25 April 2012

Let's Get Physical


by Robert Lopresti

Dixon's recent charmer about kittens reminded of a subject I wanted to bring up  A few weeks ago I was struggling with a stubborn plot point.  It was part of a long, complicated novelette and I couldn't figure out how to make all the flashbacks work.  Very frustrating.

Then one day when I was not thinking about the story at all I went downstairs to clean the cat litter.  This is not the most entertaining part of owning cats, but it needs to be done.  So I was doing what needed to be done and - boom.  I had the solution to my plot problem.  Oddly enough, the solution did not involve cats.

I've noticed this before.  Sometimes the best ideas come when you set the problem aside.and just engage in some physical activity that lets your mind wander.  I owe a lot of my ideas to bike rides or lawn mowing.

I vividly remember working out the plot for "Shanks Gets Killed" while strolling through the Arboretum near the campus where I work.  I've gone back there a few times but haven't found any more plots hiding among the pines.

What about you?  Do you ever find the solution to your mental problem in some mindless task?

24 April 2012

Paraprosdokia


    A hallowed device in the mystery writer’s lexicon is the twist ending – an unexpected event that throws all that has preceded it into a different light.  As kids we all loved the Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and our adult lives have often been spent grumbling over the fact that so many of the great twist endings were used while we were still in grade school. (Dammit, I could have written that story about the frozen leg of lamb!)  The twist ending is not relegated solely to novels or short stories; it also exists in more minimalistic surrounds as the paraprosdokian.

    I knew the device long before I knew the device’s name.  "Paraprosdokian" comes from Greek "παρά", meaning "against" and "προσδοκία", meaning "expectation."  A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech used to describe an observation, framed in a phrase or a sentence or sentences, in which the ending is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader to reframe or reinterpret the observation as a whole.  A classic example is:  “I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather; not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.”  Another is:  “The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it’s still on the list.”

    Sometimes the basis for a paraprosdokian relies on a word that can have two meanings.  Generally these can be completed with the phrase “you can say that again.” 
  • Prime Minister:  “Your highness, the peasants are revolting.”  King:  “You can say that again.”
  • Wife:  “You have to admit that my parents are trying.”  Husband:  “You can say that again.”
  
Will Rogers
     Paraprosdokia are particularly popular among satirists. Tom Lehrer (who turned 84 last week), introduced a song with reference to his college roommate who he described as having“majored in animal husbandry . . . until they caught him at it.”  And Mort Sahl (who turns 85 next month) once observed “my right is your left, which is increasingly becoming the problem in this country.”  Will Rogers also used the device – “I belong to no organized political party.  I am a Democrat.”  Rogers also said that “Ohio claims they are due a president as they haven't had one since Taft.  Look at the United States, they have not had one since Lincoln.”  (That quote apparently pre-dates the election of Warren Harding, which shows that Ohio should be careful what it wishes for.)

   Among politicians, Winston Churchill was probably best known for relying on paraprosdokia to make a point.  Among his classic observations are:

  • There but for the grace of God -- goes God.
  • A modest man, who has much to be modest about.  
  • If you are going through hell, keep going.
  •  It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.
  • You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.
    Probably the consummate expert in Paraprosdokia was Groucho Marx.  At one time or another Groucho uttered all of the following:  
  • I've had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it.
  • Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.  (This one gets my "best in show" award!)
  • Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.
  • When you're in jail, a good friend will be trying to bail you out. A best friend will be in the cell next to you saying, 'Damn, that was fun.’
  • From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend on reading it.
  • The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.
  •  I have nothing but respect for you -- and not much of that.
  • She got her looks from her father. He's a plastic surgeon.
    Groucho advanced the art form even further, at times combining paraprosdokia with outrageous puns.  Examples include:
  • For that act alone the defendant should get ten years in Levenworth, or eleven years in twelveworth, or five and ten in the Woolworth.
  • Get out of my life.  You can leave in a taxi and if you can’t find a taxi you can leave in a huff.  And if you need more time, make it a minute and a huff.
  • When love comes in the door, money flies out the innuendo.
    A spin through the internet uncovers many other unattributed examples of this engaging figure of speech. (Some of these examples stray a bit from the paraprosdokian formula, but what the hey -- they are funny!)
  • I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn't work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.
  • Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.
  • Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.
  • Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.
  • If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong.
  • War does not determine who is right - only who is left.
  • Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
  • Evening news is where they begin with 'Good evening' and then proceed to demonstrate why it isn't.
  • How is it one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?
  • Why is it wrong to use a handicapped parking space but all right to use a handicapped bathroom stall?
  • I didn't say it was your fault; I said I was blaming you.
  • Why do Americans choose from just two people to run for president and 50 for Miss America?
  • In totalitarian countries there is complete freedom of speech – you can say anything that you want to.  Once.
  • When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.
  • When tempted to “split the baby,” remember that this was precisely what Solomon avoided doing.
  • To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.
  • Life isn’t what it used to be.  And it never was.
  • Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.
    Having spun all of this into an article, I suppose the best way to close is with one last paraprosdokian that sums up the writing process for this piece:

                To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.

(Be sure to click the link for a rousing send-off!)


23 April 2012

Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite




REWRITE, REWRITE, REWRITE
       by Jan Grape


Jan Grape

I saw this on Facebook this morning and thought wow, this is so true. If you have trouble reading as it's not 100% clear:
"The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon." Robert Cormier. (I hope I read that name correctly.) But seeing this, naturally clicked on several things in my old brain pan and I decided it was going to be the topic of my blog today.

Several years ago I was attending a mystery convention somewhere and was complaining about rewriting. At that time I was still a baby writer and it seems like rewriting was such a dull and boring thing to have to do. And a good friend, Max Allan Collins, (I think it was) said "you have to tell yourself the story first." Fortunately, I listened and learned. Let the creative brain flow and don't stop the flow. Keep working on it all the way to the end.

You may realize as you go along that you need to research a fact, but you can make a note, right there in your draft and maybe put a couple of ** or ( ) or something to catch your attention and find later. You might want to double check a character's name when you get to Chapter 18 and you haven't thought about or mentioned her since Chapter 5. A writer friend of mine says she puts Post It notes all over the place to remind her she needs to check a fact or make something clearer.
Once you've done that by completing the first draft, you then go to work and tell everyone else your story in writing not outloud. That first draft is important but it really is just the first draft. After you finish that draft then you really ought to set it aside for a little time, several days if possible. I like to begin revising on a hard copy, seems like I can pick up on mistakes much easier that way. When you pick it up again you need to begin reading with your editor's eye. Just do a complete read through and make notes if you need and now that it's easy to cut and paste with our computers we often can do a quick change right then and there.

However, if you find a scene that might need to be clarified or strengthened, make a note and do it after you do a read-through. Often I can eliminate or add to my characters or to the setting or to the
weather or to the dialogue. I know when I first began to be published I had to go over my manuscript four, five times and now I often go over it more than that. I know how easy it is to help make my story stronger and what I can usually do to fix it.
I've discovered with dialogue that I usually have to read it out loud to be sure it sounds natural. If I have a much younger character and I'm not too sure about how things are said in today's world, I have a daughter who has raised two young men and she's up on their lingo. If I'm writing my policewoman's character I have a female homicide detective who will read my scene and tell me if it's feasible or realistic. I've had male friends read a scene with a male character and tell me that guy doesn't know what he's talking about. And no offense guys, but I find that female writers are much better at writing male characters than male writers who writing about female characters. Not all but in a lot of books I've read.

I've also discovered through the years that I really enjoy rewriting now. To edit and polish my story or book and make it the best I possibly can is pretty cool. It can be time consuming but the end result is way worth the effort. I want to story or book to sell to a publisher. I definitely want the book or story to sell to readers. It's so much fun to have a reader tell you how much they enjoyed the story. It's worth all the time and effort you put in to hear that.

So it is true that we are able to make mistakes and write crazy sometimes. We don't have to be in the operating room and hear "Oops," and worry about anything bad because we have the opportunity to fix our mistakes during rewrite.

And speaking of rewrites, I've just finished proof-reading my latest short story, "The Confession," which will be out the end of May. It's in the ACWL Presents: MURDER HERE, MURDER THERE, anthology that I'm co-editing with R. Barri Flowers. Fortunately, I didn't have to do any rewriting, it works like it is, but I did spend time even now going over it making sure it was as good as I could make it.







22 April 2012

Puzzles, Part 1


The past few weeks I received eMails and suggestions from a reader or two who remembered I like puzzles and word play. First up is a puzzle brought to us by an educational organization, the British Council. Try to ignore the creepy gopher critter as you play:

Wonder how it works? You saw this trick (and full solution) before on Criminal Brief. When playing it, look carefully at multiples of 9 because one multiple will be your result. Multiples of 9 are:
09, 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, 72, 81

Magic Gopher

You'll notice multiples of 9 all have the same associated symbol. The magician doesn't have to know your original number, only that your result will be a multiple of 9, which is how the trick is done.

NFL Draught

One of the stories wasn't about puzzles at all, but about football and the Wonderlic Intelligence Test. It seems LSU cornerback and candidate for the NFL draft Morris Claiborne scored 4 on the Wonderlic.

Okay, okay. Many blogs and sports news tittered about it, slyly mocking or deriding. Listen, football isn't my game: It wasn't part of the sports programs at my small schools and play is so slow, watching it wreaks havoc with my ADD. Watching after-game highlights are fine, but in-game lowlights are as painful as watching golf or cricket before they made it look like baseball.

It's wise to remember an adage: Everyone is my superior in some way. Morris Claiborne can take hits I can't and he'll probably make more money in a year than I will in ten. Moreover, he may be the kindest person or wholly honest or have admirable traits not factored into a test.

But, from my criminally suspicious mind comes a serious question: If a score of 4 is considered six points less than literate, if the multiple choice should have randomly scored ranging 20-33%, how has Mr. Claiborne managed to pass his LSU courses? Have they done Claiborne any favors graduating a man who can't read and pass a simple exam?

Wondering about Wonderlic

Wait… Is the test really that simple? Several sample questions are available on the web and I found a full set of fifty on Man Cave Sports, which drew from ESPN. Clearly not written by professional tech writers, the wording of several are awkward but parsable. A friend and I took the test separately. We each got them all, although not in the allotted 12 minutes, a task easier in high school, but not so easy now.

Looking at the sample test, an error leaped out. If you want to see for yourself, it's near the end of the test, in fact, the very end. Not only is the wording faulty, the answer is incorrect. If this is an actual question and answer (which ESPN purports the test to be), then shouldn't we turn a critical eye on the exam itself? Who's testing the testers?

If you want to take the test, after the break, I point out the error.



Wonderlic Error
50) Divide 30 by half. Add 10. Multiply by 3. Add 6. What is does this equal?
The given answer is 81. That is wrong. The correct answer is 216.

Whoever wrote the test question either meant take half of 30 or they didn't understand dividing by one-half is the same as multiplying by two. Try it yourself on your calculator, recalling .5 is the same as ½:

(30 ÷ ½ +10) x 3

Now my question is: how can we craft this as a murder clue?

21 April 2012

Outrageous Older Woman: Getting the Music Out There


by Elizabeth Zelvin

As some of you know, I’ve recently released an album of original songs, Outrageous Older Woman. While I’m an experienced writer who knows as much as any author can claim to about today’s rapidly changing book publishing marketplace, this is my first foray into the recording industry.
I’m not looking for a record deal or an American Idol career. At my age, and at my modest level of musicianship, I’m happy to have my songs out there in the world and accessible to those who might enjoy them. And I did get a double handful of terrific musicians and harmony singers to play and sing along.

I’ve met a fair number of independent singer-songwriters over the years, so I was not surprised when my co-producer on the album, who actually makes a living from his music, confirmed that the best place to go for distribution of indie music is a website called CD Baby. For a small fee—which in fact was paid by the company that made and packaged my CDs—they offered a user-friendly way for listeners to preview excerpts of the songs and buy either the CD or mp3 downloads of the whole album or individual songs. This can be done on either my CD Baby page or a click-through embedded in my own music website. And for no extra charge, CD Baby handles digital distribution to iTunes, Amazon, and numerous other music vendors on the Internet.

All I had to do was sign up with CD Baby by completing their online registration and send them five copies of my CD. So far, so good. I was pleased they asked for information I thought it was important for music lovers to know, such as a description of each song. I had already done some thinking about what musical genres to check off in order to attract folks who would actually enjoy my music: urban folk, country-folk, acoustic singer-songwriter, and (coached by my co-producer, who’s an old hand at this) “roots” and “Americana”—designations for music that isn’t slick and formulaic enough, not Nashville enough, to be played on commercial country stations.

I even managed to come up with the requested “three names of famous artists whose music yours is like.” I’ve always had trouble with this stuff with my fiction, since I don’t think my work is quite like anybody else’s. (“If you crossed Matt Scudder with Stephanie Plum, you might get my recovering alcoholic protagonist Bruce Kohler’s third cousin.”) So I hope no one is too disappointed when they hear my music after reading that I’m like Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and the Dixie Chicks. At least we’re in the same ballpark.

But one phase of the registration process knocked me for a loop. For every one of the sixteen songs on the album, I had to check off whether it was “clean” or “explicit.” Now, I’m a word person, and I know that “explicit” does not mean “dirty.” If you ask me to be explicit about my origins, I can tell you that I’m a nice Jewish girl from Queens, the daughter of immigrants from Hungary and Russia. To be explicit about my favorite meal, I can describe the cut of meat and its degree of doneness and exactly how I like my potatoes prepared. But I’m no dummy, and I know they meant “explicitly obscene” or “explicitly profane”—in other words, is each song suitable for young children to hear, or is it dirty?

As I found out later, ie after checking off “clean,” as it happens, for all my songs, the source of the hoopla about this is “the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC)...an American committee formed in 1985 with the stated goal of increasing parental control over the access of children to music deemed to be violent, have drug use or be sexual” (Wikipedia), spearheaded by Tipper Gore. This raised a furor on the issue of censorship in the arts. Apparently the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) decided to have its members put a voluntary parental advisory (the Tipper sticker) on works that were considered “explicit.” Wikipedia says, “It is uncertain whether the ‘Tipper sticker’ is effective in preventing children from being exposed to explicit content. Some suggest that the sticker actually increases record sales.”

Independent labels that are not RIAA members are not required to use the sticker. A 2007 message board post on the subject that popped up when I googled “CD Baby + RIAA” said, “I suspect that over 99% of the users of...CD Baby...are NOT RIAA members.” (gearslutz.com) But CD Baby itself does comply with the advisory. Once I knew what to look for, it was easily found in the contract I signed in order to use CD Baby’s services.

Parental Advisory Labeling. You will be responsible for complying with the Recording Industry Association of America’s (“RIAA”) Parental Advisory Logo (“PAL”) Standards, as applicable, for so long as you use the Services.

So I guess I’m not gonna try to boost my record sales by adding “explicit” language to my lyrics. Click below to listen to the previews, and see if you like ‘em.

Liz Zelvin: Outrageous Older Woman

20 April 2012

Kitten Cosies




We’ve been a little under the weather, lately, here at the Hill homestead. And, it seems to me some of my fellow SleuthSayers are feeling a bit down too.


So, this week, I’m skipping explosives, and starting the weekend off on a happier note:

Kittens!

My daughter’s cat, Frisky, recently had kittens. So . . . here are a few pictures . . . presented in hopes you can start your weekend with a bit of a smile!



Kittens in a basket, going for a ride.



I have no idea who the kitten in the middle is surrendering to. Perhaps it's my son.




My 9-year-old son, learning why it's not smart to let kittens ride around on your head.

Milk is good. Kittens are messy.On the left is my daughter's cat, Frisky -- the mother cat. She's wearing a hat my daughter likes (which my wife made). I'll let you be the arbiter of what Frisky thinks of the hat.

“What have kittens got to do with sleuthing?”
Well, I’m glad you asked (even if you didn’t). Because, kittens grow up to be adult cats — such as Koko and Yum Yum, the two Siamese cats of the late Lilian Jackson Braun’s wonderful 29-book series: “The Cat Who …” mysteries.

The series is a soft, character-driven, almost cozy — in which the protagonist, Jim Qwilleran, solves mysteries (often murders) with the aid of his trusty male Siamese “Koko” (more formally named: Kao K'o-Kung). And many little life lessons for writers are contained within the method employed by Lilian Jackson Braun, when she wrote the series.

For instance:

After writing the third book in the series, she quit.
That’s right; she quit. Her editor insisted she add graphic violence and sex to her books, or they just wouldn’t sell – because sex and violence is what the public wants! — and unless those changes were made, he wouldn’t publish any more “Cat Who …” books. Since Ms. Braun didn’t feel such changes would result in books she wanted to write, she quit writing them. For eighteen years!

At the end of that time, she retired from her position at the Detroit Free Press, and her husband encouraged her to try the series again. The result? A collection of 29 mystery novels and two short story collections.

The lesson: Trust yourself enough to know what you can and can’t (or don’t want to) write.

Braun spent much of her time in South Carolina. And, frankly, having spent time in the Carolinas — during the years when I lived at the whim of my uncle, and home was wherever I hung my barracks bag — I’ve come to the conclusion that many of her more colorful or zany characters were based on folks she knew down there. Braun, however, placed her stories in the far northern reaches of the lower 48, somewhere around the Great Lakes region. This setting provided plenty of woods and sea shore-like beaches, for bootlegging and smuggling stories, which probably had their roots in rumors she’d heard around the inland waterway. In this manner, she could lift the Carolina coast and put it down somewhere far from its actual location, while still maintaining its natural habitat.

The lesson? Feel free to use local color and characters, but give real people the protection of what, in Special Forces, we would have called, “Good cover for status and action.”


But . . .

What’s a guy who’s supposed to be all hard-boiled doing writing about the Cat Who … series? Well, I first ran across one of them after a taxing deployment. I felt wrung out, used up and exhausted. Upon my return, I discovered that the utilities in my Fayetteville apartment had all been turned off during my absence of several months. This wasn’t unusual, since it’s rather hard to get your electric bill when you’re running around in the jungle somewhere. And, it was often difficult to make prior arrangements; I’d get a call to come into the Team Room, where we’d be promptly locked into “Isolation” for planning our new mission — no contact with the outside world permitted until our return. Thankfully, my apartment complex manager understood my situation. So, my apartment was always left alone, and I simply paid my back rent when everything was over.

But, none of that helps much on a Friday night when your lights and phone don’t work. So, as was my custom, I hit a hotel near the local shopping mall. The women at the front desk knew me, and welcomed me back, understanding that I’d be there until I could get my utilities turned back on the following Monday.

On that particular Friday night, the woman on the desk had just finished reading one of the Cat Who … books. She looked at me as I stood there in filthy BDU’s that probably smelled as if I’d worn them for a week (A day or two in the jungle is all it takes to make a uniform smell like that!) and the como I hadn’t managed to completely wash off my face and hands. “Here,” she said, handing me the book. “You look like you could use this.”

And she was right. I finished it the next morning. And bought a couple more at the bookstore in the mall, then spent the rest of the day reading them as I smoked cigars and drank beer while sitting in a hot bath.

The lesson?? Even steely-eyed snake eatin’ killers, who run around in Girl Scout hats, sometimes need a break from the daily grind.

Hope this post gave you a bit of a break, too!

—Dix

19 April 2012

Reality in Mysteries


I have a gut feeling that more crimes have been solved based on a hunch than not. The intuitive feeling that nags at a detective or even an amateur sleuth has probably laid out many a trail to find the criminal responsible for a crime and certainly spurred the hunt.

Isn't this one of the reasons we choose to read mysteries? To read along ravenously and put together the clues the author doles out to us like breadcrumbs to starving ducks along a pond, we beg for more in order to follow them and deduce the true villain before the author makes his Big Reveal. Nothing induces a page turner like clues sprinkled along the way to whet our appetite.

Reading a good mystery is like winding our way through a maze. With a starting point and the supposition we will find our way through to the end quickly, we struggle past the red herrings leading to a blocked wall, barring our path. We retreat a few steps and as the GPS is always saying, we "recalculate," probably with more fervor than before. The journey is almost always the true joy and not the destination. I find myself dreading to find only a few more pages left of a really great read. I want to keep the momentum going of the exhilaration I feel as I get closer and closer to being sure of who the culprit is in the mystery. I admit: I am quite the greedy reader.

In real life, the offender is either someone everyone thought would turn out to be prison material or so unsuspecting the neighbors can't believe the stories they hear on the six o'clock news about the nice man down the block.

In mystery stories, this isn't always the case and makes the bad guy more fun to hunt down. Finding who the antagonist is and why he does the things he does is part of the mystery that most excites me as a reader. It's also safer being an armchair detective than one out on the streets actually dealing with people capable of committing such crimes as to be facing arrest, a trial and possible jail time.

I was one who never missed an episode of either "The Shield" or "Homicide" when they were on prime time television. I know some police officers who told me those portrayals were "on the money" as to how it was "on the streets." I know probably just as many who objected that it was completely unreliable. I remember one deputy who said, "In the first episode of 'The Shield' when that one cop killed another point blank, we dismissed the whole series as unbelievable." Another told me, "I can see how that could easily happen."

There is probably a bit of truth in both opinions. Both "The Shield" and "Homicide" showed a dirtier side of law enforcement than most Americans expected to show up on their television screens, but it is probably closer to the truth than not. If we've learned anything from reality TV programs, it's that people aren't always as nice as they were in Mayberry and their language isn't either.

Why would we expect someone being handcuffed and hauled into the back seat of a patrol car to be "nice" anyway? Even on "Cops," where the officers seem to never raise their voices, lose their tempers or let loose a swear word or two, it seems a bit forced. Maybe it's easier to watch your language when you know you're wearing a microphone and television cameras are nearby.

Many people objected to the blue language choices and the darkness of those involved both in law enforcement and on the other side of the law in "The Shield" and "Homicide." I don't condone bad language, but it seems appropriate in some instances in fiction, and certainly in true crime stories.

If every bad guy in a novel talked like a bad guy, the reader would easily guess he's the villain by the end of the first chapter. No need to keep reading that book. The good writer lets part of the maze surrounding the bad guy shield him from our view at least for a while. When we can't see or hear his true self, the character hides in plain sight and makes it more of a delicious undertaking to discover him later.

I have a hunch we will be finding another character hiding in that maze of mystery ready to confuse us with his designs of disguise. In mystery, that's reality.

18 April 2012

Pull the Other One


I have to warn you. I am a Gloomy Gus today.  Not the usual jolly soul you have come to love and admire over the years.  My milk of human kindness is long past pull-date and my sense of human warmth is approaching absolute zero.

“What is the cause of this uncharacteristic gloom?” you may well ask.  “How have you been cast down to this wretched state, Rob, dear friend?  What, to coin a phrase, is harshing your mellow?”

I shall elucidate.  Yesterday I pulled a muscle in my leg.  It was my own fault, I admit it.  I engaged in a dangerous and reckless activity.  Exercise.

(Let this be a warning to all the impressionable youth out there.  Don’t be led astray by peer pressure!   Sure, it may look tempting when the “cool kids” are out there jogging and lifting weights, but don’t fall into the trap.   Do you really want to end up a muscle-bound  health freak, surviving way past the deaths of most of your friends, not to mention the Social Security system?)

Where was I?  Oh yes.  My leg hurts.  But that’s not all.  My injury is playing holy havoc with my lunch schedule.

At the advice of yet another health nut I recently started spending half of each lunch hour walking while devouring my finger food lunch.  At first, I resented the idea, because I normally spent this interval reading, and reading, as I am sure most of you out there in writer-blog land will understand, is very important to me.

I did find a solution: audio books.  I went to a department store and tried to find something as low tech as a portable CD player hidden among the grains of rice that can hold Bach’s complete works, and the cell phones that guess your weight to the last kilogram.

I did find the the CD players,, hanging out rather sheepishly next to a single, sad, cassette tape player.  Remember them?

Anyway, thus equipped, I went to the library in search of a suitable audio book to read (e-read? Hear? Listen to?).  I settled on Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile, which I highly recommend.   In fact, if the publisher happens to read this, you have my permission to use the following as a blurb.

Moonlight Mile is my favorite book to read while I am walking and eating.  –Robert Lopresti, author of stuff

So, my gimpy leg has shot that half of my lunch hour to hell.  The second half of this festive event is normally spent writing, either a file I brought from home on a flash drive, or editing a story I have already printed out.

Alas, this morning, in my rush to transfer all my worldly goods from my bike panier to my backpack, preparatory to catching a bus to work, I managed to leave both my paper file and flashdrive at home, where they are no doubt entertaining the cats no end.  So I can neither walk nor write.

This reminds me, as so much does, of Jerome K. Jerome, a great Victorian humorist.  As I recall  he once lamented that if he dared to leave on a trip without bringing all the pages and tools he needed to write he was overcome with a desperate urge to write.  On the other hand, if he brought them a long he was never tempted to pull them out for as much as a glance.  Jerome (out of respect, I am calling him by his last name.  I know it is hard to tell) was a great student of human nature.

Have I mentioned that my leg hurts?  If you have never heard one of your own muscles tearing, let me assure you that it is a memorable experience.

This may explain why, lacking the ability to write something useful, I  chose instead to impose this rant on you. Fortunately it is now over.

And remember, if you must exercise, please take the elementary precaution of first removing your legs.

17 April 2012

Evil Under The Sun--Part Two


by David Dean

The following account was largely drawn from the Nassau Guardian and Freeport News of the Bahamas.  Some of the background research was done by myself and any factual errors are my own and unintentional.  I think it serves to illustrate how an insidious crime can infect and corrode an entire nation.  This is the second and concluding half.  


When three boys went missing from Freeport in May of 2003, the entire Commonwealth of the Bahamas experienced a sense of unease, concern, and a shared bafflement as to their fates.  An almost forgotten case of twenty-two years before was resurrected--another instance of three young boys gone missing and never to be seen again; also in the month of May.

Satanic sacrifices and witchcraft began to be discussed and the people's unease soon became suspicion and fear.  The police were unable to shed any light on the circumstances even with the help of a team of FBI profilers.  Then...Junior Reme disappeared from his Freeport home one morning in July.  Fear graduated into terror and xenophobia.  A mysterious grey van was reported to be trolling the back streets of Freeport for little boys; its occupants always in shadow.

With a fourth boy now added to the list American television was enlisted in the search, and Adam Walsh of 'America's Most Wanted' offered his services.  An episode featuring photos of all the boys was duly filmed and aired--all to no avail.  Still there were no witnesses, no new clues...only silence.  Rallies were held in support of the suffering families with massive turn-outs, but still nothing broke in the case.  Two months after Junior Reme's disappearance, September 28th, a fourteen year old boy did not return home.  Desmond Rolle became the fifth name to be added to the list.  The devil was at his play in the Bahamas.

The Nassau Guardian appealed to the mothers of the Bahamas to search their hearts when it came to their own sons...could they know something...could they be somehow involved?  The public, in their turn, castigated the police on their lack of progress, and accused them of being concerned only with the tourists and wealthy; not the poor and working people that appeared to be the target of this plague of disappearances.  The rifts that had begun in May grew wider and uglier.  Haitian immigrants, long a source of heated debate within the Bahamas, came under an ever closer scrutiny.  Their ways were not the ways of Bahamians: Whereas the Bahamians spoke English, the Haitians spoke Creole French; the natives were by and large Protestants, the immigrants were Catholic, the Bahamians prized good behavior and obedience to the law, the foreigners had come from a lawless, violent country.  Perhaps more importantly was the Haitians legendary Voodoo practices--were these not Satanic in nature?  Though some Bahamians practiced a similar alternate religion call Obediah, it was not generally accepted.

October was to change everything--On the third of the month Assistant Commissioner Ellison Greenslade announced that more than three persons had been taken into custody as a result of "substantial" tips received by the police.  He added that the police still had reason to believe that the missing boys were alive.  He also made clear that Desmond Rolle, the latest victim, had been a packer at the local Winn Dixie grocery store just as the others had been and that they now knew all the boys had frequented the same downtown video game store.  He refused any information on the suspects in custody.

Immediately following the press conference, a team of policemen descended upon the Winn Dixie, as a large crowd gathered in the parking lot and rumors began to swirl of refrigerated body parts.  The police denied the rumors: "Absolute Hogwash," said Greenslade.  There were still no boys.

The following day, when pressed by reporters, the police stated that they had nothing major to report.  When the liaison officer was questioned as to rumors that the boys may have become victims of 'organ harvesters' for the medical black market, he responded that there was no evidence to substantiate such a thing.  The police continued to be tight-lipped on the suspects in custody.  Meanwhile CNN aired a story on the disappearances world-wide and a cruise ship cancelled its trip to Freeport.

By October 8th it was learned that several mothers and their juvenile sons were being held by the police.  The story was broken when one of the mothers complained to the media after her release that she wanted her boy back, and that she was contemplating suicide as a result of their treatment.  It became understood that three; possibly more, juveniles, some as young as eleven, were being detained.  The police had 96 hours in which to hold them without charges.  Citizens reported extensive police searches going on in a wooded area to the rear of the Tivoli Gardens apartment complex.

On another front, Member of Parliament, Lindy Russell, decried the intrusive and disruptive nature of the media's handling of the entire crises, and accused them of hurting the families and hampering the investigation.  He further castigated his fellow MP's over their lack of action in the matter, and said the government must move swiftly to assist families in socially depressed areas that can become catalysts for sexual exploitation of children and adults.

On October 10th, the police released a bombshell when they announced that four boys were being charged with the manslaughter of Jake Grant, the first of the children to go missing.  The youngsters, ranging in age from 11 to 13 were indicted at the Grand Bahama Island courthouse late on a Friday morning.  It was the first substantial break in a case that was now five months old and with as many missing children.  Three of the arrested boys were Haitian nationals.  During the arraignment, a large crowd had to be held back on the courthouse lawn by a combination of police and Defense Force officers clad in army fatigues.

The crowd and media was reminded over and over to stand back as they continued to inch forward.  After just an hour the boys were escorted from the courthouse to a waiting bus and the horde of on-lookers surged forth.  Screams of "my boy" and "they little boys" were heard and reported by the press.  An ambulance was summoned to treat a woman who had collapsed.  As the police bus sped away with the boys to the airport, from where they would be flown to the Simpson Penn Juvenile Detention Center in Nassau, people wept and clung to one another.  Some family members became angry and began shouting at the police, but a heavy rain shower intervened, dispersing the irate, sobbing crowd to their various homes. The remainder of the missing boy cases were being treated separately according to a statement from the police.  The public remained anxious and confused.

Rumors spread quickly on October 26th that two bodies had been discovered at Freeport's Barbary Beach and that a man was being held in custody.  The police denied the rumors.  Three days later, Cordell Darrell Farrington, 35, a warehouse worker for Kelly's Freeport Limited, was charged with five counts of murder--that of the four remaining boys and an adult who had been missing since 2002.  He had turned himself into the police. It was also revealed that the police had recovered five skeletal remains in a remote pine forest on the eastern part of the island.  Police said that Farrington, a Bahamian national, met the boys informally and was able to gain their confidence before murdering them.  It appeared that, at last, the six-month reign of terror was over.

Cordell Farrington pled guilty to manslaughter in the deaths of Mackinson Colas, Deangelo McKenzie, Junior Reme, and Desmond Rolle.  He was later convicted of murder in the case of the adult, Jamal Robins, 22, who had allegedly been his lover.  This conviction was changed to one of manslaughter in 2008 due to the court accepting proof that he suffered from a severe personality disorder.  He was the eldest of five children.

Jake Grant's body was never discovered.  It was alleged by the police that he had been drowned in a swimming pool by the boys charged in his death.  Several years later the charges were dismissed. Jake's mother still holds on to the hope that he will be found.

Farrington's mother, who was also a victim in all of this, stated that, "We will never be known by our name anymore."

The boys funerals were not held for over a year pending forensic testing on their remains. 

The Funeral of Deangelo McKenzie, Mackinson Colas, Junior Deme, and Desmond Rolle


16 April 2012

Another World


By Fran Rizer
I lost my mom this week. No, she's not yet dead as I write this, but she's essentially comatose. I sit beside her for two reasons. First, if she should hear anything through her condition, I want her to hear my voice and my words of love. Second, I'm here because I want to be with her, whether she knows it or not.
Brutally, I actually lost her last week when she regressed to her childhood, crying because she couldn't find her shoes to be ready for school. She began seeing and talking to my deceased dad as well as her mother, grandparents, brothers and sisters, but only the ones who are dead. Throughout her illness and decline she's wanted me there with her. Last week, she refused to believe I'm her daughter...because, "My daughter is a beautiful baby with curly red hair." She's been in another world since then.
As I sit here in a recliner beside the hospital bed, laptop balanced on my knees, I think how every location of this journey--hospital, rehab center, intensive care units and now Hospice-assisted skilled nursing care unit were unknown worlds to us. My heart aches for the patients who've had no visitors before or after a few relatives who came in Easter afternoon carrying potted lillies. Since November, whatever facility we were in, Mama has had visitors daily in addition to me, my sons, and my grandson, who've been there every day.
I thought I might later write a short story that takes place in one of these other worlds that I've visited the past five months, but I don't really believe I'll write anything with a medical setting. Then I thought of the world my mom was in yesterday, the world of her childhood and later young motherhood when I was a "beautiful baby with curly red hair." Perhaps one day I'll write a story set in the world Mom's been in recently--nineteen thirties and forties.
When we write fiction, we create another world. Even if the setting is a real place, the effects of our characters' actions color that authentic place converting it to the fictional world of our plot. When I wrote the Callie Parrish series, I "created" a town near Beaufort, SC. My St. Mary, SC, is a small town with a few stores, a mortuary and only one pizza place, but fortunately it's a Domino's and delivers. When the first Callie was published, I'd checked that there is no St, Mary, SC, but I later learned that there is a St. Mary's in Georgia. I thought perhaps that explained the readers who enthusiastically told me, "I've been to St. Mary."
In the second Callie mystery, Callie and Jane go to a bluegrass festival on Surcie Island. There is NO Surcie Island off the coast of the United States! Surcie is an old Southern colloquilism for surprise, as in, "Were you good while Mommy went shopping? I'm glad because I brought you a surcie." The surcie was generally a piece of candy, and the sitter was delighted that she also received a surcie. As a child, I wanted to live on an island I created in my mind and named Surcie Island, an island version of Willie Wonka's chocolate factory, so I named Callie's island for one of my childhood imaginary worlds. In reality, the Surcie Island of the Callie books is a cross between Daufuskie of Robert Conrad fame, and South Carolina's Edisto Island thirty-five years ago before it was commercially developed. Yet. . .readers also tell me enthusiastically that they've been to Surcie Island.
My readers feel they've been to worlds I've created. As I sit here, I wish that I were able to be with my mother in the other worlds she's in these days. I wish I knew more about her childhood and more about when I was a baby, though I do know that as the first child as the first of nine children, I was pampered and spoiled by my parents, grandparents and lots of aunts and uncles. I also know from the relatives who've traveled far distances repeatedly to visit my mother, their sister, sister-in-law and aunt that my mom, the matriarch of the family is loved by many.
I've already used my emergency column and haven't had time to replace it, so today I'm sharing with you another world I never imagined, my mother's world as she seeks to move on to yet another world. I could have written about mothers today, perhaps even introduced you to my mother personally, but my heart can't do that right now. Instead, I'll close with a quotation from Sharon Doubiago:
My mother is a poem
I'll never be able to write;
though everything I write
is a poem to my mother.
Until we meet again. . . take care of YOU.

15 April 2012

Florida News (Desperados Edition)


by Leigh Lundin

Fingering a Suspect

St. Cloud, FL.  St. Cloud is a pretty little town south of Orlando that hasn't quite lost its rustic flavor. I enjoy staying with friends here, but I worry the drive for growth may damage what makes it worthwhile. But I digress.

fingered Thursday, 5 April saw a shooting during a Kissimmee raid. St. Cloud police officer John Nettles 'perceived a threat' and shot off the middle finger of fellow officer Scott Wetherhold.

Oops.

The Orlando Sentinel reports an investigation is under way, but I think it went something like this: "Damn it, John. For the last time I'm telling you not to point that in my direction…" Blam! "Owwww!"

This is not related to the Oregon cretin who fought in court for the right to give cops the finger. Sheesh, Bubba, pick your battles.

Courthouse Caper

Fort Lauderdale, FL.  Follow this: A Coral Springs dude went to court for his parole hearing. While there, he stole the judge's nameplate off the Broward County courtroom door. He then posted photographic evidence of his misdemeanor on Facebook, whereupon deputies arrested him.

Stealing the sign violated terms of his parole.

Rubbing Out a Child

Miami, FL. 
A couple of parents didn't sign consent forms (and local news reported they didn't pay) for an elementary school group photograph. Following the orders of the PTA, the cameraman used Photoshop to erase one of the children. As for the other child, well, see for yourself.

Cheesy Proposition

Manatee, FL.  Man, those Manatee County women are hungry! A woman offered sex in exchange for two double cheeseburgers, according to a deputy. Meanwhile, a woman under arrest in the county jail bit an officer so hard, she lost her two front teeth.

That bites.

♬♩ All I Want for Christmas… ♪♫

But Officer, These Are my IDs


Vero Beach, FL.  When asked for identification, a Vero Beach Vixen bared her breasts, where she had tattooed "Poem of Dead Tree". Will Greenlee reports close inspection couldn't determine whether the poem was "a haiku, sonnet, ode, couplet, ballad, epic or limerick or whether iambic pentameter is involved" or even if the poem was self published.

Susan StickleHidden Where?

Bradenton, FL.  After a stop for a broken muffler, police not only found drugs in the car, but also found the driver hid hydromorphone in her dentures. However, this next story…

Niceville, FL. 
Officer Mary-Kathleen Devine stopped two women driving a car suspected in a crime. One of the woman had a treasury of concealed items in her pants or, as the Sunshine Slate delicately put it, stashed in her lady locker.

Dump Site

Fort Pierce, FL.  This story is about a stolen vehicle and, well, you'd better read the article for yourself. Yep, this is Florida.

Fix-a-Flat

Dania Beach, FL.  Oneal Morris, the transgender woman (M➠F) arrested in Miami last year for 'enhancing' the butts of others with such Big Lots materials as construction caulking compound, cement, and Fix-a-Flat for the bargain price of $700,  is back in the news again for doing the same thing in Broward County.

It's not clear 'patients' noticed the perpetrator's own backside.



Trayvon Martin

Sanford, FL.  As most of you know, George Zimmerman has been arrested and charged with second degree murder in the Trayvon Martin case. Most people are satisfied, the Martin family urges this to be about justice and not vengeance, and the governor is assembling a task force to review our crazy Stand Your Ground law that precipitated so many unpunished murders here.

Rev. Al Sharpton gave a surprisingly temperate speech saying no one should gloat, while Zimmerman supporter and legal expert Sean Hannity claimed his conversation with Zimmerman was 'privileged', whatever that means. So, with a bit of luck and cooler heads, we might actually reach a point where we perhaps dismantle one of the more ill-conceived laws of recent years and attain a judgment that doesn't ruin a second life.

In the meantime, Florida continues its ongoing craziness. We don't want you to miss out, do we?

14 April 2012

Hills and Valleys




All of us who are writers are familiar with the ups and downs of the writing life. Sometimes ideas seem to come as easily and frequently as the electric bill, and making stories out of those ideas seems even easier. Other times, your mind goes blank (I should probably avoid Etch A Sketch comparisons), and you wouldn't recognize a good idea if one crawled up and bit you on your writing hand. The same thing applies to marketing your completed stories. One week, or month, or year, you might have a run of unusually good fortune--acceptances, publications, awards, etc.--and the very next week, or month, or year, might be as dry as a lizard in Death Valley. It's feast or famine, when you're hot you're hot, when you're not you're not, and when it rains it pours. (I'm trying to come up with even more cliches, here. Give me a minute . . .)



A Failure to Communicate

There have been more articles written about writer's block than anyone would ever want to read, but the fact is, sometimes you do find yourself without the words or ideas you need. It lasts longer for some folks than for others, but I've known a few writers who say they weren't able to produce what they call meaningful work for a year or more. I sympathize. That would not only be tough, it would probably be enough to make you wonder if you might be more suited to some activity other than writing. Carpentry, maybe, or gardening or photography.

I can honestly say it hasn't often happened to me, in the eighteen years that I've been writing for publication. Some times are better than others, sure, but so far I've seldom found myself in a position where I didn't have workable ideas for stories, or the ability to sit down and turn those ideas into manuscripts. What I have had are periods when I wondered if I would ever again sell a story. I guess that happens to most writers, now and then.

The Little Train That Could

There is, of course, a fairly reliable treatment for both conditions. First, if you're not able to write anything that you think is good . . . write something bad. Write anything, as long as it involves putting words on paper or screen. I've heard people say that's the only cure for a blocked imagination. If you do enough directionless, pointless writing, I'm told that you'll eventually start writing something that is good, or at least you'll be able to go back through the crap that you just wrote and change it up and make it good. (Or you'll quit completely, I guess, and never write again, and if that happens, you probably shouldn't have been doing the whole I-want-to-be-a-writer thing in the first place.)

As for the second problem--not enough sales--I think the answer is to just keep submitting material. Over and over and over. If it's stories, send in the manuscripts; if it's novels, send in the queries. Reject the rejections. The summer between my sophomore year and junior year in college I sold dictionaries door-to-door in Michigan, and our student bosses--"crew leaders," they were called--offered us a profound piece of wisdom: Don't ever try to sell something to someone with a pit bull in his yard. Just kidding. The piece of wisdom was: The person who gets the most no's also gets the most yeses. The salesman who knocks on the most doors makes the most sales. That's almost always true, and sometimes it applies to life (and fiction submissions) as well as to dictionary peddlers.

For those of you who have also experienced these ailments (derailments?) firsthand, what do you do to get the word train (or the marketing train) back on track? Are there better ways than the ones I mentioned? I'd enjoy hearing your take on this.

On the Home Front . . .

This has been a good year for me so far, in terms of story writing and story sales. I hope that run of luck continues. But I also realize it might not, and in that case I can only hope I'll keep the confidence that's required to keep writing and keep submitting manuscripts.

I recall yet another saying, one that I think I might have mentioned in a past column at the Criminal Brief blog, but I like it so much I'll mention it again:

There's a lot of attrition among writers--so don't attrit.

13 April 2012

And the Winner is


Actually, the winners of the Great Breakfast Recipe Contest last month are the two grandsons and I. Thank you one and all for the tasty recipes you submitted. However, you should know that some recipes were tweaked for personal tastes, plus please realize that the cook (me) preparing these recipes probably wasn't as adept at making your favorites as you would have been had you been here in person. In any case, each of the judges, ages 8 and 6, sat down to breakfast each morning with their personal scoring sheet, in order of preparation, right beside their plate. Scores ran from one to ten, with a Comments section after each entry.
The enthusiasm and diligence shown by both judges was astonishing. Focused conversation between the two about that morning's entry went on before, during and after consumption of the meal. If this had been a psychological experiment, it would have been enlightening about how each judge's mind operated, not to mention their increased interest in spelling (for instance, "Grandpa, how do you spell flavor?") and how to best express their ideas in the Comments section. NOTE: The Comments section will be used to further tweak recipe ingredients and preparation for future breakfasts, although Grandma Kiti is now back and will be doing most of the cooking until her next trip to take care of her mother. I'm relieved.

As a side note, we were all surprised at how well the Cheese Grits went over. Perception prior to eating could best be expressed as "What?" The boys had never tried grits and had no idea what they were, I had eaten plain grits once as a breakfast side dish at a Cracker Barrel, and my wife Kiti, training in Alabama decades ago, had once consumed them in an Army mess hall, but thought they were Cream of Wheat until a fellow trainee inquired as to why she was putting milk and sugar on "them thar grits."

Anyway, the judges have made up their minds and decided to to make two awards. Therefore, one book goes out to Dixon Hill for the Mexican Omelet, and another goes out to Fran Rizer for Biscuits & Cheese Grits, just as soon as I get my author copies from AHMM. Thanks again for all the recipes. __________________________________________________________________

Since this was a short column, and in wanting to keep within the mystery/suspense theme of Sleuth Sayers, here is an excerpt from "Grave Trouble" (2nd in the Holiday Burglar series, AHMM Dec 2008) in which Yarnell must come up with a mask to wear during the intended Halloween night burglary of a jewelry store that may have security cameras inside.

......
Buy his own mask? Cripes, he didn't have enough money to pay next month's rent and now he was looking at added business expenses just to do what Beaumont called a simple job. Okay, fine, he'd find something.

Later that evening after much soul searching and several glances into the kitchen to ensure that his wife would be occupied with fixing supper for some time, Yarnell snuck into the bedroom of their three room flat. Standing at the front of their six-drawer dresser, the one with the large mirror attached to the back, he hesitated for a moment before finally opening the top drawer on his wife's side.

As he saw it, making some quick cash was paramount to his future happiness. He didn't like stealing from his wife, but if he didn't damage anything, and he returned what he borrowed, before she missed it of course, then it wasn't really stealing, was it? He ran his fingers over the silk, nylon and other items inside her top drawer. Eventually, he chose a pair of dark beige pantyhose. These should do lovely.

With one ear carefully tuned to the sounds of his wife still banging pots and pans in the kitchen, Yarnell eased the selected pantyhose out of the drawer, inflated his courage and pulled one of the nylon legs down over his head. Quickly, he glanced in the the mirror. Everything was slightly blurry. He leaned closer to the silvered glass.

One eye stared back.

The nylon was obviously too tight. His right eyelid was stuck down in the closed mode, while his left eyelid was hung up in the wide open position. The resulting image resembled a leacher's prolonged wink. He tried to blink. Nothing moved.

With his wide open left eye drying out from lack of tear duct moisture, he quickly abandoned the idea of using a simple pantyhose mask. Besides, the second pantyhose leg hanging empty next to his right ear looked outright ridiculous. He might be missing a professional point here, but he just couldn't see how bank robbers successfully worked under these strained conditions. The beige pantyhose went back in the drawer where he'd found them.
.........

Ah, a criminal's live is never easy. See you in two weeks.

12 April 2012

The Court Reporter's Tale


            One of the many problems I have with courtroom dramas (let me count the ways!  and I probably will, as time goes along) is that they ignore court reporters.  They're there, taking notes, saying nothing, and vanish whenever anything happens.  And yet they're a pivotal, important part of any court.  
            Now, I admit I don't know how it's done in New York City, but in smaller cities and rural areas, every judge has his/her own personal court reporter.  These are long-lasting relationships - some for decades.  Always symbiotic; sometimes strange; usually very professional; sometimes not; and once in a while the kind to make any court administrator wake up in a cold sweat, with the words "sexual harassment law suit" running through their minds.  And court reporters are human beings, too:  I remember one court reporter who started dating one of the witnesses, surreptitiously, who later turned out to be heavily involved with the drug-dealing defendant.  That got wild and wooly:  the court reporter got shot one night, and the only reason the court reporter wasn't fired was that the judge used all of his considerable clout to prevent it.
            Judges will use their clout to protect their court reporter, because one of the worst things that can happen to a judge, other than being caught in a motel room with a minor the day before elections, is to lose their court reporter of long-standing.  This is hell for a couple of reasons:  (1) most judges depend on the court reporter to keep track of  everything for them and (2) they're going to have to break in a new court reporter, and no one - let me repeat, NO ONE - wants to be around while that's going on.  (http://www.stus.com/stus-cartoon.php?name=Court+Reporter&cartoon=blg5807)   There's also the problem of getting transcripts, but we'll get to that in a minute.   
            It's the court reporter who makes sure that the judge's life runs smoothly.  First of all, he/she keeps the judge's calendar.  That's a lot of clout right there.  You want an early hearing?  Or a delay?  Does the court reporter like you?  Know you from Adam's off ox?  Let's just say that any smart attorney keeps in very good with the court reporter. (Note this website about "gifting" - http://promotionholdings.com/legal/court-reporter-gifting-and-lawyer-ethics/  Not that it happens very often, of course.)  By the way, when the judge calls everyone into his/her chambers for some reason?  The court reporter is there.  When the judge goes golfing?  Court reporter often goes along.  When the judge is in chambers, thinking?  The court reporter is the guard dog on the threshold. 
            Other things on a court reporter's plate:  making sure the courthouse is set up to the judge’s personal specifications.  There's a whole list of things, from proper beverage on - or under - the bench, to the various requirements of life in the judges' chambers.  Hint:  When the court reporter tells you the judge wants M&Ms or Diet Seven-Up or only blue pens, get it before the fit is pitched.  Often the court reporter is also the judge's chauffeur, driving them to and from court (and here in South Dakota, that could be a considerable distance for a traveling judge).  Court reporters are also secretaries, valets, servants...  There's a wide range of duties.   
            Oh, and yes, they also take notes.  Either the very old fashioned way by hand (Bogie movies), 
or the old fashioned way (stenotype machine), or the new paperless way. 
Now the court reporter is hired by the state or the federal government (depending on judge’s level); but the government doesn’t pay for the court reporters’ equipment (which costs about $4,500).  This means that while the court reporter is paid for taking down the hearing or trial in court, the actual notes technically belong to the court reporter, and he/she is paid again for actually transcribing them.  “Double-dipping!” claim the accountants.  “Pay for our equipment!” cry the court reporters.  “No way in hell!” scream the bureaucrats.   And the situation continues.  By the way, in case you're wondering, transcripts currently cost around $2.00-$2.50 a page, or $1.25 a minute of court time, whichever costs more.  A court reporter who works for an active judge can make a pretty good living.  It's the free-lancers who are often close to starving...
 Let's talk for a minute about the records.  The old stenotype machines have only gone the way of the dinosaurs fairly recently.  They produced a stack of paper, about 3 inches by eternity, on which the transcript is coded; this code is in shorthand, and each court reporter had his/her own shorthand on top of that.  It could be very hard for one court reporter to read another court reporter’s notes.  (And that wasn't entirely by accident:  it's called job security.)  In the old days, the court reporter would read the paper tape and type it on a typewriter.  Then a computer.  And, finally, software was developed that could take those notes and format them into a word processing mode, but, since this requires translation from the shorthand, even this gets tricky.  For example, the words “their”, “there”, “they’re” and “the air” are all coded exactly the same.  So the court reporter has to both program the software to match his/her shorthand, and also remember what was actually said in the hearing.  Sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes they're not around because they're retired.  Sometimes they're dead.  
And that's when it gets tricky.  Because not all court notes get/got transcribed right away, or soon, or at all.  Think of all the hearings and trials that are held every day in every town and city:  they don't get transcribed unless they're specifically asked for.  Joe Blow pleads guilty to a DUI and gets sentenced to, say, a year's probation and time served .  Jill Smith gets caught robbing a casino, and gets 2 years.  There's a dispute over the construction of a driveway that goes to trial.  (I remember congratulating the judge on his ability to sleep with his eyes open on that one.) There's a jury trial about a possible child abuse case, and the person is acquitted.   Or one in which they're found guilty.  The paper is there, on tape, on record - but it may or may not ever be transcribed, because the real reason for transcription is a dispute over the verdict. That doesn't always happen.  Or at least, not right away.  In my days with the circuit court, I remember seeing stacks and stacks and stacks of tapes, dated and semi-labeled, that had never been transcribed, and probably never would be.  
Unless...  And what if...

11 April 2012

Close - But No Spring Roll


by Neil Schofield

A few years ago, round about the time when I was flirting with the gilded chimera of Hollywood, just at the same time in fact, I was seduced by another chimera from the other side of the world. Out of the blue I was contacted by a young person who offered herself up as my agent to sell my stories in mainland China. This young person had been instrumental in introducing EQMM to China, and her credentials seemed tip-top.
"Hmm," I said to Mimi, "China. Just what we've been needing."
So, to cut it short, I parcelled  and disked up a load of my oeuvre and bunged it off to the young person, mostly my published stuff but including one or two stories that had been rejected. Hah! That would teach 'em.
Well, the young person came up trumps. Not long after, she announced that she had found a publisher who was willing to publish two - not one, mind - collections of stories. I read the letter with trembling eyes.
"What is this hectic flush that is suffusing your dear face, beloved one?" asked Mimi. I gave her the glad news, and she suffused along with me.
I received two contracts -one for each collection, and all was tickety-boo. The publisher was - still is, for that matter - Qun Zhong in Beijing.
I rummaged around on the Net and managed to Google Qun Zhong. When Google had translated the publisher's pages for me, I found it wasn't half bad. This was the same publisher who had on its list James Patterson, Clark Howard, lots of Sherlock Holmes, Robert Brainard ( not inaccurate as translations go). They had the first Spenser novel, billed as 'The Gude Fu Handscroll', which is close enough. And they had Philip Margolin, otherwise known as Philip Ma Gaolong.
"Well," I thought, "I'll gaolong with that."
I received a smallish advance for each collection and that was that for a year and a half. The young person taking umbrage at a fairly innocent remark I made in an e-mail, scuttled off into the undergrowth never to be heard of again and I was left along with Qun Zhong or rather with Ms Zhang Rong, who was the editor in charge.
That hectic flush came and went several times in those eighteen months. Sometimes I looked like a set of traffic lights as I did the arithmetic. One billion, six hundred milion people in China, I reminded myself. Now say, just one-tenth of one percent bought a copy of just one collection - no it was too much, the brain refused to cope with the maths.
Nobody ever asked questions about the translations. They were just getting on with it, I supposed. But I did wonder how they were coping witht sentences like the one in 'Mine Hostage', one of my first EQMM stories, when a character says: "We've been stitched up. Done up like a kipper, we've been."
But I supposed they knew their business.
And after eighteen months, I had a bulky parcel through the post. Six copies of each. The first looked exactly like this:

And the second was pretty much like this:


They were what I suppose we would call Trade Paper Backs, but like no TPB I'd seen. The covers were beautifully produced, and the paper, well, the paper had nothing to do with paperbacks. It was almost silky to the touch, not that rough stuff we're used to.
It was beautiful work. The only hiccup being that although I'd written every word - well, ideogram, I guess - in these two gems, I couldn't make head nor tail of them. Never mind, I could show them to people, and people said: "Lovely. What does it say?" " Never mind that," I said, " look at the workmanship." " Lovely," they said again. Ah well. Somewhere in China I told myself, people were handling these jewels, and were actually reading the words.
Some were, in fact, but not quite enough. When Rong ( and that's something you've got to get used to - the first name comes last) sent me the first accountings, the numbers were lowish, about 3,500 copies of each sold. And the royalties had been munched up by the advance. So another chimera bit the dust. But not quite. I've still got six copies of each preserved in a jewelled reliquary, and the knowledge that on the other side of the world bookcases in apartments and houses hold copies of these two things.

They're still on the Qun Zhong list, these two collections. I occasionally peep at them, just to make sure. The blurb is interesting.
It goes like this: "Neil Schofield is one of Britain's famous suspense novelist, reporter origin, known as the "devil" writer."
And there's more:
"The reader not only his treacherous plot attracted but also because of its mysterious ending and cannot help laughing and then to appreciate the complexity of human nature and survival of the sinister."
Well, Google. You know.
But I love that 'survival of the sinister,' bit. That's poetry, that is.

In case anyone wants to become a devil writer like me, here's Rong's e-mail address.


 An enquiry can't hurt, can it? And you never know. Life is full of surprises.