Showing posts with label Steve Liskow. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Steve Liskow. Show all posts

01 October 2023

Banned in Florida

Prohibition Peepers cover
Gorgeous cover!

A new Michael Bracken anthology has just launched, Prohibition Peepers. In coming weeks, I intend to blab incessantly about it.

My story, ‘Dime Detective’, features a slightly atypical private detective in the final days of 1932. After civilization had been drawn into WW-I (1914-1918), North Americans were hit with the Spanish Flu pandemic (1918-1920). Morals activists turned the temperance movement into a national-forced abstinence mandate, resulting in the Volstead Act and 18th Amendment, banning drinkable alcohol.

God wasn’t finished with America. The Great Depression set in (1929-1939), overlapping Prohibition (1920-1933), the Dustbowl (1931-1940), and the build-up to WW-II (1939-1945). Those twenty-five years (1914-1939) leading up to the Second World War were rough, but in some ways, the 1930s remains one of my favorite eras.

Sparked in the 1920s, musical creativity exploded in the following decade with the swing era, the landscape of the big bands. That music sticks with us today, works such as Louis Prima’s ‘Sing! Sing! Sing!’ (1936), famously covered by Benny Goodman (1937) with Gene Krupa and Harry James. Japanese love that piece. Few people today know Glenn Miller’s famous ‘In the Mood’ (1939) originally began life as ‘Tar Paper Stomp’ (1930) by Wingy Manone, which spawned numerous spin-offs. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, the Dorsey brothers, and Cab Calloway, not to mention wah-wah specialist Clyde McCoy. What an era!

Mechanical beauty: The late 1920s and 1930s saw some of the most beautiful motorcars ever built. Packard, Bugatti, Mercedes SSK, Bentley, and the ACD group– Auburn, Cord, and Duesenberg, combined sweeping form with function.

And of course it was an era hard-boiled noire and mystery lovers revere.

Booth Tarkington

Most Famous Novelist Unknown Today

Generations X, Y, Z can’t be criticized when the most famous author of the 1920-30s, Booth Tarkington (1869-1946), descended into oblivion after his death. He is one of only four novelists to win multiple Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction (along with William Faulkner, John Updike, and Colson Whitehead). His best known work, The Magnificent Ambersons, (1918) won the 1919 Pulitzer, and was made into movies at least three times, one directed by Orson Welles.

Considered the most important author of his time with a number of works turned into films, Tarkington, along with James Whitcomb Riley, Meredith Nicholson, and George Ade, formed what has been described as an Indiana Golden Age of literature, only to fade into obscurity with the advent of WW-II.

The author created an inverse image of the infamous George Amberson Minafer in a 11-year-old boy named Penrod. His friends group is multiracial, certain to get Penrod books banned and burned in Florida schools. The choice of names was fraught: Sam, Herman, and Verman, a nickname to arouse the ire. Tarkington couldn't foresee his vision of an expanded racial universe could be tarnished by a careless, offhand choice of nicknames.

Penrod is a cross between Tom Sawyer and Dennis the Menace, who, along with his pals, might have influenced the Little Rascals / Our Gang franchise. As a book-devouring child chomping through our thin school library, I discovered the series: Penrod, Penrod and Sam, and Penrod Jashber. The first two books were mostly short stories, the third more of a novel. The latter featured him playing private detective.

Is there any wonder I thought of Penrod when Michael asked us to write a private eye story in the prohibition time frame?

In my story, Penrod Jasper (the surname comes from my grandfather) is twelve as is Sam… actually Samantha. She has a touch of my niece and I fell in love with her. She’s outspoken, trusting, fearless, and won’t back down for any reason. I’m also fond of one of my gangsters, a hulking, not-so-bright muscle named Ferd. And there’s Queenie… Discover them for yourself.

Penrod detective office frontispiece

Enscribed in Black and White

I had the opportunity to read a few stories prior to publication and one unintended factor struck me– this book will be banned in Florida. Each story I read, mine included, dealt with not merely race relations, but race and relations.

I interpret it as our small way of telling rising racial supremacists that we reject their world. Most of us want to live and love in peace and prosperity, kindness and consideration.

In future articles, I’ll be talking about the following:

  © 2023 Prohibition Peepers


29 August 2022

Last Dance With Mary Jane

Barb Liskow

Today is my wife's birthday (Happy birthday, Barb).

It was Michael Jackson's birthday, too. It's also the 56th anniversary of the Beatles' last live performance, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Apparently, John was sick of touring, but the others were less certain. Paul, for example, loved live performances. Many things stand out about that last show.

For one thing, less than 60% of the seats sold, at a maximum price of $6.50. You can find a video of that show on YouTube, the sound predictably sketchy, and it lasts about 28 minutes. To put that in perspective, Arlo Guthrie's song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" lasts over 18 minutes by itself, and Iron Butterfly's self-indulgent "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" is over 17. The live version of "Free Bird" is about 14.

The Beatles played eleven songs, opening with Chuck Berry's "Rock And Roll Music" and closing with Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally." They played nothing from Revolver, the new album in record stores. Their next single was "Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane," followed by the Sergeant Pepper LP, so they were moving away from songs they could feasibly perform live anyway. Ringo, the oldest member of the quartet, had recently turned twenty-six.

It feels like a fitting date for me to sign off here, too. I've been contributing to this blog for nearly six years now, and I've loved learning from Barb, Rob, Eve, Liz, Leigh, Janet, John, Michael, and everyone else, but I'm running out of ideas worth sharing.

I've learned about history and historical crimes, police and court procedures, films, sci-fi, aesthetics, and more other topics than I can list here. I've loved commenting and receiving comments from everyone, but it's time to leave the silver bullet on the bar and ride into the sunset.

Like the Beatles, I'm changing my focus, but I'm going in the opposite direction. They moved from singles to albums, and I'm turning from albums to singles. I published my last novel in paper in 2019 (another appeared as an eBook last year), but I have eight short stories due to be published over the next 12-18 months. That would be a total of 46 stories since 2007, along with 16 novels.

I have twelve stories in submission limbo, too (some probably rejected without telling me) and three more in various stages of revision.

Hey, it isn't the Library of Alexandria, but I started late. Music, writing, theater, music again, writing again. I'm still trying to find something I'm good at.

This is a good time to introduce Chris Knopf, who will be joining SleuthSayers and taking over my slot soon. If you don't know Chris's work, you owe it to yourself to check him out. We met at Crime Bake several years ago when I had only published a few short stories and my novels were still seeking a home. When I became an active member of MWA, he agreed to blurb my first self-published novel, which most writers were either unwilling or forbidden to do at that time, and he gave me a huge boost up. 

Chris has published 9 Sam Acquillo novels and 3 Jackie Swiatkowski books, all set in the Hamptons, and assorted stand-alones. He won the Nero Award in 2013, and more and more stories are appearing in the major mystery periodicals like Alfred and Ellery. He writes terrific prose, so clean and vivid you don't notice how good it is until you read someone else after him, and his dialogue is even better. I think you're going to enjoy meeting him.

I'll sneak back when I can work free from other entangling alliances.

And, finally, congratulations to fellow Sleuthsayers O'Neil De Noux, Eve Fisher and Barb Goffman, who have "Other Distinguished Stories" listed in the Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories 2022.

Stay safe, everyone.

15 August 2022

What I've Learned Since Then (It's a Start)

Okay, in our last episode, I discussed some of the mistakes I made trying to publish a novel I first conceived in 1972. It changed radically between then and 1980, when I submitted the third complete revision as my sixth-year project at Wesleyan and my advisor encouraged me to send it to publishers… again.

Night Moves manuscript

I gained about a dozen more rejections. Soon after the last one arrived, I became heavily involved in community theater for the next twenty-plus years. After 1981, I wrote no fiction until 2003, when I retired from teaching and our theater lost its performance space the same week.

While the theater searched for a new location, I looked at that novel again. For the first time, I took it seriously and read books on writing and marketing fiction. In May 2004, I attended several excellent workshops at the Wesleyan Writers Conference. I even sold some stories that grew from writing prompts in those sessions. And between 2003 and 2007, I wrote four or five more novels, none of which sold, but which kept getting better.

I sent those novels out with a proper query and synopsis (finally, right?). Books that would eventually become Blood on the Tracks, Cherry Bomb, and Who Wrote the Book of Death? gathered 210 rejections among them while I learned more about plotting, pacing, and selling. I set Blood in Detroit because of a chance meeting with a classmate at my high school reunion, and I changed everything except the name of the female protagonist (Megan Traine) several times between 2003 and 2008 because of feedback buried in the 115 rejections.

Cherry Bomb started as Good Morning Little School Girl, a sequel to Blood, but the first half of the story was an incoherent mess. Years later, I moved it to Connecticut and the Berlin Turnpike, a notorious trafficking area, and it worked much better as a Zach Barnes story.

My bound copy of the project.
The theater used it as a prop in
Bell, Book & Candle, hence the
pentagram (not closed)

By then I'd learned enough about plot and pace to see that the biggest problem with Patchwork Guilt, the name I'd used on the grad school project (I don't remember the other titles before that one) was pace. The story covered most of a school year in chronological order, but the inciting incident didn't occur until January. With nothing at stake, the first half of the book was literary quicksand. I thought resequencing the scenes would solve most of the book's problems, so I broke the MS down as the other WIP taught me to do: I made each scene into a separate word file so I could change the order more easily.

I published Who Wrote the Book of Death? with a small local publisher, but knew none of my other novels would fly with them. They had a maximum word limit of 70K, and I hated their cover and edit. I explored CreateSpace and talked to a theater colleague who designed posters for several plays I directed. He also designed book covers, so I self-published heavily-revised versions of the rejected novels, learning to format more effectively through trial and error. 

SJ Rozan's Absent Friends showed me how to resequence Patchwork Guilt, and I figured out that giving the date or time of each scene made things clear. I don't remember when I changed the title to Postcards of the Hanging, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It's a line from Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row," from his 1965 LP Highway 61 Revisited, and the story takes place in 1964-65. It's about the scandal and public outrage over a teacher accused of rape. I had originally been inspired by Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust and Lucas Beauchamp, but I was also thinking of a northern version of To Kill a Mockingbird. I graduated from high school in 1965, so the protagonist was a year younger than me. The early drafts changed geography and details from a real scandal my senior year, but the vibe and attitudes were right. Years later, I submitted the finished book to a contest where the judge praised my research and historical accuracy. Well, it wasn't history when I wrote the first draft.

I sent out carefully revised synopses and got another break when an agent told me she didn't handle YA books. I'd never considered the book YA even though the narrator/protagonist was 16, but I saw how my synopsis gave that impression. I needed to fix that.

Hooked by Les Edgerton discusses how to write effective openings, and it gave me the solution. I wrote a prologue and an epilogue that served as a frame story for the rest of the book. When agents or editors asked for the first 25 pages or first few chapters, they got the prologue, then the "real" story, which now opened with the teacher being accused of rape in January.

I think I wrote the prologue and epilogue in 2011. That same year, I self-published The Whammer Jammers. My theater colleague designed the cover and Chris Knopf generously blurbed it. Less than two months later, I republished Who Wrote the Book of Death? with a new cover and a new edit that removed the 800-plus commas my former publisher added. Other revised rejects followed: Cherry Bomb, now moved to Connecticut, Run Straight Down, and eventually Blood on the Tracks, the original Detroit novel under its fourth title and with a protagonist who was no longer a grown-up Robbie Daniels, the protagonist of Postcards.

By then, I understood more about plotting, pacing, and description. Following Rozan's example, I added dates to the individual scenes and threaded flashbacks through the present action, layering in the clues and character work. 

My biggest surprise was that I rewrote almost nothing in the 30-year-old text. I added the prologue and epilogue, and I changed the order of the scenes, but I only added one transition scene (about three paragraphs), cut some of the original opening exposition, and expanded two scenes late in the book. That's all. I don't think I even rewrote any of the dialogue. I took that as a sign that I'd been on the right track all those years before.

I self-published the book in 2014, 42 years after starting the first draft.

I still have a lot to learn, but I think I finally got that one right.

01 August 2022

What I Didn't Know Then (Pretty Much Everything)

I was nine when the Mickey Mouse Club serialized the first Hardy Boys book. For my tenth birthday, my parents gave me the first five in the series, and I devoured the rest of the 36 in print over the next year or so. I read the Rick Brant series and the Ken Holt books, too. I just discovered that those books still exist on Kindle. Who knew?

With those tales as my model, I wrote my own mystery stories. One chapter took both sides of a wide-ruled tablet page, and they usually ended with the burning car plunging over the cliff or someone getting hit on the head and "everything went black." My mother, who had been a secretary before she married my father, typed the stories, and when I saw my words in print, there was no going back. I knew I wanted to be a writer.

Over the next ten or fifteen years, that idea always lurked in my subconscious even though my parents discouraged it. They were probably afraid I'd starve, and they were probably right. I started college as a pre-dentistry major, hated it, and changed my major to English. In grad school, I took a course on the American short story that unleashed the urge to write again. That fall, I picked up Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust, and the opening set-up--combined with a scandal in my own senior year of high school--gave me an idea for a novel of my own.

By then, I'd taught English for two or three years and was working toward my Master's. I knew how to write a decent sentence and an effective paragraph, so I thought I knew how to write a book. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Steve Liskow

Yes, I could write a paragraph, but I couldn't tell a story. Plot and pace were unexplored terrain. Over the next three years, I used summers (around more grad courses) and Christmas vacations to finish that first book. I had no outline and only a vague idea where I was going. At one point, I went back and discovered I had named over 150 characters, most of whom only appeared in one particular scene. I cut most of them. I bought the collection of writers' markets from The Writer and sent my MS out to publishers I knew were waiting with palpitating hearts and bated breath.

I didn't know about a synopsis or a query letter. I simply sent out the whole MS (I did know about the fourth-class postal rate for books) and was disappointed when it came back unread. I put the book away for two or three years, then took a writing workshop at a local college and got some advice. I did a massive revision of the horrible first version and sent it out again, still with no synopsis or query letter. Guess what?

I got another idea and wrote a mystery over the course of the next school year.  I think the characters and some parts of the plot were much better than the first book, but I still didn't know how to approach agents or publishers and I still had no outline. It would never sell now because a crucial plot point was a double-exposure photograph. That was a big deal in 1978, but now you can get the same effect in seconds on a computer.

In 1980– eight years after starting to write that first book– I finagled Wesleyan's Graduate Studies center into letting me use the book as my sixth year project if I could find an advisor. Joseph Reed, the Chair of the English department, remembered me from his Faulkner seminar and when I asked if he'd be interested, he said, "Probably not, but why don't you come in and we can discuss it."

For the first time, I wrote an outline, incorporating the changes I wanted to make. I tightened the plot and cut or changed several characters. That outline was simply a list of three or four events that would happen in a chapter, but it was a lean clean roadmap. Reed studied it, then told me to give him a chapter the following week and he'd make his final decision. Then he offered the best advice I'd had so far.

"You have an outline," he said. "So you don't have to write this in order. If you're stuck on chapter five, write chapter ten. You're going to go back and re-write transitions anyway, so it won't be a big deal. And learn to compose at the typewriter. You're too busy to waste time writing everything out longhand and re-typing it."

He was right. I was teaching five high school English classes a day, taking a political novel class with a heavy reading load that met Thursday nights, and working weekends for a photography studio. I had nine months to write the book, revise it, and type two final copies to submit to the grad center.

I did it. Between 1972 and 1980 (I still have a bound copy of that final draft) the book went through at least six title changes. Almost everything except the main premise changed, too. Dr. Reed encouraged me to send the book to publishers, but ten or twelve of them rejected in seconds. I wonder if someone would have read it if I'd sent a proper query letter or synopsis. We'll never know, will we?

The following summer, using my experience composing at the typewriter, I pounded out a 400-page novel in three weeks. It was awful, but I kept it for a few years, telling myself I'd fix it until sanity prevailed and I tossed it. By then, I'd written five unsold novels in about nine years while teaching full-time, earning two graduate degrees, and going through a divorce.

The followng summer, I got persuaded to take part in a play, and loved it. I dove into theater head-first. Between 1982 and 2009, I acted, directed, produced or designed for 100 productions throughout central Connecticut (and took several graduate courses in theater arts, too). I met Barbara, who still acts, too. When our theater lost its performance space in 2003– the same week I retired from teaching--I pulled out that sixth-year novel to fix it one more time.

This time, I attended writing workshops and read books on how to get published. I learned about a synopsis and a query letter. I learned how to write narration (I depended too much on dialogue, probably because I'd done so much theater) and description. My daughter learned of the New England Crime Bake and the Al Blanchard Story Award, so I submitted a short story. It placed in the top ten and the contest co-ordinator encouraged me to re-submit it to the publisher of an anthology of New England writers. It became my first published story, and I attended the conference the next five years, selling a few more stories and meeting agents, editors, and loads of other writers who helped me do it right. I sold my first novel in 2009.

I self-published the sixth-year novel in 2014, and it averages a 4-star rating on Amazon.

I'm an overnight success.

18 July 2022

Question Number One

Next spring, I'll be part of a panel discussing where writers get ideas. If you're a writer at an event (or anywhere else, for that matter), you can give odds that someone will ask you that question. There are several snarky answers non-writers don't understand: Joyce Carol Oates sends me her rejects; I subscribe to the Idea of the Month Blog and many others. My favorite serious answer comes from Neil Gaiman, who says, "Getting ideas is the writer's job." 

Think about it. If you don't have good eye-hand coordination, you don't become a surgeon. If you're bad at math, you don't become a chemical engineer. If you have a poor memory, you don't become an actor. want to be a writer. How do you do Job One?

There are as many answers as ther are writers, but they fall into a few basic categories. You get a plot idea, or you get a character idea. Rarely, you might get a setting idea (think London's "To Build a Fire").

When I conduct my writing workshop on plotting (or on NANO, which incorporates plot and character), I tell people you need a CHARACTER who WANTS something. Give him or her a backstory that explains why the goal/quest is important, and invent obstacles to prevent him or her from achieving that goal. The obstacles form the plot, but the plot grows from the character. I could go on at great length, but I think you get the idea and I want to spend more time here on plot. When you can do something easily, you don't think about it. When it's hard, you have to figure out how you do it. Plotting is very hard for me because my usual thought process is far from linear.

Plot is a series of events during whch a character meets and overcomes obstacle to achieve a goal (or not).

In 1895, French critic Georges Polti published The 36 Dramatic Situations, a book delineating all the plots he had found in literature to that time. He examined the drama and stories (and maybe opera) in existence at that time and claimed every story followed one of his basic templates. Actually, when I cited the book in my creative writing classes, I pointed out that many of Polti's plots were variations on the same theme. Family feuds could be father-son, mother-daughter, brother-brother, and so on, and he considered each one a distinct plot. I disagreed and felt there were only about a dozen individual situations. 

The book is over 125 years old, and nobody has found a new plot since then. Victoria Lynn Schmidt's Story Structure Architect is a modern reworking of Polti's book and adds new variations, some of them involving changing time. I recommend her book because she includes open-ended questions that generate ideas and plot twists. I'll take all the help I can get.

My point here is that THERE IS NOTHING NEW. You won't create a brand-new idea at this point. You can change the names, the setting, or the time period, but that's all. The same story works with knights in armor, as a western, as a contemporary crime story, or as a future sci-fi tale, all with a change of props and setting. Your job is to find the new twist that works for you. 

Maybe you find a story in the news or overhear gossip at the mall. It's going to turn into one of those basic plots just because that's all there is/are. Maybe you remember an incident from your own life that mattered for some reason. I have published 16 novels, and six or seven of them were inspired by real events. I changed them from "truth," but the original events really happened. One of my short stories grew from recalling the worst summer job I ever had, one where I quit after one day.

The Greek and Roman playwrights took their inspirations from the myths (I wonder who came up with THEM). Recently, I've read Laura Lippman's Dream Girl, which she tells us up front is her re-working of Stephen Kin'g Misery. Both books involve a writer who is badly injured and at the mercy of a crazy nurse. Last week, I read Don Winslow's new novel City on Fire. It's a crime novel based on gang wars in Providence, Rhode Island in the late 1980s, and it's Winslow's retelling of The Iliad. If you know that work, you can identify the modern versions of Helen, Cassandra, Priam, Patroclus, Hector, and Paris. 

How many films and TV shows are spin-offs, borrowing a character or thread from a previous story? Look at the Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman or Marvel Comics franchises. Look at the various incarnations of NCIS and other forensic dramas. Nothin' new here, Jack, but we know how to sell it.

You want to write? Stop beating yourslef up because you don't have a shiny new idea. Take what you like and give it a new paint job. 

One of my favorite writing quotes has so many different variations and is attributed to so many different authors that it makes my point yet again:

Poor writers imitate. Great writers steal.

04 July 2022

What Are The Odds

Over the past 15 years, I've won a couple of awards and not-quite won a few others. RT's discussion of his Edgar-winning story last week made me think about what that really means. This is a completely unscientific assessment, but maybe there's something you can take away from it anyway.

If you're barely published, some of these figures may apply to your chances of making a sale as well as your winning an award. The salient feature in either case is that you have to write the best story you can. You've heard that before.

Gamblers know the odds before they toss money on the table, and here are some of the numbers for publishing. They keep changing, but this will give you the idea.

Years ago, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine received over 40,000 story submissions a year, and published about 75 of them. If all the stories were of equal quality, which, of course, is not the case, your chance of being selected was one in 533. I don't know how many stories come in now, but the magazine now publishes six issues instead of ten, and roughly the same 75 stories. If there are fewer submissions, the odds are slightly better. 

This morning, the Mystery Writers of America Edgars site lists 173 books eligible for the Best Novel of the year and 166 stories for the Best Short Story. The eligibility period runs from December 1 to December 1, so it's slightly more than half over. The year I was a finalist, there were 408 short stories, which meant the chance of becoming a finalist (again, all things equal, which they aren't) were 81 to 1. Theoretically, the chance of winning from those finalists was five to one. Getting there was the problem. The weeding out is the same in other awards, too, the Agatha, Derringer, Shamus, and all the others.

In the 1990s, Connecticut introduced the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) in high schools. I've never been a fan of standardized tests, but the Language Arts portion of that test had the clearest and most concrete set of criteria I've ever seen for evaluating writing. When my colleagues and I used it for grading practice tests, we almost never disagreed on a score. I liked it so much I've used something like it for a rubric when I edit or judge even now. 

Several years ago, I was a judge for the Al Blanchard Award, sponsored by MWA New England. I read all of the 141 stories submitted because only a few came in early and 41 were submitted the last day of the three-month deadline. Really. I rated each story from 1 (low) to 10 (high) and kept a spreadsheet of why: too much backstory, unbelievable or impossible ending, inconsistent character, good/bad dialogue, etc. It was inspired by the CAPT test from the 90s.

I gave 50 stories--over 1/3 of the entries--a grade of 1. Only a dozen earned a grade of 7 or higher, one of them an 8.

Now, the important part. I was one of four judges who had to turn in their top ten stories so the others could read the top 40. I'd already read every story (No, I don't have a life), so I already had notes on the other stories already. I looked at my notes and re-read the stories, but changed no scores. NONE of my top twelve stories made the cut from any other judge. In fact, the eventual winner only got a five from me. 

I've had a similar experience judging the Derringers for the last two years. I read many of those stories before they're nominated because I subscribe to several of the source magazines. Stories that I consider brilliant seldom make the cut. Obviously, I have tastes that run outside the lines. But in judging the Flash Fiction (the only length I can judge because I don't write in it), three of my top five stories have been finalists both times I've judged because the other nine judges agree. 

We can objectify and quantify only so much, and it's true of both judges and editors. People with experience and (maybe) training can narrow down a group of stories that are "better" or "worse" than others, but within that select sample, it's a matter of individual taste and preference. One person doesn't like noir. Another wants a surprising plot twist. Yet another pays more attention to prose style than the others. And so on.

How do you stand out? You write a damn good story. MAYBE you include something a little exotic that readers can latch on to. RT's Edgar winner involved a landmark in Hawaii. People know it and it's unusual. That's not the only reason he won, but it certainly didn't hurt.

Remember to add a little bit of yourself. THAT will make the story unique so the editor or judges notice it. You've got to be noticed.

Easy, huh? Sure it is.

Now forget about all the odds and go write that damn good story.

20 June 2022

Xena, The Heroine/Villain

 by Steve Liskow

When Ernie, our 13-year-old Maine Coon, died a year ago after a long battle with kidney disease, Barb and I agreed he would be our last cat. We've been together for almost 38 years and shared space with at least one cat for 36 of them, so we may have been kidding ourselves.

Two months ago, one of our neighbors had far too many cats because her tom has fathered half the cats in our condo complex. She offered us a small tuxedo girl. We agreed to meet her, but that was all. Then we said we'd pet her, but nothing else. Then I held her for a minute. You see where this is going, don't you? She snuggled under my chin and purred.

Well, we decided she could visit our place on Monday for an hour or two and see if she was comfortable. She was. We arranged another visit on Thursday for a longer period of time to check things out more thoroughly. So thoroughly that she hasn't left yet. That was six weeks ago.

I've said before that animals, especially cats, inspire great human characters, and Xena exemplifies that even more than Ernie and Jewel did.

Like most cats, she's probably somewhere on the spectrum. She isn't really a lap cat, but she likes to cuddle. That and her sense of humor make her a great sidekick. But she still refuses to differentiate between our recliner and her scratching post, and she plays rough. She's made friends with the plant mister and fears nothing except the hair dryer. This makes her a great villain, too. She's smarter and faster than we are and can move from room to room--or floor to counter--so quickly we don't have time to say, "Xena, NO! Oh, never mind."

She's very social. She met Barb and me with no hesitation and explored our place with the enthusiasm of a six-year-old in Toys R Us. Unfortunately, her social skills extend to other cats, too. At 18 months, she's already birthed two litters. When she's in heat (which seems to be more frequently than your average porn star), she announces her needs loudly enough so most of the complex can hear her. Two of her former boyfriends have taken to hanging out on our front steps. Every well-developed character needs a weakness, and that's hers. 

Living with several other cats, she had to fight her way to the food. For the first two weeks in our place, she emptied her dish so quckly she spent the next hour crying with a stomach ache. Now, she's figured out that there's no competition and she can slow down. Sometimes. She still sticks her head in the can while I'm trying to spoon food into her dish. 

Today, she will meet her veterinarian for the first time. She's had none of her shots yet and we want to make sure she's as healthy as she seems. She's the smallest cat we've ever had, especially apparent because our last two cats were a Himalayan and a Maine Coon, and we don't expect her to get much bigger at 18 months. 

But she already likes to curl up on my left foot while I type, so she'll probably become another writing partner and character inspiration. The female leads in both my Connecticut and Detroit series have cats already, and maybe there's room for another tuxedo.

06 June 2022

Crime Conn '22

Last Saturday, I attended a writing conference for the first time in much too long. The in-person attendance was sparse, but many people chose to attend on Zoom. I considered that, but I knew a few writers attending and wanted to catch up. Besides, Tess Gerritsen was the Guest of Honor and Alison Gaylin was on a panel and I wanted to meet them both, especially since Gaylin's The Collective may be the best book I've read so far this year.

The "Changes" panel getting ready

Crime Conn is now a regular event (barring the pandemic) at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT, about 35 miles west of New Haven. That makes it an hour's drive for me, and I got there in time for coffee and donuts and greeting a few friends before the presentations began. The program offered five 45-minute panels with time in between to buy books and get them signed. You can never have too many books and never meet too many crime writers, who are among the most generous people on earth.

The theme of this year's conference was The End of the World As We Knew It, complete with the REM track introducing the festivities. For the music buffs, the panels were "Cha-cha-cha-cha-changes," examining what's different for writers now; "The Eve of Destruction," discussing whether or not this is the Apocalypse; "Forever Young," presenting three YA authors explaining how they help young readers navigate the New Crazy; "Psycho Killer," three current or former law enforcement officers and a death investigator from the CT State Medical Examiner; and "I'll Be There For You," looking at how the last two years of isolation, hostility, and shifting rules have helped writers create or maintain relationships. The final presentation, "Doctor My Eyes," featured John Valeri, a Connecticut book critic and one of mystery writingt's best friends, interviewing Tess Gerritsen.

MWA Chapter Pres Al Tucher
welcomes the guests

I'm pretty sure Chris Knopf, one of the organizers, came up with the titles. That night, he would be playing bass in a band. He and I shared tales of how arthritis affects our guitar playing, but he's still probably much better than I am.

Rather than discuss each panel in depth, here are a few pithy comments from the writers.

From the Changes panel: Multi-racial and gender identity are important in this changing world. Roughly 10% of today's kids are multi-racial, but only 1% of the books out there have a multi-racial character. We have to represent "Different" accurately.

The Eve of Destruction panel asked "Will pandemic books sell?" The idea reappeared in other panels, but the prevailing wisdom is that 9/11 books still don't (the only exception I know might be SJ Rozan's Absent Friends), and we're still too close to Covid. When asked about upping the ante in today's world, the authors stressed that the best approach is not to amp up the crime, but to become more human. I was one of many who appreciated that emphasis on character over "stuff."

The YA writers (I bought books by two of them because they impressed me on the panel) pointed out that backstory informs character NOW. What in the past will make them afraid in the present?

The law enforcement officers explained, among other things, how Covid has changed policing. The New Haven detective observed that the streets were much quieter at first, and that she became leery of interacting with the public. All three panelists tried to minimize arrests and bringing people into enclosed cells. They agreed they'd seen an increase in domestic violence. One officer-turned-writer has not yet included Covid in his work and commented, "It's easier to read and write about adversity after it's over."

Audience at left. The tables of books for sale
in the background

Wendy Corso Staub and Alison Gaylin shared many writers' problems with trying to write when they were no longer alone all day because their hsuband was working from home and the children were learning online instead of in a school. Staub reverted to early morning writing as she did years ago. She would feed her infant child, then stay up and write for several hours before going back to bed. Over the last two years of lockdown, she has completed four novels. 

Tess Gerritsen wanted to write from the time she was seven, but her parents encouraged her to study other fields. She majored in anthropology as an undergrad, became a physician, and plays several musical instruments between writing now. She said, "It doesn't matter what you study, it matters what you LIVE."

The gathering was small enough so writers and audience mingled easily. There was a writing workshop during the lunch break for those who were interested, too.

I sat at a table with Lynn, now working on her first nonfiction book, and Chris, who has not written anything… yet. They both attended the writing workshop. As the conference wound down, they weren't the only ones who looked eager to get back home so they could resume writing.

That's what a good conference does.

23 May 2022

Writing Outside the Outlines

Two weeks ago, I attended an interview with Don Winslow at which he was autographing his new novel. During the Q & A, someone asked about his process, which is almost sure to be a question at such events. 

Winslow said that he doesn't outline. Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen and many other major writers don't, either. About half the crime writers I know don't, and the other half do, but in different ways. The debate can get pretty heated, but I don't really think it matters.

"Outline" has different meanings for people in different parts of the writing world. I suspect that's part of the cause of many arguments.

Practically everyone who graduated from high school wrote at least one research paper, certainly in English class, and possibly one or more in a social studies class, usually history. I remember having to hand in an outline during the process, in that format with Roman number I, two or more subdivisions, cleverly called "A" and "B." If those were also subdivided (which they usually were), they had to have at least two subdivisions, "1" and "2." If those were subdivided again…

Getting flashbacks yet? I'll bet you took the same ride yourself.

When I taught English, I required an outline, too. The point was to make sure the student worked through the assignment steadily over the six or eight weeks instead of throwing everything together the night before it was due. None of us ever did that, of course.

That outline form is very rigid, good for a persuasive or factual piece with a logical linear organization. Unfortunately, fiction isn't always linear. Stories can involve flashbacks, tangents and misdirection, and they muddy the waters.

Sue Grafton used to write a journal/outline/ideas book while she worked on her novels. She may have worked that way because, before she sold the Alphabet series with Kinsey Milhone, she wrote screenplays for TV movies. She said that her workbook sometimes ended up longer than the actual novel.

Robert Crais oulines, too. Like Grafton, he started in television, writing for Hill Street Blues and being a major force behind Cagney & Lacey. Story boards were routine and he stayed with what he knew. Obviously, it works for him. 

When I began my first novel fifty years ago, I didn't outline. I wrote stop and start for a few months, then got busy with grad school and teaching again. When I returned to that 60-page draft several months later, I decided to make a list of characters for the first time. Those 60 pages had over 100 characters, many who only appeared once, and my "story" was a series of tangents, more clang association than plot. I eventually finished that manuscript in about three years, and it was resoundingly, excruciatingly awful.

So were the next two.

When I decided to rewrite the first book as my sixth-year thesis at Wesleyan, I had to convince a professor to become my advisor. For the first time, I built an outline of what I thought that heavily-revised book would become. I listed the four or five events that would occur in each chapter. Years later, I discovered that it resembled Charles Dickens's outlines. Since Dickens serialized his novels in magazines, he need to know where he was going. Below is a sample of his outline for Bleak House.

I used the same format for several unpublished novels. When I attended writing workshops and met other writers years later, I learned of the "outline" agents and editors expected with a query, which isn't an outline, but a summary. Some people called it an outline and some called it a synopsis, but they were basically the same except that an outline is longer. I hated writing a two-page synopsis of the entire novel and I hated a ten-page outline just as much. For years, when people asked why I turned to self-publishing, I told them it was because I didn't want to write another damned synopsis. Ever.

By 2010, I'd published a few short stories but five or six novels accumulated 400 rejections. Then I read John Truby's The Anatomy of Story, which is geared toward screenwriting. I began to view an outline as a story board, and I suspect that Crais's outlines resemble that, too.

The form is especially helpful if you use several POV characters, and my novels often have five or six. Truby's form makes it easy for me to keep track of how much information a character has at any particular moment. It also make it easy to know how much time has passed because I incorporate it into the sequence. I first use the form for The Whammer Jammers, which I saw as a potential film.

Below is the first page of my final outline for Words of Love. The POV character for each scene is in caps. The first version usually took me about two months because plotting is the hardest part of writing for me. I don't have a linear thought process and have to write stuff out before I can tell if it works in that order. I move scenes around and cut them and add new ones as I discover what the story needs. This sample is "I," the ninth version. Some books went as far as version "M" or "N," and I often was halfway throught the first draft of the MS before I had the final chronology set.

There's no right way to outline or NOT outline. But if something isn't working for you, maybe this will give you a plan B or even a plan C.

09 May 2022

Crime Hits Home (An Exercise in Shameless Self-Promotion)

Last Monday, Liz Zelvin posted about Edgars week and the whirlwind of activities in New York. Otto Penzler hosted the launch/signing for MWA Presents Crime Hits Home at the Mysterious Bookshop, and I practiced spelling my name for a week before attending.

I hoped I would meet more of the other contributors (Six of twenty appeared), but people are being cautious in the Age of Covid. Believe me, I get that; I'm immuno-compromised myself. I still got to meet Liz, Michael Bracken, Stacy Woodson, and Brendan DuBois, all of whom were on my bucket list.

Michael Bracken, Andrew Hearn

MWA has published about twenty previous collections, all edited by a marquee author who brainstorms with the publisher for a theme, then invites ten other authors to contribute stories. The remaining ten slots are filled by blind submissions from active members of MWA.

I have answered six submission calls, and this is the second time I've had a story selected. For the record, all the other stories eventually sold elsewhere. In fact, one will appear later this year in Mickey Finn 3: 21st-Century Noir, edited by Michael Bracken. 

I knew two other contributors to Crime Hits Home. SJ Rozan, who edited the collection, has been one of my favorite writers for over a decade, and we've met before, once when she was Guest of Honor at Crime Conn. The other might have been the launch and signing for Vengeance, the other MWA anthology with one of my stories.

Connie Hambley, SJ Rozan and me

Connie Hambley, a former chapter President of Sisters in Crime New England, and I have done writing events together. We agreed that this collection may be the best anthology yet. There are two reasons for that, and they work together.

First, the collections all use a common theme, and "Home" may be the most flexible idea so far. Previous books had less wiggle room. Vengeance, for example, required that someone do something bad and someone else provide payback. I liked several stories in that volume, but even Bach or Beethoven would have been hard-pressed to produce 20 variations on the idea. Other books worked with marriage, legal thrillers, the supernatural, or the Cold War, but I think "Home" offers more possibilities.

The other strength of the collection is Rozan's choice of contributing authors. Crime Hits Home features two African-American authors, two Asian authors, a Hispanic, a transgender, and a gay. Eleven are female and nine are male, and eleven stories use first-person POV.

Those diverse cultures and viewpoints exploit that wide-open theme, and several stories never would have occurred to this transplanted midwestern WASP. Some stories were funny, several were poignant, some were downright creepy, and all of them moved the goalposts. I assumed that many submissions would involve home invasions, and other writers thought the same way. Only two stories involve anything even vaguely resembling such an idea. Brendan DuBois, one of the judges, said they received 300 submissions for the ten open slots, so standing out from the pack counted heavily.

I'm thrilled to be in a collection with Sara Paretsky, Walter Mosley and Jonathan Santlofer, and I'm even happy to be the next-to-last story in the book, just before SJ Rozan's, which has a premise that brought back memories of my own childhood with a less-sinister subtext.

I feel like I'm the opening act for Led Zeppelin.

25 April 2022

Style NEVER Goes Out of Style

Years ago, I gave my honors American Lit students a summer writing assignment that was a little outside the lines. I had them read Kerouac's On the Road and selections from Thoreau's Walden, then write the flogged-to-death essay on "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" twice, once imitating Kerouac's style and the other imitating Thoreau.

Some people did brilliantly, capturing Kerouac's riffs and imagery like a Wardell Gray sax solo and Thoreau's pseudo-King James majesty. Others wrote essays so interchangeable that I don't think the writers could have told me which was which.

We fail to teach students an important lesson about style. The style must fit the mood of the piece, which is determined by the content. If style, mood, and content don't work together, that story, essay, or letter will fail.

I can't find the quote now so I may be paraphrasing, but Sinclair Lewis once gave my favorite definition of style. Style is how the writer conveys emotion in his writing. It depends upon two factors: the ability to feel, and the vacabulary to express those feelings. 

When readers say they don't like a book, they often mean that they don't like the style. Style is voice, and it carries the narrator's attitude and feelings about the material. If you don't like the feeling, it's fair to expect that you won't like the story. 

How do you create style? You don't. You just write the truth about how you (or your story-teller) feels.

Extreme examples make it clearer. Read a paragraph by Ernest Hemingway and notice the generally short words a child can understand, combined into short punchy sentences that are equally clear. Hemingway could convey deep feelings and ideas, but in a deceptively simple style. It's hard to write so many short sentences without sounding choppy and abrasive, sort of like riding in a car when the transmission drops out. I see lots of writers try it and fail.

Now, read a paragraph from Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I have three graduate degrees and taught for over 30 years, but McCarthy often sent me to the dictionary. His words were always precise and conveyed his meaning more exactly than the synonyms I knew, and they never felt forced. McCarthy loved language and used it to serve his own purposes. I can't imagine anyone trying to imitate him.

Style is the way you use words to tell your story. We expect certain moods in certain kinds of stories, too. Noir writing is pessimistic. The weather is rainy or will be soon. Peopole will die and justice may not be served. Fairy tales usually have a happy ending and whatever ogres occupy the landscape may be frightening, but the hero will prevail with wit and courage.

The writer's job is to help the reader experience the events and emotions that the characters go through. It doesn't matter how clever or creative or beautiful the writer is. If the writing calls attention to that instead of the story, it fails. 

Most of my writing is revision. I want the reader to see the events as my character sees and feels them, so I tend to use first person or detached third person POV and avoid opinion adjectives like "Nice," "Kind," "Beautiful" or "Evil" unles they get filtered through the character. Short stories don't have room for generalities, so it's vital to convey mood/attitude briefly. Mood matters. A few days ago, I decided a story I was writing for one publication didn't work because the story was supposed to be a cozy and the narrator was a gambler. Gamblers aren't cozy, they're noir.

Modern writers use more narration and less exposition than writers up until about 100 years ago. Think of long passsages of backstory and explanation in Dickens, Trollope, the Brontes or Hawthorne, then look at how Lehane, Lippman, Alison Gaylin or Don Winslow handles the same material.

I pinpoint the beginning of the change with Fitzgerald's description of the Buchanans' yard in chapter 1 of The Great Gatsby. Instead of static visual details, Fitzgerald makes the yard come to life so it runs from the beach, up the hill, jumps over a birdbath and sundial, and drifts up the walls of the house as "bright vines."

You can look at a picture as Hawthorne would describe it, but you can experience Tom and Daisy's yard. The average reader won't notice the difference, but he or she will feel it.

That's style at its best.

11 April 2022


Late last year, my health went on hiatus and I found that everything became a challenge. I couldn't go anywhere or do much of anything. Between the cold weather and the accelerating family arthritis, playing guitar and typing were difficult, and naturally, that interfered with my writing. Now that the effects of the steroids are diminishing and warmer weather is creeping back, my hands are regaining some flexibility.

Thursday night, I played my first open mic since mid-November. I didn't drive people screaming toward the exits, and I loved seeing old friends and hearing good tunes for the first time in oh so long.

More importantly, it means I can write again.

Non-writers have the image of the writer as some kind of agoraphobe, hunched over a desk in a dimly-lit garret, pen in hand, scribbling by the hour, occasionally stopping for a sip of water and a bit of gruel. The modern version is a keyboard and oceans of coffee or diet coke. Most artists, whether they're writers, painters, actors, or musicians, dispute that vision.

You need to get away from the work or you'll get weird. Early in my writing career, I forced myself to produce 2000 words a day because I read somewhere that Stephen King did it. In an interview, Jodi Picoult said that writers need to develop the ability to write on demand. That's the purpose of the 2000-word quota. Once you can do it, the job gets a lot easier. Now I know I can produce 1000 words in an hour or less. It doesn't matter if they're junk, because if there's that much, there's enough to fix.

Distance is important, too. I can start a horrific rough draft (that 1000 words, or maybe only a few paragraphs), and if it's not going well, the norm for a first draft, I can step away and play guitar, make a fool of myself on keyboard, or go to the health club. I still do my best planning and editing on an arc trainer.

When you don't have to think about what you're doing, the ideas sneak into view like shy kittens. Ignore them, and they'll come close enough to pet.

Now that I can perform and get away from the writing, it's much easier. The added perspective helps me see why something isn't working and find ways to fix it.

I know actors, athletes, and musicians who tell me the same thing. I often see one of my actor friends at my health club, usually punching a heavy bag. One of my favorite guitar players has composed dozens of songs (he has two CDs out), but when the music isn't flowing, he turns to piano for a week. When he's broken out of the ruts, he reunites with his Martin and sparks fly.

I used to direct plays, and I got my idea for re-interpreting Shakespeare's Twelfth Night as a western while ironing. Didn't Agatha Christie plot her complex novels while washing dishes?

It still works.

28 March 2022

Looking For the Next Best Thing

Several years ago, I met another local writer at a conference. He was unpublished, but his business cards and website bore the legend "Website of Future Bestselling Author..." 

A few weeks later, he posted on Facebook. He had won Honorable Mention for the Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine contest that invites readers to write a flash story to accompany a photograph in the magazine. He felt his story deserved more than a mere honorable mention. My wife and I looked at the photo before we read his story, and we both immediately thought of the same premise he used.

I'm going to guess he's not a bestselling author yet, partly because he hadn't learned one of the basic lessons.

When you're writing fiction, your first idea may or may not be good, but the SECOND one is usually better. If you can find a THIRD, that might be even better. Use it.


Guidelines for magazines or themed submissions often include examples, usually an obvious first choice, and many writers try to follow those examples. That means the editors may see several submissions using that same idea. Even if the writing is superb, those stories have less chance of being selected because they'll cancel each other out.

But something DIFFERENT will catch the screener's and editor's attention.

Some time ago, Michael Bracken posted a call for private eye stories set in the 1960s. He mentioned that stories involving an historical event from the period would have preference, and gave examples. I don't remember what those examples were, but they might have been Woodstock, the Bay of Pigs, and Neil Armstrong's walking on the moon. He probably got several stories using each of them.

I wrote a story set in the Detroit riot of 1967. I attended summer classes at Oakland University, a mere 30 miles away, so I remembered many of the details without research. I hoped no other writer would use that event and that I'd have less competition. Sure enough, "Kick Out the Jams" (Remember the MC5?) will appear in Groovy Gumshoes this April. Far out, man.

The upcoming MWA anthology Crime Hits Home also arrives in April. I assumed many submissions would reflect a "Home Sweet Home" idea and might involve a home invasion. I tried to think outside the box, and "homeless" led me to other places. "Jack in a Box" found a home.

A few months ago, I had an idea for a novella, but when I started writing, I locked up after about 3000 words. I tweaked the idea and tried again, but hit another wall. When I realized that my mian idea could function as a red herring instead of the main plot, I tried again.

That third version had more potential surprises. I finished the first complete draft last week, and since I wrote several bad ideas out of my system in the early versions, it's much better. It still needs revision, but I have more to work with. 

Years ago, Georges Polti wrote The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, describing every plot premise he could identify in (mostly classic) literature and drama.

Victoria Lynn Schmidt updated it a few years ago in her own book, Story Structure Architect, which I highly recommend. She adds a few more situations– premises, if you prefer– and several open-ended questions that nurture creativity. But both books make the same point.

There are a finite number of situations and ideas. If you take one that is used frequently (this year's trend), you set yourself up against all those other works. If you create a new twist or combination, your story will stand out and has a better chance of being noticed.

And selected.

14 March 2022

Guys Writing Girls

Last week, my short story "The Bridesmaid's Tale" appeared in Black Cat Weekly, and I shared the news with all three of my friends. Later that same day, one of them congratulated me on how well I captured the thought process of the female lead/narrator. I thanked him, but I'm not sure I really did it that well.

His comment made me curious enough to go back and look at all my published work, though, which took about five minutes. Most of my novels use multiple-third point of view, and the majority of those characters are male. There are exceptions, of course: both Roller Derby novels have several scenes in the POV of various skaters, and Megan Traine and Beth Shepard get screen time in the novels with their partners. Words of Love has three female POV characters, more than any other book, but if you read it, you'll see why.

Strong female characters abound in my short stories, whether they're the POV character or not. I grew up in a family of strong intelligent women, and during my theater years, I usually worked with a female stage manager and often a female producer. My favorite lights designer was a woman who began as a stage manager and became a good director, too. She also wrote at least one good play that I remember.

Women are more interesting because the still prevalent glass ceiling forces them to be more resourceful and flexible to succeed in various professions. They also need more sense of humor to cope with the crap. Many of my characters take a hard look at themselves and understand how they have to change to solve the current problem. Medically, we know women have a higher threshold of pain and a higher resistance to disease (Otherwise, the race would have died out long ago), and they may have a higher IQ.

I've sold sixteen short stories with a female narrator (four not yet published), and many others have a woman who drives the action even if she doesn't tell the story. Women narrate five of the ten stories currently floating in Submission Limbo, too. 

It's easier to masquerade as a woman in a short story because the length gives you less room to make a mistake. I try to convey an attitude through dialogue and thought process, and sometimes using kinesthetic perceptions makes that easier. That's psych and teacher jargon, so let me mansplain here.

We process information through one of three primary modes. About 80% of the population is visual, so they watch and look and read to gain their information. Another 10-12% are auditory and listen well. These people remember a lecture or can follow instructions easily (Many of them become teachers). The remaining few are kinesthetic, who learn from doing, a combination of muscle memory and experience. These are the kids who take the game or toy apart on Christmas morning without reading the instructions and figure out how it works by trial and error. Many of them can call up the emotions they felt during an experience long after it happened. These people are often dancers, athletes, or actors. 

Most of my women characters are empaths and have a kinesthetic streak. They're aware of their bodies and feel emotions and slights deeply.

Angie, narrator of "The Bridesmaid's Tale," knows that her older sister Bethesda (the Bride) is taller and curvier than she is, AND is Daddy's favorite. Angie accepts that she'll look terrible in the bridesmaids' gowns Bethesda selected for her taller, bustier friends, and takes the hit for the team. Unlike Bethesda, though, Angie doesn't live off the family fortune. She's in med school at Tufts, studying to become a veterinarian, and her academic strengths help drive the plot.

So does her attitude. She and Bethesda have been at each other's throats since they were old enough to walk, but blood still trumps everything else. Angie won't let her sister be put in danger. She's resourceful, devious, and funny. She tells us she was in her teens before she learned her sister (Whom she refers to as "Bitch-G," for "Bitch-Goddess") was named after their mother's city of birth. Before that, she checked the family medicine cabinet to see if she was named after a pill. She learned that "Bitch" was a handy word in a girl's vocabulary when she saw Mom's reaction to it the first time she said it.

My list says nine stories have been sold that will probably appear by the end of 2023, three of them by June of this year. A woman drives the plot in five of them, solving the mystery,  doing bad stuff, or sometimes narrating.

Using a person like yourself as the protagonist (or narrator) runs the risk of taking values and ideas for granted and omitting them from the story. Barnes and Guthrie have elements of me, but not many. Featuring women forces me to pay attention. For what it's worth, readers know more about the families (we've met both of them) and backstory of Beth Sehpard, Tori MacDonald and Megan Traine than they do about Zach Barnes, Trash Hendrix, or Woody Guthrie.

P.S. My wife (wearing the green jacket in the photo) closed Saturday night in The Trouble with Space Cannibals, a weird and wacky play, sort of Star Trek meets The Office. The male playwrights made all the officer on the starship LeVAR BurTONNE female and mentioned the glass ceiling that holds men down. My wife played Science Officer Wendy Mansplain…