16 October 2011

The Mystery of Superheroes

Captain AmericaMy kryptonite is the common cold. After struggling more than a week with a blasted cold, I ventured out with friends for soup and salad and then movies. Artist friend Steve Rugg loves comic action heroes brought to the silver screen, and one recent addition is Captain America.

I liked the angst-ridden Spiderman and the dysfunctional sibling-like rivalry between Fan4's Torch and the Thing, but other action heroes didn't do much for me. Indeed, I didn't know Captain America possessed any extra-physical powers, but I since learned the movie closely follows the original 1941 story line:

Early in WW-II, the Army injected Steve Rogers with a sort of precursor anabolic steroid to turn him from a 98-pound weakling into a superdude. Otherwise unarmed, he carries a frisbee-like shield made of something like vibraphonium, batteries not included. (Okay, okay, it was actually called vibranium.)

The evil wicked baddie in the Captain America movie was a Nazi named Schmidt AKA Red Skull. For all the world, he reminded me of Jim Carrey's The Mask. I kept expecting him to whirl, pose, and exclaim "Smokin’!"

German Horton Ho XVIII
I was disappointed the Nazis seemed to have all the fun toys: the sleek submarine, the powerful open-top car, the VTOL plane, and the flying wing. The Allies were stuck with, um, motorcycles and blue steroids.

Even if a movie-goer isn't a fan of comic action heroes, Captain America can be enjoyable. Most of us weren't alive during World War II, but from the outside looking in, the film's ambience appears superb from the era graphics to the burlesque stage shows.

Pulp Mystery Comix

From the early days, there's long been a link between 'comix' and crime fiction. Obviously action heroes battle criminals, but the ties run deeper than mere pulp fiction. Like several detectives, Deborah Elliott-Upton's inamorato, Nick Carter, crossed back and forth from radio to movies to comic books. The Falcon crossed boundaries as did everyone's favorite, the Shadow. For reasons I never understood, Batman got his start in Detective Comics.

Great debate centers around superheroes– whether to wear a cape, whether to wear underwear on the outside, how tight are tights, and do primary colors really make the best camouflage? Radiation appears critical in the development of superheroes. It kills ordinary people, but it grows muscle mass in the comicbookly-predisposed.

Fantastic Four
Fantastic Four
The Unfairness Doctrine

Graphic novels require a subtle balance of fairness, or rather an initial imbalance of unfairness, which should tilt heavily in favor of the bad guys. I never bothered to learn why movie fans and critics didn't like the Fantastic Four, but the failure for me was the good-to-bad four-against-one scenario. In the comic books, much of the focus was on the friends 'n' family relationship of the FF, but we need to spot the bad guys a few points before the game's worth playing. That didn't happen in Fantastic Four. Even the perfect performance of Michael Chiklis couldn't save the FF from ultimate Doom.

I was too young for the height of the Doc Savage novels, but an underlying imbalance marred that famed series for me. Savage was smarter than his smartest guy, faster than his fastest, stronger than his strongest. In the two or three stories I tried to read, Doc ended up rescuing them. What was the point of having a team if they got themselves captured like silly schoolgirls?

As an Author

My knowledge of comics and graphic novels is small compared to Steve Rugg or John Floyd, but I have worked on a couple, most recently the English version of Tentara, a sweeping epic starring a little girl, Angal. The fans and subjects of graphic novels are overwhelmingly male and with the possible exception of Wonder Woman, girls seldom flock to action comics.

This mirrors athletics audiences. Women are very selective what they watch and participate in whereas males consume nearly anything sporting. Savvy promoters carefully position women's sports and graphic novels, knowing their female audience may fall short but male spectators could make up for that shortfall.

I enjoy ventures into graphics novels. Once before during a flu-wracked fever, I wrote an unusual story, sort of (don't roll your eyes) an ancient Chinese fable with romantic overtones. It's a pretty good 10k-word story but it's so unusual, I don't have a clue whom to market it to. It doesn't fit into any particular genre and at the moment it's slightly too risqué for children. Recently it dawned on me– it would make a good graphic novel. That's another can of worms: As I've learned, my experience is just large enough to realize difficulties but not great enough to know the solutions.

Seduction of the Innocent

During the middle 1950s, critics sounded the alarm that comic books led to juvenile delinquency. Congress formed another of its endless subcommittees, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, and held national hearings on the evils of comics.

One of the most heard voices was that of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, author of an article in Collier's, 'Horror in the Nursery', and the 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, subtitled 'the influence of comic books on today's youth.' As an expert witness, Wertham held that violence was obvious, but that images of nudity were hidden in comic panels. He contended Superman was a fascist, Batman and Robin were gay, and Wonder Woman was a lesbian bondage babe. In particular, the German-American Wertham appeared to target beloved artists such as Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman. (Wertham's later writings against racism and violence were largely overshadowed by his anti-comic crusades.)

Even Oscar Wilde noted the poor parenting skills of Americans, but in the post-war fifties, society sought other answers, any answer at all. They blamed rock 'n' roll, they blamed pool halls in River City, they blamed everything except absentee (or simply absent) parenting. Comics became one more target.

Those in the industry derided the hysteria, but parents burned comic books in the streets and the mature comic industry plunged. The entire pulp publication business suffered and dozens of venerable series bit the dust.

One of the primary targets was EC Comics, which owned such titles as Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Frontline Combat, Two-Fisted Tales, Weird Science, and the noirish Shock SuspenStories and Crime SuspenStories. Intended for older audiences, themes often dealt with war, death, racism, anti-Semitism, drugs, sex, and political corruption which disturbed many in the McCarthy era.

On the verge of bankruptcy, EC Comics folded most of its comics, but its owner, William Gaines wreaked a sort of revenge with Mad Magazine that subverted such vulnerable children as me. Ironically, Wertham's original and intact copies of Seduction of the Innocent (its own bibliography was censored, ripped from most books), demand top prices at comic conventions. But there's one more story about EC and William Gaines.

In the throes of survival, EC Comics turned to medical and office dramas, but couldn't make the formulae work. Fighting censorship, Gaines strove against the restraints of the Comics Code Authority, which enforced rules that the words 'horror', 'terror' or 'weird' couldn't be used on comic book covers, wiping out many EC titles. Without the CCA seal of approval, wholesalers refused to carry EC's comics. One of those titles was Weird Science Fantasy, which EC tried renaming Incredible Science Fiction, keeping the WSF sequential numbering scheme.

Line in the Sand

Captain America
The final battleground became the February 1956 issue, Nº 33 of Incredible Science Fiction. After the CCA rejected one story, Gaines substituted another, titled Judgment Day. In it, an astronaut visits Cybrinia, a planet of robots that seeks admittance to the Galactic Republic. He finds the robots indistinguishable except that some are sheathed in orange and some blue. The orange have come to dominate the others, reserving privileges for themselves and subjecting the blues to servitude.

The astronaut determines the bigotry is grounds to deny them admittance to the Republic. In the final panel, the astronaut pulls off his helmet, revealing he is a black man.

"This really made 'em go bananas in the Code czar's office," wrote comics historian Digby Diehl, speaking of Judge Charles Murphy, who couldn't stomach the idea of a black astronaut. Al Feldstein responded, "For God's sakes, Judge Murphy, that's the whole point of the Goddamn story!"

Diehl goes on to say "When Murphy continued to insist that the Black man had to go, Feldstein put it on the line. 'Listen,' he told Murphy, 'you've been riding us and making it impossible to put out anything at all because you guys just want us out of business.' [Feldstein] reported the results of his audience with the czar to Gaines, who was furious. [Gaines] immediately picked up the phone and called Murphy. 'This is ridiculous!' he bellowed. 'I'm going to call a press conference on this. You have no grounds, no basis, to do this. I'll sue you.'"

EC Comics managed to get the comic out, but it was the last EC Comics would publish. At last you know why they were in the superheroes business.

15 October 2011

Different Strokes

by John M. Floyd

This is one of those columns that I suppose is aimed more at fellow writers than fellow readers, although I've found that some readers are interested in this kind of thing as well. Case in point: A few students in my writing classes have confessed that they didn't enroll because they wanted to write--they just wanted to learn about the writing/publishing process. They wanted to find out more about the way writers think, and the way we do what we do. (At first I was surprised that anyone would want to find out more about the way writers think. That could be a scary subject.)

Some quick background info. For more than ten years now, I've taught night classes in fiction writing at a local college. Two courses each fall/winter/spring session, two nights a week for 21 weeks a year. The first is an intro class called "Writing and Selling Short Stories"; the second is an advanced class with the brilliantly original name "Writing and Selling Short Stories, Part 2." More than four hundred students have been through my courses so far, and one of the best things about that gig is that now and then someone who took my classes will call or e-mail me with news of a sale to a major publication or publisher or contest. I'm not naive enough to think I'm the sole reason for those successes, but it still makes me feel great to hear about them.

Anyway, as any teacher of anything will quickly tell you, the instructor often learns as much from the teaching experience as the student does. And one of the interesting things I've learned is that there are several areas, in both writing and marketing, where writers always seem to disagree. Specifically, every group I've taught has been almost equally divided in its opinions on the following five topics:

1. Should fiction be outlined beforehand?

On one side of the fence are folks who map the plotline out mentally or on paper before the real writing begins. On the other side are those who just sit down and start writing, blissfully unaware of where the story might take them. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, and everyone seems to have a definite preference on this. I once heard an author say writers are either OPs (Outline People) or No-OPs, and there are very few in between.

My preference: Outline first. But . . . I'm flexible when the actual writing begins. The roadmap I come up with beforehand usually winds up changing a bit somewhere along the way.

2. Should short stories be submitted simultaneously? (Let's hear it for alliteration.)

The upside of submitting the same story to multiple markets at the same time is clear: you stand a better chance of getting something published sooner. The downside comes into play only if you happen to receive more than one acceptance for the same piece. Nobody likes to be asked to go to the dance and then find out the asker has decided to take someone else instead.

My preference: I usually don't submit the same story to two different markets at the same time. But . . . my situation's a little different, in that I have a large inventory of stories available for submission. If you're written only a few, it's tempting to take the risk and thus increase the odds.

3. Should I write literary fiction or genre fiction?

This one has a simple answer. Write what you like to read. If your favorite authors are Cheever, Proulx, Joyce, Conroy, Bellow, Faulkner, etc., maybe you should consider writing lit fic. If you never read anyone but Evanovich, Grafton, Hammett, L'Amour, Clancy, and other "commercial" authors, you might want to churn out genre stories. Again, I've found that readers are usually pretty clear about what type of stories and novels they prefer.

My preference: Genre fiction. But . . . I think the very best stories--and my all-time favorites--have elements of both.

4. Should I write in first person or third?

Once again, about half seem to lean one way and about half the other. Not surprisingly, if you strongly prefer to read first-person stories, you'll probably want to write them that way, and vice versa. First person and third-person-limited offer the strongest and most intimate "connection" between author and reader, while third-person-multiple, omniscient, and "detached" POVs offer a larger scope and a sometimes better means of providing external suspense. I've heard that the writer should choose the POV based on how much he wants the reader to know and how soon he wants the reader to know it.

My preference: Third person. But . . . the POV depends on the story itself. I've also written and sold a lot of first-person stories.

5. Should I get everything down on paper first, or stop and edit as I go?

Many writers feel it's best to make a rough draft "rough." Get your thoughts down in tangible form before worrying about refining and rewriting anything. Others like to edit as they go, and make sure whatever they've written (however few the number of words or pages) is as perfect and polished as it can be before proceeding.

My preference: Write the whole thing first, whatever the length of the piece, and go back and edit later. No buts, on this one.

One other difference that I didn't mention is that some writers feel more comfortable about publicizing and promoting their published work (via booksignings, appearances, etc.) than others. But no matter how much our personal feelings differ on this, all seem to agree that an author must--to some extent--try to get out and "meet" his potential readers.

There will always be areas of disagreement among the participants in any profession, or even any endeavor. The points of contention that I've listed are just the ones that seem most evenly balanced--and also seem to spark the most discussion.

What's your opinion?

14 October 2011

Playing the Game: Part 1

Welcome back to Friday on the Firing Line. Last time you and I got together, we took a walk on the darker side of the street and had a short look at the shadow life of being undercover, acting in an alternate identity and keeping your story straight. Guess now you're about ready to move on into the realm of Playing the Game.

Active vs. Proactive

Most law enforcement officers are in the position of reacting to a crime which has been committed at a previous time. They get a call, respond to the scene of the crime, interview witnesses (if any) and collect whatever evidence is available. After that, they try to put the pieces together in a logical manner, determine the most likely suspect, build their case for prosecution and go after the criminal.

Undercover is a different animal. Here, the law enforcement officer is proactive instead of reactive. As an undercover operative, he is usually already on scene when prosecutable elements of the crime occur. If all goes as planned, he is the one who acts as witness, he is usually already holding the necessary evidence in hand and he already knows who the criminal offender is.

Getting on Scene

Here's the prologue to getting on scene for the crime to happen. The Undercover (U/C) guy normally has two ways in: the Cold Pitch, or the Informant Introduction.

With the Cold Pitch, an undercover operative introduces himself into the organization or criminal being targeted. How's he do that? Every situation is different. Here's a quick example. At the Sturgis Bike Rally one year, I slid up next to a couple of patch holders in a biker bar and started buying pitchers of beer. Naturally, I had taken the precaution of looking a lot like them before I made my approach. In the ensuing conversation, we swapped names and backgrounds. Of course mine was fictitious, plus I'd set up deep cover for this particular escapade. I soon became a Hang Around. Several months later, I patched in. But Cold Pitches don't always work.

Usually the way these things happen, the U/C guy gets "intro-ed in" by an informant, or Cooperating Individual (C.I.). Most U/C guys prefer the term "C.I.," especially if we're talking in front of that person. Seems the word "snitch" has acquired a negative connotation on the street, and we, being the sensitive people that we are, would rather that our CI's not feel bad about what they are about to do for the good of society. Plus, we don't want them to get a bad attitude and turn on us. However, snitch is the term used by the criminal side in order to convey contempt for those who betray them. Naturally, where you stand on this terminology situation depends upon which side of the line you're on.

Anyway, the U'C and the CI go to a house, bar, parking lot, or wherever the meet is set. The Cooperating Individual introduces and vouches for the U/C. If the criminal side trusts the CI (as much as they trust anybody), then the undercover guy is usually in, but from this point on, he has to carry his own weight, and he'd best do a good job. Fortunately for us, money talks. Like any market place, one party, in this case the criminal, has something to sell, be it drugs, weapons, documents, explosives, stolen goods or counterfeit currency. And, conveniently, the U/C has cash to purchase these items. The stage is set and the crime is about to be committed. The Game is in play.


One small problem with this little event is that the criminal has no rules. Oh sure, he has that one Maxim: Thou shalt not get caught. And, sometimes this makes him cunning, with a bag of tricks.

The U/C on the other hand, has a multitude of rules as mandated by his organization, plus the rule of law. Being a fed, my Special Agent Manual was over two inches thick, and that was just one book of rules we had to follow. In short, the bad guys had their game and we had ours. They did whatever they could to sell their product, make a profit and not get caught. We relied on blue smoke and mirrors, a con man's game, in order to be on scene when the crime was committed, bust the criminal at some point, and yet walk away without violating any laws or agency rules. Sometimes it was like tight rope balancing on a high voltage wire. No missteps allowed.

Often, for one reason or another, the deal didn't go down, the criminal skated and we didn't get him that day. Maybe he got spooked, or maybe he just got lucky. No long term problem on our part, we had our own Maxim: The bad guys had to be right every time, we only had to be right once. And that one time was when we took him off the playing board for several years, maybe even permanently. It was a game with potential consequences for both sides.

See you in a fortnight for Playing the Game: Part 2.

13 October 2011

A Very Big Victorian Novel

A recent New Yorker article about the Victorian writer Wilkie Collins put me onto one of his less famous novels, Armadale. Like other mystery fans, I knew The Moonstone and The Woman in White, though the latter only through a television series.

Armadale was uncharted territory and a visit to the local university's library revealed it to be a 1000 plus page monster in two volumes. A hearty read, indeed.

Originally published serially in 1864, this epic about two distant young cousins who share the same name, displays all the writer's virtues: brilliant plotting, lively characters, and a knack for raising socially disturbing topics within a popular thriller format. It also displays Collins complex attitudes toward women.

Sympathetic to the position of women in Victorian society as he revealed in The Woman in White, he nonetheless retails various stereotypes of feminine frivolity and irrationality, while creating Lydia Gwilt, a woman of great intellectual power and charisma, not to mention her complex, sometimes friend Mrs. Oldershaw. Gwilt's diary and letters are among the highlights of the novel, and her correspondence with the appalling Oldershaw advances the plot is sprightly ways.

Also interesting is his treatment of the colonial world. Many of the great British fortunes, and great British cities, rested on the profits of the merchant adventurers and officials of the British Raj and on the slave trade and the brutal plantation economy of the West Indies. In general, the suffering that underpinned the grand houses and splendid town squares was kept off stage. In Mansfield Park, a character goes west to repair his fortunes, and the most famous madwoman of the period, Mrs. Rochester, comes from the islands.

But Collins makes a closer connection. The father of the dark Allan Armadale, who you will be happy to know spends most of what would otherwise have been a supremely confusing novel under the name of Ozias Midwinter, was a spoiled child of the planter class. He confesses that "My boyhood and youth were passed in idleness and self-indulgence, among people - slaves and half-castes mostly - to whom my word was law."

Made unexpectedly the heir to a great fortune, then tricked out of it by the father of the blond Allan Armadale, he avenges himself with a murder that he not only confesses on his deathbed but commits to a letter to be given to his son on his majority. The son, the second, dark Allan Armadale, is left in the care of his beautiful, part-African mother. Interestingly for an American reader, her mixed parentage is no barrier to another prosperous marriage. Murder, not miscegenation, as in so many of our country's fictions, is the great crux of Armadale.

No reader of mystery, or other fiction for that matter, will be surprised that the Armadale letter does untold mischief, first to the unhappy young son, who has a Dickensonian childhood, and later to his wealthy cousin. The latter is principally endangered by Miss Gwilt, greatly his intellectual superior, who knows far more about his family and his mother than rich and happy Allan Armadale ever suspects, and who intends to profit from this knowledge.

So far the plot is a typically complex family drama, but as in The Moonstone, Collins adds a supernatural touch. The young men meet after the younger Armadale, now the impoverished vagabond Ozias Midwinter, falls deathly ill at the local inn. Despite the warnings of the fatal letter, Midwinter becomes good friends with Armadale and finds himself unwilling to leave the first real happiness he has known.

A prophetic dream experienced by Armadale troubles Midwinter deeply but Armadale's rational old tutor and mentor persuades him that there is no such thing as curses and fatality. The rest of the novel balances those two possibilities. Sometimes a mysterious gothic fate hangs over the characters; sometimes it is dispelled by reason and, even more, by the virtues of kindness and fidelity.

Needless to say, the virtues of both men are severely tested and so is their aptitude for unraveling mysterious events. Here, again, Collins has a complex view. Detectives, strangely enough from one of the parents of the mystery novel, are thoroughly detestable, and probably the most loathsome character is Jemmy Bashwood, a professional snoop. Poor young Armadale, a person of great sweetness and candor, loses his reputation in the neighborhood when he and his lawyer make what are seen as nosey inquiries about the sly Miss Gwilt.

On the other hand, his faithful old tutor sets up a surveillance of a dubious woman without arousing either the author's or anyone else's ire. The professionalization of detection seems to have been what was beyond the pale. Perhaps Collins, whose two irregular households gave him a greater appreciation than most for privacy, had mixed feelings about activities that were necessary for his plot.

Investigation in Armadale goes on in a haphazard manner and all comes to a spectacular conclusion in what would be a favorite Victorian (and later) British venue, the dodgy private sanitarium. Fans of the gothic, the romantic, and yes, the mysterious, were not disappointed when Armadale ran first as a serial, then as a novel. Such fans won't be disappointed now, either.

12 October 2011

First Faltering Steps

My name is Neil Schofield, and it’s been that way for longer than I can remember. I am an Englishman born in Yorkshire. For the past eighteen years or so, I have been living in Normandy, France, with Mimi, my partner and live-in French person. France, incidentally, is just off the English coast. (A headline from the 1940’s: “Thick Fog In Channel: Europe Isolated”) That tells you something about our thought processes.
What else? – oh yes, I write short stories.

Neil Schofield
This is me. Snapped in holiday mood in the summer, which I seem to remember happened this year on July 17. The truculent smirk I am modeling means, unless I miss my guess, that we were approaching l’heure de l’apero: Time for a Little Something, time to put up the Big Parasol, watch the garden tick over and sip a little white wine. A Muscadet, probably, because a Muscadet helps you work, rest and play.

I come to Sleuthsayers as a complete baby. I have –had– been for the 4½ years of its existence, an avid follower of Criminal Brief. Never a contributor, more a professional lurker. What interested me, and astonished me every day, was the seemingly endless stream of ideas. Who were these people who could turn out a column every week, week after week?

The invitation from Leigh and Rob to join SleuthSayers came as something of a shock: I had to be helped from the room. I have been writing crime/mystery fiction for a little over ten years. What could I have to say that might interest anyone? How was I going to manage among all these heavyweights? Although the idea of writing just one piece a month didn’t seem too difficult, the cons seemed to mount up.
  • I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of crime and mystery fiction. I’ve read a lot and I remember almost all of it, but as an authority I would lack a certain something.
  • I haven’t published a book – not even come near yet.
  • I don’t have an enormous library of reference works to call on and plunge into.
  • I’m a Brit, and I live in France, what’s more. I might be the object of derision and opprobrium.
But then I read the list of contributors, and read the first articles/posts, it occurred to me that I had a little more in common with some of the senior partners than I had at first thought.

Rob Lopresti, of course, I know. I am an enormous fan of Rob’s stories. (Well, I say enormous – I’m six foot, and 160 pounds, which isn’t really enormous, but never mind). Rob and I have conversed digitally, and sometimes bizarrely, on diverse subjects, for some time. What is more, we share a birthday, September 19. Which seems a little unfair. I’d like to have had one of my own. It was also Rob who revealed to me that 19 September is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. I tried it here, with predictable results. The French don’t seem to have the right sort of soft palate you need to say ‘Aarrgh’ properly.

Then comes Dale Andrews with whom (entre autres) I shared the same Barry Award shortlist in 2008; Dale for his Ellery Queen story “The Book Case”, and I for “Murder: a User’s Guide”.

A previous Barry Award shortlist - in 2005 - I had shared with Melody Johnson Howe. But that was another story. So what’s to worry about, I said to myself. You’ve already rubbed shoulders with the great. Go and rub a few more.

What has also secretly pleased me about the Sleuthsayers, is that, reading the contributions over the past two weeks or so, I have realized that I am not the only late starter in the frame. Because ‘late starter’ is putting it mildly, in my case.

My crime/mystery (somebody tell me what to call it!) career began a scant ten years ago. Before that, in other lives, I had spent ten years in theatre lighting, first as a production electrician and touring chief, and then edging into lighting design. From that, I morphed, seamlessly and without apparent effort, into becoming a writer and producer of what Americans liked to call Industrial Theatre: conventions, sales conferences, product launches, et al. I was usually at the loopy end of the spectrum, when the client –the Suits– would accept a series of comedy sketches or even a daft two-act play as a vehicle for The Corporate Message. In the 1990s I graduated to writing ‘Tourist Rides’ for attractions around the world in France, Singapore, Australia, Berlin, and so on. Even London.

But in 2000, now living in France, (I think I was attracted by the smell of cheese) I started to write the stories that had been stacking up in my brain for years. My very first stories, to my amazement, were accepted by Cathleen Jordan and Janet Hutchings. And it still astonishes me whenever I have a story accepted by EQMM or AHMM. In the decade since, I have sold thirty stories to these two extraordinary magazines. (The current score is EQMM 17; AHMM 13, I don’t know why. I must do something about evening up the numbers) Without Ellery and Alfred, (Mimi insists on fondly referring to them though they were two members of her already extensive family) I wouldn’t be writing these words now. And whenever I was on some shortlist, or quite simply published, I would look at the names with whom I was rubbing shoulders, keeping company. And I would find it hard to believe. I still do.

I’ve never met any of my fellow-writers. I’ve never been to Bouchercon (and incidentally, it was Elmore Leonard in an interview on the BBC who taught me quite recently that it’s pronounced Bowchercon. For years I’ve been giving it a French pronunciation) I was once invited, as a Reader’s Award Finalist, to a Dell Magazines bunfight, and near as dammit went, but family matters intervened. So I never got to rub actual shoulders with anybody.

So I am very happy and proud to be rubbing shoulders with this company. And I hope– even as a once-a-month junior partner– I’m going to be able to step up occasionally and say something that interests SleuthReaders. Anyway, I’ll do my best.

Talk to you soon.

11 October 2011

The Class of Writing, Part II

Susan Slater
Last week, we asked and answered the question:
• Question: What do readers need to know right up front??

• Answer: Whatever will keep them reading!

This week we tackle three more questions on writing.

• Question: How do you know where (within your story) to start?

• Answer: Start as close to the ending as you possibly can!!

Why?? It makes you consider and reconsider using backstory and should encourage you to plop your reader down in the middle of action.

Too many times the lure of backstory makes a writer add a prologue. If you can’t start your story by simply dropping your reader into the deep end, you may want to rethink your storyline. Prologues seldom work!

A tricky beginning but one that does many things is what I call psychological backstory—tell a story within a story that shows the inner workings of the protagonist—his or her frame of mind. Consider Craig Johnson’s opening to Cold Dish:
“She might have knocked, but I didn’t hear it because I was watching the geese. I watch the geese a lot in the fall, when the days get shorter and the ice traces the rocky edges of Clear Creek… The geese fly down the valley south, with their backs to me, and I usually sit with my back to the window, but occasionally I get caught with my chair turned; this seems to be happening more and more, lately.”
There isn’t one of us who hasn’t daydreamed watching some act of nature—fish schooling, clouds drifting, rain hitting the window—and those moments of introspection are revealing—we’re contemplating problems, we’re wishing we were someplace else or with someone else. At the very least it sets up a longing, a hint that not everything is truly “right” with Walt’s world. “Geese flying south” . . . does he want to get away? What is he wanting/needing to escape? And because he’s so human, we want to find out what’s wrong and how he’s going to go about making it right. The reader is invested from the first. The foibles, vulnerabilities, Achilles heel—these are what hook us. He/she’s just like we are and we want to root for him or her. We want to see “growth”—where it starts and where it ends.

Consider Nicholas Sparks opening to The Notebook:
“Who am I? And how, I wonder, will this story end? The sun has come up and I am sitting by a window that is foggy with the breath of a life gone by. I’m a sight this morning; two shirts, heavy pants, a scarf wrapped twice around my neck and tucked into a thick sweater knitted by my daughter thirty birthdays ago. The thermostat in my room is set as high as it will go, and a smaller space heater sits directly behind me. It clicks and groans and spews hot air like a fairy-tale dragon, and still my body shivers with a cold that will never go away, a cold that has been thirty years in the making. Eighty years, I think sometimes, and despite my own acceptance of my age, it still amazes me that I haven’t been warm since George Bush was president. I wonder if this is how it is for everyone my age.”
Again, backstory woven neatly with the present giving the reader psychological insight—a peek inside the character’s mind.

• Question: Why do you need to know the span of time your story covers BEFORE you start to write?

• Answer: It will act as a control.

A time framework gives (usually) much needed parameters to your story. In this case, write between the lines!

• Question: Why is word choice so important starting off?

• Answer: You don’t get a second chance to do it right!

I'll explain why next week.

10 October 2011

An Alien in my House

Okay, I'll admit that sounds more like a sci-fy story than a mystery but I can explain. This alien landed on our planet in 1993 and quickly wormed his way into our heart. It took him a long time to learn to speak English but he did finally master it. Now every morning I'm greeted by "Whatsssup?"
In fact, he says it sometimes three or four times a day. "Whatsssup, Nana?"

My explanation. I have two black cats, Nick and Nora who have lived with me for fourteen years, we're comfortable with each other. The alien?? Is one of my grandsons, an eighteen year old grandson, Cason by name, has just moved into my new house with me. He's like many young people nowadays, just not exactly sure what he wants to do with his life. Tried really hard to mess up his life by dropping out of school when he only has half a semester left until graduation. He already admits that was one of the biggest mistakes he could have made and is getting prepared to take his GED so that if he decides to go to college he'll be ready. At the moment, he's working at a car wash in town for minimum wages and he does know he doesn't want to do that the rest of his life.

Of course the alien part to me is that I haven't lived with a teenager in many years. My oldest are in the youth of middle age and everything is quite different than it was when they were teens and of course totally unbelievable (to them) when I was in my teens. No believes I walked to school and back uphill both ways in twelve inches of snow. Okay, that was a bit of fiction, but I actually walked in sandstorms so heavy that I had to go to restroom to wash the dirt off my face and had to grit it in my mouth half the day. But I digress...

It has been fun being around Cason. He's good-looking, funny, smart, charming and full of life and himself. He's part man and still part child although he's around 6 feet 3 inches tall. I'll admit it's so much easier dealing with a grandson than a son or daughter. Having that generation gap makes most of what he does seem like, "I've been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt," and doesn't upset me. Much.

I'm learning again what teenagers like and don't like, and a little about how they think which certainly will help me next time I want to create a teenage character. In my most recent book, What Doesn't Kill You, Cory was sixteen except she lived so far out in the boonies they didn't have cell phones or computers. Today's teens have no concept of life without iPhones or iPods. They are totally fluent in cyber technology and how computers work. That's what they've grown up with and it is second nature to them to "Google" for information. I want to reach for a dictionary or an encyclopedia and while I'm looking something up, Cason has already found it on Google.

Music is so different now than when my daughter and sons were teens. They were into The Beatles, Heart, The Eagles and the music of the 70s and 80s. Cason is into rap and rap and more rap and there's something he calls "the beat." None of it sounds like music to me, but I'll admit my music is boring to him. He has an iPod and those earplugs in his ears all day and all night. He'll pull one side out to listen to me and to talk to me, then put it back in and is quickly back to moving his body to the beat.

He doesn't watch TV, can't sit still long enough for most TV shows. Things have to move fast, be action packed. Attention spans are not very long for teenage boy-men. He loves junk food: chips, dips, taquitoes, corn dogs. pizza rolls and pizza. He will eat a Caesar salad if pressed to eat some vegetables. He loves to be with his friends constantly and fortunately is able to make friends easily. He loves to "chill" as he calls relaxing. One of the new words cropping up lately from adults is "chillaxing." I'm sure a teen thought of it first.

Cason has lived in the Nashville, TN area most of his life and that's too far away from Central TX for overnight visits so we've not been together often or for very long at any given time. So I'm getting to know this alien in my house and am enjoying every minute of this bonding experience. I definitely can see that my alien may still be a mystery to me, but I'm learning more every day.

Now if I can get him to sit still long enough so I can't pick up more of his lingo. I definitely want my teenage characters to sound like teenagers.

09 October 2011

An Apple Today

by Leigh Lundin
Steve Jobs 1955-2011
By now you and the rest of the world have heard the news that Steve Jobs died. Once a guy who returned soda bottles to buy food with nickel deposits, this is a man whose Apple salary was $1 a year, or as he put it, he earned 50¢ for showing up at work and 50¢ based on performance. This is the brother of author Mona Simpson. This is a guy whose customers (synonymous with fans) left mounds of apples at his home, each with a single bite out of them.

The World of Apple

One of the cleverest headlines, The Guardian, I think, read 'Steve Jobs, Computer Icon'. Syria, homeland of Jobs' father, is in rebellion but students took note of their fatherland's favorite son. They were hardly alone; from Asia to Europe, people reacted to Jobs' death as they might a superstar's.

An amazing aspect of the Mac was that I was able to sit down in France or Germany or Iceland and use one of their Macintoshes. I might not be able to read a Norse menu, but if I let my hands go by feel, I could use the machine.

My long-time friend and computer teacher Geri choked up on the phone. I couldn't blame her– she'd vested her career and reputation first in computerizing her school and then convincing them Macs were the wave of the future. She's purchased nearly every Apple product except the iPad. (And in October, she remedied that situation!)
MITS Altair
MITS Altair

Europe became important to Steve Jobs only partly because of the tremendous support of NeXT from developers like Jean-François Groff, but also from the early Web development that came out of Cern. Minutes before my article was due, my wonderful friend Lela sent me this Jobs history documented by a French writer.

IBM 370 computer room
IBM 370 computer room
Why Mac

Through the mid 1970s, my personal computers were the size of SUVs and used more air conditioning than the average Italian village. In 1975, MITS introduced the Altair, arguably the first personal computer. Shortly thereafter, I soldered together an IMSAI 8080 and later bought a Sol-20, both painted 'IBM blue'. The Sol had walnut side panels, supposedly obtained from the leavings of a gunstock manufacturer.

PTI Sol-20
PTC Sol-20
'Complete' systems meant you didn't need to solder the boards but often implied you still had to separately buy floppy drives, keyboards, and monitors. Aficionados pored over issues of Popular Electronics, Dr. Dobb's Journal, and Byte. College students tinkered including Paul Allen and Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. They weren't executives then, they were amateur engineers you could chat up at trade shows.

IMSAI 8080
IMSAI 8080

In 1977, I paid scant attention to the affordable, expandable, and easy to use Apple ][, but two years later a demonstration of Apple's Lisa caught my imagination. $10,000 proved too steep for most companies let alone personal users, but when the Macintosh rolled out in 1984, I plunked down money to buy a 'fat Mac', a computer I still have.

In an office running two IBM mainframes, several DEC and other computers, the little Macintosh worked away, cranking out great-looking documentation with graphics and reference cards that were a pastiche of IBM's own.
Macintosh original
original Macintosh

Since then I've bought few computers other than Macintosh. A Mac is not, as some claim, a Rolls-Royce or Lear Jet. To me, it's more like John Deere or DeWalt. It's a silicon workhorse and when I constantly use a tool, accuracy, reliability, and ease of use become desirable features.

Best Tool for the Job

MacBook Air
MacBook Air
When my colleagues Dixon Hill and RT Lawton's lives depend upon a sidearm, price takes a distant second to reliability. The women who cut my hair use scissors priced between $200-300. Sure they could cut hair with a $20 or even a $2 pair of scissors, but precision and comfort are important to them. If they sell their well-kept scissors thirty years from now, they can still demand nearly what they paid for them.

The same is true of the Mac and its famed aesthetics are a bonus. Even counting the Sculley era, Macs somehow manage not to look dated. Style enhanced function and we haven't touched upon Apple's innovation, like the current barely-there MacBook Air, one of the most beautifully designed machines ever.


Duo with DuoDock
The PowerBook Duo was one of the cleverest subcompact notebooks ever, what today might be called a netbook: Return from a trip, close the Duo's cover, and slide it into the VCR-like slot of the DuoDock, which suddenly became a full-fledged desktop computer with monitor, keyboard, hard drives, math co-processor, ethernet, and everything else you expect on your desk.

When Apple discontinued the Duo, the outcry was considerable. That was the first time I heard the term 'cult-like following' applied to people who wanted sensible computer products.

These days, I spend inordinate hours pecking away at my keyboard, answering eMail, editing, writing and rewriting stories and articles like this one. The Mac helps me get the job done.

Apple logo tribute by Jonathan Mak Long
tribute by Jonathan Mak Long
iSad, no

Many admirers and fans expressed sadness, but I won't. My mother once exhorted me to dissuade my 86-year-old grandmother from taking a 'round-the-country bus tour. My mother argued a woman her age shouldn't attempt such a trip, that waiting rooms were cold, awful places, and that grandmother could die on such a trip. "But why not?" I said. "If she died, she'd die doing exactly what she wants to do." Like the crew of the Challenger, how many of us die living our dream?

While people tweet 'iSad' around the world, I'm simply glad one man found a positive way to change the world.

08 October 2011

What really happened when Columbus discovered America

by Elizabeth Zelvin

We’re coming up on Columbus Day, and having researched and written two short stories and a Young Adult novel about the events this holiday celebrates, I have quite a different perspective on the matter than most Americans.

The Santa Maria, 1492
For starters, it has nothing to do with Italians. Yes, Columbus was born in Genoa. But the three ships’ crews on the historic first voyage were Spanish. The names of 87 out of 90 have survived. The roster included one Genoese sailor, one Calabrian, one Portuguese, and several Basques. On the second voyage, when the fleet of 17 ships carried more than 1,200 men, the only Genoese, a childhood friend of Columbus, was a rapist and a boor to whose ugly tale I tried to do justice in my novel. Apart from a cabal of Catalans, who at one point mutinied, stole three caravels, and headed back to Spain, these first conquistadores were Spanish, their policies dictated by the needs and desires of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in their drive to unify Spain, fill its coffers, expand its dominion in land and trade, and purge it of any taint of dissension from its Christian faith.

The crime connection in this true story is the genocide of the Taino, the indigenous people of the Caribbean islands where Columbus landed, and especially in Hispaniola (Quisqueya to the Taino, Haiti and the Dominican Republic today) where the first settlements were built. It followed the conquest of Granada, the last Moorish (ie Muslim) stronghold in Spain, the expulsion of the Jews on the exact date, August 3, 1492, that Columbus sailed, and the similar extinction of the Guanche, the natives of the Canary Islands, which Spain was in the process of conquering, island by island, at the same time.

The people who greeted Columbus and his crew were peaceable and friendly. They had never seen horses or metal weapons. Columbus described them as “robust and comely.” In a letter to the king and queen, he said: “They are so ingenuous and free with all they have, that no one would believe it who has not seen it; of anything that they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no; on the contrary, they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it.” He was already considering what good servants they would make. When he failed to find enough gold to impress the sovereigns, the Taino morphed in his mind from potential Christian brethren who must be converted to that valuable commodity, slaves.

The Spaniards were convinced that the Taino had no religion, good news in that no former beliefs would form obstacles to their conversion to Christianity. One of the priests who accompanied the second expedition collected what he called folk tales and published them on his return to Europe. How ironic! In fact, the Taino were describing their religion to Fray Pane, and he didn’t get it. These were a people who settled disputes not by war or litigation, but through a ball game, batey, a team sport similar to soccer. Games also had a ceremonial function, and sometimes they were played for fun.

There is a good explanation for the Taino’s generosity. It was the keystone of their ethical belief system. Matu’um, generosity, was a virtue. But the Spaniards didn’t get it, and neither did Columbus. They took all they were offered—water, food, labor, goods, and especially gold, from nuggets to elaborately worked masks—and took whatever they wanted, including sexual favors, with or without Taino consent. But when two Taino took a couple of European shirts, not even keeping them but bestowing them on their cacique (chief), Spanish justice was immediate and cruel: their noses were slit in the presence of their families, and they narrowly escaped execution.

It’s sometimes said that what really killed off the entire Taino people was illness: European diseases to which they were not immune. This is a copout. Within three years of Columbus’s first landing on October 12, 1492, one-third of the Taino population was already dead. Many committed suicide, using cyanide extracted from cassava, their staple food, rather than endure the penalty for failing to pay the monthly “tribute” of gold that they did not have. In February 1495, the point at which my novel ends, the Spaniards rounded up 1,500 Taino and herded the 500 most likely prospects for slavery into ships’ holds no better than those of African slavers in later centuries. More than 200 were dead and dumped overboard before the ships landed in Europe.

Eurocentric culture has long declared the Taino extinct, although some Caribbean Americans who carry Taino DNA identify themselves as Taino, making efforts to reconstruct the language and their cultural heritage.

Happy Columbus Day.

07 October 2011

The Smoking Gun -- Sort of . . .

First: A Little Confession . . .

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

You see: I smoke cigars.

Five to ten a day, actually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

06 October 2011

Inspirational Smiles

by Deborah Elliott-Upton

This photo was taken by my daughter when I needed a new head shot for my press kit to accompany an essay I wrote for the 2009 Bylines Writers Desk Calendar. If you're not familar with the calendar, you can check out their web site at www.bylinescalendar.com I must have one every year.

The story behind the photo is my own Mona Lisa smile moment.

My daughter is pretty clever at constructing the setups for photo shoots. She had this great hat and I already owned the Trench coat. After more than several attempts, both of us admitted we weren't happy with the way the photos were turning out. I'm not the most photogenic person, so it's always difficult, but this one was frustrating. If I described the photo we both wanted, it would be fabulous. In reality, I appeared stiff, the props dead on the page. I just wasn't "feeling it."

When I wanted to quit, my daughter suggested I think of something very serious. Just when I had something in mind, she said something that made me laugh. This picture is the result. The Byline editor loved it and told me I should use it for all my publicity. Nice people say it captures my personality. Truthful people say it shows my decidedly wicked personality. What's the secret words behind the smile? Only my daughter and I know the truth causing this particular smile and neither of us are talking.

Following is the article inspiring the photo shoot. I hope you enjoy it.

Evergreens packed the landscape around Lake Tahoe like sardines in a tin. My brother-in-law, Charlie, drove along the lake's perimeter with one hand on the wheel, the other directing our attention to points of interest. My sister, Connie, had invited my husband and me along on their Reno vacation. I wanted to see the Ponderosa where Pa Cartwright raised those three strapping, good-looking sons. My sister wanted to visit the casinos. Our guys just wanted to relax in the skit resort cabin. Now driving around the lake, my mind wandered.

Connie turned halfway in her seat to face me. "What do you think?" she asked.

Studying the steep drop to the lake, I answered, "How easy it'd be to roll a dead body at midnight down the slope, watch it bounce among the trees like a pinball machine and finally plop into the lake."

When I glanced up, three sets of raised eyebrows and stone-cold silence reminded me I was a mystery writer and these three were not.

Writers imagine tragic stories about the new school teacher's background and give the librarian a secret, lurid past. The letter carrier may be a spy. Our dog's grromer sends secret codes via implants in our household pets.

Being a writer is fun using a wickedly delicious sense of imagination for ideas. All we have to do is look beyond the ordinary for inspiration.

05 October 2011

In Context

by Robert Lopresti

Follow up to my lament below. I have found a way to put the hotlinks in bold.
Beloved readers;

You may have figured out that Blogger is giving us some problems. This is mortifying for me because I was the one who suggested using it as a platform. Here's the latest kink: I put a number of hotlinks in this article and they are there and working but they aren't underlined as is usually the case. You have to run a cursor over them to find the damned things. THEN the underline appears. I have no idea why. So think of it as a fun game! Or don't. Grumble.

Back at our Old Location I may have mentioned three or four hundred times in passing that I am a reference librarian, and on occasion I have pointed out a favorite reference book or two.  Today's volume is a special treat for me because it is a government document. That's right, it was compiled with your tax dollars, so thanks very much.

Respectfully Quoted was edited by Suzy Platt and published by the Library of Congress in 1989. And this is cool, you can search it full-text online. (Sorry about the annoying ad that pops up.)

Briefly, RQ is a book of quotations compiled by a branch of the Library of Congress called the Congressional Research Service. So what makes it different from all the other dictionaries of smart-babble?

Pithy party

Well, let's think for a moment about how such books are compiled. There are two main methods. Either some expert reads a whole lot of books and finds a line he likes, says "Ooh! That's pithy!" and writes it down, or some expert reads a whole lot of books and finds quotations that other people have used, and writes them down.

But this book was compiled differently. You see, the CRS works exclusively for congresspersons and their staffs. So each of the lines in this book was asked about by a representative or a senator.

Well, what lazy devils. Why did they bother a bunch of librarians? Why didn't they just look it up in Bartlett's like everybody else?

You see, this is what makes the book unique. Let's say you are a senator preparing a speech. You find the perfect quotation, witty, to the point, perfectly making your case while devastating your opponents. You make your speech to wild applause.

The next day a reporter calls to ask why you had chosen to quote a statement that had originally been made in defense of Stalin's purges. At that point you know this is not going to be a good day.

If you are a politician you want to know the context in which something was said before you quote it. You don't want to use a term like final solution, modest proposal, or even crusade without knowing what they mean to some people. (Of course, you may also use quotes to pass a message to some of your listeners, which is sometimes called a dog whistle. Some people claim Michelle Bachmann is a master of this technique.) It would also be nice to know that the quote is genuine, and not something made up entirely or attributed to someone who didn't say it. And that's what makes Respectfully Quoted unusual. Each quotation has been checked back to its source and often provided with a context.

Who said?

All of these fall into the category of "attributed to but we can't find them among their works."

"Elect us and we shall restore law and order." Often attributed to Adolf Hitler.

"We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." Attributed to Ben Franklin.

"You may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time." Attributed to Abraham Lincoln.

"England and America are two countries separated by the same language" Attributed to George Bernard Shaw.

“The finest Congress money can buy.” Mark Twain did not say it. He did write the following: "I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world." He intended to say this at a Fourth of July gathering in England but the US ambassador, General Schenck, decided that after his own wonderful speech no more were needed and cancelled Twain's. What a peach Schenck must have been to work for, huh?

Surprising sources

"Fifth Column." General:Emilio Mola used the term in the Spanish Civil War to describe those inside Madrid who would help the four columns of attackers outside.

"Founding Fathers." Apparently comes from that great speaker Warren Gamaliel Harding.

Odd but true

"These are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed." Who originated the famous motto of the mailman? Would you believe Herodotus? He was describing the messenger service of the Persian King Xerxes.

"You see things; and you say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say 'Why not?' I remember Ted Kennedy at his brother Bobby's funeral quoting Bobby quoting JFK with very similar words. But they come from George Bernard Shaw, who put them in the forked mouth of none other than Satan.

"I wept because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet." A boiled-down version of a a parable by medieval Arabic poet Sadi.

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." Attributed to Mark Twain, but Twain attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli.

"Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Vince Lombardi says he didn't say it. Some people say he did. Others says Red Sanders did.

"If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all the books in the British Museum." - Sir Arthur S. Eddington.

It's a fun book to browse. But don't quote me.

04 October 2011

The Class of Writing, Part I

Susan SlaterUndetered (or perhaps (shudder) drawn) by Leigh's communiqués covering the weirdness of Florida, Susan Slater recently moved from the Southwestern US (New Mexico, Arizona) to Palm Coast, between St. Augustine and Daytona. First she was beset with internet problems, then Sunday she telephoned SleuthSayers International Headquarters. horrified that her computer had died. Fortunately, she'd sent in her intended article, which appears today. Unfortunately, she will have to introduce herself personally when she gets her new machine. (She's considering using this opportunity to switch from PCs to a Mac, possibly an iMac, a Macbook air– or both! Me, I stick with my Underwood.)

Susan is the author of several Southwest mystery novels including single title and series, including the Ben Pecos series. She's also the author of the breakout 'henlit' novel, 0 to 60.


The Class of Writing, Part I

by Susan Slater

Most readers today– certainly those thirty-five and younger grew up with computers! They expect their information demands to be met quickly–they IM, email, download, text, twitter, speed-dial– anything that saves them time. And information is always at their fingertips– iPods, Blackberries, cell phones, laptops– the pace of life seems frantic and the amount of information staggering!

It's certainly no longer necessary to describe the elephant! The gorgeous prose of yesteryear is almost non-existent! We are exposed to so much more today. Poor Miss Marple is no longer gory enough– not when the reader has just seen a murder/suicide on the six o'clock news.

Taking It Home

How different from when I grew up. I wrote in a journal, posted notes to friends, sent honest-to-goodness thank-you notes on real paper in real envelopes (no Jacquie Larson here). As a child I read books written a hundred years before my time–and loved them. The richness of back-story, the lushness of description– I wanted to be another Bronte or Austen or at the very least an Agatha. I wanted to "live" with those characters–grow with them. A chat with Hercule Piorot? Too perfect.

I always chose the 'fattest' book on the library shelf to take on vacation–it had to last a week! No beach read, commuter scan, or summer light-weight for me. I personally think it's a shame we have very few epics being written today. I know I was meant to write The Thornbirds!

But in our bottom-line driven society, terms like having punch and to-the-point take precedence. There's very little patience for carefully crafted, in-depth stories with memorable characters. We have formula romance and formula mysteries. Readers demand (and get) fast-paced stories that mirror their lives. There are not a lot of characters in fiction today that I'd want to take home!

Attracting That Audience

So what does this mean for writers? If we want to attract a reading audience, we MUST take heed or not be published! This modern-day pacing has changed the way we write.
We no longer have the luxury of wallowing in lengthy back-story or page after page of description– hey, our readers have been there, done that. And they can always Google a topic they're not familiar with.

All this ranting brings me to some advice. Having taught writing for many years, I tried to come up with what might be the most helpful to writers. Comments on plot, characterization, scenes, POV? All are great topics but I decided to start (and aptly so) with beginnings. Those opening paragraphs that will make or break you. And I'm not just talking about "hooks"– but maybe more the nuances. See what you think.

• Question: What do readers need to know right up front??
First paragraph, first 5 pages, first 10?
• Answer: Whatever will keep them reading!
  1. It could a foreshadowing. Consider Connie Shelton's opening to Memories Can Be Murder:
    We come to certain crossroads in our lives. It is inevitable. Some are planned–marriage, career changes, cross-country moves. At other times we come to these crossroads quite suddenly, with no warning. I was orphaned in such a way over fifteen years ago and managed to get on with my life anyway. But within the past few days the discovery of some boxes of old papers dumped my preconceived ideas about my own life suddenly and completely upside down.
  2. If you don't want to "bait" your reader, snag him with a description (setting the stage or establishing tone) of something so unusual that he's propelled to continue. For example, Tony Hillerman in A Thief of Time:
  3. "The Moon had risen just above the cliff behind her. Out on the packed sand of the wash bottom the shadow of the walker made a strange elongated shape. Sometimes it suggested a heron, sometimes one of those stick-figure forms of an Anasazi pictograph. An animated pictograph, its arms moving rhythmically as the moon shadow drifted across the sand. Sometimes, when the goat trail bent and put the walker's profile against the moon, the shadow became Kokopelli himself. The back pack formed the spirit's grotesque hump, the walking stick Kokopelli's crooked flute. Seen from above, the shadow would have made a Navajo believe that the great yei northern clans called Watersprinkler had taken visible form. If an Anasazi had risen from his thousand-year grave in the trash heap under the cliff ruins here, he would have seen the Humpbacked Flute Player, the rowdy god of fertility of his lost people. But the shadow was only the shape of Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal blocking out the light of an October moon."
  4. 0 to 60Or pull the reader directly into the action–often done through dialogue. Let the reader experience (or discover) what is happening along with the main character. Consider Susan Slater's opening to 0 to 60:
    "I have a love child."

    "Ed, I don't have time for games. Ok, Ok, give me a hint. Movie? Novel?"

    She continued to slip his tux from its protective covering, twist the hanger handle perpendicular, and stretch to secure it over the closet door. She smiled. They hadn't played a version of What's That Line? for years. But back when things were simple– before children, a demanding job with a six-figure salary– they'd open a bottle of wine and just be together. Would it be like that again now that he was retiring?
    Here the reader is 'with' Shelly when she learns that her marriage is a sham. By experiencing the event, the reader buys into the story (perhaps, identifies with it) and wants to find out how Shelly will handle the crisis.

    Consider also, Erica Holtzer's Eye for an Eye, where a mother is on the phone with her daughter on Halloween and hears what happens when the daughter opens the door to what she thinks is more trick-or-treaters. The reader is right there experiencing it with her.

  5. If I'm writing a short story–where I do not have the luxury of space–I have to make every sentence count especially in the first paragraph. I call it the "10 in 10" rule– 10 facts in the opening paragraph of 10 lines! Look at the following opening paragraph from An Eye for an Eye, my contribution to the anthology of short stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. Can you find all the facts? ONLY count those that further the story–those that are necessary to the plot:
    Sliding behind the steering wheel, Edie started the rental and quickly turned the heater to three before pulling a New Mexico map from the glove box. At least she couldn't get lost. Ha! Her friends would laugh at that. She had been known to screw up going from point A to B in a straight line. But not this time. She shook out the map and traced the route with her index finger: highway 64 from Taos, west across the Gorge, cross 285 at Tres Piedras, continue on 64 and follow the signs to Durango. Piece of cake. Yeah, right. What the map didn't say was beware of wildlife. Was she taking a chance starting out well after dark? Probably. But as usual she was running late. Just another stressor. One she'd promised her shrink to work on.
Did you find these?
  • Her name is Edie
  • She's driving a rental
  • She's in New Mexico
  • She's going from Taos to Durango
  • It's cold out
  • She's sometimes inept–gets lost easily
  • Wildlife on the road could pose a danger
  • It's well after dark
  • She's running late
  • Being late is a stressor that she's promised her shrink to work on

Obviously, if your opening paragraph only has 5 lines or 8, the facts would match.

• Question: How do you know where (within your story) to start?
My response might surprise you.
• Answer: Next week!

03 October 2011

Fran's Article

Folks, please bear with us. We suffered a glitch that knocked Fran's article off-line. Fran's writing must have been too HOT for Blogger

We'll return at midnight with tomorrow's article by Susan Slater.

02 October 2011

The Crime of Capital Punishment

by Leigh Lundin

capital punishment
In mystery stories, the crime story typically ends with the detective's dénouement explaining how he arrived at his conclusions. In some of the 1940s radio plays, the protagonist might even chortle: "Old Sparky will electrify you, Eli!" or "It's the gallows for you, Gusman!"

In real life, this can be the point when the plot intensifies if it's believed detectives or the prosecutor got it wrong. And, in a surprising number of cases, they do. Common wisdom argues a tiny fraction are mistaken, but common wisdom is wrong. Looking only at DNA cases, the State of Illinois discovered one in sixteen condemned men were innocent, but cases of actual innocence could be double that. Experts extrapolate that as many as one in eight men sent to their deaths may be innocent. If they're right, three hundred currently on death row might not be guilty.

That number may be extremely conservative because the Innocence Project exonerated 250 men by February of last year. The pace is slowing… in many cases there is no DNA to connect the crime with the accused but, according to Innocence Project statistics, eyewitness identification erred in an astonishing 70% of their cases. Even in up-close-and-personal rape, identification is often wrong.

The Court of Lost Appeal

Another reason the pace is slowing is that prosecutors and courts throw up impediments to testing. Prosecutors sometimes 'lose' evidence or launch legal arguments to prevent testing.

In Kafkaesque rulings two years ago, the Supreme Court slapped down the Innocence Project. They held that prisoners have no right to post-conviction DNA testing. The Supreme Court expressed deep disdain when DNA was used to exonerate. In dismissing exculpatory DNA evidence, one of the justices wrote that forensic science has "serious deficiencies". Chief Justice Roberts expressed a fear that post-conviction DNA testing risks "unnecessarily overthrowing the established system of criminal justice."


In middle school, we're taught the accused are considered innocent until adjudged guilty. This remains true even though the prosecution comes to court with several advantages and the defense is often, well, defensive.

To this Court, 'finality'– the court's term for closure– is more important than accuracy. As law professor General Beishline said, "If you've come to the law seeking justice, you've come to the wrong church."

The AEDPA, Gingrinch legislation signed into law by President Clinton, prohibits federal courts from remedying miscarriages of justice. The AEDPA rendered federal courts powerless to correct state courts' misinterpretations of U.S. constitutional and federal law. Judges may try to step outside legalities to set matters to right, but few judges are willing to risk their careers. They are, after all, subject to elections and reappointments.

execution of Chicago anarchists
Execution of 'Anarchists', Chicago, 1887     (credit: ChicagoHistory.org)

Savvy and Savaging Politics

Arkansas: Capital punishment makes good politics. During his first presidential campaign, Governor Bill Clinton returned to Little Rock to sign the death warrant of a mentally deficient man (who was saving his pecan pie until after his execution). Clinton may have had in mind the lessons of another governor, Michael Dukakis who'd cleared the way for Willie Horton to be freed.

Florida: Our Florida governor Bob Martinez started signing death warrants his first full day in office as quickly as they were slapped on his desk. When it appeared he would lose re-election, he ramped up executions against international protests. Several legal experts are convinced he wittingly executed innocent men. As the Innocent Project demonstrated significant numbers of the condemned were truly innocent, Florida (like North Carolina's Inquiry Commission) recently established a commission to review doubtful cases.

Texas: The last two governors of Texas who campaigned for president set records in numbers of executions. Both Governor Bush and Governor Perry asserted Texas never wrongfully executed anyone, ever. Governor Perry was so convinced, he shut down a state investigation by the somewhat gutless Texas Forensic Science Commission that was looking into doubtful convictions. As writer J.D. Bell said, "If Perry was certain of Texas' infallibility in assuring the guilt of all 235 men sent to death during his gubernatorial reign, then there surely would be no reason to block a thorough investigation into Willingham's execution."

Illinois: Governor George Ryan has had his woes, but his legacy may have helped reshape capital punishment in the land of Lincoln. Once freed from political constraints, he turned his attention to the nearly 300 men on death row. In a matter of months, 18 were exonerated, not merely judged not guilty but proved not guilty.

electric chair
Two Wrongs

Almost as bad as executing the wrong man, the real perpetrator likely goes free. In the recent Troy Davis case, after seven witnesses recanted their stories, the remaining chief accuser against Davis was the most likely suspect. Calls for relief from conservatives and liberals, from religious and political leaders went unheeded. Psychologists contend his repeated trips to the execution chamber were a form of torture.

When witnesses recant, appeals courts and parole boards almost invariably take the position witnesses lie the second time. Though convenient for the prosecution, that psychology seems backwards to me. Transcripts coming out of parole hearings show boards strongly influenced by prosecution bias and seldom by the notion that a jury erred. Indeed, the last judge who looked over Troy Davis' new evidence and witness recantations agreed there was some little mitigation, but in the end wrote Davis failed to prove his absolute innocence and that repudiations were "smoke and mirrors."

Make a Write

The English teacher in my tiny high school formed debate teams. I'm grateful to Miss Arthur's debates for a couple of reasons. First, I'm still amazed how often the fallacies taught in debate show up unchallenged on talk radio. Secondly, the exigencies of preparation forced me to thoroughly research the death penalty. For a multitude of reasons– ethical, technical, financial, and moral– I came away convinced capital punishment was wrong.

But mine isn't the final opinion— it is only mine. Yours may differ and feel welcome to talk about it here.
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