Showing posts with label Robert Mangeot. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Mangeot. Show all posts

09 July 2022

The Big Mo


THE BIG MO GETS ITS, WELL, MO

In 1980, George H.W. Bush won the up-first Iowa caucuses and crowned himself the GOP presidential frontrunner, thanks to the now-unstoppable Big Mo--momentum--wind at his back. And Bush actually did win the next open primary. In Puerto Rico. Where Ronald Reagan wasn't on the ballot. Thereafter, Bush suffered a Mo-less drubbing that included his home Texas going for Reagan. 

Bush's main feat in 1980 was bringing "Big Mo" from sports lingo into the cultural vocabulary. And Bush wasn't wrong about momentum's potential. When things go well, empowerment soars toward critical mass. Future things likely go as well or better. On the other hand, confidence drains off when things start going poorly. Setbacks, if left unaddressed at root, breed more setbacks.

Reinforcement equals direction, positive or negative. It's no more true than for writers. We find our self-momentum, or we don't.

Publishing track records owe as much to authors finding an audience groove as to comparative talent. Process-wise, a cultivated routine sustains effort. I write more and better when I'm on routine. Productivity success lures my butt back in that chair the next day. When I lose Mo and get off routine, that empty chair looks daunting as hell.

And then there's craft. By my quick count, the Big Mo is--or isn't--alive in a story three ways. None of them happen by accident. 

#1: LET'S MOVE THIS ALONG, SHALL WE?

Consider the Golden State Warriors. Last month, the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight seasons (they also lost the Finals twice in that stretch). This, despite being smaller and less athletic than the Celtics. The Warriors took the trophy because of game pace. Their core line-up pushes tempo and zips passes at a level that is fan joy to behold. They've trained themselves that way. They feed off it. When Golden State kept their signature pace, they ran up big leads. When they eased off the gas, here came Boston. It took a bunch of time-outs for the Warriors to break those runs and reset.

Fiction works the same way. A story needs pace. It needs a constant and crisp focus from avoiding asides down to Strunk and White's advice to omit unnecessary words. No off-plot indulgences. No info dumps to show off the research. Every sentence launches plot or character or both one direct step toward the big finish (red herrings allowed), or else say goodbye to tension. Say goodbye to Big Mo. 

An example. I truly enjoyed about 100,000 words of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The other 68,000? A perfectly good thriller could've soared next-level if it'd skipped its pace-sapping detail. But hey, what do I know? That novel is still selling--thanks to its hype momentum.

#2: FLOW WORM

A sneaky craft trick? Sentence construction. This sounds so retro as to be quaint, but how sentences unfold is critical tactically. A great sentence build around its moment's conflict. What central person or thing deserves the subject mantle? The most important actor or action. What verb captures that central thing in action? What clauses show the situation or implications? 

That's only part of the trick. When I read great fiction, I don't just see words on the page. If I'm that deep in, the author's words have music. I hear the words. Each sentence rolls into the next, again and again, and carries me with it. Check this out the next time a story hums for you. Maybe, just maybe, the author created momentum through pleasing and varied construction. Like I just did. Hopefully.

#3: CHANGE TO SPARE

Last year, I submitted a literary piece that I'd held back a while. It was long-ish for competing even after painful cuts, and my acceptance rate with literary pieces lacks, shall we say, similar momentum to the crime side. The story was rejected, nicely so by one market. The editor liked the writing and premise but didn't feel powerful character evolution for the length. A correct assessment, on re-read. I hadn't given the story enough forward motion.

Ironically, this is my frequent beef with some high literary pieces. Talented work laced with great imagery and language, but nothing happens. Not really. Don't get me wrong. Form and abstraction makes for an amazing read, in poetry. 

MO' MO

In 1980, George Bush invoked a Big Mo never actually behind him. He might've grabbed Mo anyway, had he altered his patrician style and message. He didn't. He stuck to words and aspirations. That's the thing about the Big Mo. It thrives on hard work, on acts and habits. The Big Mo is a fickle beast. It goes with who feeds it.

Writers can feed our Mo. Our work is, after all, ours. That over-long literary piece of mine? I can edit it. I can get fresh critique, or I can study authors who shine at these mid-long arcs. Or I can file it away and try another piece with more promise. 

Resets aren't easy. Resetting a reset is worse. Be that as it may. We can all tweak our approach to make us better at this writing thing. More enthused about our work, too. And that's when the Big Mo might swing our way a while.

14 May 2022

Your Word of the Day Is Panglossian


First of all, if anyone stops you wherever and accuses you of being Panglossian, hit pause. They're guilty of SAT-style, Fancy Pants vocabulary. Fancy Pants needs a stiff drink and mirror time over what they're about. Secondly, and here's where plain language comes in, Panglossian isn't a compliment. It's a warning. Maybe both of y'all need to check yourselves.

To be Panglossian is to remain excessively optimistic against all evidence to the contrary. Failure, consequence, injury, whatever. Adverse outcomes are merely trifles. Signs, actually. Signs of a larger plan in motion and destined to end fabulously. 

No, I didn’t know Panglossian was a word, either. Maybe I did when I prepped for the SAT. That was a few years ago. I happened upon Panglossian on March 9, 2021, when Dictionary.com made this their Word of the Day. Panglossian. It's nice on both the eye and tongue. Fun, and I love a fun word. That SAT prep got me into a liberal arts school.

At the risk of further hoity-toity, the word traces back to Voltaire’s Candide (1759). A smash synopsis: Candide and his enthused adventuring companions stumble from satirically bad events to ever worse, no matter what anyone plans next. Candide's friend and tutor, Pangloss, philosophizes away each non-stop disaster--syphilis, violence, loss of personal freedom--as evidence of that larger plan cooking along fine. Our universe, as perfectly created, must always run to perfection.

Wrong. Sometimes, things suck. Sometimes, things are flat terrible, and somebody needs to do something about it right darn now. Pangloss couldn't grasp that--because he couldn't acknowledge flat terrible things. Trapped in his circular pathology, Pangloss never took obvious steps to avert his next disaster. 

Somewhere March 10, 2021 or later, I had an urge to write something Panglossian. I've done stories with folks planning jobs too big for their talents and with folks using doomed perseverance as a defense mechanism. I wanted another level of that. An optimist's optimist, someone all-in on their rose-colored lens no matter what.

I could just whip that up, right? Sure, start ‘em in trouble and make it worse. Then worse again. Dump a whole Freytag's Pyramid on 'em.

Easy as pie. It's a great thing, to be alive and writing.

So I wrote it in one fast sprint. I dropped a first-person character in a bank robbery already gone totally wrong. The cops have the branch surrounded, the driver has wisely taken off, and the rest of the crew are stuck and not seeing eye-to-eye. That set-up could go dark, but noir and optimism aren't two great tastes that taste great together. This had to be a light tale, a comic caper. I've done those. Lots of 'em. Yes, this was going to be terrific.

Draft one had a rough spot. Okay, a big rough spot comprising about 100% of the manuscript, but that's what first drafts are. Rough. Milestones toward final glory.

Sure, I didn't have the POV's name yet, and sure he was emotionally low when he should've hit optimistic highs. This is why there are second drafts (and thirds and fourths and fifths, etc., etc.). All part of the process. Yes, this was going great.

Another smash cut past many more drafts. Which weren't coming together.

I had the premise, the plot, the location, the cast, but I'd rushed past one crucial thing: the character. He wasn't talking to me. Didn't want to. I hadn't respected that this was his story, too. So I did something I rarely do. I asked him to answer a few background questions for me. Forget what's on the manuscript page. Let's rap. He leapt to share who he was, his whole life story and why it drew out the optimist in him. There were only two last drafts before the version Mystery Magazine picked up.

I can be too optimistic. I am perfectly capable of under-engineering a story. I'm also capable of recognizing flat terrible things and working them into shape. It's that liberal arts education. They taught me to better myself.

We can all learn. We can all challenge our work to another level. Rewards await, rewards that escaped Pangloss. If nothing else, we'll rest easy knowing that Fancypants won't have this vocabulary zinger against us.

09 April 2022

Splat (Or, How They Do It in Buñol)


Travel is coming back, y’all. If this August 26th you can get to Spain and love tomatoes -- you’ll need to love love tomatoes -- our wonderful world has crafted the perfect destination: Buñol, a picturesque village near Valencia. Doubly picturesque this particular weekend. One August hour per year, Buñol is awash in tomato pulp. Tens of thousands of festival goers hurl pulped tomatoes. At each other. Ten of thousand of tomatoes.

La Tomatina. It’s Europe’s biggest food fight. 40,000 people jam Buñol’s narrow streets and peg each other with tomato slop. Repeat: 40,000 people bought tickets for the privilege.

Full disclosure: I’ve never participated or been to Spain. I stumbled onto La Tomatina years ago, and I still internet-surf along each August as those hardy souls don goggles and bathing suits and splat tomatoes smack in each other’s kisser. 

La Tomatina has its rules and traditions, of course. I've learned something about them.

It begins as such things must: with a serrano ham tied atop a greased pole. It’s 10a.m., and as soon as someone fetches el palo jabón, the battala campal can begin.

Prime spots fill early. You need access to ammo and a good firing angle. Sensibly, it's only tomatoes that get hurled. Bottles, backpacks, and blunt objects aren’t allowed. Tomato fights are the sort of thing that can get out of hand.

Also, you can’t bring your own tomatoes. That’s a rule now, so I guess someone ruined that for the rest of us. Instead, the organizers buy market rejects cheap -- surely, you get a bulk rate when scoring 150,000 tomatoes unfit otherwise for sale -- and load them onto dump trucks that roam through the fray. Also, you can’t just grab and whip the pulped suckers at someone. No, you have to crush the tomatoes if not crushed already. We’re not trying to hurt anybody.

Another rule says only to target someone if you've drawn a clear bead. Smart, but this is a close quarters stuff. A melee. Crossfire, friendly fire, accidental fire? Hey, it’s La Tomatina.

In an hour, it’s done. 40,000 juice-smeared warriors have chucked 150,000 pulped tomatoes free-for-all. Everyone looks like they just survived an explosion at the Hunt’s cannery, except the smiles are ear-to-ear. Endorphins abound, skin has been super-moisturized, and even the streets will gleam from a citric acid wash. Once the fire department hoses Buñol down.

You would think such a festival has a wild origin story, a revolt against a cruel noble or a patron saint of garden salads. Nope. In 1945, there was a festival parade of musicians in big head outfits, and near a vegetable market one guy’s big head fell off. The guy apparently lost it with the other musicians and the crowd, which led to fisticuffs and inevitably to produce-flinging. One imagines alcohol was involved.

Buñol

tried it again each August for a while, but each festival descended one way or another into tomato-throwing. Outsider were showing up, armed to splat. The city leaders caught on that these people were coming not for music but the tomato fight. One imagines alcohol remains involved. Buñol took a more Chamber of Commerce-like approach, and La Tomatina as a sanctioned festival was born. Not even Franco could stop La Tomatina from taking off. And he tried.

As of this writing, La Tomatina is returning after a two-year pandemic hiatus. It delights me to believe this summer we'll have a proper pasting. That's in four months, folks. Plenty of time to book those tickets, if you love love tomatoes.

Or if citrus is your thing, Italy has a giant food fight but with oranges.

Oranges? That’s just weird.

12 March 2022

Perfect Spy 'o the Time: The Macbeth Murder Mystery


It wasn’t an elaborate murder plot, nor did it go as planned. Not Macbeth’s plan, anyway. He put real thought into it, though. Ambushing his best friend Banquo outside Forres Castle required not one, not two, but three bushwhackers. What happens next is a Shakespeare whodunnit.

Macbeth (or The Scottish Play, for the superstitious) up to this point: Scotland is thunder and fog and war. The ever-hovering Weird Sisters have prodded general Macbeth's ambition with a prophecy that he'll rule Scotland. And Macbeth does, by killing his cousin and legit king, Duncan, and escaping blame with help from Lady Macbeth. But this power couple has a problem: The Weird Sisters also foretold that Banquo's heirs would assume the crown. The Weird Sisters are yet to be wrong. If Macbeth wants to hold and pass that crown, Banquo and his son Fleance's brief candles need snuffing.

Opportunity knocks at Forres Castle, Duncan's old palace. Macbeth freed up everyone's afternoon to relax before a self-congratulatory banquet that night. In actuality, he wants to catch a target alone. Banquo and Fleance, there at court, plan a conveniently lonely ride upon the heath before the banquet. It’s an odd move to leave the relative safety of the other thanes, what with Banquo--and most everyone else--not fooled by Macbeth’s bloody power grab. Banquo must feel most secure keeping himself and Fleance clear of Macbeth.

With cause. Ahead of the ambush, Macbeth tells Murderers One and Two:

…Within this hour, at most,
I will advise you where to plant yourselves;
Acquaint you with the perfect spy o' the time,
The moment on't — for't must be done tonight
And something from the palace, always thought
That I require a clearness.
Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 1

With Banquo connected and well-respected, Macbeth needs the job to go perfectly, but he's condescending at best to his crew already onboard. This new op is who Macbeth trusts, someone who knows the local ground and Banquo's riding habits, where he must dismount and walk his horse for the stables.

Enter Third Murderer. It's Third Murderer who positions the bushwhack while First and Second complain about Macbeth’s obvious lack of faith. They have no idea who this new accomplice is, nor is Third Murderer volunteering a name. It’s Third Murderer who spots Banquo, but Fleance scarpers off unwhacked into the heath. Third Murderer notices that, too.

Macbeth never identifies this perfect spy o’ the time. Third Murder just murders thirdly. The simplest theory: Read no critical meaning into this. Often, Shakespearian parts were tossed in to reposition the stage post-scene. But Third Murderer stalks the enduring 1623 script so trusted but so anonymous as if a clue. After all, if the production needed an extra hand to clear the heath, Macbeth could've hire a trio.

Henry Fuseli

And the play does need a trio. In Macbeth as in life, what's bad comes in threes. Ghostly knocks, incantations, murders on stage (Duncan, Banquo, Macduff’s son). Three was the unluckiest number in Shakespeare’s England. Third Murderer perfecting yet another unholy trinity amps the supernatural unease.

Third Murder perfects something more important: dramatic structure. Up to Fleance's scarpering, everything clicks for Macbeth. He won fame, avoided justice, taken the crown, and consolidated power. After Fleance scarpers, Macbeth suffers desertion and defeat. His hand-picked asset proves imperfect or at least inexpert– Macbeth's pivotal miscalculation and core to the play's message: Rulers turned tyrants will inevitably self-destruct.

Who, then, might be our imperfect spy o' the time?

LENNOX

The thane Lennox tracks after whoever is king. Lennox stays at court longest among the thanes, long after the most forthright have defected to the opposition cause. After Banquo's murder, Macbeth brings Lennox along for a final consultation with the Weird Sisters.

Lennox didn't, however, have motive. He may keep hanging around the palace, but not as a friend to Macbeth. Lennox is repeatedly sarcastic about Macbeth's suspicious rise and Scotland's trail of too-convenient deaths. Soon enough, Lennox joins the rebellion. It's unlikely he seeks or finds welcome there if he third-murdered Banquo.

ROSS

© Wikipedia

Joel Coen's 2021 movie re-fashions the thane Ross as Third Murderer. It's not the first such interpretation. Ross, a cousin both to Macbeth and poor Duncan, is a wheeler-dealer, in on court gossip and happy to run errands for the crown. The Coen movie fashions Ross into a ruthless king-maker. The botched murder of Fleance intentionally furthers his own ambitions.

A cool take– that doesn't quite jive. In the First Folio (admittedly compiled some 17 years after Macbeth was first staged), Ross breaks with Macbeth early. Ross warns Lady Macduff to flee, at some risk to himself, and Ross tells Macduff about his family's assassination. Ross helps secure English forces to unseat Macbeth. Why murder for a tyrant while tipping everyone else to the body trail?

A DUBIOUS ASSOCIATE

Macbeth was a successful warrior thane prior to the Weird Sisters' appearance. He would've had a network of useful associates and willing mercenaries. Third Murderer as a random agent moves the play along, but Macbeth is also about specific choices leading to specific fates. Even First and Second Murderer get a scene to choose their dark path of revenge for perceived insults off Banquo. It's too loose a thread if Third Murderer is just a mercenary.

SEYTON THE ARMORER GUY

The Scottish-English alliance creeping up forest-style on Macbeth also vow to punish his "cruel ministers." The play shows one such official around for the final battle: Macbeth's attendant and armorer, Seyton. He is introduced late--at the Act V climax--and with little ado. He seems there mostly to provide Macbeth updates on the crumbling situation. But Seyton is all-in with Team Macbeth. His rise to captain might've been launched as a trusted bushwhacker.

A CONJURING

Scotland grows full of eerie happenings as the Weird Sisters run amok. It would've hardly been past the Sisters to place a malevolent entity at Macbeth's disposal. Or perhaps Scotland's hauntings reach a critical mass and conjure their own demons. It's all possible in Macbeth's story world, and such an entity would've seen that fated characters met fated ends: death for Banquo, escape for Fleance, doom for Macbeth. Still, Macbeth had a known someone in mind for third murdering. A random ghoul doesn't inspire the requisite trust.

LADY MACBETH

John Singer Sargent,
1889 (Tate Gallery)

To here, Lady Macbeth has been clinical and composed about murder. This woman turned to direst cruelty is, at last, someone Macbeth could believe reliable at so great a task.

Directly before the bushwhacking attempt, though, she is at Forres Castle with Macbeth, who hints that it's a shame what might happen to Banquo. Macbeth leaves her with plausible deniability, and he's not interested in discussing her emerging reticence for bloodshed. We next see her entering the banquet with the royal entourage. By all evidence, she stuck to the castle and kept, ahem, her hands clean.

Then, there's theme. Macbeth is overt about gender roles. Lady Macbeth vows to “unsex” herself when she helps murder Duncan. The Weird Sisters are feared doubly for how they defy expectations of womanhood. Even if somehow First and Second Murderers didn't recognize the dang queen as Macbeth's perfect spy o' the time, they would’ve noticed something feminine or unsexed about this new partner.

MACBETH

By this point, Macbeth keeps his own counsel. He came to the throne by violence, and violence to hold power is fine by him. More than anyone, he knows old pal's Banquo’s habits and formidable skills in a fight. A direct part in Banquo's death would further explain Macbeth's sanity break when Banquo's ghost appears--only to Macbeth--at the feast.

But Macbeth, too, arrives at the feast on time and unruffled. If he did slip away and return under the wire, he has to feign surprise when First Murderer reports Fleance's feet-don't-fail-me-now escape. Like Lady Macbeth, though, it’s farfetched to imagine First and Second Murderer not recognizing the king even disguised. They don’t, either overtly or by inference, and as a practical matter, First Murderer wouldn't risk reporting to Macbeth what the boss witnessed in person.

SHAKESPEARE

That's right. The Bard pulled it off. He wrote in Third Murderer with such brilliant vagueness that production options were wide open.In a play about ambition and abuse of power, the suspect list is half the cast. It’s a testament to Macbeth's power that five centuries later we're still sifting through the couldadunnits.

outcomes of the accused

12 February 2022

What a Decade of Story Writing Does to You


You should write something.

Probably every writer heard that whisper in their head. Come on. Do it. Write something. After all, how hard can it be?

I'd heard that butt-in-chair siren song. In 2010, I answered finally the call. I wrote something. It stank. I wrote something else. It also stank. The stinking continued a while, but I am a dedicated learner. 2012 brought my first story acceptance, from an obscure Canadian lit journal that folded soon after. A good journal, though, and I felt a million miles tall.

10 candles, y'all
Some ways I've changed since that first acceptance:

#1: I've met the best people.

Most folks probably have friends or family trying their hands at fiction writing. I didn't, back when. Not one. I didn't personally know another living soul who was writing fiction. Non-fiction authors, yes, and everyone's English professor has a chapbook or like that. I've even lived next door to incredibly successful songwriters. But I didn't travel in fiction circles.

So--once my introvert side relented--I started showing up places: meet-up groups, local events, writing conferences, Sisters in Crime. Like everybody who sticks with it, I've since come into dear friends from all walks of life and with a wide variety of publishing goals. I'm happier about that than any publications.

And a special shout-out to crime authors. You would think that people intent on plotting murders and heists would be trouble. You would be wrong. I've never moved in a community more top-to-bottom generous than crime writers. All that plotting must purge negative impulses. 

#2 -- Travel is a whole new world. 

Camargue, 2018 -- We ride after lunch
It's no accident I put my butt in the writing chair soon after I began traveling more adventurously. These days, travel can give me something or somewhere to write about. And to write about a place honestly, I have to travel better. Immerse myself deeper into a place's vibe and culture, into what they eat and drink, the hours they keep.

A quick count shows 12 of my 38 accepted stories emerged from an overseas experience. Museum exhibits (first AHMM sale!), rainforest hikes, wine cave tours. Once, I walked myself to mush in Montparnasse. Had to. I needed to understand the neighborhood feel and how a stranger would take it in if I was pulling off a story idea. Much of that walkathon detail was cut from the accepted version, but that vibe and character perception survived.

Side note: I also kissed the Blarney Stone in 2010. The story ideas began improving soon after. I; not saying coincidence is causality, but I'm not not saying it, either.

#3 -- I have become a Tottenham Hotspur fan.

It's true. A main character in my great shelf novel was British and a devout football supporter. He needed an English team to support. Now, I was an okay soccer player until everyone else got a bunch larger and faster. As a fan and semi-informed person myself, I went through the various big clubs and decided Tottenham Hotspur was the most fun to say. Go on. Say "Tottenham Hotspur." You just had fun, didn't you? Unless you're an Arsenal supporter.

A character can't just claim to back Spurs. He had to rattle off club history, past great players, the few high years and their lowest lows. I researched it. I watched their games. And kept watching. That manuscript is many years abandoned, but I'm still watching Tottenham's few highs and sudden lows.

 #4 -- Reading is harder. Except when it isn't.

Early on, experienced writers warned that I might never read fiction the same way again. Truer words. Once I understood the base mechanics of fiction--and that fiction must have those mechanics--my reading turned over-focused on a given author's tactical choices. Dialogue tag spacing, word patterns, sentence construction. Nothing kills joy like analysis. 

So I stopped analyzing. I learned to turn off critical thinking and be a reader who digs reading. 

But informed analysis is also a new life skill. Life's too short to read stuff you can't drop into or, better still, wallow next-level in extraordinary work. Last year, I (finally) read Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan. I marveled as Vonnegut alternately nailed and broke conventions and at how he made the sum of those breezy-seeming choices into a beautiful gut punch. It wouldn't have resonated unless I had developed that sort of eye.

#5 -- New York City will never be the same. In a good way.

My first crime story acceptance was to the MWA Cold War anthology, Ice Cold (accepted 2013, published 2014). MWA does anthologies right, with name authors as editor--Jeffrey Deaver and Raymond Benson for this one--and as headliner contributors. The launch party was set for Mysterious Books, and I would've sold a kidney to get there. As it was, I'd had to negotiate a new job offer to include immediate time off for a New York City trip. Smash cut: I made NYC with best wishes and two kidneys, and I sat at the signing table with far more seasoned authors and wondered how the hell I'd made it there. That will always be my first NYC memory. 

#6 -- I had an empathy switcheroo.

Personality assessments over the years said I abound with empathy. I guess so. True, I can step outside myself and sense how others feel about what's going on around us. That's limited by my own experience, but I am not without experience. We're all three-dimensional folks, neither entirely angelic nor irredeemably bad in all things. We all have our own cocktail of ambitions, fears, disappointments, hidden injuries. My sympathy tank is drier than it was ten years ago, but good old empathy is hanging around. 

Writers need a high dose of empathy. It's part and parcel with building characters and forging reader connections. What's happened, though, is the act of writing has become a two-way pipeline. That hard work of empathizing for the page channels understanding back my way. Now my psyche expects the exchange--and I'm disjointed when it doesn't happen. I'm more easily frustrated. Staying in a writing routine gives me more sunshine. Can't explain it, but there it is.  

You should write something. 

Well, I did. If the first decade taught anything, answering that call brings one heck of a journey worth taking.


08 January 2022

First Up, Opening Paragraphs


First up for 2022: an ode to opening paragraphs. Great openers are art within the art. A great opener crackles--and promises--such that Reader Me recognizes I'm in expert hands. Bang, I've heard a call to fiction adventure. Sure, the short story exists to deliver a meaningful end moment. Those seeds get sown from note one, in a symphonic sense. Without a first movement, the big honking finish risks hitting flat. I might've put the story down altogether.

Openings aren't just about raw hook. I could put dogs or babies in trouble and catch a reader's attention. The story darn well better unfold with dogs or babies in a core, connected way, or else readers will spot my shenanigans and curse my name. Hook sustains from the right thematic launch toward that big honking end. This can be subtle or in-your-face. The best openers are bit of both. 

It doesn't even have to be a single paragraph. The opener can unfold, and it often does. Here's a two-paragrapher by an American gent named Edgar Allan Poe. You might've heard of him. 

"The Cask of Amontillado" -- 1846

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled — but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.

Poe is public domain and widely studied, so his (long) passages make for prime forensics. Two things jump out as "Amontillado" opens. One, a clinical certainty to the narrator, Montresor. Our guy is having quite the scheme-fest. He's all in. He's verbose about it. Meanwhile, Poe leaves no room for confusion on what's what and the tone to expect. Revenge, punishment, and just look how Poe sticks the landing: "immolation." A word of extreme violence. Readers then would've understood Poe meant Fortunado would be a sacrifice. But to what? Justice? Family? We don't know.

That's my second reaction. Montresor rails about those thousand injuries but can't be bothered to specify a single one, not even the supposed grave insult. Poe leaves open that Fortunado might not have done a thing to Montresor. They might not even be rivals. With no gauge on injury versus justice, we can't rule out "Amontillado" as cold-blooded murder. Hello, horror element.

Poe checks a lot of boxes here: Hook, tone, subject, theme, conflict, the ending foreshadowed. Some things are more indirect. There is almost nothing to suggest place and time other than Fortunado's name and the title. Poe doesn't clear up until paragraph three that this is Italy and not Spain. Leaving out place from the opener de-prioritizes it and frames "Amontillado" as tackling larger questions. 

This is what first paragraphs can do. Should do. It's not 1846 anymore, and authors need to get things boiling faster. Fast, though, can be too fast. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut said:

"To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages."

 — Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction

A million times yes. It's a false choice between speed and set-up. Give me your hinted layers, your intrigue, your seeds of character, and give them right from jump street. Reader Me starts every story wanting exactly what the author did: a pay-off. First things first, though. That big resonant finish hangs on a well-constructed opener. 

Write strong in 2022, everybody.

* * * 

Bonus other favorite first paragraphs:

  • Ben Fountain, "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera"
  • Tim Gautreaux, "Gone to Water"
  • Lorrie Moore, "Debarking"
  • Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"
  • Ron Rash, "Something Rich and Strange"

13 November 2021

The Writer As Necromancer


The Fever Throes of NaNoWriMo

2011. The one-month sprint is way on. In my thing, this European crime lord wants his painting back. Main character Clio doesn't want him to have it. I have like 25K words of that already. Thieves, hidden agendas, switcheroos, the whole shebang. I suppose--such as one supposes anything sleep-deprived and deep into the Diet Coke--the reader might need some history, the bigger why that set this caper in motion. Time for the backstory chapter.

I pound it out, a chapter where Clio learns how her boss Natalia out-swindled the crime lord guy for a newly-confirmed Goya. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game, with super-rich socialite Natalia coming out on top--or at least with temporary possession. The backstory clocked in at a thousand-ish words, and when my daily word budget is a caffeine-enriched 3,000, I go with what comes. I'll make it work later.

Later

It doesn't work. Can't, the whole novel. Too slapped together. My right brain coroner locks the manuscript in the creative morgue.

Later Than That

And yet.

Some days, I scan that hard drive and wonder. One thing the dearly departed had going for it was a groovy cast of characters, if too over-the-top. The deeper problem was a seat-of-my-pants overdrive plot. 

What's eating me is that critiques didn't like any main character the best. Take resourceful Clio, a grad student pulled into Natalia's influence orbit. Clio is smart and attractive, sure, but not as smart and attractive as her self-image. Wounded pride and hijinks ensue. Or Natalia, as close to a Moriarty-style intellect as I'm likely to try. A challenge to do a mastermind, and she's droll fun on the page. If I'm going Dr. Frankenstein, shouldn't I resurrect the headliner?

No, the standout feedback was for a bit-part skeevy lawyer readers weren't supposed to like. Went by Vernon Stagg. I'm writing short stories now, so why not dig out old Vernon, let him loose on the world. I do, in "The Cumberland Package," and in 2015 the story lands in AHMM. Readers like him. A series is launched. Thanks, NaNoRiMo Fever Throes.

Meanwhile, I'm still cruising past the head stones from 2011. The characters aren't feeling dead yet. For proof, here's Clio wormed a mention in a literary humor piece ("Whorling," The Oddville Press, 2014). 

Maybe that backstory could make, you know, its own story.

Later Still

Autumn, the cold part. I'm still wondering if Clio and Natalia's graves are worth robbing. Hey, it worked for Vernon.

I grab that chapter and a Diet Coke and summon the characters back. Clio, Natalia, and the crime lord guy. No, this isn't done with candles and sage, etc. It involves staring at walls and out windows, and the chants are your curses that this idea doesn't stay dead. Because this isn't working as a story, either. It lacks a heart, a sense of place, a completed arc. I've created a zombie. 

Again, I say my goodbyes.

Reasonably Current Now

2018. Bordeaux, France. Sun, wine, tout le tralala. Seriously, a writer could set a story here. 

And I have just the one. Goya lived out his last years here. 

Life Intervenes

Cue intermission music and go for snacks. Not much writing happening here.

Because 2020

Weaverville, North Carolina. My
summer writing retreat, as rescheduled and in a rented house turned social distance fortress. Things start grim, with an Egyptian dust cloud nicknamed Godzilla and a flash piece warm-up that must never be grave-robbed. I sit. I stare. Finally, words come. A head of steam builds, and I get through top priorities with a few days to spare. 

Maybe it's my remembering sunnier times. Maybe it's my sinuses clogged with Saharan grit. Whatever it is, I spend those bonus days resurrecting Clio and Natalia after their Goya. It's better. A quasi-caper plot and four-part arc give it structure. I work in an abandoned submarine base, because Bordeaux has those and it's awesome. Clio gets added depth from a fleshed-out parallel character, and her struggles as ad hoc amateur sleuth bring her down to earth better than zingers ever did. There are hijinks, of course. 

The draft has a distinct zombie whiff.

Like Almost Now, People

April 2021. Tybee Island, Georgia. Morning beach walks, evening drinks, and in between it's hard drive necromancy. A crime humor anthology call beckons. Clio, it's now or never.

I sit. I stare. Because problems surface at once. I have the wrong famous historical artist. Goya was much too dark in tone and topic for my romp story, even his Bordeaux period. Changing artist means changing painting subject. And setting. I mourn my doomed submarine base. I slam a Diet Coke and change things top to bottom. 

Wait. There's a word count situation now, what with this new layering and switching. It isn't pretty for darlings that week, is what I mean. In that wake, something is stirring now.

I polish and submit the thing.

Okay, Now Now

"Pandora, Haunted (Or, In Which Natalia Hartlowe Bids on a Delacroix)," as excised from its slab, is happily included in Mystery Magazine's Die Laughing, published this summer. I've read each story but one, and the collection is incredible fun. 

The but one? "Pandora." Give me a minute. Having stirred a story so long, I'm stirred myself. Lost sub bases and surrendered exotic locales and no end of Godzillas? Necromancy is a long, strange trip.

11 September 2021

Remembering 9/11, Twenty Years Later


9-11, Twin Towers, NYC
Twin Towers, WTC, NYC © Wikimedia

Twenty years ago today, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at a professional education seminar. About twenty of us were in the class, including by coincidence my wife. These sessions aren't thrills a minute, mostly folks getting needed hours in toward keeping a license, so everyone settled in subdued and broke open their laptops. The speaker got going, and we were in our meeting room bubble as the terrorist attacks began.

2001 is forever ago in technology terms. If people had a snazzy device, it was those tiny Nokia phones with basic text functions and the amber screen. A few people got buzzed on a phone or pager, and others saw the breaking headlines on their computers, but it was really the facility staff that got urgent word to us. There'd been an explosion in New York City. A bomb. No, a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I'd assumed it must've been a commuter plane off-course, a drunk or deranged pilot. Big planes coming in or out of LaGuardia or Newark wouldn't get that close. 

Wisely, the instructor had us break even though we'd barely started. It was clustered around the snack area television that we began to grasp the scale of what'd happened. We didn't know it was an attack yet, but the World Trade Center seemed no coincidence. It'd been a target before. We just watched it happen. If anyone spoke, it was a brief whispered question. A haze of trying to process events had descended, and it would stay over me long afterward. The world changed that morning. We know that now and still grapple with its consequences. In the moment, stunned, we actually tried to restart the class, one eye on the news. 

The second plane hit the South Tower.

In retrospect, it helped that my wife and I took this in together. We could see that each other was fine. Rattled, but fine. Back then, this went unspoken, an instinctive flash in a mounting confusion. And we had jobs to do.

I was a regional finance officer then, and our territory included the Eastern Seaboard from Metro DC northward. We had operations to adjust and potentially our patients to secure. We could've had people aboard any of those planes. By the time I made the building, the Pentagon attack had occurred. A co-worker asked what I thought was going on. I said, "I think we're at war."

The rest of that day was spent confirming staff whereabouts and dealing with any local needs. I had several calls with a friend and executive based in the Newark area. She was too busy for outward shock, a pro's pro nurse, but in a quiet moment she told me, "I can see the smoke."

Unlike so many other families that day, our group had no one killed. Stress and coping, but these were some of the toughest people I will ever know. We did have people stranded in various airports, with air travel grounded nationwide. We approved whatever expenses it took to get rental cars, overnight hotels, etc. and get folks home. In the evening, I went home. I sat locked on CNN, on every new report or development. I was quiet. I was angry. I wanted to fight back. We had dogs then. They probably didn't know what to make of me.

I don't remember when precisely my need-to-process fog lifted. The mind can let you hold something horrible at a distance a while, especially when you'd been lucky like me. I hadn't lost anyone. I could digest 9/11 in pieces.

Not long after afterward, I was on my own flight into Newark. It was past dark, and by chance our landing path circled us close enough over the Hudson to see the spotlights and the crews sorting through what remained of the rubble. I visit the Memorial every time I'm in Manhattan now.

I'm a flighty right-brain/left-brain mash-up, try as I might to stay organized. My thoughts run where they want, on top of each other or in mid-sentence. I don't remember this last Wednesday, let alone much from two decades ago. But I remember September 11, 2001. I remember the layout of the classroom, the looks on people's faces, the sounds of voices, everywhere I went and when. 

I should remember. We all should, to honor the good people lost that day.

14 August 2021

I've Watched The Long Goodbye 3 Times Now


It's a middle distance squint, and I get like that during every watch. Here's how it happened this round.

Recently, Killer Nashville asked me to review Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye (1953). The second-to-last Marlowe outing is Chandler's best, for my money. The detective story, truly elevated. No mean feat, given the high standards of his earlier novels. Doing the essay lured me to re-confront Robert Altman's 1973 film version starring Elliott Gould. I'd seen it twice before. I'd been left in that squint both times.

Wikipedia
Full disclosure: I'm no cinema expert. I do, however, understand a few things about the genre and this novel in particular. So, freshly inspired, I ventured again into Altman's film. 

Same squint. 

Advance critics in 1973 seemed to have a similar reaction. They were confused whether they'd just watched a detective movie or not. The hardboiled posters didn't match the semi-noir, semi-satire delivered. The Long Goodbye got pulled ahead of mixed reviews. In came the studio marketing folks, and several months later it was re-packaged more honestly, as a subversive take on Hollywood tropes. These reviews praised a nose-tweaking of the genre. Fifty years later, the film is now well-studied and the critical consensus ever-more favorable. 

Altman's take has much going for it. Casting faded star Sterling Haywood as alcoholic novelist Roger Wade is spot on. In the novel, Wade is Chandler himself stuffed into a part Michener, part Hemingway persona, but the film wisely cranks up the Papa factor. Nina Van Pallandt plays wife Eileen Wade with deftly-concealed femme fatality. The soundtrack is evocative and playful, mostly rearrangements of the same Johnny Mercer song to fit each scene. The cinematography is gorgeous. Altman's L.A. is up all hours but not doing much, a glossy pit of decay and casual violence. Malibu is just higher-end decadence with beach access. It's Chandler's noir SoCal– left twenty years to rot. Altman drops Marlowe smack into the cesspool. Above it, more precisely, observing L.A. from an improbably affordable top-floor apartment at Hollywood Heights' iconic High Tower enclave. 

Your essayist just down the beach, 2016
Which may be the initial squint-maker. 

Altman wants to make a point how L.A. vibe and P.I. stories were outdated. He does this by– beautifully– repainting the '50s Marlowe scene as a neo-noir, only-in-the-'70s moment. The style of it, like Chandler's, helps the work age pretty well (there is a violent moment that either wouldn't happen in a modern film or else would be answered on-screen later). Still, rebinding one tired era with what would surely become another? That message and its disconnect, though, comes off as part of the satire. But a story lost in time doesn't necessarily make for a timeless story.

Or maybe I get stuck on a half-reimagined Marlowe, one foot in both worlds. The task fell to Elliott Gould, attached to the project before Altman and the screenwriters came onboard. Gould is terrific, his characters never quite sure what the hell is going on but muddling through anyway. He does schlubs to perfection and plays Marlowe that way. There is a certain genius to this. Chandler's Marlowe is tough but not the toughest. He's forever outmuscled and often outsmarted. Gould takes this to another level. He's lost in a beyond rumpled state. He loses or avoids every fight. As for women, Gould's Marlowe is oblivious even to Eileen's flirtations. Early in the film, he's trapped in a disassociative mumble about L.A. passing him by. We get it. But Elliott Gould is funny. He can't help it, the schlub. His best Marlowe is when Gould eventually drops the sleepwalk and just does Gould. 

From your
essayist's collection
Next, there's that Edgar-winning masterpiece novel. Altman seizes on aspects of Chandler's world– the backdrop, Marlowe's sense of morality, the outsized characters against the smallness of their crimes– but abandons much of the actual story. Some of this is necessity.

Chandler's The Long Goodbye is intricate, often contemplative, and hefty– almost 400 pages. The inciting murder happens forty pages in, give or take your edition. A hyper-faithful film version is a marathon with too many moving parts. In trimming things, the screenwriters left Chandler's premise– Marlowe wants justice for a friend in a jam--but glossed over the motivations driving that premise. Marlowe doesn't make friends. Allies and lovers, yes. Never true friends.

So when in The Long Goodbye Marlowe and ruined socialite Terry Lennox strike up an odd friendship via drinks and loyalty tests, Marlowe is as surprised as anyone. Resolving this inner confusion is as much what Marlowe is after than justice for Lennox's suspicious death. Lennox never fit right, in any sense.

The film almost immediately finds Marlowe and Lennox chumming it up playing liar's poker. Sure, we've already seen Marlowe living alone but for a finnicky cat. His quick chumminess with Lennox suggests Marlowe has a wider circle of chums. Add in that the film's Lennox is stripped of complications. He's a common crook who married well, and it's pretty clear he committed what inevitably surfaces as the murder. In Chandler's world of rough justice, one murder must lead to a next. Altman doesn't need the same body count. Murders are cut or cleansed as suicides, clues are sparse, the solution a bit easy. The crime elements are, like Marlowe, scaffolding to Altman's larger statement. 

© Wikipedia
Look, no big-name director agrees to get lashed to a novel they can't re-envision. The screenwriter in Chandler would've gotten that better than anyone. Altman made the movie he wanted to make, and he made a sleek one. 

Altman reportedly said that Chandler fans would hate this take. I don't hate-watch a movie three times. There's plenty to admire in this film.

Altman reportedly also never read the novel cover-to-cover. If true, I wish he had. He might've found Chandler's novel had risen above the noir tropes in these crosshairs. With more study of his source material, Altman might've made one hell of a noir update or the best kind of crime comedy. He might've made a great movie, not just a weird one.

And at least I could stop squinting.

10 July 2021

Have a Neat Summer


I don't know how it's done these days, but when I was a kid, we had that ritual where before school let out in June, the yearbooks got passed around so we could write to each other, no matter what we really thought, best wishes. Often, and also no matter the real truth, we added some level of excitement to see them come Labor Day. Or you played it casual. "Have a neat summer" is what Winnie famously wrote Kevin in The Wonder Years

"See you in the fall," like this wasn't Catholic school and we all didn't live a mile from each other, like we wouldn't see each other at youth group stuff or birthday parties or whatnot. This was Louisville, perhaps America's largest small town. Every family knew every other family in the neighborhood and also every family from all the old neighborhoods. Everyone knew how neat the summers got.

Well, a June ritual must've rubbed off. In January, I write the year's goals and priorities, and I post them where I can't avoid them. Mid-year is the pause and rethink. Is my butt in the chair? How's my process and production? Did I produce anything worthwhile? What's my best next projects? These questions have more weight mid-year than in heady January. By June, I've either done things or haven't. Energizing adjustments get made. The goal might've been too optimistic, or maybe it's not important now. Maybe the problem is me chasing shiny objects again instead of staying on track.

This isn't entirely OCD. It's not overthink, either. Like many of us, my writing time is limited. I can't afford bad process leading to avoidable duds. And no way can I be left to my whimsical devices.

A June re-think has special power in 2021. We're coming off an 18-month grinder. We're de-scrambling, or I am. And if I'm more honest than certain yearbook messages, I'll admit to a productivity drop even before the pandemic. Okay, some of that was an intentional focus on rewrites, and that focus paid off in acceptances. Great. Also, unsustainable. I can't edit what I don't draft. My 2020 goals sought to address this--and did to a minor extent--but 2020 had its own plan.

This year's Goal One: Keep it simple. Then make it simpler. Me in that chair and being intentional about it. Forget markets and pushing out submissions. Just write, kid. And have fun, damn it. When it's fun, it shows in the work (hot tip: editing may be required). As of June 30, I've tied 2018's 5 stories (3 romps, 2 serious). Raw drafts, as is my usual, but some with potential. As to weighted production, the cumulative mid-year word count tops most of my annual marks. With a neat enough summer, I'll outpace 2017's production, which became my most successful acceptance vintage (editing was required).

The mid-year check? Progress!

I mentioned not worrying about markets. This has yearbook note gloss to it. I've baked a certain submission rhythm into my goals and process. Often I'm crafting a story with specific tastes in mind. I'll know, for example, if a given piece might work for AHMM or is written to that very spec. Maintaining this was 2021 Goal Two. I'm a tad behind, but that was an audible to write that new stuff. I called it, so I might as well own it. Did I also chase a few shiny objects? Yes. Yes, I did. But not many, because I keep walking past those posted goals.

Score Goal Two as needing focus.

My last 2021 goal worth mentioning is the Gotta Dos. TCB, to quote a renowned Memphis jumpsuit collector. I'm a chapter officer for both SinC and SEMWA, and I factor in those happy obligations. And this summer, I'm doing short story workshops for the Clarksville Writers Conference and for Killer Nashville. The kind with actual people there. I owe them the same rigor that I bring when my butt is in my own seat. Helpfully, one session is on--wait for it--intentionality.

So. June/July. I'll have a cold drink, a long walk, and a hard stare at my posted goals and progress. Done neatly, the writing gets needed course corrections and an energy boost. I'll have that fun if it kills me, damn it, and I'll chalk up stories to share come fall. 

Or before then, even. I mean, we're here all summer. 

10 April 2021

How It Happened In Tennessee: The 19th Amendment


This one has it all: feuds, sudden victories, shock defeats, smoke-filled rooms, betrayal, transcriptionists. And we open to 1920 and a young Jewish woman scouring the East Tennessee mountains.

Anita Pollitzer was a Charleston-born photographer and force of nature with a drawl. In her twenty-five years, Pollitzer had already turned the New York art world onto her pal Georgia O’Keefe. Pollitzer's second famous act was unfolding over a country tour rounding up legislator assurance for women's suffrage. She'd had leapt through the National Woman’s Party ranks as a crack organizer, and winning the vote anytime soon had come down to the Tennessee Legislature. Yes, Tennessee. The Woman’s Party, forever cash-strapped, sent Pollitzer to secure the eastern delegation. All of them.

Niota, Tennessee sits in the ridgelines between Knoxville and Chattanooga. In 1920, Niota was the home of Representative Harry Burn, a rising Republican star and relationship banker. Try as she might, Pollitzer couldn't be everywhere. A stop in remote Niota ate through precious time and scarce funds. Fair enough. Pollitzer cornered Burn on the telephone, and when Pollitzer had someone cornered, they knew it. Burn pledged his vote for the Suffs. Pollitzer moved to corner the next guy.

Cut to Nashville and one Edward Bushrod Stahlman, an ex-L&N Railroad exec turned newspaper publisher. Stahlman had forged the afternoon Nashville Banner into a regional conservative powerhouse. In non-unrelated business, he remained the railroads’ go-to lobbyist around these parts. As prickly personalities and successful businessmen will do, he’d made enemies.

Such as Luke Lea, publisher of the rival Tennessean. In 1913, Lea had gone from U.S. Senator to ex-U.S. Senator thanks to Stahlman backing an ouster. Lea had gotten it in his head to investigate the railroads' political influence and possible local corruption. Lea seemed to loathe Stahlman so much that many a morning The Tennessean portrayed Stahlman as a disloyal German, Lea being just back from distinguished service in WWI. Lea held such a grudge against things German that he’d tried– actually tried– and failed a caper to kidnap the exiled Kaiser. Lea ran The Tennessean as a progressive voice that strongly backed– wait for it--popular election of U.S. senators. Also Prohibition and now women’s suffrage. Pretty much whatever Lea was for, Stahlman and The Banner were inclined to be against.

Edward Stahlman
(Nashville Library Special Collection)

Mind you, Stahlman had backed Tennessee's 1919 partial suffrage bill passed while Lea was off chasing the Kaiser. And Stahlman professed support even for making suffrage universal--until he was against it. A states rights guy, what bothered Stahlman wasn’t women voting per se but Washington mandating that women could vote. It was the principle of thing, see?

Also, there was money to be made. Big Railroad wanted their, ahem, investment in the Legislature protected. Big Liquor feared pro-temperance Suffs who’d already slapped Prohibition on everyone. Big Manufacturing thought women voters would push through dangerous and radical ideas like child labor laws. Well-funded lobbyists organized a fierce--and whiskey-soaked--persuasion campaign, with The Banner as their afternoon voice.

Though not always the loudest voice. The Anti's logic went that, if you’re going to convince women not to push for voting rights, you have to make it appear like most women don’t want voting rights. Enter Josephine Pearson of Monteagle, an Anti writer of scathing editorials and a former college dean installed as President of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Well-regarded and accomplished, she was the sort of successful career woman her speeches warned America about.

Here came the broadsides. The rough-and-tumble of politics would corrupt womanly virtue. Politics would overtax the female brain and thus shrink the womb. Thus, suffrage doomed motherhood itself and by implication America, hot dogs, apple pie.

The Hermitage Hotel, 100 years on
Both sides threw everything they had into the War of the Roses. Suffs pinned yellow roses to pledge lapels. The Anti pinned (paper) red ones on their supporters. The swank Hermitage Hotel, a mere plaza away from the Capitol, became ground zero for charm offensives, pay-offs, sex traps, fist fights, death threats, fake telegrams about dying children, and Big Liquor's 24/7 Jack Daniels speakeasy on the eighth floor. It became impossible to find a legislator sober enough to lobby.

The Anti strategy was working, despite a quick loss in the Senate. The doomed womb and states rights arguments provided cover for House members worried that women voting also included black women. Bribes didn’t hurt, either. Suff support collapsed in the House, and Rep. Burn of Niota was among the defectors.

They thought they had it won, Pearson and old Stahlman. By a narrow margin, sure, but they didn't need a blowout. Stahlman himself delivered a seal-the-deal address on the House floor condemning undue influences meddling in Tennessee's business. The Antis had underestimated a few things, though.

One was Anita Pollitzer.

Pollitzer took no for an answer poorly, especially after she’d been promised a yes. Pollitzer and the Anti leaders stalked Capitol Hill and the Hermitage Hotel and anywhere a legislator might try to hide. Lost pledges were blistered with appeals to better natures and epic guilt trips. Rep. Burn got a full dose of Pollitzer's drawled fire and was left stammering in her wake.

Febb Burn
Here, famously, motherhood actually did step in. A conflicted Burn was on the House floor during the make-or-break session when he received the most mom-like letter ever written from his mother Febb back in Niota. Febb, a diehard Suff, softened her boy up for a few paragraphs and then sank the maternal dagger over his Anti pledge. In dramatic style, Burn re-switched sides on the spot. Boom, Suffs cheered from the gallery, Antis shouted for blood or at least recounts.

Well, Burn had to beat it quick out a Capitol window. Later that night, the Antis tracked Burn down at the Hermitage Hotel. Top Anti strategists had mapped out a double-secret plan to torpedo the Amendment by legislative maneuvering. There would be the usual rallies and propaganda and intimidation, but the showpiece of the brainstorm went like this: Blackmail the snot out of Burn. Once he re-re-switched his vote, the Antis would yet win the day.

And the Antis had proof. Proof!

Witness affidavits claimed that shortly before the dastardly vote switch, Burn had been hauled off into a cloakroom and given ten grand to go Suff. Recant, the Antis warned Burn, or tomorrow afternoon Stahlman and The Banner run this nugget and end that promising career. Never mind that Burn hadn't been hauled anywhere. He’d been in full view agonizing over Febb's letter. That wasn't the Anti's biggest problem.

No, they'd picked the wrong affidavit stenographer.

Pollitzer and Burn shaking hands,
1920 (top center)

The stenographer knew dirty pool when she heard it. She recorded not only their statements but also how operatives coached the sort-of-witnesses into framing Burn. And the stenographer turned the whole thing over to Luke Lea at The Tennessean. Stahlman would’ve been prepping for his crushing afternoon edition when someone drew the short straw and slid over The Tennessean’s morning scoop blowing up the blackmail scheme.

That, friends, was how Tennessee came around to seal the Nineteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Like I said, this one had it all, including– in the end– a win for justice.