18 June 2012

To Fathers, Step-fathers, Adopted Fathers & Foster Fathers

As I write this it is June 17th, Father's Day, however this won't be posted until the 18th which is the day after Father's Day. But I'd like to talk a bit about fathers. I had two. My dad and my step-dad. They both were decent, honorable men who did the best they could for me, helping me reach adulthood as a productive, considerate, educated woman. I lived with my mother and my step-father, Charlie Pierce. I only spent two or three weeks with my birth father or as I called him, my "real" dad, Tom Barrow. It was difficult as a child to only see my father for such a short amount of time each summer. When I returned back home to my mother's house, I usually cried for a week or two, knowing it would be another year before I saw my dad again. I didn't understand it at the time and the idea of joint custody or even more reasonable longer visitation was not an accepted idea. My father wasn't married the first few years when I visited with him. And I think I must have been nine or ten before we had those visitation weeks. My mother and father had divorced when I was around two years old and shortly after that my father went to China and India as an Army man during World War II.

I do remember him visiting me when I was six years old. I was living with my grandmother in Houston, TX at the time. My mother was working at an aircraft factory, Consolidated, in Fort Worth and it was very difficult to have and take care of a small child with the hours she worked. My grandmother and her husband lived ten miles from the city limits of Houston on a dirt road. One day, a yellow taxi drove up to our house and a tall, lean man in an Army uniform got out of the car. It was my dad. He was home on furlough and wanted to see me. I was just getting over chicken pox and I got so excited that my red-spots seemed to pop out again. Of course it was just the excitement.

My step-father has been gone since 1995 and I miss him a lot.. He and I had a lot of problems during my teen age years but I think that's fairly normal. Teenagers are an alien species as I have mentioned before. Charlie had a lot of little sayings, like "I ain't had so much fun since the hogs at my little brother." Don't ask me to explain that one. And the standard when I asked him for money was, "If money was germs, I'd be as sterile as St. Vincent's hospital." You get the picture. One saying he had that stayed with me all these years was "There are two things in this world that can't be beat. One is a good education and the other is a good reputation." Those are words to live by for sure. I miss you and love you, Daddy.

My dad has been gone for twenty-four years and I miss him almost daily. Immediately after I graduated from high school, I moved to Fort Worth to live with my dad and step-mother. I graduated from school on Friday night and started to X-ray school on Monday morning. And during all those year afterwards I spent a lot of time with them and we grew very close. We made up for all the years we had not been together. I'm very glad he got to know my late husband, Elmer. They were alike in many ways and they were close too.

My dad loved to read and he had scads of books, mostly mysteries. Mostly private-eye mysteries and from the time I was about 12 years old and visiting my dad in the summer, he was handing me books by Mickey Spillane and Richard S. Prather and Erle Stanley Gardner. I was in heaven reading their books. Of course they were hard-boiled and womanizers (well, Perry Mason wasn't but Donald Lam was) but I just loved the style of writing these guys wrote and enjoyed the mystery plots. I decided then and there if I ever did learn to write it would definitely be mysteries and mostly likely private-eye stories. And most of my short stories did feature my female PIs Jenny Gordon and C.J. Gunn.

One major thing my dad taught me was, to do what you love. And if you can make a living at that, you're ahead of the game. That's true. I loved being in the medical field, but my unspoken dream was to write and be published. I'm really glad my dad lived long enough to read many of my short stories. He died before my novels were published but I'm sure where ever he is, he's read them as I wrote them.

The other big thing my dad taught me is that you can't live in the past with regrets. And you just can't wallow in guilt about mistakes you made. And he didn't mean not to acknowledge your mistakes, but learn from them. Everyone fails at some things and that's the way you learn how to succeed. This is very true in writing too (you thought I never would get to the point about writing didn't you?).

The only way to ever learn to be a better writer is to keep writing. When someone who knows about writing and is willing to pay you for writing gives you a critique or suggestion about your writing, then pay attention and learn. Few people are born with enough talent to be a good writer. However, you can learn how to write and how to write very well, but you have to learn from your mistakes.

Actually all the great writers that I know were not "born" writers. They were just persistent and willing to learn the craft and then learn the business or lean on someone who could guide them to the right way to become published.

So today, I say, Happy Father's Day to my dad, Thomas Lee Barrow. I love you and I miss you.

17 June 2012

Boy, That's a Good Read!

by Leigh Lundin

What do boys read? In Criminal Brief, I complained that males don't read. Okay, they read sports scores and they might read page 3 in the UK, but men and boys seldom read. Women purchase more than 70% of books and closer to three quarters of fiction. They are the leading consumers of iPads, Kobos, Nooks, and Kindles.

On Friday, Dixon Hill wrote an illuminating article how to get boys to read. He went beyond complaining about the dearth of reading boys, he did something about it.
The Art of Manliness by Brett and Kate McKay
I stumbled upon Kate and Brett McKay's superlative list of 50 books for boys, most of them classics in one way or another. In case you think writing boys books is the sole bastion of manly men, some are written by women and at least one by a girl. The 4th author in the list, Dan Beard, was my distant relative and a founder of the Boy Scouts.

Then and Now

When I was a teen, kids who couldn't yet drive devoured the Hotrod novels by Henry Gregor Felsen, favorites of Stephen King. Many stories of that era moralized but Felsen shared lessons without seeming to lecture.

Are there lessons in Harry Potter? I'm not sure. But I think I'd like The Hunger Games… there's a morality tale.

That's part of the point– books don't have to feature boys for boys to enjoy them. Lewis Carroll's Alice stories and Frank Baum's Oz stories can delight anyone. The most famous bad boy in the English language, Peter Pan, is seen through the evolving eyes of Wendy Darling. To know something about the opposite sex, boys should read a bit of what girls read. Take a break from The Hardy Boys (written by male and female authors) and try a Nancy Drew (written by many of the same male and female authors).

As luck would have it, I have no sisters or daughters, but I did have parents who took reading– including their children's reading– seriously. Many of the following recommendations come directly from them.

Where do we start? I was raised on classics so naturally classics come to mind. Let's get cracking.


Foremost, I think of Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of 26 Tarzan novels and another 50 exploration adventure stories, mostly interplanetary and 'lost world' series. Two other great authors in the exploration adventure genre are Arthur Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard, considered to have originated the modern 'lost world' genre.

I recommend several books by the popular and prolific Robert Louis Stevenson including Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, his short stories, and a book of poetry, A Child's Garden of Verses. (While Kidnapped is fiction, it was based upon a historical case.)


Along with A. Conan Doyle, I add Agatha Christie, and the Lord Peter short stories by Dorothy L Sayers. As for American writers, we have Edgar Allan Poe and I recommend the Continental Op series by Dashiell Hammett.

Mystery Romance

Wait… don't flee in terror. Wilkie Collins, friend and colleague of Charles Dickens, is considered to have originated the modern English mystery novel. He combined romance in his most popular novels, creating a gothic genre furthered by Mary Roberts Rinehart, credited with the 'Had-I-but-known' school of mystery writing.

Science Fiction

If you want to grasp what science fiction is really about, read authors from the golden era of sci-fi, including Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Philip K Dick, Philip José Farmer, and Fritz Leiber. To that list, I add two more modern writers, John Brunner and Michael Crichton. While George Orwell's 1984 is too advanced for most youth, I highly recommend Animal Farm.

Sea Stories

Like Westerns, sea stories have fallen out of vogue, but I read dozens from undersea exploration to lost-at-sea adventures. Titles and authors have long since faded, but my mother was a major fan of C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower. I also highly recommend the non-fiction adventures of Richard Henry Dana, Jr. in his classic Two Years Before the Mast.


Westerns are about morality and responsibility. There are many considered classic, but I'll leave this list to John Floyd, himself a writer of several Western stories.

Wildlife Adventure

The master of this genre is Jack London, but the world has largely forgotten James Oliver Curwood, who when he died in 1927, was the highest paid author in the world. He built his own castle in Michigan, where he secluded himself in a tower to write. I know him through two of his stories, Kazan the Wolf Dog and Baree, Son of Kazan.

In the fourth grade, I noticed friends Tina and Diane reading The Black Stallion (recommended by the McKays). Walter Farley's title character isn't exactly wildlife, but it is feral and Farley wrote 20 in the series as well as another half dozen books.

Forgotten Classics

Charles Major was an Indiana lawyer who started writing rigorously researched historical romances. His first novel, When Knighthood Was in Flower, proved so popular that it became a Broadway hit and Major gave up his law practice to write. Other historical romances proved popular, but he became known for children's stories, especially The Bears of Blue River set in pioneer times.

Booth Tarkington, another Indiana writer and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, wrote collections of stories about Penrod, a boy some compared to Tom Sawyer, but who's similar to Dennis the Menace. The stories were turned into twenty-some movies and plays. The three books are Penrod, Penrod and Sam, and the 'notted detective' tale, Penrod Jashber.

And Finally

Mark Twain always entertains and sometimes manages to educate. Read anything by Twain.

The Distaff Staff

Okay, I understand Twilight, but without sisters or daughters, I'm otherwise clueless. What do you recommend for girls?

16 June 2012

Do books change over time, or is it me?

by Elizabeth Zelvin

The first series I ever fell in love with was Elswyth Thane’s Williamsburg series, which followed a family that was remarkably free of dysfunction through American history from the Revolutionary War to World War II. I took them out of the library over and over and over again as a kid. To this day, I could probably draw the family tree of the intertwined Day, Sprague, and Campion families from the Revolutionary War to World War II. The publication of the long-awaited seventh book signaled what was probably my first moment of awareness of the New York Times bestseller list. Evidently I was not alone.

When I discovered Amazon, I found the Williamsburg novels in a reprint hardcover edition. I was delighted to meet Thane’s characters again. The only problem was that I remembered the books too well. The publisher had bowdlerized a few details for the library audience, and the discrepancy between the page and my memory irritated tremendously. In This Was Tomorrow, set mostly in London in World War II, the American Stephen Sprague falls in love with his British cousin Evadne, who is innocent and passionate and given to Causes. There’s a scene where Stephen offers Evadne her first drink of champagne and she defies the repressed Hermione (who has drawn her into the Oxford Group and is really jealous because she’s in love with Stephen) to drink it. In the original, Evadne snatches the glass and stutters, “Give me that champagne!” The library edition renders it, “Give me that wine!” Lead balloon. I guess the publishers agreed with Thane that champagne represents all that is daring and sinful, too daring and sinful for the reprint house back in—well, the book was first published in 1980 and the new publishing house was founded in 1997. I really can’t explain it.

I recently bought the first in the series, Dawn’s Early Light, for my Kindle to replace a paperback edition that I had read literally to pieces. The paper had defeated the rubber band holding together pages from which all trace of glue had long vanished by becoming so brittle it crumbled away when touched. This time around, I discovered new anomalies. I remembered that Thane was an apologist for slavery. Yes, I know that characters’ opinions are not necessarily the author’s, but she’s so darn comfortable with this particular point of view, returning frequently to how childlike and happy the slaves are in civilized Virginia and how bereft they would feel if freed. (“Who gwine take care ob me now?”) One of the main characters says:

“We have had a rise in the slave trade lately. And with slave labor increasing, it is difficult for a bondservant who has worked out his time to find work to live by. That is the real evil of slavery, Mr. Day, and not man’s inhumanity to man.” Huh? The real evil of black bondage is that it takes jobs away from white workers? Tell that to, hmm, President Obama. Is that the real reason his enemies don’t like him? He took the job away from a white man? What perplexes me is that this aspect of the book didn’t bother me more when I was younger. I didn’t condone it, but I read it uncritically, intent on the story.

Thomas Jefferson is one of several historical figures who play secondary roles. When the protagonist enlists Jefferson’s aid in helping his young protegée, he reasons that Jefferson is a father, he has children and so will understand the need to get Tibby a doll and enable her to go to school. There’s no mention of the children Jefferson was willing to leave in slavery, two of them until his death. (For a discussion of the current evidence, including DNA, regarding Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings and the paternity of her children, see  http://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-sally-hemings-brief-account ).

The other aspect of the Williamsburg novels that I read with a different attitude today is Thane’s penchant for giving her love stories very young heroines. Tibby is ten when she falls in love with the twenty-one-year-old Julian Day, though he doesn’t realize he’s in love with her too until she’s almost seventeen, a marriageable age in the 18th century. In the third book, Ever After, Bracken falls in love with fifteen-year-old Dinah at first sight, although he chivalrously makes sure she’s unaware of it until she’s free of the austere British upper-class nursery and “out” in society. In This Was Tomorrow, ten-year-old Mab is presented as a reincarnation of Tibby, immediately falling for twenty-one-year-old Jeff, who feels a strange attraction to her in spite of his love for his cousin Sylvia. (Sylvia conveniently dies in the Blitz in Homing.)

This recurrent scenario did not come out of nowhere. Thane married naturalist William Beebe, after having “idolized [him] for years,” according to Wikipedia, when she was twenty-seven and he was fifty, an age difference of twenty-three years. None of the romances in Thane’s books are overtly sexual, nor does any sex happen outside of marriage—although according to Wikipedia, Thane and Beebe had a non-monogamous “open marriage”. I didn’t question the propriety of these May-December romances when I read about them as a kid. But I'm not sure a 21st-century novelist could get away with them.

15 June 2012

Guys Read

If you’re reading this between 10 am and 1 pm, California time, on Friday, then — Even as you read, buddy! — I’m behind the wheel of a 12-passenger van, burning east along I-10. I’m on my way back home from the church Summer Camp where I’ve been incarcerated with scores of screaming teenagers since early Monday morning.

I spent the week before this getting the van laid on, hunting down last-minute campers, and preparing things so that my dad, my wife and our kids would be ready for my week-long absence, as well as gathering the minutia I figured a 49-year-old man would need during a week of — well, I guess it’s not exactly “hell-raising” if we’re going to be at church camp. Still, my list of minutia included a small propane stove with coffee-making accessories, a stash of cigars I expect to E&E into the woods to enjoy (since smoking is prohibited on the camp grounds), plus a big box of chemical heating pads for aching back muscles.

I didn’t exactly mean to volunteer for this. But, I did in fact volunteer for it. So, I suppose I ought to quit my … er … um … ‘complaining’ (see, I’m already practicing to spend the week at church camp with a bunch of teenagers).

What happened is this: A few months ago, I promised the 22-year-old woman, who was going along as a counselor for the girls, that I’d go with her if we couldn't find a younger guy to shepherd the boys. We only have five girls and one boy attending camp, but the  22-year-old refused to go without another adult, and none of the other college-aged kids in our church could get time off from work. So … I’m the guy driving a 12-passenger van with the rear seat removed for added cargo space, a young female counselor and six teens. And, I have no idea what’s in store for me up at camp, as I write this — though, by the time you read this, it will all be over.

One thing all this does have me thinking about is KIDS.

Particularly young boys, around nine or ten — like the rowdies in the Sunday school class I teach. Boys who are dying to go to camp, but aren't yet old enough, which is something I’m working to rectify for next year.

These 3rd and 4th graders may be too young for this year’s camp, but they aren’t too young to swing hammers, work saws, and turn screws when we build Sunday school projects. (Can’t tell this class is taught by an old SF Engineer Sergeant, can you? No doily projects for us, buddy. We stick to wood and hardware! That’s the only thing that keeps these “Wild Men of Borneo”, as I call them, from tearing apart the classroom. LOL   And, please realize: No slight is intended to those who hail from Borneo; these are all great kids.)

These boys are just that. BOYS. They love adventure. They crave it; they seek it; and, when adventure isn’t a part of their real lives — they invent it. Which brings me to the point of this post:

Guys Read

According to their website, Guys Read is “a web-based literacy program for boys … Our mission is to help boys become self-motivated, lifelong readers.”

I first stumbled across Guys Read when I bought one of their anthologies for my son at a school book fair. This anthology, Guys Read: THRILLER, holds ten short stories, packed with action and adventure — a real hit with my son and his friends.

Some of the stories, such as Ghost Vision Glasses, by Patrick Carman, are spooky and fall into the horror category. Others, such as Gennifer Choldenko’s Snake Mafia, are pure mystery-suspense. The Double Eagle Has Landed, by Anthony Horowitz, is a perfect blend of action, suspense and comedy that had me laughing (and biting my nails) right alongside my son, while Walter Dean Myers’ Pirate provided a quick and troubling, blinding flash of insight concerning life as a teen pirate off the coast of Mogadishu.

All these stories have young male protagonists who face daunting odds, force their way (sometimes with second and third thoughts) through a rousing adventure, and finally find their way out the other side.

Guys Read website says: “… research … shows that boys will read — if they are given reading that interests them.” And, I have to say: "I couldn't agree MORE!"

Guys Read: THRILLER definitely delivers. But, the site offers more, saying:

“… the biggest part of this site is the collection of book titles below. These are books that guys have told us they like. Our idea is to help guys become readers by helping them find texts they want to read. Get in there and start looking around. There is a little something for everyone.”

 This old soldier's suggestion?

If you know a young guy, similar to one of my “Wild Men of Borneo”, check out Guys Read. You may be opening up a whole new world of adventure for him!

See you in two weeks (assuming I survive Church Camp without being burned at the stake!),
— Dix

14 June 2012

Summertime and the Living is Killing Me

It isn't even officially summer yet and I'm dying from the heat. Not literally, but it seems likely I could succumb any moment. The heat index has soared into the 90's already where I live and people are getting cranky. It isn't pretty.

It's a fact that more crimes are connected to heat than any other weather -- while suicides occur more with rainy seasons. Personally, I like a rainy night (and day), so I don't understand that part, but my address doesn't get that much rain.

Crime rates interest me. Is there a reason for spikes and times of lower criminal activities due to a high thermostat rating? According to many experts, crime rates are higher in the Southern states where the temps rise higher and higher like notes in Mariah Carey song that don't seem possible.

Human behavior is studied, incarcerated prisoners are interviewed and police officers are questioned for their take on the dilemma in search for answers. If only we could encase the Earth beneath a huge glass globe like Superman's Metropolis and regulate the weather. I think it would be a great discovery if someone could figure out how to do this. Imagine the possibilities. No more worrying about global warming.

In the meantime, we can only spend so much time near a pool, lake or ocean to cool down. Too much sun is another problem with situating ourselves at some sort of water park for the duration of the too-hot-to-breathe weather. If you've ever had a bad sunburn, you understand the grouchiness that accompanies that scenario, too. Are there no answers?

I think I may have this one solved.

I am suggesting the public take a mandatory break during the heat of the day. If it were a national proclamation, it'd be like a daily mini-vacation without having to pay anything extra for gasoline although snacks might corrupt the budget a little. If doing this cut down on crime, think of the money law enforcement could save. In that case, the government could afford to pay us (or provide a nice tax break or something) to stop and rest while it's scorching outside. I'm sure some would use the time to take a siesta, do another load of laundry or write one more chapter on that Great American Novel. But for those who wouldn't be interested in any of that, how about just sitting down and spending some time reading.

That suggestion comes with an interesting caveat: I'd want everyone to choose a (gasp!) mystery which probably includes a crime.

13 June 2012


It's been a funny old few weeks. 'Funny' in the Emo Phillips sense of strange or bizarre. We've been pulling down the house, was the first thing, or at least a false wall that the previous owner had built to encase the monumental fireplace and chimney that graces our living room. We expected to find human remains, but all there was was a spider evidently dead of boredom. During this demolition, surrounded by stepladders and tools of all persuasions, I had a clever idea which finally turned out as usual to be a suicidal manoevre. At the end of this clever idea I fell flat on my cervical vertebrae. I suppose I was lucky: two people I know of who did the same sort of thing are now quadriplegic. But the results are still with me. For one thing, I can now only walk with the aid of a stiff drink.
But that was long ago. Last week turned out to be the most bizarre of all.
First there was the Queen Spree in London which I watched from afar, while wiping away  a fugitive tear and a fugitive spill of scotch.
The rest of the week is a sort of ABC. That's all I can think of to characterise it - sorry I put an 's' there instead of a 'z'. I'll try to do better.

A  is for Auden (W.H. of that ilk).

Tomorrow, Mimi is off to London to visit her son. Rather now than in a month, since he lives within the epicentre of the Olympic Games. She is going by Eurostar, and therefore is going under the Channel. This has her white-lipped and trembling. I have tried to reassure her that the tunnel is in a part of the planet,: "They didn't tunnel though the water, dear, but through the rock."  That does no good. For Mimi the Channel Tunnel is a wobbly sort of tube resting on the seabed.
But anyway, I shall be waving her off at the Gare du Nord which pleases me no end. I love railway stations. I love them to death. I would prefer a lot of vapour and a steam-whistle, but those days are gone, Marjorie. I'll make do with what there is. I love just looking at it all - the crossroads. And what does all this have to do with anything? Well, for a month or so, I've been reading a lot of poetry. I read poetry when the writing isn't going too well or just isn't going, when it seems to have a cleansing effect, rather like that stuff you use to unblock drains. Auden has been one of my favourite poets since I was a teenager. I don't know why. Perhaps it's the imagination coupled with a talent for the common touch.
In 1938 Auden spent some time in Brussels where he wrote some of his best shorter poems. 'The Musée des Beaux Arts' is one that I'll bang on about some other time. My all-star favourite is 'The Gare du Midi' which has always fascinated me, because it is a short mystery story, or at the very least the start of one. Everyone probably knows it by heart, but I like writing it out.
Gare du Midi

A nondescript express in from the south.
Crowds around the barrier, a face
To welcome which the mayor has not contrived
Bugles or braid: something about the mouth
Distracts the stray look with alarm and pity.
Snow is falling. Clutching a little case
He walks out briskly to infect a city
Whose terrible future may have just arrived.

You just know that on a certain day in 1938, Auden sat in a station cafe and saw something - a person - that disturbed him and stayed with him. Since I first read it, I've been trying - and we're talking decades here - to write the story that Auden began . And there must be other poems like this somewhere. Does anyone have another?

B is for Bradbury.

By a sad coincidence, on the morning of the 5th, I pulled out a copy of Fantasy and Science Fiction - October 2000. I often pull out this particular magazine to read a Ray Bradbury story called 'Quid Pro Quo'. It's a story that involves time travel but it's not about time travel, if you get me. But  I don't read it just for the story, but for the author notes, which accompany it.
In the notes, Gordon Van Gelder, ( for I take it to be he) writes this:
"One of the things Ray Bradbury takes seriously is the matter of using one's talents. When asked years ago what the Eleventh Commandment mmight be, Mr Bradbury repeated Polonius's advice to Laertes: " This above all: to thine own self be true." 
"To neglect God's gifts to you," says the great Mr B., " is one of the greater sins."

Furthermore, the manuscript bore this gentle warning from its author: "Reader, beware. If I ever meet you and ask you what you have done with your genetic talent and you give the wrong answer, I may throw you down the stairs." 

This little passage has always made me very very uneasy. And never more so than when the writing gets too difficult and I seek other easier tasks. I have been negligent in the past. Less so now. But whenever I am tempted to persuade myself that rolling and smoking a cigarette to smoke under the Big Parasol and listen to the sparrows holding a rowdy class reunion in the forsythia is a worthwhile  activity, comparable to sitting down and doing the writing, I feel the cold breath of these words on the back of my neck. The words of one of the greatest teachers of  Writing and Reading we have ever had.

C is for Christie.

Last week, I decided to try again. Agatha is not my favourite. We do not get along. We rub each other up the wrong way. So last week, I had another try to see whether, with advancing age, I could see my way to finding some good in there. And I can already feel the shudders of revulsion and loathing. ("Someone doesn't like Agatha Christie!  What sort of a world are we living in? Isn't there some sort of therapy for these people?")
I didn't read 'The ABC Murders'; that would have been way too neat. I read 'Mrs McGinty's Dead'. And I have to say, it didn't take. I simply don't like her. That's all.
But I didn't come out empty-handed. Because I realised that I had a quiz question. I know it is more Rob Lopresti's  or John  Floyd's flower-bed than mine. But I have no shame.

Neil Schofield's Big Quiz Question:

Can you find the connection between Agatha Christie and Ray Bradbury?
Clue: Think North of the Border.

Either pathetically easy or fiendishly difficult. You pays your money…
No prizes for a correct answer. Except the knowledge of a job well done.

12 June 2012

Wedding Bell Blues

June is the month of brides and I've just returned from a wedding.  As I've grown older I have found that I attend more funerals than weddings...which I deeply regret.  Weddings are one of the last bastions of open bars and bad dancing, and for people like me that spells fun.  Most people like weddings, I think.  It's one of the few ceremonies left that both attendees and participants mutually enjoy.  It's an optimistic occasion in every culture and faith; full of youth and exuberance, hopes and expectations.  And people look better at weddings--there are pretty girls dressed very prettily and men in tuxedos and suits.  Have you noticed that almost every man is improved by a tux?  The seventies may have provided the exception to this rule.  I understand the bridesmaids gowns are usually cringe-inducing, however, the selfless manner in which the chosen few submit to them is very charming and brave.  I mostly come away feeling better about people and favorably impressed with the rising generation.  The open bar may play some small part in these perceptions.
Not all weddings proceed in the effortless, swan-like, manner hoped for by the bride's proud parents.  Usually this occurs during the reception, and sometimes in spectacular fashion.  I have never attended one of these wedding train wrecks as a guest, but I have been involved with one or two professionally as a police officer.  It's very uncomfortable, and in one instance, tragic. 

As there are always the exceptions to the rule, so it is with my mention that people are mostly happy at weddings.  Some are not.  On such occasions the open bar tends to be a bad idea discovered too late.  Passions run high at wedding receptions, and they are not always amorous ones.  And once the libations begin to flow, speaking one's mind to total strangers feels almost compulsory.  Sadly, these strangers are often related to the shortly-to-be-unhappy couple whom the critic has decided to publicly indict, or offer unsavory, and inappropriate, commentary on.  Bad dancing is quickly replaced with equally poor, but vigorous, fighting skills.  These martial displays appeal mightily to the young testosterone-charged, and well-lubricated young men in attendance, tux or nay, who quickly choose sides and join the fray.  Police are called by management.  The expensive nuptials become just another Saturday night at bar break.

It does happen.  I've responded to such a call and can attest.  It makes a good story for the grandchildren someday...perhaps.  The bride's mother  is never the same, I think.

On one occasion, officers of my department had to return several times to the hotel where the reception was held to put down flare-ups.  These went on well after the reception and raged from room-to-room into the wee hours of the morning.  It was something of a Hatfield-McCoy wedding though everyone did go home at the end of it all.

This was not the case during one reception.  In this instance, it was held at a seaside hotel during the autumn and all was going well until one of the bridesmaids husband decided to go swimming.  The day before had been very stormy and the ocean was still churning when he rushed onto the beach, stripped out of his shoes and shirt, and dove in.  This was after the season and no lifeguards manned the beach.  He was last seen swimming due east--directly out to sea.  When I arrived the wife was hysterical and screaming for me to send my officers into the water after him.  One of my men volunteered, but when I took in the condition of the sea and learned that the last time he had been seen with any assurance had been twenty minutes prior, I said no.  This was very hard to do, but I couldn't risk another man's life under the circumstances.  Naturally, I did activate the Coast Guard and fire department, which also had some boats available.  It was a fruitless search that went on until dark.  I found him the next night having washed up with the tide.  I was grateful that he was unmarked.  The sea can do truly terrible work on those it claims.  It was a small mercy for the wife and family.

Weddings would seem to be a good setting for a mystery story, but I'm not aware of very many.  Perhaps I've just not come across them.  My education is sometimes spotty.  Certainly there are the requisite ingredients available: passion, drink, love, sexual tension, and that certain, "I can't be held responsible for my behavior" attitude amongst many attendees.  Additionally, as the receptions often involve hotels and overnight stays, further intrigue is possible throughout the long night.  I might try writing one someday.   

In spite of my "on-duty" experiences, I still like weddings very much.  They make me feel younger and more hopeful.  As for honeymoons, well, that's another story, isn't it?  You don't get invited along on those very often.  But crime, violence, and tragedy, stalk them as well if the news is to be believed--husbands vanish from cruise liners; wives go diving with their husbands and don't come back up.  It would seem the institution of marriage is fraught with peril from proposal to final parting.  Perhaps this explains the falling marriage rate.

Whether it does, or doesn't, it certainly provides potential grist for the literary mill and food for dark thought--devil's food wedding cake perhaps.   



11 June 2012

Are You Sitting Down?

Usually,  "Are you sitting down?" introduces conversations that deal with topics that are shocking--either tragically or wonderfully.  In this case, the question is meant literally and directed toward the writers among us.  Perhaps I should expand the inquiry to, "Are you sitting down when you write?When I first considered this, I thought that people with computers probably always write sitting, but with a laptop or the proper positioning of bed or couch and computer, writing can be accomplished while lying down.  Personally, I know a couple of writers who still write in long-hand before moving their work to a computer.This would make writing while reclining easier.  I also have a friend who writes everything on his Ipad.

Mark Twain, Truman Capote, and Marcel Proust were all inclined to lie down on the job when writing.  They weren't lazy.  Each of them was ambitious and prolific.  Mark Twain scolded writers who complained about the difficulty of writing.  He is quoted as saying, "Writing is the easiest thing in the world...Just try it in bed sometime.  I sit up with a pipe in my mouth and a board on my knees, and I scribble away."  Imagine how much more prolific Twain would have been with a computer on his knees!
Marcel Proust's housekeeper said that she'd never seen him write when he wasn't lying down.  He didn't even use a pillow to prop himself up.Truman Capote had a ritual of writing everything in long-hand, then editing and copying it over in long-hand before ever transferring it to a typewriter.  Revisions after the typed versions were typed on a special yellow paper.  Capote wrote lying down while smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.  Whew!  No wonder he reclined to write.  Just thinking about this routine makes me tired.

The opposite extreme from the writers who lie down to write are the ones who stand to write.  Ernest Hemingway is said to have written A Moveable Feast at a stand-up desk.

Philip Roth claims he paces constantly when writing and that each page of his books represents about half a mile of walking.  His  Goodbye, Columbus would represent a 100-mile walk, but it did win a National Book Award, so perhaps it was worth the long walk.

Charles Dickens was also a stand-up writer, but when he needed inspiration, he became a walk-around author.  He commented that when walking in Paris, his rambling walks always ended up at the Paris Morgue.

Writers sitting, reclining, standing, or walking? Another interesting consideration is clothing. There are writers who wear their pajamas or nightgowns while creating.  The author of Cyranno de Bergerac, playwright Edmond Rostand, worked while in his bathtub.  D. H. Lawrence sought inspiration by climbing trees when nude.  This is one kink I don't recall reading about in his work.

During a spell of writer's block, Victor Hugo once gave his servant his clothes and had him lock Hugo in a room, forbidding the servant to let him out until he'd completed his day's writing goal. Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, frequently cured writer's block by hanging himself upside down in gravity boots.

What about you?  What's your favorite position to write?  Do you use any special kind of paper? What do you like to wear when writing?  Any unusual rituals?  Tell us about them.

What's that?  You have a question? 

Absoutely not!  I have no intention of telling you where I'm writing this or what I'm wearing.

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

10 June 2012

Professional Tips– Ray Bradbury

by Leigh Lundin

A Sound of Thunder

Ray Bradbury died.

The science fiction guy.

I'll tell you why crime readers should care. I'll tell you why writers should care.

To reiterate a previous article: Like westerns aren't about shootouts but about morality, the best science fiction– true science fiction– isn't about monsters or wookies or light sabres. it's about us– it's about society. It's about imagination.

Beyond that, there's a bond between American science fiction and mysteries, not the least being the authors who cross over from one to the other. If you doubt me, consider Bouchercon, named for Anthony Boucher. If you wonder about Bradbury's importance to writing in general, look no farther than Farenheit 451, the first and final word about the freedom of writing. He's particularly revered for not inventing Scientology.

Ray Bradbury was an amazing short story writer. The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man aren't so much novels as they are collections of short stories.
Social Butterfly Effect

My mother bought Playboy subscriptions for my Dad's birthday. Thanks to that fortuitous event, I used to sneak in and 'read' my father's magazines. Although I was too young to actually read (and therefore couldn't cover my crime by getting the dates in the right order), I discovered I liked women and all their components… a lot. I'm very grateful not to have grown up in the hysteria of today's world.

By the time I could parse words, I found Playboy published some of the finest science fiction including Bradbury. One of those stories in June 1956 was the chilling 'A Sound of Thunder' by Ray Bradbury. The term 'butterfly effect' grew out of the story long before scientists used the word. The movie A Sound of Thunder is 'okay' but uses the original story only as a starting point. Read the story and discover why Bradbury is a genius.

The Sound of Bradbury

What can a master teach us? Here are a few words of Bradbury's wisdom.
  1. We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.
  2. Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.
  3. Do what you love and love what you do.
  4. I don't need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me.
  5. Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember.
  6. If you dream the proper dreams, and share the myths with people, they will want to grow up to be like you.
  7. If you enjoy living, it is not difficult to keep the sense of wonder.
  8. Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get. Life should be touched, not strangled. You’ve got to relax, let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it.
  9. Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.
  10. I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don't have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I educated myself in the public library three days a week for 10 years, and it's better than college. People should educate themselves - you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I'd written a thousand stories.
  11. You must live life at the top of your voice! At the top of your lungs shout and listen to the echoes.
  12. Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down. Jump, and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall.
  13. I sometimes get up at night when I can't sleep and walk down into my library and open one of my books and read a paragraph and say, "My God, did I write that?"
  14. I don't believe in being serious about anything. I think life is too serious to be taken seriously.
  15. I've often been accused of being too emotional and sentimental, but I believe in honest sentiment, and the need to purge ourselves at certain times, which is ancient. Men would live at least five or six more years and not have ulcers if they could cry better.
  16. The women in my life have all been librarians, English teachers, or booksellers. If they couldn't speak pidgin Tolstoy, articulate Henry James, or give me directions to Usher and Ox, it was no go. I have always longed for education, and pillow talk's the best.
  17. Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.
  18. Some people turn sad awfully young. No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I'm one of them.
  19. I'm not afraid of machines. I don't think the robots are taking over. I think the men who play with toys have taken over. And if we don't take the toys out of their hands, we're fools.
  20. I don't try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.
  21. We must move into the universe. Mankind must save itself. We must escape the danger of war and politics. We must become astronauts and go out into the universe and discover the God in ourselves.
  22. Don't ask for guarantees. And don't look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were heading for shore.
  23. So few want to be rebels anymore. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily.
  24. I know you've heard it a thousand times before. But it's true - hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practise, practise, practise. If you don't love something, then don't do it.
  25. You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.
  26. There is no future for eBooks, because they are not books. E-books smell like burned fuel.
  27. Do you know that books smell like nutmeg or some spice from a foreign land? I loved to smell them when I was a boy. Lord, there were a lot of lovely books once, before we let them go.
  28. You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.
  29. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.
  30. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.
  31. You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.
  32. Don't talk about it; write.
And finally…
  • If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.

A sound of thunder…

09 June 2012

It's a Long Story

by John M. Floyd

I have often heard fiction writers say, "Write whatever you like, but make sure it's either long enough to be a novel or short enough to be a short story."  Meaning, of course, that anything in between is hard to sell.  And what's in between is called a novella.

Hiking into No Man's Land

Marketability is of course not quite as big an issue these days, since the publishing and self-publishing of e-books has allowed novellas to be presented as easily as novels and shorts--but the novella does remain something of an oddity.  For those writers (like me) who continued to publish quite a few stories the traditional way, there just aren't many print markets out there that will consider novella-length manuscripts.  Very few high-circulation magazines accept novella submissions, and not many anthologies either.  The only easy way to publish novellas in print form seems to be via collections by established authors like Stephen King, who group four of five of them together in a book.

This past year, I sat down just after the Christmas holidays, when all our kiddos and grandbabies had left and our house was as quiet at Tut's tomb, and wrote a 16,000-word western mystery.  That's not quite in novella range (some editors consider the starting point to be around 20K) but it's close enough to make that story difficult to sell.  So why did I write it?  And why didn't I at least make it shorter or longer, so it would "fit in"?  Well, if you're a writer, you know the answer to that: some stories just have to be a certain length.  To have added more would have seemed like "padding" and to have taken anything out would have hurt the story.  As it turned out, I'm satisfied with it--but I do realize there's a real possibility that the manuscript might never be read by anyone but me, and that I might one day wind up using it for scratch paper, or to prop up a wobbly table leg.

Lights, camera, action

There seems to be only one real advantage to writing novella-length stories: they translate well into screenplays.  When a short story is adapted to film, something has to be added to it.  (Example: 3:10 to Yuma.  Elmore Leonard's short story begins when the two main characters are already in town, sitting in the hotel room; by the time that scene happens in the most recent film version, the movie's more than halfway done.)  Conversely, when a novel is adapted to the screen, something has to be left out.  (Example: almost any novel/movie you can think of.)  So far as I know, there are only three ways to successfully avoid those problems:

1. Adapt a novel into a miniseries (Centennial, Lonesome Dove, Shogun, The Winds of War).

2.  Adapt a short story into a short film or a half-hour TV drama (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond, Death Valley Days, Twilight Zone).

3.  Adapt a novella.

Again, well-written novellas usually become good movies.  I'm reminded here of two by Stephen King: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and The Body.  Those were adapted into the outstanding films The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont) and Stand by Me (Rob Reiner), and I believe one of the many reasons that both were so good was that they were so faithful to the original stories.  There was little need to either trim or inflate them.  The same holds true for Norman Maclean's novella A River Runs Through It, which became the excellent movie by Robert Redford.

Notable novellas

I can't resist listing a dozen of my favorites:

The Postman Always Rings Twice -- James M. Cain
The Time Machine -- H. G. Wells
Of Mice and Men -- John Steinbeck
The Mist -- Stephen King
The Third Man -- Graham Greene
I Am Legend -- Richard Matheson
Heart of Darkness -- Joseph Conrad
Tenkiller -- Elmore Leonard
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? -- P. K. Dick
Legends of the Fall -- Jim Harrison
Shopgirl -- Steve Martin
The Call of the Wild -- Jack London

NOTE: Many of the above did result in darn good movies.  And some didn't.

Just a few questions, ma'am . . .

What are some of your favorite novellas?  In general, do you find them more enjoyable than novels or shorts?  Less enjoyable?  Do you have a preference?  (I don't.  To me, length doesn't matter if the story's good.)

Besides, the term "novella" is subjective.  I've heard people refer to A Christmas Carol as a short story and to The Old Man and the Sea as a novel.  But who really cares?  Good fiction is good fiction.

I also heard someplace that if you'd like to read Herman Melville and you aren't in the mood to read 800 pages about a hunt for a sperm whale, Billy Budd is a reasonable alternative.  (Sounds reasonable to me.)

. . . and a definition

The following silly poem might be a good way to close this silly discussion.  I call it "In Literary Terms."

"A short story's simple, but what's a 'novella'?"
Joe asked writing teacher Ms. West;
"And how do I know 'novelettes' when I see them,
And what's a 'short novel'?" he pressed.
"In fact, why not just call all three the same thing?"
Joe continued while scratching his head.
Ms. West just leaned forward, face solemn, eyes twinkling;
"Well, that's a long story," she said.

08 June 2012

Stealing Slicks

For those of you wondering what calf brandings and riding along Custer's Trail (dealt with in my last two blogs) has to do with Sleuth Sayer's theme of mystery, crime and criminals, hang on, this is where it all comes together.
About mid-career, the agency sent me back east to Conspiracy School. Here, the Wise Men taught us how to use evidence from already existing cases along with witness testimony in order to bring grand jury indictments against drug suppliers further up in the hierarchy. It was a way to reach out and touch some of the hard to get guys. To implement this training, I took full advantage of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines which stated that a defendant could get a lesser sentence if he cooperated.

The starting point for this cooperation was for the defendant to sit down with me for several hours in which he provided details of every deal he'd ever done, to include the who, the where, the when, the amounts, how it was transacted and what telephone records, motel records, airline tickets, vehicle rentals, financial records or other evidence might exist for me to build a case, even if the supplier was in another country. It was grueling work, building a time line and going over and over the facts to pry out any useful gem of information.

At the end of our sessions, I had learned to ask three simple questions:
  1. Have I asked all the right questions?
  2. Is there anything else you haven't told me?
  3. Are there any other crimes we need to talk about?
It seems that once, during a call back interview when I confronted a defendant about leaving out some information in a previous session, his excuse was that I hadn't asked the right questions, thus my utilization of Questions 1 & 2.However, it was the answers to Question #3 that sometimes provided unexpected stories. Like the time I debriefed a guy we'll call Charlie Lewis.

Charlie was a hired ranch hand who had fallen in with bad companions, although in his case it didn't take much to get there. Seeing the high rate of financial return and the low work requirements for dealing dope, as opposed to pulling calves and tending livestock for other people, Charlie became an entrepreneur at a low rent motel. Unfortunately, his desire for easy money put together with his ignorance of the downside to this type of business soon had him sporting some shiny, new wrist jewelry.

So, when I got to Question #3 with Charlie, his reply was, "Well, I used to steal slicks."

Now, I had no idea why anybody would want to steal bald tires, and it must have showed in my response.


"Yeah," said Charlie as he proceeded to educate me about "slick" being a reference to an unbranded calf, one which still had a slick or unmarked hide, and therefore was easy to sell to an auction barn with loose requirements. His tale went something like this.
In the dark of night, Charlie and one of his hard-up-for-cash, thieving partners would park their pickups and livestock trailers on a lonely country road not too far from a pasture gate. They'd saddle up their horses, open the gate and ride through some rancher's vast grass land until they found part of his herd. Naturally, they picked a ranch which hadn't gotten around to branding yet.

Rounding up as many "slicks" as the two of them could handle, they herded them back to the gate and into the livestock trailers. Afterwards, they drove all night to a stock yard down in Nebraska where a one-eyed stock dealer would purchase the calves with no questions asked. However, there was one midnight roundup which still bothered Charlie.

They'd gathered up some slicks and were headed back to the pickup when it started raining hard, and finally got down right miserable trying to keep their small herd together. Spying a deserted ranch house nearby, the two partners decided to pen the calves up inside the house and shut the door. Then, they'd go home, get dried out and rested up, and come back in the morning to retrieve their ill gotten gains.

The next morning, Charlie's partner failed to show up and get him. Charlie waited until well after daybreak before deciding to drive out to the deserted ranch house and load the calves up himself. But, when he arrived at the abandoned house, it was empty. Later, Charlie heard that his so-called partner had been spending lots of money in the local bars down by the Rez, As Charlie sadly lamented, "There really is no honor amongst thieves." And, that was the end of his tale, but not the end of the story.

Years later, on one of the Custer Trail Rides, that ole cowboy, that I'd helped round up his beef and then trail them off goverment pasture and over to his ranch land, came up to me in camp.

"I hear you know Charlie Lewis," he said.

"That's right," I replied. "How do you know him?"

"I hired him straight out of college to help me at calving time."

That was news to me. I had no idea Charlie had ever gone to college. The old rancher soon clued me in that "college" was a local euphemism for prison, because it was an institution where those in attendence got educated into all types of crime.

I had to admit, he had a point.

"Yeah," he continued, "and when we got done with calving that year and I got to tallying up the count, I happened to mention in front of Charlie that we were a couple of calves shy."

I immediately began to wonder if the rancher suspected Charlie of being up to his old tricks.

"Nope," replied the rancher, "Charlie was so happy I'd given him a job so he could get out of college a few months early that he made me an offer on the shortage."

"Don't worry about the missing ones," Charlie is reported to have said. "I know where I can get you a couple of slicks to replace those two."

The old rancher hurriedly declined Charlie's generous offer, but I've often wondered how Charlie turned out after that. Last I heard, he had a good job working for an interstate company. Could be an interesting situation, depending upon how often they update their inventory.

07 June 2012

The Asparagus Bed

I've had out of town guests the last week and a half.   New composition was out of the question.  So, for your reading enjoyment (I hope), a story of mine that was published in "Green Prints", a gardening magazine, in August of 2002.  Also, historically, the first appearance of Officer Grant Tripp...

     By the end of May, Mary Olson’s future asparagus bed was five feet wide by eight feet long and getting deeper every day.  It looked, we all agreed, just like a grave, and the only question was what to bury in it.  Most of us put her husband at the top of the list, but not Mary.
     “Not on your life!” Mary cried.  “I plan to be eating from this patch for twenty years, and that means I’ve got to lay down enough fertilizer to feed it all that time.  Now you tell me, would you want to be eating off of Ed for twenty years?”  You couldn’t argue with that.
     Nobody had ever seen Mary work so hard.  She’d come home from working at the water treatment plant at four, and head straight for the back yard.  Felix, her cat, was right behind her as always, silent and stiff-legged. He was eighteen years old and he followed her like a dog.  She’d pet him a bit, set her beer can on top of the fence post, pick up the shovel, and have at it.
     She dug it all by hand.  The shovel was way too tall for her, but she wouldn’t use the short kind because they threw her back out.  She wore big heavy work boots and tied her head up in a bandanna to keep the mosquitoes out of her ears.  Her hair, linen yellow and tightly permed, poofed up over the bandanna just like a poodle’s.  From the neck up she looked like Rosie the Riveter; from the neck down like Roseanne.

     You never saw anyone dig so carefully.  She kept the sides straight as a ruler, sifted the dirt clean of trash, and clipped the roots away instead of hacking them with the shovel.  The cleaned dirt went into a big pile by the hole, the roots and trash into a paper sack.  She took her time, and since Ed always lingered down at Mellette’s Lounge, she had plenty of it.  Two hours and two beers, with Felix curled up in his favorite spot under the lilacs, watching her sweating hard, creating the ultimate in cat boxes.  Well, don’t you think that’s what he thought about it?
     God knows what Ed thought about it.  Maybe he didn’t.  As long as he had his dinner hot and ready whenever he floated on home, he didn’t care.  Mary said his favorite meal was frozen fish filets, microwaved to perfection, so the menu wasn’t hard to plan.  She bought them by the case, along with boxed macaroni and cheese dinners and canned green beans, and that’s about what they lived on, because Ed wouldn’t eat anything else and neither would Mary.
     Which is why I wondered about the bed.  I mean, if Mary had finally developed a yen for fresh asparagus, all she had to do was go out and hunt it in ditches like the rest of us.  Instead, there she was, every afternoon except rain and Sundays, digging away.  Oh, well.  Actually, it turned into quite a tourist attraction.  Everyone dropped by sooner or later.  Mary would stand back and sip her beer while Felix hid and we all looked and nodded and wondered, by the time it was a foot and a half deep, if it wasn’t deep enough.
     “I’ve got to go down another foot or so,” Mary said.  “That’s what double digging’s all about.  Then I can work in a couple of good thick layers of manure covered with dirt, and then I can lay out my roots.”  We all nodded like we’d just finished doing the same ourselves.  “I want it to last my lifetime at least, so I’ve got to do it right the first time.”  And we all nodded again like it was gospel.
     She dug the bed two feet deep.  She dug the bed three feet deep, and the kids started asking if she was digging to China.  She dug the bed four feet deep and we started worrying a little, especially when Ed went off to the VFW one night and never came back.  No one even remembered seeing him arrive.  After he was missing three days, Mary called the police and Grant Tripp came out and talked with her while she worked the bed.  They talked about the weather, Ed’s gambling, asparagus, Ed’s drinking, Mary’s cousin (Grant’s wife’s brother-in-law), Ed’s gambling, the weather, and Ed’s drinking.  It was only after Grant got back in his car that he realized Mary had been filling the asparagus bed in instead of digging it out.
    Things got a bit strange after that.  Folks started giving Mary funny looks everywhere she went, like they were trying to gauge if she was big enough to lug a dead man around, and she certainly looked like she was.  After a while she quit going out much, except to get groceries and beer, and when she did she jerked and snapped and glared at you when you spoke to her.  She was way too sensitive about everything, I thought.  I mean, it wasn’t our fault we couldn’t quit thinking about that hole in her back yard.  
     That’s why it was a real psychological relief when Judge Dunn okayed the warrant to search Mary’s house and property.  Grant was there the next day, with two officers, two workers from Hegdahl’s Construction, and a back hoe.  The officers went inside while the back hoe went to work outside.  Mary stood by her back steps and watched them with a face like granite.  And her face collapsed like a mud slide when they dug up Felix.
     We’d all been so worried about Ed that no one had noticed that Felix hadn’t been around for a while, either.  He was so old he must have just died in his sleep, and Mary had buried him in the back yard, the way most of us do, in his favorite spot.
     Well, everyone felt awful, looking at poor Felix, lying in the middle of all that mess.  Mary’s back yard looked like someone had taken an egg beater and whipped dirt everywhere.  It was piled two feet deep in the lilacs alone.  Grant and the back hoe boys offered to help clean it up, but Mary said she thought the cure would be worse than the disease, so everyone went home and left her to it.  It wasn’t until after dinner that it finally dawned on people that Felix’s favorite spot was under the lilacs, not in the bed.  The back hoe was back out at Mary’s the next day.
     This time Mary didn’t come out, and I can’t say I blame her.  I mean, she knew what was out there, and she knew they’d find it, even if they had to tear those lilacs apart.  But Mary hadn’t had time to dig under those tough, tall lilacs.  She’d dug beside them, and the backhoe didn’t have far to go before Ed’s body was found. 
     Mary went to jail, and her sister sold the house to the Corsons, a farm couple from Canova.  They’ve lived there for ten years now, and every year, that asparagus bed comes up thick and lush and mouth-watering.  Not that anybody picks any of it.  I mean, we all know Ed wasn’t under there that long, or that near, but as Mrs. Corson says, you can’t be too careful. 
But I’ll tell you what, Mary knew what she was talking about.  You do your asparagus bed right the first time, double-dug and heavy on the fertilizer, and it’ll last a lifetime.  


NOTE:  The inspiration for this story was that I dug an asparagus bed in my back yard, by hand.  I have no living resemblance to Rosie the Riverter or Rosanne (yet), but other than that, it's fairly accurate, down to the beloved cat watching me dig the world's largest litter box.  Many, many people came by and watched me dig, because around here most people get their asparagus wild, from ditches.  Many people, beginning with my husband, commented how the bed looked remarkably like a grave.  Many people suggested that my husband watch out.  My husband is still on the right side of the soil, but the asparagus bed did not make it - a winter from hell killed almost everything, including my lush, thick asparagus bed...  It almost broke our hearts.  Back to the ditches...

06 June 2012

Empty Nest

by Robert Lopresti

So, for the last two months all the precious writing time I have been able to pry loose from my days has been dedicated to one piece of fiction.  I have been eagerly looking forward to kicking it out the door and going back to my regularly scheduled this-and-that writing schedule.

You can see where this is going, I'm sure.  I mailed the thing today and I find myself missing it terribly.  None of my other stories appeal to me at the moment.  I want that one back, for just one more look.

I feel like a parent who has dropped dear little Jimmy off at kindergarten.  Except, instead of wondering whether he has a clean handkerchief and enough pencils I am brooding about adverbs and punctuation.

I know I forgot to put in a sound effect I thought of a few days ago.  Did I proof-read often enough?  Carefully enough?  A quotation mark was definitely missing on a newly-minted line of dialog.  Okay, fine.  Leave them something to correct.

Doesn't matter now.  The little bird is off on its own.  If it comes limping back in a few months, a boomerang child, I will give it another reading and shove it out of the nest again.

Because I have other shells to crack.

05 June 2012


    A recurring theme here at SleuthSayers has been the rejection letter.  This only makes sense since rejection is often on each of our minds.   My short story output is glacier compared to some of my colleagues but even then rejection looms over me a lot of the year given the fact that each story usually dangles out there for two months before the editorial outcome is ultimately known. 

    Short story writers can be tempted to think of the rejection letter as our own personal demon since we tend to inundate a perpetually shrinking market with numerous short pieces of fiction.  There is even a website, The Rejection Generator, administered by Stoneslide Books, that can generate a changing menu of humorous rejection letters.  Rather than posting some of the examples, I invite you to try the website so that you can personally experience the emailed rejection gems it doles out. 

    But, in truth, particularly given the current state of national employment (or, more correctly, unemployment), the rejection letter is hardly the personal province of writers.  My son Colin, currently a second year law student at George Washington University, was recently rejected by a law firm to which he had not even applied.  And I remember on more than one occasion when searching for legal employment receiving rejection letters that were written to a different (although equally rejected) applicant but then sent to my address.   And this really underscores the most irritating aspect of the rejection letter.  We each offer up something personal, that we have worked on a long time -- this may be a short story, or it may be that curricula vitae that encapsulates in a page who we are -- and it is then rejected impersonally and in short order. 

    One has to be careful what one wishes for, however.  The rejection letter can be a two edged sword.  What is worse than an impersonal cookie cutter rejection?  How about one that really tells you what the rejecting party was thinking.  Often we are simply not prepared for that level of truth-telling.

    Take, for example, this 1938 classic sent out by the loveable old Disney studios.  They certainly leave no doubt as to why this poor applicant didn't get an interview. And isn't it a nice touch that the letter is drafted by a woman, and features that loveable early example of one of the long string of Disney princesses in the margin.

    The letter is from a website 10 Funniest Rejection Letters  which provides the following background information concerning the unfortunate applicant:
This letter belongs to Kevin Burg, whose grandmother received it in 1938. Despite Disney's declaration that women aren't to do any creative work, his grandmother eventually became an animator during WWII when women had to step up “For the War Effort.
    Sometimes we really do bring rejection on ourselves.  Imagine applying to law school and then receiving this letter in reply. 

    A friend of mine witnessed a variant of this exchange, albeit oral and not actually involving a rejection letter, at a student orientation conducted at a prestigious (but for present purposes unnamed) university some years back.  The dean of the school purportedly was describing to the parents of the entering class the fact that the school receives something like 50 qualified applicants for each applicant accepted.  When he invited questions from the assembled parents a woman in the room raised her hand.  The dean recognized her and the woman, quite agitated, stood up and explained that she was quite upset since her daughter wanted to major in pre-med and they had now learned, for the first time, that the major was not offered.  My friend reported that the dean responded as follows:   "Madam, your daughter is attending the wrong school.  And you are an idiot."

All of this, quite predictably, has led to some proactive responses from would-be rejectees.  This past January the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom reported the following:
Madalen College, Cambridge, England
It is not often that Oxford University finds itself receiving a rejection letter from a would-be student, rather than issuing them with one.

So it will have raised a few scholarly eyebrows when state-educated Elly Nowell, 19, wrote to the elite institution’s Magdalen College without even waiting to hear whether her application to read law had been successful.

In a parody of Oxford’s own rejection letters, she told admissions tutors: ‘I realise you may be disappointed by this decision, but you were in competition with many fantastic universities and following your interview I am afraid you do not quite meet the standard of the universities I will be considering.’
   A similar example, perhaps even more proactive, is the following letter, currently making the rounds on the internet:
412A Clarkson Hall, Whitson University
College Hill, MA  34109

Dear Professor Millington,

Thank you for your letter of March 16.  After careful consideration, I
regret to inform you that I am unable to accept your refusal to offer me
an assistant professor position in your department.

This year I have been particularly fortunate in receiving an unusually
large number of rejection letters.  With such a varied and promising field
of candidates, it is impossible for me to accept all refusals.

Despite Whitson's outstanding qualifications and previous experience in
rejecting applicants, I find that your rejection does not meet my needs at
this time.  Therefore, I will assume the position of assistant professor
in your department this August.  I look forward to seeing you then.

Best of luck in rejecting future applicants.

Chris L. Jensen