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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!

01 July 2016

Zombie Hunter ... or ... Serial Killer?

Police say he was BOTH!

By Dixon Hill

67-year-old retired police detective Leo Speliopoulos was called to a crime scene in 2015.  Cold case investigators had cracked a case that had baffled and frustrated Speliopoulos for over two decades, -- a case that had alarmed Phoenix residents, afraid that a serial killer was stalking and stabbing women around the Arizona Canal, which winds like a spangled snake throughout the Valley of the Sun.

In 1992, 22-year-old Angela Brosso (left) had graduated from college in Los Angeles.  She took a job with Phoenix electronics firm Syntellect and moved in with her boyfriend.  In an interview, later, her mother, Linda, described Angela as "A force," adding, "...her father said she changed the nature of a room when she entered it.  And it's true, you know? She really did."

Sadly, one November evening, that year, not long after moving to Phoenix, miss Brosso went for a bike ride.  Her decapitated body was found near 25th avenue and Cactus road in Phoenix a short time later.

Eleven days after that, somebody spotted her head, stuck in a grate, in the Arizona Canal.

About ten months later, in September of 1993, Melanie Bernas, a 17-year-old Arcadia High School student, disappeared on a bike ride along the Arizona Canal.  (There are some very nice bike paths along the top of the bank.)

Her corpse was found, bobbing, near where the canal passes beneath I-17 a little north of Dunlap Avenue.  She had been stabbed and sexually assaulted.

Friends described her as a high-achiever who planned to become a doctor. Her death prevented her from completing slated visits to both Berkley and Pepperdine.

Six months after her body was found, using forensic evidence, police connected her murder to Brosso's.  They also noted that both Brosso's purple 21-speed Diamnondback mountain bike and Bernas' green SPC Hardrock Sport mountain bike remained missing.

They would remain missing for years afterward.  The night Leo Speliopoulos received that call, police carried rusted bikes from the suspect's backyard storage shed.

Police are pretty cagey about the forensic evidence in the case, worried they might taint a future jury pool, but it's a pretty good bet that DNA, reportedly found on both bodies, was what originally tied the two murders together.  And, there is no doubt it's the smoking gun that led to an arrest in 2015.

In the early 90's, the level of science used to work with DNA had not been developed enough to help in the right way. Police interviewed hundreds of potential suspects, and possible witnesses, but drew a blank when it came to the killer's identity.

Back in 1993, Bryan Patrick Miller was just one name among hundreds, which police received in tips.  The Phoenix PD Cold Case Homicide Unit didn't sit around eating doughnuts for twenty years, however.  They revisited the case hundreds of times, amassing so much evidence that an entire file cabinet was turned over to that case alone.  They even enlisted the aid of an organization of forensics experts called the Vidocq Society.

The Zombie Hunter in earlier days, his car in background.
Vidocq gave investigators a probable profile of the perpetrator, suggesting a man who still lived in the area and had probably been involved in precursor crimes, possibly even setting fires.

Vidocq suggested he would be a man who acted out his fantasies.  And, a man who had probably crossed paths with investigators before.

From among the list of hundreds of names, Phoenix Police tagged 42-year-old Bryan Patrick Miller, who often went by the name "Zombie Hunter."

Miller had been arrested in 1990 for stabbing a woman in Paradise Valley Mall.  The then-juvenile Miller had said the woman reminded him of his mother.

Miller had also been tried and acquitted of stabbing a woman in Washington state in 2002. He evidently moved there, not long after the murder of Melanie Burnas.

Melissa Ruiz-Ramirez says she was walking in Everett Washington when Miller offered her a ride. Later, he took her to work so she could use his phone, according to Ruiz-Ramirez, and he stabbed her. Miller beat the rap by claiming she had asked him for money, then tried to stab him when he refused. He claimed he had wrestled the knife away from her and turned the tables on his assailant.  The jury believed him.  Consequently, his DNA was not entered into CODIS, a national databank of DNA from convicted felons.

Now, however, he was back in Phoenix, driving around in a decommissioned police car that he festooned with yellow caution lights and painted "Zombie Hunter" on.  He reportedly called himself "The Arizona Zombie Killer," and offered the car and himself for hire to those planning Zombie themed activities.  He was also a regular at Comicon and Zombie Walks.

Police won't disclose how they obtained his DNA, but they arrested Miller because his DNA was on both bodies, and they can't figure out any other way it could have gotten there.  They also refuse to disclose many of the items removed from his property when they served the search warrant, fearing they may taint witnesses or jurors.  When local media tried to gain access to the warrant report, Superior Court Judge Michael W. Kemp shot them down, writing:  "Some of the items seized would be perceived as extremely alarming and evidence of guilt."
His true face.

Meanwhile, police are investigating Miller's possible involvement in the killing of two more young women in The Valley, including one who was selling Girl Scout cookies at the time of her death.

His trial is set for April 2017.

17 June 2016

Comicon Results

By Dixon Hill

 ComicCon results from two weeks ago:
 "Zombie's one -- Human's zero!"

That, at least, is the way our nurse claimed that the X-ray tech reported the results of my wife's foot exam two Saturdays ago.  Those of you who read my last post, know that my son attended ComicCon in Phoenix.  But, what I didn't tell you is that my wife, Madeleine, went with him on Saturday because I had to work.

The first thing they did, upon entering, was scramble up to the top floor of the Phoenix Convention Center to the Zombie fighting exhibit, in which patrons pay a buck to be issued a cap gun and make their way through a cloth maze populated by folks dressed as zombies, who in-turn growl, lunge, grab at, and sometimes lightly grasp said patrons as they pass.  Want to make the zombie quit attacking you, shoot it in the head with your cap gun.

My wife understood the rules -- All but one!

You have to shoot a zombie in the HEAD, because that's the seat of the creature's malfunctioning brain.  My wife blazed away at the zombies, who mostly fell down -- except for one female of he species, who kept coming back for more.  When she snatched at Madeleine's foot, my wife stepped back and turned in the same instant.

Her reward?  The zombie gave up, and the fifth metatarsal (the long bone in the foot behind the pinky toe) on Mad's right foot went POP!  A spiral fracture, which the doctor said is sometimes called, "The dancer's break," due to the rotating back step that often proves the catalyst.  My wife, whom I first met while we both members of the  101st Airborne Division, then proceeded to accompany my son through the rest of that day's Comicon, a task that necessitates walking for (quite literally -- in the true sense of the word) miles.

She proved a sensation at the hospital that evening, however.  Nurses and orderlies kept sneeking in to ask, "Is it true?  You broke your foot fighting zombies?  How AWESOME!"

"You're a celebrity," I told her.

"We're getting old."  She shook her head.  "They aren't excited about the zombies.  It's the idea that an old lady broke her foot while fighting zombies.  That's what they find awesome."

"Oh, that's not true," I replied.

"Yes it is.  And we are getting old."
Our sons, Joe (with beard) and Quentin (red shirt,cowboy hat)
appear on the evening news, in a story about Comicon.

"Your not old!  You're not even fifty, honey!"

She rolled her eyes.  "You're killing me here.  You're killing me."

Maybe I should have said, "...not even forty...."

Both of my feet still work, so duty calls.

I'll see you again in two weeks!


03 June 2016

An Imaginative Time of the Year

By Dixon Hill

It's that time of year again -- my 13-year-old son's favorite.  Not just because it's summer, and school let out last week.  There's more.

This weekend, Phoenix Comicon runs Thursday through Sunday at the downtown Phoenix Convention Center.

And the Q-man is stoked!

That's him on the right, in this year's almost-completed costume.  He's going as "The Sniper" from the video game  Team Fortress 2.  You can see a pic of the character he's "cosplaying" below.

Quen's still missing a scope and laser range-finder from his rifle, and a few other details, but we're working to fill the gaps by Thursday morning.

I'm writing this Wednesday night, since all my regular free time will be consumed by Comicon activities with Quentin over the next few days.

Comicon or bust!
This year, those activities include a screening of the film Jaws, with live commentary and a talk by the screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb -- and, later, a discussion and demonstration of Bartitsu (You Holmes fans know what I'm talking about!).

Writing workshops are also scheduled, and I'll be attending a few about Science Fiction and Steampunk, to get a few tips I might use in "outside the box" mysteries, while the Q-man goes to see Billie Piper from the Dr. Who TV series. And, once again, we'll be trying to get him into the Cosplay Contest at the comicon.

Those who attended Left Coast Crime, earlier this year, may find it humorous to learn that the Phoenix Convention Center, where I'll be spending the weekend, is just across the street from the hotel LCC was held in.

We're still not quite finished moving in, as you can see in this picture taken in our kitchen (above right).

See you in two weeks!

20 May 2016

Of City Hall, and Editorial, Needs

Artwork courtesy: Future Rooms at Grand Designs Live
By Dixon Hill

As many of you know, my wife and I intend to construct (or install) a backyard office, at our new house, where I can write.

R.T. Lawton asked, when he learned of our plans: "How tough will it be getting a permit from the city?  I assume you're a good enough draftsman to draw up a simple plan to show them."

Frankly, I wasn't sure how hard a permit would be to obtain, but I knew there were similar outbuildings in backyards nearby, so I wasn't too concerned.  And, while I could probably dig out my old T-square and triangle, I'm saved from such a task by my wife, who works as a CADD drafter.

R.T.'s question was a good one, however, because I wasn't sure what the city regulations actually ARE. And, since I also intend to build some shade structures (Such items can actually save several hundred dollars each year, in electricity bills, here in the desert.) I decided to trek down to city hall to investigate setbacks, easements and regs.

Thankfully, the results were relatively unsurprising though perhaps a bit humorous.

I can add a carport, for instance, as long as I install it perpendicular to my driveway.  Yep, you read that right: the carport has to run perpendicular to the existing driveway.  Which means, to add a carport, I have to add a 90-degree dogleg to my current drive -- and it's this dogleg that can then run in under the new carport.  (Looks like the idea behind this one, is that it cuts down on the distance a carport might penetrate into the 20-foot front setback.)

We'll have to trim the size of the grape arbor we wanted to shade the western wall of our house with, too, because regulations call for no more than a two foot punch-out in that area.  No problem.

As for the office . . .

Looks like smooth sailing.  I only need a 2-foot setback from side or rear property lines.  The planning and construction department will happily accept my wife's CADD plans and require no others.  If I'll request and pay for it, they'd be happy to send out inspectors after we run the electrical, and after the construction is complete, so the office can actually be added to square footage -- which might come in handy if we ever sell.  On the other hand, I'm not sure I want to deal with the added time delay or headache.

As my old friend, Harrold (who worked for many years in the city planning department), used to advise: "Unless you're worried about sales value, it's usually better to ask forgiveness than permission when dealing with a city."

But, all this had me thinking about how to deal with editors concerning certain types of stories.  I've long had a story sitting in my files, for instance, which seemed perfect for a certain youth magazine -- except that the setting just wasn't a good fit for that particular publication.  The manuscript is historical fiction, which they publish, but they tend to concentrate on U.S. historical settings in their fiction.

The protagonist of this story is a teenage soldier in the British army during the Napoleonic era, which I'm pretty sure they'd balk at.

Working to think outside the box, on these small construction projects around our new house, seems somehow to have helped me possibly solve my story problem as well.

I suddenly recalled that the magazine in question publishes science fiction stories, as well as historical and other types of fiction.  Consequently, I've recast my Napoleonic era story with a story set on a distant planet that humans colonized some time before.  Due to vast interstellar distances, however, colonists on new planets can bring only limited supplies with them and are largely left to their own devices after initial landing.

The colonists on this planet have managed to reach a technological level roughly akin to that enjoyed by humans, here on Earth, during the Napoleonic era.  A dictator has taken over part of the planet, and his army is trying to take over the rest.  Our hero is part of the opposing forces.

British Riflemen (Skirmishers) as portrayed in the Sharpe's Rifles television film series.
Those green "rifleman's coats" play a key role in my story's plot.
Now, our protagonist can do his duty, safely ensconced in the military hardware required to make my
storyline work, but I don't have to worry that the magazine will balk at the non-U.S.-focused historical setting.

True, they may not like this sci-fi version of my story.  (Time will tell.)  But, I can't help thinking this will be an interesting experiment.  This is the first time I've committed to making such a large change in the story setting -- basically changing the genre (from historical to sci-fi in this case) while maintaining nearly the entire plot line and all characters -- all while still considering a sale to the same magazine.

I wonder if any of you have ever done the same sort of thing, and what the results were.  Please let us know in the comments.

Meanwhile, I'm still working to integrate the new setting into the story, in as organic a manner as possible.  I'll let you know how things turn out.

See you in two weeks,

15 May 2016

The Girl with the Golden Gun

by Leigh Lundin

I’m seeing another woman. She’s stunning, vivacious, rich and generous, and… she can dance.

Miss Fisher’s fan dance

I told my girlfriend. Surprisingly, she doesn’t mind, which is saying a lot given her antipathy towards the Antipodes. Not our Stephen Ross’ New Zealand, mind you, that other country down under that does horrible things vis-à-vis soccer, rugby, and the purported game of (yawn) cricket, but that’s another story.

Anyway, about my new Australian darling…

But wait. First I’ll tell you why I longed to murder Lawrence Welk. I’ll tie this together, trust me.

Ever since I was a little kid, I despised that dastardly big band leader and his insipid Champagne Bubble Music™. His primary talent was outliving the really good musicians of the swing era, Count Basie, the Dorsey brothers, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Glenn Miller, King Oliver… pretty much everyone other than Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway. Welk’s idea of pop was pap and pablum for the masses. His flaccid phonographic flummery almost ruined the music of the 1920s and 30s for me, one of the most creative eras in the 20th century, and we're not talking Stravinsky, Schoenberg, or Shostakovich. Imagine a modern Clyde McCoy on trumpet, Tommy Dorsey muting a trombone, Viola Smith thumping tom-toms

Listen to this as you read on:

This piece was not written nearly a century ago during the 1920s flapper era… it was written practically yesterday by Greg J Walker for the Australian television production of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. I wouldn’t normally write about television mysteries when I haven’t read the original books, but I confess I’m doing exactly that. That’s how smitten I am and it’s all Dixon Hill’s fault.
original Phryne

MFMM is, if you haven’t guessed already, a period piece and to my eye… and ear… dazzlingly done. It features wealthy flapper Miss Fisher, christened with the appropriate given name of Phryne. (You may recall the suitably scandalous Phryne (pronounced like Friday with an ’n’ instead of ‘d’) from classical studies.)

The rest of the ensemble includes Phryne’s ever-fluid household, primarily comprised of Mr. Butler, Cecil, her ward Jane, and especially gentle Dot. The police presence includes newly minted Constable Hugh Collins and Inspector Jack Robinson.

The young constable is earnest although inexperienced, but the inspector proves highly intelligent and smart enough to give Phryne her head: Her charm, wit, money, and standing in society allow her to access social circles he can’t. As Phryne gives an entirely new meaning to ‘man eater,’ he’s sufficiently wise to let her do the romantic pursuing.

If you’re guessing characterization is key, you’re dead on. Phryne is engaging and entrancing. She carries a gold-plated revolver and is slightly reminiscent of Emma Peel. Inspector Robinson manages to be both firm and lenient with her and sensibly underplays his rôle. Phryne’s imposing Aunt Prudence– every family needs a matriarch like her– is an old dear who represents old school and old money. And then there’s Phryne’s companion/assistant, little Dot– she steals scenes and everyone’s heart.

Miss Fisher’s logo
Lady Detective

Before I stray too far, I must mention that Dixon Hill wrote the original article that intrigued me a year and a half ago. Curiously, two of my female friends expressed no interest in the series but one of me mates (oops, I've been overdosing) has started watching Miss Fisher from the beginning. Miss Marple she’s not. One review said Phryne ‘sashays’ through the stories, something a guy notices. Clearly we males find Miss Fisher fetching.

The historical detail is impressive. I admire many cars built in the 20s and 30s and Miss Fisher drives a beautiful Hispano-Suiza. Other viewers will applaud the costume of the era and Phryne wears at least a half dozen each episode. Indeed, one of the mysteries takes place in a house of fashion.

Sometimes writers imprint our present-day morals and values on the past, often imbuing a protagonist with a superior outlook. Not much of that shows through here– by nature Phryne is open-minded and the flapper era was daring, progressive, and sexually expressive. Thus Phryne’s physician friend Mac who dresses in men’s clothes comes off as genuine rather than contrived, not so much butch but a don’t-ask-don’t-tell person you’d like to know.

Miss Fisher’s Mysteries
The plots? They take second place to the characters and costuming, but even when you guess the culprit, you enjoy how Fisher and Robinson get there.

And the music? Most of it’s straight out of the 1920s and early 30s and thoughtfully offered in three albums (thus far). Wonderful stuff. I’ll leave you with Duke Ellington’s dirge, East St. Louis Toodle-oo.

Legendary drummer Viola Smith is still among the living at age 103½!

06 May 2016

Perhaps I need a CAT Scan!

By Dixon Hill

First, I'd like to thank all the well-wishers from my last post about our new house.  Sorry I didn't manage to fit any replies into the comments, but I've been a bit busy moving a family-worth of belongings from an apartment and two storerooms into a house.  And, yes, Leigh, fellow SleuthSayers would always be welcome, though you might prefer a different room as the office won't have a bathroom.

The late Lilian Jackson Braun
I've been thinking of Lilian Jackson Braun's wonderful Cat Who mystery series lately.  Not because I've been delving back into those books with Jim Qwilleran, Yum Yum and Koko, but rather because I've been battling our own four cats.  (I know: FOUR CATS!  It's a long story for another time.)

You see, aside from just moving (and trying to get items out of boxes and into sensible locations), I've been working to get a gas dryer hookup to not leak gas all over the place, getting a handle on a swimming pool that the previous owner seems to have treated rather cavalierly, and installing a cat door.

I've got somebody coming out, later this afternoon, to fix that dryer leak and turn the gas back on for it.  And, I've managed to wrestle the pool into a pristine swim environment.  But, that cat door ...

This cat door is for "Big Cats," which does not mean mountain lions, or wildcats.  Instead, it is a cat door designed to provide egress for house cats similar to my youngest son's cat, James Bond Jr. -- a big cat who's also "a big girl," as my wife is apt to intentionally misquote at the cat, from the film Lars and the Real Girl (i.e.: "You're a big girl, James.  A big, big girl.").

James may be female, but this cat is big-boned, large-framed and beefy (and not light when she sits on you!).  In short, I believe she's ready to defend her rights to James Bond's name (though her build would make her a better villain, in my opinion -- particularly if she were to hold and pet a Lilliputian human).

The only problem is, neither she nor any of the other cats will go through the cat door.

They were very happy to go in and out through the HOLE in our kitchen door, the night I cut it out.  But, once I installed the cat door, they immediately refused to go through it ...  unless one of us held it open for them!

And, it's not a matter of education.  We've gently pushed each cat through the thing -- both in and out -- and all went well (except for a little struggling on their parts).  So, they must know how it works.

The photo on the right shows the type of cat door I installed.  Not a single one of our cats will use it, unless we push the little see-through flap open for them.  They just crouch there, looking in at us through the flap, until somebody reaches down and opens it.  Then -- POP! -- the cat hops through.

This morning, at 3:00 o'clock, my wife opened the cat door for one of our cats to come in, only to discover a quick-formed line behind her, of three cats heading out.  And they didn't even thank her for holding the door for them!

My theory is that we should ignore the problem.  The cats' commode is out in the laundry room so I claim that nature will drive them to the right solution.  My wife's response is: if we ignore them, they may decide to designate a NEW commode location, on the carpet somewhere.  This is something we'd like to avoid.

Ah, how I long for the simple issues of Jim Qwilleran and his two Siamese, with their turkey roaster cat box, and no going outside for any cats!  And, well a dead body or two.

Once I manage to empty all these boxes, and find the one with those Cat Who books in it, I'll have to sit down and get lost in them all over again.

My cats will have to wait until I reach a chapter conclusion, before I open the cat door for them.

See you in two weeks!

08 April 2016

Voice in Wax

By Dixon Hill
A great voice, but not what I'm talking about.

I suspect I spend far too much time thinking about a thing called "Voice."

I don't think about voice, as it pertains to my writing, most of the time.  I figure the natural voice that comes out in the piece is probably the right one for it.  Of course, there are those times when I sit around wondering if I'm telling a certain story through the right point of view, and at those times I consider how changing the POV, or even perhaps the character who's narrating the work, might alter the story's voice.

Mostly, however, when I think about voice, it's because of my kids.  Usually because I've recently spoken to one of my kids' "Language Arts" teachers, or my kid is working on an essay, or my kid is working on an essay with a "Team" -- which means a group of kids the teacher assigned a group project to, which is quite prevalent in today's classrooms.

There is quite a bit of emphasis placed on voice, these days, in the public school system -- even down to very early grade levels.  And, I can't help thinking it doesn't really belong there.

One reason I think this, is because many Language Arts teachers my kids have had can't seem to properly define voice, themselves, so I question their ability to teach the concept to others.  Another reason, is that I've run into a lot of high school and young college kids who have been taught about voice, in their early years, who wind up telling me voice means essentially: "Writing an essay so you can tell how I really feel about the topic."  They don't use that sentence, of course, but what they tell me boils down to what that sentence says.

Some of my son's Middle School friends, a few days ago, told me much the same thing, adding an idea that I'd heard before from other kids.  This idea can be boiled down to: "The best way to use voice, when writing, is to use the letter 'I' as in 'I think ...' or 'I feel ...' because this tells the teacher what your 'real voice' is about the subject."

As a parent who likes to support schools and teachers, I sometimes feel a bit hamstrung when I run into statements like these.  I don't want to further confuse the kids, but I do want to help them understand things a bit better.  And, I certainly don't want my son's grade to suffer because a teacher gets upset about first-person writing in an essay.

This is a Jump Boot.
Notice the built-up toe and heel.
So, the other day, when my son's friends said this (They were all over at our place, working on a "Team Essay" assignment.) I asked them: "Any of you guys ever polished boots?"

Most of them looked at me as if I had three heads, but one kid had polished a pair of shoes on Sunday
mornings sometimes.  I took that as my lead.  I asked him if he used Kiwi wax.  He didn't know.

And, thus, I began my lesson.

Taking a pair of old Jump Boots out of the closet, along with a battered can of Kiwi and an ancient diaper, I sat down in front of them and began demonstrating how to spit-shine a pair of Corcoran Jump Boots.  They were all boys (thankfully, because I'm much better with boys than girls) and the idea of spit-shining army boots struck them as both cool and gross.

That's a good combination when you want to capture a Seventh Grade boy's attention.

I lit the wax on fire, first -- which blew their minds.  Then I parked the can lid on top to extinguish the flames, explaining that I was trying to melt the wax, in order to make it easier to spread.  When I pulled the lid back off, they leaned forward to peer at the melted wax in the can.

I dipped my diaper in the wax and began to spread it over the boot, while saying, "You know, polishing boots has got a lot in common with writing with voice.  I mean, there are guys who really just concentrate on the head-lights and tail-lights (I pointed to the built-up areas at the toe and heel of the boot as I said this.) and those guys do a good job of shining their boots.  No question about it.  But,,," And here I started polishing the uppers and the instep. "...if a guy pays as much attention to the rest of the boot, as he does to the head-lights and tail-lights, the boot gets polished just as well, but the result is a bit different, don't you think?"

As I worked, I had one kid put some water in the upside-down Kiwi can lid, and I used that water to polish the toe.  I pointed out that a lot of soldiers use water to shine their boots -- they don't really spit on them.

This resulted in a hubub of boys who thought I was saying that I didn't spit on my boots.

"Oh," I said, "I spit on my boots.  Like this."  I spit on the upper and started polishing it with the diaper.  After a minute, I stopped and said, "Look, can you see a difference?"  They agreed that they could (I'm not so sure they really could.), and I said, "Well that's one way polishing boots is like writing with voice.  See I can polish my boots with water, or with saliva from my mouth -- and both ways work -- but it makes things a just a little bit different, doesn't it?  The same way I can make things different by concentrating all my wax on just the head-lights or tail-lights, to highlight those things, or I can give the entire boot -- or my story or essay points -- equal emphasis."

They all agreed there was a difference, but they also unanimously agreed this had nothing to with voice in writing.

"Well," I asked, "what if I move the diaper in a straight line, instead of in small circles like I've been doing?"  I started using a straight line movement.  After a while, they agreed that the way I moved the polishing cloth did have an impact on the result, but not much of an impact.  I explained that the difference was subtle, and not easy to define.

They argued that it was easy to define, because they could see some straight lines in the area where I hadn't made little circles.  Then, because they were in 7th Grade, we had a discussion about the word 'subtle.'  I also tried to work in the idea that the straight lines they saw on the boot were part of the 'structure' of the wax I'd laid down and polished there.  "Aren't there subtle ways you could choose the words, or sentences you construct your essay with, that would also change the structure of what you're writing?" I asked.

In the end, I showed them that they could wave at themselves in my boots.  I'm not sure they finally understood my idea, but I did see some signs of understanding begin to dawn on a few faces.  Some of them seemed to realize that the way they wrote their essay had an impact on the way a reader understood that essay, much in the same way that a person polishing a pair of boots could influence the way somebody perceived the final shine.  I suggested they think about it, and try importing some of these concepts into their writing.  Maybe, I said, they could find a method of writing that would give a teacher the impression of what they really thought about the subject (they INSISTED this was necessary for the teacher to give them a good grade on 'voice' in their essay, so I finally went with it -- I mean, pick your battles, right?), but without using the word-letter 'I', or spelling things out directly.  If you're going for impact from 'voice,' I stressed, remember to keep it subtle.

Over all, it took about 40 minutes to get my point across.  And, another two hours of answering questions about every ten minutes, while they worked on their essay.  But, they got the essay done, and turned it in the next day.

We'll have to wait and see what grade they got -- assuming my son ever bothers to let me know.

See you in two weeks!

25 March 2016

The Hatbox Baby Mystery

The Hatbox Baby, then . . .

By Dixon Hill

The mystery of the Hatbox Baby has intrigued Valley residents for decades.  That such a tiny personage could engender such widespread and enduring interest, perplex so many -- and even work to damage innocent lives -- can seem almost inexplicable.

Yet:  One baby.  In one hatbox.  Managed to do just that.

Christmas Eve of 1931, a young couple, not long married, was driving home though the desert. They had taken their cousins up north to see snow, and were on their way back home, when their car broke down about seven miles west of the mining town of Superior, a town not far from the Superstition Mountains, home of another Arizona legend.

The Hatbox she was found in.
Ed Stewart pulled over in the open desert and, while he worked to get the car running (some say he had to clear the fuel line) his wife, Julia, walked around through the brush and cactus.  She heard a noise, similar to a baby's cry, and walked over to find a hatbox sitting by a clump of mesquite.

She called for Ed.

Ed came over and looked more closely.  Inside the hatbox, lay a 10-month-old baby.

. . . and "The Hatbox Baby Now."
83 yr old Sharon Elliot in 2013
Once Ed got the car going again, the young couple took the baby to Mesa Constable Joe Maier.

Maier temporarily placed the baby in a maternity home run by a woman known as Ma Dana.  A few days later, she was adopted by a couple with no children.

The story made national news in 1931.  Valley newspapers usually ran Christmas stories about her discovery each year.  For decades afterward, Valley residents and newspapers asked, "What ever happened to the Hatbox Baby?"

The answer: she had a full life and even raised three kids of her own.

For most of her life, Sharon Elliot didn't know she was the famous "Hatbox Baby."  In fact, she didn't even know she was adopted.  She finally learned the truth in her mid-fifties.  Yet, she still doesn't really know who her mother was, or how she came to be abandoned, in a pasteboard hatbox, in the middle of the open desert on Christmas Eve.

But what of the couple who found her?

Rumors flew!

The couple hadn't been married long, and wagging tongues claimed it had been a "shotgun wedding," the baby "discovered" in the desert so they wouldn't have to own up to their premarital misdeeds.

In the end, the couple fled the Valley, moving elsewhere, seeking land where no one had heard of the baby they found in the desert.  It became a point of contention between the two of  them, and they constantly refused to answer interview questions from reporters who hunted them down years later.

Thus, while we ponder who could have left a baby in such an inhospitable place -- in only a hatbox -- we are also faced by what may well be the greater mystery of the Hatbox Baby:  Why did folks allow wagging tongues to do so much harm to a young couple who did nothing but save a baby from near-certain death?  In one sense, the Stewart's lives might have been much simpler if they had simply convinced themselves that they had heard nothing crying out there in the lonely desert on that Christmas Eve.  But, then again, they would have had to live with the guilt.

This quandary filed not in the Twilight Zone, but in the SleuthSayers blog, under "A" for Arizona oddities.


11 March 2016

My Trip to the Left Coast

by Dixon Hill

If you read my last post, you know I attended Left Coast Crime 2016, held two weeks ago here in Phoenix, and that I promised to tell you of my experiences there.

So, here goes:

First of all, you have to understand that I don't do well in large groups of unknown people, if I don't know what's expected of me.  I don't find it difficult to stand up and speak before a large audience, or to run a battalion sized operation, nor do I mind being a spear-carrier, because I understand where I fit in.  I understand what's expected of me, and I do it.

But, I had never been to a writer's conference before.  I had no idea what I was really supposed to be doing there, or how that little piece called "me" was supposed to fit into the overall scheme of maneuver among 700-odd strangers.

 To complicate things a bit, I live on the Tempe/Scottsdale border (see map on right), so downtown Phoenix is not "right next door."  My car has developed asthma in her later years.  She wheezes, coughs and threatens to pack-it-in if I get her above 50 mph. So, I stay off the freeways these days.

Thankfully, I could drive almost straight to the Hyatt, where the conference convened, simply by jumping onto Washington Ave. and heading west. I had already registered online.

But, what was I supposed to do when I got there?  "What do people do at writer's conferences?" I asked myself.

I mean, even when the army dropped me into a jungle loaded with not-very-friendly folks, I always got a Mission Statement first.  So, even though I might not know all the details of what I'd need to wind up doing, I still knew what I was trying to accomplish there.

But, what does one try to accomplish at a writer's conference?

I knew this was a place where writers met other writers, for instance.  But, why?  Did they meet each other for friendship and camaraderie?  To gain advice, share writing war-stories, or what?  I mean, writing's one of those things you sort of have to do by yourself, it seems to me, so I really didn't get this one.

There were also myriad panels to attend.  But, what was I supposed to get out of them?

I finally decided there was one mission I could initially focus on: Meeting any fellow SleuthSayers in attendance.  If I focused on this mission, I told myself, the other pieces of my mission might resolve into greater clarity over time and acclimation.

Okay, so I've got a mission statement -- at least for an initial mission; I'm hoping I can come up with some successful follow-on missions to round out my time at the conference -- so I'm ready for INFIL.  I jump in my car, drive over the buttes, and head down Washington toward the Hyatt.

There, I discovered that attendance meant a satchel full of great books!  Just for starters.

Shortly after I attended my first panel, I sat down to figure out what I was going to do next, and discovered I was sitting across from a woman who knew R.T. Lawton, with whom I used to alternate Fridays here on SleuthSayers.  She asked me what I expected to get out of the convention. "I'm not sure," I told her.  We spoke for a while, and I began to consider my mission in terms of what I wanted to accomplish there.

I decided I'd like to get ideas that would help me refine my writing, and what I was trying to say or do with it.  I didn't expect to land an agent, but I figured I'd keep my eyes and ears open for anything that might help me land one in the future.  A few minutes later, I ran into Melissa Yi.

It was great to finally get a chance to meet fellow SS'rs Melissa Yi and Melodie Campbell. Unfortunately, familial duties kept me away from the conference when I might easily have shaken hands with Brian Thornton, and for that I shall long be sorry.

I eventually found myself attending many of the same panels as another fellow, for some reason, and we started talking.  We somehow even wound up at the same table for the final dinner.  There, our host, Matthew Quirk, provided each table member with his latest novel Cold Barrel Zero, and a set of lock picking equipment.  He also brought a few locks along to practice on -- some of the most fun I've had in a long time.

I found many of the panels useful in ways I didn't really expect.  I even wound up meeting a couple of guys with backgrounds similar to mine, who had published books with story lines that sounded like they ran down the same highways mine did.  One of these guys mentioned his agent (I didn't tell him I was looking for an agent; nor did I ask; he just told me.), and suggested I might send a query there.  I thought that was awfully nice, and am doing so.

Wandering around in the "book room" I discovered a trove of old "Toff" mysteries.  I'd stripped all the Toff books out of the local bookstores in my area several years ago, and never expected to find more.  I couldn't help myself! -- I bought two.  It was also nice to get my hands on copies of works by panel members who had said something intriguing about their writing technique.  I hope to learn even more by reading them.

But, I think the thing I walked away with -- more than anything else -- was the feeling that I'd been among people who did what I did on a daily basis.  Many evidently faced the same problems I do.  And all were very supportive.

That's not something you get very often in this writing game -- the support of your peers.  As I wrote earlier: writing tends to be something you do by yourself.  Getting a chance to immerse myself, for a long weekend, in a 700-strong sea of like-minded and supportive people ... that's what I decided the real objective was.

Guess it just kinda' snuck up on me.

And I had a great time!

See you in two weeks,

26 February 2016

A Short Post (Shocking, I know)

By Dixon Hill

If all goes well, as you read this I'm beginning my second day at my first mystery writers conference.

I've never attended a conference of this type before.  For one thing, I have neither the resources nor time to travel much.  When I learned that Left Coast Crime was to be held in downtown Phoenix, however, my travel concerns evaporated.  And, when I got the word, a few days ago, that my employer was willing to let me take the necessary time off work, I suddenly found I could finally attend a writers conference!

So, this weekend, I'm attending Left Coast Crime.

I have no idea what I'm in for.  But, I'm looking forward to meeting other members of SleuthSayers, as well as other authors and various members of the publishing industry.  I only got my final permissions lined up at the last moment, however, so I'm busy jumping through hoops to complete everything I need to finish before taking off for the conference.

Thus, my entry today will be short.  Something that's sure to astound most folks who've read my posts!

I'll do my best to take some pics, so I can post them and let you know how things went.

If you have any suggestions for me -- such as, for instance, conference activities I should definitely attend -- feel free to make them in the "Comments" section of this blog post.  I'll have my cell phone with me, so I should get the chance to read them, though I might not have the chance to respond in a timely manner.

See you in two weeks!

01 January 2016

Happy New Year 2016!

By Dixon Hill

It occurs to me, as I'm writing this, that my blog post will probably hit the net about the same moment that the big ball in NYC hits bottom to ring in the new year.

If this is the first website you're reading in 2016, then permit me to wish you:

"Happy Electronic New Year!"

It's been an interesting year, hasn't it?  From terrorist strikes in the news, to the first-ever 1st Stage of a rocket landing on a pre-planned pad -- standing erect, no less!

Great troubles.  Great strides.

Much like any year, I suppose.

It's common to ask, "What does this new year, 2016, hold in store for us?" in essays such as this one. I'm not really the sort of person who tallies things by the 12-month package, however.

Well, I do tally certain things that way: my taxes for instance.  But, I don't usually sit around and look back over what I've accomplished this past year, or how things have improved or gotten worse around the world.

I leave all that to the talking heads at CNN and Fox News.  They can ramble and rail.  And, I can switch them off.  Imho: they're just trying to find something to fill all that airtime, anyway.  I get my news the old fashioned way: I read it.

Of course, I do my reading the NEWfashioned way: I read it online, usually at the NY Times site, sometimes at websites maintained by select other papers.

The point is, though, I READ my news, because I like well-thought-out reporting that skips the spin or hyperbole, unless I'm clearly warned with a phrase like: "News Analysis" or "Editorial."  With a paper -- on paper, or online -- I get to choose: I can read human interest stories if I want.  Or, I can just stick to hard news.

I like that option.

I enjoy reading our Sleuth Sayers blog here, too.

Since this is a New Year's post, I suppose I should mention that this year is a special one for my wife and me: our youngest child is now 13 (as of yesterday).  Our last teenager.  Now THAT is a milestone, to me.  I should probably also add that I hope to land more short story sales this year, along with an agent to represent my longer works.  And I invite readers to chime in with their thoughts on family, news, or what they hope to accomplish this year.

See you in two weeks!

06 November 2015

Psycho at the Theater

By Dixon Hill

I wonder if you are like I used to be:  I had seen Psycho, as well as many other films by Alfred Hitchcock, while sitting in my living room.

And I liked these films a lot.

The fact that the film was showing on a screen less than three feet across didn't seem to cause any problems.

And, when I watched Psycho on DVD, I didn't even have to worry that anything had been cut out by television executives who might be worried over advertisement space or public decency concerns.

The entire film was there for me to see, just the way Alfred Hitchcock had intended me to see it, and I could enjoy it in its entirety.  True, Psycho seemed to sag a bit in the middle, but a quick trip to the kitchen for more beer and popcorn fixed that problem too.

Boy, Was I WRONG!

In September of 2015, Turner Classic Movie channel teamed with Fandango to present Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in several movie theaters across the country.  I thought it might be fun to take my kids to watch it, and my two sons were both available (my daughter, Raven, had to work) so I bought the tickets online.

On the appointed date, my sons and I trooped down to the Cinemark theater, which shares a parking lot with a gigantic Bass Fishing Store, near our home.  And that Bass Fishing Store may not have made any impact on the film, but that theater sure did.

Not the fact that we went to the Cinemark -- though it is a very nice theater (with recliner seating, even!) -- it was instead what I have finally decided to call 'the theatricality of the film'.
Glad to say no late arrivals were permitted at my screening either.

In fact, I now have to admit:  I had never really seen Psycho before.  Oh, sure: I saw it on the small screen in my living room probably dozens of times.  But, seeing Psycho on the big screen?

That's when I actually saw Psycho -- the TRUE Psycho, as it was meant to be -- for the first time.

The difference between watching it on the small screen, and seeing it unfold on the big screen astounded me.  That difference was not just surprising.  It was pretty shocking.  And, in one instance, literally moving! (And I do mean literally not figuratively.)

In fact, the effect was so great it had me puzzling about it, and discussing it with my two sons afterward.

I've read quite a bit about Alfred Hitchcock, of course.  Who can write mysteries, hoping to sell them to AHMM, without reading a bit about the guy?  I knew about many of his remarkable cinematic slights of hand, in which he supposedly made audience members feel as if they were watching the film from within -- sitting inside the action as it transpired.  I had noticed faint hints of this on the small screen, too.  So I thought I understood what the writers of those articles were talking about and describing.

But, I was wrong again.

On a DVD of Dial M for Murder, which I got from my local library, I watched a segment, after the film, in which another director (I think it was Martin Scorsese, but I'm not sure.) discussed the film.

He explained that Dial M for Murder had originally been released in 3D, but primarily showed in 2D because 3D was already on the way out when the film was released.  This director, however, had seen the 3D version and been amazed by the manner in which Hitchcock employed the technique, using it to provide added depth to on-screen setting, in order to draw the audience more directly up onto the stage itself.  He added that, in retrospect, he knew he should not have been surprised, given that Hitchcock's filming technique often lent an almost-3D effect to his 2D films.

Watching the film, in the theater, when different people pulled in at the motor court run by Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins) I suddenly understood what that man had mean, with all that talk about a 3D effect in 2D films.

Aerial shot of the motor court and house on the studio lot.
Courtesy Time Life
On the small screen, for instance, I was never terribly excited about outside shots of the motor court.  Frankly, I always got the feeling it was clearly shot on a sound stage, even though I had seen the Psycho house on the studio lot as a teenager.  And there was certainly nothing menacing about this motor court -- at least, not to me.

On the large screen, however, that motor court had a definite 3D feel to it.  I felt as if I could have walked past the car that had just stopped in front of me, and strolled up onto the wooden sidewalk in front of the rooms, and that my feet would have kicked through about twenty or thirty feet of dirt parking lot before I reached that walkway.

After the film, I asked my two sons, and both agreed that they had found the motor court surprisingly 3D in feel.  We also agreed that the details within the shots had been nearly overwhelming at times.  We had often felt -- each, singly -- as if we were sitting in the same room that the characters occupied.  Sometimes even near the center of the room.  Dressers, counters, sinks, even stuffed birds looked ... well, I guess I can only call it TANGIBLE.  It felt as if they were really there, right in front of us, and we could reach out and actually touch them if we wanted.

None of us could think of a single instance when we had experienced such a feeling while watching a contemporary film.  Which tells you how much we lost with Hitchcock's passing.

I had watched all this for quite some time, thinking:
 Hmmm.  I always thought the film dragged a bit after the murder scene, but I don't feel as if it's dragging at all this time.  I wonder why. 
                      -- when something occurred that startled me into realizing part of the answer. 

All my life I had heard stories about Hitchcock shooting scenes in a manner that manipulated audience members -- like making everyone in the theater lean to one side in an attempt to see through a crack between a door and the doorjamb, for instance.  But, I had never experienced this for myself.

Now I have!

On the big screen, when Detective Milton Arbogast (played by Martin Balsom) enters the hardware store where Lila Crane (played by Vera Miles) has gone to find her missing sister's boyfriend, a remarkable thing takes place.  And, humorously, when I'd seen the film on television, I'd assumed this odd thing was simply the result of an error by whoever had edited it for the small screen.  After all, they cut off part of the top and bottom of the character's head!

Watching in the theater, as "Arbogast" entered the room, his "cut off" head completely FILLED the screen.  It invaded my space!  And I suddenly moved my head, to give the man room to get into the place.  I was afraid he was going to bump into me and we'd both be embarrassed by the collision!

Arbogast.  He doesn't look so forceful in this shot.
This only took a second.  Maybe not even that long.  But, Arbogast's character, his stubborn bull-
headedness, his willingness to push through any obstacle, not caring about the cost, was instantly communicated to me.  Just through this one, one-second or less, scene.

I was shocked!

After all, I'm a writer.  I work hard to make words count, to make them carry as much load as they can in my stories.

And, here was a director using cinematography to make every second, or half-second, of his film carry as much load as it could.

Sure, there have been scenes in movies that I've seen, in which something is rapidly communicated on-screen with little or no dialogue.  But this communication usually comes as a sort of punch-line, the answer to a question or mystery that's been plaguing the viewer throughout the film.  This scene can carry so much load, because the burden of much of the information it conveys was shouldered earlier, by those scenes that created the question in our minds; the question this scene answered.

But that is NOT what happened here.

In response to the realization: Did I just duck out of that guy's way?  I DID!  And he's a two-dimensional fictional character on a screen at least seventy feet away from me.  How did he manage to invade my space like that? I began thinking about the film, about what I was seeing.

I came to view  the film not only for its inherent entertainment value, but also to look at what was happening in the technique, and what that technique did to me.  I finally realized that the reason I didn't think the film was dragging, was because Hitchcock was forcing every second to carry its own weight -- something that didn't happen when I saw it on the small screen at home.  At home, for instance, Arbogast's entrance had looked like an editing error.  In the theater, this same shot forced me to move my head, to get out of a two-dimensional character's way.

I have to tell you: If you get the chance to watch a Hitchcock film in a theater -- JUMP AT IT!  If your experience with that film is anything like mine at Psycho, you'll be glad you did.

See you in two weeks!

23 October 2015

Making the Minutes Count

By Dixon Hill

There have been some great posts, here on SleuthSayers, about the modus-operandi used by my fellow writers when jotting down notes for stories.

As many of you know, my time of late has been extremely limited when it comes to writing availability. This has caused problems for me, because I tend to need rather long periods of quiet to focus my mind before I manage to "get into the groove" of writing.  And, these periods of quiet usually need to occur after I've decompressed from the rigors of the regular workaday world.

Meanwhile, family life and unimportant things like the need to sleep tend to further compress my available writing hours into short blocks of only ten or fifteen minutes -- or during a twenty-minute break at work.  Trying to get work done in five, ten or fifteen minute blocks of time comes very difficult for me. Initially I found myself writing on napkins or loose leaf notebook paper, only to find that my longhand wasn't fast enough to capture what my mind might fit into those few minutes.

After decompressing from work, I'd sit out on the patio (it was pretty hot by that time of the day), and would begin to form the dream-like procreation that is the catalyst for my writing--only to realize I needed to get it into the computer.  This I bemoaned, because, once I got my computer and all the cooling paraphernalia outside, I had done so much work that the spell had been broken. I often found myself at those times sitting in front of the computer, which was all ready to go, but without the muse speaking to me.

I tried dragging my computer out onto the patio, before I began musing.  This worked well during the late fall, the winter and in early spring.  But, not during the heat of a Phoenix summer afternoon. There have been several excellent suggestions from folks here (particularly from Leigh), on heat-combating hardware that might help my computer keep chugging when it's 110 out.  However, as this summer progressed and the heat not only rose this year, we also encountered much higher humidity than normal.  My computer began to suffer problems.

This is how I wound up writing in longhand, on my patio, in an effort to tap into that forming story in a manner that would allow me to bring it inside and enter it into my computer later.  Unfortunately, this left me struggling with paper that quite honestly was being sweated through, or alternatively seared (to something a bit more crisp than it should have been) by the Sun.  Plus: I still couldn't write fast enough.

 I was stymied until an idea finally struck me, and I began to dictate those passages, which I created in my mind on the hot patio, into the email apparatus of my cell phone.

 I only came up with this concept a few months ago, but have already used it repeatedly. In fact, it's how I composed the first draft of this essay, and posted it on the Sandbox site.  Initially, I tried using the text app on my cell phone, but I quickly realized, while I cannot very easily highlight copy and paste a TEXT from my cell phone into my computer, it is relatively simple to open my computer, bring up my email, then copy and paste the text of that EMAIL into Word, and use it in a story I am constructing.

Anyone who has used cell phone dictation, of course, knows that the email I copy and paste into Word is rather a-fright with errors. but I have found it a far quicker method than jotting on paper or napkins and then trying to type everything I've written longhand into my computer.

Additionally, putting this information into my computer and properly editing it so that it reads the way it should, has actually wound up bringing me more quickly into the writing frame of mind when I do have my computer open.

 Each of us has, at one time or another, stated on this blog that every writer must find his or her own way.  Obviously, I don't know if this way would work well for others. But it seems to have been working for me . Far better than I expected, in fact. So I thought I would share it with the rest of you and any other writers who happen to read this blog.

There are drawbacks with using the voice translation software on a cell phone, of course.  I mean, sometimes the program just fails miserably to capture my words.

When I am drunk -- or half drunk -- not on alcohol, but instead from lack of sleep, not a drop of alcohol in my bloodstream, but my head swimming, my body listing, and my words running together... .

Well, this is when the phone fights me at its worst.   Words appear, sometimes reading similar to" the dog scratched Andy shed tell her," when it should have read: "I dogged the hatch and lashed the tiller."

These are the times that try my soul while I use the phone in this manner. I have found, however, that if I can transfer the text from email to story within 48 hours, there is usually enough there that I can recall what I was trying to say.  This normally allows me to retype it correctly.

Sometimes, when I'm stymied, it helps if I can reconstruct the sound of what I was trying to say by simply reading the mis-typed words aloud and running them all together as I speak. This often tends to reproduce enough of the cadence and tones to clue my ear to the proper words and phrases.

Of course, it doesn't always work out so well.  There is, unfortunately, the time I turned on my computer the morning after I'd dictated into my phone, only discover this paragraph:

The weather report, inside her, that's secret chord warm molten thick liquid
fudge that was why she had been drawn toward gloves boys in high
school and college. But Ted has been good man and Melissa had learn, through their relationship with
him.  Still that has been that's lights by
Sue missing from her life . Now, with the doctor, nada mike what's the simple
life red mill creek post she know china, your father, or mother home maker.
Melissa's on vocation teaching children topless beaches on the Riviera
come the best arid outback down south come the hot blooded South American .  She
had never known these, with the exception of that 3 months student trip through
Europe on her Eurorail pass between her freshman and sophomore year of college.

Sadly, I've so far been unable to fathom why this woman evidently had an inner "weather report" composed of warm molten thick liquid fudge, what "gloves boys" do in high school, nor why she evidently chose, as her vocation: teaching children about topless beaches on the Riviera.

And, I question if perhaps her best student was from the Australian outback, or was instead a hot-blooded South American, when it appears she may never have known either.  (Maybe this is what motivates her to teach children about topless beaches on the Riviera.)

I've tried to figure it out for a few days now, but ...

The world may never know.

Still, I think it beats scribbling scrambled words on minute scraps of sweat-soaked paper.  So I think I'll stick to it.  Sure hope my phone learns to understand me better!

See you in two weeks!