Showing posts with label David Dean. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Dean. Show all posts

03 December 2019

No Flux Capacitors Here


When I sent out my call for stories for Crime Travel, the crime/time-travel anthology I edited--coming out this Sunday from Wildside Press--I eagerly wondered what ingenious methods of time travel the submitting authors would come up with.

They did not disappoint.

Sadly, no one used a flux capacitor and a DeLorean, the magnificent means of time travel from the wonderful eighties movie Back to the Future. (And I didn't even need a time machine to see that movie in the theater when it came out. I was in high school, just like Marty McFly.) But the authors whose stories I accepted did come up with interesting means of temporal transportation, some a bit conventional, others ... well, let's take a look.
Doc Brown built a time machine out of a DeLorean.
Photo credit: JMortonPhoto.com & OtoGodfrey.com

In addition to pods and wristbands and watch-like devices, the Crime Travel authors used: sneezing (Anna Castle has one hell of an imagination); a particle-beam weapon (because, why not?); a closet (my closets just have clothes in them--so disappointing); a clear-walled cube with barber chairs with seatbelts (gotta have safety measures when you're traveling through time); a gold circlet (it's a hair accessory and a time machine all in one; talk about making it work--Tim Gunn would be so proud); and two elevators. Two of 'em. (Linwood Barclay may have a new book with elevators that send people to their deaths, but we have elevators that send people through time!)

One method of time travel used in the book is so unusual but cool that I don't even know how to describe it outside of its story's context. Eleanor Cawood Jones ... care to take a whack at that description? And in Art Taylor's story ... was it the pendant, Art, or the candles or a mere touch of the hand that set things in motion? Maybe we should leave it for the reader to decide. And in David Dean's story, well, sometimes you just have to want something bad enough.

This wasn't the photo but it's similar. So lovely.
As for me, I used a bicycle, an all-white one that only appears on the anniversary of mistakes--things that wrongly happened in its family's past that the bicycle thinks someone needs to go back in time to fix. (Don't look at me like that. If a bicycle can travel through time, it also can think.) A few months before I wrote my story, "Alex's Choice," I saw a picture of an all-white bicycle with beautiful flowers in its basket. That image stuck with me, and I decided to use the bike in my time-travel story.

I would have thought that's all I had to tell you about my decision to turn a bicycle into a time machine until this past week when I saw a new commercial for Xfinity using the cuddly alien E.T. from the classic movie of the same name. In the ad E.T. returns to Earth to visit Elliott. The long version of the commercial (available here) shows grown-up Elliott's kids riding their bicycles into the sky with E.T., just as the kids did in the movie way back in 1982. I don't think I've seen E.T. since the summer it was out in the theater, yet that scene with the kids riding their bikes into the night sky must have stuck with me because in "Alex's Choice" the bicycle flies too, and at night to boot.

That's the beauty of fiction--be it short stories or novels, movies or TV shows--when done right, fiction can take you to another time, be it in your imagination or your memory or even to something you didn't realize you remembered. I hope the stories in Crime Travel do that for you.

The anthology's official publication date is this Sunday, December 8th, which is Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day. The book will be on sale in ebook, paperback, and hard cover. I'd be honored if you'd time travel with us to past decades and even past centuries. I'm confident you'll enjoy the ride.

And if you're in the Northern Virginia area, please come to our launch party this Sunday at Barnes and Noble, 12193 Fair Lakes Promenade Dr., in Fairfax. The event will run from 1 - 3 p.m. Authors James Blakey, Eleanor Cawood Jones, Adam Meyer, Art Taylor, and Cathy Wiley will join me to celebrate. We'll  talk about our stories and our inspirations and some of us might even dress up in the time period of our stories as we pretend to be time travelers. Eleanor dressed as a 1960s flight attendant? James as a 1950s PI? Adam as a 1980s security guard? And Cathy ... well, that's going to be a surprise you'll have to come to see. Other than actual time travel, I can't imagine what would be more fun than that.

11 January 2019

Stick to the Path? Wander A Little? (On short stories, subplots, points of view, and more...)


In a little over a week, the new semester begins at George Mason University, and I’ll be leading an Advanced Fiction Workshop for the first time—emphasis on Advanced. I’ve taught Intro to Creative Writing in years past, and more often now I’m teaching the standard Fiction Workshop—each of those courses focused on building the skills and honing the tools for students beginning to write short stories: crafting character, shaping scenes, navigating a plot through conflict, climax, and resolution. Stepping stones, each course. Walk before you run, as a friend of mine recently told me.

So how to put the Advanced into the Advanced Workshop? beyond simply admitting students who are already bringing as much skill as enthusiasm to their work?

Back over the holidays—just before Christmas, then just after the new year—a couple of questions online got me thinking about specific aspects of short story writing, how I teach students to write them, and how I write them myself. First, Amy Denton posted a question on the Sisters in Crime Guppies message board: “Depending on the length, is there enough room in a short story for a subplot?” Responses ranged widely, and the discussion was extensive, but with no clear consensus.

Then, reviewing a couple of short stories from a recent issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Catherine Dilts wrote, “A rule beginning writers encounter is that multiple points of view can't be used effectively in short stories…. How does telling a tale through more than one narrator work?” A story by fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti, “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests,” offered Dilts one example of how well that approach can succeed.

Another of our SleuthSayers family—Barb Goffman, a master of the short story herself—has a great piece of advice for writers: namely that the short story is about “one thing.” (I’ve heard other writers repeat her words and I've repeated them myself down the line.) And our good friend and former SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens and I were both big fans of Poe’s ideas about the “single effect” in the short story, that everything in a tale should be focused toward one goal, toward having one effect on the reader: "In the whole composition," Poe wrote, "there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design."

When I’ve taught workshops on short story writing, I often put Poe’s words and Barb’s on back-to-back PowerPoint slides, emphasizing the resonance between the two points. (Both authors are in good company!) And several assignments in my classes are geared toward these ends. I have students write a six-sentence story as a first day exercise, for example. When they turn in their full drafts, class discussion begins with charting out the escalation of rising conflicts (Freytag’s Triangle, not to be too academic!) and ferreting out anything that doesn’t fit. And as we move toward revision, I have them reduce those drafts down to three sentences (three sentences of three words each!) to crystallize their understanding of the story’s purpose and arc.

Focus on the “one thing” is always the goal. Efficiency along the way, that’s key. “A short story is about subtraction,” I tell them. “Cut away anything that doesn’t belong.”

And yet…

Many of the stories that have stuck with me most vividly over the years are those that maintain that focus on “one thing” and yet also stretch further beyond it too: multiple points of view, intricate time shifts, a braiding together of several other elements in addition to whatever the central plotline might be. Here’s a sample of some favorites just off the top of my head:


  • “All Through the House” by Christophe Coake, with multiple points of view and a reverse chronology
  • “Ibrahim’s Eyes” by David Dean (one more SleuthSayer!), balancing two time frames with storylines that each inform the other
  • “The Babysitter” by Robert Coover, a wild story in so many ways, veering off into fantasies, desires, and what-ifs while still circling back to what actually happened (I think)
  • “Billy Goats” by Jill McCorkle, which is more like an essay at times, drifting and contemplative—in fact, I’ve passed it off as nonfiction in another of my classes
  • How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” by Joyce Carol Oates (full title of that one is “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House Of Correction and Began My Life Over Again—Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School; Poking Around in Debris; Disgust and Curiosity; a Revelation of the Meaning of Life; a Happy Ending” so you can see how plot and structure might be going in several directions)

(All of these are about crimes—though some of them would more likely be classified mysteries than others. (Don’t make me bring up that “L” word.)) 


Even looking at my own fiction, I find that I’ve often tried to push some boundaries. My story “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants,” for example, alternates three different points of view, three characters bringing their own pasts and problems to bear on a single dinner party—with a couple of secrets hidden from the others, of course. Another recent story, “English 398: Fiction Workshop”—one I’ve talked about on SleuthSayers before—layers several kinds of storytelling, centered around a university-level writing workshop, with a variety of voices and tones in the mix. (The full title of the story makes a small nod toward Oates in fact: “English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More.”) And a story I just finished revising earlier this week, “Loose Strands,” also has three narrators, an older man and two middle school boys, their stories coming together around a schoolyard fight, colliding, combining, and ultimately (at least I’m aiming for this) inseparable.

As I commented in the discussion forum in response to Amy Denton’s question: “I often try to think about how the characters involved each have their own storyline—the storylines of their lives—and how the interactions between characters are the intersections of those storylines. And I challenge myself to try to navigate a couple of those storylines as their own interweaving narrative arcs, each with its own resolution, where somehow the end of the story ties up each thread.”  
Maybe the idea of multiple points of view and subplots collapse together in several ways, thinking again of Catherine Dilts’ review of Rob’s story and of another, “Manitoba Postmortem” by S. L. Franklin. And in my workshops at Mason, I’ve used Madison Smartt Bell’s terrific book, Narrative Design, to explore modular storytelling, experimenting with shifts in chronology and points of view, layering several strands of story together. Some students catch on quickly, love the opportunities provided by this kind of storytelling. (But as beginning writers, it’s important—as I stressed—for them to build a firm foundation first in storytelling elements, techniques, and more straightforward structures. Walk those stepping stones first.) 

So in thinking about the discussion Amy’s question sparked and the review Catherine wrote and my teaching and my writing, I find myself pulled in a couple of different directions: committed to Barb’s (and Poe’s!) ideas about the short story, always striving to stick as close to the core armature of a story as I can, but also occasionally testing those boundaries, pushing them to see what happens.

So… some questions for readers here and for my SleuthSayer buddies as well: How would you answer the questions above about subplots and multiple points of view? How closely do yourself stick to the idea of the single-effect in the short story—to the story being about one thing? How do you balance those demands of the form with interests or ambitions in other directions?

As for my advanced fiction workshop ahead… I’m still going to keep the students concentrating on the “one thing” that’s the core of their stories—focus and efficiency always, and credit again to Barb. But as much as a workshop should be about learning the rules and following best practices, it should equally be a place to take some risks and have some fun. And so I also want them to play with structure and storytelling, to stretch their talents wherever they want, and to see where it takes them.

Any suggestions for the course—those are welcome too!



20 November 2018

Putting the Happy in Happy Thanksgiving


It's two days until Thanksgiving, and I bet some of you are stressed. Maybe it's because you're cooking and ... it's the first time you're hosting, and you want it to be perfect. Or your mother-in-law is coming, and your turkey never lives up to hers. Or the weatherman is predicting snow on Thanksgiving and you're afraid that your relatives won't show up ... or maybe that they will.
Or maybe your stress stems from being a guest. Are you an introvert, dreading a day of small talk with the extended family? A picky eater, going to the home of a gourmet who makes food way to fancy for your tastes? Or are you a dieter, going to the home of someone who likes to push food and you're likely to spend the day going, "no thanks, no rolls for me," "no thanks, no candied yams for me," "no thanks, no cookies for me," ... "dear lord, lady, what part of no thanks don't you get?"

No matter who you are, or what your situation, Thanksgiving can cause stress. The best way to deal with stress is laughter. And that's where I come in. So set down that baster and get ready to smile, because I've got some fictional characters who've had a worse Thanksgiving than you.

Paul and Jamie Buchman from Mad About You
 

They tried so hard to make the perfect dinner ... only to have their dog, Murray, eat the turkey.


Rachel Green from Friends


All she wanted was to cook a nice dessert for her friends ... only to learn too late that she wasn't supposed to put beef in the trifle. It did not taste good.


The Gang from Cheers 


Those poor Thanksgiving orphans. They waited hours for a turkey that just wouldn't cook ... only to then suffer the indignity of being involved in a food fight. (For anyone who's ever read my story "Biscuits, Carats, and Gravy," this Cheers episode was the inspiration.)


Debra Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond


She was determined to have a happy Thanksgiving despite her overly critical mother-in-law ... only to drop her uncooked turkey on the floor three times before flinging it into the oven. Yum.



Arthur Carlson from WKRP in Cincinnati




He wanted to create the greatest promotion ever, inviting the public to a shopping mall and providing free turkeys ... live ones ... only to learn too late that turkeys don't fly so when you toss them out of a helicopter from 2,000 feet in the air they hit the ground like sacks of wet cement.


Garner Duffy from "Bug Appétit"


All this con man wanted for Thanksgiving was to eat some good food at his mark's home before stealing her jewelry ... only to learn too late that her mother is an ... inventive cook. ("Bug Appétit" is my story in the current (November/December) issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. I'm so pleased to have heard from several readers who enjoyed it, including one who called it "hilarious.")

So, dear readers, I hope you're smiling and feeling less stressed. If you'd like to read my story, you could pick up a copy of the current EQMM, available in some Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million bookstores, as well as in an electronic version. You can find more information about getting the magazine here. The issue also has a story from SleuthSayer alum David Dean that I'm sure you'll enjoy.) As to the TV episodes mentioned above, I bet you can find them all online.

Until next time, please share your favorite funny turkey day story (fictional or real) in the comments. Happy Thanksgiving!

15 May 2017

The Ties That Bind


  Family Fortnight +   Today, the 15th of May, marks the International Day of Families. For the past two weeks, our mystery writers have written of kith and kin, of loved ones and dear ones, and we have more articles to go plus some follow-ups. We’re happy to invite David and daughter to celebrate this world holiday. Settle back and enjoy!

by David Dean and Bridgid Dean

Today is International Family Day, an occasion that I was unaware of until Leigh Lundin made me so. He also asked if I would consider writing an article on the subject. Being an internationally recognized expert on the subject of families, this was agreeable to me.

Most of us have families, whether through blood, adoption, or, in some cases, through convenient, and hopefully beneficial, social arrangements. I wouldn't be going out on a limb if I also added that most of us have, or have had, conflicting feelings about these same families. It's safe to say that much of the stress, anguish, and worry we experience in our lives comes as a result of these unruly, and often ungovernable, social units. Growing up we can hardly contain our exuberance when thinking of that blessed day when we, too, will be adults like our awful parents… and free! Then, for reasons both unclear and diabolical, we finally do leave home, find a mate, produce children, and become truly awful parents ourselves. Maybe not every moment of every day (we do have to sleep after all), but in the invisible yet meticulously maintained ledger of infractions kept by all children, we are judged sadly lacking in all the important categories. Clearly, the only thing learned from our own awful parents was to reproduce their sad failings. And then there's adolescence…

When children enter into this infernal stage the very gates of family hell swing wide emitting foul odors and spewing forth imps and devils, artfully, and awfully, disguised as your own issue. Entering into this dark region slays and tramples all remaining hopes but one– that someday, and God willing, someday soon, those children of the damned will also be visited with adulthood and leave the family manse… if it still stands!

And yet, for reasons that are mostly unreasonable, we find ourselves dreading that day, as well, and saddened when it finally does happen; comically nostalgic for the days we were a young family. Even those children turned adults, having now tasted the dubious freedoms they once longed for, purr like contented kittens during visits home. It has even been remarked by my children that their mother and I have grown more intelligent and reasonable with the years, a possibility none of them had foreseen.

So how did we weather the tumultuous years that we now look back so fondly to? There were two methods employed to save us from the lengthy prisons terms we all contemplated from time to time. The first was a dog. Not just any dog, but a Welsh Corgi. We are a Celtic-derived family and therefore must have a Celtic canine. Silke, as she came to be called, fit right in, being both untrainable and demanding. She was just as uncompromising as the rest of us, only probably smarter. Yet, the kids adored her, and their mother and I were roped in as well.

Corgi
In a very Celtic way Silke became our sin-eater. No matter how badly we behaved toward one another, she was always available to be stroked and petted, somehow soothing and calming us in the process of tending to her unending need for affection. By being so needy and demanding, she drew us out of our own selfishness. And because she was inadvertently comical and endearing, she was a subject we could always talk about. Silke was a movable conflict-free zone.

But it is the second method--reading, that is more germane to this blog site. The family I grew up in did not often indulge in the written word. My parents were not well educated and, having grown up working, had never had the leisure time for recreational reading. It was my good fortune, and through their hard work, that I was provided with that very luxury– a gift beyond rubies. Not that they encouraged me to read, but seeing that I had a knack for it, they did not oppose it. In fact, when they observed that I was becoming a voracious reader of stories, novels, newspapers, and comic books, they were mildly amused, if somewhat cautious, being unsure of the results of such indiscriminate mental activity.

At greater family gatherings it was sometimes pointed out with a certain pride that I read a lot of books. My relatives' reaction to such an announcement ran the gamut from mild astonishment as to why anyone would do such a thing, to concern for my mental health and spiritual well-being. Still, I pressed on, and many years later looked about me one day to find that all of my own progeny had picked up books from somewhere and were reading them. It must have been the silence and unaccustomed peacefulness of my suddenly unfamiliar surroundings that tipped me off. I had failed to notice the start of this phenomenon and was, like my relatives before me, mildly astonished at the development. Could it be that my children and I shared some common thread beside DNA, I asked myself. Was it possible?

Like an animal trainer that's been bitten and mauled, I proceeded with caution, gently inquiring as to the subjects of their readings, while sliding books of my own choosing through the bars of their theoretical cages. Mostly, after a sniff or two, these were rejected– though not with snarls or bared fangs, just shifted back to me without comment. I was encouraged and found that with patience and literary forbearance we soon began to use the spoken word to discuss authors and stories, even progressing to the ideas and inspirations that might have motivated them. And all of this without heated argument or emotional eruptions! I questioned my own sanity. Could this really be happening? My wife assured me that it was all real.

Julian and J. Joyce in Dublin
Oh, how I wish I could say that the Dean household's serenity was nevermore disturbed by a voice raised in anger, or shrill with indignation. Alas for all you hopeful young parents out there, it cannot be done. We devolved on more occasions than I would willingly recall… but now there were bright oases that we arrived at from time to time in our family journey, like restful, green isles scattered across a turbulent, grey sea. Just when it seemed that my mutinous crew would finally toss me overboard, we would wash up onto a wide, warm beach and peace be restored with the opening of a book.

Many years later, I still discuss stories, books, and writers with my adult children. And it's rare I come away from visits to their homes without a book selected from their shelves.

Our son, Julian, is turning his love of reading into a profession, having just been accepted into Notre Dame University's PH.d program for literature. He will be specializing in Irish works. It seems Ireland has produced some decent authors over the years. Who knew?

My eldest girl, Tanya, still waxes nostalgic over our reading of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when she was but a child.

Her sister, Bridgid, not only retained her appetite for literature, but has become a writer, as well, having produced her first novella, The Girl In The Forest. (You'll hear from her in just a moment.)

So here you have it, on this International Family Day, all of my wisdom and experience contained in these two exhortations: Get a pet and scatter books about like landmines! It worked for us and could for you.



Bridgid’s View of Things

While it is hard to argue with the notion that my parents have grown more reasonable over the years since we've left home (probably because they didn't have us kids around, irritating them to distraction!) I would like to point out that I always thought they were intelligent. This point was particularly impressed upon me when, at the age of eight, I heard that my dad was going to have a story published for the first time.

My sister was already in college and my brother was only five, but I was at home and just old enough to be in the midst of really discovering reading for myself. I recall eight as the age when the books no longer had pictures, becoming, instead, thin novels with exciting covers, full of amazing plot twists. They were peopled with characters that made you wonder who you might one day be, what you might do in those unfathomable years ahead. I was probably in the midst of devouring yet another John Bellairs book when I heard the news of the my dad's first story being published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magzine. And, as though someone had opened a window in the house, a fresh breeze scented with possibility wafted through, rifling the pages of my book.

This was also the year in school when we first had to keep a journal as an assignment, writing for some designated period of each day. It soon became apparent that I loved to write; my classmates would gladly close their notebooks once they had completed the minimum requirement but I kept going, filling page after page, stopping only when the teacher said we had to move on to something else. Later in the year, while talking about occupations, my teacher said she could see me becoming a writer. Right then and there I decided that that this was exactly what I wanted to do. Quite thoughtfully, my dad had just begun proving that this was an achievable goal for readers like us.

As my dad mentioned, books were always present in our house. Book shelves were stocked like bomber pantries, the library was visited twice a week, and favorite books were passed between us like sacred gifts. My sister's gift of the Hobbit, decades later, still sits on my shelf, read many times. From my dad I got Graham Greene, from my mother, Jane Austen. To my brother I bequeathed Anne Rice, though he might not care to admit it to his fellow doctoral students.

Happy International Family Day
Even when distance or time kept us from discussing a book that we had shared, the act of sharing it always felt significant. My older sister is the fantasy reader amongst us, with the Hobbit she offered me a doorway into a world to which I had not yet entered, but one that I knew was very significant to her.

Books felt, sometimes, like keys in this way. Keys to the inner worlds of our family members, keys to what they loved, and a means of sharing in it. Books have provided a common ground, a shared interest, and, at times, something else to argue about. What could be more significant?

Well… okay. Maybe a Corgi.

20 January 2017

Ending Before the Ending


by Art Taylor

Earlier this week, Robert Lopresti posted his list of the best short stories of 2016—a fine slate of stories, and it was great to see a couple of my own favorites in there as well, along with some stories I didn't know and now need to track down.

One of those stories—"The Last Blue Glass" by fellow SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens in Alfred Hitchock's Mystery Magazine—has been on my mind recently, as has another story by one of our group—"Stepmonster" by Barb Goffman in the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning—not solely because of how much I enjoyed and admired them (I did, and I do!) but because of a structural approach that each story shares. (Each story is linked so you can enjoy and admire for yourself!)

In several ways, the stories might seem to have little in common. "The Last Blue Glass" is a much longer story, covering nine years; it's presented in the third person, from the perspective of a woman who goes from newlywed wife to troubled widow; and it is fairly traditionally told, summary and scene gliding one into the other to navigate those long years and the moments key to the story. In contrast, "The Stepmonster" is narrated in first-person and takes place over a fairly short amount of time, two short scenes, and with a twist, one scene commenting on the other in ways that I won't divulge so that readers can enjoy the twist themselves.

But while the overall structures and time-frames and points of view are different, each story centers on a moment of revenge—though even as I write that, I recognize that center might well be a misleading word, since the "central" action of each story isn't at the center of its tale; in fact (small spoiler alert?), those moments of revenge never actually occur within the confines of the stories themselves. It's this latter similarity that struck me as I reflected on the stories—how each story draws to its end by looking ahead, past the final word of the story and into the (figurative) blankness beyond, where the next bit of the drama, arguably the most dramatic bit, will actually happen.

The structure of Barb's story is unique because that forecasting of the drama circles back on itself, as you'll see when you read it. What happens in the beginning of the story foreshadows what will likely occur next. And in Bonnie's case, the final scenes sketch out the narrator's intentions and how the plans should play out. But likely and should are key words here, and the authors' decisions in each case not to dramatize these scenes allow the reader's imagination a greater degree of involvement—allowing the story to linger on in that imagination, the events to spool ahead in the reader's mind beyond the so-called "end" of the story proper.

A few years back, I wrote a short essay to help debut the then-new blog "Something Is Going to Happen" from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine—and I took the blog's title as a starting point for my thoughts on open or unfinished endings, where the something that is going to happen next is hinted at but not fully dramatized. In my post, subtitled "Perched on the Edge of What Happens Next" (and linked here), I talk about a couple of Stanley Ellin stories I admire and particularly "The Moment of Decision," certainly one of my all-time favorite stories, which (another small spoiler!) ends dramatically just before the moment in the title, leaving the reader both to wonder what decision is reached and to ponder what decision he or she would make in similar circumstances (a question which has provoked great discussion in my classes when I've taught this story, I should stress).

I won't revisit every point of that post, but reading and studying Bonnie's and Barb's stories reveal to me again of the importance of structuring your storytelling (as much as your plot, not the same thing) and of the power in handing over some of that process to the readers themselves, drawing them in, involving them if not even making them complicit (and I'll stress again that each of these stories is about revenge).

And yet, looking back over that post for EQMM and some of the stories I sampled there, and looking at Barb's and Bonnie's stories, I also realize that there are a couple of different ways that "ending before the ending" might play out—with different ways of involving the reader and different effects on their experience.

One approach, like Ellin's, is to leave something fundamental unanswered and some aspect of the ending more fully unresolved. While I would argue—vigorously—that Ellin's story isn't "unfinished" (a much longer and more detailed post), there are clearly two dramatically different choices that could be made by the narrator, and each choice could then branch out into several different outcomes, depending on other factors in the story. In short, that blank page beyond the final sentence is filled with unanswered questions and possibilities; an enterprising writer could, by my count, pursue at least four distinctly different combinations of events, each with their own stakes, to describe what happens next. (Note to any enterprising writers: Please don't try to write the ending. The story is really fine like it is.)

In a similar vein, Ed Gorman's "Out There in the Darkness" (which I also mentioned in the original EQMM post) ends with a looming sense of dread but little certainty about what's ahead—a character "waiting" but will the thing he's waiting for actually transpire? There's little certainty how the rest of his story will play out, but the sense of doom and dread are palpable—more so because we the reader share it, perched on the edge of the unknown.

The second approach is to wrap up the story more fully, pointing to what's ahead without dramatizing it actually happening. In this case, the reader's imagination still fills in some of the blanks but in a more focused way. At the end of David Dean's fabulous "Ibrahim's Eyes" (available as part of EQMM's podcast series), there's little doubt about what will happen mere seconds after the final words of the story, so the reader doesn't need to wonder or ponder over unanswered questions; instead, what the reader does is conjure up those next moments for him/herself—engaged more fully in that process, I would argue, than if David had simply written the next lines. Pulling back, letting the reader fill in to complete the story, is here too a powerful move—without the uncertainty of the first approach I mentioned above (inviting the reader's intellectual engagement, particularly in the Ellin story) but with perhaps a greater emotional involvement.

Barb's and Bonnie's stories lie closer to this latter approach, I think—sketching out, as I said, the events that will follow, the characters' plans/expectations for what's next. Obviously those plans might not play out exactly as these characters expect but the level of uncertainty there is lesser than in a more open ending and the effect is different, ultimately bringing the reader emotionally closer to the characters, even complicit in their plan.

Speaking of sketching, I feel like I'm still only sketching out some of my thoughts on this topic—even here taking a second try at refining my thoughts on this idea. But in the spirit of leaving endings open, I hope there's room for readers here to do their own thinking on the topic—and again, I hope I've spurred you to read these fine stories themselves. 

31 October 2016

At Last


Today is October 31, 2016--Halloween.  Also known as Allhalloween, All Hallows Eve, and All Saints Eve, Halloween begins the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembrance of the dead.
To most of us, Halloween is a holiday characterized by the dispensing of candy to costumed young people who threaten, "Trick or treat."  Other traditions include costume contests and parades.  When I taught elementary school, teachers and parents worked together to hold Halloween carnivals for students.  Before my retirement, these changed to Fall Festivals, and scary costumes (such as vampires, werewolves, skeletons, zombies, and this year--clowns) were forbidden because some people felt that Halloween was a celebration of witchcraft.

The traditions of Halloween include decorations such as black cats and pumpkins carved into jack-o-lanterns as well as activities like apple bobbing, pranks,  bonfires, and divination games.  In some parts of the world, Christian observances include church services and lighting candles on graves.

What accounts for the popularity of the non-religious aspects of Halloween? I believe it's because humans like to be scared--so long as what frightens us isn't real.  We might think that fall and Halloween would amplify the appeal of spookiness, but horror is a genre that transcends season.

How does the title "At Last" relate to Halloween and the horror genre?  Recently I've been doing a lot of writers' workshops in South Carolina libraries.  One of my most popular is entitled "A Late Start." The topic is writing as a second career after my retirement including disadvantages of waiting so long to begin writing fiction as well as the obvious advantages of greater maturity and vaster experiences. The workshops include tips on speeding up the process of successful writing and publishing.  The story of my first horror book proves that I don't always follow my own advice when it comes to fast writing and quick publication.

"At Last" would work as well if this blog referred to my first novel in 2007 as it does now to my tenth book released this month, but Leigh Lundin didn't invite me to return to SleuthSayers to summarize the workshop.  I'm here to tell you about my newest book and why "At Last" is a perfect title for this column.

The HORROR of JULIE BATES began several years ago as A Midnight Dreary and morphed into Something to Fear.  Both David Dean and Dixon Hill critiqued the manuscript during one of those phases, and I incorporated several of their suggestions. After numerous rewrites, my agent accepted it, but held back a year before pitching it.  Berkley was interested and made two suggestions.  Pardon my unladylike expression, but I busted my butt to work out the changes and dashed it off back to my agent in two weeks.  I didn't hear anything.

Sure, I wanted to push for a response, but we all know that it's not a good idea to put pressure on agents or editors.  After months and months, I asked the agent to touch base with the interested editor at Berkley.  I almost had another heart attack when I received an apology from my agent because he had forgotten to send her the manuscript revised to her requests.

Meanwhile, there had been major changes in the publishing world. To make a long story short (literally in this case), it was too late.

I began querying new agents and received some requests for the complete manuscript, but when Darren Foster at Odyssey South Publishing said, "Let us have it," I jumped at the chance.  And so, ladies and gentlemen, at last, my first horror novel is now available.  Here's the back copy:

                                 Who knew Columbia, South Carolina, could be so scary?

Julie Bates discovers a corpse in front of the Assembly Street post office.  Arson destroys her home the same day, but Julie's story is not a mystery.  It's horror--southern style.  Police officer Nate Adams thinks the killer who raped and murdered Julie's mother the year before is stalking Julie, but Julie's tormentor is not human.  The well-known ghosts of South Carolina barely skim the surface of the evil that awaits Julie Bates.  Move over, Amityville.  Columbia, South Carolina, is right there with you on the scale of terror.

How does a writer transition from cozyesque to horror? The preface explains:

When a red-haired woman approached me at a book-signing, I expected her to ask me to autograph one of my own cozy mysteries.  Instead, she asked me to write a book for her.  I went into my usual spiel that she could do a better job of putting her story on paper than I, but we agreed to meet in the coffee shop after the signing.  Writers are frequently approached to write or co-write someone else's story. Most of the time, we decline politely, but there was something about this mysterious stranger that made me hesitate to dismiss her so quickly,

The HORROR of JULIE BATES is that woman's story.  I spent many, many hours recording Julie Bates' tale and many more days and nights scaring myself as I wrote her story from her point of view, changing only names. The occasional third-person chapters were added after I was fortunate enough to obtain Richard Arthur's journal.

I have already received several emails questioning, "Did you make up this story or did a red-haired woman really tell it to you?"  I can honestly say the story came from a red-haired woman.

Long-time SleuthSayer readers know that I've jumped genre from cozies in the past when I wrote the thriller KUDZU RIVER.  I have no idea where I'll land next, but in the meantime,

Until we meet again, take care of … you!

12 September 2016

Father and Daughter Act


by David and Bridgid Dean

Part One: Father Knows Best

If I had to choose a few adjectives with which to describe my life, it might be these: fortunate…blessed…lucky…providential. It’s not that I haven’t had a few set-backs and trials along the way—I wouldn’t be human if that weren’t true, but I have a lot to be grateful for—I have Bridgid… my daughter.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for her siblings, too: older sister, Tanya, and younger brother, Julian. But, Bridgid and I, over the years, have forged a writing connection. I’ve shared a reading connection with all of them, but Bridgid evolved into a writer and that, as the Wizard says, “Is a horse of a different color.”

In order to properly train her for her chosen profession I’ve required that she read and edit nearly everything I’ve written over the past decade. This was not done, as some may suspect, because I am one of the cheapest SOB’s on the planet, but in order to provide depth to her appreciation of fine literature (mine) and round out her college education. The fact that her editorial eye virtually removed the element of chance in my story acceptance ratio is neither here nor there. I would have done her this fatherly kindness in any event. Plus, I did pay for that education. Now she’s gone and penned a novella.

Yes, for those of you who suspected this was going to be a shameless plug for mylatest non-selling novel, you were wrong. It’s a shameless plug for Bridgid’s book, The Girl In The Forest.

No, it’s not crime fiction like her old man pens, but it does contain intrigue, shady characters, and betrayal. Something we can all relate to. My daughter’s story is set in a world in which the border between reality and myth blurs and no one you meet is exactly whom they may appear to be. It’s fast-moving, readable, and features a very sympathetic heroine. As to how it came about, well, that’s a story I’ll leave for Bridgid to tell, as it’s as unique as the book she’s written. Oh, by the way, I finally returned the favor by helping to edit this, her first published work.

I also want to thank mighty Leigh Lundin for suggesting this post in the first place. Thanks, Leigh!



Part Two: When Life Serves You Lemons…

by Bridgid Dean

Bridgid Dean
Bridgid Dean
The idea behind The Girl in the Forest was born of a rather unfortunate event. In August of 2011, shortly after we were married, my husband and I had a tree fall on our house. Not a limb, and not a small tree, but a massive oak.

We were at a dinner party at my in-laws when it happened; when we drove around the corner and saw our little hundred year old house, half smushed, my Volvo buckled under a thousand pounds of oak, I could only laugh. A crazed, reality-is-standing-on-its-head kind of laugh.

My husband went inside and found the house full of gas. We waited in the back yard for the fire department to arrive, our cat Zelda looking from us, to the tree, to the house, as though asking, "Do you see this?"

After the fire department turned off the gas connection my husband drove us back to his parents' house. We spent the next ten weeks living in their guest room before we acknowledged that this process was going to take a really long time, and we'd better rent something. In the end it was almost a year before our house was fixed and we were able to return home.

Volvo
smushed
Those first two months were incredibly stressful, but things began to look up when we found our rental, the little cottage in the woods. We'd never lived outside of town before- we loved it!

Our landlord had a grand old home on what felt like hundreds of acres, with three rental cottages on the property. Ours was a five hundred square foot cottage surrounded by trees. It had a green metal roof, wisteria climbing the porch railings, and was so small as to be almost one room. We slept in a loft that looked out over the great room and the huge wood stove. As night fell you could sit on the porch and watch the sun set over the Blue Ridge Mountains, linger while the stars came out, then hurry inside when the coyotes started to howl.

The combination of natural beauty, isolation- and even something about the self-contained quality of a house that small- had me, before long, thinking about fairy tales. In so many of them, there is something magical about the cottage in the woods. I suddenly felt I was experiencing a bit of this first hand. Inspired by the surroundings, (and with the peace and quiet to really think!) I began to write the first draft of “The Girl in the Forest.”

This novella is a modern retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story, set it in a town not unlike Charlottesville, VA, where I currently live. The protagonist, Jolie, is new to the town, having moved there after her mother's death. She feels alienated and lonely, friendless at a crappy job, with only a cat for company. The recurring nightmares keep her from sleeping well, and she eventually gets fired from her job. At a bookstore she meets Jamie, a strange man with a past who secures her a job at his friend, Greta's, bakery. As Jolie starts to learn the ropes at this new job, the questions stack up quickly: What are Jamie and Greta planning? Who is Greta running from? And what is the creature that Jolie sees in her dream each night? And, perhaps most puzzling, why is Jolie the only one who can see the cottage in the woods?

It was not until I'd finished writing the fourth draft and handed it to my dad that I realized I'd written something of a Fantasy/Mystery crossover. You might think, after editing so many of my dad's stories, that a fact like this would not sneak up on me. Yet somehow it did, in the same way, I hope, that the inevitable conclusion to my story will sneak up on the unsuspecting readers. Like a coyote, or a wolf, or some other hungry creature, waiting in the shadows of the forest.



Thank you to Leigh Lundin and the SleuthSayers audience for the opportunity to tell my story-it's been a privilege!

14 June 2016

Warning! There's a Storm Coming!


We've all heard the famous advice--never start your story with the weather. Horrors! The weather! Run for your lives!
Actually, if a story began with a storm brewing so horrifically that people were actually running for their lives, that would be a good start. It would have action. Drama. It would draw the reader in.

But then there's the other way to start with weather, and it's the reason for the weather taboo: the dreaded story that begins with tons and tons of description, including about the weather, but no action. Imagine: Jane Doe awoke. She stretched her shoulders, looked out the window, and relished the bright rays of sunshine streaming down from the cloudless blue sky. It would be a lovely day, Jane knew. The high should be about seventy-five degrees, breezy. No chance of showers. Maybe she would barbecue tonight. It shouldn't be humid out there. It should just be delightful.

By this point, your eyes are probably glazing over. Or you want to strangle Jane for being so boring. When you use the weather this way, setting your scene yet having nothing happening, you are basically asking your reader to find something else to read. Anything else. Cereal box, anyone?

Yet imagine another opening to Jane's day: Thunder clapped, rattling the windows and scaring Jane Doe awake. Holy hell. Thunder in January? She trudged to the window. It was snowing like crazy out there. They hadn't predicted snow, but there had to be more than two feet on the ground. Jane's stomach sunk. She was alone and really low on food. Meals for Wheels would never be able to make it in this weather. Not for days, probably. Maybe a week. Or
more. She should have known something like this might happen again after the blizzard of 2010. She should have prepared. What would she do when the food ran out? What? Just then, her bird started chirping. Arthur. Sweet, friendly, beautiful Arthur. She loved him, just as she had loved Squeaky back in 2010. He had tasted unexpectedly good.

Now you may be grossed out, but you certainly shouldn't be bored. And that's the point: if you use the weather in order to propel the story forward, then it's a good use. With this idea in mind, two years ago, Donna Andrews, Marcia Talley, and I put out a call for stories for Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning. We told the members of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime to come up with crime short stories that put the weather front and center. And, boy, did they come through.

Stories were chosen by a team of seasoned authors (former SleuthSayer David Dean, current SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens, and Sujata Massey). The choices were made blindly, meaning the story pickers didn't know who had written each submission. Donna, Marcia, and I then began our editing process (we take a long time with the stories--they all go through multiple drafts).

Finally, the book came out in the last week of April. It has fifteen stories featuring crime mixed in with rain storms, blizzards, hurricanes, sleet, and even a shamal. You want a murder during a white-out at a ski resort. We have that. How about a locked-room murder mystery at a zoo's snake house, where people are stuck inside while a storm rages outside? We've got that too. We have stories of revenge and stories of guilt. Stories featuring characters on the fringes of society and stories featuring well-off expats. And in all the stories, the weather sets the mood and propels the action in ways you won't expect. That's the way to use the weather, as a vehicle to move the plot forward and set the mood.

I use the weather both ways in my story in the book, "Stepmonster," in which a heartbroken, enraged daughter seeks revenge long after her father's death while a storm rages on. The pouring rain sets a dark atmosphere, as the object of revenge cowers in fear, and the thunder offers a nice cover for certain ... sounds.

I'd love to hear about your favorite books or stories that put the weather to good use. Please share in the comments. And Storm Warning authors, please drop in to let the readers know about your stories.

And, finally, I'd like to give a shout-out to fellow SleuthSayers who were nominated for the Macavity Award on Saturday: Art Taylor for best first mystery for On the Road with Del and Louise, and B.K. Stevens for best short story for "A Joy Forever" from the March 2015 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. (I'm also up for best short story--yay!--for my story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" from the January/February 2015 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.) You can read B.K.'s story here. And you can read my story by clicking here. I'm trying to get links for all the stories together for Janet Rudolph, the woman behind the Macavity Award. I'll let you all know if and when that happens.




14 December 2015

See You In The Funny Papers


by Jim Doherty and David Dean

There’s an old saying that goes, “See you in the funny papers,” which, I have to admit, I never quite got. I mean, how are you going to see me in the funny papers? I’m a real, live, three-dimensional sort of guy. I must also be a literal kind of guy because now I find that the impossible has happened—I’m in the funny papers! That’s right. I find that I’ve been reduced (some might say enhanced) to two dimensions and basking in the reflected glory of none other than that venerable crime fighter, Dick Tracy! Lest you doubt, I’ve attached proof of my brief appearance.


There, see me? I’m the thin dude in the Hall Of Fame box. It appears that amongst Dick’s many skills and talents at detection, he has also honed an appreciation of fine crime writing—mine… amongst others it seems. Can you believe he also honored some dude named Wambaugh in a previous issue? What kind of name is that for a writer? Get a clue, Wambaugh.

When I got the news it was via a forwarded email from Janet Hutchings at Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It being a weekday, I was hard at work hammering out my next story when, during a brief lull in my creativity I checked all my social and communication media. Half an hour later, I’m reading a very kind note from a police sergeant named Jim Doherty telling me of my inclusion in Dick Tracy’s Hall of Fame. He had also attached the comic strip. Jim, as I learned, is the police technical advisor to the comic strip’s creative team.

To say that I was blown away would be putting it mildly. Having spent a big part of my adulthood as both a cop and a writer, this inclusion rang all the bells and blew all the whistles for me. I loved it. And it’s great fun to boot.

But that’s enough about me. Though you probably couldn’t tell, I intended my little victory dance to serve as an introduction to my new friend and colleague, Sgt. Jim Doherty, the person most responsible for my induction into the Hall of Fame. On my honor (which is now unquestionable), Jim and I have never met, and he only knew of me through my writing. It was he that submitted my name and bio to the editors, and it was on his recommendation that I was accepted. May his name be sung in the mead halls of Valhalla forevermore.

Jim, as mentioned earlier, is both a police sergeant and technical advisor, but he is also a writer of crime fiction himself. So, I thought it might be interesting if he shared with us a bit about his own background, as well as his relationship with the square-jawed Detective Tracy and his crime-busting comic strip. I think you’ll find it interesting.



Thank you for the introduction, David.

It might seem odd to be discussing a comic strip character on a blog devoted to the mystery genre, until one considers that Dick Tracy’s as important a figure to crime fiction as he is to the comics medium.

Leave aside the obvious fact that, with the exception of Sherlock Holmes himself, Tracy’s the most famous detective in any fictional medium. Leave aside that, like Holmes, he’s a multi-media star, successful in movies, novels, TV and radio, stage productions, and just about any other story-telling medium you can imagine.

Forget about all that and look at him:

The rugged features. The snap brim fedora. The trench coat. Comics are a visual medium, after all, and that being the case, it’s clear that our whole idea of what a hard-boiled sleuth is supposed to look like comes to us direct from Tracy. Every time we think of how cool Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Alan Ladd, Jack Webb, or Dick Powell look in that particular ensemble, we’re admiring a look that Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould, invented, or at least connected to crime fiction, as indelibly as Sidney Paget connected the deerstalker cap and the Inverness cape in the pages of The Strand Magazine.

And imagine about how many people must have been introduced to crime fiction through Tracy. Most mystery fans, at least in the US, will probably mention the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew when asked how they first got started, but, how many of them, even before they knew how to read, thrilled to the four-color adventures of the most famous of all fictional cops. I know one of my fondest memories is of my dad reading Dick Tracy to me years before I even knew how to read. Aside from turning my into a mystery fan, and eventually a mystery writer, Tracy also clearly had an influence on my choice of day job (though, being Irish, and having a lot of law enforcement types in my family Tracy was, perhaps, not the only influence).

I was fortunate enough to get involved in with Tracy professionally, or at least semi-professionally, when two guys I knew through the Internet, both of them well-known comics professionals, decided to start a web page called Plainclothes as a tribute to the famed law enforcement icon. (When Chester Gould first conceived the strip, he called it Plainclothes Tracy).

Mike Curtis, who had briefly been in law enforcement himself (he once served as a deputy in the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office), started in the business writing scripts for Harvey Comics about character like Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich, and Wendy the Good Little Witch. Later he would form his own company, Shandafa Comics. Though an admirer of Dick Tracy, Mike’s first love is really Superman, and he owns one of the biggest collections of memorabilia devoted to the Man of Steel in the country.

He’d formed a friendship with legendary comics artist Joe Staton, who, since he got his first professional job in 1971, has been so active in the business it’s easier to list the characters he hasn’t drawn, than those he has. From Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern for DC to the Hulk, Captain America, Phoenix, and the Silver Surfer for Marvel, to say nothing of work for just about every other comic book company in the US, including Charlton, Western, Comico, First, etc., etc. etc.

The one character Joe always longed to draw, but never got a chance to, was Dick Tracy. Or make that rarely got a chance to. He’d done a comic book story for Disney in the early ‘90’s to tie in with the Warren Beatty film, but it never got published due to the rights being clouded. And he’d done some covers for books collecting reprints of the old strips. But he’d never gotten a chance to do the strip, or even a regular comic book series.

Mike had heard that Dick Locher, the Pulitzer-winning artist/writer who had been drawing the strip since 1983, and writing it since 2005, might be retiring.

He suggested that he and Joe do the website, not only as a tribute to the character, but as a sort of high-tech audition, in case Tribune Content Agency, the syndicate that distributed the strip, really was looking for someone to replace Locher. The main attraction on the Plainclothes website was an original Tracy comics story, done in daily newspaper strip format. This was accompanied by articles, original artwork, and prose stories about the character.

Knowing that I was a cop, a Tracy admirer, and a mystery writer, Mike invited me to contribute two prose stories featuring Tracy. I was at the point where I was actually getting paid to write stuff. I’d had two books published, a collection of true-crime articles, Just the Facts, which included a piece called “Blood for Oil,” about the Osage Indian Murders of the 1920’s which won a Spur from the Western Writers of America, and a study of the creator of iconic private eye Phil Marlowe, Raymond Chandler – Master of American Noir. Writing for free seemed, on the surface, like a step back.

On the other hand, my only novel, An Obscure Grave, though a finalist for a British Crime Writers Debut Dagger Award, was still unpublished, and how many chances would I ever get to write about my favorite detective?

It turned out that the Tribune folks were aware of us. And, though our use of the character could be construed as a copyright violation, they were inclined to look at it as an audition, just as we hoped. It turned out that Mr. Locher really was retiring. On the basis of the work displayed in Plainclothes, Mike was hired to write the actual strip, Joe to illustrate it. Mike invited me to be the police technical advisor, since I’m still an active cop, and I live in Chicago (the unstated, but obvious, setting for the strip).

The first person to have that job was a fellow named Al Valanis, a respected detective in the Chicago Police who has the distinction of being one of the first forensic sketch artists in the history of law enforcement. He created a new feature in Tracy that’s become almost as familiar to fans as Tracy’s two-way wrist communication device. “Crimestoppers’ Textbook,” a panel at the beginning of every Sunday strip that gave safety tips for cops, crime prevention tips for citizens, and the occasional pithy editorial comment. As the new technical advisor, I was also to write the copy for “Crimestoppers.”

A few months into the gig, I had an idea for a new feature that would occasionally replace “Crimestoppers.” A feature that would profile a noteworthy real-life police officer, to be called “Dick Tracy’s Hall of Fame,” appearing roughly once a month. Over the years, we’ve honored such famed law officers as Eliot Ness, Frank Serpico, Robert Fabian of the Yard, Mary Sullivan (the first-ever female homicide detective), Eugene Vidocq (the founder of the Sûreté), and Bill Tilghman (the greatest of all frontier lawmen).

During this last year, being a policeman who writes crime stories, I had the notion of building the “Hall of Fame” entries for 2015 around a particular theme, cops who also write cop fiction. A few of the more obvious choices have been Joseph Wambugh, William Caunitz, Maurice Procter, and A.C. Baantjer.

But police work isn’t carried out exclusively on big city streets. And crime fiction doesn’t exist only in novels. And so, when I conceived the notion of devoting a year’s worth of Hall of Fame inductees to cops who were also fictioneers, small-town police chief and short story ace David Dean was one of the first persons I thought of.

I’ve admired David’s stories for years, and was pleased to learn that, upon retiring from the Avalon Police in New Jersey, he intended to start writing novels. His first book-length fiction, The Thirteenth Child, was a first-rate genre-crossover, effectively blending the elements of a realistic police procedural thriller with a supernatural horror novel. I couldn’t put it down.


I was also struck by the fact that, when I saw a picture of David, tall, lean, ruggedly handsome, square-jawed, he seemed to remind me of someone.

Maybe if his hair was dark instead of sandy, or if he changed out of the uniform and into a business suit, trenchcoat, and snap-brim fedora, I’d be able to put my finger on just who it is he puts me in mind of.

14 July 2015

Farewell My Lovelies


For those of you who have been with SleuthSayers for a while you've seen this before: I tender my resignation, it's accepted rather too quickly, everybody has a round of high-fives.  Then, before you've had time to clear away the empties and dump the ash trays, I'm back; cardboard suitcase in hand. Well, not this time--this time it's farewell, my lovelies. 
Sometimes you just know when it's time for a graceful exit, and this is that time for me.  My years with SleuthSayers have been a great learning experience and I've enjoyed every minute of them.  The staff at HQ, Leigh, Velma, and Rob have been terrific and whenever I needed technical assistance it was forthcoming without additional charge.  In fact, during my time amongst the cast and crew of SleuthSayers I've come to consider them (you all) as friends.  Virtual friends in most cases, though it has been my pleasure to meet a number of our contributors in the flesh, but still friends, or at least fellow travelers.  After all, some of history's great relationships have been those of pen pals, and so it feels to me here.

When I look back over my contributions I find they fall into but a few categories--a reflection of my limitations, I'm afraid: Police procedure, New Jersey, Native American history, Catholicism, a smattering of historical murder investigations, and a bit now and then on writing.  In any event, you've had the benefit of my wit and wisdom on these subjects and I pray that no one was irreparably harmed by the exposure.  If you feel you may have been, Velma entertains all such complaints and will be happy to hear yours.  I understand that she takes such calls strictly between the hours of 11:39 and 11:41 AM on alternate Tuesdays of 31 day months.

For my part, I will be spending all this new free time waiting outside my local watering hole.  There's a sign in the window that reads, "Free Whiskey Tomorrow!"  Everyday I return, but the barkeep just points at the sign and shakes his head.  You can see why I have to prioritize--sooner, or later, tomorrow will come!  And I intend to be there with an empty wallet and a full glass.

            

           

23 June 2015

Scoundrel


William Augustus Bowles

He's a handsome devil, isn't he?  I encountered this gentleman in Mobile, Alabama during a very engaging tour of the historic Conde-Charlotte House.  Dashing Billy's portrait hung on the wall of the second floor  hallway.  My brother, Danny, and I were spending a few days in this beautiful old city that began life as a French fort and trading post, and were taking in a few of the sights.  Our guide, a lovely lady who treated us as welcomed guests, escorted us from room to room explaining the various periods illustrated by the furniture, paintings, silverware, and creature comforts, each room representing a particular period in the long history of the city.  Though Mobile had begun life as a French enclave (and retains much of that flavor to this day), it would, in turn, become an English possession, a Spanish conquest, part of the fledgling nation of the United States; secede with the state of Alabama to join the Confederacy, and finally, return to the fold at the close of the Civil War.
As it happened, we were just finishing our tour and preparing to go back downstairs when the painting caught my eye.  It had not been remarked upon prior.  "Who's this?" I asked, genuinely intrigued by the striking subject in the Native American turban.  Our guide grew instantly more animated, raising an eyebrow and saying, "Mostly it's the ladies who notice Mr. Bowles."  I quickly assured her that it was my interest in Native American history that drew him to my attention.  Brother Danny snorted.  "Well," she went on to explain with a smile, "Mr. Bowles was not an Indian, but he was quite a rogue, and at one time, declared himself chief of the Lower Creeks." 

Declared himself...?  I was hooked...and I think you will be, too. 

What follows is the very large story of William Bowles condensed for the sake of narrative brevity.  There is much left unreported and I beg your understanding.  My thanks to Rhen Druhan at the Conde-Charlotte Museum for her invaluable aid.  Much of the information here was drawn from a wonderful piece on his life in issue 103 of Alabama Heritage Magazine, as well as other sources.


The word scoundrel has many permutations in the English language: When speaking of corrupt politicians we generally intend it as a pejorative.  But there's another category of scoundrel that when we apply the word to them, it's always accompanied by a slight, involuntary smile.  Yes, we know that they're not very good people, maybe even pretty awful ones, yet...we find them charming, entertaining, larger than life, living more fully than we dare, taking risks that most of us never would.  These are the same folks we also use the word roguish to describe, or perhaps, adventurer.  We often write about such people and it's easy to think that they're mostly fictional characters.  Mostly they are.  Then there's William Augustus Bowles.

William began life in 1763 as the sixth child of an English family making its home in the colony of Maryland.  He was remarkable from the start.  Described as an aggressive, vigorous boy with an olive complexion, he excelled at many pursuits.  He leaned to speak French, play the flute and violin, painted, was well-versed in mathematics, history, and literature; was, in fact, an avid reader.  Besides these artistic and academic qualities, he was a good horseman and all-round outdoorsman.  In short, he was gifted with good looks, health, intelligence, and sensitivity.  He was also very headstrong as events would prove.

His family being fervent Tories during the Revolutionary War convinced young William to join the cause of Britain at sixteen years of age.  But after being garrisoned in Philadelphia he found himself cooling his heels for the next several years growing ever more impatient to see action.  Hearing that a military ship was looking for volunteers for duty in Jamaica and Florida, William hastened to join.  He was commissioned as an ensign and set sail.  What happened once the crew went ashore in Florida remains unclear.  What is clear, however, is that young William deserted the ranks (he described it as resigning his commission) and made good his escape in the vicinity of Pensacola.  Think of it, dear reader, our young hero afoot in the palmetto jungle and swamplands of northern Florida; hundreds of miles from home.  He can neither return to Maryland nor go back to Pensacola.  He would surely swing either way. 

But as often seems the case in the life of the daring, the unexpected happens--a party of Creek warriors come upon him and, like many that would follow, are impressed.  So impressed by his personality and verve that rather than harm him, they take him along to their village.
Chief Tomochichi and Nephew

Within a short while he is adopted into the tribe, a tribe that holds sway over much of Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida, becomes fluent in the Muscogee language of the Creeks, and takes a wife.  Always one to live large, William also manages to wed a second lass, a Cherokee, thus uniting two peoples often at odds with one another.  Presumably, being William, he also learns the Iroquoian tongue spoken by his second bride.  Retaining considerable energies, even with two young wives in his household, he begins his first grand adventure.  Learning that the Spanish are attacking British forts along the Gulf Coast, he convinces a number of Creek warriors to join him in the defense of Pensacola.  It is certainly a measure of his remarkable character that he is able to lead braves into battle after having lived amongst them for so short a while.  In any event, the garrison is lost when a Spanish shell blows up the powder magazine and the fort along with it.  Ever a survivor, William flees into the forest with his adopted tribesmen and makes good his escape--a talent of his that would be utilized many more times during his life.

Spanish Troops Capture Pensacola--U.S. Military Museum
In a sudden reversal of fortune, the British army restores him to the rank of ensign as a reward for his service and valor at Pensacola, and William joins a regiment in New York.  Then, in a move that remains unclear, bonny William appears in the Bahamas where he whiles away the balmy days as a portraitist and comedian!  It appears his talents know no bounds, though what brings about this sudden change of career, like the move to Nassau itself, is obscure.  However, duty calls him yet again; this time in the august personage of the governor of the Bahamas, Lord Dunmore.  Having learned of his reputation among the savage races of the Americas, he dispatches William back to the Creek Nation to establish a trading post.  Returning to his, no doubt, pining wives, he swiftly sets up shop proclaiming himself Director-General of the Muscogee Nation!  Perhaps a bit overblown, but young William is never one for half-measures.  There are obstacles.

The Spanish, having taken advantage of Britain's long war with its colonies, now controls Florida and the Gulf coast, and with it the trade monopoly with the Creeks and Seminoles.  The Director-General, undaunted, meets the challenge with vigor--he declares war on Spain!  His Creek allies are somewhat divided on this issue.  They have grown comfortable with Panton, Leslie, and Company, the firm that the Spanish have commissioned as their trade emissaries.  Besides, the British are losing the American war and their defeat is imminent.  Details!  Young William decides that Panton and friends must go.

Again using his powers of persuasion, he is able to convince the more brash among the young men to support him in a strategy of intimidation and violence against his competitors.  Within a short while he has succeeded in making himself the target of His Most Catholic Majesty's ire.  In order to bolster his position, William ups the ante once more, telling the Creeks that if they would only recognize him as Chief of All the Creeks, he would see to it that the British Crown recognize them as a legitimate nation and establish an exclusive trade agreement.  The people, uneasy with Bounding Billy's vaulting ambition, grow ever more divided and fractious.  Yet, he has his supporters; the idea of a separate Indian Nation appeals to many and William's daring is infectious.  Traveling to England he makes his bold claims.  But for all his trouble and bluster, the government remains unimpressed.  There will be no treaty and no recognition of the, so-called, State of Muscogee.  He may, however, act as their sole trade representative to the natives.  Something he is already doing.  This is not what William relates to the people upon his return.

Declaring the negotiations a triumph on all fronts, the leader of the mythical State of Muscogee sets in motion the full machinery of war.  The Director-General proceeds to outfit two schooners as his navy and organize an army of four hundred Creeks warriors, frontiersmen, and former slaves as his soldiers and sailors.  In short order he begins to stock the coffers with the plundered riches and goods of Spain.  The store is now open and the British once again competitors in the contested region.  The year is 1800.
Charles IV of Spain by Goya

Branding the young upstart a pirate, Spain places a huge bounty on his head and it is not long before he is captured and transported to Spain to face justice.  As seems ever the case, the Spanish find William as irresistible as all before them and Charles IV himself(!) attempts to win him over to the Spanish cause.  Our Billy's not having it.  Whatever he may be--scoundrel, liar, pirate, con-man, adventurer--he is English, by God!  Disappointed, no doubt, the emperor has him shut away in prison.  By now you must know what happens next--he makes good another escape, commandeers a ship, probably in much the same manner as hailing a taxi, and returns to Florida. 

 But several years have gone by and William finds much changed in his absence: His rivals once more hold sway and British influence has all but vanished.  Worse yet, important leaders among the Creek peoples have closed their hearts to him, fearing both his ambitions and judgment.  Hearing of an important meeting between both Upper and Lower Creeks William decides to go all in.  Gathering his dwindling supporters around him, he crashes the party and does what Brash Billy does best, demands that he be recognized as "Chief of all Indians present"!  His enemies, knowing William as they did, are prepared for such a move and promptly take him prisoner, handing him over to the Spanish once again.  The Spanish having also taken the measure of our hero, on this occasion transport him to the infamous Moro Castle in Cuba to languish.  This time, however, there is no escape.  Whether he is mistreated, poisoned, or simply dies of neglect we shall never know, but by 1805 Dashing William is seen no more.  He is 42 at the time of his death, having spent 26 years living on the edge; his dream of an independent country for his adopted Creeks dying with him.  I hope that his two wives, at least, mourned his absence, but history remains silent on this question.  Having dared much, he lost it all in the end, and though there is much to be complained of in William Augustus Bowles' character, certainly two things can be said in his defense: He remained loyal to Britain until the end, and he certainly did not lack courage.  Loyalty and Valor do not a bad epitaph make.

The Capture Of Havana (Moro Castle)