Showing posts with label star trek. Show all posts
Showing posts with label star trek. Show all posts

31 May 2016

Aliens, Hot Dogs, and the Case of the Missing Rat Island


by Melissa Yi

Once upon a time, experimenters took a bunch of rats and divided them into two groups. Both groups were dropped into a tankful of opaque water, but one group had an island, not visible under the surface, so those rats could eventually rest with their heads above water. The other group would…swim until they sank.

Luckily, the experimenters pulled all the rats out of the water before they could drown.

The next day, they set both both groups of rats in the island-less tank.

The rats who’d had islands swam twice as long as the rats who’d never had an island.

Bestselling author Jennifer Crusie pointed out that if you’re a writer with an island—basically, a writer with faith, a writer with resilience, a writer with grit, a writer who’ll keep swimming, writing, perfecting the craft, submitting, and persevering twice as long—that is the ticket to success.

For years, I’ve wrestled with this concept. It totally makes sense. But how can you force yourself to become a rat with an island? You can’t just hit yourself on the head and say, “Zowee, now I know everything will work out, if not this century, then the next!”

I got a clue last week, when I flew from Montreal to Los Angeles for Sci-Fest LA. I was a finalist for the Roswell Award for the best short science fiction, for the second year in a row. I was pretty sure a comical story like “Humans ’n’ Hot Dogs” wouldn’t win, so I considered staying home.

Then I thought, Nope. I’m going. I’m going to have fun and celebrate, whether or not I win $1000.

Award-winning Hollywood actor Rico E. Anderson read my story. Yes, that Rico E. Anderson. Boras in Star Trek: Renegades. The man in Criminal Minds, Modern Family, Young & Hungry, and Bones, and The Fosters in June. He got his first big break in the 2005 Academy Award Winning short film, Mighty Times: The Children's March.

Do you prefer theatre? Rico’s got you covered. His stage credits include Oedipus and Malcolm X.

Or, if you’re like my dental hygienist today, you’ll recognize him best from a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
So no wonder I was surprised and delighted by Rico’s interpretation of “Humans ’n’ Hot Dogs.” He seized the audience’s attention from the first syllable. He adopted voices for different characters, including aliens, a homeless man, and a pack of skateboarders. He winked. He worked the spotlight. He was funny, dynamic, and likeable.

The audience laughed and cheered.

And yet I didn’t win the Roswell Award.

<Pause to grieve.>

So many people adored my story, though. “It was so funny!" “The judges were absolutely gleeful after reading your story.” “I try to keep an eye out for stories that are suitable for young adults, and yours was it.” “Promise me you’ll keep on writing.”

And I loved Rico’s interpretation.

I could slink back to Canada, quietly weeping over my defeat.

Melissa Yuan-Innes and Rico E. Anderson
Or I could try something else. Something a rat with an island might do.

We weren’t allowed to record Rico’s performance at the Roswell Awards. But what if he recorded it later, and we released it as an audio book?

This is a financial gamble. A short science fiction story by a relatively unknown author isn’t going to light up the bestseller lists any time soon. This would be a special project. One for people who love wee gems, who support the underdog and love art for art’s sake.

Rico and I are going to crowdfund it. I decided to avoid Kickstarter and just have donations go to PayPal through olobooks [at] gmail [dot] com, to try and make every penny count. Both of us are committed to making the best production possible.

And the rewards. The rewards!

Any donation: heartfelt thanks and a backstage picture of Rico shirtless (to show off the wounds for Grey’s Anatomy, not just to ogle). Goal: unlocked! I’m posting it to my website (http://melissayuaninnes.com/bringing-humans-n-hot-dogs-to-life/in case any SleuthSayers have sensitive eyes.
Wiener ($5): an advance e-book copy of Humans ’n’ Hot Dogs and enormous thanks from Rico and me.
Pepperoni ($10): an advance deluxe e-book copy of Humans ’n’ Hot Dogs, including cartoons, inside tips on how to how to network in Los Angeles, and behind-the-scenes stories from Sci-Fest LA, Caltech, and Buzzfeed
Bangers ($20): deluxe e-book and you’ll be the first to hear the audio book, before it’s uploaded to Audible, iTunes, and other retailers. Humans ’n’ Hot Dogs all the way!
Chorizo($25): now we’re cooking. Deluxe e-book, audio book, and line producer credit in the book.
Andouille ($30): now we’re sizzling. All the previous rewards, co-producer credit in the book, plus a copy of my audio book, The Most Unfeeling Doctor in the World and Other True Tales From the Emergency Room
Bratwurst ($50): smells absolutely delicious in here. Must be your generosity. Includes all of the above, with associate producer credit in the book
Mortadella ($100): every single previous reward, with executive producer credit in the book, an autographed photo of Rico (yes, he’ll even do the shirtless one if you ask nicely), and a copy of the print book, shipped anywhere in the world for free. Yes, a real, live, print book that you can pass on to future generations, along with Rico’s stunning rendition of my oeuvre.

In other words, Rico and I are going for broke.

He’s a full-time actor in Los Angeles. He’s used to taking this kind of risk.

Me? Not so much. I no longer feel like rejections are mental razor blades, but I’m embarrassed when people turn me down. Yet I can see how handling failure wisely is one of the keys to success.

Rico and I may fail.

We may fail spectacularly.

But we’re both going to keep on swimming, and we hope you do, too.



Sleuths: are you a rat with an island? If so, how did you get that way?

01 March 2015

Name Recognition


Leonard Nimoy
by Leigh Lundin

Jan Grape recently wrote an article, Me and Elvis, a charming reflection of the great singer. I can’t quite bring myself to title this one Me and Spock, but yes, I crossed paths with the actor.

As you know, Leonard Nimoy died Friday. I grok hard science fiction and Star Trek was about as close as one could get to real sci-fi on the small screen. Moreover, Spock was the character who made the TOS (the original series) worth watching. Even my Aunt Rae had a crush on him!

Nimoy appeared in various other rôles, but to me, he was always Spock. I admit I never saw his first film, Kid Monk Baroni, which Nimoy described as “the sort of film that made unknowns out of celebrities.” Beyond Star Trek, I thought he was particularly good as a narrator featured in Ripley’s Unexplained, In Search of, and Ancient Mysteries.

Leonard Nimoy
After Star Trek, Nimoy became famously thin-skinned about Spock, even writing a biography titled I am not Spock, referring to his identity crisis and a love-hate relationship with the character. He grew additionally alienated (pardon that pun) when Gene Roddenberry screened Star Trek blooper reels at fan conventions, further distancing himself from the rôle. Twenty years later, Nimoy would relent with a second autobiography called I am Spock, but in the 1970s, he became notorious for refusing to acknowledge the character. That’s the time when he and I crossed paths… a less than stellar performance as you'll see.

In Boston, my girlfriend and I were walking down a long corridor when in the distance I saw the actor strolling toward us. I wanted to alert my girl, but the only name I could think of was Spock… Spock… What the hell was his real name?

Leonard Nimoy as Spock
As we drew closer, my brain worked feverishly to dredge up the man’s name… No, not Spock… not Spock… What was it?

Within feet of the man, the name surfaced. I leaned over and said, “That’s Neonard Limoy.”

Uh-oh.

My words were apparently not quite soft enough because– damn those pointy ears– both Nimoy and my date shot peculiar sidelong glances at me.

Okay, okay, I never claimed to be articulate, but that’s my Neonard Limoy Leonard Nimoy story.

17 February 2014

To Suspend or Not To Suspend?


by Fran Rizer

                    Just because something really happened
                    doesn't make it believable in fiction.
                                               ----Dr. Christopherson

As an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina, I intentionally scheduled my classes with the professors known to be demanding and eccentric.  Dr. Christopherson definitely fit that category. Sharp and witty, he was known for throwing anyone who irritated him out of his classes even if the student simply sneezed one time. He also locked the door of the lecture hall and wouldn't admit anyone after he began. He was mockingly brutal in critiques, but I learned a lot from him.  That line at the beginning, however, is the only thing he taught me that I can now quote word for word, and it leads my thoughts to today's topic--believability.

A Personal Experience:
  
At a writers' circle, I read a brief excerpt from a horror novel aloud to make a point. Immediately, one of the others exclaimed, "I don't think that's believable. What about suspension of disbelief?  I don't think it could be extended that far."

"How many horror or fantasy books have you read in the past three years?" I asked.

The response was, "None.  I read and write literary fiction. I've never read a horror novel."

I replied, "The piece was an excerpt, so we don't know what the author had done previously to assure extreme suspension of disbelief, but I believe that when a reader picks up a horror or fantasy novel, suspension of disbelief is a given."

Masters of  Temporary
Suspension of Disbelief
Stephen King.

Every time I spend nearly thirty dollars for a new Stephen King because I can't wait for the paperback, my disbelief is in a state of suspension before I open the cover.  However, the suspension is temporary.  I didn't continue to believe what happens in Dr. Sleep after I completed the book. 

Years ago in the classroom, the students who read R. L. Stine's Goosebumps books suspended disbelief before beginning stories about parents turning into plants in the basement and supernatural creatures living next door.
R L. Stine 

Stine's endeavors as a novelist, short story writer, executive television producer, screen writer and editor have almost all dealt primarily with topics that require suspension of disbelief: children and adult horror, science fiction, humor, and Gothic fiction.



Origin of the Concept
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The term (AKA willing suspension of disbelief) was coined in 1817  by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poet and philosopher, in Biographia Literaria. He used it primarily in reference to supernatural and Gothic poetry, but it is an important factor in fictional works of action, comedy, fantasy, and horror genres.

Coleridge qualified the suspension by suggesting that the writer should infuse a "human interest and semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale to enable the reader to suspend judgment of the plausibility of the narrative." Personally, I think that in many cases, like my choice of King and the students' love of the Goosebumps books, the reader suspends disbelief before beginning and maintains it until the author does something that breaks the suspension.

Suspension of Disbelief in Mystery Writing and Movies

Even "realistic" fiction receives some suspension. The audience doesn't jump up shouting, "No, it takes weeks or months," when forensics reports are back immediately in CSI shows.  Readers don't cry, "Foul!" when private investigators and good guys shoot guns in public places without killing innocent bystanders or getting in trouble with law enforcement.  In real life, crime scene investigators and forensics technicians are not the people primarily responsible for investigation, arrest, interrogation, and solving crimes alone, no matter what you might read or see in Bones.  Without any involvement of supernatural, the audience suspends disbelief in exchange for entertainment.

Secondary Reality - Acceptance of the impossible, but not the improbable. 

Disbelief is usually only suspended if the character or action stays within the realm of the created fictional universe.  A reader may accept that the Grand Mage can teleport across the world or that a spaceship has technology to make itself completely invisible, yet reject that the villain (whether human or not) conveniently has a heart attack and dies just before it attacks the main character.  Like Annie Wilkes says in King's Misery, writers are expected to play fair. In other words, when dealing with fictional situations, the suspension of disbelief generally works within the reality and rules the author creates, but coincidental events aren't accepted.


Star Trek's Dr. Spock and Captain Kirk

Star Trek includes some outrageous ideas, impossible even by today's advanced technology, but the acceptance was made easy by their staying consistently within the realm of their created universe.
  

Note that some works of fiction intentionally push the suspension of disbelief to the maximum limit. An example of that is the Indiana Jones movies where the audience was expected to react to the improbable antics as amusing. 
Jeff Dunham with Achmed the Dead
Terrorist

Suspension of Disbelief in Other Areas

This topic could go on forever, but we'll close with one of my favorite examples: Jeff Dunham, the American ventriloquist, whose repertoire includes a variety of characters.  I can actually see the sticks that operate some of the dummy's limbs and see Jeff's throat move when the character speaks, but during Dunham's show, my disbelief is temporarily suspended to the point that I accept their personalities and statements.  

What are your thoughts on suspension of disbelief?  Please share them.

Until we meet again, take care of… you!

24 February 2012

Generation: Encrypted













By Dixon Hill

I have to admit it.
I spend quite a bit of time on sites like CraigsList. Because, I’m looking for a contemporary mystery story plot. And not just the “CraigsList Killer Slays Three” type of thing.

I can’t help thinking there are a million stories just nested there, on CL – all those people advertising for dates (or just sex), trying to sell an old Schwinn, or maybe looking to buy a house.

Just take this ad, for instance:


schwinn moutian bike - $45 (n/w)
________________________________________
Date: 2012-02-23, 4:04PM MST
Reply to: see below
________________________________________



cheap ride. call [REDACTED FOR PRIVACY] $45obo


• Location: n/w
• it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests


I see an ad like this, and it makes me wonder. Was this bike stolen? Did the owner buy a new one? Or did the poster’s kid perhaps outgrow it?

After all, I bought a “tagalong” attachment for my own bike, on CraigsList, and used it to get my youngest son back and forth to school before he learned to ride his own bike. (Those unfamiliar with a "Tagalong" bike trailer, can see one attached to a larger bike's seat -- below -- just as ours works.)


When we got to the house in West Phoenix, where the poster of that tagalong CL advertisement lived, I found the tagalong still hooked to his own bike. He told me his daughter had recently learned to ride, and now they were getting rid of the old tagalong — but she’d wanted one last ride on it, that morning, for old time’s sake.

And there stood the little girl, dark ringlets of hair cascading onto her shoulders, blue eyes rid-rimmed from crying. My heart just about melted. Her dad asked me to ride my son around on it, a little, so she could see it was "going to a good home."

The two of us hopped on, and I peddled us up and down the block a few times. And that little girl came out to join us, riding her own shiny new two-wheeler. With a big smile on her face!

So, you see: I responded to an ad for a bike attachment, and got a story about a little girl growing up.

(My youngest son graduated to his own bike a couple of years ago, and I’ve been meaning to post the tagalong on CL ever since, but one thing or another has kept cropping up to stop me. Now that I’ve thought about it, though, I’ll have to try to get it up by Friday. Maybe we can have it sold by Saturday night. Who knows?)


m4f, f4m, m4m, f4f, mf4f, mf4m, mf4mf, f4mf, m4mf, mm4f . . .
Then, there are those ads in the Personals section. And I have a sneaking suspicion every one of them has a story behind it, as well — even if it’s not a story for little ears.

That m4f business is easy enough to break out, into “male looking for female.” But other acronyms and code systems sometimes take a little research. I had no idea, for instance, that cfnm meant “Clothed Female, Nude Male”— a naked man waiting slave-like on fully clothed women. Frankly, I had no idea such a thing excited people — well, maybe some women. But, men?? And, when I told my wife about it, she barely took time to glance over her book at me before murmuring, “No way we’re doing that, Joker!”

Nor did I understand that ABDL stood for “Adult Baby and Diaper Lover.” (These ads are evidently posted by grown men who enjoy dressing like babies, and being treated as if they are babies.) However, a google search of abdl led me to the following quote — surprisingly apropos for SleuthSayers — from a 2005 Phoenix NewTimes article, about a company called Adult Baby Furniture (which bills itself as the “Best maker of fine adult baby furniture”).

When the producers of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation needed props for a curious caper titled "King Baby" that aired back in February, they went to Baby Apparels/Adult Baby Furniture and there (AB/DL) business, And, yes, the folks at CSI had plenty of other options for their episode about the murder of a grown man who had a secret chamber full of oversize baby paraphernalia. But they went the best builder -- out of a few dozen adult baby furniture makers around the country -- to provide them with custom-made furniture: a $1,200 crib, a high-end $600 high chair with lots of extra room in the seat, a $700 playpen, and other accouterments. Michael also sells big baby accessories, and clothing "fun, simple and sophisticated" crib bedding, and rocking horses "built to last."

Now this is not any sort of baby furniture I’ve ever shopped for. But, CL certainly does provide a window of sorts on a world very different from my own. In more ways than one.

And the encryption just keeps getting deeper . . .

I was particularly perplexed by certain Personals posts that contained odd strings of figures and letters – until I spoke to my 22-year-old son, who laughed when he explained how to read it. An example
(not from CL, but from a CNN article a few years ago) is very reminiscent and looks like this:
1 w45 50 j4ck3d up l457 n16h7. 1 5c0r3d 50m3 cr4ck 47 7h3 p4r7y 50 1'd h4v3 17 f0r 70n16h7 4nd 70m0rr0w, 4nd 7h3n J1mmy 700k 0ff w17h 17, 7h3 455h03l! 1 4m 4ll j1773ry 4nd n33d 70 m337 up w17h y0u 70n16h7 4f73r my p4r3n75 7h1nk 1 4m 45l33p. c4n y0u m337 m3 47 b0j4n6l'5 47 m1dn16h7 ju57 f0r 4 f3w m1nu735? 1 ju57 n33d 4 l177l3 4nd 1 c4n p4y y0u b4ck 0n m0nd4y, 1 pr0m153.

At first blush, the message appears to be gibberish. And — to my mind, trained in standard and multi-level substitution system encryption — it just didn’t seem to work out right. But, if you forget standard encryption methods, then simply stare at the message and make believe the numbers are strangely-made (and sometimes reversed or truncated) letters, you’ll see that it actually says:
“I was so jacked up last night. I scored some crack at the party so I'd have it for tonight and tomorrow, and then Jimmy took off with it, the [expletive]! I am all jittery and need to meet up with you tonight after my parents think I am asleep. Can you meet me at Bojangle's at midnight just for a few minutes? I just need a little and I can pay you back on Monday, I promise.”

According to the CNN article, this is a common encryption system employed by teens while texting on cell phones. (I’m glad to say I haven’t run across anything so heart-stopping on my own kids’ phones!)

But, that still leaves me with a mystery concerning most of those figure-letter streams. Because, once I learned to read them, I found them few and far between. And, the samples I saw in CL Personals were not nearly as long as the sample above. In fact . . .

7h3y w3r3 l1k3 7h15 5h0r7!

The few I’ve spotted since then, have evidently been people looking for drugs. Their posts appear to be fake, in the sense that the ad blurb used usually looks as if it’s been copied and pasted from somewhere else online (something similar to: “the largest sea mammal in existence, it dwarfs the size of any land animal now walking the planet.”)

The real message is located down below in the post, and might look like:

w4n7 60 f457

“Go Fast” is assumed by many texters to equal Methcathinone, “crank” or methamphetamine. Presumably, a seller clicks on the CL contact link to set up a buy. I’m sure the folks at CraigsList have tumbled to this as well, and that’s probably why I can’t find many examples these days — because the CL watchdogs try to keep them off the system.

I know there are myriad higher-tech ways of hiding data in electronic messages. I’ve read reports about organizations hiding (nesting) encrypted message data in photograph html on websites, and in other places, for instance. But, that really is not part of why I’m writing this post. At least, I don’t think it is.

So, Why Should Mystery Writers Care?

At a time when I hear or read that many editors decry the lack of interest in mysteries, on the part of the younger generation, I think the information above is important—because it points up how disconnected older writers now are from younger readers. But, it also indicates one possible way to perhaps jump that gap.

I think it may provide older writers with a glimpse into the world-view held by younger readers. For example:

My older son and his friends use the word “Leet!” to mean “Cool!”, “Neat!” or “Awesome.” Leet is short for “Elite!” which is the word they really mean to connote. To them, Elite means: Cool, Neat or Awesome — something that stands alone by being pretty extraordinary. But, they never say “Elite.” It’s just “Leet, dude!” Or maybe a head nod, accompanied by a heart-felt, “Leet!”

They use that word so often, that when I wrote a recent story, in which I had a young man interacting with an older one, I had the young guy use the word. Then I had my son read it over, to be sure I’d used the slang correctly.

His comment? “You spelled it wrong.”

A lengthy conversation ensued, which resulted in my realization that – while my son may say “Leet!” — he envisions the word as l337! He doesn’t really conceive of it in standard English alphabet format.

To him, when he says “Leet!” it’s the verbal form of l337!

Period.

Which leads me to keep searching CL and sites like it, in quest of an avenue that would allow me to incorporate some encryption system used by these younger folks into the plot line of a good yarn. Seems to me, mysteries and encrypted messages are a natural fit. But, there would have to be a way to obscure the truth from the Electronic Generation, until just before they hit the denouement.

I haven’t figure it out yet, but I keep trying. What about you?

In an age when publishers sometimes seem to be running scared, maybe it’s time to focus not only on the platform we present stories to the E-Generation on (electronic or paper), but also to factor in younger reader’s interests and world-perception when we’re figuring out our stories. Maybe that way, we can write plotlines they’ll identify with, and want to read.

What I’m talking about isn’t a panacea, but perhaps it’s a part of the puzzle we need to figure out if we’re to capture younger readers.

--Dixon

07 October 2011

The Smoking Gun -- Sort of . . .


by Dixon Hill


First: A Little Confession . . .

I suppose there's something I ought to get off my chest -- before you find out from somebody else, and feel I betrayed your trust by not disclosing it up-front.

You see: I smoke cigars.

Five to ten a day, actually.

And, if you happen to be one of those very kind souls who thinks: "Well, maybe he only smokes little ones, with that flavored tobacco that doesn't smell so bad," I'm afraid I have to disabuse you of that notion.

The cigars I smoke aren't small at all; they're usually six to eight inches long, by a fifty-four to sixty ring gauge. Sometimes larger. (Maybe this is a good time to ask Rob if congress can confirm that Freud really said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.") Additionally, my cigars are never made from sweet smelling flavored tobacco; they're malodorous and strong. Very strong. Fidel Castro Cigar strong (which means they're rough--and absolutely evil-smelling ... if you don't like cigars, that is.)

I acquired this "classy" habit for the same reason most Special Forces Engineer Sergeants do. You see, an SF Engineer is the "Demo Man," or explosives expert on an A-Team. We're taught to construct field-expedient demolitions and/or incendiary devices out of common household products, so that we can fabricate and employ explosives even when working in a denied environment (a place ruled by the other side during war time) when we haven't received a resupply in a while.

And, like every other SF Engineer who's served time on Smoke Bomb Hill back at Ft. Bragg, I was taught that a cigar can be used as a "punk" to light military time-fuse during high wind conditions. (You can't do this with a pipe or cigarette, because they don't burn hot enough to ignite the powder train inside the fuse.) Consequently, I taught myself to smoke cigars. And, if you ever wind up meeting a dozen men who work on an A-Team for some reason, it's a good bet that the two guys smoking cigars are the Team's Engineers.

Naturally, over time I came to learn a few tricks of the trade concerning how to light time-fuse this way. First: it helps to tap the ash off the end of your cigar before you hold it to the fuse. Otherwise the ash can act as an insulator, and you might wind up melting the plastic casing around the fuse without igniting the powder train within. This means you have to hack off a length of melted fuse, and try all over again. Likewise, it helps if you give the cigar a few strong puffs, to stoke the heat, just before touching it to the fuse. And, finally: Try not to draw (inhale) through the cigar, once you've touched it to a fuse, because some of the plastic usually melts into the end of the cigar -- and dragging those noxious fumes into your oral cavity is a rather unfortunate experience.

I picked up that last tip, as a very new engineer, when lighting a series of four charges my A-Team had emplaced during a training raid. The charges were roughly fifty meters apart, and I had to sprint between them in order to minimize our time on target. By the time I was finished puffing the fuse on the fourth charge to life, my head was spinning. When we pulled off the target, I was doing my impression of "Julie" in the opening credits of that old television show The Mod Squad -- my feet barely touching the ground as two guys ran alongside, carrying me between them.

What does all this have to do with sleuthing, you ask?

Well, since I enjoy cigars, I sometimes have my story characters stop by my favorite cigar store here in Scottsdale. I thought this was an original idea of mine -- until Leigh pointed out that this idea was so old, it had been used in Martin Kane, Private Eye, which is billed as the very first television detective show. Martin Kane (played by William Gargan --seen in the photo, left. Gargan was the first of three actors to play the roll).

In the show, Kane smoked a pipe, and each episode featured a trip to the detective's tobacconist, where Kane would review the case -- and discuss tobacco with the store's proprietor -- because the show was sponsored by the U.S. Tobacco company. These tobacco shop trips were actually an early form of product-placement advertisement.

I'm disappointed to add another entry to my "nothing new under the sun" file, but wasn't really too surprised. I've noticed that (particularly in the past) an inordinate number of fictional detectives seem to smoke.

I suspect part of the reason is that smoking makes what actors call "good stage business." In other words, it gives characters something to do with their hands. Additionally, a writer can use details concerning someone's smoking to highlight character traits. What is the difference, for instance, between a man who uses a set of gold snippers to clip the end off his cigar, then lights it with a solid gold lighter -- compared with -- a man who bites the end off his cigar, spits it out, then lights up with a battered Zippo. What if he lights it with a match that he strikes on his thumbnail? Or, on the heel of his work boot?

Would a woman's character change, in your mind, if instead of smoking a cigarette, she smoked a cigar? What if she were the one biting the end off, and striking the match on her work boot?

I suspect that the nature of the characters described above shifts subtly as you go through the two paragraphs. Did you wonder, for instance, if the cigar smoking woman in work boots was a contemporary feminist, or did you perhaps jump to the idea that she inhabits a WWII setting and works as a "Rosie the Riveter?"

It may interest you to know, incidentally, that in my part-time occupation as a fill-in body at the cigar store near my house, I've become acquainted with several women who smoke cigars, and one or two who smoke pipes.

I freely admit that:
(A) Other props used by characters can reveal the same or similar character traits.
(B) Smoking is bad for you.

On the other hand, when someone smokes in a novel or film, particularly a contemporary one, I think that reveals an aspect of his/her character.

Smoking and detectives have traveled around in the same circles since long before the old pulp days. In fact, if you think about it,: Sherlock Holmes smoked pipes -- and cigars, if I recall correctly.

Can you imagine Marlowe without at least an occasional smoke in his hand? Would it change how you perceived his character, or even subtly alter the tone of the enttire work? I think it would, but you're free to disagree with me. In fact, that's what we've got the comments section below for. So -- feel free to blast away! (Assuming we've worked out the bugs.) You won't hurt my feelings; I've been called reams of unprintable names by army sergeants screaming at the tops of their lungs, and learned to let it roll off my back a long time ago.

What about Peter Falk's character in the TV show Columbo? Can you envision Lt. Columbo without his trademark cigar stump (it seemed almost never to be lit)? Admittedly, he would still have that car and trench coat, the ruffled hair, and sometimes that basset hound. But, can you see him holding up a gnarled hand to say, "Just one more question, sir," without a cigar stump parked between two of his fingers?

And, as long as we're covering television detectives, we might as well cover the other side of the balance sheet too.


Telly Savalas smoked cigarettes through much of the first season of Kojak. But, the writers changed that -- supposedly in response to non-smoking pressure from the public -- by creating a scene in which a meter maid chewed him out for smoking all the time. She handed him a Tootsie Pop to chew on, instead. And, the rest (as they say) is TV history.

The trend of connecting tobacco to fictional detectives has been changing for a long time, and continues to be in flux today. I'm not the kind of guy who advocates that anyone take up smoking anything (unless we're talking about somebody who walks into the cigar store while I'm working). But, it seems to me that smoking has its uses, when it comes to detective fiction -- if for no other reason than to demonstrate who the bad guy is.

What do you think?

23 September 2011

It's Friday. Thank God it's … Dixon Hill???


by Dixon Hill

First: For the Star Trek fans among us…

Yes, my name is Dixon Hill. That's not a joke; it's my name.

No, I'm not a fictional character. I am a real person.

No. I did not have my name legally changed from Bruno Jablonski to Dixon Hill after attending my first Star Trek convention--that's a vicious rumor! Dixon Hill is the name my parents wrote on my birth certificate when I was born in Phoenix, in 1963, long before TNG ever made it to the airwaves.

No. I am not related to the actor Patrick Stewart, who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Yes. I know that in the show, Captain Picard's character sometimes enters the holodeck and pretends to be a fictional detective from the 1940's named Dixon Hill.
This is not me.  I swear!

Yes. It so happens that I do often wear a fedora. I've owned one for many years. It's brown, and has a medium-width brown crepe ribbon around the base of the crown. And, it used to hold a feather.

Naturally the hat's a bit worse for wear these days, after having been crushed and stuffed into a duffel bag for trips to Central and South America and West Africa when I was in the army. Not to mention having been used as a Frisbee by my older son when he was a teenager, and my younger son when he was playing Raiders of the Lost Ark last week. (Thankfully, my teenage daughter has spared the hat, choosing to age me instead, by exercising her new driver's permit privileges while I cling to dangling strips of the headliner on the passenger side of our Jeep Cherokee. My wife shredded the headliner with her long nails during an earlier ride with my daughter, and frankly I'm grateful for the resulting handholds.)

However, the fact that I wear a fedora doesn't make me Captain Picard. Not anymore than the fact that I sometimes wear a leather jacket, while wearing my fedora, could magically turn me into Indiana Jones.

It doesn't; I'm not--nuff said.

Ah, good! You got it now, buddy: I'm a guy named Dixon Hill, who wears a fedora and writes mysteries.

What's that? Well… I don't know. Perhaps you're right, angry Trekkie: I may be a jerk. Sometimes, at least. After all, my wife once told me I had all the social graces of an Orangutan on steroids. But, my not being related to Patrick Stewart (or not having been named for a fictional character, or not being that fictional character for that matter) is not what makes me a jerk sometimes.

What occasionally makes me act like a jerk, is that I spent ten years in the U.S. Army--first working as a Military Intelligence Analyst, and later as a Special Forces Engineer Sergeant--and even now, over a decade later, I sometimes react to events as if I were still an army sergeant.

Surprisingly (to me, at least) this is not always a good thing in the civilian world, and is also what lies at the root of my wife's "Orangutan on steroids" crack. But, in my defense, it's an automatic reaction, and I work fast to correct it as soon as I realize old habits have kicked in where they don't belong.

To paraphrase Kermit the Frog: "It ain't easy bein' green."

Training that builds such ingrained habits is not easy to overcome. Those habits maintain a strong grip on a person's life, long after their usefulness has faded away. And, I suppose, this is where my writing comes in. Because it's the fourth thing that has such a grip on my life. (My family is the second thing. You'll have to figure out what takes first place--after all, this is a blog for sleuths. Right?)
"But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water."
Not me either. This is Rudyard Kipling
In case you don't know, the quote above comes from the epic poem Gunga Din written by Rudyard Kipling. I first discovered Kipling about six months after completing Basic Training. His words struck me like a cold slap, because they seemed to capture the army life so well.

Since then, I've learned to understand why some revile him. There are those who can only see the racial imperialism that mars his poetry. And, I can understand where they're coming from; I'm not happy with those aspects either. However, I can't help but love them for the truth of the soldier, which runs like a golden vein through so much of his works. Kipling understood the hard, hot back-breaking work that makes up a soldier's existence. He knew it was a life filled with long tracts of boredom, punctuated by brief furious violence and terror.

Still not me.
This is Walter Mosley.
After being honorably discharged from the army, I earned my BA in Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School. But, working for a newspaper quickly soured on me. It's tough to fit the whole truth into eight column inches. And, anything less than the truth... Well, you can decide for yourself. As for me, I didn't want anymore to do with it.

Instead, I decided (and I'm paraphrasing the great Walter Mosley, here) "to write fiction, because I wanted to write the truth." I'm not always sure how to go about doing this, but mysteries often deal in violence. I know the truth of violence, first-hand. And, I also know that portraying violence in a way that makes light of it, or of what it does to a person--the wounds, the psychological aftermath--runs against my grain. I don't believe in adding gratuitous violence to a story, but where violence belongs I think it has to be real. As honestly real as it can be written. Even though this disturbs people at times. (Comments or disagreement concerning that statement are certainly very welcome by the author. And, I should probably warn you that the next few paragraphs deal with my first combat experience, so some readers may wish to skip down to the paragraph beside the next picture, instead.)

Violence damages both victim and perpetrator; if I do my job right, this truth should come out. And violent death is neither clean nor efficient. (It's tempting to write that oft-read cliche that violent death is messy, but I don't really think I can. It's not messy. At least not just messy in a physical sense.) I learned that during my first deployment on an A-Team, which culminated in our participating in Operation Just Cause: the removal of Manuel Noriega from power in Panama. It was also my first time in combat.

It's difficult to put enough words on paper to evoke what it meant to run across a bridge that our side had been holding one end of all night. Running past the crumpled, stiff, bullet and shrapnel-torn bodies of men, whom my buddies and I had worked very hard to kill. And we had succeeded. Their blood lay thick like black rancid jelly, pooled beside and beneath the soldiers' corpses. One dead man's arm stretched stiff against the sky, hand open but fingers deeply curled, as if pleading. I hadn't even known a man could die like that.

But this was my first time, so I made myself look. Made myself see them, instead of turning my head the other way. It wasn't easy to do this while keeping one eye on the far-side bridge abutment, and the jungle beyond, searching for potential danger signs, but I figured they deserved it; turning away felt too much like turning my back on them. Facing them, looking at them: this was the only way I had, to honor their lives. And, let's be honest: these were men who had once been little boys. Maybe they'd played with toy cars, the way I had as a boy--that was the thought that ran through my mind at the time, because I was single (though these days, thinking of them makes me think of my own sons). So I made myself look at them as I ran past.
Yep!  This is me.
I'm not scowling, just squinting
in the bright Arizona sunlight.

And I figure that's what I've got to do whenever violence occurs in a story; I've got to write it in such a way that a reader sees the violence, comes to grips with it and is gripped by it. And gains a better understanding of the way it hurts--everyone involved. I know I don't succeed as well as I wish. But I keep trying.

And, I promise not to bring anymore dead bodies (unless they're fictional bodies) into the Friday blog post, since I'm sure most folks would find it an unsettling way to start the weekend. But--though I'm still trying to figure out what I've got to say, that you'll find worth reading--I also promise to do my best to write what I honestly feel.

Having been so kindly permitted to join such an august group of authors in this blog, I feel a lot like Leigh wrote that he did, when he first joined CriminalBrief: "I'm not sure my colleagues understood they'd invited an occasionally irrelevant, often irreverent rookie…"

I've written a lot of non-fiction, but when it comes to fiction--though I've sold several short stories--I'm definitely still a rookie. And, when it comes to blogging I'm a babe in the woods. I figure the only way I can honor a circle of such great writers, is to write the truth. So, I'll do my best to do that every-other Friday. Preferably, without turning your stomachs.

I'll see you in two weeks. Next Friday, R.T. Lawton will be here. He's my partner and counter-part for this da, and, though we've only recently become aquainted, it's pretty clear that he's a great guy and a fascinating writer--one who will undoubtedly bring you many great posts in the future.

So, until the Friday after next: Keep the faith, Buddy!

Dix