Well said, Jonathan! How about you, fellow authors?  If you had to choose, which way would you go?

Man, I'll be glad when this book is finally out (May13.)  Available for preorder most places.

Melodie Campbell writes lamentably funny fiction, usually with a mob connection, from the shores of Lake Ontario. If you enjoyed The Goddaughter series, you also might enjoy this book, which takes place in 1928 and stars Gina Gallo's great-grandmother!

24 March 2023

Pulled From The Ether

People ask a lot of questions when they find out someone is a writer. Some show a distinct lack of knowledge about what writing pays. Either the person is chronically unemployed or already has their retirement funded nine times over. In reality, most of us have day jobs or are retired. Some are about research. Of course, I wrote here a couple of times about where characters come from, and, of course, my favorite topic: setting. One question, however, sets almost every writer's teeth on edge.

"Where do you get your ideas?"

From the reader's, or at least non-writer's, point of view, it's a fair enough question. Most people may daydream, but they don't spend a lot of time trying to spin it into a story. Or if they do, not something beyond telling tales in a bar after it's too late to drive one's self home. So, why does this bother writers so much?

Well, ideas come from just about everywhere. I don't care if you're Harlan Ellison cooped up in a hotel room banging out the original version of Star Trek's "City on the Edge of Forever" on your ancient Underwood manual typewriter or my buddy Rick Partlow dictating the first of 5000 words a day while in the shower. You don't know where the ideas come from.

Stephen King often talks about this. Once, he referenced Ellison (I think. The memory is fuzzy after so many years), that famous master of sarcasm, who said, "Oh, I have a service in New Jersey I subscribe to for $25 a month." I read that in 1985, so I'm assuming, with inflation, it's now $75. Seriously, though, while I won't even try to fathom what went through Ellison's mind, I have seen where King's ideas came from.

Carrie - King's breakthrough novel and his debut is also his least favorite. (Me, personally, I don't like Christine, but I like Cell a lot less. But I'm just a silly consumer.) It came from working as a janitor in a high school and cleaning the girls' locker room. What are those weird dispensers on the wall? This was 1973, after all, and that stuff just wasn't talked about. Why were high school girls so mean? What about two girls he went to high school with who were outcasts? His contact with high school resulted in his first three novels: the Bachman books Rage and The Long Walk, and Carrie. He regrets Rage for what happened after the fact, but Carrie ended up in the garbage after a handful of pages. Why? He didn't get the main character. Fortunately, Tabitha King did and helped him finish it.

Pet Sematary - One of the king boys, I think it was Joe Hill, was a naughty little toddler and liked to run out in the road. At the time, the King family lived in a Maine logging town, and little Joe (or was it Owen?) nearly got squished by a logging truck barreling through at a pretty good clip. The incident, of course, prompted King to write his own version of "The Monkey's Paw," but was this latest edition to the Castle Rock continuum made up? A couple of years ago, my family and I toured New England. Driving from Burlington, Vermont, to Bar Harbor, we went through a hamlet situated between a mountain and a large foothill. I told my wife I thought this looked familiar. Might have been the buildings along one side of the road. And then a logging truck blew past us, its wake shaking the car. I said, "Oh, my God, Candy! We just drove through Pet Sematary!"

Cell - My least favorite King novel and a pale copy of The Stand. King hates cell phones. Get off his lawn. What if these idiotic gadgets set off the zombie apocalypse? I appreciate the sentiment, but not the execution. Although this was one of the first novels written after his accident, so give him credit for at least getting back on the horse. (Much prefer Duma Key.)

That's just Stephen King. Some ideas come from more bizarre directions than this. My first novel Northcoast Shakedown had its genesis in some balcony work at an apartment complex where I lived. What if someone pushed the guy off the ladder? On the scifi side, I came up with TS Hottle's Gimme Shelter when I saw a video game ad with ordinary people grabbing assault weapons to ward off aliens, all to the strains of... Well... "Gimme Shelter." I've had short stories inspired by getting stuck out in the rain, obsessive scifi fans, and the titles of Deep Purple songs.

Anthologies provide the best hooks. A few years ago, I was invited to one with a theme of Steely Dan songs. More recently (and unfortunately, I pulled out too soon), I submitted to a one-hit wonder themed anthology and came up with "Black Velvet" and its Elvis-themed lyrics. My favorite, though, was when someone wrote a story based on "Kid Charlemagne," the song itself having a real-life inspiration. 

One never knows when an idea will strike. I walk along railroad tracks a couple of times a week on my way home from Ye Olde Day Job. Between Norfolk Southern's woes and my still-childish need to see a train once in awhile, there may be a toxic heist in the offing.

23 March 2023

Associations of a TV / Movie Addict

An upstate friend of mine and I were talking, and she said, "Do you feel like we're living in a black and white 50s horror movie?  The Winter That Would Not Die?"  Oh, hell yes. This winter is like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction - just when you think you've drowned it, it comes back, with a knife in its hand.  And it's turning us all into pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, wandering around with vacant eyes and devoid of human emotion except an intense hatred of the weather forecasts.  

Movies & TV. You can't help but use them as analogies for almost everything. And the lessons we've learned from them!  

First of all, thanks to Stephen Leather for posting this GREAT list:

And I'd like to add a few more observations:

No matter how long someone is held tied up in a chair, room, or cellar, they never soil themselves and, when rescued, never mention that they need to go pee.  

When an assassin / spy / amnesiac and the woman who's helping him have sex, they do it standing up in a bathroom or hallway.  (see Maximum Risk.)

The star of the movie can always find a parking place, even in Manhattan.  (Referred to by Jerry Seinfeld as "the Jack Lemmon parking place".) 

After a month on a deserted island, men will have an advanced beard, but women will have neatly shaved armpits. - Judy Mudrick Colbert in comments section  

A car chase will always knock over a fruit stand, but if there's two car chases that knock over two fruit stands - and a comedian is not involved - it's a stinker of a movie.  (see Maximum Risk.)

A woman going to bed with full make-up on will wake up with same full make-up on, and there will be nary a trace of mascara or lipstick anywhere on the pillow, when in fact it should look like it was used for "Bloodfeast." 

Women can run for miles in high heels with no trouble - unless, of course, it's mandatory for the villain to catch them.  Also, from comments on the internet, "If necessary, a woman can break off her stilettos and have a perfectly comfortable pair of flats."  

A pair of horn-rimmed glasses is a perfect disguise for everyone from Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep) to Clark Kent.  No one will recognize you.

No matter how drunk a woman gets, when her lover calls, she will be instantly sober and ready to go out on the town with him. (Female on the Beach

It's easy to gun a car to ramming speed and jump out of it without anyone seeing you (and hide) before it actually goes over the cliff and explodes - unless you're Thelma and Louise.  

That leads straight to Soapland, which has its own set of amazing things:

You thought Glenn Close's character was never going to die? Well, NOBODY ever dies forever on a soap (unless they completely pissed off the producer / money people). It doesn't matter how many people saw them fall off a cliff, explode in a car, get shot, laid out on a slab or attended their funeral complete with open casket:  Sooner or later, they're going to come back from the dead.  

Also, plastic surgery.  And I'm not talking about the Botox school of acting (nothing moves above the eyebrows) which is ubiquitous.  I'm talking about villains who get plastic surgery to look EXACTLY like somebody else, and the surgeon can do it without leaving any scars anywhere.  And - this is the really amazing bit - somehow they ALSO now have the same voice as the other person!  Not to mention body scent and mannerisms!  No one can tell the difference!     

Whenever two people discuss something incredibly intimate or secret in a public place, they are always overheard by either their worst enemy or the snitch who goes straight to their worst enemy. 

Even at home, all women wear full make-up, designer clothes and high heels all the time.  What I'd give to just once see the heroine come home from work, reach under her top, and strip off her bra the way the rest of us do...  And go off and come back in a pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt while she pours that glass of red wine.  

Slow learners all:  Nobody is EVER over their ex, no matter what kind of lying, cheating, etc., they were.  Indeed, they generally remarry their exes - multiple times.  

Oh, and those of us who have read pulp fiction, etc., know that all of these apply the detective and spy and thriller stories and novels as well.  

Meanwhile, exploding houses and an update from an old case here in South Dakota!

We've had a hell of a winter (remember land sharks?), and to cap it all off, two houses exploded in the Lake County area.  I always thought there were only two reasons why houses [unmaliciously] explode up here, (1) meth labs and (2) smoking while making ammunition in the basement (more common than you might think). 

But there's a third! Buried gas meters! "Officials are urging homeowners to check to see if their gas meters are free of snow. The City of Madison Fire Department says that in both home explosions, there was 10 plus feet or more of snow on the gas meter."  (KELO)  SO GO CHECK YOUR GAS METER, RIGHT NOW!!!!  And from henceforth and forever more!

And, remember Joel Koskan, former Republican candidate for the South Dakota Senate, who thankfully was not elected?  Now last year it emerged that he'd been arrested for "exposing a minor to sexual grooming behaviors," a class four felony. And it turned out that the minor was his adopted daughter, and that he'd groomed and then molested her for years.  Somehow, he got a plea deal (do not EVEN get me started on the old boy network), in which he agreed to "accept some responsibility for his actions, but ultimately would deny any sexual intercourse had occurred throughout the alleged abuse" and would not have to serve any time or register as a sex offender, or be separated from his other 4 children (who are still living with him).  (All the Cockroaches Coming Out)

Well, huzzah!  The circuit judge rejected his plea deal.  With any luck, there'll be a trial, and Mr. Koskan might actually have to face some REAL consequences for his actions.  (Argus)  

That's all for now.  More later, when hopefully I can find my lawn again.  At least I found my gas meter.

22 March 2023

Old Pros

Here’s a George V. Higgins guy talking:

Never did like Nino.  Most guys I’ve done business with, I’ve got along with good.  When something’s happened to them – they got careless, trusted someone they shouldn’t of, did something they’re not sure of?  Then they hadda go away?  I been, you know, sorry for them.  Hoped whatever happened to them, not… too bad.  They didn’t have much pain.  Nothing I could do – ‘cept wish they’d been more careful.  But still, I did feel sorry.  Bad they hadda go away.  Nino, I did not.  Very careless man.  Loud about it, too.  Full of the big talk.  Now Nino’s in Walpole – I’m right?  Will be a long time.  Don’t wanna be there with him.  Always figured him for trouble.  Never liked the guy.

     [At End of Day, 2000]

Here’s one from Elmore Leonard:

     If it was ten or twelve years ago, and Jimmy told Tommy Bucks in those words, ‘Handle it,’ that would be a different story.  I mean, back when he first came over.  Tommy’s a Zip.  You know what I mean?  One of those guys they used to import from Sicily to handle the rough stuff.  Guy could be a peasant right out of the fucking Middle Ages, looks around and he’s in Miami Beach.  Can’t believe it.  They hand the Zip a gun and say, ‘There, that guy.’  And the Zip takes him out.  You understand?  They import the kind of guy likes to shoot.  He’s got no priors here, nobody gives a shit, he gets picked up, convicted, put away.  If he does, you send for another Zip.  Guy comes over from Sicily, he’s got on a black suit, shirt buttoned up, no tie, and a cap sitting on top of his head.  That was Tommy Bucks, ten, twelve years ago.

     [Pronto, 1993]


There’s a trick to it.  It’s not actually real speech.  If you sound it out loud to yourself, you hear the cadence.  It mimics real speech, but the rhythms are compressed, or stretched out and exaggerated.  The language feels authentic, even if nobody really talks like that.  You wish they did. 

Twain has the hang of this, too.  The way Huckleberry Finn sounds, the mouth-feel.  A very good case can be made for Twain as the first American writer who’s trying to give you a sense of genuine vernacular speech, and what you hear with George Higgins and Dutch Leonard is a kind of shortcut to that.  It doesn’t sound labored; it sounds natural.

Read the opening scene of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Higgins’ first book.  I’m not going to quote the whole thing here.  You can hear the guy’s voice in your head, at least I can.  Pick up Leonard’s LaBrava and read it for the third time.  If it’s the first, settle in.

There’s something comforting about their work, both of them.  And immediately familiar.  Like the guy a couple of stools down.  You know you’re in good hands, and you can go with it. 

“She made up a story, that Joe Young stole her stepdad’s Model A and abducted her.  I told her, stay with that, and you won’t go to jail.  But then the newspapers got hold of it.  ‘Girl-friend of Pretty Boy Floyd Guns Down Mad-Dog Felon.’  After a while she got over it.”

“And you married her.”

“Not till she grew up.”

[Up in Honey’s Room, 2007]

Seriously.  If you haven’t been in the neighborhood lately, stop by. 

21 March 2023

First we had Malice in Dallas. Now, things are Reckless in Texas

Earlier this month, Reckless in Texasthe second book in the Metroplex Mysteries anthology serieswas published. It follows last year's Malice in Dallas. If you think these titles are fun, wait until you read the books. (Joseph S. Walker's story in Malice has been chosen to appear in The Mysterious Bookshop Presents the Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2023. But you don't have to wait for that anthology to come out this autumn to read Joe's story. Malice in Dallas is available now. Just click here.)

But back to Reckless in Texas. It has ten stories plus a foreword written by my fellow SleuthSayer John M. Floyd. I've had the pleasure of editing both anthologies for the North Dallas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and I wanted to tell you a bit about the Reckless stories. But rather than talk about them myself, I decided to put the anthology's ten authors on the hot seat. I asked them to (1) talk a little about their stories, (2) share their favorite thing about their stories, and (3) tell where in the Dallas/Fort Worth area their stories are set and why. And here we go:

The book opens with "Monster" by Shannon Taft

Elizabeth believes that her mother-in-law, Alberta, did not have an enemy in the world the night she was stabbed to death. But if that is true, then who killed Alberta—and what do they want now?

My favorite thing about this story is that the victim appears to be a wonderful person. In many mysteries, the victim is universally loathed with masses of people who want them dead. The lack of apparent motive makes for a different sort of challenge.

I chose Highland Park because I needed a place where wealthy characters might live and it offered me loads of landmarks to work with, including Teddy Bear Park, Turtle Creek, and the Dallas Country Club. 

The next story is "The Prime Witness to the Murder of Dr. Malachi Samson" by Derek Wheeless

He would be murdered by one of the four women he trusted most in all of Dallas. He would be killed in the most fabulous mystery library in all of Texas, surrounded by the most magnificent first-edition tomes in all the world. And best of all, Dr. Malachi Sampson, the leader of the Women of the Arcane Mystery Book Club, would approve of his murder.

My favorite part of the story is the library. I would LOVE to have a library like the one in which Dr. Malachi Sampson is killed. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind dying in a library like that either!
The story is set on Swiss Avenue, a very historic street just east of downtown Dallas with very grand and stately homes that came about during the first several decades of the 1900s. One day, as I drove along the two and half miles of Swiss Avenue admiring the Mediterranean, Spanish, Georgian, Craftsman, and other styles of architecture, I wondered what it might be like if one of these old grand dames had the most spectacular mystery libraries inside. I also wanted to try writing a story in reverse, where the ending came first and the beginning came last. I’d seen an old Seinfeld episode like that and wondered if I could pull off a short mystery with the same approach, yet leaving some twist for the reader to enjoy in the final paragraphs. So I put the two ideas together and thus was born “The Prime Witness to the Murder of Dr. Malachi Sampson.”
Next up is "Traction" by Terry Shepherd
When a police detective ends up in traction after pushing a perp out of harm’s way, she discovers a mystery with tendrils connecting two of the city’s most prominent families. It’s a web of deception and murder she has to untangle from her hospital bed with only her wits and the spider who keeps her company.
I love puzzles where the only tool we have to solve them rests in our brain. Constructing a scenario where someone with a sharp mind who's sidelined by a broken leg solves a crime was great fun.
This Dallas tale is unique as it never leaves the protagonist’s hospital room. We meet people who do things in different parts of town, but the adventure begins and ends in the same spot.
Our fourth story is "The Laundry Larceny" by ML Condike  
A retired SMU professor who recently moved Sign Point, a life-plan community, is drawn into a murder investigation when the community's manager is found dead in a laundry room in Memory Care. How will Maggie solve the mystery when the only witness thinks he's Xerxes the Great, a king of the Achaemenid Empire?

My favorite thing about my story is that it shows the camaraderie and friendships formed in an age-in-place senior-living facility. I also love the way Maggie, my protagonist, reconciles the fact that Xerxes may not be the person he used to be, but he's happy with his new life.
I chose to set my fictional Sign Point on Preston Road in Dallas because the proximity to Southern Methodist University makes the relationships in the story more believable. 
Up next is "Who Shot the Party Crasher?" by Amber Royer
When ex-rock star Manda takes a road trip home to Texas with her aunt and her aunt's besties to see where the TV show Dallas was shot, she gets more than she bargained for when they find a dead body in their RV. Can she figure out who shot the guy who kinda looks like J.R.?
I love how this story echoes themes from my long-form work. Television and media and our relationship to them are a big part of the Chocoverse space-opera series in which my protagonist's mom is an intergalactic celebrity chef and my protagonist is hiding out from the paparazzi—while basically living inside a telenovela on the page. And Felicity, the protagonist of my Bean to Bar Mysteries, has an ambivalent relationship with her shop's image (after it becomes the site of a murder, in the first book) and social media (especially after a killer learns of Felicity's crime-solving exploits via a podcast and calls her out in book five).
This story is set in the north part of Dallas/Fort Worth. I've lived up this way for around six years, and it's an interesting mix of quaint city squares, urban areas, wildlife-friendly parks (we saw a beaver the last time we went walking at night on the path around Towne Lake!) and landmarks—including Southfork Ranch, the house used for the television show Dallas. I didn't want to set a murder at the actual landmark, so I used it just for inspiration.  
Our sixth story is "Stood Up" by Dänna Wilberg
Who killed Lanky Dave? After being stood up for a date by a local actress, a Dallas detective agrees to sacrifice his night off to investigate a drug dealer's gruesome murder. During his investigation, he discovers fate can be cruel, blood is thicker than water, and things aren't always as they appear to be. 
My favorite part of writing "Stood Up" was creating unusual characters, incorporating local history into the backstory, and weaving many interesting locations, spanning from Frisco to downtown Dallas, into the plot.
Although I'm from Sacramento, California, I was fortunate to attend a speakeasy in Frisco and dine at Campisi's legendary restaurant. But truth be told, I fell in love with Dallas's potential for staging a murder after taking a city tour on a souped-up golf cart.  
Next comes "Steer Clear" by Mark Thielman
The sudden disappearance of Bluebonnet, Forth Worth's prize steer, has the mayor demanding answers. To avoid the wrath of his lieutenant, Detective Alpert must shake off his hangover long enough to find Cowtown's favorite bovine. "Steer Clear" is a locked-barn mystery. 
I'm combining questions two and three. My favorite part was setting a story in my city, Forth Worth. Although we're the other half of Dallas/Fort Worth, we sometimes get overlooked. I wanted a story that featured Cowtown. Putting a big bovine in the heart of the tale seemed the best way to do that.
Up next is "Risk Reduction" by L. A. Starks
If your family was threatened, how far would you go to save them? When her new boss makes a shocking request of her, a young financial analyst must reduce the risk to her family in the only way she can—by calculating the odds.
My favorite thing about writing this story was giving a taste of the cool, complex mix of people, neighborhoods, and cultures in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.  
A key setting for my story is Munger Place in Old East Dallas. When I lived there, residents' aspirations and striving, like those of the main character in the story, were exemplified by a sign at a used-car lot: Su trabajo es su crédito. "Your job is your credit." 
Our penultimate story is "Road Rage" by Pam McWilliams
A road-rage killing is more complicated than it first appears, especially when the  detective's lost love appears at his door with information that sheds light on the case. 

Two of my favorite characters from "Two-Legged Creatures"—my story in Malice in Dallas—couldn't stand each other for most of the story. But they reappear in "Road Rage," now with a complicated romantic history that took place in between the stories. I also like the way the road-rage killing is about a lot more than two angry drivers. 

Both the victim and the killer live north of the city in affluent areas, and I-75, where the road-rage incident takes place, is one of the fastest ways to get there from downtown, particularly late at night after an evening out.

And we wrap up the anthology with "The Mysterious Disappearance of Jason Whetstone" by Karen Harrington

A Garland journalist explores the disappearance of a mediator at Highland Park's Remedy Clinica venue that referees petty or odd disputesand unfurls the truth about his last two clients: sisters at odds over a family memory. Would one of them commit murder to win the argument?

The story unfurls from a journalist's point of view as she collects various interviews and records about the disappearance of Jason Whetstone, culminating in the kind of true-crime article you might find in a magazine. Writing it that way was challenging and fun as I'm a huge fan of that type of article. 

The crime is solved in Garland, Texas, where I grew up and also where the film Zombieland opens. That should tell you everything.

Barb again: And those are the ten stories in Reckless in Texas. We hope we've enticed you to pick up the anthology, which you can find on Amazon in trade paperback and ebook formats. Just click here. If you've read any of the anthology, we'd love to hear what you think. 

Finally, a little BSP before I go: I'm delighted to share that last week my story "The Gift" was named a finalist for this year's Thriller Award in the short story category. The story involves a high school principal who has always believed in setting a good example. But sometimes the line between right and wrong blurs
especially when family is involved.

"The Gift" was published last autumn in Land of 10,000 Thrills: Bouchercon Anthology 2022. Thanks to Greg Herren, who edited the anthology, and Down & Out Books, which published it, for including my story. You can buy the anthology through the usual online sources, including here. The Thriller Award winners will be announced on June 3rd.