21 December 2012

Marketing at Christmas

by R.T. Lawton

Every author these days knows he has to market himself or develop a brand or have a platform or.....do something to help distinguish himself from the herd and his work from the rest of the slush pile. Presenters at conferences and experts in various publications tell writers they need to network, start a blog, find a niche, do their best writing, never quit, etc., etc. After a while, it all starts to sound like work on our end, and whereas I'm not averse to working up a good sweat from time to time, I also believe in stacking the cards (pun intended, as you'll soon see) in my favor. So, here's one of the things I do.

For 2005, "Dark Eyes" Mike photoshopped me in & then snuck himself in

Every year at Christmas time for several years now, I send Linda Landrigan, the editor of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, a Christmas card. Now this is no ordinary off-the-rack card. No, this particular card is custom made by my Huey pilot buddy Mike who happened to mention early on in our friendship that he has a certain amount of artistic talent. Since I have flown with this guy into places you aren't supposed to take a helicopter, landed people for raids and parked on mesa tops about the size of a large table to make a quick pit stop (it's a long way down if you're looking that direction and hanging onto the door frame), when he tells me he can do something, I tend to believe him.

In any case, Mike agreed to make Christmas cards for me, and we ended up having a lot of fun with it. Each year's card is based on one of the short stories Linda bought from me and then published in her magazine that year.
2009 card for "Boudin Noir"

Naturally, the problem pops up that few of the stories are Christmas oriented, but we do the best we can. And, to perpetuate that particular year's story concept, each card is signed by characters in that story. For instance, if that year's selection was from a story in my 1660's Paris Underworld series, then one of us might sign as le orphan (Mike's wife Angie), another as King Jules (me), one as Remy the Chevalier (Mike) and another as Josette (my wife Kiti). It's all done in fun, but I'm sure it also keeps my stories in the minds of the editor and staff for a while. In fact, at one of the Bouchercons a few years back, Linda informed me that she was collecting these cards as part of the magazine's history. Whoa, that puts on a lot of pressure to really perform in the future. I have been told a couple of times that I was history, but this was a completely different type of footnote.

The 2004 card to the left is based on "In Bond," a "locked room" mystery in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series in which pallets of In Bond wine is stolen from a locked and guarded warehouse.

So, that's one of the ways I try to stack the cards in my favor for this game of writing. Anybody out there got any moves of your own you'd care to share? Or, any suggestions you think would work for you, me or anyone else?

And, by the way, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Hanukkah, Joyeux Noel, Mutlu Noeller and several other season's greetings for which my keyboard doesn't have letters or symbols.

20 December 2012

We're No Angels

"I'll say one thing for prison:  you meet a better class of people." 
               Joseph (Humphrey Bogart) in "We're No Angels", 1955.

Aldo Ray, Bogart, Peter Ustinov
Okay, so that's only true (with some exceptions) in movies.  But I'd cheerfully spend all day with these guys. I first met them when I was ten years old, back in the 60's, watching the 1955 Christmas Classic, "We're No Angels," a black and white TV set, all by myself.  I laughed until I cried, and I remembered lines from it for years afterwards.  It warped me for life.

"I read someplace that when a lady faints, you should loosen her clothing."  - Albert

Three convicts escape from the prison on Devil's Island on Christmas Eve.  There's Humphrey Bogart as Joseph, a maniac and master forger, Peter Ustinov as Jules, an expert safe-cracker, in prison only because of a "slight difference of opinion with my wife", and Aldo Ray as Albert, "a swine" of a heart breaker who only fell afoul of the law after asking his uncle for money (the illegal part was when said uncle said "no" and Albert beat him to death with a poker - 29 times).  Oh, and their fellow-traveler, Adolphe - or is it Adolf?

                       "We came here to rob them and that's what we're gonna do - beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes." - Joseph

Anyway, these 3 convicts need money, clothing, passports - and they find it all at Ducotel's General Store, the famous Ducotel's, "the one who gives credit".  Along with Felix (Leo G. Carroll), the most inept, innocent, and financially challenged manager in history, his beautiful wife, Amelie (played by Joan Bennett), and their daughter Isobel (Gloria Talbott, in full super virgin mode). 

"You really like us, don't you?"  - Amelie (before Sally Field)

You can see where this is going:  they get hired, they get interested, they get all warm fuzzy, they change their ways, everyone is happy.  Right?  Well, not quite.  Because the big fat plum in this pudding is Basil Rathbone as Andre Trochard, who owns Ducotel's, and has come to Devil's Island - with his sycophantic nephew Paul - to do the books on Christmas Day.  I love a good villain, and Basil Rathbone is as snooty, snotty, sneering, vindictive, scheming, insulting, arrogant, belittling, and generally nasty as they come.  ("Your opinion of me has no cash value."  - Andre Trochard.)  He makes Ebenezer Scrooge look like a warm pussy cat.

Andre Trochard - "Twenty years in solitary - how's that for a Christmas present?"
Jules - "That's a lovely Christmas present.  But how are you going to wrap it up?"

There's no Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, or Future in this one; no "God bless us, every one"; no Tiny Tim; but there's theft and forgery, fraud and deceit, murder and mayhem, all done with sharp, hilarious dialog.  Go.  Rent it now.  Pour a Chateau Yquem (you'll understand later) or its equivalent, pull out a turkey leg, and enjoy!  Merry Christmas!  Compliments of the Season!

NOTE:  This was Joan Bennett's last role for Paramount for a very long time:  she was in the middle of a huge scandal when her husband, the Paramount film producer Walter Wanger, shot and almost killed her agent, Jennings Lang, in front of her in the MCA parking lot.  "I shot him because I thought he was breaking up my home," Wanger said.  Ms. Bennett said Wanger was wrong, that Wanger was in financial trouble, that Wanger was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but there would be no divorce. (!)  Wanger got 4 months at the County Honor Farm and went back to producing movies.  (Now that's Hollywood, folks.)  Bennett got blacklisted.  Until, O happy day! Dark Shadows hired her as matriarch Elizabeth Stoddard and she got to play with vampires instead of agents and producers.  As always, life is stranger than fiction.  If only she had had an Adolphe...  or is it Adolf?

SECOND NOTE:  This movie has a ton of great lines, but I have to admit my 2nd favorite Christmas movie has my favorite line of all time - the movie is the 1942 version of "The Man Who Came to Dinner", and it's Beverly Carlton (a thinly veiled Noel Coward) commenting on his former costar Larraine Sheldon (a thinly veiled Gertrude Lawrence):
"They do say she set fire to her mother, but I don't believe it."  
I laugh my head off every time... 

19 December 2012

Picking More Black Orchids

Two weeks ago I published in this space the speech I gave when I won the Black Orchid Novella Award. I wanted to talk a little bit more about the experience. After that I promise to shut up about it until the winning story is published in May, when I will start babbling about it again. (Hey, I don't win prizes that often; give me a break.)

Anyway, I was informed by Jane Cleland back in September that I was the winner. The reason for the early tip-off, of course, is to encourage the winner to attend, which is exactly what it did in my case.  But it meant I had to keep my trap shut for three months and that was not the easiest thing I ever did. Ironically, I applied for a promotion at the same time and in my c.v. I had to write "This year I will receive another award for my writing, but I can't tell you what it is. Ask me in December." I'm sure the peers reviewing my file wondered what the hell that was about.

We visit the Saturday farmer's market almost every week and there is a very nice woman there who makes excellent hats out of recycled sweaters. Back in September I joked that the reason I couldn't fit into one of her hats was that my head was swelled (swollen?) because I just found out I had won an award. She asked which one and of course I couldn't tell her. I did tell her last week and naturally she had never heard of the BONA. Another person wondering what the hell that was about.

Anyway, I did go to the Black Orchid events, wearing one of those recycled hats, oddly enough. It started with the Assembly, in which Rex Stout fans gather to hear experts discuss topics related to the Corpus. (Doyle's writings about Sherlock Holmes are known as the Canon; Stout's reports on Nero Wolfe are known as the Corpus, because it suggests the corpulent nature of our hero).

My favorite speaker was Bob Gatten, who spoke about Rex Stout's work as president of the War Writers Board. I hadn't known that Stout organized a program to discourage writers from using ethnic stereotypes in their writing. "We can't fight racism in Europe and appease it over here."

Another highlight was David Naczycz of Urban Oyster on the history of beer in New York City, a subject very dear to Wolfe's heart, or taste buds.

But the major event was the Banquet. Terri and I were seated next to Linda Landrigan, the editor of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and James Lincoln Warren, good friend of this blog, and last year's winner. James had an official duty this year, presenting the first of five annual toasts. His was to Rex Stout which he delivered in rhyme. Here is a sample:
In our hearts, we all gather together to meet 
At the brownstone address on West Thirty-Fifth Street,
To drink milk or drink beer, or tonight imbibe wine,
To toast a great soul and inimitable mind.
And I can testify that a considerable amount of wine was indeed imbibed.

Another feature of the annual banquet is that each table is expected to compose and perform a song (set to a familiar tune) about the Corpus. These are always enthusiastic if not necessarily masterpieces. Ira Matetsky the Werowance (i.e. president) of the Pack said of one number "of all the song parodies I have heard, that was the most recent."

Having been warned about this feature in advance I provided my tablemates with seven songs to choose from. They selected this number, to the tune of "Ain't Misbehavin'." (That's a photo of Fats Waller, of "Ain't Misbehavin'" fame, not Ira Matetsky, in case you wondered.)

I traveled upstate,
I don’t care to go,
I had a big date,
To show up a flower show
Some Buried Caesar,
I blame it all on you
Du-du, du-du-du, dudu-du
The car was loaded,
With orchids and me,
A tire exploded,
My Heron hit a tree.
Some Buried Caesar,
I didn’t hear you moo, Du…

Like Jack Horner

we were cornered
in the pasture,
I climbed faster,
That rescue’s what I waited for
Be-lieve me

While Archie first eyes,
the girl he’ll adore,
I won the first prize,
That’s what I went there for
Some Buried Caesar,
I solved a murder too, Du…
Some Buried Caesar,
That’s what detectives do

Matestsky gushingly described our contribution as "surprisingly competent."

One more thing. To fund unexpected expenses, the Wolfe Pack raffled off a seat for next year's banquet. I do not expect to be able to attend in 2013 but in the interest of contributing I bought one ticket.

Guess who won?

Must have been my lucky night.

18 December 2012

Christmas Stories: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

      Most years around this time I settle down to a re-read of Ellery Queen’s The Finishing Stroke, a 1957 mystery that I consider one of Queen’s best and that takes place during the course of Advent in 1929.  Building a Christmas mystery for Ellery to solve was a temptation that even two Jewish cousins from Brooklyn, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, could not resist.  The temptation has also lured virtually every other classic mystery writer.   Agatha Christie gave us not only Hercule Poirot’s Christmas but also a Miss Marple short story Christmas Tragedy.  Rex Stout contributed the 1957 Nero Wolfe novella Christmas Party and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle jumped into the fray with Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.  (The Holmes story is now available to Audible subscribers this month as a free holiday download.)

    Christmas stories are not the sole province of Golden Age mystery authors.  Our own Elizabeth Zelvin has contributed such a volume, to the holiday shelf Death Will Trim Your Tree.  The temptation to offer up Yuletide tales is also apparent from the works of other modern popular authors.  John Grisham has Skipping Christmas, and David Baldacci has The Christmas Train.

    Christmas stories have also provided the backdrop for many memorable movie classics.  Last year at this time of year I wrote of the many adaptations of my personal favorite, Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and our family’s Christmases usually are not complete without at least one screening of Irving Berlin’s 1954 musical White Christmas – this year my wife and I even attended the stage version at the Kennedy Center here in Washington – and we also always manage to find an evening to devote to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

    My family has always celebrated the Yule on Christmas Eve – when my brother Graham and I were kids that was the evening Santa visited our home, just after dinner.  The same was true when my own two sons, now well ensconced into their twenties, were kids.  And now, with my immediate family having dwindled down to four (all adults), six including my brother and his wife, we gather at Graham and Nikki's restored Victorian home near the St. Louis botanical gardens each year for the holiday.  We do all of the expected things – listen to carols, open presents, dine in front of the tree.  But we have a darker side to our Christmases as well.  When the presents have all been opened, and the room is a hopeless clutter of torn metallic papers and ribbons, we pour ourselves a couple stiff ones and turn on the TV in search of bad Christmas movies.

    With on-line movies, YouTube and obscure DVDs readily available, finding almost any given movie is not that difficult.  But finding the right one is not always an easy task.  Not just any bad movie will do.  Just as you can get too much of a good thing, it is even easier to get too much of a bad thing.  What we search out each year are movies that, while failed, offer something camp; something so awful that it is funny but not so awful that it is unwatchable.  We have been laughing “with” all evening; now it is time to laugh “at.”

    Candidates for this year, together with some that have already been rejected, include the following:

    Santa Claus Conquers the Martians This incredibly cheesy 1964 movie makes every list of “ten worst Christmas movies” as well as “ten worst movies ever.”  The premise:  The Martians kidnap Santa Claus because there is no one on Mars to give presents to the Martian kids.  Apparently no one cares about the rights on this one, so if you are tempted you can see the whole debacle, including the original title song "Hooray for Santy Claus," at this YouTube site.  (Watch closely -- an eight year old Pia Zadora plays one of those mini-Martians.)  Special effects include what charitably  appear to be five dollar masks and action sequences where everyone leans to the right when the spaceship veers left.  We’ve seen this one before.  I’m still looking for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode featuring the movie.  Score; Watchable, but two or more scotches will likely be required.  

    Santa with Muscles Hulk Hogan stars in this 1996 film about an evil millionaire who gets amnesia, hides from pursuers by donning a Santa costume, and then believes that he is Santa after seeing himself in a mirror.  Ed Begley, Jr. also stars as an evil scientist intent on taking over an orphanage for some obscure reason.  Movie critic Joe Leydon wrote “John Murlowski directs with all the enthusiasm of someone going through the motions to pay off a debt.”  Score: As yet unseen, but a candidate for a two scotch watch.

    Jingle All the Way Yet another 1996 Christmas movie that consistently makes the “worst 10 Christmas movies” list.  More money was spent on this film than on any other in the list but, by all accounts, it still does not work.  Arnold Schwwarzenegger in his pre-governator days stars as a harried parent trying to secure the hottest toy of the year.  Comparing this movie to the Hulk Hogan opus discussed above, film critic Chris Hicks said that the Hulk’s movie "makes Arnold Scwarzenegger seem like Laurence Olivier.”  I have yet to see this movie, but it is a favorite of our kids and a likely watch this year.  Score:  Sight unseen, but a candidate for watching with the first scotch of the evening.

    Santa Claus aka Santa Claus versus the Devil  This 1959 Mexican production has garnered several critics’ nomination for worst movie ever filmed.  (An awesome feat – that means it defeated the horrible -- but non-Christmas -- Plan 9 from Outer Space, starring Bela Lugosi and his chiropractor, who filled in for Bela after he died in mid-filming.)  Anyway, this Mexican entrant in the Christmas sweepstakes tells the story of Santa and his best friend Merlin the Magician who are off to thwart the Devil’s plan to kill Santa and, in the words of the film’s promo piece, “make all of the kids in the world do evil.”  Apparently no one cares about copyright protection on this Christmas turkey either -- the whole film is a click away on YouTube.  Score:  sight unseen, but we will likely take a peak this Christmas.  A candidate for a two and a half scotch watch.  Also a film where one senses the remote should be kept handy just in case.

    Christmas Vacation 2 – Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure  This 2003 TV movie sequel to the classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was apparently shown once, and only once, on network TV.  The sequel, as the name implies, jettisons the Griswold clan, leaving us only with Cousin Eddie and his . . . “brood.”  What were they thinking?  The WebSite DVD Verdict calls the film a "bedsore of a movie" and suggests that any copy should be "thrown into a burlap sack, weighted down with rocks, and tossed into the closest body of water."  Score: I’m not going to even try it.  

    A Christmas Carol – the Musical  Not to be confused with Albert Finney’s very passable 1970 musical Scrooge, this 2004 made-for-TV film stars Kelsey Grammer as Scrooge and has Jason Alexander playing Marley’s ghost. And – worse – the movie is not just a musical, it is virtually an opera – almost everything is sung.  I mean everything. One reviewer summed up the film as follows: “Never in all my days have I ever seen such a turgid remake of what can only be described as one of the most heartwarming Christmas events.” Score:  As noted, I’m a huge Christmas Carol fan (I even liked Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which, by the way, featured better music than this version.) I tried to watch this film when it aired in 2004 and turned it off within 10 minutes when it became evident that no one was going to (1) stop singing, or (2) sing adequately. Score:  Unwatchable.  Cannot be saved even by scotch.

    An American Carol  This 2008 film played in theaters for about a week. It is hard to classify it strictly as a Christmas movie since it takes the Dickens premise and then shifts the underlying holiday to July 4 and re-invents the story as one involving a liberal movie producer who, in all but name, is Michael Moore, and who has forgotten the meaning of patriotism. He is visited by three ghosts including (see above) Kelsey Grammer as General George Patton, a re-invented “ghost of Independence Days past.”  If that were not enough, Leslie Nielsen, in one of his final films, appears as Osama Bin Laden.  Film critic Sam Graham had this to say about the movie: “It’s been suggested that An American Carol wasn’t screened for reviewers prior to its theatrical release because the predominantly left-leaning critics would pan the film merely because of its conservative subject matter, thus torpedoing its box office potential .There’s some justification for that belief, but there’s another reason that certain films aren’t pre-screened: because they’re not good . . ..” Score: I have yet to watch this movie, but am likely to give it a try this Christmas. Having said this, I will be surprised if I get through more than 10 minutes. Three scotches and keep the remote well in hand.

   The Star Wars Holiday Special  Although not truly a “story,” this 1978 television special at least has a story-line that attempts to tie things together -- Chewbacca and Hans Solo visit Kashyyk, Chewbacca's home world, to celebrate “Life Day.” The special featured all of the actors from the original Star Wars trilogy and is universally (in a galaxy not that far away) judged to be one of the most horrible television programs ever aired. Some of the cast members have at times denied that the program even existed. George Lucas has spent a great deal of effort ensuring that it will never be re-broadcast. To quote Lucas, "if I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it." In similar tone, David Hofstede, author of What Were They Thinking?:  The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History, ranked the holiday special at number one, calling it "the worst two hours of television ever."  While the show was never re-broadcast and never released on tape or DVD, if you want to see just how bad a film can be, there are original copies (recorded off the air in glorious VHS) that are available on YouTube. Full length versions are relentlessly blocked by "the Federation," but the smaller snippets persist.  This one contains the first ten minutes, which, in truth, is all you need.   Score: Unwatchable. But having said that, you should try just the first few minutes, scotch firmly in hand, to see how a group of talented people can come up with something this totally wrong-headed. Jaw dropping is the only response to the overly long and totally incomprehensible segment set in Chewbacca’s home near the beginning of the film. As actor and critic Ralph Garman observed, “it's so bad that it actually comes around to good again, but passes it right up.”

Happy Holidays!

17 December 2012

December 16, 2012

Jan Grape Today is only days after the Newtown school tragedy. I'm just in such a sad place that it's difficult for me to think about writing anything funny or helpful to readers or writers. I write about guns and murder and mayhem but what I write is FICTION not real life as we have watched unfold since Friday. The heartbreak is still too near the surface.

I have very strong feeling about things we need to do to make and keep our lives and especially our children safer. But I will only say that while I respect everyone's right to have a gun, I see no need for assault weapons. And I do think we need to address the mental health problems that seem to always come into play.

About all I can say, is to hold your loved ones close. Say I love you as often as possible. Hug your children and your grandchildren and say a prayer for the Children:

Charlotte and Daniel and Olivia and Josephine and Ana and Dylan and Madeliene and Catherine and Chase and Jesse and James and Grace and Emilie and Jack and Noah and Caroline and Jessica and Avielelle and Benjamin and Allison.

For the adults: Victoria, Mary, Anne Marie, Lauren, Rachel and Dawn.

For all their families and loved ones.

For the First Responders who are also in grief.

For the town of Newtown, Connecticut.

16 December 2012

Tech Tip– Transparency

Improve your Image

It amazes me how creativity bursts out of many of us in multiple ways, music, painting, sculpture, cooking, even quilting. Many of us like to include art in our blogs and find ourselves frustrated by cantankerous software. When it comes to clip art, you may have noticed some SleuthSayers pictures seem cursed with a white frame or background while others blend into the blog. For anyone with a non-white blog background, this is for you.

Once upon a time, little programs could make unwanted image parts invisible. Unfortunately, they've all but disappeared. I use Photoshop to set backgrounds to transparent, but that's using a steam shovel to shift a dustpan of dirt.

If you're interested (and this is by no means required) in how to do this, here are a few free tools you can use. Although I strive to be cross-platform, I've somewhat emphasized Windows here since Microsoft Paint doesn't support transparency and Mac tends to be more graphically inclined.

Gimp The Gimp MacOS Windows instructions
GimpShop GimpShop MacOS Windows instructions
Paint.dot.net Paint-dot-net
Windows instructions
LView LView Pro
Windows instructions


GIF and JPEG formats have very different purposes and you'll often see the wrong format used, especially JPEG. JPEG is intended for blends, subtle tones, and a large color palette such as photographs. GIF is designed for flat-tone images like line drawings, cartoons, and simple 'flat' pictures. There is a third format, PNG, which encompasses both images. To use transparency, you must use GIF or PNG, not JPEG although you can convert a JPEG to the other formats if it's tonally flat.


Although I avoid PowerPoint, I understand it can be used to make parts of images transparent. Follow this video or these instructions:
  1. select menu: Insert Photo > Picture from File
  2. click Recolor button
  3. click Set Transparent Color
  4. click on the background color to disappear
  5. right click image
  6. click Save as Picture
  7. set Format to .PNG
  8. specify name and save
Here's to transparency!

15 December 2012

Authors Who Blow My Mind: Lois McMaster Bujold

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Lois McMaster Bujold is another of those authors whose work sits squarely on the three-legged stool of writing, storytelling, and characterization. The blurb her publishers put on many of her book jackets, with which I agree heartily, is SF writer Anne McCaffrey’s comment, “Boy, can she write!” The difference between her work and Michael Gruber’s, about which I’ve already written, is that Gruber’s language is the kind that we think of—in the most positive way—as “prose.” Bujold’s prose is the invisible kind whose sole purpose is to focus our attention on the story and the characters.

One aspect of Bujold’s genius is the deft mixing of genres. The Vorkosigan saga is inevitably shelved as science fiction. Its fictional universe is galactic in scope, and Bujold, the daughter of an engineer, handles the scientific aspects of speculative fiction with intelligence and without getting tedious. But many of the books are also mysteries that are solved only because Miles Vorkosigan is very, very smart, doesn’t need much sleep, and has a genius for thinking outside the box.

Although the series takes place in a galactic setting, it focuses on the conflict between a science-fiction kind of universe and a planet that has recently emerged from a low-tech Time of Isolation, complete with horses and a feudal aristocracy. The stories are engrossing, the world-building impressive, wit and ideas and moral dilemmas abound. On top of that, The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game are coming-of-age novels. Memory is definitely a character-driven mystery. Komarr is a political thriller with elements of romance and psychological suspense. Cryoburn is science fiction, mystery, galactic political thriller, and immensely satisfying character-driven novel all at once.My favorite, A Civil Campaign, crosses galactic space opera with comedy of manners and comes up with a complex, intensely satisfying, and laugh-out-loud funny read. Bujold dedicates the book to Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy—and I think Austen, Bronte, Heyer, and Sayers, once they adjusted to the premises of the SF genre, would all love it.

And the characters—oh, the characters! Those typing monkeys could never have come up with Miles: stunted and fragile due to exposure to poison gas in utero, hyperactive, magnificently brainy and irreverent, complex, sensitive, and attractive to women smart enough to appreciate him. One of his tribulations is the fact that on his planet, still recovering from being nuked two generations ago, they have an aversion to mutants and are just beginning to learn not to kill deformed babies at birth. Another is the way he gets punished for pushing himself physically, from breaking both legs during a military training exercise to getting killed in a galactic battle, which would be okay, because he’s immediately prepped for cryorevival, except somebody goes and loses the container they’ve popped him into, and when he wakes up he has amnesia....

Here’s the flavor, in a delightfully feminist scene at the end of Komarr between Miles and Ekaterin, who’s been badly burned by an emotionally abusive marriage in a culture that represses women.
“Have you had a great many girlfriends?” If he hadn’t, she’d have to dismiss her whole gender as congenital idiots. The man could charm snakes from their holes, nine-year-olds from locked bathrooms, and Komarran terrorists from their bunkers. Why weren’t females following him around in herds?...

“The usual progression, I suppose. Hopeless first love, this and that over the years, unrequited mad crushes.”

“Who was the hopeless first love?” she asked, fascinated.

“Elena. The daughter of one of my father’s Armsmen, who was my bodyguard when I was young.”

“Is she still on Barrayar?”

“No, she emigrated years ago. Had a galactic military career and retired with the rank of captain. She’s a commercial shipmaster now.”


“Yes....There was Elli, She was a free mercenary trainee when I first met her.”

“What is she now?”

“Fleet Admiral. Actually.”

“So she was this. Who was that?”

“There was Taura.”

“What was she, when you first met her?”

“A Jacksonian body-slave....”

“So what is she now?

“Master Sergeant in a mercenary fleet.”

“The same fleet as, um, the this?”


... “And...?” she led him on, beginning to be immensely curious as to how long he’d keep going. Why in the world did he think all this romantic history was something she ought to know? Not that she would stop him....

“Mm...there was Rowan....”

“And she was...?”

“A technical serf of House Fell. She’s a cryo-revival surgeon in an independent clinic on Escobar, now....”

...Tien had spent a decade protecting her so hard, especially from anything that resembled growth, she’d felt scarcely larger at thirty than she’d been at twenty. Whatever it was Vorkosigan had offered to this extraordinary list of lovers, it hadn’t been protection.

... “So...what about the unrequited mad crush?”

“Ah, that was Rian. I was young, just a new lieutenant on a diplomatic mission.”

“And what does she do, now?”

He cleared his throat. “Now? She’s an empress.”

Miles and Ekaterin remind me a lot of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. And like Lord Peter and Harriet, Miles and his family and friends are the kind of people readers like me fall in love with, wish they could meet and befriend and invite over for dinner, and hunger to hear more about. They are endearing, smart, and funny—intensely real, achingly delicious. I can read about characters like these till the cows come home, over and over.

14 December 2012

Maze of Bones

I must confess: I really enjoy helping my son with his homework. It gives me the chance to teach him important little facets of the subject he's studying. Facets that I believe will not only interest him, but also facilitate the future practical application of what he's learning.

That's something it can be hard for a teacher to accomplish, when confronted by a room full of 36 students, so it pleases me when I get the chance to work one-on-one with my son.

Since I tend to employ the Socratic Method in my teaching, however, this feeling may not be mutual.  My son doesn't exactly relish having ideas teased from his brain through a series of pointed questions, but I feel it's important that he come up with an idea himself, so that he can better understand it.  Meanwhile, Quentin's eye-rolling and pained gasps tell me he'd much prefer that I simply tell him the answer.

Our latest foray into this practice of passive mutual combat took place over the weekend, when I helped him with a book report.  Of course, I couldn't fully help him if I wasn't familiar with the book.  So, after he finished it, I took it into my office and read the thing. And, it was GREAT!

The Maze of Bones is the first installment of the ten-book The 39 Clues series put out by Scholastic Books.  But, Scholastic points out that it's not just a book series. As the company says online, it's: "an interactive and multi-platform adventure series combining books, collectible cards, and an online game..."  

The 39 Clues

The protagonists of the series are Dan and Amy Cahill, two kids (Dan is 11 and Amy is 14) whose parents died in a fire seven years before. Since then, they've lived in a Boston apartment with an au pair, managed by their Aunt Beatrice who lives across town.  But, the true source of the finances clearly lies in the hands of their grandmother, Grace Cahill.

Grace is a wealthy woman who resides in the old Cahill family mansion in Worcester County.  She clearly enjoys the children's company on weekends, but refuses to let them move in, telling them "There are reasons..." why she can't let them.

The story opens with the two kids on their way to the funeral of their beloved grandmother Grace. There, they discover that their extended family is even larger than they had known, and that the four branches of the Cahills have "helped shaped civilization."   Amy and Dan are among family members who are given a choice: accept a one-time inheritance of $1,000,000 -- or forfeit the money and participate in a world-wide scavenger hunt for the lost treasure of the Cahills.  A treasure that will make the finder "The most powerful Cahill in history."  .The reader is also aware of something the children don't know:  The fate of the world may hang in the balance; if the treasure falls into the wrong hands, it could spell the end of civilization.

Dan and Amy have scarcely begun their search, starting in the mansion's library, when a fire breaks out and burns the house to the ground.  Barely escaping with their lives, they also manage to save their grandmother's cat and some of her jewelry before crawling to safety through a tunnel that comes up in the family graveyard. Then -- with the assistance of their young, IPod loving au pair, Nellie, the two kids are off on a whirl-wind adventure to Philadelphia, PA, the catacombs of Paris, France and beyond.

Rick Riordan wrote The Maze of Bones, thus proving he can scribe a story that appeals not only to both boys and girls, but also to their parents as well.   Though other books in the 39 Clues series are written by other authors, the multi-platform series and its over-arching plot line were Riordan's creations.

And, what a creation!  Not since Harry Potter, have I so greatly enjoyed reading books aloud to my children.

Rick Riordan

This is a name which may be familiar to many of you, because he also writes the Tres Navarre mystery series, which won the Edgar, Anthony and Shamus awards.  Additionally, he writes the children's Percy Jackson series (such as The Lightning Thief).

Riordan says, "I read mostly fantasy and science fiction in high school, then got interested in mysteries when I got to college." He graduated with a double major in English and History, having published a few stories in his university literary magazine.  After college, he entered teaching, where he says he managed to teach his first love -- mythology -- nearly every year, before leaving academia for a full-time writing career.

His knowledge of history, and love of teaching are clear to an adult reading The Maze of Bones.  My son, however, was too caught-up in the heart-pounding action and adventure to realize he was also learning about Ben Franklin, early printing methods, and even mathematics.  A real Win-Win, when you're a parent!

I knew about the Percy Jackson books and film, because Percy is a favorite of my son, but I'd never read any of the books.  The Maze of Bones, however, impressed me so much that I've placed a hold on a copy of the first Tres Navarre mystery, down at the Poisoned Pen, and intend to go pick it up as soon as I'm finished with this post.  (I also plan to get some more 39 Clues books for my son and me.) So, if you'll excuse me . . .

I'll see you in two weeks!

13 December 2012

I Never Saw A Strange Red Cow

Late last year I was interviewed by a researcher for a Canadian radio show about advertizing called Under The Influence.  This was for an episode about classified ads,  although you won't find my name in the credits.  Fame slips through my fingers once again. 
But what fascinated me in this broadcast was the reference to a book called Strange Red Cow by Sara Bader.  Bader explains in her introduction that she had been looking through eighteenth century newspapers for reactions to the Declaration of Independence when her eye was caught by the following classified ad:

CAME to my plantation, in Springfield, township, Philadelphia county, near Flour-town, the 26th of March 1776, A STRANGE RED COW.  The owner may have her again, on proving his property, and paying charges.  - Philip Miller, May 1, 1776. Pennsylvania Gazette.

(I should say that the ad actually said townfhip, but in the interest of your time and sanity I have changed all the extraneous Fs in this piece to Ss.)

So this is a book about old classified ads, and it is endlessly fascinating, especially to a writer.  Each of these ads in an unfinished short story, a beginning with no middle or end.

$15 REWARD - LOST, ON THE HUDSON RIVER Railroad, in the quarter to 5 o'clock train from New York, a set of teeth on a gold plate.  They were dropped out of the window on the right hand side of the way, supposed between the Tarrytown and Sing Sing stations, or at a short distance this side of Tarrytown...  -April 4, 1855, New York Herald.

$50 REWARD - STOLEN, ON WEDNESDAY (17th) evening, between 9 and 10 o'clock, a curiously deformed Hen, without a beak, and head shaped somewhat like a monkey; highly valued as a curiosity. -May 19, 1865, New York Herald. 

ELOPED from the subscriber, living near Nashville, on the 25th at Hune last, a Mulatto Man Slave, about thirty years old, six feet and an inch high, stout made and active, talks sensible, stoops in his walk, and has a remarkable large foot, broad across the root of the toes -- will pass for a free man, as I am informed he has obtained by some means, certificates as such...  ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred. -ANDREW JACKSON, Near Nashville, State of Tennessee

Yes, it was THAT Andrew Jackson

Information Wanted
Of PATRICK FITZGERALD, a native of Ownscoil, county Kerry, who came to America about three years ago, leaving his wife and one child in Ireland.  He was seem in Boston 3 weeks ago.  Any information respecting his hereabouts at present will be thankfully received by his wife, Bridget, who has lately arrived in Boston in search of him....  July 14, 1849, Boston Pilot.

MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE - LEFT his lodgings a short time since, a young man of rather prepossessing appearance, dark eyes and florid complexion, hair dark brown and inclined to curl. When last seen he was dressed in a broadcloth coat, peppered breeches, and silk hat.  Any information concerning him, left either at the Granite hotel, Lester place, or at this office, will be thankfully received.
P.S. A very curious kind of written poem has been found in his room in his own handwriting.  I should be obliged if some of our best critics would call and examine this queer poem.

One type of ad still popular today in alternative papers, is the personal, which Sherlock Holmes lovingly referred to as the "agony column."

J.A.R. - SARCASM AND INDIFFERENCE HAVE driven me from you.  I sail in next steamer for Europe.  Shall I purchase tickets for two, or do you prefer to remain to wound some other loving heart?  Answer quick, or all is lost.  EMELIE.  1865.

ROSE -IT IS USELESS - YOU ARE TOO LOVELY TO be trifled with.  I am married.  BENEDICT.

A YOUNG LADY, COUNTRY BRED, BUT EASILY tamed and civilized, would like to correspond with a city gentleman, with a view to matrimony.  It is necessary for him to be wealthy, and not less than forty years of age, as she would "rather be an old man's darling than a young man's slave."  The advertiser is 21, and presumes her manners and apparance will recommend her to tastes not over fastidious... 1861.

NIBLO'S, MONDAY EVENING -- OCCUPIED Adjoining seats in parquet; repeated pressure of arm and foot and hands met when seperating.  If agreeable, address Bruno... 1867.

And then there is that old favorite, the want ad.

At the Bennington Cotton Factory,
SEVERAL FAMILIES     that can furnish a number of children each.  To such constant employ will be given, and wages paid according to the ability of the children....1821, Vermont Gazette.

WANTED, A YOUNG HEALTHY WET NURSE.  One who has had the smallpox will be most agreeable... 1765, Georgia Gazette.

One mandolin, with all its strings, dulcet tone for basket of vegetables.  - December 1835.

Now, that last one is tragic.  But don't you wish you could read all those stories? Or write them?

12 December 2012

Cold War Berlin: A Whiter Shade of Pale

by David Edgerley Gates

David Morrell's forthcoming new thriller, MURDER AS A FINE ART, takes place in Victorian London, and he remarks that his research and the writing itself so completely immersed him in the time and place that it became more real to him than the contemporary, so-called 'real' world. Anybody who's ever written period stories, whether in the distant past or more recent history, can relate. The language you use changes from modern usage– not so much "prithee, sirrah," as perhaps word order– and even the thoughts of your characters are different, because their view of themselves and the world are different from the present day. The easiest trap to fall into is anachronism, a modern viewpoint bleeding into the past, which could be something as simple as cause and effect: we know the Black Death was caused by a bacillus; the people it killed thought it was the hand of God. Specific details are simpler, as in, when did Lucky Strikes go to war? 1942, as it happens.

In both the bounty hunter stories, which take place in the years just before America's entry into World War I, and the Mickey Counihan stories, which take place immediately after World War II, I've found myself slipping into a habit of mind, not so much a slavish devotion to accuracy ('the smell of the lamp') as a mental device, or discipline, trying to think my way into the characters' heads, which is more than just the correct vocabulary. It's time travel.

I've had a much different experience e-formatting my Cold War spy novel, BLACK TRAFFIC, for upload to my website. I hadn't actually taken a close look at the book in over a year, so it came as a surprise to me how evocative, to my mind, the story-telling is, an era and a city that might as well be as distant and foreign as the Mexican Revolution, or postwar New York. It's time travel, but into living memory. The book takes place in Berlin, in the mid to late 60's, and I was in fact there. Much of BLACK TRAFFIC is based on my personal experience of both Berlin and the spook trade of the times. In other words, it's firsthand recollection, and the problem, often, wasn't a lack of specificity, but too much, an overwhelming flood of significant detail. How to pick and choose? Memory is a chancy thing, an unreliable guide to history. I found I second-guessed myself a lot, was such-and-such a thing for real, or something my subconscious overheard, a trick of the mind's eye? Authentic reconstruction is a false hope.

So what I was left with, after filtering out the generic and over-familiar, while keeping the untidy and simply bizarre---the story of the would-be U.S. defector to the Russians returning to West Berlin to feed his cat is based on fact, for example---was still an indigestible stew, underdone and lumpy, needing better seasoning and more time in the pot (which was true of the book as a whole), but in the end, I could only follow my own likes, and forgetting caution, there were a couple of things I cherished too much to discard.

Berlin had a soundtrack in those years, Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale." Actually, you heard it all over Europe in the spring and summer of '67, but I always associated it most closely with Berlin, and so did a lot of Berliners. It remains an anthem, even today, for that certain generation, both triumphal and melancholy. Why that particular theme song? I've got no idea. Germans can be a sentimental lot.

The other totemic association I have with Berlin is currywurst. All over town there were food stalls set up in the street, and wurst stands were the most popular. You got brats or a knock with potato salad and a hard roll, with a dab of mustard on the side, on a paper plate. The odder iteration was currywurst. Basically pork sausage slathered in ketchup mixed with curry powder, and served with French fries. An acquired taste, as you might imagine, but once acquired, not forgotten.

I saw a recent news article saying that landmarks which had been inaccessible when the Wall was up, the Brandenburg Gate, for instance, were now overrun with people, both native Berliners and a raft of tourists, and of course they were teeming with so-called Schnell-Imbiss, fast food. A new wrinkle is that they aren't even stalls, but guys with a hot-top rigged up to a shoulder harness, so they can work the crowd, and your wurst comes to you, not the other way around. Interestingly enough, this has generated some political controversy---not the serving method, but the perceived disrespect of public monuments. It's just part of the urban scene, in my opinion, but the politics of Left and Right in Germany often fixate on irrelevancies. The presence of all that cheap food is is seen as an insult to the historic significance of these symbolic places.

Germans are often accused of wanting to conveniently erase or reinvent the uglier passages of their own history, not just Hitler, say, but the Soviet occupation of the East, and the reinterpretations have a definite bias, Liberal or Conservative, depending on your sympathies. In other words, which history, and who appropriates it. Symbols mirror desired meanings, old wine in new bottles. It seems odd to me that currywurst has fallen afoul of politics and now wears a badge of dishonor, in some quarters. It's only sausage links and tomato paste, after all, and has no dog in the fight, so to speak. Then again, one man's relish is another man's distaste.

11 December 2012

The Dark Valley of Unpublished Stories

As I have mentioned in earlier postings, I have a few unpublished stories concealed in my trusty desk.  It's not important how many; we're not bean counters, right?  No, we're writers, artists of the highest order, sensitive people who see the world a little...oh, alright then, more than ten, but less than fifty.  How's that?  And yeah, a couple of novels stuck in a drawer somewhere.  You happy now?  Sheesh!

Sometimes, when I've run out of writing ideas, I take a little walk down memory lane and enter the valley of unpublished stories.  It's usually twilight in the valley and a little misty.  The path, overgrown and difficult to follow, threads its way through years of literary endeavor; an elephants' graveyard of lofty aspirations.  Here and there, nearly hidden in the undergrowth, headstones lean drunkenly, lichen covered and barely discernible.  Approaching with a mixture of dread and nostalgia, I wind my way through their titles: Anti-Intruder, Wisdom (I must have been channeling De Maupassant when I picked that title), Green Messiah, The Writer's Wife, The Book of Yaroes, etc...   All so young...so beautiful...and they never had a chance.  What a loss to the world, I cry.

Then, when I'm feeling especially foolish, I'll dig one up and flip through a few pages.  That's when I get the cold water in the face and couple of sharp, stinging slaps for good measure.  Not every time, mind you, but a lot.  So I get a little flushed and ask myself, "You did not submit this...did you?  What were you thinking?  Your writing sucks, dude!"  Said walk through the valley comes to a screeching halt and I get busy with the old shovel and spade.

They're not all bad, of course, and some show a little promise--some more than others.  But they all offer a few lessons in writing, as well as illustrating a little personal history.  It's a bit like thumbing through the high school year book--yeah, that's you alright...but not anymore, Sonny Jim, not anymore.  My choice of subjects is revealing in terms of where I was in my life at that time.  Happily, my efforts appear to improve as they march through the years.  Two reasons occur to me for this: Firstly, practice makes perfect--my craftsmanship improved with repetition, as well as a lot of trial and error.  Secondly, I hesitate to say I've grown wiser, but I've certainly matured since I began, and the writing shows it, I like to think.

One thing that I notice is that in the earliest stories I relied more on atmosphere and a sense of place than I do now.  They were more like walk-through paintings, murals, perhaps--action and dialogue were clearly aspects of story-telling with which I was less comfortable.  As the years passed it became evident that my confidence in those areas improved, though I still approach dialogue with trepidation--sometimes it flows well, and at others it's a struggle.  I hear that I am not alone in this.

Writing action sequences has become one of my favorite things to do now.  It seems the easiest to me, which is probably why I like it--you don't have much dialogue to worry about, the setting is generally already established, and it's a great way to reveal aspects of the characters without a lot of obvious narration. 

My stroll through the graveyard of stories reveals that I have almost consistently avoided use of first-person.  It seems that, from my earliest days as a writer, I have side-stepped this convention, in spite of the fact that some of my favorite stories are told in exactly this way.  I have no explanation for this.  Perhaps some psychological insight might be contained in this observation, if only I had the psychological insight to do so.  Writer, know thyself.  Or is it better not to?  Do we become too mannered the more self-aware and, possibly, self-conscious that we become?  Or is it liberating in the sense of making one comfortable enough, and confident enough, to make the most of one's own talent and experiences?  I am of two minds on this subject, as I am on so many when it comes to writing.  Mostly, I just want to write, and write real good, without having to work too hard at it or know myself uncomfortably well.  This seems funner to me.

But the revenants in the Valley of Unpublished Stories seem to say otherwise.  "Go thou from this vale of tears," they command.  "Go dwell in the sunlight amongst your progeny...and work, work, damn you, so that this sad place will have no further interments.  We are your victims, do not increase our number--even if it means that you work like a dog and have less time for drinking than you'd like!  Learn from us and never, ever, repeat the mistakes that brought us to this forsaken place.  And, oh yeah, on you way out close the gate behind you and pick up that candy wrapper--that wasn't here before."

I not only close the gate, I put a padlock on it.      


10 December 2012

Worse than Rejection

Sleuth Sayers have addressed the subject of rejection several times in the past.  It’s painful, and even the most successful authors have been (and are) rejected (and dejected) at times during their writing careers. 

Personally, I’ve been blessed with a fairly easy road to publication.  I began submitting magazine features while still in my teens, and most of them were accepted.  The ones that weren’t brought encouraging letters rather than form dismissals.  When I completed the first Callie Parrish mystery, I found an excellent New York agent who was able to place that book with the Berkley division of Penguin in a great deal with an advance and contract for two additional books, but I’ve recently begun writing and submitting an occasional short story.  Rejection HURTS!

             Rejection has been dealt with very well in SS, however, so today I’ll focus on an issue that’s just as excruciating at times—reviews.  My present publisher for the Callie books is wonderful, and the publisher of my pen-name efforts is almost as accommodating, but neither can protect me from that curse of the Internet—the occasional bad review.

Most of Callie’s reviews are and have been positive. She’s a little extreme, her vocation is unusual, and her friend Jane is atypical.  What this means is that most readers either like her or hate her and thankfully, those who hate her don’t usually bother to post reviews, but some do.  When I read the reviews from those who love Callie, I want to seek them out and give them all great big hugs.  When I’m interviewed on radio or television and the interrogators obviously like Callie, I want to take them home and cook them a fine southern dinner (and then hug them).

Recently, I Googled myself and read reviews going back to the first Callie in 2007.  Most of them made me think warm, fuzzy thoughts.  Those who bad-mouthed me, my writing, or my characters, did, however, create in me a strong urge for reaction. If the criticism was constructive, it made me consider changes. If not, it made me want to respond.  I don’t want to harm them, but I feel compelled to ANSWER them!

Prior to suggesting how to handle that feeling, I want to share two negative reviews with you as well as what I would say if I were foolish enough to try to answer them,

My favorite (or should I say least favorite?) bad review of all time:

I don’t read books about or by stupid, uneducated people. 

My response to that is, “Are you insulting the University of South Carolina where Callie received her BA in Education or me personally or the universities where I earned two Master’s degrees?”  Then I read the next part. 

I hated the first book, and I didn’t like the second one either (Hey Diddle, Diddle, the
Corpse & the Fiddle.) 

My reaction:  “If you hated the first one, why did you buy and/or read the second in the
 series?  If ‘stupid’ were a word I used, I’d say it describes those actions.”
The Reviewer

            My next least favorite review is over a page long and compares the Callie being reviewed to the second and third books in this series.  Actually, at that time, the new one was the third. (Gross error tends to discredit opinions.) It continues by saying that Jane feels entitled because she’s short, blonde and blind.  Jane is taller than Callie (5’4”) and a natural red head.  The only thing right in that sentence is that Jane is blind.  Callie talks too much. Callie books are first-person narrative.  If she doesn’t talk, there’s no book.  Same review says there are too many men in the series—Daddy, MANY brothers, TWO male bosses, and a former BF who is a Dr. @ the ER.  My response to that is to remind the reviewer that he/she (can’t tell from the initials) left out the sheriff, who is also male. Of course, the review mentions Callie’s use of “puh-leeze” and “ex-cuuze.”  I admit that was overdone in the first books, but I’ve toned it down recently. What I object to is that the reviewer accuses Callie of saying “looooooooooooooove” and a few other words that aren't stretched out in any Callie stories.

This same reviewer dislikes Callie barfing when she's frightened, then calls Callie a nauseating Southern belle.  The review closes with Get rid of Jane and the other problems in these books, and I might/could read another Callie Parrish mystery. 

How do I deal with a review like that?  Do I even want this person to read another Callie Parrish mystery?  I remember that I'm a professional and a lady.  I imagine myself purchasing  expensive linen stationery and responding through the mail in my finest cursive handwriting.  I've gone to great effort to locate the perfect clipart of that reply and you are welcomed to mentally mail this to anyone who deserves it.  Do remember that the message on this clip is directed ONLY to the above reviewer and not to other reviewers nor to SleuthSayer writers or readers.  Please scroll down to see that perfect clip.

Keep scrolling.

Keep scrolling.

Just a little more.

'Don't give up.

Keep scrolling.

Here it is: