23 April 2024

The Magic of Malice

When Stacy Woodson offered to write a pre-Malice guest post, this isnt what I was expecting. You’ll understand why when you read it.

— Michael Bracken

The Magic of Malice

By Stacy Woodson

My first Malice Domestic was in 2018. The day of the convention I overslept. Yep—right through the alarm (which is unusual for me). I’m an early morning writer, at the computer, fingers poised by 4 a.m.

Not that day.

Stacy Woodson surrounded by other writers
at Malice Domestic.
Flustered, I dressed quickly and rushed downstairs. The first event of the morning was author speed dating. Inspired by the formalized matchmaking process, this literary version has authors rotate between tables to meet readers and chat about their latest projects. I heard wonderful things about author speed dating and was determined to attend. But when I finally arrived at the ballroom, it was well-underway, and seats were full.

And the authors were talking.

And the organizers were organizing.

And the newbie (me) was searching, from table-to-table, hoping an empty seat would magically appear. (Experienced speed daters reading this are thinking fat chance.) But that day was different. That day a seat did magically appear.

Just not at a speed dating table.

A kind author offered me a chair at a small break table—a stop on the speed dating circuit where authors sit to catch their breath for seven minutes until the horn blows, and they rotate to a new table with readers. This kind author said I may not be able to hear pitches, but sitting here still offered an opportunity to remain in the ballroom and connect with authors. He handed me a flier and chatted about his projects. Then, the whistle blew, he wished me luck, and rotated to the next table.

This was a key moment in my literary life because that kind author who threw me a speed dating-lifeline was Michael Bracken.

That was six years ago.

Since then, I’ve appeared in over a dozen of Michael’s anthologies and magazines. Three of these stories have been nominated for major awards, and one will be included in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2024. Today, we are also collaborating on projects, co-editing two anthologies, teaching short fiction for Outliers Writing University, and organizing ShortCon (along with Verena Rose and Shawn Reilly Simmons). If that isn’t amazing enough, Michael and I also co-wrote “Dogs of War,” my first short fiction collaboration, which is nominated for a Derringer Award this year.

The kindness Michael showed me that day isn’t rare for him, and I’m not the only author he mentors. He has a mission to elevate short mystery fiction and create opportunities for short mystery fiction writers. He does this by editing a growing list of anthologies and publications, writing columns and blogs, sharing wisdom on panels, advocating for the short mystery fiction community as a board member with Mystery Writers of America, and by creating ShortCon.

Magical moments happen when creative people gather and talk about what they love. My wish for other writers is that they attend mixers at conventions, volunteer to work at the registration desk, seek out someone new and have a conversation (maybe a lost soul in the speed dating ballroom) and create space for their own Michael Bracken-moment.

Thank you, Michael, for offering a port in the speed dating storm six years ago. I know my writing journey would be remarkably different if you hadn’t.

* * *

“Dogs of War,” co-written by Michael Bracken and Stacy Woodson, appeared in Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir Volume 4. A death letter read at a military funeral unearths a secret, and an unexpected hero ensures justice is served in this Derringer Award-nominated story.

ShortCon is a one-day conference emphasizing crime fiction short stories—how to write them, how to get them published, and how to sustain a long-term career as a short-story writer. It will be held at Elaine’s Restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, on Saturday, June 22, 2024. Learn more about ShortCon at https://www.eastcoastcrime.com/#/.

22 April 2024

Punctuated equilibrium. Also capitalized.

I love France, and many of the French, though they can be annoying like anyone else.  I find their language confounding, even as I love the way it sounds.  One of my good friends is fluent, as is my niece, and I’ll always marvel at their achievements.  The problem with French, to me, is there are far too many vowels, which to my ear all sound the same.  Though while I understand virtually nothing French people say, I respect their determination to preserve their native tongue, to maintain it exactly as it is for all eternity.

I also think they are completely, foolishly and historically wrong in this, though you have to admire their grit. 

The term Lingua Franca means universal language, which it used to be, but not anymore.  This is because they refused to let the language evolve, and thus the world passed it by, in favor of my language, English, which almost everyone on Earth knows “a leetle.”

I learned this traveling around Europe and other continents, and working with people from all over everywhere.  I’d ask if they spoke English, and they’d all say “a leetle”, and then display a mastery of the form far surpassing most of the knuckleheads I grew up with in Philadelphia, Pa.  USA. 

The secret of this success, aside from being spoken by the predominant global military/economic powers of the last two centuries, is unlike French, we could care less about preserving linguistic purity.  If French has the moral rectitude of Mother Superior, English would embarrass the Marquis de Sade.  Anything but pure. 

So this is a good thing, overall, though the process of change can be irksome, and exhausting.  New English words are created, often pilfered from others, in such profusion you feel like you’re in a swarm of breeding may flies.  Usage is entirely fungible, and no army of authoritarian schoolmarms could ever staunch our various and sundry populations’ creative misuse, mispronunciation, garbled grammar and syntactical sin.

Though change is inevitable, you don’t have to always like it.  A favorite pastime around this household is gritching about popular degradations of proper speech.  That is, proper by our likes, but in the future these preferences will be considered archaic.  Using the noun “impact” as a verb has achieved such widespread acceptance it’s a fait accompli.  That written, to me the only correct use of impacted relates to wisdom teeth, or when Carl Sagan described a giant asteroid slamming into the side of Jupiter.

But I console myself from such fretting by thinking of language as perfectly mirroring natural history.  Both evolve relentlessly, in the same fashion.  Species arise, dominate, splinter into sub-species, some wither away, others become entirely distinct.  It’s fair to bemoan the loss of a particular dialect, or even an entire language, but realize that thousands have arisen and died off over the eons, and any field left fallow will soon be bursting with new life.  Most of New England was once farmland.  Now you can barely see the forests for all the trees.

The natural historian Stephen Jay Gould defined a phenomenon he called “punctuated equilibrium”.  This describes how a portion of a certain population becomes isolated from the main herd (which could have been in a stable state for thousands of years), and then very quickly, evolves into something notably different.  Language does exactly the same thing. 

Everyone thinks American English is a corrupted, devolved version of the genteel speech we hear on Downton Abbey.  In fact, during the Revolutionary War the British sounded pretty much like Americans do today.  We’re the ones who’ve stayed the locutionary course while the Brits have moved on.  No one had a Southern accent as defined today until sometime after the Civil War.  The South was, and still is, bursting with distinctive dialects and styles of expression, but only the flattening of mass media could bestow upon us a fully regional inflection.

There used to be an American accent called Mid-Atlantic, sort of a hybrid British/American contraption.  The most useful exemplars were FDR and William F. Buckley, though it was so common in old movies – think Katherine Hepburn or Errol Flynn (an Australian, for Pete’s sake) – that few realized Cary Grant was actually an Englishman.  Since this manner of speaking signaled a kind of aristocratic superiority, we’re well rid of it.  Meanwhile, millions of Americans were quite eager to put Bernie Sanders in the White House, and while the majority rejected his politics, no one thought his Brooklyn accent was a disqualifier. 

Disparaging how other people speak is snobbish at best, 

and at worst, bigoted, since there is no rational or scientific justification for ascribing character flaws to styles of speech.  As with any social construct, accent discrimination is used by those with the upper hand to bludgeon others they’d prefer remain in their disfavored social class. Luckily, our language itself has a way of slipping out from under these predations, dissolving advantages and disadvantages alike. 

And churning out new words like Twinkies at a Hostess factory.

Merriam-Webster added 690 new words to the dictionary last year.  And that doesn’t include thousands more candidates.  James Joyce made up seventeen words, though only “quark” survives to this day, and only because Murray Gell-Mann used it to name a subatomic particle.  Shakespeare, on the other hand, invented over 1,700 English words, most of which are still in use. 

I’m pretty sure I invented the word “rictify”, which I used to describe what happens to some people whose attitudes and beliefs become rigid and fixed in place as they age, suggesting some sort of combination of “petrify” and “rigor mortis”.  A psychologist friend of mine liked it so much, he started using it in his practice.  Haven’t seen it in the dictionary yet, but keeping an eye out. 

Your turn.   

21 April 2024

The Tintinnitus of the Bells, Bells, Bells

My parents used to rebuke us: “Enunciate!”

Humph. I didn’t think I spoke badly, but they would’ve instructed the nation with resolutely precise enunciation if they’d had their own Discord and YouTube channels.

A couple of decades later found me in France at a colleague’s dinner table talking about the weather. I mention the harsh winter in Minnesota and my French friend stopped me.

letter T

“The harsh what?” he asked.

“Harsh winter,” I said. At his request, repeated it yet again.

He said, “I don’t understand.”

“Spring, summer, autumn, winter.”

He looked puzzled. “I thought winter had a T in it.”

He was right. I wasn’t pronouncing the T. Same with ‘plenty’. Likewise, I pronounced only the first T in ‘twenty’'. Some words with an ’nt’ combination – but not all– lost their ’T’s coming out of my mouth.

Banter and canter, linty and minty seem fine, but I swallow the T in ‘painter’. Returning after a year overseas and more conscious of enunciation, I sounded like a foreigner. “I just love German accents,” said my bank teller, cooing and fluttering her eyelashes.

Language in Flux

By age 8 or so, I’d become adept at soldering and still use the skill for repairs, projects, and mad scientist experiments. Pitifully, it took me decades to realize I didn’t know how to pronounce it.

I’m not sure if it’s a Midwestern thing or an American attribute, but I leave out the bloody letter L. Most people I know pronounce that compound of tin, lead, and silver as “sodder.”

I don’t do that with other LD combinations like bolder, colder, and folder. Even with practice, solder with an L does not trip readily off my tongue.

letter L

The Apple electronic dictionary that comes with Macs shows North American pronunciation as [ ˈsädər ]. Interesting… no L. Then I switched tabs to the British English dictionary where I learned it’s pronounced [ ˈsɒldə, ˈsəʊldə ]. Okay, there’s an L. But hello… What’s this? What happened to the R? Whoa-ho-ho.

Speaking of L&R, when was the R in ‘colonel’ granted leave? Kernel I understand; colonel, not so much. What about British ‘lieutenant’? The OED blames the French, claiming ‘lievtenant’ evolved to ‘lieutenant’ but pronounced ‘lieftenant’.

Finally, what happened to the L in could, would, and should? They seem to have broken the mould. The Oxford lords giveth and they taketh away.

Sounds of Silence

I know precisely why another word gave me difficulty. I tended to add a syllable to the word ‘tinnitus’, which came out ‘tintinnitus’. I’ve puzzled an otolaryngologist or two, because I conflated tinnitus with tintinnabulation.

(Otolaryngologist? Speak of words difficult to pronounce!)

Which brings us to a trivia question all our readers should know: How does ‘tintinnabulation’ connect with the world of mystery?

Rhymes Not with Venatio

Before Trevor Noah became a US political humorist, his career began as a South African standup comic. On one of his DVDs, he altered words to sound snooty and high class, such as ‘patio’ rhymed with ‘ratio’.

Junior high, Bubbles Mclaughlin: nineteen months and three days older than me. Like Trevor, this ‘older woman’ had no idea how to pronounce another word ending in ‘atio’. For years, neither did I, but she could have rhymed it with ‘aardvark’ and I wouldn’t have minded.

letter C

C Creatures

I’ve been listening to ebooks recently. Almost all text-to-speech apps claim to use buzzwordy AI, but most don’t, not when ‘epitome’ sounds like ‘git home’. Similarly, ‘façade’ does not rhyme with ‘arcade’.

When making the Prohibition Peepers video, I altered spelling of a few words to get the sound I needed, such as ‘lyve’ instead of ‘live’. What a pane in the AIss.

I wondered if ebook programs would pronounce façade correctly if their closed captions were correctly spelled with C-cédille, that letter C with the comma-looking tail that indicates a soft C. If you stretch your imagination, you can kinda, sorta imagine a cedilla (or cédille) looking a little like a distorted S. (For Apple users employing text-to-speech, a Mac pronounces it correctly either way.)

Our local Publix grocery (when their founder’s granddaughter and heiress isn’t funding riots) spells the South American palm berry drink as ‘acai’, which meant both employees and I sounded it with a K. If they’d spelled ‘açai’ with the C-cédille, I would have learned the word much sooner.

I could say ‘anemone’ before I knew how to spell it. The names of this flower and sea creature are spoken like ‘uh-NEM-uh-nee’, which rhymes with ‘enemy’.


Permit me to introduce you to Rachel and Rachel’s English YouTube channel. She kindly explains we often learn words through reading and don’t learn their sound until much later. I was shocked that three of the words she led with have given me trouble including one I hadn’t realized I was currently mispronouncing– echelon. I was saying it as CH (as in China) instead of SH (as in Chicago).

Those other two words: In grade school, I became confused how to say mischievous and triathlon, requiring more careful attention.

Rachel also discusses how modern usage omits syllables. I say ‘modern’ because my teachers would have rounded smartly on us had we dared abbreviate, so I tend to fully sound out several of her examples. One she doesn’t mention is ‘secretary’, at times said as ’SEK-ruh-tree’.

When is a T not a T?

The phrase ‘can not’ has been shortened and shortened again over time:

    • can not
    • cannot
    • can’t
    • can’

What? Rachel enters extreme territory beyond my ken, explaining the ’stop-T’. Listen to what she has to say about it. That’s all for now!

  © SleuthSayers


Answer to trivia question: Edgar Allan Poe famously used the obscure but wonderful word ‘tintinnabulation’ in his poem, ‘The Bells’.

20 April 2024

Dryer Is a Noun


We all know that. It's the big appliance that sits beside your washing machine. If you want to compare the moisture content of things like two climates, towels, cakes, underwear, etc., it's drier, not dryer. Drier's an adjective. 

Dreyer is also a noun (proper noun). Five years ago, a former Random House copy chief named Benjamin Dreyer published a book called Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, which lists a lot of language-related rules on things like dryer vs. drier, and it has come in handy for me more than once. In fact I wrote a column here at SleuthSayers about the book soon after I discovered it, and I think I've mentioned since then that I consider Dreyer's English second only to Stephen King's On Writing in terms of usefulness and readability. After all, it's utterly correct.

Ever since then, I've been considering doing another post about this book. So, if you have time, take a look at the examples in my previous post, appropriately titled "Dreyer's English," and then see what you think of the following additional rules and pointers that I discovered when I re-read the book not long ago. Some of this stuff I already knew (and so would you), but some of it I didn't. It's all good advice, by an expert who's studied our language from top to bottom.

Here are some of those (paraphrased) observations:

- Feel free to use contractions, even in formal writing. On this, Dreyer says, "Contractions are the reason God invented the apostrophe, so make good use of both." 

- Feel free to use sentence fragments. He mentions, as an example, the first three sentences of Charles Dickens's Bleak House: "London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather." Sometimes sentence fragments work perfectly, when writing fiction.

- It's okay to accompany "whether" with "or not." According to Dreyer, in the sentence "Whether or not you like movie musicals, you'll love Singin' in the Rain," try removing the "or not" and see what happens.

- Feel free to use "like" instead of "such as" when introducing a list. Either one works just fine.

- Don't punctuate acronyms and initialisms (abbreviations pronounced letter by letter) with periods. Examples: NASA, FBI, CIA, IBM, etc.

- Don't feel you have to use a comma before the recipient's name when beginning an email or a text: "Hi John" works every bit as well as "Hi, John."

- Use a comma in a sentence like "He traveled to Pompeii with his daughter Clara" only if he has more than one daughter. If she's the only one, say "He traveled to Pompeii with his daughter, Clara." 

- In my earlier SleuthSayers post, I mentioned never using an apostrophe to pluralize an abbreviation (CDs, IDs, ATMs)--but that also goes for dates (1860s, 1920s, '50s, '80s, etc.). I'm not sure if it's stated in the book or not, but I couldn't resist bringing it up.

- Use "farmers' market" instead of "farmer's market." Assuming, of course, that there's more than one farmer. I can't help thinking about the titles of two popular writing magazines I used to see on bookstore shelves: Writer's Digest and Writers' Journal. One of the mysteries of the universe.

- Sentences beginning with either "I wonder" or "Guess who" (I wonder who's kissing her now, Guess who's coming to dinner, etc.) should be ended with a period, not a question mark. They're not questions.

- Don't begin a sentence with a numeral or numerals. (1967 dawned clear and bright.) Instead, spell it out or reword it. Nineteen sixty-seven dawned clear and bright, or (better) The year 1967 dawned clear and bright. 

- Numerals are usually avoided in dialogue. Spell 'em out. I'll meet you at three-thirty.

- Set foreign language words and expressions in italics.

- Avoid "misplaced modifiers." Examples: "Strolling through the park, the weather was beautiful," or "Arriving at the garage, my car was nowhere to be found." This mistake is surprisingly easy to make. 

- As for substitutes for "said," don't write "Hello," he smiled, or "I don't care," she shrugged. You can't smile or shrug words.

--Know how to properly position dashes when indicating interrupted dialogue. Incorrect: "I can't possibly--" she set the jam pot down furiously "--eat such overtoasted toast." Correct: "I can't possibly"--she set the jam pot down furiously--"eat such overtoasted toast."

- Don't use semicolons in dialogue. Period.

- As for "Everyone should make up their own mind," etc., Dreyer says. "The singular 'they' is not the wave of the future; it's the wave of the present." In other words, he doesn't like it. But a lot has happened in the world in the five years since he published the book, and that now seems to be a sticky subject. I realize that "Everyone should make up his own mind," or even "Everyone should make up his or her own mind" is probably taboo these days, but the things we learned long ago die hard. I guess I would choose to rephrase the sentence.

One last "rule":

- Avoid the overuse of words like blinking, pausing, smiling, snorting, sighing, and swallowing in passages of dialogue. I confess that my speaking characters do these things all the time. But I'm working on it . . .

Again, these are only a few of the many writing rules I found in my recent re-reading of this fantastic book. If you don't already have it, consider picking it up. (And no, I receive no kickbacks.)

In closing, what are your opinions about the above snippets of "style" advice? Do you agree with most of them? Disagree? Please let me know, in the comments. Meanwhile . . . 

"I'll see you in two weeks," he smiled, snorting.

19 April 2024

The Pressfield Synchronicities


The Man in the Velcro Mask.

Every morning since January 1 of this year, I have observed the same ritual to start my morning. I get to the office early and slip into an inflatable jacket and helmet. The radiation treatment I underwent in 2022 damaged the lymph nodes in my face. If I don’t pump my face free of the excess liquid, over time I’ll wake up mornings looking like a bullfrog. When the motor kicks on, the suit squeezes my chest and face, filling my ears with the breath of an unseen giant. In the 32 minutes it takes to run my cycle, I read a page from three books in quick succession.

And yes, I’m well aware that I’m about to sound pretentious, but work with me here. The first book is the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The second is The Daily Stoic, by Ryan Holiday, a collection of daily readings culled from the works of Seneca, Epictetus, and Aurelius, with Holiday’s modern commentary. The third book is a 2023 collection of daily meditations on the writing life by the author Steven Pressfield. It’s the book I devour like potato chips, often peeking ahead and blowing my daily allotment. Pressfield’s words go down smoothly, and leave me thinking and nodding for the rest of the day.

If this author’s name sounds familiar, it’s because you fit into one of three demographics. You’re one of those folks who hang out in sports bars, tossing back cocktails while glued to the Golf Channel, thus absorbing a bajillion viewings of the 2000 movie, The Legend of Bagger Vance, based on Pressfield’s first novel of the same name (pubbed 1995; 450,000 copies sold*).

Or maybe you attended a military academy, and in order to graduate your instructors had you read Pressfield’s historical novels Gates of Fire, about the Battle of Thermopylae (pubbed 1998; 1 million copies sold), or Tides of War, about the Peloponnesian War, (pubbed 2000; 125,000 copies sold).

Or you are simply a person who has dreamed of better things. You want to commit to a daily mediation practice, lift weights, lose weight, do yoga, paint, dance, or sculpt. You want to chuck your stupid day job and open an Etsy shop to sell your handmade jewelry, leatherwork, or pottery.

Or, God help you, you want to write.

In that case, you have probably read—or probably should read—Pressfield’s 2002 book, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (pubbed 2002; 500,000 copies sold).

With more than 27,000 reviews on Amazon and 103,000 on Goodreads, the latter is one of those books I had heard about forever but never bothered to pick up. One summer, when I was bouncing around the east coast with my wife on one of her research trips, I tucked War and few other slim sequels to this title in my bag and read them as we traversed nine states.

That one experience with his books sparked a series of Pressfield Synchronicities that I am still experiencing. I’ll read a nonfiction book by Writer A, who announces he is a Pressfield fan. I’ll read a book that that writer recommends, only to find that Writers B, C, and D in turn are all Pressfield fans. Everywhere you look, in other words, everything is coming up Pressfield.

The O.G. paperback is about 165 pages, with chapters that are a page or two long. Each reads like a mini-sermon, wherein Pressfield addresses the central question facing any creative person: Why the hell don’t we do the things we say we want to do? Why don’t we write that novel? Why don’t we start that business? Why don’t we tell our bosses to shove it and go off on our own? Why don’t we pursue in this life what our souls are meant to achieve?

The villain, he says, is something called Resistance:

“Most of us live two lives,” he begins. “The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two lies Resistance.”

He could have called it Procrastination or Avoidance. But Resistance nails it. It is a pernicious evil that threatens to crush us, that wants to keep us in our lower, unrealized state. To keep us ordinary, perhaps, or boring, so we don’t threaten our comfort level or the comfort level of others.


“Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. The more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and the growth of our soul.

“That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

Amen, brother, I thought, remembering the years I longed to do more with my writing but never did. I worked editorial jobs to support myself, and I convinced myself that I was too tired by the end of the day to do my own writing. By Pressfield’s definition, I was living a shadow life—close to the dream but no cigar.

Pressfield knows what he’s talking about. For years he lied to himself, too. Said he was a writer but instead of sticking his butt in the chair, he wrote ad copy, picked fruit, drove trucks and New York City cabs. He wrote only when “inspired.”

One day, he chose to become a professional and write regardless of how he felt. He packed a bag lunch and showed up for work, so to speak, the way any gainfully employed person does.

That said, his craft books are probably not for everyone. Many will take offense at his language and his gruff, tough-love message. Don’t get me wrong; he is supremely erudite. (His golf novel is based on the Bhagavad Gita, for Pete’s sake.) For all his scholarship, his command of classical philosophy, Eastern thought, and ancient military battles—he’s the plainest of plain speakers. Like the titles of his other books suggest—Do the Work; Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be; and Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t,—when he speaks, you hear the ex-cabbie, the ex-trucker, and the ex-Marine.

When I’m immersed in his texts, I imagine him slowing his cab down to give me a piece of his mind. “How many years are you going to waste not doing what your soul knows it must to do, huh, Joe?” he says, lecturing me from the front seat while the meter runs. “What do you think this is, a joke? Stop the bullshit—sit and write already. That’ll be twenty bucks. Don’t slam the door on the way out.”

(By the way: considering our audience, I should says that one of his books, a hilarious crime novel called The Knowledge, is a semi-autobiographical take on his taxi-driving days.)

On that research trip with my wife, I peeked at the copyright page of one of his books. We were traveling in Massachusetts that week, and I thought, “Huh, that’s funny. We’re in the exact same town in New England where his editor and publisher is based.”

That was the first coincidence. I get home, and I run into a young bartender friend who’s announced that he wants to move back home to Long Island. He’s got a good side hustle selling his artwork—abstract paintings—but he craves the financial security that only his parents’ basement can provide. He knows it’s a slippery slope. If he goes back to the old homestead, there’s a good chance that he will get sucked back into the drama of his hometown family and friends, and maybe, just maybe, he won’t devote himself to his artwork and the burgeoning Instagram clientele he is slowly building.

“People tell me I should read this book,” he says. He struggles to remember the name…

I got you, kid, I thought. We bought and presented him with a copy of The War of Art on his last day in town.

Another young man, the brother of a friend, returns home after a long deployment in Afghanistan. Obviously bright, he served in a crypto-linguistics unit in the U.S. Army. Now he wants to become a journalist. An obvious underachiever, he quickly lands himself a journo fellowship at Harvard. Christmas week, as we all gather around his mom’s table, he confides that he loves historical fiction. While in the military, he devoured the books of—

I stop him right there, and tell him he should go out right now and spend his money on his favorite author’s books about writing. “Pressfield writes books about writing?” he says.

Months before this, Pressfield released an ambitious, 534-page book called The Daily Pressfield. (I sprung for the signed copy via his website.) It offers 366 inspirational readings drawn from his work, meting out one passage a day for a year. This is the book I am supposed to be reading page by page each morning. Except, I keep skipping ahead and devouring giant chunks.

How’d did I hear about it? I was listening to a self-publishing podcast some weeks earlier that had the now 80-year-old Pressfield on as a guest. He explained that he’d gotten the idea from the author Ryan Holiday, a young Pressfield fan who is best known for resurrecting Stoic thought for the Instagram masses. Derek Sivers, another entrepreneur and thinker who founded CD Baby and later sold that company for a $22 million, holds Pressfield’s work in such regard that he has summarized most of the former’s books on his website. Another writer, the marketing guru Jeff Walker, urges his readers and clients to read Pressfield as well. Don’t even get me started on Oprah…

So yeah, I don’t know how this happened to me, but for a while there one conversation or piece of media after another sparked a chain of Pressfieldian references.

Then the synchronicities petered out. After the holidays, I was too busy to get out much, and winter was too cold for socializing. On a warm day in February or March, I went to the fancy resort in town with views of the mountains. Over a couple of tangy beef lettuce wraps, I got to talking with one of the resort’s F&B managers. He’s worked in the food and beverage biz his whole life, starting as a server, mixing drinks as a bartender, slinging tacos and margaritas in a food truck that his brother owned in Costa Rica, before eventually landing here and becoming everybody’s boss.

But wouldn’t you know it? Deep down inside, he longs to write songs and play music the way he did in his teens, before marriage, the kids, the mortgage, and all these exhausting responsibilities. He’s built a studio in his home so he can rock out in his free time. But he worries. He’s in his forties, you see, and it all feels too little too late.

He sighs and shakes his head. I can feel his frustration. Out of the freaking blue, because he knows I’m a writer, he goes, “Hey—you ever hear of that book, The War of Art?”

* * *

* Sales figures courtesy of the author’s website.

See you in three weeks!


18 April 2024

South Dakota - Criming and Whining Edition

We do get some interesting crimes in South Dakota.  Some of it is that, when you have a very few people scattered over very large distances, privacy can lead to... odd behavior.  Or criminal behavior.  As Sherlock Holmes once said, 

“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

“You horrify me!”

“But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser."

— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

Thus Joel Koskan, disgraced former SD Senate candidate, could groom and rape his adopted Native American daughter for years in a small town of Wood, SD (population 41) and still maintain a "pristine image". Apparently none of the neighbors noticed the cameras in every room of their house… (LINK) He was finally sentenced to 10 years in prison, which frankly (imho) was not enough, because he filed a motion recently to get out and NOT have to register as a sex offender, because it was simply "consensual incest", which is no worse than bigamy, and why is he being punished so badly?  (LINK 1)

My Note:  Perps gonna whine while they do their time.

Meanwhile, we have two interstates which cross our fine state, I-29 running north/south and I-90 running west/east, which brings all kinds of people and things in by car, RVs, and trucks, including the occasional dead body.  

Back around March 10, 2024, the body of a dead woman was found at the I-90 Travel Center near Mitchell, SD, shoved under some pallets.  Her head was found in a trashcan nearby.  Apparently someone had run over her, multiple times, in the parking lot. It didn't take very long to track down Anthony Melvin Harris, Sr., 60, of Detroit, MI, and he was charged with second-degree murder, a Class B felony, and improper disposal of a body, a misdemeanor.

However, South Dakota AG Marty Jackley released additional information on Friday that stated the victim, Melody Faye Gooch, 57, of Detroit, died of an “accidental drug overdose.” The statement said Gooch’s overdose did not occur in South Dakota. Autopsy results showed Gooch’s death was caused by “combined drug toxicity due to Buprenorphine, Fentanyl, and Cocaine, and that the manner of death to be accidental.” And the blunt force trauma Gooch sustained from being run over at the I-90 Travel Center “did not occur when she was alive." So they dropped the second-degree murder charge, but he's is still facing improper disposal, which is a Class 1 misdemeanor charge.  (LINK)

Being the curious sort, I still want to know why he ran over her body multiple times to the point where literally her guts were on the pavement, how she got beheaded, and why he tossed that part of her in a garbage can?

Oh, let's change the subject.

Gov. Kristi Noem has been banned from yet another Native American Reservation in South Dakota (that's four out of nine, folks) after doubling down on her claims that Mexican cartels are infiltrating Native American reservations in South Dakota. (LINK) She claimed that South Dakota DCI and the SD Attorney General's Office had photographic proof of the cartels operating on the reservation - specifically, "the Bandidos Gang and the Ghost Dancers Gang". (See my exasperated post about the Ghost Dancers HERE)

A couple of questions:

  1. Which Reservation?  We have nine of them in South Dakota: Cheyenne River (Noem banned), Crow Creek, Flandreau, Lower Brule, Oglala (Noem banned), Rosebud (Noem banned), Sisseton Wahpeton, Standing Rock (Noem banned) and Yankton.  One or two?  All nine of them?
  2. If they have the photographs, why aren't there FBI, South Dakota State Troopers, etc., posted at the roads leading into the reservation so they can arrest them whenever they leave?

Eagle Butte, tribal headquarters of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, pop. 1,258.  

General map of the US state of South Dakota.
Shown are state's topography, major cities,
roads, boundaries, and bodies of water.
Credit: Jon Platek (Wikipedia)

It could be done.  Or would that be too simple?

Finally, there was a "disturbance" or a "disruption" or a "small riot" (depends on who you talk to) at East Hall at the Hill complex of the Sioux Falls, South Dakota penitentiary for two days at the end of March, 2024.  One corrections officer was injured, but will be okay.

Background: Back a couple of years ago, the DOC administration gave out tablets to all inmates, which allowed them to make telephone calls and send messages (all carefully screened - no privacy).  They could also listen to music, access an on-line law library (saved money on someone actually manning the libraries), and a few other carefully curated items.  They could not, and never could, surf the internet.  At the same time, once everyone got the hang of the tablets, the administration took out most of the wall phones that had been the old way of communicating with family.  The result was there were like, 5 telephones left for 500 men.

And then on March 8, calling and messaging were restricted since as a result of an investigation into what Noem called “nefarious” uses by some inmates. So the administration removed the ability to message or call families on the tablets, and there were some strong objections in East Hall. Now the disturbance / riot becomes much more understandable once you realize that East Hall is where they put all the young knuckleheads whose basic mentality is - and I am quoting:

"The last time anyone told me what to do, it was my Dad, and I told him to f*** off, so why the f*** should I listen to you?"

Anyway, thanks to them, everyone on the Hill was put on lockdown for a few days (now it's only East Hall), so all the lifers and old-timers are, as always, fed up with the knuckleheads.

Meanwhile, an ex-inmate pointed out that “When you’re on the Hill or in Jameson, 95% of your communications are done with your loved one on the tablets because you’re locked down so much. Kristi Noem is saying ‘oh, they still have access to phones on the wall.’ Well, okay, yeah, that’s technically true. But we’re talking about 1,000-plus inmates with maybe two to three hours a day to have access to those phones.”  And, as I said, there are about 5 phones to every 500 inmates. (LINK)

Anyway, the administration in Pierre has restored the ability to call / message on the tablets, although now the inmates will be allowed 5 calls / messages a day.  BTW, the resumption of tablet communications isn't entirely altruistic or even realistic: some of it is economic.  The State of South Dakota gets a commission on messaging and phone calls: $6.25 million a year.  That's a lot of money to pass up in a poor state... (LINK)


Global Tel Link (GTL), the tablet providers, hid a 2020 data breach for nine months and then told only a fraction of affected users about it, according to a settlement filed in late February with the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC’s decision and order in the data breach and fraud case against GTL was issued on Feb. 27, two weeks before the South Dakota Department of Corrections took away the tablets. So there's a strong possibility that the "nefarious activities" with the tablets might very well have been the PROVIDER'S (Global Tel Link, a/k/a GTL) "nefarious activities": selling data to outside nefarious agencies… (LINK)

"Perps gonna whine while they do their time":  I heard about a new inmate who (before the disturbance / riot) was having a fit because his means of livelihood was trading on-line on the stock market.  He was planning to sue for his right to earn a living, even in prison, which was so ridiculous that everyone started laughing, which only made him madder.  Tough.  I told my friend to tell him, "Good l uck with that.  At least you'll give an attorney and a judge a really good laugh.  And thanks for giving me one hell of a laugh."

16 April 2024

Seen in Seattle


I just spent a long  weekend in Bellevue, WA for Left Coast Crime: Seattle Shakedown, and I had a great time. More than 500 mystery writers and readers. Saw a lot of old friends (including SleuthSayers Michael Bracken and Brian Thornton) and made some new ones.  Excellent organization and a very nice hotel.

If I have a complaint it is that the out-of-staters will get a completely false idea about our weather.  It was dry and fiftyish the whole time.  I don't suppose the committee is responsible for that, though.

A few things you should never miss at LCC: The first is Author Speed-Dating. Forty writers have two minutes at each table to explain why you should buy their books.  Having been on both sides, I can tell you that listening is a lot more fun than being the one giving the same speech 20 times.  On the bright side you really hone your speech, because you get to see exactly what holds people's attention.

Next is the New Author's Breakfast. Each novelist gets one minute to dazzle you.  To me the standout at both events was Jason Powell, a young New York City firefighter whose novel about that occupation  sold out before I could get to the dealer's room. My wife ordered it from our local bookstore that day.  

And then there's the banquet.  I co-hosted a table with Steve Steinbock, who reviews books for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  Notice the cool display of mag covers he provided.  One of our fellow diners told me "Your novel Greenfellas is on my bedside table. I read two pages every night and fall asleep."  I said: "Thanks?"

But most of the wisdom is imparted at panels.  The ones I attended included: two on short stories (yay!), politics, social issues,  humor, slang, historical (2). villains, and editors.

A favorite moment from that last panel.  The moderator began by asking if there was anyone who had no idea what an editor did.  Zoe Quinton, a panelist, raised her hand.  Turned out she was lying.

Hennrikus, Witten, Other Guy, Corbett, Byron
And speaking of panels I got to moderate one.  We struggled for a title that was clear and came up with 20 Panels in One: YOU Choose the Topics.  But when I told people about it someone made a suggestion that was brilliant and I will use it if we ever do it again: Panel Improv!  

The idea is, audience members write  topics in a hat and we discuss whatever happens to be drawn out.  My intrepid associates were Ellen Byron, David Corbett, J.H. Hennrikus and Matt Witten and they were all brilliant.

Our brilliant audience

The first topic we received was "The Trials and Tribulations of Squirrels." With some anxiety I asked if any panelist wanted to discuss that.  David explained that his dog had killed  a squirrel and they had to hire a lawyer to sue the dog. And we  were off and running.  Got a lot of compliments about it.  

That's enough.  Next time I will, as usual, provide you with brilliant quotations from the authors I encountered. 

Killing in Different Ways

Recently, Agatha Award-winning short-story author Toni L.P. Kelner asked if she could run a guest post here on SleuthSayers, highlighting this year's Agatha Award finalists. Toni will be moderating our short story panel next week at Malice Domestic. I happily agreed.
— Barb Goffman

Killing in Different Ways
by Toni L.P. Kelner

Television performer Stephen Colbert says, “I used to write things for friends. There was this girl I had a crush on, and she had a teacher she didn’t like at school. I had a real crush on her, so almost every day I would write her a little short story where she would kill him in a different way.”

Since not all of us had crushes on people who hated their teachers, we’ve had to look elsewhere for our inspiration. In my case, I’ve written a story inspired by Scooby-Doo (“Pirate Dave’s Haunted Amusement Park”), another set in the restaurant where my grandfather ate breakfast every single workday for decades (“Kids Today”), and one after reading a book about life as a carney (“Sleeping With the Plush”). And I’m always inspired by the stories nominated for the Agatha Awards.

In preparation for moderating the panel “Make It Snappy: the Agatha Short Story Nominees” at Malice Domestic, I asked this year’s nominees about their inspirations. Every answer was different and pretty darned inspiring.

Shelley Costa

Author of “The Knife Sharpener”

My inspiration to write short stories came in waves. When I was five, I took my pencil and paper, set down some words, and was amazed that I could make thing up. Things that had nothing to do with lullabies before bed, or struggling to learn to tie my shoes, or dealing with offending vegetables on my dinner plate. It was a kind of magic, or maybe a kind of power. In my high school creative writing class, the teacher was inspiring because she gave me a lot of latitude to write tortured love poetry and tortured love stories that even had a bit of suspense. I loaded all the poetic forms and devices she taught us into a speedy little vehicle for my imagination. And this teacher spent time exposing us to great stories, which was followed up with assignments to write “in the manner of” Salinger, Hemingway, Faulkner.

nominated book cover
"The Knife Sharpener" appeared
in the July/August 2023 issue of
Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

I believe it was during my junior year at Rutgers when something changed in me about writing stories. I felt it became more than a pastime. I had a glimmer of a life’s work. I declared an English major and got serious. One prof in particular, David Burrows (a ringer for D.H. Lawrence) was an inspiration to me just then. I took his Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner course, bedrock American fiction masters, and asked the prof if, instead of essays, I could write short stories inspired by their work. I got the go-ahead. We’ve all had profs that come at just the right time for us. In the Tao Te Ching, one of the teachings says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Because Prof. Burrows could tell he had someone on his hands who needed to show understanding of the subject in a different way from what was on the syllabus, I wrote a story inspired by the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, set in Paris of the 1920s...and that story, “Cup of Kindness, Cup of Cheer” was my first story sale. I was 22 when I sold it to the start-up Oui Magazine, a subsidiary of Playboy, and felt a professional writing career was unfurling right before my eyes. Could it be that kind of easy? No, it couldn’t. When the magazine underwent a big editorial change, my Scott and Zelda tale fell to the wayside, and the story has never been published. But that, too, became part of the professional writing career.

Although we can find inspiration in stargazing or surfgazing or a Beatles lyric, it really all comes down to the people along the way. It doesn’t take many. Just a few. The ones who hand you the pencil and paper at five, accept your earnest excesses at fifteen, nod at your bushwhacking your way into real storytelling at twenty-one – the ones who, all along, look at you and know. I’d like to think that inspiration goes both ways.

Barb Goffman

Author of “Real Courage”

When Toni asked us to write about someone or something that inspired us to write short stories, I’m sure she was expecting positive, heartfelt responses. Essays that would uplift the readers of this blog. Perhaps she’ll get that from the other finalists. But I’ve always liked to take the road less traveled, to quote a famous poet who truly knew about writing short. 

nominated book cover
"Real Courage" appeared in issue
14 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine

So, my inspiration? It was, simply, revenge. I took off an expensive ring while washing my hands in a public restroom at Sleuthfest in 2004 and stupidly forgot it on the sink. In the ten minutes it took me to realize my blunder, it was found by someone who never turned it in to the hotel or convention organizers, despite my pleas in every session. I took that bad incident and turned it into something good, my first professionally published short story, “Murder at Sleuthfest,” in which I killed off the person who found my ring. I received my first Agatha nomination for that story, and it inspired many more involving revenge. These days, I don’t write a lot of revenge stories, but every now and then I do because payback can be fun. (For the recipients, it might be a bitch, but who cares about them? Wink.) 

Now that you’re hopefully smiling—I do love writing humor, even though “Real Courage” isn’t one of my funny stories—I’ll quickly mention a couple of people who believed in me long before I started writing crime fiction: First, Frank Scoblete, who was my high school newspaper advisor. He told me that there was always room at the top, and that’s where I belonged. Perhaps he said that to a lot of students, but he still buoyed my confidence. Second, one of the editors at the Cincinnati Enquirer, whose name I can't remember, but whose words I do. I was an intern, and when he asked about my plans for after grad school, I mentioned that I’d loved living in DC, but I couldn’t expect to find a reporting job there. It was the big league. He looked at me with a confused expression and said, “Why can’t you be in the big league?” These two men believed in my writing talent, and their faith in me gave me confidence when I decided to try writing fiction. Gentlemen, if you’re reading this, I thank you.

Richie Narvaez

Author of “Shamu, World’s Greatest Detective”

One day my brother brought home a book he had been reading for a class on crime fiction: The Great American Detective (New American Library, 1978), edited by William Kittredge and Steven M. Krauzer. The class was done, and since he was more concerned with car payments than collecting books, he said I could have it. The book changed my life. Oh, I had read some mystery and murder fiction—mostly comics. And I had seen my fair share of Cannon, Columbo, Baretta, Kojak, The Rockford Files, Streets of San Francisco, Barney Miller, etc., etc. Hell, even every episode of The Snoop Sisters. But this book was a revelation. I dove into crime fiction and never surfaced.

nominated book cover
"Shamu, World's Greatest Detective"
appeared in Killin' Time in San Diego

The subtitle on the cover reads “15 Stories Starring America’s Most Celebrated Private Eyes.” I had to look that up because my well-worn copy no longer has a cover. And, while they’re not all strictly PIs, the short story collection does feature some of the most famous detectives who ever existed on the page, from before the Golden Age and up to the ’70s: Nick Carter, Race Williams, Sam Spade, the Shadow, Hildegarde Withers, Philip Marlowe, Ellery Queen, Lew Archer, even Mack Bolan (think Jack Reacher, but shorter). But one particular sleuth stands out, in light of my story getting nominated for an Agatha.

“Bullet for One,” by Rex Stout, was no doubt my very first exposure to Nero Wolfe. In it, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigate the murder of an industrial designer. It’s long, it’s talky, but Wolfe fiercely leaps off the page. Which is about as much moving as he ever does, but it’s immensely impressive. It was Wolfe who inspired my story, “Shamu, World’s Greatest Detective” (published in Killin’ Time in San Diego, Down & Out Books, edited by Holly West). “Shamu” features what you might call a Nero Wolfe from the multiverse—a killer whale who, through the use of cybernetics, is not an armchair detective but a poolside detective, and whose tough-talking assistant, Angie Gomez, does all the (literal and figurative) legwork. If not for encountering Wolfe, et al., in The Great American Detective, I might never have become as obsessed with the hard-boiled and clue-laden flummery of crime fiction as I am today.

Kristopher Zgorski

Co-author of “Ticket to Ride”

As a former English major, I have read hundreds of short stories. So many of them impart lessons about the craft of writing—as well as about life, in general. There are probably about fifty of them that attached themselves to my soul and to which I continue to return to over and over again.

nominated book cover
"Ticket to Ride" appeared in
Happiness is a Warm Gun

“Everyday Use” by Alice Walker (of The Color Purple fame) is one such story. This story first appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1973. I am touched by its subtlety. In just a very honest exchange between family members, readers learn so much about Black culture and the nature of family dynamics. In the story, Mrs. Johnson is waiting on her lawn for a visit from her older daughter, while her younger daughter, Maggie—who is disfigured by burn scars and has never left home—waits by her side. College educated Dee is coming over to collect some “artifacts” from her Mom to display in her new home. Once she arrives, Dee informs her family that she has changed her name to a more “traditionally” African name (Wangero) and introduces her new Muslim husband. Eventually, a conflict arises over some heirloom quilts that Dee (Wangero) wants to take to hang on the wall. But Mrs. Johnson says she promised those to Maggie. Wangero’s argument is that this is crazy, since Maggie would just put them on the bed and use them—which the mother points out is the true “purpose” of a quilt. 

What is fascinating about this story is that while it is told from Mrs. Johnson’s point of view, readers who spend the time imagining themselves in each character’s place will see that they all have valid arguments and reasons for their beliefs. It is with that realization that the story elevates from a domestic squabble into a cultural study. In just a few short pages, Alice Walker weaves in the legacy of slavery, loyalty to family, generational trauma, and above all Love (with a capital L). It’s a beautiful short story that is not easily forgotten.

Dru Ann Love

Co-author of “Ticket to Ride”

I never had a desire to write, but when given the opportunity, I had to take it. My inspiration for writing the short story was my collaborator, Kristopher Zgorski. I knew he had the writing bug and if I could help him get a short story out to the world, I was going to help him achieve this goal.

nominated book cover
"A Good Judge of Character"
appeared in Mystery Most Traditional

Tina deBellegarde

Author of “A Good Judge of Character”

Unfortunately, Tina was unable to participate in this blog. If you read her work, you can tell she’s got plenty of inspiration, but what she’s short on right now is time. As I write this, she’s preparing a wedding reception for her son and new daughter-in-law. But don’t worry. After the festivities, she’ll be attending Malice Domestic.

If you’re coming to Malice Domestic 2024 and want to hear more from these inspired—and inspiring—authors, come by Ballroom B/C at 2 PM on Friday, April 26.

And Malice Domestic attendees, don’t forget to read these authors’ stories before the Agatha Award voting deadline (1 PM, Saturday, April 27). To read each one, click on the story titles below.

"The Knife Sharpener" by Shelley Costa

"A Good Judge of Character" by Tina deBellegarde

"Real Courage" by Barb Goffman

"Ticket to Ride" by Dru Ann Love and Kristopher Zgorski

"Shamu, World's Greatest Detective" by Richie Narvaez