Showing posts with label inspiration. Show all posts
Showing posts with label inspiration. Show all posts

02 July 2018

Recognition

by Janice Law

I’ve been thinking about recognition lately, although not in the form so close to writers’ hearts as great reviews, editorial interest, and large checks. I’ve been considering it in connection with inspiration, the most mysterious part of the creative process. In particular, I have been trying to figure out the relationship between the two arts that interest me a great deal, namely writing and painting.

The Big Y florist who tripped the switch
It is not uncommon for people to be serious in more than one art. At least two of our Sleuthsayers colleagues are active in both music and writing. Recent Nobel laureate Bob Dylan paints respectably, while an older laureate, Gunther Grass, did really fine etchings. Going the other way, Vincent Van Gogh wrote some of the world’s best letters, while the term renaissance man (or woman) reflects the wide interests and capabilities of what were often primarily visual artists.

On the other hand, if I have a spell of painting, where I am finishing a picture every week or every other week, I have no ideas for anything creative in writing. PR releases for the local library are fine, but anything requiring imagination as opposed to craft is simply absent.

The change from one to the other is abrupt and apparently not under my control. This makes me think that while writing is basically an auditory art, and painting, a visual one, the roots are the same, and at least in my case, there is only so much of the right neural stuff available for work in either one.
That leads to the question of what inspiration in writing and painting have in common, and that
brings me to recognition. In both cases, I seem to recognize something useful. For example, recently I noticed one of the florists at our local supermarket wheeling out a cart of plants. A little mental click and I knew this was a painting. Why not any one of the dozens of other people in the store that day? That remains mysterious.

But that recognition of the pictorial possibilities had a further effect. I painted a whole series of images of the Big Y store personnel, so that recognition triggered a spate of painting and cut off any literary inspiration. Seven or eight paintings down the road, that impulse dried up.
Then various news stories about the Alt Right led me to revisit a story I had begun a number of years ago and abandoned. Again, I recognized something I could use and the result was the completion of that story and at least two more. The verbal switch is apparently now on. How long will it remain? I have no idea, but at some point I hope to see something that says ‘paint me’ and the cycle will start over.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? I would love to know if painter/ musicians or musician/ writers have similar experiences.

Having two arts is lovely, although there is one drawback. Instead of worrying about a lack of inspiration in one field, one gets to worry about two.

14 May 2018

Seeing Eye To Ear

by Steve Liskow

When I was young, I wanted to play piano but my parents wouldn't drive me across town to my great aunt's house to practice on her Steinway baby grand. They let me study violin instead, and I quit after one year. Years later when the British Invasion hit, I was one of thousands of guys who saw girls go crazy over the Beatles. In 1966, I spent twenty-five dollars on a Stella Harmony guitar with strings thicker than coat hanger wire and set about cultivating terrible technique and a crop of blisters.



Since then, I've bought, sold or traded at least twenty guitars and a half dozen amplifiers. Right now, I own five guitars, two of which are for sale. Around the Millennium, I bought a used Roland keyboard and have wasted lots of time and a little money on books that promised to turn me into the next Glenn Gould, Otis Spann or Dave Brubeck. None of them did.


A few months ago, I saw a series of DVDs on playing piano at a ludicrously low price and decided to bet on one more losing hand. Surprise, the videos are excellent. After watching the first three, I understand the keyboard and music theory better than I ever have before. Piano gives you a fuller understanding of what is going on in a song because you play two separate lines. It's changing how I look at and hear the guitar, too.

The old blues players often used alternate guitar tunings, which I avoided until I bought a resonator guitar and started playing slide more often. Different tunings change the sound of a chord you've heard for years, and it forces you to think about what those tones mean. I'll never be great on either guitar or piano, but I'm thinking a lot more about what I'm doing.

Looking at your writing from a different perspective can have the same effect.

In 2005, I wrote a short story featuring Woody Guthrie (under a different name) and Megan Traine and a rock band. It was a complicated story and one of my friends commented that he had trouble keeping all the characters straight. The story was almost 7000 words long, which meant few markets would look at it, and when I cut characters and words, the whole thing became incoherent. I ran out of places to send it, and it languished on a floppy disc for about four years.

In 2009, someone told me about the Black Orchid Novella Award. Among other requirements, entries had to be between 15 and 20 thousand words. Could I expand that short story into a novella and introduce the large cast more gradually?

Over the next four days, I added nine thousand words and nothing felt padded! I'd never considered writing a novella because at that time the market was non-existent. But now I had one on my hands and I sent it out. "Stranglehold" won the Black Orchid Novella Award and appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in the summer of 2010. I was so used to thinking "short story" that I couldn't see it was really a novella waiting for its growth spurt.

A few years later, something felt wrong near the end of a WIP and I couldn't figure out what it was. I swapped manuscripts with another writer, who suggested that I change the point of view in one of the last scenes. Both characters had POV scenes throughout the book, so the change was feasible. It also made the ending much stronger. Someone with more distance could see that right away.

The Whammer Jammers introduces Hartford detectives Tracy "Trash" Hendrix and Jimmy Byrne exploring the world of roller derby. I interviewed skaters, referees, coaches, boyfriends, announcers, spectators, and Hartford police officers before I developed an outline and started writing. After about sixty pages, I felt like I was hip-deep in quicksand.

That night, I watched a baseball game on TV, the announcers giving the play-by-play in present tense, the way they always do. It dawned on me that Roller Derby is a sport, so what if I went back and changed the book from past tense to present? Bingo. I finished the rough draft in six weeks.

I did lots of research for what I thought would be the third Woody Guthrie novel, too. The more I played with it, the more it felt like it would work better with Zach Barnes in Connecticut. From there, it evolved into a police procedural with Trash and Byrne again. Once I have an outline, I usually produce eight or ten pages a day, but this beast needed three weeks to reach page fifty. I put it aside for a month, and when I looked at it again, I saw that two crucial premises actually contradicted each other. Oops. I recycled about half the characters into The Kids Are All Right, a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel.

When you revise, you become more committed to what you already have on paper. You tweak, but you don't rebuild. Looking at it from a different angle helps you see other possibilities. What if the other person is the main protagonist? What if you try it as a comedy instead? Should you expand that short story? Could it become a play, or maybe even a screenplay?

Going back to music for a minute, I remember Leonard Bernstein discussing the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and saying that the original opening, the da-da-da-DUM, included a flute in the score. Beethoven, one of music's great revisers, realized that a flute didn't belong in that "strong masculine utterance" (Bernstein's words, not mine) and removed it.

Learn from the masters. And maybe pick a different instrument.

28 August 2017

Now It Gets Personal

by Steve Liskow

Two weeks ago, I discussed Connecticut crimes that span our country's history. Several were grim "firsts," and they prove that you don't have to set a crime story in the Big Apple or LA.

But when people ask--as they invariably do--"Where do you get your ideas?" I have answers that hit closer to home. Postcards of the Hanging grew from a crime in the town where I attended high school half a century ago, but today I want to talk about other crimes that shocked Connecticut. I know or knew people who were involved in all of these, and even though I changed every possible detail, two of them have inspired novels...so far.

It's probably an urban legend, but New Britain, CT claims to have more package stores (liquor stores to you tourists) per capita than any other city in the United States. On October 19, 1974, Ed Blake felt ill and closed his Brookside Package Store early for the first time anyone could remember. It probably saved his life.

Two career thugs decided that holding up a New Britski packy would mean good money on a Saturday night. When they found their target closed, they went next door to the Donna Lee Bakery, where a customer called one of them by name. The men could have turned around and walked away, but instead they forced all six workers and patrons into the back room and shot them. They raided the cash register and fled, gaining less than twenty-five dollars for their efforts.

Passersby noticed their car and license plate, and police tracked them down within hours. They served long terms in Somers, Connecticut's maximum security penitentiary (one died of cancer a few years ago), but it didn't bring back the victims. One was the cousin of my assistant principal. Two others had a son in my junior English class. Ed Blake's son was a former student, too.

I've never used that story. You don't always gain insight by trying to analyze a horrific event. Evil is simply banal and stupid, and sometimes it comes down to unfortunate people being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Several years later, Pulaski High School became a middle school and I transferred to New Britain High School, alma mater of two Connecticut governors, Thomas Meskill and Abraham Ribicoff.

By the early nineties, NBHS, designed for 1600 students in 1973, had an enrollment of 2800. It also had turf wars between the Latin Kings, Los Solidos, and 20 Luv, all of whom wanted to control drug sales in the area. The President of the Latin Kings, Miguel deJesus, was no scholar but he caused no trouble in my fifth period comp & lit class, aside from doing no work. Other teachers had less luck with him, and his guidance counselor told me they were less sociopathic than I was.

On November 4, 1993, a car dropped Miguel off at the Mill Street entrance, directly below my classroom's window (circled in red).



He came early to be readmitted after a ten-day suspension for fighting. As he approached the double doors, a stolen car pulled into the driveway and a man wearing a hoodie put a handgun against the back of Miguel's head and shot him six times (the black circle on the picture). Dozens of witnesses saw the car, which was later found abandoned, but it took nearly two years of detective work before the shooter and driver were caught. Two members of rival gangs died in the next week, and police barely managed to contain an all-out gang war. Miguel was the first of three gang members I lost over the next three years.

Run Straight Down changed every detail, but it grew from that shooting. I focus on the teachers who had to go back into the building the next day and make it safe for the kids...when we all knew damn well that everything was broken.

After retiring from teaching, I read newspapers to the blind for several years, but in summer of 2007, a federal trial took place in Hartford without a word about it appearing in print. The jury eventually convicted Dennis Paris, alias "Rahmyti," of assault, drug trafficking, extortion...and over 2500 counts of trafficking under-aged girls along the Berlin Turnpike.
Raymond Bechard's book about the case includes transcripts in which the women are asked over and over if Paris knew they were between 14 and 17 while he forced them into as may as ten liaisons a day. They said "yes" over 300 times. The case convinced the federal government to rewrite the existing law so that if the person was underage, it didn't matter whether the trafficker knew that or not.

The Berlin Turnpike had been notorious for decades (I live less than a quarter-mile from the highway), and I revising Cherry Bomb when I bumped into Bechard at a signing and discovered that his girlfriend was a cousin of one of my former teaching colleagues (and another sister who had been a student). Through him, I got to do a phone interview with one of the "witnesses" to clarify details of prostitution from the woman's perspective.

Dennis Paris's defense counsel was Jeremiah Donovan. His trial was in session when two men invaded the Cheshire home of Dr. William Petit, a case I mentioned two weeks ago. Donovan later defended one of those men, too.

In March of 1998, disgruntled worker Matthew Beck, on leave for emotional problems, returned to the CT Lottery headquarters in Newington, armed with two handguns and a knife. He killed four workers. Lottery President Otho Brown lured Beck away from the building to give other workers a chance to take cover and call for help before Beck trapped him in a fenced-in parking lot. Survivors called Brown the hero who saved their lives.

Others weren't so lucky. Beck shot Linda Blogoslawski Mlynarczyk, formerly the first female mayor of New Britain, in her office. New Britain had a 21% Polish population, third in the nation at that time, and Linda literally walked through neighborhoods knocking on doors to talk with residents. She met her soon-to-be husband Peter when he helped her run her campaign. Over 1000 mourners attended the woman's funeral during a cold heavy rainstorm, the same day Mlynarczyk's farewell to his wife appeared on the front page of the Hartford Courant. It hurt like hell when I realized he now wrote even more eloquently than he had years before...as another student in my class.

Playwright Marsha Norman advises writers to write about the things in your life that still hurt, that still feel unfair and make you angry.

I've got mine.

14 August 2017

The Land of Shady Habits

by Steve Liskow

I set my first mystery in Saginaw, Michigan, about 80 miles north of Detroit. While I shopped that around, I also worked on a series set in Hartford, CT, where I now live, and many people asked why my stories didn't take place in New York, Chicago, LA, or Boston. I told them there were already enough private eyes there to keep things under control. Twenty years ago, Robert Parker, Linda Barnes and Dennis Lehane all worked Boston. It's a wonder there was even a parking violation.

Rosemary Harris uses a fictionalized Southwest Connecticut and a couple of other writers have set an occasional mystery in the state (Thomas Tryon, a Hartford native, created a version of Old Wethersfield in The Other), but I don't know why we don't see more of them. The state has an energetic multi-cultural background--Irish, Italian, Polish, African, Hispanic--not even counting the original occupants. Manufacturing and the insurance industry flourished here, and the history offers truckloads of material.

So does crime. The two towns that still argue over which is the oldest one in Connecticut both have seen major foul play.

Wethersfield, on Hartford's southern border, still has a section called "Old Wethersfield," with colonial architecture, tall trees, and a cove that leads to the Connecticut River. Thomas Beadle, a merchant who contributed to the revolutionary war effort, lived along the cove with his wife and four children. When the Continental Congress devalued Connecticut scrip to 1/40 the face value to help finace the war, Beadle faced bankruptcy and disgrace. In December 1782, after months of planning and delay, he struck his wife in the head twice with an ax and cut her throat in their bedroom. He did the same to the children in their rooms, then wrote a suicide note, sat in his favorite chair with a pistol in each hand, and shot himself through the head. His act was the first mass murder in the American colonies.

Over a century later, Amy Archer-Gilligan
ran a nursing home in Windsor, which borders the northeast corner of Hartford, only about ten miles from Wethersfield. Although she was only tried and convicted for one death, she poisoned at lest five men.

In fact, between 1907 and 1917, sixty residents of her home died, mostly from stomach ailments.


Eventually, the court declared her insane and she spent years in an asylum, dying in 1962 at the age of 93. Her story inspired the popular play Arsenic and Old Lace. If it had become a TV movie, maybe they would have called it Gilligan's Trial.

The Nutmeg State boasts (?) other ground-breaking crimes, too (pun intended). In 1957, authorities captured George Metesky, AKA "The Mad Bomber," after he had planted over thirty bombs in the preceding decade. After years in prison, he died in Waterbury at the age of 90 (Crime in Connecticut appears to be connected to longevity). His arrest came about after one of the first uses of a psychological profiler, whose description proved remarkably accurate.

Wethersfield used to be the site of Connecticut's electric chair, where Joseph "Mad Dog" Taborsky was executed in 1960 after killing at least seven people in a series of liquor store robberies. His reign of terror caused package stores to close earlier in the evening than had been customary.



In September 1983, several Puerto Rican nationalists held up a West Hartford branch of Wells Fargo and escaped with over seven million dollars, the largest recorded haul in history at that time. By the time authorities tracked down the thieves, they'd spent most of the money on political activism.

A much darker first occurred in 1989. In Newtown, philandering airline pilot Richard Crafts went to prison for killing his wife Helle, the first time a Connecticut jury convicted a defendant for murder without the corpse being found. Prosecutors built a grisly chain of evidence about how Crafts destroyed the body, and the case is still notorious as the "Wood Chipper Murder." It may have inspired the scene in the Coen brothers film Fargo.

In 2005, Michael Ross became the first execution in Connecticut since Mad Dog Taborsky after a jury convicted him of raping and strangling at least eight women in Connecticut and New York. Ross, who looked slightly more dangerous than cotton candy, picked up most of his victims hitchhiking.







In central Connecticut, the Cheshire Home Invasion of July 2007 is still an open wound. Two career screw-up druggies battered Dr. William Petit in his home, forced his wife to withdraw money from a local bank as a ransom (The banks' surveillance video was evidence at the trial), then raped and killed Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, aged 11 and 17. The injured Petit managed to escape and alert police, who captured the fugitives within blocks of the house, driving Petit's car. Their trial and ultimate convictions aroused a movement to bring back the death penalty, which Connecticut had rescinded after Ross's execution. The movement failed.

In August 2008, Omar Thronton, fired for stealing beer from the Hartford Distributors in Manchester, entered the building with two 9 mm semi-automatics and killed eight co-workers before turning his guns on himself.

It's disturbing to notice how these tragedies seem to come more and more quickly. The most horrific of many school shooting rampages took place in Newtown, the home of the Crafts couple I mentioned above. On December 14, 2012, mentally disturbed Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 six-year-old students, five teachers and the school's principal. He shot himself when police answered the frantic 911 call, and his mother--who bought him the guns, including an assault rifle--was found shot to death in her home. Local Senator Chris Murphe is one of Congress's strongest voices for gun control, and President Barack Obama's private visits to each of the victims' families are now local legend.

I'm closing this installment with the story that made the cover of Sports Illustrated. Even if you don't follow football, you might have heard of New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, a star athlete at Bristol Central high school (where one of my theater buddies used to teach English). Hernandez was convicted of murder in 2015. while in prison, he was tried for two more murders, but was acquitted. Five days after his acquittal, guards found him dead in his cell, apparently after hanging himself.

Yes, it's a grim list. But it gets even worse. Next time, I'll discuss a few more cases, all of which involved people I know. I even used a couple of them for stories...

03 June 2017

Zoning Out


by John M. Floyd



All of us have heard of it, and all of us have experienced it, from time to time (but never enough, it seems). It's special and wonderful and elusive--and no, it's not fame or fortune. What am I talking about?

It's something I've often heard called the Hot Zone, or just the Zone. It's a feeling, or a state of mind, that we as writers are sometimes able to achieve, and when we're reached it our ideas seem to blossom and the words seem to flow and the whole world just seems right. When we're in the Zone we're invincible, unstoppable; we can do no wrong. Author Carolyn Wheat once said, "Getting to that state, and staying there for as long as possible, is the key to writing success."


I used to play a lot of golf, and even though I'm weary of sports analogies, I can still recall the warm and weird "feeling" that came with the confidence of sometimes knowing, during a swing, that the ball was going to go exactly where I wanted it to go. (That feeling was rare, and many of the balls I hit have never been found--but when the sensation was there, it was exhilarating.) The same thing happens occasionally during other activities, including some of my writing sessions.

But I was serious when I said it's elusive. Ariel Gore observed, in her book How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead, "Where do I go to write a story? I don't. I just sit here, waiting and waiting and waiting till the story begins to come to me. Then I sit very, very, very still and try not to scare it off. If I grab at it, it might run under the sofa and hide."

John Simmons, in a piece he wrote for Writers & Artists, said, ". . . When I'm in that zone, I'm not always aware of it. It's a wonderful feeing when you realise afterwards that you've been there. I think it's part of the addiction of being a writer."

More quotes:

"An athlete has her training schedule, the date of the event stamped in her mind, the excitement of the crowded stadium to trigger her best. An actor has his script, his rehearsals and, when it matters, the glare of the lighted stage. The writer has nothing. Hence all the mad little rituals we hear about, having to use a 4H pencil, a Moleskine notebook, having to be in a particular spot, in a certain room, at exactly this time of day, drinking this kind of tea, smoking this brand of cigarette. All desperate attempts to propitiate inspiration, to have ordinariness and originality somehow intersect." -- Tim Parks, "The Writer's Zone."

"The runner's zone is a situation that occurs when you have run for a long time, and your body finds a 'place' where it hits its peak performance. Your body synchronizes your breaths and moves more efficiently. When a writer gets in the zone, inspiration, imagination, posture, keyboard command, focus and concentration, and even the perfect amount of emotion all settle in, making us type much faster, make fewer mistakes, automatically correct the mistakes we do make, and essentially enter a supercharged writing mode." -- Scott Kuttner, "How to Find the Writing Zone and Stay There"

It even got mentioned in the current crime novel I'm reading (Home, by Harlan Coben). The book's protagonist, former NBA star Myron Bolitar, is watching his nephew play basketball in Myron's old high-school gym, and Coben says, "You could see it right away. The greatness. Myron studied his nephew's face and saw that look of what they called 'being in the zone,' focused yet relaxed, on edge yet laid back, whatever terminology you wanted to use, but really it could all be summed up in one word. Home. When Mickey was on the court, like his uncle before him, he was home."

The big question, then, is how do we writers ensure that we reach this mystical place, often and regularly? Well, everybody has different ideas about that. Peter Shallard, in his article "Psychological Tips for Getting in the Writing Zone," said, "Hardly anyone knows how to get in the zone to produce top quality written material. This is about having the state of creativity (or productivity, or whatever is relevant) on tap . . . ready to go, whenever you need it."

Z marks the spot

So how DO we find our way into the Zone? As always, most treasure maps are false, or at least misleading. I've found that some of the "hints" we're given in how-to-write books are maddeningly vague: clear your head, breathe deeply, meditate, find your rhythm, leave your troubles behind, etc. That kind of advice is no help to me--or, I suspect, to anyone else. Of course we need to clear our heads of everything except writing, in order to do our best work. But how?

The following is one of those "do as I say" lists, rather than "do as I do," since I don't seem to be able to make myself obey these rules. But a lot of my writing friends swear that these are the things they do to increase their chances to reach (and frolic in) the flowery meadows and bubbling fountains of the Writing Zone.

1. Write in the same place every day.

This could be the desk in your home office, a recliner in your den, a chair on your sun deck, a swing in your back yard, or anyplace that just feels "right" and comfortable. But let's face it, most writers have schedules that make this hard to do, at least for any length of time. For some, it might be a seat on the commuter train to the office and back. Whatever works.

2. Write at the same time every day.

This is another rule that, for many of us, might or might not be possible. If your daily routine allows it, I can see that it could help. And I've heard that the time should be early in the day rather than late, because our minds are fresher before facing all our daily non-writing problems. Again, if you can do this, fine. Since I'm a night-owl anyhow, most of my fiction is produced in the wee hours (the midnight zone?)--but I don't assign myself a time slot. I can, and do, write pretty much anytime, and anyplace.

3. Surround yourself with encouraging/inspiring sounds.

Many writers say they require a certain kind of music during their writing sessions; others prefer a busy public place with people-noises, like a coffeeshop or the food court in the mall--or a city park with the soothing sounds of birds and traffic and laughing children. I even know writers who use white-noise machines or tapes of rain on the roof or of seagulls and the surf. What I prefer, like Simon and Garfunkel, is the sound of silence. I'm not a solitary person, usually: I like to have things going on around me. But when I write, I want it quiet.


Game analysis and zone defense

If I had to assign percentages, I'd guess that at least half my writer buddies make a sincere attempt to follow the three rules I mentioned. And I say More power to 'em--if that helps, do it. If I did it, I might create better stories, or at least create them faster. But we all have our own methods, and I've been fortunate enough to somehow reach that strange and hypnotic plateau pretty regularly without knowing for sure how I got there.

What do you do, to maximize your writing efficiency/productivity? Is this "zone" state of mind something that happens to you often, or seldom? Do you write in the same location every day? Same time(s)? Do you listen to classical music while you work? Jazz? Rock? Country? The sounds of nature? The Mystic Moods Orchestra?

To each his own.



And by the way, sincere congratulations to my old friend and fellow SleuthSayer O'Neil De Noux, for being nominated earlier this week for a Shamus. Well done!!







27 March 2017

Writing Like a Girl with Gayle Lynds

My inspiration for this column today is a post by Gayle Lynds which she posted to Rogue Women Writers yesterday and gave me permission go use here.

Today I was thinking about how mystery writing has changed and one big change that is one I welcome as more and more women are writing big thrillers and they are outstanding books. One such writer is my guest poster, Gayle Lynds. We don't often hear, "You write like a girl anymore." Or as my friend, and a previous fellow SleuthSayer, Susan Rogers Cooper, who got a letter almost daring her to prove she wasn't a man. He didn't think a woman was capable of writing a male protagonist like Milt Kovacks. Yet Susan still writes Milt novels and he is very definitely a strong male character.

Here Gayle Lynds talks about her inspiration.
— Jan Grape

Gayle Lynds
How The Jackal Became My Writerly Inspiration
by Gayle Lynds

In the mid 1980s I was writing and publishing not only literary short stories but books in a genre the industry considered among the lowest of the low — male pulp fiction.

Some called my ability to do both artistic range. But it puzzled and slightly offended others, and after a while I began to wonder myself — was there something wrong with me? Maybe I was literarily schizophrenic. Okay, let's ask the real questions: Who was I? What in heck did I think I was doing?

And then I got lucky and was able to dig deep. I found my muse, my inspiration, maybe it was really my siren's song — I stumbled on The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.

What follows is a tale of hubris and, perhaps, redemption.

Published first in the United Kingdom in 1971, the novel dramatizes the desperate hunt for an international assassin hired by a secret paramilitary organization to kill French president Charles de Gaulle in 1963. The assassin is so clandestine even his employers know him just by a code name – the Jackal.

From the French police inspector under unrelenting pressure to stop the Jackal, to the young war widow who seduces an elderly government bureaucrat to extract from him the inspector's plans, the author guides us unerringly into the hearts and fears of the story's characters – on both sides of the political drama.

In the end we resonate with all of Forsyth's characters not necessarily because we approve but because he reveals each's humanity, and once we understand we can't help but care at least a little – a feat of high artistic skill.

I'd avoided reading The Day of the Jackal when it was first published because, although many attempts were made on De Gaulle's life, he died quietly, a private citizen in his own home, in 1970 — seven years after the novel's purported events.

The daring of Forsyth's concept and marvelous conceit that an author could create not only believable but compelling fictional suspense about an assassination that never happened had been lost on me. Instead, it buttressed my naive arrogance – if the book was a hot bestseller, it couldn't be good.

Fast forward to the mid 1980s: I'd begun writing pulp adventure novels and experimenting in them with literary techniques from my short stories. At the same time, I had two young children to support, and words-on-paper isn't a food group. (The literary journals paid in copies, while the pulp fiction paid in checks just large enough I could buy extra copies of the journals.)

That was when a paperback copy of The Day of the Jackal stared at me from the shelf of a thrift store. It had been read so many times the spine was cracked and the pages tattered. Obviously it had riveted readers. I wondered why. I bought it.

As I read, I felt as if I had finally come home. Forsyth's prose was rich and smooth, often lyrical. The characters were memorable. The insider details of the workings of the French government were not only accurate but, under his hand, fascinating. The Jackal's violence was remorseless, as it should have been.

My love of history, culture, geopolitics, and fine writing had finally come together in the pages of this exemplary novel. I was more than grateful; I was inspired. My future in international espionage was sealed. Thank you, Mr. Forsyth.

Thanks so much to Gayle for allowing me to use her blog posting on Rogue Women Writers.

List of some of Gayle Lynds Books:
  • Masquerade
  • The Coil
  • Mosaic
  • Mesmerized
  • The Last Spymaster
  • No Rest For The Dead
  • The Book of Spies
  • The Assassins
  • Covert One books with Robert Ludlum.
    • The Hades Factor
    • The Paris Option
    • The Altman Code

07 November 2016

Fact or Fiction?

Sleuthsayers is delighted to welcome our newest member, Steve Liskow, an award-winning writer who has been a finalist for both the Shamus and the Edgar and has taken home the Black Orchid Prize. His short stories have appeared in Vengeance, the MWA anthology edited by Lee Child, and in Level Best Books’ anthologies.

A retired high school English teacher, Steve experienced what he terms a “horrible experience” with a traditional house. “I bailed as soon as I could without a financial penalty,” Steve says.

In addition to his writing, Steve is a keen guitar player with a special passion for early blues. A number of his mystery titles reflect his musical enthusiasms, including his newest, featuring Detroit PI Chris “Woody” Guthrie, Dark Gonna Catch Me Here and the earlier novels, The Kids Are All Right and Cherry Bomb.

In addition to writing, Steve does editing and conducts fiction workshops. Check out his fine web site, www.SteveLiskow.com and his October 1st appearance on the Jungle Red Writers blog site, where he writes about music and his writing.

Welcome aboard, Steve!


— Janice Law

by Steve Liskow

First of all, let me thank Rob, Leigh, Janice and everyone else for making me feel so welcome here. I hope I don't embarrass them too much.

When I'm conducting a writing workshop or a signing, people often ask me where I get my ideas. I often start with an idea generated by a real event, but I seldom stay with that. Laura Lippman cites real incidents as the seed for several of her novels, including What the Dead Know and After I'm Gone. She stresses that once the original idea occurs, practically everything else changes.

Alafair Burke's The Ex uses a back-story that reminds me of Adam Lanza, who invaded a Connecticut elementary school in 2012 and killed twenty-six teachers and first-graders. Many other writers have used similar starting points, and there's a cottage industry in stories involving fictionalized visions of Jack the Ripper. My own novel Run Straight Down was inspired by teaching in an inner-city high school when one of my students was killed by a rival gang. Nothing in that novel resembles the real story. I even changed the name of the town.

Why?

I don't like to remember that the boy was shot directly below my classroom window. Many other people who were involved are still alive, and examining the case would be a horrible intrusion into their lives, too. In fact, when I was still considering writing the novel, I met attorney-turned-novelist William Landay at a conference, and as soon as he knew that people involved in the case still lived in the area, he said, "Fictionalize it." End of discussion.

Most horrific crimes don't shed much light on the human condition anyway. By and large, the perpetrators are bad people who have been in trouble because of their won stupidity or addiction or some other pathology for most of their lives. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, had been identified as unstable for years and his parents had not heeded warnings. The killer in the Cheshire (CT) home invasion in 2007 were career criminals who had spent major portions of their lives in jail, rehab, or both. Six people died in the Donna Lee Bakery massacre (New Britain, CT, 1974) because the killers planned to rob a liquor store, but the owner felt ill and closed early. The bakery was next door. Again, through my teaching job, I had a two-degree connection to three of those six victims...and the owner of the liquor store was the father of one of my students.

The only case I know that became a major literary event involves Amy Archer-Gilligan, who ran a nursing home about twenty miles from where I live now. She poisoned several residents and was eventually acquitted of murder by reason of insanity. Her story became the basis of the famous play Arsenic and Old Lace, which keeps nothing of the original story except the arsenic.

The only other "true" stories I think about at all are Capote's In Cold Blood, which is as much fiction as fact but invented an entire genre all by itself, and Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. Larson's research is staggering, but his story-telling skills are even better.

Basically, the problem with writing "true crime" is similar to writing a biography. No matter how much research you do, you're still guessing. WHY did this person do this NOW? Why THIS victim? Why did Mozart produce such beautiful music while we consider Salieri a musical joke and someone else with a similar background can't even whistle? Why could Shakespeare write nearly forty plays, the worst of which is still worth reading, while better-educated people with more leisure time can't fill a page? We don't know.

Facts are messy and may not prove anything, but when we move them around and sand down rough edges, we can create the characters and events that develop a logical or emotional point. That's why mysteries or crime fiction or detective stories or whatever you want to call them will always be popular. We want an answer that works. Whether it's Sherlock Holmes or Harry Bosch solving the crime, we want to believe things happen for a reason and the world makes sense.

It's fun to take a real case and fictionalize it to she what "might" have been. The Bobby Fuller killing (Remember "I Fought the Law and the Law Won" in 1966?) is still open 49 years later, but it inspired the film Eddie and the Cruisers. My own novel Blood On the Tracks used a cold case about a dead rock singer, too. I didn't even realize I was channeling the case until one of my guitar-playing friends asked me about it.

So, if you want to talk to me about a "true story," just give me a sentence or two and get out of the way. No, I won't split the profits (Profits, ha-ha-ha) because you may not even recognize your story when I finish with it.

Shakespeare's histories are anything but history, and while Macbeth really existed, little of the story is accurate. King James claimed he was descended from Banquo in the play, but my research never turned up anyone by that name. Shakespeare wrote the play to flatter his king. He was one of the first people to show us that facts can get in the way of a good story.

It's a lesson most writers take to heart.

01 July 2015

Struck by Poe

                                      by Robert Lopresti

No doubt you have heard the phrase struck by an idea.

But have you ever experienced it?

I have.  Twice.  What I mean by this is the act of experiencing a new thought with such force that it feels like a physical  blow.  It is quite a sensation.

The most recent time was a couple of years ago.  It was a Saturday night and I was listening to an NPR quiz show called Says You.  The subject of the program is usually words but on this evening the quiz was apparently about detectives and their arch-enemies (I say apparently because I missed the beginning).  And after Sherlock Holmes (Professor Moriarty!) and Nero Wolfe (Arnold Zeck!) they came to C. Auguste Dupin. 

That flabbergasted me.  Edgar Allan Poe's detective appeared only in three short stories.  Who was his arch-enemy?  Could they possibly mean the orang-outang, the killer in the first-ever detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue?"


They did (although the panelist guessed gorilla).

I thought this was bizarre.  The orang-outang - who never physically appears in the story, by the way - is just a dumb animal, and to treat it as if it were an evil genius--

Boom.  I stumbled, almost falling down.  I had just been struck by an idea.

Could I rewrite the story from the ape's viewpoint?

Let's pause for a moment.  One of my favorite mystery writers is James Powell.  Jim is a Canadian man with enough imagination for a whole team of fantasy writers.  Who else could have come up with stories that feature:

* An armchair detective who happens to be an armchair.

* A city made up of clowns, one of whom is poisoned by being hit in the face with a poisoned pie.

* Ebenezer Scrooge trying to solve Jacob Marley's murder, because "when a man's partner gets killed he's supposed to do something about it."

I have always wished I could come up with a plot as brilliantly twisted as one of Powell's,but never thought I came close.  Was this my chance?

Days later I was still pondering methods to make my version of Poe's story work.  I came up with three approaches:

1.  Naturalistic.  The scent of blood caused the great ape to panic.  It backed toward the window, shrieking...  No.  That would just be retelling Poe's original story.  Not what I wanted.

2.  Comic.  This is the approach I imagined Jim Powell would take: As I was gliding from oil palm to mangrove tree one sunny afternoon my arboreal journey was interrupted by an unexpected sight.  A traveler was wandering through the tangled depths below.  Not one of the local humans who seem to plod around  on the ground without much difficulty, although, if I  may so, they are pathetic at climbing up to the branchy frontier.  I offered a friendly hoot, and  slid down a vine with the alacrity of one born to the Borneo bush, as indeed I was, and addressed the fellow...

Okay, Powell would do that much better than me.  So, that left Door Number...

3.  Steampunk.  If you aren't familiar with the term, here is a definition from Wikipedia: a subgenre of science fiction and sometimes fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery.  Think of the movie Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The  Sea, or the TV show The Wild Wild West.  Lots of leather, polished steel, steam-powered machinery, and mad scientists.

I assume Poe's story is set in the 1830s,  a bit early for steampunk, but I was okay with that.  My idea was that the inevitable mad scientist had experimented on Poe's orang-outang, leaving him able to think and, if not speak, use sign language.  The big challenge would be that nothing in my story could contradict Poe's - although , of course, it might turn out that one of his characters was lying.

I wrote the story, which turned out to be a sort of existentialist parable. (It begins: What am I?)  While I was seeking a happy home for my unhappy ape I read that an anthology of stories inspired by Poe had come up a few thousand words short and was looking for a few more tales.  Sure enough, "Street of the Dead House" was accepted.

This month sees the publication of  nEvermore! Tales of Murder, Mystery and the Macabre and I am very proud of the company I get to keep.  Among my many stablemates are Margaret Atwood, Richard Christian Matheson, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.  Special treat: the book also contains the  last story by horror and fantasy master Tanith Lee, who died this spring. 

Distinguished company; I hope my beastie behaves himself.




09 August 2012

Daydream Believers

by Deborah Elliott-Upton






Yes, I am a daydream believer. (And I dare anyone born in the latter part of the last century not to mentally humming right about now. (Missing your smile and sweet voice, Davy Jones!) But, it's about more than a song's lyrics and melody. Daydreams lead to interesting ideas.

Daydreamers may incite teachers to insist their students stop and pay attention to their instruction, but for most of us, daydreaming transports us to other places and times and relieves many  boring moments in our lives.
For a writer, daydreams inspire many stories yet to written.

While night dreams may also lead to plot ideas or characters, for me those sometimes head into darker places. I have written those stories, too, but I appreciate where daydreams take flight. The initial trip to Daydream Land may be innocent enough, but often leads me to an intricate plotline that turns sinister.

Daydreaming has led me to ask What if? Why? and How?

They've led me to wonderful dark thoughts that transpired into Noir storylines. Admittedly, I have an affinity for hardboiled detectives, so those day trips to my imagination brought fun to write short stories where I get to plack (my mother's made-up word when she was a kid that was an abbreviation for "play like") as a hardened private eye chasing down a bad guy that was really bad.

Some of my personal recent daydreams include:

  • What if I'd been in a bank where a robbery was about to take place?
  • What if I were in that movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado?
  • What if I were on a campus that had a sudden lockdown?
  • What if I were stuck in an elevator? Which person would I want to be in there with and how long would be to long?
  • If I had just one author to read the rest of my life, which would I choose?
  • What is worth most: good looks, money or brains? (Thinking Marilyn Monroe, Bill Gates or Einstein)
  • If I had to live in cartoon land, what characters would I most enjoy sharing my time?
  • If I had my choice of mentors, which would be best suited for me?
  • If I could meet with a fictional character for coffee, who would be most interesting?
  • What super power would I most like to posess?

Do you live part time in fantasy land, too? Maybe we'll meet up in a daydream or two! What fun that would be!


05 November 2011

“Because I have something to say”

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Last time I was up at bat on SleuthSayers, I confessed that I couldn’t write a cozy, although I know authors who do it very well and whose careers are flourishing as a result. Now I’ll add that I doubt I could write a save-the-world thriller, a locked room mystery, or a a forensics procedural. They’re simply not my bag.

I would add serial killers to the list, except that the protagonist of one of my published short stories is a paranormal serial killer. Another story features a revenge killer. Short stories are a grand medium for trying on voices and subgenres beyond the writer’s comfort zone. In fact, I was perfectly comfortable with these two murderous protagonists, probably because both were female. I have no empathy for men who kill. My characters sprang to life out of that mysterious inner place that we sometimes call inspiration, allowing me to explore my own dark side.

When I was a kid, my favorite book was Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery, the author of the classic Anne of Green Gables. Emily was another little orphan girl on Prince Edward Island, and her burning passion was to write. The urge to write is a phenomenon to which many writers attest. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, I found the line that was imprinted on me at the age of seven or eight and reinforced through many rereadings: “There is a destiny which shapes the ends of young misses who are born with the itch for writing tingling in their baby fingertips.” When I googled “urge to write,” what popped up first was a quotation from writer Anne Bernays, who says this urge is “mysterious and subterranean...the creative floodgates having been released in a torrent.”

In my current later-in-life (“old” always being ten years more than me) career as a writer of fiction, I have heard many writers, published and aspiring, express the same sentiment. They declare that the impulse to tell stories cannot be denied and that they’d go on writing even if they knew their work would never be published. This claim has always baffled me. Sure, I feel the call of the muse. Yes, my characters talk in my head. In a poem (“Night Poem,” in Gifts & Secrets: Poems of the Therapeutic Relationship, New Rivers, 1999), I wrote:

...a line tugs at my mind
and I go stumbling through the hall
groping for light and pen
each time I lie back down
the images pop up like frogs
clamoring to be made princes
and you grumble and roll over
as I shuffle into my slippers once again
and go kiss the page

Can't help marching to a different drummer
But if asked, “Why do you write?” I don’t say, “Because I have to.” I say, “Because I have something to say.” For years, I said, “Some day, I’m going to write a mystery titled Death Will Get You Sober.” And when I left my job as director of an alcohol treatment program, I did. Why a mystery? Because I love reading them. Why a character-driven traditional mystery? Because I wanted to make my readers laugh and cry. I was proud as punch when SJ Rozan wrote, “Zelvin’s characters are both over the top and completely believable—just like real people.” But what I wanted to say (with humor and without preachiness) was that recovery itself is transformative and that those who embrace is truly turn their lives around.

My historical series about Diego, a young marrano sailor with Columbus, both confirms and denies that I have to write. Diego came to me in the middle of the night, pounding on the inside of my head and saying, “Let me out! Let me out!” He wouldn’t leave me alone till I went and kissed the page to the extent of making some notes. In the morning, I groaned and said, “I don’t want to write this story. I hate research.” But Diego wouldn’t let me alone until I’d found excerpts from Columbus’s logbook online and learned enough to tell the story (“The Green Cross,” published in EQMM). Diego kept revealing more of his story, so I kept writing about him.

So why this particular event in history? Why this outsider point of view? (The marranos were the secret Jews who converted to avoid the Inquisition and the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492.) The process that produced Diego inside my head was completely unconscious (if not paranormal—both he and his sister Rachel feel completely real to me). I’m Jewish, but if anyone had suggested I write about Jewish themes, I would have said, “That doesn’t interest me.” But evidently I had something to say about being an outsider and, in particular, about being Jewish in a Christian society. And woven into the fabric of Judaism is a concern for social justice, which brought me to the genocide of the Taino, about whom I knew nothing when Diego first came to me.