20 January 2012

No, no, I really am.....

Most of the time, an undercover wants the criminal side to believe he really is someone other than that pesky occupational hazard known to them as law enforcement. However, there are also those times when the undercover needs to come forward and reveal his true identity, even if circumstances are not necessarily under the best conditions. This is one of those incidents. Surveillance had gone wrong and the undercover ended up playing the Lone Ranger. Or it could be a John Wayne part. Nah, in my mind, I like the image of Bruce Willis in the movie Last Man Standing, not to be confused with Tim the Toolman in a current TV sitcom by the same name. Although......

It was supposed to be a simple deal. Just me, my senior partner and a future defendant were in the bad guy's house. Several surveillance vehicles were parked up and down the street for backup. Negotiations for the contraband goods had finally been completed. Problem was, the bad guy was either one of those paranoid type people or he was being extra cagey. The goods were not at his residence, instead we had to drive over to another house. He made a quick phone call to tell them we were coming.

"I'm ready to go," says I.

"I'll wait here," says my partner.

This last statement allowed both the bad guy and me to feel a certain amount of relief. The criminal was satisfied because now he only had to keep an eye on one person instead of two during the transfer of goods. As for my feeling relief, my partner and I had zero means of communication with our surveillance teams outside to tell them the deal was moving to another location. By staying at the house, my partner could run outside, after the bad guy and I left, and flag down one of the surveillance cars. Looked like a great plan at the time.

I drove the undercover government car with the soon to be defendant seated on the passenger side. We backed out of his driveway, made a left at the first corner, drove one long block, made another left and immediately pulled into a driveway on the right hand side of the street. With my tail lights still glowing red, I glanced in the rear view mirror and soon saw the parade of surveillance vehicles going past.

"Good," I says to myself, "I'm covered."

I turned off the ignition.

My new friend, let's call him Bad Guy #1, goes into the house we're parked in front of and quickly returns with a large cardboard box. Seated inside the car, he opens the box and shows me the goods. I'm satisfied.

"I'll get the money out of the trunk," says I.

At the rear of the government car, I raise the trunk lid and the light comes on. This is now the bust signal, because we aren't going to let this much money walk. I stand there, confident, with the trunk light illuminating my smiling face as I wait for the cavalry to descend upon the scene and deliver me from the hostiles.

After a while, I'm still standing there. My smile is starting to droop. Where the hell is the cavalry?

Two things now occur.

One, I realize that the surveillance cars missed my last turn into the driveway. They have obviously continued down the street, probably splitting up and commencing to search for their lost undercover. Uh-oh.

And secondly, I look over the top of the government car toward the house. There's a man watching me through the kitchen window. Uh-oh again.

Show time.

Removing a thick envelope of flash money from the trunk, I wave the envelope over the top of the car for the inside man to see. Then I paste a smile back on my face as if everything is peachy keen. There's nothing for it now. I get back into the driver's seat, obvious envelope in hand.

"We've got a small problem," says I.

"What's that?" inquires my soon to be enlightened friend from the passenger side.

"Well," says I, "I'm a federal agent and you're under arrest."

"I don't believe you," says the criminal.

"Well, here's my credentials," says I, having extracted them from my pocket and displaying them in my most professional law enforcement manner like actors do on television.

"I still don't believe you," says the bad guy.

It then occurs to me that maybe the man has slipped into an extreme case of denial. All he needs is a slight nudge back towards reality.

"Well, here's my gun," says I, flipping the safety off on my nickel-plated Colt .45 semi-automatic.
"Okay, okay," he blubbers, evidently making a sudden return to the real world, "but I gotta tell you that the guy watching us from inside the house has a shotgun."

"In that case," I explain in a slow voice just in case I had been speaking too rapidly for him the other times, "you had best get down on the floorboards as small as you can get." Which as a new convert to belief, he quickly did.

Then, in my best Broderick Crawford style from the old TV series of Highway Patrol, I crouched down in the V between my car and the open driver's door with my gun aimed over the hood and at the house.

"Federal agents," I holler, "come out with your hands up." I do all that in a command voice like I know what I'm doing.

To my surprise, Bad Guy #2, the one with the shotgun, appears behind the screen door in the front doorway. He stands there with a clear case of indecision.

Afraid that he too may be a sufferer of Denial Disease, I wave my gun and reiterate my demands at the top of my lungs.

Amazingly, the cure works. He leans his shotgun against the inside door frame and comes out on the porch.

I order him into the front yard.

He goes there.

In order to keep his mind occupied so he doesn't do anything stupid, I tell him to start doing pushups.

He complies.

Wow, this is working great.

Now, Bad Guy #3 from somewhere inside the house picks up the shotgun and stands in the doorway.

Crap. This is starting to look like circus clowns getting out of a car.

I glance back at Bad Guy #2. He's still doing pushups. Must be the adrenaline, but then maybe he's never met a crazy guy with a gun. However, as I look over his back at the sliding glass patio door of the house next door, there's Mom, Dad and two little kids with their noses pressed against the glass to observe goings on in their quiet little neighborhood. Supper grows cold on the table behind them.

Bad Guy #3 is reluctant to come out of the house. I don't know, maybe he's allergic to pushups.

Fortunately, the cavalry now arrives with screeching vehicles and massive firepower.

#3 hasn't seen a show like this before. He quickly decides that maybe pushups aren't so bad after all.

As surveillance subsequently explains, yep, they missed my turn into the driveway. They were only alerted to my possible location when one of them monitoring the local police radio band heard mention of an escalating disturbance involving firearms at a certain residence.

Botton Line: Sometimes it's tough when the undercover operative has to reverse course and come in from the cold, but the criminals don't believe who he really is. Like I said in an earlier blog, it's a strange world we operate in.

19 January 2012

Interesting Books by Not So Big Names

Devil All the TimeIn the book business today, a handful of big names and celebrity personalities use up most of the promotional oxygen. The result, as any writer knows, is that a host of worthy and interesting volumes get overlooked. Three concerned with crime might be worth your time, although only two of them are strictly speaking category mysteries: Donald Rae Pollock's The Devil All the Time, Karen Fossim's Bad Intentions and Lene Kaaberbol and Agnette Friis's The Boy in the Suit Case.

Easily the most flamboyant is The Devil All the Time, which got quite a bit of literary attention last year, in part because of Pollock's interesting personal history, which includes leaving school at 17 to work in a meat packing plant and thirty years in a southern Ohio paper mill. Clearly this was not someone who rushed prematurely into writing.

His earlier collection of stories, Knockemstiff, was set in the Ohio town of the same name where he lives. The Devil All the Time shares that venue with a West Virginia hamlet, and which is the more toxic venue is hard to decide. Both are full of psychopaths, often of a religious persuasion, and include a pedophile evangel, husband and wife serial killers, a World War II vet, deranged by his wife's terminal cancer, a corrupt sheriff, and a variety of lost souls, revivalists, and small town losers.

The good news about The Devil All the Time is that it is wonderfully written in a vigorous, but not stultifyingly profane, vernacular. The plotting is ingenious, and all the many plot strands and lose ends are satisfyingly, and plausibly, wrapped up. So is it just scribbler envy that produces my reservations?

Maybe, but maybe not. Folks with long memories will recall that periodically a novel about the depraved underclass -this one, the white, protestant underclass of the Midwest and the Appalachians- proves popular. I don't know if the novel's critical acclaim is related to the politics of the moment, but Pollock certainly heaps on the misery without restraint. The serial killers alone would have been a pretty rich blend. Combined with Willard Russell's blood-soaked 'prayer log,' abusive behavior in nearly every chapter, and a truly far out pair of revivalists, one does begin to think that far from being 'gritty realism,' this is fantasy of a particularly gruesome sort and that some really fine gifts have been employed with more 'sound and fury' than substance.

Bad IntentionsThe other two novels are both Scandinavian semi-noir. Norway's Karen Fossum is one of those low key and subtle writers whose books aren't going to be transformed into doorstop sized best sellers. She's not nearly as flashy a writer as Pollock, but she has a real feel for grief and for the consequences of violent action. Bad Intentions is told from the point of view of the perpetrators, an unusual and tricky ploy, given that the initial, fatal, crime is over when the book begins. Fossum pulls it off nicely.

All the characters are well drawn, with the possible exception of one genuine sociopath, and surprisingly sympathetic, and, as a result, the novel is sad. Don't read this when you are in need of something bracing and cheering. For that, you're better with Alexander McCall Smith's The Saturday Big Tent Wedding.

Boy in the SuitcaseThe Boy in the Suitcase is a Danish import with a plot line to give any parent, particularly any single parent, the willies. The writing is functional, using the modern style of short chapters and multiple points of view to keep the plot moving, and once the action kicks in, it's a genuine thriller. Ignore the often shaky motivation and enjoy an effective take on the familiar Scandinavian Noir features of domestic abuse, illegal immigrants and the arrogance and entitlement of top people in a wealthy society.

Like The Devil All the Time and Bad Intentions, The Boy in the Suitcase reflects our changing view of the sexes. In The Devil, almost everyone is depraved but the women are either brain dead or idealized. Bad Intentions is pretty even handed, although women are still seen as especially vulnerable to charismatic men.

The Boy in the Suitcase, reverses all this. The men are either ineffective, unreliable or brutal. The leading women are the crusaders and the avengers, and by the end, one does feel some sympathy for Nina Borg's anxious husband and children, who are left at home to worry while she attempts to save a small piece of the world.

Finally, although not a mystery or even a novel, Van Gogh, The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith not only offers an enormously detailed portrait of this difficult and sad man's turbulent life but a new take on his death. According to the authors, Van Gogh's 'suicide' was more likely an accident or a homicide, and the artist, as quixotic and idealistic as he was violent and unstable, may have claimed suicide to spare the young perpetrators.

Now there's a plot any writer could get behind.

18 January 2012

A little film music, please...

The other day I was watching a n episode of the cop series Blue Bloods, and a character came into a room where a woman was rehearsing a song for party. The song was Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

All I could think was that the producers were running a bit late. It was about five years ago that I concluded that the FCC had passed a new rule requiring every TV show to feature "Hallelujah." It was getting bizarre there for a while. They even put it one of the Shrek movies. A great song yes, but children's music? Not hardly.

Anyway, that got me thinking about songs in TV and movies. I am not talking about musicals, but songs that pop up in non-musical shows, either because one character starts singing, or because it simply appears in the soundtrack. Happens all the time, of course, but sometimes the combination is so synergistic that it changes how I feel about the song. So here are a few of my favorites.

An episode of The West Wing called "Two Cathedrals" ends with the staff rushing off to a press conference where they will discover whether their boss intends to launch what they think will be a doomed run for re-election. The music is Dire Straits "Brothers In Arms" which both captures and sets the tone of a determined team going to a crisis.

I used to have friends who played Irish music in an Irish bar. Audience members would often ask for "Danny Boy," which they loathed. They always pointed out that it was written by an Englishman (okay, the tune was Irish traditional). But now when I hear this song I always think of this scene from one of my favorite movies, Miller's Crossing. Amazing use of the soundtrack, no? (By the way, if you haven't seen the movie, and think you might some day. please skip this clip. I don't want to spoil one of the best scenes.)

In this episode of Scrubs the hero, J.D., makes friends with a woman who is waiting for a heart transplant. She tells him that her dream was to be a Broadway star, but she couldn't sing. The song was written by Colin Hays, and like all the songs in this column, it was NOT written for the show.

And now we get back to my favorite Jewish Canadian Buddhist. The first three songs on Leonard Cohen's first album were "The Stranger Song," "Winter Lady," and "Sisters of Mercy." Those are also the songs that appear in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. It's almost as if Robert Altman grabbed the first album he saw and slapped the first few tracks into his movie, except that they work perfectly as themes for the title characters and the prostitutes, respectively. A friend of mine was astonished to hear that there were three songs in the moviie. Not a fan of Cohen's voice, he thought they had all been the same one.

So, what shows changed the way YOU look at a song?

17 January 2012

Gone South

To my old friend John Cruickshank Rose
With happy memories of my visit to the West Indies
                            Agatha Christie
                            Dedication, “A Caribbean Mystery”

     The regular contributors here at SleuthSayers have an on-line staging area where we can compose our articles, and then edit and tweak them before they are finally scheduled for publication.  There we each can see not only our own articles as they develop, but also the titles and publication dates for upcoming articles by other SleuthSayer contributors.  If you were to look at this collection of works in progress you would come away with some basic information about the various authors.  Principally you would note that some schedule articles way in advance – sometimes three or four are sitting in the queue, just waiting for 12:01 a.m. of their designated day to arrive so they can strut and fret their day in the sun. 

    That, my friends, is not me.  I usually spend the days just before my every other Tuesday posting looking (sometimes frantically) for an idea that will grow into an article.  I mention all of this because I am going to be battling some challenges over the next few months.

     Let us back up.  My wife Pat and I live in Washington, D.C.  Summers are nice here.  Not so winters.  January is depressing enough, but February – no matter that it only has 28 days – is the longest month of the year.  So we decided years ago that if we were lucky enough to celebrate early retirements (which we did in 2009) we would absent ourselves from Washington every winter for as many weeks as possible.  Lucky for us we have adult sons who can be left behind to take care of the house and the cats.
Royal Clipper
    All of this leads up to the fact that this is being written in early January, but by the time it is posted, on January 17, we will already be six days into a three week trip, including two weeks on board the tall ship Royal Clipper, sailing from Barbados to the leeward islands and then down to the Grenadines.  We have other less grand southerly sojourns scheduled for February and March, but more on those later.
The library on Royal Clipper
    Whenever we head south in January I try to go armed not only with a good deal of reading material (made easier now that I read almost exclusively on my Nook, which tucks nicely into carry-on luggage) but with a plot outline as well.  So my hope is to make the trip a bit productive.  . 

    Even though I am every bit as retired at home as I am abroad, I still seem better able to adhere to the discipline of writing when we are away.  The Royal Clipper works well for this – while it is a sailing ship, it is very well equipped, and has a nicely appointed library where I can find a desk for my laptop.  There I follow Ian Fleming’s model – I write for an hour or two and then take the rest of the day off. 
Goldeneye -- Ian Fleming's Jamaican home
     Thinking of Ian Fleming brings to mind authors who have retreated to the Caribbean not only for inspiration but also in search of a conducive place to write.  Fleming, famously, wrote all of his James Bond novels at Goldeneye, his vacation home in Jamaica.  He refused to write any fiction elsewhere.  It was at Goldeneye that he died of a heart attack in 1964, just after finishing the first draft of The Man with the Golden Gun.

      On at least one occasion Agatha Christie also sought out the Caribbean for literary stimulation and found there  the inspiration for A Caribbean Mystery, as the above dedication indicates.  Apparently she was looking for something of a jump start when she headed to the West Indies.  Christie had received lukewarm reviews for her previous two novels, The Mirror Crack’d  and The Clocks.  The jinx was broken with A Caribbean Mystery, however.  In its December 11, 1964 review of the novel The Guardian  noted
 "Mrs Agatha Christie has done it again. In A Caribbean Mystery she tells the reader explicitly what is going to happen; and yet when it does, nine out of ten will be taken completely by surprise – as I was. How does she do it? For the rest, it is Miss Marple this time who is in charge of the story; and all one can guess is that the setting is a Caribbean island."

    Herman Wouk also went south for the inspiration for his cautionary serio-comedic classic Don’t Stop the Carnival.  The novel tells the story of the hopeless and hapless Norman Paperman, who deserts the bright lights of Broadway to purchase and then attempt to run a small hotel on the imagined Island of Kinja (short for “King George Island").  The book inspired a musical by Jimmy Buffett (sound track highly recommended) and on a more personal note provided the name for our cat, Kinja, who is wandering around my ankles as I type.  The model for Norman Paperman's Gull Reef Hotel in the book was the Royal Mail Inn, now long gone, but which was once was located on Hassell Island in St. Thomas across from Charlotte Amalie, and which Wouk managed for a short time in the early 1960s.  While it can be hard to find Don’t Stop the Carnival in State-side bookstores (and the book has yet to come out in an e-publication) you will find it everywhere in the Caribbean – even in convenience stores.  In the Caribbean it is the ex-patriot’s Bible.

    Who else can we add to the list?  Certainly Graham Greene, who wrote Our Man in Havana after a prolonged visit to Cuba.  And The Comedians, one of the finest novels I have read and a brilliant and scathing send-up of the Duvalier government, was written by Greene following his numerous visits to Haiti.  Reportedly the owner of Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, where Greene frequently stayed, named a room in his honor.   

    I do not know for certain that the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson frequented the Caribbean, but I suspect that he must have as evidenced by the beginning section of the second book of the Lisbeth Salander trilogy, The Girl who Played with Fire.  There, in a rather strange stand-alone prologue to the book, Salander has traveled down the leeward islands until she reaches Grenada, where we find her, at the beginning of the book,  lounging on Grand Anse beach -- surely one of the finest beaches in the Caribbean. The descriptions of Grenada there, and in the action that follows before the actual book kicks in, are wonderful, and ring true.  Certainly Larsson must have walked Grand Anse himself before he allowed his greatest creation, Lisbeth, to do so.

    We can also add to the list James Michener, who returned frequently to the Caribbean and who lived for some months on the island of  St. Lucia, which is the counterpart for his fictional island of All Saints in his 1989 novel Caribbean.

St. Lucia is also where I will be on the day this article posts.  I should make it to Grenada and Grand Anse the next week. This list of authors who have retreated to the West Indies could go on, but I need to pack!

    It is now several days later. Updated material follows:

Sea U Guest House, Barbados  January 14, 2012

16 January 2012

Little Worlds

Although most mystery writers would give their eye teeth for a great plot and although the big selling novels of the genre are all heavily plot driven, the story lines of mysteries are not destined to linger in memory. With certain sterling exceptions- the orangutan did it in The Murders of the Rue Morgue and Roger Ackroyd was done in by the sly narrator- we simply do not remember plots.

Indeed, memory seems to decrease in inverse proportion to the intricacy and ingenuity of the story. Thus it is easy to recall that the King killed Hamlet's father and that Oedipus was seized with road rage on the way into Thebes but very difficult to remember even one of Miss Jane Marple's ventures or exactly what Robicheaux was up to in James Lee Burke's latest novel.

And yet, fans continue to ask for their favorites whether Kate Atkinson or Donna Leon or Lee Child, suggesting that while plot is necessary for the mystery, it is not in some ways the essential ingredient. Certainly what is remembered tends to be character first, with fans developing a taste for Inspector Wallender or Marshall Guarnaccia or V.I. Warshawski, detectives whose adventures are followed with pleasure, even if, in retrospect, the details of their cases remain hazy.

He or she who can create a great character rarely wants for readers. But there is another aspect of the mystery that I think is equally important, namely the setting, including not just the physical setting which may be familiar or exotic, but what might be called the tone or atmosphere of the whole. In this as in so many other aspects, the template has to be Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. True, he has a great character in Holmes and a very good one in Watson, but without that particular gaslight London mis-en-scene, I doubt the series of stories would have had their enormous appeal. Which continues: A recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement dealt with no less that six new books about Holmes and/or Doyle, plus the newest Sherlock Holmes film.

The Holmes stories were made for cold, rainy nights, because they depend so heavily on the contrast between the warm, smoky, Victorian chambers of the two friends and the raw, damp weather in the streets and out on the windswept moors. Repetition in the form of the original stories, which Doyle stuck with despite wearying of his creation, and what seems like an unending series of Holmes pastiches, have made Baker Street and the Victorian world and underworld just familiar enough. We travel there imaginatively, knowing that we will get thrills and satisfactions of a particular quality.

Not every writer has the patience to create such a little world. I, personally, disliked adding back stories for the later novels in my mystery series, and I preferred to keep Anna Peters on the move. Clearly the creation of a little world and a stock company of characters was not on my Muse's agenda.

Other writers find creating either a little world or a consistent atmosphere very satisfying. Agatha Christie dealt St. Mary Mead more than its share of corpses - and cozy writers have been mining the territory of garden fetes and parish politics and bad behavior among the gentry ever since.

Thanks chiefly to Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald, Southern California of the 1940's and 50's enjoys a similar posthumous life. Where would we be without those alcoholic gumshoes, tuxedoed gamblers, ambitious starlets, and gat-packing thugs? Not to mention the secluded bungalows and crumbling apartments, both so convenient for stashing a corpse or two, the roadhouses with sinister reputations, and the seedy digs of the leading P.I.

More recently, Ian Rankin has focused on the east of Scotland with a few forays to Glasgow, but the non-touristy side of Edinburgh is his novels' real heart. And it's a bleak, guilt ridden, hard-drinking heart at that. Further south in the UK, there is an equally distinctive feel to P.D. James's novels, particularly her earlier ones and those set up on the coast and in the fenland of England. Even when Inspector Dalgliesh plays a minor role, the novels have a reflective melancholy that owes a lot to their often bleak and desolate settings.

Alexander McCall Smith's Gaborone is lovingly recreated in each of his novels, along with Precious Ramotswe and the rest of what is now a lively stock company. James Lee Burke has done the same for New Orleans, capturing its baroque corruption and vitality. Equally distinctive is Fred Vargas's Paris, with its layers of history, its whimsy, and its toleration for the rampant eccentricity of Inspector Adamsberg's squad.

With all, the plots are clever but forgettable. What lingers in the mind are the characters and atmosphere, which Adamsberg would probably, and sensibly, define as je n'sais quoi.

15 January 2012

Merchandising Murder

by Leigh Lundin

Warning: Today's topic is disturbing if not outright disgusting. Feel free to peek through your fingers while reading about this backwater of crime, a surprisingly profitable one.

This is how today's article came about. A friend and classmate wrote:
I've been curious why sometimes, when I've finished a task and have time at the computer, stuff about serial killers occasionally catches my eye, as did this article.

I was happy to find on p. 2 a possible explanation for something that hasn't fully made sense to me. The study was interesting.

I haven't seen any of this type of subject in any of the writing you've sent me, so it may not be of interest to you, but I figure you may share my curiosity about it.

Shopping to Die For

The topic is 'murderabilia', the collecting of artifacts from the worst of crimes and criminals. Arguably, we writers profit from crime through entertainment, albeit indirectly, but I like to think we explore the concepts of evil, inspect it through different prisms, help understanding and perhaps heal rents in the human condition.

killers Of further concern to me is building the egos of serial killers and mass murderers. Bundy, Dana Gray, and the BTK killer clearly fed off public attention as if publicity was mother's milk for their dark souls.

Understandably, victims' families often oppose the sale of murder artifacts, encompassing even the art and writings of serial killers. Although bills have been presented to the Senate, one of the largest sellers of murderabilia is… the federal government.

Control Issues

If we outlaw artifacts, where does the slippery slope end? Collecting religious relics is odd enough, but fixating on the hair, bones, and nail clippings of criminals is outright ghoulish. Yet should we end the practice? If the Serial Killer Trivia Game is banned, would Madame Tussaud's be next? Serial Killer Magazine? Or Martha Stewart? Or murder mysteries?

What is the point of murderabilia? The Slate article suggests ownership imbues magical qualities of the original possessor. This derives from earlier witchcraft and religious ceremonies in which relics are thought to offer power and control.

But Is It Art?

I don't object to the distribution of writings and artwork. I've seen intricate art from imprisoned gang members that stand on their own merits, ars gratia artis. But ordinary criminals don't have the cachet and notoriety of the worst killers.

I've not heard of ongoing research, but study may reveal insights into criminal psychology. Clown paintings are scary enough, but John Wayne Gacy's clowns are waaaay eerie even if you don't count those with skeletons and skulls.

If you think the topic might make an intriguing topic for a story, you're not alone. A movie titled Murderabilia produced by Michael Usry, Ryan Roy, and David Matthews stars Tracy Miller as a collector, Opie Cooper as a shopkeeper, and Kevin Broughton as the accused.

Marketplace of the Macabre

Before signing off, here are marketplaces that dabble in the grisly, grotesque, and gruesome.
Ghouls Like Us
Murder Auction
Red Rum Autographs
Serial Killer Central
Serial Killer Magazine
Serial Killer's Ink
  — and —
The US Government

14 January 2012

Novels and Short Stories: Can A Writer Do Both?

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I have writer Mike Orenduff’s permission to quote something he said on the DorothyL e-list a few weeks back:

I’m often asked at talks and signings about how to write short stories. My answer is if you want to write books, don’t write short stories. A short story is to a book what a sprint is to a marathon. Both are worthwhile and fun, but you need to choose just one because training for one actually harms your ability to do the other.

With due respect to Mike, I couldn't disagree more with his statement that training for short stories harms your ability to write novels and vice versa. After all, they’re both storytelling.

Learning the fiction writing skill set (which builds on and differs from the general writing and editing skills I'd been honing all my life) started with the first novel. Creating a coherent structure, pacing, starting and ending scenes in the right place, developing and differentiating character, sharpening dialogue, avoiding information dumps and excessive backstory, and killing my darlings in revision in the first and subsequent novels were all essential in writing short stories.

Writing short stories taught me when to stop, how to tighten structure and pace to the max, literary contraception so darlings that might need killing were never born, and how to end with a twist and a bang, which in turn enhanced my scene, chapter, and novel endings. Writing short stories also showed me that my series character's voice was not the only voice I had in me, and further, that beyond writing the straight whodunit from the detective's point of view, I could explore my dark side, switch subgenres to write historical, paranormal, and flash fiction, and even find the voice of a killer or two. Both of my series, one a series set in today’s New York and featuring a recovering alcoholic and the other, set on the voyages of Columbus, with a young Marrano sailor as protagonist, consist of both novels and short stories. If I may say so myself, both formats work for me.

When I surprised myself by writing my first short story, I was amazed to find how spacious 4,000 or even 3,000 words can be, and that impression has been sustained through a dozen published stories, three of them Agatha nominees. I’ve never had a sense of having to cut description, character, or dialogue. That insight has helped me see when enough is enough in drafting and revising each 70,000-word novel. Just as novelists who used to be journalists find it easier to produce a set number of words every day and take critique better than the rest of us because they’re used to being edited and even deleted, short story writers bring to their novel manuscripts a keen understanding of when enough is enough.

When I first heard of flash fiction, I was astounded that some writers could tell a story in 1,000 words or less.
But when I thought it over, I realized that I had been creating concise narratives of 150, 250, and other limited word counts for decades: some were poems, others were songs. I don’t decide in advance how long a tale I’m ready to tell will be, unless I’m writing for submission on a particular theme with a particular length requirement. It depends on what the characters tell me and where the story takes me as it unrolls in the mist before me. Without getting into any debates between science and theology, I can’t help imagining whoever is in charge of the universe taking the same journey (or is it a voyage?) through the primordial soup, with all of creation unrolling into an endless story.

13 January 2012

Guardian of Death’s Stream of Consciousness

by Dixon Hill

Crazy title, huh?

But, hey! That’s actually why my post is up so late.

This picture shows my mom & dad sitting on the glider on their front porch in October 2009. That monkey-like kid is my youngest son, Quentin.

See, my mom has been in Hospice care for about ten months (ever since I took her home from the hospital – one month after driving her there, for a one-week surgery stay – that went south in a very bad way.)

What’s that got to do with a late posting on the blog???

Well, my 84-year-old dad has been (at his insistence) acting as her primary care giver, because — as he puts it: “I’ve taken care of her for the sixty years of our marriage. I’ve just got to take care of her now, son. This isn’t a thing I can let anybody else do.”

Now, that’s what I call “Hard-core!”

. . . coming from an octogenarian who’s been getting around with a cane for the past few years, and lost all vision in one eye the same month my mom initially entered the hospital for her surgery. He’s had over 13 operations on his eyes, due to macular degeneration, etc. over the past 30 years, so he currently can only see at about 20/200 (if I’ve got it right) out of the other eye — even when wearing a contact lens and glasses. When my mom was in the hospital, though, he insisted that I drive him down to visit her as often as he could physically make it . . . complete with eye patch, and while suffering (what he saw as) the indignity of having his youngest son push him through the place with a wheel chair.

I worry about Dad, of course. We all do. But, I think you gotta respect a guy who’s willing to stick-out the “till death do we part” portion of his vows right down to the wire. And that wire – like one of the hair-fine trip-wires I used to rig booby traps with, back as an SF Demo Man – is stretched tight. And it’s right in front of my mom’s feet, now. Just inches, I think. Though, of course, I can’t see it.

You never can see trip-wires . . .

not if they're properly rigged and camouflaged. You have to get down in the prone position with a blade of thin grass (if you’ve got it) in your mouth, then use your tongue to move the blade up and down as you inch your body forward, ever-watching for the blade’s tell-tale bend when it comes up against a wire. I’ve done it dozens of times in practice, and several times for real, the sweat pouring off my body as everybody behind me held their breath. [The guys in Iraq & Afghanistan, incidentally, have taken to short-circuiting that method by spraying Silly String in front of them. The pink Silly String serves the same purpose, without tripping the wire.]

Dad almost made it --- with a little help from a hired-care agency, but things went haywire last week. I got a call at 3:30 am. Dad’s scared, yet apologetic voice: “Help, son! I’m on the floor. I don’t know what happened. But, I just can’t get up. I’m stuck. If I stand up, I pass out. Help me!” My wife stayed with my mom, while my daughter watched over our son at home, as I took my dad in to the ER. After initially thinking he’d had a heart attack or stroke, they finally realized he was quite simply – and completely – exhausted. Since that morning, my brother and I have taken turns spending the night at my parents' house.

They let dad go home a couple days later, but he’s still nowhere near fully charged up. Nonetheless, he insisted on being released as soon as possible – so he could get back to his dying wife’s bedside. Since then, I’ve managed to drive him to two doctor’s appointments, while the hired-care helper watched mom. My brother’s been a huge help, as have both our wives. But, something went a little wonky with the care-givers, and that’s thrown an additional monkey wrench into the works. Just as the Hospice nurse has broken out the special meds they reserve for when their patient is approaching the final end. For some reason – maybe because I’ve got some limited medical experience from my SF days and took care of my mom’s IV when she had it in, and also changed her ileostomy bag for the first couple of months, before the hired care givers learned how – the Hospice nurse has seemed to focus certain information onto me. So, she told me, about five days ago, that she’d started giving mom those meds.

Which is how I came to sit up last night (my shift), smoking a cigar while sitting in the glider on the front porch of their small block ranch house in Scottsdale (the one in the picture), the Christmas lights still up on the bushes and eves of the house, and all turned on, because I had the baby monitor receiver plugged into the extension cord that fed them juice. Mom's labored breathing came in broken, lingering snatches, through the monitor, a whisper of a whistle from her damp throat and lungs. The noise soaked the dark night, as I sat reading The Way Through the Woods, listening for any sign of tell-tale change.

Later, inside, I sat by her bed, after rubbing her back without rolling her over off of it, so that she could look up as I worked. My dad snored and mumbled in his sleep beside her. She’s gotten to that place where she sometimes stops breathing for long stretches of time. Then suddenly her chest heaves as she gasps deep gulps of air. All while still asleep. She’s been a heavy woman all my life, until now. Now, I could lift her with ease – if it didn’t cause her pain. I could feel her ribs just inside the skin of her back when I rubbed her. I’ve never felt her ribs before; it wasn’t possible. Ever.

I wrote once about Happy Endings, and Positive Endings.

And I still promise to write more about the latter in an upcoming post. But, it occurs to me, this is a good place to plant a seed of my thoughts about positive endings. Because, while a mother’s (or wife’s) death can seldom be termed a Happy Ending, I think it can be considered a Positive Ending. When my mom finally takes that last step – her first step into what comes next – she’ll be stepping out of the pain that’s caused the Hospice nurse to finally break out the last-resort meds. And that’s a positive things for her.

And I know Mom sees it as not only a last step, but also as that First Step. I’ve spoken to her about what she’s been dreaming during her long, recent sleeping spells. And, in a tiny country-mouse voice so unlike hers has always been, she tells me she’s been dreaming of things such as, “My first day of school, when I was a little girl.” I think that country-mouse voice might be the voice of that little girl she once was, living in what she called “The Tanglewood” of rural Colorado and Oklahoma as a child. And the dreams she tells me about are always centered around similar themes: A new beginning, one which is frightening but good.

And that, I suppose, is the little seed at the root of what I think of as a Positive Ending.

And – with humble apologies – it’s also why this post is late going up. I simply forgot.

My dad is watching her for an hour or so, while I type this up and get it posted. Then I’ll go back on duty as a strange, but ultimately very common, guardian of death.

See you in two weeks – on time, I PROMISE!


12 January 2012


Deborah Elliott-UptonI love those mysteries where a police chief hands over the podium to a serious-looking individual who states as a serial killer profiler, he is certain the perpetrator is a male with problems with authority. He lives with his divorced mother and has abandonment issues. He has difficulties with the opposite sex and hates to get his hands dirty, except when he is strangling his victims. This information is usually attributed to careful attention to detail and years of profiling studies. In the mystery novel, the profiler may claim some odious characteristic which is not true simply to force the culprit to become angry enough to strike out and fall into a police setup trap to catch him in the act, but before another death occurs.
crime scene
If a person could be described by his collection of reading material, I could be on a serious list or even verified as threat to national security due to the trips to websites concerning methods of criminal activity and how they could be apprehended.

Remember when someone in the Casey Anthony household had searched for information on chloroform on the Internet? I'm not claiming it was or was not an innocent search, but writers delve into that territory all the time. It doesn't make us purchase such items or use them, but the information could color our profiles in a not so nice shade of suspectability.

Most of us have a public profile these days. It lurks on Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and Classmates.com not to mention all those places we make purchases online. Oh yes, we have a customer profile there, too.

Hopefully, none of the readership here have a police profile. Still, we need to be aware if the amount of information others can easily obtain about us in 2012. Keeping our privacy intact has never been more difficult than in the Age of Information.

I own the complete works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle concerning Sherlock Holmes. I have a copy of Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs. The serial killer profiling expert, John Douglas, has written many nonfiction books in his work for the FBI. I own several although it terrifies me to know these are true accounts.

I treasure the cosies written by Barbara Burnett Smith and Agatha Christie as much as the hard-boiled exploits of characters created by Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. If a profiler attempted to evaluate my behavioral tendencies by what I read, would I be in trouble?

Like many readers, I am a fan of mysteries whether they are short stories, novel length or true crime exposes. My book shelves contain a bevy of titles from well-known and not-so-well-known authors.

Even Sherlock Holmes may be shaken by a few of our reading choices. Do our e-readers prove we are morbid if we relish Edgar Allen Poe? Easily amused by chicklit? Love to scare ourselves senseless with Dean Koontz?

Do we buy into the profiler's listings for a criminal? Absolutely. Why? Because it is a proven fact that they are usually right on the money.

This is why the television programs, "Psych" and "The Mentalist" are so popular. Like in a Sherlockian tale, the evidence is there, but most of us don't notice what's in front of our face. We aren't observant. We need a good detective to point out the facts.

As the profiler lists the quirks of a serial killer, aren't we a bit slapped in the face to realize the man being led away in handcuffs wasn't really the nice, old guy who took care of his mother as much as the weird guy who had never had a real girlfriend and still lived with his mother.

If we used better observation skills, we'd discover the true murderer in a detective novel before the author intended and we just might live in a safer world.

11 January 2012

New Year's Irresolution

by Neil Schofield

I have no Mayan blood in me. Not unless my mother was keeping something from me during all those years. Or my father come to that. Thinking back today, I'm pretty sure that while I was growing up in West Yorkshire, Mayans were fairly thin on the ground. Though we always regarded people from Leeds as Other, a bit weird.

So, I am not genetically predisposed to believe that 2012 will see the End Of Days. I can march into the New Year with confidence, unlike the Mayans, not many of whom I suppose offered boxed sets of Downton Abbey or The Wire as Christmas presents.

Anyway, as we all know, 21 Dec 2012 simply marks the end of a b'ak'tun cycle of 144,00 days and the beginning of another. And since it's only the 13th, as b'ak'tuns go, it's not especially top-notch. Now, if it were the 20th, we might be forgiven for jumping at loud noises and scanning the skies for signs of the Mayan Cosmic Gronk Squad.

I have explained all this to Mimi, without success. I found her rummaging in the desk drawer where we keep Stuff That Really Ought To Be Thrown Out When We Have The Time. I told her that the Mayans didn't sell their calendars door-to-door like the garbage collection men, or the firemen, especially not in this neck of the woods. But Mimi is French and therefore Cartesian. She wants logic and proof. I sometimes suspect her of having been secretly born in Missouri but the physical evidence says not.

So that was my first hurdle sorted out. I can make some resolutions. But which ones Oh Lord, which ones? There are so many out there. I know I am already going to walk more, smoke less, drink less. Not that I drink a lot: I usually spill most of it.

I ned something with more meat on it. I was attracted strangely by Leigh's resolutions for the paranoid, because I go along with Gore Vidal when he said that the man who is not paranoid is a man who is not in full possession of the facts. But no, something doesn't fit the kindly, though sometimes gruff soul I am pleased to think is me.

Then I read Jan Grape's generous article and that struck several chords. The fact is I too haven't been writing enough. I've been procrastinating too much. It's been a case of : Never put something off till tomorrow that you can put off until the day after. Always with a perfect excuse, that goes without saying.

So, in 2012, I am going to follow Garson Kanin's (paraphrased) dictum: Apply seat of pants to chair and don't get up until finished. I am going to write more and I'm going to write better. I am going to send out one story a month and the first went out last week.

Another resolution: I am going to read more and read better. This occurred to me over Christmas. I haven't been reading enough, and I haven't been reading well. I had settled down one evening with a glass of the true, the blushful, to read one of my Christmas presents: a collection of Kurt Wallander novellas by Henning Mankell.

I hadn't read them before, and since one of them first appeared in EQMM in 2003, I was sure I was onto a good thing. But something happened. I got bored. The writing seemed leaden - in English English we might say plonking.

Now usually I get on well with Mankell, and indeed with all the Scandinavian crime writers. But something was up.

It's interesting that Dixon Hill and John Floyd have both written recent articles on 'flat' and 'dull' writing. They were a great help as I tried to analyse the problem, looking for the usual suspects: passive verbs, too many adverbs and so on. It wasn't anything that obvious. The sentences were perfectly well written, but something about the way they were put together didn't feel right. After ten days I still didn't know what the problem was. It might have had something to do with the fact that in the narrative sequences, nearly all the sentences are about the same length, which gives a diddly-dum diddly-dee sort of rhythm.

No, I decided, the problem lies not with the writer, or the translator, but with the reader. I have now been back and read the stories again, while this time acknowledging that I wasn't reading Robert B Parker, or John D Macdonald, but a writer from another country where they do things differently, where they think differently and speak differently. And Henning Mankell is great at providing that Sense of Place which I admire and envy.

Well, it seemed to work well enough. On the second reading, because I was reading perhaps more carefully, more generously, the plonkingness seemed to fade.

So, I am going to try to become a more active and generous reader, and try harder to keep my part of the contract that always exists between writer and reader. I think as a reader, I sometimes forget that that contract does exist.

Well, these resolutions might not seem much but I figure it's enough to be getting on with. I might have re-think around mid-term.

Speaking of the End of Days which I was at the beginning if you recall, I think something much more sinister is going on. On Christmas Day, my daughter Kate who is a theatre stage manager and working on a pantomime in the north of Englnd told me that the day before, on Christmas Eve, the management had sacked Cinderella for Gross Misconduct. Apparently, misconduct is okay, but hers had been grosser than the permitted level. Nothing to do with mice and a pumpkin, just an everyday story of drunken three-o'clock-in-the morning joyriding. Natually the local press had her for breakfast - 'Cinders Fired' - that sort of thing.

Cinderella sacked on Christmas Eve. I am starting to suspect that the Long Hadron Collider is at work here, creating a parallel universe bit by bit. I said it would, ask anyone.

Happily, it seems to be a parallel universe in which Leigh Lundin is still the Supreme Leader and Guide, so not much change there then.

A Happy New Year to everybody.

Oh, and if things turn out right, a Happy New B'ak'tun.

10 January 2012

Big Shot Writers

Not a Big Shot Writer
My daughter, Bridgid, suggested that my next posting on SleuthSayers address the issue of where I got the ideas that became published stories for me. She assured me that there is a large audience of novice writers, and just plain fiction buffs, that visit authors' blog sites everyday for just such info as this. I countered that this audience was most likely for writers with a slightly higher recognition profile than my own. Strangely, she did not deny this. This was during her Christmas visit and the gifts had already been opened. Next year may be a lean one for her.

My son, Julian, the English teacher (or Professor as he likes to be addressed), gave me a huge compendium containing the works of some short story writers somewhat better known than myself. You may recognize a few of these names: Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Joyce, Flannery O'Connor, Edgar Allan Poe, etc, etc...blah, blah, blah. Some of them struck a distant chord with me. The name of this book is, The Art of the Short Story compiled and edited by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn, and offering insights by the authors themselves on their stories within, or on some aspect of writing them. The 'professor' added, "You should read this." I thought I detected the slightest of smirks on his face (again, this was after the opening of his gifts from his mother and me).

It seemed to me that, perhaps, my children (who had once been so adorable) were trying to tell me something; it occurred to me that they may have been insinuating that there was room for improvement in my writing efforts, or something along those lines. It is only fair to note, that the two of them act as the unofficial editors (and unwanted critics) of most of my scribblings since they became college graduates. Their older sister, Tanya, lives in Atlanta and has children of her own and therefore no time to pile on with her siblings, thank God. The other two, however, have a certain proprietary air about them when it comes to my so-called writing career.

"I've read a bunch of these," I countered. "A whole bunch. Some of them are pretty good. That Poe dude is a little heavy-handed in the prose department though, don't 'cha think?" Take that, professor. His expression was equal parts disappointment and disdain. "Yeah," I went on, "he does guest features on SleuthSayers from time to time...we call him, 'E.A.' for short." No laughter, no smiles...nothing. Kinda like the photo below.

E.A. (Big Shot Writer)
When the critics finally went away, having stripped the house of most edibles, their mother and I were left behind once more; at least until we should be needed to provide something useful. The 'Book' rested on my nightstand...waiting. After spraining a wrist lifting it, I discovered that I had, indeed, read a number of the stories, though certainly not the majority of them. In fact, as I read, it reminded me of what a wonderful form of expression the short story really is. It also reminded me of why I've always like to write them. You can do things with a short story that just aren't possible in another medium. Imagine The Yellow Wallpaper or The Lottery as novels--they would have become bogged down and tedious with detail; diluting their impact. How about, To Build a Fire? The terrifying urgency of that story would have been lost at book-length. Even, E.A.'s stuff would have collapsed under its own weight had he not confined himself to short stories.

According to the authors of the "Art" the short story is the most recent and modern of literary forms; Nathaniel Hawthorne being credited with its introduction to the English Language in 1837 with Twice Told Tales. I did not actually know this, but I'm sure the professor did. As a testament to his genius (Hawthorne's, not my son's), many of those tales still read very well today and retain a compelling narrative power. It's astounding how really good writing can transcend the barrier of time and the hurdles of archaic language. Poe manages this pretty well, too.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (another Big Shot Writer)
Astounding, also, is the number of writers who have specialized in, or written exclusively, short stories. Heed the following roll call: O'Connor, H.H. Munro (Saki), Poe, Hawthorne, Bradbury, de Maupassant, Doyle, Henry, but to name a few. Additionally, writers perhaps better known for their novels, such as Borges, Chekhov, Conrad, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, Oats, du Maurier, and Tolstoy contributed mightily to the short fiction realm. When I contemplate the undeniable fact that literary giants such as these believed the short story a worthwhile endeavor, I am heartened to persevere at my modest endeavors.

As I confided to Bridgid and her brother one day: If I only had one story, just one, that ended up being read twenty-five or fifty years from now, or even better, was made mandatory reading in some college class (hopefully one taught by my son; wouldn't that be sweet justice?), I would feel that I had accomplished something. Clearly I'm not in it for the money, though God knows I wouldn't be amiss to a few whopping big paychecks (I give to a lot to charities, you see). So for all of you, my short fiction brethren, take heart and keep writing as we, too, can become big shot writers! Don't let the narrow marketing field discourage you. After all, we write because of our love of the word and, in my case at least, in order to entertain, at my own expense of course, my wonderful children and wife.

As a postscript, I would like to bring your attention back to my photo at the top of the page. You may notice, though it has been subtly framed, that I am holding a really big book of short stories. Now that I have an even bigger one which includes a bunch of foreign authors too, I intend to have another taken. Julian assures me that there's no chance I could look any more pompous with his bigger book, but I'm willing to give it a try even so. He suggests a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches might just do the trick.

I think a pipe would help, as well.

09 January 2012

Leave a Message

Two weeks ago, I asked if anyone wanted to share a story song or answer a new question. Rob Lopresti sent me an excellent song, which is available on the Internet if you query him about it. No one tried to guess the commonality between Abraham Lincoln and Edgar Allan Poe, so we'll move right along.

One week ago, 02/Jan/12, Leigh shared Jan Grape's answering machine message in Comments. In a flat, no-nonsense voice Jan's phone answers with this:
You have the right to remain silent.Anything you say may be taken down and used in my next book.If you understand these rights, please leave a message.
Jan's is now my favorite, though one of my long-time memorable machines said:
Yeah, this is Aaron. I'm not sure if I'm home or not, but I know I've lost my telephone again. If it's around here and I'm home, I may find it and answer before you finish your message. If not, I'll be sure to call you back whenever I'm home and can find the phone at the same time.
I loved that because I'm notorious for misplacing the cordless phone on my desk under a thousand pieces of paper. (That's hyperbole, but I exaggerate all the time. Being a fiction writer is like being given a license to lie.)

This was my message years ago, in a voice like Velma's (or Roxanne's if you're familiar with the Callie Parrish mysteries):
You've reached the machine, so there's no doubt
I'm either busy or out and about,
So leave your name and number, too
And I promise I'll get back to you.
I confess there was a whole lotta promise in the word "promise." Chuck Cannon, Nashville songwriter and performer, used to call my house just to listen to my machine. He also passed the number to friends, so I'd receive messages like, "Didn't want anything. Chuck Cannon gave me your number so I could hear your message." I suppose I should be grateful nobody wrote it on a restroom wall in Nashville!

This afternoon, my grandson texted his dad to tell him we were entering the gate to their house. His dad was home. He opened the door, stood there, and greeted us as we pulled 'round the drive. Just another example of generation differences. I would have called, but they text.

I used to say that I neither give nor take guilt trips. Now I say I neither text nor read text messages. I actually disposed of my cell phone a year ago and have enjoyed being less accessible. I've loved driving without interruption--making up songs and working out plots as I travel. Of course, that changed after Mom's fall. The new cell is with me at all times so the rehab center can reach me.

Cell phones are ultra sophisticated these days with all kinds of apps, but landlines remain my preferred telephone communication. Cell phones usually have a mechanical voice referring to the owner by number or just a quick name blurbed in when they tell you to leave a message. I like to hear a human voice that reflects an individual's personality.

My answering machine is and was my friend. Messages work both ways. My machine gives a message to the caller. The caller leaves a message for me. I learned about my first book contract when I returned from shopping and had this message. "This is your agent Jeff. When do you check your email? I've been trying for days to let you know we have an offer from Berkley for three books with a nice advance. Call me at ### ### ####." (I now check email at least once a day.)

Another great message was "This is Melanie Howard with Harland Howard Music. I listened to your demo, and we want to put a hold on one of your songs. Call me at ### ### ####."

Both of those calls came on days when I'd become so discouraged that I was considering giving up writing.

Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines the noun "message'' as a "communication by writing, by speech, or by symbols." By that definition, all of the Sleuthsayers are involved in messages each time we write a story, novel, essay, poem or song.

Some of us grew up dreaming of writing the Great American Novel. I was one of those kids, but I don't think some cozy-like Callie Parrish mysteries and a southern thriller quite fill the bill. However, I've been thinking this week about messages, and a writer doesn't have to write the Great American Novel to leave a message. In fact, it's not even necessary to write a novel. Think of the timeless messages in Guy de Maupassant's short story "The Necklace" or O Henry's "Gift of the Magi," and for Christians, the message in "Amazing Grace." Though much less global, I'm leaving a message every time a reader "falls into" what I've written or laughs at Callie and Jane.

My wish for all Sleuthsayers and readers for 2012 is that we leave memorable messages.

Until we meet again… take care of YOU.

08 January 2012

The Brazilian Confederacy

Leighton Gage
by Leighton Gage

Leigh Lundin: When writers claim excitement introducing a guest article, you can expect a great deal of hyperbole. Not in this case.

A couple of years ago, a group of eight international mystery writers banded together to form the blog, Murder is Everywhere. I'd already met Michael Sears, Stanley Trollip, and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, and I was pleased to read other contributors, especially today's guest, Leighton Gage.

Leighton Gage lives in a small town in Brazil and writes police procedurals set in that country. A Vine in the Blood, the latest installment in his Chief Inspector Mario Silva series, was called “irresistible” by the Toronto Globe and Mail. Coincidentally, that was the very same word the New York Times used to describe the previous book in his series, Every Bitter Thing. Vine also garnered a star from Publisher’s Weekly.

I touched base with Leighton about the time my AOL account crashed and burned, but his daughter managed to send me a 'fita do Senhor do Bomfim', a ribbon I use as a bookmark.

Leighton created today's article, one I wish my mother, a student of American Civil War history, could read. Indeed, I felt a pleasant frisson of discovery when I first read this exciting bit of history by Leighton Gage.

The Brazilian Confederacy

One day, a couple of years ago, I was in an office in São Paulo chatting to a friend in English. A lady I didn’t know came up to us and joined in the conversation. She spoke with the dulcet tones of the American South, and I asked her where she was from.
    “I was born here,” she said, meaning Brazil.
    “Okay. Your parents, then?”
    “Here. And my grandparents too.”
And then she told me the story of the Brazilian Confederates, which, Dear Reader, I’m now going to pass on to you:

After the War Between the States many families from the old South were left landless and destitute. They hated living under a conquering army of Yankees. They were looking for a way out.

Dom Pedro II
Dom Pedro II
Dom Pedro II, the progressive Brazilian emperor of the time, offered it. He was interested in developing the cultivation of cotton, and he gave tremendous incentives to people who knew how to do it. Land could be financed at twenty-two cents an acre. Passage cost no more than thirty Yankee dollars. Scads of people from Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and Texas took him up on his offer.

Many of them settled in the State of São Paulo in the towns of Americana and Santa Barbara D’Oeste. The name of the former is derived from the Portuguese for “Village of the Americans” and the latter is sometimes called the Norris colony, named after Colonel William Norris, a former senator from Alabama who was one of the founders.
Colonel William Norris
Col. Wm. Norris

He's the gentleman in the photo at right. If you’re a Civil War buff, and would like to experience a vestige of the Old South, I suggest you go to Santa Barbara on the second Sunday in April. That’s when they hold a yearly party on the grounds of the cemetery. Yeah, that’s right, the cemetery, the one where all of those old confederates are buried.

You’ll find it behind the church that faces the square with the monument.

The folks in Santa Barbara really know how to stage a party.
Santa Barbara church
Santa Barbara Church

You can eat southern fried chicken, vinegar pie, chess pie and biscuits. Banjos are played. Confederate songs are sung. The women dress in pink and blue and wear matching ribbons in their hair.

southern vittles
down-home dancin'
There’s square dancing for the young folks. The men of all ages get drunk and replay the war, looking at first as if they’re celebrating a victory. But at the end of the performance the bearded actor, playing Gen. Robert E. Lee, falls down as if mortally wounded, a Confederate flag wrapped around him.

And, if you visit the church for the memorial services, you might even get to meet Becky Jones, who presides over the Association of Confederates.

Becky learned her English from her parents. They learned it from their parents. And so on. Prompted, she’ll tell you that (even) Damnyankees are welcome to the party, but they have to expect to be received differently than someone from the South.

She might tell you, too, about her grandmother, Mrs. MacKnight-Jones, who survived well into her nineties. Grandma learned from her parents never to call Abraham Lincoln by his name. In their household he was only referred to as "that man".

And that family tradition goes on until this very day.

07 January 2012

Unicorns in Pajamas

by John M. Floyd

Over the past few days I've been thinking about something Dixon Hill said in a recent column, about "flat" writing. He defined it as fiction that has no fizz or flavor.

I see that kind of thing a lot in my students' stories, and we as readers see it occasionally in published novels and short stories as well. On the surface there's nothing wrong--the writing is often technically correct and structurally sound--but there's no magic to it, nothing that would lift the words off the page and make them memorable. (By the way, the same thing can happen with nonfiction, and it's just as dangerous.)

Dix also called it perplexing, and hard to correct. He's right. It's even hard to recognize, when it occurs in our own writing, and if it goes undetected we usually wind up disappointed when those stories and books don't sell.

From the Reader's POV . . .

I should mention here a quick word about the opposite of flat writing.

Friends have told me they're sometimes not aware of excellent writing until after they've finished reading a story, because if it's good enough a reader can be drawn so deeply into the plotline he or she doesn't even think of anything else until afterward. Personally, I do find myself aware of extra "fizz and flavor" during the reading--maybe in a clever plot device, or a particularly elegant phrase, or a piece of information that I never before knew or understood. For me, though, noticing that kind of thing in flight isn't something that takes away at all from the enjoyment of reading.

I also like to find twists and reversals in a story. In the book Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik (what a great author name, sort of like Francine Prose), he says, "Readers love surprise. They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another. They love the boing of a jack-in-the-box word. They love images that trot by like a unicorn in pajamas."

From the Writer's POV . . .

I learned long ago to search for dullness in my own work, and when I'm lucky enough to detect it (I wish it weren't there in the first place, but it usually is), I try to fix it. But that's easier said than done.

How do you correct lackluster writing? I know of only one way. I go back through the story, seeing it through the eyes of the reader, and attempt to make every page, every paragraph, even every sentence as strong as it can possibly be. Sometimes this is just basic rewriting: deleting modifiers, substituting action verbs for weak verbs, fine-tuning punctuation, adding exchanges of dialogue in place of description and exposition, changing passive voice to active. Sometimes it can be done via a metaphor or an analogy or onomatopoeia, or even humor--anything that might add sparkle to an otherwise routine and ordinary passage. I'm not saying this kind of search-and-repair operation is always successful; overcorrecting can make things worse instead of better. But I try. Always in the back of my mind is Elmore Leonard's advice: leave out the parts that people skip.

This whole process always surprises me a bit. Even when I think a manuscript is pretty much finished, I can usually trudge back through it with these things in mind and make it shine a little brighter. And when that happens it's a great feeling. It's the difference between functionality and beauty, between settling for par and making an eagle, between getting there and getting there in style. (Whether others will think my creation is beautiful is of course another matter, but I'm careful not to submit a story until I at least feel that way about it myself.)

I would appreciate hearing your views on this subject. Is flat writing something you worry about? If so, do you address it during the creative process or afterward? What are some of the steps you take to add "punch" to your own fiction?

A Sixth Sense

I'm convinced that the more one reads and writes, the more conscious one becomes, of bland and colorless writing. Quoting from Plotnik again: "I can see dead writing. I can see language that follows all the rules, but lacks the vigor and inventiveness ever to rise off the page."

He goes on to say, "I feel the anguish of dead writing, and sometimes as an editor I've applied a stitch here, a jolt there, so that it might stagger among the undead. But the only authentic way to enliven a piece of writing, give it corporeal clout, is to invigorate it at the outset." How true. These days it's not enough to hope an editor can do it for us.

To Fix a Flat

Anytime we discuss the quality and readability of fiction, I'm reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird. That book could so easily have been no more than a coming-of-age story, or a courtroom drama, or a mystery novel, or a lesson about race relations and justice and loyalty and knowing right from wrong. Instead it is all those things, combined. It has elements of both literary and genre fiction, and was written with a style that, after half a dozen readings, still keeps me hooked every step of the way. If it contains any dead spots, any dull, featureless prose at all, I've never noticed it.

But wait a minute. All this talk of flat writing has made me a little nervous. Did I mention that it can apply to nonfiction too?

Maybe it's time to sign off.