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20 October 2018

Names and Pseudo-Names

by John M. Floyd

A few weeks ago I got into a familiar discussion, among writers: Should you use a pseudonym?

Here are some authors who have:

Eric Blair -- George Orwell
Ed McBain -- Evan Hunter
A. M. Barnard -- Louisa May Alcott
James D. Grant -- Lee Child
Agatha Christie -- Mary Westmacott
Samuel Clemens -- Mark Twain
Isaac Asimov -- Paul French
Stephen King -- Richard Bachman
Joseph King -- Joe Hill
Joanne (J. K.) Rowling -- Robert Galbraith
Barbara Vine -- Ruth Rendell
Davis John Moore Cornwell -- John Le Carre
Charles Dodgson -- Lewis Carroll
Nora Roberts -- J. D. Robb
Joyce Carol Oates -- Rosamond Smith
John Hughes -- Edmond Dantes
Gore Vidal -- Edgar Box
Erle Stanley Gardner -- A. A. Fair
Ruth Crowley, Eppie Lederer -- Ann Landers
Pauline Phillips, Jeanne Phillips -- Abigail Van Buren
Juliet Hulme -- Anne Perry
William Anthony Parker White -- Anthony Boucher
John Dickson Carr -- Carr Dickson
Washington Irving -- Diedrich Knickerbocker
Ray Bradbury -- Douglas Spalding
Mary Ann Evans -- George Eliot 
Jozef Korzeniowski -- Joseph Conrad
C. S. Lewis -- Clive Hamilton
Daniel Handler -- Lemony Snicket
Benjamin Franklin -- Mrs. Silence Dogood
William Sydney Porter -- O. Henry

And there's usually a story behind every pseudonym. In an old interview I saw recently, Donald Westlake said he chose the name Richard Stark for his series of Parker novels because (1) Richard Widmark was one of his favorite actors and (2) "stark" was the writing style he wanted to use for the series. (NOTE: Westlake also said he later regretted choosing the name Parker for his main character--because it kept him from ever writing "Parker parked his car.")

Other examples of that process: Western author Tom McCurley invented his Mack Curlee pseudonym by rearranging his last name, and prolific romantic-suspense writer Melanie Noto dropped the W from her maiden name (Melanie Watkins) to come up with her pseudonym Melanie Atkins.

Another writer friend of mine, Charles Wilson, said he wishes he'd chosen the pen name Wilson Charles, because all the novels written using his real name are located on the hard-to-see bottom shelves in libraries and bookstores. If he'd used Wilson Charles, his work would be shelved up there alongside the Crichtons and Cornwells and Childs and Connellys.

Those who do use pseudonyms have said the names should be carefully chosen. Once their works attain any level of success, pen names become as permanent as a tattoo.

But I still haven't talked about why a writer would--or wouldn't--need a pseudonym. Here are some pluses and minuses.

You might choose to use a pseudonym if:

1. You want to write in a genre different from your previous work. Nora Roberts, who's known for her romances, writes mysteries under the name J. D. Robb.

2. You want to hide your true identity from your family, friends, boss, etc. This might be the only way you'd consider writing erotica, or about controversial subjects.

3. You want to disguise your gender. A woman might use a man's name to write for Field & Stream, and a man might use a woman's to write for Brides & Weddings.

4. You don't want to appear too prolific. When Stephen King started out, the idea of publishing more than one novel in the same year by the same author wasn't widely accepted. Pseudonyms were, and still are, a way around that.

5. You want to collaborate with another author using the same name. Ellery Queen was of course really the writing team of Dannay and Lee; and both the Hardy Boys author Frankin W. Dixon and the Nancy Drew author Carolyn Keene were actually teams of different writers.

6. You have a real name that just wouldn't work. It'd be hard to publish if your name is John Grisham, James Bond, Eliza Doolittle, etc. Or, for that matter, Jekyl Juberkanesta.

You might choose not to use a pseudonym if:

1. You don't have any of the requirements listed in items 1-5 above.

2. You already have a reasonable-sounding name.

3. You don't want to have to double your marketing efforts.

4. You want to keep things simple.

It's worth mentioning that Larry McMurtry, who is probably best known for his western novels like Lonesome Dove, also wrote Terms of Endearment and other "literary" works, and did both under the same (his real) name. And--on a far smaller scale--I've written a boatload of stories for a women's magazine without bothering with a pseudonym. Just saying.

Questions: Do you use a pseudonym? Do you think you might, in the future? If so, why, and how was it chosen? Have you found it helpful? Do you use your real name instead?

I'll close this topic with a poem and a joke. First, the poem (which, since I'm not much of a poet, might be considered a joke as well). It's called "Altering the Ego," and appeared in the April 1999 issue of Writer's Digest.

I'll admit I've had problems
With my pseudonym;
When my book was a failure
They knew I was him--
But when I sold the sequel, 
Which did splendidly,
I couldn't make people 
Believe he was me.

Who says writing isn't a thankless profession?

Now, the joke:

John walks into a writer's meeting.
Jane asks him, "What's your pen name?"
"Paper Mate," John says.

And maybe that's the only one he needs.

14 July 2018

Arizona Hills

by Leigh Lundin

Seven years ago, a coterie of writers banded together to launch SleuthSayers. In his first column, Dixon Hill introduced his fedora. I think I met that fedora recently.

Dixon Hill
Dixon Hill
To be sure, I also met the storied Dixon Hill and his equally legendary wife, Madeleine. You may remember reading about her, the very charming lady who drove fuel tankers in Iraq.

Dixon has written about his own military training, parachute jumping, explosives, and special ops. Yet in his writing and in real life, he displays quiet confidence and an utter lack of braggadocio. What you read, what you see, is what you get.

But fair warning: Around him, women get a gleam in their eye, that “Yum, Teddy Bear” look, which the rest of us males envy.

I’ve wanted to meet the man behind the writing. A few months ago, it looked like that might happen, but life intervened. Finally I set foot in Arizona only to meet an elk in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then a death in the family followed. Finally, though, I was free. Dixon squeezed me in.

Despite lack of sleep, he proved the most consummate host. Being raised by a professor shows. A natural teacher, he’s written about the history and geography of Greater Phoenix. I found myself racking up mental notes everywhere we visited.

First, at my request came a brief introduction to automatic sidearms, this from a guy who’s living (in multiple senses of the word) depended in part upon knowledge and skill of weaponry. Who better to learn from?

Hole-in-the-Rock, Papago Park
Dixon followed with a tour of Phoenix. He drove through Papago Park to point out the Hole-in-the-Rock, an elevated cavern open at either end. He named the surrounding mountain ranges. He noted bridges that ran high over dry river beds, waiting like a boxer for that blow that never comes… until it does.

Questions had been gathering in my mind about desert plants, mesquite, ironwood, and especially cactus. With Dixon’s wide-ranging interests, I was almost unsurprised to discover he’s a member of the Desert Botanical Garden. There, they combine education with beauty.

Dixon shared a story about his father and the infamous ‘jumping’ cactus, AKA Teddy Bear cactus. His dad experimented, risking his own flesh. He hypothesized cactus pods store up kinetic energy, until the slightest touch sends them exploding off their host plant. Me, I think that’s a damn clever theory.

Dixon had another surprise up his sleeve, a visit to the Poisoned Pen Bookstore adjacent to Poisoned Pen Press. Loaded with signed mysteries and science fiction, it’s a drool-worthy shop in Scottsdale that seems both packed and airy at once. Independent bookshops could take lessons from them.

I introduced myself to the owner… not too crudely I hoped. Dixon and I made quite the prickly pair.

Setting aside his own fatigue, Dixon showed me his writing cabin set in a corner of the garden. There he retreats to write, coaxing the computer from his arm chair. The fedora there… was it the same Staff Sergeant Hill traveled with around the world? I suspect so.

The visit turned out entertaining and educational, everything and more I expected from a man I learned about through his writing. One day, Dixon, let’s do it again.

The Flight of the Phoenix


At Phoenix airport, I gathered my kit around me, my wits and my tickets. Hot as it was, I found myself strangely reluctant to depart. Turned out United had the same notion.

“Whoa,” said the ticket agent. “You’re too late to board.”

“What? No, I can’t be.” How many times had she heard that story? “Really, I received a confirmation email telling me to check in, like now, I’m on time.”

Anxious to put in her propeller, a United supervisor strolled over. Her snoot lifted into the air like my soon-to-depart plane.

“We closed boarding and no, you could not have received such an email.”

“I did, I did,” I said plaintively, thinking I must have read it wrong. Wait… Although I’d had poor luck finding phone signals in Arizona, five million people populated Phoenix. Surely AT&T had a presence here, didn’t they?

I pulled out my dusty iPhone and… Yes! A signal! Moreover, an email! The right one. I held out the phone like a child showing homework to the teacher.

“Ma’am, here’s the email. It spells out the details and I’m here on time.”

She read it once. Not quite believing it, she peered closer. I could almost hear the chips in her brain going, “Oh crap, he’s right.” Then she glanced at the clock ticking away on her computer terminal and lit up. “NOW,” she said with immense satisfaction, “now you’re too late.”

The counter agent gave me the most carefully neutral look. She managed to convey a measure of sympathy.

“I’ve booked you tomorrow. If you don’t mind a hint, lose a couple of pounds in your suitcase.” Again she gave her patented neutral look. “Thank you for choosing United.”

No hurry. Good company, good food, good night’s sleep. Orlando could wait another day.

Phoenix Rising

The personality of all cities depend upon geography and geology. More than most, the Copper State’s very existence depends upon Mother Nature’s good nature.

It’s bedrock is literally laid bare. River beds lace hither and yon, empty and dry… most of the time. Water, when it comes, can rage rapidly, as colleague Susan Slater has expressed in her novel, Flash Flood.

Unlike Eastern states, water rights are bought and sold. So are mineral rights. A few strip mines in the Copper State have left behind unnatural terraced hills, white not from rime but extraction chemicals. Arizona has been fortunate in other metals that begin with the letter A in the periodic table: Au, Ag, Al… gold, silver, and aluminum.

NASA used selected places in Arizona for lunar mission training. It’s not difficult for an outsider to think of Arizona as a beautiful planet in itself, one where pioneering humans have dug in, stubbornly nesting amongst its fabulous rock structures, a landscape hospitable to the hardiest among us.

Just avoid uninsured elk.

03 June 2018

Hot Spot

by Leigh Lundin

I’ve fallen off the grid. Unintentionally. No T-Mobile, No AT&T, no Virgin Wireless, no voice mail, no cell phone. Also no email, no web, no internet access. Neither of my phones nor my computer work. Both fruitlessly scan for radio signals, not picking up even a blip, not even alien static from distant Roswell.

phone, no bars

I didn’t plan it this way. I’m spending five weeks in Arizona. Tomorrow I visit the Grand Canyon, but here in the town of Gunsmoke in Holyshiteitshot County in eastern Arizona, the telegraph bypassed the town, never mind Pony Express and the telephone. When I enquired about a hotspot, bemused residents said, “It’s 109°F in May. How damn hot do you want it?”

109°F… Here F, usually preceded by a plosive ‘holy’, stands for a word other than Fahrenheit, usually heard when sliding into a rental car seat. I never knew leather could melt. Steering wheels appear inspired by paintings of Salvador DalĂ­. Truthfully, the steel door handle of a downtown restaurant is wrapped with pipe insulation and electrical tape, presumably after a few people involuntarily left skin samples.

Century Link is establishing a presence in the county seat. When I enquired, they said, “Congratulations, you qualify for high-speed internet.” They went on to define ‘high speed’ as 3Mbps, the approximate walking speed of a one-legged dog. Computers think data rates that slow mean the internet is broken. Compare 3Mbps to my suddenly much less despised Spectrum/Brighthouse ISP at 100Mbps or even optional 1000Mbps if that’s too slow.

100-1g Mbps

At 3Mbps, news can take a long time to crawl through copper wires. Folks asked about rumors a black man had been hired in the White House. They seemed politely dubious when I said more like a weird orange.

As for my computer, I plugged it into a socket. The wiring exploded with a shower of sparks, barbecuing my power supply. This is what we call a ‘challenge’.

Knowing I had a SleuthSayers article due, kind people came together to help out. One lent an old laptop. When connected to the internet for the first time in eons, it launched into mass Windows 7 updates taking most of a 24-hour day and burning through the data allocation of that person’s telephone hotspot. At that point, another person stunned me by buying a new cell phone to provide a fresh hotspot. Folks are asking around for an old cell to lend me. Life is good.

But wait, there’s more.

FedEx delivered a new computer power supply. As before, neither of my phones can pick up a signal, this coming from a guy who for years refused to own any phone. The nearest AT&T tower is thirty miles in one direction, fifty in another. An internet solution remains questionable, but I’m not yet out of options. SleuthSayers’ Dixon Hill has invited me to stop in, and Scottsdale definitely has internet and phone service.

Life is good.

08 September 2017

A Room (or Two) of One's Own

By Art Taylor

In a SleuthSayers post back in July, I talked about how we were moving this summer—a process that still seems never-ending. Yes, we got all the boxes into the new place, and we've made some headway on unpacking, organizing and arranging the contents of those boxes. Yes, we finished cleaning out (slowly) and cleaning up (painfully) the old place and then bringing it successfully to closing (a big sigh of relief). And in addition to the move, we navigated another couple of transitions—most importantly my wife Tara's start at a new job and our son Dashiell's entrance into kindergarten (which I also wrote about at the Washington Independent Review of Books). Much to celebrate in all this, but also still a long way to go—and the dishwasher that died on Monday hasn't helped, I'll admit: one more thing to add to the to-do list.

Still, we're happy with the new place, especially Dash, who calls it a "magic house." There's a corner cabinet in the kitchen with a lazy Susan inside! The timer on the stove plays a little song when the countdown hits zero! And at sunset, the glass in the front door projects tiny patterns, shapes, and rainbows on the wall!

I'll admit: I find that last bit a little magical myself.

Our search for a house seemed quick—we picked this one on our second formal day of looking with an agent—but our plans to move stretch back to even before Dash was born. We'll move to a house with a yard before he starts kindergarten—that was our goal. And we had more than five years to meet that goal—should be easy, right? Just before Dash turned five-and-a-half, we finally kicked into high gear.

When our realtor (shout-out to Dutko-Ragen in Northern Virginia!) asked us what we were looking for in a house, he emphasized that we should talk about things we needed (couldn't do without) and then things we'd love to have (reaching for the stars).

Dash, a car man since he was a baby, judges houses by whether they have a garage, so that was top of his list.

Tara has always loved the idea of a screened-in porch.

And I felt that ideally Tara and I—both being writers—should each have space for an office, hearkening back to that oft-quoted phrase of Virginia Woolf's about a room of one's own. (I recognize, of course, that Woolf's essay is an argument about women's spaces and places in the literary world, but I do believe that writers and artists of either gender benefit from having both mental and physical space in which to indulge their creativity and hone their craft.)

The reasons we snatched up this house as quickly as we could?

Well, Dash got his wish:

Tara got hers:

And while much of the house is still a mess of boxes or else the stuff that came out of those boxes, two rooms were among the first priorities for us to get settled. Here's Tara's office (I avoided the right half, still a work in progress):

And here's mine:

I've enjoyed posts from other SleuthSayers about writers and their working environments, several of them published just this year. Earlier this summer, Jan Grape did a nice round-up of various writer friends' workspaces. Paul Marks gave us a glance inside his office (and into both real and fictional versions of his days). And Dixon Hill treated us to before and after photos of the construction of his beautiful new office during our recent Family Fortnight.

Many of us with office space (me included) also write in other places, I recognize this. In my case, I also have an office on campus where I spent more time than at home, and then there's the library and occasionally a coffee shop, and back here at the house, I'm as likely to work at the kitchen table or the couch as in the office itself; I'm sitting on the couch right now, in fact, but mainly because it's better internet reception tonight.

So given all that, what's behind the desire to have an office of one's own? Part of it is, again, the space to work—to spread out a printed manuscript on the desk and look at it or to stare out the window (and I keep the desk facing that way, clearly) or to close the door and just think. Part of it depends on the things in the space: the books that have inspired me and that I keep at eye level on the nearby shelves, for example, and my own works in progress always within arms' reach too. In the picture of my office above, you might note a brown three-ring binder on the right corner; it holds printed drafts of various stories in one stage or another of needing attention. And the file cabinet on the left, the one with the old typewriter sitting on it? That's got notes on other stories and the draft of a (failed) novel—or, honestly, two. And the typewriter itself? It's an old one, of course, and I like to think that some other writer pounded out a story or two of his or her own on it. It's inspiring somehow, and so too is the artwork on either side of the desk and—not seen here—the framed poster on the wall behind my chair, from an exhibition at Trinity College in Dublin about the great detectives, a reminder of the tradition that informs so much of what I write, so much of how I think about what I write.

Tara, meanwhile, has her own approach: books too, obviously, but she keeps her desk sideways in the room, and she's looking for a chair for the other corner (unseen) where she can curl up and read. She has an Elvis lamp as well—a gaudy thing as far as I'm concerned (and I'm an Elvis fan, I should stress). But that's the beauty of the layout here: It's her space, she can do with it whatever she wants. It must be working OK for her already: Last week she finished a draft of her novel in the new office, and she's already gotten affirmative feedback from her first reader—hooray!

And as for Dash... well, beyond the garage, he's already taken over much of this house in one way or another. But he wanted a desk of his own as well, a place to draw actually, and at the same time he also wants to be close to us when he creates, so he's got a table and chairs in the living room, and we're planning to set up a craft corner if we can ever get all his art supplies unpacked, and then there's an old, old desk from my own childhood that he's taken a liking to... and I'll admit, I was glad to share some of my own office space with him. I hope you'll indulge this one last picture:

Writers who are reading this here: Where do you work? What in your space helps to spark creativity? Not sure how easy it is to post a picture in the comments—if it's even possible—but do offer some description at least if you can! 

Countdown to Bouchercon! (...and a little BSP)

My story "Parallel Play" from Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning won this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story and is up for both the Anthony Award and the Macavity Award at this year's Bouchercon. My fellow Macavity finalist Paul D. Marks, author of the terrific "Ghosts of Bunker Hill," offered a great post here recently where we joined other nominees Lawrence Block, Craig Faustus Buck, and Greg Herren to talk about the origins of these stories, along with Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, talking about the origin of Joyce Carol Oates' nominated story; do check out Paul's post and check out the links there in order to read the other stories too—such a distinguished batch of short fiction!

I'm hoping to arrange something myself with all the Anthony finalists for my next appearance at SleuthSayers in three weeks, along with announcements about my Bouchercon schedule—all of it rushing toward us so quickly!

Stay tuned for all that—and looking forward to seeing everyone in Toronto next month! 

18 May 2017

Mad Dix Finds a Home

Family Fortnight + Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the penultimate essay in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by Dixon Hill

It's been a while since I last posted, and it feels nice to visit again.

Hope some of you feel the same! LOL

As you may recall, my wife, Madeleine (aka: "Double-Clutch Click," "Mad Dog" or simply "Mad") and I bought a house last year. (In case you're wondering, Click happens to be her maiden name.)

And, unfortunately, I was having a hard time finding a place to write, because we simply had too much stuff.

Of course, it also had do with the fact that I tend to smoke cigars when I write, and I didn't want to smoke inside the house.

Which, landed me on the back patio – not a good solution during the Phoenix summer.

So, I've been pretty busy since I last visited with you, working to make myself a new backyard office, which is very nearly done.

The photos below show how our backyard has looked for most of my absence …

And, what it looks like now.

We still have a lot of work to do: plants to install (as well as a drip system), retaining walls, etc. But, I'm almost done with my office. Only have to sand the "mud" then paint. After that, I'll move in and start work in earnest ... though, in truth, I've already been using it. I've sent out a short story to a magazine I've long wanted to land a spot in, and I think I've got a fairly good chance of being picked up, having done my homework. (Of course, you never know! Do you?) And, I've sent out a revamp of an old novel, to see to if it can stick to somebody's wall. We'll see what happens.

My office porch and steps, as well as the interior wood trim will come later. First, I want to crank out a large number of stories that are sitting in limbo on my computer. Meanwhile, I'm taking classes on desert landscaping at the Desert Botanical Garden which is just down the road from our house.

In April, we went to the Garden Sale there, and here I am toting home a Totem Pole Cactus. I've also brought in a half-ton of sand stone slabs, which you can see as the stepping stones in that picture above.

But, this post isn't really just about me letting you know what I've been up to. It's really about the way my suffering from "The Writing Bug" affects my marriage, and what my wife has to deal with because of it.

Writing, for me at least, isn't a thing I can turn on or off. Plots and ideas slosh around in the back of my mind, and sometimes parts of them slip out into my conscience thought when I least expect them to. Sometimes when I wish they'd have stayed floating around in whatever sludge inhabits my "little grey cells" a certain fictional sleuth might put it.

I don't know how many times I've been simply driving down the road, or sitting in a chair in the living room, only to hear my wife ask: "Oh, my God! Who are now? And who are you talking to with that look on your face? You look like you're getting ready to choke somebody to death."

See, this is part of my problem, one of the ways it manifests itself when I'm not expecting it. I might have a problem with one of my stories -- a scene, perhaps, in which I've gotten everything on paper, all the little boxes are checked with all the little scraps of information that I needed to get into that scene, but it just isn't right. Maybe it's too mechanical in its writing. Or, perhaps one of the characters just doesn't feel true. Sometimes, one or more of the characters fight me, wanting to do things, other than, or in a very different manner than, the parts I've written them into. And, about that time, it's usually necessary to start dinner. So, I set it all down, shut off my computer, and go in to cook.

But that scene, those characters, their actions, and their feelings: All those things are whirling around in my mind while I cook, as I eat, when I'm trying to talk to my wife and kids.

And here another little puzzle piece fits itself in. See, when I was in high school, I took acting classes at my school for two years, but I also took professional on-camera acting classes at a private academy. I'm not sure if it's fortunate, or unfortunate, but that academy stressed method acting, in which an actor tries to become the character who's persona s/he is trying to assume. And, this can have rather odd effects when I've got a scene whirling around in the back of my mind.

And, as I said earlier, sometimes it slips out. Often, this means that I've gone from just thinking about the scene, to thinking about ways to rewrite it, sometimes by looking at it through the eyes of one of my characters.

Which is why, I'll suddenly hear my wife asking me who I'm talking to, who I'm being, and what the hell I think I'm doing. And, I realize that, though I haven't uttered a word (though I sometimes evidently sort of growl) I've been silently yelling, or telling another character off, or even just letting the angry character silently vent through my face.

Madeleine and the kids have come to accept this (I think) though I'm sure they're not terribly comfortable with it. As for myself, I seldom realize it's happening until I'm brought up short by my wife. At which point I apologize, but can seldom explain my actions in any coherent way.

That's not all my family has to put up with, of course, but I thought I'd give you this example, just to provide a little taste of the weirdness of living with me.

Now, to explain her view of things, I'd like to introduce my wife: a woman of great courage and moral fiber, whom I met in the army; mother of my three children; a woman who fought in the First Gulf War driving an unarmed fuel truck deep into enemy territory; the woman who puts up with my personal eccentricities and (most important to me!) the one and only woman I love:

Madeleine Hill:

When people ask me what my husband does, I tell them he's a freelance writer. Almost immediately, their eyes go soft and look of wonder comes over them. To most people, a writer is the maker of worlds and the ultimate creator. They live in awe of writers and most people wish they had been given the gift of writing.

I seldom reveal the truth to them. I would not steal from them that look of childish wonder, and my lips remain sealed. I will, however, share it with you as what I am going to tell you is probably already known to you. I married Dr. Jekyll, but I LIVE with Mr. Hyde. There it is ... the truth.

The man I married, Dr. Jekyll, is the perfect spouse. He is kind and patient. He is extremely intelligent and full of fun and laughter. He is always reading and gains knowledge by the day. He loves me and our children. He will spend hours with us in perfect harmony. Whatever happens he is rational and forgives easily.

However, when he is in the middle of a writing project, he is transformed into Mr. Hyde.

Mr. Hyde is quite different than the good doctor. Mr. Hyde has little patience and is quick to anger. He is restless and is partial to self-loathing. He is a man in agony. We try to treat Mr. Hyde like the doctor but we rarely succeed. Mr. Hyde will hide himself away for days taking breaks only for meals and the little sleep he allows himself. The work he does, his ART requires nothing short of parts of his soul which he is all too ready to render. To the outside world such a being can be terrifying to see but it is all part of the man we love.

This may all seem a little dramatic but it is the way I can best describe living with a writer, my own creator of worlds.
Mad w/ New Tree


Well, that's it for this visit. You might find it interesting to note that this was written on Mother's Day, while the new hot tub was being filled and fired-up for the first time.

See you some time in the future!

P.S.: This is my office at night:

17 December 2016

Twenty Years of B.A.M.S.

by John M. Floyd

I'm not much of a goal-setter, in my writing. Like all of us, I try to do a good job of writing stories and submitting them to markets--but beyond that, I don't feel there's much I can do. If something gets published, great. If something good happens after it's published (awards, other recognition, etc.), that's icing on the cake, and I'm honored and grateful if/when it does. But that's out of my control.

Having said that, I think there are certain things that most mystery writers have on their bucket lists. One might be to win an Edgar, or even to be nominated. Or to win other writing awards, or to have a story picked up for a film. If you're a writer of short mysteries, an additional dream might be to appear in the annual MWA anthology or an Akashic noir anthology.

I've been fortunate enough to grab a few of these golden rings, as have most of you. One of my fantasies was realized last year, when I had a story chosen for The Best American Mystery Stories 2015.

The B.A.M.S. file

I would guess that almost all of us have looked through volumes of Best American Mystery Stories at one time or another. For those who might be interested, here's a quick overview of the series, and the procedure by which the included authors are selected.

The B. A. M. S. anthologies began in 1997 and have always been published by Houghton Mifflin (later Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). In his introduction to the debut edition, series editor Otto Penzler explained that he identified and read all the mysteries published during the previous calendar year--1996--and chose the best fifty, which he then turned over to a guest editor. That editor, Robert B. Parker in this case, selected what he thought were the best twenty stories for the publication; the remaining thirty were listed in a close-but-no-cigar honor roll in the back of the book, called "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 1996." This process has been continued every year since. Those lucky enough to be in the "top 20" are notified, early in the year, that their stories will be featured in the book. Contracts are then sent out, the writers are paid, and the anthology is published in the fall.

Where does Otto go to find all this original fiction? "The most fruitful sources," he said in the B.A.M.S. 1997 intro, "are the mystery specialty magazines, small literary journals, popular consumer publications, and an unusually bountiful crop from anthologies containing all or some original work." Apparently the field consisted of around 500 stories at first, and has now expanded to become 3,000 to 5,000 stories a year. His colleague Michele Slung apparently does most of the initial culling, and is, according to Otto, "the fastest and smartest reader I have ever known."

The names of all the guest editors can be found in the opening pages of every edition, but they're so impressive I'll list them here as well:

1997 - Robert B. Parker
1998 - Sue Grafton
1999 - Ed McBain
2000 - Donald Westlake
2001 - Lawrence Block
2002 - James Ellroy
2003 - Michael Connelly
2004 - Nelson DeMille
2005 - Joyce Carol Oates
2006 - Scott Turow
2007 - Carl Hiaasen
2008 - George Pelecanos
2009 - Jeffery Deaver
2010 - Lee Child
2011 - Harlan Coben
2012 - Robert Crais
2013 - Lisa Scottoline
2014 - Laura Lippman
2015 - James Patterson
2016 - Elizabeth George

20/50 vision

As I mentioned earlier, the stories featured in the anthology are the top twenty of the year, chosen by the guest editor. Those named in the Distinguished Mysteries list in the back of the book are the runners-up, the "rest" of the top fifty that were originally chosen by Otto Penzler.

I restated that because most folks don't know about it--including, until recently, me. At the 2012 Bouchercon I had the opportunity to meet Lee Child, one of my favorite authors. I remember saying to him (babbling, probably), "I saw that one of my stories was listed as "distinguished" in The Best American Mystery Stories 2010 . . . and, well, since you were guest editor that year, I'd like to thank you for that honor." He said something kind and gracious and we both went on our way. What I didn't realize at the time was that my story was in the "distinguished" list because it was one of the fifty that Otto had selected, not one of the final twenty that Child chose. What I'd done, essentially, was thank him for not picking my story to be in the book. Good grief.

An SS/B.A.M.S. history

From looking at my own editions of the series, snooping on the Internet, and pestering my fellow mystery writers for information I couldn't find elsewhere, I have created the following unscientific report of current and former SleuthSayers who have wound up either in Best American Mystery Stories or named in its "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list. Please forgive me, and correct me, if I've overlooked anyone.

year       included in book (top 20)              named in "distinguished" list (the rest of the top 50)

1997 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1998 ----Janice Law--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1999 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2000 ----David Edgerley Gates-------------------John Floyd----------------------------------------------------
2001 ----------------------------------------------------David Edgerley Gates-------------------------------------
2002 ----David Edgerley Gates-------------------R.T. Lawton---------------------------------------------------
2003 ----O'Neil De Noux--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2004 ----------------------------------------------------O'Neil De Noux, David Edgerley Gates----------------
2005 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2006 ----------------------------------------------------O'Neil De Noux-----------------------------------------
2007 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2008 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2009 -----------------------------------------------------Dixon Hill-------------------------------------------------
2010 -----------------------------------------------------Art Taylor, John Floyd-----------------------------------
2011 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2012 -----------------------------------------------------Eve Fisher, Janice Law, John Floyd--------------------
2013 -----O'Neil De Noux, David E. Gates-----Janice Law, B.K. Stevens-----------------------------------
2014 -----------------------------------------------------David Dean, Elizabeth Zelvin--------------------------
2015 -----John Floyd---------------------------------David E. Gates, Rob Lopresti, Art Taylor--------------
2016 -----Rob Lopresti, Art Taylor-----------------David E. Gates, R.T. Lawton, John Floyd--------------


Here are some things I found interesting about the above chart:

- As you can see, not one but TWO SleuthSayers have stories that made it to the top 20 and into the book this year: Rob Lopresti and Art Taylor. Both are tremendously deserving of the honor, and--not surprisingly--neither of them is a stranger to the limelight. Both have been recognized with multiple awards and honors over the past several years.

(Art Taylor and I seem to have a strange connection: This year, when he made it into the book, I made the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list; the year I managed to get in, he was in the "distinguished" list; and one year both he and I had stories listed as "distinguished." In other words, I always root for Art all the more, because if he's involved I seem to have a better chance of sneaking somewhere into the picture as well.)

- For the first 18 years of the series (before the 2015 edition of B.A.M.S.), only three SleuthSayers had stories featured in the book (top 20): David Edgerley Gates three times (2000, 2002, and 2013), O'Neil De Noux twice (2003 and 2013), and Janice Law once (1998). And only recently have two SleuthSayers been in the top 20 in the same year--O'Neil and David in 2013 and Rob and Art in 2016.

- When you combine the SSers included in the book and those named in the "distinguished" list, David Edgerley Gates has made the top 50 an astounding seven times (2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2013, 2015, 2016), I've made it five times (2000, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016), O'Neil four (2003, 2004, 2006, 2013), Janice three (1998, 2012, 2013), Art three (2000, 2015, 2016), R.T. twice (2002, 2016), Rob twice (2015, 2016), and Dixon Hill, Eve Fisher, Bonnie Stevens, David Dean, and Liz Zelvin once each.

- David Edgerley Gates's stories were either included or named in the "distinguished" list in four out of five consecutive editions (2000-2004) and in another three out of four (2013-2016). Also, O'Neil De Noux's stories were either included or distinguished in three out of four consecutive years (2003-2006). A lot of fine stories over short stretches of time.

- In only six years out of B.A.M.S.'s 20-year history have no SleuthSayers been included in either the anthology or the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list--but in one of those no-SS years (1997) Criminal Briefer Melodie Johnson Howe was featured in the book, and in another year (2011) CBer Angela Zeman appeared in the "distinguished" list. And by the way, Angela was also included in the book in 2004 and Criminal Brief founder James Lincoln Warren made the "distinguished" list in 2010. (I couldn't resist mentioning those colleagues; Criminal Brief was the forerunner to SleuthSayers, and Rob, Leigh, Janice, and I were all CBers in a previous life.)

- In the before-I-forget department: Frequent SS guest-blogger Michael Bracken was named to the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list in 2005.
That's my take on Best American Mystery Stories and its connection with our blog. If nothing else, it might steer you to some SleuthSayers' stories in the old volumes you might already have on your bookshelves. (In the course of putting this column together, I wound up going back and reading a lot of them.) May ALL of us be represented often in B.A.M.S.'s pages in the future.

Many thanks to Otto Penzler, to his assistant(s) and his guest editors, and to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, not only for providing us with outstanding reading material but for giving some of us the opportunity, and the great honor, to be a part of the series.

Here's to another twenty years!

31 October 2016

At Last

By Fran Rizer

Today is October 31, 2016--Halloween.  Also known as Allhalloween, All Hallows Eve, and All Saints Eve, Halloween begins the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembrance of the dead.

To most of us, Halloween is a holiday characterized by the dispensing of candy to costumed young people who threaten, "Trick or treat."  Other traditions include costume contests and parades.  When I taught elementary school, teachers and parents worked together to hold Halloween carnivals for students.  Before my retirement, these changed to Fall Festivals, and scary costumes (such as vampires, werewolves, skeletons, zombies, and this year--clowns) were forbidden because some people felt that Halloween was a celebration of witchcraft.

The traditions of Halloween include decorations such as black cats and pumpkins carved into jack-o-lanterns as well as activities like apple bobbing, pranks,  bonfires, and divination games.  In some parts of the world, Christian observances include church services and lighting candles on graves.

What accounts for the popularity of the non-religious aspects of Halloween? I believe it's because humans like to be scared--so long as what frightens us isn't real.  We might think that fall and Halloween would amplify the appeal of spookiness, but horror is a genre that transcends season.

How does the title "At Last" relate to Halloween and the horror genre?  Recently I've been doing a lot of writers' workshops in South Carolina libraries.  One of my most popular is entitled "A Late Start." The topic is writing as a second career after my retirement including disadvantages of waiting so long to begin writing fiction as well as the obvious advantages of greater maturity and vaster experiences. The workshops include tips on speeding up the process of successful writing and publishing.  The story of my first horror book proves that I don't always follow my own advice when it comes to fast writing and quick publication.

"At Last" would work as well if this blog referred to my first novel in 2007 as it does now to my tenth book released this month, but Leigh Lundin didn't invite me to return to SleuthSayers to summarize the workshop.  I'm here to tell you about my newest book and why "At Last" is a perfect title for this column.

The HORROR of JULIE BATES began several years ago as A Midnight Dreary and morphed into Something to Fear.  Both David Dean and Dixon Hill critiqued the manuscript during one of those phases, and I incorporated several of their suggestions. After numerous rewrites, my agent accepted it, but held back a year before pitching it.  Berkley was interested and made two suggestions.  Pardon my unladylike expression, but I busted my butt to work out the changes and dashed it off back to my agent in two weeks.  I didn't hear anything.

Sure, I wanted to push for a response, but we all know that it's not a good idea to put pressure on agents or editors.  After months and months, I asked the agent to touch base with the interested editor at Berkley.  I almost had another heart attack when I received an apology from my agent because he had forgotten to send her the manuscript revised to her requests.

Meanwhile, there had been major changes in the publishing world. To make a long story short (literally in this case), it was too late.

I began querying new agents and received some requests for the complete manuscript, but when Darren Foster at Odyssey South Publishing said, "Let us have it," I jumped at the chance.  And so, ladies and gentlemen, at last, my first horror novel is now available.  Here's the back copy:

                                 Who knew Columbia, South Carolina, could be so scary?

Julie Bates discovers a corpse in front of the Assembly Street post office.  Arson destroys her home the same day, but Julie's story is not a mystery.  It's horror--southern style.  Police officer Nate Adams thinks the killer who raped and murdered Julie's mother the year before is stalking Julie, but Julie's tormentor is not human.  The well-known ghosts of South Carolina barely skim the surface of the evil that awaits Julie Bates.  Move over, Amityville.  Columbia, South Carolina, is right there with you on the scale of terror.

How does a writer transition from cozyesque to horror? The preface explains:

When a red-haired woman approached me at a book-signing, I expected her to ask me to autograph one of my own cozy mysteries.  Instead, she asked me to write a book for her.  I went into my usual spiel that she could do a better job of putting her story on paper than I, but we agreed to meet in the coffee shop after the signing.  Writers are frequently approached to write or co-write someone else's story. Most of the time, we decline politely, but there was something about this mysterious stranger that made me hesitate to dismiss her so quickly,

The HORROR of JULIE BATES is that woman's story.  I spent many, many hours recording Julie Bates' tale and many more days and nights scaring myself as I wrote her story from her point of view, changing only names. The occasional third-person chapters were added after I was fortunate enough to obtain Richard Arthur's journal.

I have already received several emails questioning, "Did you make up this story or did a red-haired woman really tell it to you?"  I can honestly say the story came from a red-haired woman.

Long-time SleuthSayer readers know that I've jumped genre from cozies in the past when I wrote the thriller KUDZU RIVER.  I have no idea where I'll land next, but in the meantime,

Until we meet again, take care of . . .  you!

09 September 2016

So Long ... at least for now

No, I'm not frowning; the sun is just bright.

By Dixon Hill

As many of you know, we've got a new house that has a relatively empty backyard.  We've got a pool back there, and a concrete slab that was probably poured so some past owner could park an RV on it, but other than that all we've got  is gravel.  Well, gravel ... and three large pallets with plastic wrapped boxes and goods that I need to put in my office.

Problem is, I don't have an office yet.  We need to put one in -- right atop that RV slab back there. The plan is to place a hot tub beside it covered by a loggia.  We've got the loggia, but not the hot tub.

Nor do we have the office, though I've lined-up a nice structure that will be delivered for a good price.  I'll need to do interior and finishing work, though, before I can write in there.

My wife, with her degree in interior design, has some projects she wants me to construct within the house as well.  And, since she handles our home interior, I get the fun of landscaping the backyard once my office is up and running.  (I've revived the grass in our front yard, only needing to add some trees, bushes, and vines that will shade the mostly windowless east and west ends of our ranch house.)

Meanwhile, I also have several writing projects that need my attention.

The result is that I haven't had enough time to take care of home matters, my writing, and my blogging, while still holding down my day job.  One of the things that I've let slip is making comments on my own posts.  I managed to squeeze in time to write my posts, but I haven't often been able to respond to readers' comments.

And that bothers me.  I think, if I'm going to write a blog, that means also taking part in reader discussion of my posts.

I've written for SleuthSayers since its inception, and was wildly excited to be invited to partake of this blog.  At times, I think I've done my best, but lately my best just hasn't been good enough to warrant my continued participation.

I don't look forward to leaving SleuthSayers, but I need to take some extended time off in order to (literally) get my house in order (as well as the grounds), and to concentrate on writing projects I've let slip lately.  SleuthSayers isn't the only activity I've engaged in, that I'm pulling out of at the moment, but it is the only one it makes sense to write about here.  Once I believe I've gotten my writing house back in order, and that it makes sense for me to return to this forum as one of the posters (if that's even the right word?) I'll let you know.

O'Neil De NouxThe Great News!

You'll be very happy to learn that my slot will be filled by award winning mystery writer O'Neil de Noux.

He has written 18 novels and published over 300 short stories, including science-fiction adventure stories, character-driven mysteries, historical fiction and even a smattering of very well executed erotica.

He served as the 2012-2013 Vice President of the Private Eye Writers of America -- and rightly so.  His work has won multiple awards for both long and short fiction, among these a Shamus in 2007 (Best Short Story) and a Derringer in 2009 (Best Novelette), while his The Long Cold is in the running for Best Paperback Original Private Eye Novel this year.  (I've got my fingers crossed for ya', buddy!  Though it's not like you need the luck, because you write great stuff!)

In short, I'm flattered even to be REPLACED by this guy.  And, he's clearly a great fit for this blog site comprising so many other highly successful writers.

I hope you'll join me in welcoming O'Neil de Noux to SleuthSayers, and I strongly encourage you to be sure to catch his inaugural blog in two weeks!

Meanwhile, this time I ... won't ... see you in two weeks!  In the immortal words of Red Green, however, "Keep your stick on the ice; we're all in this together!"

So Long ... at least for now

No, I'm not frowning; the sun is just bright.

By Dixon Hill

As many of you know, we've got a new house that has a relatively empty backyard.  We've got a pool back there, and a concrete slab that was probably poured so some past owner could park an RV on it, but other than that all we've got  is gravel.  Well, gravel ... and three large pallets with plastic wrapped boxes and goods that I need to put in my office.

Problem is, I don't have an office yet.  We need to put one in -- right atop that RV slab back there. The plan is to place a hot tub beside it covered by a loggia.  We've got the loggia, but not the hot tub.

Nor do we have the office, though I've lined-up a nice structure that will be delivered for a good price.  I'll need to do interior and finishing work, though, before I can write in there.

My wife, with her degree in interior design, has some projects she wants me to construct within the house as well.  And, since she handles our home interior, I get the fun of landscaping the backyard once my office is up and running.  (I've revived the grass in our front yard, only needing to add some trees, bushes, and vines that will shade the mostly windowless east and west ends of our ranch house.)

Meanwhile, I also have several writing projects that need my attention.

The result is that I haven't had enough time to take care of home matters, my writing, and my blogging, while still holding down my day job.  One of the things that I've let slip is making comments on my own posts.  I managed to squeeze in time to write my posts, but I haven't often been able to respond to readers' comments.

And that bothers me.  I think, if I'm going to write a blog, that means also taking part in reader discussion of my posts.

I've written for SleuthSayers since its inception, and was wildly excited to be invited to partake of this blog.  At times, I think I've done my best, but lately my best just hasn't been good enough to warrant my continued participation.

I don't look forward to leaving SleuthSayers, but I need to take some extended time off in order to (literally) get my house in order (as well as the grounds), and to concentrate on writing projects I've let slip lately.  SleuthSayers isn't the only activity I've engaged in, that I'm pulling out of at the moment, but it is the only one it makes sense to write about here.  Once I believe I've gotten my writing house back in order, and that it makes sense for me to return to this forum as one of the posters (if that's even the right word?) I'll let you know.

O'Neil De NouxThe Great News!

You'll be very happy to learn that my slot will be filled by award winning mystery writer O'Neil de Noux.

He has written 18 novels and published over 300 short stories, including science-fiction adventure stories, character-driven mysteries, historical fiction and even a smattering of very well executed erotica.

He served as the 2012-2013 Vice President of the Private Eye Writers of America -- and rightly so.  His work has won multiple awards for both long and short fiction, among these a Shamus in 2007 (Best Short Story) and a Derringer in 2009 (Best Novelette), while his The Long Cold is in the running for Best Paperback Original Private Eye Novel this year.  (I've got my fingers crossed for ya', buddy!  Though it's not like you need the luck, because you write great stuff!)

In short, I'm flattered even to be REPLACED by this guy.  And, he's clearly a great fit for this blog site comprising so many other highly successful writers.

I hope you'll join me in welcoming O'Neil de Noux to SleuthSayers, and I strongly encourage you to be sure to catch his inaugural blog in two weeks!

Meanwhile, this time I ... won't ... see you in two weeks!  In the immortal words of Red Green, however, "Keep your stick on the ice; we're all in this together!"

26 August 2016

Phoenix Serial Street Shooter

by Dixon Hill

Not long ago, I posted a story about a fellow who dressed as a "Zombie Killer" and was later arrested for raping and murdering several women here in the Valley of the Sun.

Today's post concerns an on-going serial killer's actions: those of the person dubbed "The Serial Street Shooter," or in some media, "The Monster of Maryvale."  (Maryvale is an "urban village" on the west side of Phoenix.

Early shootings were largely believed to have been centered around poorer Hispanic neighborhoods there.  The investigation would later indicate the shooter ranged more widely.)

Unfortunately, this person remains at large as of this writing.

The first victim was a teenage boy, but police didn't realize what was going on for some time. And, because the investigation is still going on, they haven't released many names, or most other details, but the AZ Republic listed this timeline about the victims:

  • On March 17, about 11:30 p.m., a 16-year-old boy suffered non-life-threatening injuries after being shot while walking in the 1100 block of East Moreland Street.
  • On March 18, about 11:30 p.m., a 21-year-old man suffered non-life-threatening injuries after being shot while standing outside of his vehicle in the 4300 block of North 73rd Avenue.
  • On April 1, about 9 p.m., 21-year-old Diego Verdugo-Sanchez was shot and killed outside a home near the 5500 block of West Turney Avenue.
  • On April 19 about 4:30 a.m., the body of 55-year-old Krystal Annette White was discovered near the 500 block of North 32nd Street. She died of apparent gunshot wounds.
  • On June 3, about 9:50 p.m., 32-year-old Horacio De Jesus Pena was fatally shot while outside a home in the 6700 block of West Flower Street.
  • On June 10, about 9:30 p.m., 19-year-old Manuel Castro Garcia was fatally shot outside a home near the 6500 block of West Coronado Road.   
  • On June 12, about 2:35 a.m., an unoccupied vehicle was discovered shot in the 6200 block of West Mariposa Drive. 
  • On June 12, about 3 a.m., a gunman opened fire on two women and one girl seated in a parked car outside a home near the 6300 block of West Berkeley Road. Angela Linner, 31, and Maleah Ellis, 12, died almost immediately. Maleah's mother, Stefanie Ellis, died three weeks later.
  • On July 11, during evening hours, a gunman shot at a vehicle in a residential neighborhood in the 3200 block of East Oak Street. A 21-year-old man and 4-year-old boy were in the vehicle, but neither was injured.

Initially, police connected four shootings, with six victims, to the same perpetrator – all the victims having been shot during the hours of darkness, on weekends and within a four mile radius. By mid-July, however, forensic evidence connected four other shootings, taking place as early as March; one more than ten miles away from the Maryvale epicenter of the other attacks. Nor did that victim, Krystal Annette White, seem to have any connections to the city.


Witness reports have varied, naturally.  The gunman is reported to be a light skinned Hispanic or white male in his early to mid-twenties. Unofficially, he is rumored to have a thin build, but Phoenix Police homicide Lt. Ed DeCastro cautions that the police department is actually uncertain about his height and build at this time.

Until July 11th, only a side-view composite was made available by police, because no one reported having seen him face-on.  The 21-year-old who was shot at on that date, however, assisted police in generating a frontal composite.

The victim says the shooter stopped his "black BMW" so that its driver door window and the victim's were facing each other, then stuck his head and a sidearm out of the window, giving the victim an angry look before opening fire.

The gunman was reportedly alone in most cases, though in one case he was supposedly in a car with two or three others.  Sometimes he exited his car before firing, while on other occasions he remained in the driver's seat.  Descriptions of the car varied widely, but had enough cohesion that police now suggest he has used at least two cars: a boxy, late-90's or early 2000.s BMW 5-series; or a white Cadillac/Lincoln type of sedan.  There has even been speculation that he may have access to a car lot or automobile dealership, perhaps working as a valet or lot person.

Police say the shooter appears to target his victims largely at random.  And, while most of his victims have been Hispanic or black, anyone foolishly jumping to stereotypical conclusions should be warned that there appear to be absolutely no ties to drugs, gangs or other illegal activity.  Most victims appear to have been good citizens.  In fact, nothing seems to connect these victims, except the fact that they were shot at by the same weapon, the lateness of the hour when they were available as targets, and the general lack of witnesses when they were shot at.

Police are asking for help, saying somebody out there must know who this person is.  The reward for information leading to his arrest has now be raised to $75,000 and police are hoping someone will come forward.

I'll let you know if this happens.

See you in two weeks,

— Dixon

12 August 2016

Requiem for a Fedora

By Dixon Hill

A good friend of mine made what will probably be its final passing from my life last week.

It was brown, beaten, dented and scuffed, frayed and holed.  It used to have a small spray of feathers sticking up from the bow round it's band, at the base of its crown.

But, now it lies in state atop a bookshelf, with our two hallowed flags, never to be worn again.

The Presidio of Monterey.

I've owned several hats in my lifetime, but only two fedoras.  One was black with a wide brim, but cheaply made.  The other was brown.

I bought the black one while in high school, and took it with me when I joined the army, wearing it all around Monterey, CA while stationed at the Presidio studying Arabic, then around Texas and Massachusetts while studying for my job in Military Intelligence, and finally around Clarksville TN, the gate town outside Fort Campbell, KY, where I met my wife when we were both part of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault)

As some of you know, when I left Ft. Campbell, I had only a couple of days to clear post in order to reach the SF Qualification Course on time. I had to take a plane, in Class A uniform, from Campbell to Ft. Bragg, so my black fedora made the trip to Smoke Bomb Hill crushed in the top of my duffel bag.   And there it stayed, until I finished Phase One out at Camp McKall four weeks later.

To celebrate passing Phase I, I checked into a hotel for the weekend, and bought an expensive fedora at the only shopping mall in Fayetteville, Ft. Bragg's gate town.

That was the brown one.  I liked that hat, but always felt the brim was just a touch too narrow.  However, it was of much higher quality than my cheap black one and better constructed,  It had a silk liner, a leather headband around the interior, a stitched edge around the rim of the brim, and its felt body was thicker and better formed, less brittle-feeling.  Its ribbon was thicker, too, taller that is, than the thin ribbon around the crown of my wide-brimmed black fedora.

I wore both those fedoras for many years.  Nearly every time I donned civilian clothes, while in the army.  They accompanied me on deployments to foreign countries (crushed, once more, into my duffel or ruck), and sometimes on field problems if I thought I could get away with wearing them in place of my patrol cap or boonie hat.

You could get away with a lot if you were in Special Forces back then.  And, if you had developed the requisite SF set of "eyes in the back of your head" when it came to gauging when the brass was about to come visiting.  My buddies were used to seeing me run the demolitions range while wearing a leather jacket under my BDU uniform smock, my fedora perched on my head, on cold nights.

These days, from what I've seen and heard, Special Operations Command has pretty much programmed that sort of "unmilitary behavior" right out of SF soldiers.  Which is a real shame for us all, in my opinion. Pulling off the successful Unconventional Warfare mission usually seems to require not only tactical and technical proficiency, but also more than just a modicum of brazen insanity, tempered by a surprising touch of optimism and whimsy.  If asked why this is so, I'd be at a loss to give you scientific reason, but would probably say, "It's like adding that 'Little Dab'll Do Ya' when working with explosives.  You calculate how many pounds of explosive you need, and where to place your charges, but then you always add that 'Little Dab'll Do Ya' or that bridge you're trying to blow will probably still be staring you in the eye after your charges go off.  Add that little dab, however, and down she comes.  I have no idea why this works; I only know that this is why working with explosives in an ART, not a SCIENCE."  And it's the same with UW operations.

But, enough of that diatribe.  We're here to remember a hat.  A fedora to be exact.  A good hat, if not a great one.  But, hey! who here is perfect?  That hat kept my head warm on cold nights, and shaded on hot days, in more geographic locations than I can properly remember.  My brown and black fedoras went everywhere I did, along with my leather jacket, for as long as I served.

After I popped smoke on the army, they came back home to Arizona with me, down to the blazing desert.  There, I wore them a bit less, but still they served me well.

The black fedora was too cheap to last long in the desert air, literally coming unglued while my oldest son played Indiana Jones one day.  But, the brown one stood the test of time.  In fact, I wore it quite a bit around the conference at Left Coast Crime in Phoenix earlier this year.

It served me as clothing and decor, as well as acting as costume and plaything for all three of my kids (a fedora makes a pretty mean Frisbee when needed).  Thus, I heard a catch in my daughter's voice, last week, when she called, "Patta!" from the laundry room adjoining the patio on our new house.

I found her standing there, before the washing machine, holding what looked like a soggy, thick paper towel spindle in both her petite hands.

It was my brown fedora, crushed into a tube shape. Soaking.  Crumpled.  Shrunken.

Somehow, it had gotten mixed in with the dirty clothes, and my wife had accidentally tossed it into the wash.

I'd seen the hat in bad shape before, so I punched the crown back up, pulled the hat back into shape, and pushed an approximation of the right dent into the top.

But, when I parked it on my head ... felt like I was wearing a yarmulke!

My hat had shrunk beyond recoverability.

And, thus, this post: Requiem for a Fedora.  (Or, drink a beer and call it a wake!)

See you in two weeks!

29 July 2016

The Joy of Writing

By Dixon Hill

I don't know if you enjoy watching the late Bob Ross on his PBS show The Joy of Painting.
 However, I really do.

I find it relaxing.  Which is sort of funny, if you consider that I probably couldn't even paint a realistic looking stick figure.

I'm also moderately capable in basic construction, and I understand the theoretical methods of joining wood via dove tails, biscuits, etc.  Yet, I stick to screws and nails, sometimes even screwing things together with metal plates or carriage bolts.  I've never built any fine furniture that actually LOOKED "fine."  In fact, I'm not sure I used the right "biscuit" word in the sentence above.  Which doesn't keep me from watching videos about fine furniture construction, or even tools for said work.  Because, these videos also relax me.  My wife laughed that a video I watched about the different types of planes, and how to use them, "relaxed me" right to sleep a week or two ago.

A short while back, however, while watching Bob Ross painting green trees against a violet background, I suddenly snapped upright, ears pricked.  I grabbed the PS3 controller and rewound the NetFlix video a few minutes back, to hear him again.

What he said was that he'd "agonized over paintings" many times in the past.  But, he no longer agonizes over them.  He just paints what he enjoys.

I've often stressed to my kids that we make decisions and choices in life -- even if we try to avoid making those decisions.  Part of my mantra was always, "Maybe I could have made more money doing something else, not focusing on my writing while working only part-time jobs and taking care of you guys.  But, this is what makes me happy.  Though we can't buy you every toy, or take you to the Taj Majal, I get my happiness from spending time with you, and by writing."

But, Bob Ross seemed to be saying more.  What I heard wasn't "I chose to become a painter because I liked it, or because it was easy."  Instead, the message I heard was, "My painting works best when I enjoy the work."

If you've read some of my past posts here, you may recall my mentioning the idea that I know I'm "in the groove" and writing well when the story picks up a force of its own and starts driving itself across the pages.  I liken this to a train having picked up speed and suddenly barreling down the tracks.  I just do my best to grab hold and hang on tight, hoping I won't get bounced off up ahead.

Bob Ross's words made me realize that this "train" begins to roar when I find my Joy of Writing.

Now, don't get me wrong.  Just because something brings you joy, doesn't mean it isn't hard work.  If you don't believe me, ask a mountain climber.

Writing isn't easy.  Just as I'm sure painting isn't easy.  Or furniture making.  Certainly, neither one comes easily to ME!

Sometimes, at certain places in writing a story -- particularly a long one -- the road ahead can loom like the Matterhorn.  Even if my writing "train" is roaring down the tracks, if I spend too much time concentrating on that steep grade I have to climb ahead, my writing can just run out of steam.  Maybe this has something to do with why I don't like to outline extensively.  I'm sort of an "Well I'll cross that bridge or climb that mountain when I get there" kind of guy, anyway.  So, it makes sense I might not want to dwell on too many details, for fear I'll build a mountainous mental ziggurat that will knock out my will to put the story on paper -- flesh the thing out.

I also realized that The Joy of Writing is why -- though I hold a journalism degree -- I write fiction.  Fiction provides much greater joy, at least for me.  I'm not bound by strict facts.  I can write the ending the way I want it to end, not the way it really just seems to be struggling along.  Which is largely why I never felt satisfaction writing eight column inches about a story with roots twenty to forty years old and no end in sight.  No wonder so many reporters drink!

And, I don't think this means I can't write stories aimed at certain publications or editors.  I find joy there, too.

Where do you find YOUR joy of writing?  Or do you?


15 July 2016


By Dixon Hill

There are a lot of upsetting things in the news these days, so I decided to focus on one item that might be considered newsworthy (at least in some quarters) that also strikes me as a bit whimsical.  And, I'll begin by asking a question.

Which plot line would you be more likely to believe, or to find more realistic:

A.  A sort of secret agent-like guy tries to save the world from bad guys by using no weapons but his brain, often figuring out how to escape the place they've got him locked into, each episode.


B.  An alien. who looks human, tries to save the world, or universe, from bad guys (guys, creatures, other aliens -- take your pick), by using no weapons, and primarily by figuring out some technical puzzle.  He often uses a sonic screwdriver to escape some place they've locked him into, each episode.

To me, the television show MacGyver is largely described by (A) above, while the BBC series Dr. Who comes in under (B).  Recently, I realized they bear a remarkable resemblance (imho)--except that everyone in MacGyver is supposed to be human (I think), and Dr. Who tends to travel through both time and space.

I would never have considered this idea were it not for an ad I recently saw, which indicated a new MacGyver series is soon coming out.  My first response was laughter.  Why, I asked myself, would they resurrect MacGyver?   Turning to my wife, I quipped, "I always thought the difference between MacGyver and Dr. Who was that Dr. Who was more believable.  After all, he's a Time Lord!"

It was only after I said this, that I realized what me think it was sort of true:  MacGyver and Dr. Who do have enough in common, the former might almost be considered a reworking of the latter.

Hot on the heels of this realization, came the question: How would I write a new version of the MacGyver plot line if I wanted to lend added verisimilitude?  Particularly in this day of technological wonder.  I mean, I always found it hard to believe that any human could be so intimately steeped in such disparate knowledge as MacGyver was.  The guy seemed to have a PhD in physics, chemistry, electronics, mechanical engineering, hydraulic engineering, etc.

Why is this hard for me to buy?

Well, my dad had a PhD and taught Civil Engineering at ASU when I was a kid (later becoming Chairman of the department there, before moving on to become Dean of Engineering at the U of Akron, finishing as Provost and V.P. of the University there), while my sister earned a PhD in Vertebrate Paleontology at Berkeley, so I have some inkling of the long years required to add a PhD to your belt.  Meanwhile, my brother (whom my dad taught to program computers when he was only 7 years old -- decades before personal computers ever came out), and whom his friends claim reminds them of the character "Sheldon" on the Big Bang Theory, feels quite comfortable discussing theoretical physics, string theory or the mathematics behind quantum mechanics, but is more lost than I am when looking at a car engine.  And I'm VERY lost when looking at an engine.  I run rings around him, when it comes to construction work.  And, anyone who hired either of us to make even slight repairs to the simplest farm machinery needs his/her head examined.

In short, it seems to me that it takes years to gather a very focused technical or scientific knowledge, and that those who can explain electronic theory on the quantum level are seldom those who can hook up a home entertainment system, let alone rewire or reconfigure some electronic/mechanical contraption invented by a bad guy.  So, how to make a person who CAN do such things believable?

After long thought, I decided the answer would have to lie in the inherent intelligence of this person, and his/her early childhood learning, coupled with intensive collegiate experience.  The person in question would not only have to be brilliant, s/he would have to feel a deep, driving need to learn not just why some things worked, but why and how EACH and EVERY thing worked -- not just on the physical level, but also on the theoretical level.

I finally decided I'd set the child's birth around 1990, making him/her in their late twenties -- a good age for catching young viewers, as well as placing the character in a generation that would slip almost naturally into our current computerized society.  To appeal to young males, I'd want an attractive female on the show, and to appeal to young females I'd want that female character to be in a lead position.  So, why not turn the previously male MacGyver into a late-twenties woman?

A good looking woman at that.  Brunettes seem to be in vogue in Hollywood, so -- being the contrarian that I am -- I decided I'd make her a blonde.  A brilliant blond haired woman.  (No comma on purpose; read it either way you want, or just pick the way you like it best.)

But, wait.  Let's back up.  Let's start her off where she can gain those early childhood experiences she needs.  How about making her an Iowa farm girl, a little blonde tomboy who runs with the pack of boys at school, usually beating them in foot races, often isolated by her peers for so easily acing her exams?  At home, she tags along with her father in the fields, particularly relishing those long hours spent tearing down and rebuilding older farm machinery and vehicles in the barn-cum-garage.  Her mother, a woman who bakes cookies for the PTA, but is enough of a feminist to support the idea that her daughter can become anything she wants, still can't help lamenting that the only times the girl plays with her barbies, is to remove their limbs, trading them for her brother's muscular GI Joe limbs, while keeping Barbie's thin torso and blonde head.  The mother is at first horrified to discover that her daughter made alterations to her sewing machine, in order to sew custom clothing designed to fit Barbie's new physique.  Later, mom decides this may provide an opening for mother-daughter bonding at the sewing machine, or when examining the chemistry-side of successful cooking.

Now, we've got a good beginning.  She's getting a hands-on education in the intricacies of machinery, while picking up theory along the way, constructing a foundation for further scientific study through her math and science classes in high school.

From there, we can move her on to the study of Physics and Mathematics at a major university.  While physics isn't the be-all end-all of the knowledge she'd need as a new MacGyver, a deep knowledge of physics and advanced math would provide a firm understanding of the underpinnings of molecular chemistry, as well as the forces at work in engineering.

But, she's only about 26 years old.  How can we provide her with that added wealth of scientific knowledge she needs?

My idea?  Let's give it to her in high school.

Imagine our young genius, stuck in an Iowa public high school.  She's not a people person; she's a person focused on THINGS: how and why things work -- down to the sub-atomic level, because she can't understand why atoms and molecules don't just fall apart.  What holds them together?

Shunned by many boys because of her physical abilities, she also lacks popularity among girls due to her focus on things instead of people or style.  She wants to know why her clothing stays together, for instance, not why or how to make it look better.  She doesn't care if her socks match; she wants to know what elastic properties keep those socks up, and why those properties work -- what makes them tick.  These thoughts won't let her sleep.  She gets little rest at night, staying up late doing ... WHAT?

Well, here comes the mechanism for her broad knowledge base.  She gets a part-time job, after school, working in a mechanic's shop.  There she excels, while learning even more about a wider range of vehicles and farm machinery.  At night, she spends this money by enrolling (under false identities -- she's learned to hack, but never steals money, only the information she needs to enroll) in university courses.  Thus, by the time she earns her PhD in Physics, she's also earned masters and bachelors degrees in many other fields.

Could a person actually do this online?  I suspect not.  But, one thing I've come to realize over the past few years is that presenting a reader with a truly possible scenario is sometimes less important to a story than presenting a reader with an excuse to accept the verisimilitude of such a scenario.  In other words, readers sometimes just need an excuse to suspend their disbelief one step further, when reading a fiction story.  My idea is that Miss MacGyver's nocturnal online education provides that excuse, helping to make the entire idea more plausible.  Or, at least encouraging the reader to agree that, "Okay, I'll buy into this idea.  She learned all that extra stuff online, as a genius, because her over-active inquisitive brain wouldn't let her sleep.  And, she paid for it by working as a mechanic, since she's worked on complex engines since she was knee-high to a grasshopper."

Does this idea make sense?  You tell me.  Would you be willing to buy it in a fiction story?

So, in my imagination, this is how we wind up with our new Miss MacGyver.

Just one more thing -- as Columbo might say.

In our current earth-conscience society (particularly among today's youth -- our primary TV target audience), how can we "green-up" Miss MacGyver.  I have an idea.

Why don't we rechristen her: Miss MacGaia?

Well, I hope you've enjoyed this post, maybe gotten a few morning chuckles.  Or, maybe it made you consider how you'd recast something, adding an excuse to help readers make that leap of faith that might lend added verisimilitude in their minds.

See you in two weeks!