17 July 2012


    Perhaps it is because each of our lives is linear that curiosity and a quest for order leads us to search out the beginnings of things that surround us in the world.  Sometimes it can be difficult to determine when something we now take for granted first originated, but other times we can track the beginning with certitude.  For those of us “of an age” I therefore pose a question:  what were you doing on July 4, 1971?

The IBM System 370 circa 1971
   I can remember that date pretty well.  It was a holiday, of course, and it was the first one for me at my first job after college.  I had just completed one month as a computer programmer in St. Louis Missouri.  The computer that I wrote programs for was an IBM 370, state of the art at the time.  It had to be housed in a climate controlled room and the computer itself took up, as I recall, the space of my present living room and dining room combined.  It sported, again as I recall, a wondrous storage capacity of 512 kilobytes.  Most of the things we take for granted on a laptop it could not do. 

    The COBOL programs that I wrote in 1971 were punched into 80 column cards.  A program usually comprised multiple boxes of these cards that were loaded into a card reader that spat them into the IBM 370 which then, under the guidance of what the programmer had written, could do wondrous things – like keeping track of spare parts and inventory.  By the time I left programming two years later to attend law school I had worked on one of the first “on-line” programs, which allowed data input from a (gasp!) stand alone terminal. 

The University of Illinois
    While I was toiling out a living commanding that IBM 370 computer to perform menial tasks something much more exciting was happening some miles away across the Mississippi river in Illinois.  On July 4, 1971 a young man, roughly my age, named Michael S. Hart, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, was granted free access to the University’s computer.  Such access was invaluable – unheard of at a time when computer access was scheduled in advance in minutes.  But nonetheless, through a friend of his brother, who operated the University’s mainframe computer, Hart was given the key to the kingdom. 

    But what kingdom?  What would I have done with such computer access in 1971?  Well, likely nothing.  The computer, after all, was a data processing instrument.  That is what it did – it processed data.  Why would you want free access to such a tool?  Would you want to spend your spare time sitting around processing even more data? 

Michael S. Hart
    Michael Hart, however, was not me.  Michael Hart was a visionary.  The university’s computer, it seems, was hooked into a system of computers and was one of fifteen nodes in a network of computers known as ARPANET, a network that years later would itself expand and blossom into what we now take for granted:  the internet.  There were approximately 100 users who, like Michael Hart, could download information from ARPANET.  I began using email in 1986, which was long before most people.  But, again, Mr. Hart had me beat – in 1971 the University of Illinois already had an early version of email that utilized ARPANET.  Hart put one and one together and saw the future. 

    Even at that the idea started out small.  It was, after all, July 4.  Hart had a copy of the Declaration of Independence that he carried with him. 
We were just coming up on the American Bicentennial and they put faux parchment historical documents in with the groceries. So, as I fumbled through my backpack for something to eat, I found the U.S. Declaration of Independence and had a lightbulb moment. I thought for a while to see if I could figure out anything I could do with the computer that would be more important than typing in the Declaration of Independence, something that would still be there 100 years later . . . .   
    So Hart sat down and typed the document into the computer only to find that it was too large for the rudimentary email system available on the network.  So Hart saved the document to the computer’s hard drive and provided his friends with the storage address, so that they could down load their own copies.  It is thought that of the 100 people who had access to data stored in ARPANET six actually downloaded the Declaration of Independence.

Volumes offered on Project Gutenberg by year
    From that rather inauspicious beginning came Project Gutenberg., which now offers the world’s largest collection of free on-line ebooks.  Early on Michael Hart typed in the text of all of the books that Project Gutenberg stored on-line.  By the mid 1980s the total was something over 300 books, comprised of older works such as the classics and the works of Mark Twain.  All were in the public domain, which meant that there were no royalties associated with distributing them freely.  From the mid-1980s on Hart began recruiting volunteers who also typed in the full texts of books.  By 1989 advancing technology allowed Project Gutenberg to begin scanning in books.  Currently over 39,000 works are available on line and it is estimated that Project Gutenberg adds books at the rate of over fifty books per week.

    While all of this is astonishing on its own, Michael Hart’s vision also laid the groundwork for today’s surge of epublications, ebooks and ereaders, such as the Kindle, the Nook and the Ipad.  And those, in turn, are bringing about an astonishing transformation in publishing, where marketing of new works of fiction and non-fiction can be offered directly to the reading public. 

    What makes all of this such an interesting story is, again, the prescience of Michael Hart, who came up with the idea when there were only 100 people on-line at the time who could have utilized the fruits of his labors.  As Hart said in 2011, “[s]omehow I had envisioned the net in my mind very much as it would become 30 years later.”  Remember also that back in 1971 there was no way for individuals outside of those with access to ARPANET to access computers and that, as noted above, the computer itself was hugely unwieldy and largely used for menial tasks – for processing data.  The first rudimentary desk top computers were still over ten years away; lap tops more than that.  And the reading devices such as Nook and Kindle that we more and more are relying upon to bring us our chosen reading material were approximately forty years away – hardly even a glimmer in the eye.

    It’s probably safe to say that Michael Hart not only anticipated the future, but also, through his efforts, helped to bring about that future -- our present.

    Michael Hart died last September, a little more than 40 years after he first typed the Declaration of Independence into that keyboard wired to a University of Illinois mainframe computer.  His legacy has been a revolution in literary independence that may be more profound than even he imagined.

16 July 2012

Necessary Evils

by Robert Lopresti

Some people write in their offices, surrounded by shelves of fine old books.  Some go to special retreat homes set aside for the dedicated scribbler.  Others drag their laptops to the local Starbucks, inspired by the lattes and the bustle around them.
I am writing in a laundromat in Port Townsend, Washington.

Not my usual hangout, really, but I do seem to spend part of a morning here every summer.  We attend a weeklong music camp and since the classes are much more up my wife’s alley than mine, I volunteer to do the wash ‘n dry duties.  Long as I can plug the laptop in, I’m set.  The fact that there is no wireless is so much the better; fewer distractions.

When I packed for this vacation I brought the text of a book I have been working on, hoping to make some progress on it. But after a page or two I knew it wasn’t where my heart wanted to spend the week.

You see, I have a new idea for a novel  And when I say “idea” that’s almost all there is.  I have a one-page outline and calling it a page is generous.  But it was summoning me and with a big (for me) chunk of time to work, I decided to give it a shot.

All of which might be of mild interest to my dearest friends, but let’s see if I can make it more general by getting to my point.  It’s here somewhere, possibly next to the fabric softener.

Right!  At this point in my young manuscript Character A realizes he needs to get to a certain place.  He’s an executive type and it seemed reasonable to have him call an underling for a ride.  But the chapter was awfully short so I decided that the underling – call him B – would be busy.

“Okay,” says A.  “Send Ray Ray.” 

And who the hell is Ray Ray?

That’s what I wanted to know.  Until A mentioned him I had no idea the guy existed.  I did like the name, though.

Now, he could have passed by the reader like a ship in the night, showing up only long enough to transport our protagonist to his destination.  But in the early stages of a book you should take advantage of every possibility that offers itself.

So I thought about the little I knew about Ray: the childish name, the fact that he was a low-level person in the organization who could be expected to jump when summoned…

And bingo!  I suddenly realized that Ray Ray was a double-crosser, working for Characters Q and R who, as you can tell from their place in the alphabet, don’t come into the story for quite some time.  Even better, because of Ray Ray I now knew how they WOULD arrive in the book.

And, by the way, remember Character B, who was too busy to give his boss a ride?  It turns out he was busy with his wife, which gave me something more I hadn’t known about him, as well.

All of this progress on the novel happened because my protagonist was too cheap to call a taxi.   I’m very grateful to him.

Which brings us to the witches of Lancre…
I have blogged before about Terry Pratchett, the brilliant English fantasy writer who invented Discworld. In one of his books he created a witch named Granny Weatherwax: a grimly Puritanical old woman who was a good witch simply because she was too vain to be a wicked one.  (Being wicked is weakness.)

In another book Pratchett introduced another witch to interact with Granny but he realized he needed a third because “You needed three witches for a coven.  Two witches is just an argument.”

And so, simply to fill that temporary gap in his cast of characters he invented a jolly, twinkle-eyed, much-married, bawdy-song-singing, unrepentant old witch named Nanny Ogg.  After many books she remains one of his most popular creations,  the perfect foil for Granny Weatherwax.  Clearly these were the kind of life-long best friends who couldn’t go ten minutes without an argument.

God knows I am not trying to compare myself to the brilliant Sir Terry.  But it is clear that at many levels of the writing ladder an author can take good advantage of a character who seemed to be only designed to fill a space on the set.

Ray Ray and Nanny Ogg are necessary evils who turned out to be pretty useful  Sort of like a trip to the laundromat.

Speaking of which, you will have to excuse me.  The driers have stopped.

15 July 2012

Professional Tips– Microsoft Word Headers

Microsoft Word Sometimes writers need to work with the technical aspects of formatting a document. This often means setting up style sheets for a document and then saving them as a template. Much has been written about this elsewhere, but a couple of topics elude writers, such as how to automatically update chapter numbers and how to set page numbers and a word count.

Kicking and screaming, a couple of months ago I upgraded from Microsoft Word 2004 for Macintosh to Word 2011, only because the beautiful new MacBook Air (a piece of sculpture) didn't support the eight year old MS Office. I abhorred 'improvements' Microsoft made to the Windows versions, which rendered the venerable suite unusable except to the most anally ardent users.

BaconAlthough I retained the templates I'd created before, I decided to format a document for a manuscript. It's taken HOURS to figure out the new and improved Microsoft Word. With that in mind, I'll pass on a few tips just for creating smart headers that will maintain the date, page numbers, and word count.

Creating MS Word Headers Without Slitting Your Wrists

So, let's say you set up standard document formatting… double-spaced 12 point Times or Courier, the first line of each paragraph indented, but you want the headings to look professional. Here's how to do it.

View > Header Go to the View menu and choose Header and Footer, i.e, View > Header and Footer. If you happen to be in Print Layout mode (Page Layout in previous versions) and can see or estimate where the header is, you can also double-click the header.
You should see a display that looks something like this. Note check box that says Different First Page… Don't check it yet, but you will in a moment. If you click on the Header icon, you're offered a plethora of not-very-useful headers. Unless you want to build your header manually, select the first one in the upper left.
Now select the pieces that say [Type Text] and enter your particulars, generally your real name, the manuscript title, and the page number. It's wise to place the page number in the upper right corner of each page to make life easy for editors. If you have thoughts of submitting your manuscript outside the United States, consider the convention of setting your surname in all caps; i.e, SHAKESPEARE, William. To create a page number that updates for each page, type the word 'page' with a blank following and then click the Page # icon.
Once you've established page 2 through 844 of your opus, check-mark the Different First Page setting. This allows you to build a header unique to page 1 containing your true name, address, telephone, eMail address, date, and word count. An actual copyright is unnecessary because publications will copyright your manuscript for you, but a © is a relatively unobtrusive reminder when you submitt the bloody thing. In days gone by, authors often included their SSN, which is no longer safe, but at least one instructor suggests including the last four digits of your SSN as an 'ID'.
Microsoft Word can use 'fields' that can be updated by the program or by the author. You can set Field Shading in Preferences to make them more visible while editing and the shading won't show when printing. The Page # above is an example of such a field. Another is Date, which you can set by clicking the Date icon. If you want only the year displayed, right click the field and select Toggle Field Codes. This reveals the internal code behind the field. If you want to display only the year, edit the code until it reads: {DATE \@ "yyyy"}. Then Toggle Field Codes again.
Field dialog box Editors require us to include the number of words rounded to the nearest 100 or so, but you can include an exact word count in the following way. Position the cursor where you want the word count. In the Insert menu, select Field…; i.e, Insert > Field… That invokes a dialogue box. In the left panel, select Document Information and from the right panel select NumWords. Click OK. You'll see the number of words currently in your document (if any).
Field menu The good news is you can keep the number-of-words field updated, but Word has a minor hitch: It doesn't keep a running tally in your document. Instead it only updates the field (a) when you Print or Print Preview the document or (b) when you manually tell it to update. To manually update, either select Print Preview or double-click the header to edit it and right-click the field. Select Update Field. You'll see the new word count.
Why go through all this work for one document? Because if you create a generic document with your name, address, word count, double-spacing, etc, you can save the document as boilerplate or 'template' to reuse for each new story. From the File menu, select Save As… and then set the Format to Word Template (.dot or .dotx). I.e, File > Format… > Format > Word Template. Give a name you remember. The next time you create a new document, select File > New from Template… and look for your prototype.

Templates become more valuable if you're writing a book, because you can create one that will update chapter numbers automatically, even if you decide to insert a new chapter in the middle of your book. That, however, is a topic for another time.

14 July 2012

The Beauty in the English Language

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I received this as an email from an Israeli friend who's spoken fluent English since I first met her in 1965 and who has lived in the US and traveled all over the world. My first impulse was to correct the errors, but when I thought about it, I suspected that they were a side effect of the fact that Hebrew is written and read from right to left. The email included what I assume was the title in Hebrew, but unfortunately, I found I couldn't copy and paste the Hebrew characters to the blog. I think it has a certain charm, besides offering a view on language that's right in line with posts from some of my SleuthSayers blogmates. So I'm sharing it with you as is.

  The Beauty in English Language!


We'll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,
Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
Then shouldn't the plural of pan be called pen?
If I speak of my foot and show you my feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn't the plural of booth be called beeth?
Then one may be that, and three would be those,
Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.
We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine: she, shis and shim!
 Let's face it - English is a crazy language.
There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger;
neither apple nor pine in pineapple.
English muffins weren't invented in England ..
We take English for granted, but if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square,
and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.
And why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing,
grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham?
Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend.
If you have a bunch of odds and ends
and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?
If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught?
If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
Sometimes I think all the folks who grew up speaking English should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane.

In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital?
We ship by truck but send cargo by ship.
We have noses that run and feet that smell.
We park in a driveway and drive in a parkway.
And how can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposite
You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language
in which your house can burn up as it burns
down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out,
and in which an alarm goes off by going on. 
And, in closing, if Father is Pop, how come Mother's not Mop? 


13 July 2012

Working for The Woman

A few weeks back, I went to the mailbox with my usual expectations of both hope and dread. The writer's hope of good news, such as a contract or something of interest from the world of writing. But then, there's also the dread of receiving a very unnecessary rejection of one's most excellent creation. Of course, the box could contain nothing more than junk mail and bills. Those, I give to my wife, Kiti.

On this day, nestled in with the utilities bill, an offer of a free steak dinner if we listened to a lecture on how to invest our money in a retirement fund, two health insurance companies who desperately wanted my future business, plus several discount coupons from various stores offering to save me some money, was a single, plain white, #10 business envelope with one of my address labels on it. No return address. The postmark was Seattle.

I quickly recognized this envelope as the SASE I had enclosed with a mini-mystery manuscript submitted to Woman's World Magazine. In the more distant past, such an envelope would contain two pieces of paper. They would either be a form rejection letter and the first page of the rejected manuscript, OR they would be a very nice congratulatory letter of acceptance and a one-page contract stating when this story was to be published and the $500 fee the author was to receive in a few weeks.
HOWEVER, last year in reply to my 24th submission, I had received an e-mail from Johnene Granger, the column editor, stating that she needed an electronic copy of my manuscript because the head editor wanted to be able to look at a mock-up of the proposed magazine issue on screen before he made his final decisions. Thus, an e-mail request meant the column editor liked the story and there was only one more hurdle to pass. A follow-up e-mail would then provide info on acceptance or rejection, and the contract still came in one's SASE.

Advance notice on what to expect in the snail mail. I could live with that, after all that's how they bought my 24th submission in 2011. Problem now was here I stood holding the return envelope on my 25th submission and there had been no advance e-mail from Seattle. CRAP!

My questioning fingertips felt the envelope. Yep, it was the usual two pages thick. Same as always. And, you can't tell a one-page contract from the first page of a rejected manuscript.

Should I pour a Jack and Coke before opening, or just tear into the envelope and pour the drink later? Maybe pry up one corner of the seal and sneak a peek? Nah, be a man and take it on the chin. All or nothing. It's not the end of the world.




Sonofagun, it's a contract and a congratulatory letter of acceptance. A hand-written personal note at the bottom of the letter says, "Thanks for another good one, Johnene Granger."
Whatever happened to the advance e-mail notice program and the mock-up on screen for the head editor before accetance? At this point I don't really care. The Woman has just accepted my 25th submission. Let's see, that makes 10 acceptances and 15 rejections. A whopping 40% goes to the plus side for that market. My average is improving. It's another writing credit, which you the reading public can run right out to your local grocery store and find "Officer, It Was Self-Defense" in Woman's World Magazine, issue #31 with an on-sale date of July 19th. Hey, that was yesterday. Better hurry, that issue is only on the racks for one week. (Actually, Dix had a last minute uploading problem, plus his Dad was having eye surgery, and he flat ran out of time. Therefore, we swapped weeks and  this is early, so don't look for that magazine until next week.)

Moving on. Tune in next time when I go over some personal notes about writing those 700 words or less, $500 mini-mysteries. But right now, you'll have to excuse me, I have to go back to working for The Woman.

12 July 2012

The Power of a Strong Vocabulary

I keep hearing there is a dumbing down of America. I don't want to believe it, but I'm reminded that:
  • Educators have stopped teaching cursive writing in elementary schools.
  • We are relying more and more on spell check rather than knowing how to spell.
  • More and more we are using a text-derived shorthand language, which is neither correctly spelled or as a gauge of a good vocabulary.   
Editors have said the average language level for our novels and short stories should be written for an eighth-grade reading audience.

Just as I am buying into the "dumbing down of America," I find a spark of hope. The last couple of years, I've spent considerable time with young people on a regular basis. From my new grand daughter and our time with children's programming on television to the college students I've been fortunate to interact with, I can vouch that the reading audience is out there and selectively reading on a better grade level than what we have been told to expect.

Cuddled with my grand daughter, we found on Sesame Street, Eva Longoria presented the word of the day: exquisite.

That afternoon, Word Girl concentrated her energies on the word pensive. These are early school educational programs. It looks like the writers for those programs expect the next generation to have extensive vocabularies. Good for them to recognize the need for quality education for our little ones.

Those books that reach a popularity with the masses that have introduced new words for our dictionaries --like muggles from the Harry Potter series -- and quark  from Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce and the word, robotics, from Isaac Asimov, have done a great service to readers. They made reading FUN.

Something about knowing the new "in" words found in a story we love and then sharing them with our friends is a wonderful way writers can ensure readers continue being readers all their lives. I think those authors finding ways to encourage their young reader's to embrace a larger vocabulary with choices like tesserae and apothecary from The Hunger Games, is doing anything but dumbing down American readers.

So what about the adult mystery audience? I don't enjoy novels that force me to head for the dictionary every page, but I do like learning a new term or phrase. It's my opinion if we can keep learning, we grow old slower than those who have given up on additional knowledge.

The idea of being the writer of great mysteries means delivering all the clues in just the right measures to allow the reader to almost guess the outcome.

As a writer, I've read between the lines too much not to usually guess who-done-it and why. That's why when I discover writing that surprises me with its delicate hiding of clues where I should have noticed them like the envelope hidden in plain sight in Poe's The Purloined Letter, that I am in awe and more than eager to read more from the author.

I don't want to be treated like someone without a brain who needs someone to lay the clues all out like a clear blueprint which a child could understand.

As a reader, I want to be entertained and elevated by the language. As a mystery reader, I want to be mindful of the careful plotting and clues being planted and tenderly cared for so as not to be disturbed before they are ready to emerge like tiny buds on a rosebush. Pretty enough to keep my interest and just thorny enough to be dangerous is exactly how I like mysteries.

I adore films and television, but not so much those that are expecting not to know when to laugh so I'm provided with a prompting laugh track. I don't want to know in the first scene who committed the crime. I don't want the detective in a series to deduce the criminal's motives in the initial setup.

That's probably why I was astounded to find how wonderfully written the television series "Revenge" turned out to be this first season. 

Good writing is being done everyday all over America. Isn't it nice we still have an audience for such clever authors? 

American readers are smarter than they are given credit for being. Thanks for being one of them!

11 July 2012

The Writing Life

by Janice Law

My dad used to say that education was the one thing that couldn’t be taken away from you, but he didn’t add that knowledge tends to stay with you in erratic ways. Take high school Latin, which was de rigueur for ambitious pupils back in the dark ages. I had two years with a nice old duffer and only later discovered that my academic interests would better have been served by Greek and my personal concerns by any modern language.

However, certain old Latin tags remain and lately I’ve had reason to revisit two of them, which I think should be emblazoned above every writer’s desk along with Nora Ephron’s Mom’s “It’s all copy, dear,” and my own dear mother’s, “It costs nothing to be polite.”

They are De gustibus non est disputantum, most felicitously translated for writers as “You can’t argue with editors,” and ars longa vita brevis, which, though it is usually presented as the permanence of art as opposed to the transience of life, may be rendered for the benefit of the scribbling trade as, “Live long if you want to profit.”

I have been thinking about these two old saws, because lately I have been able to empty my file cabinet of several stories and at least two books. Pieces written five, ten, even twenty years ago and rejected by the multitudes have suddenly brought me credit, if not cash. One story, close to my heart, will show up in Vengeance, the new MWA anthology, a fact I only mention because the story had gotten thumbs down from editorial desks for nearly six years.

Another, a novel, this time, was first written around 1990. I loved it – which doesn’t mean too much, being, as it were, the interested party, but my then agent, the now retired and still lamented, Kay Kidde, loved it too. So did a big time editor at a big time New York house. At least, he loved the beginning but then, alas, he sobered up or changed his brewski and decided he didn’t love it quite enough.

A bad omen. No one else loved it at all. Or if they loved it, they loved it with reservations, mostly about how many folks with cash in hand could be persuaded to take it home with them. In short, mice had eaten the edges and the setting had almost moved from contemporary (ripped from the headlines as one of my former editors used to say) to historical novel status, before Wildside e-books rode to its rescue. We’ll see how that works out.

Nor has that been my only triumph of late. Another novel which I initially thought a sure thing with a gay, promiscuous genius painter as protagonist and the Blitz as background seemed set to share a similar fate. I liked it, a new agent liked it, the editorial world, however, counted up my sales figures and didn’t like it at all. Or maybe it was the protagonist’s old nanny? Whatever, it has only now, half a dozen years on, found a home at Mysteriouspress.com.

Does this modest dose of good fortune indicate that there has been a wholesale, and wholesome, revolution in taste? I rather doubt it. I’ve just out-waited the fates. At this rate, and with my genetics – my late father survived into his 99th year– I have some hope of eventually publishing all the novels and most of the stories I have written in a life misspent at the writing desk.

A couple of other stories, long resident in the file drawer and the hard drive – am I the only writer who has to keep updating manuscripts as word processing programs go out of date? – have also gotten on the publishing docket, thanks to changes in editorial chairs.

And there’s where we come to de gustibus non est disputatum. Quality is not the only thing that determines whether pieces get sold. Luck and timing are easily as important, and influence in the form of friendly recommendations and tips about markets has to count for something as well.

Particularly now, when there are few magazine outlets (paying) for stories, when the most profitable companies are all subsidiaries of media cartels, and when print book reviews seem a dying art, the gustibus of a few key people becomes overwhelmingly important.

What’s a writer to do? Remember that non disputantum, only write if you love it, and live as long as possible. And unless you are one of the charmed few, hang onto your day job.

10 July 2012


By David Dean

It is probably not uncommon for most people to look at previous generations and think, "People were nicer to one another back then; they had better manners."  After all, we live in contentious times and the country appears somewhat polarized these days.  It's hard to imagine George Washington being rude to anyone, or that anyone would ever think of being rude to him.  Ditto for Franklin, Jefferson, etc...  Our nation's forefathers all appeared so stately, calm, and resolute.  We, on the other hand, seem so quarrlesome and mean-spirited.  Not to mention pretty foul-mouthed.  It's hard to walk among people, whether in the mall or in the workplace, without being bombarded with the f-word and other oft-repeated, and unpleasant, adjectives and nouns.  I use them far too often myself--I plead twenty-five years in law enforcement as my flimsy defense.  Violence appears to go hand-in-hand with our current posture.  Even murder has to be pretty damn sensational to raise an eyebrow these days--unless, of course, it involves someone close to you.

That being said (or written in this case), a rose-colored view of those that have gone before us is just that--rose-colored...and inaccurate.  If you think our present-day politicians are intractable and rude to one another, then you don't know much about their predecessors: fist-fights and canings were not a rare occurence in the capitol of young America.  In one instance, a duly elected official was nearly beaten to death with a walking stick on the floor of Congress by another.  The run-up to the Civil War was particularly contentious, but there were plenty of unpleasant incidents from the very start.  The name-calling; the wholly slanderous accusations, make our current crop of politicians appear positively restrained and angelic.  Even death couldn't be ruled out for national figures--remember the Burr-Hamilton duel. 

The Infamous Duel at Weehawkin, New Jersey

What suggested this topic to me is a story that I am currently working on.  It is a period piece set in the Ante-Bellum South.  It involves ferocious acts of violence by characters who are, by and large, very polite.  It got me to thinking about civility and vilolence, murder and manners.  A close friend of mine once said (and I paraphrase), "If it weren't for manners here in Georgia, half the population would murder the other half!"  I'd like to think that's not strictly true, but I understood his point.  We need some ritualized behavior in our lives that makes resorting directly to conflict, or violence, a longer road to travel.  Manners present an acceptable way to speak to people and to behave in the company of others.  It gives us an alternative to thoughtless words, affrontive attitudes.  They buy us time to think things through.

Yet again, however, it would be naive to think these practioners of politeness are immune, and certainly incorrect to think that the mannered classes of any era had a lock on good behavior.  In fact, those same courtesies could be bent and purposed to achieve malicious goals.  It was not uncommon for one man to prick and goad his chosen target, in the most polite language, of course, until the tormented man could take no more and issued a challenge.  During the dueling days of our nation the man who challenged surrendered the right of choosing weapons.  So the silver-tongued devil that truly engineered the fight gained the advantage from the beginning.  This could seal a man's fate in some cases.  In fact, a man might be such a master of a particular weapon that it was virtually murder on his part to insist on its use.  Hence the incentive to be challenged and not the other way around.

Duels, though couched in myth and legend, were hardly polite even when they were highly ritualized--and they weren't always even that.  Oftentimes, after the heat of the challenge and during the planning phase of the contest, tempers might cool.  In this case, the seconds (usually close and trusted friends and advisors of the combatants) would get together and discuss honorable terms for resolving the conflict without violence.  These efforts were very often successful, as few people, given a little time to think about it, want to risk death or maiming over some heated and, probably, alcohol-fueled, exchange.  Not always though.

Once it was decided to carry through on the challenge, the opponents would meet in a secluded area away from the prying eyes of law enforcement.  Duelling was generally illegal.  Having met, the opponents, if armed with pistols, had several decisions to make: Upon being given the command to commence, one, or the other, could fire their round into the air, signifying that honor had been satisfied by the courageous behavior exhibited so far by both parties.  This was a dangerous choice.  If the other man had not yet fired, he still had the right to do so.  The first man was expected to remain standing on the field until he did...or didn't.  To flee was to expose himself to being shot by any member of the opponent's party of seconds.  It would also brand the man a coward.  To remain standing there must have been a nerve-wracking exercise.  If the other man fired his pistol into the air, then honor was satisfied all round.  Brandy was, no doubt, produced and everyone went home with a good story and reputation intact. 

Or...you got shot.  This was usually accomplished with a .50 caliber ball that did a lot of damage even if it wasn't fatal.  The odds were excellent that you would die of blood loss or infection before all was said and done.  Sometimes you just lost a limb.

The same rules applied if you fired and missed.  You still had to wait the other guy's turn.  If you both fired and missed, then the option of retiring from the field with honor was discussed.  If this was not mutually agreeable, the pistols were reloaded and the whole ritual was repeated until someone got shot--not your normal day at the office.

German Sword Duelists
Dueling with swords was not as popular in America.  It seems we have always been a gun nation.  Knives are another matter.  Largely thanks to Jim Bowie, knife fighting went through a period of popularity in the early 1800's.  James Bowie was credited with the invention of the 'Bowie' knife.  Historians think that it was actually his brother, Rezin, who designed the famous blade.  As the original has been lost in the mists of time we shall never know exactly what it looked like.  What we do know is that it was designed with the specific purpose of self-defense.

A replica of what the original was believed to look like.
 Jim made the Bowie knife a household word after his famous "Sandbar Fight."  This bloody brawl was the culmination of several years of bad blood between two political rivals and their supporters in Mississippi (what did I tell you about these old time politicians?).  A duel was arranged on a sandbar in the Mississippi River that was often used for this purpose.  The aggrieved parties, their seconds, and their supporters, all showed at the duly appointed time...and all hell broke loose.  Before it was over several men had died by Bowie's blade and he lay grievoulsy wounded and near death--a legend was born.

Bowie recovered and went on to kill more people, though it would be unfair to characterize these encounters as duels--like the Sandbar, they were fights and brawls.  He was not a nice man.  Even so, a fad of sorts was begun and knife duels flourished for a short while.  Knife fights were particularly brutal and ugly affairs and the outcomes uncertain in the extreme.  Hence the time-honored joke: How can you tell who is the winner of a knife fight?  Answer: He's the second man to die.  Oddly, the mystique has persisted.  Even when I was young (a scant few years ago) a certain glamor was attached to knife duels.  Fighting knifes (daggers and such) were sometimes referred to as Georgia boxing gloves.  Thankfully, I was never on the receiving end of any such encounter.          

In spite of all the romantic hogwash surrounding dueling, most of our American forebears frowned on the practice (scratch Andrew Jackson on that, as he both liked and was good at them).  Beyond the moral and legal implications, there were the practical concerns to be considered: What of the families left behind? Who would take care of them?  How would they survive?  There were no safety nets then.

So, as you ponder the woeful state of  our national discourse, and shake your head at the coarsening of American civility, just remember this, it could be worse...you could be living in those far more polite, mannered, and deadly days of yore, when your opinion might cost you your life, and stating it required actual physical courage.   



09 July 2012

Numb and Nummer

Last year both of my hands went numb. They'd been tingly and uncomfortable before, but not like this. When they weren't numb, the pain was agonizing, excruciating enough to wake me from a sound sleep.  Being type 1 diabetic, I attributed the problem to neuropathy, but my endocrinologist insisted I have testing.  For those of you who've never needed these tests, the technician sticks needles in varying points on the patient's arms and hands, then presses buttons that send jolts of electricity from one needle to another.  The time between the shock above the hand and its arrival at points in the hand can be interpreted by the physician to show degrees of neuropathy and carpal tunnel syndrome.  My tests showed mild neuropathy and extreme carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands.  Carpal tunnel syndrome is compression of the median nerve at the wrist.

My first surgery was scheduled for December, but I postponed it because I was spending all my time with Mom then.  The right hand was "fixed" in May, and since then, what writing I've done has been left-handed hunting and pecking.  I'm still having therapy on the right hand but plan to have surgery on the left in August.

If you're reading this, you have access to computers and can look up Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) for yourself, so I won't go into many medical details, but there are a few facts I've learned that I believe writers should know.  First, there are treatments that help before surgery becomes necessary. (I ignored symptoms until they were severe.)

Second, if surgery is necessary, its success is somewhat limited by the degree of infirmity in the hands.  Third, the surgery isn't always successful and is not so minor as I thought.  Frequently, six months to ten months pass before recuperation is considered complete and the surgeon knows how much success there has been.

When a gal reaches my age, a scar or so is not going to be as upsetting as to ladies who receive scars that interfere with their bikinis.  In CTS, the scars will be either on the wrist or the palm of the hand.  I'm pleased that my surgeon makes the incision at the bottom of the palm instead of on the wrist. I think it's less noticeable and won't ever be mistaken for a suicide attempt.  Besides, when the brace  comes off, these will be scars that can be shown off without having to remove any clothing.  The doctor did tell me that though the incision was less than an inch and a half, he lifts the skin and actually operates about four or five inches in length.

If you're still with me, you're probably wondering why I chose to talk about this. After all, SleuthSayers isn't a medical blog.  CTS is not about writing, is it?  Actually, it is.  Mine is probably the result of excessive writing, both on and off the keyboard.  My point today is that I didn't know until my surgery that it could have been more easily corrected earlier.  If you're having early signs of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (tingling, pain, numbness and/or difficulty in moving fingers), it's advisable to have a doctor check it sooner instead of later.

Until we meet again,  take care of … YOU!

Note: Two weeks ago, I promised this week would be more about pseudonyms,but I've been too busy to finish the research, so that will come later.

08 July 2012

Free Office Suite Software!

Microsoft WordIf you want free word processing software– or for that matter couldn't care less– skip to the end. If you'd like a little background and assurance these are truly quality programs for free, read on.

The last two versions of Microsoft Office for Windows disappointed (and disgusted) me so much, I avoided the corresponding Mac editions, choosing to stick with MS Office 2004. Three months ago I bought a MacBook Air, a beautiful, slim piece of sculpture that happens to be a laptop. Unfortunately, the MacOS 10.7 'lion' operating system no longer supports older applications. Because word processing files are the lingua franca of our profession, I had to consider either upgrading Microsoft Office or going with one of the free (yes, free as in 'gratis') office suites available to users.

I did both. I downloaded the most recent NeoOffice and waited until I spotted a deal on Microsoft Office 2011. I'm happy to report the Macintosh version of Office 2011 isn't as abhorrent as the equivalent Windows version, but I still have complaints as do the many Microsoft Word and Excel users who desperately seek help for anything more complex than bold italics.

Grumble, Grumble, Grumble

Although MS Word 2011 for Mac has annoyances the Mac 2004 version didn't have, the good news is that it isn't nearly as obnoxious as Word 2010 for Windows or its predecessor, Word 2007. For example, I can no longer paste into the Find/Replace dialogue box (although I can still paste into the Find field (but not replace) in the menu bar.

Another problem is Microsoft can't seem to update itself if it's installed anywhere other than the boot drive. I separate documents into one partition and applications into another, apart from my operating system ( drives I named 'Huey', 'Dewey', and 'Louie') to reduce damage in case of a catastrophic crash. The old version understood what I'd done; the finicky new one doesn't. My Windows friends say "Yeah, live with it," which sums up why Mac users are leery of Microsoft.

Alternatives to Microsoft Office

As Unix users have known for years, you can live without Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint very nicely, thank you. Indeed, thanks to the Unix open source community, you can download sophisticated office suites without charge.

About fifteen years ago, the German company Star Division developed a package called StarOffice. In 1999, Sun Microsystems bought the German company and released the software package to the open source community as OpenOffice for Mac, Windows, and Unix. During their stewardship, the package 'forked' (split off) into two other products, NeoOffice (Mac only) and LibreOffice. Two years ago, Oracle bought out Sun and donated OpenOffice to the Apache organization.

All three products have the same basic applications (word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program) plus two additional programs, a database and a drawing module superior to that found in Microsoft programs.

The Way of the Lotus

Meanwhile in 2007, IBM's Lotus group deployed Lotus Workplace as a foundation for a new suite with a name reminiscent of the DOS days, Lotus Symphony. IBM migrated their entire corporation (400,000 employees) from Microsoft Office to Lotus Symphony at a significant cost saving. IBM also made the program available for free to the outside world, for a confirmed total of 12 million registered users.

Early this year, IBM announced they would also donate Symphony to the Apache project with an eye to combining it with OpenOffice, although IBM continued support with another update in March.

Free as a Bird

I mentioned these programs are free for everyone, so here's where to find them.


(Mac, Unix, Windows)
(Mac, Unix, Windows)
(Macintosh only)
Lotus Symphony
(Mac, Unix, Windows)

Next week, I'll discuss basic formatting with Microsoft Word.

07 July 2012

Home Alone

by John M. Floyd

A few weeks ago our family--my wife and I, our three children, and their spouses and children--spent a week in the mountains of east Tennessee.  Thirteen of us, five of whom are under the age of seven, lived together for six days in a four-story, six-bedroom cabin, and somehow managed to do it without any major arguments or threats to life and limb.  I can't say we were roughing it, because the place included a pool table, hot tub, Wi-Fi, and seven TV sets--but, to our credit, none of the TVs even got switched on, except for the night our oldest son plugged his camera into one of them to show us a movie he'd made of a kindergarten music-program featuring one of his kids.

Anyhow, we had a great time; the weather was cool and clear and totally unsummerlike for the whole trip.  Every day after breakfast, the Floyd clan hiked up and down mountains until two of us (guess who) were wheezing and had our tongues hanging out.  Lunch was always a picnic somewhere along the trail, and by five o'clock or so we were usually back at the cabin, where we had a group supper and got all the kiddos calmed down and in bed.  The eight grownups then sat around on the deck and snacked and propped up our sore feet and visited until the wee hours.

You guys go ahead--don't worry about me . . .

But my column today, believe it or not, isn't about road trips or backpacking or family reunions.  It's about writing.  Because on the first of those six days in the wild, I was recovering but still suffering from a head cold and chose to stay behind while the rest of the family packed up and trudged off into the black forest.  From eight o'clock until around four-thirty that day, I sat around by myself, taking it easy and occasionally taking in the view.  And writing.

I wrote for most of the day, and while I wish I could tell you I was writing a SleuthSayer column, I wasn't.  I was writing a short story--what used to be called a mini-mystery and is now called a "solve-it-yourself" mystery--for a magazine called Woman's World.

I was surprised at how smoothly it went.  Part of it was the quiet and the solitude, I guess, and the knowledge that there really wasn't anything else to do while the rest of my crew were off someplace having a good time.  Whatever the reason, the ideas and the words seemed to appear in my stuffy head without much effort at all.  It did, however, take some effort to make them appear in tangible form, since I was using an ink pen and a yellow legal pad I had thrown into my briefcase for the trip.  (My iPad worked well for e-mail and websurfing but I had not yet--and still have not--installed a word-processing program on it.)  I do actually remember how to write words by hand, though, and within half an hour I had jotted down a rough draft on the first four sheets of my lined pad.

The cutting-room floor

The rewriting was the only thing that was hard.  I do a lot of rewriting, and always have, but I'm a bit spoiled; after all, editing my own work on a computer screen is easy.  On paper it's not.  I did a few markouts and additions and other corrections on the sheets I'd already written, but most of my revisions were accomplished by starting over and writing a complete second draft, and then a third.  And since these WW submissions must have a short and very specific wordcount, I even wound up (don't laugh) counting the words each time, right down to every "a" and "the."  Which can be a tiresome job, and a reminder of how things "used to be."

When I was done I had filled a dozen pages, the first eight of which, of course, were now worthless.  The last four pages contained the almost-final draft of my handwritten story.

By then it was past lunchtime, so I gobbled down whatever food I could find in our Ponderosa-sized kitchen, caught a nap, and then took my better-(I hoped)-but-not-yet-completed story out onto the third-floor deck to read it over. I have always--even during my college and Air Force days--been able to do some of my best thinking when my feet are elevated to at least the level of my head, and one of the adjustable lounge chairs was just right for this phase of my creative process.  By the time my weary and sweaty kinfolks had returned from their day's adventures, I had made all my final edits and had a story in hand that now was . . . well, I won't say perfect--but was as perfect as I thought that particular story could be.  I had a product that was ready to be taken home, typed, and submitted to the WW fiction editor.

Post-production notes

Every day after that, I hiked through hill and dale with the rest of the family; my cold was better and my story was finished and safely packed away.  When we wrapped up the week and had driven the five hundred miles back to our house in Mississippi I did indeed send that story off into the world to try to make something of itself.  I haven't yet heard anything back about it, so I don't know if it'll prove to be a winner or a loser, but at least I'm satisfied with it.

I've completed several more stories since then, but all of those have been written right here in this chair in my home office, using my trusty iMac.  My future plans include installing the Apple version of MS Word on my iPad, but until then, on any trip I take, I plan to again pack plenty of paper and a few Foray rollerball pens.  Just in case I find myself grounded for a while.

Call it a wilderness survival kit.

06 July 2012

Blue Light Special

by R.T. Lawton

Along about the Summer of 1980, I got orders for a special down in Miami. These "specials" came up from time to time whenever the agency temporarily needed extra manpower to help out in a certain region. For this one, the Miami group which normally worked with Customs and Coast Guard was headed down into the Caribbean for their own special operation in some of the islands, so the agency brought in other agents from all over the U.S. to replace them. That's when my name came up in the rotation and I got drafted to Miami.

In those days, Castro had already emptied many of his prison cells and put the inmates on boats headed for Florida. You've probably seen Al Pachino in Scarface. Well, those were some of the Marielitos that ended up in Liberty City under the Interstate overpass. Liberty City as a holding center was winding down by the time we got there, which meant many of its inhabitants were now residents of Miami. This was also the era of the Cocaine Cowboys, low-flying planes dropping clandestine loads in the Everglades, go-fast boats running in from the Bahama Banks and mother ships coming up from Colombia. Miami was flush with drug money and vibrated with adrenaline.

Most nights, our group hooked up with Customs agents a few hours before dark. They'd take us to a Cuban restaurant for supper and then it was down to the docks for a briefing. One or two of our guys always got assigned to the Customs tug that had radar on it. The rest got singled out to go-fast boats previously seized from smugglers and paired up with Customs agents.
Out on the water, sometimes in sight of the city lights and sometimes sitting off some dark part of the Florida coast, the tug would take up a position in the middle of our long, thin line, while the go-fasts spread way out to either side. We hunted in wolf packs, waiting for a radio call from the tug that their radar had picked up a fast moving blip coming in from Jamaica, the Bahama Banks or elsewhere. Smugglers trying to make a midnight run with offload crews waiting at a secret rendezvous.

The Customs agent in my go-fast would slap a blue Kojak light on the prow, kick the engine to life and away we'd go. Nobody had uniforms to identify ourselves, except the Captain and the First Mate on the tug. The rest of us in those days wore plain clothes. All we had were our badges, side arms and that blue revolving light.

When smugglers saw that flashing blue light, they'd try to turn to one side, but if we had done it right, then we'd soon have other flashing blue lights converging on both sides. Most times, if they could, the smugglers would keep on going, run their boat up on the nearest beach and disappear into the night landscape. They'd merely abandon their vessel and its contraband load. Better than a stretch in federal prison.

What we found out later was that most smugglers wouldn't even think of stopping because of other actions happening further south in the Keys. Seems there were some good ol' boys in some of the back waters who had their own go-fast boats, but didn't have enough front money to get involved in the drug trade, so they went out and bought their own blue lights. They'd motor out into the southern Florida waters and pull over boats they thought were smuggling. If they caught a load, they'd steal it, shoot up the other boat and maybe its occupants. This made smugglers a little antsy about pulling over for any blue light. Can't say I blame them, but it made our job harder.

On quiet nights, if the Customs agent got bored, he was likely to slide our go-fast up next to a private fishing boat in the dark, slap the blue light on, knock on the hull with his knuckles and announce his authority. When a head appeared over the rail, he'd tell them we were coming aboard to check records and maybe search the guy's boat. Some smugglers relied on hidden compartments and the appearance of normalcy to bring in their loads. Thus, we ended up searching for fresh seams or paint in the cabin and after deck. Anything that looked newly reworked or out of place.

Of course, the trick for us landlubbers gone to sea for the first time was learning how to board from one dead-in-the-water boat to another dead-in-the water boat while both platforms were bobbing up and down in ocean swells out of synch. One mis-timed leap and you could either land on the far side of the other deck with a lot of momentum headed for the outside rail and a quick bath, or one could find himself suddenly pressed flat against the other hull and sliding down....towards a quick bath.

Like most surveillance, the majority of nights were quiet and boring. But then, came those nights filled with adrenaline, excitement and the BLUE LIGHT SPECIALS. We're not talking K-Mart here.