06 September 2012

What I did on my Summer Vacation


   by Deborah Elliott-Upton
 
 
The familiar prompt every student has been instructed to use on a September paper has been: What I Did on My Summer Vacation. To that, a writer would have to reply: What is a vacation?
 
 
I don't know a writer who takes a real vacation any more. If they travel, it's often for research for a work-in-progress or in search of a work-in-progress.
 
 
Forget not taking a computer as a way to force yourself into relaxing and not "working" -- it won't work. We'll use the cell phone's notepad, pads supplied by the hotel and napkins in the restaurants to scribble great ideas we won't want to lose.
 
 
One would believe a writer could depend on a good memory since we write vivid descriptions of details others may not notice or recollect as clear, but alas, most of us have indeed lost wonderful ideas that came to us at a time when we were unable to jot down a notation to jog our memory later -- or worse, not be able to read our own writing the next morning or remember what the cryptic message meant.
 
 
A vacation without writing seems impossible, so I thought I had a solution: I enrolled in a couple of college classes I assumed would aid my writing and keep me too busy to work on an actual project. I chose Philosophy and Psychology, figuring both would be a boost to my deciding what my characters might do in certain situations.
 
 
My downfall was having interesting instructors who encouraged discussion.
 
We watched films in Philosophy and discussed how the subject matter worked (or not) in today's society. Philosphy, religion and a director, writer and actors choices determined how the film "moved us" as an audience. So much for not playing my own What if game with those choices. My mind went into overload of ideas.
 
In Psychology, we learned why people may act differently from one another. The instructor brought a hypnotist to class and he gave a demonstration and answered questions. (Guess who not only had more than a few questions, but also volunteered to be one of the subjects just so I'd know how that felt?)
 
Both classes had discussions about those who lived under different circumstances than our own. Talk about wonderful research for characters -- both classes were filled with interesting characters.
 
The Philosphy class contained the usual suspects of college-age students and a mix of varied ages and backgrounds.
 
A biker with a gray beard who argued belief in God turned out to be a Viet Nam veteran who had returned to college on a full scholarship. I'm not completely sure, but from some of his opinions, I think he was a stanch Republican.
 
His counterpart was originally from Oregon and extremely Liberal in his point of view. One day he decided to load up the kids and his van and tour the country, ending up in Texas. He was an avowed atheist. He also professed a love for Bill Clinton, so I'm guessing he was a Democrat.  
 
These men were polar opposites and yet both had lost their wives to death.
 
The Oregon man had left his home following his wife's death.
 
The biker's wife had been murdered behind a convenience store.
 
Two men who had seemingly nothing in common besides choosing to take a summer course in Philosophy, had in reality shared the same pain of losing a spouse.
 
That alone raised my muse from her slumber.
 
The Psychology class was a mixed breed of fellow students. A young racecar driver happened to know my dad (also a racecar driver), ended up the following Sunday in my church which was a surprise to us both. A man who came from Uganda was pursuing a degree to help people coming to America like himself was soft-spoken and extremely polite. One would not guess he had been chased by lions. A young woman had returned to college to become a nurse after working years in a clerical position and being fired when she was late to work because she'd been in an automobile accident. Her change of career was unexpected, but had completely changed the course of her life.
 
Everyone in this class knew someone who had problems with bullies, abuse or self-mutilation. (An interesting fact I was surprised to discover are tattoos and piercings are considered self-mutilation. The reasons people choose to do these things to themselves was interesting and eye-opening.)
 
The Muse was wide awake now and not just whispering in my ear or tickling my mind with ideas, she was shouting: Write something!
 
So, I did.
 
Vacation? I'm not sure I know what that is any more.

05 September 2012

Your Mileage May Vary


by Robert Lopresti

Last week Jan wrote eloquently about writer's block.  I didn't respond in comments because I wanted to ponder for a while, and besides, this way I could fill a Wednesday.  (They keep coming around every week, don't they?)

I'm not sure I can say anything useful about this because I don't think I have ever experienced writer's block the way I have heard other people describe it.  The reason for that may have to do with the way I approach writing, and - who knows - maybe discussing that would be helpful to someone.  So here goes.

I rewrite.  I rewrite a lot.

Recently I wrote that I had started a novel and R.T. gracuiously offered to critique the first few chapters for me.  (We exchange most of our works before sending them into battle.)  I had to tell him that it would be at least ten and probably twenty more drafts before anyone would be allowed to see the book.  I  have to translate it into English from the original Gibberati.

But that's the point.  At any time I have half a dozen stories in my black notebook, going through various phases of rewrite (from "this sentence might be improved if it had a verb.  Also a noun." to "one last adverb hunt and it's ready to roll.").  So if I am not in the mood to write something new I flip open the notebook and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.  It's progress, so I don't feel blocked.

What if I want to write something new and don't have an idea?  Well, I also have a white notebook (there's no significance to those colors; but it makes it easier to tell them apart) full of story ideas.  Never throw anything away!

I believe Jan or one of the commenters talked about Sue Grafton's writing habits and I sympathize.  My memory is that Raymond Chandler said he sat at his writing desk X hours every day.  He didn't have to write during that time but he couldn't do anything else.  That reminds me of Edna St. Vincent Millay who, as I recall, said she wrote poetry for a certain amount of time every day.  The questioner said "don't you need to be inspired to write poetry?"

She replied that that was true "But when the inspiration comes it finds me at my desk!"

While working on my novel I have set myself a minimum of 100 words a day. A piddling amount, you say.  Yes, it is.  But that's the idea.  No matter how uninspired I feel I can crank out that many words.  And it keeps me connected to the work.  Plus, very often no matter how uninspired I am feeling once I get those 100 words out, the next few hundred want to follow.

So that's what I do.  As for you... well, see the title above.

04 September 2012

Jersey Fresh


by David Dean

Not being a native of the place one lives in can sometimes offer a fresh perspective.  And even though I have dwelt in the Garden State for over twenty-five years, I do often find the place fascinating.  First of all, let's face it, Jersey takes an awful beating as a result of Snooki and the Gang, corrupt politicians, and the view from the infamous Turnpike of oil refineries, chemical factories, and rubber plants.  To some, these may look unappealing ( and I include Snooki and friends with this).  But there is a whole other New Jersey out there that is largely hidden away from the tourists on their way to NYC.  It is a place in which I often set my stories, and bears little resemblance to Soprano Land: a place of leafy suburbs and rolling farmland; salt marshes and barrier islands; pineland forests and windswept beaches.

The county I live in is called Cape May, and named after a Dutch explorer by the name of Mey who sailed by sometime in 1623.  He was too busy exploring, apparently, to bother landing on this new cape that he had discovered.  Of course, he had only discovered it for the Europeans who were to follow.  Native Americans had fished and hunted the area for thousands of years before Captain Mey bobbed by in his little ship.  The historical tribe was known in their own tongue as Lenape, an Algonquin peoples.  The Whites would call them the Delaware after the river, which was in turn named after Lord de la Warre, who saw to it that the English, and not the Dutch or Swedish, would dominate this part of New Jersey.  The poor Dutch got stuck with Soprano Land and NYC; the Swedes just went home.

The first European settlers to the area came mostly from New England, Virginia, and Long Island, and they came for the whaling.  In those early days, whales often traveled along the Atlantic coast side of what would become Cape May County, and even into the vast Delaware Bay that washes the western half of the peninsula.  The locals would simply row out to harpoon the great beasts and tow them back to shore.  Even back then, with only a sparse population of whalers, it didn't take long to deplete the animals and virtually kill the industry.  The English turned to farming and fishing, and for the next several centuries this was what they did.
Pirates frequented the region as Jonathan Dickinson wrote in 1717, "We have been perplexed by pirates on our coast and at our Capes, who plundered many of our vessels."  Captain Kidd, that most unfortunate of pirates, spent some time in the area, as did Edward Teach, of "Blackbeard" fame.  Naturally, tales of buried treasure abound.  Most of these are baseless, but try telling that to all the folks with metal detectors walking the beaches… fugedaboutit!  It never made much sense to me that pirates would risk hiding their treasure on land.  After all, sometimes they might be gone for months or even years.  But then it was explained to me that this was mostly done when the boys in pantaloons were planning a visit to a large town, such as New Amsterdam, to replenish their stocks and provisions.  There was always the chance that they might be recognized as pirates and arrested.  The treasure trove on board could be damning.  Hence the lightening of the load prior to docking.

The Jersey Devil legend sprang up in this period as well, and comes out of the haunted pine barrens.  It seems that the dirt-poor and miserable Mrs. Leeds of that neighborhood, upon learning that she was pregnant with her thirteenth child, cursed him; wishing the devil would take him.  Apparently, she had some pull in hell, for her son was born with wings and hooves and flew out the window to begin a reign of terror over that dark and lonely region.  He does so to this day.           

Cape May became a county in 1692, via a charter from the Crown. In those days there was a West and East Jersey--Cape May County being in the west.  There is a cemetery at the county seat, Cape May Court House, that dates to 1766; prior to that people were buried in their back yards, a custom still observed for former business partners in North Jersey.  By the way, nearly everything in the county is named Cape May Something: There is the aforementioned Court House, wherein sits a several hundred year old (you got it) court house, there is also Cape May City, West Cape May, Cape May Point and North Cape May.  There was even once a South Cape May, but the sea claimed it as its own some time ago.  God's judgement, perhaps, on one Cape May too many.  Enough already with the Cape May.

New Jersey became known as the "Cockpit of the Revolution" during the War of Independence because of all the important battles fought on her soil.  Washington slept everywhere, and New Jersey named not one, but several towns, after the father of our nation.  Having a maritime economy, the southern half of the state was affected by the War of 1812.  This region also produced one of our nation's earliest naval heroes in the person of Richard Somers.  This young man was to lead what amounted to a suicide mission against the Barbary pirates in Tripoli.  Sailing directly into their harbor under cover of darkness, he and his crew boarded a captured American vessel and blew it up in spectacular fashion.  Though the resulting explosion and fire damaged and destroyed many of the pirates' ships, it also took the lives of the brave American sailors before they could get away.  Their graves still lie in a small plot in Libya.  His home exists as a museum in Somers Point, the town named for his family.  I have had the privilege of visiting it.

As the northern half of the state embraced the industrial age, the south remained agrarian, not unlike the nation as a whole at that time.  The capitol even boasted the proud motto, "Trenton Makes, The World Takes," in huge letters across a bridge spanning the Delaware River.  It's there to this day.  South Jersey, meanwhile, continued to make the Garden State just that.  Most of the "industries" practiced in the south related to the exploitation of natural resources: cedar mining (the reclamation of prehistoric cedar trees from the fresh water swamps for shingles and ship building), bog iron collection from the streams of the Pine Barrens (this naturally occurring iron tints the water the color of tea), harvesting salt hay from the marshes for both animal feed and lining coffins, the production of glass from the fine sands of the region, etc... Then came the trains.

By the late 1800s, the great population centers of both Philadelphia and New York had discovered what would be forever more known as the Jersey Shore.  Trains made it possible.  The industrial era had given the working man both stable wages and a few days off a year.  He spent both at the shore.  The tourist boom was on and the great shore towns began to spring up--Atlantic City, Asbury Park, Wildwood, Avalon, and yes...Cape May.  Of course, many decided to stay, and the local population took a decidedly Irish and Italian turn.  Catholic parishes began to pop up amongst the Baptist and Methodists.  The small town of Woodbine was founded as a Jewish colony, while the town of Whitesboro became the the county's first predominantly African-American municipality--a by-product of the Underground Railroad, not the one from Philly.

By the mid-1970s tourism was king.  Though farms remained, they had grown smaller and began to adapt to specialized crops in order to survive.  Commercial fishing survived, as well, by both downsizing and growing more efficient.  The waters off New Jersey continue to be one of the greatest producers of scallops and clams along the eastern seaboard and oyster farming is making a comeback in the Delaware Bay.  But the tourist dollar, and vacation real estate, are the mainstays of the current economy--battered by the recession, but still king.  Unemployment here in Cape May County during the off-season (roughly from November to April) can reach 12% or worse.   But you take the good with the bad, and this is the place I happily call home.  My literary characters, Chief Julian Hall and Father Gregory Savartha, both live here, as does a ponderous and troubling little girl named Mariel, who is the subject of my next story in EQMM (Dec. 2012 issue).  The bewildered protagonist of "Tap-Tap", though he meets his fate in Belize, worked for a tourist agency here, while Kieran, the young kleptomaniac of "The Vengeance of Kali," lives just around the corner.  There are many, many more.

So, as you can see, after twenty-five years in a place, you make some friends; form some ties.  And luckily for me, having a fresh perspective, a "Jersey" fresh perspective on my adopted home, made it all possible.

03 September 2012

The Fires of London


by Janice Law

I have a book coming out tomorrow, September 4, from Mysterious Press, the first time I’ve issued a novel in eBook form. The Fires of London is set during the London Blitz and uses the Anglo-Irish painter, Francis Bacon, as the detective.

Leigh asked me to write about constructing The Fires of London and about the research involved, but, though he is too polite to put the question, I think he really wanted to know how a reserved, virtually teetotaling old lady from rural Connecticut, who, incidentally, just celebrated her fiftieth wedding anniversary, came to write about that gay, promiscuous, thoroughly urban, alcoholic genius, Francis Bacon.

Well might he ask! I’ve certainly asked myself the same question, but the Muse has her reasons, and I’ve found it unwise to reject anything she offers. Besides, after a little thought and research, I discovered that FB and I share a good deal more than might be evident on the surface.

But first the Blitz. Among my earliest memories is a great distaste for news broadcasts. Since I was only a toddler I cannot have understood the bulletins but only reacted to the concern and distress of my parents, Scottish immigrants anxious about relatives in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Fife, and points south in England. My other early memory is the big cardboard boxes which were shipped back to the old country during, and for years after, the war, containing coffee, chocolate, various other foodstuffs, wool, clothing, and even garden seeds to replace a blown up allotment garden in Aberdeen.

Later I visited the Imperial War Museum in London and did extensive WW II research for a novel about an SOE agent who was active in France. That background, plus the ever helpful web, with its pictures of barrage balloons and ARP clothing and various sites with memoirs of folk who lived through the Blitz, did the rest.
 
Just the same, what about Francis? Ah, well, I hesitated. But however rackety FB’s life, he was apparently up and in his studio by 6 or 7 a.m. He was a worker; I approve. Art was his lifeline and his earthly salvation. I drew well before I could read and write, and the visual world has been a constant source of interest and delight. In many ways, drawing and painting have always been the way I comprehend the world.

Of course, FB was a genius, and I am not, but even leaving his great abilities aside, he was an odd duck. Maybe too odd for me. Then I learned about Nan, his old nanny, whom he lived with until her death. She loved him unconditionally, entered enthusiastically into all his schemes, and, though half blind, went shoplifting for food when they were on their uppers.

This I understood. My mom had emigrated via Canada as a children’s nanny and my parents worked on a big estate. I was a downstairs child of an upstairs downstairs establishment, and I knew a lot of women – all, I must say, far more respectable than Nan – single women whose men folk, or would have been men folk, had been ground up in the First World War. These nannies, governesses, upstairs and downstairs maids, and cooks often had complicated relationships with their employers and, especially, with their employers’ children.

So was a love of painting and a bird’s eye view of the class system enough? I decided it was. Michael Peppiatt’s fine biography, Francis Bacon, Anatomy of an Enigma, various memoirs of people in Bacon’s circle, a fine exhibition in Buffalo of Bacon’s paintings, and some books on gay London recommended by my late university colleague, Hans Turley, gave me the details of FB’s life and information about the milieu in which he thrived.

For the rest, blame imagination. However remote the characters one creates seem, they are all made out of the same cloth, the writer’s own experience and personality. So Francis in The Fires of London is my version of the man, created by flinging imagination over the facts as I understood them and linking my experience to his very different one.

Though the ease with which I have written some peculiar and undesirable characters has sometimes given me pause, that was not the case with FB, whom I frequently disapproved of but whom I grew to like. He was a bundle of contradictions. One friend described him, I fear I paraphrase, as ‘camp as an army base and tough as old boots,’ an unusual combination, maybe, but no more or less complicated than the next person you meet. Tertullian wrote, “ I am a man and I think nothing human is alien to me.” Include my gender and that’s as good a motto for a writer as I can think of.

02 September 2012

Fires of London


by Leigh Lundin

Wot's a nice, straight all-American dude reading about the London gay scene some seventy years ago? I just finished Fires of London, Janice Law's novel about the mid-1900s English/Irish artist, Francis Bacon (not the Elizabethan logician, philosopher and essayist, nor other historical figures).

cover
Let's get one issue immediately out of the way: Yes, the star of Fires of London is flaming. I confess inquisitiveness, wondering how the author might handle Bacon's homosexuality and penchant for BDSM, especially given the number of exploitative erotic romances written by– and for the titillation of– straight women. I congratulate Janice on making Bacon's sex life integral, immersive, and tasteful, even sensitively done. Androphilia is beyond my ken, but the author makes the window of understanding accessible. Not only has the author handled Bacon's sexuality better than other authors, Janice's research, art background, and careful craftsmanship set this story apart from other historicals.

Fires of London draws upon art, poetry, history, mythology, and the classics. The author is a literary architect. She builds meticulously, syllabically brick by brick, painting the backdrop, sketching the characters, scene by scene, so the reader sees the novelistic theme park, not the girders underpinning it. The reader feels the protagonist's asthma, fear, bravery, and reluctant persistence to learn who's committing murders in the midst of the gay community.
Francis Bacon, 1979
Francis Bacon, London 1979,
The Spectator, photo
© Dmitri Kasterine

The author is not one to flaunt her intelligence and knowledge, giving the story a natural feel. Nor does she belabor drollery. The humor is sly and understated, including makeup advice to Francis to "keep your powder dry." When Francis needs to ditch evidence, his Nan picks his pocket and says "Dear boy, leave everything to me." Francis comments about boys in the rough trade, "I'm not one to leave hard feelings behind."

London town is real, palpable. The description of the Blitz is riveting. What I know about the gay scene you could fit in a teacup, but it feels true. You may think this isn't the kind of world you'd inhabit, but it's impossible not to connect.

In the latter chapters, the emotional roller coaster moves from angst, to spookiness, terror, anger, vindication, sadness for one of the characters who made Francis' life miserable, and finally a feeling of satisfaction.

Who could ask for more?

Defy the heat. Fires of London is available 4 September from Mysterious Press.

01 September 2012

A Bookstore for All Seasons


by Herschel Cozine

NOTE: This week I have again invited my friend and fellow crimewriter Herschel Cozine to stand in as a guest columnist. As you might already know, Herschel's work has appeared in AHMM, EQMM, Woman's World, Orchard Press Mysteries, and many other magazines and anthologies.  His story "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and several of his tales are currently available at Untreed Reads. Herschel lives with his wife in Santa Rosa, California. This piece, by the way, first appeared in Kings River Life Magazine and is reprinted here with their permission. (Herschel, it's good to have you here again. Readers, I'll be back on September 15.) -- John Floyd


There is a bookstore in my hometown, Ojai, California, that is one of the most interesting I have ever been in.  Before I tell you about it, I would like to give a few facts about Ojai (pronounced "Oh Hi") itself.  Situated in the foothills of Southern California, between Santa Barbara and Ventura, it has a short rainy season, and what rain does fall quickly evaporates, with very little runoff.  The residents hardly miss a beat because of rain.  Also, because of its small size and rural atmosphere, there is little need for folks to double lock or even single lock their doors.  All in all, it is small town America at its best.  Both of these factors (rain, locks) make it possible for the bookstore to operate successfully.

The first thing one notices about Bart's Books is the sign by the front door: "When closed, please throw coins in slot in the door."  Lining the outside wall are rows and rows of books.  One is free to read them or purchase one even if the store is closed; the honor system that is sadly disappearing in this country.

When one steps inside, the big surprise is this: There is no roof!  The entire bookstore is open to the atmosphere.  Shaded here and there by a tree, only the bookshelves themselves have a covering.

On the rare occasions when it rains, the books are protected by these coverings.  The water evaporates in hours, leaving the area dry and the books undamaged.

There are thousands of books in every category one can imagine.  Fiction and non-fiction, clearly marked and separated into the various genres.  History, biography, sports, and so on.  There are a few enclosed rooms where cookbooks, art, specialty and rare books are housed.  In these rooms are chairs and couches where one can sit while contemplating whether or not to purchase the book.

The fiction is by far the most abundant.  Classified by author alphabetically within the various genres, it is easy for one to find his favorite author or title.  And if you have difficulty, there are helpful staff members to aid you.  Needless to say, the staff is a happy one.  I overheard a customer ask an employee: "Do you actually get paid for working here?"  Considering the environment, it was a legitimate question.

Once you have found the book you have been looking for, there are tables and chairs available for you to sit in the shade of one of the many trees and read.  There are even snacks and soft drinks available.  It would be easy for one to spend the entire day in the store.  I have been there several times and still have not seen it all.
The store deals primarily in used books.  And, having been asked the question countless times, the management has T-shirts for sale with "What Do You Do When It Rains?" printed on them.

For those of you who love books, and that includes everyone in this group, if you are ever in the vicinity, make the detour to Ojai and visit this amazing store.  You will find it well worth your while.

31 August 2012

Copyedited by Tekno Books


by R.T. Lawton

Last month, I got an e-mail from Larry. Larry was writing to give me Tekno Book's copyedit of my story, "The Delivery," which will be published in MWA's 2013 anthology, The Mystery Box. Attached to his e-mail was a file containing five documents:
1) My story, naturally, with their edits, naturally
2) My bio, with their edits
3) The "front matter" consisting of the story copyright and the Table of Contents
4) A nine page pdf document with step-by-step instructions on how authors should use various forms of Word Track Changes to reply to the copy editor's editing
5) The Style Sheet

I poured a morning cup of coffee and hunked down for a long sit.

First, I read the step-by-step instructions all the way through. This should be a no-brainer for most of you, however some men have an inherent reflex to think they already know how to assemble a project or complete a task without messing with instructions. And yes, I have sometimes had a few extra pieces left over at the end of a project and then had to backtrack to find out where they should have gone the first time. Let's just say I'm learning. This time, as it turns out, I really did know how to do this part.

Next, I read the Style Sheet. This was a new one on me, having never seen one of these animals before. The first section was alphabetized for various words cropping up within the entire book. Words which the copyeditor thought needed to be determined in advance as to which way was the preferred spelling and/or usage according to certain references on the correct writing style. Webster's and The Chicago Manual of Style were references I was at least aware of, but I had never heard of Words Into Type. The rest of this document addressed each individual story and listed words within that story which the copyeditor had evidently researched for correct spelling and/or usage. Fascinating. I didn't truly appreciate this Style Sheet until after reading over the three other documents and seeing how it was applied.

Figuring the "front matter" would be an easy one, I tackled it next. Twenty seconds and there was nothing more for me to do here. No changes.

Okay, time to read the bio. Hey, I've been writing these short blurbs for years and nobody's ever said anything about them so what problems could there possibly be? Whoa! Turns out I capitalized some words I shouldn't have, and whereas it's long been decided there is no longer an 's after Hichcock in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, there is still some discussion as to an 's after Queen in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. These Teckno Book people as serious about getting everything right. Good for them, but now I can't help wondering how they even let me in.

Only document left to read is my copyedited story. Best get a second cup of coffee just in case the document is bleeding red ink. Turns out later, I'm gonna have coffee left over in the cup when I'm finished. Not that I'm good, mind you, but most of their copyedits are for words I didn't hyphenate when they evidently should have been. I know, I'm an anachronism and the world has changed during the last unpteen years, yet I sure don't remember so many hyphens being used for those words in the distant past. Rob's been trying to enlighten me, but that's part of my long learning process before it takes. (You'll probably find some words in this article which should have been hyphenated.)

It merely took a cup-and-a-half of coffee  (I assume those three hyphens belong there) before my copyediting was finished. I only had to make two edit changes on my own, but learned some new stuff from them guys. Hope it sticks. I still like the English spelling of grey instead of gray.
Bottom line: Those Tekno Book people sure make it easy to work with them on copyedit matter. I may have to try this MWA anthology thing again next year.

30 August 2012

My Favorite Characters, Part I


by Eve Fisher

Since I live in a small town and write about a small town, there are some people who claim that they recognize every character as a local.  They're wrong.  Most of my characters - and I assume most of yours, dear readers, as well - are a mixture of people I've met, people I know, people I've seen, people I've read about, people I've invented, and, of course, myself.  Some characters grow on me more than others.  Some I use more than others.  And some I like more than others.



Martha Jane Stark, better known in Laskin, South Dakota, as Matt Stark, is a sixty-something woman with a bad past. The first line I ever wrote about her was that "when she was 16, she ran off with the lion tamer from the circus, and he finally met his match."  The first story I ever wrote with her in it, she had just returned to retire in Laskin, after about a 20 year absence, and got into a huge fight with a former lover.  Since at the time of their affair she'd been in her 40s and he'd been in his late teens, now that she was in her 60s and he was in his 30s, he really didn't want to be reminded of the old days when they couldn't get enough of each other in the back booth of the Norseman's Bar.  Things happened.  I haven't sold that story yet, and I am beginning to suspect that it isn't that good - time to take it out for a rewrite, perhaps.  I figure the world must be ready for a hard living, hard drinking, unrepentant, bad-tempered woman in her 60's:  Think Bogart with sagging breasts...



Today, Matt still drinks, still smokes, still gambles (a bit), but has given up men.  Instead, she sticks with dogs, who she admits she likes better than people.  She is mostly honest, and she is loyal.  She drives her brother Harold - a dyspeptic accountant - absolutely nuts, but then he plays life very safe.  For very good reasons.  He is an accountant, and years ago, their father robbed the Laskin bank, and his mother turned into the town hermit.  Harold's been trying to live down his whole family for years.



My source material for Matt is two-fold.  Calamity Jane (whose name was Martha Jane Canary) is a definite inspiration, but even more than that colorful woman is my Aunt Katt, who never married, loved dogs, and lived wild.  Aunt Katt was the one who, while living in Chicago, woke up late one night to find someone either had killed or was killing her dogs.  Whichever it was, she got up and, dressed only in her nightgown and a hatchet, went out to find the dog-slayer and have vengeance.  I'm not sure what the outcome was, but in our family the story always ended with "and everyone got out of her way."

Matt Stark is one of my favorite characters, because she is who she is.  She is my truth teller:

Matt about the victim in "Death of a Good Man":  "He was the type that leaves everything behind.  Walks away clean.  Or so he thinks."  And of one of the victim's lovers, "Maria can't believe a man loves her unless he sleeps with her."

Matt on two juvenile delinquents she tends for a while in "School Days":  “They’re okay.  They kept stealing stuff at first, but I nailed them on it.  Now they know they can have toilet paper for the asking, they can eat anything I got, and I turn a blind eye when they snitch a smoke.  Anything else, there’s hell to pay.”

Matt when Carl Jacobsen shoots Jack Olson in self-defense in "Rights":  “Look, a lot of people think you got to take sides.  Cause if Carl made a mistake, then Jack’s dead for nothing, and that just pisses everybody off.  And if Carl’s wrong, that messes with being able to defend yourself.  So Jack must’ve done something, because otherwise Carl wouldn’t have shot him, so Jack’s a son of a bitch, and all’s well with the world.” 


I use her sparingly, but I always enjoy it when she shows up, usually having a red beer at the Norseman's Bar, playing euchre at Mellette's, or walking her last remaining dog, Whisper, down the street.  She will do something outrageous, and then she'll say what no one else will.  And order another beer.  And light another cigarette.  And walk her dog.  As long as I'm writing her, she'll never change. 

29 August 2012

Limitation of Statues


by Robert Lopresti

I don't know if you have seen this picture of the statue Boston is planning to erect near the birthplace of Edgar Allan Poe.  It appears to show the founder of our field going for a stroll with his giant pet raven.

People have disagreed on the quality of this work.  I won't say more than this: it will never be my favorite statue of a bird in Boston.

But it got me wondering which other mystery authors have statues in their honor.  Frankly, I was surprised at how few I was able to locate.  But take a look:

This is Arthur Conan Doyle in Crowborough, England.  It's surprisingly recent, having been created by David Cornell in 2000.
 
And here is Dorothy L. Sayers standing opposite her home in Witham.  I like the cat, don't you?

This bust of Agatha Christie stands in her birthplace of Torquay (which I will forever remember as the location of Fawlty Towers).

Here is Georges Simenon as seen in Liege in Belgium.



And below you will find the creator of Father Brown standing proudly in Chesterton Square.  Can you guess what city this piece by David Wanner can be found in?  Would you believe New Orleans?

And now that we have made it to the United States I would like to show you some photos of sculptures of American mystery authors.  Unfortunately I can't because a search of the web turned up no statues or even busts of Hammett, Chandler, Gardner, or Stout.  What likely candidates am I missing?

I suppose creating sculptures of authors may be more of a European thing than an American, but frankly I was expecting to find at least a bust or two created by schools that had been honored with the archives of one or another author.  If anyone knows of some, let me know.

Meanwhile I have a pedestal just my size if anyone is feeling inspired.  And let me close with what has to be the most coveted sculpture of any mystery writer...


28 August 2012

Ellery Queen's Backstory


by Dale C. Andrews


    Two weeks ago I received one of those emails that everyone at SleuthSayers hopes for when their computer goes “Bing!”  The email was from Janet Hutchings accepting my latest story, Literally Dead, for publication in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

    The time period between a story’s acceptance and its publication – measured in months, usually measured in many, many, months – always reminds me of what it felt like as a child waiting for Christmas.  You know it’s coming and there is great joy in the anticipation.  Part of that also is because at that stage you know you have made it.  You came up with an idea, tinkered with it until you were pretty sure it would work, fleshed out the characters in your mind, drafted, edited, re-edited, circulated it to those around you and finally took a deep breath and sent it off.  And Lo:  It wasn’t rejected.

    When my younger son Colin (one of my tougher critics) read Literally Dead his first observation was that he was surprised at the detail I went into concerning the New England town that is the setting for the story.  Why, he asked, did I explain that the town square was in fact round?   Why did I mention the nearby Mahogany mountain range, or the fact that the next town down the road was Shinn Corners?  And why was it necessary to mention that the statute in the middle of the square (err, the round square) was the town’s founder, Jezreel Wright?  Colin knew that most of my short stories are, in fact, Ellery Queen pastiches.  But Colin (alas, like many of his generation) had not in fact read Queen.  So he did not know about Wrightsville.
Wrightsville -- As depicted on the inside coverplate of Double, Double

   If you have read Ellery Queen you will be very familiar with Wrightsville, the small upstate New York town that was created by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee back in the 1940s to get Ellery out of the city on occasion.  The Wrightsville mysteries begin with Calamity Town, published in 1942, and thereafter the little town with its recurring characters is the focal backdrop for a host of Queen mysteries, all the way through the penultimate Queen novel The Last Woman in his Life, published in 1970. 

    During the almost 30 years that we see the town through Ellery’s eyes we watch it change.  Characters come and go; Police Chief Akins retires, only to be replaced by the flinty Anselm Newby, with whom Ellery will spar in “Literally Dead.”  In the Queen retrospective portion of Tragedy of Errors Richard and Stephen Dannay, sons of Frederic, have noted that the town itself was inspired by the poetry of Edgar Lee Masters in Spoon River Anthology.   One episode of the NBC Ellery Queen series was situated in Wrightsville, and Ed Hoch also chose the New England village for his final Ellery Queen pastiche, The Wrightsville Carnival (EQMM September/October 2005).  So I was not the first interloper to return to the town in search of the further adventures of Ellery.

    One of the more difficult tasks in writing an Ellery Queen story is dealing with the backstory that defines Ellery.  In all of the Ellery Queen stories there are virtually no descriptions of Ellery himself.  But boy, there sure is a lot of other background for a writer of pastiches to grapple with.  Some of the Queen backstory is easy – Wrightsville either stays the same or grows along predictable lines.  But Not so Mr. Queen himself.

    The Ellery Queen we first meet in The Roman Hat Mystery, published in 1929, is young, foppish, and at times rather insufferable.  He wears pince-nez glasses, carries a cane, tools around in a Dusenberg, and spouts erudite but hopelessly obscure references from the classics.  We are told by the mysterious “J.J. McC”, who provided the introductions to the early Queen novels, that Ellery eventually retired with his wife and son in Italy.  (By the way, anyone paying careful attention when reading Queen’s Face to Face, published decades later in 1967, can stumble upon the true identity of Mr. J.J. McC!) 

    In any event, all of this early Queen backstory changes abruptly and radically half way through the Queen library.  From the appropriately-named Halfway House, published in 1936, on Ellery, morphs into a young middle age man, and takes on a more vulnerable and likeable character.  He ditches the pince-nez and cane and discovers self-doubt.  The spouse, the son and the idyllic life in Northern Italy disappear like fingerprint dustings in the wind.  So unlike the previous Ellery is this incantation that the late Julian Symons, in his omnibus The Great Detectives, speculates that the Ellery of the second half of the series was in fact the son of the Ellery of the first half, a theory that Frederic Dannay scoffed at when he met with Symons at Dannay’s home in Larchmont, New York.

    In any event, having brought about this phoenix-like change, Ellery proceeds to stay basically exactly the same for the next thirty-five years.  This is true of Ellery’s father, Inspector Richard Queen, as well, who is almost always nearing retirement, but never getting there.  I had to say “almost” and “basically” because there are still rents in the Queen backstory fabric.  Thus, the Inspector does retire in Inspector Queen’s Own Case, published in 1956, the same volume in which he becomes engaged to Jessie Sherwood.  Further confusion ensues, however.  By The Player on the Other Side, published in 1963, the Inspector is not retired, and Jessie is nowhere to be seen.  And then in The House of Brass, published in 1968, Jessie is back, and Richard Queen is (again) retired.  Thereafter in the final books of the series – The Last Woman in his Life, (1970), and A Fine and Private Place, (1971) Richard Queen is back at work and, again, Jessie has disappeared like that pair of pince-nez.

    Which brings us back to Ellery,  As noted, from around 1936 on he is portrayed uniformly, and in fact appears almost not to age at all.  But with one notable exception:  The Finishing Stroke.  That mystery, (probably my favorite Queen novel) was published in 1958, and was reportedly planned as the final Ellery Queen mystery.  The story opens in 1905, jumps to 1929, where we find a slightly re-invented version of the early Ellery, and ends in then present-day 1958, where Ellery is portrayed as a man in his early 50s.  In fact we are explicitly told in The Finishing Stroke that Ellery was born in 1905 (the same year that both Dannay and Lee were born).  But after the careful construction of this backstory in The Finishing Stroke, the rug is again pulled out from under us:  With the exception of And on the Eighth Day, a 1964 throwback novel featuring a young Ellery, complete with his Dusenberg, set in 1942, all of the remaining Ellery Queen novels feature Ellery as a young man, in the year the novels were published. 

    My philosophy in writing pastiches, as I have mentioned before, is the same as the physician’s charge:  “first, do no harm.”  I think that if you are going to attempt to bring back the creation of others you must be as loyal as possible to the original.  But still, with Ellery, as we have seen, there are choices.  An author  attempting to recapture Ellery in a new story has some varying paths that can be followed.  Many Ellery Queen pastiches basically follow the majority of the works of Dannay and Lee and portray Ellery as a young man in a present-day world. This is how Ed Hoch and Jon Breen, for example, chose to portray Ellery in pastiches that they wrote.

The Mad Hatter's Riddle as illustrated in EQMM Sept./Oct. 2009
    Perhaps because The Finishing Stroke is a personal favorite, I have always followed the strictures of its time-line and have therefore set a course different from that of the majority of the Queen mysteries.  Thus, in my Ellery Queen pastiches Ellery has always been born in 1905, and is portrayed in any given time at the correct age.  Ellery therefore was 102 when he solved the mystery of the double murder in The Book Case, and he was 70 when the NBC Ellery Queen series was being filmed and the The Mad Hatter’s Riddle took place.  Ellery’s age is a little more difficult to discern in the upcoming Literally Dead, but those paying close attention should be able to approximate it from at least one clue in the story.

    But, in any event, when you set yourself the task of writing a Queen story this is the type of baggage that comes along with the project.  Some years back Leigh Lundin commented to me that the great thing for about writing new Ellery Queen stories was the fact that the detective came with a pre-packaged backstory.  Perhaps you will understand why my response was laughter.

   

27 August 2012

What Do You Do?


by Jan Grape

Jan Grape
Since I have been lazy and unproductive and not feeling like my usual self (and who do you feel like, Jan?) I decided to see if my fellow SleuthSayers will help with this column.

What do you do when you have writer's block. Or you sit down to the computer to work on your latest project and your muse is asleep or your brain is empty or whatever you might happen to call the weird thing that happens to all of us at some time or another?

What Do You Do?

I remember hearing Sue Grafton speak at a conference once and she said sometimes she sits down at her desk, fires up her computer, and sits there and sits there and sits. After a while she types "The." And maybe that's all she types for several minutes, maybe even a hour. But, she has committed to sitting at the computer for four hours each day. And some days she just types nonsense after "The." The quick red fox jumped over the fence… maybe. And somehow words start popping into her head and she starts typing.

So I decided to test Sue's theory, "The…" I sat here for a while and suddenly I began typing. "The man sat down, ordered a drink, talked small talk to the bartender and after a few minutes the man tells the bartender 'I just killed someone.'" Okay, that's pretty good. Who is this man? Who did he kill? Why did he kill? And why would he tell a stranger, the bartender this? Maybe Sue's onto something here? Who knows?

I also looked at a book on my shelf called Break Writer's Block Now! by someone named Jerrold Mundis. I don't know who this person is and have no idea when I bought the book, but it's autographed so I probably bought it at some mystery con I attended years ago. He sorta gives the same idea. After telling you to have a few minutes of meditations or relaxation before you start writing, then sit down and just start writing. He advises to use a pen whereas nowadays we almost all use a computer. But he says just keep the pen moving. It doesn't matter if your words make sense, or what you're writing about. You can write about last night's dinner, or a part of a letter or a journal or just stream of consciousness, whatever. Just keep the pen moving. After a few minutes, finish your sentence and put a period. Then sit back. You have finished this exercise. Now read the next chapter in the book.

Another wonderful book I have it titled Techniques of the Selling Writer, by a man named Dwight V. Swain from Oklahoma. I met Dwight at a writer's conference and later when we had our bookstore, Dwight came to Austin and did a book signing. This book was first published in 1965 and the copy I have is from the 5th printing in 1988, but most of his techniques are as true today as then.
He specifically mentions how as writers, we allow other things in our everyday life take over. The kids, the bills, the spouse, the headache. And one big thing you have to try your best to do is realize there is a creative part of the brain and a critical part of the brain. You have to keep those two apart if possible. Face your fears. Build your self-esteem. Don't demand too much. Again, it's almost the same as others have said.

What are your fears? That no one will like your work? Okay, so maybe no one likes this book, but what about the next one? Is the earth going to shatter if you don't sell this one?

Build yourself esteem. That's often easier said than done. But try to be around people that you like and that like you. Tell jokes and listen to them laugh. Have coffee with people that make you happy. Keep thinking you're a writer and a good writer and soon you'll feel like you are.

Don't demand too much. Accept yourself as you are today. You're an okay writer, but you know if you keep this up for 5 years or 10 years that you'll be a better writer. Don't get frustrated because you're not Sue Grafton or Stephen King. You may not ever be in their category but you still can be a damn good writer if you keep writing.

And finally, my last word. Give yourself permission to write. You may have obligations, family, spouse, job, bills whatever that keeps you busy with that other life but if you intend to keep writing, then give yourself permission to do so and keep writing.

Anyone have ideas, suggestions, thoughts, fellow writers?

26 August 2012

I'm Now …


by Louis Willis

… a Stephen King fan, which I owe to you. I wasn’t a fan before reading that many of you admire his writing. It’s not that I didn’t like his stories, I just never felt compelled to read them. I liked the movies based on his stories. My favorites are The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. My least favorites are The Tommyknockers and The Dreamcatcher. The movies showed his storytelling skills but didn’t persuade me to read the stories. 

I read The Dreamcatcher when it was first published because of the title and the negative reviews. I wondered how anyone could catch dreams. Also, I knew King was a prolific and popular writer who usually received positive reviews, so, I wondered, why the negative ones? After I read the novel, I agreed with the reviewers, it is a bad novel, and the movie didn’t improve the story. 

I decided to read more of his stories because of your admiration. I bought two of his books at random: The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower and Just After Sunset. The third book, Different Seasons, I bought because it contains the story on which The Shawshank Redemption is based

For this post, I read the 13 stories in Just After Sunset. The protagonist in the story titledN,” describes better than I can what King’s stories are like: “Reality is a mystery, … and the everyday texture of things is the cloth we draw over it to mask its brightness and darkness.” 

“N” is the best and most enjoyable story in Just After Sunset. N, an accountant, sees a psychiatrist for his obsessive compulsive disorder after a weird experience he had while taking pictures of rocks in Ackerman’s Field. When he looks with his naked eye, he sees seven rocks and strange shapes, but when he looks through his camera’s viewfinder, there are eight, and things appear normal. The aftermath of the experience causes him to see even numbers as safe, odd as unsafe, and he must make sure there are an even number of objects on tables, etc.. Although he fears whatever he sees or thinks he sees in the field, he returns again and again. No spoiler, so I won’t tell you how it ends, but the end is scary.

“A Very Tight Place,” involving a conflict between two men over a piece of land, proves that you can still enjoy a story even when you foresee the protagonist will escape a trap his enemy has laid. Such a story satisfies the reader’s anticipation. The incident in “A Very Tight Place “ involving the protagonist’s escape from a portable toilet occurs about a third of the way in the story and kept me on the edge of my seat. I knew he would escape – his being trapped was nowhere near the end of the story. Not only did I want to see how he would escape, I wanted to help him. King’s prose is so good that I felt right there in that sweltering, stinky toilet with him.

“The Gingerbread Girl” is the poorest story in the book where implausibility overwhelms credibility. A young woman who lost her child and is thinking of divorcing her husband goes to her father’s cabin in a deserted resort where she encounters a serial killer. To flee his house, (no spoiler here) after escaping from the kitchen chair he'd taped her to, she runs into the bedroom/office with him pursuing close behind, where she bars the door with a chair. She throws an old school desk through a window, wraps a blanket around herself, and jumps out the broken window. In escaping from the chair, she sprained her wrist and lower back. It seems to me that those injuries would have made it rather difficult for her to escape though that window. I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief.

I haven’t decided which book to read next. I am certain of one thing, I shall not read more of the stories on a dark and stormy night.

25 August 2012

Playing Nashville



by Elizabeth Zelvin

I’m in Nashville this weekend. I drove the 900 miles from home in New York City, not to try my luck on Music Row, but to attend Killer Nashville, a mystery conference sponsored by conference founder Clay Stafford’s American Blackguard Film and Television along with Mystery Writers of America’s and Sisters in Crime’s national organizations and local chapters and a roster of bookstores and authors. It’s my second time at Killer Nashville, and the first time was such a grand adventure that I’m thrilled to be back.

I hadn’t yet started recording my own album, Outrageous Older Woman back in 2009. In fact, I had managed to forget both the lyrics and the melodies of the songs I’d written over the years. I spent long stretches of the two-day drive re-learning them by singing along to cassette tapes that I was lucky I managed to unearth in the mountains of stuff in my apartment. Along with the kind of urban folk songs I write myself, I’m a fan of the best of country music. So I’d always wanted to visit Nashville. But I didn’t expect to have the opportunity to perform.

At the awards banquet that year, guest of honor J.A. Jance was presented with a gorgeous black silver-inlaid acoustic guitar. I had to get my hands on that guitar! I’m unlikely to reach guest of honor status as a mystery writer in this life. So I sidled up to Clay Stafford and whispered, “Can I sing a paranormal murder ballad?” To my great pleasure, he said yes, and so did J.A. Jance. So I got to sing “Long Black Veil,” one of the greatest wailers ever. It was written in 1959, and everybody has sung it, including Lefty Frizzell, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, and the Chieftains. I think the fact that I sang surprised all the mystery folks, and the big surprise for me was that I hit the high notes without effort—thanks to those 900 miles singing along in the car.

You could say that the journey to release my Outrageous Older Woman CD started that night. This year, the trunk of my car held a box of my CDs as well as copies of my three mysteries, and all are available in the book room at Killer Nashville. Even better, I got to sing a couple of my own songs at the Sisters in Crime reception on Friday night. None of my songs have murder in them, but they’re about a lot of the issues that provide motives: love, ambition, family, alcoholism, and abuse, among others. I just happen to write about the up side: love, perseverance, family support, recovery, and healing.

I ducked out of the conference for long enough to have lunch with a Nashville songwriter buddy, Mike T. Lewis, yesterday. He and his wife, MaryBeth Zamer, perform as the Twangtown Paramours. The panel I’m participating in comes up this afternoon: “Talk Is Cheap; Effective Dialogue Is Priceless.” Music at the banquet tonight will be provided by special guest and bestselling author Jeffery Deaver’s XO Band. Yes, he’s got an album. In Nashville, that surprises no one.

24 August 2012

Pot, Boiler . . . where'd the "Space" come from??


by Dixon Hill

In my last post ...

I mentioned that there sometimes seems to be disagreement concerning the term potboiler -- at least, to me.

Does potboiler have only one meaning, or two meanings?  And, is it a term you want applied to something you write, or not?

Examining several dictionaries, I found similar definitions for the word, each indicating a potboiler is a mediocre or inferior work produced solely for financial gain.  Googling the term, however, took me to an Amazon webpage that described several well-respected mystery/suspense novels as potboilers.

Faced with this conundrum, I did what I often do, when faced with a difficult problem …

I headed for the cigar store.

There, over a period of several shifts, I took a non-scientific straw poll (I hesitate to call it an actual survey), asking customers if they had heard of a potboiler story or novel. And, if they had, what they thought the term  meant.

 Below, are the Polling Questions as respondents saw them on sheets of 8.5 x 11 inch paper:

 Gender: M F (circle one)
 Age: ______
 ( )Smoker  ( )Non-smoker

 I am a:
 ( ) Regular Ford & Haig Tobacconist customer
 ( ) Visitor (out of town)
 ( ) Visitor (live locally)

 On average, I read approximately:
 ( ) One or more books per week
 ( ) One book every two weeks
 ( ) One to two books per month
 ( ) One book every month or two
 ( ) I read books, but not that often.
 ( ) I read magazines and/or newspapers, but don’t usually read books.

 Please check the appropriate response:
( ) I am certain I know the meaning of the term potboiler as it pertains to literature.
( ) I am uncertain of the meaning of the term potboiler as it pertains to literature.

 Please check the appropriate response:
( ) I believe the term potboiler has a negative connotation, in literature.
( ) I believe the term potboiler has a positive connotation in literature.

 Please check the appropriate response:
( ) I would not read a book described as a potboiler on the back cover.
( ) I might read a book described as a potboiler on the back cover.
( ) I would definitely read a book described as a potboiler on the back cover.

 A Potboiler is best described as:
 ( ) A book about cooking.
 ( ) A book written by an author just to make money. It’s not usually very good.
 ( ) A suspense or thriller with great tension, in which the main character is under a lot of pressure.

Is that a TURKEY in the pot???
The Results

I asked dozens of customers, but only 52 were willing to fill out a Polling Sheet. The rest were in too much of a hurry, disliked reading all together, or simply thought I was a loon. (Go figure!)

Of the 52 respondents: 43 were male, 9 female. They ranged in age from 19 to 74 years. 41 of them smoked tobacco, the other 11 being friends of somebody who smoked (hence their presence in a tobacco shop).

Among the respondents, 30 were regular customers of the store, who knew me, while 6 were visiting The Valley of the Sun in July/August -- meaning that one must question their sanity! -- and the remaining 16 were residents but not regular customers of the cigar store.

Two respondents claimed to read at least two books a week. 14 said that they read one to two books a month, 29 said they read about a book every month or two, 5 said they read fewer than one book every two months, and the remaining 2 said they read newspapers or magazines, but not books.

Thus, as can be plainly seen: this survey is in no way random — the respondents all being smokers or friends of smokers, who happened to find their way through the door of the shop where I work. As such, the survey probably bears little real relation to cultural norms across the United States. On the other hand, my friends on the newspaper staff sometimes construct entire articles around similarly flawed surveys. So, let’s follow suit.

Of the 52 respondents, only 11 stated that they were sure of potboiler’s meaning, while 40 confessed to some amount of confusion, and one person initially thought I was asking his opinion about Chinese dumplings. (This person was provided with clarification between the terms Potboiler and Pot Sticker, at which point he confessed to some confusion concerning the term Potboiler.)

Of the 11 who were certain of potboiler’s meaning, 8 felt the connotation was negative, while 3 said potboiler had a positive connotation.

Of the 41 who expressed some doubt concerning potboiler’s meaning, 14 thought the term had a negative connotation, while 31 said they felt potboiler was a positive description of writing. (14 + 31 = 45 This is greater than the total number of respondents who expressed doubt about the meaning, because some respondents marked both answers.)

Of the 11 who were certain of potboiler’s meaning, 8 defined it in terms of a work created solely for profit (dictionary definition), while 3 marked that a potboiler was a suspense or thriller novel with great tension (how Amazon appears to define the term).

All 34 respondents who saw potboiler as positive (3 sure of the meaning + 31 unsure of the meaning), thought the term referred to a work with great tension.

Of the 22 respondents who thought it had a negative connotation (8 sure of the meaning + 14 in doubt), 13 indicated it was a work created solely for profit, while 13 saw it as a work of great tension (5 marked both responses), and one person marked “A book about cooking.”

12 respondents said they would not read a book described as a potboiler, but 31 said they might read such a book, and 9 respondents (over 17 percent!) said they definitely would read one.

Out of 52 respondents, the majority saw potboiler as having a positive connotation  referring to a mystery/suspense or thriller with great tension and an explosive climax. 

 And, 17 percent of respondents indicated they would be highly motivated to buy such a book. (And, like many a contemporary reporter, I’ll ignore the fact that 12 people, or roughly 23 percent of respondents, indicated they would NOT read the book.)

Thus, these numbers -- which in reality are quite meaningless, though I'm pretending they aren’t — would seem to indicate a trending change in perception concerning the phrase potboiler. Today, people’s perception is transforming the word Potboiler into something that hasn’t yet been officially recognized (by the dictionary folks, at least): the idea that a Potboiler isn’t just a negative idea for a work that puts food on the table; it can also be a sought-after high-tension suspense thriller.

One word: two almost diametrically opposed meanings (in the minds of many literati, at least).

 In the words of one respondent (a lawyer), “Maybe we should clarify things by writing it as one word Potboiler when you use it one way, and putting a space between Pot and Boiler when you use it the other.”

Hence the title of my last post:  Pot, Boiler . . . add a Space??

What do you think?  Should we start adding a space (i.e.: pot boiler) when using the term to describe a high-tension thriller or mystery?  And, if we do, can we get this practice to spread??

If that should happen, remember:  You saw it HERE first!  On Sleuth Sayers.

See you in two weeks,

Dix

23 August 2012

Time with Art




 by Deborah Elliott-Upton

What's better than spending time with people you admire for their skills? Last week I had a leisurely lunch with a creative group of women. The assortment of talent ran the spectrum of the genres in the writing arena: one was a playwright, one a singer/songwriter, another a novel-length young adult writer, a children's author who handles novels and picture books, a historical fiction writer, a romance writer and me, the lone mystery author. (For some unknown to me reason, although my area in the state is known for its abundance of writers, few choose to write mystery.)

An eclectic gathering, we spoke of our current works in progress. A few won't discuss their work until it is finished, several only with their personal critique group members and a couple said it depended on which work at which specific time.

I am one that falls into the latter choice. At the beginning of  project, I tend to talk more about the basic idea with a few close individuals. This is more my way of seeing if the idea holds attention with the public as much as with me.

At that point, I tend to mull over the details of the plot and allow the characters to come to me with their own viewpoint. They need to talk to me!

Writing after this is usually kept more to myself until I am ready for someone else with a critical and unbiased eye to take a look.

This group -- like so many others in the writing community -- is less about stroking egos and more about supporting other artists in their artistic endeavors. Talking about writing to us is like finding a lifeline in a stormy sea.

Life hands out rejections like election ads during a campaign year: too many seem to bombard us at once. Many ads and rejections are too negative and lean on the nasty side. Negative remarks whether they are meant to received as such or not can bruise talent. I've heard each artist must suffer to find the truth in his work. Maybe. But I don't believe they must be beaten beyond recognition. Spread some of that random kindness around. Compliments are inexpensive and means much to the receiver.

Writers gathering to talk about writing is uplifting. It's good to hear what others are facing in their journey.

I enjoy spending time with people "new" to discovering their talents. Nothing is as contagious as passion.

The young playwright is reading every play she can find and attending avant-garde theatre productions. The singer is performing some new songs at a small town cafe. The young adult writer sings backup in the group. They're also collaborating on new songs together. The historian is finishing her novel and ready to take the next step to find a publisher. The children's author is finishing a six book series. The romance writer is new to writing and is fresh with anticipation. I advised her she is my newest protege and she didn't even laugh. (I like that in a writer!) I'm working on a hush-hush project I'm not ready to talk about to the masses. Soon though.

We laughed as we discussed introverts and extroverts and how even our small grouping was a combination of both. Writers don't come in one size fits all.

By the end of the lunch, we were full -- not just of the delicious food served (our singer is also a caterer -- lucky us!), but also of eagerness to get back to our own writings. Our own genres. Our own art.

Time spent with art and artists is never dull and always so very worthwhile. I think I just may mull on that thought for a few more days.