Showing posts with label Mark Thielman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mark Thielman. Show all posts

11 June 2024


     The television western, Gunsmoke, was a staple at my childhood home. Weekly, we watched Marshal Matt Dillon face down an outlaw during the opening scene. To a heavy and threatening drumbeat, the marshal stepped out onto the main street of Dodge City, Kansas. The camera focused on the revolver hanging low on his hip, the sheriff's right hand held steadily above the pistol grip. The music built as the camera panned to show the sheriff striding determinedly and wordlessly forward. His opponent, the outlaw dressed in black, entered the street from the opposite side. The two men squared to face one another. The music built to a crescendo. When they drew pistols, the camera angle shifted. Through the cloud of white smoke, we watched the grim-faced sheriff. We never saw the outlaw fall, but we knew the marshal had outdrawn his opponent. As the camera held the sheriff's world-weary expression, the announcer solemnly intoned, "Gunsmoke, starring James Arness as Matt Dillon." 

Marshal Matt Dillon
Marshal Matt Dillon, Gunsmoke
© CBS Television, public domain

    CBS Chairman William Paley, reportedly was a great fan of Raymond Chandler. Beginning with the radio show, ;Gunsmoke, and later with the television adaptation, he wanted to create a series centered on the "Philip Marlowe of the old West." The opening scene, with the stylized code duelo showdown, set a tone. It cemented the single combat gunfight in the middle of the town's dusty street as a trope of the American West.

    Such gunfights, however, rarely occurred. 

    The West had its share of violence, typical for a frontier. But the formality of the single combat duel was primarily the product of dime novelists and film directors. 

    There were, of course, exceptions. 

    In 1865, Wild Bill Hickok squared off with Davis Tutt in Springfield, Missouri. The two quarreled over gambling. To secure a debt, Tutt took a prized watch belonging to Hickok. Tutt prominently wore the watch, embarrassing Hickok. Later, the two men advanced on one another. Tutt reportedly drew first, fired wildly, and missed. Hickok shot more steadily and hit Tutt in the chest. History does not record whether the watch was injured. Tutt, however, died. 

    In his subsequent trial, a jury acquitted Hickok of manslaughter. In 1867, a story describing the event appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. The exaggerated tale helped form the myth about Wild Bill Hickok and the single combat duel. Today, readers can get the details on the official Springfield, Missouri website.

    On March 9th, 1877, Jim Levy (sometimes Leavy) and Charlie Harrison argued over a game of cards in Cheyenne, Wyoming's Shingle and Locke's saloon. Levy challenged Harrison to "take it outside." There, as Bat Masterson, the western lawman, gunfighter, and writer, described the event, Harrison drew quickly. He fired five shots. Levy took his time and needed only one. (Although he only required one, reportedly Levy stood over the downed Harrison and shot him a second time in the stomach. This fact tampers with the honorable gunfighter trope but, perhaps, more accurately portrays the times.) Masterson used the Levy/Harrison battle to illustrate the importance of a gunfighter's need to remain calm and take one's time. In 1907, Masterson wrote in Human Life magazine:

    That Harrison was as game a man as Levy could not be doubted; that he could shoot much faster, he had given ample proof, but under extraordinary conditions he had shown that he lacked deliberation and lost his life in consequence.

    My adopted town, Fort Worth, also helped create the myth of the Western gunfight. Although the facts bear little resemblance to the stylized book or movie version.

    Longhair Jim Courtright had been the first marshal of Fort Worth. He was tasked with keeping the peace in Hell's Half Acre. The murder rate plummeted on his watch. He also, however, likely used his badge and gun to extort money from saloon owners as part of a protection racket. Following an election defeat in 1879, he moved to New Mexico. There, a dispute over land and cattle led to an accusation of murder against Courtright. There were, it seems, lingering questions about whether Courtright's involvement in the shooting had been as law enforcement or criminal participant. He returned to Fort Worth, a place far enough removed from New Mexico to avoid extradition. In 1884, he established a private detective office here. Besides investigative services, the office resumed operations as a protection racket. 

    Luke Short, another man experienced with guns, worked as the manager of the White Elephant Saloon in Fort Worth. Short refused Courtright's offers of protection. Allowing business owners to decline, however, would be bad for the detective's business. On February 8th, 1887, a drunk Courtright called out Luke Short. Together, they walked down the street on Fort Worth's north side as they attempted to settle their disagreement. Outside a local brothel, the negotiation apparently reached an impasse. The two men stood three to four feet apart. Courtright drew his gun. Short, however, fired first, and his bullet tore off Courtright's thumb. While Longhair Jim Courtright attempted to switch his weapon to his other hand, Short fired again. His subsequent shots killed Courtright, the former lawman, detective, and extortionist.

    Luke Short was investigated for the shooting. The charges were subsequently dismissed. The Courtright/Short gunfight is one of the legends of Fort Worth. This town's stories are part of why I like living here. When the local chapter of Sisters in Crime began compiling an anthology, Notorious in North Texas, I used this tale as my jumping-off point. This week, we celebrate the release of that anthology. Many of the fine authors who contributed tales set their stories in Dallas. But I wanted to put my story here in Fort Worth, where the West begins.

(Thanks to Legends of America for the details about the gunfights.)

    Until next time.

21 May 2024

Answering the Call

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

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

My answer probably depends on whether I like the prompt. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time. 

30 April 2024

Character Revealed

     When this blog posts, I'll be on the road. My traveling companion and I will be returning to
the Lone Star State from Malice Domestic 2024. While there, I'll participate in a panel discussion with fellow Sleuth, Barb Goffman. Joining us are Kate Hohl, Mary Dutta, and Kerry Hammond. The panel will be talking about, "Short Stories: Quickly Connecting Reader to Character."

    (It's an odd space-time continuum bending moment. I'm writing prospectively about an event that will have occurred by publication.) I look forward to/enjoyed discussing the craft of short story creation with these accomplished writers. 

    I'm excited to learn many things from them about building character. Do they, for instance, build characters first and then allow the plot to emerge from the interaction among these individuals, or do they conceive of a plot and build characters to inhabit that narrative? Do we all do the same thing, or do our methods vary? 

    As with many seminar topics, I'd be shocked if we surprise anyone with our discussion. There are only so many ways to reveal character. Our panel will, I hope, provide an entertaining review and, perhaps, systematize the process. If we succeed, the readers and writers in the audience will be better able to think about the characters in the next story they open. 

    We might quickly run aground over the use of the word "character." We always create characters within our stories. Each character has a particular character that makes them heroic or villainous or NPCs in the vocabulary of my gamer children. To keep the conversation afloat, I'll use "character" as the word to describe the person or animal involved in the story and "nature" when discussing the qualities that make them who or what they are. 

    As writers, we have a handful of tools for developing nature. Time permitting, I hope our panel's discussion will include a conversation about them all. Some authors might rely heavily upon dialogue to show us the nature of their tale's characters. Accents, word choice, and truncated versus elaborate sentences tell us something about the people inhabiting the stories. We learn from their questions, their answers, and their non-answers. In other stories, appearance might be the tool. Physically appearance and mannerisms usually elicit our first reaction to people. The vise-like grip, the sweating brow, and the beady eyes all help draw a picture for the readers and shape their expectations. 

    Action and a character's response, or lack thereof, may tell us about the story's inhabitants. Something happens and characters change. A door opens. There is a moment of stress. The characters fight, flee, or freeze. What the characters do and how change affects them shows their nature. 

    Finally, a writer might reveal the nature of the characters through their thoughts. The monologue playing inside the characters' heads as they evaluate situations, resolve conflicts, and make decisions exposes the nature of the individuals we are reading about in stories. 

    These are the readily available tools for showing readers the characters. They are the devices for making them interesting and believable. As authors, we deploy them to make the characters worth getting to know. 

    Sometimes, however, we choose to tell readers about a character's nature. As writers, we might present nature ourselves. The advantage is economy. The writer may say that a character is stupid. In that case, the reader learns the information far more efficiently than descriptions and dialogue may permit. The downside is that, having invested nothing, the reader might not care. 

    A final alternative is to have a character reveal the nature of a fellow character. One person may comment on or think about the nature of another. This method reveals something about both individuals. The reader is called upon to decide whether her opinion agrees with the speaker or thinker's evaluation. 

    As evidenced by the previous sentence, it's worth noting that almost no story relies entirely upon one technique. A reader will need some clues from appearance, speech, or action to pass judgment on another character's evaluation of nature. 

    Thinking about revealed nature for the Malice panel caused me to look back upon "Streetwise," my story in the current issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The story concerns the interaction between a man and his friend. The friend is currently homeless. 

    I wrote "Streetwise," with alternating points of view between the two men. At the time, I wanted to shift POV as an exercise I'd not tried before, at least not intentionally. It seemed a good technique for feeding details slowly, extracting them from the different observations and experiences of each man. 

    As the story ping-ponged between the two, each character's nature is revealed by the thoughts of the other. It's that sixth technique discussed above. The reader can measure each character's evaluation of his friend based on the revealed facts. The story is a "tell" with a bit of "show." 

    Multiple POVs and telling about the other characters are suitable only for some stories. I wanted to try it for this one. I'm honored that the kind folks at Alfred Hitchcock liked the story. I hope that the readers do also. 

    Until next time. 

09 April 2024

Miami Ad-Vice

        On the day this blog posts, life takes my traveling companion and me to southern Florida. The overlapping events provided an ideal time to resume my irregular series of posts on Constitutional Tourism, a geographic review of major Supreme Court decisions on criminal law matters. For those interested in where their law comes from, today we're venturing to The Sunshine State. 

    No surprise to Crockett or Tubbs, but drugs flow through South Florida. Much of this region's Supreme Court case law deals with drug interdiction. Hopefully, the following review will provide a brief law primer as well as a guide to visiting America's thumb. What follows are a few places where your rights were more sharply defined. 

    Florida v. Bostick, 501 US 419 (1991)

    Mr. Bostick climbed aboard a bus at the Miami depot. His ride was headed for Atlanta. In Fort Lauderdale, the next city north of Miami, sheriff's officers entered the bus. They approached Bostick without any facts to articulate why he might be viewed as a suspicious character. The officers, dressed in law enforcement jackets and showing badges, asked permission to search his bag. There is some dispute about whether Bostick provided consent, but the trial court found that he had. When the deputies looked, they found cocaine in Bostick's luggage. His bus ride ended abruptly. 

selbst vektorisiert, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

    The state supreme court for Florida found that a reasonable person, under Bostick's circumstances, would not feel free to leave the bus. That court held that the search was an unconstitutional violation of Bostick's rights against unlawful search and seizure. Bus searches essentially were, per se, unreasonable. 

    As a rule, the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects against unlawful searches. Although there is a preference for search warrants, a judicial order is not always required before the police may search. History has crafted a handful of exceptions. One of those is permission. If I consented to Crockett and Tubbs searching me or my possessions, I cannot later complain if they found something. 

    But I can't be coerced into giving my okay. My rights need to be freely and voluntarily surrendered. This is a subjective question, turning on things like the words used, the display of weapons, and other facts. 

    The Supreme Court acknowledged that the police could engage in this behavior on the streets. The bus, however, presented a more challenging environment for a defendant to refuse. The path to avoid the police likely is the narrow center aisle of the bus, a route running between the two officers. If Bostick left, the bus would leave without him. He may not have a free and voluntary choice to make. 

    However, cramped spaces and tight schedules were not the result of anything the police did; instead, they were part of bus travel. The Supreme Court ruled that Florida's holding finding bus searches were automatically unconstitutional was wrong. The question wasn't whether Bostick was free to leave, the Court held, but whether he was free to decline a search. They sent the case back for the Florida Supreme Court to consider the voluntary nature of Bostick's choice. The Florida judiciary upheld the search this time. 

    Florida v. J.L., 529 US  266 (2000) 

    An anonymous caller told Miami police that a group of three young black males were at a bus stop at 183rd St. and N.W. 24th Ave. The male, wearing a plaid shirt, carried a gun. The responding officer arrived within six minutes of the tip. At the bus stop, she saw three males, including one wearing a plaid shirt. She observed no suspicious behavior. Nonetheless, she frisked the plaid-shirted J.L. and found a handgun in his pocket. 

Ed Webster, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 Another search warrant exception is a police officer's safety frisk. (We discussed this one in an earlier blog touring Cleveland.) If an officer has articulable facts and circumstances that, based on her training and experience, lead her to believe that a crime is occurring and may pose a danger, she is entitled to frisk for weapons. Here, the suspicion arose not from the officer's observations but from an anonymous tipster calling from an unknown place. The tip provided no means for the police to test the informant's knowledge or credibility. The anonymous tip alone could not justify the stop and frisk. 

    J.L. was sixteen when this offense occurred. His youth may have been a factor in the Supreme Court's reluctance to brand him a criminal. They ruled in his favor and did not allow Florida to prosecute the case. It is also why he isn't named in the opinion. History carries his initials only, unlike Mr. Bostick. 

    As an aside, the Supreme Court left some wiggle room. They specifically noted that they might feel differently if the police were responding to an anonymous tip about a bomb or some other mass-casualty risk. 

    Miami buses came out 1-1 in the U.S. Supreme Court. 

    U.S. v. Place, 462 US 696 (1983)

    Airplane passengers always check a few constitutional rights along with their baggage. In Place, a passenger boarded a plane bound for LaGuardia in New York from the Miami airport. Detectives in Florida became suspicious about Raymond Place but decided they didn't have time to search before his flight departed. Instead, they notified DEA agents in New York. The feds detained Place for ninety minutes and drove him to Kennedy Airport. At Kennedy, a drug-sniffing dog alerted to the luggage. This happened on Friday afternoon. The DEA held the luggage until they could get a search warrant signed on Monday. Upon opening Place's luggage, the authorities found slightly more than a kilo of cocaine. 

    Here, the DEA had a tip from a known and reliable source. It was not anonymous. The Miami detectives, furthermore, investigated and found holes in Place's story. Based on this reliable information, the DEA could detain the luggage briefly to investigate. However, the Supreme Court found that the federal agent's detention exceeded the permissible limits. The authorities kept Place and his bags too long for an investigative stop. They knew he was coming: they could have staged the dog at La Guardia rather than dragging a presumed innocent passenger across New York City. As a consolation, the Supreme Court did rule that allowing a drug-sniffing dog to walk by the luggage did not constitute a search. 

    The government lost this kilo but got the Supreme Court's thumbs-up on dog sniffing. Canine searches have proved to be a powerful tool for law enforcement. 

    Constitutional law books locate this case in New York. The constitutional nugget, however, had its origin in Miami. Current Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson also did. She grew up in Miami and was senior class president at Miami Palmetto High School. Justice Jackson is, perhaps, Miami's most enduring Supreme Court connection. 

    Does she feel constitutionally safer in an airplane or a bus when she visits Miami? 

    Until next time. 

19 March 2024

Stolen Opportunities

     Pre-pandemic, my traveling companion and I visited Italy. We journeyed with another couple. I'll call them P and D. On a jaunt to the Amalfi Coast, we took the Circumvesuviana. It sounded cool. The train departs from Naples and hugs Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed Pompeii. The Circumvesuviana passes by that ancient Roman city. It treks along the Amalfi Coast before arriving at Sorrento, with its sheer cliffs and colorful villas. I carried a notepad. A few of my notes follow.

    The train trip reads better in the guidebooks. The Circumvesuviana functions as a commuter railway. Our train was graffiti-splashed, chugged slowly, stopped frequently, and was crowded. If you want to try something that isn't touristy, ride the Circumvesuviana.

Jensen, Public Domain, Wikimedia

    While we stood in the Naples station waiting for the opportunity to board, P, the husband, told us that he'd just foiled a pickpocket. I followed his outstretched arm, pointing toward a man scurrying to the far end of the station, casting wayward glances in our direction. 

    We boarded the train. P had served in the US Navy and had sailed out of Naples on occasion. He remembered a restaurant he'd eaten at in Sorrento. We found it. The place stood dimly lit and mysterious. We were traveling out of season, I'll add. Few tourists were visiting in January. Lots of places proved uncrowded, dark, and mysterious. 

    We ended this side trip at Pompeii. I entered the ancient site with a certain trepidation. I'd heard about and seen pictures of these ruins for my entire life. Would the place live up to my expectations? Pompeii did. 

    An exotic-sounding train trip, an ancient Roman city, and a town on the gorgeous Amalfi coast cloaked in just a hint of mystery. What could a writer possibly do with that?

    As we zipped along on the ItaliaRail, the sleek, clean, fast national railway back to Rome, I flipped through the notes and began thinking about someday mining this little side trip. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine graciously published the resulting story, "Sfortuna," in the March/April issue. 

    I love to set stories in the places I've visited. Writing a short story allows me to think back on the pleasant memories of a vacation. Exploring a new place with the mindset that I'll likely dip into this experience for a later story also heightens my observations. I take a five-sense inventory of a place. What stands out that I might tap into when I'm seated at my keyboard? The practice frequently enhances my experience of visiting. Hosts also seem to like seeing their vacation home used as the setting for a short story. Selfishly, if a published story gets me invited back, that's a double win for me. 

    I've frequently mined these experiences. I think of this as a subset of the writer's maxim, "Write what you know." In this case, the admonition is recast as, "Write what you think you know because you've visited for a very short time." 

    And I have to expand the maxim. I can't just write what I know. My stories would be too bland. I've been fortunate to have missed out on much of the soul-searing pain others might dredge for their stories. I've never been a POW in a fire-bombed city like Dresden. I'm not complaining or volunteering; I'm just reporting. 

    So where do you go when the pains in your life are the abundance of weeds in your front lawn and terrible luck when picking a grocery store checkout lane? How do you mine the commonplace to find exciting story material? 

    First, I need to recognize that my personal experience provides the only lens I've got to view what I'm trying to portray through words. 

    Second, I remember the micro-moments. We've all experienced times of heartache, loss, despair, grief, and sadness. Perhaps not on some grand scale, but we've all been there. I've seen the people around me have these emotions as well. My traveling companion expresses her feelings differently than I do. I can amplify that range of emotions to convey my character's thoughts and feelings. I can mine not only my vacations but also my personal history. I can squeeze what I need from the mundane. 

    Third, I hope I'm noticing the people around me. Having a ringside seat in the criminal justice system has allowed me to observe other people having bad days. I've seen their anger and disillusionment. I've also witnessed their sense of vindication. Finally, I've also seen their stupidity. It all helps when I'm trying to write. 

    But one doesn't need to have worked in jail to find emotions on display. Grocery store trips can demonstrate bits of bad behavior. We're all watching for those moments. To write is to be part voyeur. You're standing in the checkout line or sitting at a restaurant and not intentionally eavesdropping, but suddenly find yourself gifted with a phrase. For a moment, the meal is put on hold so that you can text yourself a message before you forget the gift you've just been given. 

    Lastly, I can look things up. Research is, in its own way, an enhancement of my personal experience. I'm going to the places I choose and looking for what I might find. On virtually any subject, the internet makes it possible to eavesdrop on someone somewhere reflecting on something. I can read or watch and filter what they report through my lens. 

    I've experienced nothing of what happened in "Sfortuna." Viewed differently, we've experienced it all. I sat down at my computer and imagined how it all came out. I'm thrilled that the kind folks at Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine liked the story. I hope that the readers do also. 

    How do you mine your experiences? What tips do you have for wringing the maximum literary value from the fortunes and misfortunes in your life?

Until next time. 

27 February 2024

Lyrics and Music

     Like the other authors in the Murder: Neat lineup, I'm using this blog as an opportunity to talk about my story in the new SleuthSayers anthology. I jumped at the chance to contribute a story as well as the opportunity to write about it here. My tale, "Lyrics and Music," kicks off the anthology. 

    I love listening to ballads on the radio. By definition, they tell stories. Not surprisingly, that's something I admire. But a ballad does the storytelling in short stanzas, set to music, and makes the words rhyme. A good one makes my attempts at story craft feel entry-level. 

    As my traveling companion can attest, with me, usually the sappier the ballad, the better. If you tell Billy not to be a hero, like Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods did, I'm right there with you. 

    Sappy is a loaded word. These days, it's never a positive. Tag anything with
"sappy" and it is weighed down with the baggage of cheesy or saccharine. But "sappy" used to be a good thing. In its origin, it meant full of vitality, like a young sapling. Somewhere around the early 17th Century, the meaning changed to excessively sentimental. The change may have been due to the stickiness of sap, the syrupy goo oozing from the young green stalks. 

    When the opportunity to contribute a story presented itself, and the only requirements were a crime story and a bar, I immediately thought about a saloon singer with a tale. Love, alcohol, a villain, and a problem to be solved: a ballad could be written about each. Instead, let's put the four together, I thought. That'll drip sap. 

    I turned up the volume on a Marty Robbins gunfighter ballad and settled in at my computer. 

    But what bar? In Fort Worth, the bar is Billy Bob's Texas, the world's largest honky tonk. It has a main stage, ample dance floor, various watering stations, and plenty of dark corners where all sorts of mischief might occur. 

    Billy Bob's Texas, however, felt too big for my setting. I needed something smaller. I remembered a great evening my traveling companion, and I spent at the Stagecoach Bar in Jackson, Wyoming, many years ago. In my mind, the place was like Billy Bob's Texas, only dried on hot. It had the same features and drew a diverse crowd but occupied less real estate. It felt more intimate. The place lacked a mechanical bull or a gift shop. The Broken Spoke in Austin also offered a similar vibe, at least before the new construction crowded in on all sides. 

    With a mental picture of the place and a vision of a woebegone protagonist, I began to type. The resulting story introduces the reader to Jimmy West, a country singer trapped by a bad contract and forced to perform at a bar run by an unscrupulous proprietor. Jimmy can't get out from under his ironclad contractual obligations. There is no escape for him...or is there? 

Vitality and sentimentality, "Lyrics and Music," I hope, embraces "sappy" in all its definitions. 

    Running a finger down the list of contributors to Murder: Neat makes a guy feel pressure to put the right words in the right spots. My name stands alongside some heady company. I'm grateful to Barb and Michael. Their skilled editing helped shift the errant words to the places they were supposed to be. They've wrung out the excess syrup. I hope you'll enjoy the results. 

    Until next time. 

06 February 2024

A Farewell Song

     As I mentioned in my last blog, the end of January marked the last day of my service as a magistrate judge. When I cleared out my desk, I found a smattering of paper scraps. On these, I had jotted down the typos and misheards from police reports that I'd been asked to review. Sadly, this is likely the last of these blogs. I've been cut off from the taproot. 

    As always, I hope these tiny written missteps brighten your day. Also, as you think about crafting characters, I hope they remind you that police officers, like everyone else, sometimes make inconsequential mistakes. Police errors are not always substantial, case-turning blunders of constitutional proportions. They're not necessarily mean-spirited or corrupt. Sometimes, they're just typos. 

    I found the defendant engaging in a fistic encounter. 

Creative Commons
    To be fair to the officer, "fistic" is a word. He wasn't wrong in his usage. The arrestee was hitting another person. The OED states that "fistic" is an adjective "related to boxing." The OED also reports, however, that its high water mark for usage was approximately 1900. Clearly, the officer channeled his inner Damon Runyon or Grantland Rice. Or, he may have reached for grandiose prose when a more common phrase would have worked better. 

    And now, another typic encounter. 


    At home, my husband's girlfriend pointed a gun at me.

    Again, not a typo. Remember this sentence the next time you're challenged to tell a story in ten words or less. Plot, setting, conflict, and theme all set out in a single line. I'll let the rest of the story unfold in your mind. 

    I arrived at the scene and exited my vehicle. The defendant then attempted to flea from the police. 

    Although it is always possible that the officer encountered a character ripped from the script of an upcoming Marvel movie or, for those with a literary bent, a John Dunne poem, this one is likely a typo. I do, however, really like the imagery that jumps to mind. 

    On January 15th, while I was performing my duties as a Texas Peach Officer...

    Fresh, quality produce is important to us in this state. Our Agricultural Department works hard to keep it safe from all enemies, foreign and domestic. I hope you'll raise your glass to those hard-working men and women the next time you're having a bellini. 

    This officer, however, was not employed by the Ag. Department. She was one of our rank-and-file peace officers who called in a report before getting back out on the streets. Voice-to-text heard something different than intended. 

    I prepared a search warrant affidavit and presented it to the Honorable Judge [X]. After reviewing the warrant, he singed it. 

    I know that on your bucket list of Broadway shows, slightly behind Hamilton, Wicked, and Hadestown, you've got Search Warrant: The Musical. Once you see it, you'll come away humming the tune to "Probable Cause" and that slightly bawdy earworm, "Cavity Search." 

    Incidentally related, perhaps: 

    While frisking the lung area, I found a firearm. 

    The "lunge area" is the space in a motor vehicle immediately surrounding the driver or passenger. It is the zone from which a suspect might quickly grab a firearm or weapon. Clearing the lunge area is an integral part of officer safety. 

    Searching the lung area for a firearm, however, probably required a great deal of singing before the judge granted the legal authority to go that deeply into the body. 

    And with that, my scrap pile has been emptied. 

Creative Commons

    In conclusion, I will note that it is not just officers who occasionally risk misinterpretation. A word of caution: When you're writing thank-you notes to well-wishers on the occasion of your retirement, be careful with your cursive. If you are a tad sloppy with your handwriting, the sentence: 

    "It has been an honor to work with you."

Might easily look like the sentence, 

    It has been an horror to work with you." 

And that changes the meaning of the sentiment entirely. Trust me on this one. 

Until next time. 

16 January 2024


     As frequently happens on the way to one thing, I encountered something else. 

    While doing some research, I bumped into the etymology of the expression "to toast." The phrase we use for words spoken about the bride at a wedding or a guest of honor at a banquet, I learned, is directly related to that piece of bread with jam you might be consuming while perusing your morning email or skimming this SleuthSayers offering. 

    The word "toast" is derived from an Old French word, toster, meaning to grill, roast, or burn. That word is drawn from an earlier Latin word, tostare, meaning to parch or dry out. It's no great stretch to see how this word became associated with the browning of bread served with a slathering of preserves or perhaps a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar.

     Focusing on that last flavor combination gives the jump off to the use of "to toast" as celebratory words offered with a cocktail. 

    16th and 17th-century wines might be bitter and sediment-filled. Adding a piece of spiced toast to the drink added flavor, lessened any foul smell, and perhaps acted as a sponge to trap sediment particles. The toast made the wine more drinkable. William Shakespeare mentions the practice in The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Falstaff instructs his fellow to  "Go, fetch me a quart of sack;  put a toast in 't,". 

    According to accounts, the toast was not eaten but plucked from the cup and flicked to the nearest dog. 

    The offering of kind or thoughtful words to an honored guest added to the occasion's flavor, leading those praises to be called "the toast." 

    The practice of offering kind words pre-dates their designation as a toast. People have always felt the need to give speeches while drinking. 

    That's the G version. Both Merriam-Webster and the Online Etymology Dictionary, my sources for this, also offer a bawdier explanation. That story centers around a woman taking the therapeutic cool waters of a pool near Bath, England. While she floated, a traveler happened along. He plunged his cup into the water and offered a wish for her good health. His traveling companion, possibly drunk, suggested that while he might not care for the drink, he would undoubtedly enjoy the toast. "Toast" became both the words of praise and the subject--the toast of the town. 

    A bit off-topic, but the same sources note that to use "toast" to mean that someone is a goner or has been destroyed owes its genesis to an ad-libbed line by Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. Some argue that it had earlier origins, but all agree that the movie brought this usage of "toast" to the public. Now you know who you gonna call when you want a word placed in general circulation. 

    Back to today's subject. I will raise my mug of morning coffee and offer a toast to 2024. It may be a bit late in the month for such things, but in the due course of the SleuthSayers blog rotation, this is my first opportunity of the year. 

    May all your writing be prize-winning and effortless. May all your reading inspire and entertain. May your every encounter suggest another story. May your life be free of your main character's pain. 

    As for me, the new year will prove life-changing. I'm retiring as a criminal magistrate at the end of January. I'm doing so partly because I want to devote more time to writing. The full-time job gets in the way. Or, at least in my mind, it does. I will be curious to learn whether I'll produce more in the months ahead. Perhaps the time it takes to accomplish something will merely expand to fill the time available. 

    I may lose my new-found time running down rabbit holes in pursuit of etymologies. 

    One regret about leaving the magistrate gig is that I'll be deprived of the steady stream of typos I've found in the case documents. Reporting on that collection has been a semi-regular blog topic for the last couple of years. Like faithful companions, these unintended misspeaks stood by me, ready to jump in whenever I needed to meet an imminent deadline. 

If mystery fiction teaches us anything, it's that actions have consequences. The decision to retire cuts me off from that rootstock. We'll see what happens from here. 

    But that problem doesn't need to be solved for another three weeks. For now, I think I'll pour another cup of coffee and drop something in the toaster. 

Until next time. 

26 December 2023

Boxing: Round One

    December 26th, as all British mystery fans know, is recognized as Boxing Day. The holiday never became established in the United States. Boxing Day rose to prominence in the Victorian Era. By then the United States had separated from the United Kingdom and were busily creating our own holidays. 

    Within the early Christian calendar, the day was, and for some remains, St. Stephen's Day. December 26th commemorates the early Christian deacon and First Century CE martyr. St. Stephen, by tradition, dedicated his life in service to the poor. 

    Celtic people began celebrating Wren Day on December 26th. A dead wren was mounted on a pole and paraded through the village streets. The wren boys knocked on doors asking for money. In exchange, they gave the household a tail feather. The plume is supposed to bring good luck (Unless of course, you're the wren). At least one legend binds these two tales together. St. Stephen, although he was just Mr. Stephen at the time, was hiding from his enemies behind a bush. A chattering wren revealed his location to his captors. Different versions are reported, but in each story, the wren is labeled as treacherous. 

    In the spirit of St. Stephen, the money collected was to be donated to worthy charities. 

    At least two different origin stories exist for Boxing Day. The predominant one holds that during Victorian England, wealthy landowners presented gifts to servants and the poor on the day after Christmas. The servants had to work Christmas Day preparing their employer's feast. The day after, they were allowed to celebrate the holiday with their families. The landowners ate informal meals consisting of leftovers. The servants were provided with boxes containing money, hand-me-down clothing, and other goods, as well as leftovers from the family meal. These Christmas boxes lend their name to the day. 

    The other common theory holds that on the day after Christmas, the church opened the alms boxes, and the parish distributed the proceeds to the needy. 

    Victorians also often spent December 26th outside. After Christmas Day, inside a house jammed with relatives, the urge to get into the open air, burn pent-up energy, and get space from the family proved overwhelming. The hunt became a popular Boxing Day activity. Presumably, if wrens were killed, they would be distributed to Irish friends and subsequently hung from poles. 

    A host of traditions have come together to make this day after Christmas a holiday for more than just post-yuletide retail therapy. 

    One December holiday tradition important to the SleuthSayers community is the announcement of the Black Orchid Novella Award winner. Since 2006, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and The Wolfe Pack, the Nero Wolfe Literary Society, have been recognizing novellas. Robert Lopresti and Steve Liskow are past recipients of the award. Back in 2016, I submitted "A Meter of Murder" to the contest.  In "Meter," John Milton, the blind 17th-century author of Paradise Lost, served as the sleuth. The committee chose my story and inducted me into the community of published short story authors. I remain indebted to them.

    My congratulations, therefore, to Libby Cudmore for her winning story, "Alibi in Ice." We'll get to read her tale in the summer issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine

  I'm circling back to a Milton story, sort of, in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. In "The Devil in the Details," an English professor finds inspiration for his misdeeds in the words of Paradise Lost. As always, I'm honored to be included in the pages of the magazine, this time alongside fellow 'sleuthers, Robert Lopresti and Michael Bracken. Now here is a tradition I'd love to continue throughout 2024.

    Whatever your holiday traditions include, I hope that you enjoy them with family and friends either inside or outside. May all your books and stories sell. And if your holiday tradition involves wren slaughtering, may the SPCA never find your home address. 

    Nollaig Shona Dhuit. (Google tells me that's a holiday greeting in Irish.) 

    Until next year.

05 December 2023

Narc Types?

    The current novel on my bedside table involves a cop who possesses superhuman thinking abilities. He never forgets anything. He has a sidekick who stands in awe of his mental agility. The protagonist is a modern-day Sherlock Holmes minus the cocaine and violin. 

    Although I've met many genuinely gifted police officers in my career, I've never met anyone like this. 

    Other books present the cops as corrupt or grossly inept. Some novels portray an officer so weighed down by personal baggage and the burdens she bears that she transforms into a drug-abusing alcoholic, barely a step above the criminals she pursues. 

    Each trope has some basis in fact. For the most part, however, these big issues don't reflect the officers I've seen and dealt with during my time in the courthouse. Their humanity is revealed, not in a single character bombshell, but rather because they sometimes run late, spill coffee, let an f-bomb drop in church, or drop the occasional typo into a report. 

    Anyway, that's my stated reason for the following compilation of typos gleaned from recent police reports. I hope they help you think about subtle ways to reveal character in your writing, better equip you to properly view the humans working as law enforcement professionals, or perhaps bring a smile to your day.

    "He angeled his head away."

    I assume that the arrestee bent his neck and moved his head to one side. But in the spirit of the yuletide season, he might have been adjusting his halo or emphasizing his pure white wings. The alleged offense, however, was not creating peace on earth.

    "The cocaine seized from the arrestee was gold ball sized."

    My assumption was that the packaged drugs collected by the officer were roughly the size of a Titleist. But given the fluctuating nature of narcotic prices, the baggie might have been worth its weight in precious metal.

    "She was found intoxicated in public lace."

    This one might unintentionally be accurate. Alcohol may sometimes lead to bad fashion choices. At least, that's what I've been told.

    "It was seized after passing the Heroine Test." 

    What are the elements of a good heroine test? Mental toughness. An unwillingness to allow her social status to defend who she becomes. A protagonist who is prepared to put her life on hold until the presenting problem resolves. Or perhaps a desire to sleep after consuming jerry-built pharmaceuticals.

    "The arrestee reviled to Officer Jones his name." 

    Another example of a sentence that might unintentionally be true. Not every citizen goes quietly into custody. Sometimes, hard feelings and genuine dislike develop between the opposing parties.

    Finally, in police work, as in fiction writing, the words matter. Consider the following typographical example. 

    During the argument, the arrestee hit his girlfriend.
    During the argument, the arrestee bit his girlfriend.

    The remainder of the report did not make clear whether "bit" was a typo or whether that was the actual physical conduct in which he engaged. It didn't matter for my purposes; the charged offense was the same regardless of the manner and means. However, I drew a very different mental picture of the two defendants. I found myself reacting much more strongly to the carnivore. What's your reaction? Was your image shaped dramatically by the single substitution of a consonant? 

    May all your holiday feasting be non-arrestable. 

    Until necks time. 

14 November 2023

Collateral Damage II

     In 1992, the McAllen police arrested Linda in a prostitution sting. By that time, she'd been living on the streets for four years. Linda went to court, took her conviction, and slowly began to clean up her life. She moved to a halfway house. Then Linda started taking classes to learn a trade. She received financial assistance from the Texas government to help finance her education. In 1996, Linda became a registered massage therapist. She worked in the field for the next quarter century, renewing her license every two years. 

    Then, in 2020, Texas took her license away.    

    Several weeks back, I began a conversation about the collateral consequences of crime. Citizens routinely think and hear about the effects of an offense on the crime victims. The earlier blog focused on the person convicted of a criminal offense. The topic seemed like something crime fiction writers might consider. Most collateral consequences are often not discussed as part of plea bargain negotiations. A defendant may not be aware. They accept a plea deal, serve the sentence, and, in their mind, pay the debt to society. Later, like Linda, unforeseen after-effects arise. Suppose, as a writer, that your goal is to craft a villain with sympathetic motivations. If you want a character whose outrage feels justified, the collateral consequences of crime might be a place to look. I hope to continue that conversation today. 

    (As in the earlier column, I focus almost exclusively on Texas law. That's my sandbox. The specifics of your jurisdiction may vary.)

    The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) is the state agency primarily responsible for overseeing businesses, trades, and occupations regulated by the state. Some jobs, such as plumbers, lawyers, police officers, EMS, doctors, pharmacists, and veterinarians, have separate regulating agencies. For many of the rest, the TDLR is the umbrella organization responsible for licensing within their occupations. 

    Some of the licensed trades in this state include air conditioning repair, auctioneers, barbers, electricians, massage therapists, mold remediators, notary publics, pawn shop employees, and tow truck operators. One state comptroller's report identified 774 occupation-related licenses overseen by 47 state agencies. 

    In Texas, a license holder's license shall be revoked if the conviction results in felony incarceration. It may be withdrawn, or a person may be denied the opportunity to obtain a license if the offense is directly related to the duties and responsibilities of the occupation or if the offense falls within the category of crimes that Texas has deemed especially bad. There is a list of these bad offenses in the Code of Criminal Procedure, Sec. 42A.054. Most practitioners call them the 3(g) offenses. (Section 3(g) was where one used to be able to find the list before the legislature renumbered everything, and 3(g) is easier to say than 42A.054. 

    The 3(g) list includes most of the crimes you'd think are bad, like murder and sexual assault. A few, like aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, are fact-specific.) 

    As with other states, Texas has different types of probation. Some were initially intended to enable the defendant to avoid the consequences of a criminal conviction upon successfully completing the supervision. Over time, many of those benefits have eroded. The TDLR may revoke, deny, or refuse to renew a license if the "non-conviction" activity renders the person unfit for the license. 

    In determining whether the conviction directly relates to an occupation, the statute lists four factors:

    1. The nature and seriousness of the crime.

    2. The relationship of the crime to the purposes for requiring a license. 

    3. The extent to which a license might offer an opportunity to engage in further        criminal activity. 

    4. The relationship of the crime to the ability or fitness to perform the duties of the     licensed occupation. 

    While items 2-4 draw some connection between the crime and the license, #1 is a giant loophole providing unfettered discretion to the overseeing agency. 

    Some licensing rules allow for the consideration of mitigating factors. Others in this state do not. We could discuss whether there should be zero tolerance for sex crimes in the legitimate massage business. As a society, we have become more attuned to issues of human trafficking and exploitation. We might debate whether we should consider the defendant's circumstances before denying a license. But those are topics for another day and a different blog. 

    Linda and others received their licenses because of an oversight by the regulatory agency. Then, at age 62, her income stream was pulled out from under her. The agency, alerted to the conviction, had no discretion. Bureaucracy may have crushed common sense. How might this defendant respond? It is easy for foresee anger and desperation. 

    Another reader might dismiss the concerns for Linda's livelihood. The saying goes, "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time." Linda, they might argue, should be grateful that she evaded the consequences for so long. 

    And in that debate, you may have created a complex villain. 

    (I would like to recognize Eric Dexheimer and his reporting in the Houston Chronicle for the specifics in this blog.)

    Until next time. 


24 October 2023

West of Here

I was driving through West Texas when a story idea struck me.

I'm speaking about West Texas, the geographically vague portion of my state that is, well, west. That landmass, by the way, does not include West, Texas, the Czech community located in the central part of the state. You'll likely pass through there if you're heading down to visit Michael Bracken in Waco. Should you be near that West, pause, pull over, and take a kolache break. They're pretty good. 

It's hard to pin down the precise borders of West Texas, the region. Some people set the boundary at the Brazos River. Others argue that the line is linguistic. The border between East Texas and West Texas gets crossed when twang slides into drawl. 

Basil the Bat Lord, Creative Commons
The boundary may be imprecise, but at some point, westbound motorists realize they've entered West Texas. 

A while back, a friend and I were driving to Lubbock. His Texas Tech football team was squaring off against my alma mater. He'd offered me a ticket. 

Many miles of semi-arid country separate the communities in that region. When you come to a town, you notice. 

Every community, everywhere, has character and characters, but I think the isolation of the towns in West Texas encourages a particular eccentricity. No town can model itself on the neighboring community because, likely as not, there isn't one. Each hamlet is a big fish. 

Lubbock came to be an urban oasis in the middle of the high plains. It fostered a music scene producing most famously Buddy Holly but also a host of other musicians from both country and rock genres. 

Sweetwater chose a different direction. It celebrates its rocky isolation through an annual rattlesnake roundup. Volunteers roam the local countryside, collecting Western Diamondback Rattlers and maintaining the local wildlife population. They bring the snakes back for milking, skinning, and eating. The high school girl chosen Miss Snake Charmer will likely have to pass by the occasional PETA protester. 

A visitor to the region needs to check out Marfa. At the far end of West Texas, this town was named for a character in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Hardscrabble farmers work alongside modernist art installations. The art crowd and the agriculture crowd don't always get along. The higher prices brought about by the hip community burden the working-class locals. A casual visitor might miss the tension, distracted by the weirdness. The town has a public radio station worth a listen, public art along a farm-to-market road, a mocked-up Prada store, and supernatural lights. Some folks say the lights betray the presence of space aliens. 

There are the towns of Plainview and Levelland, so named because they're...well, you can probably figure it out. 

Post, however, is the place that really got me thinking about a story. Given the rural setting, many assume the name derives from a fence post. The town is actually named for C.W. Post, the cereal manufacturer. He sought to build a utopian community from a ranch he purchased just below the Caprock Escarpment. C. W. Post planned the town from his office in Battle Creek, Michigan. The local chamber of commerce might better testify to whether the founder's vision as a capitalist haven for hardworking, honest, simple folk was achieved. He spent years trying to better the locals' lives. He theorized, for instance, that exploding dynamite in the clouds would generate reliable rainfall. The plan failed. 

In West Texas, communities settle bragging rights on the athletic fields. This area is the home of Friday night lights. 

Quirkiness, secrets, and conflicts hidden below a seemingly peaceful surface, the settlements of West Texas have all those things. But towns everywhere probably do. All a writer needs is a Miss Marple to ferret out the truth. 

The current issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine includes my story, "The
Experimental Theater Company of Barb Wire, Texas." In it, I try to tell a whodunit while incorporating those hints of place I see when I point my car west. 

Building a sense of place when "place" is thousands of square miles and includes hundreds of independent communities presented a challenge. I thought about the elements any representation would have to include. The story must grab the peculiar oddity of the place. It would need to incorporate isolation. A West Texas story ought to have football, not only because the sport brought me to Post, but also because it is a lifeblood of the region. The short story needed a splash of art because, I think, it's an underappreciated element of West Texas. And any story had to have some cowboy spirit. 

Admittedly some elements, such as isolation and an independent protagonist, frequent many amateur sleuth mysteries. Fortunately, they are cowboy tropes and are easy to place in West Texas. The story that emerged from that germ of an idea, I hope, not only entertains but also gives a fair flavor of the land beyond the Brazos. 

What started as a trip to a football game became a research junket. That's a win. "The Experimental Theater Company of Barb Wire, Texas" was a fun story to write. I hope you enjoy reading it. 

I'll be on the road Tuesday when this posts. I apologize in advance if I'm slow to reply. 

Until next time.