20 December 2011

Dickens' A Christmas Carol

 Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
    So begins one of the most popular and long-lived novellas in English literature.
A Christmas Carol, front piece and title page (1843)
    Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, just prior to Christmas.  But the story, from all accounts, had been fermenting like Christmas punch in Dickens’ imagination for many years.

    If you have read biographies of Dickens, or if you perhaps had the good fortune to catch Roy Dotrice’s 13 part 1976 Masterpiece Theatre presentation chronicling the life of Dickens, you already know that many of the characters in A Christmas Carol were drawn from Dickens’ own life.  Characteristics of Ebenezer Scrooge were taken in broad brush from Dickens' father, a man whose moods swung often from joy to darker visages, who was in and out of debtors prison, and with whom Charles Dickens had a life-long love/hate relationship.   Fan, Scrooge’s fragile sister, bears the same name as Dickens’ equally fragile sister, and her son Henry, a sickly child who died young, is almost certainly the model for Tiny Tim.  Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, is also the name of Dickens’ younger brother, a spendthrift of whom Dickens largely disapproved.

    There is also evidence that both the story and the theme of A Christmas Carol had haunted Dickens for years before he actually sat down to write the novella.  In fact, a “working draft” of A Christmas Carol can be found buried in another Dickens story, a short narrative of Christmas redemption that appears in the earlier novel Pickwick Papers.   There, in an episode that also transpires on Christmas Eve, the character Mr. Wardle tells those assembled the story of old Gabriel Grub, a lonely and bitter sexton, who undergoes a Christmas conversion after being visited by goblins that show him scenes from his own past and, unless things change, his likely future.

    While all of this is useful background information, The Annotated Christmas Carol by Charles Michael Hearn (2004) notes that the catalyst that inspired Dickens to write A Christmas Carol was his visits in early 1843 to Cornish tin mines.  During those visits the author  encountered child laborers working in deplorable and heart-wrenching conditions.  After touring the mines Dickens immediately set to work on a pamphlet that was to be titled "An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child," and that was intended as a clarion call to end child labor, particularly in the mines.  Charles Kelly, in his 2003 treatise A Christmas Carol, reports that Dickens soon concluded, however, that his call for labor reforms and charity for the poor would be more resoundingly received if they were set forth during the course of a story, particularly one cloaked in the setting of a London Christmas. 

A page of Dickens original manuscript
    But this revelation came to Dickens in October of 1843, barely two months before Christmas.   In order to ensure that the book would be published at the time of year when its message would resonate the most Dickens had to accomplish a Herculean task.  When Dickens began to write A Christmas Carol it was therefore at a feverish pace.  The book was finished a scant 6 weeks later, in early December of 1843.  Less than two weeks after completing the manuscript on December 17, 1843, Dickens published  the first edition of A Christmas Carol at his own expense. 

    Although expenses related to Dickens’ decision to self-publish (tricky then as it can be now) resulted in less of a return than the always over extended author had hoped for, the little book was nonetheless an immediate commercial success.  The first run of 6000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve of 1843 and a second press run was immediately begun .  Since then Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has never been out of print. 

    The success of A Christmas Carol inspired Dickens to write four additional Christmas tomes published between 1844 and 1848:  The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain.  Each of these was published just before Christmas in succeeding years, and each involved a similar theme – redemption of the spirit in the context of the yuletide holiday.  But none matched the success of A Christmas Carol.

    So, what was it – what is it – about A Christmas Carol that struck the right chord?  Well, at least back in 1843 some of the success of the book can be attributed to rather remarkable timing.  Stated another way, the little book was a product of its times.

    In the early 1800s Christmas had been more of a somber affair in England.  It was a day barely observed, when businesses remained open and commerce continued to flow.  That fact makes more understandable the grudging question Scrooge poses to Cratchitt:  “You will want all day tomorrow, I suppose?”  Scrooge, after all, had presided over his business in years when a Christmas holiday from commerce was hardly the norm.

    But by the 1830s times were changing, and the Yule had begun its transformation into a joyous year-end celebration.

    Evidence of this transformation abounds.   In 1841, for example, Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert, German by birth, introduced a tradition from his homeland and the first Christmas trees appeared in England.  1843, the year A Christmas Carol was published, is also the first year that Christmas cards were widely exchanged in England.  The singing of Christmas carols, suppressed in England since the Protestant Reformation and the Calvinist aversion to "nonessential" religious customs, also enjoyed a resurgence in the 1830s as wassailing took hold in England.  All of this was in place when A Christmas Carol first appeared in the bookstores of London in December of 1843.

    Even meteorology cooperated with Dickens’ narrative.  The “white Christmas” setting of A Christmas Carol was hardly the norm in London, which more typically receives 6 to 12 inches of snow spread over the entire winter season.  But this was not so much the case during Dickens' lifetime.   In his biography of Dickens, Peter Ackroyd wrote: "In view of the fact that Dickens can be said to have almost singlehandedly created the modern idea of Christmas, it is interesting to note that in fact during the first eight years of his life there was a white Christmas every year; so sometimes reality does actually exist before the idealized image."  Probably even more telling was the fact that on Christmas Eve of 1836 – seven Christmases before the publication of A Christmas Carol, and the very night that Dickens tells us Jacob Marley lay dying – London  was blanketed in a blizzard that continued for five days and reportedly left snow drifts of 12 to 40 feet in the city.

    And beyond all of this is the moral of the story, which, as Dickens had hoped, captivated his readers.  In 1843 England -- beset with its poor houses, debtors prisons, and child labor -- the hope of individual and societal redemption that lies at the heart of A Christmas Carol fell on sympathetic ears.  Dickens was not the only Englishman appalled by these conditions, nor was he the only one hoping that society would begin to move toward a more charitable approach toward poverty and its ravages.

    So a joyous Christmas story, set in a snow-bound England, and telling a tale of redemption, of throwing off miserly ways, of embracing human kindness and charity, was one that the reading public readily embraced.

    It is more elusive, perhaps, to explain the amazing staying power of A Christmas Carol.  It has proven itself, beyond all debate, to be a story not just for the Victorian age, but for all ages.

Alistair Simms -- perhaps the finest
portrayal of Ebeneezer Scrooge
    Not only is the book universally read, it is equally universally performed.  Think of the actors who have played Scrooge over the years – Reginald Owen, Alistair Sims, Basil Rathbone several times (he also played Marley at least once), Frederic March, Ralph Richardson, Cyril Richard, George C. Scott, Albert Finney, and Patrick Stewart.  The story even resonates when Scrooge is played in a stretch – by Mickey Mouse, Mr. Magoo, Jim Carrey, Tim Curry, or by Kelsey Grammar (in an operatic version, nonetheless), or by Henry Winkler (in a western version), or by Marcel Maceau in a mime version, or by Bill Murray (in a jaded Hollywood setting), or by Michael Caine (performing opposite the Muppets),  All of them, and others, have looked out at us and expounded on burying revelers with a stake of holly through their hearts.  All of them have muttered about blots of mustard, crumbs of cheese, and underdone potatoes.  All of them have snarled “humbug,” a word that did not exist until Dickens penned it.  And each of them, every one, has been blessed and redeemed in the end. 

    I read Dickens A Christmas Carol every year, and (at least for me) it always works.

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!

18 December 2011

And So It Goes

by Jan Grape

Okay we're only one week from Christmas, December 25th. What's happening at your house?  Things are fairly calm at my place with only my alien and I and Nick & Nora, my two cats.

I put up a tree...well, I call it a tree and it honestly is one. It's made of tomato plant wire and lights. You've seen those surely? It was what I used outside my RV because there really wasn't enough room for a tree inside.  The new house has plenty of room and even a lovely bay window where a tree would sit in splendor but have you priced Christmas trees lately? And the thing is, the day after the 25th the prices will be reasonable. So this year, I'm making do.

I also couldn't find my box of "grape" decorations. They were stored at a friend's house or my sister's house or someplace and I still have not located them so I'll need to buy decorations. Same thing as the tree, after the 25th everything will be marked down about eighty per cent. And my final reason for not putting up a traditional tree, with only Cason and I here for the holiday, there won't be many presents and if there were presents under the tree, the cats would probably tear, scratch, play with and generally wreck havoc.

So we have the little light tree in the bay window and from the street it looks just like a regular tree. I put some lights on the wooden railing and hand rails on the front and side porches. Which brings me to another unusual event. When I plugged in a string of lights in the kitchen, all the lights lit up and looked just fine.  Ten minutes later when I plugged them in out on the porch (and the extension is fed through the front window) only half the string lit up.  Mind you it's just one string. Brand new mini lights, 100 lights long and only half of them now light up. That half blinks and looks really cool, but the other half of the lights just sit there. This is NOT two strings plugged into each other, it's all one string of 100 lights.  I have no idea what's going on there.

I did find my purple "chili pepper" lights that we used to attach to our RV awning when I unpaked boxes after the move. Two strings. I attached them to each wooden hand rail along the steps and both strings lit up and look awesome. All of them work.  All bulbs burn on each string. Then I went out to the side porch which also has stairs and a wooden handrail. I found a string of lights I had used on my RV handrail last year. Now this is two strings of lights plugged together. I tested them inside and all the lights worked, no problem. Ten minutes later, I plugged them into the outdoor electric socket. Guess what?  One string lights up and one does not.

Okay, I admit that I have the mechanical aptitude of a horned toad but good grief, even I know to check each little bulb and be sure it's tight in each little socket.  There's even a little statement on the front of the box that says if one bulb burns our the rest stay lit. NOT. They all worked in the kitchen electrical outlet. What changed in that ten minutes? Heaven only knows, but I sure don't. And it happened to two different set-ups. That's what really confuses me.  The 100 string lights on the front porch are brand new. The two stringer set up on the side porch are from last year. BUT they ALL worked at first. So we have a few outside lights and some non-lit bulbs. You can't tell from the street, it just looks like I only half decorated. Like maybe I'll buy more lights tomorrow. NOT.

BUT we do have stockings hung by the chimney with care. Problem is they won't stay hung.  The fireplace mantle is limestone rock so I can't attach them with thumb tacks or push pins.  I used Scotch tape.  That worked fine for about a week and then the stocking with my name on it fell off. Scared Nora half to death when in fell just as she walked by. She's a bit of a scaredy cat anyway. Next I used that wonderful gray duck tape that holds everything together. That worked for two days and the stocking with my name fell off again. The two little stockings with Nick's & Nora's names on them fell off. At the moment all the stockings are laying on the hearth. I have yet to figure out what I'll do next.  Maybe just wait until Christmas Eve, hang with the duck tape and hope the stockings stay up until Santa slides down the chimney and fills them.

In the meantime, I went to a Christmas party today and two people asked at different times as I milled around, if I was working on a new book. I shook my head sadly and said, "not right now. Not until after January first." Both looked as if they understood.

And so it goes....
Merry and Happy Everyone.

Hugo and Shakespeare

A series of crushing deadlines dogged me for several weeks, so serious research and writing pushed creative authoring into a tiny corner. It didn't help that the short story I've been working on has been a recalcitrant bear. Even its title proved elusive, another little hurdle in a difficult terrain.
not quite this young
The tale grew out of a 'what-if' scenario in my head. At 2900 words, if it were a play, it would be two acts with three speaking rôles. One protagonist is a fair-minded cop who can't be bought, bribed, bent, or browbeaten. The 'criminal' is a sullen twenty-year-old homeless woman. It should be simple, right?

Les Misérables

If not a miserable experience, it's been a challenging and sometimes frustrating one. This is what I learned.

I wrote the first draft in third person. Third person didn't work. It lay flat and lifeless on the page without emotion. I struggled, but it proved stubborn.

I rewrote it in first person from the cop's standpoint. The connection with the characters grew, but it still wasn't right. Disbelief remained unsuspended.

I rewrote it in first person from the woman's view. Just before that moment where I might hate the story, it began to flesh out emotionally.

The story line is less Dickens and more Victor Hugo. Our 'criminal' is sort of an angry female Jean Valjean, sleeping in her SUV with iced-over windows. Our detective, though incorruptible, is more, say, Bishop Myriel than Inspector Javert.

Death Takes a Holiday

Fueled by outside deadlines and pressures from the real world, the story continued to prove difficult, resisting every sentence. What started before Halloween passed Thanksgiving and approached Christmas.

But wait… Christmas? What if I set the story during Christmas season? Acquaintances have sent numerous eMails insisting the White House and the ACLU are banning Christmas, but I'm pretty sure that's not true. We've got time for one more holiday story, don't we?

Only recently have I tackled holiday stories and in each case, the holiday (Halloween, Hanukkah, and Christmas) was integral to the story. I don't believe in welding a seasonal setting onto an ordinary yarn, but with this intransigent new story, a Christmas setting felt right. I'd already cast the weather as cold, bleak, and dreary with a hint of snow in the air. Why not let the season provide the texture of believability for the tale?

Thus it came to pass in the little town of Orlando, the December temperature dropped sufficiently to turn off the air conditioner, wear T-shirts and shorts, throw open the doors, and mow the lawn. And, imagine a story in a snowy, icy city nearer the Canadian border than this close to the tropics.

A Death in the Family
photo credit: Christine Selleck
Shakespeare & Company is a bookstore (the second of two) in… wait for it… the heart of Paris. Ninety-eight year-old owner George Whitman, who lived above the bookshop, died last week. He let writers, both published and unpublished, bunk in the bookstore in exchange for a couple of hours work each day. Originally from New Jersey, Whitman once called the shop "a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore."

I don't believe in socialist utopias, but I do believe in brilliant entrepreneurs who wink at the left and the right and lay down workable business models when other retailers collapse. Owning a bookstore is one of those dreams like owning a pub or restaurant– probably better dreamt than acted upon.

Both Shakespearean bookstores have their own important history. Watch this video about the store or read the fascinating history.

Next week, Louis Willis  will meet you here Christmas Day.

17 December 2011


by Elizabeth Zelvin

1. an aerial bomb containing high explosives and weighing from four to eight tons, used as a large-scale demolition bomb.
2. a motion picture, novel, etc., especially one lavishly produced, that has or is expected to have wide popular appeal or financial success.

As a writer of both novels and short stories and a reader of both mysteries and other kinds of fiction, I was thinking about the differences among these forms and genres this morning and found myself musing about the nature of a blockbuster. When I looked it up, I found that the common usage most of us know is only the second definition. I was also surprised to learn that the novels to which it may be applied aren’t necessarily long, though they do have to be explosive.

I just finished reading a novel that could be called a blockbuster by any standards: Pat Conroy’s Beach Music. The original hardcover edition, published in 1995, was 628 pages and weighed in at 2.4 pounds shipping weight, according to Amazon. The trade paperback edition I read came in at 800 pages and still ranks under 25,000 on Amazon, which means a lot of readers are still buying it. (For comparison, the Kindle edition of my second book, published in 2009, ranks 467,500 and change.) Conroy, author of Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, is frequently referred to as a beloved American author. Extrapolating from the definition, part of what makes a blockbuster is an author’s prior best-seller status. But let’s look at what Conroy manages to cram into his story of a dysfunctional family that manages to love and come through for one another in the end (a surefire recipe in itself), along with the vividly detailed setting in the low country of South Carolina, described in lush and lyrical prose that would make the book a literary novel if it hadn’t sold so darn many copies.

Into the hopper:
domestic violence
survivor guilt
the Holocaust
the Vietnam War
the 1985 terrorist attack on the Rome airport
the Catholic Church
the military
the South
Sherman’s march to the sea
a near-death-at-sea experience
the fight to save the loggerhead turtle from extinction

Have I missed anything? I don’t think Conroy did.

As I read, I couldn’t help thinking about how Conroy constructed his story in a way that wouldn’t have got past a good critique group, no less an agent or editor, if it were a debut manuscript: paragraphs and paragraphs of lush description, masses of information about cooking, fishing, and architecture, and backstory or flashback sections running as much as 100 pages between sections that moved the story forward. I also popped out of lost-in-a-book trance at a couple of psychological anomalies: the cheater’s shortcut he took in dealing with the suicide by saying upfront that in this rare case, everybody who knew the lovely young victim forgave her instantly; the portrayal of the schizophrenic as a lovable eccentric who remained manageable even at his most unmanageable; and how much love remained in this severely dysfunctional family. But maybe that’s no different from any fiction, including movies, where the rigid, intolerant, or obstructive character sees the light in time for the happy ending.

16 December 2011

Truth in Fiction vs. the Changing Nature of Child-created Violent Crime

Apocryphal Grapes

When I was in grade school, we read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. And, someone (I’m pretty sure it was a teacher) told us that Steinbeck had originally been hired to compile a non-fiction account of Dust Bowl farmers during the Great Depression, but eventually turned the project down, telling his editor that the story couldn’t be fully dealt with in a non-fiction format. “This one’s going to have to be fiction,” he supposedly said.

I suspect that grade school informant was a little confused. After all, Steinbeck actually wrote a series of articles about the subject, called “The Harvest Gypsies,” for the San Francisco News in 1936. The articles ran from October 5th through 12th of that year.

Still, the idea of using fiction to address current social problems is neither nothing new, nor just relegated to Steinbeck. I’m reminded of a blurb on the back of my dog-eared The Big Sleep copy, which reads: “Chandler writes like a slumming angel.” It goes on to explain how he lays bare the underbelly of L.A.

I didn’t see how a writer could penetrate much deeper under that belly, until I read Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. About half-way through, I thought: “Wow! This author didn’t just crawl under the belly; he slit that belly open, and all its guts poured out on my head. This is awesome!”

Mosley’s writing had the same effect on me that Elmina Castle had, when my A-Team toured it during our time in Ghana, West Africa (or perhaps it was Cape Coast Castle; we toured both and I can’t keep them straight these days). After both adventures (castle tour, and book reading) I found myself reassessing my mental construct of the world and the culture I’m immersed in.

My politics are probably quite different from Mosley’s, Steinbeck’s, or even Chandler’s. But, there’s no denying that these guys have (or: had) a firm grasp on fiction’s ability to influence a reader’s thoughts, ideas, and quite probably future actions.

Child Violence in Mystery Stories
Sometime ago, in the Readers’ Forum on TheMysteryPlace.com, Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM), raised the subject of children as characters in mystery fiction.

According to The Mystery Place website, their forum is currently unavailable, due to technical issues, so I couldn’t refresh my memory about the post.

As I recall, however, in part of it Ms. Hutchings suggested that EQMM prefers writers to downplay violence toward or from children, locating the violent scene off-stage if it is essential to the story line.

This didn’t really surprise me. After all, EQMM is a family magazine; writers have to approach stories knowing that underage people will undoubtedly read them. At the same time, this approach should probably be balanced by a desire to present honestly written stories, which sometimes creates a very fine line upon which to spin a tale. However, I think the folks at EQ and AH do a good job of walking that fine line, and of helping writers to walk it alongside them.

At the time of her post, I had recently read about the arrest of 14-year-old Edgar Jimenez Lugo by Mexican authorities. This boy, a U.S. citizen born in California, who moved to Mexico with returning family members, began killing and decapitating rival drug operators for the South Pacific Cartel in Mexico at age 11.

(Time magazine story on Edgar Jimenez Lugo)

Details of the case are confused, but it seems the cartel controlled young Edgar by getting him hooked on drugs and then issuing threats. They may also have paid him $3,000 per killing. His teenaged sisters (below, right) were also evidently hooked by the cartel, and used to lure Edgar’s targets to the kill zone. The cartel’s threats may have been directed at Edgar, but – at one point, at least – the boy said it was his sisters whom the cartel was threatening to kill if he didn’t act as their designated hit man.

According to a July New Yorker article , in Mexico: “At least thirty thousand minors have been recruited by cartels, which promise quick and easy money to kids who have been orphaned by … drug violence, or who lack schooling and regular employment. It’s not known how many of those children are becoming hired killers.”

Thus, when I read Ms. Hutchings’ post, I posted my own reply, in which I wondered how long it would be before drug cartels began using U.S. teens to do their dirty work north of the border.

Would $50 cover your risk, for running drugs up from Mexico?

If you were a Texas teen living near the border, it might. This past October, the Texas Department of Public Safety (TxDPS) issued a news release, stating that Texas high school students are being recruited by Mexican cartels to “support their drug, human, currency and weapon smuggling operations on both sides of the Texas/Mexico border.”

The release went on to say: "Parents should talk to their children and explain how the cartels seek to exploit Texas teenagers …”

According to CNN, TxDPS Director Steven McCraw said his department first noticed this practice in 2009, when they began encountering U.S. teens trying to smuggle drugs across bridge border crossings. “Texas teenagers provide unique compatibility to the cartels,” he said. “They’re U.S. citizens, they speak Spanish, they’re able to operate on both sides of the border, and they’re expendable labor.”

In the Fall of 2011, a 12-year-old boy was apprehended, driving a stolen pickup loaded with over 800 pounds of marijuana. According to McGraw, teenaged contraband drivers, such as this, are sometimes paid as little as $50 for the job.

Piecing together what I’ve found on the web, it appears that the teens and pre-teens involved are introduced to the job through an oblique recruitment method. High school gang members recruit their classmates to carry drugs over the border, by introducing those teens to a ‘friend of a friend.’ And that friend’s able to pay hard cash. This cash is funded by Mexican cartels, funneled through the local gangs and finally handed over when one school kid gives it to another.

The Feds say Mexican cartels are buddying up with U.S. street and motorcycle gangs to make this happen. According to the National Gang Intelligence Center’s 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment (NGTA): "Federal, state and local law enforcement officials are observing a growing nexus between the Mexican drug cartels, illegal alien smuggling rings and U.S.-based gangs.”

While, in the past, U.S. gangs usually obtained their drugs through a middle man—who stood between the gang and the Mexican cartels—evidence indicates that U.S. gangs are now working hand-in-glove with the cartels, in order to cut out the middle man and increase profits. But the connection doesn’t end there. A Drug Enforcement Administration report, mentioned in the NGTA, states that local Los Angeles gang members assist not only in drug operations, but also in kidnappings.

What does this mean for writers?
Ms. Hutchings had yet to write her post, when I submitted my short story “Dancing in Mozambique” (EQMM July 2010) to her magazine. Yet, like any good writer, I’d studied their guidelines and read many copies of the magazine. I worried my story wouldn’t be accepted because I had a scene where a guy cuts a kid’s hand off with a meat cleaver. You don’t actually see or hear the chop. But, you do see the guy standing there, blood all over and the little kid’s hand held in his, afterward. Pretty strong stuff for a family publication.

I worried so much, that I worked and thought for days about how I might change the subject matter of the scene and still make the story work. But, try as I might, I just couldn’t. Finally, I surrendered and sent it in. I was grateful that EQMM took the story, and believe Ms. Hutchings probably accepted it because the scene was absolutely critical to the story’s theme. Nonetheless, I don’t plan to inundate any publication with stories featuring child violence.

Which leaves me with a conundrum. Kids being obliquely recruited by cartels is an important social issue, which mystery fiction is in a special position to comment on. As Mexican cartels strengthen ties with U.S. gangs, the pressure to write such stories will increase. However, the time when our writing might make its greatest impact is likely to be now, rather than later.

Balanced against this sense of urgency, though, is the natural reticence of a publisher to accept stories in which child-violence figures prominently. This leaves me wanting ask SluethSayers readers:

(1) Do you believe such stories need to be written? Or, do you feel mystery stories should concentrate on simply telling a story—leaving social commentary to other venues?

(2) If you believe subjects such as these should be tackled in contemporary mysteries: How do you believe we can best approach these stories, as writers, in order to make optimal social comment and impact, while still meeting editorial needs?

I’m interested in all your thoughts and comments. And hope you’ll click the “email me with updates” button on the comments page, in order to join a dialogue about this subject. As for me, I’ll be doing my best to stay with it all day long.

Either way, I’ll see you again in two weeks!

15 December 2011

Naughty or Nice

I'm baking my grandma's recipe for cookies we only enjoy during the holidays. The scent brings me back to memories when I eagerly awaited a personal visit from St. Nick. All the while I hoped I had been good enough during the year to get exactly what I wanted from the jolly old elf, I remained a bit worried.

I'm wrapping gifts picked out for each person on my own list without checking to see if they were naughty or nice.

I'm listening to the GLEE Christmas CD and loving the idea, if not the reality of a Norman Rockwell gathering to look forward to this season.

I'm counting my blessings and having one heck of a time trying to think of a crime or imagine a criminal mind doing heinous things in the midst of feeling so blessed.

I know this a rampant time of year for burglars, grinches and car jackers to strike unexpected into our lives. I know that greed and commercialism is making louder statements in the world every day. I know that sometimes I am a bit naive about how the real world acts.

Last spring I was taken to task on Facebook when I said I wished the good guys could win on "Survivor." One of my friends scolded me online about it being a "game." A game, yes. I have to agree. I was gently reminded that when Colby did the right thing (in my mind), he lost the game and the million dollar prize. Last season I was once again disappointed and did not watch this season though I'd been a loyal viewer since the first episode.

This is my problem: I'm trying to be a nice girl in a naughty world. I try to play fair and then sneak off and write stories others may consider disturbing. Because I'm having fun playing both naughty and nice, do I need to see a therapist?

That's an interesting question I pose to myself often in the middle of writing a not-so-nice character. I feel a lot like Dexter. We share trying to live two highly different sides of our personalities in one lifetime. I think my "other life" as a writer isn't as dark as Dexter's as a detective/serial killer, but wouldn't he justify his choices, too? He's ridding the world of really, really bad people.

Do we all here share a naughty side? Do you enjoy the same sickness of loving to read about serial killers, tracking murderers and solving atrocious crimes we dare not undertake ourselves though we just may be able to get away with it if we tried?

Well, then, sit down. Have a cookie and I'll pour you a cup of coffee. We're going to be great pals. Wait until you hear what I'm planning to write next year. It's deliciously awful! I think you just may like the taste of a 2012 murder or two. I plan to write them more often than I bake Grandma's cookies.

14 December 2011

A Little Sound Advice

by Neil Schofield

I have chosen this winter scene to begin with, because I am nothing if not obvious, but also for two other - interconnected - reasons. The first is that it was painted by Claude Monet about 130 years ago and about 10 miles from where I live in Normandy. I know this road near Honfleur and it hasn't changed that much. Today, you'd be likely to see an abandoned Renault Five in the foreground and - given the season - a UPS truck fighting its way up the road. Seriously, do we really entrust our precious, fragile belongings to a carrier whose name looks suspiciously like Oops!?

The second reason is that as, you can just perhaps see, it is a Christmas card. More pertinently, it is a card I received some years ago from Dell Magazines. Within are kind messages from Janet and Linda. It is a seasonal and constant reminder of how lucky I have been. Without the help of those redoutable ladies, I wouldn't be here now.
So a painting by Monet finds its way onto a Christmas card which in turn finds its way back to where it was painted. Is that synchronicity or co-incidence? Or simply a proof of the interconnectedness of all things? Whichever it is, it still pleases me.
Christmas is now ten days away, and grizzled and grumpy though I may have become, I still feel that same anticipatory prickling in the soles of my feet as the 25th approaches.

France is another country and they do things differently there. For instance, the celebration and heavyweight eating happen on Christmas Eve. Turkey is becoming more and more popular but the dish of choice has always been a leg of lamb - the Christmas gigot. So since living in France, I have had to change my habits a bit. For example, the Queen's speech on Christmas Day is not the same here. For one thing, the President of France speaks very little English. Perhaps that's because he is very little.

One habit I have never changed, and never will. What I shall be doing on Christmas Eve afternoon, is listening to the Nine Lessons and Carols  from King's College Chapel in Cambridge. And this via BBC Radio. Phew, made it.
Radio is what I really wanted to talk about. I am a radio man, and always have been. Very often, I prefer it to television. As that legendary small boy once said, "On radio, the pictures are better." And in the BBC's case, the small boy was right on the money.
The BBC - or "the Beeb" as we sometimes call it, or "Auntie" as we used to call it, has many different stations, both television and radio. I want to tell you about Radio 4 which is the station of the spoken word, or more particularly about Radio 4 Extra, its offspring, which is devoted to comedy and drama. Especially drama, and readings.
Here are some of the things I have listened to in the past several months on Radio 4 Extra. This is not an exhaustive list.
  • The Complete Smiley - all eight books featuring George Smiley, dramatised and serialised with Simon Russell Beale superb as Smiley
  • The Philip Marlowe Novels - with Toby Stephens - the megaheavy in 'Die Another Day' - as Philip Marlowe. Included, interestingly, 'Poodle Springs'.
  • The Tom Ripley novels - also dramatised and serialised.
  • Rogue Male read by Michael Jayston - who was Peter Guillam to Alec Guinness's George Smiley
  • Busman's Honeymoon
  • A Margery Allingham Albert Campion novel, again beautifully dramatised
  • Deadlock by Sara Paretsky, with the amazing Kathleen Turner as a convincing Vic Warshawski
  • The House of Silk by Antony Horovitz - the only new Sherlock Holmes novel to be authorised by the Conan Doyle Estate
  • The Return of Inspector Steine - a comedy crime series by Lynne Truss (the very same)
I have also heard two  excellent series of short stories called 'Pulp Fiction' which included 'A Candle for a Bag Lady' (Lawrence Block), 'Forever After' (Jim Thompson) 'A Really Nice Guy'(William F Nolan) and 'So Fair, SoYoung, So Dead(John Lutz) All read by Peter Marinker who is a superbly talented American reader. I have more recently been listening to short stories by Bradbury and Colin Dexter.

Dear oh dear, how I am wittering  on. I know a list would lead to trouble.
What I really wanted to say to you is that you can dip into this trove anytime on


Its extremely easy to find your way through the site. Just bring up the day's schedule, click on whatever takes your fancy and the player will pop up. (I think you will have to download the player but that's easy; the guidance is excellent)
If you're a born listener like me and like to read with your ears, I'm sure you'll find something to suit your criminous tastes.

So that, my beloved 'earers, is my Christmas present to you. If you already knew all about it, then pass it on to a friend.
That's the end of the radio commercial. We're handing you back now to your regular programme schedule.

And a very, very happy Christmas to all of you.

13 December 2011

Crime Family

by David Dean

I have been fortunate (sort of) to have had two very different men influence my writing about crime: One was an uncle; the other a clinical psychologist.  They both knew a lot about crime because one was a practitioner of it; the other a specialist in the treatment of 'offenders' of various stripes: two men who never met, though I would love to have heard the psychologist's professional opinion of my uncle had they done so.

My late Uncle Jimmy often comes to mind when I am trying to craft a character whose behavior is less than desirable. He spent a great deal of his life in prison and, when not incarcerated, was involved directly, or peripherally, with many crimes of violence; even murder. He was scheduled to be executed by the State of Georgia at one point, but had his sentence commuted to life when the death penalty was temporarily overruled by the Supreme Court in the early seventies. Did I mention he also had the luck of the devil?

Jimmy was a very good-looking man in his prime: tall, slender, charming, and well-muscled (lots of time in the prison gym). He had deceptively sleepy-looking blue eyes, which went well with his indolent manner, and he was usually smiling, as I recall. I was his favorite nephew, and I was glad. Mostly glad out of a vague dread of what might happen if I weren't.

My older brother, Danny, and I knew the stories about Uncle Jimmy; in fact, he once robbed a store at gunpoint just a few blocks from our house while ostensibly baby-sitting us. We found out later that this was why fetching us cokes and pork rinds took so long.

Mom always blamed her little brother's troubles on 'bad company'. He was also often a victim of circumstances… a staggering number of them by my count. But this was Annie Lou's opinion of most people who got into trouble; including her own boys, of course. Mom never met a 'bad' person. None of her other siblings were ever anything but good and kind people so maybe there is something to her line of reasoning. Of course, there’s always the ‘bad seed’ theory. But where we grew up did, in fact, provide a host of bad company and endless victimizing circumstances.

The Family Manse
 Lester's Meadows (isn't that an inviting name; just makes you want to move right into the neighborhood, doesn't it?) was packed with blue collar families; teaming with kids, and rife with violence, mostly of the domestic variety. For example, the first girl I ever had a crush on shot her father to death with his own pistol; she was sick of seeing her mother get beaten. She was only a young girl. It's hard to imagine her life after that, isn't it? But this was run-of-the-mill crime compared to Jimmy, who kicked it up a notch to open-throttled outlawry.

During the course of his career, Jimmy and his gang were involved in bank robberies, shoot-outs (He survived being shot twice– once by the police; the second time in more mysterious circumstances while living with a girlfriend… they broke up shortly thereafter. Remember the bit about luck?), high-speed car chases with guns blazing, escapes from prison, a stabbing while 'inside', a car crash during one escapade, and other incidents in which people were robbed, hurt, and killed. He was feared by both enemies and friends alike.

It's hard to know what makes someone like Jimmy tick. As a writer, I think a lot about his example. To my knowledge, he was never a victim of violence as a child, yet he was a fervent practitioner of it, going by the court records. His robberies were almost exclusively committed in the very mill-worker neighborhoods that he lived in and frequented (my psychologist friend would probably have made something out of that). I never sensed that he had any regret for anything he may have done, and he made me uneasy when he would visit or stay with us during his intervals of freedom.  I always felt he was studying us. It was little like keeping a snake in the house: fascinating, but a little nerve-wracking. I sensed that he was capable of anything.

The constants that I remember from his life were gambling and chance-taking: The workaday life was definitely not for him. I also don't think he had any vision of gaining great wealth as a result of his activities. I think it was the thrill of unbridled action, and the power of violence, that kept him coming back for more. But what do I know? Even when I questioned Uncle Jimmy about it later in our lives, he was evasive and sly; hinting that his actions were largely misunderstood; the police less than sporting. I found I couldn't believe him.

As a result of his actions our home was searched on more than one occasion; my parents questioned by police. Strange, and sometimes sinister, people would also show up on our steps from time to time; claiming to be friends of Jimmy; just looking to catch up, you know. We always gave the same answer: Don't know where he is or how to reach him. In Jimmy's line of work you could make dangerous enemies. We learned to be furtive when it came to my uncle; we knew that there were others just as ruthless out there.

Gangsterism was not new to my hometown of Columbus, Georgia. Our 'little' sister city just across the Chattahoochee River, Phenix City, Alabama, had been making the news for decades as an outlaw capital. Within this town a number of gangs had divided up the turf into various fiefdoms; each containing illegal casinos, bars, whorehouses and dope dens– heroin was the big money-maker in the forties and fifties. The sheriff's department recruited and ran a stable of prostitutes. Perhaps pay for law enforcement was not what it should have been. Citizens who protested their town being used in this manner were threatened and sometimes killed.

It all blew up in 1954 when the State Attorney-General Elect was assassinated there– he had campaigned on the promise of cleaning up 'Sin City'. Martial Rule was declared by the Governor of Alabama and he sent in the National Guard to clean out the vipers' nest. In the end, over five hundred indictments were handed down by the grand jury charged with the case; these included murder, voter fraud and intimidation, assault, bribery, illegal gambling, pimping, prostitution, narcotics trafficking, and kidnapping.

The racketeers' victims were largely textile workers from Columbus and GIs from nearby Fort Benning. People just like Jimmy's family… my family.  He could see Phenix City from his front porch growing up. Were these thugs his role models as a teenager and young man? He would have been the right age for it, but I don't know. He did admit to being an acquaintance of one of these racketeers in his youth… a protégé, perhaps? Maybe Annie Lou was right— it's all a matter of bad company. Or did he just like the lifestyle… period. Maybe it's that simple sometimes. I do remember my psychologist friend once saying, "People's behavior can be complicated, but their motives are usually very simple." I've always remembered that and I think he was right.

People like Jimmy, while dashing in a frightening sort of way, and entertaining, so long as you’re not on the receiving end, create a lot of misery in the world. Besides the obvious victims of violent crime, there are a host of unseen ones: wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, and children that will always suffer as an indirect result. Even the families of the criminals are affected. It’s a bit like poisoning a well— everyone that drinks from it gets sick; all become part of the crime family.

In the end, I fail to come to any positive conclusions about my uncle’s life of crime, though I suspect that you, dear reader, may have drawn some about me and why I chose a career in law enforcement. He did, inadvertently, give me a good education for police work.

As for crime fiction… I often feel that he is looking over my shoulder as I write… but then, so are his victims.

By the by, if you’re at all interested in those long ago events I referred to, there is an excellent book on the subject entitled, The Tragedy and the Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama by Margaret Anne Burns. It’s a riveting, factual account of a truly astounding piece of American crime history. There is also a movie from the fifties, The Phenix City Story (see poster above) that is pretty entertaining, if a little low on production value. It has popped up on TMC from time to time.

Finally, a shameless plug: My story “Ibrahim’s Eyes” is now on Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine podcast and can be found on that website. Doug Allyn did me the honor of both reading it and creating the musical score; which he also performs wonderfully well. Please pass it on to your friends. Thanks, and happy holidays!

12 December 2011

What's in a Word?

By Fran Rizer

In 2011, the English language passed the million word mark, and folks at the Global Language Monitor estimate that the language gains a new word every ninety-eight minutes. As writers, words are our primary tools. This is daunting.

When I think of the changing language, I confess my mind goes to changes in my lifetime--most of them as they relate to me. I confess I've been a cougar at times in the past, but I didn't know that was the word for it.

Some words "date" the speaker. Hardly anyone other than little old ladies in nursing homes use the word "rouge," as in, "That woman wore so much rouge she looked like a clown." (Or like a harlot depending upon who's talking.) It's been "blush" for years.

"Horrific" was created in my lifetime. A combination of "terrific" and "horrible," I refused to use that word for years, but I do now.

Eponyms are common words that are derived from proper names. Caesarian section was named after Julius Caesar, who was "plucked from his mother's womb." The saxophone was named for the Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax.

Since words have always fascinated me, I sometimes visit the Global Language Monitor. On December eleventh, the Monitor quoted Bill DeMain's 7/22/11 list of Fifteen Wonderful Words With No English Equivalent. I generally leave the lists up to John and Leigh, but I thought these were too great not to pass on.

1. Zhaghzhagh (Persian)
The chattering of teeth from the cold or from rage.

2. Yuputka (Ulwa)
A word made for walking in the woods at night. It's the phantom sensation of something
crawling on your skin.

3. Slampadato (Italian)
Addicted to the infra-red glow of tanning salons? This word describes you.

4. Luftmensch (Yiddish)
There are several Yiddish words to describe social misfits. This one is for an impractical dreamer with no business sense. Literally, air person.

5. Iktsuarpok (Inuit)
You know that feeling of anticipation when you're waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they're there yet? This is the word for it.

6. Cotisuelto (Caribbean Spanish)
A word that would aptly describe the prevailing fashion trend among American men under
40, it means one who wears the shirt tail out of his trousers.

7. Pana Po o (Hawaiian)
"Mnn, now where did I leave those keys?" he asked, pana po o'ing. It means to scratch
your head in order to help you remember something you've forgotten.

8. Gumasservi (Turkish)
Meteorologists can be poets in Turkey with words like this. It means moonlight shining
on water.

9. Vybafnout (Czech)
A word tailor-made for annoying older brothers--it means to jump out and say boo.

10. Mencolek (Indonesian)
You know that old trick where you tap someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from
behind to fool them? The Indonesians have this word for it.

11. Famiti (Samoan)
To make a squeaking sound by sucking air past the lips in order to gain the attention of a
dog or child.

12. Glas wen (Welsh)
A smile that is insincere or mocking. Literally, a blue smile.

13. Bakku-shan (Japanese)
The experience of seeing a woman who appears pretty from behind but not from the front.

14. Boketto (Japanese)
The Japanese respect so much of the act of gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking that they give it a name.

15. Kummerspeek (German)
Excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, grief bacon.
to give it a name.

Bakku-shan (No. 13) brought to mind that perhaps we need an English word for a guy with a fine behind who turns around and is actually U-G-L-Y. Or maybe a word for the ugly guy who just oozes appeal anyway. (My older son once told me that he'd figured out that men who appealed to me had "knowing eyes." I don't know exactly what that means. Maybe we need a word for "knowing eyes.") What about you? Can you think of an event or description that doesn't have an English word but needs one?

Note: Many thanks to those of you who communicated concern and best wishes for my mother. She's eighty-five, tiny, and fragile. The heart attack, broken hip, and cracked wrist took a lot out of her, and I spent almost two weeks at the hospital round the clock. She is, however, improving, and has just been moved to rehab. Thanks again.

No contest question today.

Until we meet again. . .take care of YOU.

11 December 2011

Fresh Slices

One of the best blogs is Women of Mystery and my favorite word artist there is Terrie Moran, who may or may not be the great-great-great grandchild of Colonel Sebastian Moran. The WoM are smart, sassy, and damn fine writers. Many are members of the New York chapter of Sisters in Crime (SinC), which have a new book out with the creepy title Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices.

Read Terrie's article about the anthology and then read this book, cooked up by seasoned authors and peppered with excellent examples of the many ways to die in New York.

Terrie Farley Moran
by Terrie Farley Moran

Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices is the second anthology written by the New York / Tri-State chapter of Sisters in Crime. The heart of the twenty-two stories in Fresh Slices is the diversity of people and neighborhoods within the five boroughs of New York City—all very different, yet all very New York. Our goal was to introduce readers to places far off the tourist track. We are delighted that Derringer winner Anita Page kicks off the anthology in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn, where we see the effects of a decades old murder in “Tear Down.” The anthology’s final story pulls readers east through Queens and into the lives of day laborers struggling to get through a particularly gruesome job. Written by Edgar and Anthony nominee K.j.a. Wishnia, “North of Clinton” is sure to leave an impression. Kindle readers might like to know that “Tear Down” is the free “first chapter” in the Kindle bookstore copy of Fresh Slices. I’m sure it will leave you wanting more New York attitude. 

East-side, west-side— In Manhattan there once was a meat packing district on each side of town. “A Countdown to Death,” by Deirdre Verne is set in a gorgeous building in Tudor City which was built on  the east-side meat packing site, while in “Taking the Highline,” Fran Bannigan Cox brings us inside the pulse pounding clubs and the lush elevated park that have taken over the meat packing district on the west-side.
Fresh Slices

In “A Vampire in Brooklyn” Leigh Neely not only helps us imagine life with vampires working as officers in the NYPD, she also share secrets about the Brooklyn Bridge that few people know.

It’s 9/11. You are standing on a rise in MacNeil Park in the Borough of Queens with the locals gathered to pray as they watch events unfold across the East River in “The Sneaker Tree,” my contribution to the anthology.

For a splendid taste of the kinds of odd locations and diverse stories you can expect to find here, click over for a free read of Clare Toohey’s story, “A Morbid Case of Identity Theft.” Clare starts her story in The Morbid Anatomy Library, “a private research library and collection of curiosities” and ends it in the streets of Brooklyn beside the Gowanus Canal.

On behalf of the anthology authors and all of the members of the Sisters in Crime New York/Tri-State chapter, many thanks to Leigh Lundin and the other SleuthSayers for inviting us to introduce Fresh Slices to your many friends and readers.

Information about the stories, the authors, and book availability is available at Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. Be sure to click on the “small bites” tab to read the first one hundred fifty words or so of each story. And on the home page, please don’t forget to scroll down to see THE THONG.

See you in New York!

10 December 2011

Square Pegs, Round Holes

Much has been said, in writers' magazines and at writers' blogs, about choosing names for fictional characters. But what about choosing actors for fictional characters?

Question: Have you ever gone to a movie that was adapted from a book or story you liked, and found that the hero/heroine didn't look or behave the way you had expected him or her to? Most of us have. I tend to be pretty lenient on that subject--give 'em a chance, right?--but now and then it just doesn't work. Miscasting does happen, and when it does I think the disappointment is even worse for those moviegoers who are also writers. My "belief" in the characters can make or break a piece of fiction for me, whether it's on the page or on the screen.

Worth a thousand words

I've heard that you should be careful watching music videos, for one simple reason: if it turns out you don't like the video, you'll never again enjoy the song quite as much, because the video will stay in your mind forever. The same thing can apply to books and movies. If you read the novel first, your imagination can roam free. If you see the film first, you're limited. Faces and settings have already been supplied, and by someone else. I remember having my own image of Vito Corleone in my mind when I read The Godfather; if I had seen the film first I would almost certainly have pictured Brando instead.

Bottom line is, I usually prefer to read the book before seeing the film version. But not always. I watched Lonesome Dove when it first aired on TV, and when I then decided to read the McMurtry novel, I enjoyed it just as much. But in this instance, the movie was so well done (and so true to the novel) I think it actually helped to later have the actors' faces (Duvall, Jones, Glover, etc.) in my head when I read the book.

Rockin' roles

I should mention that I think some actors were probably born to play certain characters, whether you happen to have read the book first or not. Examples: Gable and Leigh as Rhett and Scarlett, Peck as Atticus Finch, Sharif as Yuri Zhivago, Fonda as Tom Joad. It's hard to imagine anyone else in those parts.

Sometimes--not often--my thinking actually changes during the course of the movie. I had already read Robert Ludlum's three Bourne novels before I saw The Bourne Identity, and at first glance I just couldn't buy Matt Damon in the title role (he looked far too young, for one thing)--but he was so good at it, he won me over. The same thing goes for Alan Ladd, in Shane. Having read the novel in high school, I had a pretty clear picture in my mind of the way Shane would look: tall, slim, dark, sinister. I didn't see the movie until I was a freshman in college, and I remember sitting there in the theatre and thinking Whoa, this friendly little blond guy with the fringe outfit and fancy beltbuckle looked like some kind of sissy compared to the image I already had in my imagination. But the story and the acting were so good it made me a believer, and as a result I now think that Ladd (all five-foot-six of him) was the right choice. The same thing happened with Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone: I started out doubting him and ended up liking him.

Here, read these lines, and don't look at the camera . . .

Casting is an interesting topic in itself. It was a thrill for me, several years ago, to attend some of the auditions for the roles in a film adaptation of one of my short stories. (The movie never got made, but that's a column for another day.) One of the many things I learned was that it's far easier to try to cast someone "safe" in a certain part--a Sam Elliott in a western, let's say, or a Lee Marvin in a war movie--than to go against type and take a chance. But occasionally that risk can pay off. Who would've thought George Clooney would be convincing as a swordboat captain, or that Charlize Theron could be a Monster, or that Disney child star Kurt Russell could be believable as a scowling, eyepatched convict who rescues the President and escapes from a futuristic New York? Well, the filmmakers did, and I'm glad they did.

Sometimes, of course, that kind of close-your-eyes-and-leap innovation can backfire. It was hard for me to believe John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, Charlton Heston as a Mexican detective in Touch of Evil, and Mickey Rooney as a Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

But I digress. If we focus only on characters in novels who later become characters in movies, there are a lot of examples of what I think were good/bad casting decisions. The good ones many of us might agree on: Connery as James Bond, Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, Scheider as police chief Martin Brody, and so on. But the not-so-good ones . . . ?

The bad and the ugly

Since this is an opinion column, here are some examples of what I thought were poor casting decisions:
  • Roger Moore as James Bond
  • Tom Hanks as Sherman McCoy (Bonfire of the Vanities)
  • Jamey Sheridan as Randall Flagg (The Stand)
  • Gregory Peck as Josef Mengele (The Boys From Brazil)
  • Eriq La Salle as Lucas Davenport (Mind Prey)
  • Dean Martin as Vernon Demerest (Airport)
  • Tony Randall as Hercule Poirot (The Alphabet Murders)
  • Joe Mantegna as Spenser (Small Vices)
  • Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker (Dracula)
  • Renee Zellwegger as Allison French (Appaloosa)
  • Orlando Bloom as Legolas (the Lord of the Rings trilogy)
  • Leo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes (The Aviator)
  • Glen Campbell as Le Boeuf (True Grit)
  • Marlon Brando as Sakini (The Teahouse of the August Moon)
  • Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan (The Sum of All Fears)
And I honestly haven't made up my mind on some: Downey and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson, for instance--or Travolta as Chili Palmer. They weren't bad choices, but I think they could've been better.

A shorter reach

I will confess that I have doubts about the decision to cast Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher in the upcoming movie version of Lee Child's One Shot. Since I've read almost all the Reacher novels, I know that good ole Jack is supposed to be six-five and two-fifty--and his size is actually a factor, in what he can do and not do in the books. Cruise can play a tough guy, no question about that, but for me he just doesn't fit the image. I think I'm going to find myself wondering how Jerry Maguire could possibly overcome all the incredible hulks that cross Jack Reacher's path.

I'm also not convinced that Katherine Heigl will be an effective Stephanie Plum in 2012's One for the Money--I had always pictured somebody more like Sandra Bullock. (And I've heard Debbie Reynolds will play Grandma Mazur, which I'm hoping was just an unfortunate dream I had after eating too many chili dogs.) On the other hand, the actors in the trailers I've seen for the upcoming version of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games look terrific. I loved that novel, so I hope the producers/directors get it right.

More questions

For those of you who are writers, do you usually have an image of a real actor's face in your mind when you create a character? (I don't.) Do you picture an actor's face for a character when you read about him or her in someone else's novel or story? (I do.) Not that it matters a whit, but the person I usually see as Jack Reacher is Russell Crowe, and Miss Plum's boyfriend Joe Morelli has always been actor John Stamos. I have no idea why, but those are the faces that first popped into my brain when I encountered those characters.

What are your thoughts, on this earthshakingly-important subject? Are there any actor/role matchups that you think are motion-picture perfect? Are there any that you wish you'd never even heard about, much less seen with your own eyes? Are you beginning to wish you'd never seen this article?

At least it won't be made into a movie.

09 December 2011

to e- or not to e-

Today's bit is part personal experience in the e-publishing arena and part BSP. You may skim over the BSP part if you like, but it allows me to speak with a modicum of authority on various information I've acquired concerning the e-publishing world. By now, just about everyone has heard that e-books are outselling print books, which means some of the rules and procedures are changing fast. Authors, readers, book sellers and publishers find themselves in the position of trying to figure out the future of publishing and how it affects them now or may affect them tomorrow.
My first venture in was about four years ago when I signed a contract for a non-fiction work for hire under one of my undercover aliases. The advance was a nice high four figures, the main print royalties were running at ten percent and the e-book royalty was about the same. What did I know? Two years later, I'm conversing with a print novelist and find she is getting twenty to twenty-five percent e-royalties on her newly contracted print novels. Another year goes by, and this same novelist has her agent going back to older contracts and getting her previous ten percent e-royalties also increased to twenty-five percent. Then a couple of months ago, I hear that her new print contracts now provide for a forty percent e-royalty. That's pretty good, especially since the publisher does all the e-formatting, cover art and advertising.

As for me, I'm prinarily a short story author. Okay, so I know an Edgar Nominee who started out writing short stories and who now has an e-collection out consisting of previously published stories, some in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and some in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Since stories in those two publications tend to have a life span of about one month on the racks, it makes sense to expand their reading life via another form. My inquiries into the how-to-do-it led me much deeper into this new e-world.
Choices for e-books without print contracts:
1) Learn to do your own e-book formatting for Kindle and Smashwords (Nook, Sony, Apple, Kobo, etc.) and find your own cover art. Pro: you get 70% royalties. Con: you have to do your own advertising, marketing, promotion.
2) Do your own formatting and pay someone for the cover art. Same Pros and Cons as above,
except you're out front on the cost of the art.
3) Pay someone to do the formatting and cover art. Same Pros and Cons, except you're out
the cost of formatting and art as front costs.
4) Go with an e-publishing company who will do the formatting and cover art. In this case, the
author usually receives 42% royalties. Pro: the e-publisher does everything, to include
advertising. Con: the royalty is 28% less than if you could do it yourself.

NOTE: Formatting is different for Kindle than for other e-readers. My suggestion is to do both, but get the Kindle format up first. It seems that Amazon has much higher sales than Smashwords formats.

So, much of this equation comes down to how good are you at networking and marketing, and how much of the technical work can you or do you want to do on your own?

To receive payment for Kindle sales, you set up an EFT system with your local checking account. Smashwords requires a Paypal account to get your monthly e-book sales money. Or, the author can request a snail mail check for either e-market if so desired. Print and e-publishers have their own systems for paying e-royalties.

I happened to mention all this info to my Huey pilot buddy who in the past has parked us on pickup sized mesa tops for pit stops looking straight down at the lower landscape, dropped us out of the sky in auto-rotation, and flown nape of the earth where I could reach out and almost touch....oh, never mind. In any case, when he mentioned he could figure out how to do the formatting, I tended to trust him. Plus, he's the one who creates my annual custom Christmas card to Linda Landrigan, based on one of the stories she buys from me that year for AHMM.

Thus, in July 2011, we got 9 Historical Mysteries up on Amazon, quickly followed by 9 Twin Brothers Bail Bond Mysteries, 9 Chronicles of Crime and 9 Deadly Tales. Within two months, the same titles went up on Smashwords for other e-readers. Several of these stories were previously published in AHMM, Easyriders Magazine, Outlaw Biker Magazine or elsewhere. Some are seeing print for the first time. When I write two more stories in my AHMM previously published Holiday Burglars series, we'll put up a 5th e-book collection. The cover's already made.

How are e-book sales going? Aaaaahhhh, I need to do more promoting, because while the money is free, I'm not close to getting rich. However, according to my first ever e-book review for 9 Historical Mysteries( http://www.overmydeadbody.com/rtlawton.htm ), I am now a "consummate story teller." No, she is not a relative and has no financial interest in the success or failure of the book. I don't even know the lady, but I surely do admire her taste in short stories.

Not too long ago, Rob Lopresti gave me an excellent review ( http://tinyurl.com/3hrhvrb ) on another of his blog sites for one of my Holiday Burglar stories in AHMM's October 2011 issue. He and I occasionally swap stories for critiques before subbing out to market. Whereas I consider Rob's clever stories to be in a more literary vein than mine, I see myself as merely telling stories to friends in a bar for laughs and grins.

By now, you've probably noticed this article hasn't addressed the issue of quality writing for e-books. Previously published works and those coming out from publishing houses naturally assume a higher level of copy editing quality than one put up as self-published by its own author. With self-published works, the potential reader risks a "buyer beware" situation. To counteract this, most e-book sellers offer a percentage of the book as a free sample download. The customer can then decide if the e-book is up to their reading standards and interest before they put their money down.

If you are a novelist, you are probably already involved in some aspect of e-publishing, even if it is merely the signing of your print contract. As a short story author, you may enter this arena by being accepted into an e-anthology or by deciding to put up your own e-collection of stories. For readers, your biggest decision is figuring out which e-reader works best for you, but you should know that those things are updating and changing rapidly with new technology. My current black and white Kindle 3G will download on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean, and now there is already a color version for Kindle.

I can hardly keep up.

08 December 2011

Smart Writers and Stupid Writers

All Gaul may have been divided into three parts, as any beginning Latin student knows, but as far as I am concerned, all writers are divided into two groups - smart writers and stupid writers. Alas, I am firmly, and I might add unrepentantly, in the latter group at least when writing fiction. Even mystery fiction.

We all know the smart writers. They plan ahead. They have file cards of characters' personality features, elaborate back stories, and flow charts. Although it may be apocryphal, I rather like the story about Agatha Christie lying in her long British bathtub eating apples, until, the top of the tub lined with cores, she had worked out another of her fiendishly complex plots. That's my idea of a smart writer, one who leaves nothing to chance and has a clear map of where the story is going and who's going to do what to whom.

I find this sort of planning impossible, even though I happen to live with a smart writer. My sportswriter husband was capable, in the old days when dictation was necessary, of dictating a sports story, complete with all punctuation, from a few notes in his reporter's book. I found this astonishing, given my own troubles even with pen, paper, and typewriter. His was a hard act to follow, and perhaps you can understand why I didn't start writing until I was in my thirties.

And then, despite his good example, I turned out to be a thoroughly stupid writer. I get an idea, and because at least the beginnings of beginnings are easy, I plunge in. A character whispers in my ear, and I write down what he or she says. They tend to be obsessives with homicide in mind, although I get a few nice folk who are shocked at evil and want to set the world to rights.

The first few pages go swimmingly. There is really nothing better than starting a story (or a novel) with a flourish. How clever one feels, how creative. But then comes a difficulty, The Plot. While a smart writer would have looked into this little detail early on, the stupid writer trusts to the beneficence of the Muse, who, like all divas and goddesses, has her off days. Story comes to a halt. Writer goes for a walk in winter, a swim in summer, a sleep in the evening. And hopes.

But the Providence, as the Scots used to say, that looks after bairns and drunkards, has a soft spot for stupid writers. Gradually the story unfolds. And this is good, this is interesting. Every morning the stupid writer gets up with a little more material and she has to write if she is going to discover how the story comes out.

Forget all the writerly delays, the websites to check out, the email to answer - how modern technology has expanded the pencil sharpening and paper straightening of yesteryear. But if I want the end of the story, I have to get to work.
I find this salutary, though it may not be the case with every stupid writer. But I really aspired to be a reader, not a writer, and I must confess that if I knew the whole plot, the victim, the murderer, the exact placement of the crucial chase, the romantic moment, etc, etc, I would never sit down at the computer.

I find such smart certainty boring in the nth degree, while discovery is interesting and gets the juices going. I like to be surprised by everything from a character's sexual orientation to the identity of the killer, though I must admit that I left the latter very long in The Lost Diaries of Iris Weed. I reached 260 pages and was still dithering between two plausible candidates, but at least my work day wasn't boring.

Of course, there are disadvantages to being a stupid writer. Certain classic forms of the mystery are a closed book as far as I am concerned. Even thinking about a locked room puzzle gives me a headache and anything involving railroad or train schedules or precise timing is out of the question. Who can think that far ahead?

Plots can take a long time to resolve, too. I started a story called The Great Choreographer years ago and it only fell into shape earlier this spring. I have a suitcase full of money (strictly literary, of course) that offers all sorts of possibilities but has not yet found a good home. A story that I just finished considered two different victims and a couple of different murderous operandi before it reached its final form. This is not efficient.

Still, stupid writing has its advantages. Characters that develop as they go along are, I think, less liable to be easy stereotypes, and if plots take a while to develop, they sometimes provide nice surprises along the lines of 'I didn't think he'd ever do that!'

In any case, I suspect one writes as one must. And if one writes to know what one is thinking, then one always has a good strong motive to get back to the writing desk.