30 June 2024

ShortCon and the Long Haul

Subtle clue I got on the correct plane

As I write this, I've just returned from the very first ShortCon, an ambitious new conference specifically for writers of short mystery and crime fiction. The history of our genre is deeply grounded in short stories (think Poe, Doyle, and the golden age of the pulps), but the form often receives scant attention at the major conferences, such as Bouchercon. ShortCon's goal aims to correct that.

Organized by Michael Bracken and Stacy Woodson (along with Verena Rose, Shawn Reilly Simmons, and Angie Carlton, and with my apologies for the oversight in my initial post), the event was held at Elaine's Restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia and was, I think, a rousing success. It's easy to be pessimistic about the future of the form I spend most of my time writing.

Many once-prominent markets have disappeared, and reading in general seems threatened by the ever-shortening attention span of the iPhone age. The ShortCon sessions didn't ignore those realities, but they also provided ample evidence that there are a lot of people, both readers and writers, who remain passionate about these stories.

Certainly there were passionate reactions the night before, when Elaine's hosted a Noir at the Bar event in association with the Con. I was honored to be invited to be one of the readers, and my story "Kindling Delight" (available in this collection!) was well-received, to my considerable relief (this being the first time I'd read to more than five or six people). Though the other readers were all terrific, it was particularly intimidating to follow LynDee Walker, whose lively delivery of an uproarious story about a Piggly-Wiggly cashier with a dark past and just a bit of a violent streak had the audience in stitches.

ShortCon readers
Noir at the Bar readers (L to R) Jackie Sherbow, LynDee Walker, Brendan DuBois, Tom Milani,
Adam Meyer, Joseph S. Walker, and Stacy Woodson, moderator and host Jeffrey James Higgins

The day of the actual conference was structured around presentations by three speakers who provided a wealth of insight, experience and advice. First, in the morning, Brendan DuBois discussed craft– how to actually create a story with a solid plot, memorable characters and an engaging voice. Then, after a lunch break (and let me take a moment here to note that Elaine's provided excellent food and superb, considerate service throughout the event),

Jackie Sherbow offered behind-the-scenes information about what actually happens to a story once it's submitted to Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock. Also, she gave everyone present a secret code guaranteeing one acceptance per year to each magazine (just kidding! Or am I? Maybe you should register for ShortCon 2025 just to be on the safe side). Finally, Michael Bracken's presentation was a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to making and sustaining a career as a short story writer (and who would know better?). Finally, Stacy Woodson moderated as all three speakers participated in a lively Q & A session.

The second ShortCon is already being planned for June 7 of 2025, in the same venue, with new speakers and content. I'd strongly advise writers interested in maximizing their potential as short story writers to keep an eye out for registration information. I know I will be, and I'm very pleased to have been at the first gathering of what I believe will be many to come.

Before I started writing regularly, I imagined writing to be a solitary pursuit. It often is, of course, with many hours spent staring at the screen, lost in the maze of your own mind. Many of the rewards of writing, however, have proven to be social, as I've gotten to know and befriend many of my fellow writers. This happens on a daily basis through the activities and discussions of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, as well as at events like Bouchercon and, now, ShortCon. It was a real pleasure meeting and talking with a number of folks who, until now, have just been names on discussion posts and Tables of Contents. We may write about terrible people doing awful things, but the mystery writers I've met have been unfailingly wonderful folks, and invariably generous with their knowledge and experience.

(A brief aside: my brain is a strange and often frustrating thing. It's reliably accurate and retentive when it comes to space and geography. Dropped in the middle of Los Angeles today, I could take you directly to the sites of a dozen used bookstores I frequented when I lived there thirty plus years ago. Names and faces, however, tend to fall straight into a memory hole, despite my frantic efforts to retain them. Watching movies, I often have to ask my wife to remind me who the characters are, because I can't tell them apart. If you were introduced to me at ShortCon, and then five minutes later I introduced myself to you again with no apparent knowledge of who you are, please don't take offense. I tend not to be able to link names and faces until I've met a person many, many times. Believe me, I'd fix it if I could.)

A lot of the conversations I had in Alexandria touched on my new role. On July 1, the day after this is posted, I'm slated to take office as the new President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, a prospect I find by turns exciting and alarming. (I assume that readers of this blog are already familiar with the SMFS, ideally as members, what with membership being free and all.)

A room at Elaine's

My fellow mystery writers gave me plenty of encouragement and a good deal of very welcome advice. I have, at this point, little idea of what I'm going to do as President of the organization. Coming out of ShortCon, however, I know that there is a body of very talented writers dedicated to writing short stories in the genre. I also believe that, while the upheavals of recent years have perhaps made them harder to identify and reach, there is and will always be a body of readers who consume such stories with pleasure. In the most abstract terms possible, my goal at SMFS will be to do anything in my power to help those two groups find each other.

If you have anything to say about how to accomplish that, I'd love to hear from you. In the meantime, thanks to everyone involved with making the first ShortCon so much fun. Can't wait for the next one!

ADDENDUM: We SleuthSayers generally try to avoid anything so uncouth as self-promotion, but I can't resist mentioning that I learned a couple of days ago that my story "Making the Bad Guys Nervous," originally published in Black Cat Weekly #102, has been named a finalist for the Private Eye Writers of America's Shamus Award for best PI short story. My thanks to the judges, and best of luck to the other nominees. The award will be presented at Bouchercon's opening ceremony. Hope to see you all there!

29 June 2024

I'll Have a History/Mystery, Please–with a Twist

Lately I've been writing a good many historical stories--most of them crime stories--and I'm only sorry I didn't start doing it sooner.

A word of clarification, here. When I say historical, I'm not talking so much about the Stone Age or ancient Rome or medieval England. I'm referring more to the past two hundred years or so, and mostly here in this country. 

How did I get interested in this? I blame it on a number of period-specific mystery anthologies edited by folks like Michael Bracken, Andrew McAleer, and others. Contributing to those anthologies has forced me to write a dozen or more stories so far about crimefighters (usually PIs) in the 1930s, '40s, '60s, '70s, and '80s, and at first I couldn't believe how much fun they were to write. By now I'm used to it– and I'm still having a good time. Part of it's the writing, and part of it's learning what's needed about long-ago people, places, and events.

Not that all my historical-mystery shorts have been set in the mid-20th Century. Since I grew up watching endless Westerns on TV and the big screen, I've written and published plenty of those as well, around seventy or eighty stories so far. (You might be surprised at how many of our current mystery magazines are receptive to tales of the Old West– I've had Westerns published at AHMM, Strand, Black Cat Weekly, Mystery Magazine/Mystery Weekly, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Punk Noir, Pulp Modern, Crimeucopia, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, even the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post. After all, if you stop and think about it, almost every Western features a built-in crime or two.)

My latest historical mystery appears in the July/August 2024 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. It's called "Moonshine and Roses," it's set in the hills of eastern Kentucky in the 1930s, and it features treasury agent Joe McIinnis, who works for Eliot Ness's Alcohol Tax Unit in Cincinnati. The real star of the story, though, is the long-lost love of McInnis's life, the tough daughter of a moonshiner whose enemies are the official reason for a Fed to be poking around in the area. Maybe because it's a love story and a mystery and a shoot-'em-up adventure story as well, I've had some kind feedback on it from readers already, which always gladdens my doubt-filled heart. If you read it, I hope you'll like it.

The "twist" I mentioned in the title of this post is also a part of my Hitchcock story, mainly because I can't seem to resist inserting plot twists whenever I can. By the way, I think they work best when the entire story doesn't depend on the twist, and when the surprise provides a final "gotcha" onto the end of an already satisfying conclusion. (Think Die Hard, instead of The Sixth Sense.) Doing that kind of add-on ending (sometimes called a "double twist") isn't always possible, or even advisable--but with a little prior planning and foreshadowing, it often is, and when it works, I think it can help the story.

Questions: Do you write, and/or like to read, historical mysteries (novels or short stories)? In your opinion, how far back must you go, to be able to call a story historical? Is it cheating a bit, to use the too-recent past? How about Westerns? How about the amount of research that's required with any kind of period fiction? Do you do a lot of study beforehand, or are you already familiar enough with certain eras to write accurately about them? How about historical series stories? With regard to twist endings, do you often incorporate those into your fiction? Has that been successful for you? Do you like to encounter those kinds of reversals in the stories of others? 

Whatever kinds of stories you create--present-day or historical, straightforward or convoluted, standalone or series--I wish you the best, with all of them.

Write on!

28 June 2024

Pike County Massacre

In 2016, while we bemoaned the deaths of one or two celebrities a week, eight members of the Rhoden family were shot to death in rural Pike County. I often refer to Holmes County, where my parents lived, as "Amish Mafia Country" (some of the scenes from that best-forgotten series shot there), Holmes benefits from proximity between the sprawling Cleveland-Akron metro area and Columbus. Pike County, on the other hand, is Appalachia without the Appalachians. It is truly isolated as most of southwest Ohio is.

Primary crime scene Pike County Massacre
Peebles, Ohio

Crime in rural sections is not uncommon. In fact, it's almost a cliché. SA Cosby has built a career on it, doing for Virginia what Ken Bruen has done for Galway, Ireland (and getting less flack for it from his own neighbors.)

In some ways, Pike County is idyllic. Its seat, the village of Peebles, is a frequent stop for those going to and from the hiking mecca of Hocking Hills. My youngest stepson and his wife frequently visit a campground in the area. Pike County almost never makes the news in Cincinnati and Columbus, never mind CNN.

Yet eight people were found dead in their homes, all members of the Rhoden family. Even before the investigation began, many speculated this was a revenge killing. 

Suspicion soon fell on George "Billy" Wagner. But from the outset, evidence pointed to multiple shooters. Eventually, Wagner, his wife Angela, and sons George IV and Jake were indicted. In the interim, the case became more and more complex. Police found marijuana growing operations on the Rhodens' properties, as well as a cockfighting operation. So was this a mob hit? As mass shootings go, it did not have the mindlessness of Columbine or the deliberate rage toward strangers as seen at a Florida gay nightclub. This looked targeted.

Police and the state attorney general took their time. The case led as far south as Lexington, Kentucky, but as far away as Alaska, where the Wagner family moved after the slayings. Suspicion finally fell on Billy Wagner as the mastermind. Yet then motive had nothing to do with drugs or illegal cockfighting.

Four main suspects in Pike County murders

The motive, according to prosecutors, was a three-year-old girl, Hannah Rhoden's child by George Wagner IV. Wagner's grandmother, eventually indicted alongside Billy Wagner and his immediate family, forged a custody document granting rights to George IV. When that failed, the Wagners went to war.

While the case took two-and-a-half years to crack, by 2022, juries convicted five members of the Wagner family with murder and conspiracy to conceal murder. In a state infamous for serial killer Donald Harvey, the Cleveland Torso murderer, and the Sam Shepard murder case, the Pike County Massacre has become the largest murder investigation in Ohio.

27 June 2024

Triple Homicides - Twice! And a Flood

Gov Noem's meth signage
(Gov. Noem's pet slogan, more appropriate
than she's ever been able to grasp)

Well, it's back to crime in South Dakota, and we've seen a lot of it lately. Besides the usual child molesters and child pornographers (at least one a week, most of them not living in Sioux Falls, just so you know it's not all centered in the city), the drug crimes, and miscellaneous crap, we've had two triple murders within two weeks. And no, no one's calling them a "mass shooting" because you have to hit 4 victims to be a mass shooting. But I'm sure that, given enough time, someone will up the ante and put us into the big leagues.

First Shooting

So, this is what happened: On May 23rd, Jay Ostrem (former mayor of Centerville, SD, pop. 946, where everyone lived) 's wife and a guy named Paul Frankus were all drinking together when Mr. Ostrem was passed out. While he was asleep, Paul forcibly kissed her and exposed his genitals to Mrs. Ostrem (and/or rubbed his penis on her).

Five days later (Monday, May 28th), after some more drinking (the police smelled alcohol on his breath when they arrived), Mrs. Ostrem told Ostrem about the incident, and he went "raging out of the house". She said she had no idea that he had weapons in his car, but he did. (I find Mrs. Ostrem's last statement disingenuous, but that's just because I find it hard to believe that she never saw or noticed an "AR-style rifle" in the back seat or the trunk.)

Anyway, he stormed across the street, where Paul Frankus, 26, Zach Frankus, 21, and Timothy Richmond, 35 were, barged in and started shooting. Zach Frankus called police at 9:44 p.m. Monday to report that his brother had been shot by "a guy from across the street" and that the shooter had gone back home. Apparently Ostrem came back, because while Zach was on the phone with the dispatcher he said that he had been shot, too, and then stopped talking. (I have no idea when Mr. Richmond was shot.) (Yahoo)

When Ostrem was arrested a short time later, there was an AR-style rifle on the ground near him, he had a handgun in his pocket, and he smelled strongly of alcohol.

This being South Dakota, an anonymous contact told me that Ostrem was known for drinking and mental instability. Records also show that he was not squeaky clean sexually:

He'd been sued for sexual harassment in federal court in 2010, while serving as mayor of Centerville, by former Police Chief Rachel Kopman, who claimed she’d been subjected to unwelcome sexual comments for more than a year before her dismissal as chief. The suit was settled in 2012. (Source)

He was also a law enforcement officer in Wyoming for two decades, where there were a couple of gun-related incidents while on duty and at least one lawsuit. (Wyoming)

Ostrem is being held on a $1 million cash bond, which tells me that no one in tiny Centerville trusts him. Good.

Second Shooting:

About a dozen people were having a regular bonfire party (food and beer) on June 6th in a quiet residential neighborhood in Sioux Falls that went on into the early hours. Somewhere along the line, Justin Cody Rackley, originally from Texas, who moved to South Dakota in 2020, came to join them.

Anyway, Mr. Rackley came to the bonfire armed with a handgun, because ________ (fill in your own reason here)

When the police arrived at 2:45 a.m., there were three adults shot to death (Daniel Carl Kemnitz, 43, Kellie E. Reaves, 43, and Michael A. Thompson, 34, all of Sioux Falls), and two other victims who had non-life threatening injuries and were taken to the hospital.

NOTE: The only prior on Rackley's South Dakota record is a simple assault charge in 2020, BUT prosecutors said he also has a criminal record in Texas. He's being held on $3 million cash bond, so obviously no one trusts him to not do a runner. (LINK)

Apparently, this was a fairly regular bonfire gathering, with people coming and going throughout the night. From the Go Fund Me page for Kellie Reaves: "a strange man showed up to their bonfire and attacked her home with gunfire which left her and two others without a chance of survival." (Thank God all the children were asleep indoors.)

Neighbors Angela and Joe Windstead, who live next door, told the Argus Leader on Saturday afternoon their internal cameras caught the sound of 16 shots, three of which were muffled. They turned the footage and audio over to police, they said.

Joe Winstead also said he saw his neighbors sitting out around a fire at about 9 p.m. at the house that's now a crime scene. "They were out there most of the night," he said. "I know I got up once or twice in the middle of the night to use the restroom, and they were still out there. But like this morning, we went out front, and there are two vehicles that were there that we've never, ever seen there before."

The Winsteads said they've known their next door neighbors for about seven years. "She's a wonderful gal, with a wonderful man," Angela Winstead said Saturday afternoon of Reaves. "We've had absolutely zero issues. She's the one neighbor we clicked with, and she's the only other neighbor on our block that was really our age when we moved in."

Investigating Officer Nyberg said the incident does not appear to be a crime of passion or a robbery. "That's why we're trying to track down anybody that was there at the time that it happened to see if we can't flesh out some more information," he said.

Rumor mill:

"The shooter was an acquaintance of one of the victims. He was a stranger to everyone else. The shooter and a victim (high school friend of the homeowner) ran into the homeowner and her friend at the gas station and were invited over.
"He said something racist early on but dropped it when called out. He repeated it later and things escalated.
"I was told by a victim's family member that a survivor had the shooter pinned for an hour before the cops arrived and was repeatedly punching the shooter/fighting to keep him down."

MY NOTE: This might be Kellie Reaves' "heroic significant other, Dusty Miller" (see Obituary) and if so, the punching is, to be frank, fine with me. And it would explain the mug shot below.

"Even the victims' families still don't have a ton of great, reliable information. This is a senseless, horrible situation."


Writer's Analysis:

As a story, the first one is kind of obvious: grouchy old man with guns and a drinking problem whose wife told him one of the neighbors assaulted her… so off he goes and kills everyone who was in the house. Excessive, but at least there's a motive. And it could be worked a number of ways: wife and neighbor had been having an affair for a while. Everyone's an out of control alcoholic, and things escalated that night. The old man had other reasons for wanting the neighbor dead and got his excuse. The real victim was one of the others in the house, but people would buy the motive of a sexual assault. I mean, you can see a number of ways to twist it up, build the tension, etc.

It's the second shooting that's frustrating, because there's no motive other than (perhaps) being called a racist. And it's all so random. I think writers and the reading public hate random crimes unless they're incorporated in with something that does have meaning. Is a hot tempered guy from Texas who packed a gun and lost it when being called a racist enough? I think a major change in motive or an in depth background would be required to write this one. As it is, it's a real reminder to not invite people you meet at the gas station over to a party.

BTW, The last time Sioux Falls had a homicide that involved three or more victims was 1973, when a family was found deceased in their home. There were four victims, and the suspect took their own life. (Argus)

Oh, and we had an almost shooting:

June 17, Jason Matthew Palmer, 49, of Sioux Falls was arrested for shooting a rifle at a 12 year old and 17 year old who were talking and playing outside. He got upset, walked out, fired the rifle once, and went back inside and barricaded himself indoors. I guess that's one way to get arrested. (DakotaNewsNow)

Rain, Rain, Go Away…

Last week, we had 16 inches of rain in Sioux Falls and most of Southeast South Dakota (some places had more), with a cloudy one day break in the middle that did nothing to improve our depression or our apprehension. Flooding started almost immediately. I grabbed some groceries on the non-rainy day, and scurried down to Yankton Park to see what it looked like: the port-a-potties were already tipped over on their side, bobbing in the water, and all I could think of was, "I hope they were emptied before this hit."

There are small towns that are still flooded and will be until the Big Sioux and the Small Sioux rivers quit cresting.

A railroad bridge collapsed down in Sioux City, Iowa from the strength of the rushing floodwaters. The Big Sioux River crested at 45 feet, seven feet higher than the prior record. (LINK)

Roads are buckled from the raging water.

Fields are flooded, meaning the crops are lost.

They closed Falls Park in Sioux Falls because it was way over its banks, and idiots were going down there to film it, trying to get out on the rocks, etc… One idiot wanted to go swimming in it. I saw the video, and all I could think of was let him experience Darwin's Law for himself.

Meanwhile, our Governor finally got back from her trip to Washington, D.C., and headed straight for the camera at one of the wealthiest spots per capita in South Dakota, Dakota Dunes, and North Sioux City, SD. Her press releases have been regular, urging everyone to report their damage to the South Dakota Office of Emergency Management, because "We have to have a loss — in order to qualify for FEMA — of $1.6 million worth of property damage." (LINK) She also said her top priority would be the area around McCook Lake, where the residents are complaining that “McCook Lake was sacrificed for the benefit of North Sioux City and Dakota Dunes. We don’t really think that’s fair.” (LINK)

June 24th, 2024, view of flood damage that occurred the previous night
at McCook Lake in southeastern South Dakota. (Courtesy Dirk Lohry

Yesterday, Governor Noem says she will NOT call out the South Dakota National Guard to help with clean up or disaster relief:

Noem said counties must request assistance from the National Guard. The governor then decides if it should be warranted.  “That’s usually a very crisis situation. And the National Guard is extremely expensive. So, if you do activate the National Guard, then the local county has to pay for that response.  We have to be wise with how we use our soldiers. And this was a situation where our community was pretty well prepared, and that wasn’t necessary to activate them at this time."  (LINK)

I think more of us might buy this line except that Noem has sent our National Guard down to Texas three times in the last three years, spending $1.3 million of our taxpayer dollars each time.  So, Texas gets to use our "extremely expensive" soldiers, but we don't?  Former South Dakota Governors have sent the National Guard out for other floods...  

Meanwhile, all that water headed south, and will end up in Nebraska.  

And the storms themselves went east, into Minnesota, where one result is that the Rapidan dam in southern Minnesota had a partial failure, and may fail completely.  The National Guard has already been activated in Minnesota to respond to flooding.


It's hot, it's humid, the heat index Tuesday went up to 105, and the mosquitoes are biting.

But my hollyhocks are blooming!

And how's your week been?

26 June 2024

The Penny (Dreadful) Drops

It used to be, in a more innocent age, that reputation was the only thing responsible journalism had going for it. We might think of Edward R. Murrow and the Red Scare, say, or Woodward and Bernstein, reporting on Watergate. But this is actually a fairly recent development, that hard news reporters have been held to any standards at all. Not so along ago, it was called the Yellow Press, meaning they emphasized sensationalism over facts. Joseph Pulitzer, at the New York World, and his fierce competitor William Randolph Hearst, at the Journal.

Hearst, famously, sent Richard Harding Davis to Cuba, where Spain was brutally suppressing a rebellion, and when Davis asked what the assignment was, Hearst supposedly told him, You provide the dispatches, and I’ll provide the war. This was of course the tail-end of the 19th century, and we’d like to persuade ourselves that this species of naked opportunism has gone the way of the robber barons, but just as the oligarchs are still with us, so is tabloid journalism.

The NY World

More to the point, the distinction’s been blurred, between the so-called mainstream media and the shock jocks. You can look to the British tabloid press, Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World (now deceased), for example. And its sister paper, the Sun, longtime home of the Page Three Girl. Aside from tits, both papers were widely known for using paid informants, especially for celebrity scoops and in particular the Royal Family. NotW was done in by the phone hacking scandal that dragged down the Murdoch-owned parent company – which got major traction when Prince Harry sued them, but it’s a much bigger story than that.

I realize a lot of this is inside baseball, and if you haven’t followed the story, your reaction might well be, So what? The what is this. Jeff Bezos of Amazon bought the Washington Post from the Graham family in 2013. He’s kept hands off, editorially: the Post has reported unfavorably about Amazon business practices, like union-busting, and nobody’s spiked the stories; Bezos clearly wants the paper to maintain its cachet, he gets bragging rights, and he’s not going to make it a castrato, e.g., Musk and Twitter.

On the other hand, the paper is hemorrhaging revenue, and while Bezos must enjoy basking in reflected glory, he’s not dumb enough to pour millions down a rathole.

Enter the man on a mission, Will Lewis, who took the job of publisher in January of this year. Lewis is a Brit, the chair of Dow Jones (parent of the Wall Street Journal) from 2014 to 2020, when he was short-listed for director of the BBC, but the nomination was clouded – more on this, below – and his name withdrawn. Latterly, since taking over the Post, he’s taken heat for the resignation under fire of the executive editor, Sally Buzbee, who says he pressured her to spike a story about, wait for it, Lewis’ involvement in the Murdoch tabloids’ phone hacking scandal. Back in the day, he’d hired on with the Murdoch parent corporation, and he managed much of their response to the crisis.

Lewis and Murdoch

If you want the really dirty details, there’s an excellent and exhaustive piece in The Daily Beast, which suggests, at a minimum, that Lewis actively interfered with a police inquiry, deleting incriminating internal email traffic, for openers, and then claiming the outgoing Labour government was to blame, for trying to hack into Murdoch organization executive emails.

I say baloney, and I’m joining the back of the queue.

If you follow the trail, both old and new, Will Lewis would appear to be what the Brits call a bounder. We’d call him a slime. Trust me, I’ve just skated over the surface. The real question is, why hasn’t Jeff Bezos fired this bum? Lewis makes the Post look bad, and he makes Jeff Bezos look a fool. It's not a good look for the King of the Jungle.

Bezos and 'friend'

25 June 2024

Bad Advice

Recently, I was talking to a writer who was feeling overwhelmed. She was seeking advice about how to accomplish all the projects she had committed to while taking advantage of all the opportunities coming her way.

Michael and Temple.
I suggested she divorce her spouse, abandon her children, ignore her friends, and hole up in a little apartment where she could concentrate on her writing career. If I had been thinking clearly, I would have also recommended copious amounts of caffeine.

Clearly, I’m not the person to ask for relationship advice, but my career advice isn’t too far off the mark.

Sometimes having a successful writing career involves sacrifices. For many writers, the sacrifices are simple: rising early each day to write before the rest of the family awakens, giving up hours of television each evening to revise rough drafts, or spending lunch hours researching esoteric murder methods for future projects.

Sometimes, though, the sacrifices are more emotionally fraught. Many of us have responsibilities that demand our attention—children, spouses, pets, day jobs, and more—and giving them less attention than they deserve is not often a wise decision, either emotionally or financially.

And more problematic is having a significant other, family members, or friends who do not support the dream and who do not understand the dedication required to achieve even a moderate level of success. What then?

Some writers put their dream on hold for several years while coping with real life, returning to it once their children are grown and out of the house, they have experienced a change in significant other, they have a new circle of friends, and/or they have retired from a day job.

But a dream delayed is too often a dream abandoned. How many would-be writers reach the end of their lives and wonder what could have been if they had just awoken half an hour early each day to write, if they had occasionally opted out of lunch with work colleagues to dive down the rabbit hole in search of the perfect poison, or if they had attended a writing lecture at the local library instead of watching yet another rerun of Law & Order.

By then, it’s too late.

Do they then wonder if they should have followed my advice?

I hope not. Dedicating one’s life to one’s art while abandoning everything and everyone around you might lead to some level of success, but it won’t lead to a full life. One should strive to find a balance, a way to pursue one’s dreams all while maintaining a well-rounded life filled with family and friends. It won’t always be easy, but it will be worthwhile.

But don’t forget about the caffeine.

It’s the key to everything.

* * *

My story “Marked” appears in Starlite Pulp Review #4.

24 June 2024

SleuthSisters, Movies, and the Bechdel Test: Part II

The last time our beloved SleuthSayer buddy John Floyd, who everyone agrees watches way too many movies, listed his favorites, fellow SleuthSayer Melodie Campbell and I both commented, "You are such a guy, John!" What did we mean? What does John's love for Casablanca, The Godfather, and The Big Lebowski have to do with gender? Aren't they all great films? Yes, but. Melodie gave me the best way yet to explain why many women may admire these films but not necessarily adore them when she told me about the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test, created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who now says she was only kidding at the time but thinks it's cool that it's worked so well and come to mean so much to women who love movies, is a simple three-part measure to apply to any movie.

Does the movie have at least one scene in which (1) two women characters talk (2) to each other (3) about a subject other than a man (or men)?

I grew up in a household in which the women—me, my mother, and my sister—outnumbered the lone man, my dad. Add in a gaggle of loquacious aunts, maternal and paternal, on holidays—I've recently learned that the linguistic technical term for the constant interrupting in any New York Jewish gathering is called "overlapping" and is a feature of our "dialect"—and the men could barely get a word in edgewise. At age 92, my mother, who by then called herself "the oldest living lawyer," made friends with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was twenty years younger. The first time they had lunch together, we asked Mom, "What did you talk about?" "Everything!" she said. And that's what I want women in movies to talk about too.

In Part I, my SleuthSister Melodie discussed why it's important for all of us to have movies that pass the Bechdel test: for some, characters that we can relate to and admire; for others, frequent reminders that women have more interesting things to talk about than men, men, men.

If you missed Melodie's post, you can read it here.

Now, here are some examples: 26 (a double baker's dozen!) wonderful movies that pass the Bechdel Test (in no particular order):

1. Enchanted April
Four women seeking respite from their lives in dreary post-World War I London are unexpectedly transformed by a month in a castle in Italy.

2. Hidden Figures
Black women's work as mathematicians at NASA was crucial to America's success in the Space Race; their story is finally told.

3. The Help
The women who work as maids to the young white wives of Jackson, Mississippi just before the Civil Rights movement risk their jobs and their safety to tell a woman journalist the truth about how they're treated.

4. Nyad
A woman in her sixties comes back from repeated failures to swim from Cuba to Florida, with the support of the woman friend who coaches her.

5. Fried Green Tomatoes
Two pairs of women form enduring friendships: a modern housewife in need of empowerment with an old woman in a nursing home and an independent woman in the 1920s with an abused wife in need of an escape route.

6. Little Women
Four sisters share dreams and ambitions in Civil War-era New England. Seven movies have been made of the novel that more American women still read for pleasure than men read Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn.

7. Erin Brockovich
A single mother fights environmental crime and corporate greed in a small community.

8. Norma Rae
A millworker finds her voice when she leads a fight to unionize.

9. Made in Dagenham
Women strike for equal pay at a Ford plant in Britain.

10. Songcatcher
A woman in the 1930s goes to Appalachia to collect folksongs and learns more than she expects to.

11. Beaches Two very different women's lifelong friendship begins and is renewed on beaches.

12. Marvin's Room
A dying woman seeks a bone marrow transplant from members of her dysfunctional family.

13. Howard's End
Two Edwardian sisters devoted to each other, culture, and their independence diverge on issues of class and how to use their privilege for good.

14. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
A group of aging British women and men relocate to India in hopes of a more satisfying life in their later years.

15. Still Alice
A brilliant woman facing early onset dementia struggles to connect with her daughters while she can.

16. Monsoon Wedding
The prospect of a wedding stirs up secrets in a prosperous Indian family.

17. National Velvet
A little girl with an eccentric but loving family dreams of winning the Grand National on a horse she won in a raffle.

18. Nine to Five
Three women friends plot revenge against their abusive boss

19. Girl, Interrupted
Two girls in a locked psychiatric institution become friends.

20. After the Wedding
The birth mother and adoptive mother of the bride meet, and their complicated history is revealed.

21. Calendar Girls
A group of respectable British women raise money by posing nude for a calendar.

22. Bend It Like Beckham
Two girls from different backgrounds become friends after being rivals at football (soccer to Americans).

23. Boys On the Side
Three young women join forces on a road trip that becomes a trip on the run.

24. Julia
The writer Lillian Hellman tries to help her friend Julia, who works against and is ultimately killed by the Nazis.

25. Outrageous Fortune
Two actresses who hate each other become friends in a mashup of buddy, spy, and caper movie.

26. Steel Magnolias
The women in a small Louisiana town shares their joys and sorrows at the local beauty salon.

How many of these have you seen?

23 June 2024

In for a Penny, In for a Pounding

If nothing else, check out the video at the bottom of the page. It’s worth the trip.

What, you want an engraved invitation?

You’re a guy standing against a wall, wishing you could quietly leave the party. Hours ago, the needle of your Reject-O-Meter™ fuel gauge bottomed against the Empty peg so hard it wrapped around the pin.

A bevy of girls floats by. Their queen bee in the impossibly tiniest dress pauses before you and holds out her hand. “No excuse you can’t phone.” She drops something into your palm and stretches up to your ear . “Here’s a dollar to pay for the first call.” Giggling, she and her cortège disappear into the crowd.

She’s given you a dollar to make a call, but without a number, you wonder how to ring her… Wait, the dollar. You inspect it carefully. Ah, clever girl, extra points for ingenuity. There along the edge are numbers: 201-032-5… On anniversaries decades later, you’ll take out that greenback and gaze at it fondly.

Making Change

You visit the county fair. In the arcade are machines, some antique, some modern, but they have one purpose. For only a couple of dollars, you can drop in a coin and these gadgets will flatten it into a bangle, a pendant, a charm for a charm bracelet.

In other words, you can pay to watch a press ruin your pocket change, rendering them unspendable. Your friends had claimed they’d placed pennies on railroad tracks† to achieve the same effect, but you weren’t sure you believed them.

Meanwhile, the barker’s buddy in the next tooth practices a different art. You give him two banknotes, a $10 bill and a $1 bill, and he folds the tenner, creating a ring for your girlfriend, or a tiny heart, or an origami bird, flower, or beast. When he finishes, you can see $10 peeking through the paper windings.

As you turn away, Mr Fancy-Folder Fingers pockets not the $1 payment, but your ten-spot minus one corner. After he starts folding, he switches your ten dollars and continues with a $1 bill.

Ties that Bind

In the late 1800s, a distant great-something-grandfather put his young wife aboard a train to travel by herself across the great land. He took out a ten-dollar bill, a veritable fortune at the time, and tore it in two. He gave one half to his wife and handed the other to the Pullman porter.

He told the railcar attendant, “Kindly take good care of my wife. She’ll give you the other half on arrival, and I thank you.”

Financial Crimes

These scenes have one thing in common– the commission of a crime. Like that tycoon trope of the magnate lighting cigars with a $5 bill, the vignettes above feature a federal violation of law, specifically Title 18 USC, Chapter 17, §331-333.

The subject is damaging, defacing, debasing, and destroying money. It’s an offense rarely prosecuted, but of the examples mentioned here, only one party might find himself under arrest. Which one do you suppose?

The reason defacing or destroying money is seldom prosecuted is a matter of intent, specifically an intent to commit fraud. Thus the one character in the opening scenes who is vulnerable to prosecution is the origami expert, the guy who switched a ten-dollar note for a one-dollar bill.

Penalties, Fines and Times

The same USC law specifies fines and prison sentences for violating the law. It’s particularly harsh regarding fine metals. Crooks and swindlers have shaved valuable coins since ancient times, much more difficult with e-currency.


I’m not aware of a definitive resolution, but legal experts have debated whether free speech supersedes currency law. In theory, you could dump a basket of bills in the public square and light a match with mainly your spouse and fire marshal to object.

It’s not well believed, but the law applies to legal foreign currency as well. If you foolishly shred a €10 note or run a Canadian coin through a penny press, the same law applies, except you open yourself to loonie ridicule. (Mary and Melodie are presently rolling their eyes.)

Riding the Rails

In case the law hasn’t sunken in, consider the laws of physics. Here’s a very expressive video of why you shouldn’t flatten coins on a railroad. Video © Landon’s Animated Wheelhouse.

  © www.SleuthSayers.org


22 June 2024

SleuthSisters, Movies, and the Bechdel Test: Part I

John has inspired us!  A few months ago, John Floyd made a list of movies he really enjoyed which might have been overlooked.  This inspired Liz Zelvin and me to start talking about movies we loved, and why they might be different from those on John's list.

To that end, we decided to write joint posts.  Mine follows, and Liz's will be on Monday.

Thanks for inspiring us, John!

SleuthSisters, Movies, and the Bechdel Test

Many readers of this blog know that I taught fiction writing at college for over 25 years, going back to the early 90s.  The dialogue below happened so often in class, I could phone it in.

Me to adult male student:  "There are no women in your book.  Over 60% of books are bought by women.  You might want to put in someone they can relate to."

Student:  "Yes there is!  See?" (pointing)

Me:  "She's the victim.  You kill her off on page two."

Then much of the class sat dumbfounded, as I pointed out the "Campbell factor," as they called it.

If you want to sell books to 60% of the market, write real women into your books.  Women we can relate to.



The same applies to Hollywood.  In so many movies released in the past twenty years, and by my count, the majority of action movies and thrillers, there are perhaps two women present in supporting roles.  The victim and the babe.

That's it.  Not surprisingly, a lot of thriller books sport the same two female supporting characters. 

(To be fair, sometimes the babe is a villain.  Groovy.  I am encouraged to relate to a victim or a villain.  Or - worst of all - the only supporting female character is a goodhearted prostitute.  Please save me.)

Which is why the Bechdel Test came to be so famous.  Do you know it?

To pass, a film must have:

*Two named female characters

*Who talk to each other

*About something other than a man.

You would be shocked at how few films pass the Bechdel Test.



I cut my reading teeth on Nancy Drew, and then moved on to Agatha Christie.

When I was a teen, Christie was my favourite author.  She's still up there in my top ten.  It's no surprise to me that she is the best-selling fiction writer in the world.

By why, you ask?  Surely there are other greats from the same period, even other female authors - Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh etc - who wrote terrific mysteries.

Curious about that, I decided to look at what I liked about the Christie books and movies, as opposed to other great writers.

It was immediately clear.  I could see myself in her books!  I could relate, as there were several females, young and old, in all of her books.  Far beyond the victim and the babe, Christie wrote female sleuths as well as female village characters (Miss Marple and Tuppence Beresford, for starters.)  Real women of all ages, not just gorgeous young ones that needed to be murdered or rescued, or sat around waiting to be a reward for some hero.



So when Liz and I decided to make our lists of films that passed the Bechdel test, the first ones I thought of were all the Agatha Christie films that have been released in the past 25 years.  And while I might not prefer the way Kenneth Branagh's recent films deviate from the books, they still pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours, so they're on the list.  Here's a sample:

Death on the Nile

Crooked House

Murder on the Orient Express

The Secret Adversary

And Then There Were None

Murder in Mesopotamia

Why Didn't They Ask Evens?

4:50 From Paddington

Murder is Easy

Endless Night

The ABC Murders

The Moving Finger

All of the Miss Marple films (too numerous to list here)


Why is it important to see characters you can relate to and admire on the silver screen?

As someone who went to business school in 1974, and had no female profs for the entire four years, I can tell you the following:

Not only do you have no role models, but if you aren't seen, you aren't heard.

Everyone wants to be seen and heard.  Everyone of all ages and gender.

Now let's see what Liz has to say about the subject on Monday!


Melodie Campbell's books always pass the Bechdel Test, but with a large dose (some might say overdose) of humour.  The Merry Widow Murders is out now.  Look for The Silent Film Star Murders, second in the series, arriving next winter.




21 June 2024

Mr. Swartwood’s Marvelous Box of BOGO Swag

My wife runs a monthly authors-in-conversation series at a local watering hole. She started it just before Covid hit, went virtual during the pandemic, and returned to the live event format when that sad business was over and done with. Now she’s got a steady stream of regulars who show up each month to hear her chat about the writing process with authors who probably would not have considered visiting our town if she had not sought them out (and we did not live in a place that calls itself Beer City, USA).

One of the recent authors was my longtime pal Robert Swartwood, a successful hybrid author who had recently branched into the traditional pub world with the launch of an unusual thriller, The Killing Room (Blackstone, 2023).

Last October Mr. S. trekked to North Carolina from his home in Pennsylvania for the weekend. When we arrived at the venue, he popped the trunk of his vehicle and pulled out some boxes, which contained stacks of large-format bookmarks, chunky attractive magnets, and tons of books.

Magnets, as they appear on my file cabinet.

Yes, he was well aware that our local indie bookstore was handling sales. But Robert had another idea in mind. The books he had flagrantly transported across five state lines represented a chance to do some marketing—and house cleaning—at the same time.

Most authors have a ridiculous number of their own books on their shelves. If you’re traditionally published, your contract stipulates that your publisher will send X copies of your hardcover, and another X of your paperback when that format drops. You may have bought additional copies direct from the publisher using your author discount, and you may have gotten a freebie box from your editor or agent when they tidied their office. If you’re self-pubbed, you certainly have a stash too.

At the end of his talk with Denise, Swartwood announced to the crowd that anyone who bought the new traditionally published book from our local bookstore’s on-site table could take their pick any of his previous titles for free. (While supplies lasted, of course.)

He had no idea how this Buy-One-Get-One-Free gambit would play out, but he was curious to try it. As a Big 5 publishing exec once told the New York Times, when asked to comment on the proliferation of free ebooks on the ’Zon, “Free is not a business model.” True, but sometimes it makes strategic sense.

Yes, paperbacks of Swartwood’s indie print-on-demand titles represented money out of his pocket, but those copies were a sunk cost. Copies of books he had written under a pseudonym for an Amazon imprint had cost him nothing, as they were provided under the terms of his contract. Regardless of the source, he was tired of all these books taking up space at home. And he really wanted to show his new publishers that he could move sales of the new title under the Swartwood name. So why not offer free books as giveaways?

Well, it worked! Many people that day bought more than one copy of The Killing Room, enticed by the freebies. I saw people leaving with a mix of four to six books, which confirmed my long-held theory that at any given time people at book events would probably buy multiple copies to gift to friends or family, but are holding back due to cost. (They certainly do during the Christmas season.) But in the other 10-11 months, if you gave them an excuse to spend, they go nuts.

The freebie hit of the afternoon was the short-but-sweet Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer (Norton, 2010), which Swartwood conceived and edited. The 188-page volume contains 125 short stories—no, I did not type that figure incorrectly—by modern writers such as Ha Jin, Peter Straub, James Frey, and Joyce Carol Oates that take their inspiration from the tragic Hemingway short “story” about baby shoes.

At a book event this past weekend, I too pulled a Swartwood. Ages ago, when I first taught myself how to format POD print editions of my indie fiction titles, I ordered a stack of paperbacks I had designed of four of my short stories. Back then, I mostly wanted to see what they looked like, and to judge if doing short stories in print was feasible. I had given most of them away, but I found a few stragglers on my office shelf a while ago.

Turns out, people last Saturday loved the freebies. When I asked which one of the four titles they would like, many people told me to choose for them. One guy humorously quipped, “After all, you must know my tastes pretty well based on meeting me five minutes ago!” Everyone expected me to sign those copies as well. Might well be the first time I ever signed a 23-page “book”!

It’s fun to give away free stuff. Swartwood’s lovely magnets were a hit too. Author Ben Wolf says in his book, Power Author: A Quick Guide to Mastering Live Events, that magnets are a pricy but smart giveaway at live events. Unlike bookmarks and other easily discarded paper items, magnets end up stuck to someone’s fridge or office file cabinet. They’re the gift that keeps giving—to authors. Month after month, year after year, they’re advertising your name and book—if done right.

Yes, I’m aware that all of this stuff costs. But for most of us, they are a reasonable tax deduction. The question then becomes how little do you have to spend to make people deliriously happy, and have them walk away thinking that they have gotten a bit of a steal? I was delighted to see that free short stories in print were greeted with the same enthusiasm as full-size novels. Depending on page count, the wholesale price of a POD novel costs me about $4-$7. A 60-page paperback “Bloody Signorina”—an AHMM short that was a Derringer finalist—costs me $2.30. That’s not free, but it’s a nice giveaway for friends, buyers, editors and other high-value contacts you encounter at conferences.

A 60-page paperback still has enough
 of a spine to stand up. Who knew?

In a certain sense, this little book of mine serves as a nice “business card.” In one volume, people get a sense of my crime writing style, a list of all my books, my website URL, my newsletter sign-up info, contact info, and sample chapters to another book. A nice package overall.

Some other stuff I bring to book events in my handy tote bag:

QR Sign-up: Passersby “shoot” the code, and are directed to the newsletter sign-up at your website. (It also alerts them to the fact that you have a website.) Buy a plastic “Stand-up Sign Holder” at your stationery store. (This one is the 5-x-7 inch model.) Design a 5x7-inch image on Canva with your details. Use a QR code generator that isn’t spammy; the free one by Kindlepreneur is perfect. Make sure that people can easily find the newsletter sign-up form on your web page. You don’t want them scrolling and getting lost. Optimize your website for mobile devices. If they are going to sign up, they will do so on their phones within a minute of seeing your sign, not on their desktops at home.

Clipboard & Sign-up Sheet: Besides the QR code sign-up, I still offer a hard copy sign-up sheet, because typing on phones is still too fiddly for many people. I design the sign-up sheet with book cover art, and ask for two details only: name and email address. It gives folks something to do while you sign their book. Bear in mind that hard-copy signups mean you must now transcribe everyone’s chicken-scratch accurately and upload the deets to your mailing list. Check details before they depart the table to make sure you can read their writing.

A "chunky" bookmark, with full-bleed cover image.
My wife's stash of bookmarks and postcards.

Swag: You already know that I am not a fan of bookmarks. I feel the same way about stickers, postcards, and the like. They’re often money thrown down the drain. That said, if you or your publisher have invested money in this stuff, by all means set it all out neatly on your table. Readers who are not ready to buy, or who prefer to buy ebooks or print books online, will grab ’em because they’re free and an easy way to remember your book or byline. Place swag on your table where it will not interfere with the business of signing books or your sign-up sheet. Set out a few pieces of swag at a time, and replenish them as you go. (This will reduce the chance of some whack job swiping your entire inventory.) Swartwood told me that he doesn’t love standard bookmarks because book covers have to be the size of a thumbnail to fit on them. Far too small, in his opinion, to make an impact. If you’re going to print your book cover, he says, go big. His bookmarks (and Denise’s postcards) offer large images of their book covers. As for the magnets, he ordered in such quantity from PureButtons that his price-per-piece was $1 each. Personally, I would keep nice swag like that hidden and offer them to buyers only.

Writing Tools: You will need a fistful of ballpoint pens for sign-up sheets, and Sharpies for signing books. Always bring more than you think you’ll need. They are sucked into black holes.

Mr. Swartwood takes the dais at ThrillerFest to accept his award.

Congrats! (The ebook hit online retailers
 before the print edition hit stores.)

Lest you think I have dropped the thread on Mr. Swartwood’s writing, fear not! At ThrillerFest 2024, he accepted the ITW Thriller Award for Best E-Book Original for The Killing Room. The second book in the series is up for pre-order, and wouldn’t you know it, if you order the new book, you can get one of his old titles for free, while supplies last. (Order via the indie bookstore in his area for a signed copy, or discover your online options in his recent post.) Everyone loves BOGO, baby!

Book 2

* * * 

See you in three weeks!