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30 September 2021

Setting As Character


 Happy End-of-September Sleuthsayers! As you may recall, for my last turn in the rotation, I had the honor of writing the Sleuthsayers' Blog Tenth Anniversary post. While working on this post, I did a lot of looking backward at the writing contained on this site: the vast repository of the knowledge and skill tips of  the Sleuthsayers' Roll of Honor. Trolling back through this massive trove of material, I came across one of my earlier posts, dealing specifically with a frequently underused tool in the writer's kit: setting. This particular post is from 2013, and I think it's aged well if I do say some myself, so I'm reposting it here, in hopes it proves helpful to authors out there wrestling with setting. In two weeks, I'll be back in two weeks to expand further on this topic. - Brian

*    *    *  

Setting. Everyone knows about it. Few people actively think about it.

And that's a shame, because for writers, your setting is like a pair of shoes: if it's good, it's a sound foundation for your journey. If it's not, it'll give you and your readers pains that no orthotics will remedy.

Nowhere is this more true than with crime fiction. In fact strong descriptions of settings is such a deeply embedded trope of the genre that it's frequently overdone, used in parodies both intentional and unintentional as often as fedoras and trench coats.

Used correctly a proper setting can transcend even this role–can become a character in its own right, and can help drive your story, making your fiction evocative, engaging, and (most importantly for your readers) compelling.

Think for a moment about your favorite crime fiction writers. No matter who they are, odds are good that one of the reasons, perhaps one you've not considered before, is their compelling settings.

Just a few contemporary ones that come to mind for me: the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. The Chicago of  Sara Paretsky, Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey. Boston seen through the eyes of Robert B. Parker. Ken Bruen's Ireland. Al Guthrie's Scotland. Carl Hiassen's Miami. Bill Cameron's Portland.

And of course there are the long gone settings highlighted in the gems of the old masters. These and others read like lexical snapshots from the past.Who can forget passages like:

The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.

—Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

Then there was Hammett's most ardent admirer (and in many ways, his successor) Raymond Chandler, a writer of considerable scope and power, was never better than when describing the sun-blasted neighborhoods of 1940s Southern California, the desperation of the region's denizens, and and black tarmac byways both connecting and dividing them in Farewell, My Lovely:

1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poinsettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.

And no one did it better than Ross Macdonald:

The city of Santa Teresa is built on a slope which begins at the edge of the sea and rises more and moresteeply toward the coastal mountains in a series of ascending ridges. Padre Ridge is the first and lowest of these, and the only one inside the city limits.

It was fairly expensive territory, an established neighborhood of well-maintained older houses, many of them with brilliant hanging gardens. The grounds of 1427 were the only ones in the block that looked unkempt. The privet hedge needed clipping. Crabgrass was running rampant in the steep lawn.

Even the house, pink stucco under red tile, had a disused air about it. The drapes were drawn across the front windows. The only sign of life was a house wren which contested my approach to the veranda.

— Ross Macdonald, Black Money

In each of the passages excerpted above the author has used a description of the setting as a tip-off to the reader as to what manner of characters would inhabit such places. Even hints at what lies ahead for both protagonist and reader.

With Hammett it's the stink of the corruption that always follows on the heels of a rich mineral strike. With Chandler, it's a life worn-out by too much living. And with Macdonald, it's a world and its inhabitants as out of sorts as those hedges that need clipping.

Brilliant thumbnail sketches each. If you haven't read them, you owe it to yourself to do so. And each of them was giving the reader a glimpse of a world they had experienced first-hand, if not a contemporary view, then at least one they could dredge up and flesh out from memory.

With the stuff I write it's not that simple.

In his kind note introducing me to the readers of this blog, our man Lopresti mentioned that when it comes to fiction, my particular bailiwick is historical mystery. In my time mining this particular vein of fiction I've experienced first-hand the challenge of delivering to readers strong settings for stories set in a past well before my time.

How to accomplish this?

It's tricky. Here's what I do.

I try to combine exhaustive research with my own experiences and leaven it all with a hefty dose of the writer's greatest tool: imagination.

"Counting Coup," the first historical mystery story I ever wrote, is about a group of people trapped in a remote southwest Montana railway station by hostile Cheyenne warriors during the Cheyenne Uprising of 1873. I used the three-part formula laid out above.

While pursuing my Master's in history, I'd done a ton of research on the western railroads, their expansion, and its impact on Native American tribes in the region, including the Cheyenne.

I've visited southwestern Montana many times, and the country is largely unchanged, so I had a good visual image to work from.

Imagination!

An example of the end result:

Wash and Chance made it over the rise and and into the valley of the Gallatin just ahead of that storm. It had taken three days of hard riding to get to the railhead, and the horses were all but played out.

The entire last day finished setting their nerves on edge. What with the smoke signals and the tracks of all the unshod ponies they'd seen, there was enough sign to make a body think he was riding right through the heart of the Cheyenne Nation.

Stretching away to north and south below them lay the broad flood plain of the Gallatin. The river itself meandered along the valley floor, with the more slender, silver ribbon of rail line mirroring it, running off forever in either direction. The reds of the tamarack and the golds of the aspen and the greens of the fir created a burst of color on the hills that flanked the river on either side, their hues all the more vivid when set against the white of the previous evening's uncharacteristically early snowfall. 

"Suicide Blonde," another of my historical mystery stories, is set in 1962 Las Vegas. Again, the formula.

I did plenty of research on Vegas up to and including this time when Sinatra and his buddies strutted around like they owned the place.

I lived and worked in Vegas for a couple of years and have been back a few times since. I am here to tell you, Vegas is one of those places that, as much as it changes, doesn't really change.

Imagination!

Which gets you:

Because the Hoover boys had started tapping phones left and right since the big fuss at Apalachin a few years back, Howard and I had a system we used when we needed to see each other outside of the normal routine. If one of us suggested we meet at the Four Queens, we met at Caesar's. If the California, then we'd go to the Aladdin, and so on. We also agreed to double our elapsed time till we met, so when I said twenty minutes, that meant I'd be there in ten. We figured he had a permanent tail anyway, but it was fun messing with the feds, regardless.

The Strip flashed and winked and beckoned to me off in the distance down Desert Inn as I drove to Caesar's. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference the combination of black desert night, millions of lights, and all that wattage from Hoover Dam made, because Las Vegas looked so small and ugly and shabby in the day time. She used the night and all those bright lights like an over-age working girl uses a dimply lit cocktail lounge and a heavy coat of makeup to ply her trade.

Howard liked Caesar's. We didn't do any of the regular business there, and Howard liked that, too. Most of all, Howard liked the way the place was always hopping in the months since Sinatra took that angry walk across the street from the Sands and offered to move his act to Caesar's. Howard didn't really care to run elbows with the Chairman and his pack, he just liked talking in places where the type of noise generated by their mere presence could cover our conversations.

You may have noticed that in both examples used above I've interspersed description of the setting with action, historical references and plot points. That's partly stylistic and partly a necessity. I rarely find straight description engaging when I'm reading fiction (in the hands of a master such as Hemingway, Chandler or Macdonald that's another story, but they tend to be the exception), so I try to seamlessly integrate it into the narrative. Also, since I'm attempting to evoke a setting that is lost to the modern reader in anything but received images, I try to get into a few well-placed historical references that help establish the setting as, say, not just Las Vegas, but early 1960s Las Vegas. Doing so in this manner can save a writer of historical mysteries a whole lot of trying to tease out these sorts of details in dialogue (and boy, can that sort of exposition come across as clunky if not handled exactly right!).

So there you have it: an extended rumination on the importance of one of the most overlooked and powerful tools in your writer's toolbox: setting. The stronger you build it, the more your readers will thank you for it, regardless of genre, regardless of time period.

Because setting is both ubiquitous and timeless. Easy to overdo and certainly easy to get wrong. But when you get it right, your story is all the stronger for it.

And that's it for me. Tune in next time for more on making setting work for you.

See You in Two Weeks!

12 April 2021

Anthologies, Pro and Con


When I started taking writing seriously, I aimed to produce a novel every year or so, along with three or four short stories. When I published my first novel, I had five more in my files and I revised them and built off those early ideas for the next decade. In late 2019, I finally exhausted that back inventory, and in the interim, I published 15 novels, but seldom more than two or three short stories a year.

For reasons I've discussed before, that changed in 2020. I haven't even considered writing another novel, but I wrote about fifteen short stories in the last half-year and sold five of them, more than usual. Right now, I have a dozen stories under submission at some market or another, and I owe that to anthologies.

Looking over my records, I see that over half my sales have been to anthologies, which I never realized before. In fact, five of the submissions currently out there are either at anthology markets or were inspired by an anthology call.

What happened?

Well, sometimes I write a story and it turns out to be a perfect match for an anthologoy that appears later. That happened with "Ugly Fat." I wrote the story years ago and many markets turned it down, but I knew it would find a home eventually. Sure enough, Heartbreaks and Half-Truths sought stories about love gone wrong, and "Ugly Fat" was perfect. When I sent it, I was sure it would sell.

I like anthologies more and more now because the guidelines serve as a writing prompt. The general premise and a context generate enough of an idea to get me started. If I get an idea right away, it tells me it's too obvious and other people will think of it, too. If that happens, I usually write a couple of pages and put the story in a file until I find a better idea or a new twist that will make it stand out. Having that basic plan gives me a more specific understanding of where to look for that difference.

For example, Michael Bracken is editing an anthology that will appear next year. "Groovy Gumshoes" showcases PI stories set in the 1960s, and the guidelines encouraged authors to use an historical event from the period. I thought of Woodstock; Vietnam; civil rights; the British music invasion; and the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Medger Evers and Malcolm X. Two other events spoke to me more personally, though. The Detroit riot erupted less than 30 miles south of where I was in a summer session at Oakland University. The following year, the Detroit Tigers became the first team to come back from a 3-1 game deficit and win the World Series. The riot suggested urban grit, and I used that setting. The story sold.

I have submitted stories to seven Mystery Writer of America antholgies because their themes are concrete enough to generate an idea but open enough to provide wiggle room. So far, only one story I wrote made the anthology in question, but all the others eventually sold somewhere else. I can live with that.

Yes, many anthologies pay a royalty share instead of a flat rate, and that share may be tiny, but anthologies have a longer shelf life than a magazine. Last December, I received (another) royalty payment for an MWA anthology published in 2012.That means the book and my name are still out there, and the exposure builds cred for the next story I submit somewhere else. 

As anthologies proliferate, there are more potential markets...and more potential ideas.

It's all about keeping the keyboard warm.

08 April 2021

So You Want to Live Free


My latest story, "The Sweet Life" will be published in the July/August edition of AHMM.  It has some relationship to this blog.  

Back – God help us! – 52 years ago, I left home in the middle of the night after one of the most frighteningly violent days of my short life.  I'm not going into the details.  But I truly believed that if I didn't leave that night I wasn't going to be alive much longer.  

I remember that night, but not much of the next couple of weeks.  But eventually I found myself on the road, looking for a haven.  I went to Coronado, then I went up to San Francisco - to join the hippie ranks, of course.  But by then the hippies were all gone (most to Northern California or Oregon, where a lot of them started communes).  Haight Ashbury was still there, but it was mostly hard-core druggies by the time I got there.  I went south, to L.A., and ended up in Hollywood, where I disappeared into street culture for the next couple of years.  

First of all, we need to remember that people have been / gone homeless for millenia.  Back in the Middle Ages, when the wealthy lords figured out that raising sheep on huge acreages was less trouble and more profitable than dealing with farming and farmers, they got rid of their tenants, who mostly fled to the cities or the forests. Every famine, people fled to wherever they thought they might find food. (Joseph's brothers to Egypt.) After every war, from the Crusades to Afghanistan / Iraq, some soldiers have returned damaged and hopeless and drifted, again, to the wilderness, whether cities or forest or desert.

What's changed is that today it's harder to be left alone than it was even 50 years ago.  You used to be  able to sleep in certain parks, under overpasses, derelict buildings, vacant lots, and the occasional free church.  You could even find a cheap place to rent every once in a while, and set up a makeshift commune.  But today… much harder.  The cities don't want the homeless, and they now have sufficient laws and police to harass, evict, move on, and/or jail people who live on the streets, in tents, on the ground, or in RVs.  See my 2014 blog, The Surplus Population.  Still frighteningly accurate.  And as for affordable housing anywhere?  Ha!  And good luck on finding a wilderness to disappear into.  

But the lifestyle itself hasn't changed.  

(1) Nobody becomes homeless by choice.  There's a story behind every homeless person.  S/he lost their job, their lifestyle, their mind, their health, their home, their family...  Something put them there, and I never met anyone who chose it willingly because it was a fun, free way to live.  What that something was is important to know if you ever want to get them off the streets.  Not everyone wants to go home.  I know I never once thought about going home, no matter how weird things got, because at least when someone did something awful / violent to me, it wasn't someone claiming to love me.  

(2) Over time, you get used to it.  The first requirement of life on the streets is to develop good radar for who dangerous and who isn't.  You will make mistakes.  Second is to find the infrastructure you need to stay alive:  usable restrooms, restaurants, churches, charitable organizations, etc.  Third is to learn the rhythms of the people around you, the police on the beat, the businesses, and how to work with them.

(3) Over time, you get used to it.  Street life is a whole lot of time to kill in between moments of great urgency, and sometimes great danger.  How do you spend that time?  Sleeping, when possible.  Talking constantly.  Looking around for anything that can be sold, spent, or used.  More talking.  Looking for food.  Lot of smoking.  (Smoking used to be cheaper than eating, and in the 60s and 70s even people who would never dream of handing out money would give you a cigarette.)  More talking.  The result of all that talking is some of the most unbelievable plots, plans, schemes, conspiracy theories and stories ever heard - believed.  Sometimes I think QAnon is simply channeling street people.  

(4a) You try to get used to it.  It's a strange mix of people on the streets.  Most of them are perfectly harmless; they're just unsightly.  But there are also the mentally ill - mostly harmless, despite talking to the air, which used to look a lot stranger before cell phones. But you can't ever tell if they would lose it.  Even worse are the predators, who specifically prey on their fellow travelers, often by pretending to be their friend.  Think Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy.  And at least he wasn't violent. 

(4b) There's also a strange mix of people who try to help people on the streets.  Many of them mean well:  those who come with food and water, those who offer rides to church or 12-Step meetings, those who provide medical care (we didn't have that in my day), and those who really are doing everything they can to get people off the street and into a stable life.  But there are also predators - the johns, picking up the young girls for some quick cheap sex; the cult leaders, looking for more recruits; the employers, looking for cheap labor; and the killers. 

(5) Over time, some people get more than used to it.  They turn feral - the life of the streets is the only one they can bear.  A life with a bare minimum of comfort / amenities, but a strange freedom.  If you can stand it.  Your time is your own.  You can say pretty much anything you want.  You can go anywhere your legs can take you.  You are not beholden to anyone.  There is no future, but there is certainly a present.  

I'm not romanticizing it like some people have (read John Steinbeck's Cannery Row for that).  It's hard.  It takes a hell of a lot of energy, just to stay alive every day. The life expectancy of a homeless person is very low.  And, as I said, there is no future, other than the ones cooked up in all those endless hours of talking.  The young street urchins waxing hopeful about being discovered and being the next singing sensation, model, actor, etc. (remember, I was in Hollywood).  The older guys talking about moving to the wilderness - Alaska, Rocky Mountains, wherever.  I never knew anyone who got any of those dreams.  Where they were was where they were.  

Me, all I wanted was to stay alive until I was old enough to go legal, and then come in off the streets and get a job and an apartment of my own.  I was lucky - through the grace of God, I did.  (BTW, doing that presented a whole new set of challenges.)  But - also through the grace of God – I've never forgotten. Everything I learned on the streets has come in handy in the rest of my life.


PS: Update on Allan. March 22nd, I took him to the doctor because he was having trouble breathing; they tested his oxygen levels, which were in the 70s, so it was off to the ER. He stayed in the hospital till 6 PM on Wednesday. Long story short: he has severe emphysema, will be on 24/7 oxygen for the foreseeable future, and has many upcoming doctor's visits, tests, etc., ahead of him. BUT he’s home.

Oh, and we've named his 24/7 oxygen concentrator "George".

01 April 2021

Drake's Plate: Happy April Fools Day!


The so-called "Drake Plate"
In 1936 a sales clerk named Beryle Shinn blew a tire while driving in the north end of San Francisco Bay, not far from the prison at San Quentin. Shinn, a decidedly "free spirit," decided not to waste a sunny afternoon changing a flat. So instead, he hiked to the top of a nearby hill, and stumbled across a most unusual cast-off: a square brass plate with a hole punched in the lower right hand quarter, and covered in peculiar writing.

Thinking he might find a use for it, Shinn took the plate home with him, where it languished in his garage for several months until he decided the writing on it might mean it was valuable. So in February of 1937 he took it down the road to the University of California, in Berkeley, on the advice of a friend who had been a student there.

Professor Herbert E. Bolton
Shinn wound up in the office of Herbert E. Bolton; director of Berkeley's Bancroft Library, who also held the Sather Chair in American history, and was a leading expert on the history of early California. Bolton deciphered the writing on the plate, and became visibly excited.

Bolton offered to purchase the plate from the bemused Shinn on behalf of the university. When Shinn agreed, Bolton informed Shinn that he had brought him an artifact of singular historical value, and insisted on settling on him the princely sum of $2,000 (Nearly $38,000 in inflation-adjusted 2021 dollars). The university board of regents approved the purchase based on Bolton's expert recommendation. (Interviewed decades later Shinn spoke of how grateful he was to Bolton. The two grand he got for the plate allowed him to buy a house and propose to his sweetheart.).

And just like that, the University of California acquired the legendary Drake's Plate.

Statue of Sir Francis Drake in Plymouth
In 1579 English privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman to captain a ship into the Pacific Ocean. In his ship The Golden Hind, he navigated the treacherous southern passage through the Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, ostensibly on a voyage of exploration, on orders from Queen Elizabeth of England herself.

Of course the voyage was a thinly-disguised excuse to prey upon Spanish shipping, and Drake captured and looted a number of Spanish vessels while working his way up the western coasts of first South American and then North America. It is widely believed that one of his final landfalls before heading west across the Pacific toward Asia was at the bay which still bears his name, just north of San Francisco Bay.

Upon making landfall at Drake's Bay, Drake claimed the land in his monarch's name, and dubbed it "New Albion." To commemorate the event, so the story went, Drake had made a solid brass plate, with an English sixpence embedded in it as proof that the plate's creators were English. Then he had the plate mounted somewhere along the coastline of Drake's Bay, and sailed off, eventually circumnavigating the globe and returning to England fabulously wealthy (and with a hefty share for the queen herself, as well, of course.).

A modern replica of Drake's ship The Golden Hind
Bolton, a scrupulously honest, hard-working and prolific historian, was intimately familiar with the legend of Drake's Plate. The long lost artifact was a well-known obsession of his. For decades he had admonished undergraduates with weekend or vacation plans including trips to the region of Drake's Bay to keep their eyes peeled for Drake's Plate. (It is possible that one of Shinn's neighbors, a former student of Bolton's was the one who eventually steered him in Bolton's direction).


Upon deciphering the writing on the heavily weathered plate Bolton became more certain that it was authentic.It was at this point he began negotiating with Shinn to purchase it on the university's behalf. Electroplating testing conducted on the plate helped convince Bolton that it was the genuine article.

The inscription reads:

BEE IT KNOWNE VNTO ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS.
IVNE.17.1579
BY THE GRACE OF GOD AND IN THE NAME OF HERR
MAIESTY QVEEN ELIZABETH OF ENGLAND AND HERR
SVCCESSORS FOREVER, I TAKE POSSESSION OF THIS
KINGDOME WHOSE KING AND PEOPLE FREELY RESIGNE
THEIR RIGHT AND TITLE IN THE WHOLE LAND VNTO HERR
MAIESTIEES KEEPEING. NOW NAMED BY ME AN TO BEE
KNOWNE V(N) TO ALL MEN AS NOVA ALBION.
G. FRANCIS DRAKE

But if Drake had left the plate somewhere along the bay near Pt. Reyes, how had it made its way nearly thirty miles to the east to that hill overlooking San Quentin? That remained a mystery during Bolton's lifetime.

It has since come to light that the plate was originally discovered near Drake's Bay by a chauffeur named William Caldeira. Caldeira later discarded somewhere along the road near San Raphael, and somehow it made its way from there another ten or so miles to the hilltop near San Quentin.

Which brings us to the question: "Is the Drake Plate genuine?"

Of course not.

The plate is the product of an elaborate hoax perpetrated by several members of "E. Clampus Vitus," a “historical drinking society or a drinking historical society,” of which Bolton himself was a member. Light-heartedly dedicating themselves to "the erection of historical plaques, the protection of widows and orphans, especially the widows, and having a grand time while accomplishing these purposes," the "Clampers," as they dubbed themselves, included many prominent California residents, and were infamous for the practical jokes their members played upon each other.

George Ezra Dane- The Mastermind
Keenly aware of Bolton's obsession with the Drake Plate, Several of his fellow "Clampers," including such prominent historians as George Ezra Dane, Carl Irving Wheat and George H. Barron, former curator of American history at San Francisco's famous De Young Museum, decided in 1933 to play a joke on Bolton. 

The hoax was originally Dane's idea, and he quickly recruited several of his fellow Clampers to assist with the prank. With the possible exception of Barron (who, it was later reported, secretly nursed a grudge against Bolton for supposedly being instrumental in Barron's eventual dismissal from his position at the De Young), the intent of the Clampers involved in the hoax seems to have been to have a bit of innocent fun pranking a friend. Either way, things got out of hand.

They bought a piece of brass at a San Francisco shipyard, and one of them tapped the words of the inscription into the plate with a cold chisel. But they also left hints that the plate was a fraud: the group's initials, "E.C.V." painted on the back in paint that would only be visible under ultraviolet light. George Clark," the "chisler" of the inscription, even added his initials to it. Bolton took the "G.C." to stand for "Captain General," a rank which did not exist in Elizabethan England.

Carl Irving Wheat- Fun Guy
Then the Clampers planted the plate out near Drake's Bay and waited for it to be found. When it turned up in Bolton's office nearly four years later, with Bolton believing it to be the genuine article, the members of the group realized the joke had gone too far.

But rather than come forward and potentially publicly embarrass their friend Bolton, the Clampers anonymously joined the ranks of those who challenged the plate's authenticity. They even "satirically" wrote an article hypothesizing how the plate could have been faked in precisely the manner in which it actually was. They faked another plate, this one clearly a forgery, with a satirical verse, poking fun at the authenticity of the original, inscribed instead of a supposed proclamation by Drake.

Nothing worked. Bolton was undeterred by any of the criticism of his analysis, and died in 1953 still believing the plate Shinn brought him was genuine. And apparently none of the Clampers who were in on the joke had either the nerve or the heart to come forward blow the whole thing up. They all also eventually took the secret of their prank gone horribly wrong to their respective graves (Dane, the mastermind of the entire prank, wound up dead of a gunshot wound in Golden Gate Park, just a few years later, in 1940, aged just 36).

The plate itself resided on public display in the Bancroft Library for decades, even as the doubts as to its authenticity lingered in academic circles. Eventually, with the 400th anniversary of Drake's voyage looming, the plate was tested again, using new technology, and was proven to have been rolled- a modern process, rather than hammered, as would have been the case had it been forged in the 16th century.

UC Berkeley's famous Bancroft Library

It was not until 2002 that the secret notes of one of the members of E. Clampus Vitus kept about the perpetration of the hoax were discovered (in, where else? The Bancroft Library!), that the Clampers's connection to the whole affair actually came to light. A group of historians published their findings based on researching the notes in California History in 2003. They announced those findings at a press conference in a room at the Bancroft, where the fake Drake Plate was still on display, under glass.

And yet many historians still believe in the existence of the genuine plate, and that Drake left in the bay which bears his name. And it continues to be the subject of intense speculation in academic circles to this very day.

As one of the co-authors of the 2003 article, marine historian Edward P. Von der Porten, noted at the time: "There is still a plate of brass out there."

And on that note: Happy April Fools Day!

See you in two weeks!



13 March 2021

Don't Make Me Turn This Car Around


I’ve convinced myself–against all experience–that Asheville is four hours from my driveway. Every trip, I’m cranking the music and thinking about the Blue Ridge fading off like haze, line after line in their peek at eternity. Yep, just four hours away. As a scientific fact, the trip from south Nashville is five hours minimum–with luck and a heavy foot. You get the Lookie Lous gawking around Pigeon Forge, then flatbeds loaded with timber crawl up the steep grades. Next, a malingering road construction project where I-40 tunnels into North Carolina. I've become certain it isn’t a construction project at all. There’s never actual construction. No, it’s a social experiment to document how drivers come unglued when jammed together into one lane for zero reason. Another time chunk gone. I pull into Asheville ruing whatever the hell happened to that quick escape east.

My writing works the same way. I set out after a shiny idea, but the problems start soon enough. The tone is off. The POV isn’t working. The plot takes a bad turn. All that can be fixed, but also like those Carolina trips, it’ll take longer than I think.

My first published crime story was in MWA’s 2014 anthology Ice Cold. I had a shiny idea indeed, plus a Shakespearian body count and key death at the end. I edited it mercilessly. And quickly, as I recall it today, except I count seventeen manuscript versions on my hard drive. My story in next month's AHMM clocks in at a svelte thirteen versions. My max on a published story? 75 versions on my hard drive.

Some process lessons from along my journeys:

Begin with the End in Mind

Yes, this old saw. Bear with me. I’m not talking killer twists but personal intentionality. What does a writer want out of writing a story? Creative bliss? Cool. My hard drive also has those stories. The pure joy of that is an amazing gift. Or is a piece meant for an audience? How competitive or specific an audience? Once a potential editor and their readers get involved, they become your boss. They deserve edits with their quality standards and enjoyment in mind, edits that may wilt creative bliss into drudgery. 

Drudgery also describes minutes lost to Knoxville traffic if you hit it at the wrong time. Maybe I have hard feelings about that.

This Is the Best Thing I’ve Ever Written

I considered it a healthy sign as writing growth when I stone cold understood that an early draft wasn’t anywhere near as groovy as my creative high believed. I might’ve had a great concept, say like to get to Asheville in four hours, but reality and hard work comes around as it must.

Take that story in Ice Cold. I believed that key death made for a Frankly Amazing Ending until an editor demonstrated--mere days before the deadline--that it was a Terrible Ending and also Physically Impossible. Cue more versions, the fast kind. 

Unobjectively loving a piece is my signal that the draft objectively stinks. It means I’m still thinking about me, not a reader. It means I haven’t pushed an idea enough to risk hating it.

Be Constructive with Your Readback

At some point, I find myself tweaking a manuscript here and there, but the creative momentum is kaput. Either it needs more critique or else a deeper think. Surgical procedure deep, and if so, I’ll print the thing and read it aloud. Many times. As an earth-friendly step, I’ll let Word’s readback feature sub in for an occasional cycle. Typos and clunky sequences ring plain. Missing layers and connections emerge. That’s the story finding its core. Oh, darling passages will remind me that of course I can’t cut them, and in a joy-crushing grind, out they go. I’ll keep iterating until I do hate the piece and might pitch the computer out the window rather than read one more word.

This Is the Worst Thing I’ve Ever Written

It’s not.

Despair and loathing are signs the piece is nearly ready. I step away for a bit until I’m all planed out emotionally.

The The

Recently, a critique partner highlighted where I’d used the verb “amble” three times over a few hundred words. Nobody ambles that often, not even cowpokes. I’ll search for crutch repetition like that.

One crucial word gets a special check: “The.” Such a weak word, the. Any cluster of it correlates to undercooked prose. I comb through anything with those three letters in that order, like “Then,” “they,” “other,” and so forth. Those buggers aren’t power words, either (Note: “Either” is a “the” word). Once my excess “the” and crutch stuff is out, no kidding, the piece has another level of energy. It’s found its style.

Lock Down

And I’m not done yet. Sure, I’m done with it mentally and spiritually, but it’s spit and polish time. I’ll let Word read a last cycle while I check along on my master document. I’m looking to confirm those final changes sound and work how I want. Darlings and typos can sneak back in. When I’m satisfied (exhausted) with a page, I mark it as locked down. When all pages reach lockdown, I scream or weep or drink wine, whatever gives me permission to get off the hamster wheel.

Such are my steps to submit something that makes me proud. Someday, maybe I’ll get more efficient. Until then, it’s like with the Asheville drive. I may get there in a bad mood, but I get there. Soon enough, I’m happily lost in those Blue Ridge lines like haze. The mistake isn’t underestimating the travel time but not completing the trip.

11 March 2021

Notes from the Culture Wars: Heartland Edition


1 - Nomadland

Of course I watched Nomadland on Hulu.  Beautiful, and yes, I've been everywhere in South Dakota that they filmed. My favorite park is the Badlands and always has been. (But, while Wall Drug has the best maple donuts in the country, it is never, ever, ever that empty of people.)

Nomadland

At the same time, I found the movie depressing, and not just because of the economic fact that there are lots of people who cannot earn enough working full time to live on, nor have enough retirement from working full time to live on. I already knew that. There are people who work full time in every major city in America who can't afford an apartment. It is a scandal, a shame, a horror, and something should damn well be done about it.

But you know, the battening of the rich upon the poor has been going on for millenia. What really bothered me was the social isolation.  Everyone wandering around on their own, meeting at the various job sites around the country, gathering at the places out in the desert, etc., where they can live off the grid, but separate mentally, separate emotionally, separate financially.  A fierce independence and determination to not be "beholden" in any way.  A toxic independence, in my book.

Now I'm not talking about the people who love travel, and are in perfect health. And perhaps that was Fran.  But most people would like to settle down and stay put, especially as they get old and creaky.  And the only way you do that is by banding together. That's how the poor have survived the predation of the rich for millenia. That's how I survived 2 years on the streets of L.A. That's how the peasants survived Calvera's constant depredations in The Magnificent Seven.  That's how [almost] everyone lived through The Grapes of Wrath, Cross Creek, and the entire Jim Crow South.

At one point in the movie a few people mentioned that they couldn't actually live on their retirement (me, too).  And the obvious answer is - live together!  Whether you want to call it a boarding house, a commune, or a house sharing, a bunch of people can rent (or even buy) a place and all have their own room, share the facilities, the rent, the chores and the expenses of life a lot easier than one lone widow /widower can do it all themselves.  Dickens is full of boarding houses.  In It's a Wonderful Life, after George has wished himself out of existence, he finds a world where his mother is running a boarding house.  I've lived in 2 communes in my day, one in L.A. and the other in Atlanta.  I still think it's a damn good way to live.  And I know I'd prefer it any day than living in Nomadland.  

2 - State of South Dakota v. AG Jason Ravnsborg

On February 23, Governor Kristi Noem released videos of Ravnsborg's two interviews with law enforcement late Tuesday. I think the highlight that sickened entire state was this:

An investigator asks Ravnsborg how he retrieved his insurance card, which was in the glovebox. Ravnsborg describes leaning in from the driver seat, trying to avoid glass in the passenger seat. He denies seeing a pair of glasses. “They’re Joe’s glasses,” an investigator says. “So that means his face came through your windshield.”  (Argus Leader)

And he repeated - again - “I never saw him.  I never saw him.”  

Anyway, the Governor and practically the entire state is calling on Ravnsborg to resign, and the SD Legislature said they'd impeach him.  But then the legislature decided to postpone any impeachment proceedings until after Ravnsborg goes to court over his 3 misdemeanor charges.  Gov. Noem - who obviously wants Ravnsborg GONE - weighed in today, saying they don't need a special session for it, and don't have to wait.  (Argus Leader)  Obviously Gov. Noem wants him gone - the only speculation is why.  What surprises me is that Ravnsborg hasn't grasped yet that if he is impeached he'll lose his law license.  We'll see what happens.  

3 - South Dakota Legislature, Where Bad Bills Never Die

Every legislature has its quirks. We have a little feature called "smoke out", which allows legislators to force committees to deliver failed bills to the chamber floor if they can secure the support of 1/3 of the chamber’s members.  And of course it's just been used for three of the damnedest bills:

HB 1212, which says, in part, “A person who unlawfully enters or attempts to enter a person’s dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle is presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit an unlawful act involving force or violence.” So much for innocent until proven guilty.  It's also, basically, a "stand your ground" law, because if you think they're doing something unlawful - you can shoot them and claim immunity.  NOW ON THE GOVERNOR'S DESK FOR SIGNATURE!!!

HB 1075, which says “Any federal statute, federal regulation, or executive order of the President of the United States, and any order of a federal or state court is null, void, and unenforceable in this state if the purpose or intent is to impose or enforce, against a resident of this state, an extreme risk protection order, including such an ex parte order, under which the resident, in order to reduce the risk of physical harm to himself, herself, or another, is: (1) Required to surrender any firearms or ammunition in his or her possession; or (2) Prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm or ammunition.”  Because God knows that owning a gun matters more than the health and safety of anyone around the person, even if they are so freaking dangerous the whole town avoids them and a judge has declared them a threat to themselves and others.  This one FAILED, thank God.

HB 1217 which seeks to ban transgender girls from participating in high school sports, and would require student athletes to fill out a form each year, proving biological sex from a birth certificate.  NOT ONLY PASSED BUT SIGNED BY THE GOVERNOR, SO...

4 - Speaking of the Transgender Culture Wars, Here's My Take:

As many of you know, I once worked for Medical Genetics at Emory University, where, among other tests, we did sex tests on newborns. One of my regular jobs was to sort out the chromosomes (from a photo taken on an electron microscope) to determine what the sex of a baby or child was, because the physical genitalia were anything from unclear to deformed to nonexistent. 

IMPORTANT NOTE:  One out of every thousand children is born with "indeterminate genitalia". 
The doctors, nurses, and parents literally could not tell, looking at the baby/child, what sex it was. In the past - and apparently it still happens today - they would simply assign "sex" according to their own preference - and a lot of times they were wrong:

Two examples of wrong assignment are Mokgadi Caster Semenya, a South African runner, who was assigned female at birth (b. 1991), but has either XXY or XY chromosomes, and Foekje Dillema (1926-2007), a Dutch runner, who was assigned female at birth, but after her death was determined to be a "mosaic", or a "46XX/46XY woman."  Both were raised as girls.  So which, my dear culture warriors, should everyone go by - what was/is on her birth certificate, or the genetics?  Or is it her own damn business?

SECOND IMPORTANT NOTE:  Conservatives (?) keep trying to say that sex chromosome abnormalities are very rare.  WRONG.  Actually, sex chromosome abnormalities are the most common there are because they are rarely lethal (unlike many other chromosomal abnormalities).  And the variations of genetic results can range from the normal XX or XY to XXX, XYY, XXY, as well as mosaics, and many many more. Nature is not "always right" or "always perfect".

For example: "Klinefelter syndrome has been reported to be between 1 in 500 and 1 in 1000 male births." (That's XXY or XXXY or a mosaic.) "In severe cases, they have relatively high-pitched voices, asexual to feminine body contours as well as breast enlargement, and comparatively little facial and body hair. They are sterile or nearly so, and their testes and prostate gland are small. As a result, they produce relatively small amounts of testosterone. The feminizing effects of this hormonal imbalance can be significantly diminished if Klinefelter syndrome boys are regularly given testosterone from the age of puberty on." These are very apt to be confused as girls at birth, unless sex tested, which may or may not happen. And they may very well "feel" that they are girls.  And without a lot of testosterone, they will be girls.  (Palomar Article)

And then there's the Guevedoces, a classic study which I read for the first time back on the job at Emory, about a community in the Dominican Republic, where some males are born looking like girls, are raised as girls, and only grow penises at puberty, at which time they become male.  Yes, you read that right.

"When you are conceived you normally have a pair of X chromosomes if you are to become a girl and a set of XY chromosomes if you are destined to be male. For the first weeks of life in womb you are neither, though in both sexes nipples start to grow.
Then, around eight weeks after conception, the sex hormones kick in. If you're genetically male the Y chromosome instructs your gonads to become testicles and sends testosterone to a structure called the tubercle, where it is converted into a more potent hormone called dihydro-testosterone This in turn transforms the tubercle into a penis. If you're female and you don't make dihydro-testosterone then your tubercle becomes a clitoris.
When Imperato-McGinley investigated the Guevedoces she discovered the reason they don't have male genitalia when they are born is because they are deficient in an enzyme called 5-alpha-reductase, which normally converts testosterone into dihydro-testosterone.
This deficiency seems to be a genetic condition, quite common in this part of the Dominican Republic, but vanishingly rare elsewhere. So the boys, despite having an XY chromosome, appear female when they are born. At puberty, like other boys, they get a second surge of testosterone. This time the body does respond and they sprout muscles, testes and a penis."
(BBC

BTW - it doesn't just happen in the Dominican Republic; it's also been found in Papua New Guinea and Turkey.  And probably elsewhere, just not reported.  Or believed.  



08 March 2021

Revisiting Early Work


Does a novel I wrote at age 28 count as juvenilia? It certainly does by the definition in Collins English Dictionary: "works of...literature...produced in youth...before the ...author...has formed a mature style."

I recently dug out the unpublished manuscript of my first mystery novel, A Friendly Glass of Poison, which I started writing more than fifty years ago, to mine it for material for a short story. It had been gathering dust on a shelf since I withdrew it from a respected agent who failed to sell it in three years of trying.

I finished Poison and wrote two more mysteries in the early 1970s, all marketed unsuccessfully by the same agent, still well known today. Here are the Edgar Best Novel nominees from 1970 to 1974 as examples of good mysteries at that time.

1970
• Dick Francis, Forfeit
• Chester Himes, Blind Man with a Pistol
• Shaun Herron, Miro
• Peter Dickinson, The Old English Peep Show
• Emma Lathen, When in Greece
• Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Where the Dark Streets Go
1971
• Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman
• Pat Stadley, Autumn of a Hunter
• Margaret Millar, Beyond this Point Are Monsters
• Patricia Moyes, Many Deadly Returns
• Donald E. Westlake, The Hot Rock
• Shaun Herron, The Hound and the Fox and the Harper
1972
• Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal
• P. D. James, Shroud for a Nightingale
• G. F. Newman, Sir, You Bastard
• Tony Hillerman, The Fly on the Wall
• Arthur Wise, Who Killed Enoch Powell?
1973
• Warren Kiefer, The Lingala Code
• Martin Cruz Smith, Canto for a Gypsy
• John Ball, Five Pieces of Jade
• Hugh C. Rae, The Shooting Gallery
• Ngaio Marsh, Tied Up in Tinsel
1974
• Tony Hillerman, Dance Hall of the Dead
• Francis Clifford, Amigo, Amigo
• P. D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
• Jean Stubbs, Dear Laura
• Victor Canning, The Rainbird Pattern

I was reading Moyes and Marsh. I eventually read Dick Francis, Emma Lathen, Sjöwall & Wahlöö, Millar, Westlake, and Ball, and Peter Dickinson and PD James became great favorites. But when I wrote my novels, I hadn't yet met most of these authors. I had recently read my way through all of Agatha Christie, and I structured my mysteries as Christie did many of hers: by beginning with a passage from the POV of each of the characters who would become murderer, victim, and suspects before proceeding to the murder. I had read Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey, and Margery Allingham. But how do you model yourself on the greats when you don't yet have a voice?

The novel, as I read it over at age 76, is embarrassingly clichéd and overwritten. The parts I thought were funny are painfully "humorous"--a word I don't mean as a compliment. It's quaintly typed in Courier with the italicized words (many, as the novel was set in France) underlined and page numbers added by hand. I did it on an old Royal manual typewriter, starting a new sheet each time I made a revision and making carbon copies on onionskin. I feel compassion for my younger self, who always wanted to be a writer. And I'm so glad that novel never got published!

Many years later, I was invited to submit a short story to a proposed anthology on the theme of bars, pubs, and taverns. All who know me know that my contemporary fiction is all about recovery from alcoholism. Many also know that I've been an alcoholism treatment professional for the past thirty-five years. That makes this theme a challenge.

My protagonist in the Bruce Kohler Mysteries is a recovering alcoholic. Readers met him in detox on the Bowery on Christmas Day in the first novel, Death Will Get You Sober. Four novels, a novella, and eight short stories later, he hasn't relapsed, and he never will. He has better things to do than hang out in bars or spend his time thinking about booze. A Bruce story was not the solution.

Then I remembered A Friendly Glass of Poison. Why not go back to an era when not only didn't anybody know about alcoholism (except a few drunks reading the Big Book in a few obscure church basements with complete anonymity), but I knew nothing about alcoholism? Why not set a story in my, ahem, mature voice in a medieval village in the South of France in 1962, in a bar called the Chat Gris that I'd already invented, and let everybody there get drunk and have a jolly good time--until someone gets poisoned? I found I could write such a story without a single pang of conscience. I called it "A Friendly Glass."

I hope the story works. I hope the structure will satisfy modern editors. I hope the redesigned motives are plausible to modern readers, though they still reflect the culture and values of the early 1960s. I had great fun writing it. I learned to be profoundly grateful that my first novel was published not when I was in my twenties and desperately wanted it, but in my sixties, when I was ready. I am even more grateful that since that first novel, and as I have gone on to write more novels and dozens of short stories, my craft and voice continue to mature.

23 February 2021

Writer’s Block of Ice


Today is Saturday, February 20, 2021. I have not written anything more complex than a trio of Facebook posts and a few brief emails since last Sunday. At approximately 6:30 a.m., Monday, February 15, the power went out in the midst of what has become known as the Texas Snowpocalypse, and it did not return until Thursday morning. Temple and I live in an all-electric house in Hewitt, a suburb of Waco, about halfway between Austin to the south and the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex to the north.

Look at the pretty snow.
It’s trying to kill you.

We live in an area with unstable electric power, where power flickers off and on year-round. For that reason, two of our computers are plugged into uninterruptable power supplies, which shield the computers from surges and can keep them running for up to an hour during a power failure, allowing for safe and systematic shutdowns. As soon as we realized the power might not be returning anytime soon, I charged my phone and Temple’s Kindle using one the UPSes. We should have also charged her phone.

As day stretched into night and day and night and day and night, the house grew increasingly colder (ultimately reaching a low of 48 degrees), we learned many things:

Multiple layers of clothing works. I added a new layer each day. By the end, I wore a sweatshirt over a T-shirt, jeans over sweatpants over underwear, slippers (when inside) or boots (when outside) over two pairs of socks. Over all of this I wore a thick Land’s End robe (when inside) or a winter coat (when outside). Accessories included gloves and a scarf.

We come from families of quilters. We have a few store-bought quilts and many quilts made by our mothers and other family members. I’m uncertain how many quilts we actually own because we did not have to dig them all out, but by the end we slept beneath five quilts—without taking off any of the layers of clothing we already wore.

We could not open the garage door more than one-third of the way. The emergency pull that should have disengaged the door from the electric door opening system’s chain did not function properly and we could not fully open the door. Even if we could have opened the door, there was no place we could have gone because everyone around us, all our family and friends, were in the same situation we were. Unable to get the cars out of the garage, we were not able to safely use them to warm ourselves or charge our phones.

Let’s have a cookout.
Chili and tea on the grill.

It is possible to cook a nutritious meal over charcoal briquettes. We often use our grill during the summer for traditional things such as steak and burgers. I used it to cook chili and heat the kettle for tea. We had enough briquettes that I could have prepared a second hot meal if I had needed to.

When the house is almost as cold as the inside of the refrigerator, there’s no real danger in opening the fridge door and rummaging through the contents. Milk remained cold and drinkable, and other fridge items remained edible throughout.

A cat will learn to appreciate covers. Kiwi often sleeps in our laps when we’re seated in the living room and he often sleeps atop me at night. The first night, despite our efforts to cover him, he resisted. As the house grew colder and he began to shiver, we wrapped him up and held him so he couldn’t escape. By the end, he insisted on being wrapped in a quilt.

A GLIMMER OF HOPE

The power flickered off and on for about an hour and a half on Tuesday afternoon, allowing the HVAC system to warm the house by a few paltry degrees.

Wednesday morning, power was restored to Temple’s father’s home. He lives about seven blocks from us. When it appeared that his power was stable, I made a renewed effort to open the garage door. I am not mechanically inclined, but after scouring the internet, I learned how to completely detach the door from the automatic system and opened the door. Temple escaped to her father’s home.

A few hours later, I took Kiwi to his house and returned home. Mid-evening, with no change in our situation likely, I joined them, and we had a warm dinner (leftover chili!), spent the night in a warm house, and had a warm breakfast.

Let there be light!

I returned home Thursday morning to find that power had been restored and the house was slowly warming. Mid-afternoon Temple and Kiwi returned home, I reassembled the garage door, and I showered for the first time since Sunday morning.

We spent Friday listening to transformers explode throughout our neighborhood. Each time, the power would flicker off and then return.

Friday, our community was placed under mandatory water conservation restrictions. So, while we’ve never been without water, we are avoiding showers, have not washed clothes, nor have we run the dishwasher.

Today, with the midmorning temperature above freezing and the roads reasonably clear, we ventured out. We had bills to pay, medications to pick up, and groceries to buy.

I tried to fill my car’s gas tank, but could not find a service station with working pumps.

The crowded grocery store had limited supplies. But we found milk, cheese, and potatoes as well as some canned items that would supplement the food we already had at home.

Many of our fellow Texans have suffered far more than we have—and some even escaped to Cancun—so I’m not about to complain about our experience. Still, I certainly don’t want to ever repeat it.

It will take a long time to recover from what’s happened. In fact, we may have PTSD—Post Texas Storm Disorder.

READING AND WRITING

I did a lot of reading during daylight hours. (I completed two Peter Lovesey novels and am halfway through a third. I strongly recommend his work even if you’re not caught in a Snowpocalypse.)

What I didn’t do is write. I couldn’t. Survival took precedence.

I don’t believe in writer’s block, and I never have. This week, though, I experienced the ultimate writer’s block.

This week I was beaten by a writer’s block of ice.


On February 12, Down & Out Books released Bullets and Other Hurting Things: A Tribute to Bill Crider, edited by Rick Ollerman. The anthology includes my story “The Ladies of Wednesday Tea.”





My story “Family Films” was published by Close to the Bone on February 14.



The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffet, edited by Josh Pachter and published by Down & Out Books, was released February 22. Included is my story “Tampico Trauma” and stories by fellow SleuthSayers John M. Floyd and Leigh Lundin.

11 February 2021

Notes from the Wild West


First up, I noticed that there's a new Axes and Ales place opened up on 57th Street in Sioux Falls.  A long pandemic, a bitterly cold February, and a lot of booze.  As long as they wear masks, what could possibly go wrong?  

Second:  No determination yet in what charges (if any) AG Jason Ravnsborg is going to face for hitting and killing Jason Boever on that dark September 12th night.  

"Beadle County State's Attorney Michael Moore were also assisting Sovell. Both Vargo and Moore confirmed Friday that they continue to assist in the investigation. Moore said Friday that it's not unusual for accident investigations such as the one involving Ravnsborg taking as long as a year to complete. In the Ravnsborg case, prosecutors are still waiting on biological evidence and cell phone data. "From my experience dealing with a case where you're looking at possible criminal charges, it takes awhile to make sure you have all your information before you make a decision," Moore said. "You don't want to make a decision when there's still relevant information that we don't have. That's why it takes awhile."  (Argus Leader)

[Ahem]  There's a lot of South Dakotans (and other US citizens) who have found themselves in jail the very same night of the accident, but...  We all know what's really going on here, and a whole lot of South Dakotans are well and truly pissed off by it.

Including our Governor.  Kristi Noem has finally spoken out against something other than Amendment A (in which we, the people, of South Dakota legalized marijuana), and said “I share South Dakotans frustration about the amount of time this has taken,” Noem told Black Hills Fox News Wednesday. “To have more than 100 days go by without resolution on this is a disservice to the victim’s family.”  (KEVN News)  

Meanwhile, our Governor is apparently worshipped from afar by followers on Twitter and Facebook over her stalwart anti-lockdown, anti-mask position regarding COVID-19:  "I believe in our freedoms and liberties... I'll continue to trust South Dakotans to make the right choices for themselves and their loved ones."   

BTW, it's not working out that great.  We're 2nd in the country for per capita COVID-19 cases - 1 out of every 8, folks! And 6th for per capita COVID-19 deaths - 1 out of every 494.  In other words, for all you tourists that have been here, are here, and planning to come here - we're a great place to party (everything's open!) but be warned, most people are packing, and I'm not talking just about guns.  

Anyway, there's a change in the political weather now that we passed Amendment A (legalizing marijuana both for medical and recreational purposes) and also another Initiative that legalized medical marijuana. Both measures passed by a landslide, and so now Noem is using our taxpayer $$$ to try to get the South Dakota court system to find them unconstitutional.  So far, a judge out of Hughes County has found Amendment A unconstitutional.  And Noem says (all on her own) that it's going to take an extra year to set up medical marijuana, so there.  

And a lot of South Dakotans are well and truly pissed off by that.  Including people who loved her pandemic lack of response.  (It didn't help that she spent the pre-election season gone for 2-3 months, campaigning for Trump.  And she's still gone most of the time, fundraising for her future campaigns.)  The basic argument is simple:  So, Kristi, you trust us to make the right choices for ourselves and our loved ones in a life-threatening pandemic, but you don't trust us to make the right choices about anything else?  (ARGUS)  

Prediction:  Based on the industrial hemp flap, which she opposed both before and after it passed, saying at the time, “I remain opposed to industrial hemp in South Dakota because of the impact it will have on public safety and law enforcement’s ability to enforce drug laws.” ( ????  Really?  Works in almost ever other state in the country. )  Anyway, the legislature couldn't quite get the votes to override her veto.  So it came up the next year, and passed again, and this time she didn't veto it.  I can guarantee that striking down Amendment A will be challenged in court, and if the challenge is lost, then it will be back on the ballot in November in a cleaner, simpler form.  And eventually, Kristi will give up and let us have our childish way.  

But let's move on from doom and gloom to more exciting things.  Another mother in the freezer story!  This one from Japan:  
Japanese woman hid mother's body in freezer for 10 years over fear of being evicted
                (The Guardian)
Hey, it was Mom's name on the lease, and we all know that real estate is tight in Tokyo.  

Did you know that in South Dakota, you can join in mashed potato wrestling? Clark, South Dakota celebrates its main crop with Potato Days and boasts potato decorating contests, recipe competitions, and yes -- mashed potato wrestling.  Read more here at the Clark Chamber of Commerce:  https://www.clarksd.com/potato-days/ 

For those of you who don't know, SD is full of corn, from the Corn Palace, to the endless fields.  But back in August, 2020, a lone cornstalk in Sioux Falls made news - and not just here. It came up through a crack in the concrete at the intersection of 57th Street and Minnesota Avenue on Sioux Falls’ south side.



Dubbed the 57th Street Corn [a/k/a Cornelia] complete with its own Twitter accounts during its brief lifespan, the plant was a symbol of resiliency and hope as the pandemic rages on, Mayor Paul TenHaken said." And then some a-- pulled it up. What followed was sadness, protests, hopes that humanity is on its way out, and t-shirts. (See Argus Leader)

But fear not!  Cornelia was rescued and replanted in front of City Hall.  As for what happened next - I have no idea. Corn that is born of seed hath but a short time to live. Still, it was fun while it lasted. 

Tales from SD from Not Always Right :

Story #1:

I live in one of few states not under full quarantine yet. Many restaurants are closed except for drive-thru, including ours. A coworker of mine is taking orders through drive-thru.

Customer: “Do you read the Bible, [Coworker]?
Coworker: “No, I’m not religious.”
The customer starts ranting.
Customer: “This disease is a punishment from God! Repent while you still have time!”

She simply took his order and then he went to the next window asking the same question, again ranting when given the same answer. A few minutes later, the same customer went through the drive-thru again, this time blowing a trumpet. We still don’t know what the deal was but everyone was talking about “trumpet guy” by the end of the day.

Story #2:

(The defendant has been found guilty of public urination. After a police officer was requested to make him leave an event at the local community center, [Defendant] insisted on taking a long piss out of his wheelchair in the community center parking lot, all captured for posterity on the officer’s body camera. This is his fourth arrest — and conviction — on misdemeanor offenses in the last six months. [Defendant] is representing himself.)

Judge: “Ready for sentencing? Does the State have any recommendations?”

State’s Attorney: “Well, Your Honor, [Defendant] is a frequent flyer in the criminal justice system. Over the years, he’s been found guilty of…”

(The list the State’s Attorney reads from has 48 convictions that range from public drunkenness to felony possession and ingestion of controlled substances, with forays into disorderly conduct, various levels of theft, violation of a protection order, simple assault/domestic abuse, and driving while intoxicated.)

State’s Attorney: “…recommend [maximum jail time for the crime].”

Judge: “Do you have anything you’d like to say, [Defendant]?”

Defendant: “People can change, Judge.”

MY NOTE:  I swear we had that defendant in court up in Madison.  He might have been the one who showed up drunk and looked like he was going to puke all over the judge's bench...  As the attorneys backed off in perfect V-formation...

Happy February!

04 February 2021

Setting as Character


In my previous Sleuthsayers post I promised that with this post I would leave off talking about politics and get back to talking about the craft of fiction writing. I'm returning to this topic by dusting off one of my first posts on this blog, wherein I explore the use of setting as another character in your story. This originally ran in 2013. I think it holds up, and hope you get something out of it.



Setting. Everyone knows about it. Few people actively think about it.

And that's a shame, because for writers, your setting is like a pair of shoes: if it's good, it's a sound foundation for your journey. If it's not, it'll give you and your readers pains that no orthotics will remedy.

Nowhere is this more true than with crime fiction. In fact strong descriptions of settings is such a deeply embedded trope of the genre that it's frequently overdone, used in parodies both intentional and unintentional as often as fedoras and trenchcoats.

Employed correctly a proper setting can transcend even this role–can become a character in its own right, and can help drive your story, making your fiction evocative, engaging, and (most importantly for your readers) compelling.

Think for a moment about your favorite crime fiction writers. No matter who they are, odds are good that one of the reasons, perhaps one you've not considered before, is their compelling settings.

Just a few contemporary ones that come to mind for me: the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. The Chicago of  Sara Paretsky, Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey. Boston seen through the eyes of Robert B. Parker. Ken Bruen's Ireland. Al Guthrie's Scotland. Carl Hiassen's Miami. Bill Cameron's Portland.

And of course there are the long gone settings highlighted in the gems of the old masters. These and others read like lexical snapshots from the past.Who can forget passages like:


The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.

                                                       —Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest


Or this one from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely

1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poinsettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.



And no one did it better than Ross Macdonald:

The city of Santa Teresa is built on a slope which begins at the edge of the sea and rises more and more steeply toward the coastal mountains in a series of ascending ridges. Padre Ridge is the first and lowest of these, and the only one inside the city limits.

It was fairly expensive territory, an established neighborhood of well-maintained older houses, many of them with brilliant hanging gardens. The grounds of 1427 were the only ones in the block that looked unkempt. The privet hedge needed clipping. Crabgrass was running rampant in the steep lawn.

Even the house, pink stucco under red tile, had a disused air about it. The drapes were drawn across the front windows. The only sign of life was a house wren which contested my approach to the veranda.

                                                 — Ross Macdonald, Black Money

In each of the passages excerpted above the author has used a description of the setting as a tip-off to the reader as to what manner of characters would inhabit such places. Even hints at what lies ahead for both protagonist and reader.

With Hammett it's the stink of the corruption that always follows on the heels of a rich mineral strike. With Chandler, it's a life worn-out by too much living. And with Macdonald, it's a world and its inhabitants as out of sorts as those hedges that need clipping.

Brilliant thumbnail sketches each. If you haven't read them, you owe it to yourself to do so. And each of them was giving the reader a glimpse of a world they had experienced first-hand, if not a contemporary view, then at least one they could dredge up and flesh out from memory.

With the stuff I write it's not that simple.

In his kind note introducing me to the readers of this blog, our man Lopresti mentioned that when it comes to fiction, my particular bailiwick is historical mystery. In my time mining this particular vein of fiction I've experienced first-hand the challenge of delivering to readers strong settings for stories set in a past well before my time.

How to accomplish this?

It's tricky. Here's what I do.

I try to combine exhaustive research with my own experiences and leaven it all with a hefty dose of the writer's greatest tool: imagination.

"Counting Coup," the first historical mystery story I ever wrote, is about a group of people trapped in a remote southwest Montana railway station by hostile Cheyenne warriors during the Cheyenne Uprising of 1873. I used the three-part formula laid out above.
  1. While pursuing my Master's in history, I'd done a ton of research on the western railroads, their expansion, and its impact on Native American tribes in the region, including the Cheyenne.
  2. I've visited southwestern Montana many times, and the country is largely unchanged, so I had a good visual image to work from.
  3. Imagination!

An example of the end result:

Wash and Chance made it over the rise and and into the valley of the Gallatin just ahead of that storm. It had taken three days of hard riding to get to the railhead, and the horses were all but played out.

The entire last day finished setting their nerves on edge. What with the smoke signals and the tracks of all the unshod ponies they'd seen, there was enough sign to make a body think he was riding right through the heart of the Cheyenne Nation.

Stretching away to north and south below them lay the broad flood plain of the Gallatin. The river itself meandered along the valley floor, with the more slender, silver ribbon of rail line mirroring it, running off forever in either direction. The reds of the tamarack and the golds of the aspen and the greens of the fir created a burst of color on the hills that flanked the river on either side, their hues all the more vivid when set against the white of the previous evening's uncharacteristically early snowfall. 

"Suicide Blonde," another of my historical mystery stories, is set in 1962 Las Vegas. Again, the formula.
  1. I did plenty of research on Vegas up to and including this time when Sinatra and his buddies strutted around like they owned the place.
  2. I lived and worked in Vegas for a couple of years and have been back a few times since. I am here to tell you, Vegas is one of those places that, as much as it changes, doesn't really change.
  3. Imagination!
Which gets you:

Because the Hoover boys had started tapping phones left and right since the big fuss at Apalachin a few years back, Howard and I had a system we used when we needed to see each other outside of the normal routine. If one of us suggested we meet at the Four Queens, we met at Caesar's. If the California, then we'd go to the Aladdin, and so on. We also agreed to double our elapsed time till we met, so when I said twenty minutes, that meant I'd be there in ten. We figured he had a permanent tail anyway, but it was fun messing with the feds, regardless.

The Strip flashed and winked and beckoned to me off in the distance down Desert Inn as I drove to Caesar's. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference the combination of black desert night, millions of lights, and all that wattage from Hoover Dam made, because Las Vegas looked so small and ugly and shabby in the day time. She used the night and all those bright lights like an over-age working girl uses a dimly lit cocktail lounge and a heavy coat of makeup to ply her trade.

Howard liked Caesar's. We didn't do any of the regular business there, and Howard liked that, too. Most of all, Howard liked the way the place was always hopping in the months since Sinatra took that angry walk across the street from the Sands and offered to move his act to Caesar's. Howard didn't really care to run elbows with the Chairman and his pack, he just liked talking in places where the type of noise generated by their mere presence could cover our conversations.

You may have noticed that in both examples used above I've interspersed description of the setting with action, historical references and plot points. That's partly stylistic and partly a necessity. I rarely find straight description engaging when I'm reading fiction (in the hands of a master such as Hemingway, Chandler or Macdonald that's another story, but they tend to be the exception), so I try to seamlessly integrate it into the narrative. Also, since I'm attempting to evoke a setting that is lost to the modern reader in anything but received images, I try to get into a few well-placed historical references that help establish the setting as, say, not just Las Vegas, but early 1960s Las Vegas. Doing so in this manner can save a writer of historical mysteries a whole lot of trying to tease out these sorts of details in dialogue (and boy, can that sort of exposition come across as clunky if not handled exactly right!).

So there you have it: an extended rumination on the importance of one of the most overlooked and powerful tools in your writer's toolbox: setting. The stronger you build it, the more your readers will thank you for it, regardless of genre, regardless of time period.

Because setting is both ubiquitous and timeless. Easy to overdo and certainly easy to get wrong. But when you get it right, your story is all the stronger for it!