02 February 2012

Lock Up Your Daughters


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

Mira Kolar-Brown was born and educated in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslavia, where she graduated in English Language and Literature with post-graduate Business. She came to the UK in 1977 where she tutored at two universities and project managed for an NGO and a QUANGO, and now lives in the north-west of England. Upon early retirement, she has been working as a translator and interpreter for the public sector. This offers ample opportunities for research into the work of police, welfare system, courts, immigration and health organisations.

This first hand knowledge and experience proved invaluable in writing mystery novels, the Simon Grant Mysteries series, Hiding the Elephant and Lock Up Your Daughters, the latter title from which we've drawn another meaning for today's article.

Here's the talented Mira Kolar-Brown.


Hiding the Elephant Endrita

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

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

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

Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They liked Jak.

Everyone liked Jak.

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

Endrita became available for sex 24/7.

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

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

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

That's something.

01 February 2012

RSI


by Robert Lopresti

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

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

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

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

I suddenly felt grubby.  I muttered an apology.

"No matter, no matter.  Put it here."

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

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

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

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

"I think--" I said.

"Quiet!"

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

She sighed, rather dramatically, I thought.

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

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

"Interesting," she muttered.

"What is it?"

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

"A part-time assistant, I think."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And the new letter?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Didn't like it!"

She nodded.  "He says so.  See?"

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

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

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

"But my fee-"

"Send me a bill."

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




31 January 2012

Stranger than Fiction – Sailing Stories


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 January 2012

Character Flaws


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29 January 2012

Guilty of Abandonment and Worried


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



28 January 2012

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


by Elizabeth Zelvin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 January 2012

Fear, Print-Zombies, and Writing What You Know



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like I said: Harsh in his mannerism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I have to suggest is very simple.

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

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

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

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

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

--Dix

26 January 2012

A Few Reasons I Prefer Mysteries to Literature


As a person who believes we start to die the moment we stop learning, I decided to take a class on literature. I am reading selections by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. It's not that I have ever read these authors; it's just that my personal tastes run toward Christie, Spillane and Chandler. Still, to learn is to grow and I am certainly not ready to die.

In deciphering the meanings behind the sybolism within these author's works, I am not what the teacher expects of her students. The second day of class she asked if we were alone in a room with Hitler and knew for a fact all that he would do to the world and we had a gun, would we kill him. She knew my name and I sat on the front row, so she directed the question to me first. I said I would have no problem killing Hitler. She was a bit taken aback and after several other students agreed with me, she said, "My other classes always say they couldn't shoot an unarmed man."

I silently wondered if my fellow students were mystery buffs like me. Of course, since I am not alone and armed in a room with Hitler and completely sure he would try to take over the world, we'll never know if I could actually commit murder and pull that trigger. But, that wasn't her question. If I find a way to time travel and have that opportunity, I'll let you know the outcome. (That is, if the world hasn't changed so drastically that neither of us are here to discuss those actions at this particluar time and place on the Internet.)

My opinions on symbolism are not necessarily that of the instructor and obviously not shared by most literary authors according to the grades on my last quiz. I don't necessarily believe that is a bad thing. I am merely tracking clues to find another answer, one that may not be ones looking for the obvious. I feel a bit like bumbling Columbo who seems to be asking questions that don't make any sense, but do lead to another corridor, albeit not the one expected.

That's one of the thing I like about mysteries: there is an obvious point made by the story's end. It isn't shrouded in symbolism; it simply is a bad guy caught or at least recognized as the bad guy. In most cases we know should he show up in another book, he will be chased down by our hero for his criminal activity.

Crime doesn't pay in most mysteries. That sets mystery stories apart from literary works, too. In literature like life, anything can happen. A mystery novel's probability is it will end with someone being tagged as guilty and going to jail or paying his debt to society with his life. Real life and literature isn't as neat and tidy. I like tidy.

In mysteries, you never turn a page expecting to see more and find the story has ended abruptly and without tying up all the details into a nice, satisfying package. If the detective hasn't bound the criminal to face his judgment by the end of the book, it better be that he managed to escape from the authorities grasp ala Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs or Moriarty in a Sherlock Holmes story and not that they simply didn't deduce who the culprit could be.

So, why am I taking a series of workshops on literature? Because I love to discover more about good storytelling from every angle. I want to learn from masters whose works lived long beyond them. I want to see if I can learn to do a better job figuring out their intent through the mysterious methods of symbolism.

If I had my druthers, I'd want to be Agatha Christie instead of Ernest Hemingway any day. Maybe it's because I'd enjoy y work being discussed for its clever clues more than what think I meant in a storyline.

Maybe it's just because I wouldn't look so great in a mustache and beard.

25 January 2012

Going Archival on You


by Robert Lopresti

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

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

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


Or try this mug shot.

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

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

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


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


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

On beyond the Declaration of Independence. Enjoy.

24 January 2012

Criminal Fashion


During my years as a policeman I noticed that there appear to be fads, or fashions, if you will, within the criminal world. Not fashion as in clothes (though, now that I think about it, that might be true, as well) but criminal techniques and tactics that flare into life, then fade away with time. It also became apparent to me that many writers incorporate these trends into their books and stories which might make the subject a worthwhile blog. But first let me issue the disclaimer that I am neither a criminologist, nor a historian, though I have slept in a Holiday Inn Express. What follows is strictly opinion.
I doubt that I'm telling you anything, dear readers, that you haven't already noticed, consciously or no; it's actually quite apparent when you consider it. A recent example that leaps to mind is carjacking. Whereas car theft has been with us for almost as long as there have been automobiles, carjacking was a new wrinkle. Here in New Jersey we pride ourselves in always placing at the top, or damn near, of the national car theft and carjacking stats. In fact, carjacking may have been invented in Newark– in your face, New York!

Carjacking didn't appear until the eighties and already shows signs of having run it's course. In many ways it never made a lot of sense to me, as both the theft and the thief's description were almost immediately available to the police unless he decided to up the ante to murder. Even so, the jacker had only made his situation more dire. Once murder enters into it the police are going to devote every effort to apprehending him, and now, if and when he's caught, the stakes are far more serious. Cross state lines with the car and occupants and, God help him, the FBI is now involved– it's kidnapping! All of this for the theft of a car that probably wouldn't fetch more than a few grand at the most. Remember, once the fence or chop shop owner gets wind of the jacker's antics, they have him over a barrel and can set their prices. It just doesn't make sense to me in the grand scheme of things. Yet, people do it. It's a little like the fad of the extremely baggy, low-riding jeans that expose one's lack of taste in underwear, while rendering headlong flight from the police a near impossibility. Why? Fashion, of course.

As a side note, carjacking spawned a curious criminal phenomenon that, thank God, was less wide-spread or utilized– the carjacker alibi. I'm sure that most of you remember the heinous case of Susan Smith of South Carolina. She murdered both her children by allowing her car to roll down a boat ramp and into a lake with her sons. She claimed that a carjacker (a black man) had taken her car at gunpoint, along with her kids. A savvy police investigator blew this story up when he was able to prove that her route and timeline were wholly inconsistent. After that, it was just good interrogation techniques.

She was not the only one– a husband in Boston alleged a carjacker (yet another mysterious black male) had attempted to take his car but only succeeded in shooting his wife to death. This was wholly untrue… he had done it himself. There were others, as well. Sometimes it seems, what is bad spawns what is far worse.

But I digress. I'm not saying that a crime fad can't be profitable or successful, I'm just positing that some fads make a lot of sense to begin with; then, due to technology, societal factors, improved policing techniques, etc… they fall to the wayside; some only to be resurrected when conditions once more become favorable. Take piracy…

The heyday of buccaneering, at least in the Western world, was during the 16 and 1700's. It wasn't really a new idea, even then. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans complained of, and did combat with, pirates. The pirates' goal was simply to remove any and all items of value from one boat, or town, and place them onto another– theirs– a redistribution of wealth, if you will. Naturally this required violence, or the threat of it. The payoff could be quite handsome. Some historians believe that piracy on the high seas was simply a nascent expression of man's desire to be truly free of the strictures of class, poverty, and… let's face it, the law… a floating Utopian republic, if you will. I take a slightly more jaundiced view. I think that they were criminals playing the main chance for the most returns and the least possibility of getting caught. And it worked like gangbusters for a little less than two hundred years (that's not to say piracy died out completely, just that the heyday of sea-thieving had drawn to an end): the rise of more efficient navies and tactics, including improved cooperation between nations, had made it a lot less fashionable to go around saying, "Arrgg." Thank God, as this can really get on your nerves after a while.

It must be pointed out, that while buccaneering went largely the way of the dinosaur in the Western Hemisphere, it has remained for very many centuries a threat in the Eastern one. It was never just a fad there. The Somalis are late-comers when compared to the persistent piracy in the China, Malay, and Philippine Seas. The factors necessary for the cessation of sea-thieving have never arisen in these places, it would seem.

Anybody remember train robbing? You can thank those stalwarts the James-Younger gang for the invention of both that and bank robbing. I sometimes wonder where crime would be today without Jesse and crew. These were true innovators. Their kind doesn't often come along… and we should all be glad. They were bloody minded and ruthless disciples of Captain William Quantrill of 'Bloody Kansas' fame during the Civil War. Janice Law recently wrote a very interesting blog on this historical niche.

Quantrill
In essence, Jesse and friends translated the lessons they had learned as confederate guerrillas and applied them to outlawry. The mounted ambush applying superior and accurate firepower with overwhelming force was their speciality. It was a 'shock and awe' technique that worked quite well on both banks and trains. It also helped that lawmen were pretty thin on the ground in those parts and that the local populace was largely supportive. Those that weren't kept their opinions to themselves. The unsettled atmosphere of Reconstruction provided a perfect breeding ground for crime, just as Prohibition and the Great Depression would in the years ahead.

In fact, it could easily be argued that the roving, and now motorized, desperadoes of the thirties, such as Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, etc… simply applied the James Gang's tactics to the age of the automobile. Whereas, Jesse and crew had armed themselves with the best revolvers and lever-action rifles of their day, it was their numbers that was overwhelming both in terms of firepower and intimidation. The Depression-Era gangsters, however, didn't need to spread the loot so widely, as they arrived with fully automatic weapons, such as Clyde Barrow's infamous .30 cal Browning automatic rifle. Local police had nothing to match it… not even close. This was one of the reasons the bad guys chose to shoot their way out of tight spots with the cops so often– the odds were definitely in their favor.
Bonnie and Clyde

I'm not implying that armed robbery is a fad, far from it; it's always been around and is here to stay. It's the techniques and tactics that have changed to suit the times. Today, a bank robber is most likely a single perpetrator wielding a note. It's an effective technique that would not have been very convincing or fashionable amongst the 'Long Riders' of yesteryear– you would have been laughed out of the saloon… or worse. Apparently, bank and railroad employees of their day were made of sterner stuff, and not likely to yield to the power of the written word, however well-crafted. The enforcement of federal statutes across state lines, the creation of the FBI, and improved armament for the police, effectively brought to a close the era of the roving bank and train bandits.

During the sixties and seventies you could hardly pick up a newspaper without reading about another series of gruesome homicides– serial killers appeared to be everywhere and hard at work. Non-fiction writers had a field day with writing biographies of the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, The Hillside Strangler (there were two of them as it turned out– uncle and nephew), the Night Stalker, and the rest of this particularly repulsive crew. The fiction crowd followed up, and from the eighties on it seemed every other book and film was about a serial killer. Thankfully the torrent appears to have tapered off to more of a trickle these days, and I, for one, am not sorry.

Ted Bundy
I'm certain that there are still serial killers going about their deadly business, but either the reporting of it has fallen off, or this unique species of crime has slackened. Perhaps there was something about the groovy days of flower power that incensed these creatures. Certainly, law enforcement's tool box, specifically the use of DNA, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (a national data base for the collection, collation, and analysis of disparate information concerning criminals, victims, and homicide methods in an effort to discern patterns of violent crimes and their perpetrators), and profiling have impacted the serial murderer's freedom of action to some degree.

Now here's twist on my theory– what about all those Satanic cults of the eighties and early nineties? Remember? Again the media played a big role in this, publicizing what were believed to be cults practicing ritual murder and serial abuse. In one case it was a child care facility believed to be staffed by the devil's spawn. Hell, I was even trained to recognize cult clues at crime scenes. Know what? Almost none of that stuff actually happened. Though perhaps Satanic influence was responsible for the mass hysteria that produced this peculiarly insubstantial crime phenomenon.

As for new trends in crime, I have one word for you, and no, it's not plastics– metal. Metal thieving is rampant and growing. Thieves are stealing everything from the copper plumbing from beneath vacant houses to the grounding wires for utility poles. Some have even been fried while attempting to rip the copper out of power company substations. Manhole covers, lawn ornaments, wind chimes, and, yes lawn lovers, even brass sprinkler heads are fair game. As for this fad… my guess is that it's the economy. But don't go waxing all sentimental about folks stealing to feed their kids; the ones my officers apprehended were mostly feeding their drug habits; kids be damned. Recessions are hard on druggies too. Metal theft doesn't jump out at me as the most fascinating subject for crime fiction, but who knows?

So there you have it, my thesis on crime fads, fashions, and trends. My rundown is by no means comprehensive, as other fads and fashions are occurring to me even now: drive-by shootings and people smuggling to name but two, but I must stop somewhere. Perhaps you've thought of a few yourself.

23 January 2012

Red Rum


Fran Rizerby Fran Rizer



Many readers are familiar with South Carolina's three most notorious killers: Donald (Pee Wee) Gaskins, Larry Gene Bell, and Susan Smith.


Gaskins (photo on left) tortured, killed, and admittedly cannibalized anywhere from one hundred to a hundred and ten victims--some for fun, some for profit. He once escaped prison by hiding in a garbage truck and fled to Georgia, but was recaptured there. Sentenced to the electric chair twice, Gaskins's first sentence was changed to life in prison when the courts reversed South Carolina's capital punishment laws. While serving the life sentence, Gaskins killed a fellow death-row inmate by blowing him up with explosives. This was a hired hit, and capital punishment had been reinstated in South Carolina. Gaskins was electrocuted in "Old Sparky" in 1991. He was known as "The Meanest Man in the World" and the "Redneck Charlie Manson."

Larry Gene Bell (photo on right) chose electrocution over lethal injection for his execution in 1996 for the kidnapping, abuse, and murder of seventeen-year-old Shari Smith and ten-year-old Debra May Helmick. He forced Shari Smith to write a "Last Will and Testament," which he mailed to her family. He also harrassed the family by telephone both before and after Shari's body was found. He obsessed about and threatened Shari's sister Dawn. Bell is suspected of having murdered more young females before these two.


Susan Smith (left) is serving life for the intentional drowning of her sons, fourteen-month-old Alexander and three-year-old Michael. Born 9/26/71, Smith had a tragic childhood. Her father committed suicide when she was six years old, and later she was a documented victim of sexual abuse by her step-father. Smith had hopes of a future with her wealthy employer when her divorce was final, but the man told her he wasn't interested in a "package deal" or raising another man's children. Her sentence start date was 11/04/94.

There are many books, movies, and documentaries about these three, or to make it simple, just look them up on Wikipedia. Our topic for today is also murder in South Carolina, an
account written by Evelyn Baker, who knew the victims. Though less notorious, the case of The Good Twins is as chilling as any of the more famous killings. Here’s the story:

THE GOOD TWINS
by Evelyn Baker

It seems like yesterday when my older friend Cleo said, "Eve, my son Frankie is moving down here from Tennessee. He's divorced, and I'd like you to meet him."

I thought, "If he's anything like his mom, I'll like him." Cleo was a character. That's the best word for this petite, guitar-playing singer from Nashville. She was full of off-the-wall advice like, "Enjoy your youth. When you wake up on your fortieth birthday, take your clothes off and stand in front of a mirror. You'll see gravity drop everything toward the floor," and, "Don't put all your eggs in one bastard."

Frankie moved to Columbia, SC, Cleo introduced us, and we dated, but there wasn’t any chemistry. We simply became friends. Frankie talked a lot about his kids, twin boys who lived with their mother in Nashville. He was worried because his ex was having trouble with them. They were fifteen years old, in special ed classes, and refused to follow rules—their mother’s or the school’s. Frankie talked about his mom, too. Cleo lived in an elegant water-front home on Lake Murray. Unhappy in her
mar
riage, Cleo wanted another divorce.

Soon Frankie had gone to Tennessee to pick up the boys, a
nd Cleo had moved out of her beautiful house. Mother and son rented a mobile home in Irmo to live in while they built a new house on lake-front property Cleo owned. They put a small travel trailer camper on the lot for convenience
when working because they were doing some of the building themselves.

With that good old SC hospitality, I invited Frankie and his twin sons--Craig and Timmy--to my home for a cookout. The twins didn't like hanging out on the patio, and my three children invited them to the upstairs game room. At a reasonable hour, Frankie called the boys down to go home. After they were gone, my oldest child, Susan, told me, "Mom, you don't want those boys around Chris and Jeffrey. They talk ugly, and they're mean."

"What did they do?" I demanded, immediately defensive of my young ones.

"They didn't hurt any of us. They just talk mean. I would have called you upstairs if they hurt anyone."

Susan refused to add anything more, but I didn't invite Frankie to bring his sons back. When he suggested family activities, I made up excuses. He acknowledged that his sons were “a hand full,” but he loved them. I didn’t have the heart to tell him, “My kids don’t like your kids.” We saw less of each other, but Frankie and I still talked on the telephone a lot.

That fall, Frankie's cousin LeeAnn called me one night and asked, "Eve, do you know where Frankie is? Nobody in the family has heard from him for days. Even Cleo doesn't know where he is."

I was able to ease their minds by telling her, "Frankie told me he was going to Nashville for a few days."

Months later, LeeAnn called me again looking for Frankie. I was working at a supper club, and she actually had me paged at work, which was as rare as the snow on the central South Carolina ground that Friday night.

"Do you know where Frankie is?" LeeAnn asked. "Nobody in the family has heard from him or Cleo all week. I called the school today, and the twins have been absent several days."

I admit I was a little irritated to be called at work about this. "You know Frankie and Cleo. They're both free spirits. Probably took off for Tennessee again," I answered. "Don't worry. They're both adults and I'm sure the twins are with them, where ever they are."

LeeAnn continued, "I went by their mobile home in Irmo. I tried to look through the blinds on the window, and it looks like Cleo is lying on the couch, all wrapped up in that afghan she loves so much. I beat and beat on the door, and she didn't move."

"One of them must have dropped the afghan on top of something on the couch," I suggested. "Frankie is so excited about building the new house. I'll bet they're up there and the phones aren't working because of the ice and snow. They're probably fine in the travel trailer," I assured her, eager to get back to work.

"Would you ride up there with me after you get off?" LeeAnn's voice was pleading.

Now the last thing I wanted to do at two o'clock in the morning was ride thirty miles on icy, snowy roads in South Carolina, where most of us don't know how to drive in those conditions. "Call the sheriff," I suggested. "Get them to stop by and check. They'll probably call you back to tell you everything's fine."

"I'll call you when I know something," she said.

"Wait 'til I'm off work," I replied.

A few hours later, at the busiest time of the night, LeeAnn had me paged again. "We're slammed right now," was the first thing I said. Then I realized she was crying.

"They're dead!" she sobbed. "The cops found Frankie and Cleo shot to death in the travel trailer, and the boys are missing. They've been kidnapped."

I personally couldn't think of why anyone would want to kidnap fifteen-year-old boys other than for ransom, and the only ones who'd pay ransom for them had been killed. I'd bet the boys were injured or dead somewhere.

Cleo had apparently been cooking when she was shot standing in front of the open refrigerator. One of the bullets went through her and wound up in an egg stored on the fridge door. Frankie had been shot in the back.

Though I tried, it was impossible to console LeeAnn and other family members who were devastated by the deaths and worried sick about the twins the next few days. Their fear for the twins changed when the cops told them that Cleo's jewelry had been pawned downtown by identical teenagers. Craig and Tim are identical twins. A few days later, the boys were arrested hiding in Nashville. They'd trashed motel rooms on their way.

Craig had always been the dominant brother, and Timmy generally followed along. They confessed that they'd planned to kill their dad and grandmother so they could have money and move back to Tennessee. In 1989, Craig was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Tim was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to fifty-five years and six months in prison. Tim's first parole eligibility is 9/20/12 and Craig's is 11/09/13. The boys have been incarcerated in separate facilities, but neither has a good record in prison, so it's unlikely, though not impossible, that either will be paroled at first eligibility.

Why would anyone call men who brutally murdered their father and grandmother "good"? Because that's their surname. Craig is Craig Layman Good and Tim is Timothy Sean Good.
They are "The Good Twins."

Postscript from Fran: Writers are frequently asked where story ideas originate. Real life is the basis for more than just true crime stories. Truth is, sometimes, indeed, stranger than fiction. If you'd like to see current photos of Susan Smith, Craig Good, and Tim Good, go to
SC's Incarcerated Inmate Search at http://sword.doc.state.sc.us/scdc-public/

Until we meet again… take care of YOU.