19 March 2013

Doyle When He Nodded


by Terence Faherty

First I'd like to echo Brian Thornton by thanking the other contributors to SleuthSayers for their warm welcome. I'd especially like to thank Robert Lopresti for inviting me to give this a try and Dale Andrews, who's alternating with me on Tuesdays, for the generous plug he gave me in his most recent post.

For my first post, I thought I'd write about one of my mystery writing heroes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and about one of his most interesting characteristics (from a writer's point of view): his carelessness.

Even casual readers of Doyle's immortal Sherlock Holmes stories have probably noted one egregious example of this carelessness, namely Watson's mobile bullet wound, which unaccountably shifts from his shoulder to his leg. Well, you might be thinking, in a long series of stories (there are fifty-six Holmes short stories and four longer ones), a writer is apt to get a detail of a character's backstory wrong. But Watson's wound made its famous migration sometime between the first tale, A Study in Scarlet, and the second, The Sign of Four. Not a good omen for the future, though a telling one.

I'll cite just a couple more examples I've come across recently. In "The Copper Beeches," a young governess arrives at 221B for a morning meeting, stays about twenty minutes, and bids Holmes and Watson "good-night" as she leaves. In "The Man with the Twisted Lip," Watson's wife refers to him as James, though his given name was John. Speaking of the doctor's wife, the reports of her death seem to have been greatly exaggerated, as she returns from the grave from time to time. Or was there a second Mrs. Watson? Or half a dozen?

Dorothy L. Sayers, another of my favorites, once wrote a scholarly essay that attempted to straighten out the date problems in "The Red-Headed League." She focused on four issues, one of which might be called "The Mystery of the Missing Summer." The story is set in October of 1890 but a character refers to an April newspaper article as having appeared "just two months ago." What, as current scholars might phrase the question, is up with that?

I find two features of Doyle's carelessness particularly intriguing. The first is its endurance. Okay, so Doyle wrote quickly and didn't get much help from his editors at the Strand Magazine. But who was minding the store when the stories were collected in book form? Buy any new edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes today and in "The Man with the Twisted Lip," Watson's wife will still get his first name wrong. October 9, 1890 will still be called a Saturday in "The Red-Headed League" when it was in fact a Thursday. It's as though Doyle carved his first drafts in stone.
 
Even late in his long life, by which time Sir Arthur must have known that the tossed-off Holmes tales were going to outlive his more serious literary efforts, he didn't clean up after himself, though by then he must have received hundreds of letters from helpful or confused readers. By then, too, pioneering Sherlockian scholars had published essays on all aspects of the Holmes tales, including the puzzling problems.

Doyle might have recognized in this correspondence and in the critical literature an unlooked-for benefit from his mistakes. I find this benefit to be the second intriguing characteristic of Doyle's carelessness: its appeal. Far from turning readers off, it draws them in. It makes the Sherlock Holmes stories a particularly interactive form of fiction.

All fair play mysteries are interactive to the extent that readers are invited to solve the crime along with the detective, but the Sherlock Holmes stories take interaction to a whole new level. Like Dorothy Sayers, generations of writers, who presumably had better things to do (like dogs to walk and lawns to mow), have taken up their pens to try to reconcile or explain away Watson's two wives and the "long interview" in "The Copper Beeches" and so on. (One of Sayers' explanations for the date problems in "the Red-Headed League" was transcription errors caused by Watson's poor handwriting, perhaps the earliest argument against cursive.)

In the process, the Sherlockians scholars have created hours of enjoyment for readers who love the stories and maybe even helped the stories live on. It's enough to make an author cast a jaundiced eye on writing-manual advice of the "revise endlessly" variety. A little carelessness might actually be good for the soul of a work. To paraphrase Holmes himself, once you have eliminated actual spelling errors, whatever remains, however improbable, might be better left alone.

18 March 2013

no, No, NO!


by Fran Rizer

Here's a picture of my reaction to being told, "No."

Color that child's hair red and it could be a photo of a young Fran. My mom used to say she was glad I was an easy-going baby who didn't often need correction because I didn't like being told what to do. Now my hair is platinum blonde (okay, it's white), and I still don't especially like being bossed around.


Leigh's "Professional Tips: To Be or Not" on March 3, 2013, set me to thinking about writing rules, violations, and lots of other aspects of writing and teaching it. Does anyone remember e e cummings? That poet who refused to use capitalization or punctuation was my first encounter with writers who intentionally break the rules.

About the Letter "E"

In 1939, Ernest Vincent Wright published Gadsby: Champion of Youth, a 50,110-word novel without a single "e" (apparently his name was exempt). In 1969, Georges Peree produced La Disparition, which omitted all "e's" in both the original French and the English translation, A Void.

That intrigued me so much that I thought about trying it with something I'd written. Being too lazy to seek something to translate to Non-E-Lish, I tried it with the opening of this blog:

Original Line: Here's a picture of my reaction to being told , "No."

Same Thought, Written Without 'E's: This photo shows how I look if I'm told, "No."

Original Paragraph: Color that child's hair red and it could be a photo of a young Fran. My mom used to say she was glad I was an easy-going baby who didn't often need correction because I didn't like being told what to do. Now my hair is platinum blonde (okay, it's white) and I still don't especially like being bossed around.

Same Thoughts, No E's: Color that child's hair titian and that photo could stand for a young Fran. My mom always said, "I'm glad my child was a good kid who didn't command lots of modification, as Fran couldn't stand disapproving words." Now my hair is so light that it's platinum (okay, it's bright as snow) and I still don't allow anybody to boss this old gal around.

That wasn't so difficult. Try it yourself, but please don't cheat and write the original with the conversion in mind or change any words in the original to make it easier.
I'm going to move on now because all the E's gathered around my keyboard are beginning to threaten me. One has even vowed to set my computer on fire if I don't let them back in.


About Verbs

In 2004, Michel Thaler wrote Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train from Nowhere.) This 233-page novel has plot, character, and action, but not a single verb! Thaler says, "The verb is like a weed in a field of flowers. You have to get rid of it to allow the flowers to grow and flourish. Take away the verbs and the language speaks for itself." I would have preferred to read that statement minus the verbs and see if the same message was delivered.

Leigh told us about those who want to abandon the verb "to be." Thaler took that to the extreme, but let's take a look at that nasty old verb. First, I've dealt with adults in writers' groups who weren't quite sure exactly which words are forms of the verb "to be."

So here's a reminder though I'm sure none of us need it:

ENGLISH CONJUGATION OF THE VERB "to be"

Grammatical conjugation of a verb requires making a systematic list of all forms of the verb for each person, number, and tense. The verb "to be" is the most irregular verb in English. The simple conjugation of the verb to be is as follows:

Conjugations
• Infinitive: be
• Present Participle: being
• Past participle: been
• Future: will (or shall) be
Person,Number
Present Past
• 1st, singularIamwas
• 2nd, singularyouarewere
• 3rd, singularhe/she/itiswas
• 1st, pluralwearewere
• 2nd, pluralyouarewere
• 3rd, pluraltheyarewere

If you narrow those red words down by deleting repetitions, there are only eight of them: be, being, been, am, are, is, was, and were. Twice I've been in writers' groups with PASSIVE VOICE FREAKS. PVF's are people who go through other authors' sample manuscript pages and circle every one of those eight words and write PASSIVE VOICE and an ugly frowny face over them. The PVF's then look up with an expression that's uglier than the frowny face and makes me want to slap them, which I don't do because, as I've told you before, I am a sweet old southern lady.

Leigh wrote, "In particular, most advocates of removing most or all forms of the verb 'to be' point out it virtually eliminates passive voice."

Personally, I'd prefer the PVF's learn to correctly identify as passive only the structures where the verb "to be" is used as an auxiliary (known as "helping" until third grade) verb making the subject of the predicate the receiver of the action opposed to the giver of the action.

Example:
• The gun was fired by Fran who was ticked off by the PVF.
"Was fired" is passive as is "was ticked off" which makes this doubly less effective than the active:
• Fran fired the gun at the PVF who had pi _ _ ed her off.

Uh-oh! My samples are politically incorrect with the current gun issues in America. Please change "gun was fired" to "knife was thrown" and change "fired the gun" to "threw the knife."

Most of the time forms of "to be" are used as linking verbs showing condition or existence of the subject. If they were good enough for Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Jeffrey Deaver, and Harlan Coben, they're good enough for me.

My apologies if this turned into an elementary school English lesson. I started out aiming to tell you how I feel about some of the rules for writers, so I'll finish up this way:


Rules for Writers and How I Use Them

Even if lightning strikes the protatonist in the first chapter, I NEVER OPEN A BOOK WITH THE WEATHER--unless it's really important!

I NEVER write PROLOGUES--unless they're necessary!

I ALWAYS use "SAID" to carry dialogue--unless scream, moan, or whisper works better!

I ABSOLUTELY, REALLY, HARDLY ever use adverbs!

I'd run away like a greased pig at the county fair before I'd write regionally!

I avoid detailed descriptions of my characters, but my readers WANT TO KNOW about Callie's underwear!!!.

I NEVER use exclamation points because the rule says, "sparingly, no more than two or three per 100,000 words," and my books average 85,000 words, so I never get to use one.


I DO, HOWEVER, ADHERE TO THE "DOWN AND UP" RULE:


Write it DOWN, then clean it UP!




What about you? Do you have any rules you obey or any you ignore? What bothers you about rules for writers?


Until we meet again, take care of… YOU!

17 March 2013

Women in Mystery Month


by Emma Pulitzer
My guest today is Emma Pulitzer of Open Road Integrated Media. She celebrates Women in Mystery this Women's History Month, publishing works both new and old.
— Leigh
Historically, writing has been one of the few professions that have largely accepted women into its professional ranks. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Caroline Keene and dozens of other multiple-best-selling female authors have placed high on Must Read Mystery lists over the last century.   This year, we are taking a new look at women writers who have taken on “unlady-like” stories and characters. From Charlotte MacLeod’s murderous mayhem to Dorothy Uhnak’s tough-talking lady cops, the last hundred years have seen women fight crime, dig up clues, and chase bad guys at the same pace as their male peers. Here’s my list of 5 Women Mystery Authors to celebrate:

Patricia Wentworth Patricia Wentworth helped challenge society’s perception of the “stay-at-home woman” with her Miss Silver mysteries. Similar to the author, Miss Silver is an unassuming detective, because of her age and gender and expectations of women at the time. Despite this, she proves that, more often than not, she is able to find clues that even the most astute police officers overlook. Not only did Wentworth upend stereotypes of women with characters like Miss Silver, but her popularity in mystery fiction also helped advance women writers during the early 20th century.

Although she was always described as a “true lady” (she was never seen without her dainty white gloves), Charlotte MacLeod was a force to reckoned with. Born in 1922 in Canada, she moved to the United States at a young age, and eventually became a US citizen. During the 1940s and 1950s, while most women were expected to stay home and care for the kids or work as a secretary until marriage, MacLeod worked as a copy writer, then moved to join the staff of N. H. Miller & Company, an advertising firm, where she become vice president. During this time she wrote many mysteries, including the Peter Shandy series and the Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn series. Her books went on to sell over a million copies, and continue to be loved for their humor, wit, and beloved characters. Charlotte MacLeod

Dorothy Uhnak Dorothy Uhnak used her fourteen years as a policewoman with the New York City Transit Authority—twelve of which she spent as a detective—as inspiration for her gritty crime novels. Her heroic efforts protecting the city even gained her a bit of fame when she was in the news for taking down a mugger who held her at gunpoint. When she retired in 1967, she claimed she left the force because of criminal discrimination. Despite her change in careers, however, Uhnak continued to look at life through the eyes of a cop, and translated her experiences into a number of successful novels, including Law and Order, The Bait, and her memoir about her time as a law enforcer, Policewoman.

Even with her early success as a senior editor for Seventeen magazine, Susan Isaacs, a self-proclaimed feminist, yearned for work that felt more substantial and began to freelance as a political speechwriter. Isaacs notes that this job taught her one of the fundamentals of writing fiction: drawing out the characters. By observing politicians and understanding the messages they wanted to convey, she learned how to adapt her writing to their different styles. Later she transitioned into writing fiction, and her first novel, Compromising Positions, was an instant bestseller. Since achieving success as a fiction author, Isaacs still finds herself writing about politics, but in a much more sinister medium. Susan Isaacs

Susan Dunlap Susan Dunlap’s career as a mystery writer was inspired by two things: an Agatha Christie novel and a dare. While reading the mystery, she mentioned to her husband that she too could write a mystery novel. “Well go ahead then,” he responded, and to show him she meant business, she put paper in the typewriter and began to type. Five years and five manuscripts later, Karma sold. But being a writer (she has written over seventeen books) is only part of her story. She is one of the original co-founders and served as the president of Sisters in Crime (SinC), a national organization that promotes and supports women crime writers and helps them to achieve equality in the industry. Speaking about the organization, Dunlap says, “It is a vehicle that brings women together, and makes them realize that they don’t have to only read mysteries–they can write them too.”



SleuthSayers celebrate our own Women in Mystery: Deborah, Elizabeth, Eve, Fran, Jan, and Janice, as well as our friends over at Women of Mystery. They're damn good writers!

16 March 2013

Framed


by John M. Floyd

As you probably know, most of us at this blog like to read mysteries, write mysteries, and talk about mysteries. Why else would we call ourselves sleuthsayers, right?

Some of us occasionally enjoy reading and writing in other genres as well--fantasy, Western, sci-fi, romance, horror, etc. And sometimes even in that hard-to-describe-but-I-know-it-when-I-see-it category that's not a genre at all: literary.

At the time of this writing, I'm lucky enough to have short stories in the current issues of two publications: Woman's World (March 18, 2013) and The Saturday Evening Post (March/April 2013). They are vastly different markets, in content and format and just about everything else. WW is easy to find, has been around for a long time, and publishes 104 stories a year--one mystery and one romance every week. The Post is hard to find (I located a copy only yesterday of the issue that contains my story), has been around for a very long time, and publishes (I think) six pieces of fiction a year. And my two stories are as different as the two magazines. My 700-word WW mystery is a lighthearted whodunit with series characters, while my 2600-word SEP story deals with relationships, loss, and hope, and features a protagonist who "changes" as a result of what he sees and learns in the course of the story. By definition, I suppose the first one is genre and the second one is literary.

The thing I'd like to focus on, though, is that my SEP story follows a structure that I've always liked, and that I've occasionally found handy to use: it's a frame narrative.

Thinking inside the box

I think of frame stories as those that are told by one character to another, and that create a story within a story. The first (I'll call it the "wraparound") story is begun in the present, then takes the reader into the past, where the second (main) story is told--often in its entirety. I sometimes picture the second story as a really long flashback. When it finishes, the reader is brought back to the present, and the first story then ends as well.

In Stephen King's The Green Mile, the wraparound story involves the protagonist as an old man in a nursing home who tells his friend a long tale about a life-changing incident that happened to him as a young prison guard. The "main" story takes place sixty years in the past, and when it's completed the wraparound story picks up again, at the nursing home. By that time the reader, who has been "listening" to the narrative along with the friend, has now come to care deeply about the lead character as both a young man and an old man, and wants to hear "the rest of the story." In my opinion, framing the book in this way made it a more effective, satisfying, and memorable novel. It also allowed the writer to tell two stories in one, and to reveal a couple of big surprises at the end that were set up in the middle.

Other examples of novel-length frame stories are Wuthering HeightsFrankensteinEthan Frome, and The Princess Bride. Short stories that come to mind are Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" and Stephen King's "The Last Rung on the Ladder."

Fringe benefits

Another reason I think frame narratives can be successful is that they demonstrate the time-proven technique sometimes called a circular ending or a full-circle story. This happens when the story or novel or movie begins at a certain place or with a certain scene or event, and then ends either in that same physical location or with the characters performing that same activity. Why does this always seem to work well? Who knows. Maybe it goes back to the traditional "hero's journey" structure, where the protagonist leaves his familiar routine, embarks on his quest for adventure, confronts his enemies, and eventually returns--a now older and wiser person--to his routine. Or maybe it's because we as readers and viewers silently yearn for a sense of order and logic to our daily lives and endeavors, and (by extension) to the fictional stories that are supposed to be a metaphor for those lives. The circular ending just feels right.

Examples of these full-circle storylines: The Wizard of Oz (opens and closes with Dorothy at the farm), The Searchers (starts and ends with the view of Monument Valley through the open cabin door), To Kill a Mockingbird (Atticus Finch's house), Lonesome Dove (the town of Lonesome Dove, Texas), The Lord of the Rings (the Shire), Pulp Fiction (the same L.A. restaurant), Shane (the little boy watching the gunfighter approach/disappear in the distance), While You Were Sleeping (the train station), Escape From New York (Liberty Island), The Natural (starts with the little boy playing catch with his father, ends with the grown-up boy playing catch with his son), Forrest Gump (the white feather blowing in the wind), High Noon (Will Kane and his bride, standing together with the whole town watching), and many others. Not all stories that have circular endings are frame narratives, of course, but all framed narratives have--at least to some degree--circular endings.

When should a frame story be used?

Again, who can say? I suppose it should be used anytime it might add to the impact or clarity of the story. (Introducing a character as a narrator is effective even when "framing" isn't used.) Another way to look at this is to ask a related question: When should you use bookends? The answer might be "Use them whenever what they support can't stand up on its own." If a before-and-after story can "prop up" another story set in the past, the frame-narrative technique is probably a good option. Also, the project of course has to be long enough to be able to sustain a second storyline.

Over the nineteen years that I've been writing for publication, I've probably used frame stories a dozen or so times. In each case, I felt that it added depth to the story in a way that I couldn't accomplish otherwise--although a more talented writer might have been able to do it with a single storyline.

Have any of you used this approach with your own novels or short stories? Have you noticed or approved of its use in the fiction that you've read? Would you be willing to use it in future projects if you feel it might help?

I consider it just another item in my writer's toolbox, ready and waiting in case I need it. You can never have too many of those.

15 March 2013

The IDES Are Coming


by R.T. Lawton

Here we are, the 15th of March and it's a Friday. Ides was a term the old Romans used to mean "the middle of the month." Way back then under a different calendar, ides referred to the 15th day of the months of March, May, July and October. For the rest of the months, being shorter, their ides referred to the 13th day of those months.

There are those out there who are superstitious about the number 13 and those who consider the Ides of March to be an unlucky day. However, for an up and coming guy like Julius Caesar who scoffed at seers, soothsayers, fortune tellers and their like, it didn't make any difference to him if the ides fell on a 13th or a 15th. But, in hindsight, he couldn't say he hadn't been warned. TWICE.

In 49 BC, as Julius crossed that shallow river known as the Rubicon in northeastern Italy, an Etruscan haruspex (one who read sheep entrails for a living) by the name of Titus Spurinna, warned old Jules about the Ides of March. That was five years in advance of Julius' demise. Got no idea what high school guidance counselor recommended that up-to-your-elbows messy career to the Etruscan, but as it turned out, Titus sure found his calling when he predicted that one right. That was warning # 1.

Then later, in 44 BC as Julius went his merry way toward the Theater of Pompey, a site frequently used by the Roman Senate for meetings, he ran into a second seer who had also put out a warning. Caesar joked with this guy that the Ides of March had come and yet he was still here. Prophetically, the seer responded that yep the Ides had come, but they'd not yet gone. And we all know how that turned out.

So, maybe we should take a look at the Ides of March. Maybe it does have an unlucky omen to that day. Let's see if past history gives us a pattern of death, destruction and despair.

44 BC   A good place to start. Julius Caesar got shanked 23 times by 60 conspirators. The crowd of eager participants must've really been thick around Jules because it appears that 37 of them didn't get a chance to dip their daggers.

280 AD  Sun Hao of the Eastern Wu had to surrender to his enemies after losing all his battles. That was good for the upcoming Jin Dynasty, but not so good for Hao. Guess whether you believe that was a lucky or unlucky day depends upon which side you were on.

351 AD  Constantius II elevates his cousin Gallus to Caesar of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. Bad decision. Gallus subsequently plots to get rid of his benefactor. Not to make you paranoid, but it seems that no good deed goes unpunished.

933 AD  King Henry of Germany decides to break his truce with the Magyars, so he sends them a dead dog. If the Hungarians had employed the services of a good haruspex to read the dog's entrails, perhaps they'd have realized they were about to receive the pointy end of the sword.

1493 AD  Chris Columbus returns to Spain after his first trip to the Americas. He's all a blubber about the land he found. Look out Native Americans, a new real estate agent is coming to town.

1564 AD  Akbar the Great of India abolishes the per capita tax. The result was corruption and disgruntled revenue officers.Nice try Akbar, but the subject of taxes keeps coming up. More later.

1781 AD  General Cornwallis with 1,900 British troops defeats an American force of of 4,000 soldiers near present day Greensboro, South Carolina. Whatever happened to safety in numbers? Las Vegas odds makers would have lost their buckskin shirts on that one.

1888 AD  Start of the Anglo-Tibetan War. The Brits were trying to keep the sun from setting on their far flung empire, while the Tibets were angling to keep their tax revenue to themselves. There we go with tax money again. Anyway, it was another war and those events almost always turn out badly for one side or both.

1916 AD  President Wilson sends 4,800 troops under the command of General Black Jack Pershing over the Mexican Border to chase Pancho Villa. Jack never caught Pancho, but used the military experience in Mexico as prep for Wold War One. Pancho did not come out so good in the end. He got assassinated by his fellow countrymen and his skull was later stolen from his grave.

1917 AD  Tsar Nicholas II, ruler of all the Russias, abdicates his throne. If he thought he had his back against the wall at that point, he was a little premature on the schedule, but the Bolsheviks got around to taking care of that.

1931 AD  The S.S. Viking is off the coast of Newfoundland to get sensational filming of the annual seal bludgeoning when it gets stuck in the ice. Rocking the boat somehow sets off dynamite stored on board . 27 people die in the explosion. Wonder if that's where the old saying came from.

1939 AD  German troops occupy the last bits of Czechoslovakia which then ceases to exist. Bad day for Czechs.

1990 AD  Iraq hangs a British journalist who wanted to report on an explosion in their rocket factory. Saddam, after assuring PM Thatcher that it would be a fair and open trial for the journalist, secretly orders that the execution take place before Ramadan.

2011 AD  The Syrian War begins and is still ongoing.

And for item number 15 of unlucky events tied to the Ides of March, we are back to taxes again. In 1918, the U.S. Congress set the deadline for federal income taxes being due as March 15th. I'm sure there was no connection between our Senate voting for that date as opposed to the Roman Senators bleeding Julius Caesar dry on the Ides of March. However, in 1954 Congress wised up and pushed the date further away to April 15th in an attempt to remove those possible negative connotations.

Enjoy your day, you now have one more month to hold onto your hard earned money.

14 March 2013

New Move/Old Photos


by Eve Fisher

As many of you are aware, we moved the end of February, from a big two-story house with a two car garage and 1000 square foot studio, where we had lived for 22 years, to a one-bedroom apartment in the former kindergarten room of an old school, with a classroom for a studio for my husband and the principal's office now my office.  The reasons why we moved are multiple, including freedom from maintenance and lawn care and the freedom to travel, snowbird, etc.  (Speaking of snowbirding, I'd love to pick anyone's brains out there about how you actually go about finding an apartment to rent for a couple of months every year!) 

The living room; lots of light.
The movers were four strapping young men who would have packed the dustbunnies if we didn't stop them, and who could move anything, anything at all, without seemingly breaking a sweat.  One of them spotted the book I wrote for Guideposts - "The Best is Yet to Be" - and asked if that Eve Fisher was me.  I said yes, and he said "I never met an author live and in person before."  So I gave him a copy.  They worked, they ran, they hustled, they rarely stopped, and they were great.  If we could only have kept them to unpack, it would have been REALLY great. 

But we love the new place.  The apartment is pretty much set up, and we got all the books up in my office, as you can see.  It took a lot of hard work, and a trip to the chiropractor, and there are still odds and ends that need to be done, but we are in, and functioning again, except that Allan's computer died and is in the computer hospital even as we speak.  (More on that later.)

My office, almost fully stocked.
Meanwhile, twenty-two years in the same place - which is longer than I have ever lived anywhere in my entire life - means that you accumulate all kinds of crap.  They range from the understandable (you can never have too many end tables or lamps), to the puzzling (who packed every single coat hanger, including that knot of them from the back closet that I was always meaning to throw out?), to the downright unbelievable (where did that strange Aztec ceramic head come from, anyway?  Answer - I made it, years ago, but it took me a while to remember.  And don't ask me why I did.)  I keep finding stuff to throw out.  Or put on Craig'slist, or E-bay, or SOMEWHERE.

And I find things that I haven't looked at for years.  Including a photograph album full of my father's photos from World War II.   (I'd share some of my father's photos with you, but Allan's computer that died had the scanner.)

My father served in Dutch New Guinea.  There are lots of photos of him posing athletically - he looked like a young Greek Burt Lancaster in those days - either in uniform or in bathing suit or in a towel.  There are lots of photographs of trees and ocean and sand, which, to be honest, since these are all in black and white and are about 2" by 4" max, aren't nearly as beautiful as the actual scenery must have been.  He wrote notes on the back of almost all of them to my mother, ranging from "village" to "always yours, heart and mind, body and soul, your ever-loving Charlie." 

A Google photo, but you get the idea
Since he was a guy, there are also three pages of photographs of native women, ranging from a young, deeply sun-burnt Tondelayo type, who looks REALLY good leaning against a tree wearing nothing but a grass skirt, to two toothless old women holding pigs, with their breasts literally sagging down to their waist.  (I have no idea what my mother thought receiving these pictures.  I also suppose it's true what my godchild's husband said - "we don't really care what they look like, as long as they're showing.")  There's also one photo of him and two buddies, stark naked, taking a bath out of a basin.  Of course all you really see is their white butts, but it was still pretty racy for the 1940's!  And, on the backs of all of them, little notes which in their day were undoubtedly hilarious and today would be considered fairly inappropriate. 

There were also some photos of a Japanese soldier, alone, and also with what apparently is his graduating class from the military academy.  These old, very faded photographs were undoubtedly taken from a dead Japanese soldier, although I doubt if my father killed him.  (My father worked for the catering corps, and while he saw some action, because there was action all over New Guinea at the time, I always got the impression that he was never on the front line as a soldier.)  All that's written on the back of these is a laconic statement, such as "Japanese soldier."  But it makes me wonder who he was; how old he was; if his family ever found out if and where he died... 

Old memories, old wars, old times, new place.

13 March 2013

VALERIE PLAME WILSON: Fair Game


by David Edgerley Gates

Let's talk about lies.

It's a widely-held article of faith, particularly on the Left, that the Bush administration falsified intelligence to get us into the Iraq war.  I don't completely subscribe to this, for reasons I'll go into. But the purpose of this post is to examine one of the more puzzling sideshows in the run-up to actual combat operations: the full-court press by Vice President Cheney's office to discredit Valerie Plame Wilson, a career CIA officer, and her husband Joe, a retired diplomat.
Valerie and Joe Wilson

In discussing whether or not the Iraq intelligence was 'stovepiped,' an expression Seymour Hersh was the first to use, it might help to review, first, the culture of CIA, and secondly, the mindset of the Bush security team.  Richard Helms, a former Director of Central Intelligence, once remarked that the DCI has only one consumer, and that he serves only one president at a time.  In other words, the job description is to give the president the best available analysis of sometimes conflicting intelligence product, and reconcile any disagreements.  State and Defense may have competing agendas, and they're free to make their own arguments, but the DCI shouldn't be swayed by policy differences. In practice, however, it's more about political survival.  George Tenet, Bush's DCI, had extraordinary access to the Oval Office, and the president trusted his advice.  The brute fact, though, is that you can't keep bringing your guy news he doesn't want to hear, or he's simply going to stop listening.  Tenet wanted to protect his place at the table, and it led him to start shading or deflecting unwelcome truths.  His own people at Langley were the first to realize he was insulating himself from failure.  He couldn't afford to have Bush turn a deaf ear.  We hang on prince's favors, Wolsey tells us, but when we fallwe fall like Lucifernever to hope again.

George Tenet
Tenet, to be fair, had no mean adversaries, chief of them Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, and Rumsfeld had a deep bench to draw on.  He set up a spook shop at the Pentagon, run by an undersecretary named Doug Feith, who reported personally to the SecDef.  (As an aside, and because I can't resist, Gen. Tommy Franks, later commander of the forces in Iraq, was to characterize Feith as "the dumbest fucking guy on the planet.")  The point of the exercise is that they didn't trust Langley, so they mined the same raw data and then came to a radically different conclusion, one more to the liking of the Cabinet war party headed up by the vice president.

Both interpretations of the evidence turned on the trustworthiness of the clandestine Iraqi source codenamed CURVEBALL.  CIA considered him a self-aggrandizing phony and his stuff utterly unreliable, but DoD was ready to cut him more than a little slack.  CURVEBALL gave legs to the story that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling chemical and biological agents, the so-called WMD. There's an apposite quote from the late James Jesus Angleton, legendary chief of CIA counterintelligence (and Angleton will return, in a subsequent blog entry).  "Not every story we wish to be true," he said, of a KGB deception, "is necessarily false."

Rafid al-Janabi a/k/a CURVEBALL
Which brings us to the notorious episode of the Nigerian yellowcake.  A report surfaced that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy enriched uranium from Niger, which could be turned into fissionable material for a nuclear weapon.  CIA decided to send Joe Wilson, a former ambassador, who had experience and connections in Africa, to check it out.  If true, here their smoking gun.  It's an axiom, in intelligence, that you can't prove a negative, but Wilson didn't find anything to support the story.  So we've got an ambiguous result.  Wilson couldn't say for sure the Iraqis didn't try to acquire yellowcake, he could only say there was no evidence that they had, in fact, tried.  "Highly doubtful," he told CIA.

The next question in this little drama is how the Nigerian yellowcake found its way into the State of the Union address.  CIA fact-checks a draft of the speech, and Tenet says the offending lines have to come out.  They do. But then, by all accounts, the vice president and the SecDef insist they go back in.  In the event, Bush utters the fatal words, "Saddam Hussein recently bought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."  Joe Wilson, watching the president on television, goes WTF? Disgruntled, or disappointed, or just plain pissed off, he writes an Op-Ed that comes out in the New York Times, disputing the whole nine yards.  There's nothing, he says, to suggest any truth to this yellowcake moonshine.

State of the Union
You with me so far?  Because it gets murkier.

Now, to coin a phrase, the fur hits the fan.  Dick Cheney is reportedly ripshit. Joe Wilson, in his opinion, has stabbed them all in the back.  You don't, for Christ's sake, take your grievances to the God damn New York TIMES.  Joe's gone over to the enemy.  At this point, it's not a dispute about the intelligence, and this is where I put in my own two cents.  Honest men can disagree.  I stepped on my dick about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, in 1968. I didn't think they'd pull the trigger, and I was proved wrong.  Older, wiser heads were right. This isn't by any means an exact trade.  You make the best guess.  In this case, Cheney's being dishonest.  It's not really about Niger.  It's a grudge match.  Joe Wilson's in his sights.

The rubber meets the road.  Joe Wilson's wife, Valerie, is a serving CIA officer.  She's worked covert, overseas.  Her present post is at Langley, in non-proliferation.  Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, blows Valerie to a Washington columnist, Robert Novak.  The deception they're floating is that Valerie persuaded the powers that be to send Joe to Niger with the express purpose of spiking the yellowcake rumor.

I told you it was complicated.

Let's, for the moment, ignore the facts.
Cheney and Rumsfeld

What's the narrative Cheney's suggesting?  First, that CIA's a hotbed of Lefties, who don't whole-heartedly believe in a war with Iraq. Joe Wilson's another ComSymp.  His wife gets him the gig.  The two of them are in bed together, in more ways than one.  Bottom line, Valerie is soft on Iraq, and so is Joe. Between the two of them, they wanted to sabotage the war effort.

There are a couple of things wrong with this picture.

Valerie didn't pick Joe for the mission, and Joe didn't have a horse in the race.  We're talking apples and oranges.  Valerie, by her own account, really liked her job, and believed in it.  I take her at her word. Duty is, perhaps, a careworn expression.

What was the point?  Or the object.  What is Cheney trying to accomplish, and who would care? Who'd even understand the Byzantine reasoning behind this stratagem?  Nobody outside the Beltway.  Cheney's an inside guy.  He doesn't come right out and say, Joe Wilson's soft on Iraq. He moves in on the oblique.  Which might lead us to believe his target audience wasn't the general public at all, but Congress, particularly the ranking members of the armed services committees. These are the people who'd vote on any Iraq war resolution, and the vice president wants their votes in the bag.  Anything else would be noise.

Push comes to shove, sacrificing Valerie Plame's career or Joe Wilson's reputation is small potatoes. They get thrown under the bus to Baghdad.

Full disclosure. I've met Valerie Wilson since she and her family moved to Santa Fe, and have had some passing conversations with her– not, as it happens, on these particular questions. In their own words, here's a recent article Valerie and Joe wrote for THE GUARDIAN.

12 March 2013

Gone South (Again) -- Play Ball!


Space Coast Stadium, Viera, Florida --  Spring Training Home to the Washington Nationals
by Dale C. Andrews

    One of the things about posting articles for over one and a half years on SleuthSayers is that my annual habits begin to reveal themselves.  Nowhere is this more evident than during the winter months.  As I have written before, my wife and I, as we approached retirement, most looked forward to escaping the east coast during the months of January and February.  We are blessed with the fact that our elder adult son lives with us and his slightly younger brother lives close by, so there is no problem each winter with leaving the cats and the house behind along with the weather. 

    This year, like last year, we escaped for ten days in the Caribbean in January, and were under sail on the Island Windjammer ship Sagitta when my birthday rolled around.  Then we were back in the District of Columbia or two weeks before leaving for the Gulf Shores of Alabama, where we encamped for 5 weeks in a condo overlooking the beach and the Gulf.  We have spent most of a short twelve days back in the D.C, survived a final winter snow false alarm, and are now poised, once again, on the brink of our final winter trip – to watch the Washington Nationals in Spring Training in Viera, Florida.
Our Smart Car exits the Autotrain (to general laughter)

    As great as the prior winter escapes were, in many ways this one is my favorite.  Instead of driving our larger “road car” south, as we did when we travelled to and from the Gulf Shore, on this trip we drive our convertible two-seater Smart car the 20 miles to Lorton, Virginia, and then board the Autotrain for an overnight trip to Sanford, Florida, about 50 miles from the cottage we rent across the street from the beach at Cocoa Beach, Florida.  We will be there for one week, then catch a few days in Orlando re-acquainting ourselves with “the Mouse,” and head back to D.C. at the end of March, hoping to have finessed our way through winter once again.

Our rental cottage at Cocoa Beach
    But while the Autotrain and Cocoa Beach are terrific, what I truly love about this trip is its underlying theme:  the return of baseball, and the boys of summer.  It is difficult to understand what it is like to be a Washington, D.C. baseball fan without having lived through the last 40 years here.  Those years included a 33 year stretch without any baseball at all.  Remember that we lost the Senators twice:  First to Minneapolis, then to Texas.  In the intervening years there were repeated attempts to lure the nation’s pastime back to D.C. – one year it became so liklely that the San Diego Padres would relocate here that baseball cards were issued for that team, re-named the Nationals – but all of the previous attempts ultimately failed, generally as a result of a veto by Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, who persisted for decades in the smug belief that if he held us captive long enough Washington D.C. fans would embrace the Orioles as their own.  Sorry.  We didn’t.  There are some things that even hostages will not do.   

    All of this is background to explain how our household, and much of Washington, has embraced the return of baseball to the Nation’s capitol.  As Laura Ingalls Wilder observed, joy is always best when it follows sorrow.  Our thirst was quenched following a very long drought. 

    Last year in an analogous post I recounted some recommended readings that embrace the national pastime and that are great preparation, read in early spring, for what is to come with the boys of summer.  This year I thought I would add at least two more gems to the list, each by well-known authors who also apparently can’t get baseball out of their minds this time of year. 

    First up, Stephen King.  King is a long-time victim of baseball fever.  His 2004 non-fiction volume Faithful is based on his correspondence with fellow novelist and co-author Stewart O’Nan, both rabid Red Sox fans, throughout the course of the 2004 season and ending with Boston’s trip to the world series.  King has also penned two short works inspired by baseball, 2010’s Blockade Billy, about a mythical 1957 catcher who, for reasons best told by King, has been erased completely from baseball history, and 2012’s A Face in the Crowd, also co-written with O’Nan, a long short story recounting what happens to a baseball fan who begins to see long-departed acquaintances from his past seated around him at the ballpark.  But while each of these works can serve to establish King’s baseball credentials, to my mind his finest baseball-related work is the 1999 novel The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, the story of a girl lost in the woods who is counseled, in her imagination, by Gordon, the real-life Boston closer from the 1990s, and is ultimately inspired to “close” the novel as Gordon would have a game.  A great read for spring.

    Batting second, John Grisham.  Long before attending law school Grisham dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals and to this day he is a big supporter of little league teams in Mississippi and Virginia.  His non-legal 2001 quasi-autobiographical novel A Painted House features a narration punctuated by family gatherings around the radio to listen to Harry Caray’s play-by-play of St. Louis Cardinal games.  (Yep, that’s where Caray was, paired with Jack Buck, prior to his Chicago days.)  Even though baseball is only a supporting character in A Painted House, the novel is a fine spring read.  But Grisham truly excels with his 2012 novel Calico Joe, inspired by the real-life story of Ray Chapman, the only ball player ever killed by a pitch.  For a National’s fan like myself the novel proved prescient soon after it was released when, in the summer of 2012 rookie Bryce Harper, the team’s boy wonder, and the closest thing we have to Calico Joe, was beaned on purpose by Philly pitcher Cole Hamel for no reason except that Harper was new, young, eager and poised for greatness.  Like the pitcher antagonist in Calico Joe, Hamels self-servingly defended his action as nothing more than a lesson in “old school” baseball.  Former Phillies pitcher Curt Shilling (and, one would suspect, Grisham, as well) had a better word for it – “stupid.”  That lesson is learned in Calico Joe – another great read as we await opening day.

    Time to pack.  I am off to Florida.  Play ball!

(Next week acclaimed mystery writer Terence Faherty joins SleuthSayers, alternating Tuesdays with me.  Terry’s accomplishments – including authorship of both the Owen Keane and Scott Elliot series of mysteries and numerous awards—leave my own scant efforts in a pale cloud of literary dust.  But at least we have this:  Terry and I both love a good pastiche, as anyone who has read Terry's recent  short story A Scandal in Bohemia (EQMM, February 2013) knows full well.  And this we also share:  an understanding that the rules of constrained writing, once mastered, can also be bent.  This extends not just to plot, such as in Terry's re-imagined telling of Conan Doyle’s Bohemian Scandal, but to writing styles as well.  I noted in my last blog Churchill’s admonition that ending a sentence in a preposition was something “up with which he would not put.”  And here is Holmes dismissing the sanctity of the rule in Terry’s Bohemian pastiche: 
The wording of your note is out of character with a true free spirit.  “A matter up with which he can no longer put,” indeed.  Only someone sitting on a particularly rigid stick would go to such lengths to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition.”
I am certain we are all looking forward to welcoming Terry to the SleuthSayers ranks!)

11 March 2013

Research and Location


Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

In a weird sense this is extra to Dix's blog on daydreaming. The topic of research has been on my mind for a couple of days and after reading about daydreaming and play acting I realized it more or less fit in the same category.

To learn where you characters are going to be located in your book. How much or how little do you research? For my first book, Austin City Blue, I visited the Austin Public Library's History Center. I read all the wonderful stories and newspaper clips that told of murder and mayhem in Austin in the beginning days of recorded records. I was mainly interested in the records of the police department. I used a little historical paragraph before each chapter. It wasn't a clue but I tried to make it relate to something that was going on in each chapter.

For instance, prior to Chapter Five I wrote:
             In May 1904, the police chief announced compliance with a city-ordinance requiring new uniforms for his force. The ordinance stated: "the dress of the patrolmen shall consist of a navy blue, indigo dyed sack coat with short rolling collar, to fasten at the neck and to reach half-way between the articulation of the hip joint and the knee, with four buttons on the front. The pantaloons have to have a white cord in the seam. The cap to be navy blue cloth with a light metal wreath in front." The chief instead ordered felt hats and requested helmets for foot police, making them look like "real city policemen." The police clerk refused to wear his uniform-- blue trousers, yellow coat, and green cap--saying it made him look like an organ-grinder's monkey.

The chapter briefly mentions wearing the dress blues and/or dressing plain clothes in homicide.

Towards the end of the book, I wanted a neighborhood in a specific area that looked a bit seedy but not totally undone. I got in my car and drove around and found exactly what I wanted. It was a neighborhood filled with double-wide and single-wide trailers but not really considered a trailer park. The manufactured homes in the front part of the neighborhood were well kept and tidy, with nice lawns, gazebos, flower gardens and white picket fences. As I drove back into the neighborhood there were unkept yards, a car upon blocks in a driveway. Peeling paint on the houses, children's toys scattered and looking abandon. It was exactly what I needed and I used it in the book.

For Dark Blue Death, I used information I had learned from some classes I took that were presented by the Austin Police Academy. It was called the Austin Citizen's Police Academy program and mainly used for teaching neighborhood watch programs all about the various police divisions. Fraud, Robbery Homicide, Firearms, Victims Service, SWAT, etc., and was a 10 week, 3 and a half hour class session. Each division sent a department head to talk to us and explain what their units did. It was very informative and I met several officers that I later could contact and pick their brains more.

I also drove around Austin and took photographs of a location or a building I wanted to specifically mention. I went inside buildings to the 3rd or 10th or 14 floor to see exactly what a person might see from the windows of that building. Of course, I didn't use all the information I learned. Sometimes my book location changed and I didn't need a particular view or interior decoration.

A writer doesn't always write about the town they live in or even a place they've ever been inside of and sometimes just have to use their imagination. Once I wrote a short story about President Grant's wife, Julia Dent Grant inside the White House. I did a Google search and found pictures of the WH along with some floor plans. I managed to have the story take place in two or three different rooms and felt I did make it sound like the WH in President Grant and Julia Dent Grant's tenure there.

To me it's always fun to research and locate where I'm writing about. Someone several years ago, and I think it was Mary Higgins Clark, told of buying local newspapers of the town you're writing about even if you lived there four or five years ago. You are more likely to get the essence of the town and the people there. And if you're writing in the past, look up newspapers from that era and you'll discover the prices from the ads, what people wore, what entertainment people attended and a myraid of intriguing things.

Like the old real estate sales slogan: Location, Location, Location. Your book or story will definitely sound more authentic if you Research, Research, Research.

10 March 2013

The Dean of SleuthSayers


David Dean
Chief David Dean
by Leigh Lundin

When I began David Dean's The Thirteenth Child, I didn't know what to expect. I'd admired the Baroque cover art and read David's article of a semi-feral child who haunted his neighborhood, but all I'd heard were rumors that it wasn't really a paranormal novel, which sort of hints at paranormal elements, doesn't it? I mean if someone says Mr. Soprag isn't really an alcoholic, you'd think umm… But when Fran and David say it, I believe them.

Besides, I know David Dean is a good writer from his stories in Ellery Queen. Thus with curiosity, I delved into the 226 page novel and I began to understand those not-really-paranormal rumors. I shy away from analogies with other writers, but the novel bears comparison with the best and most intimate of Stephen King. I won't give away anything more because I want you to discover what it's all about like I did.

The two main protagonists, Police Chief Nick Catesby and the town egghead/drunk Preston Howard, find themselves dealing with a child abductor. To clarify, the Police Chief tries to find the abductor and Preston is trying not to be taken for the perpetrator and not succeeding very well. To further confuse the situation, Chief Catesby tangles with office politics and becomes caught up in a relationship with Preston's daughter, Fanny.

She's a sweetly fetching daughter, and here the author paints an appealing picture of the girl next door– kind, intelligent, patient, generous, and unfortunately long-suffering when it comes to her father. One of the wonderful lines from the novel is that she doesn't stop forgiving because she can't stop loving. She's someone we want to know, the woman who cushions the hard edges of society and life.

Thirteenth Child
And finally, the author gives us not one, not two, but three people we love to hate: two cruelly vicious teenage boys and a backstabbing police captain who attempts to exploit the situation. I like to think the boys might learn a lesson, but I doubt Captain Weller ever will, despite a well-deserved comeuppance. (I identify with this because the dynamic between Chief Catesby and Captain Weller is surprisingly similar to a situation in some of my own work.)

The author enhances the texture of the plot with an underlying fabric of history, making the plot a richer experience. Dean sets scenes well– we see and feel the woods, an abandoned rail line, the inside of a church, the room where Preston lives, and a mouldering burial crypt. The author adeptly builds an atmosphere of menace.

At one point, the peril from two teen boys feels more immediately deadly than the perpetrator. The story perfectly captures the essence of young bullies. The reader has no doubt any of the three will kill, but the perpetrator is what he is, albeit with a scheme of his own, while the teen boys choose to be cruel.

The author, a Jersey Shore police chief, gives the reader confidence he knows the policing side of the case, and he manages it subtly without drowning us in procedural details. All in all, he creates a town we'd love to live in, at least when Chief Catesby is on duty and David Dean is there to tell the story.

If you like classic Stephen King, you'll love David Dean's The Thirteenth Child. It's murderously good.

09 March 2013

Cellphonismo


by Elizabeth Zelvin

What is cellphonismo? In my personal lexicon, it’s addiction to the narcissistic and compulsive use of cell phones in public. In New York City, cellphonistas are everywhere.

Here’s a typical incident.

I’m running along the road that winds through Central Park. One of the horse-drawn hansom cabs that only tourists ride in is clopping along beside me. Those tired old carriage horses clop faster than I run, but that’s another story. For the moment, I’m more or less keeping pace. In the cab is a tourist couple, and on the seats facing them are their daughters, or perhaps a daughter and a friend, girls of about thirteen.

“That’s Strawberry Fields on your right,” the driver says.

I’ve overheard many a hansom cab driver, and lately the muscular youths who pedal bicyclesque pedicabs too, give their spiels, and they almost never mention anyone but John Lennon—the Dakota, where he lived and in front of which he was shot to death, and Strawberry Fields, the memorial garden across the street in the park—and Simon and Garfunkel, whose concert on the Great Lawn drew half a million people. I was there, but to me, this is not history. I went to PS 164 in Queens with Simon and Garfunkel, and a high school classmate of mine was the lawyer who defended Lennon’s killer. Somebody had to do it, and it was a high profile case. But I digress.

Do today’s thirteen-year-olds know who Lennon and Simon and Garfunkel are? Or is that old-people stuff, like email? Anyhow, these two very young women didn’t even look up. Their heads were bent and their thumbs flying, texting their friends in Oshkosh or Peoria or wherever they were from.

I couldn’t stand it. I called out to the parents, who no doubt had paid a fortune in plane fare, hotel, restaurant meals, the carriage ride, and Broadway shows on this vacation for four, “You should have left the girls home! They’re on their cell phones!” Then I yelled to the girls, “Wake up! You’re in New York!” At that, they looked up, smiled vaguely—and hunched over their little screens again. If I had wanted to give them a real New York experience, I would have modified “cell phones” with the F word. But I refrained.

I know it’s an addiction. I’m a professional addiction specialist. I know addicts are in the grip of a compulsion and oblivious to the needs of others. But it still makes me nuts to see couples walking down the street, each relating to whoever’s talking in his or her ear rather than to each other. I’m still outraged when I see moms and dads ignoring their toddlers— even while they’re crossing the street—to text or take a call. And I’m always tempted to put my fingers in my ears and start singing “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall” very loudly in the bus to drown out the intimate conversations these oblivious jerks make their fellow riders privy to: medical details, investment advice, marital breakdown. Cellphonistas have no boundaries. And in my experience, they seldom listen. Somehow it’s never the guy on the other end doing the talking.

I do have a modest proposal. It’s not quite up to the standard of Jonathan Swift’s 1729 suggestion that the impoverished Irish solve the dual problems of famine and excessive childbirth by eating their babies. But how about making the cellphonistas ride in the back of the bus?

08 March 2013

Daydream Believer ... at Play


by Dixon Hill

The Children's Museum in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Supposedly the largest children's museum in the world.
Today’s post was inspired by Louis Willis’s post, last week, concerning character development and the impact it has on a writer’s sanity.

When I responded to Louis’s post, in the comments section, I’m afraid I have to admit . . . I wasn’t completely honest in my response. A sin of omission, in fact.

I wrote that I agreed largely with comments written by two other Sleuth Sayers (Elizabeth and Fran), tempered by a comment from a third (RT). The gist being:

(1) My writing seems to function best when plot grows organically, through character interaction.

(2) When characters refuse to drive the plotline where I desire, I tend to let the characters carry the day -- unless this pushes the plot into dimensions unfit for the story as I’ve come to perceive it.

(3) If things get too far out of control, I try to plant something farther forward in the narrative, which I hope will lead one of the characters to alter behavior in a way designed to organically correct the plot growth in the desired direction.

Now, all of the above is true. And, this may sound quite scientific and high-brow. But the truth is: It’s not.

Day Dream Believer

Last school year, I voluntarily assisted my son’s teacher, by helping to administer Accelerated Reader Tests to kids in my son’s class, when they used the Computer Lab on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Quen had a very nice teacher, that year. It was her first year with her own classroom. She was young, energetic, bright-eyed and excited to en-flame young minds with a desire to learn.

Which is why it caught me by surprise, one day, to hear her single-out a student while bringing the kids into the Computer Lab, by calling: “Okay, where’s my daydreamer? Where’s (whatever his name was), who’s always daydreaming? Huh?” When the kid presented himself, she sat him in the corner with a workbook, saying, “You sit there, where I can make sure you’re working. No daydreaming allowed here. You’ll never get ahead by daydreaming!”

Now, I understand kids need to pay attention in class. And, I know they need to get their school work done. But, the look on that kid’s face …

Like all his dreams had just been shattered!

I understand the importance of not undermining the authority of a leader or teacher, so I sat on my tongue. But, my heart really went out to that kid. I wanted to go over and put an arm around him and say: “Cheer up, buddy. They gave me trouble for daydreaming, too, when I was in school. But, now I make money that way. I turn my daydreams into written stories that I sell to magazines. And, now I’m even working to turn one of my stories into a book. So, don’t let it get you down.”

You see, what I wrote in the comments section of Louis’s post, was really only the first part of my TRUE ANSWER to his question.

The second part of my TRUE ANSWER is: “I daydream.”

And, this is largely what I meant, when I wrote that I agreed with Fran’s statement: “...I generally need to let [characters] float around in my mind for several days to become real enough to me for their representation to seem right in the writing.”  I've never met Fran in the flesh, and I can't be sure exactly what she meant, but as for me: I daydream those characters into life.  That's how I get to know them.  And, sometimes my daydreams get a bit carried away.

In his post, Louis also asked some questions, which invoked a comparison of the methods writers might use to achieve character development or expression, against methods an actor might use to achieve the same ends. He wrote (italics added for emphasis): "Actors take what the playwright or screen writer has written and make the character their own, becoming the character. You fictionists, on the other hand, have to create several characters in one story, sometimes in paragraph or even one sentence. I was just wondering if you become each character in order to create him or her, to give them personalities, including the various emotions each must have to be believable."  

Yeah, see, I do that “letting them float around in my mind” thing by daydreaming. But, sometimes … (lean closer, because I have to whisper this) …

Sometimes I do it by pretending I’m the people I’m daydreaming about.

At Play

This admission about pretending is really rather embarrassing for an adult, of course. I mean, it’s bad enough that I’m a grown-up daydreamer, without having to admit that I also sometimes “play” out what I’m daydreaming.  But, that's really the third part of my TRUE ANSWER to Louis's post:  "I play!"

On the other hand, this is really very similar to what I believe Louis meant when he spoke about actors becoming their characters. And, I learned to do this when I took on-camera acting classes at an academy downtown, when I was in high school.

There, for instance, I was taught to work up the emotions called for by a certain character in a certain situation, then to fix that expression -- the one that had been naturally called-up by the emotion in question -- on my face, and to study it in the mirror, looking to see which of my muscles were doing what, if some of my teeth were showing (and how and where they showed), etc. I was then supposed to back up and examine my body, my stance, and what was going on there.

I’m probably not a very good actor. However, I find myself doing the same thing when I’m working on a character, and jotting down notes about what his face might look like, or how his eyes might be squinted, his teeth showing only in the back lip-pocket below his jaw line as he snarls. And, I think these are useful details.

I also learned to do something similar in the army, but there they called it “conducting a rehearsal” or “dry-run practicing.” The army runs rehearsals for every operation it conducts, or at least tries to. When practiced on a grand scale, these rehearsals are called “maneuvers.” On a small scale, they may be called “rehearsal of actions on the objective,” or “practice moving through a denied area,” etc. But, they can also be practiced on an individual basis.

I don’t recall which book it was, but I do recall reading a James Bond story in which Bond is in his hotel room preparing to go into a dangerous situation. After dressing -- with his weapon in a shoulder holster, I believe -- he drops the magazine out and clears the chamber to be sure it’s unloaded. Then, he practices drawing the weapon and shooting himself in the mirror several times, altering his stance and grip until he’s sure he can draw and fire it the way he wants to -- at the target he intends.

When I went through SOT school in the army, I was surprised to discover that this is actually an accepted method of improving one’s marksmanship when conducting a quick-draw. And, I’ve done it several times since then -- in groups, and on my own -- working to simultaneously get my draw-time down and my shot-group focused.

No, I don’t jump around my office or living room, pretending I’m in a gunfight, or engaged in hand-to-hand combat, every day. But, I do find it useful sometimes, particularly when I’m not sure a fight scene in my mind makes sense. At these times, I’m likely to practice my hand-to-hand as if I’m in the situation I’ve dreamed up for the story. And, I try to see what “feels right.”

All of this, of course, is very much like “playing.” It’s very similar to what a child does when s/he plays. At the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, I learned that children learn by playing. And, as a writer, I continue to learn by playing. Just as I did when studying acting, and as I did when conducting rehearsals in the army. It’s all a form of play-learning. And, I find it invaluable.

Though, it’s a bit embarrassing when my wife comes through the door, just as I kia! loudly while front-snap-kicking some invisible foe. Or, when I’m riding down the street in our car, and my wife suddenly asks, “Oh, my God. Who are you now? And who are you talking to?” because I’ve been sitting there silently mouthing words and moving my hands.

So, today's question is: 

Anybody else out there find themselves acting out scenes from their stuff? (And, remember: you can always turn off your recognition with Google to post anonymously. lol) 

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon

07 March 2013

Music Notes


by Fran Rizer   

My thirteen-year-old grandson Aeden has been reading a book entitled Awesome about little things that create awesome moments, including such events as surprise doughnuts for breakfast and rain stopping right before the ball game.  One of Aeden’s awesome times was taking his guitar to school and playing a song for his girlfriend. This led to his teacher arranging for him to perform at one of the local nursing homes.
          Aside from the usual awesome moments in most everyone’s life like the births of children and grandchildren, weddings (and divorces for some of us), I discovered that a lot of my awesome times have related to music.  Trust me, I’ll relate this blog to mysteries and writing before I finish.  I’m headed there.

            These are some awesome musical moments in my life, not necessarily in order of importance nor in chronological order.

Young Johnny Cash 
1.     When?  Two AM

Where?  I’m reading in bed

What?  My then twelve-year-old younger son comes into my room holding one of those cheap, ten-minute cassette tapes we recorded song demos on before CDs.  I also sometimes recorded songs I really liked from the radio on them.  My son, who was definitely not a country music fan at the time, hands the unlabeled cassette to me and says, “You need to get rid of everyone who’s recording your demos and get this guy to sing them all.  He’s great!”  My son had “discovered” Johnny Cash.  BTW, the first time I saw Johnny Cash perform live was when my dad took me to see him before I was ten.  His opening act was the then unknown Elvis Presley.


Tina Turner, at 70 years old
2.     When?  Six PM

Where?  I’m in the kitchen cooking dinner

What?  My older son, a young teenager at the time, runs into the kitchen.  “Quick Mama, come quick.  Remember when I asked you to name your favorite female singer when you were growing up and you said Tina Turner.  A new singer is using her name.”  Into the den we go where I see Tina Turner on MTV singing her latest release, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” 

            “That’s the same woman as the one I used to go see when I was a teenager,” I tell him. He didn't believe it until I took him to see Tina in Columbia and she did "Proud Mary."  His first three concerts were Tina and Bob Seger with me and Led Zeplin with his friends. 


3.     When?  Years before, when I was twelve (but I looked sixteen)

Where?  A Big Boy restaurant in Hyattsville, Maryland
Young Bobby Rydell
What?  This cute boy, about sixteen, comes over to where my  
cousin Melanie and I are eating hamburgers.  He starts talking and gives us two passes to a sock hop that night. (That shows how long ago it was. Have you even heard of sock hops?)  Cute Boy tells us he’s performing that night.  Oh, yeah, like I believe that.
Mel and I go to the sock hop. Sure enough, Cute Boy is on stage.
Introduced as Bobby Rydell, he sits with us after his set, and dances with me—first boy I ever danced with.  He was about sixteen so if you’re good in math (heck!even if you’re sorry in math) you can figure my age, but hold on.  This story gets better.
The main act comes on stage and it’s Ray Charles!  He introduces a song that, “is new.  We're cutting it next week."  I saw and heard Ray Charles do "What'd I Say?" before it was recorded.
 
The only thing better than a live performance
 by Ray Charles was to have my son
playing saxophone with him.  

4.     When?  Years and years later when my younger son is twenty years old and attending Furman University on a music scholarship. 

Where?  Concert hall in Spartanburg, SC

What?  Younger son is on stage playing first chair tenor sax with Ray Charles and a full orchestra.  He's been told by "that music director who must have come straight from Las Vegas or New York because he ticked off the first chair tenor saxophonist who walked out of rehearsal, and now I’m first chair” that he will play an improvised solo in one of the songs.  That night my son nailed that saxophone improv.  On the way home, he says, “Did it sound okay? I’d never heard that song before.”

It was “I Got a Woman.”  I felt soooooo old.


5.     When?  After my divorce, before sons were grown

Where?   A nightclub in Myrtle Beach, SC

What?  The first time I dance to a song I wrote played by a band  I'm not associated with.


6.     When?  A couple of years later, five AM

Where?  Home, in bed

            What?  Randall Hylton, a superb performer who wrote over two hundred songs recorded by major country and bluegrass entertainers, calls to say, “Thank you” for the article about him that I’d had published in Bluegrass Unlimited and asks me if I’d like to write his press releases and design his promo material.  Out of that grows a friendship and working relationship that results in Randall, who penned so many great songs, telling me that my words “stand up and walk.  You should write a book.”  I did, and then I wrote another one Hey Diddle, Diddle, THE CORPSE & THE FIDDLE which was dedicated to Randall as well as having a character who imitates him in the book.  


7.     When?  Many trips

Where?  Star Recording Studio, Miller’s Creek, North Carolina

What?  Gene Holdway records the Waiting at the Station  CD of original bluegrass gospel
Gene and I wrote together. Then, this year, Gene releases Train Whistle which has six songs I wrote or co-wrote.


8.     When? Before Gene or Randall
Where? Columbia, SC

What? First time my group, Frantastix, performs live


     9.    When? After Frantastix 
Where?  Nashville, TN
What?  Sammy B’s (I understand it’s closed now)

Hanging out with the publisher of one of my songs.  (Harlan Howard took one of


Mickey Newberry (wrote "What Condition My
Condition Was In" and put together "American Trilogy" for
Elvis.  I had dinner with him when he came to speak about
 song-writing in Columbia.), Randy Owen, Dewayne Blackwell,
 and David Frizzell 
mine, too, but by then, he was too old to hang out. We never got a cut on the song, but it sure was exciting when he called me.)  I’m drinking O’Doul’s and on this day the real music people are drinking tequila. (No, Liz, I don’t have a problem with alcohol, but my diabetes does.)  We’re joined by several songwriters including the adorable white-haired Dewayne Blackwell who wrote “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino” and “Friends in Low Places.”  A totally delightful afternoon during which I tell the story of my son performing with Ray Charles because the songwriter mentioned that he’d always wanted to see Ray Charles perform live but never had.  I also learn that the man who co-wrote the Garth Brooks hit also wrote "Mr. Blue" and the old rock song “Little Red Riding Hood, You Sure Are Lookin’ Good.”  Later, it gave me pleasure every time I heard that song used in the car commercial because I knew that fine fellow was making money.  I get that same feeling now when I see the car commercial with Johnny Cash singing “That Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog.”


10.  When?  Before any of the above
       Where?  Nashville
       What?  Many trips with my parents as a child as guests of Hank Snow ("I'm Moving On") at the Ryman Auditorium,  including the night they introduced a first time singer named Loretta Lynn.
            The list of memorable awesome moments goes on and on.  There are equal numbers of awesome writing moments, including holding that first published book in my hands like it was made of gold and some unique book signings I’ll describe another time, but I promised to wrap these music notes around to writing.  I’ve made up my mind.  I’m going to Killer Nashville in 2013…might make it to Albany also, but definitely Nashville.  Hope to see you there.