18 October 2012

Thursday's Child

And Thursday's Child has far to go...

As always, I have questions.

Perhaps even more than the names labeling us from birth to beyond death inscribed on a tombstone, many believe our destinies arise from numbers, stars and on the dates we were born. Do they or is this more of mythology handed down from one generation to another so we believe it simply because it has been repeated enough?

Born on a Thursday on a hot summer's day, do I have far to go? If I'd entered this world on a crisp autumn Monday morning instead, would I be more fair of face? Would my personality be of a calm nature like the gentle breeze of an October's dawn?

Tuesday's child is full of grace.
Wednesday's child is full of woe.

I don't know which day Edgar Allan Poe was born, but I dare say his life sounds more like he should have been born on a Wednesday. Was he born on a cold winter's date? Some of his work reminds me of that time of year when wicked, cold winds send shivers down my spine much like his "Tell-Tell Heart".

Famous for the romantic novels that twist our feelings like an old-fashioned wringer washing machine, was Nicholas Sparks born on a Friday and loving and giving as the interviews I've read about him suggest?

Saturday's child must work for a living.

Surely one of the hardest-working writers seems to have been Rod Serling, hammering out episodes of "The Twilight Zone" week after week. Was he born on a Saturday by chance?

But the child born on the Sabbath Day is fair and wise and good and gay.
Going strictly by the dictionary of that era the poem was written (attributed by Anonymous, the most prolific writer of all time), I know this would be a happy person. Which writer would that be? Obviously, one who has a great track record with his publisher and no rejection slips ever.
Does it matter when a writer births his characters?
Fall seems to be when I most begin a novel and spring short stories. I am not sure if it's because I am comfy inside in autumn and don't want to venture outside so want to invest more time with plot lines and characterizations or simply that's how it's worked out so far.
Do I choose shorter works in warmer weather when I can type THE END sooner and head for outdoor adventures?

As humans are we who we are because of simple choices we can't control like when we were born, where and beneath a certain sky formation?

Are creative types more likely to share some of these circumstances?

It seems unlikely. Each day someone like Entertainment Weekly shares information on entertainer's birthdays. I don't remember any day that went without a celebrity having that particular birth date.

For that matter, do more architects share the same day they were born? Or lawyers or musicians?
I don't know. As I said, I have questions.

17 October 2012

Spy Lie

by Robert Lopresti

I just saw the movie Argo and I feel like I should say something about it because I wrote about it several years before it was made.  Well, not exactly.  But I wrote a piece on Criminal Brief called A Real-Life Genuine Phony Hollywood Spy Story,which was about the bizarre true event that served as a basis for Argo.  If you aren't familiar with it here's the one-sentence synopsis: during the Iranian hostage crisis the CIA got six hostages out by pretending they were a Canadian film crew.

So here's my review: it's a good movie.  You'll like it.  But you'll like it better if you don't read my earlier piece first, because the more you know about what really happened the more likely you are to be annoyed by the parts the movie gins up.  Apparently a spy sneaking into an insane theocracy to slip out six civilians, knowing that a single mistake could get them all beheaded was not suspenseful enough for Hollywood without a few added gimmicks.  Sigh.

I blame it on Irving Thalberg.  I believe he was the producer in the 1930s who dictated that every movie had to end with a 99 yard dash for a touchdown.  Apparently Ben Affleck and friends decided that the ball wasn't quite far enough back for the climax so they had to libel the Carter administration (who apparently did not look quite bad enough in real life) and bring in a lot of machine guns.  Plus they invented an airline  pilot so oblivious to the world around him that he made those two clowns who flew a state or two past their destination a few years ago look like paragons of alertness.

Honestly what annoyed me most was not the lies they put in so much as the facts they left out to make room (or because they didn't fit the story they were telling).  Here are a few true incidents that did not make the movie (which remember, is both funny and suspenseful):
  • The forgers put the wrong date on some of the passports, indicating that the carriers were travelers from the future. 
  • The Canadian cabinet had to meet in secret to authorize false passports.  Then the authorities refused one to the CIA agent, because he had not been included in the vote.
  • When the hero visited the Iranian consulate, he left his portfolio in the taxi cab.
  • The CIA agents’ map of Tehran led them to the Swedish embassy instead of the Canadian one. 
  • On the morning of the actual escape, our hero slept through his alarm. 
Wouldn't you think some of those items were worth including?  And then there was the equally suspenseful escape of the Canadian embassy staff which had to be perfectly timed, but didn't fit in with the phony scene the producers put in Argo.  Honestly, I liked the movie, but the more I think about it the more irritated I get.

And let me say that one reason I liked is that any flick which gives a juicy comic part to Alan Arkin does a service for mankind.  (And the fact that Arkin's character is a composite didn't bother me at all..)

Here's the irony, by the way.  I was at a songwriting group this week and  a woman had written a song about a real person.  I told her "you have to decide whether you're serving the person or the song."  In other words, she was cleaving too closely to the truth.  So call me a hypocrite, I guess.

Tangential episode: Speaking of the CIA, more than a decade ago I was at a dinner party and was seated near the new boyfriend of a woman I know.  I asked him what he did for a living and he said he was an engineer.  Well, practically everyone in my wife's family is an engineer so I asked what kind.  "Systems engineer," he said, and put so much unspeakable boredom into those two words that I changed the subject.

Later my friend told me that the guy was actually an analyst for the CIA.  And after he found out that I am a government documents librarian he was kind enough to send me a few books published by the CIA for my collection - nothing classified, I assure you.

Back when the CIA used to send a lot of paper documents to federal depository libraries like mine (now they don't because "everything is on the web," which it isn't but don't get me started on that), we used to receive pocket atlases of major cities in communist countries.  These  map books were highly prized because they were much more accurate and complete than maps of Peking and Moscow that you could actually buy there.  But nowhere on the entire publication would you find the publisher's name.  For some reason, people didn't wander around those cities carrying something that said CIA on it.  Go figure.

And go see the movie.  Just remember one thing that the film makes a point about: spies and movie moguls never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

16 October 2012


By the time you read this, my story "Mariel" should be out in the December issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. At least, I hope so as she, or it (the story), is the subject of my posting. I've written before that I've never found it necessary to make characters up out of whole cloth, as there are such an abundant number of inspirations running around. The character of my recurring clerical sleuth, Father Gregory Savartha, as I once posted during the final days of "Criminal Brief", is based on a wonderful priest with whom I was fortunate to have a friendship. The wise, dignified, and valorous Chief Julian Hall… well, I'm sure there's no need to explain where he was drawn from. But there have been many others… and Mariel is certainly one of them.

I once wrote to Janet Hutchings that I found the suburbs endlessly entertaining and fruitful ground for fiction. This was because she had just accepted a story of mine inspired (ever so loosely) on some neighbors with whom I had never spoken a word. The girl who provided the inspiration for Mariel comes from the same neighborhood, though her contributions to my creative process were more tangible. In fact, for a period of her young life, it seemed as if I was forever being made aware of her presence, either directly or indirectly. She had a way of appearing when you least expected it, and not being one to stand on ceremony, she never waited for an invitation. On more than one occasion, my neighbor two doors away awoke to find her sleeping on the couch in his living room. And he was sure that he had locked his doors. Being only eight years old, it was all rather troubling. It was only later that he deduced she had apparently discovered his emergency key (under a flower pot by the front door--first place burglars look). Clearly, the fact that she rarely spoke was not indicative of her abilities.

His was not the last house she visited during her leisure hours. My immediate neighbor to the north looked up from his computer one day to find her standing in the room with him. He said it scared the bejesus out of him. I should mention that she was not a conventionally attractive child, being quite large and heavy for her age. She also had an unblinking stare that could unnerve even the innocent. You can imagine what it did to the rest of us.

This little girl came from a family in crisis, which appears to be the state of about half the families in America these days. Her parents were involved in a stormy break-up and both had demons of their own to wrestle--they were not winning. She and her two brothers were the only kids in the entire neighborhood that had, during different stages of their development, ridden their bikes into my unmarked police car. Yes...each of them. Parked car...thank God. They were unhurt; the front quarter panel suffered only a little. These events were always timed to occur when I was at dinner and the car plainly in my sight at the curb. I'm convinced that this had somehow become a rite of passage. Oddly, I found the ritual itself pretty funny.

Once, when I was home during the day after a night shift, I witnessed her crossing my neighbor-to-the-south's back yard. He was away at work, as was his wife. Her body language was almost comical in its furtiveness. Just as she approached a shed on his property and began to open the door, I called out her name from behind a curtain, and in my best spectral voice intoned, "You don't belong there." She stepped back from the door as if burned, her Shirley Temple curls bouncing on her head. Surveying her surroundings carefully, she reversed course; returning the way she had come. Her expression was more troubled than frightened, containing a touch of stubbornness– she would be back, it said to me. Did I mention that she "collected" things left untended by her neighbors? "Untended" covered any unlocked door, or unsecured object. In this way she contributed to the security-mindedness of on our little street.

Though I did find a good bit of humor in her antics, it was the pathos of her situation that inspired me to write the story, "Mariel." It's completely fiction, of course. But the real Mariels of the world, sadly, are not. There are far too many feral children these days wandering the streets like wraiths–unsettling and terribly vulnerable.

I once responded to a call of two children found wandering– the little girl was three, and she was towing her year and half old brother along by the hand. When I arrived on the scene I recognized them from dealings with their parents– an alcoholic couple. I called for the youth and family services rep, and after turning them over to the bureaucracy developed to deal with such things, I went to their apartment. I found the father passed out on the couch, reeking of alcohol; the front slider open– the only way the children could have escaped. The mother was at work and we were alone. You might imagine the things that passed through my mind, having three kids of my own. I contemplated the many misfortunes that might befall such a person: He might resist arrest--many before him had done so. Or, he might flee through the closed half of the slider in his drunkenness. He might even fall down the concrete steps leading up to his porch being so unsteady on his feet. I thought a lot of things that could happen that morning… yes, it wasn't even lunch time, yet… but I didn't do them… I resisted temptation. And when I shook him awake all he could do was stare at me in bewilderment and fright. He didn't offer the least resistance and he was arrested "without incident," as cops say. In the end, I felt sorry for him, too; but not as sorry as I was for those kids, and way too many like them.

It's because of situations like that, and many, many more, that I wrote "Mariel," and why so many of my stories feature children dealing with adult situations. It's a tough world out there, and way too often, kids are left to go it alone. It rarely turns out well.

15 October 2012

The Thirteenth Child

Okay, I confess I don't like writing reviews. For one thing, while I lie for a living, I refuse to mislead readers by glorifying books that, to me, don't cut it.
David Dean checks out his new novel.
The title of David Dean's new novel could have made me afraid this was an out-of-date story about The Dugger Family, but knowing the genre, I assumed The Thirteenth Child referred to the number of children who disappeared, were kidnapped, or murdered. Not so, but I won't clue you in on the meaning of the title, and I won't give away any of the secrets of the novel in this review. Read this book for yourself. You'll definitely be glad you did.

If you enjoy being scared to go to bed alone, this is your kind of read. With a well-written, well-paced, yet steadily climbing, plot, The Thirteenth Child is a terrifying journey that will make the reader crazy with intrigue that turns to fear and then crashes into sheer horror at the end. It's not the customary roller coaster ride mentioned in many reviews. Instead, it's a fast uphill trip in a
police cruiser.

David Dean doesn't bog the reader down with info dumps or excessive backstory. The characters come alive on the pages through their actions, thoughts, and feelings. As the main storyline progresses, they grow to be so captivating that the reader fears for them and shares their pains and apprehensions.

Preston Howard, a former English Literature professor, isn't interested in anyone or anything as much as his bottle of high quality scotch or rotgut whiskey, depending on how much money he's swiped from his daughter Fanny that day. Preston doesn't grow inebriated--he gets stinking drunk. In that condition, he prefers to sleep in a shanty hidden in the woods near an elementary school instead of in the comfortable bed his daughter provides. He befriends a feral boy named Gabriel who is dangerous as well as spooky. This lands Preston smack in the middle of the cases of a missing seven-year-old girl and two teenage boys.

13th Child
Nick (Police Chief Nicholas Catesby) has more than his share of problems. Single since his wife stepped out on their marriage and then left him, he's attracted to Preston's daughter Fanny, but how will that work when her father becomes a person of interest and then a suspect? A leak in the police department further complicates his life while deceitful betrayal by one of his officers looks as though it might cost Nick his job as well as control of the investigation of the youngsters who have disappeared.

Fanny Howard, Preston's daughter, is overwhelmed by the responsibilities of supporting her father financially and worrying what kind of new troubles his drinking will bring them. About the time that the chemistry she shares with Nick Catesby fires up the pages as well as Fanny's bed, the relationship is forbidden because her father's situation creates a conflict of duty for Nick. Even more chilling, though Fanny is a grown woman, she becomes the monster's next target.

Tension begins on page one and rises constantly with characters and action that pull the reader in. There's a monster to be vanquished, and identifying who (or what) he is creates an urgency that makes it impossible to stop reading until the explosive final confrontation.

Author David Dean describes the book as a horror story with "a bit of police procredural woven into it. It's not a gore-fest, but it is scary."

Available from Genius Book Publishing as paperback or eBook, David Dean's The Thirteenth Child delivers in all areas. How many stars? On a scale of one to five, I give it six stars, and I'll read it again.

Here are links for your convenience:

Until we meet again...take care of you and treat yourself to a good scare with David's new book.

14 October 2012

Vive la Différence Part 1

by Leigh Lundin
male remote control
© unknown

I've written about the difference between men and women, a topic I find fascinating. It's fraught with danger (I don't think I've ever written 'fraught' before), laced with intrigue, and often enjoyable if not politically correct– which I don't plan becoming anytme soon. Besides, relationships shouldn't be political, despite becoming politicized through the decades.

For some time, I've received eMails titled Why Men are Happy and Why Men are Never Depressed. These have arrived in multiple editions over such a span that I noticed additions, deletions, and edits as these eMails passed through multiple hands. (Many versions can be found on-line.) Cathy Guisewite they're not, but some are fun.

Occasionally guys receive word they might not be pulling their weight in a relationship. Although the foolish might mount a vigorous defense, the wise will probably gather that 20% is not a reasonable balance nor does grilling or any other chore that might be considered enjoyable (fishing, winemaking, working on the car, sitting at the computer, watching basketball) weigh toward the ultimate accounting.

Yes, accounting, because there's a balance sheet and many other factors intrude and guys have a lot to account for. For example, here's a diary circulating on FaceBook:

Guys don't worry about the same things, snoring for example. A fellow can blissfully snore loud enough to crack ceiling plaster, but a woman will stay awake half the night waiting until her man falls asleep so he doesn't hear her snores set off car alarms. The thing is, a guy doesn't mind. First, it makes his woman human, but he also might find her snoring comforting and snap awake if she suddenly stops.

Guys irritate women in ways that are incomprehensible to men. Take finding things. Scientific American says the spatial parts of our brains evolved differently: cavemen traveled the hills and dales hunting mammoths and eventually found their way back home, while cavewomen kept their home running, wrestling leg-o-sarus into the cookpot, fried the bronto-burgers, mended woolies and loincloths for the family, and scrubbed the cave walls clean from their children's drawings. Whereas a male could find his way to a sabretooth carcass on flint ridge (without asking directions), he couldn't find the bone-handled knife in his own cave.

But his woman could, an effect Rosanne Barr in her stand-up comedy called the uterine locator. Back in our unevolved days, the cavewoman yelled, "Why do you keep asking me? Do I look like I know where everything is? Why don't you find it yourself, you're perfectly capable. What, you can't squeeze those big shoulders through the kitchen door? Because that's where it is, in the kitchen, under the sink, behind the second pot on the third shelf in the yellow box marked 'stuff.'"

There could be a wry Linda Ellerbee observation here, but let's move on to that balance sheet…

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Male
  • Wedding plans take care of themselves.
  • Wedding dress $5000. Tux rental-$100.
  • Your last name stays put.
  • You can never be pregnant.
  • The garage is all yours.
  • You don't have to stop and think of which way to turn a nut on a bolt.
  • Car mechanics tell you the truth.
  • You can open all your own jars.
  • Chocolate is just another snack.
  • Your underwear is  $9.95 for a three-pack.
  • You almost never have strap problems in public.
  • New shoes don't cut, blister, or mangle your feet. 
  • Three pairs of shoes are more than enough.
  • One wallet and one pair of shoes, one color for all seasons.
  • You can wear shorts no matter how your legs look.
  • You can 'do' your nails with a pocket knife.
  • You can wear a white T-shirt to a water park.
  • You can wear no shirt to a water park.
  • You are unable to see wrinkles in your clothes.
  • The same hairstyle lasts for years, even decades.
  • You don't have to shave below your neck.
  • You have freedom of choice about growing a mustache.
  • Hot wax never comes near your pubic area.
  • Your bathroom has soap, towel, toothbrush, and shaving gear, nothing more.
  • You don't have to dress up to get the mail.
  • You never have to drive to another gas station restroom because this one is just too icky.
  • Wrinkles add character.
  • Everything on your face stays its original color.
  • People never stare at your chest when you're talking to them.
  • One mood all the  time. 
  • Phone conversations are over in 30 seconds flat.
  • You can leave the motel bed unmade.
  • You can kill your own food.
  • You can shop in under two minutes.
  • You know stuff about tanks.
  • You don't have to know anything about celebrities and their relationships.
  • You don't have to know anything about your friends' relationships.
  • You are not expected to know the names of more than five colors.
  • No maxi-pads.
  • A five-day vacation requires one suitcase.
  • You can drop by to see a friend without bringing a little gift.
  • If another guy shows up at the party in the same outfit, you just might become good friends.
  • If someone forgets to invite you, they can still be your friend.
  • You can call your buddy f•ckface and still be friends.
  • You play with toys all your life.
  • You wake up looking the same as you went to bed, maybe better.
  • You get extra credit for the slightest act of thoughtfulness.
  • You can ask a woman where to find things.

13 October 2012


by John M. Floyd

Last weekend I had a rare opportunity to combine business and pleasure.  Actually I suppose you could call it pleasure and pleasure: (1) my wife and I visited our oldest son and his family in West Virginia and (2) while there I drove to Cleveland, Ohio, to attend Bouchercon 2012.

As most of you know, Bouchercon is an annual conference for writers and fans of mystery fiction.  This year's event was held at the Cleveland Marriott Renaissance Hotel from Thursday, October 4, to Sunday, October 7.  I arrived a day late (and yes, a dollar short) but I at least arrived in time to serve on the panel I'd been assigned--ours was called "Nuggets of Mystery"--on Friday afternoon.  I'm not sure the six of us offered any profound insights, but we had a lot of fun, and I hope our audience did too.

I was outclassed and outnumbered by my all-female fellow panelists: Barb Goffman, Shelley Costa, Laura K. Curtis, Terrie Farley Moran, and EQMM editor Janet Hutchings.  Janet in particular managed to educate all of us, and the crowd also, about recent trends in short stories, and it was interesting to me to hear everyone's take on the influence of short fiction on the mystery/crime genre.  I was honored to see in the audience my old buddy Jim Doherty, Short Mystery Fiction Society president Tom Sweeney, SleuthSayers friend Jeff Baker, and AHMM editor Linda Landrigan.

In fact I was able to spend quite a bit of time this year with Janet and Linda, and with Strand Magazine editor Andrew Gulli.  These three Head Honchos are not only effective at their jobs, they're good folks--interesting and smart and incredibly supportive of their authors.  I learn something new about mystery writing every time I talk with them.

I think it was Terrie Moran who said, in a SleuthSayers comment awhile back, that the best thing about conferences is not the time you spend in panels--it's the time you spend visiting with fans and other writers.  She's right.  This time I was able to catch up with old acquaintances like Terrie, Doherty, Steve Hamilton, Jane Lee, James Lincoln Warren, Jan Burke, and others--folks who have helped me a great deal over the years.  Other friends I somehow missed seeing, even though I heard they were in attendance, were Melodie Johnson Howe, Bill Fitzhugh, Cathy Pickens, and Kathryn Wall (although there is always the possibility that they spotted me from a distance and were avoiding me).

I did manage to meet in person several fellow writers I've often swapped emails and Facebook messages with--e-friends like Robin Burcell, Beth Groundwater, and the aforementioned Tom Sweeney, Barb Goffman, and Jeff Baker.  It's always fun to be able to finally put faces with names, and to see how accurate (or how far off the mark) you were in imagining what they look like.

I also met folks I'd not known before--too many to mention here.  Again, these were both writers and readers, which I think is one of the great advantages of a fan convention like B'con.  Writers' conferences are okay, and I've been to a few, but it's a lot better when fans are included.  Without them, after all, we writers would be forced to take up a different job/hobby/pastime.  Those of us who forget or neglect our readers, and cease to care what they like or want, probably won't be writers for very long.

Last but not least, I was fortunate enough to meet one of my favorite authors, Lee Child.  I'm an avid Jack Reacher fan--I've read all seventeen novels--and I admire the talent that can create and sustain such an entertaining series.  As I had suspected, Child turned out to be both friendly and charming.  When I babbled my thanks to him for his having designated one of my AHMM stories as a "Distinguished Mystery" in the Best Mystery Stories anthology he edited in 2010, he smiled and assured me that he remembered that story.  I'm not naive enough to believe that he actually did remember my story--he was almost certainly just being kind--but I was pleased anyway, and impressed that he would bother to offer praise and encouragement to someone so far below him on the literary ladder.  (I was already planning to do a column on Child and his novels soon, and my having talked with him, if only for a moment, will make that piece more fun to write.)

NOTE: A few quick questions for our readers.  Have you ever attended a Bouchercon?  Do you plan to go next year?  Are you a regular attendee of B'con, or of any other conference?  Do you consider them worthwhile?  What are some conferences that you've found to be particularly interesting, or helpful?  I've been thinking about Killer Nashville next summer--are any of you headed that way? 

As for this year's Bouchercon, I had a great time, and it was over all too quickly.  At noon this past Sunday, hopefully wiser and certainly poorer, I checked out of the hotel and drove the two hundred miles back to our son's home, and after a couple more days in WV my wife and I headed back south.  (Mixed emotions, there: it's always hard to leave your kiddos and grandchildren, but I was extremely pleased with the way the temperature rose steadily during the 900 miles back to Mississippi.  I don't do well in cold weather.)

Now I've got to figure out some way to combine a family trip with Boucherco next year.  I understand the Planning Committee isn't making it easy for me, since they've chosen Albany, New York, for the host city.

Maybe one of our kids will move up there between now and then.

12 October 2012

Developing the Series

by R.T. Lawton

Kathleen Jordan, then editor for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, evidently continued to like my Twin Brothers Bail Bond concept because she sent a contract for "The Bond Market," second in the series. However,  before this story could be published, she passed away and Linda Landrigan took over as editor. Linda immediately requested changes in this already paid-for story, which left me in a writer's limbo, wondering if I were starting all over again. And in a sense I was, because it was a brand new relationship between author and editor.

If I wanted to break in with this new editor, I once again had to come up with something interesting and innovative. "The Big Bail Out," third in the series, had criminals employed at a financially troubled company skydiving onto a certain property at night. Yes, all of their parachutes opened and operated as they should, however as these employees had been marked for death, they came to a different and unexpected end. Naturally, as the gatherer of clues for the mystery solving proprietor, bail agent Theodore was on scene to witness their demise and report back the details. In following with The Rules for this series, the bail firm once again made an outrageous profit during the story's resolution. As for me, I got another contract and the series continued to live.

Still searching for innovation, I decided the Executive Secretary for the bail firm had recently expired, presumably of old age, a rarity in this group. The fourth story, "The Bond Servant," therefore opens with Theodore and the Proprietor preparing to conduct interviews with twelve candidates for the position of Executive Secretary. At the end of the day, it seems there is a thirteenth candidate, one who has shown up uninvited, in the waiting room. This interviewee is a tall, thin, cadaverous Hindu with a letter of reference from the proprietor's twin brother. We never do get resolved in the running series whether this twin brother has gone off on his own after an arguement as often alleged, or did the proprietor do away with his business partner twin as is sometimes implied in the stories?

The proprietor is paranoid about hiring the Hindu, whose international police record shows he comes from an old Thuggee family, however all the other top contenders for the Executive Secretary position seem to come to an untimely demise during this story. Only the Hindu is left as the prime candidate. Now, there are several threads of tension to explore and the bodies keep on piling up. As a character tag, the Hindu frequently comes up with sayings of Mahatma Gandhi, but by using them out of context these same sayings acquire a sinister meaning rather than the one originally intended.

Skip to the Bouchercon in Las Vegas, where Linda buys me a drink in the conference bar. I'm overwhelmed and not sure how to act. Actually, I'm probably more prepared to go undercover and negotiate with a criminal carrying a gun. If I make a faux pas in front of him, the worst he could do is shoot me. I sip my drink and try to make conversation with Linda. I inquire if there is anything she'd like to see in my future writing. She suggests a Moriarity type character as a foil for the proprietor of the bail firm.

"You got it ma'am."

Fifth in the series, "The Other Bondsman," introduces Herr Morden, an ex-East German agent who has set up a competing criminal enterprise in the Bay City area. The German word "ermorden" means to murder, but Herr Morden is almost the same phonetically, so....

The proprietor's life, and therefore Theodore's existence, keeps getting more tangled as the series expands to a total of ten stories so far, all of which have the word "bond" or "bail" in the title for easy recognition of the series. You can read the first nine stories ( 9 Twin Brother Bail Bond series) at either Amazon.com for Kindle or at Smashwords for other e-readers.

By now, you may have a fair idea how my brain works when it comes to brainstorming ideas for mystery stories and series progression. There may be more than what got put down on paper, but these are at least the high spots in my mind.

I have three other series going in AHMM (two historicals and a comedy burglar series), and depending upon how "Across the Salween" does in Linda's manuscript slush pile in the very near future, a fifth series may be in the making. Cross your fingers.

11 October 2012

You Say Sensation, I Say Mystery...

by Eve Fisher

It was a dark and stormy night, and I've got to have something to read.  I'm sorry, but tonight, as the wind howls and the hail spatters against the window, I don't want anything new.  I don't want anything slick.  I don't want anything modern.  I want something familiar and satisfying.  Who do I fall back on? The Victorians:  Never underestimate the punch of a Victorian writer.  They pretty much began the mystery genre, under the much-maligned term "Sensation Novel", and don't get enough credit. If you have never read any of them, allow me to recommend three of the most famous and accessible:

File:Wilkie-Collins.jpgWilkie Collins' The Woman in White.  Here two young women's identities are stripped from them as one is declared dead, one is dead, and one is sent to a madhouse for life.  What happened?  Who died?  Who lived?  How can the truth be proven?  Besides an endlessly twisting and turning plot, there are amazing characters:  a magnificent heroine in Marion Halcombe, the ultimate Victorian cold-hearted bitch in Mrs. Catherick, and the worst guardian known to man, Frederick Fairlie, who really should have been shot at birth.  And then there's Count Fosco, one of my favorite villains in all of history, with a face like Napoleon's and the heft of Nero Wolfe.  Watch him as he plays with his little pet white mice and, at the same time, his irascible "friend" Sir Percival Glyde.  Meet his completely subservient wife, who spends her days rolling his cigarettes, watching his face, and doing his bidding.  He loves sugar water and pastry and plotting, and he never, ever loses his temper or raises his voice.  His only weakness?  A passionate admiration for Marion.  But can that actually stop him?  Don't count on it. 
(NOTE:  Collins' wrote many other novels, including The Moonstone, which I don't care for, actually, and Armadale, which is even MORE full of plot twists and turns than The Woman in White.  And Lydia Gwilt should scare the crap out of anyone...) 

In Mrs. Henry Wood's East Lynne, the ostensible main plot - and a true Victorian corker it is! - revolves around Isabel Vane, an Earl's daughter who, unbelievably, is reduced to poverty and marries an attorney (SO much beneath her in birth), Archibald Carlisle.  Mr. Carlisle is such a miracle of common sense, rectitude, honor, and beauty, that I have to admit after a while I get tired of hearing how wonderful he is.  It almost makes you cheer when she is eventually unfaithful to him with a former suitor, who gets her to run off with him, impregnates her, and abandons her (the "Lady!  Wife!  Mother!" scene is worth the read in and of itself).  Lost - in every sense of the word - and alone, Lady Isabel is believed killed in a railroad accident.  However, she is only disfigured beyond recognition (isn't that always the way?), and comes back to be the governess in her old home, to her own children, and to the children of her husband and his new wife, Barbara Hare. 
That in itself would keep almost any soap opera running for YEARS.  But what really fuels this sensation novel is the second plot, about the murder of a local gamekeeper, whose daughter, Aphrodite Hallijohn, was "involved" with multiple suitors, among them the clerk of courts (I can believe that one), a mysterious Captain, and Richard , the brother of the second Mrs. Carlisle.  Richard and Barbara are the children of the local Judge, and Judge Hare does his best throughout the novel to find, convict and hang his own son.  Barbara's whole goal in life (other than being the perfect wife to Mr. Carlisle) is to clear Richard's name.  Each and every character is involved in the solution to this murder, and the shifting identities of various people - at least three people live in disguise for major parts of the novel - are obstacles, keys, and clues to what really happened in that hut.  
(NOTE:  Mrs. Henry Wood wrote over thirty other novels, and among the best of the rest (imho) is The Channings.)  

Mrs. Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret curled many a person's hair back in the day, especially once it was revealed that what they thought was the secret - a secret that should be solved by anyone of moderate intelligence early on - is not The Secret at all.  Let's just say that Lady Audley is a work of art, and perhaps the source material for all suicide blondes.  Once again, a spicy Victorian stew of bigamy, mysterious deaths, hidden identities, even more mysterious (and convenient) arson, betrayal, adultery, heartache, and suspense, all served up at (for a Victorian novel) a fairly rapid clip. 
(NOTE:  Mrs. Braddon was another prolific author; second best novel is probably Aurora Floyd.)

Sensation Novels are often given a bad rap, but they were very well written, intricately plotted, and take you into the Victorian world in a way that few other books do.  Let's also not forget that, in their day, the Sherlock Holmes books would have been considered Sensation Novels - I mean, come on:  Polygamy!  Murder!  Hidden identities!  Revenge!  Giant devil hounds!  Granted, Sherlock Holmes transcended the genre - every genre - but he started in sensation.  And I'd love to debate someone about why Dickens is literature and Sensation Novels are not. 

By the way, Sensation Novels are also proof, once again, that reality must be watered down to be acceptable fiction.  The Victorian authors were an interesting bunch.  Wilkie Collins was an opium addict who had at least two concurrent families, and married the mother of neither of them.  Mrs. Henry Wood was married to an unemployed alcoholic, and her writing supported the family.  And Mrs. Braddon was involved for years in an adulterous relationship with her editor.  And when Jane Eyre came out, it was widely assumed that Mr. Rochester was based on William Makepeace Thackeray, whose wife was in an insane asylum, and who was believed to be having a long-running affair with his governess...   

All of these books, and many more, are available either new, used, or on Kindle. Please, check them out.  Those dark and stormy nights are coming back...  Next time, more Victorian murder mysteries!

10 October 2012

CHARLES McCARRY: The Tears of Autumn

[A late-breaking rant—

PBS.  It means to me, of course, TINKER, TAILOR, and DR. WHO, and THIS OLD HOUSE.  If you’ve got kids, it would conjure up Fred Rogers, SESAME STREET, and THE ELECTRIC COMPANY.  Some people first learned to read, or count, from watching these shows, and they introduced a framework for basic social skills, learning how to play well with others.

Quite a few years ago, the early ‘60’s, in fact, I worked as a cable-puller for WBGH in Boston.  This was back in the day of Julia Child and Joyce Chen, say, before they got to be household names, and before ‘GBH became one of the major PBS content providers.  It was pretty much a shoestring operation, and it wouldn’t have survived without viewer contributions and a subsidy from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

For reasons I’ve never understood, public television has been a target of the Right since the get-go.  Perhaps there’s a perceived Leftie, or elitist, bias.  Or, going in the other direction, the risk that so-called “public” broadcasting would simply be a government propaganda tool, like the Voice of America.  (In its early days, for example, the BBC was usually seen as a mouthpiece for whichever party was in power, Tory or Labor.)  But the most widely-used argument has always been the creeping Socialist one: taxpayer money shouldn’t support television programming.  PBS first got legs, it should be remembered, in the heyday of the commercial broadcast networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC, their shows collectively labeled by Newt Minow as a “vast wasteland.”  The point of public TV, known back then as “educational” television, was in fact that it wasn’t market-driven, and this alone seemed to lacerate the Right into a fury---public TV didn’t pay for itself.

Well, it’s not supposed to.  Public television is like public transportation.  It serves a greater good---okay, that’s the creeping Socialist in me, but the benefits seem so self-evident, to society at large.  Public TV provides a window on the world that isn’t hostage to money, although they’re always short of it.  Some of it is pablum, while some of it might be outside your comfort zone.  Its purpose is to entertain, certainly, but also to provoke thought.  It’s not meant to numb, it’s meant to evoke your curiosity. That’s what makes it necessary.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled post.]

Charles McCarry doesn’t need me to plump him up.  I got turned on to him when a friend loaned me THE SECRET LOVERS ---one of the best titles in spy literature, if I may be so bold---and then another friend recommended THE TEARS OF AUTUMN.  (This is where I give a shout-out to Matt Tannenbaum and his long-running independent bookstore in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts.  McCarry hails from Pittsfield, and Matt knows him well enough to call him Charlie.)

McCarry was career CIA, or close enough as makes no difference.  Reading, for example, THE MIERNIK DOSSIER, his first book, where farce veers into tragedy, you feel a visceral sense of how the real world unhappily intrudes on the hermetic calculations of the spymasters.  McCarry is nothing if not unsentimental.  Nor does he have much patience with the Ayatollahs of Langley.  His concerns are more parochial.  He works in the trenches.  This isn’t to say his books have no political dimension, and in fact McCarry is well to the right of, say, LeCarré, whose active dislike of the Thatcher regime, for example, pushes his compass off true north, as a storyteller.  McCarry shows a few of these same weaknesses, on occasion, although from the other side of the aisle.  We can take the longer view, and forgive a partisan outlook, if these guys simply tell a rattling good story. 

No single event, in my living memory, generated more sorrow and more controversy, than the Kennedy assassination.  I’m of course of a certain age.  There are people still alive who’d say nothing affected them more than Pearl Harbor, or the death of Franklin Roosevelt, and younger people who’d point to John Lennon, or Princess Di, or the attack on the World Trade Center.  It depends whose ox is being gored, or what importance we attach to it, and where our sentiments lie.  It’s easy to forget that Jack Kennedy wasn’t really a very popular president.  He was roundly hated in certain circles, foreign and domestic, so when he was shot, fingers got pointed in a lot of different directions.

The first to circle the wagons were the Russians, who of course didn’t want it laid at the feet of KGB.  Then there was Castro.  Lyndon Johnson apparently believed up to the day he died that the Cubans were behind it.  And then there was the mob, in particular the New Orleans boss, Carlos Marcello.  They said he’d hooked Jack up with Judith Exner, or even Marilyn Monroe.  But maybe that was Sinatra. 

The genius of THE TEARS OF AUTUMN is that it doesn’t speculate about any of this crap.  McCarry cuts right to the chase.  In late October of 1963, a plot to depose the Diem regime was floated by disaffected Vietnamese generals  and Kennedy signed off on it.  The coup was effected, and Diem didn’t survive.  Kennedy was by all reports shocked by what he’d put in play, not realizing what the consequences had to be.  THE TEARS OF AUTUMN suggests that Vietnamese personal family honor, not politics at all, was behind Kennedy’s death, and McCarry lays in an utterly convincing back story, from Cuban mercenaries in Angola—--a great scene where Paul Christopher half-drowns a guy in a latrine trench---to their Russian patrons.

Do we believe any of this?  Does in fact McCarry?  I don’t know.  There are a lot of big ifs.  If, however, you happen to believe that Oswald wasn’t the only shooter, or that he was a patsy, THE TEARS OF AUTUMN has credibility.  Not some horseshit scenario, not Oliver Stone and how Clay Shaw was a right-wing queer in the pay of the CIA, or Howard Hunt was in Dallas that day, wearing the same fright wig he wore at Martha Mitchell’s deathbed, or why Marina Oswald’s dad was a GRU general.  (Actually, an intriguing question, that last.)  None of this is answered.

My own opinion, Lee was a lone nutjob who got lucky.  He was a Marine, you shoot iron sights at three hundred yards.  He was a discontented cranklypants.  He couldn't get it up, he had thinning hair or bad skin, who would care less?  The plain fact is, he was just an asshole.  They always are.

Why, then, is McCarry’s book so compelling, and what makes it so convincing?  Well, because the mystery isn’t in the end the assassin, the guy who shot Jack Kennedy, or the Archduke Ferdinand, or Abraham Lincoln.  The mystery is, as always, the rough draft of history.  

09 October 2012

Framing the Pitch

The art of framing the pitch in baseball gives the illusion to the umpire that a ball just off the plate actually crossed the plate. It also gives the impression that the ball 5 or 6 inches off the plate just missed. The umpire may get the impression that the pitcher has very good control which can influence his calling of balls and strikes.

    Having begun the baseball season with a SleuthSayers article inspired by spring training, it seems fitting to return to the nation’s pastime as we move into post-season play.  And what a season it has been here in Washington, D.C. 

The Washington Nationals -- 2012 NL East Champions!
     When I was still an undergraduate at George Washington University the Senators ran away to Texas, leaving the city without baseball for the next 33 years.  I had grown up with Cardinal baseball in my hometown of St. Louis, but, except for one year, after college I remained a D.C, resident.  Some in this city adopted the Baltimore Orioles as their team, but not me.  I spent every one of those 33 years resenting Baltimore, which steadfastly vetoed any attempt by Washington to secure a replacement team.  All of this finally ended in 2005, when the Montreal Expos were relocated to D.C. and re-christened the Washington Nationals.  It’s been a tough eight years between those first miserable years (when twice we had more losses than any other team) and the 2012 Nationals, who have now won the Eastern Division of the National League with the best record in all baseball.

    But in my enthusiasm I digress, and right here at the beginning of the article. 

    The point I do want to make for today’s purposes is that in those 33 years away from baseball – virtually all of my adult life – there were things that others learned about the sport that I did not.  One of those is the importance of the catcher.  As best I remember it, when I was in high school the catcher, well, . . . caught.  That was pretty much it.  But as I began to watch the Nationals over the last few years amazement dawned on me.  The catcher was calling the game, signaling to the pitcher the pitches that should be thrown. 

    And the catcher also had the clever task of framing the pitch.  As the quote at the top from QCBaseball.com indicates, one of the catcher’s challenges is to make pitches seem like those that they are not, to make the truth look like something altogether different to the umpire. When successful, framing the pitch can transform a ball into a called strike.  The sleight of hand that accomplishes this is not unlike that of the magician – hiding the obvious from the audience in whatever way is possible.

    The task is also not unlike that of the mystery writer, particularly a writer of “fair play” mysteries, where the goal is to fool a different sort of umpire – the reader.

    The rules of a fair play mystery are simple:  All of the clues must be provided to the reader.  There can be no “deus ex machine,” no “new killer” or critical piece of evidence introduced in the final chapter or paragraph.  Everything must be capable of being worked out by the reader.  But the trick to the fair play mystery is to accomplish all of this in a way that hoodwinks the reader.  The writer’s task is to make the mystery capable of solution while at the same time ensuring that most readers will not, in fact, solve it.  Ellery Queen was a master at this – clues could be dropped right under our nose and we would miss them, slapping our foreheads later when the solution was ultimately revealed. 

    And that, as promised two weeks ago, brings us to the last article I posted – A Bouchercon Mystery.  The premise of the article is hardly original – the headache-inducing formula underlying the narrative is a favorite on many internet sites.  The version I offered changed a few things, and introduced some new red herrings – extraneous numbers and arithmetic grumblings between the characters.  But at base the story, and the trick to the story, are quite simple.  In this version three people share a hotel room.  The original price for the room is $300.  Each person forks over $100, they do not tip the bellhop, and the three check in.  The bellboy then returns to the room and tells the occupants that there is a special rate of $250, and hands them five ten dollar bills.   They tip the bellhop twenty dollars and each of the three then pockets ten. 

    So there are two basic ways to look at this transaction.  The original price for the room was $300.  Since there is no tip, the total price is $300 and each occupant pays $100.  That math works. 

    Alternatively, if you look at the scenario from the perspective of the revised price, it works out like this:  $250 for the room, plus that twenty dollar tip to the bellboy, means the room costs a total of $270.  Since each of the three occupants originally paid $100, and since each got back ten dollars the total paid by each was $90, and $90 times three equals $270.  That works too.  Simple.  No magic.  Anyone could figure this out.

    So what does the writer do to obfuscate those clues in a manner that will confuse the reader?  How does the writer, in other words, make the reader lose track of all those fair play clues?  The answer is you blend the two prices, and you do it fast.  .
    Leigh’s eyes narrowed, and it was obvious he was working something over in his head.  “Wait a minute,” Leigh finally said, a look of incredulity spreading across his face.  “When we checked in, and the room was $300, we each paid $100.  And now, with the special rate, we each got $10 back.  This means we each paid $90, and. $90 times three men equals $270. John just tipped the bellhop $20. That only equals $290!”
    All of the sudden we are left to ruminate over what happened to a seemingly missing ten dollars.

    What’s wrong with this?  As we can now see, quite a bit.  $90 times three is, indeed, $270, but as noted above $270 is the price of the hotel room after the twenty dollar tip has been included.  What Leigh did was add the tip in another time, to reach $290, and then compare that to the wrong number – the $300 price that was paid before the $50 discount.

    As I said earlier, the trick in this story is not mine.  It is borrowed from other internet pages.  Why do I like it?  To my mind, it is a great example of how words can be used to distract the reader, to entice them to reach wrong conclusions.

    It is, in other words, a clever "fair play" example of framing the pitch. 

08 October 2012

Great Sentences

Jan GrapeWhen you're reading a book that you really enjoy, do you sometimes find that you STOP and reread a sentence? Maybe it's simplicity caught your eye. Maybe you know that it completely conveys the character, the scene, the motive, that it just rings as true.

I was rereading a book by my friend Susan Rogers Cooper last week. The book is A Crooked Little House," published in 1999. Now, I've read Susan for years, actually since 1990 when we had our mystery bookstore and she came out for our Grand Opening. I had not met her before but we had a hard copy of her second book Houston In The Rearview Mirror. I asked her to sign it and from that point on Susan and I became friends. I read everything she wrote usually before it even came out. I tell you all this to let you know that just because I know and love her like a sister, it has no bearing on the sentences in CLH that grabbed, and gave me the idea for this article. It's actually three short paragraphs, but it conveys the geographic location so vividly.

"I love a good storm. I always have. It energizes me--the drama of it, the excitement of it. Rain without lightening and thunder is just wet, but put the three together, and you have a night's entertainment a hell of a lot more stimulating than dinner and a movie. And sex during a storm is nothing to sneeze at--in case you weren't aware of this.
Since we'd moved to central Texas, there was a certain sadness for me about storms. In Houston, where I was born and raised and where I gave birth to my children, you can expect rain just about anytime. Droughts in Houston are such a rarity as to be laughable.
Not in central Texas. Each storm of spring could be the last one until fall;enjoy the one coming because you may forget what it's like before the next storm."

It's words like that which make me want to be a writer. To be able in a few words to convey a feeling of storms, of living where there are few storms. To feel the heat on your skin and body for weeks and months and the longing for a good rain. Many writers can do this and I admire each and every one of them.

David Baldacci's latest paperback, Zero Day gives a description of a woman that is excellent in my opinion.

"Samantha Cole was not in uniform. She was dressed in faded jeans, white T-shirt, a WVU Mountaineers windbreaker, and worn-down calf-high boots. The butt of a King Cobra double-action .45 revolver poked from inside her shoulder holster. It was on the left side, meaning she was right-handed. She was a sliver under five-three without boots, and a wiry one-ten with dirty blonde hair that was long enough to reach her shoulders. Her eyes were blue and wide; the balls of her cheekbones were prominent enough to suggest Native American ancestry. Her face had a scattering of light freckles.
She was an attractive woman but with a hard,cynical look of someone to whom life had not been overly kind."

Wow. Short but so powerful. You know you'd know Samantha if you met her anywhere. There's no reason to describe someone with sentences and paragraphs and words and words. Just find the important little details that can make a character a real person to the reader.

One more example and it's a song lyric, which might sound strange but it's just one that really grabbed me. The song is "Utopia" written by John Greenberg & Bill Murry and is sung by singer/song writer, john Arthur martinez. jAm came in 2nd on the TV show Nashville Star, a few years ago and is a friend and neighbor of mine.

"For 15 battered years we lived out of a pick-up truck. When she told me to make my bed I'd just put the tail-gate up."

Okay, maybe it's just me, but those twenty-five simple words convey so much. I know each of you have favorite sentences and paragraphs that move you or excite you or inspire you. I've shown you some of mine and now you can show me some of yours.

07 October 2012

Crime Dairy

A joint Canadian-American task force brought down an international cheese smuggling ring of American smugglers and Canadian police. Readers who may remember the Great Hair Raid by Orlando authorities might be less familiar with a previous, rather cheesy take-down.

Return with us now to that nerve-curdling case…

Lt. Jack Colby said, "This case grates on me and we can't wait any longer for leads to mature. The time is ripe. We've got to stick that krafty Kolonel Karl KäseKopf in the cooler."
Deputy Chester Shire replied, "He's the big cheese, a sharpster, the cream of crime, the big Dutch cheese wheel, …"

"Don't butter me up," the lieutenant said with a sour expression, "and don't kid me. That really gets my goat."

"Sorry, sir, I guess I milk puns for all they're worth," he said sheepishly.

"KäseKopf lacks culture. He bets on the spread, wedging out the competition. He skims profits and demands a slice of the action. I want to see him fry. But though he shredded the prosecution, there're holes in his case."
"Right sir. What about Belle Paese?"

"Any way you slice it, she's cut from the same mold, but cheese is no cottage industry. Mae Tag and Harvey T. teamed with rebel Kurds in Jarlesberg who smuggle through Port Salut."

"All the way from Monterey, Jack."

"Krafty devils. We can't afford a mild response but I don't want any cheesecake shooting."

"I've got an idea, sir. Let me run it past your eyes…"
"Did you say rennet pasteurize?"

"Er, no sir. But a case in point…"

"Casein… You're doing it again, Detective."

"Sorry sir. This smells off, whey off. I mean this lot stinks to high heaven. But what if we set a mouse trap?"

Maytag blue cheese"Hmm, a trap for the Big Cheese? Yes, brick 'em, Danno! Let our men in bleu trap the rats, process the American head cheese, and let the wheels of justice shred their defense. Mmm, tasty. But I swear this case has aged me."

"You've simply matured, sir, although your complexion looks a bit waxy. It will be a breeze, a fait accompli."

"Did you say bries and feta?"

"You've been at this too long, sir."

"Right you are. After the derby, set up in the Stilton Hotel. KäseKopf… we'll chop that munster into pieces. For some reason, I'm hungry. Let's order lunch."
"I'll have the pickles, slim burger, cheese…"

"Limburger cheese?"
Fortunately the sting came off without a hiccup. Lt. Jack Colby and Detective Chester Shire arrested a smelly Karl KäseKopf. At they booked him into jail, the last words police photographer Fontina Tilsit heard the uncultured criminal say was…

06 October 2012

The Seven Original Plots

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Similarly, there are supposed to be only seven original plots, but authorities differ on what those seven plots are.

I first learned about the seven original plots in L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon (1923), my favorite book as a child. Here’s the memorable passage, adverbial attributions, Irish accent, and all:

“I’m in a scrape and I’ve been in it all summer. You see”—Emily was very sober—“I am a poetess.”

“Holy Mike! That is serious. I don’t know if I can do much for you. How long have you been that way?”

“Are you making fun of me?” asked Emily gravely.

Father Cassidy swallowed something besides plum cake.

“The saints forbid!...Have another slice av cake and tell me all about it.”

“It’s like this—I’m writing an epic….My epic,” said Emily, diligently devouring plum cake, “is about a very beautiful high-born girl who was stolen away from her real parents when she was a baby and brought up in a woodcutter’s hut.”

“One av the seven original plots in the world,” murmured Father Cassidy.


“Nothing. Just a bad habit av thinking aloud. Go on.”

“She had a lover of high degree but his family did not want him to marry her because she was only a woodcutter’s daughter—”

“Another av the seven plots—excuse me.”

“—so they sent him away to the Holy Land on a crusade and word came back that he was killed and then Editha—her name was Editha—went into a convent—”

Emily paused for a bite of plum cake and Father Cassidy took up the strain.

“And now her lover comes back very much alive, though covered with Paynim scars, and the secret av her birth is discovered through the dying confession av the old nurse and the birthmark on her arm.”

“How did you know?” gasped Emily in amazement.

“Oh, I guessed it—I’m a good guesser.”

My list of seven, based on Emily’s epic and my own bias as a mystery writer, would be:
  • Boy meets girl
  • The lost heir
  • The disguised hero
  • The hero’s quest
  • Coming of age
  • Boy murders girl
  • Sleuth solves crime

William Foster Harris has a different and perhaps equally valid list in The Basic Patterns of Plot, University of Oklahoma Press, 1959), much cited on the Internet.
  • man vs nature
  • man vs man
  • man vs. the environment
  • man vs. machines/technology
  • man vs the supernatural
  • man vs. self
  • man vs God/religion

We’ll excuse Mr. Harris for not knowing, in 1959, that woman vs nature, woman vs woman, woman vs the supernatural etc are all just as workable.

Yet another seven were proposed by Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots(London/NY: Continuum, 2005).
  • Overcoming the monster
  • Rags to riches
  • The quest
  • Voyage and return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

Whichever list you prefer, the point is that no fiction writer breaks entirely new ground. Our plots can’t possibly be original. And that explains what’s wrong with all those benighted friends and strangers who tell us they have a marvelous idea for a book and they bet we’d love to write it and give them 50 percent of the profit. The knack of telling a good story is not the plot itself. It’s in how we tell the story: how we paint the scene and how we populate it, what our characters get up to and what they say in the course of meeting and murdering each other, pursuing the quest, solving the crime, and so on.

I’ll never forget a young man came up to me after a panel to express concern that his manuscript sounded too much like my first mystery: his protagonist is a drug addict who goes into treatment, somebody is murdered, etc. (Now where does “Boy gets clean and sober” fit in? The hero’s quest? Man vs self? Coming of age—belatedly?) I wasn’t worried. Not being me, he hasn’t a chance of coming up with my characters, my dialogue, or my voice.

05 October 2012

What's the Objective?

Recent events in my life -- unrelated to writing -- caused me to remember the old adage about "putting things behind you."  When something is over and done with, you can't go back and change it; you have to just keep moving ahead.

I don't know when I learned this adage, but my time in the Army brought me face to face with some of the most painful occurrences requiring it's implementation   Thankfully, those days are over.  Now, for me, the path ahead is inevitably made easier by the love of my wife and family.

And, I'm reminded that the easiest way to turn my back on the past -- putting something behind -- is to focus on an objective ahead of me  This is a good trick for writers to remember: both in their personal lives, and in our writing.

When the inevitable rejection slip arrives, for instance, it's always much easier to deal with when I've got a new work in progress.  I take a moment (maybe an hour or two -- to be sure I've got it right) to repackage the rejected material for the next market I've got on the list in my computer.  I try to list as many markets as possible for each work, in advance, because I find it hard to remember where I intended to send the manuscript next, when it's just come back to me.  Once it's repackaged and shipped off, I do my best to drop it and forget it until the manuscript either sells or comes back again.  And, it's much easier to drop it and move on, if I've got a new objective ready and waiting: that new work in progress that's calling me from my Word program.

My recent ruminations about putting things behind, by focusing on an objective farther ahead, has also led me to consider how this concept fits into writing.

The Series

Lee Child, author of the Reacher series
Currently, I've been reading novels from the Jack Reacher series, since a friend of mine decided to get rid of about a dozen books she had read, and these included a lot of Reacher novels.  I've read several other successful series, in the past, and it seems to me that protagonists in nearly all of them were focused on distant -- often unobtainable -- objectives.

These objectives are often not mentioned directly, within the novels of any given series.  However, even if they are not clearly spelled out, or alluded to, these objectives still come through, via a manner of transmission similar to that of an unstated theme:  The words may not mention it, but the characters' actions, words and/or thoughts shout it loudly (or, at the very least, seem to repeatedly murmur it) to the reader.

I haven't quite decided what Jack Reacher's objective is, but I suspect it's something along the lines of: Finding roots that he can pull out and carry with him when he moves on.  Reacher is a wanderer -- he moves from place to place -- from what I've seen of the series. (Some of you know him much better, and I invite comments or corrections.)  This idea of a wandering protagonist, in search of some objective or ideal, is an oft-repeated theme in literature -- but seems even more recurrent when it comes to series protagonists.

Though he occasionally winds up working in New York, Mexico or California, for the most part Travis McGee seldom gets far from where his houseboat, The Busted Flush, is moored at slip 18F (if memory serves me correctly), yet I would argue that he's also a wanderer.  He wanders from job to job (though they're all part of his "salvage" operations), and from woman to woman.

Through the life of the series, he wanders mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually.  And, in all that wandering, he's seeking.  What is he looking for?  Well, perhaps it's True Justice and True Love, coupled with Fiscal Security.  I suspect, however, that he'd trade away Fiscal Security, if he thought he could get the other two as a result.

There may be those who are shaking their heads, wondering why I'm writing about objectives, when what I just wrote about Travis McGee looks more like motivation.  And, that's not a bad question to ask.  To me, objectives and motivation seem to be two ends of the same stick.  The objectives the character wants to achieve -- even if they're beyond the character's grasp -- motivate that character to do what he does.  More importantly, they motivate that character to do these things the way he does them.     

An objective such as True Justice may lie far beyond the story parameters.  It may well be an objective that cannot be achieved just by solving any plot problem -- such as a criminal investigation -- but if the protagonist is seeking True Justice, that may well influence the way s/he deals with people who pop up as obstacles to solving the case.  And it would certainly influence how the protagonist deals with having to kill or injure someone.

This is one reason why I think it's important for the author to have a firm grasp on the protagonist's long-range objectives, even if the other characters, or even the protagonist, are unaware or a little "iffy" on the subject.  Keeping the protagonist's long-range objectives in mind helps keep that protagonist in character -- no matter how many installments finally make up the series.  When the protagonist changes over time, which can happen in a long series, it also helps an author understand what sort of soul-searching that protagonist is going to have to go through as s/he changes.  Maybe the change is internal, but the long-range objective remains unchanged, thus providing a touch-stone for how the character will change.  Or, perhaps the objective itself may change, which could engender much greater soul-searching.    Either way, this is one reason to keep a protagonist's objective in mind while writing.

Another Reason

How many Westerns feature a gunslinger with a good-guy streak, who goes around righting wrongs?  The movie The Magnificent Seven may have been based on The Seven Samurai, but I suspect its tremendous success was the result of snatching up seven such wandering gunslingers and putting them all together on a mission to right a wrong.  And, each of the seven clearly had his own objective for doing so.

This plot line reverberated with audiences, who felt as if they knew where these guys were coming from. I suspect, however, that the mechanism for making the audience members identify with these guys had more to do with those objectives, than with the gunfights.  Action may sell a film, but I suspect audience identification with the main characters is what makes a film great.  People may wonder: "How would I handle those bandits?"  But, when viewers think, "How would I handle this, if that were my objective, if that was what I was worried about and/or trying to achieve -- how would I act in that man's shoes?" then the guts begin to twist, and celluloid springs to real life.

I think it works the same way in novels, too.  No one would enjoy being in an actual fire-fight, and few readers can say, "Yeah!  I remember what that was like.  I totally identify with this guy being shot at and shooting back."   Give the protagonist some long-range objectives, however, similar to those other folks might have, and suddenly the reader identifies with the character.  S/he has a reason to care about that guy being shot at, because there's a connection there.  After all, we all have unobtainable objectives in our lives -- don't we??

When I was in the Army, I was much younger and quicker as well as single.  I also spent a lot of time flying between far-flung places, where I was not always surrounded by friends.  And, there was a Sci-Fi "Men's Action" series I used to read, about a wandering band of travelers in a post-apocalyptic world.  The group had stumbled across a network of teleportation devices, which made it possible for each novel to begin in a completely new setting.   Essentially, it worked as a Sci-Fi version of a traveling band of Old West gunslingers who went from town to town cleaning up each place they moved through (i.e. killing the bad guys, thereby liberating the oppressed populous).

At the time, I had enough blood and guts in my life, without adding more from my reading.  What kept me buying the books (aside from the fact that I could find them in most airports) was the unstated group objective.  What the group was really traveling around, looking for, was A Safe Place to Nurture Love.

Now that would hardly seem like a successful objective for a "Men's Action" series, but I'm convinced it was indeed the group objective.  Each of them had lost people they loved to sudden, unexpected violence several times in the past.  Each was now in love with another member of the small party, but unwilling to fully commit to that love, for fear it would "Jinx" the relationship, causing them to lose another person they loved to the sudden senseless violence that ran rampant in the post-apocalyptic world they inhabited.

Not that any of the macho male characters would even have been caught  even thinking about nurturing love!  And, none of the female characters -- who were a bit more intelligent than the male characters -- would have deigned to mention it aloud to any of the males.  I got the feeling, however, that everyone understood this was what they were looking for.  Their personal histories, their actions, words, thoughts -- the way they went about doing things -- made this very clear.  And, that objective, A Safe Place to Nurture Love, was absolutely unobtainable, given their circumstances.

At the time, when I was reading these books, I knew that I identified with the main characters.  But, I didn't know why.  Only in retrospect did I realize that my personal objective at the time was quite similar.to theirs.  They were seeking a safe place to nurture love.  I – a single soldier on an A-Team, who was in and out of the country quite a bit ˆ was seeking a way to live, which would give love a chance  to grow in my own life.  That seemed unobtainable to me, back then.

And -- when I tried to re-read one of the books in the series, years later, after my wife and kids had become such a fundamental part of my life -- well, I suspect that's why the book couldn't hold my interest.  I was no longer a part of the target audience for the series, because my own objectives had changed.  I no longer identified with the main characters.

In Conclusion

Certainly, there are other ways of helping readers to identify with characters. But, helping them identify via connection between objectives is useful.

I've always felt the line that gave the Declaration of Independence it's greatest strength, was mention of "the pursuit of happiness."  It probably also gave the framers of the Constitution their biggest headache, too.  I often picture them sitting around saying, "That damn Jefferson!  It's one thing to write about the pursuit of happiness, as if you're a poet!  We all know there's too much random chance in life, creating unexpected sadness, to make True Happiness possible.  Yet, we have to write a document that gives people the latitude to at least try to pursue happiness.  How the hell are we supposed to that?"

And, that's one of the nice things about writing fiction.  We don't actually have to make any of our characters achieve True Happiness.  In fact, doing so would probably destroy the ability of a reader to suspend disbelief (unless you're writing for children).  We just need to remember what our main characters' objectives are, so readers have another way of identifying with them.

For what it's worth, that's my two cents.