05 February 2012

Retronyms

by Leigh Lundin

Today is Superbowl Sunday, which means approximately half the North American population will be watching American football instead of reading our cogent articles. With that in mind, we turn our attention to bathroom humor. By that, I mean a 540 page book given me for Christmas called Uncle John's Heavy Duty Bathroom Reader, 23rd addition, published by BRI, the Bathroom Readers Institute. (Thanks, Sharon!) It carries a warning: This book may make you smarter than everyone you know.

I earlier touched on aptonyms, but the UJHDB Reader introduced me to 'retronyms'.

What is a retronym, you ask? Well, you didn't ask, but I have to maintain a word count.

A retronym is almost the opposite of a neologism. It's a new word or phrase used to describe an old term because it's been replaced by something new.

It might help to explain its opposite. For example, the mechanized improvement upon the archer's traditional bow was called the crossbow, and other variations became known as the recurved bow and the compound bow. When men dropped engines into carriages, the new inventions were called horseless carriages or motor cars to distinguish the new-fangled devices.

Simple, right? In the early 1900s, World War I wasn't called WW-I; rather people called it The Great War or with more hope than realism, the War to End All Wars. Sadly, the unthinkable happened again, and in the 1940s with World War II under way, the former Great War was redubbed World War I.

Similarly, prior to 1959, we had no need to refer to the 'contiguous' 48 states or the 'continental' US, because that would have been redundant. However, after the Sandwich Islands and Alaska became states, the terms came into existence.

Here are a baker's dozen, most from the aforementioned book:

acoustical guitar
1930s, needed to distinguish from the new electric guitar
broadcast TV
needed after satellite and cable TV
cloth diaper
1949, needed after disposable diapers
corn on the cob
1920s, needed after canned and frozen 'niblets'
field hockey
simply 'hockey' until invention of ice hockey
hardball
baseball renamed after introduction of softball
hard copy
1990s, distinguishes from digital copy
hardcover book
1930s, needed after paperbacks
land line
formerly phone line until advent of cell phones
organic farming
regular old farming until advent of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides
silent film
1920s, needed after the new talkies
snail mail
simply called 'mail' until the advent of eMail
vinyl record
originally 'record' until invention of the CD

Fill in additional retronyms below.

04 February 2012

Computers? They're Not My "Type"


by Herschel Cozine


NOTE: This week I've invited my friend Herschel Cozine to do a guest column. Some of you are already familiar with his work; Herschel's short stories and poems have appeared in AHMM, EQMM, Woman's World, Wolfmont Press's Toys for Tots anthologies, and many national children's magazines. He's also published a number of stories in Orchard Press Mysteries, Mouth Full of Bullets, Untreed Reads, Great Mystery and Suspense, Mysterical-E, and others. His story "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer Award. Herschel lives with his wife in Santa Rosa, California, and often serves as my wise but unpaid advisor on literary matters. (Herschel, many thanks! Readers, I'll be back in two weeks.) -- John Floyd




I lived many years BC (Before Computers), and have issues that have yet to be resolved. And I am sure I am not alone; certainly my problem resonates with those in my age group.

Allow me to preface my remarks with an anecdote. I was born in an old Victorian house on Long Island, situated on 180 acres of mostly unimproved land. The house and grounds were owned by J. P. Grace, the multi-millionaire banker and businessman. Mr. Grace stipulated in his will that his estate could neither be sold nor subdivided, so it is still intact today. However, since his death many years ago, the grounds have been neglected by his heirs and have fallen into disrepair. The house and most of the buildings burned to the ground at various times over the years.

Recently I discovered that the local historical society had dispatched a team to map and explore the estate. They dug in the places where the structures had once stood, collecting and cataloguing the relics that they unearthed.

I wasn't prepared for this. How would you feel to discover that the house in which you were born was now an archeological dig site? Old. Very old.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that I started writing before the age of computers (or digital clocks for that matter). The writers of the day used typewriters, carbon paper and onionskin paper for their file copies. For those of you too young to remember, carbon paper was not made from carbon, nor was the onionskin made from onions. And the typewriter was a clever device that one learned how to operate in high school. Basic. Easy to master. Uncomplicated. Like many inventions of that era (rumble seats, slide rules), it was too good to last.

The writers started by jotting their musings on foolscap, a legal pad, or whatever suited their needs. Then would come the simple, albeit arduous, task of typing it (using the aforementioned typewriter), onto a clean white sheet of stationery, together with a sheet of carbon paper and a sheet of onionskin. Naturally, mistakes were made. Thus the ever-present bottle of whiteout came to the rescue. A blob of that over the typo and the manuscript was good as new. Of course, the typo was forever preserved on the onionskin copy. But that was for one's file and not a big problem. Eventually the imaginative typewriter folks devised a ribbon that had a strip of whiteout incorporated in the ribbon. One simply positioned the platen so the offending typo was under the striker, typed the letter through the whiteout, and then replaced it with the proper letter. Life was beautiful!

Then the electric typewriter made its appearance. Prior to that the darkness of the letters varied with their position on the keyboard. For example, the letter "a" was usually fainter than a "g" or one of the inner letters because one struck the "a" key with his weaker finger. The electric typewriter took care of that problem as well as the one of capital letters that stood half a line above the rest of the word. Life was now even more beautiful.

Then came the typewriter with a memory. Up to ten lines of typing could be stored on the device so one could edit and correct before committing it to paper. Another ingenious work-saving innovation. It couldn't get any better than this.

Then--the computer! Life will never be the same.

My son had to convince me of the advantages of the computer over my clunky, outdated typewriter. Thus I was pulled into the twentieth century just before it in turn was pulled into the twenty-first. I still have the scars.

To begin with, my first computer informed me that I had performed an "illegal operation." I was appalled. I had never received so much as a parking ticket before. I pleaded with it to tell me what it was that I had done, promising never to do it again. But it just sat there, its cursor blinking at me accusingly.

I swore at it, threatened it. "I'm the intelligent one in this room. You are simply a collection of circuit boards and wires. If it weren't for me you would be languishing in some warehouse in Peking. Show some gratitude!"

No response except for the blinking cursor. To this day I don't know what I did wrong.

Thankfully, my present computer is not that judgmental. I no longer get that message.

But I digress. Since my main reason for getting a computer was to simplify and modernize my writing efforts, I removed my typewriter from the den and turned to the word program. Awesome!

I looked at the screen in bewilderment. The options, features, icons, and symbols boggled my mind. Before I could start writing I had choices to make. What font style: Courier, Gothic, Times New Roman, even fonts that printed in symbols resembling hieroglyphics. I settled on Times New Roman and moved on. Font size--from microscopic to billboard. Did I want bold, italics, underline? What color? Did I want headers or footers, indented paragraphs, right justified margins, single or double spacing? What size paper? How about columns? Graphs? Double spacing before or after paragraphs?

I was overwhelmed. I have a hard time deciding between "over easy" or "scrambled" when I eat out. "Panic" is a little too strong a word to define my mental state. But it will suffice for the purpose of this discussion.

By the time I had set up all the parameters I had forgotten what it was I had started out to write. I have reverted to jotting down the story on foolscap ahead of time. This is progress?

With some trepidation I began to write. Suddenly the font changed from Times New Roman to Lucida. What had I done? I later learned from my son that I had not set my defaults. (I thought that only happened to loans.)

I labored on, enduring the whims and peculiarities of the computer, finally reaching the end.

Having finished for the day, I was ready to save my work. This scenario followed:

Computer: Do you want to save this?

Me: I just went through three cups of coffee, two bathroom breaks, four and a half hours of typing, not to mention the ordeal you put me through. Of course I want to save it, you moron!

Computer: Where?

Me: Someplace where I can find it again. I am still looking for the last one which disappeared without a warning. I even called my computer-savvy son, who told me, "You must have hit the delete button," and then hung up. I suppose I would have done the same if I had been called out of an important meeting. But it seemed a bit rude. After all, I am his father.

Computer: What format? HTML, Doc, PDF, RTF, etc.

Me: UCLA, NASA, FBI, GOP. How the hell should I know? You're the expert. You decide.

I have no idea what format my document is in, nor do I care. All I ask is that it is where I stored it and that it is readable. (I recently opened a file to find nothing but rows and rows of symbols and punctuation marks that ran on for three pages.)

Needless to say, I am not a big fan of Bill Gates.

Of course, I understand that a computer is more than a glorified typewriter, and I should be taking advantage of its versatility. I try. I have 378 friends on Facebook, six of whom I have actually met. I am bombarded with crude jokes, tasteless photos, and messages concerning their bodily functions and sexual prowess. I don't spend a lot of time there.

Then, of course, there is e-mail. There was a time when I had to trudge out to the mailbox to get my junk mail. Now I have it delivered directly to my den. (I wonder if that poor man ever managed to get his money out of Nicaragua.)

Ah, but I am beginning to sound like my father. He was convinced that civilization as we know it would not survive the invention of television. Fate was kind to delay the invention of the computer until after he had passed away.

There is a group of men on Long Island who will unearth a rusted, scorched Underwood typewriter in the rubble of my old house. I wish I could be there when that happens. God, how I miss it!

03 February 2012

Why It's Sometimes Called Dope

by R.T. Lawton

Just so you know, we don't always run around trying to buy contraband. Sometimes, we offer to sell it to the other side. That's called a reverse. So, let's go back a few years and visit one of the closets in my memory.

There we were, sitting in the office, drinking coffee and catching up on paperwork. The Rule of Thumb is approximately eight hours of paperwork for every successful hour on the street. Even with the advent of computers, we killed a lot of trees.

Anyway, the office phone rings. It's U.S. Customs down in Florida. They've got three snuggler's trunks just arrived from Nepal. Seems Customs drilled the trunks and found all the trunk walls were lined on the inside with thin, flat packages of black hashish which was then covered over with thick decorative paper to make them look like part of the interior wall. The agents were getting ready to deliver one trunk to an address in Miami, but the other two were coming to a city in our Division. Would we like to do simultaneous deliveries? Oh, you bet.

On the designated day, my partner and I watch two trunks get delivered to a residence in our jurisdiction. We wait the guessed appropriate amount of time and then hit the house with a search warrant. Boy, was Mom surprised. She had no idea her Sonny Boy was involved in this kind of stuff. Last she'd heard, Sonny was back from Nepal and was visiting friends in Miami.

During the search warrant, we seize two trunks with drill holes in their exterior and hashish concealed inside their walls. We also recover two letters of intent to purchase from a couple of out of town buyers. Ah, time for me to drag out the bag of shadows and illusions. We're in business.

Attaching a rubber suction cup wire to my undercover phone (the other end plugs into my tape recorder), I telephone Intent to Purchase #1 in Nebraska and explain that Sonny Boy is currently busy in Florida, however he has conveniently appointed me to sell his recently arrived inventory. How many pounds would #1 care to purchase? I quote him the current price from a national underground magazine which any civilian can acquire from his local bookstore racks. He agrees to buy XX pounds of the product. I say I'll be in touch soon. Unfortunately, when I call him back hours later, #1 has suddenly relocated to an unknown location with no forwarding address. It appears that when Sonny Boy opened his smuggler trunk in Miami, he quickly detected the drill holes and thus hastily departed via the back door just before Customs crashed through the front. Sonny Boy was now in the wind, but must have taken a few minutes along the way to place a frantic phone call to Nebraska. That was one bird we wouldn't get.

My second call goes to Buyer #2 in Iowa. Yep, he would like to purchase several pounds of the black hashish. We agree on price, although truth be known, I'd have let him bargain me down even more. What do I care about alleged profit? It's not like the money will actually go into my pocket. I tell him I'll meet him at a certain time in a certain bar in Des Moines. He is to let me know what clothes he will be wearing so I can recognize him, and he is to sit at the bar so I can easily find him. The other side loves this paranoid spy stuff. The deal is set.

Because Des Moines comes under the jurisdiction of another office, I then call our Des Moines office and explain the situation. Would one of their agents like to play the part of a hash seller? Of course they would, it's like getting a free case to add to their quarterly statistics. Later, I hear how it went.

The undercover agent shows up at the designated bar. Buyer #2 is dressed as he said he would. They meet. The agent introduces himself using the undercover name I gave to #2 on the phone. First words out of Buyer #2's mouth are: "Man, your voice sounds different over the phone."

They rehash the price of hash and desired amount to ensure everyone agrees. They do. Buyer #2 has the purchase money stashed with a buddy out in a car in the parking lot. Conveniently, our alleged Seller (the undercover) has the correct amount of hashish with his own buddy (another federal agent) stashed out in a car in the same parking lot.

Buyer #2 insists on seeing the hashish before he produces the money. Wise move, could be a rip-off. Our alleged Seller insists on seeing the cash before they go any further. Our side also wants to ensure it isn't a rip-off. They compromise. Buyer #2 will go to the Seller's car to view the hashish while the Seller's Buddy will go to the other car to see the money.

In the Seller's car (a federal undercover vehicle), the Buyer is handed a wrapped package from a stack of packages in the back seat. Buyer #2 unwraps the package he is given and looks at the contents. Confusion crosses his face. "I thought you said it was black hash from Nepal," he blurts out.

Turns out that Blond Lebanese from an old closed out case was the only hashish the Des Moines office could get their hands on with such short notice for this street theater production. "Nah," says the undercover agent, "I told you on the phone that it was Blond Lebanese."
Now this is a bald faced lie because I definitely told Buyer #2 the stuff was black hashish, but then users of drugs tend to have memory problems from time to time so he let's it go.

Buyer#2 sniffs the brick he's holding and decides he can sell this stuff anyway. He signals his buddy in the other car to show the money. As soon as the second undercover agent sees the cash, guns come out. Buyer #2 and his accomplice are quickly arrested, plus all their money is seized along with their vehicle.

About this time, you're probably starting to wonder about that stack of alleged hashish packages in the back seat of the government vehicle. Well, once again because of short notice, the Des Moines office could only get their hands on one pound of Blond Lebanese Hash, so all the other packages were merely wrapped up telephone books to look good. As I mentioned in another blog, we tend to operate in an area of Blue Smoke and Mirrors.

So folks, when you look at all the signs which should have triggered #2's paranoia radar, you can see why this type of contraband is sometimes referred to as DOPE.

Have a good day.

02 February 2012

Lock Up Your Daughters

Mira Kolar-Brown
Mira Kolar-Brown
by Mira Kolar-Brown

Mira Kolar-Brown was born and educated in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslavia, where she graduated in English Language and Literature with post-graduate Business. She came to the UK in 1977 where she tutored at two universities and project managed for an NGO and a QUANGO, and now lives in the north-west of England. Upon early retirement, she has been working as a translator and interpreter for the public sector. This offers ample opportunities for research into the work of police, welfare system, courts, immigration and health organisations. Hiding the ElephantThis first hand knowledge and experience proved invaluable in writing mystery novels, the Simon Grant Mysteries series, Hiding the Elephant and Lock Up Your Daughters, the latter title from which we've drawn another meaning for today's article.

Here's the talented Mira Kolar-Brown.


Endrita

Author Sibel Hodge has written a book Trafficked: Dairy of a Sex Slave, a well researched, factual account of one young woman's journey through a new world of human trafficking.

Before we delve into that complex subject, let's go back to the beginning, back to our understanding and perceptions of the oldest profession in the world. We've all come across it, we've all seen men and women gathered at street corners at certain times and locations, waiting for customers, entering strange cars or disappearing behind buildings for ten minutes or so to render express service to those with little time and even less money. We also know that there are more upmarket forms of the old trade all the way up to designer wear and luxury hotels, caviar and champagne, and the box at Wimbledon, Covent Garden and Ascot.

And we lift our noses and gather our skirts around us and turn away in the knowledge that ours is a welfare state where no one needs to sell themselves to survive or feed their children.

Maybe.

Experience tells us that life is never a set of simple either or options.

I've mentioned the 'new world' of human trafficking even though there's nothing very new about the concept. It pre-dates the Roman Empire all the way back to the caves. What's new is the upsurge in the scale on which it's happening. With so many hotspots erupting all over the world throughout the past three decades, it has reached mind-boggling proportions and in the process it has pushed sex trade to new depths of horror.

I do not intend to go into details of what happens to men and women who fall victims to the trend. Several years ago, reports of girls and boys installed in premises condemned for human habitation, kept there with very little sustenance or breaks and made available for sex with a constant stream of paying clients until they're dead when they're replaced by a fresh asset, prompted several metropolitan police forces to start a counter-action and print leaflets in a variety of languages inviting victims to seek their protection. There was very little response. Some victims can't read, most of them are drugged to their eyeballs, and they're all scared stiff of what might happen to them and their families if they run away. But, more than anything else, the leaflets rarely reach the victims. What little response there'd been mostly came from clients.

There's a school of thought that none of the victims would have got caught in that trap if they or their families didn't have ideas above their station. Their decision to leave their homes and travel abroad to work in bars or as au pairs or cleaners is always based on the expectation of better earnings and higher standard of living.
Lock Up Your Daughters
Perhaps.

As I've said, nothing is ever that simple.

After early retirement I've been freelancing as a translator and interpreter for the public sector. I've spent a lot of time in police custody suites, category A prisons, Immigration interview rooms and appeal hearing centres. I interpreted for people serving life sentences for genocide and for their victims. I also interpreted for a few young women seeking asylum after they were raped. In all instances, the rape itself was, for the lack of a better word - straightforward. The man or men forced the woman to have sex with them and left. Horrendous as those incidents were, the true horror came afterwards. Their families didn't want to know them any longer because the girls became soiled goods and brought shame on the family. In one instance, the male members of the girl's family believed that only honour killing would save their face in the community, so her mother and grandmother spirited her away. Their stories prepared me for the encounter with Endrita to some extent.

Endrita was born and grew up in Pristina, Kosovo, She came from a family of ethnic Albanians. Her father was a doctor, her mother was pharmacist and Endrita and her younger sister considered themselves destined for university education and independent, comfortable, modern living. But then came the '90s, the Balkan war, the fighting and the bombings, and their world changed forever. The parents were suddenly stripped of their role in the family and replaced by family/community elders and the revival of ancient values and way of life. The elders in Endrita's extended family clan were aware that none of their members had been particularly active on the Albanian nationalistic front, the fact that was threatening their safety and well-being in the new order. They concentrated on rectifying the position and one of the avenues to an improved status was to marry off the girls to people in power. As long as they had a few teenage virgins to trade in exchange for safety and profit, they were into a winner.

Endrita had a couple of problems with that plan. She was in love with Jak, a man of no power or consequence and therefore ineligible, and she wasn't a virgin. When she caught the eye and attentions of a senior police officer, the situation became very serious. Her parents, unwilling to see their daughter married to someone she didn't love and aware of the dire consequences for herself and everyone else in the family if she was found to be 'damaged', they sent the younger daughter to relatives in Croatia and put together whatever money they still had control over to send Endrita to the UK and Jak.

They liked Jak.

Everyone liked Jak.

Some ten years Endrita's senior, he'd entered the UK illegally a few months earlier, applied for asylum and worked in London bars, mixing mostly with models, fashion designers and PR agents. Life was great. Jak was going to secure the beautiful, tall and slim Endrita a few modelling contracts and they were going to get married just as soon as his immigration status was sorted out. In the meantime, there were the bright lights and London night life to enjoy. And drink, And drugs. Soft drugs, at first. Then the harder stuff. Then one or two or three photographers and agents expressed an interest in getting to know Endrita a bit better before offering her a modelling contract. Jak saw no harm in that. That was the way of the world that they lived in. Then Jak got arrested for drug dealing leaving Endrita in the hands of his best friend, the human trafficker and the owner of one of the establishments offering 24/7 sex.

Endrita became available for sex 24/7.

A couple of moths later a Mancunian on a trip to London availed himself of her services, took pity on her, brought her up north with him and helped her to apply for asylum.

There's no fit ending to this story. Interpreters rarely learn the outcome of individual cases. I don't know what's happened to Endrita.

At the time of her immigration interview she was drug-free.

That's something.

01 February 2012

RSI

by Robert Lopresti

Envelope by augenbuch
Envelope, a photo by augenbuch on Flickr.
 
The office wasn't much like I expected.  The building itself was shabby and worn out, but the office was brightly lit and neat as a pin.

She opened the door herself, a short woman with sharp eyes, short hair, and a white lab jacket. She had a slight accent; vaguely eastern European.  

We introduced ourselves and she said: "Did you bring it with you?"

I nodded and pulled it out of my jacket pocket.  She winced and I sensed that this was not a good beginning. "A plastic bag would have been better.  Your finger prints and bodily oils..."

I suddenly felt grubby.  I muttered an apology.

"No matter, no matter.  Put it here."

I grasped the envelope by one edge  careful too late, and placed it gently on the black metal surface of the table in the center of her office.  She picked up two large pairs of tweezers and expertly removed the letter in less time than it would have taken me with my ten clumsy fingers.

She unfolded it and laid it gently on the table, using small magnets to hold it flat. Satisfied, she turned to me.  "And you brought another?  From...happier days?"

I had.  I pulled it from my jacket and we repeated the whole exercise so that the two pages were lying side by side.

To my surprise she then backed away.  She frowned at the two pages, first one and then the other."

"I think--" I said.

"Quiet!"

"But you're looking at them upside down!"

She sighed, rather dramatically, I thought.

"I am perfectly aware of that.  But there is much to consider before we get to the text itself,  and the text is distracting.  May I continue?"

I nodded.  She continued to peer at the pages from different angles; and then pulled  a magnifying class from her jacket and moved in for a close examination.

"Interesting," she muttered.

"What is it?"

"The gentleman who sent these items... does he have any staff?"

"A part-time assistant, I think."

"Part-time.  That's not very helpful.  If the same person had sent both letters, it would be more conclusive."

"What would be?  What have you figured out?"

She gestured with the magnifying glass.  "The older letter has crisp and even folds.  The more recent one is sloppy." 

I was impressed.  I hadn't noticed the difference, in all the time I had stared at that page.  "What does that suggest?"

"If the same person prepared both letters then he was clearly in a different mood.  Calm and controlled when he folded the first, agitated when he did the second."

"Agitated?  You mean, upset?"  I thought that might explain a lot.

She shrugged.  "Upset, angry, frightened, in despair.  There is a limit to what we can tell from a fold.  The watermark is the same in both pages, by the way."

I was feeling both impressed and baffled.   "What does that tell us?"

"Alas, not much.  If the quality of the paper had diminished that would suggest a change of fortune, yes?  But, who knows?  Paper supplies may last after luck runs out."

Again she used the glass.  "Interesting.  Notice that in the older letter the block of text is perfectly centered.  Proper office format, which you don't see all that often these days."

"And the new letter?"

"The text is up toward the letterhead, while the bottom third of the page is empty.  That suggests the message was shorter than the typist expected it to be."

I puzzled over that.  "You mean, he meant to add something and changed his mind?"

"Possibly.  Or perhaps he wrote less than he usually does in such cases."

I didn't like that idea at all.  "What else?"

"Time to examine the text.  Hmm.   He addresses you the same in both letters.  The closing is the same as well.  This indicates that the man himself hasn't changed much, nor have his essential feelings about you."

"Then what gives? " I asked, losing patience.  "Why did the editor reject this story after buying my last few?"

She straightened up.  "Ah.  I think that is clear.  He didn't like it."

"Didn't like it!"

She nodded.  "He says so.  See?"

"I know he says so!  I was hoping you could tell me why he didn't like it!"

Another shrugged.  "Perhaps it wasn't very good?  Where you going?"

I shoved my rejection slip and acceptance letter  back into my pockets, not giving a damn about fingerprints and bodily oils.  "We're done here."

"But my fee-"

"Send me a bill."

She did.  I sent her a rejection slip.  Let's see her investigate that.




31 January 2012

Stranger than Fiction – Sailing Stories

by Dale C. Andrews

Sometimes life coughs up coincidences no writer of fiction would dare copy.

                                                                                            Stephen King
                                                                                            11/22/63
   
    Stephen King’s observation about the strange quirks that real life can dish up was on my mind while my wife Pat and I were on vacation, under sail in the Caribbean. When contemplating the grand scheme of things I generally tend toward agnosticism.  But one thing seems clear to me:  while I can't discern much about the order or design of our sometimes crazy universe, there does seem to be a sense of humor underlying it.  Things seem to happen that really shouldn't -- when the play-by-play announcer says that a particular ball player has never homered twice in a game, that is the time when exactly that seems most likely to occur.

  Sometimes the world's humor is simply unbelievably coincidental.  But in any event there are odd little rhymes that repeatedly seem to be tossed our way.  And as Stephen King acknowledges, some of those coincidental happenings can be so strange that were they to be used in a fictional narrative editors would likely roll their eyes while muttering “forced.”

    Since I was sailing when I was thinking these thoughts – indeed, I am in the saloon of the Royal Clipper in Martinique as I begin drafting this piece – it is probably only natural that two of the real-life stories that occurred to me, and that are probably too unbelievably coincidental to ever be offered up as fiction, involve sailing. 


    Sailing has been part of our lives for years.  Over the past two decades we have owned a series of sailboats that have provided our weekend escapes from Washington, D.C. to the near-by Chesapeake Bay.  These sailboats have included a 28 foot 1967 Pearson Triton, a 32 foot Hunter Vision, and finally a 38 foot Morgan center cockpit.  Since retiring two years ago we have moved over to “the dark side” and now own a 1982 35 foot Carver diesel motor yacht, Incommunicado.

a typical Pearson Triton
    The first sailing story reaches back to 1990, when we still had the Pearson Triton.  I was an attorney in private practice at the time and one of the cases I was handling involved a failed production of West Side Story that had played briefly at the Kennedy Center before folding.  The case initially involved a simple issue -- an attempt by a party to collect a relatively small amount after a check written during the course of the show's production  bounced.  The case should have been a three day wonder at most.  But instead the lawyers and the various parties watched in growing horror as the litigation developed a life of its own – counter claims and cross claims piled into the docket.  The case eventually dragged on for over five years and became the type of litigation that every attorney encounters a couple times during his or her career – a case that simply refused to go away.  Borrowing from Mr. Dickens, it  was a Jarndyce and Jarndyce. 

    I represented the company that had provided stage management for the production.  There were many other lawyers in the case, but I became particular friendly with the attorney for the Kennedy Center, Jim Hibey, another private practitioner.  Jim and I got to know each other pretty well as the case ground along at the pace of a glacier trying to move up hill.   One Friday afternoon, after a particularly excruciating day in Superior Court during which absolutely nothing was accomplished and tempers flared, Jim and I found ourselves standing together on the stairs of the courthouse, our collective shoulder slumped and our collective wits at end.  “Boy, do I need to get away from this,” I muttered.  “Me too,” replied Jim.  “At least it’s Friday.”  We waved and parted.


    An aside here:  When I need to get away from a bad week I am fairly well located.  There are lots of great things to do in Washington, D.C. on a summer weekend.  To the west are the mountains.  Traveling east you can easily reach the beaches of Delaware and Maryland. Closer to home there are theaters and all of the museums and restaurants you could hope for.  In other words, choices abound.

    As I drove away from Superior Court, however, I was thinking about the Chesapeake Bay.  So when I got home I said to Pat “let’s take the boat over to St. Michaels this weekend.”  She gathered the kids, and threw some necessities into our boat bag while I phoned the St. Michaels Inn and Marina and secured reservations for a slip.

St. Michaels Inn and Marina -- slips and poolside
    There are many great sailing opportunities in the Chesapeake, and St. Michaels is one of our favorites.  It is a beautiful colonial town, lying about 29 miles away from the slip we then occupied in an Annapolis marina.  So we drove to the boat that Friday night, and Saturday morning we set sail, cruising south east down the Chesapeake, then north east up Eastern Bay and finally south east down the Miles River.

    Late in the afternoon, after a great sail, we were an invigorating distance away from Washington.  When we reached St. Michaels we pulled in the sails and motored to our designated overnight slip at the marina.  After tying up, I left Pat and the kids in the boat while I walked toward the pool and the marina office to check in.  Boy, was it ever good to be away.

    As I walked along the edge of the pool a voice from behind a book said “afternoon, Dale.”  I looked down, startled.  Stretched out on a lounge, also forgetting the week he had just been through, was Jim Hibey.

Herrington Harbour South
     Story number two is, I think, stranger still.  It took place in 2003, after Pat and I had moved up two sailboats to the Morgan 38.  By then we had also retreated from the hustle and bustle of Annapolis and moved south to Herrington Harbour Marina in Rosehaven Maryland.  Herrington Harbour is still the marina of our dreams.  Not so much so that Morgan 38.  As noted above, it is a thing of the past.  But that is another story. 

the Morgan 38
    When we bought her, the Morgan was a huge step up for us.  Configured with two cabins and two baths, the boat could easily accommodate a live-aboard lifestyle.  We, by contrast, were day sailors, sometimes weekend sailors, and even more often we did not take our boat out at all, preferring to use it instead as a stationary condo, albeit with masts.   When we first purchased the Morgan I was in love with the boat and enthusiastic.   I channeled this enthusiasm to a degree, particularly in the land-locked months of winter, by surfing the internet looking for other owners from whom I could learn more about our new toy.

    I soon found a link to Chris Mooney, who owned the same model Morgan that we did and who then lived on the Texas Gulf shore.  Chris and I struck up an email correspondence and about a year later he and his companion Barbara quit their respective jobs and took off to the Caribbean, living aboard their boat Moonsail and exploring the many islands of the West Indies.  Before they left Chris set up a website to chronicle their journeys, and emailed weekly updates of their itinerary to a long list of friends, including yours truly.

     As I have previously noted, Pat and I sail the Chesapeake Bay,  which is a most forgiving body of water.  The bottom is generally sand or mud, so running aground is, at worst, embarrassing, and the shore is always within sight.  Our marina, Herrington Harbour, (where we still have a slip) has a fine swimming pool, a sand beach and good restaurant -- all  a short stroll away from our boat.  Its Caribbean ambiance may be a bit ersatz, but it is not bad for 38 miles from home. 

   Chris, by contrast, was doing the real sailing in the real Caribbean.  He and Barb were (and are) out there navigating coral reefs, clearing in and out of foreign ports, and sailing long reaches between sparsely populated islands while all the time either avoiding or weathering tropical storms.  As I followed Chris' website and read his postings from various Caribbean islands that we had visited only under the supervision of captains more capable than me, I would marvel to Pat about Moonsail's log.  Here was a couple sailing the same boat that we owned who were off doing things that we would never have the courage or skill to do ourselves.  

    One summer Chris and Barb headed north in Moonsail, no doubt looking to escape the Caribbean summer.  I think they eventually got as far north as Connecticut before beginning their journey back.  On their way south to the islands in early fall they sailed down the Chesapeake, having crossed into the bay through the C and D canal in Delaware Bay.

    After a long day of sailing down the Chesapeake Chris and Barb were looking for a comfortable slip for the night.  I had never told them that we kept our boat at Herrington Harbour South, but by the time they were sailing south of Annapolis our marina was a natural stopping point for them.  They radioed ahead and were assigned a slip on A dock – the same dock where our Morgan, Double Jeopardy, was tied up and where our Carver, Incommunicado, now lives.  When they reached the marina Chris entered the rock lined channel protecting the harbor and steered Moonsail toward A dock  Then, during the course of executing a turn that I make every time I have taken any boat I have ever owned into the bay – Moonsail hit the rock wall at the end of the channel.  The collision  took out her rudder. 

Incommunicado in her slip at Herrington Harbour South
   I don’t think I could write this story as fiction with a straight face.  O. Henry perhaps could, but I cannot.  The coincidence underlying the story is so symmetrical that it doesn't ring true even though it in fact happened.  The idea that I long feared what Chris accomplished on a daily basis, but that what I accomplished every time I steered our boat out of my slip ultimately proved his undoing sounds simply too contrived to be believable had it not actually happened.  It reads like a cobbled together story constructed solely to support a moral at the end.

As Stephen King observed, funny what life coughs up sometimes.

30 January 2012

Character Flaws

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

How in the world can I make my characters believable? you ask. Well, maybe you didn't ask but I give you my thoughts anyway. Good believable characters have flaws. Okay, you already know that.  You've given your hero a chipped tooth and a crooked nose. That are some distinguishing characteristics that make him seem more human. But how about having him be emotionally flawed. (And I'm using the male pronoun here just so I want have to write he/she every time. This is only a matter of convenience...not to be gender specific.) He drinks or his wife died or he's about the lose his job. Something that many of us can relate to and feel as if we know that character.

You don't have to enumerate his good and bad points. Show that in your writing. If he drinks have him have too many drinks and fall down and mess up on what he needs to do.  Or show him trying to quit and going to AA meetings. If he's lost his wife surely he'll recall some good times with her or talk to her or visit her grave. Now losing his wife doesn't mean that's a character flaw but how he deals with that loss can show the flaws in him. Maybe he starts drinking because his wife died and he's about to lose his job because he drinks every night and comes to work hung over and messes up everything he tried to do.

Your imagination can be boundless here. How do you make that character come to life? Maybe you've had someone in your own family who drank and ruined their life. Maybe you used to drink yourself. Draw on whatever life experiences you can manage and if all else fails...go on a little research trip to your neighborhood bar and observe people. Surely you see or overhear someone who has had too much to drink.  Record in your mind how they act and then when you write about your character drinking you'll be able to lend an air of believability to those words.

Okay that was your hero.  How about your villain?  Well for one thing you don't want him to be a horrible, mean, hateful person.  Sure he's all set to be the killer in your book or story but everyone has good points as well as bad. He may seem on the outside to be a charming person liked by all. (I cringe when watching most TV crime/mystery shows because everyone close the victim who was murdered always says..."Everyone loved Mary. I know of no one who would want to kill her.) But your charming and probably good-looking villain is seething with greed or jealousy. Those are traits that you can show when he reacts with family or co-workers. Just a slight moment that gives you a clue to what could be inside his evil mind.

Even if your hero/heroine is flawed, you should somewhere along the line make them likable or endearing or your reader will decide it's not worth their time to read your book.  I have read books where the main character was harsh or spiteful and unlikable in the beginning, but I soon learned a reason why or something happened to make me understand them a little better and about half-way through the book, I realized I liked the character.

Personally, I sorta like to start out liking the main character. Whatever their plight or flaw I began to understand or relate to them quickly and that makes me want to keep reading about them. I think most readers feel like that too.

Be careful about trying to make your character too much like a real person. They might recognize themselves and get mad at you for showing their flaws. Characters must only be a product of your imagination.  They definitely may be a composite of several people you know.  It's just not smart to make your mother-in-law the wicked witch even if she is. Of course some people never see themselves as others see them and may not even recognize themselves, but you probably don't want to take a chance.

I may have told you this before so forgive me if I have, but instead of writing out a biography of your main characters. Write out the contents of their purse or billfold. This is just an exercise for you. Or write out a list of magazines they might have on the coffee table in their living room.  You'll be surprised how many little details you'll discover and hopefully you'll discover their secret flaws.  Once you know their secrets you'll be on your way to making your characters seem like "real" people. And that kids, is my lesson for the day.

29 January 2012

Guilty of Abandonment and Worried

by Louis Willis

“Libraries are the homes of critical thought, of long-term cultural preservation, and of democratic access to knowledge. This can’t end with the Internet.” Nathan Torkington ‘Where It All Went Wrong’.
Buying books and doing research online has made me feel guilty for having, for the last four or five years, neglected, no abandoned, my local library. I worry that libraries, like dinosaurs, might become extinct, and eBooks will replace pBooks. 

In the article from l which I took the above quotation, Nathan Torkington in his address to the National and State Librarians of Australasia in Auckland argues that libraries must catch up with the digital age, especially for researchers. He notes that libraries no longer have a monopoly on research and that the younger generations will increasingly do their research online.

In November, I read another article online (forgot to copy the URL or the name of the author) about how libraries get rid of old books through sales or destruction to make room for newer books. I thought that libraries sold old books or gave them to charity but never considered the fact that they destroy them. I am what the author calls an absolutist, and I hate the very idea of destroying books, even those by obscure authors on esoteric subjects.

The two articles made me think about the Lawson McGhee Library here in Knoxville. I got my first library card at the Cansler Branch for Colored when I was 9 or 10. The summer when I was 12, I dreamed of becoming a major league baseball player, and checked out as many books as I was allowed on baseball, one of which introduced me to Wee Willie Keeler. He taught me, a small guy like him, how to “hit’em where they ain’t.” I learned that libraries where I could get book to learn how to do just about anything, and could also study African American history. 

Whenever I moved to a new city, one of the first thing I would do was get a library card. The first big library I visited was the Chicago Public Library. Walking among the stacks was what I expect heaven to be like if I make it through the Pearly Gate. I next visited the library in Chicago that houses books by and about African Americans to do research for an undergraduate project in American Literature. It was truly a delightful surprise: a building full of books about Black people.

Last year, the Lawson McGhee Library System celebrated its 125th anniversary. I last visited the main library downtown in 2006 or 2007, and the branch library in my community of Burlington in 2008. I feel guilty that I stopped attending the yearly book sale at which time I bought as many books as I could carry in a plastic bag for three dollars. It was my way of contributing to the library fund.

Lawson McGhee has embraced the digital age. I knew that it lent audio books and DVDs, but I was surprised to learn that it lends eBooks, and that the main library and several branches have wireless Internet access for customers, and also provide computers and Microsoft Office for public use. My New Year pledge to the library will be my physical attendance again at the book sales and occasional borrowing of books, including eBooks. I’ll have to be careful about borrowing eBooks, however, because I might  continue the bad habit of not visiting the library in person.

The upside to borrowing eBooks is you don’t have to worry about them being overdue and find yourself in the situation as a five year old girl did in Massachusetts.

On January 4, 2012 the Guardian published a story about a five- year-old girl In a small Massachusetts town who had two overdue library books. The police “…swooped on the home of” the little girl. Seeing the police, she stared crying and asked her mother if the policeman was going to arrest her. If she had checked out eBooks, maybe no cops would have “swooped” on her home.
I worry but refuse to believe that eBooks will replace pBooks, and the Internet will replace libraries. Of course, some politician might decide one day that Internet libraries cost less than real libraries in real buildings.



28 January 2012

“I’m like, ‘Whaddaya mean, like, a verbal tic?’”

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Is it only teens and young adults who commit this crime against the English language, or has the latest substitute for “I said” spread to the general population?

Normal English:
“He said, ‘Lady, you can’t go in there,’ and I said, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

Current parlance:
“He’s like, ‘You can’t go in there,’ and I’m like, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

I’m not sure exactly when “like” became a placeholder to be used indiscriminately between any two spoken words, regardless of part of speech, but it’s become, like, universal. This is not to say that mangled English is a new phenomenon. When I was growing up in Queens in the 1950s, I had friends whose anecdotal style included similar locutions:

“He sez, ‘You can’t go in there!” So far, indistinguishable in speech from the grammatically acceptable historic present “He says.” But then, the giveaway:
“So I sez, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

More extreme:
“He goes, ‘You can’t go in there!’ So I go, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

I personally never let either “He goes” or “I sez” pass my lips. My mother woulda, like, killed me. Throughout my childhood, one of her friends liked to tell about an incident from when I was maybe four. She responded to some question of mine by saying “Yeah,” and I, little prig that I must have been, announced, “My mother pronounces it ‘Yes.’”

But the egregious “like” is a persistent verbal tic that I can’t claim I’m never guilty of using. In that, it resembles the pervasive “y’know” and “I mean” that mar so many public speeches, especially the extemporaneous, uttered without reference to notes or Teleprompter. Or is it a tic? It seems to me that the insertion of “like” into a declarative sentence adds a nuance of tentativeness. When James Cameron won the Oscar for the movie Titanic, he drew worldwide disapproval for expressing his delight by throwing his arms wide and quoting a line from the film: “I’m the king of the world!” Would the media and millions of viewers been equally censorious if he had instead cried, “I’m, like, the king of the world”? Perhaps the self-deprecating “like” would have met their standards for a becoming modesty in someone who’s just won big.

For me, the frequent use of “like”—as much as several times in a single spoken sentence—damages the credibility of the speaker. Another locution, uptalk, which was most noticeable in the 1990s but has not completely vanished, also conveys the impression of uncertainty or tentativeness to the detriment of credibility, or perhaps more accurately, authority.

“I’m Liz Zelvin? Your speaker for today? I’ve been writing my whole life? I’m going to talk about how to, like, promote your book?”

It is possible to use even the most unpromising locutions effectively. I recently saw the concert movie of the TV show Glee. This show (which I haven’t watched, but might some time) has been very successful in reaching young people with its message that those who are “different” (obese, gay, born with disabilities, and a variety of other departures from the stereotype of attractive and popular teens) are worthy of love and capable of success. As a songwriter myself, I always pay close attention to lyrics. I was amused, even charmed, to realize that the refrain of one high-energy number (evidently a big hit on iTunes) was, “I’m, like, Forget you!” To a target audience of teens, that was downright clever.

27 January 2012

Fear, Print-Zombies, and Writing What You Know


by Dixon Hill

J-School Redux
The very best instructor I had in journalism school was this guy who’d been City Desk Editor for a major metropolitan daily. His name was Itule (eye-TOO-lee).

On the first day of class, Itule stood up front and said: “Now I know you’ve all heard horror stories about me. So, tell me what you’ve heard. Or, ask me if what you’ve heard is true. This is your chance; I promise I won’t lie to you. But, let’s get it out in the open — so you know what to expect, and I know what you think you expect from me.”

After a lingering silence, one young woman said, “I heard you make people cry.”

Itule nodded his gray head sagely. “Well, I guess that one’s sorta true. I don’t set out to make people cry. I mean: who wants to make kids cry? But . . . people have certainly cried in my class.” He shrugged his bison-like shoulders. “All I really did, though, was just tell them the truth about their writing. They’re the ones who chose to cry.”

A guy’s voice rang out: “Do you really have a rubber stamp that reads: GARBAGE ?”

“I do. It’s on my desk, with a big pad of red ink. But the university won’t let me use it anymore; too many people complained that it hurt their feelings.”

I knew instantly that I was going to like this guy!
After all, I’d known a ton of guys like him when I was in the army. These were men who knew their job, and didn’t mind letting you know it — particularly if you were messing up. The reason I get along so well with guys like this, is because they’re usually the ones who can give you all the hot tips for doing the job in an excellent manner. They’re harsh in their mannerism, but they can explain chapter and verse where you went wrong, and (more importantly) how to correct it — so you don’t step on your equipment the next time.

As I suspected that first day in class, Itule was this kind of guy. My papers came back with seas of red ink. And, one day, with the note “OH GOD!” near the end. (I asked, “Is that “Oh, God this stinks?” or “Oh, God, this great?” “Neither,” he said. “It’s [his face crumpling as if he’d just been immersed in sewage]: “OH, GOD! What did I ever do to you? Why do you punish me, by sending me people who insist on writing crap like this!?!”)

Like I said: Harsh in his mannerism.

But, whenever I asked why something was wrong or what was wrong with it: he’d fire off a string of eye-opening answers at machinegun speed. I always asked him what I’d done wrong, but never without a notebook and pen in my hands — ready to write fast and often for several pages. If you wanted to learn to write, Itule was a goldmine.

Rough but invaluable, that was Itule’s help. And I loved him for it.

Sad Anthology
In honor of Itule, I feel moved to make a little harsh criticism about a recent mystery anthology I read this past week. And to make a few (perhaps) helpful suggestions to folks thinking of participating in any upcoming anthology, or maybe to just mention a little insight I gleaned from reading this one.

I hope it goes without saying (which certainly won’t keep me from reiterating) that none of the SleuthSayers are writers of stories in the aforementioned anthology.

And, to any writers who did contribute to it, who may be reading this, I’d like to (probably mis—) quote the great Cos: “Better watch out, or ya’ just may learn somethin’.” Or, maybe not. Perhaps you’ll just be caught by the humor of my harshness. One thing you can rest assured of, however: my bark could be worse; at least I don’t have a big red stamp reading GARBAGE!

So . . . This contemporary anthology I read . . .
. . . while it had a few good reads — was primarily populated by stories so dead, they seemed more corpse than corpuscle. All the stories in this anthology (which shall remain nameless, to protect those innocent few) were mysteries, and most of the plots were pretty solid (if sadly predictable). The writing mechanics showed a workmanlike bent: I could see the landscape and setting, watch the bodies in motion. But, there was no life! No juice! It was like watching a play staffed by cadaverous marionettes. A cover blurb called it a “crackling good read” and I think I understand why: This stuff was so dry, the very pages nearly crackled with desiccation when I turned them.

We’ve all heard the adage: “Write what you know.” But, there’s an element at play in this phrase I often think some folks overlook. (Most of the writers in this anthology certainly did.)

I can’t begin to enumerate the writing books or articles which follow that adage to write what you know, with an explanation similar to: “If you’re a homemaker, write about a homemaker: the struggle to find a continued spark after twenty years of marriage, say, or perhaps the vicious personal impact of marital betrayal. If you’re an investment banker, maybe you can write a mystery about embezzlement. …”

What I’d one day like to run across, (and somebody may have mentioned this before me) is a book that says: “Writing what you know doesn’t necessarily mean writing about your particular area of expertise. Remember: You have a lot of life-experiences to draw on. Recalling the emotions you experienced when your childhood dog was run over, for instance, can infuse a passage concerning loss with a very honest breath of life and feeling—IF you do a good job of getting those emotions down on paper.”

Now I know that a lot of people reading this just flicked their fingers in the air while rolling their eyes skyward and saying, “No s@%t, Sherlock! That’s the hard part—getting it down on paper!” And, I’m not saying I disagree. I think that IS the hard part.

I once read that Dean Koontz became so frustrated, one time, that he banged his head on his desk to the point where he now has to spray his forehead with Lemon Pledge each morning. And I gotta say: when I’m trying to find that elusive word or phrase, when I’m hammering and hammering at a paragraph because the words are all there, but the way they’re arranged – the word order, the various sentence lengths, when and where commas need to replace conjunctions to get just the right feel – is just not right, well then I begin to consider investing in a can of Pledge for my own desk!

This is where I sometimes think actors have it over writers—because actors usually get to use their entire bodies to get their point across. As writers, we’re forced to work within a very narrow “band-width” of communication: Print Media. We don’t get to drop a tear or two in front of the reader, hoping our emotions will be caught by him or her. Instead, we have to connote emotion to — and hopefully create emotion within — readers solely through the written word. And that’s a toughy.

Good actors are taught to emote
(or else they just learn to do it, or maybe some are just born with this innate ability—I don’t know).


But, however they do it, good actors emote: They recall how they felt when fluffy got hit by that car, and they use this memory to yank tears out of their eyes over the supposed death of some other character in a play or movie, to melt their mouths with mournful muscle contractions, to rip wet animal cries from deep inside their guts — cries that make us flinch in our seats and gasp as we tear-up in sympathy.

I think you know what I’m talking about, though it’s pretty tough to explain. And, to (very) roughly paraphrase a certain Supreme Court Justice: “I can’t really explain what happens, but I darn well know it when I see it.” An actor who properly emotes, can claw open that “emotion bag” in the gut, and let it come bubbling out through every pore. What comes bursting forth may be heart-wrenching, disgusting, beautiful, grotesque, or even joyful – but it strikes a viewer as being very real. Because that actor has somehow tapped into an emotion s/he felt before, and spilled it out onto stage or screen.

I know about emoting, because I went to a pretty good on-camera acting school when I was a teenager. I never got any acting jobs, but I did learn about this critical tool. And I’m not saying I’m a good actor; just that I went to a good acting school. I myself probably couldn’t act my way out of a non-existent box! Even if I did paint my face white, then gave myself a big red heart-shaped mouth, added surprise lines around my eyes and wore black pants with a stupid striped shirt. I’m not a good actor; that’s one of the reasons I write.

And, as I pointed out earlier, I think writing is even harder than acting in some ways, because writers are limited to such a narrow band-width of communication — which makes it pretty tough to strike an emotional chord with the audience (readers).

But, that’s no excuse for not even trying!
And “not even trying” to tap into emotion is what lies at the root of the problem suffered by all the stories in this anthology (well, most of them at any rate). I’ll limit details in order to obfuscate, but to use one story as an example: This old guy stumbles across a body in the desert, but is unfortunately surprised to also discover the murderer, whom he knows. Consequently, the murderer must now kill the old guy, to cover the murderer’s tracks.

Now, you see what I mean: that’s a pretty good plot, lots of tension bursting at the seams. At least, there would be — if the old guy were actually alive in the reader’s mind.

Unfortunately, he never came to life in mine, because of the way the writer handled him. Neither did the murderer. Instead, they came off like “Print-Zombies”— a couple of stiffened cadavers propped up by two-by-fours, the writer jerking strings to move their appendages. Or, if you prefer, they read like a play being performed by sixth-graders —stiff, wooden and incompetent.

The old guy, who should have been terrified, never even broke into a sweat! And the story is set in the desert! Maybe you’ve heard that the sun evaporates perspiration so fast, in the desert, that you don’t ever seem to sweat. And, as a nearly life-long desert dweller, I can tell you that this is a good rule of thumb. BUT . . . it doesn’t hold true when you’re scared.

My experience is that, when I’m scared in the desert, the heat seems to multiply. And the sweat pours out in buckets. It gets in my eyes, drips off my nose. Sweat soaks my shirt so badly, that it sometimes pastes that shirt to my body. I once drew a rapid sand table in the ground, when I was scared in the desert one time, and we were planning for an immanent engagement; when I was done, desert dust had stuck to the sweat on my finger and coated it with mud I had to wipe off on my pants.

Now, please notice: I prefaced that last paragraph with: “My experience is that . . .” In other words, I drew on my own experiences with fear, to explain what happens to someone afraid in the desert. Other physical manifestations of fear I’ve encountered include: weak-hinged knees that feel like they might fold, and dump my body in the dirt if I don’t watch out; a moderate muscle-strain type of pain in my gut; and an ache in my palms between the base of my thumb and first finger, which seems to rob my hands of the ability to grasp or hold things.

Oddly, perhaps, this last one came in handy in combat, because the salve for that ache was to jamb the pistol grip and forward handguard (grenade launcher tube) of my M-203 into my palms as hard as I could get them. (An M-203, for those who don’t know, is an M-16 w/ a 40 mm grenade launcher attached to the handguard, so that the grenade launcher is clipped below the rifle barrel.) The harder I screwed that pistol grip and forward hold into my hands, the more that ache in my palms ebbed away; this means I never had to worry about dropping my weapon during a fire fight. I had a death-grip on it! And, I got the same affect when I held my M-9 Berretta (two-hand grip, with modified isosceles stance when possible), which helped keep my pistol shot-group nice and tight.

Controlled fear also assisted me in combat, by heightening my senses, which resulted in sharper vision, keener hearing, greater attentiveness (I mean a small snapping twig will wake me instantly, in a denied area.) and quicker reflexes. These are all part of being afraid. They’re part of the physical manifestations of fear. When writing of a character who is feeling fear, I try to incorporate at least some of this stuff into that character’s behavior and/or description.

Sadly, that old man in the story exhibited none of this behavior. The writer wrote that he was scared . . . but that’s it. S/he (I’m hiding ID clues here, not confused) described the scenery very well: I could see the land for miles around. But, I never could see the old man’s fear. S/he evidently didn’t think to show us that. Or even the murder’s fear of getting caught, which must have been present in the character. Otherwise, why would the murderer feel the need to kill again to cover the first murder?

I could trot out additional examples in which the writers failed to describe action that would indicate their characters’ emotions. However, I think the one above is enough to demonstrate what I mean.

What I have to suggest is very simple.

When a critique partner mentions a lack of emotion, or mentions a sense of staleness, or lifelessness about a work in progress, my suggestion is: check for character emotion indicators in the story. If they aren’t there, dig deep inside your own memory. Gird your loins and claw open that “emotion bag” deep down in your gut. Then let it all spill out across the page.

There can be other reasons for staleness (we’ve covered a few on SleuthSayers in the past), but this can be one of them. So, look for it. Better yet: Tear open your emotions the first time you make that trek through the manuscript—when you’re cranking out your first draft—and let fly! Because, searing emotion on the page can turn mediocre writing into a great story. And good money in your pocket.

I won’t be around to comment much on Friday, when this post goes up. My mother died on Saturday morning, and her funeral is on my blog day. But, I’ll be back with another post in two weeks.

And, while I find it (fairly) easy to tap my emotions, I find it extremely difficult to carve those emotions onto paper in a way that elicits them among readers. So . . .

During the interim, I think I’ll buy a can of Lemon Pledge!

--Dix

26 January 2012

A Few Reasons I Prefer Mysteries to Literature



by Deborah Elliott-Upton
As a person who believes we start to die the moment we stop learning, I decided to take a class on literature. I am reading selections by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. It's not that I have ever read these authors; it's just that my personal tastes run toward Christie, Spillane and Chandler. Still, to learn is to grow and I am certainly not ready to die.
In deciphering the meanings behind the sybolism within these author's works, I am not what the teacher expects of her students. The second day of class she asked if we were alone in a room with Hitler and knew for a fact all that he would do to the world and we had a gun, would we kill him. She knew my name and I sat on the front row, so she directed the question to me first.
I said I would have no problem killing Hitler. She was a bit taken aback and after several other students agreed with me, she said, "My other classes always say they couldn't shoot an unarmed man."
I silently wondered if my fellow students were mystery buffs like me. Of course, since I am not alone and armed in a room with Hitler and completely sure he would try to take over the world, we'll never know if I could actually commit murder and pull that trigger. But, that wasn't her question. If I find a way to time travel and have that opportunity, I'll let you know the outcome. (That is, if the world hasn't changed so drastically that neither of us are here to discuss those actions at this particluar time and place on the Internet.)
My opinions on symbolism are not necessarily that of the instructor and obviously not shared by most literary authors according to the grades on my last quiz. I don't necessarily believe that is a bad thing. I am merely tracking clues to find another answer, one that may not be ones looking for the obvious. I feel a bit like bumbling Columbo who seems to be asking questions that don't make any sense, but do lead to another corridor, albeit not the one expected.
That's one of the thing I like about mysteries: there is an obvious point made by the story's end. It isn't shrouded in symbolism; it simply is a bad guy caught or at least recognized as the bad guy. In most cases we know should he show up in another book, he will be chased down by our hero for his criminal activity.
Crime doesn't pay in most mysteries. That sets mystery stories apart from literary works, too. In literature like life, anything can happen. A mystery novel's probability is it will end with someone being tagged as guilty and going to jail or paying his debt to society with his life. Real life and literature isn't as neat and tidy. I like tidy.
In mysteries, you never turn a page expecting to see more and find the story has ended abruptly and without tying up all the details into a nice, satisfying package. If the detective hasn't bound the criminal to face his judgment by the end of the book, it better be that he managed to escape from the authorities grasp ala Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs or Moriarty in a Sherlock Holmes story and not that they simply didn't deduce who the culprit could be.
So, why am I taking a series of workshops on literature? Because I love to discover more about good storytelling from every angle. I want to learn from masters whose works lived long beyond them. I want to see if I can learn to do a better job figuring out their intent through the mysterious methods of symbolism.
If I had my druthers, I'd want to be Agatha Christie instead of Ernest Hemingway any day. Maybe it's because I'd enjoy y work being discussed for its clever clues more than what think I meant in a storyline. Maybe it's just because I wouldn't look so great in a mustache and beard.

25 January 2012

Going Archival on You

by Robert Lopresti

I have probably mentioned here, oh, a few thousand times that I am a government information librarian. Today I thought I would point you toward a government website that has a lot of ideas for writers - in fact, they even brag about just that.

If you have visited our nation's capital you may have gone to the National Archives to see the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But the National Archives and Records Administration has a lot more than that, and they have a pretty cool website to tell you about it.

This came to mind because of a page they put up called Inspired by the Archives! Ten top tips for writers!  Here is an example of a poster they thought might inspire you.


Or try this mug shot.

Care to guess what this shady character was being booked for? Would you believe "crimes against butter?" Yes, he was a margarine smuggler. (Cellmate: I'm here because I killed my neighbor with an ax. What did YOU do?)

Care to guess what is the most requested photo in the National Archives? Here it is.

I don't know (or want to know) what kind of story this image might invoke, but here is an early ancestor of the familiar food pyramid. PLease notice the seventh food group, and the helpful advice at the bottom of the page.


What about famous authors in the collection? How about a picture of Jack Kerouac taken during brief naval career (before they threw him out as "delusional.")   His own comment later on his behavior then: "I shoulda been shot."


You may wonder: do any authors really get inspiration from this stuff? Well, how about George Clooney researching his next flick, which he is going to author, direct, and star in?

On beyond the Declaration of Independence. Enjoy.