13 October 2012


by John M. Floyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 October 2012

Developing the Series

by R.T. Lawton

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

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

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

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

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

"You got it ma'am."

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

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

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

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

11 October 2012

You Say Sensation, I Say Mystery...

by Eve Fisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 October 2012

CHARLES McCARRY: The Tears of Autumn

[A late-breaking rant—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

09 October 2012

Framing the Pitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

08 October 2012

Great Sentences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

07 October 2012

Crime Dairy

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

Return with us now to that nerve-curdling case…

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

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

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

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

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

"All the way from Monterey, Jack."

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

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

"Er, no sir. But a case in point…"

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

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

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

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

"Did you say bries and feta?"

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

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

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

06 October 2012

The Seven Original Plots

by Elizabeth Zelvin

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

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

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

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

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

Father Cassidy swallowed something besides plum cake.

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

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

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


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

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

“Another av the seven plots—excuse me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05 October 2012

What's the Objective?

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

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

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

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

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

The Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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

04 October 2012

What's in Your Name That Defines You?

by Deborah Elliott-Upton

Whether we like it or not, we are labeled everyday by strangers making immediate impressions of who we are by how we look, act and react to what happens to us in this world. We can't often make them love us or even like us and maybe it doesn't even matter in the big scheme of things. After all, they are strangers. But, it was people who loved us who saddled us with the lasting impression our names label us with when we are out there meeting the world.

Most writers have skimmed through a book of baby names when we can't find the perfect one for one of our characters. I own several of these books and have scoured the Internet for names popular in particular decades where my stories take place. It really helps to nail down the right name for the people populating our stories.

My mother chose the name, Deborah, for me in honor of her Native American best friend who had been adopted at an older age. Her new parents told her she could choose any name she wanted. She chose Deborah and so did my mom. (By the way, at the hospital I was born that night five other girls were born. Every one of them were named either Deborah, Debra or Debbie.)

According to the baby names books, Deborah means "bee". I'm thinking this is an appropriate name for me since I have a problem sitting still. Mom said even as a baby, I was a mover and shaker. Bees are known for being busy.

In this world of hurry, scurry and way too much worrying, I am stepping back and taking stock. Priorities need to be set, scheduled free time needs to be found. As I am doing this mentally, I realize this is another form of busy work, but work that needs to be finished.

I think I would enjoy being a Pooh for a time. But, for only a short time. I wouldn't be happy sitting back and eating honey all the time.

Does your name suit you or did a nickname decipher your personality better? Is a Deborah the same person in your mind as a Debra or a Debbie, Debby or Dee?

What about your favorite character?

Wasn't it interesting in the Indiana Jones movie with Sean Connery as Indy's dad letting us know Indiana wasn't his son's real name. "We called the dog Indiana," Connery growled.

Would Sam Spade have been as hard-edged if his named had been Ted?

Could a girl named Anne be as hard and fiery as a Scarlett?

As Shakespeare stated, a rose is a rose is a rose.

But, I think if Juliet had been a Carrie, she would have been a different character altogether.

By the way, I named my daughter Melissa which means "honey bee." She is so much sweeter than me.

03 October 2012


by Robert Lopresti

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned in this very spot that I had an idea for a story about blackmail, but the idea refused to resolve itself into a plot.  I spent many hours riding around on my bike, the PlotCycle (TM), pondering the little seed but it has still refused to germinate into a full-blown story.  It was like I had a pile of flesh and no skeleton to hang it on.

But something peculiar happened last week.

I was reading someone else's story -- in fact, it was "The General," by our own Janice Law in Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance.  A fine story it is, by the way, and I recommend it.

But my point is that a few pages in I suspected I knew how the story was going to turn out.  And, of course, I was completely wrong.  Which is fine; I like surprises.

However, by the time Janice had finished unwinding her story, I had unwound mine.  I had the entire plot for a story in my head.  Usually when I get an idea for a story I just jot it down in my pocket notebook, but I felt so strongly about this one that I hurried over to my computer, poked the hamster to start spinning the hard drive, and wrote an outline.  I even wrote the gutwrenching last paragraphs (oh, you'll weep.  Trust me.)  Now all I need is time to write the damned thing.

From original concept to fully developed plot: less than an hour.

Meanwhile, remember my blackmail story?

From original concept to fully developed plot: more than a month and still an unfinished mess.

Which leads me to my thesis statement: The human mind is one peculiar vegetable.

02 October 2012

The Thirteenth Child, or, It's Alive! Part Two

As I warned in "It's Alive" Part One, if my horror novel actually made it to press, you would hear from me about it. Well, come October 5th, The Thirteenth Child will be ushered into the light of day. My days at the hands of a cruel and callous developmental editor are at an end!

He had his say… oh yes indeed, he had his say! His perverse delight at savaging my work was evidenced on page after page of my manuscript. His "notes," as he referred to them, full of delight at every perceived deviation in story logic, every imagined run-on sentence. Not content with these, he trod heavily upon my golden prose, stamping out similes and metaphors inspired by the gods themselves; descriptions so colorful and vaulting in their imagination that he could only have been driven by envy! Oh yes… he had his say!

My book… my wonderful book lay in tatters when he had done. My publisher, Steven Booth of Genius Book Publishing, was deaf to my cries of outrage. Instead, he urged me to get on with it, and hung up the phone. Even Robin, my wife of thirty-four years, appeared indifferent to the many wrongs I had suffered. As I said in the previous posting, she never showed any real enthusiasm for my horror novel. She too, I perceived, was part of the problem.

I hid in my room with the curtains drawn and refused to come down. Robin, it would appear, has a busy social schedule, and was in and out of the house. After a few days, she stopped asking me to join her for meals, or a morning at the beach. She went to wineries and restaurants with our so-called friends, their laughter drifting back to me as they drove away. No one cared. Time passed.

One day, I don't know which as I had lost track of such things, I scratched at my growing beard and glanced over at the odious "notes." I fingered a few pages loose from the stack. They came away smudged; it had been awhile since I had thought to bathe. No matter… I was all by myself in this world. I read a few paragraphs, then flung them down again. Blasphemy!

Sitting in the dim room, I selected just a few of them… the least unreasonable suggestions, and studied them once more. Perhaps… just perhaps, one or two slight alterations might not damage my work overly much. Besides, I had to throw some kind of bone to my surprisingly intractable publisher. One or two little alterations might not hurt.

I did it. Then I read the affected pages. Not bad… not too bad. He might have been on to something with those after all. I tried a few others. The results there weren't completely awful either. Those passages read a little better, maybe… but just a little. I went on.

It was like a fever. Now that I had started, I couldn't seem to stop. Tearing through page after page, I went to work on my novel, stripping it down to the bare essentials, trimming the fat… it was addictive. I began to laugh as my fingers tore across the keyboard. Someone pounded on the locked door, I thought I heard Robin's voice calling, "David… honey? Are you all right in there? What are you laughing at, sweetheart? You're scaring me!" I ignored her and went on… and on… and on.

A month later, I was suddenly done. I read the book one last time. Cautiously satisfied, I sent it on to Steven. A few days later, he responded, "It's on… The Thirteenth Child is on for October 5th." I started to laugh again, to laugh long and hard, but Steven interrupted, "Knock that stuff off! Go get a shower and shave and stop scaring people… and tell Robin you're sorry for being such a jerk!"

So October 5th, it is. I hope that you give either the paperback or ebook version a shot. I don't think you'll regret it, even if you're not a horror fan per se, as The Thirteenth Child also has a bit of police procedural woven into it. It's not a gore-fest, but it is scary, and features a unique (if I do say so myself) antagonist in the character of Gabriel. And it's just in time for Hallowe'en which is when the climax of the book occurs. A perfect read for the season. Marvelous Christmas gift, as well.

Since the rewrites, I've showered and shaved, as Steven suggested, and come down from my room. Our dog has stopped barking at me, and Robin and I are on speaking terms again. Though sometimes I find her watching me from the corner of her eyes. No matter. She may think me mad, but no matter. All that's important is the book… it's alive, you know… oh yes… it's still alive!

01 October 2012

To Kill or Not to Kill: My Personal Story

Recently, I began going through my deceased mother's personal belongings. Among newspaper clippings and all of my report cards back to preschool, I found she'd saved print copies of numerous Internet articles and several guest blogs I did before I discovered Criminal Brief and was later invited to become a SleuthSayer.

Today, I'm reprinting a blog that appeared on Murderous Musings,
Sunday, June 11, 2008, including the introduction and an afterword.


We cap off the opening week of Murderous Musings with some thoughts from Guest Blogger Fran Rizer, author of the Callie Parrish Mystery Series for Berkley Prime Crime. Fran obviously has a morbid (make that mortuary) sense of humor. That she is a retired public school teacher may seem obvious from her nursery-rhymish titles. The first book was A Tisket, a Tasket, a Fancy, Stolen Casket. The second will be Hey, Diddle, Diddle, the Corpse & the Fiddle.

Fran has written for magazines, won photography awards, co-authored scientific nature studies for Clemson University, and is a published, recorded songwriter, A Murderous welcome to Fran Rizer.


Lizzie Borde
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who loved that rhyme. I was that child. My fascination and delight with this poetic effort revealed my interest in murder at a very tender age. I read avidly about Lizzie, Jack the Ripper, the Boston Strangler, Ted Bundy, and, of course, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood killers.

Then I saw Susan Smith on television begging for the safe return of her children. She lived only about an hour's drive from my home. I doubted her sincerity but was still horrified when she confessed.

Susan Smith made me aware that my intrigue with murder isn't the act itself. My attraction is entertaining reading. It's not murder I like; it's reading about it. In my earlier years, I'd devoured true accounts, but because of their distance in time and place, those words had seemed like reading fiction.

That was a relief. It's easier to confess, "I love reading murder mysteries," than, "I love killing."
Susan Smith, 1994

Having read this week's initial blogs and feeling honored to be a guest on Murderous Musing, I wanted to address my personal thoughts on murder first and close with a few words about another favorite topic of mine: research.


I always knew that if I lived long enough, someday I would write a novel and it would be a murder mystery. I also realized that many people are tired of the horrific news on CNN and that real murder is tragic and heart-breaking. When I retired from teaching, I decided to take a light-hearted approach to my first murder mystery. That's how the Callie Parrish Mystery Series was born and I was tagged the writer who put "fun into funerals."

Asked why my books are southern-based, I tend to answer, "Because you write what you know, and that's what I know." That's partly true, but I also write about murders and mortuaries, and I've never killed anyone, personally known a murder victim, nor worked in a funeral home. I used to tell my students, "Write what you know, and if you want to write about something you don't know, research it!"

A couple of years ago, at the visitation for my uncle's funeral in Aiken, SC, I began chatting with an employee who'd recently graduated from mortuary school. I asked a simple question about casket locking mechanisms, and he invited me downstairs to see for myself.

He showed me how to lock and unlock different models. I asked, and he answered a thousand questions. Well, at least a hundred. I confess I also checked out the difference in linings and the mattresses. When we finally returned to the visitation upstairs, I found my family frantically searching for me.

"Where were you this time?" my son asked.

"Researching for the book,"I replied.

When the first book was completed, I sent it on its merry way to New York where I was fortunate enough to get a great agent who got me a deal with Berkey Prime Crime. The third Callie Parrish book will be issued in October, 2008,

Recently, a cousin called me from Augusta, Georgia. "I went to a funeral today," she began.

"Who died?" I asked.

"Nobody you know, but I was telling a friend that my cousin writes books that take place in a funeral home. This good-looking man asked if you were from Columbia and then proudly announced that he'd taken you on a tour of the funeral home where he used to work. He wants to know where your next book signing will be."

As much as I appreciate the opportunity to blog as a guest on Murderous Musings, I need to hit the road. I'm headed to Georgia on a research trip!


A lot has changed since 2008. The second, third, and fourth Callie books have been published, and I'm on a first-name basis with undertakers at several funeral homes who have no problem answering whatever weird questions I call and ask them.

My friend, Linda
The major change, however, is about my best friend, Linda. A few of you already know about her. She was two years younger than I and the daughter of my mother's best friend. We had matching Easter dresses when we were little, and one year, we received identical gorgeous dolls from Santa. We each married our childhood sweethearts two weeks apart and bought houses next door to each other. We celebrated the births of our children together and comforted each other when our marriages ended in divorce. We double-dated both before our marriages and after our divorces. Linda was Callie Parrish's number one fan, not the kind Stephen King wrote about in MISERY, but the kind who organized a fan club that met me at book signings carrying big "Fran Rizer Fan Club, We Love Callie" signs and wearing black, sequin-accented mourning veils she made.

On the last Friday in January, 2009, Linda and I went shopping that morning. That night, we went to dinner with Cal and Dennis. She went home early because she had an all-day church meeting on Saturday. I called her several times Saturday. Her car wasn't at her house, and I assumed she'd gone out with some of the others from the meeting.

Cal and I kept calling. When there was no answer by nine that night, he called her son-in-law, who entered the house and found Linda's body. She'd been beaten to death the night before during a home robbery. She'd retired from her state job only sixty days before; she'd raised her daughter as a single mother; and her house needed repairs, but she spent most of her money on her three grandchildren. What in the hell did the monster think she'd have that was worth stealing? I won't go into details except to say that I helped clean the house including removing what seemed like a ton of black fingerprint dust. Her burned car was found not very far away, and the amethyst and diamond ring she'd traded her wedding rings in for after her divorce was recovered from a pawn shop.

Well-written murder can be entertaining. In reality, murder is perpetual hell with survivors doomed to wonder every day: When did she know he was in the house? How scared was she? How much pain did she endure physically and mentally?

I vowed not to ever write another murder. I did, however, allow what I'd already written to be published.

My mother, Willene
On April 25, 2012, my mother died in my arms after five months of constant agony, infection, and complications from hip surgery. How could I even consider ever writing another Callie mystery which, according to some reviewers, "put the fun in funerals"?

Not a day passes that I don't think about my mother and Linda. Not a day passes that I don't remember the many wonderful times with each of them--including watching my mother read the Callie books with her big magnifying glass and finding Linda's optimistic stash of black sequined veils in her closet when we cleaned out her house.

I couldn't write fiction from November until a month ago. The thriller written long ago found a home under a pen name after Linda's death, but I decided there would be no more Callies.

There's an old song– "Time Changes Everything." Maybe so. Or maybe I remembered how much Linda and Mama loved Callie, but when my publisher called and asked when the next one would be available, I told him the end of November and started writing. Callie books average 80,000 words. I'm 60,000 words into the rough draft of Mother Hubbard Has A CORPSE IN THE CUPBOARD. I can no longer say, "I haven't killed anyone...lately" because I've killed two recently. I don't think blunt force trauma will ever return to my writing, but apparently I can still shoot fictional characters.

Gotta go now. I have another book to finish.

Until we meet again… take care of   YOU!