Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts

30 November 2022

All Things in Moderation

LCC 2022. Courtesy of Kelly Garrett

Back in the spring I attended Left Coast Crime in Albuquerque.  I have already blogged about that twice but I rediscovered another topic in my notes I wanted to write about. 

At LCC I served on one panel, moderated another, and attended a bunch of them. I came away with some thoughts on moderating panels, based on this conference and many others.  So here are my Twenty-five Rules of Moderation, in case you ever have the privilege.


1. Getting to know you.  As soon as you know who will be on the panel, talk to them.  Do you all agree on the topic?  Sometimes the titles chosen by The Powers That Be are ambiguous, or can be misunderstood. (Famous story from the world of folk music: One festival asked Arlo Guthrie to be on a Tropical Songs workshop so he learned "Ukulele Lady."  Turned out the topic was TOPICAL Songs...  But he later recorded the song, so it wasn't a waste.

2. Read ahead,  Read some of the works of each of your panelists.  That will lead to better questions, make it look like you know what you are talking about, and please the panelists. 

3. Prepare your questions early.  Procrastination is not your friend here.  

4. Abundance mindset. Prepare more questions than you think you will need.

Bouchercon 2014

5. Share the questions with your panelists.  I know there are those who disagree with me on this and, as usual when people disagree with me, they are wrong.  A conference panel is not a quiz show with points for spontaneity. Nor is it a final exam where knowing the questions in advance is cheating.  You have two goals: to entertain/inform the audience, and to make the panelists look good.  Neither goal is advanced by causing your team to waste precious seconds fumbling for an intelligent answer.  There will be plenty of opportunity for them to improvise anyway. 

6. Two-way street.  Telling them in advance  also gives you a chance to invite them to suggest questions.  Maybe they know something about the topic you don't.  In fact, let's hope they do!

7. No surprises.  I once served on a panel whose moderator decided each of us should read an excerpt from our book.  Nothing wrong with that except the moderator didn't tell us that until we were in the green room half an hour before the panel started.  That meant all of us who should be relaxing and  getting to know each other were instead fumbling through their books searching for the perfect passage.  Time to practice your recitation? Dream on.

8. Get it right.  Make sure you know how to pronounce the names of the panelists (and characters and book titles, if appropriate).  At LCC I was careful to check a tricky pronunciation but blew one that  looked obvious.


9. Location location location.  Check out the room in advance.

10. Gather the flock.  You have checked in with your panelists, right?  Made sure they arrived and know where the panel is?  If you want to meet in advance in the green room, don't assume they know that.

11. Scene of the Crime.  When you arrive at the meeting room  make sure the microphones are working.  Are there fresh glasses and water pitchers?  

12. Volunteers of America.  Is there a volunteer whose job is to warn you when the panel time is nearly over?  If so they will probably introduce themselves.  Make sure you know where they are sitting so you can catch their signals.

13. Don't call us.  Remind the audience to silence their  phones.  At one panel the moderator's phone rang!

Bouchercon 2017
14. By way of introduction.  One of the moderator's duties is to introduce the panelists.  This should take as little time as you can manage. I have seen moderators actually recite the mini-bios from the program book, which everyone in the audience has their own copy of.  What a waste!  Last time I moderated I skipped the usual intro and instead read a sentence or two from a reviewer or author praising the work of each panelist. I made darned sure to read a passage from MWA's announcement that panelist Laurie R. King had been chosen the latest Grand Master.

15. Watch your language.  A male moderator (much younger than me) frequently referred to his all-female panel as "the ladies."  I was not the only person who asked themselves "What century is this?"

16. Know your place.  Chances are that you wouldn't be moderating the panel if you weren't interested and well-informed on the topic, but this is not about you and you are NOT a member of the panel.  I am not an absolutist here; I will stick my oar in if I have something to add (especially in response to a question from the audience) but if I am talking as  much as the others I am doing it wrong.

At one conference I served under a VERY chatty moderator.  Later a stranger told me "I saw your panel.  I wish I had gotten to hear you." 

17. One for all or all for one? Some moderators prepare individual questions for each panelist.  That can work (especially if the moderator knows a lot about each individual and their work) but to my mind it cuts down on interaction between the members.  One tactic I like is asking individual questions as part of the introductions, and then switching to general questions.  

18. Switch it up. Don't ask the same person first every time.  If your first question is asked to A, then B, then C, then D, start your next query with B, etc. 

19. One at a time.  It may seem like a good idea to put the follow-up in the original question: "What characteristics does a good sidekick need?  And how does a sidekick differ from other secondary characters?" But now you have the panelists trying to sort through two topics at once and remember Part 2 as they explain Part 1.  Make it easier on them and you can always ask follow-ups if it seems appropriate.

Left Coast Crime 2019

20. You aren't the only one with questions. 
Leave a third of the time for questions from the audience.  They may have better ones than you.  But have extra questions ready in case they dry up.  

21. Lay down the ground rules. Before throwing it open to the audience I always remind them that this is an opportunity to ask questions, not to make comments, however brilliant those comments might be.  And I quote moderator Ginjer Buchanan: "If your voice goes up at the end that doesn't necessarily make it a question."

22. Be the voice of the public. Chances are you will have a microphone and the audience member won't, so repeat the question so  everyone can hear.  This  also allows you to clarify a rambling query.

23.  Never complain, never explain.  If the crowd is smaller than you were hoping, don't apologize and don't complain, especially not to them. As a musician friend says "We play for the people who show up, not the ones who don't."

24. Remember your manners.  If there is a volunteer assigned to signal that time is short, make sure you are watching for that.  And save time to thank the panelists, the audience, and any volunteers.  Don't forget any important announcements, such as when/where the panelists will be signing books.  I screwed that one up at LCC.


25. How was it for you? Email the panelists within a few days of the conference and tell them how wonderful they were.  Send individual messages, not one-fits-all.  Ask them if there was anything you could have done better.

That's all I can think of.  If any of you have been on a panel, or moderated one, or attended one, I'd love to hear your suggestions.

19 October 2022

Stepping Up to the Plate

 You might say our adventure begins with A.C. Gunter visiting San Francisco in the summer of 1888.  You have probably never heard of Gunter, which would surprise the people of his time for he was one of America's most successful novelists.  Today he has only one, very tangential, claim to literary fame.

On June 8 he picked up a copy of the San Francisco Examiner and read a poem.  He enjoyed it so much that he tore it  out and took it with him when he returned to New York.  There, he handed it to his friend John A. McCaull, a theatrical producer.  McCaull was impressed enough that he gave the poem to his chief comedian, DeWolf Hopper, and told him to memorize it and recite it that night in the middle of a play which, interestingly enough, had nothing to do with the subject of the poem.  Theatre was more casual in those days.

Hopper did so and thus began a new career.  For the next forty years he recited that poem countless times on stage, on records, and even in new-fangled talkie cinema.  In old age he commented dryly that when summoned out of his grave at the resurrection he would probably, automatically, announce "The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day."

As you have probably figured out the poem Gunter rescued from obscurity was "Casey at the Bat."  It was published anonymously but the author was Ernest L. Thayer, a recent Harvard graduate, who had taken a job at the Examiner.  (Inevitably, other people claimed to have written it, but there is no reasonable doubt.)  Thayer, like Gunter, left no other memorable work behind.  But his little masterpiece shows no sign of fading away.

I learned all this in an entertaining little book by John Evangelist Walsh called The Night Casey Was Born.  Because of the way my brain works, reading the book made me wonder: Can I get a crime story out of this?

And I did.  The October issue of Mystery Magazine features "Murder in Mudville," in which that town's unfortunate chief of police is trying to solve the murder (by baseball bat) of the very pitcher who struck out the hometown hero.  

It was great fun to write.  

But here's the thing that haunts me: Think about Gunter stumbling on that poem.  How many little masterpieces are rotting away, undiscovered, in old papers and magazines?


13 October 2022

Indexes and Other Treasures

When I heard the title of Dennis Duncan's new book my reaction was basically to pedal my bike to the local independent bookstore and yell "Take my money!"

I am fond of popular histories of scholarship.  So I have decided to tell you a bit about some of my favorite books of this type, with random anecdotes from each.  It has nothing to do with mystery fiction, so feel free to ignore me if you wish.  I get that a lot.

Dennis Duncan. Index, A History of the. The index is one of those things we take for granted.  Haven't they always been there, hiding at the back of nonfiction books, making them more usable?  Of course, the answer is  a lot more complicated.

Duncan points out three key ingredients you need before you can have an index.  First, comes the ABCs.  I don't mean the alphabet (duh), but the concept of organizing words in alphabetical order, which is a different thing.  Then, you need the codex, which is what we think of as the structure of a book, (indexes don't work well with scrolls).  The third essential we can date specifically: page numbers were first used in books in 1472.

This book includes all kinds of oddities: Indexes so long they had their own indexes.  Indexes to novels.  A short story in the form of an index.  Indexes created by authors' political enemies to mock their books. A picture index of envelope fragment shapes (and that was in a book by a well-known author.)

Oh, and how about this fact: ancient librarians used to glue a scrap of parchment with author and title to the back of a scroll.  The Greek term for that device was sillybos, from which we get the word syllabus.  The Latin word was index.

Denis Boyles.  Everything Explained That is Explainable.  The eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910-1911) is considered one of the greatest reference books.  Its creation was part scholarship, part marketing scheme, and part con game.

The head publicist was Henry Haxton.  Earlier in his career, working as a reporter for William Randolph Hearst, he tested the lifeboat system of the Oakland ferryboats by "accidentally" falling into the Bay.  Fortunately the safety system turned out to be good enough.

The main editor for American entries was Franklin Hooper, who is drily described in the current edition of the Britannica as "undaunted by his own lack of scholarship."

The Americans who were running the encyclopedia project in coordination with the Times created something brand new: the Times Book Club.  They sold books much cheaper than had previously been legal, causing mob scenes known as "bookstore madness."

And speaking of the Times, the entire encyclopedia project almost fell through because of the obstinacy of a family whose mighty power came from their owning one-seventh of one-third of one-fifth of three-sixteenths of that newspaper.  This resulted in a lawsuit that was heard by Mr. Justice John Charles Darling, about whom, well…

Around the turn of the century barrister F.E. Smith was defending in capital case. After he gave a long and complex explanation of a point of law Justice Darling, complained: "Well, after all that, Mr. Smith, I am none the wiser."

Smith replied: "Perhaps none the wiser, m'lud, but certainly better informed." His client was executed.

Simon Garfield. Just My Type. Fifty years ago no one outside the publishing and design industries knew or cared much about printing fonts.  Then came personal computers and now everyone has an opinion.  I have seen college students argue furiously over serif vs san serif.

Garfield's book is a fascinating journey through the history of fonts. For example: in 1908 Thomas Cobden-Sanderson killed his classic Doves font by taking all the metal letters and throwing them into the Thames, so his partner could not profit from it.

In 1979 Japanese designer Eiichi Kono was selected to revise the iconic font used in London's subway system.  Rather dryly, he first demonstrated his work with the word underglound.

The first thing I did when I got this book was search the index (there's that word again) for The Prisoner, because that science fiction TV classic was the first place I ever really noticed a font.

Turned out the unusual lettering used in the surreal claustrophobic Big-Brotherish Village is Albertus, the same one used on street signs in the City, which is the financial district of London.  Hmm…

Garfield dedicates an entire chapter to the much despised  Comic Sans.  The title?  "We Don't Serve Your Type."

Simon Winchester.  The Professor and the Madman. When James Murray took on the task of creating the Oxford English Dictionary in 1857 he knew he would need help from hundreds of volunteers to track down unusual words and meanings in thousands of books.  He had no way of knowing that his most useful contributor would be Dr. W.C. Minor, an American Civil War veteran imprisoned for murdering a stranger during a bout of paranoia.  

This is the only book on my list which was made into a movie (starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, no less).  The flick is worth watching although it does get Hollywoodish, even adding a love story to provide a motive for some of Minor's bizarre actions.  (Here's a better motive: the man was crazy.)

Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton. Cartographies of Time.  For hundreds of years people searched for a way to visualize the passage of time.  This books shows dozens of examples.

Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, cracked the problem in 1765 by inventing the timeline.  Since the timeline, like the book index, is so much a part of our lives it is hard to grasp that someone needed to dream it up. This made me wonder: Did it seem just as natural to the people of Priestley's time as to us, or are we just used to it?  

It turns out the former is true.  Other authors started using timelines immediately.  And it only took twenty years for William Playfair to add a y-axis and create the line graph.

 Violet Moller.  The Map of Knowledge. Moller says that when she was studying the history of science  she was taught something like this: "There were the Greeks, and then the Romans, and then there was the Renaissance."

Moller thought a piece or two had to be missing from that story.  Surely the Classical texts hadn't preserved themselves for a millennium.  As she demonstrates there were thousands of rulers, scientists, scholars, publishers, and librarians who cataloged, preserved, and used those texts.  Many of them spoke Arabic.  (Of course this relates to the Chicon panel I mentioned last month, where scholars complained that the Middle Ages received a bad reputation because of Renaissance propaganda.) 

You have probably heard of the great library of Alexandria, but you may not know of what we librarians would call their acquisitions policy: they wanted everything.  Each ship which landed in Alexandria was searched and all books confiscated.  When they borrowed texts from other libraries to copy they kept the original and sent back the duplicate.  Sneaky, sneaky, librarians.

In the tenth century the library in Cordoba, Spain, had 404 volumes.  That doesn't sound too impressive but I'm only talking about the  catalog of their collection.

In the eleventh century Salerno, Italy, was considered the center of modern medicine in all of Europe.  But a North African merchant who got sick there was so appalled by the ignorance of the doctors that he trained as a physician in his native Carthage and  returned to Italy with hundreds of up-to-date medical texts. 

In Venice, Italy, in 1502, a printer named Manutius started using a dolphin and anchor logo on his books, apparently the first "product brand."  It was such a recognized symbol of quality work that other publishers began counterfeiting it.

About half of the texts of ancient Greek we have were written by the physician Galen.  But since he was a doctor we can't read his handwriting.  (Rimshot! Sorry...)

And now I shall go read a mystery.

05 October 2022

Quotable Chicago... In Space!


As promised last month, here are some quotations from Chicon 8, the World Science Fiction Conference which I attended in Chicago in September.  Unfortunately, all context for the quotes had be quarantined due to covid concerns.

 "Science fiction is about upsetting society.  Mystery is about restoring it."        - Roberta Rogow

"I wrote this book but in a way the book wrote me.  It was cheaper than therapy." - Shelley Parker-Chan

"Every medievalist's favorite movie is Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  It's the only accurate one." - Jo Walton

"Terrorists are political illiterates." - David Gerrold

"Neil Gaiman could write a haiku about his intestinal issues and it would be made into a hit movie about one man's struggle with colitis." - John Scazi

"Writers have a sort of Stockholm Syndrome with the protagonist." - James Patrick Kelly

"A lot of scriptwriters think of a published novel as a piece-of-shit first draft they can work from." - Meg Elison

"I can really sell integrity." - Adam Stempel

"How does time work?  Ask your grandmother.  She's seen more of it than you." - Joe Haldeman

"I have a five part answer to that.  The first part has sixteen parts. " - John Scalzi

"Rule Number One: Do not time travel to a war." - Connie Willis

"I'm a child skeptic.  Do they really exist?  They're always fuzzy in photographs." - Paul Calhoun

"Use problematic authors as a motivation to write a better book." - Suzanne Palmer

"Who among us has not wanted to be a pregnant horse?" - John Scalzi

"You hear about someone who does bad things and it turns out they had a bad childhood.  So what?" - David Gerrold

"The urge to always have novelty leads, ironically, to the oldest conspiracy theories." - Kenneth Hite

"The current scam is  cryptocurrency.  It's tulips." - Connie Willis

"My mother was a car and we lost her in a terrible space rotary accident." - Suzanne Palmer 

"I have a hard time watching Star Wars.  Those poor stormtroopers.  Did they all volunteer?" - James Patrick Kelly

"How do you write time travel stories?  With a manual typewriter." - Joe Haldeman

"You can put whatever you want in a burrito.  This is a free country." - John Scalzi

"If not us, who?  If not together, how?" - Suzanne Palmer

21 September 2022

Outer Space and Eastern Illinois


A week before the mystery community headed to Minneapolis for Bouchercon, I, contrarian that I am, went to Chicago for Chicon 8.  That was the 80th World Science Fiction Conference.  As I have written before, science fiction fandom is our field's bigger and older sibling. Chicon went for five days, had about 3,400 attendees, and had 1,404 events listed.  Impressive as all heck. 

First thing to say is, they took covid VERY seriously.  Everyone had to have proof of vaccination and had to stay masked.  The photo above shows me wearing my volunteer vest, walking around looking for trouble (literally), which included reminding people to wear their masks.  (I encountered three people who needed the hint, and all complied without argument.)  In spite of this, the Con management informed us that 60 attendees reported to them testing positive within five days of the convention. That's about 1.8%.  Does anyone know the number for Bouchercon?  

Let me tell you about some highlights of a few panels I attended.

Best Science Fiction / Fantasy Murder Mysteries. I added a few titles to my Must Read list. (See the covers of some of these titles on this page.)  

Roberta Rogow made an interesting argument: It is easier to write genre-crossover novels these days because, unlike brick-and-mortar bookstores, online stores are happy to place a volume in as many places as it belongs.

Someone on the panel quoted Walter Mosley as saying mystery is simile and science fiction is metaphor.  That requires some contemplation, I think.

At the end of the panel Mark Painter said he had been trying to remember the earliest example of an SF mystery he had seen in a visual media.  He decided it was "The Conscience of the King" from the first season of Star Trek.

Someone replied: "What about the one where Scotty was accused of murder?"

"'Wolf in the Fold," said Painter.  "And the one with Elijah Cook, Jr."

"'Court-Martial,'" I called from the audience.  And added: "How do we remember this crap?"

Fortunately everyone laughed.  And speaking of Star Trek...

Remembering Nichelle Nichols. 
The actress who played Lieutenant Uhura in the original series died last month and fans met up to say how much she meant to so many people.  (Whoopi Goldberg at age five: "Mommy, there's a Black woman on TV and she's not a maid!")

David Gerrold, who started his career at age nineteen by sending an unagented script to Star Trek ("The Trouble With Tribbles") was friends with Nichols for half a century and said she "moved in a bubble of charisma."

I highly recommend the documentary, Woman In Motion, which tells how NASA recruited Nichols to encourage women and people of color to apply for the space program.  Amazing story.

The Origin and Evolution of Conspiracy Theories.
  Kenneth Hite says the oldest example of conspiracy theory in the West was the Roman hunt for followers of Bacchus, 2d century BC.  This same pattern was later used for persecuting the Christians, who copied it for attacking the Jews.  He also says forget about QAnon; the highwater mark of conspiracy theories in the United States was the Anti-Masonic Party, which ran candidates for president.

Time Travel.  The legendary Joe Haldeman, born in 1943, explained "I am from the past."

Connie Willis, one of my favorite SF writers, said that on a panel she once explained how she uses time travel in her books and a physicist complained "'That's wrong.  Time Travel doesn't work that way.'  I said: Has there been a breakthrough since this panel started?"

What happened After My Story Got Optioned.  John Scalzi reports that a producer once tried to option one of his books to prevent other companies from making it and competing with the producer's film based on another book. Another of his books has been optioned continually for fourteen years.  "It paid for my daughter's college education."

Meg Elison had her book optioned by a screenwriter who only heard of it because one word in the title matched the title of a TV the writer had been streaming, so Amazon suggested it.

The Middle Ages Weren't Bad.
  Several historians argued that the so-called dark ages get a bum rap.  Ada Palmer, who studies the Renaissance said:  "My period  was mean to your period and I'm sorry."  She said there is a lot more Renaissance art than Medieval art because we destroyed so much of the latter.  During World War II the allied pilots were forbidden to bomb Florence, to protect all that pretty stuff, but cities with older art were fair game.

When did the Early Modern period begin?  Palmer says there is a disagreement of 400 years depending on which field you ask, because they all want to claim their favorite work as modern, not part of that tacky ol' medieval stuff.

David M. Perry said medieval people loved democracy.  They formed groups, created complicated by-laws, and voted on stuff.  They just weren't allowed to run their governments that way.

Palmer recommends historical fiction about Europe written by Asian authors, who look at things quite differently than us.  

Morally Ambiguous Characters. James Patrick Kelly invoked our field for this one, saying his favorite morally ambiguous hero is Sam Spade.

David Gerrold said the morally ambiguous character does the right thing for the situation, although in another situation he would be horrified by it.    

And just for giggles, here are the names of some panels I did not attend:

* More than Sexbots and Slaves

* If It's Not Love, Then It's The Bomb That Will Bring Us Together

* I'm Trapped Here For An Hour!  Ask Wes Anything!

* Why is the U.S. Banning and Challenging So Many Books?

* Werewolf Torts and Undead Tax Liabilities

* Abolition and Our Future: Imagining a World Without Police

* Let's Talk About Consent, Baby

Next time I will offer some of my favorite quotes from the Con.  Until then: Keep watching the skies!

07 September 2022

From the BBC to you.


For the second week in a row I am going to discuss British audio.  Pip pip and all that.

I have written here before about enjoying audiobooks through the Libby service my library makes available.  I also listen to podcasts.

Recently I discovered BBC Sounds, a free source of tons of radio from Old Blighty.  Let me tell you about some relevant favorites.  (Keep in mind that some of these have expiration dates.)

My Sister the Serial Killer. 
A novel by Oyinkan Braithwaite, read in condensed form.  Korede tries to protect her sister but it is awkward because Ayoola is indeed a serial killer, although a million miles from the stereotype.  A bizarre novel from a writer  with a truly original mind.

A Charles Paris Mystery.  Bill Nighy stars as the cynical actor in an excellent dramatization of Simon Brett's A Doubtful Death. Charles goes to Oxford for an "experimental" production of Hamlet and finds a possible case of murder.

.  Dramatization of short stories by E.W. Hornung about A.J. Raffles, the original gentleman thief, created as a sort of anthesis of Hornung's brother-in-law's famous creation, Sherlock Holmes.

McLevy.  Radio dramas about a Victorian Scottish policeman.  The current series finds him in the United States. 

Miss Marple. June Whitfield plays Agatha Christie's legendary sleuth in Nemesis.

And here are some more that I haven't listened to yet:

Dead Cert.  A dramatization of Val McDermid's novel.

How to Kill Your Family.
  An abridged reading of a novel by Bella Mackie.

The Reckoning.  A dramatization of Charles Nicholl's book about the murder of Christopher Marlowe.

Annika Stranded.  You may have seen the show Annika on PBS, about a Norwegian policewoman.  These are readings of stories about the same character, written by her creator Nick Walker.

And moving away from crime...  I discovered this website because BBC's Friday Night Comedy is no longer available on other apps. That program usually consists of a rotating series of news-related comedy shows, but over the summer they switch to a serial.  At the moment they are running a second season of the hilarious Party's Over, starring Milo Jupp as Henry Tobin, trying to adjust to normal life after a brief and disastrous term as Prime Minister:

Reporter: "Prime Minister, which of the many catastrophes over the eight months you were in power do you think was the biggest? The petrol crisis? Losing Gibraltar?  The school dinner dog meat scandal?"

Henry Tobin: "Many of these events could be viewed as successes. You call it a petrol crisis.  I call it more Britons using bicycles than ever before."

Happy listening.   


31 August 2022

Take a Flying Leap

 Two years ago here I wrote about listening to the audiobook of Pride and Prejudice, my first encounter with Jane Austen.    I have been working my way through her other novels, in no order, and have had an interesting experience with her book Persuasion (1818).

I should put in a spoiler alert here, I suppose.  

There is a famous scene in which the characters are visiting Lyme (really Lyme Regis) and and walk along the Cobb, a stone wall at the harbor.  Louisa demands that Captain Wentworth "jump her down" from the steps. Although Austen doesn't say so explicitly it seems obvious to me that the teenager is   1) flirting, and  2) using the opportunity for some physical contact with the handsome sea captain.

There is another point involved, and Austen nails that one down with a sledgehammer: Wentworth had previously criticized the novel's heroine, Anne Elliot for being too persuadable, easily having her opinion changed by others.  Now, in a classic case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, he is unable to convince Louisa not to jump.  She does so with unfortunate results.

Austen does like falls.  Being so concerned with social rank she seems to enjoy the up-and-down metaphor. (My first piece about Austen  focused  on her use of the word "condescension" which literally means "stepping down together.") Earlier in the same novel Wentworth refers to a happily married couple going out for a drive: "I wonder whereabouts they will upset to-day. Oh! it does happen very often, I assure you, but my sister makes nothing of it; she would as lieve be tossed out as not."  Louisa, tellingly, approves of that sentiment.

And Louisa brings me to the real topic of this piece: a bit of word-nerdery.

When I read the phrase "jump her down" I was intrigued.  I had never heard it before.  So I decided to consult that source of all linguistic knowledge, the Oxford English Dictionary. I don't have a copy of the twenty-volume set but as a professor emeritus at the university where I used to work I have online access.  

Not surprisingly, "jump" turns out to be an interesting word.  The verb has been traced back to 1511.  The noun makes an appearance half a century later.  But what about the meaning that caught my attention?

Sure enough, the oldest example the OED offers is from our book: 

 J. Austen Persuasion (1818) III. xii. 259
   She..ran up the steps to be jumped down again. 

Fair enough, but my problem is with the definition they offer: 

a. To cause to jump; to give a jumping motion to; to drive forward with a bound; to startle. 

But that isn't what Austen is describing in Persuasion.  Wentworth isn't causing Louisa to jump.  A more accurate definition would be something like "to catch or otherwise assist someone who is jumping."

 Here is the Cobb scene as imagined in two film productions of Persuasion.  They disagree on details  but are both on my side versus the dictionary, I think.

By the way, when the poet Alfred Tennyson visited Lyme Regis his friends offered to show him some important historic site and he responded: "Don’t talk to me of the Duke of Monmouth; show me the exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell."

 One more language question for all the Austeneers out there.  Why in the name of heaven are four of the characters in the book named Charles? Didn't she know any other names?

Anyway, that's a summary of my never-to-be-written PhD. dissertation on English literature.  If you don't like it, well, the Cobb is still there, and you know what you can do.  (Or just tell me in the comments.)

17 August 2022

Getting Motivated

In detective stories - that section of the mystery world where someone is actually trying to solve a crime - the sleuths often spend some pages pondering the motives of the suspects.  Why would the nanny want to shoot the chiropodist?

This means, of course, that the author has to think about these topics as well.  But not just for the bad guys.  As playwright David Mamet said: In every scene every character has to want something.

So let's talk about the motives of the protagonist, which in our example is the character trying to solve the crime.  Why is she doing that?  Several possibilities come to mind:

* Money.  Private eyes are generally in it for the Benjamins.  So are cops, right?

* Justice.  Our hero is determined to bring the bad guy to court.

* Vengeance. The bad guy killed our hero's partner/mother/cat.  (Not cat!  Readers will scream if you harm an animal!)

* Curiosity/Nosiness/Boredom.  The amateur sleuth is on the case.

* Love/Friendship.  Your sweetie is accused of the crime or is danger from the baddie. 

* Ego.  See how smart I am?

* Self-preservation.  The theme that launched a dozen Hitchcock movies:  Our hero is accused of the crime so she has to figure out whodunit to save her own skin.

Those are the main ones I can think of.  Feel free to add more.   

You may be thinking: Hey, a character might be motivated by more than one of these.  Very observant of you.  As I have written here before, it is naive to think that any person, real or fictional, has only one motive.

This subject has been on my mind because of a story I have in the current issue of Mystery Magazine.  The protagonist of "Kill and Cure" is trying to find out who killed a college student.  He is doing so on behalf of the young man's mother.

Ah, so he's doing it for Money.  Well, not exactly.  He isn't getting paid.  We'll get back to that.

Is his client seeking Justice?  Nope.  She actually wants our hero to kill the man who killed her son.  So her motive is Vengeance. 

But what's in it for the protagonist?  Well, it turns out he's dying and his only chance of survival is getting into a medical trial that the victim's mother is running.  And she will only let him in if he discovers the murderer and kills him.  Oh, did I mention that he is a professional assassin?

So his motive is Self-preservation.  But, of course, things get more complicated...

 It may seem like I am giving away the whole story line.  Trust me, I'm not.  This is just the premise of "Kill and Cure."  I hope it gives you a, uh, motive to read it.


03 August 2022

To Protect the Innocent, and Other Reasons

About a decade ago at a mystery conference a friend told me about an anthology he had been invited to write a story for.  Hmm, thought I.  I could create something for that one.

Instantly I had an appropriate story idea (and that's the way it always works, kids, ha ha).  I pulled out my notebook and wrote down the title and a one-sentence summary.  I believe I even wrote down the last paragraph.

Now as it happens, the editor never invited me to submit for that book.  And that's fine.  You can't ask everyone to the dance.

But I wrote the story and since then it has been looking for a happy home.  No luck, until Maxim Jakubowski announced he was going to edit a book called The Book of Extraordinary Femme Fatale Stories.  

Jakubowski is a well-known author and anthologist in Britain. Back in the nineties I had stories in two of his books (and am very fond of them, since one earned me my only Anthony Award nomination, and the other got me my first recognition from Publishers Weekly).  So I figured I might have a chance.

"The Dance of Love and Hunger" is narrated by a young man who is not the brightest and a bit too malleable.  His friends already talked him into a jail sentence.  Now he has fallen in love with a beautiful musician and when both of their families have financial troubles... well, stuff happens.

I originally set the story in Bellingham,WA, where I live, but the story is just so  bleak I couldn't bear to impose it on my lovely city, so I changed the names to protect the innocent.  Bellingham was named for one of the people involved in George Vancouver's expedition to the Northwest, so I magically changed it to Broughton, an officer on the ship.

Cornwall Avenue drifted east on the English coast and became Devon Avenue.  Indian Street turned into Treaty Street.  Which brings me to an interesting anecdote, because Indian Street also changed its name in real life.

Back when I worked at the university library I spent some time on the search committee.  One day it was my duty to drive a candidate to campus.  He was actually an alum of the school but had been out of town for several years.

The streets in this neighborhood were: Forest, Garden, High, Indian, and Jersey.  But when we reached the appropriate corner he said "They changed the street name." 

"That's right," I said.  "Indian Street is now named for Billy Frank, Jr.  He was an important Native American leader in the state."  

We drove for another block and then he blurted out: "But now the streets aren't in alphabetical order!"

"I know!" I said.  "Why couldn't they find a Native American who's name began with I?"

Something only a librarian (or someone with OCD) would even notice.

"The Dance of Love and Hunger" made it into The Book of Extraordinary Femme Fatale Stories, which was released on July 26.


20 July 2022

Doing the Math


For months I have had a fragment of a story idea kicking around my head.  Just something I knew I wanted to write about someday.

Then on May 23rd it blossomed into a complete plot.  I started writing and finished the first draft on the 29th.  So it took me a week.  That's pretty fast for me.

And that led me to do the math.  Brace yourself.  All that follows is based on my most recent five stories in each category mentioned below

From the time I start writing a story to the day I am ready to submit it to a publisher turns out to average 635 days.  (I hasten to point out that I am working on many stories at the same time.) So I will be ready to send the story in or around September 2025.

The first market I send it to will probably be Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  Based on past experience they will hold it for 49 days and then reject it (zero out of the most recent five).  So now we're in November.

I will then ship it to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  It will sit there for 385 days, and they will then accept it, in December 2026. (Four  out of the most recent five).

Eventually I will get a contract for the story.  I will sign it and send it back and then I will get a check. The contract/check process for my last five stories averaged out to 73 days after the story was accepted.  Based on the length of this current tale, it will probably be for about $300.

Roughly a year later my story will be published.  So the story I conceived in May 2022 will, if everything goes well,  finally see the light of day in the spring of 2027.

As somebody said, it's a slow way to get rich.

Believe it or not, the working title of the  story is "Was That So Hard?"


06 July 2022

Choose Somebody's Own Adventure

A few months ago I woke up in the middle of the night and asked myself: "Whatever happened to adventure stories?"

Yeah, I know.  Other people dream of snakes eating their own tails, thereby revealing the structure of benzene.  But this is what I get.  Blame a faulty imagination. 

But let's talk about adventure as a genre, and then maybe I can get some sleep. Wikipedia quotes Don D'Ammassa in the Encyclopedia of Adventure Fiction:

An adventure is an event or series of events that happens outside the course of the protagonist's ordinary life, usually accompanied by danger, often by physical action. Adventure stories almost always move quickly, and the pace of the plot is at least as important as characterization, setting and other elements of a creative work.

Of course adventure stories flourished for a long time - think of Dumas, Stevenson, Scott - and were a staple of the pulp era.  But while other genres from that period are still flourishing (mysteries, science fiction, horror, romance) or at least hanging on (westerns), the adventure story per se seems to be a vanishing species.

In books, that is.  It survives in movies. (How old is Indiana Jones in his next adventure?)

There has always been overlap between the adventure story and other genres.  Elizabeth Peters's brilliant Amelia Peabody novels are considered mysteries but many of them have little to do with crime-solving. See The Last Camel Died at Noon for a pure adventure tale.

One recent (starting 2007) stalwart example of the genre is the Ethan Gage series, created by William Dietrich, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who was a professor at the same university where I worked for many years.  Gage is a classic rogue character, a yankee gambler and world traveler in the Federalist era, trained in the science of electricity by none other than Benjamin Franklin himself.  Based in France, he is constantly involved with Napoleon who can scarcely decide whether to send him on another dangerous mission or shoot him as a possible American spy.

Gage's journeys take him to Egypt, the Holy Land, the Great Lakes, and even Haiti.  And they are a lot of fun.

But taken together the works of Peters and Dietrich may give us one hint why the adventure story is less popular today than it once was.  These books are set in the past and mostly in lands that, to American/European eyes, seemed wild, unexplored, and (as a person of that time might say) primitive.  There are not so many of those lands left in the present day, and even writing about the past authors run the risk of being accused of colonialism or even racism.  If your villain is Asian are you re-creating Fu Manchu?  

You can finesse that problem, perhaps, by having your hero battle a civilization on another planet, instead of another continent, but now you have changed genres.

All of which brings up a related topic, which may earn me some complaints, but here goes.

There is a popular BBC mystery series called Death in Paradise which has been running for more than a decade.  It is set on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie.  It is a commonwealth country and a Scotland Yard detective is assigned there.  And remarkably enough, this White, English-trained cop with no knowledge of the island's people, customs, or geography  is always able to solve murders that baffle the mostly Black locals.  Not problematic at all!

The show tried to dodge that bullet by making the hero a classic English eccentric - the only man on the island who wears a suit and carries a briefcase, for example.  This makes sense: you can't expect the local constabulary to outsmart a Sherlock Holmes-type genius.

But that actor left and they brought in another Englishman with a different set of eccentricities.  I quit watching the show after that but I hear they have had four different stars, all White Englishmen.  Maybe next time they make a switch they should bring in a Black copper.  

That would be a new adventure, so to speak.

29 June 2022

The Powers That Be

At the risk of sounding unAmerican, I have never been a big fan of comic books or graphic novels (with one notable exception). 

Superhero movies don't do much for me either.  In spite of that I think I have seen a dozen of them, and half of those were about Batman.  (Yes, I know he isn't a superhero.  But he is, of course, the World's Greatest Detective.)

I believe I have only seen one superhero movie in a theatre, and that was by accident.  The film I came to see broke so I agreed to see Superman II instead.  Didn't much care for it.

But a few years ago I was thinking about the public's love for such characters and an odd thought popped into my head: What if someone thought they had a super power?  Well, that might be interesting.

Of course, it would have to a pretty minor super power.  If you thought you could fly or become invisible you would soon be disillusioned.  After some thought I wrote this opening:

When Randolph was six years old, he discovered he could control gravity.   

Not completely, of course.  He couldn’t make things fall up, or even hover in the air.  But once something started to drop, he could influence its direction.

He figured this out one rainy day when his mother told him that, no, he couldn’t go outside, so he should find something to do and stop complaining or she’d give him something to complain about.

Randolph had sat by the window, looking into the street, and noticed a drop of rain poised on the glass.  It began to slip and he thought: Go to the left.

And it did, shimmying down to the far end of the pane.  So he could do that.

The rest of the story follows our hero (?) through his life.

Is Randolph delusional or does he really have a form of psychokinesis?  That is one question that lies at the heart of "The Lord of Falling Objects" in the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, on sale now.

The other question is of course: Why does this story belong in a magazine for crime fiction?  Read it and the pieces will, ahem, fall into place.