Showing posts with label Lawrence Block. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lawrence Block. Show all posts

16 March 2018

We Got the Funk... and The Point!

Thomas Pluck














"You don't have to write." --Lawrence Block

That's from LB's "tape" (now available as a digital file) of writing affirmations. I bought it for the hell of it after reading his excellent and helpful book Write For Your Life, which I also recommend. I love it because I get to hear my literary hero tell me how great I am for an hour, but he also says that I don't have to write. In the beginning, I questioned the wisdom of such an affirmation. For those with anxiety, it is a godsend.

This is my favorite author photo of LB, from the affirmation tape:
He didn't need no pony tail.

You do not have to write.

The world will keep on spinning. The only person who will beat you up over it is yourself. The anxiety of that appointment with the writing desk can crush you, and that's what the affirmation is meant to counter. Just sit there and fart around and some words are sure to come out. (Along with a certain amount of flatus). Joe Lansdale has more of a tough-love approach with it. If you don't have to write, don't. Don't bother us with your scribbling if this is something you're doing because someone else says you ought to write a book, or you think it might be "fun." If you're driven, then you will write.

Eventually.

I let a book sit for two weeks. The same book I was chunking along with since winter began, the one I hit 65,000 words with in record time, came to a halt for a number of reasons. I got the flu. Work projects ate up my sleep, and I need a good night's sleep to operate. And then I let the anxiety creep in. I started worrying about how good the book would be, which is poisonous to a first draft. You can fix it later! I had a framework and an outline, I knew the scenes I needed to write, but the path to get there became a twisty maze of passages all alike. I even used that line in the book! (If you're not an old nerd like me, it's from Zork and Colossal Cave, two of the first text-based computer games written in the '60s.)

So to put it mildly, I was in a funk. A capital F Funk.

Which reminded me of my friend Matthew C. Funk, a once prolific crime writer who seems to have all but stopped writing. Which is a damn shame. Matt excelled at the hardest boiled stories from the Desire projects in New Orleans, and police stories set there. His stories were short and sharp, like a hideout punch dagger to kidneys. The last I'd heard he had a novel whose publisher went belly-up, and it hasn't yet found a new home. Which is a shame, because I'd really like to read City of NO, as it was called when Exhibit A had it. I reached out to Matt but haven't heard back yet. You can read some of Matt's stories at Shotgun Honey. Matt was also an editor for Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and helped me edit my early Jay Desmarteaux story "Gumbo Weather," which attracted the attention of agent Nat Sobel, and the story later appeared in Blood on the Bayou for Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans.

I know another writer who seems to have stopped after that imprint shuttered its windows, and it is a damn shame. They are both fine writers and the genre is lesser without their perspectives. Last night, an hour before we went to see A Wrinkle in Time--more on that later--I sat down and banged out half a chapter of my sprawling Louisiana novel, returning to the part set in Angola prison, and damn it felt good. The characters felt alive, and I felt proud to have given them brief life on the page.

I wonder if it was LB telling me I didn't have to, or my fear of meeting a similar fate if my publisher collapsed, or if it was Champion Joe Lansdale's Texas boot kicking me in the patoot that made me write when I thought there was no point to it? Or was it the freedom of not having a point?

Then again, as Harry Nilsson taught me, everything has a point. Even Oblio, the one kid from Pointed Village who was born without a point on his head, on his wonderful children's album, aptly named The Point!. Listen to it if you haven't. You may know the songs "Me and My Arrow" and "Think About Your Troubles", which had some success. Arrow is Oblio's pointy-headed dog, who jumps on his head so he can play ring-toss with the other kids. See, they toss rings and catch them on their pointy heads.... see the trippy animated movie, if you don't believe me!



Listen, it was the seventies. This made sense then. Or we pretended it did. My father, a burly construction worker who made Andrew Dice Clay's parody character seem realistic, loved this album. After he died, I listened to his vinyl copy, and while it's simplistic, it does have a point. Everything has a point, nothing is pointless. Writing this book doesn't have to have the purpose of creating a great follow-up to Bad Boy Boogie. It could be a learning experience. I'm weaving four narratives, and it is both invigorating and challenging, and even if I fail, I will have become a better writer in the process. So that's the point.

Depression, and "funks"--as I like to call non-clinical depression--are insidious. The clinical kind, you can only try to head off. Most people need medication and therapy and I won't diminish their struggle. Anxiety, which I have, is bad enough. But funks can be battled. It's not a fight, and you're not weak when you fail. You need to learn yourself, and see when they are coming, and do what you can to derail them or ride them out. I know that I feel better when I write on a schedule, but sometimes the story needs to simmer, and it's not ready to move on. For me, sitting at the desk and listening to music that goes with the story, or going for a walk--tough in the weather we've had lately--are both tools I use. When I go for a walk WITHOUT MY PHONE I am often amazed how story problems shake loose as I tread the uneven slate sidewalks of my "quaint" town. I like hikes as well, and Eagle Rock's trails will get more of my tracks once the snow melts.

Watching good movies and reading good books helps as well. I liked Black Panther and Annihilation. The former is just a good superhero and science fiction story that makes you challenge your assumptions. It's less violent than most--they use EMP weapons and hand to hand more than firearms, thanks to bulletproof vibranium armor--and is one of the best comic book movies out of the enormous bunch. And it's an origin story, so you don't need to have seen any other movies or read the books to enjoy it. Just plain good storytelling as well. Begins in media res, explains just enough, and ties everything together. The villains even have a point, no one is all good or bad, and there are a lot of characters to love.

Annihilation is more of a horror tale than science fiction. It uses the investigation of a terrifying anomaly to explore what it means to be human, and if a human being ever really knows another, which is one of my favorite subjects. It's beautiful, scary, entertaining, and puzzling, but if you don't like ambiguity... it may not be for you. It is more like Predator than 2001: A Space Odyssey and introduces humanity to terrors we can barely understand and cannot fight or control, so Lovecraftian with a dose of Crichton. I was expecting a story more like Arrival so it took some processing for me, but if you go in with the right expectations, you will be satisfied. And it is a movie we will be talking about for a long time.

The most polarizing film of late seems to be A Wrinkle in Time, which I loved. I have not read the books. I went in cold, and if you didn't like the changes made from the books, I can't argue with you. On its own, I found it beautiful and inspiring, and one of the best explorations of how a child deals with low self-esteem. It reminded me of Wonder Woman in a small way. When Diana walks up the ladder out of the trenches into No Man's Land, a lot of us burst into tears of joy. She was an outsider who refused to accept this is the way it is and her actions were the response, they are that way because you permit them to be. If you go in cold and accept the story at face value, Wrinkle will give you many, many such emotional moments as young Meg overcomes her self-doubts. It struck a nerve with me, because while my father didn't vanish into a wormhole, my parents did divorce when I was seven, and it was a personality-altering event. I became a mouse. Look at me and you wouldn't believe it, but it took years of physical and emotional training to break out of my introverted shell, and I still find parties about as fun to navigate as whitewater rapids.

The story is for children and throws no bones to adults. It never winks at the camera. You will either accept Oprah as a towering goddess of light or you won't. I chose to accept, and found it very rewarding. Chris Pine (Dr Murray), like everyone in the movie, is completed unabashed in their emotions. We are used to unabashed cruelty, but seeing that applied to wonder, joy, love, doubt... we often see it as mawkish, thanks to the "cool" factor that Madison Avenue has told us is paramount to protect our weak inner selves, preferably with a costume of expensive clothing and accessories, maybe an Omega Seamaster? I thought he was excellent, he reminded me of a cross between Fred Rogers and Carl Sagan. The villain is a childish and hateful universal force, and Ms. Which (Oprah) describes how it bends us toward evil so perfectly that it choked me up. We are all little children, sometimes. We just get better at hiding it.

The only movie I can compare it to is What Dreams May Come, which was also beautiful and unafraid to talk about love. It was also mocked for it. We've been fed bitter and cynical pablum for so long we can have trouble experiencing wonder. Cynicism is easy; if you can't win, why fight? Because fighting it is the point.

See how I tied all that up there?


P.S., You can listen to the full album of The Point! on YouTube before you go buy it.

01 November 2017

Gutter Dwellers and Chair Thieves

by Robert Lopresti

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” - Oscar Wilde

A few months ago I read a story called "Crow Mountain"  by John Floyd in the latest issue of The Strand.  A good story it was, but what amused me was that it included a plot twist that I had used a decade before.


I am not suggesting anything nefarious.  First of all, John needs to steal ideas from me like  Bryan Bowers needs me to give him autoharp lessons.  (Slow down, Bryan!  Make some mistakes!)  But most important - if he had read my story and instantly said I can use that it would have still been all right.  It would be what Lawrence Block calls "creative plagiarism."  You take the original idea in use it in some new and original way.

Here's what I mean by the shared plot twist: If you read John's story and then started mine when you got to a certain point you might say: "Huh.  I bet I know how it ends."  And you'd be right  Same if you read mine first, then John's.

I told John I liked the story and mentioned the coincidence.  I said it reminded me of one of my father's favorite sayings: "Great minds run in the same gutter."

John graciously replied: "I’ll share a gutter with you anytime."

I mention this because I have a story in the new November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  (My 27th appearance there, he said modestly.)   And "The Chair Thief" definitely involved creative plagiarism.

I wish I could tell you who I stole from, but I don't know.  A few decades ago I went through all the mystery shorts I could find in the public library.  I fell in love with a tale by Lawrence Block and when his collected stories came out I looked forward to repeating my acquaintance with that one.  But it wasn't there.  

I emailed him, describing the story.  Larry politely replied that it sounded like a great idea, but it wasn't his.  So I'm stuck.

Here is the plot of that original story; A true paranoiac gets ready for his day, putting fresh tin foil in his hat to keep out the mind controllers, and wrapping his torso in plastic wrap to foil the death rays.  Then he goes out for a stroll.  Things happen.

My story, on the other hand, is about two office-mates who get mad at a co-worker.  

You might say "those two plots have nothing in common."  Well, maybe not.  But it comes down to what I said before: If you read them one after another you would probably guess how the second one ends.

But since the first one is lost, we don't have to worry about that.  

I hope you enjoy "The Chair Thief." And if anyone remembers the author and title of the other story, I wish you would let me know.

29 August 2017

2017 Macavity Award Short Story Nominees Dish on Their Stories

by Paul D. Marks

Today I’m giving over my post to the 2017 Macavity Award Short Story Nominees. There’s six of us and I’m both lucky and honored to be among such truly distinguished company. It’s mind blowing. Really!

The envelope please. And the nominees are (in alphabetical order as they will be throughout this piece): Lawrence Block, Craig Faustus Buck, Greg Herren, Paul D. Marks, Joyce Carol Oates and Art Taylor. Wow!

I want to thank Janet Rudolph who puts it all together. And I want to thank everyone who voted for us in the first round. If you’re eligible to vote there’s still a few days left – ballots are due September 1st, and I hope you’ll take the time to check out the links below and read all the stories.

But even if you’re not eligible to vote, I hope you’ll take the time to read the stories. I think you’ll enjoy them and maybe get turned onto some new writers. Our Bios are at the end of this post.

So without further ado, here’s our question and responses:

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“What inspired your Macavity-nominated story? Where did the idea and characters come from?”

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Lawrence Block: “Autumn at the Automat,” (In Sunlight or in Shadow, Pegasus Books). Story link: http://amzn.to/2vsnyBP 



When I got the idea for an anthology of stories based on Edward Hopper paintings, the first thing I did was draw up a list of writers to invite. I explained the book’s premise and invited each to select a painting.

The response surprised me. Almost everyone on my wish list accepted, picked a painting, and went to work. Now it fell to me to go and do likewise, and I began viewing the paintings and waiting for inspiration to strike. I considered several works—everything Hopper painted somehow manages to suggest there’s a story waiting to be told—and when I looked a second time at “Automat,” the germ of the story came to me.

But there was a problem. “Automat” was off the table. Kristine Kathryn Rusch had already laid claim to it.

I tried to find a way out, but all I could think of was the story that had come to me, as it evolved in my mind. So I emailed Kris, explained where I was, and asked her how strongly committed she was to that particular painting. Had she begun work on a story?

She could not have been more gracious, replying at once that she’d picked “Automat” because she’d had to pick something, that she hadn’t yet come up with a plot and characters, and could as easily transfer her affections to something else. I thanked her, and that same day I sat down and started writing. If I remember correctly, an increasingly tenuous proposition with the passing years, I wrote the story in a single session at the computer. It was already there in my mind, waiting for my fingers to catch up with it.

Kris promptly selected another painting, “Hotel Room 1931,” and knocked my socks off with her story, Still Life 1931, which she elected to publish under her occasional pen name, Kris Nelscott.

So that’s the story.

***

Craig Faustus Buck: “Blank Shot,” (Black Coffee, Darkhouse Books). Story link: http://tinyurl.com/BlankShot-Buck 

“Blank Shot” was the result of two writing issues coming together in the right place at the right time. I'd been asked by someone to blog about openings, so I'd been thinking about my favorite way to start a story, which is with a bang. So I wrote an example: "His face hit the pavement hard."

I wrote my blog and found myself wondering what happened next to the hapless fellow in my example. At the same time, I'd been reading a Cold War thriller about Berlin in the time of the Wall, and I wondered what Berlin had been like before the Wall went up, but after it had been divided after WWII. I did a bit of research and became fascinated with this period of a divided city that had open commerce and transportation between the sides, yet still maintained a heavily guarded border without barriers between them.

I decided to take my opening line, put it in 1960 Berlin, and see what happened. The result was a hoot to write and full of surprises for me as my characters developed. The ending really came as a shock. Of course, I had to do a lot of back-filling and tap dancing to motivate it and make it work, but that was the fun part.

Once again, writing by the seat of my pants, instead of outlining, turned the work of writing into play. I truly believe that when authors allow their characters to do the driving, the journey is more enjoyable for both writer and reader, and the destination is more likely to delight.

***

Greg Herren: “Survivor’s Guilt,” (Blood on the Bayou: Bouchercon Anthology 2016, Down & Out Books). Story link: https://gregwritesblog.com/2017/07/21/cant-stop-the-world/ 

My story was inspired, in part, by the stories I heard from people who did not evacuate from New Orleans before the levees failed; what it was like to be up on the roof, running out of water, and drinking alcohol because that was all that was left while waiting to be rescued. A married couple—friends of friends— got divorced because the wife had wanted to evacuate and the husband didn’t; they were on their roof for four days. That dynamic—the blame and guilt—fascinated me, as did the mental anguish. That kind of trauma changes people.

As I listened to the husband tell his story, through my horror at what they endured, I thought: what if they had argued and he’d accidentally killed her?

After all, the victim’s body wouldn’t have been found for months, and by then, the water and decay would have certainly done a number on the corpse; and the bodies weren’t autopsied. It seemed almost like it would be the perfect crime. The body might not ever be identified, and the husband could just disappear, as so many did in the vast diaspora that followed.

As for the characters in my story, I had started with the story and worked backward. I made them blue collar, because of most of the people who lived in the lower 9th were, and began piecing together who they were, and what their marriage had been like. It all just kind of fell into place as I wrote the story.

***

Paul D. Marks: “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Dec. 2016). Story link: http://www.elleryqueenmysterymagazine.com/assets/3/6/EQMD16_Marks_BunkerHill.pdf 

My story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” is partly inspired by the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles. Bunker Hill was L.A.’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. It was filled with fantastic Victorian mansions, as well as offices, storefronts, hotels, etc. After World War I the swells moved west and the neighborhood got run down and became housing for poor people. It wasn’t shiny enough for the Powers That Be, who wanted to build up and refurbish downtown. Out with the old, the poor, the lonely, in with the new, the young, the hip. So in the late 60s they tore it down and redeveloped it. Luckily, some of those Victorians were moved to other parts of L.A. If you’re into film noir you’ve seen the original Bunker Hill. And when I was younger I explored it with friends, even “borrowing” a souvenir or two. And that place has always stayed with me.

In the story, P.I. Howard Hamm is investigating his best friend’s murder and, while the murder takes place today in one of those “moved” Victorians, “ghosts” of the past influence the present.

As it says in “Bunker Hill Blues,” the sequel to “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” which is in the current September/October 2017 issue of Ellery Queen, but which also applies to the first Bunker Hill story:

“Howard might not have believed in ghosts, but they were everywhere if you knew where to look for them: There are more things in heaven and earth, and all that jazz. Not creatures in white sheets like Casper, not malevolent apparitions like in Poltergeist. But ghosts of the past, ghosts of who we were and who we thought we wanted to be. Ghosts of our lost dreams. In some ways those ghosts are always gaining on us, aren’t they?”

***

Joyce Carol Oates: “The Crawl Space,” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Sep.–Oct. 2016). Story link: http://www.elleryqueenmysterymagazine.com/assets/3/6/EQM916_Oates_CrawlSpace.pdf 

(Note: I couldn’t reach Joyce Carol Oates, but Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, provided me with the following and with Ms. Oates’ bio at the end of this piece.)

Joyce carol oates 2014
Photo by Larry D. Moore © 2014
“The Crawl Space” by Joyce Carol Oates was written in response to an invitation from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to contribute to its special 75th-anniversary issue, September/October 2016. The author explained the seed for the story when she spoke at the EQMM 75th Anniversary Symposium at Columbia University in September 2016:

“‘The Crawl Space’ . . . gives me a shiver because it’s set in my former house…. There was a crawl space in that house. If you know what a crawl space is, it’s some strange part of a cellar—it’s not completely filled in. Sometimes there is a cellar and the crawl space goes out from it, but this particular house didn’t have a cellar. It only had a crawl space. There were things stored there, and I think repairmen would have to crawl in there and do things—and I think they never came out again....If you have an imagination, you can just imagine how horrible it would be to be in a crawl space. So the story’s about that dark fantasy that comes true for someone.”

Ms. Oates added, that despite being set in her former home, the story is “NOT autobiographical”!

***

Art Taylor: “Parallel Play,” (Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning, Wildside Press). Story link: http://www.arttaylorwriter.com/books/6715-2/ 

My story “Parallel Play” centers on new parenthood, both the stress and anxieties surrounding it and then the idea of parental protectiveness—the thought that most parents will do whatever it takes to protect their children. The opening to the story is set at a kids play space which I call Teeter Toddlers, and the idea of the story actually first came to me when I was taking my own son, Dashiell, to his weekly Gymboree classes. I was the only father who regularly attended, and while the moms there were certainly welcoming to me, they did seem to form quicker friendships, share more quickly, with one another than with me—some small gender divide, I guess, and probably not surprising, but I did start wondering about various dynamics and situations, letting my mind wander (as we crime writers do) into darker twists and turns. Another inspiration was the prompt from the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning, which required weather to play an important role. The Gymboree had big plate glass windows surrounding the play space, and I remember one day watching a thunderstorm roll into view. That image plus one more element—a forgotten umbrella—and the rest of the story was suddenly in motion. I hope that readers will appreciate where it all goes.

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BIOS:

Lawrence Block has been writing award-winning mystery and suspense fiction for half a century. His series characters include Matthew Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Chip Harrison, Evan Tanner, Martin Ehrengraf, and a chap called Keller. His non-series characters include, well, hundreds of other folk. Liam Neeson starred in the film version of his novel, A Walk Among the Tombstones.  Several of his other books have also been filmed, although not terribly well.  In December Pegasus Books will publish Alive in Shape and Color, a sequel to his Hopper anthology In Sunlight or in Shadow. LB is a modest and humble fellow, although you would never guess as much from this biographical note. http://lawrenceblock.com/ 


Author-screenwriter Craig Faustus Buck's short crime fiction has won a Macavity Award and has been nominated for a second, plus two Anthonys, two Derringers and a Silver Falchion. His novel, Go Down Hard (Brash Books), a noir romp, was First Runner Up for the Claymore Award.  The sequel, Go Down Screaming, is coming out whenever he writes his way out of the second act. CraigFaustusBuck.com  

Greg Herren is the award-winning author of over thirty novels, and an award-winning editor, with twenty anthologies to his credit. He has published numerous short stories, in markets as varied as Men magazine to the critically acclaimed New Orleans Noir to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and his story "Keeper of the Flame" is scheduled for an upcoming issue of Mystery Week. He has written two detective series set in New Orleans. His most recent novel, Garden District Gothic, was released in September 2016. He lives in New Orleans with his partner of twenty-two years, and is currently finishing another novel. http://gregherren.com/ 

Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller White Heat. Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a “taut crime yarn.” His story Ghosts of Bunker Hill was voted #1 in the Ellery Queen Readers Poll and is nominated for a Macavity Award. Howling at the Moon was short-listed for both the Anthony and Macavity Awards. Midwest Review calls his novella Vortex “…a nonstop staccato action noir.” His short stories can be found in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine/s, as well as various periodicals and anthologies, including St. Louis Noir. He is also the co-editor of the Coast to Coast series of mystery anthologies for Down & Out Books. www.PaulDMarks.com 


Joyce Carol Oates is a winner of the National Book Award, two O. Henry Awards, and a National Medal of the Humanities (among many other honors). One of America’s most celebrated literary writers, she is the author of more than fifty novels and dozens of short stories, most under her own name but a number employing her crime-writing pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly. Her honors in the field of crime fiction include two International Thriller Awards for best short story. https://celestialtimepiece.com/ 


Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He has won three additional Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction, and his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University. http://www.arttaylorwriter.com/ 

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And now for the usual BSP.

I’m happy to say that my short story “Bunker Hill Blues” is in the current Sept./Oct. issue of Ellery Queen that hit newsstands Tuesday of this week. It’s the sequel to the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll winner and current Macavity Award nominee “Ghosts of Bunker Hill”. And I’m surprised and thrilled to say that I made the cover of the issue – my first time as a 'cover boy'! Hope you’ll want to check it out. Available at all the usual places.




My story “Blood Moon” appears in “Day of the Dark, Stories of the Eclipse” from Wildside Press, edited by Kaye George. Stories about the eclipse – just in time for the real eclipse on August 21st. Twenty-four stories in all. Available on Amazon.



26 June 2017

The Lie Detector

by Jan Grape

My Time magazine came yesterday. The man on the cover is Special Counsel and former FBI Director, Robert Mueller. Underneath his photo is the sub-title Someone's not telling the truth.

Wow. Can this man with his extensive education and background and work experience be able to sort out fiction from lies? Surely he can, but this is a new challenge for him. He's never had an investigation like this. But he does have plenty of money and a dream-team of legal eagles on his side. Personally, I think he will eventually cut through all the lies, deceits and cover-ups but it will take time.

As writers we are hoping to be as Lawrence Block (a belated happy birthday, Larry) titled his book, Telling Lies For Fun And Profit. We are liars of the first, second, third and last order. And, boy, do we have fun doing it.

Just a couple of things to remember. If we have a character who is a police officer and we interrogate people to find out who committed the crime, do we rely on the old stand-by like body language? Do we express that? How the suspect, slouched and seemed uninterested.

Does our amateur sleuth draw any conclusion from the person who will not look directly into the character's eyes. That is another basic "tell" of a liar.

Do we ask the right questions in order to catch the suspect in a lie? Of course, we do these things. And Class, be sure you set things up so that you either have an idea the suspect is lying. Or have your character acknowledge that he or she knows they need more proof.

Most parents have a built in bull-pucky meter in their head and know almost instinctively when their child is lying. If that's true then your character might even say or think that. It's doesn't guaranteed they know when a suspect is lying.

You know, as a writer you must make your story or book believable so be sure and check on the reality of your character either detecting a lie or missing it altogether. If your character misses it then be sure you set it up that way.

If all else fails, have your suspect take a lie detector test. I remember Very Special Agent Tony what's-his-name in the NCIS  TV series telling a suspect once that every time the man lied, his (meaning Tony's) ears would itch. Tony had proof of part and part he suspected, but scratched his ears at the right time and the suspect confessed. Makes me laugh every time I think about it. And I do know Tony's last name, I just am not sure of the spelling at the moment.

I realize most of you reading this are published writers. Most also have awards and honors for writing excellence. But gentle reminders of details are always welcome in my book. Just continue telling and detecting lies because that's what we do.

11 March 2017

Short Story or Novel?

by B.K. Stevens


My mother, of blessed memory, never took my pretensions as a writer very seriously. Even after Alfred Hitchcock's had been publishing my stories for over a decade, I could never get her to subscribe to the magazine. Once, I gave her a gift subscription as a Mother's Day present. She didn't renew it. "So they've accepted some stories from you," she said. "Who knows if they'll ever accept another?" She had a point. Who knew? Despite her skepticism, I kept giving her copies of the stories I'd published, and she always read them and often made shrewd comments. "Why did you throw that idea away on something so short?" she said after reading one story. "That was a clever idea, much better than the ideas for your other stories. You could've used it for a novel, maybe made some real money."

Again, she had a point. And I've never forgotten it--my mother was one of the smartest people I've ever known, and she had a way of being right about things. Over twenty years later, I've taken that story out again and am trying to turn it into a novel. I won't mention the title, since the attempt may come to nothing. But I figure after so many years, no one but my husband and our daughters will remember that story, so why not see if the idea will work as a novel? At any rate, the experience has gotten me thinking. Is there a way of knowing which ideas will work best as short stories, which will work best as novels? Obviously, I'm no expert on that subject, at least not according to my mother. So I decided to see what some far more successful writers have to say. Maybe my mother would have respected their opinions. (Then again, maybe not.)

In Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Lawrence Block scoffs at the notion that novels require stronger seminal ideas than short stories do. The same ideas, he says, can work for either--in fact, short stories always require strong ideas, and novels often don't. He gets more "sheer enjoyment" from writing short stories than from writing novels, but each story "requires a reasonably strong idea, and the idea's used up in a couple of thousand words. I've written whole novels out of ideas with no more depth to them than short-story ideas, and I've written other novels without having had a strong story idea to begin with. They had plot and characters, to be sure, but those developed as the book went along." Most people, Block says, can't come up with enough ideas to make a living by writing short stories; he cites Ed Hoch as an example of one of those rare people who could. "So I take the easy way out," Block says, "and write novels." For most people, he believes, that's the more practical choice. So if you get a good idea for a story, stretch it out into a novel. I think my mother might have agreed.

John Gardner might have agreed, too, at least to some extent. In The Art of Fiction, he discusses several ways of developing an idea for a novel or story. One way is to start with an idea for a climax and then work backwards--how did this event come about? "Depending on the complexity of the writer's way of seeing the event," he says, "depending, that is, on how much background he [or she] feels our understanding of the event requires--the climax becomes the high point of a short story, a novella, or a novel." At the outset, the writer may not know which length will work best: "Writers often find that an idea for a short story may change into an idea for a novella or even a novel."

Gardner does think, however, that these three forms of fiction differ in fundamental ways. A short story usually has a single epiphany, a novella may have several, and a novel may have a completely different structure: "Whereas the short story moves to an `epiphany,' as Joyce said--in other words, to a climactic moment of recognition on the part of the central character, or, at least, the reader . . . the novella moves through a series of small epiphanies or secondary climaxes to a much more firm conclusion." Novels, on the other hand, should avoid a "firm conclusion" and make "some pretense of imitating the world in all its complexity." Gardner takes a swipe at mysteries and other traditional narratives when he says "too much neatness" mars a novel: "When all of a novel's strings are too neatly tied together at the end, as sometimes happens in Dickens and almost always happens in the popular mystery thriller, we feel the novel to be unlifelike . . .a novel built as prettily as a teacup is not of much use." So for Gardner, it doesn't seem to be that some ideas are inherently more suited to short stories than to novels. Instead, the crucial difference may lie in the writer's way of developing and resolving that idea--or, in a novel, of not resolving it.

Elizabeth Bowen, on the other hand, thinks short stories free the writer from the need to achieve the sort of resolution novels demand. In her introduction to the 1950 Faber Book of Modern Short Stories, she says many early English short stories, such as those by Henry James and Thomas Hardy, try to treat the same sorts of "complex and motivated" subjects novels do. That approach, she says, is a mistake: No matter how expertly crafted they may be, short stories that are essentially "condensed novel[s]" will not achieve the "heroic simplicity" that should be their trademark. In such stories, "shortness is not positive; it is nonextension." Consequently, these stories "have no emotion that is abrupt and special; they do not give mood or incident a significance outside the novelist's power to explore. Their very excellence made them a dead end; they did not invite imitation or advance in any way a development in the short story proper."

Bowen considers de Maupassant, Chekov, and Poe among the pioneers who truly broke free from the novel and explored the new, distinctly different possibilities the short story form offers. A short story, according to Bowen, should not begin with a complicated plan for a plot, as a novel might. Rather, it "must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough, to make the writer write." Short stories must be carefully written, "but conception should have been involuntary, a vital fortuity. The sought-about-for subject gives the story a dead kernel." Bowen's ideas about the plot and structure of a short story are interesting enough to quote at length:
The plot, whether or not it be ingenious or remarkable, for however short a way it is to be pursued, ought to raise some issue, so that it may continue in the mind. The art of the short story permits a break at what in the novel would be the crux of the plot: the short story, free from the longeurs of the novel, is also exempt from the novel's conclusiveness--too often forced and false: it may thus more nearly than the novel approach aesthetic and moral truth. It can, while remaining rightly prosaic and circumstantial, give scene, action, event, character a poetic new actuality.
In fact, she says, the short story may have less in common with the novel than it does with some other art forms: It should have "the valid central emotion  and inner spontaneity of the lyric" and should be "as composed, in the plastic sense, and as visual as a picture."

Flannery O'Connor might take issue with Bowen's contention that a short story should spring from "an impression or perception." In both novels and short stories, O'Connor says in "The Nature and Aims of Fiction," "something has to happen. A perception is not a story, and no amount of sensitivity can make a story-writer out of you if you just plan don't have a gift for telling a story." She says the choice between novel and short story may depend primarily on the writer's "disposition." I can't resist the temptation to quote her comparison--or, rather, her friend's comparison--of the experiences of writing these two kinds of narratives: "She says that when she stops a novel to work on short stories, she feels as if she has just left a dark wood to be set upon by wolves." Since novels are a "more diffused form" of fiction, O'Connor says, they may suit "those who like to linger along the way" and have "a more massive energy." On the other hand, "for those of us who want to get the agony over in a hurry, the novel is a burden and a pain."

In another essay, "Writing Short Stories," O'Connor defines a short story as an interplay of character, action, and meaning: "A short story is a complete dramatic action--and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action, and the action is controlled through the characters, and the result of this is a meaning that derives from the whole presented experience." Of these three elements, character (or "personality") is primary: "A story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality." Although she says a short story's action must be "complete," her understanding of "complete" definitely doesn't seem to involve the sort of "conclusiveness" Bowen sees as a flaw in many novels. O'Connor describes (without naming) her "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" as an example of "a complete story," even though the action breaks off in a way many readers might find abrupt (to put it mildly). For O'Connor, the story is complete because her exploration of the central character is complete: "There is nothing more about the mystery of that man's personality that could be shown through that particular dramatization." So perhaps writers shouldn't start by deciding whether an idea is better suited to a short story or a novel. Perhaps they should start by deciding if a character is likely to generate a good story. "In most good stories," O'Connor says, "it is the character's personality that creates the action of the story."

Edith Wharton, by contrast, thinks characters are supremely important in novels but not in short stories. As she says in The Writing of Fiction, "the test of the novel is that its people should be alive. No subject in itself, however fruitful, appears to be able to keep a novel alive; only the characters in it can." On the other hand, "some of the greatest short stories owe their vitality entirely to the dramatic rendering of a situation." The differences between characters in novels and those in stories are so great, in Wharton's opinion, that the short story could be considered the "direct descendant" not of the novel but of "the old epic or ballad--of those earlier forms of fiction in all of which action was the chief affair, and the characters, if they did not remain mere puppets, seldom or never became more than types." That seems harsh--did Wharton see the characters in her own "Roman Fever," for example, as no more individualized than "puppets" or "types"? Nevertheless, she insists "situation is the main concern of the short story, character of the novel."

Wharton shrugs off some other ways of deciding whether a subject is suited to a novel or a short story. For example, she says the number of "incidents, or external happenings" doesn't matter much. Many incidents can be "crowded" into a short story. But a subject that involves "the gradual unfolding of the inner life of its characters" isn't right for a short story, and neither is one that involves "producing in the reader's mind the sense of a lapse of time." Short stories should avoid such subjects and shouldn't try to achieve such effects. Instead, they should strive for "compactness and instanteneity" by relying on "two `unities'--the old traditional one of time, and that other, more modern and complex, which requires that any rapidly enacted episode shall be seen through only one pair of eyes." These limits, however, apply only to stories that are truly short; a remark Wharton makes at one point suggests she might have 5,000 words in mind as a typical length. She also mentions an "intermediate" kind of narrative. The "long short story," she says, might be suitable for "any subject too spreading for conciseness yet too slight in texture to be stretched into a novel."

"One of the fiction writer's essential gifts," Wharton maintains, "is that of discerning whether the subject which presents itself to him [or her], asking for incarnation, is suited to the proportions of a short story or a novel." It's too bad the writers quoted here don't offer us more consistent advice on such an essential matter. When I started working on this post, I knew these writers wouldn't agree about everything. I hoped, though, they might agree about something. Alas, that doesn't seem to be the case. If there's even a thread of consensus running through these essays and chapters, I missed it. At least I found the disagreements interesting; at least they pushed me to think about what I should focus on as I try to make that decades-old short story work as a novel. What about you? Do you agree with some of these writers more than with others? Or do you have other criteria for deciding whether an idea is better suited to a short story or a novel? I'd love to hear what you think.

# # #
Gardner discusses the novella as well as the short story and the novel; Wharton discusses "the long short story. This year, the Anthony ballot adds the novella (8,000 to 40,000 words) to the usual list of categories. So I'll just casually mention that my "The Last Blue Glass" (Hitchcock's, April 2016--9,470 words) would qualify as either a short story or a novella. So if your short story dance card is already full, you might consider "The Last Blue Glass" as a novella. You can read it here.


03 November 2015

Do you like to read, but you're leery of buying bad books? I can help.

by Melissa Yi


Q. What the heck is a StoryBundle?

A. Jason Chen, founder:
I started StoryBundle because back in 2012, video game bundles and app bundles were extremely popular, and no one had yet applied the same idea to ebooks. When I looked around (because I’m a reader myself) to try and find a way to discover lots of new-to-me authors in genres I already like, it was pretty difficult without spending hours reading reviews and trudging through sales lists. Plus, since these are authors I haven’t tried before, I may be left with hit-or-miss quality. Having curated bundles where quality is guaranteed AND readers can set the price solves both these issues.

Q. Okay. Why should I buy this StoryBundle?

A. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, editor:
The Dark Justice bundle comes as close to crime fiction perfection as possible.
It boasts one Grand Master, several award-winners, bestsellers who've hit lists like the New York Times and USA Today with multiple books, household names, and writers who've just entered the mystery field—sometimes with a bang.

We also have a lot of diversity here. Our investigators include an African American detective, a Canadian doctor of Asian extraction, a disabled stockbroker and a group of retired cold case detectives. Throw in a few amateur detectives, a disgraced ex-cop, a female bounty hunter, and the famous Matthew Scudder, who has appeared in film (most recently A Walk Among The Tombstones), and you'll encounter the full range of characters the mystery genre has to offer.
I've read and loved the work of each and every one of these writers. Some of them I've read since I started reading mystery and some I've read since before they ever had a book published. In one of my other incarnations, I'm an award-winning editor, so believe me when I tell you that if there were some kind of Kristine Kathryn Rusch Gold Seal of Approval, the books in this bundle would receive it.
Q. Hmm. Well, I'm cheap. I don't know if I should buy it.
A. Kris: For those of you who have never purchased a bundle from StoryBundle before, welcome! StoryBundle makes ordering and downloading these books spectacularly easy.
The initial titles in the Dark Justice Bundle (minimum $5 to purchase) are:
If you pay more than the bonus price of just $15, you get all five of the regular titles, plus these outstanding books:
Q. I'm REALLY cheap. What if I don't want to spend $5?

A. Win the Dark Justice StoryBundle just by commenting on this blog. One winner will be selected tomorrow. To multiply your chances, subscribe to Melissa Yi's newsletter and comment on her related blog and Facebook post. Quadruple your chances by doing all four!

Q. I want to hear from the authors themselves. Why do you write mysteries?

Julie Hyzy: I know this isn’t an original answer, but I have to credit Nancy Drew. She was my gateway to mystery reading and also – in many respects – to writing. My first novel (at about age 10) was The Case of the Whispering Hills. I illustrated the book myself, too (natch).

Melissa Yi: As an emergency doctor, I occasionally confront evil. Mystery allows me to fictionalize it and deliver some form of justice in the end.

Patrice Greenwood: I like reading them, so I thought I'd give writing them a try. Turns out that's fun, so I've kept at it.

David DeLee: First of all, mysteries are what I grew up on. From the Hardy Boys to Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer to today’s masters like Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. It’s a genre I’ve always adored. The other reason is that mysteries try to make sense of what in real life is often senseless. Violence. Murder. Serial killers. Mysteries are about a larger than life character who will risk it all to seek answer, to explain the unexplainable, to get justice for these horrible acts. What’s not to love?

Kris Nelscott: I love mysteries. I think they're my favorite genre. I put mystery—crime, really—in almost every genre I write.

Rebecca Cantrell: Because I am fascinated by worlds where characters wrestle with the question of what’s right and what’s wrong. My characters like to see justice done, but justice is never as simple and straightforward as I would like, so my books spend a lot of time looking at shades of gray.
As a kid my family referred to this as my “overblown sense of justice” and “belief that, all evidence to the contrary, the world should be fair.” Guilty.

Q. Hmm. Well, what's so great about your bundle book?

Rebecca Cantrell: The World Beneath introduces Joe Tesla. He’s a complicated guy—a brilliant software engineer who started a multimillion dollar company but is struck by agoraphobia on the day he’s supposed to ring the bell on Wall Street to take his company public. The agoraphobia is so extreme that he can’t go outside at all, and he spends the series trying to determine what caused it while exploring the tunnels under New York City. Since he can’t go outside, he makes the inside bigger. Since he can’t find justice for himself, he starts to search for justice for others. The book also won the International Thriller Writers award for Best Ebook Original. Oh, and he has a service dog named Edison who steals every scene he’s in (note: the dog does not die in the books).

Julie Hyzy: My bundle book, Playing With Matches, is very special to me because it’s not the least bit cozy. For the past seven years or so, I’ve had some success [Editor: NYT-bestselling success] writing cozy mysteries. I love them, I truly do, but I started out with edgier themes, and Playing With Matches brings me back to my writing roots. Riley Drake (my protagonist) is a female PI in Chicago. She swears, she drinks, and she beats up a troublemaker by page 2.

Melissa Yi: CODE BLUES introduces the world to Dr. Hope Sze, my alter ego who discovers murderers within the decaying medical system of Montreal, Canada. When I was a resident doctor, I barely had time to tie my shoes, let alone solve crimes and romance two different guys, but that’s the beauty of fiction.

Patrice Greenwood: It's set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one of my favorite places in the world. The main character is just opening a tearoom in a Victorian house there, so there's lots of history, tea and its rituals, and of course a dash of murder.

David DeLee: FATAL DESTINY features a strong half-Latina, half-Irish female bounty hunter who takes on the world in her own way, and with a pretty cynical attitude toward people and the criminal justice system—with good reason. In FATAL DESTINY Grace faces a defining question: Are people, including herself, defined by their past or can they escape who they were and what they’ve done and become something better?

Kris Nelscott: The book I've contributed to the bundle is the very first Smokey Dalton novel. Honestly, I wrote the novel as a classic mystery—a rich blond walks into a detective's office with a strange problem that needs investigating. The detective, Smokey Dalton, is an African American who grew up with Martin Luther King. I thought the setting was the unusual bit—Memphis in 1968, just before King's assassination. Imagine my surprise when everyone decided the entire story was unusual. I bow to readers. Apparently I hit something with this series, which explores American history from a perspective not seen often enough in fiction—that of the African American community. The series has hit bestseller lists, won awards, hit recommended lists from libraries all over the country (including the New York Public Library) and has a rabid following.

Q. I might take a look. How do I get it?
A. https://storybundle.com/crime until November 19th.
Plus, one lucky winner will be chosen from each of the following lists on Wednesday, Nov. 4th:
1. One Sleuthsayer. Comment now, on this post, to win.
2. One subscriber to Melissa Yi's newsletter. Just sign up on her website landing page--link at the top & form at the bottom.
3. One commenter on Melissa Yi's Dark Justice blog post.
4. One participant on Melissa Yi's Dark Justice Facebook post.
5. Audience member at Vanier College. Claimed!

Happy reading!


17 August 2015

Creative Plagiarism

by Jan Grape

Have you ever stolen a idea for a story or book from another writer? No. Of course not, that's plagiarism, you say. You are exactly right. However, we all know in reality there are only  thirty-six literary plots. Or maybe only twenty. Or perhaps only seven.
  1. Wo/man vs nature
  2. Wo/man vs wo/man
  3. Wo/man vs the environment 
  4. Wo/man vs machine/technology
  5. Wo/man vs the supernatural 
  6. Wo/man vs self
  7. Wo/man vs. God/religion
I could continue with twenty master plots like quest, adventure, pursuit, escape, revenge, love, sacrifice… but you all get the idea. Maybe it is true but writers and even readers know that it's the shading, the ins and outs, the grays bleeding into the black and white that we all turn to as we write. We read something that we consider good book or story and when we finish the story or book we sometimes say to our self, I like that story idea or plot and then we wonder how we might have written it.

Soon we play the "what-if" game. What if John Doe had done this and Jane Doe had done that?  What if the storm had happened earlier? What if Mr. Smith had not been murdered but Mrs. Smith was the one killed?  And the next thing you know, a whole different story is taking place in your mind. And guess what you're not stealing, but you're likely doing what the gifted writer and teacher, Lawrence Block calls "Creative Plagiarism" in his book TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT. And I've spoken those words, telling lies for fun and profit, many times and in classes or article writing give Mr. Block the credit although I have no idea if he was the first to coin the phrase.

I've tried to remember when a story inspired me so that I used some "creative plagiarism" to write a story.  I can only remember one instance although I imagine there could be more. The only similarity came when I read  a Bill Pronzini short story in an anthology. I can't tell you the story's name or the anthology or collection the story was in. I only remember there was a hit and run accident. And a hit and run accident was the only thing I used in my short story "The Man In The Red Flannel Suit."  That was a Christmas story published in an anthology titled SANTA CLUES. I do remember at the time my story idea was more or less going along with Bill's story, but by the time I got that idea inkling off the back burner it was entirely different from what I originally thought. The only thing left was the hit and run and that accident was altogether a different animal.

The only two other "creative plagiarism" stories came from songs. One song written and sung by Kenny Rogers called "Scarlett" and was about a young man falling in love with an exotic dancer. One night he goes into the club and Scarlett is gone. It breaks his heart because his fantasy was that she loved him. The nightclub people can't tell him where Scarlett has gone because dancers come and go, always looking for brighter lights. 

I couldn't get the song out of mind, well, I couldn't get Scarlett out of my mind. What happened to her? Did she leave and move to Houston? Dallas? Las Vegas? Was she kidnapped?  Was she murdered? 

Scarlett rattled around in my brain for two or three years and one day popped up as a short story, titled "Scarlett Fever" in the DEADLY ALLIES anthology. It's  still one of my favorite short stories. The other story inspired by a song is titled "The Confession." It was published in the MURDER HERE, MURDER THERE anthology. Since I personally knew the singer/songwriter, Thomas Michael Riley, he gave me permission to use as much or as little of the song as I wanted. It was a great "what if" idea.

If any if you have used any "Creative Plagiarism" ideas you may confess them to me. I won't tell anyone, I promise. 

29 July 2015

Be Yourself, Or Someone Just Like You




by Robert Lopresti

First, about that title.  Stephen Stimson lives in Bellingham, as do I.  (In fact, he coined our unofficial municipal slogan: the City of Subdued Excitement.)  Mr Stimson used to run a store called Lone Wolf Antiques, and one day I strolled by and saw the entire front window of the shop covered by a piece of brown paper bearing the remarkable words of today's title.  And that's all the explanation you are going to get from me.

Now for the main topic. Lawrence Block was recently interviewed by Tripwire Magazine and I recommend you go to his site and read the whole thing.     It's all great, but there was one piece that caught my attention in particular.

The interviewers brought up the Leo Haig novels, Block's pastiche of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books.  Then they asked if he had read Robert Goldsborough's novels, authorized continuations of the Nero Wolfe series.  Here is his reply:

I read two early on and didn’t care for them. I gather he’s improved some, and makes a good job of writing like Stout. But, you see, there’s the thing in a nutshell; Stout didn’t try to write like Stout.

As I recall I stomped my feet and shouted: "Exactly!"

I'm not here to pick on Mr. Goldsborough, or Ace Atkins,  Ann Hillerman,  Felix Francis, or anyone else who has inherited a franchise. What I am reaching for is this: I get uncomfortable when a young writer is advised to try copying someone else's style.  I can understand doing it as an exercise, or for a pastiche, but keep it up too long and it can only stunt your growth.  Rex Stout was trying to find his own voice, not copy someone else's.

I recently read a book by Elmore Leonard called Charlie Martz and Other Stories.  They are previously unpublished, and you can understand why Leonard chose to keep them that way.  Most of them are interesting primarily as a peek into the laboratory, a chance to watch Leonard looking for his voice.  (Compare them to the tales in When The Women Came Out To Dance, stories he wrote when he was at the top of his form.)  You can see a glimpse here and a touch there of Leonard, but he wasn't quite there yet.

I would be happy to hear what you have to say about this subject but before we get to the comments, there is one more detail.  When I told my wife about Block's remarks she smiled and said "Zusya."

Zusya was a Hasidic rabbi in the nineteenth century.  He was apparently a "wise fool," like Nasrudin, Diogenes, or Saint Francis, a spiritual leader or philosopher who (deliberately?) behaved eccentrically in order to get his lessons across.  What follows is the most famous story about him. There are many versions, but this is the one I heard first.

One day Zusya's followers came into his study and found him hiding under the desk, weeping and shaking with fear.  "I have just learned the question I will be asked by the angel of death when I die.  And I am terribly frightened because I cannot answer it!"

"Rabbi," said the followers, "you are good man, and a wise man.  What could death ask you that is so terrifying?"

"I thought he might ask: 'Zusya, why were you not Moses, to lead your people to the promised land?' I could have answered that!  Or he could ask 'Zusya, why were you not David, to fight your people?'  I could answer that.  But, no!  What he is will ask is: 'Zusya,  why were you not Zusya?'"
    

27 December 2014

Don't Say You Weren't Warned




by John M. Floyd




                                
Mystery author Lawrence Block once told a joke about the use of foreshadowing. I'm paraphrasing, but here it is:

Officer: Okay, soldier. Suppose an enemy sub surfaced and ran aground on that beach over there, and suppose it offloaded fifty enemy troops. What would you do?

Soldier: Sir, I'd blow 'em off the sand with concentrated mortar fire.

Officer: What? Where would you get the mortars?

Soldier: Same place you got the submarine.

Foreshadowing, according to Block, is the technique of making both the submarine and the mortars acceptable to the reader.

Definitions vary. Merriam-Webster says foreshadowing is "a suggestion of something that has not yet happened." In the literary world, it's a little more complicated. Among other things, it means the early inclusion of information that makes later action believable. Because of this, and because our fictional plots must always be (or at least appear to be) logical, this writing technique is one of the most useful items in our toolkit.

It's a mystery to me

Mystery stories probably lend themselves to foreshadowing more than any other genre, because the clues in the narrative usually lead to the solution of the case--and if the reader pays attention, he is ideally given enough facts to come up with the answer himself. This is true of most crime/suspense stories, not just whodunits; the foreshadowing in thrillers and other non-traditional mysteries is sometimes used to telegraph to the reader the means by which the protagonist will get out of whatever fix the writer puts him in. Maybe there's a hidden gun in the kitchen cabinet, or the killer's henchman is really an undercover cop, or the radio button on the dashboard is the trigger for the ejection seat.

And foreshadowing isn't always used just to "explain" later events. It can also be a way to generate suspense and anticipation. If you read a story or novel or see a movie that mentions, during its first half, a particularly scary place, or an especially fearsome enemy, then you as the reader/viewer will dread any situation that might put our hero in that dangerous location, or put him in contact with that terrible person or entity you've been told about. Consider this: A group of hikers sees a razor-wire fence, or maybe a skull-and-crossbones sign, on a ridge as they pass through the valley below, and one of them asks their guide what it is. The guide looks up and frowns and says, "Oh, that? That's the border of the Forbidden Zone. We won't be going there." That of course is foreshadowing, and the Forbidden Zone is of course exactly where the poor hikers will wind up, before the story's done.

What does foreshadowing really look like, in some of the movies and novels and stories that we've seen or read?  (NOTE: The following examples contain spoilers . . .)

Hiding in plain sight

The Usual Suspects -- As Verbal is questioned by the police, he sees a number of newspaper clippings posted on their bulletin board. Those "clues" later add up to a great surprise ending.

Psycho -- Norman Bates tells his motel guest, early on, that his mother is "as harmless as one of those stuffed birds." Which turns out to be true, since she's as dead as they are. It's her son who isn't harmless.

Wait Until Dark -- The blind lady remarks to a visitor in her apartment that her old refrigerator growls when its door is open because it needs to be defrosted. Later, after the lady has escaped from a killer in her apartment and has frantically knocked out all the lights in every room so he'll be in the dark as well, he quietly opens her fridge's door so the light will come on and he can see. She, of course, doesn't know he's done this--but then the refrigerator growls. She now knows the door's open, and knows that he can see her but she can't see him. One of the best movies scenes I've ever watched.

The Empire Strikes Back -- "Much anger in him," Yoda says to Obi-wan, "like his father." He's talking about Luke Skywalker, who turns out to be the son of Darth Vader.

Jaws -- Hooper warns Chief Brody about the potentially explosive nature of the scuba tanks, and Brody says something like "What good is all this expensive equipment? Maybe the shark will eat it." Later the shark winds up with one of the tanks in his mouth (jaws?) and Brody shoots the tank, thus blowing Great Whitey to bits.

Reservoir Dogs -- An orange balloon is seen floating along in the street behind a car. As the story progresses, Mr. Orange turns out to be the impostor who's infiltrated the gang.

The James Bond novels and films -- Before most of 007's missions, the armorer demonstrates the newest lethal gadgets developed by Q Branch. Later Bond uses them to save his skin (and the world).

Fatal Attraction -- When Dan Gallagher says he has to go walk his dog, the lady to whom he is fatally attracted replies, "Just bring the dog over--I'm great with animals and I love to cook." She later cooks Gallagher's daughter's pet bunny.

Once Upon a Time in the West -- Several brief flashbacks show a mysterious blurred figure approaching the protagonist, in the desert. At the end, that image clears to reveal the villain--and the reason the protagonist has been searching for him for all these years.


The Edge -- An Alaskan guide explains to a group of tourists what a bear pit is, and points one out, saying, "Be careful--don't fall in." Afterward, when the two main characters are alone in the wilderness, and one is about to shoot the other, the gunman falls into a bear pit. The viewer accepts this turn of events only because of that earlier explanation.

The Shawshank Redemption -- During the search of an inmate's cell, the prison's warden picks up a Bible and says, "Salvation lies within." It's later revealed that the rock hammer used for the breakout is concealed inside the hollowed-out pages of that Bible.

Goodfellas -- "Tommy's not a bad kid," Paulie Cicero admits. "What am I supposed to do, shoot him?" Which is exactly what happens.

Citizen Kane -- The word "rosebud" is spoken at the first, and its meaning is revealed at the end.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade -- At one point, the wealthy collector notes that they're only one step away from locating the Holy Grail. Indy replies, "That's usually where the ground falls out from underneath your feet." When at the end of the story they find the Grail, a huge earthquake swallows some of the party.

Aliens -- Lt. Ellen Ripley, who during training has demonstrated her proficiency with a powerloader, later uses a powerloader to battle and defeat the alien queen.

"The Lottery" -- The pile of stones at the very beginning of this short story later takes on a whole new meaning.

Cool Hand LukeGhostLove StoryCasablanca -- Bits of early dialogue are later repeated at or near the end, for closure: "What we got here is a failure to communicate," "Ditto," "Love means never having to say you're sorry," "Here's looking at you, kid."

L.A. Confidential -- Captain Smith asks Ed Exley whether he would be willing to plant evidence, beat a confession out of a suspect, or shoot a criminal in the back. Exley says no. By the end of the movie, he has done all three.

These are probably not the best examples, but they're some that came quickly to mind. Can you think of other cases where foreshadowing is effectively used? As a writer, do you find yourself using it in your own fiction?

Signs of things to come

I recently re-watched a film called Signs, made in 2002 and featuring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. That movie successfully uses more instances of foreshadowing than any other I've seen--so many that I plan to cover it in a separate column. Probably in two weeks.

How's that for foreshadowing?