25 May 2024

Three Things You Should Never Ask an Author

Moving beyond the ubiquitous and somewhat innocent, "Where do you get your ideas"- (you really don't want to peek into the dismal tangle that is my brain...)

Allow me to present three loaded questions you should definitely NOT ask an author!

1.  How much money do you make?"

I understand that people are curious about how much you can make writing a book.  I also understand that some are wondering if they can give up their day job for the dream of becoming an author.  But truly, it is rude to ask such a question of a complete stranger.  Would you ask your lawyer?  Your accountant?  Hairdresser?  

Still, I get asked this regularly.  Usually, I describe the standard royalty arrangement:  "Most authors earn around 10% of cover price."  With a $20 book, that's 2 bucks per sale.  A bestseller in Canada is usually considered to be 5000 copies (about 7000 in the States, I hear.)  That means, if my book is a bestseller, it would earn $10,000 at least.  Keep in mind that 96% of books published these days do not sell 1000 copies.

That usually shuts them up.

2.  "Do you use a pen name?"

Usually, this comes with the line, "I've never heard of you before.  Do you use a pen name?"

The first time I heard this, I laughed out loud, and responded, "You mean like James Patterson?"

Talk about an unintentional insult. You couldn't be that famous because they haven't heard about you.  Or is it intentional?  I'll always give the benefit of the doubt.  And in fact, I have used a pen name.  But only for my erotica.

Luckily, most people who come to see me at events these days already know about me. 

3.  "I'll give you my unpublished manuscript to read for free, if you'll recommend me to your publisher."

It's true.  I get this at book signing events every year from complete strangers who obviously know nothing about how this biz works.  

I must have been a naive little writer, when I first started having success.  For instance, it came as a shock to me, that people would befriend me on Facebook and in person, pretend to enjoy my company, and then ask me to recommend their manuscript to my agent or publisher.

In fact, they would beg me, and then get angry when I tell them my publisher and agent do not welcome this.  Talk about feeling used.

Here's the scoop with that:

First, it takes time to read any manuscript.  The stranger is asking me to give up my precious leisure time, for free.  To read a book I wouldn't have chosen.

Next, and more important:  The stranger is asking me to put my reputation on the line - which is in fact, my bread and butter in this writing biz- for a complete stranger.  They are asking me to badger my already overworked agent and/or publisher to look at a work that may or may not have any relevance for what they publish. Why would I do that?  

Who in their right mind would risk their hard-earned relationship with their agent and publisher, for a stranger or mere acquaintance?

In every case where I have relented and done this - that is, taken a chance on someone I know who has a manuscript with some merit - my agent and publisher have not taken them on.  And the aspiring writer has been disappointed in me.

The sad fact is, agents and publishers don't appreciate authors in their stable creating more work for them, by making them feel obligated to read a manuscript they didn't ask for.

So What Should You Ask an Author?

That's easy!  "When is your next book coming out?"

About Melodie...(from a recent article.)  See the whole article on her website, 


24 May 2024

Good Sentences

If the sentence is "the fundamental unit of a work of literature," then a good sentence should be the goal of a good writer. But what is a good sentence?

Found another excellent lesson for writers online, entitled HOW TO WRITE A GREAT SENTENCE. What I like most about the article is what we know – there is no definite way to write a great sentence.

Beginning with an explanation of "style" by the use of "creative devices, grammar, diction, tone, rhythm and cadence," the article says all of those elements "taken as a whole" is "style."

For examples to compare styles, the article chose William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.

Faulkner wrote purple prose with long, convoluted sentences. Whereas Hemingway wrote short, clipped, concise, pithy sentences capturing, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, "the flicker of modern life.”

The tempo of the writer's sentences reflect the speed of the lives they depicted. "Faulkner basks in the heat of south" while "Hemingway flits at life in the city." While Faulkner lounged, Hemingway rushed.

Faulkner said of Hemingway, "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."

Hemingway said of Faulkner, "Poor Faulkner, does he really think big emotions come from big words?"

Faulkner house
Faulkner House, 624 Pirate Alley, New Orleans
where Nobel laureate William Faulkner
wrote his first novel Soldiers’ Pay, 1925

The article illustrates examples of each writer's work, chosen as they serve "the acute ends of he spectrum of sentence structure."

Long sentences? Short sentence. Medium length sentences. Vary them to turn your writing into music, let your writing sing, give it a pleasant lilt, a harmony.

OK, I knew a lot of this but the article is a good reminder. I recommend it, expecially to beginning writers.

  © The Written Word


That's all for now,


23 May 2024

Once More Into the Details, Dear Friends!

Last time around I laid the groundwork for some discussion how to get historical mystery writing “right,” including avoiding such pitfalls as anachronistic writing guaranteed to pull the reader out of the story. This time I have adapted a post I wrote eleven years ago as my follow-up, in large part because everything I said then still holds true today. That adaptation is below.


*     *.    *.    *.    *

A while back I wrote an extensive post on what I deemed "Cosplay in Fiction." In that post I 
promised to elaborate further on what constitutes "cosplay" in historical fiction in my next post.

Not this type of cosplay.

I didn't.

And I'm still mulling how best to elaborate and wrap up that subject in a blog posting to appear in this space in the not-too-distant future.

In the mean-time I intend to explore a tangential line of thought, centering on examples of what works and what doesn't in the historical mystery author's quest to bring believable, engaging historical fiction to the modern reader. And I'm going to spread it out over a number of my upcoming blog posts.

You see, this year I had The great privilege of co-planning and coordinating the Seattle left Coast crime conference. As it’s always the case with one of these professional conferences, I came away energized, I came away provoked, I came away intrigued. I came away ready to think about the parameters of what I do. Of how I can do it better. Of what I’m already doing well. And of how I can help others to do the same.

Is it any surprise, that I've got a few thoughts?

Not THIS type, either
Not least of which is what works and what doesn't when attempting to evoke a certain time period. This is probably one of the most difficult aspects of the historical mystery juggling act: paint a picture of life in another era, likely with characters who speak a language other than English, and still make them seem natural and unaffected, all without diving so deep into period language that the modern reader does not get either lost or completely put off.

No mean feat.

And THIS? Just flat out disturbing....
I have some examples of what I think works, and what I think doesn't. And as always, I'm prepared to share.

As I said, I've been giving this sort of thing a lot of thought lately. Partly, as I said above, because of Bouchercon and partly because of my own on-going final pass through a long-percolating historical mystery novel of my own.

Let me state at this point that I have nothing but admiration for anyone who attempts this ludicrous balancing act– whether they fail or succeed. I for one have always found it a formidable challenge, and feel I've failed more times than I've succeeded. (Which is a large part of the reason that the final draft of my current book project is my third complete draft!).

And with that said, let's move on to what works, and what doesn't. This week's entry:


I was reading a mystery novel a while back and a fairly innocuous turn of phrase knocked me completely out of the story- you know, that experience that is usually the last thing any author wants to foist upon their audience.

The phrase in question was "Don't get your knickers in a twist."

Now, the author of the book in question is British and, although I'm an American, I'm fairly 
Not THIS type of anachronism
Anglophilic, and am comfortable with British slang expressions, so ordinarily this wouldn't be a problem for me.

The problem was two-fold: the setting, and the character speaking. It wasn't set in modern England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. And the speaker wasn't a citizen of any of those countries.

The character in question was a citizen of ancient Rome, speaking to another citizen of that city, in that city, circa 80 A.D.

Hello, Anachronism!

Now, I get what the writer in question was trying to do. Trying to portray ancient Romans talking casually with each other, in an intimate, familiar manner. No mean feat, seeing as they spoke Latin and not English.

At the very least wouldn't they have said something like, "Don't get your sublegaria* in a twist"?

I mean, the only way this character could have sounded more out of time would be if he had suggested to his comrade that he "slow your roll"!

The problem for me as a reader at this point was that, while I was and am willing to concede that Romans, like every other variety of human being since the dawn of time, had their own pet slang phrases and humorous sayings, I had a hard time believing that they used this particular one.

Further compounding the problem was the fact that the speech in this novel was so anachronistic that it pulled me right out of the story. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the story I kept picturing these ancient Roman characters speaking with cockney accents. At any moment I expected them to break in rhyming slang!

This brought to mind an author who actually gets this sort of thing right. I have raved before about the writing of Philip Kerr, a British author of the Bernie Gunther series of novels, set in Nazi and post-war Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.

For my money Kerr gets Gunther just right: in some ways a morally compromised figure (as many 
Germans who survived the first world war and the subsequent years-long party which was Weimar Germany of the 1920s were);former homicide detective and sometimes private investigator who has repeated dealings with the Nazis while never becoming one of them or buying in to what they were selling.

Gunther is truly a man of his time, believing, as many in Germany quietly did, that the Nazis were by turns keystone cops and murderous thugs. And even during his dealings with them he manages to chart a course that leaves him (for the most part) morally clean.

What helps Kerr really sell Gunther and the rest of his cast of period characters as believable avatars of the period in question is his ability to take German slang from that time and translate it into English, without it losing its period flavor.

For example, a pistol is a "lighter." A cigarette is a "nail" (for your coffin, obviously).  When asked during a 2009 interview whether these slang words were genuine or of his own invention, Kerr said:

"The slang is not my own invention nor is it anything to do with the police. The words are often more literal translations of real German phrases instead of their English equivalents. It's as simple as that."

With all due respect, the man is being far too modest. It's not as simple as that. While it's true that Nazi Germany is a period of history which has passed down to us a wealth of first person narratives (much of them truly horrifying), the skill herein lies in the choice of these words, knowing which concepts fit into the dialogue without extensive explanation, seamlessly, if you will.

Imagine trying to do that with such freighted concepts as gleichschaltung (the notion of every aspect of a society fitting together and working like cogs in a machine, keeping that society moving and well-run) or the ever-popular schadenfreude (joy experienced as a result of witnessing the suffering of others).

Sometimes it's what you don't try to say that sells your story. The key is in knowing what works, and what doesn't.

Making your Roman citizen sound like a cockney cab driver? Not so much. Having your German detective light up a nail, or take a lighter away from a drunken member of the Hitler Youth? Perfect.

See you in two weeks!

22 May 2024

Voyage to the Bottom of the Barrel:
Hillbillys in a Haunted House


If you ever find yourself striving to solve the mystery of what is the worst motion picture ever made, follow the trail no further than Hillbillys [sic] in a Haunted House. The film has everything a 1940s Poverty Row horror comedy should have: aging horror movie actors and no-talent leads; a story in which the creepy “haunted” house turns out to be a lair for foreign spies; substandard special effects, and college theatre production values. There’s even a gorilla in a cage in the basement. The problem is that it wasn’t made in the 1940s. Hillbillys in a Haunted House─ which is remembered today (if at all) for the casting of Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney Jr., and John Carradine as the spies──was shot in late 1966 and released the following year.

Even if it had been made in the 1940s (with the same cast!) it would be a wretched film, but asking audiences to accept this antiquated mess it a year before Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead is simply insulting.

Produced specifically for the Southern theatrical circuit, the film was the follow up to producer Bernard Woolner’s 1966’s gem Las Vegas Hillbillys, which starred country singer Ferlin Husky, perennial starlet Mamie Van Doren, and novelty songwriter Don Bowman. Husky and Bowman returned for Hillbillys, but Van Doren was replaced by Joi Lansing, a road company Jayne Mansfield who never quite made it to stardom (for the record, the real Mansfield also appeared in Las Vegas Hillbillys).

While Husky was no actor, there is some entertainment value in his imitation of a werewolf transformation any time he goes for a high note. The dyspeptic Bowman is ostensibly the film’s comedy relief, and to be fair, he is funnier than Jack Lord. But only barely. As for Lansing, she can sing (if not act) and no one filled out a chambray shirt better.

Hillbillys in a Haunted House begins with these three Dixiefied “Bowery Boys” surrogates motoring their way to a Country Music Jamboree in Nashville, but before long they find themselves in the middle of a gun battle between two spies and the police─ literally in the middle. Their luxury convertible is the only thing separating the guns-a-blazin’ shooters. When the bullets stop flying, they move on and decide to shelter for the night in an old plantation house where “terrifying” things begin to happen, all orchestrated by the spies who work for a wannabe Dragon Lady named “Madame Wong” (played with Acquanetta-level incompetence by Linda Ho). The goal is to infiltrate a nearby missile factory (something every small town should have).

Having last worked together in the threadbare 1956 shocker The Black Sleep

, Rathbone, Chaney, and Carradine were by this point on the downslide, Carradine slightly less so than the others given his propensity for jumping from quality films to utter dreck and back again, stopping only long enough to cash the paychecks. Here he seems to be amusing himself by overplaying and mugging. Chaney’s stardom was over by the late 1940s, but he established a reputation as a reliable character actor throughout the ‘50s. By the ‘60s, though, he was in an alcohol-fueled descent. Still, he managed to contribute the movie’s sole dramatically effective moment by stepping out of the general silliness and into cold-blooded killer mode for a rather chilling murder scene.

The saddest part of watching Hillbillys in a Haunted House is seeing the great Basil Rathbone struggling through his last film (he died only two months after its release). Once the cinema’s top villain, then its preeminent Sherlock Holmes, Rathbone in later years found himself adrift in a changing youth-and-realism-oriented Hollywood. Always in need of money to support his wife’s legendary, extravagant party-giving, he was forced to accept roles in drive-in pictures, do spoken word records, and shill Leisy Beer on television just to keep going. Unable to muster up much energy or enthusiasm, Rathbone underplays his role and his trademark crisp speech is somewhat slurred with age and illness. But at least he appeared to have read the script, unlike Carradine, who at one point calls Rathbone’s character “George” when it’s supposed to be “Gregor.”

Once the spies are rounded up by a stalwart G-Man played by Richard “Captain Midnight” Webb, our three heroes get back on the road to Nashville, crooning the same lame song they started with (in fact, it’s the same footage). But before the viewer can thank the deity of their choice for the film being over, the action shifts to the Music Jamboree and goes on for another fifteen minutes. A parade of country “stars” take the stage, ranging from well-known Merle Haggard to somebody named Marcella Wright (maybe they knew who she was in the South). After numbers by Bowman, Husky, and Lansing, the film finally comes to an end. At least it stops.

Someone named Duke Yelton wrote Hillbillys in a Haunted House, making it a compendium of every hokey, cornball Halloween gag in the book, from the ubiquitous ape in the basement to flying a sheet around a string to simulate a ghost. Yelton never scripted another film (for which we should all be grateful). Jean Yarbrough, the picture’s director, on the other hand, was a prolific Hollywood hack whose most notorious movie is 1940’s The Devil Bat, featuring Bela Lugosi and a giant rubber bat wobbling around on wires. Yarbrough is best remembered for his work with Abbott and Costello, particularly in their television series, but here his clumsy staging and inability to elicit any convincing performances falls short of even the TV standards of the time short of even the TV standards of the time.

If nothing else, suffering through 86 minutes of Hillbillys in a Haunted House makes one realize that, despite his best efforts, the legendary Ed Wood, Jr. did not make the worst film ever. Reportedly, a 1969 epic called The Mummy and the Curse of the Jackals, also with Carradine, is every bit as atrocious as Hillbillys in a Haunted House. But I have no interest in finding that out for myself.

21 May 2024

Answering the Call

How do you approach the challenge when writing to a call?

Is a theme a fence or a gate? Does it constrain writing, limiting where the author's imagination might go? Or does it open opportunities, spurring the writer to take prose in a direction they might not have considered going without the prompt? 

My answer probably depends on whether I like the prompt. 

Private Dicks and Disco Balls, an anthology of 1970s private eye stories edited by fellow SleuthSayer, Michael Bracken, was released earlier this month. I'm honored that Michael included a story of mine, "The Kratz Gambit," within the pages. 

I like writing stories set in the past. Typically, however, my historicals occur earlier. The opportunity to put a story in a decade I lived through poked me to try something a little different. 

The 1970s are the first decade I remember. I was around for much of the swinging '60s, but for me, that meant playground swings and tires suspended from ropes tied to tree limbs. I wasn't old enough to have a feel for much of the vibe of that decade. 

But for a '70s anthology, I got totally stoked. I dusted off my good threads, the powder blue leisure suit, tied on my puka shells, slapped in an 8-track tape and fired up my Smith Corona. Seriously, I didn't do any of those things. The suit doesn't fit anymore and might be life-threatening if worn around an open flame. I no longer own the necklace, the typewriter, or the sound machine. I did, however, reminisce about the decade so that I might draw from my experiences. 

The terms of the call were straightforward. Michael sought a story featuring a working private eye and incorporating a significant event from the decade. 

As with any themed anthology, the touchstone must be the call. Which happening from the decade caught my attention? My mind ticked off possibilities. The Vietnam War, Watergate, and Elvis's death presented possibilities.  

I skipped the center-of-the-plate events. Although I needed to incorporate something significant, the decade's episode I chose must make my story unique. I wanted to stand out in the crowd. I think it's a good rule for answering a call. Where might a writer go that, while remaining true to the ask, presents a different take? Avoid the obvious choices and pass on the low-hanging fruit. The editor, finicky guy that he is, would likely only accept one Watergate story. I sought something at the margins. 

I settled on the chess match between Bobby Fischer of the United States and the Soviet grandmaster, Boris Spassky. The 1972 chess match became nightly news. The games captured national attention. Television stations across America had chess nerds demonstrating the moves on oversized boards. (Spoiler alert: the American beat the Ruskie.)

The Fischer/Spassky matches not only presented an event I thought few writers would tackle, but the games were also personally significant. My friends and I followed this micro battle between the world's two superpowers. We learned to play chess. In my case, I learned to play badly, but at least I knew how the pieces moved so that we could follow what the man on television described. 

The chess metaphor--move and countermove with one player trying to outwit another--worked great for a mystery story. But as I prepared to write my story, the events behind the tale conjured up a memory. Although my friends and I aren't reflected in "The Kratz Gambit, " I had a personal connection. Thus, my second suggestion for writing to a themed anthology. Find that personal piece. What's that thing you bring that no one else can or might? 

When plotting, I often engage in random internet searches. Into a search engine, I type words tangentially related to my story. I look to see what connections the internet might make. Random searches might open a possible direction for the tale. An article might shut down something I previously believed to be accurate. Some possibilities open while others close--gates and fences. Marry your experience to the research. 

My third thought about writing for a themed anthology should be obvious. Give the editor what they are seeking. I hit the required word count and followed all the submission rules. Although I read the titular "Disco Balls" as a cultural reference rather than a specific request for a music-themed story, I sprinkled in song titles from the period. I wanted to recognize my editor's interest in music. The songs also helped tie the story to 1972.

The advice may sound basic: pay attention to the theme and give the editor a story that fits the call and word count. But look at the theme's margins and incorporate personal experience supported by a bit of research. A writer can craft a story that will hopefully surprise the editor and secure a place in the anthology. The plan worked with "The Kratz Gambit." I'm glad Michael liked it. I hope the readers do, too. 

Until next time. 

20 May 2024

Dear Mr. Knopf:

I’m pleased to inform you that we would like to represent you in selling your script, My Dinner With Andre II: Desert. 

JUST KIDDING!!!  Since you write such funny lines, I knew you’d have a sense of humor about this (I absolutely read at least two full pages of your script that I found on my boss’s floor).  You also asked that “whether you accept my script or not, I would appreciate your opinion”.  That presumes that anyone in this insane office has the time to write to people like you.  However, I, in fact, have a little time this afternoon having spent the whole morning

throwing away bankers boxes full of scripts that just came in yesterday.  As the Executive Administrative Assistant to Head Agent Ryan Gossling (he was born Dirk Bogarde, but changed his name for business purposes), this is one of my principle responsibilities.  For some reason, being a recent graduate from Smith College qualifies me for heavy lifting, not that the tray of coffee mugs I transport when I’m not lugging boxes (the cocktails are in the afternoon, and they’re a lot lighter) disproves this theory. 

I looked you up on Facebook, BTW, and it looks like you graduated from college a year after my grandfather.  Doesn’t this give you a teensy-weensy little suspicion that maybe this agency might be looking for writers a little less, “seasoned”?  However, your IMBD page has a lot of scripts listed!  Some are even uncredited, which has to piss a person off.  Why else would you go to all that trouble?  I even saw some of those movies, I think, when our babysitter brought over DVDs (who has a DVD player anymore?  I do!  I work in film, after all).  The ones she let us watch, as opposed to others strictly reserved for her jerk boyfriend with the nose ring. Ick.

Google says you’ve also written books.  Aren’t books awfully long?  I mean to actually write?  You have to get so incredibly bored just tapping at the keyboard all day.  Unless you write at night.  I hear old people don’t sleep that much.  My parents have a whole bookshelf arranged by color.  It’s gorgeous.  Designed by eduardo.svengali.com, of course.  Whose isn’t?

Not that scripts are all that short.  I should know, since I have to lift them up and into the dumpster.  At least they have a formula you have to follow.  I have it on no uncertain terms the exact length of each act, the number of stage directions (like almost none, so why bother?), the size and type of the font, the width of the margins (down to, like, the millimeter) and the make and model of the binder (you can tell if it’s counterfeit by measuring the little holes.)  I know this because I’m told to throw out anything that doesn’t conform to these important standards, I mean EXACTLY.

So good news for you, sir.  You nailed it!  I mean Sherlock Holmes couldn‘t find anything wrong with your script format, and I’ve seen Robert Downey, Jr. play Mr. Holmes, so I know.  Amazing. 

This is why I’m writing to you, because I think you are the perfect person to help me write scripts.  Since no one wants to make your movies anymore, you probably have a lot of extra time.  I averaged a B+ in two courses of Creative Writing at Smith so I have credentials.  (My parents wanted me to lobby for the A, but I have my principles.) My sister’s ex-husband has published articles in magazines all over his town in Northwestern Connecticut, and though he hasn’t read anything of mine, he said I have potential based entirely on my personality. 

According to Google, your third divorce just concluded.  Congratulations!  So I know you still have the house in Beverly Hills, though I’m sure you’ll miss the ranch in Arizona.  I love horses, though they make me sneeze.  And I can’t help thinking about Christopher Reeve, who fell off a horse and became totally paralyzed.  As my Latina friends like to say, this is no bueno.  Superman?  I’m mean really. 

I’m guessing pool time is now a big part of your day.  I could come over to discuss.  I mean fully dressed.  THIS IS NOT one of those types of student/mentor situations. 

The thing about scripts I most want to learn is how do you write something people have to say.  I mean, isn’t writing you hear in your head different from speaking out loud?  I want to do this because my parents are hinting that maybe my rent in LA is a little too much to keep paying and since Mr. Gossling and his partners have nicer cars than even them, I could maybe have a big “so there!”

Thanks so much for reading all this, and I’m sorry they don’t want your script, but you know how great you are, and by gosh, you never give up!  (Keep telling yourself this.  It’s life-affirming.)





19 May 2024

The Flaw of the Draw

gunslinger in the street

In a follow-up to the previous article about Western movies, what does Niels Bohr have in common with Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood?

Western quickdraw gunfights.

To be sure, few human endeavors (okay, male endeavors) are more idiotic than gunfights. I can’t imagine the genius who said, “Okay, boys, arm wrestling is fun and all, but we need more excitement. You and you, set down your beer, go out in the street, and shoot one another.” Then everyone (okay, males) cheered and chortled and ordered a further round of drinks before staggering out in the dusty avenue to burps and bangs, sparks and splatter.

Eventually Mother Nature winnowed the pool of foolish candidates. No doubt a few wives told husbands, “Your choice, Henry: At high noon, you can meet Pete in the street or join me at the train station where I’ll board the 12:05 back to my mother in Ohio.”

Later at the Short Branch Saloon:

“Henry, you yellow jelly-bellied, lily-livered, mutt-butt, rotted snivel-snotted, slimy slug of a coward, what do you mean you ain’t gonna gunfight me?”
“Uh, my wife gave me an ultimatum: show or go.”
“Did she? Listen, Henry, don’t tell no one, but Alma tole me same thing. She said I shoot you, she shoot me where I will live to regret it.”
“Did you mean what you said about jelly-belly?”
“Nah, that was whiskey talking. But the part about your mutt-butt, how does your wife tolerate that ugly saddle sore ass of yours?”
“Good to laugh, Pete. What say we get a drink, maybe invite our ladies like we used to?”
gunslinger in the street

Reactive Advantage

Niels Bohr, Nobel prizewinning physicist, and contemporary and colleague of Albert Einstein, studied quickdraw gunfights. He wanted to know why the man who shot first died… at least in the movies. Bohr hypothesized initiating action takes more time than to react to the same movement.

Researchers call this reactive advantage. If you’ve ever seen a viper versus a cat, rabbit, or mongoose, the serpent rarely wins. The little furry animals are generally far faster than snake strikes.

A few years ago, neuroscientist Andrew Welchman of the University of Birmingham studied Bohr’s experiments. He worked out a simpler experiment and concluded Bohr was on the right track. Although Bohr won every faux gunfight (with toy pistols), there’s a little matter that it takes the brain about ten times longer to launch the reaction than the actual execution.

The Quick and the Dead

As mentioned last time, I very much like the second film of the Eastwood man-with-no-name trilogy, For a Few Dollars More. I felt it portrayed a flaw in the gunfight premise. In the movie, Lee Van Cleef and the bad guy wait for a musical watch chime to run down, after which the shootout begins. I wondered why wait? As the watch plays, why not draw, go bang, and apologize later. “Oops, I thought the music was done. My bad.”

I mean seriously? The bad guy is about to kill you. Why leave anything to chance?

At the risk of affronting my betters, I suggest two problems with Welchman’s and Bohr’s supposition.

  1. Perhaps it made little difference, but in their experiments, no one’s life was on line. After their laboratory rundowns, they shook hands and went home for the night. They couldn’t feel the pressure of life or death. Also, many real-life shootouts were alcohol fueled, which could factor in.

  2. Returning to For a Few Dollars More, in the beginning, a bad guy flees bounty hunter Van Cleef. He hops on a horse and gallops down the street.

    Van Cleef unhurriedly strolls to his horse and unrolls a small arsenal. He selects a revolver with a long barrel, takes careful aim, and judiciously pulls the trigger.

    Bad guy falls from his horse, but Van Cleef again takes his time, sights the baddie, and bang, he’s down for good. The scene represents a lesson learned from duels: Take your time. A duelist who shoots rapidly may compromise aim. One who takes his time can aim carefully while the other remains frozen.

gunslinger in the street

Wyatt Earp agreed. He wrote, “The most important lesson I learned was the winner of gunplay usually was the one who took his time.”

The were admirable exceptions in the dark world of duelling. Occasionally a duelist would deliberately fire into the ground, leaving his opponent the moral dilemma of wreaking death or mercy. A wise choice, especially when combatants were former friends.

After the Show

In the early 1900s, gunmen (and Annie Oakley) who survived found themselves in Wild West Shows where they showed off their skills along with trick riders and rambunctious stage coach robberies, à la, WestWorld. As mentioned previously, my father as a child became acquainted with the last of the fancy shooters. They could literally shoot coins tossed in the air.

Several years ago at a fair, I watched a quick-draw artist do his thing. He extend his right leg well forward so that his thigh was pointed toward and about even with his target. His draw and reholstering was so fast, it was barely a blur. The suspicious part of my mind wondered if it was a magic trick, one where he pretended to draw and reholster, while a bang sounded and a hole popped in the target.

On the other hand, a woman at the back of the tent sold VCR tapes. They could be slowed and studied frame-by-frame, which argued against trickery, a damn fast 20ms. What do you think?

18 May 2024

From MM to WW


So far this month, the publication gods have been kind to me--at least with magazines. Not long ago at this blog, I mentioned that most of my stories these days were being written for anthologies. As soon as I would start writing a story to try at AHMM, EQMM, Strand, etc., I'd either see a tempting anthology submission call or I'd get an invitation from an editor to contribute to an antho, and off I would go in that direction instead. I doubt I'm the only one who does that. There's something appealing to many of us about writing stories for themed anthologies--they're not only fun, they're challenging. Also, if an editor is kind enough to invite me, I hate to say no. I think I've had to do it only once, and that was hard.

For the past few weeks, though, my stories have all been in magazines. And before you say Yeah, they came out around the same time, but you wrote and submitted them long ago . . . well, no, I didn't. All of these stories were written, submitted, and accepted recently. The truth is, it reminds me a bit of the old days, when magazines were pretty much the only markets out there for short fiction, or at least short mysteries. Anthology sightings were rare. (Either that, or I never knew about them.)

The three stories I'm talking about were published this month in Mystery Magazine, Strand Magazine, and Woman's World, all of which have been good to me for the past several years. (Counting my blessings, here.) In case you don't happen to see these issues but are interested in the kinds of mysteries those publications are currently running, here's a quick summary of each of mine.

Ravines, machines, and magazines

The first of those three stories, "Bad Eagle Road," appeared in Mystery Magazine's May 1 issue. It's a 2700-word cross-genre mystery set in the Pacific Northwest, about a team of anthropologists and biologists in search of Bigfoot. Recent sightings and evidence have pointed them to an area of caves and hollows that, unfortunately for them, has also been targeted by a group of wealthy and ruthless land developers much more interested in financial profit than scientific discoveries and the delays and inconvenience they might cause. But a discovery does happen when the team hikes to the site, in the form of a deadly encounter, and as a result, one of the monster-hunters who survives it winds up being hunted himself, by both man and beast. This story was fun to write because it's a mix of adventure, crime, and fantasy. Many thanks to editor Kerry Carter, by the way, who published it.

Next was another unusual kind of mystery, at least for me. It's called "Pushing Joe Carter," in the Spring 2024 issue of Strand Magazine. This one's set on the West Coast, and it's around 2300 words. It involves a prisoner convicted of murder and sentenced to death, which sadly isn't all that unusual. What is different is that this man, one Joseph Carter, has been selected to be the first person executed via a new and innovative method. The device to be used is a huge three-sided box installed at the edge of a cliff above the ocean, into which the condemned prisoner will be placed. Once he's inside, the rear wall of the compartment (nicknamed The Pusher) will be hydraulically moved forward, eventually forcing him out the open side and onto the rocks far below. The waves will take care of the cleanup, and the outcome is quicker and more certain than with any of the usual non-mechanical methods. A final appeal to the governor for a stay of execution has fallen short, and as the hour of Carter's death approaches and new evidence emerges of his possible innocence, his female lawyer continues to try to find a way to rescue him. I had a great time coming up with the plot on this one because it is so off-beat. Thanks as always to Strand editor Andrew Gulli for publishing the story. It's my fifth in a row, there.

The last of the three is "Guessing Games," another of my mini-mysteries for Woman's World, featuring southern small-town sheriff Charles "Chunky" Jones and his former schoolteacher Angela Potts. In this installment of the series, the sheriff and his bossy sidekick are trying to keep from bickering long enough to figure out a vague clue spoken by the dazed victim of a mugging before she was wheeled into the hospital for treatment. That sole lead to the attacker's identity--that he resembled the host of an old TV game show--is odd enough to seem impossible to solve, but--surprise, surprise!--Angela manages to do it. The question is, can the reader solve it as well? As some of you know, I've been lucky enough to sell a lot of these lighthearted mysteries to Woman's World over the years, and even though I suspect that my idea generator will one day run out of gas, that doesn't seem to have happened yet. I owe thanks to WW editors Maggie Dillard and Sienna Sullivan for publishing this one--the stories are always loads of fun to write. "Guessing Games" is in the May 20 issue, but has already appeared on newsstands. For those who're wondering, the on-sale date at WW is always eleven days before the issue date.


How about you? Have you found yourself publishing more in one kind of market lately, than another? Are you cutting back on your submissions to magazines because of the recent boom in (and demand for) anthologies? Which do you prefer? In the magazine market, which ones of those are your favorite targets for submissions? Are you sticking mostly to mysteries, or venturing occasionally into other genres? Anybody writing stories that involve no crime at all? How about cross-genre fiction, that mixes them up in the same story? Let me know in the comments.

So, that's that. If you happen to read any of these three stories, I hope you'll like 'em.

My next post will be more about writing than publishing: I'll preach about some steps in creating effective titles.

See you then.

17 May 2024

English, Brother Tucker*! Do You Speak It?

 When most people say Old English, they're actually referring to Elizabethan English. The type found in Shakespeare and the King James Bible. The markers are the formal vs. informal second person and the attendant verb forms. "Thou," informal for "you," is rarely used these days, though the objective form, "thee" still puts in an appearance here and there. 



But that's not Old English. That is merely an early form of modern English. You know. What you're reading this very moment. "Thee" and "thou" had a long, slow decline to the point where they still exist, but they often are used for effect. Some even think "thee" and "thou" are more formal. And yet the Spanish version of "thou" is tu, and my high school Spanish teacher informed us calling a total stranger tu was a great way to get slapped. Those speaking Romance languages take the separation of the familiar and the formal very seriously.

On the other hand, the late Queen Elizabeth and King Charles seem to have been annoyed by the royal "We," but questions of gender identity and the lack most languages have of a gender-neutral pronoun beyond "it" (which is awful for referring to people) has given rise to a singular "they." Some find this controversial. I find this the perfect excuse to dance on my tenth grade English teacher's grave.

But what is Old English, then? And, for that matter, Middle English?

By PHGCOM - Own work by uploader, photographed at the British Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5969131


Old English actually refers to Anglo-Saxon, the tongue that evolved from the Germanic of the Angles and Saxons who moved in after the Romans pulled out of Britain and the Norse of the Jutes, who had a great idea. They'd leave Scandinavia and build this colony called Kent, where one day, teenage blues nerds would reinvent rock and roll. Anglo-Saxon was a Germanic language, sounding quite a bit like Dutch with a syntax resembling Yoda speak. It even used a not-entirely Roman alphabet.

My youngest stepson used to complain loudly about the silent "k" in "knight" or "knife." I used to blame the Vikings, who added more Norse to the language. Silent "k" does not make linguistic sense in the context of English rules, so it must be their fault. Right? Nope. Silent K came over from Germany with those Angles and Saxons. The Celts, who'd been in Britain since before the Romans, shrugged and started using it when they dealt with the weird Germans (and those guys over in Kent. Who are still quite Kentish.)

The best example of Anglo-Saxon is the epic poem Beowulf. It has to be translated for modern audiences because the English of Alfred the Great is not even the language of Edward III, one of the first Norman kings to actually speak English to his subjects. As I said, the alphabet is different. The syntax is different. It's really another language. But it's not. It's just the prototype for what you're reading right this moment.

The translation of Beowulf I listened to on Audible was done by a translator from Ulster. Ulsterites are in a unique position when it comes to English, steeped in two flavors of Celtic languages along with English. This particular translator also spoke Irish. So sometimes, he used a Celtic interpretation of certain passages to translate into modern English. 

Geoff Chaucer, renaissance man
before the Renaissance

Then we come to Middle English, the language of Chaucer. And the language of Sir Thomas Malory. Chaucer we know because he was the BFF and brother-in-law of John of Gaunt, the ancestor of the current royal family. Chaucer was a regular renaissance man before there was an actual renaissance in England. (The plague had yet to wipe out a third of Europe.) Malory has been traced to one person, but might have been several.

Anglo-Saxon was the predominant language in Britain for 700 years, from the withdrawal of the Romans to the Norman Conquest. Strange folk those Normans. They were Vikings. But not the Vikings of Sweden, Denmark, or Norway, nor the funny-talking English of the Danelaw, in central Britain. No, these Vikings had settled in France, started speaking French, and had radical ideas like banning serfdom and writing things down. From William the Conqueror (a much better regnal nickname than William the Bastard, which he was called as Duke of Normandy) to the final days of the Plantagenets, the court spoke French. The Church spoke French. Business was conducted in French. Anglo-Saxon faded because French was more compatible with Latin, then lingua franca. (Ironically, the term refers to French, a Latin-based language.) So English had to adapt.

If you go slowly, you can probably read the original text of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's sprawling series of tales from a cross-section of English society. (And I really want to pour a glass of wine over Prioress's head, but I was born around the time the Beatles because a studio-only band.) I said almost read it. The words, when read aloud, are somewhat familiar, but the spellings are almost phonetic. It still requires a translation, but it's almost word-for-word. 

Flash forward a century to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and not only is the original text readable, it looks like Shakespeare trying for forge a few entries into The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer lived near the end of the twelfth century. Malory retold the Arthurian legend (actually, the Norman appropriation of a Saxon forgery of a Welsh legend about a guy who likely was a Roman) around 1485, according to William Caxton's note at the end. That's only seven years before Columbus took a wrong turn at Hispanola and declared Haiti to be Indonesia. (The Carib tribe found this a bit confusing as they'd never heard of the East Indies. The East Indians found this hilarious.)

Middle English arose during the Norman Conquest and became the language of peasants and merchants who didn't give a fig about their French overlords. Since, by the time of Edward III, England had few French possessions, his sons and grandsons decided an English monarch should speak, yanno, English. Chaucer codified a lot of written English, so you can blame him for the confusing "-ough" construction, a tough construct that can be understood with thorough thought. "Should," "would," "could?" Yep. That's Middle English, too. Thanks, Geoff!

But Malory's collection and retelling of Arthurian tales was published around the time some Welsh guy with a dubious claim to the throne named Henry Tudor ruled England. (And Wales. The Welsh found this hilarious.) Your eyes might cross, but you can actually read Le Morte d'Arthur in the original text. The spellings are Middle English, but aloud, it sounds more like Shakespeare. And why wouldn't it? King Hank would begat Henry VIII who would begat Elizabeth, who would hand off the throne to her cousin James. Modern English is emerging. Not there yet, but it's coming. Publishers still update the language because English from a century prior to The Tempest still challenges the modern reader.

Unlike Anglo-Saxon, Middle English's day was only 500 years long. 

Then came Shakespeare. Credit a few other writers, including Marlowe, Francis Bacon, and so on, for joining Wil in codifying English. A few apocryphal accounts suggest English varied from town to town. But Wil's plays, along with Marlowe's and a few others', were performed widely. So, as folios and quartos became available via the printing press, English started to sound roughly the same with standard spellings taking root.

Of course, even then, it was not fate accompli. The informal "thee" and "thou" disappeared (though still spoken in parts of Yorkshire and Appalachia.) Americans changed the words "happyness" and "busyness" to "happiness" and "business." Writing from Washington, William Pitt the Younger, and Thomas Paine suggest spelling was more a guideline than a set of rules. In the late nineteenth century, a movement tried to simplify spelling, which changed "plough" to "plow" and "all ready" to "already." The movement, in my humble opinion, died out too soon, but Mark Twain now gets an edit when he isn't writing in dialog since he, like many of his day, disdained formal spelling rules. (But he had a hypocritical attitude toward adjectives.) 

The point is, of course, English is an ever-evolving language. From a Germanic tongue with some Latin suggestions and the odd bit of Welsh or Cornish to a mashup of Anglo-Saxon reshaped by French, absorbing more Latin, and making up its own rules today's language, English, as many like to say, is not so much one language, but seven welded together and roving in a pack to mug other languages in a back alley. Originally, English was written in runes. The runes are gone, but now memes are creeping in. You only have to show a picture of a woman screaming at a cat to understand the gist before even reading the text.

What's next. 

^Apologies to Quentin Tarantino, but I can't use the original line in this forum.