Showing posts with label Floyd. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Floyd. Show all posts

01 October 2022

Fictional Mistakes (Onscreen and Off)

I watch a lot of movies, thanks to Netflix and Amazon Prime, and mostly from my La-Z-Boy in the den. I usually prefer mysteries, thrillers, westerns, etc., and tend to avoid message-movies, superheroes, and foreign films--but in the right mood I'll give anything a try.

One of the things I find myself looking for in movies are little mistakes in either the plot or the filming that somehow slip through. I don't necessarily mind them, I just seem to notice them more, lately. Worse than film mistakes, I think, are errors in printed fiction; I look for those, too. But I'll get to that in a minute.

Here's a list of movie goofs that come to mind, goofs that I'm sure some of you have noticed yourselves. Some are tiny, some are glaring, and I suspect all are embarrassing to the filmmakers.

Just for fun . . . remember these?

North by Northwest -- In the cafeteria at Mount Rushmore, Eva Marie Saint pulls a gun and shoots Cary Grant--but several seconds beforehand, a young boy in the background (who's looking in the other direction and doesn't even see her) covers his ears in anticipation of the gunshot.

Casablanca -- Dooley Wilson (Sam) didn't know how to play the piano--so his hand movements never match the music.

Shane --  While Alan Ladd is talking to the little boy in the shed, a dark-colored car can be seen through the window in the distance, moving left to right. The movie is set in the 1860s. 

Pulp Fiction -- In one scene a young man comes out of the bathroom and shoots at both John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson (and misses)--but before the bathroom door even opens, several bullet holes are already there in the wall behind Travolta and Jackson.

Gladiator -- A metal gas canister is clearly visible underneath an overturned chariot in one of the battle scenes.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach use dynamite to blow up a bridge in the Civil War several years before dynamite was invented.

Gone With the Wind -- More of the same. GWTW featured several scenes using not-yet-invented lamps with cords. In one street sequence in Atlanta, there are lightbulbs in what should've been gas fixtures.

A Streetcar Named Desire -- In a scene with Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter, he's obviously mimicking her lines with his lips while she's speaking them.

Double Indemnity -- Fred MacMurray's character is a bachelor, but his real-life wedding ring is visible on his finger several times during the movie.

Never Been Kissed -- A sign made by the math club that Drew Barrymore joins features an incorrect value for Pi.

Vertigo -- Kim Novak loses a shoe in the water and then has both of them on right after that.

Rear Window -- An injured and stationary Jimmy Stewart, a photographer with an expensive telephoto-lens camera in his lap most of the time, never takes a single photo of the mystery scene or of the neighbor he suspects has committed a crime.

Psycho -- As Janet Leigh lies dead on the floor, her pupils are contracted when they should be dilated. (Afterward, ophthalmologists told Hitchcock there were eyedrops that could achieve that effect, and he used them for corpses in later movies.)

Star Wars -- At one point, a tall stormtrooper bumps his head against the top of a doorway.

Pretty Woman -- At breakfast, Julia Roberts is eating a croissant she's holding in her hand; a few seconds later she's holding and eating a pancake instead.

Ocean's Eleven -- More food problems. The container for Brad Pitt's shrimp cocktail changes from a glass to a plate, and then back to a glass again.

It's a Wonderful Life -- The angel reveals that Jimmy Stewart's brother died at the age of nine, but the birth/death dates on his gravestone say he was eight.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory -- The candy man accidentally whacks a little girl under the chin when he lifts a countertop.

Twister -- Debris from a tornado crashes through the windshield of a vehicle containing stormchasers Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, but moments later the windshield is magically unbroken.

The Wizard of Oz -- When Judy Garland meets the Tin Man, she and the Scarecrow oil his rusty joints for him so he can move--even though tin doesn't rust. In the same movie, after the Scarecrow gets a brain, he states the Pythagorean theorem--incorrectly.

Braveheart -- A white van is visible in the background during a battle scene.

The Star Wars series -- Every single planet has the same gravitational force, which in reality would be almost impossible.

Quantum of Solace -- In one of the dock scenes, an extra with a pushbroom in the background behind Daniel Craig is sweeping the air several inches above the ground.

Titanic -- Leonardo DiCaprio mentions that he once went ice fishing on Lake Wissota, which wasn't formed until 1917. The Titanic sank in 1912.

The Great Gatsby -- DiCaprio enters a house soaked from the rain, but moments later his clothes and hair are completely dry.

The Aviator -- Leo again. As Howard Hughes in 1928, he requests ten chocolate chip cookies while editing his movie Hell's Angels. Chocolate chip cookies weren't around until two years later.

Grease -- A waitress tries to turn off a light switch with her elbow but misses it completely. Seconds later, the lights turn off anyway. 

Hitch -- Will Smith has an allergic reaction that causes the left side of his fact to swell. Later the swelling switches to the right side.

The Karate Kid -- Ralph Macchio wins the final tournament by kicking his opponent in the head, even though such a thing is an illegal move and would be grounds for immediate disqualification.

Mean Girls -- Lindsey Lohan is from Africa in the movie, but there's a picture in her room of her riding an elephant with small ears (Indian) rather than large ears (African).

The Shawshank Redemption -- Tim Robbins's prison escape is via a tunnel covered by the famous movie poster of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.--but that movie wasn't released until a year later.

American Sniper -- A fake baby is obviously substituted for a real one.

Spider-Man -- A mannequin is obviously substituted for Tobey Maguire when he rescues Kirsten Dunst and swings her to safety. (Her hair's even blowing in the wrong direction while they're in mid-swing.)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone -- A metal bicycle seat can be seen on Daniel Radcliffe's broomstick during the Quidditch scene. Later, when he's debroomed, the seat's gone.

Back to the Future -- The guitar Michael J. Fox plays onstage in 1955 is a Gibson ES-345 model, with didn't exist until several years later.

Clueless -- Alicia Silverstone crashes into another vehicle during her driving test and knocks her side mirror off--but a few moments later the mirror's replaced.

You've Got Mail -- Tom Hanks puts an olive into his father's martini, the camera cuts to his father and back to Hanks, and he puts the same olive into the same martini.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring -- When Sean Astin and Elijah Wood walk across a field in the Shire, a car is clearly visible in the background.

Raiders of the Lost Ark -- As Harrison Ford sits at an outdoor table in Cairo in 1936, a man in modern clothes (a T-shirt and blue jeans) strolls by in the background. Also in Raiders, later in the movie, you can see the cobra's reflection in the glass that's separating it from Indy.

As silly as most of those are, I think it's even more humiliating to make mistakes in a novel or short story. (Probably because I myself am sometimes the guilty party.) There are many examples of this, but here are a few:

One of the Jesse Stone novels (I forget which one) by Robert B. Parker lapses at one point from third-person into first and back again. My guess is that this happened because all his Spenser novels were first-person.

One of the murders in the novel The Big Sleep was never solved, or even mentioned again. When asked years later about who killed the chauffeur, Raymond Chandler said, "Damned if I know."

In The Tommyknockers, a gun used by Stephen King's protagonist was an automatic at one point and a revolver a few pages later.

The 1631 King James version of the Holy Bible says, in Exodus 20:14, "Thou shalt commit adultery."

In Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein has a character whose name switches back and forth between Agnes and Alice.

In the novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the Common Room is described as circular, but Ron and Lavender wind up in a "prominent corner" of the room.

The Story of Dr. Doolittle places orangutans in Africa, even though they're found only in Borneo and Sumatra.

There are many more of these, but the most painful mistakes for me are the ones I have made in my own writing. Most of them, thank God, I caught before the stories were submitted, but some of them were caught by editors who told me to correct them (embarrassing!), and a few made it all the way through to publication--in one I stupidly identified a horse as a mare and later tied "him" to a fencepost. The only good thing about mistakes that go all the way to print is that if/when you later sell the stories as reprints, you can correct them.

How about your own writing? Have you made any mistakes in grammar, structure, POV, character names, locations, plot, logic, etc., that wound up getting published anyway? Any that were particularly cringeworthy? How about movies you've watched? What are the worst goofs you can remember? Let me know in the comments section.

Meanwhile, if you're one of those folks who look for these kinds of errors . . . good hunting!

If you're one of those who commit them . . . well, go ye and sin no more.

17 September 2022

Real or Nonreal?

I was asked an interesting question a few weeks ago, about writing.

First, a quick story. Years ago a writer friend of mine had just published his first book, a memoir of his own life. He said to me, "I'm proud to tell you, every single word of it is true." I congratulated him on his accomplishment, and he mentioned that he'd heard I had a new book out as well--mine was a collection of short mystery stories. "I sure do," I said. "And I'm proud to tell you, not a single word of it is true." The fact is, I was proud of that. I'd much rather write fiction than nonfiction. 

Okay, back to the question I was asked the other day. I had said to a friend, this one a reader instead of a writer, that I'm currently re-reading an old novel by Ken Follett called Night Over Water. It's a pre-WWII story about a transatlantic flight on a Pan American Clipper, one of several giant seaplanes that Boeing manufactured for Pan Am in the 1930s. The story's a good one, though not Follett's best (I have all his novels), and when I went on to describe the book to this friend of mine she said, "That makes it creative nonfiction, right?" I replied that no, the Clippers were real but this story had imaginary characters and an imaginary plot. She said, "But that's what makes it creative nonfiction. Right?"

Wrong. Creative nonfiction is still nonfiction--it contains no made-up events and no made-up characters. Examples of creative nonfiction that I have here on my shelves are The Right Stuff, The Perfect Storm, In Cold Blood, etc. Wonderful, engaging stories, but they're all true. They're about real people and things that really happened. They're just told using some fictional techniques in a way that can create more interest and suspense. 

Which brings up another question: How far can we fiction writers go in our descriptions of real events and real characters? I've written and sold a lot of short stories based on real events and have occasionally included the names of real people in them. In a couple of stories I've even included real historical figures in supporting roles. Many famous novelists, among them E. L. Doctorow, Stephen King, and Larry McMurtry, have done the same. In my case, those real-life characters I put into the stories never said or did anything that would paint them in a bad light, but they're still there, nonfictional parts of otherwise fictional tales. Again, how much of that is too much? How much is allowed and acceptable? (In the too-much department, I'm thinking of novels like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.)

One story of mine that uses a few real names, and one real person as a minor character, is "The Donovan Gang," the lead story in the current (Sept/Oct 2022) issue of AHMM. The plot is totally fictional, a story about six passengers--a journalist, an actress, a preacher, a dentist, a saloon girl, and a lawman--on a stagecoach in southeast Arizona in 1907. The confined quarters (all six people are jammed together, three to a seat) and the mystery (one of the passengers is an unknown accomplice to a crime) made the story a lot of fun to put together. There's something of a surprise at the very end that has nothing to do with the mystery, and that made it even more enjoyable for me to write. NOTE: I once heard that you should always write for yourself, not for anyone else, and if someone else does happen to like what you've written, well, that's icing on the cake. I think that's still good advice.

Questions: Have you ever used any real people in your fiction? If so, why? Was it hard to do? Did you think it made your story (or novel) better? If you haven't used real people, why not? Was it unnecessary? A concern over possible legal issues? With regard to creative nonfiction, how far do you think it can go before it becomes fiction? Can any of the dialogue be imaginary, or must conversations be exact and historically accurate? Let me know your opinion.

As for my AHMM story, be aware that--real characters or not--it's purely fiction. Or, as Lawrence Block once said, nothing but a pack of lies.

I'll take that over nonfiction any day.

04 September 2022

Bloom Where You’re Planted

Richard Helms
Richard Helms

Allow me to introduce my friend and wonderful writer, Richard ‘Rick’ Helms, author of a zillion award-winning novels and short stories, a man who’s received more nominations than an Iowa caucus. A former forensic psychologist, he oozes Southern charm and he’s witty and modest as well.

He and his wife Elaine live in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he still muscles out superb stories. You can find more about him on his web site. Now read on…

— Jan Grape

Bloom Where You’re Planted
Richard Helms

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
— Ernest Hemingway

I wrote my first full-length novel forty years ago. It wasn't published for another eighteen years, after going through dozens of submissions and two different agents. The Valentine Profile is still out there, and—being my first work—it's perfectly horribly awful, and I hang my head in shame every time I think about it. Please don't buy it. Or buy a caseload. You do you.

Despite years of disappointment and an almost legendary number of rejections, I persisted, and wrote four or five more novels, which also weren't published for many years. With each new title, I tried to stretch and improve, and each new book was incrementally better than the last.

I was always reminded of Raymond Chandler’s advice to analyze and imitate. Not surprisingly, most of my first half dozen or so novels are extremely derivative of the authors I was reading at the time—Robert Ludlum, David Morrell, David Hagberg, James Lee Burke, Robert B. Parker, and the like. It takes time to find your voice as an author, so for a while you borrow other people’s voices. There are those who still say—and they aren’t far wrong—that my Eamon Gold private eye series is still just Spenser transported to the west coast.

For years, I didn't even consider writing short stories. I didn't think I had the chops. Like many new writers, I presumed that real authors wrote novels—huge sweeping panoramas of human greed, suffering, conflict, passion, and inevitable death. I earned a Russian Studies minor in college—long story—and might have been influenced a bit by Tolstoy. Somewhere in the recesses of my autistic head, short stories were for quitters who put down Anna Karenina on only page 534.

More than that, though, I was convinced I couldn't say everything I wanted to in only a few thousand words. I thought that was a special skill, like shorthand, and I was playing hooky the day they handed it out.

This is really strange, because my most treasured physical possession is a book of—you guessed it—short stories.

It was my first ‘grown-up’ book. We were moving from Charlotte to Atlanta a week or so after I finished first grade, and our neighbors’ oldest son, who might have been twelve at the time, crossed the street as we were packing our car for the move to Georgia. He handed me a paperback book. He probably said something like, “My mom and dad said you like to read and stuff, and I had this lying around, so you can have it, okay?”

I prefer to remember the moment in the same emotional vein as the Lady in the Lake hefting aloft the mighty Excalibur, presenting it to Arthur. It was a turning point in my young life.

The book was Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction. It was an anthology cobbled together from classic pulp science fiction magazines of the 1940s. There were stories by Lester Del Rey, Ray Bradbury, John D. McDonald, Murray Leinster, Fredric Brown, Clifford D. Simak, Theodore Sturgeon, and many more. As we tooled down the blue highways between Charlotte and Atlanta, I huddled in the backseat floor—as kids did sixty years ago—and read about robots and rockets and tiny unconscious homunculi used as currency and a funny alien named Mewhu and a man and a dog transformed into Jupiterian beings and time travel and all sorts of amazing concepts I’d never thought of before.

A lot of it didn’t make sense to me and was confusing, but most of it was amazing and astounding and made my little seven-year-old heart flutter. Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction was my gateway drug to adult literature and pulp fiction at the same time. Dick and Jane? I didn’t care if they ran. I wanted to know why they ran. Why were they being chased? What horrible thing did they do? Dick and Jane might have been okay for the other second graders. I yearned for more. Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction fed that hunger, and for the first time in my life, I understood that stories didn’t just happen, as Richard Brautigan wrote, like lint. Somebody had to write them.

Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction is still my most prized physical possession. It resides in a special place on my bookshelf at home. If the house ever catches fire, I will see that Elaine and the cat are out, and then I’ll rescue the book. Everything else can be replaced. This book can’t, for one reason.

Theodore Sturgeon
Theodore Sturgeon autograph

In 1978, I had dinner at UNC-Greensboro with Theodore Sturgeon and his partner, Lady Jayne. He was a guest of honor at a sci-fi convention at the college. He had written the story “Mewhu’s Jet” in my Sacred Book. I brought the by-then tattered paperback with me, and at a probably clumsy moment I thrust it into his hands and told him the story of how this book changed my reading life—and eventually inspired me to become a writer as well. He took one look at it, and said, “This book has been well-loved”, and he signed the first page of his story.

Sturgeon is long gone now, dead for over forty years. His autograph in my book with the added ‘Q’ with an arrow he used to symbolize “Ask the Next Question” can never be replaced. So the book gets rescued.

As illuminating as it was, Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction was also intimidating. To me, the authors in those pages were giants, superhumans endowed with powers far beyond the grasp of mortal scribblers. They captured entire universes in five or six thousand words, and I was not worthy to look upon their visages.

So, I wrote novel after novel after novel. Twenty-five now and counting. Some were squibs. Some were award finalists. Not one of them has ever sold more than 1500 copies. That’s probably my fault, as I am much more comfortable tapping on a keyboard than pressing flesh. A born salesman, I am decidedly not.

In 2006, I decided to start a webzine publishing hardboiled and noir short stories, and solicited submissions on all the usual email listservs, the Facebook and Twitter of the day. Within weeks, I was swamped with submissions, a great number of which had been penned by Edgar and Shamus and Anthony Award winners. I was shocked.

Reading all those stories by such distinguished writers gave me an opportunity again to analyze and imitate. I pulled out my old trusty copy of Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction, and I read those stories again as well. As I read, I discovered that the stories that had cowed me so completely decades earlier now made sense. I could recognize the use of a three-act structure and the economy of language in them. I had a little peek underneath the magicians’ capes. I thought, perhaps, I might be able to write in this strange, truncated style after all.

In 2006, I was mowing the grass and came up with an idea for my third Eamon Gold novel. Started working on it, and realized there wasn't enough there for a book, but it might make a nice short story. Longtime buddy Kevin Burton Smith published it on his Thrilling Detective Website, ("The Gospel According to Gordon Black") and it went on to win the Derringer Award that year. I had also written a short story for my own webzine, The Back Alley, entitled "Paper Walls/Glass Houses", and darned if it didn't win the Derringer as well.

No shit, dear readers. My first two published short stories were award winners, and made me one of only two authors ever to win the Derringer in two different categories in the same year. (The other is the incredibly prolific and masterful John Floyd.) Nobody was more surprised than I.

So I wrote another one, based on a failed Pat Gallegher novel, and retitled it "The Gods For Vengeance Cry." On a flyer, I sent it in to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and by golly Janet Hutchings bought it! It went on to garner nominations for the Derringer, Macavity, and Thriller Awards, and won the 2011 Thriller Award.

Yeah. My first THREE published short stories won awards. The fourth, "Silicon Kings" was also a Derringer finalist.

Clearly, it was time to reevaluate my writing priorities.

For almost a quarter century, before Kevin kindly published "The Gospel According to Gordon Black", I had always presumed that I was first and foremost a novelist, however obscure and failed. I had been conditioned to believe the fallacy that novels hold an exalted spot in literature. While I had enjoyed some limited critical acclaim with my novels, the sudden shocking success of the short stories left me wondering whether I had wasted thirty years of my writing life.

It’s a good thing I’m not into regrets.

Over the last fifteen years, I've embraced the idea that I might actually be a short story writer who dabbles in writing novels. I have six Shamus Award nominations (and one win) for my novels, but my short stories have garnered a mind-boggling fourteen nominations, and have won the Thriller, Shamus, and Derringer Awards. One story I wrote for anthology editor and master story craftsman Michael Bracken (“See Humble and Die”, in The Eyes of Texas, for Down and Out Books) was selected for the 2020 edition of Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Otto Penzler and C. J. Box.

And the hits just keep coming. Several years ago, the Republican National Convention was held in my hometown of Charlotte, NC. As happens in many cities, Charlotte made a concerted effort to get rid of the many homeless people who cluster each night along uptown Tryon Street, because images of people sleeping on bus stop benches make for bad national TV. I read an article about it in the news, and my first thought was that sweeping the streets of homeless people might make an excellent cover for a murder. Kill a homeless guy, hide the body, and everyone would think he was just given ‘Greyhound Therapy’—a bus ticket and twenty bucks to go somewhere (anywhere) else.  I let the idea cook in my head for a week or two, mostly coming up with a compelling protagonist, and then I started typing. I threw in some stories I’d heard about living on the streets from my hippie buddies back in the early 1970s. The resulting story, "Sweeps Week" (EQMM, July August 2021) won the Shamus this year, and is a finalist for the Macavity at Bouchercon next week.

My wife said, “You know, you might have a knack for this.”

Sometimes I have to shake my head when I realize that one story in EQMM is seen (and hopefully read) by more people than have read all my novels put together. That's humbling, but also exciting. Unlike each new book, which might flop or fly, or even go completely ignored, the stories are being read. Nothing is more important to a writer.

A Kind and Savage Place (novel)

I still write novels. Earlier this year, Level Best Books’ New Arc imprint published A Kind and Savage Place, which traces the evolution of civil rights in the south as experienced by the citizens of a small North Carolina farming community. Next year, their Historia imprint will publish Vicar Brekonridge, a novel based on my Derringer Award-nominated EQMM short story “The Cripplegate Apprehension.” I recently finished a massive novel called 22 Rue Montparnasse, about the Lost Generation in post-WWI Paris, and I’m about ready to set sail on another novel about Laurel Canyon in the 1960s, inspired by the music of the late Nashville songwriter Larry Jon Wilson. None of these, with the possible exception of Vicar Brekonridge, is a traditional mystery story. Writing mystery short stories has freed me to explore other genres in my novel-length works, and to write the more mainstream and historical stories that I’ve back-burnered for years.

For now, though, my plan is to spend 2023 focused mostly on short stories. I’ve discovered that they are intensely rewarding. In what other medium can you come up with an idea on Tuesday, write “The End” on Friday, and people will buy it (hopefully)? In the same way I truly enjoy diving into massive amounts of research for a sweeping historical novel, I love the spontaneous nature of short stories. They’re almost like zen paintings, executed in seconds only after days of contemplation. The typing is only the last stage of storytelling. First, the story has to live inside your head. As Edward Albee once taught me in a master class, “Never put a sentence on the page until it can write itself.”

Living on the autistic spectrum, it would have been easy to stay rigidly glued to the novel-writing path. Comforting, even. Stability, structure, and adherence to a long-standing pattern of behavior is kind of a big deal among my neurodivergent tribe. Gritting my teeth, shutting my eyes, holding my breath, and breaking out and trying something new fifteen years ago turned out to make a huge difference in my writing life, and opened the door to a level of authorly satisfaction I had never known before.

My point is this (and it doesn't apply only to writing): The secret of happiness, I think, is to find your sunny spot and bloom where you're planted. If you beat your head against a door for years without an answer, maybe you're at the wrong door. I spent twenty-five relatively unhappy years working as a clinical/forensic psychologist, but only found career joy when I followed my true calling and became a teacher. Likewise, when I embraced short stories, the flower of my writing career blossomed.

Sometimes, it's a good idea to step back, survey the Big Picture, and figure out exactly where you fit into it, as opposed to where you want to fit. Life has a way of showing you the paths you need to tread, if you’re open to looking for them. A simple jink to the left or right could change your entire life. But, wherever you land, it should be the place that makes you happiest. Living as a tortured literary artist slaving in a dusty garret may be a romantic notion, but it isn’t much fun.

Sometimes, you win by trading one dream for another.

03 September 2022

The Days of Using Proper English Are Went

I'll open with a confession. I started writing late in life, I have no degrees in English, and I am certainly not a badge-carrying grammar policeman. But, like most writers, I tend to spot style mistakes in fiction and I try not to commit too many of them myself. NOTE: Two years ago at this blog, I wrote two back-to-back columns on the do's and don'ts of writing (May 30, 2020, and June 6, 2020), and even though I'm not fond of most advice when it comes to fiction writing (in my view, if it works, to hell with the rules), I still find the subject interesting. 

Here's a definition I heard someplace: Style includes grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, abbreviations, word choice, word usage, sentence construction, paragraph construction, etc. All of us occasionally make style errors in writing, and it can be embarrassing, but what's worse is to make one of those mistakes and have it turn out to be humorous. So . . . 

For today's post I have attempted to list some of the craziest misuses of written language that I've seen. Some of the following examples have been called "garden path" sentences because they lead the reader in the wrong direction, and others just involve unfortunate errors or typos. But I found all of them to be funny.

Here goes:

Missing punctuation:

I love cooking my friends and my family.

The hunter shot a man eating tiger.

No smoking food or beverages will be permitted.

Let's eat Grandma.

If you like taking your time travel can be exhausting.

No dogs please.

I work at the School for the Severely Handicapped State of Missouri.

Witnesses to the crime at City Hall were two hookers, the mayor and her daughter.

I'm sorry I love you.

We're going to learn to cut and paste kids.

Misplaced modifiers, poor word choice, etc.

I bought a vase from an antique dealer with a giant bottom.

Dressed in a diaper, Mom read a story to my little brother.

Banish all information about the case from your mind, if you have any.

I'm looking for a horse that belongs to a girl with a silver mane and tail.

The blind man picked up the hammer and saw.

The marijuana issue has been sent to a joint committee.

Spewing lava, he took a photo of the volcano.

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas.

Having finished my dinner, the waiter brought my dessert.

His company makes combs for people with unbreakable teeth.

Grammatically correct but confusing

Time flies when you're having fun; fruit flies like bananas.

The boat sailed on the river sank.

The merry man Mary married married people. (Mary's cheerful husband was a clergyman.)

Rose rose to hose her rows of roses.

The old man the boats. (The ships' crews are elderly.)

The complex houses married students and their families.

All the education he had had had had no effect on his future.

The mouse the cat the dog chased killed ate the cheese.

Will Cook will cook. (William's willing to prepare dinner.)

He fell into the well because he couldn't see that well.


Your the best teacher ever.

The choir will meet at my house for fun and sinning.

Mr. Ellis willingly took the stand, butt cracks appeared in his testimony.

Her hiccups were cured through the use of carbon monoxide.

Having a great time, wish you were her.

The weather will not be ass cold tomorrow.

We have a great band: Bill Jones on guitar, Joe Bennett on drugs.

If you must heave during the sermon, please do so quietly.

All our representatives are busy severing customers.

The swimming pool will be closed due to the David-19 situation.

AutoCorrect is my worst enema.

Be kind, and say hell to someone you don't know.


Tables are for eating customers only

Bed for sale. Free: one night stand

This door is alarmed

Slow work in progress

Be sure to flash after using toilet

Our teachers make a differance

Raise Your Self-Esteem meeting in auditorium, 7 p.m. Please use rear door.

Try our seizure salad

Sale: men's trousers, half off

Cows please close gate

It's a fact: tacos is brain food

No trespassing violators will be prosecuted

Today's sermon: Jesus walks on water. Tonight's sermon: Looking for Jesus.

There are of course many more; these were some that first came to mind. Please contribute your own in the comments section. Have you made any of these kinds of mistakes in your own writing? Would you admit it if you did?

That's it for today. See you in two weeks, unless, well, you know, you never know.

20 August 2022

Ethel, Is That Henry Fonda?

Okay, I know that's an odd title. Here's a bit of backstory, before I get to the main topic.

Ideas for SleuthSayers columns can come in unexpected ways. A few days ago I finished a sort of noir short story about a dumb guy and his smart girlfriend on the run from the mob, and--since I write stories like a chainsmoker, lighting up a new one as soon as the old one's done--I was about to start writing another tale, this one about two rednecks searching for hidden treasure on one of the islands off the Mississippi Coast. But I also found myself thinking about the writing itself, thinking about how much fun it always is for me to type THE END on one story and then forget about it and write a totally different story after that--maybe even one in a different genre. That's what keeps all this from getting boring. And while these thoughts were zinging around in my mind, my wife called to me and told me to check the Facebook page of one of our daughters-in-law because some new pictures had just been posted of three of our seven grandchildren. So I did.

Hang on, I'm getting there.

As ordered, I hopped over to Facebook and took a look at the photos of our (fantastic, if I do say so myself) grandkids, and as I was about to go back to my Word program and my new story, I happened to see another Facebook post. This one said something like "Did you know the actor who played Wilson in Cast Away was the same one in the volleyball scene in Top Gun?"

I gotta tell you, I liked that. I'm easily entertained anyway, and I thought that was cute. And since I had a SleuthSayers post coming up that I hadn't even started on, it got me thinking about something else. I'm a card-carrying movie addict, and I've always suspected that movie and TV actors, like writers, enjoy trying different kinds of projects--different characters, different genres, etc. Unless they're actors committed to a series, I doubt they want to play the same roles, or even the same kinds of roles, over and over again. (Even Wilson.)

Anyhow, all that is what led to this column, and to this question:

Who are some actors who have played extremely different roles in different movies, roles so against type that you almost didn't know who they were?

Remember Charlize Theron in Monster? Or Sean Connery in The Untouchables? It was hard to believe he was James Bond. And did Indiana Jones once pilot the Millennium Falcon? Surely not--but those two guys sure look alike. And how many of us who saw Kathy Bates in Fried Green Tomatoes were goggle-eyed at her performance in Misery? The more I thought about this, the more movies and roles I came up with. Was I honestly supposed to believe Richard Harris in Camelot and Richard Harris in Unforgiven were the same man? How could that nice Air Force captain who Dreamed of Jeannie become a devil like J.R. Ewing? Had Robin Wright in House of Cards really been Forrest Gump's girlfriend, and the Princess Bride?? How had Rocky morphed into Rambo? I could easily imagine Joe Moviegoer sitting in a theater in Bugtussle, Oklahoma, watching the villain in Once Upon a Time in the West murder an entire family, suddenly elbowing his wife and saying, "Look, I think that's Henry Fonda!"

So here, without further ado, is a list of fifty actors who--in my opinion--played shockingly different characters, sometimes polar opposites, in different productions, and the movies/TV shows featuring those characters:

Lee Marvin -- The Dirty Dozen and Cat Ballou

Donald Sutherland -- M*A*S*H and The Hunger Games

Jane Fonda -- Nine to Five and Barbarella

Denzel Washington -- Remember the Titans and Training Day

Jeff Bridges -- The Last Picture Show and The Big Lebowski

Sally Field -- The Flying Nun and Norma Rae

Leonardo DiCaprio -- Titanic and The Revenant

Sigourney Weaver -- Alien and Galaxy Quest 

Kurt Russell -- Overboard and Escape from New York

Burt Reynolds -- Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance

George Clooney -- ER and O Brother Where Art Thou?

Meryl Streep -- Mama Mia! and The Devil Wears Prada

Woody Harrelson -- Cheers and Zombieland

Jeff Daniels -- The Newsroom and Dumb & Dumber

Richard Crenna -- The Real McCoys and Wait Until Dark

John Travolta -- Grease and Pulp Fiction

Lou Diamond Phillips -- La Bamba and Longmire

Bryce Dallas Howard -- The Village and Jurassic World

Keanu Reeves -- The Matrix and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Elizabeth Taylor -- Giant and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Tom Hanks -- Splash and Saving Private Ryan

Fred MacMurray -- My Three Sons and Double Indemnity

Dennis Weaver -- Gunsmoke and Duel

Jack Palance -- Shane and City Slickers

Sandra Bullock -- The Blind Side and Miss Congeniality

Daniel Day Lewis -- Lincoln and The Last of the Mohicans

Robert Shaw -- From Russia with Love and Jaws

Lloyd Bridges -- Sea Hunt and Airplane!

Faye Dunaway -- Bonnie and Clyde and Oklahoma Crude

Gregory Peck -- To Kill a Mockingbird and The Boys from Brazil

Frances McDormand -- Fargo and Raising Arizona

Jack Nicholson -- Easy Rider and Chinatown

Scarlett Johansson -- Ghost World and Black Widow

Robert Duvall -- Lonesome Dove and Apocalypse Now

Christian Bale -- Batman Begins and Vice

Michael Douglas -- The American President and Romancing the Stone

Kathleen Turner -- Peggy Sue Got Married and Body Heat

Marlon Brando -- A Streetcar Named Desire and The Godfather

Kevin Costner -- Field of Dreams and 3000 Miles to Graceland

Glenn Close -- The Natural and Fatal Attraction

Eddie Murphy -- Beverly Hills Cop and The Nutty Professor

Kelly McGillis -- Top Gun and Witness

Bruce Willis -- Moonlighting and Sin City

Laura Linney -- The Truman Show and Ozark

Russell Crowe -- Gladiator and L.A. Confidential

Elijah Wood -- Lord of the Rings and Pawn Shop Chronicles

William Holden -- The World of Suzie Wong and The Wild Bunch

Emily Blunt -- Mary Poppins Returns and Edge of Tomorrow

Robin Williams -- Mork & Mindy and Dead Poets Society 

Dustin Hoffman -- The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy (and Tootsie, for that matter)

These are some that first came to mind; there are many, many more. Please feel free to add to the list in the comments section. (I love this stuff.)

By the way . . . if you haven't seen Galaxy Quest, believe me, you should. It's streaming now on Amazon Prime.

See you again in two weeks.

06 August 2022

My Stranded Stories


For years now, anytime I'm the focus of a Q&A session--at a conference, booksigning, writers' meeting, wherever--I'm asked to address some of the same questions. The most-often-asked so far has been, without fail, "Where do you get your ideas?" (It would seem that I'd have a good answer for that one by now, at least an answer better than the old "ideas are everywhere." But I don't.)

Two more often-asked questions always surprise me a bit, because they deal not with writing style or writing processes but with two specific markets. Many of my fellow writers, whether we already happen to know each other or not, ask what tips I might have for submitting short stories to (1) Woman's World and (2) Strand Magazine.

On the one hand, they're fair questions. I've been fortunate at both publications ever since I sold my first stories there, which happened in the same year: 1999. On the other hand, as all you writers know, any answer to "How do I sell stories to a certain market?" is as difficult and subjective as the answer to "Where do you get your ideas?"

Stranded in Storyland

Since I've attempted in several different SleuthSayers posts (here's one of them, from a year ago) to steer writers in the right direction with regard to writing mysteries for Woman's World, I decided to try, today, to do the same kind of thing with Strand Magazine. Bear in mind that the very best way to learn what stories a market likes, whether it's The Strand or WW or anyplace else, is to read the stories in the magazine--but failing that, or maybe in addition to it, I hope this might be of at least some help. Bear in mind also that I don't have all the answers. I still get rejections too, even after all this time, from both these markets. 

Having said all that . . . what I've done is put together a list of the stories I've sold to The Strand so far, along with their wordcounts, a quick summary of each story, the types of crimes that were involved, and, as an afterthought, some notes about any later recognition given to those stories. (It's a fact that stories published in The Strand often show up in annual best-of anthologies and award-nomination lists.) And after that I'll talk about some other submission pointers.

So here are my Strand stories. I can't guarantee that you'll be published there if you write stories of similar length and with similar plots and crimes, but I can tell you what has worked for me. 

"The Proposal" -- About 4600 words. A Texas oilman who's being blackmailed discovers a way out of his dilemma. The type of crime: murder. This story was later named as one of the year's "Other Distinguished Stories" in Best American Mystery Stories 2000.

"Murphy's Lawyer" -- 2400 words. An engineer for a chemical company convinces an attorney to help him fake a laboratory accident. The crimes: murder, insurance fraud.

"Debbie and Bernie and Belle" -- 4500 words. A lovesick law student enlists the help of a mysterious ten-year-old girl to try to repair a break-up with his fiancee. The crime: robbery.

"Reunions" -- 4100 words. Two airline travelers, one of them on a secret mission, meet and then drift apart, neither realizing they'll soon meet again. The crime: murder.

"Turnabout" -- 4800 words. A highway rest-stop near the site of a recent bank robbery soon becomes a battleground. The crimes: robbery, murder. Named as one of the year's "Other Distinguished Stories" in Best American Mystery Stories 2012.

"Bennigan's Key" -- 4400 words. When mob employee George Bennigan is rewarded with a vacation to a remote island resort, he finds himself wondering about the possible reasons. The crime: murder.

"Blackjack Road" -- 4000 words. Two loners--one a convict, the other a man considering suicide--are thrown together in a chance meeting. The crimes: prison escape, murder.

"Secrets" -- 3200 words. Two ferry passengers with dark secrets discover a surprising and deadly connection. The crime: murder.

"200 Feet" -- 4400 words. One man, one woman, and a narrow ledge on the side of building twenty floors above the street. The crime: murder. Nominated for an Edgar in 2015.

"Molly's Plan" -- 5000 words. Most successful bank robberies are simple. Owen McKay's was not. The crime: robbery. Selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2015

"Driver" -- 9500 words. When a U.S. senator's missteps lead to what could be a career-ending scandal, only one person can save him: his limo driver. The crimes: blackmail, fraud, murder. Won a 2016 Derringer Award and was named as one of the year's "Other Distinguished Stories" in Best American Mystery Stories 2016.

"Arrowhead Lake" -- 7500 words. A robbery in a hi-tech company's remote headquarters comes down to a battle using primitive weapons. The crimes: murder, robbery, manslaughter.

"A Million Volts" -- 4500 words. Two romantic affairs on a college campus turn violent. The crimes: murder, assault, terrorism.

"Jackpot Mode" -- 7900 words. A pair of ATM experts--one in software, one in hardware--attempt to steal a small fortune from a local bank. The crime: robbery. Named as one of the year's "Other Distinguished Stories" in Best American Mystery Stories 2017

"Flag Day" -- 6500 words. The employees of a suburban ice-cream shop stage a false theft in order to hide a real and bigger one--and run into problems. The crime: robbery.

"Crow Mountain" -- 4100 words. A handicapped fisherman encounters an escaped convict in the middle of nowhere. The crimes: prison escape, murder.

"Foreverglow" -- 2400 words. Two young sweethearts plan the heist of a special jewelry exhibit from a local department store. The crime: robbery.

"Lucian's Cadillac" -- 2400 words. Many years after their graduation, three classmates come together to fight an old enemy. The crime: murder.

"Biloxi Bound" -- 4800 words. Two cafe owners in a crime-infested city neighborhood decide to relocate . . . but not soon enough. The crimes: murder, robbery. Selected for inclusion in Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021 and in Best Crime Stories of the Year 2021.

"The Ironwood File" -- 3100 words. A tyrannical boss, an employee, and a former employee bent on revenge converge one day in a downtown office building. The crimes: industrial negligence, attempted murder, sexual harassment.

"Nobody's Business" -- 2300 words. Two strangers--a man fleeing from his debts and an old woman hunting alligators--team up in the woods against other kinds of varmints. The crimes: loan-sharking, murder. 

"The Road to Bellville" -- 6200 words. A female sheriff transporting an inmate between prisons stops for a break at the wrong roadside cafe. The crimes: robbery, prison escape, murder.

"Sentry" -- 6700 words. Private investigator Tom Langford hires on as a bodyguard to the wife of a mob boss. The crimes: murder, racketeering.


Other info

For what it's worth, none of the above stories were locked-room mysteries, none were whodunits, none had supernatural elements, only one was a PI story, none were written in present tense, and they're pretty equally divided between first-person and third-person POV. Also, all of them were contemporary crime stories, not historicals, BUT this market does seem to like Sherlock Holmes stories and historical mysteries.

As for other submission pointers, remember that The Strand usually doesn't publish stories with otherworldly elements, although its guidelines say they'll consider them, and they frown on too much sexual content and strong language. Another thing: they prefer stories of between 2000 and 6000 words. The guidelines say they're occasionally receptive to stories of less than 1000 words as well, and my own experience has shown me they'll sometimes take stores longer than 6000--see my list, above. You'll also see that the first ten stories I sold them were safely in that 2000-6000 range, so I wasn't taking any chances; after that I tended to sneak in much longer stories now and then. 

One of the biggest things to keep in mind is that The Strand almost never responds to a submission unless it's with an acceptance. That means that you must keep close track of your submissions--something you're probably doing anyway--and that after a reasonable wait (three months or so, in my opinion) you should probably withdraw a story that hasn't gotten a response and submit it elsewhere. Woman's World works the same way.

Last but not least, The Strand's editor is Andrew F. Gulli and the submission email address is

Have any of you tried sending stories to The Strand? Any successes? Anything you can add to the observations I've made? As always, comments are welcome.

I hope this helps. If you do choose to submit a story there, best of luck!

30 July 2022

Isn't This Where We Came In?

The idea for this post came to me a few weeks ago, when my daughter and I went to see Top Gun: Maverick at a multiplex nearby. (Unlike my wife, our daughter loves movies almost as much as I do.) What happened was, TG:M was being shown in two different theaters in the multiplex, and we were directed by the ticket-taker to the wrong one. When we walked in, the feature was already in progress. It was an easy problem to fix; we just left and found the correct theater, and all was well. Nobody wants to walk in during the middle of a movie.

But I used to do it all the time.

Here's the deal. When I was in high school I saw a lot of movies. And not on TV, either--there weren't that many movies on TV in the mid-sixties. I went instead to the Strand Theater, just off the town square in Kosciusko, Mississippi. I was one of the Strand's regular customers.

The funny thing, though, is that I wasn't particular about whether I arrived at the start of the feature or somewhere in the middle. This probably had something to do with the fact that I was usually bumming a ride with someone else, but whatever the reason, my goofy high-school friends and I often strolled in after the film was well under way. We'd plop down in the then-uncomfortable seats and sit there and watch the second half or so of the movie, and then sit there while the end credits rolled and the old crowd left, and then keep sitting there while the new crowd filed in and the same movie started up again. Then we'd stay through the first half (or the first two-thirds or whatever we hadn't yet seen) and leave when we got to the part that was playing when we first arrived. Seriously. A question I remember well, because I was usually the one asking it, was "Isn't this where we came in?"

At that point we would get up and leave--or, if we had enough time, just sit through the feature again all the way to the end, thereby seeing the second part twice. We did that many, many times. 

What does all this have to do with writing?

Well, I've mentioned on many occasions that I am one of those writers who "outline" short stories, or at least map them out in their heads--including the ending--before the writing starts. And I think my teenaged habit of going into a movie halfway through the feature might've led to this preference for plotting a story out before getting to the actual writing.

I especially remember wondering what I had missed, as we waited in a silent and otherwise empty theater between showings. Wondering what had happened in the story earlier to lead up to the ending I'd already seen. And when the film started again, and I watched the introduction of the characters and watched the plot develop and thicken, I could sense the way the writer (or screenwriter, I suppose), must have felt as he planned the story and set the mood and dropped the clues and missing pieces into place and made the suspense build steadily toward a satisfying end. It was there that I learned firsthand about the importance of hooks and reversals and foreshadowing.

Now, many years later, I find myself doing the same kind of thinking, before and during the process of writing a short story. Once in a while I even come up with the ending first, and then backtrack to lay the plotting groundwork that will eventually lead to it. I once heard that every single thing in a short story must propel the story toward its conclusion. I believe that's true, and I can't think of a better way to make sure that happens than to know the ending ahead of time.

I heard someplace that Margaret Mitchell wrote the last chapter of Gone with the Wind first, and didn't write the opening chapter until ten years later, when the book was accepted for publication. Frankly, my dear, you probably don't give a damn, but I thought I'd mention it.

Once again, as I've often said in discussions about outlining, I'm not encouraging other writers, especially aspiring writers, to think or write that way, planning and plotting almost everything ahead of time. I'm just saying that's what works for me, in my stories. And I think it all might've started when our dumb little high-school movie group was always wandering in after Bogie or John Wayne or Paul Newman (or Clark Gable) was already halfway through his adventure. 

Not that it was the dumbest thing we did as teenagers. If I could convince you it was, I would be a good fiction writer.

Questions: What's your process? Are you an outliner or a free-wheeler, a plotter or a pantser? Or maybe a combination of the two? If you are an outliner, do you plan a story all the way through to the end, or discover the ending as you go?

Full disclosure: Fourteen years ago I wrote a post for the Criminal Brief blog on this same subject. This is a different and updated version, but I confess I happily stole some of the thoughts from my previous post. My apologies to any reader who might recall that column--I myself remembered it only when I was halfway done with this one.

Happy writing and reading (and moviegoing!) to all of you.

16 July 2022

Mixing Genres


A  bit of background, first, before I get to the topic today . . .

This past week I was fortunate enough to speak via Zoom to the Southeast Chapter of MWA about--what else?--short stories. (Thanks once again to Roger Johns and Lynn Willis for inviting me.) I had a great time, and I thought we had a good Q&A. Well, at least a lot of good questions--I can't say whether they were good answers.

Some of those questions won't surprise you. Here are a few that I recall:

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Do you write the story first and then look for a market, or vice versa?

What do places like AHMM, EQMM, etc., look for in a story?

How long are most of the stories you write?

Where do you get your ideas?

Where do you look for reprint markets?

What's your favorite of all your stories?

What mystery markets pay the most?

What do you think about simultaneous submissions?

How long do you wait before inquiring about a submission?

How much time do you spend on openings, endings, etc.?

And so on.

What did surprise me was the number of questions about mixed-genre (or cross-genre) stories. Among other things, some of the attendees wondered just how much mixing you should do, in stories for mystery markets. Is it okay to write and submit a Western mystery? A mystery/fantasy? A science-fiction mystery? The answer, of course, depends on the particular market--and we're obviously focusing more on magazines here than on anthologies. 

As I explained in the session, some of the leading mystery magazines are more receptive to mixed-genre stories than others are. If you're talking SF/fantasy mysteries, the short answer is that EQMM, The Strand, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and Woman's World usually prefer no otherworldly or supernatural elements at all in their mystery submissions, while AHMM, Black Cat Weekly, and Mystery Magazine are more open in that regard. At least in my experience. The guidelines of some publications make this clear and some don't; either way, it always helps to read a few issues and study the stories. It's worth pointing out, too, that Black Cat Weekly doesn't publish mysteries exclusively. It also publishes undiluted science fiction stories. Same goes for Woman's World: they publish one mystery story a week, but also one romance story a week.

As for Western mysteries, I've occasionally sold those to almost all the major mystery markets. (One's coming up in the next issue of AHMM.) And I think that makes sense--after all, Westerns can be categorized as historical fiction, which is something all mystery magazines seem to like, and I can also think of very few Westerns that don't involve a crime of some kind.

On that note, remember that most mystery editors seem to believe, as Otto Penzler does, that if a crime is a part of the story, that story qualifies as a mystery. It does not have to be a whodunit. In the episodes of the old TV show Columbo the viewers always knew the identity of the murderer before the detective did--those were howcatchems instead of whodunits--but it was still called a mystery series. AHMM editor Linda Landrigan even pointed out, in a recent YouTube interview with Jane Cleland, that the mere implication of a crime is acceptable.

I have a bit of recent experience with mixed-genre stories: my short story "From Ten to Two" appears in the current issue of Black Cat Weekly. It's sort of a mystery/fantasy/romance/SF story--though if I had to pick a single genre, it's probably more of a time-travel tale than anything else. I can tell you, that story was great fun to write. Mixed-genre stories usually are, for me.

How do you feel about stories that combine one or more genres? Do you like reading them? Have you tried writing them? Are most of them primarily mysteries? Have you sold any mixed-genre/cross-genre stories to mystery publications? Or do you prefer your coffee black and your crime stories undiluted? Do you think most readers do? Have you ever sold a mixed-genre story to another kind of publication, like an SF or a Western market? Let me know.

Meanwhile, I'm keeping my mixer handy.

I'll be back in two weeks.

02 July 2022

Good Times with the Idiot Box

My home theater is just the way I want it. A TV on one end and my recliner on the other, the remotes and earpods within arm's reach, free food and drink only one room away, no noisy crowds or dress codes, and the ability to watch what I like anytime I like. I admit my selections are limited, but much less so than they once were. I can't complain.

As for the delivery system for all this, the movies and shows I see these days are acquired in one of three ways: (1) streamed on Netflix, (2) streamed via Amazon Prime, or (3) ordered via Netflix's DVD mailing program. There are plenty of other premium services out there but I'm too cheap to subscribe to them, and besides (at least according to my wife), I have enough to watch as it is.

Now and then, not often, I'll dive into the discount DVD bin at Walmart or Big Lots, and I'll occasionally purchase an otherwise-hard-to-locate movie via Amazon. Even less often, I'll go watch a new movie in a real theater--last week my daughter and I did just that, to see Top Gun: Maverick. But mostly I stick to Prime or one of Netflix's two services. Except for the local and national news, I never, ever, watch network TV anymore, and that goes a long way toward taking the idiot out of the idiot box. I feel certain my brain cells, what few I have left, are better off as a result.

As for what I do watch, it's probably something like 85 percent feature films and 15 percent cable series. Most of these series consist of multiple seasons that eventually end in a series finale; some, like Fargo and True Detective, encompass multiple seasons but each season is a complete and self-contained story with different characters and a definite beginning, middle, and end; and a few, like Godless and The Queen's Gambit, are what's been referred to as "limited series" designed to run for only one season. Watching a limited series is like sitting down to an eight- or ten-hour standalone movie. 

I will probably always prefer actual movies to cable series, but I have to admit that some of those series--mostly those produced by HBO, it seems--have been among the best stories I've ever seen on TV or anywhere else. More on that later.

A quick clarification: The British refer to a "season" as a "series." ("I say, Nigel, have you watched the second series of The Crown?") So far as I know, they don't have a word that describes the entire run of all episodes of a show, which is what we call a series.

Now, having said all that, here are some of the cable series that I've watched all the way to their conclusions, or that I am at least current on and awaiting "upcoming" seasons. I've found all of these to be good, or at least worth watching, and I've found some of them to be outstanding:

  • The Newsroom
  • Longmire
  • The Walking Dead
  • Westworld
  • 24
  • Stranger Things
  • Outer Range
  • Fargo
  • Hap and Leonard
  • Night Skies
  • John Adams
  • Hell on Wheels
  • The Queen's Gambit
  • Black Sails
  • True Detective
  • G.L.O.W.
  • Magic City
  • Lilyhammer
  • The Crown
  • Mildred Pierce
  • Cobra Kai
  • Weeds
  • Californication
  • The 7 Lives of Lea
  • The Outlaws
  • Bloodline
  • Godless
  • The Wilds
  • Norsemen
  • Lemony Snicket
  • Castle Rock

There are some others that I watched for several seasons (and many episodes) and truly enjoyed, but for some reason I never finished--or haven't yet:

  • House of Cards
  • The Borgias
  • Spartacus: Blood and Sand
  • Girls
  • The Umbrella Academy
  • Wentworth
  • Squid Games
  • Outlander
  • Sex Education
  • Orange Is the New Black

And a few others that I have always intended to watch, and still intend to, but somehow never got around to starting:

  • Mad Men
  • Breaking Bad
  • The Americans
  • Oz
  • Blacklist
  • Lost in Space
  • Don't Call Saul
  • Sons of Anarchy

What I haven't listed are some really bad series. You can probably already guess the titles of many of those, and the only good thing I can say about them is that I was able to tell by watching their "pilot" episodes that I didn't want to waste my time on the rest. That's happened fairly often.

But … I have also watched all episodes of a few series that (as I mentioned earlier) I think are among the very best stories I've ever seen--or at least the most entertaining. Here are my top twelve:

  • The Sopranos
  • Game of Thrones
  • Deadwood
  • The Wire
  • Ozark
  • Goliath
  • Rome
  • Lost
  • Boardwalk Empire
  • Justified
  • Yellowstone
  • Peaky Blinders

NOTE 1: I think it's interesting that two of these series--Deadwood and Rome--were supposedly both canceled before they reached a "finale"--the producers, actors, and audiences thought there would be another season coming--and the series were still excellent. Deadwood ran for three seasons and Rome for two.

NOTE 2: As always, this is my opinion only, and the content of the above lists might change tomorrow. But that's part of the fun. (And yes, I realize I am probably the only person in the free world who hasn't seen Breaking Bad or Mad Men. One of my many shortcomings.)

What do you think? Any agreements or disagreements? What are some of the best cable series you've seen? Do you have any recommendations? Please let me know in the comments.

Next time, back to topics on mysteries and writing. Have a good two weeks!

18 June 2022

Plots and Characters


Two often-asked questions, at writers' meetings and writers' conferences, and sometimes even at readings and signings:

(1) When authors think up a story, should they start with a plot or with a character? 

(2) Which of these (plot or character) is more important to the story?

There are, as you probably know, no correct answers to these. Writers' processes are different and their opinions are different, and whatever works, works. But since this is my topic today and I don't want to end it here, please consider a couple of examples.

Plot first

Anytime the subject of plot vs. character comes up, I think of "The Choking Doberman." I don't know who dreamed up the story, or when, but it's been around a long time. Here it is, as close as I can remember it, in a nutshell:

A lady comes home from the supermarket with a sackful of food, opens her front door, and finds her pet Doberman choking in the entranceway. She drops her bag, picks up the gasping dog, and rushes him to the veterinarian's office. The vet tells her, "We'll take care of him--go home and I'll call you later." She drives back home and is picking up her dropped groceries when the phone rings. It's the vet. He says, "Get out of the house! You're in great danger--get out right now!" So she does. Terrified, she runs to the next-door neighbor's house, and watches through the neighbor's window as several patrol cars screech to a stop in front of her house. Half a dozen policemen hop out with guns drawn and run inside. Several minutes later the veterinarian arrives also, and when he gets out of his car the lady hurries up to him and says, "What on earth is happening?" He tells her that when he examined her dog he found a severed human finger lodged in the dog's throat--that's why he was choking. Assuming the dog might've surprised an intruder, the vet called the police and, sure enough, the cops found a man hiding in one of her closets and clutching his bloody hand. 

Question: Is this fine, illuminating, life-changing literature? Of course not. But it damn sure is memorable. I think I first heard the story told in high school, and I remember it to this day.

In the Doberman story, the plot--the story--is everything. It's all that matters. The characters--the woman, the vet, the neighbor, the policemen--aren't all that important. They're there only to make the story happen. I've heard this mentioned as a good example of genre fiction as opposed to "literary."

Character first

On the other side of the aisle is "Big Two-Hearted River," by Ernest Hemingway. I can't remember it in detail, but here's a quick summary:

After the war, a man goes back home and visits his old fishing spot. He hikes to the river, sits around, smokes, makes camp for the night, and goes to bed. The next morning he cooks breakfast, finds grasshoppers to use for bait, and goes fishing. He catches a few trout and loses a few and finally stops. 

And that's it. I don't mean to in any way demean the story; it's well written and certainly well known. But nothing really happens in the story. I suppose there's symbolism here--the river could probably represent life, flowing steadily past him, and the battle between him and the fish he tries to catch is an insignificant struggle when compared to the fighting he did in the war. But there's no plot at all. The character is everything. This story would fall more on the literary-fiction end of the scale, as opposed to genre fiction. 

A clarification (I hope)

Please be aware, I don't think the plot/character issue is the deciding factor in whether a story's categorized as literary or genre. I think it's more a case of whether the viewpoint character undergoes a change in the course of the story. If that happens--if he or she becomes a different person by the time the end rolls around--it's literary fiction. If the character remains pretty much the same at the end (think James Bond or Nancy Drew or Indiana Jones), it's genre fiction. There are other things to consider as well, like entertainment vs. enlightenment, and the sophistication and beauty of the language, etc., but I believe the man thing is the extent to which the POV character experiences a change in the way he or she looks at life. And it's not always the main character--it's the viewpoint character. Atticus Finch and Shane and Jay Gatsby aren't the ones who undergo this kind of emotional change; Scout and Bobby Starrett and Nick Carraway are. They're the people who are in a position to observe what happens and learn the most from it. It is for this reason that I believe some genre stories like Westerns and mysteries and science fiction can also qualify as literary fiction. (My opinion only.)

NOTE: I recall seeing much of this plot vs. character debate years ago in a book called 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias. Or at I think that was it. If I'm wrong it wouldn't be the first time. (Maybe the second.)

So, which should come first? Plot or character?

That depends on the author. Almost all my writer friends tell me they come up with the character(s) first and only then do they worry about giving those characters something to do, which is the plot. I do it the other way around. I always come up with the plot first, and only then create the people (and try hard to make them interesting) who will act out the story.

One thing to bear in mind is that your characters don't have to be any less interesting if you come up with the plot first. I even think the characters can turn out better when they're tailored to meet the requirements of the storyline.

Which is more important to the story?

That varies as well, depending on who you ask. Personally, I probably prefer plot-driven stories to character-driven stories because I think entertainment is the one most important thing I can try to deliver to readers. If they somehow happen to be enlightened or educated as a result of the story, that's icing on the cake, but if they're entertained--if it's a good story--I feel I've done what I set out to do. On the other hand, I know many writers, and readers too, who always prefer strong characters over a strong plot.

Stephen King once said, in his essay collection Secret Windows, "All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance over every other facet of the writer's craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else can be forgiven."

As for literary fiction vs. genre fiction, which always seems to go hand-in-hand with discussions of character vs. plot, the best definition I've heard of those terms comes also from Stephen King, in a taped interview I saw years ago. I'm paraphrasing here, but he said something like "Literary fiction is about extraordinary people doing ordinary things, and genre fiction is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things."

I think we can all agree that the very best stories and novels and movies have great characters AND great plots--they're not mutually exclusive. That's why Lonesome Dove and To Kill a Mockingbird and The Silence of the Lambs and The Godfather will be around forever. The rest of us writers should be so lucky.

Your turn . . .

If you write stories, which do you come up with first? Always the characters? Always the plot? Sometimes a mix of the two? And which do you think is more important to the story? Let me know, in the comments section.

See you again on July 2nd.

04 June 2022

Saving Mrs. Hapwell, Over and Over


Last month I posted a column here at SleuthSayers about humor in fiction, and how those kinds of stories can be fun for the writer as well as (hopefully) fun for the reader. And while putting that post together, I took a look back at my published stories to see just how many were funny and how many weren't. I won't bore you with my statistics, but it turned out I've written a lot of (what I think is) humorous fiction. But a lot of it isn't. Mystery stories often contain at least some degree of lightheartedness, and I try to inject that when appropriate, but the truth is, crime is serious business, and so is crime fiction.

Even so . . . the funny stories are still the most enjoyable to write. Maybe the most surprising thing to me is that editors seem to like them also. I've been fortunate in that two of my humorous mystery stories won Derringer Awards in 2020 and 2022, one won a Shamus in 2021, and many of them from long ago have been reprinted again and again. (Many have also been rejected again and again, but that's another matter.)

The story that wouldn't give up . . .

I found that one of those older stories, a sort-of western called "Saving Mrs. Hapwell," has so far appeared in the following publications: 

Dogwood Tales Magazine, March/April 1997 issue

Mystery Time, Spring/Summer 2000

Desert Voices, December 2004

Taj Mahal Review, December 2005

Crime & Suspense, February 2006

Rainbow's End and Other Stories (collection, Dogwood Press, 2006 and 2010)

Crime & Suspense I (anthology, Wolfmont Press, March 2007)

Kings River Life, May 2020

Crimeucopia: As in Funny Ha-Ha, August 2021

I hope it'll show up in other places too, before it's finally put to rest.

I think some of the things that have made that story marketable to multiple publications are that it's cross-genre (crime, western, humor), it's short (1160 words), it's almost entirely dialogue, and it has what I've been told is a memorable ending. One editor who reprinted "Saving Mrs. Hapwell" informed me awhile back that she still receives emails that mention the final line of the story, a fact that gladdens my writer's heart, and I've often been asked to read the story aloud at library signings. An old friend of mine who is himself an author even referred to that story in a YouTube interview he did with me a few weeks ago, saying he always brings it up as an example whenever he gives talks about writing to high-school classes. Also gratifying is that our longtime SleuthSayers friend and author Anne van Doorn, who since 2016 has read one piece of short fiction every day, recently selected "Saving Mrs, Hapwell" as his pick for Best Short Story of the Week. (Thanks, Anne!) So that story's been good to me, over the years. If you're so inclined, you can read it here:

The second, third, and fourth times around

The point I wanted to make today, though it's taken me a while to get to it, is that we short-fiction writers can and should try to remarket our published stories. All of us still have the manuscripts; they might be stacked somewhere in a closet and aging like tobacco leaves, or buried in the forgotten depths of your computer--but they're still there if you look for them, and just waiting to be recycled. Find 'em, dust them off, and send them out again into the world.

There are plenty of potential homes for these old stories. As you can see from my list for Mrs. Hapwell, you can include previously pubbed stories in a collection of your own work at some point, and you can also--as long as the rights are retained--continue to sell them as reprints to magazines and anthologies. Sometimes you're even paid again for the stories, and if you're lucky you might receive a higher payment than you did the first time around. (That hasn't happened to me often, but it does happen.) Markets will also contact you occasionally to ask if they can reprint a story, and--failing that--you can find all kinds of possibilities on the Internet. Here are a few suggested sites:

105 Literary Magazines Accepting Reprints

Where to Submit Reprints

18 Magazines Accepting Reprints

I also check now and then for possible reprint targets. (Just pull up their pages and do a search for "Reprints: yes.") It's primarily a fantasy/SF site but also includes info on some mystery markets.

Questions for the class

If you're a writer, do you actively seek out publications that are receptive to reprints? Have you been successful in that? If so, where do you usually look to locate those markets?

Whatever the answers, I wish you luck in all your writing endeavors.

See you in two weeks.