18 March 2012

Flash Fiction– A Night Out

John Floyd and R.T. Lawton not only routinely cram mysteries into less than 700 words, but John is a master of flash fiction, a subgenre I thought beyond me until I found myself thinking about titles. I suddenly realized a title I had in mind could make a (nearly) complete crime story.

Some might think I'm channeling Elsin Ann (Graffam) Perry's Wide O, a popular single page story published by Ellery Queen, which I highly recommend if you can find it. I title my opus (clearing throat) 'A Night Out'. And now… Wait for it…

A Night Out
by Leigh Lundin

"Darling, doesn't this hankie smell like chlorof…"

17 March 2012

Show Me

by John M. Floyd

No, I'm not from Missouri. The title of this column refers instead to what readers expect from us, as writers, when they pick up a piece of fiction. They expect--and deserve--a story presented in a way that makes them feel they're actually seeing the characters and the setting and the action. In a perfect world, fictional events would be as vivid and compelling as if the readers were witnessing them firsthand.

Show business

All writers know it's better to show than tell. I once read that being "told" is like hearing a friend describe a movie he's seen; being "shown" is like going to see the movie yourself. I've also heard that when you use action and dialogue, you're showing; when you use description and exposition, you're telling. That reminds me of one of Elmore Leonard's "Ten Rules of Writing": Don't start a story with the weather. Good advice, unless maybe someone gets struck by lightning or the only bridge to the mainland gets washed away in the dark and stormy night. Nobody wants to begin a story--especially a mystery/suspense story--with nothing happening, and too much detail or explanatory writing usually means nothing's happening. Whenever possible, both the advancement of the plot and the development of the characters should be accomplished not through description or narrative summary but through the actions of the people in the story.

Example? That night Betty arrived in Chicago would be telling. That night Betty eased her ten-year-old Cadillac into the storm-littered parking lot in south Chicago would be showing.

Don't just TELL me you love me . . .

Is the "showing" version harder to write? Sure it is. According to Renni Browne and Dave King in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, "It's easier to simply say 'Erma was depressed' than to come up with some original bit of action that shows she's depressed. But if you have her take one bite of her favorite cake and push the rest away (or have her polish off the whole cake), you will have given your readers a far better feel for her depression than you could by simply describing it."

In The First Five Pages Noah Lukeman says, "A writer can spend a page telling us that his protagonist is a crook, or he can show it in one sentence by simply describing him taking a twenty-dollar bill from someone's pocket, and letting the reader judge for himself."

How can we spot "telling" in our own story manuscripts? Longtime editor Sol Stein said the best way to recognize whether a writer is showing or telling is to determine if the passage is "visual." Here's one of the examples featured in Stein on Writing.
Telling: Polly loved to dive in her swimming pool.
Showing: With clumsy jubilance, Polly hurtled her body from the rattling board and surfaced grinning through the kelp of her own hair.

Stein also says, "Tell me, and I'll forget. Show me, and you'll involve me."

The scales of injustice

The trouble with any discussion like this is that it almost always leads to a contradiction between show, don't tell and another rule that is at least as important: write tight. It's a balancing act, and a problem that all writers struggle with--especially, I think, writers of suspense fiction. On the one hand, we want to paint a sharp, clear word-picture of what's happening, and on the other hand we want to keep the narrative compact and tight and focused. It is, however, possible to do both. Even the most visual fiction, if it's good, is written "tight." (Cases in point: Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and Stephen King's The Stand. Combined, my hardback copies of those novels run more than two thousand pages--but there are very few wasted words.)

I can't help mentioning the current gaggle of Presidential candidates. I find it interesting that while we writers try to use as few words as possible to say as much as possible, politicians use as many words as possible to say as little as possible. Maybe there is indeed something to be learned from all those endless (and mindless) campaign speeches.

I'll take my inspiration any way I can get it.

16 March 2012

Buddy, can you spare a.....recipe?

As writers, you know all too well how it is when you're writing right along and then you get that phone call, notice in the mail or have that unexpected event happen. Some are little things, short things, like reminders of a dental appointment or notification for jury duty. And then, some are far more reaching. From other posts and comments made on this site, it appears the last few years have been tough on parents.

The way it's been here, my wife and I have been gone a lot, off and on, since Thanksgiving. Then, right after Christmas, we drove 800 miles one way for another trip, so Kiti could help her 87-year old Mom who started chemo and radiation at the end of December. I drove home alone a few days after New Years. There wasn't a lot I could do there, however back home, we have two young grandsons we do daycare for during the school year, something we've done since they were born. Normally, the boys arrive at our house about 7:30 AM, we feed them breakfast, take them to elementary school, pick them up in the afternoon and deliver them to after school activities.

January and into February had a sudden change in the lineup. Yours truly got drafted as the mess hall cook. Prior to then, most of my culinary displays were confined to the grill in the back yard. So, here's how it went. On Day One of batching it, the boys frankly informed me I didn't know how to make oatmeal. Didn't take me long to call Grandma Kiti and find out her oatmeal secrets. On Day Five, when oatmeal came around on the menu again, the boys gave me a Two Thumbs Up. Whew, I was finally getting the hang of this cooking thing.

Then, one morning I overheard the boys talking about how they liked biscuits and gravy. Hey, I could do that. So, come a Wednesday, I opened the refrigerator, popped a tube of flaky style biscuits, arranged them on an ungreased cookie sheet, stuck them in the oven and hustled to the computer. A quick Google for sausage gravy turned up a simple recipe. Racing back to the kitchen, I slid a skillet onto the stove, got out the sausage and commenced to create gravy. It was only after placing everything on the breakfast island that I learned another lesson about cooking for discriminating young-uns. The boys promptly proceeded to tease their biscuits into four flaky layers. The bottom layer got butter, the second layer got grape jelly, the third layer got ONE SPOONFUL of gravy, the fourth piece went on top of the stack and they ate it like a sandwich. Who knew? I had to eat the rest of the biscuits and sausage gravy by myself. I'm sure it was good for my figure.

In an attempt to vary the morning menu, I've also created Grandpa R.T.'s version of a bacon, egg, cheese and biscuit McMuffin. (NOTE: I put those together myself, so we don't end up with more of them multi-layered sandwiches with purple jelly oozing out the sides. Don't think I'll ever have to worry about McDonald's suing me for infringement on their version.) Gotta love the convenience of those pop tube biscuits though. Of course, the boys being the savvy grocery shoppers they are, recently informed me those biscuits do come in smaller cans, so we wouldn't have so many leftover ones ending up in the bread toaster the next morning. Good thing they know what we're doing here.

On a high note, the boys confided in me that they like my fruit smoothies better than Grandma's, but they don't want to hurt her feelings, so I can't tell her. Naturally, I cheat when I make the smoothies, and throw in some vanilla Blue Bell ice cream to get a richer taste. (Those of you residing in states surrounding Texas know what I mean about Blue Bell.) Seems only right that everybody should have ice cream for breakfast.

Anyway, March is here and Grandma Kiti is 800 miles away again for a few weeks. That elevates me once more to the prestigous position of chief cook and dishwasher. Soooo, do any of you out there have any tasty, but simple recipes for a breakfast meal you'd care to share? This is no time to be shy. Just go ahead and put them in the blog's Comments Section. That way, if anybody reading the column sees a mouth watering recipe, it's right there for the trying.
And, to sweeten the pot, I'll try all the recipes out on the boys. Sorry, judges' decisions are final. The breakfast recipe they like the best gets a free personalized copy of the July/August 2012 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine mailed to them. Hint: It will have the tenth story in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series and I'll autograph it any way you want. Hurry up now, I've got hungry mouths to feed.

15 March 2012

The Long and the Short

Recently, I was asked to write a four page mystery for a forthcoming anthology. While our Sleuthsayers colleague John Floyd constructs such tidbits for Woman’s World, this is unknown territory for me. However, there’s nothing like a contract in hand and promises of a check to focus the writer’s mind and once I had a plot idea, the story went surprisingly easily. And fast.

This was because I have learned one of the invaluable aspects of the writing game, writing to length and having a sense of how many words take up how much space. Obvious, apparently, but anyone who has worked with beginning writers knows that writing to a set length is one of the difficult things to master. Ask a class for a two page essay, and you will get one and a half skimpy paragraphs with looks of anguish from half the class, and prideful four and a half page torrents from the other half.

Of course, journalists acquire a sense of length with their mother’s milk – or by their editor’s pencil. Well before they earn their first byline the decent journalist can hit his or her word count or, in bygone days, the allotted inches, on the nose.

And how does one acquire this useful skill? By writing over and over again pieces of the same length. I learned by doing two page movie reviews for a West Hartford newspaper. After several months, I not only could hit my page count, I had a new confidence in writing in general, and composition ceased to be a matter of tears and angst.
Now, everything I write (and with twenty books published and more than I’d like in the drawer I’ve written plenty) is just a multiple of those old two page reviews. I’ve acquired a sense of length.

So the little ultra-short story was not quite two reviews length or slightly more than the old Criminal Brief blogs. I figured a half page to set up the situation, a half page for the conclusion and just under three pages for the meat of the story. QED, as we used to say in geometry class.

The matter of length, though, has another aspect. I am convinced that writers all have an optimal length (or lengths). In my case the Anna Peters mysteries consistently came in around 275-290 pages. My contemporary novels are a tad longer, between 300 and 350 pages. My short stories without the incentive of a contract run between 10 and 14 pages, rarely longer – or shorter.

Other writers, I believe, follow the same sort of pattern. Stephen King clearly writes long. The Portuguese Nobelist Jose Saramago wrote short – check Cain, his posthumously published novel about the first murderer.
The great Edwardian humorists, P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome liked short. The classic American novelists were divided. Melville liked long as did Stowe; Hawthorne liked short and was better even shorter. The great UK Victorians and the great Russian novelists needed amplitude, though one of the best of the era, Emily Bronte, brought in Wuthering Heights at a modest length.

Perhaps if penicillin had been available to knock out her TB, Bronte might have evolved into a long writer. More recently, this been the pattern of successful mystery novelists. While Christie, Chandler, and Simenon all stayed with compact books, all too many of our contemporaries have moved from short and tight to brogdingnagian. Dick Francis, he of the thrilling Nerve and Flying Finish, grew rich on doorstop novels of multiple plots – and abundant padding.

P.D. James has grown longer, too, over the decades, if with fewer ill effects, but Elizabeth George’s Believing the Lie suggests that she may have reached the tipping point. Ruth Rendall has resisted the trend; indeed her most recent novel was shorter than usual, but she has had the outlet of the Barbara Vine novels, suggesting she has two ideal lengths.

Surprisingly, given the cost-cutting in the publishing world with lower advances – or no advances at all – cheaper paper, and cheesy construction, there seems to be a preference for the massive. Big novels, big books suggest big ideas or, at least, big sales and big sticker prices. Big suggests important, though many a savvy reader knows it really means inflated. But in this economy, who can blame writers, if like me with a contract in hand, they are tempted to venture beyond their muse’s favorite territory?


14 March 2012

Me, Hitch and Hollywood

by Neil Schofield

I was cock-a-hoop last month, well, two weeks ago, when Rob and John and everyone else was celebrating Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, because I realised I have an anniversary in February. February 2001 in fact, which was when my very first story appeared in AHMM. Actually it was a dead heat because I also had a story in EQMM that month but that's by the way and neither here nor there. 2001 was a good year for me: I had six stories published including my only ever cover story. I know how Rob feels. I was tickled to bits, and wanted to kiss the postwoman, but I didn't because you never know where that sort of thing is going to lead.

The editor then was Cathleen Jordan, whom I never really got to talk to because she died tragically and too soon. I did get an e-mail from her with a rare rejection of one story. She made it clear that she was onto me, had seen the end coming a mile off, but that she like the 'particularly good title'. I still have that title which is waiting for the particularly good story to come along to fit it. I was in Short Crime Fiction Heaven, happily getting used to the ferlap of a contract coming through the door or the flump of the complimentary copies hitting the deck.

Another anniversary comes along this month. In March 2004, I had a story in AHMM. A little story actually, no more than 4500 words. I had originally sent it to Zoetrope, who returned it with a nice handwritten note saying very enjoyable, but not for them. So, I mucked it around a little, changed the title and sent it to Linda Landrigan for her to have a butcher's. And it duly appeared in the March number in 2004.

A week later - no more - I had a phone call. From a Hollywood producer. It was a Sunday night, and Mimi was out - doing something, I don't quite know what. I never quite know what. When she finally hove up alongside me I told her I had one word to say to her and the word was Hollywood.

Tell you what, though, the paramedics are quick off the mark in France. When Mimi had been pronounced out of danger, I filled her in: a female Hollywood producer wanted to option the story with a view to making it into a feature-length film. You can imagine how the champagne flowed that night. You can imagine it if you like, but the sad truth is we didn't have any in the house and it was too late to buy any.

Anyway, the following week all sorts of negotiations went on, and to my boyish delight I was involved in long-range early morning discussions about option payments and percentages of net receipts. I had conversations with the amiable Scott Lais in Contracts and Permissions at Dell, and from him I learned that there was another production company in the frame, for whom my producer had worked.

"We're in a bitter bidding war," I said to Mimi. I had to translate and explain and that took the shine off a bit.

I spoke to the second production company and they seemed lukewarm, so I decided that all things being equal I would go with the original candidate.

A contract came, and was signed and was sent back. A three-year renewable option with staged payments. I thought I had died and gone to paradise.

The first cheque bounced.

It was then I realised that there is Hollywood and there is Hollywood.

That hiccup was sorted out after a fashion after a while. But the pattern or something like it was repeated: getting the instalments of money out of Ms Producer was like pulling teeth. Still, I stuck grimly to it, telling myself that even hotshot Hollywood producers can have little administrative problems. I invented an Accounts Person called Marsha who was the bane of everyone's life and who hated signing cheques would do anything not to sign a cheque even when she was ordered to and her job, livelihood and two-bedroom apartment depended on it.

We carried on like this, me in my fantasy world, and Ms Producer in hers, into 2005, when Ms Producer up and announced that she would be going down to the Cannes Film Festival to sell her film wares, and wouldn't it be great if, while she was traversing Paris, we could lunch. Her treat. My choice of restaurant.

I was now going through mental contortions such as only the most feeble of minds can produce. Suddenly Ms Producer was back on the A-List, the problems with the cheques had been simple Marsha-based aberrations. I resolved that I would ask - no, demand - a new clause in my contract under which Marsha would be told to hit the highway. I think I was in what psychiatrists call a fugue state. Elizabeth might be able to help me out here.

I had chosen the Closerie des Lilas, on the corner of the Boulevard Montparnasse and just round the corner from where Hemingway lived. In fact the Closerie was one of his favourite watering holes, and today it is very posh. I sat at the bar with before me a small brass plaque which told me I was in the very seat where Hem used to park it on his frequent visits. I could imagine Hemingway nailing the plaque to the bar with his very own hands.

Ms Producer made it on time, and lunch ensued. A superb lunch, needless to say, outside on the terrasse, in the sunshine. Sunshine without and sunshine within. I was being lunched by a Hollywood producer. Ms P talked about her plans, showed me the press pack - the press pack! -for the film, including a mock-up of the poster. Wine was taken, casting was discussed: names were bandied about and I remember that Hugh Jackman was the principal bandyee. I bandied for all I was worth. Ms P told me that the South Koreans were interested in the project.

"What, all of them?" I quipped, up for for anything and eager to promote my sardonic Brit humour.

"No, just the ones that matter." said Ms P tersely.

Apparently, down in Cannes, she had hired a hospitality suite, had wined and dined various film coves. And covesses, I suppose. She presented me with a bottle of her specially-labelled champagne. And, remember, all this for a fourteen page short story turned down by Zoetrope.

Ms P produced plastic, we collected our personal belongings and parted on good terms, me with my press pack and bottle of champagne and the feeling that we were that close, Ms P with her high hopes.

And it finished there; more or less. The tooth-pulling recommenced in the autumn, and as the effects of a Closerie lunch slowly wore off, the option slowly expired. There was some loose talk about renewing it, but I knew by then what anyone else would have known from the start: that I was in the hands of a wannabe who wasn't gonnabe. I knew that we weren't that close, we were that far away.

Ms Producer, when I Google her name today, is flogging wine and dating services on the Net. In a spirit of nostalgia, I Google the name of the story sometimes, and up pops Ms Producer's company site, with embedded somewhere in it the mock-up poster of a film that was not to be.

So what did I get out of all this? Quite a lot, actually.

I got several thousand bucks - however hardly won - about twelve times what I had been paid for the original story.

I got a great lunch.

And for two or three years, I had the warm winds of Hollywood fanning my cheeks and ruffling my hair.

Which is a lot, I say.

And all that because AHMM published a little story of mine. Life is full of surprises, my mother used to say. And in this, as in most things, she was right.

I haven't given the real name of Ms P. A gentleman doesn't. And in any case, one day, who knows? Life is full of surprises.

Vive AHMM. And all who sail in her.

13 March 2012

Blood Relations

If the situation between us were put into a book, it would be damned as utterly incredible

                                                            Frederic Dannay to Manfred B. Lee
                                                            Letter dated May 12, 1949

                                                            Quoted in Blood Relations by Joseph Goodrich

    It is a rare event for Ellery Queen fans to have a new publication to enjoy,  While Queen novels continue to be published around the world – notably in Japan, Italy and Russia –  Ellery’s adventures, and other Queen-related works, can be found in the United States virtually only in used bookstores.  On line you will be searching ABE, not Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

    Swimming against that current, however, Joseph Goodrich has just offered up Blood Relations, the Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, 1947-1950, a slim but thoroughly engaging volume collecting the letters exchanged by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee during the plotting and writing of three Ellery Queen mysteries – Ten Days Wonder, Cat of Many Tails and The Origin of Evil.

    The book is a great read on at least three levels:  first, it provides a fascinating background on the writing of three of the strongest Ellery Queen mysteries, second it is a great teaching exercise on how mysteries are plotted, including how the suspicions of the reader can be deflected away from the true culprit, and third it is a revealing, and often troubling, insight into the rivalries that festered between two cousins, Dannay and Lee, who collectively were Ellery Queen.

    Throughout their long literary partnership Dannay and Lee were famously at each others' throats.  Lee described the partnership as a “marriage made in hell.”  The friction in the “marriage,” as well as its long-term survival, was borne of necessity -- each cousin depended on Queen for the economic livelihoods of their respective families.  And Ellery's survival could only be assured if the partnership between Dannay and Lee continued.

    As mystery writer, professor and Queen scholar Francis M. Nevins has noted, neither Dannay nor Lee could complete a work of fiction alone.  Rather, each of the Queen novels and short stories followed the same pattern:  Frederic Dannay would supply a detailed outline of a proposed book or story – often running to 75 to 80 pages for a novel that would eventually ring in at around 300 printed pages.  Then it would be left to Manfred Lee to transform the outline into a complete novel, building believable characters and a compelling narrative flow.  According to Nevins, Lee could not plot out a story to save his life, and Dannay was equally incapable of writing a narrative from an outline.  And so, bound at the wrists, and each damned by a resentment fueled by that which only the other could do, the cousins fought their way through over 40 Ellery Queen books.

    Much of this acrimonious writing process was completed through the exchange of letters, particularly in the late 1940s when Lee was on the west coast supervising the production of the Ellery Queen radio show and Dannay was on the east coast editing EQMM.  At a time when long distance telephone calls were unreliable and exorbitant, the cousins plotted (and bickered) in exchanges of very long special delivery letters.  It is these letters that comprise  Blood Relations.

    The book reads as compellingly as good fiction, and offers up a fascinating insight into the minds of Dannay and Lee.  A spoiler alert is warranted, however.  Anyone reading Blood Relations will come away knowing all there is to know about Ten Days Wonder, Cat of Many Tails and The Origin of Evil.

    The bitter and accusatory tone of the letters that comprise Blood Relations is not a complete surprise to Queen fans.  Frederic Dannay’s papers, which contained copies of most correspondence between the cousins, were donated to the Columbia University Butler Library in 2005, the centennial year for Dannay and Lee, and therefore Ellery, as well.  At that time Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine held a centennial Queen symposium at Columbia and Francis Nevins delivered a keynote lecture taken completely from the letters exchanged between the two cousins.  But while the angry exchanges quoted by Nevins during that speech left a lot of the audience wide-eyed in 2005, reading the text of these exchanges in full provides even more of an eye opener. 

Francis M. Nevins at the Centenial
    One of the documents that was on display at the Butler Library in 2005 during the Queen centennial symposium was a legal agreement between Dannay and Lee forbidding either cousin from ever leaving the Queen partnership.  The document seems superficially strange since it is hard to imagine how it could ever be enforced.  But the need for some sort of definitional boundary understanding between Dannay and Lee  becomes evident when the reader has the opportunity to review the cousins’ actual correspondence.  The partnership set forth in the contract between Dannay and Lee is premised on dividing the task of writing Ellery Queen works into two “zones,” each of which was envisioned to be the domain of one, and only one, of the strong-willed cousins.  Under the terms of this arrangement Dannay was to be given complete control over the plot outlines of Queen works, and Lee was to have complete control over the final written work product bringing to life the story set forth in each outline.  Predictably this arrangement was tinder waiting to be ignited.  How could this division of labor work given the fact that plotting and drafting overlap, and that each cousin had very different views as to what any given Ellery Queen project should ultimately should look like?  

    The following exasperated passage from a 1948 letter from Lee illustrates this.  Dannay has asked for a change of one sentence in Ten Days Wonder.  Lee responds as follows:
You say [that the phrase] is “out of key,” “ineffective,” and “tends to spoil the very good stuff that surrounds it.”  I’ve reread the line in context and I don’t agree.  I could take the line out to please you, certainly; but this very minor, unimportant example – by admission on both our parts – raises a major, important question:  Is pleasing you, in the face of my strong affirmative opinion that the  line is in key, effective and helps the stuff that surrounds it, to be my rule-of-thumb?  We divided ourselves into rigid-boundaried “zones” just because our differences of opinion on basic matters of both plot and writing were so strong that we found it impossible to reconcile them either in principle or in practice.  In the face of this, pleasing each other is pointless.  We can only do, in our respective provinces, what pleases ourselves. . . .
    When pages are spent arguing over one sentence in a draft, the reader is left to ponder how the finished products were ever produced.  As Lee notes in a subsequent 1948 letter, “[w]hat began as friendly competition wound up as active and bitter hostility . . . our history as a ‘team’ is a series of explosions.”  The marvel is that even given this the cousins in fact produced over 40 novels, anthologies and critiques.

    On at least one level reading Blood Relations is therefore a bit like watching a rather steamy soap opera.  The reader becomes enthralled, almost against better judgment, by angry tirades that normally would take place only behind closed doors.  In that sense the experience of reading the book is a little akin to the natural tendency to slow down, even when we do not mean to, as we drive past a grisly automobile pile-up.  Dannay and Lee mercilessly pick at each other, neither wanting to give an inch on a point, until the result becomes unbearable to both.  And they do it all before our eyes.  This from Lee, again in 1948 and addressing the drafting of Cat of Many Tails:

I now have the mere job of finishing this story.  What in the good God’s world is the use of anything?  What, I ask you?  Why am I writing to you?  Why do you write to me?  We are two howling maniacs in a single cell, trying to tear each other to pieces.  Each suspects the other of the most horrible crimes.  Each examines each word of the other’s under a lens, looking, looking, looking for the worst possible construction.  We ought never to write a word to each other.  We ought never to speak.  I ought to take what you give me in silence, and you ought to take what I give you in silence, and spit our galls out in the privacy of our cans until someday, mercifully, we both drop dead and end the agony.
    Whew! Time for the reader to take a deep breath.

    The quotes provided here are but the tip of the iceberg that is Blood Relations.  But the book also offers lessons on other planes.  Beyond the vituperations that erupt in many of the letters of Dannay and Lee one finds two headstrong writers, each working to make the final product believable.  Every writer already knows  that despite what we may say, we do not particularly enjoy criticism.  Strong criticism  makes for a better final product, but each of us carries that silent wish that those who read our works will say “Perfect.  Wouldn’t change a thing.”  What Dannay and Lee subjected themselves to was just about the most rigorous barrage of literary criticism imaginable.  Every single thing was subject to debate.  But beyond the pent up hostility they each harbored, their arguments always have the purpose of furthering the written product.  And the differences of approach that were at the core of each man fueled debates during the writing of the Queen novels that are illustrative of the struggles that all good writers go through, although more normally not in dialogue, when a book or story is devised and then executed. 

    The nature and end result of the process that brought about the Queen oeuvre  is summarized by Dannay, also from a 1948 letter.  Dannay's observations offer a denouement  finally concluding the cousins’ blistering special delivery exchanges concerning Cat of Many Tails:

Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay
[A]s I sit in front of the typewriter this morning, I feel extraordinarily calm; and in the calmness I see clearly – [even] without having read your [most recent] letter – that surely the answer is very simple:  I must have misunderstood you, and you must have misunderstood me, and we both keep misunderstanding each other – and probably will keep right on.  And perhaps that really isn’t too bad a thing, wearing as it is on our nerves and lives; it keeps both of us doing the best we possibly can, and while we are eternally suspicious of each other, and eternally hypersensitive to each other, the resultant work – coming out the hard way – is strangely enough, the better for it  . . . [even though] the price is high . . . .
    Blood Relations is available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.    It is a must read for Ellery Queen fans, and it should also be a must read for writers interested in the meticulous plotting and drafting of mysteries. 

12 March 2012

As the World Turns

Jan GrapeTime continuum. Time Marches On. Time to Go. Time To Live or Time to Die. There's A Time for Everything.

How do you envision time? Sixty seconds, sixty minutes, twenty-four hours. Thirty or Thirty-one days, excepting February with its twenty-eight days. Three hundred sixty-five days in a year, except for 2012 when we had 29 days in February.

As long as I can remember I seem to have somehow envisioned time as a sort of elliptical or oblong shape. Maybe when I learned the earth revolved around the moon, and I didn't want to see time as a circle. And as time passes and we reach each season it does somehow seem to be oblong and not a circle. More of a chance for there to be room for four seasons if time is elliptical.

But how do we define time when we write? Often to denote the passage of time a writer will title each chapter with a week-day name or a month's name. Or if they want to show something that happened in the past they might write, March 12, 1989 as the chapter's heading. What about if you're just wanting to show time passing throughout a day? You could put "Morning or Evening or Midnight."

Often a writer will just end a scene with a small climax and skip a couple of extra spaces, make putting *** ellipses to denote the scene change involves time or place. There are many ways to show time in our writing.

But don't forget there are different aspects of time. There is the chronological passing of time but there is also the emotional passing of time. An emotional clock so to speak. Albert Einstein once said when a guy sits with a beautiful girl for an hour it can seem like only a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it's longer than an hour."

Remember when you were little and waiting for Christmas to come? It took days and weeks and hours. When you had your first child you turn around twice and he or she is starting to school and you have no idea where time went.

What factor comes into play with emotional time having such a huge range for your reader. Tension or fear are the obvious ones. When your character is relaxed time moves almost quicker than you can believe it. When your character is tense, time stands still.

You can and should incorporate the emotional clock in your writing always. I remember one writing teacher who told my class when your character is involved in an action scene you want to write short, action words and sentences. People punch, jab, smack, slap, or explode. You don't want to drag out a fight scene. Unless you've researched some good karate moves and want to add them so it's more realistic.

At the same time, if details are important to the story and you are building up the tension you probably want to give long descriptions that lead to the action. That lets your reader know that something important is going to happen. Something significant.

If you gloss over things then the reader won't attach any importance to that at the moment. And sometimes that's a good place to hide a clue or a red herring.

Just don't ever use words because you LOVE words and want to use a lot of them. Words need to show in a clear and concise way that your character is going to experience fear or tension. You need to show that your character is going to have to choose a course of action. If he or she chooses wrong it might mean death for him/her or someone he/she cares for.

Words need to move the story along not slow you down. However, after some significant tension is met but it's not yet the climax of the story, that's when you need to slow down to allow your character and your reader to relax, to reflect. Maybe discuss the problem and see if a solution can be found.

I hope I've made a case for you to use a emotional clock when you write. The hour and minute and second hands of your clock are spinning and days are getting longer now so make every moment count in your work.

11 March 2012

Florida News (Pathos and Bathos)

by Leigh Lundin

Florida postcardAsinine Mule

Stuart, Florida.  How desperate is your cocaine habit? Martin County police arrested Roman Blair on drug charges and found crack in his, er, crack. What an ass.

Streaking Justice

Melbourne, Florida.  While one dude had crack problems, another had streaks. Melbourne fugitive Matthew Ibarria was caught napping naked in Georgia. The (alleged) fool decided to outrun police and smartly turned onto a street that dead-ends at a river, where he bailed. Vans don't float and neither did Ibarria's excuses.

Elvis has Left the Asylum

Miami, Florida.  In 1990, Michael Conley was convicted of murdering a Canadian tourist at a Fort Lauderdale motel, but beat that rap due to prosecutorial error. Last month he was back in a motel threatening police SWAT, bomb squad, and FBI with ricin and C-4. He later blamed the threats on 'diabetic disorientation'. Conley is known for another crime: He's an Elvis impersonator who sang outside the courtroom during his murder trial.

Elvis has Gone Bananas

Naples, Florida.  It gets worse: A man monkeying around with a gun claimed to be Elvis' brother, a friend of George Bush, and director of the CIA, also told police he's part orangutan related through 'monkey blood'.

Government Gone Bananas

Miami, Florida. 
2600 high school kids helped shape government response when adults miserably failed.

A top Miami senior honors student and valedictorian who's studying to become a heart surgeon and is courted by Ivy League schools, is caught up in the politics of the day. Even though Daniela Pelaez has lived in this country since the age of four and her father and brother (who serves in the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan) long ago had been given legal residency, a federal judge last week set an example and denied her and her younger sister a green card and ordered the siblings deported to Columbia.

Shocked at this miscarriage, her fellow students made Miami proud, making posters and planning a protest, joined by Superintendant of Schools Alberto Carvalho. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wrote ICE asking them to exercise restraint.

Even the White House made its concerns known. Vice President Joe Biden called the decision 'mindless'. He went on to say "Why in God's name would you want to take a kid with this talent and this capacity and deport her? It's against our national interest."

And ICE 'sort of' listened. They postponed Daniela's deportation for two years. It's not a perfect decision, but it's a start.

On a Sad Note

Floorida bleeding

Sanford, Florida. 
At one time, I had an Orlando neighbor who was in his mid-to-latter twenties. He obviously worked out heavily and he cultivated an intimidating stance in which he leaned forward, looming large toward those he was talking to.

Within the first few minutes of meeting someone and often after that, he'd inform people he was a former cop. "Why 'former' cop?" another neighbor mused. "At his age, that would be an awfully short career. I wonder if he was dismissed?"

Two weeks ago in the town of Sanford directly north of Orlando, a teenage boy was strolling down quiet, gated community streets of The Retreat at Twin Lakes, having bought an Arizona Iced Tea and Skittles for his little brother. Minutes after his purchase, Trayvon Martin was shot dead.

To date, there has been no arrest or even hint of an arrest.

There is no doubt who shot him; in fact, the killer readily admitted he killed the boy. The shooter used a licensed 9mm automatic. The killer also happens to be the 28-year-old captain of his Neighborhood Watch who, according to friends, is studying to be a cop.

And… the boy is black and the shooter is white.

Which brings up the question circulating here in Florida– why hasn't the shooter been arrested?

The man, George Zimmerman, violated several rules. First, Neighborhood Watch wardens are not permitted to carry firearms. Secondly, they are supposed to travel in pairs and aren't allowed to confront suspects. Thirdly, the police 911 operator apparently instructed Zimmerman not to follow the 'suspect' and not to leave his car. I say 'apparently' because authorities haven't released the 911 recording.

Zimmerman disobeyed all those instructions and a boy is dead.

His defense is… self defense. He claims he was within his legal rights both in confronting the victim and 'shooting in self-defense' with his legally permitted weapon. This against a teen armed with tea and Skittles.

Debate on the web has polarized: one side questions if Zimmerman was a gung-ho cop wanna-be who started a fight and was possibly getting his ass kicked, or if the boy was a troublemaker recently disciplined in school. Some have absurdly questioned why a teen boy was out strolling at seven on a Sunday evening!

Three things appear obvious to me. One is that Zimmerman can't claim a castle defense. The boy didn't attempt to enter anyone's home or car. His sin may have been WWB, walking while black.

Another is that few of us expect to lose a son on a quiet Sunday evening's stroll. The Martins certainly deserve to see the case in court.

And finally, a family's lost a child and a man his reputation. No matter what happens in the future, he has a death on his hands. There are no winners here.

10 March 2012

Down on the Bowery

by Elizabeth Zelvin

In my new mystery, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, my recovering alcoholic protagonist, Bruce Kohler, and his friends have shares in a clean and sober group house in the Hamptons. But the first book in the series, Death Will Get You Sober, started with Bruce waking up in detox on the Bowery on Christmas Day.

The Bowery in lower Manhattan, along with Seattle’s Skid Row and its namesakes in Los Angeles and other cities, had long been synonymous with down-and-out chronic alcoholism. The area was famous for its bars and flophouses as well as the “Bowery bums” who came from all over the country to drink cheap Thunderbird and sleep it off in the gutter.
Some of my SleuthSayers blog brothers have been dazzling us with action-packed accounts of their experiences in law enforcement and the military. I’ve never fired a gun or made an undercover drug buy. But these are my war stories.

I first went down to the Bowery in 1983. I was not yet a clinical social worker with a master’s degree, and no one dreamed the Bowery would ever become the gentrified, trendy neighborhood it is today.
For a seminar connected with getting my alcoholism counseling credential, I had a choice of places to intern. My professor urged me to pass up the expensive private clinic and go down to the Bowery. “You’ll love it,” he said, and he was right. I caught the very end of the era before the homeless spread out all over the city. There were only a few bars and two or three genuine flophouses left. But walking down the Bowery from Astor Place, you entered another world when you crossed Fifth Street.

The program was housed in the notorious men’s shelter on Third Street, still a scary place at that time. To reach the elevator, you had to breast your way through crowds of not too sweet-smelling men who stood around in a fog of cigarette smoke. The elevator had no buzzer. To get to the program on the fourth floor, you had to pound on the scarred elevator door with your fist, and eventually Wisdom the elevator man would bring it creaking down to get you. (His name was Winston, but no one called him that.) You took your life in your hands if you used the stairs.

My first day as an intern, the last of the cops who’d formed the first “rescue team” in 1967 to bring “Bowery bums” to detox instead of just throwing them in jail took me out with him. It was Check Day, when all the guys on any kind of public assistance or veteran’s benefits got their monthly check. So nobody was lying in the gutter. The cop said we’d find them in the bars. It was 10:30 in the morning. I remember the sun slanting down across the bar, the dust, the bartender polishing a glass, and the row of heads that turned toward us in unison.
They all knew the cop. They knew why we were there. The bartender sounded like an elevator man in Bloomingdale’s. He said, “Fourth floor! fourth floor! who wants to go?” They knew exactly what he meant. They’d all spent many nights in the shelter. Some of them had been in detox 60 times.

One elderly gentleman slid off his stool and announced, “I’ll go!” He was small and grizzled, and I remember his baggy black and white checked pants. Chatty in the police car as we drove the short distance back to Third Street, he told me he’d once been a social worker himself. Not likely, the cop told me.

I kind of telescoped the gentrification of the Bowery in the book. But the shelter was cleaned up by the time I went back in 1993 as program director of an outpatient alcohol program. The building also housed a drug therapeutic community. I once walked up the formerly dangerous stairs in a Santa Claus hat and a red feather boa to help sing Christmas carols in the detox. During the later 90s, chi-chi restaurants and fern bars started moving onto the Bowery. A block east, blue recycling garbage cans stood neatly in front of the Hell’s Angels clubhouse. Their stretch of Third Street curb was painted yellow. The city had put up a sign: “Parking reserved for Hell’s Angels motorcycles only.”

Today, the building has been thoroughly renovated, though it still houses social service programs.
There’s a chic restaurant on the corner and a boutique hotel beyond it, with an outdoor patio bar looking onto the 18th century graveyard hidden behind the facades of the buildings that form the square between Third and Second Streets and the Bowery and Second Avenue.
When I left in 1999, it was still a secret wilderness of spiky grasses, wildflowers, and a gnarled old tree or two, its silence broken only by birdsong and the occasional yowls of mating cats. Now it looks like a park.
Tourists can visit the New Museum, the Bowery Poetry Club, and the Bowery Ballroom. I just took a quick look at the latter’s website and had to smile at some of the “Rules and FAQs” for the music venue:
No flyers, stickers, handbills.
No outside food, beverages, markers, spray paint, weapons (includes pocket knives).
Handicapped seating is available.
You must show proof of age by government-issued photo ID to be served at the bar.
You will be ejected for throwing ANYTHING.

My, how the Bowery has changed.

09 March 2012

Explosives 101: RE Factor

I’ve been busy lately: writing a synopsis for my current novel so I can shop it to agents, working on three short stories that won’t let me alone (drives me crazy in the middle of the night!), writing and assembling a “Parents Packet” for the folks at my church who want to send their kids to summer camp (that took 4 solid days!), and watching my kids (which also means driving them all over creation) this week because they’re home on Spring Break.

This is by way of apology for not having time to post comments on very many SS articles over the past couple of weeks. They’ve all been great; I’ve truly enjoyed reading every single one—but when it comes to posting comments, I’m really sorry. Too often, time management problems have reached out to snag me by the throat!

I wrote this post on Thursday morning in Scottsdale, Arizona. SS posts go up at midnight eastern time, which is 10:00 pm local time, and I’m scheduled at the cigar store from 4:00 pm to 9:30 pm. Which means: I need to put something together that folks will find worth reading, and that I’ll find quick to write. My solution?

A quick rundown on Explosives & How to Use Them.

I got the idea from what Deborah wrote yesterday, in her wonderful article examining the double-edge sword we all call Technology, about needing information concerning “how a weapon would work under certain situations.”

Now, I’ve fired all sorts of weapons — M-16’s, M-14’s, M-21 system (sniper rifle), M-60 Machine Gun (7.62 mm, I can dance with one of these pretty well), M1911 (commonly called a .45 automatic), M-9 (Army issue Barretta 9mm semi-auto sidearm), Ma-Deuce (M2, .50 cal. machine gun – not too good with this one, operator headspace & timing problems lol), M-79 “Blooper” (40 mm grenade launcher), M-203 (M-16 w/ 40 mm grenade launcher attached beneath upper receiver), AK 47 & other AK series, H&K MP5 & MP5SD (an automatic rifle—SD version is suppressed [has what Hollywood calls a “silencer”), suppressed Ruger .22 semi-auto target pistol, Light Anti-Tank Weapons (similar to a collapsible Bazooka – but NOT re-loadable, no matter what you saw in that Dirty Harry movie where they use them at Alcatraz), SAW’s, Glocks and other stuff — and, I’ve used them in the desert, the jungle, the African bush, while riding Zodiac rubber assault boats over the ocean, on the beach (while the weapon’s still wrapped in plastic) after swimming in as a member of a Scout Swim Team, in rain, snow and ice storms, and probably in more places than I care to remember! So, Deborah, feel free to call 24/7; I’m happy to answer any such questions I can. But, she also got me thinking about explosives . . .

Too often in fiction (print, television, films, on-line) I find myself turned off by writing that would have been a joy to read . . . except that the author didn’t know his/her “4th Point of Contact” (That’s paratrooper talk for: rear end) from a hole in the ground! So, I thought I’d post some pointers here that might help. Unfortunately, there’s a lot to explosives (I spent nearly 6 months studying them in the SF qualification course), so I’m going to post it in parts.

On the other hand, I’ve decided to label all the parts. And, if I remember, I’ll add the flags that will help you find the info you want when you need it (like in the dead of night, for instance).

Today’s Subject: RE Factor

Explosives are rated, and charge calculations are based on, what is called the “Relative Effectiveness Factor” (R.E. Factor, or just RE [“are-eee”] for short). I’m sure you’re familiar with the standard number line you learned in grade school, which has “0” (zero) as the baseline. An easy way to envision explosives that are listed by RE is to imagine them hanging from a spot on the number line.

On this number line, however, our base is TNT (Tri-Nitro Toluene C7H5N3O6) instead of zero. And, because charge calculations require multiplication, we’re going to assign TNT an RE Factor of “1” (one) instead of zero, because 1 is the multiplicative identity factor (don’t worry, there’s no test, and I’m not going to make you do math – I just want you to understand what RE is).

Explosive charge size is calculated based on the number of pounds of TNT required to do the job, then you multiply by the RE Factor of whatever explosive you plan to use, in order to convert “pounds of TNT” into the number of “pounds of the explosive you have on hand”.

For example: if we want to cut through a solid steel rod (maybe that rod is part of the support structure for a suspension bridge, for instance), we might use the formula P=3/8A. This means “Pounds of TNT needed to do the job” equals three-eighths of the “Area of the cross-section of the steel rod we plan to cut.” If it’s a rod with an area of one square inch, then we’d need 3/8 of a pound of TNT to cut the rod.

If we are using C-4 (plastic explosive) to cut the rod, then we’d divide our answer in the paragraph above by 1.34, because C-4’s RE is 1.34 (I know I said we were multiplying, but division is just inverted multiplication – it’s the same thing – Trust me!). In other words, C-4 is considered to have 1.34 times the relative effectiveness factor that TNT is calculated to have. And that’s why it’s called a Relative
Effectiveness Factor, because C-4 has an explosive factor of 1.34 Relative to TNT’s explosive factor of 1.0.

Thus: if TNT sits at the baseline of 1 on our number line, C-4 sits at a spot that is labeled 1.34. Dynamite would be sitting just below TNT, at 0.98 and ANFO (Ammonium Nitrate and Fuel Oil – the explosive used by Timothy McVeigh to destroy the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City) is farther down, because it has an RE of only 0.47 (if I recall correctly; I don’t have any of my FM’s at hand, so I’m just working off memory here; it might be 0.42 or 43, but I think it’s 0.47).

A few things to note:

(1) TNT has an RE of 1 in the military explosive charge calculation system. HOWEVER: I’ve worked with civilian blasters who calculated their charges based on an RE system that used Dynamite as the baseline (i.e. in some civilian blasters’ calculation systems, charges are formulated calculating against Dynamite with an RE of 1). This would mean that TNT would have an RE of something around 1. 02 in this system. I thought you might need to know this, incase you write a story about a civilian blaster who’s planted a bomb, or something. His calculations might be a little different than mine, because he’d be using Dynamite as his baseline, instead of TNT.

(2) Don’t be fooled into thinking that a low RE factor means an explosive isn’t potent. Remember what a low RE explosive like ANFO did to the Murrah Building!

3) A good way to think of RE is to compare it to gears on a vehicle. When you need the heavy push of a low gear — to get a heavy load moving — go with a low RE such as ANFO or something. So, use low RE to move dirt, blow out bridge abutments, or push-in the side of a building. BUT: If you wanted to drive your car through a wall, you wouldn’t do it by inching your car up to the wall and then trying to slowly nose through. Instead, you’d get going as fast as you could — in a high gear! — and slam through that wall. So, for breaching a wall or obstacle (or cutting through steel girders, maybe), you want an explosive with a high RE factor, such C-4. High RE explosives go off with a sharp, higher-pitched CRACK! than lower RE explosives that tend to explode with a WHUMP! that you can feel, and which makes the ground jump under your feet (or chest and legs, if you’re lying prone hugging mother earth for dear life as hot lead shreds the air overhead, while you’re counting down and praying your charge goes off on “Zero!” LOL).

(4) For you guys in law enforcement who are sitting there saying, “What’s he talking about? That’s not breaching!” don’t sweat it. The specialized breaching charges you guys use, such as WB, detcord wraps, FLS, etc. are just that — Specialized breaching charges, designed to lower the amount of spalling that occurs. Spalling is the breaking off of fractured concrete, steel or wood from whatever you were breaching; this stuff shoots out from the explosion area in the form of shrapnel and hurts or kills people on the other side of the door or wall you’re going through. The breaching charges you’re familiar with for CQB are designed to reduce that hazard, and are therefore much different than what I’ve described above. (Though Det Cord is filled with PETN, which has a very high RE).

(5) The fireball explosions Hollywood loves, such as the explosion on the ground floor in DieHard is created using gasoline or dust. If you don’t think airborne dust can create a tremendous explosion, talk to somebody who owns a grain elevator; s/he’ll tell you stories that will scare your pants off!

OH! And, one more thing about machine guns . . .

I recently read a story in which a character fired a “60-caliber machine gun” from a helicopter. I’ve never heard of a .60 Cal. I think the author heard of an M-60 machine gun, which fires 7.62 mm rounds (about .30 cal.) and thought the “60” in M-60 referred to the caliber of the round. Please don’t make the same mistake.

I think that about covers it for a “Quick Down & Dirty” about RE Factors. And, your eyes are probably glazing over in boredom about now. So, I’ll call a halt to proceedings. Next time, I’ll cover Blasting Caps and how to Prime A Block of Explosives. And, I promise: Absolutely NO MATH. Lol

Until then . . . Take it easy, and Have a BLAST! (Sorry, couldn’t help it.)

08 March 2012

What If?

A writer spends a lot of time considering the What If's for stories. I sometimes wonder about the What If's of my own life, too.
What if I'd been born in another time and place?

Right smack in the middle of a technological explosion, todays's writers are considerably blessed to have computers with the formatting, spell check and grammatical help so readily available at the touch of a keyboard. Imagine what minds like Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler or Rod Serling could have done if they'd had such conveniences and didn't have to pound out their stories on a manual typewriter? I'm thinking of all the writers who dipped a quill into an inkwell with awe. Today's writers are quite fortunate to have technology on their side.

Thinking about the faster access to research questions is amazing, too. Even turnaround time between most publishers is quicker via e-mail than traditional snail mail submissions. Speedy acceptances keep a writer's soul happy. You notice I didn't mention that rejections also reach us sooner, too. But because we've spent less time waiting for an answer, the pain of a refusal isn't even as dreadful as in the old days where a writer haunted our mailbox and practically attacked our mail carriers for news about a submission.

Ask almost any college-age or younger person how to do something (especially on a computer) and following the inevitable eye roll, will be the answer, "Just Google it!"

While it's easy to find out to do almost anything via the Google search engine, sometimes I miss the one-on-one when another person shares information instead of leading me to directions on a computer screen to dicipher.

However, I admit I appreciate the fact that Google never balks at telling me what it knows. That and being available 24/7 not only is terrific, but soothes my ego by not reminding me I am lame for not already knowing the answer myself. I'm often writing into the wee hours of the morning (or night depending on your half-empty or half-full theory). Most of my friends do not wish to be disturbed when I have a question at that time of the day about whether a law in effect in my state would be the same in another or how a weapon would work under certain situations. Google loves to answer day or night without qualms and is never too tired and rarely uncertain about the information.

I'm sure somewhere in time, some people groused about the telegraph wires messing up the landscape as much as people do about everyone having to have a cell phone (or tablet or computer) at their side, practically attached to their hip. Fearful they will miss "something important" if they aren't plugged in, these people are becoming more and more the majority.

Yes, the telegraph lines did take away some majesty from the scenery, but look what they brought to society; communication capabilities changed the world.

Yes, I get annoyed when people are texting from the bathroom stall, plop their cell on the table while we're lunching and keep more an eye on the device than they do our conversation. (You know who you are! LOL)

But, I do understand the awful sinking pit in the stomach feeling when I realize I forgot my cell and realize I am on my own if something goes wrong with my vehicle or need to get in touch with someone immediately (Have you noticed how few public phones are available these days?)

Technology is like a frenemy. We can't escape them and desperately need to keep a close eye on them.

What if I didn't find inspiration as a writer? Or acceptance for my work? What if no one wanted to read my stories?

Without any chance of publishing, I'd still write. Without any other person beside myself reading my work, I'd still write. It gives me joy to do so ... and because I don't know how to stop. If I were to never find any new inspiration, I'd resort to strictly writing the facts. Nonfiction is also good for the soul.

What if instead of writing about crimes, I lived a life of crime? First, that's impossible for several reasons: 1. I'm too chicken to attempt many of the things I write about. I couldn't personally live with the immoral choices of breaking the law. I have toomuch respect for law enforcement to ever want to be sitting in the back of a patrol car. And 2. I wouldn't do well in jail because I am sure I could not handle those uniforms (the same kind every day???) and especially the shoes they make you wear is enough to make a girl cry.

What if I'd gone into law enforcement or became a lawyer or a judge? Hmm, I'm not certain I'd want to chase a perp down a dark alley or have to represent the bad guys in court (and the prosecutors don't get paid enough to work that hard.) I'd probably enjoy being a judge, but they expect you to work your way up to that, so I guess that's out.

No, it's best I stay where I am and stick to writing. The only What If's I need to employ are the ones that concern my characters. I think that's the best answer for me and I didn't even have to Google it.

07 March 2012

Cover Boy

by Robert Lopresti

Well, who says history doesn't repeat itself?  For the second time since the universe was created  one of my stories has shown up on the cover of a magazine, specifically the May issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  I am okay with that, if "okay" means thrilled to tiny bits.

So, let's talk a bit about "Shanks Commences."  It is the seventh published adventure of Leopold Longshanks, a mystery writer who finds himself reluctantly involved in true crime.  In this case, he is invited to his alma mater to give a commencement speech and gets involved in a murder in the campus library.

And speaking of true crime, there is a little bit more of reality in this story than in most of mine.  Not, thank heaven, that I have ever encountered death in the library, but...   You see, I am occasionally asked if I base my stuff on real people/things/events and I usually reply, no, it's easier to make stuff up.  Which is true, but in this case I did borrow a few details from the real world.
For instance, the Great Hall of the library in my story bears a certain resemblance to the Main Reading Room at the library where I work.   Some of the students call it the Harry Potter Room, seeing a resemblace to the Great Hall at Hogwarts School of Wizardry. 

The Special Collections Room where my crime takes place is not entirely unlike the Rare Book Room at the university where I used to work.  And the library director in my story, Calvin Floyd, shares some elements with the director of the library where I went to college, a heck of a nice guy who was both my boss and adviser.  I'm happy he got through the story without being killed or arrested.

You may have noticed that name: Floyd.   That's another way reality muddled with my story.  When I wrote it I was still blogging at Criminal Brief.  I had to think of a whole lot of names for characters and I thought, what the hell.  So most of them are named for my fellow CB bloggers.  I hope they don't mind making a guest appearance.

And as for you, I hope you enjoy the story.

06 March 2012

Family Plot


Perhaps as a result of the aging process, or as a vain attempt at better understanding myself and my family, I began to do an ancestry search some years ago.  It progressed slowly as we were a humble family seldom noted in history.  Additionally, we were poor, and until my own generation (myself excluded) not generally educated beyond high school...if that.  In other words, we didn't write down much stuff other than grocery lists.  That's not to say we couldn't be interesting, as in the case of Jimmy Don of whom I wrote of a short while ago, but by and large we were not a well documented tribe.  I set out to change this, and therein lies the tale--a tale of stunning twists and turns and crackerjack sleuthing by yours truly.  No crime was committed in the writing of this blog, but you may find it instructive if you ever want to tackle the writing of a mystery tale that hinges on DNA and family history.

Enlisting the aid of my favorite cousin who represented the 'Bama branch of the family, we began to hunt down what clues and tidbits that we could.  Fortuitously, she also discovered a great aunt who had kept a fairly detailed family history since she was young and this turned out to be quite a treasure trove of information; much of which could be borne out through various county records.  Voila!  Just like that, we had ourselves some good ol' family history going back to 'round 1780!  Booyah!  Naturally, having had a little bite of the forbidden apple, I decided I'd take another nibble or two.  And since we couldn't seem to get any further back I hit upon another avenue of exploration---DNA! 

We had already started to use DNA technology within my police department at that point, so it just made sense to me to examine its other uses.  So, through the wonders of the Internet (copyright Al Gore) I made contact with a reputable firm in Texas who specialized in this sort of thing; paid my money; provided saliva samples, and sat down to wait.  It didn't take long.


The results showed that my DNA didn't match any other person by the name of Dean who had submitted their own DNA results.  There were a lot of Deans scattered across a lot of places; many of whom discovered connections to one another through common, and sometime distant-in-time ancestors...but, not me...not even close.  Additionally, my Haplogroup (J2...more on this later) was unique to the entire army of people bearing the same name as myself!  What ho?  I liked the idea of being special, but this was making me uncomfortable.  What could it all mean?

There's a lot to learn about DNA as it applies to family research, and I'm probably not the guy to be teaching it, but for the sake of this blog I'm gonna try.  Firstly, you already know that every individual carries his own unique strands of DNA molecules that make him or her...well, him or her.  DNA science has become exacting to the nth degree, which is great for forensics.  That part is easy--you're you and no one else.  The tougher question, at least in my case, is from whom do you descend?

In the short term the answer is usually easy; especially if you know your parents, grandparents, etc...you will share not only physically observable traits, but also repeating strands of DNA that can only have been inherited through the male line.  This is Y-DNA.  Things get a little more difficult the further back you go, because it is unlikely Great-Grandpa Absalom left behind any usable DNA samples and you have to take it on faith that he was who you thought he was.  Sometimes there can be surprises.

There is also a little thing called Haplogroups that I mentioned earlier.  Haplogroups are genetic divisions within the greater family of man that help to determine the geographic origins and time lines of their bearers.  They result from genetic mutations that occur naturally over time within a male line and result in a different group, or sub-clade as they are called, being created.  For instance, my Haplogroup, J2, derived from the broader J group, and is believed to have originated along the Fertile Crescent that lies between the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates rivers.  You read that right.  I don't look much like someone from that region, but it's been awhile...25,000 years, or so.  You change.

Almost all of the Deans that had registered our surname bore Haplogroups more commonly associated with European ethnic groups.  Mine, clearly, did not.  Yet, our family history, such as it was, indicated pretty strongly that we had arrived in North America during the 1700's from somewhere in Britain.  After I got up off the floor, I resumed searching.


Going back to the site provided by my DNA research lab, I looked for Y-DNA matches under any name.  Surprise!  Surprise!  There was one match and several close matches.  The name Forrester of South Carolina was the exact match--a name with which I was unacquainted.  Yet, our family history had us coming to Georgia shortly before the Civil War from...South Carolina.  Me and this fellow, whose first name I will refrain from revealing for privacy reasons, shared a common male ancestor within, at least, twenty generations, possibly much less.  So how'd we get different names?  And why?

I can leave to your imagination one possibility...but there are others.  Firstly, surnames didn't come into common usage until the 1200's and when they did, the same family, for many reasons, might choose different surnames.  For, instance, many Scots changed their names when their clan, or sept, became outlawed by the crown.  Two brothers living on opposite sides of the mountain might choose different surnames just because they weren't on speaking terms...so forth and so on.  As it turned out, a search of surnames through various sites revealed that a plurality of Deans, and Forresters, lived along the English/Scottish border at least as far back as the 1600's; the Dean name being concentrated in Lancashire and York counties in England and Larnarkshire county in Scotland--an overall and contiguous area less the size of New Jersey.

Yes, this panned out with our family history alright, but I had no way of proving we were in any way related to the Deans, or Forresters, of that region.  Besides...we were J2's, remember...the Fertile Crescent?  More research needed.


As I mentioned earlier, Haplogroups continue to subdivide down through the ages into various subclades.  Hence, my sample was further tested for more specificity revealing that I was a J2a4b.  How's that help, you may ask?  Well, it brings my timeline up a few years to about 2,000 years ago, give or take, a thousand, and pinpoints the geographic origin just a little better.  It appears that the mutating progenitor in this case lived in, or around, the Caucasus region comprising Georgia (the country), southern Russia, Azerbaijan, and northern Turkey.  That cleared everything right up.

Firstly, I thought it was kind of amusing that my people might have come from Georgia to Georgia.  Secondly, I thought, how in the hell did we get from Central Asia to North America?  And if the family history is true, why did we stop off in Britain  for a few hundred years...or did we?

The sad truth is that I will probably never know.  There is almost no way to ascertain the facts that would be needed to retrace that ancient migration.  But, there is history from which plausible theories can be postulated. 

As most of you probably already know, the Caucasus served as a gateway for mass migrations of peoples from Central Asia into Europe, and these were being recorded by historians hundreds of years BCE.  One of these vast tribes, the Sarmatians, inhabited the Pontic-Caspian Steppe (which extends into the Caucasus region) for a few hundred years prior to pushing westward into Eastern Europe.  It appears this move was not popular with the Romans who forthwith set out to prevent them from crossing that great barrier against the barbarians called the Danube, and after a number of wars, the Romans, under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (of 'Gladiator' fame), inflicted a final and devastating defeat on the Sarmatians in 174 AD.  Under the terms  of surrender he demanded the submission of 8,000 cavalrymen to act as auxiliary troops to his legions already manning Hadrian's Wall in Northern Britain.  Not surprisingly, the Sarmatians agreed.  The ruins of the fort to which they were assigned still exist today in Ribchester, Lancashire County, England--smack dab in Dean/Forrester territory.  Are the Deans descended from one of these horsemen?...God only knows.  I do know that I've never gotten on very well with horses.

Sarmatians as depicted on Trajan's column

So, as you can see, my investigation into my family history created more questions than answers.  The Hadrian theory is only one of many possibilities--a Sarmatian tribe known as the Alans also made their way into Central and Western Europe during the course of the early dark ages and settled in France.  Some of their descendants even made their way to England with William the Conqueror; so that's another.  I'm sure there are many, many other possible explanations.  Hell, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the Dean/Forrester relationship.  It could be as simple as some wandering J2a4b caught a boat to South Carolina and took the name Dean after arrival.  Like I said...who the hell knows? 

So I may have exaggerated when I remarked on my crackerjack sleuthing, as I didn't exactly crack the case of the Dean mystery, but I did stumble upon a yet greater Mystery; hinting at a greater truth--I went from being sure of my place in the world as one certain thing, to arrive at a wholly different understanding of my humanity.  Though DNA demonstrates rather conclusively how wonderfully unique each individual is; it also serves to remind us of our commonality, our shared journey.  Just think how astounding each of our stories are, stretching back into the mists of time, an unbroken string of ancestors leading back to the genetic Adam and Eve from which we all descend--a million unwritten stories.          



05 March 2012

Hidden Gems or Buried Treasure

Jan GrapeI often wonder how other writers research. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction somewhere along the line you surely must look up information about something in your work.

One of my good friends is Suzy Spencer who has written four true crime books. One of them, Wasted made the NY Times Best-Selling List. It was written several years ago but has enjoyed some recent revival due to new television coverage. On I Discovery channel they have a new program called Deadly Sins. Suzy's book was the second story line the program followed. This story features a rich lesbian, Regina, who was only looking for love. A beautiful young girl looking for money and ultimately drugs and a drug-dealer, Justin who killed Regina in a drug-fueled rage. The story takes place in Austin. The deadly sin of both stories featured is gluttony. Nothing to do with food in either case, rather the gluttony of sex, drugs and obsession with those.

The other book I read and thought was a most intriguing read is Breaking Point. The story of the Houston suburban housewife, Andrea Yates who killed her five children. This was such a sad and horrifying story that I can only imagine the mental breakdown this woman suffered. There is still much to learn about post-partum depression and the psychosis that it can lead to.

Suzy has been asked many times how does she research her stories. She says more or less what you might expect to hear...scouring courtroom records, interviewing cops and prosecutors, interviewing friends and families of the victim, friends and families of the killer, attending trials and yet somehow she takes the essence of these interviews and notes and gets into the minds of the people in her stories.

She finds the little gems of reality: the scents, the grittiness, the steamy side, the horror of it all. I think she's a master of putting you in the scene as you read.

As a writer, this is what we have to do to make our stories ring true. If you're writing fiction, you must make as much of your story true as possible. NOW that doesn't mean you have to go out and kill someone...especially one of your in laws...grin. But if you put enough truth in your work then your reader will follow you when you talk of murder and mayhem.

Sometimes the smallest fact will be your hidden treasure of your story. Like detailing a rusty streak on the motel wall or a broken piece of concrete along the entryway to a door. A tiny fact that your research uncovered that becomes a major clue or leads your reader to believe what you've written.
But remember all your research does not belong in your story. It's hard sometimes because you've discovered the most exciting things about Metropolis and it's history for the past 200 years but you don't want to write forty pages about it. Your reader doesn't care. All they care about is getting into your character's head and finding out who the perpetrator really might be.

So if you interview police officers or sales people or attorneys or doctors make sure you find the gem in what they say and that will indeed be your hidden treasure. And as a reader I'll be delighted to read your story.