18 April 2013

Journaling for Your Work in Progress

Riffing on Rob's terrific post from yesterday on how writing about his novel actually helps him stay creative in the writing of his novel. I think anything you can do during the drafting process that will help you keep your characters/settings/situations/plot fresh and mobile in your mind is going to be of assistance in getting to the finish line with your novel.
This is true of other pieces of work as well, short stories, nonfiction, what have you. And for my money the single most effective way to do all of the above is to journal about your work-in-progress.

Plot diagrams are nice. Character sketches are really important. But for me, I need the internal monologue (and yes, sometimes dialogue) that comes from writing about my writing.

Everyone ought to have a writing journal. If you don't, whatever the format, either Word doc or notebook, you're missing out on something that can help keep your chops sharp and your story in your head. I have notebooks full of entries about the books and short stories I've written. They've been fruitful contributors in a multitude of ways, especially when I hit a dry spell and can't seem to keep my plot moving forward, or once it's stalled, get it rolling again.

That's when I go back to the well. And sometimes re-reading what I've written about my various works-in-progress, even if it bears no fruit at the time, comes back to life when I delve into my oeuvre seeking some sort of fresh idea, some spark to get things rolling again.

Take short stories for example.

I've been known to start one, write myself into a corner, and leave it to work on something else for a while. Then there are the ones I've written that went nowhere when I tried to place them for publication.

Those I set aside too; resolving to re-work them later. One of them ("Suicide Blonde") was written specifically for AHMM, so when Linda Landrigan (rightly) passed on it, I set it aside for a while. And when I journaled about my next work-in-progress, I threw in asides about what ideas I had about re-working "Suicide Blonde" to make it a more successful piece. I also solicited feedback from my critique partners and journaled about their input.

Devoting this sort of headspace to the story (and we're only talking about the amount of time it took to write a few lines per night about it) paid off in the long run. I re-worked the story, submitted it for the MWA themed-anthology contest for that year, don't make that cut, then turned around and re-submitted it to AHMM. This time Linda bought it.

As I've mentioned in previous blog entries I am currently hard at work on an historical mystery novel set in mid-1840s Washington DC. I've done two previous drafts (One full and the other a partial re-write) while trying to work out the plot to my satisfaction. After a couple of false starts I really feel like I'm on the road to completing this novel.

So when a friend recently started up a quarterly e-zine (published electronically and available on Kindle, etc., and a paying venue, to boot) and expressly requested a short story from me, I viewed the notion of writing a short story from scratch, research, etc. (remember, I write historicals. They require a ton  of research!), as a potential distraction, and demurred. He asked again, and he's a good guy and one hell of a writer, so it's an honor to be asked.

Plus, I'd reached a slow-down patch in my novel, so I shifted gears and went back to the notebooks, and dug up an idea I'd initially had for a short story featuring Renaissance Italian adventurers attempting to break the ultimate political prisoner out of the Turkish sultan's toughest prison in 1580s Constantinople.

And I began to journal.

I had a couple of false starts to fall back on (I keep all of my "didn't make the cut" drafts, so I can "cannibalize" anything useful in later work. After all, no need to re-thread the needle if you've already done it before!), plus a fair bit of notes from my research (my story idea was based on actual events).

I finished the final draft of that short story last night, putting the final touches to it after receiving feedback on the rough draft I pounded out based on my previous notes/drafts and the  pages I devoted to the journaling process and writing about my writing.

And while it's true that sometimes setting aside a good story until you can get all of its parts working right in your head (and that usually takes time, in this case, years!), I couldn't have pulled together all the complex threads for this story and developed them in 8,000 words had I not written about what I was writing: my process, my ideas for fleshing out the story. What worked, what didn't, and so on.

So there you have it. Want to finish a writing project? Well then get to journaling!


17 April 2013

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern want something

by Robert Lopresti

I hope you people aren't sick to death of hearing about my work in progress, alias The Novel.   I keep finding things related to it that our relevant to our subject, which I am assured is Wriitng Mystery Fiction.

And honestly, writing about it helps me.  In the process of writing about it I keep learning things I didn't know.

For example, This is my first attempt to write a book from multiple viewpoints - a thought that didn't occur to me until I started to write this piece - and so this week I have been doing character checks.  In other words I have traced Mickey in each chapter he appears, to see if his personality and verbal mannerisms are consistent throughout.  once Mickey is clear, then I move on to Deedee, and so on.

Most of the time everything works fine, but I have made a few nasty discoveries.  One character was  so completely out of, uh, character in a single chapter that I decided it was easier to replace him in that scene with a newly invented guy, rather than rewriting the dialog.

But there was another more interesting surprise.  I should explain that I started my hunt with the minor characters, the ones who only appear in a few places.  Everything there went easily enough,  but when I moved to the mid-level characters, those people who appear in, say, a quarter or more of the chapters, I had a very odd sensation.

It was as if I were seeing the entire story from their points of view.  Yes, that's what multiple viewpoint implies, but this felt as if I was reading a different book, a short novel about, say, Adrianna, or Henry, when I know that isn't what I have written.  (And this being the kind of novel it is, several of those shorter one-character books end suddenly with a bullet.)

I don't know if you have seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard's absurdist, existentialist comedy.  Basically we see Hamlet from the viewpoint of two minor characters.  At the proper places Hamlet and Polonius and the rest of the Denmark gang stroll onto the stage and our unlikely heroes say their appointed lines, but the rest of the time they stand around, bewildered, wondering what they are supposed to be doing.  They do have a long unBarded conversation with, appropriately enough, the troupe of players.

And that got me thinking about Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, one of my favorite near-mystery novels.  (There is a mysterious death, and many issues to investigate, but that isn't the focus.)  The title refers to a concept in Scandanavian opera (an artform which, I assure you, is not mentioned again in the book).  A singer could specialize in performing the part of hero, villain, heroine, or confidante, or he could specialize in all the other roles, which were summarized as Fifth Business.  In other words, the narrator of the novel didn't consider himself to be the main character of his own life.

One more connection, if I may.  I have often said that the reason Elmore Leonard is such a great writer is that he convinces you that each person in his books thinks he or she is the main character.  When working on this piece I finally asked myself what the hell I meant by that glib statement.

And here is my answer.  Leonard's characters aren't just standing around like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern waiting to be spoken to.  Each of them wants something.  They have goals and they firmly believe the story is about their efforts to achieve them.

I think it was David Mamet in his book on screenwriting who said in every scene every character must want something.

Right now, what I want is to go back to my novel and attend to some people's needs.

16 April 2013

Smiley's Series

As part of its Pioneers of Television, PBS did a segment on the miniseries, a dramatic form that was extremely popular in the late seventies and all through the eighties. It's a shame that it isn't more popular today. Some of the failed Lost clones, like FlashForward and The Event, might have succeeded as miniseries. Viewers might have been more willing to invest their time if they'd known that the big questions posed by these shows' high-concept premises were going to be resolved in a reasonable amount of time and without endless (and increasingly crazy) plot complications.
During its heyday, the miniseries usually focused on sweeping, multigenerational sagas, but mystery novels were occasionally included. I remember a late seventies adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Dane Curse starring James Colburn. And there were the two BBC productions I revisited this past winter, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People, which were both based on novels by John le Carré. The inspiration for my video trip down memory lane was the much more recent film version of Tinker, Tailor, which starred Gary Oldman. I enjoyed the movie, but it left me nostalgic for the 1979 miniseries, in which Alec Guinness played George Smiley, "retired" spy.

If that reference to Smiley's profession (or your own knowledge of le Carré's works) has you thinking that these books are espionage stories and not mysteries, you're half right. They're espionage stories and mysteries. In fact, Tinker, Tailor is a whodunit, as were le Carré's two earlier Smiley books, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. I still remember the suspense that slowly built during the original broadcast of Tinker, Tailor (which didn't occur in the U.S. until 1980) over the true identity of Gerald, the Russian mole inside British Intelligence. Reviewing the miniseries courtesy of Netflix, I felt that old suspense again. (Netflix did its best to encourage this by only entrusting me with one of the series' three discs at a time.)

Smiley's People is somewhat less satisfying as a story but just as well adapted. (Both series were scripted by le Carré himself.) There is a murder to be solved, but Smiley is more interested in why it happened than in who did it. Though made three years after Tinker, Tailor, Smiley's People reunites many members of the original cast. In fact, the casts of both miniseries are uniformly excellent. They include future stars Alan Rickman, doing a bit as a desk clerk, and Patrick Stewart, in the nonspeaking (!) role of Russian master spy Karla. Two of the strengths of Smiley's People are some great location shooting and an increased amount of screen time for Alec Guinness, who functions like a loner P.I., warned off the case by the authorities and hunted by the bad guys.

It would be hard to overpraise Alec Guinness's two performances as George Smiley. Guinness was an actor who could play broadly if the role called for it, but his real forte was underplaying. His talent for quiet was put to good use here, as George Smiley is one of the great listeners of popular literature. Both miniseries feature powerful scenes in which some other, more flamboyant character wanders far from the point of the conversation while Smiley sits quietly, waiting to draw him or her back. Depending on the situation, he might cajole or flatter or wheedle or simply will the wanderer to focus. I've written that sort of interaction many times, as has any writer of detective fiction, and it's a pleasure to see it done this well. And Guinness/Smiley's reactions to the constant references to his wife's infidelities--tiny winces or a slight narrowing of his eyes or just blank resignation--are equally wonderful.

I'll mention one last point of interest, at least for the writer of historical fiction. There are only two types of films and television shows: those done as period pieces and those that become period pieces over time. Smiley's miniseries are in the second group. I'd forgotten that the three-year gap between the two series marked a sea change in men's fashions. In Tinker, Tailor, wide, loud ties and wider lapels predominate. By Smiley's People, styles (or should I say widths?) had returned to a more classic look.

The late seventies might have been a bad time for clothes, but it was a really good time for long-form dramatic television. If you haven't seen these two examples recently, check them out.

15 April 2013


If you ever listen to radio, I'm sure you've heard at least one song called "You Can't Go Home Again" from performers like Lari White, The Judds, Bon Jovi, Sugarland, The Statler Brothers, Miranda Lambert, and many others.

Chuck Cannon
One of those songs was written by Chuck Cannon, performer and writer with hits recorded by many of my country favorites including Toby Keith, Willie Nelson, and Ricky Van Shelton.  To me personally, Chuck bears the distinction of being the person who made me aware that I'm short. 

Let me explain that I come from a family in which the women tend to be 4'11", so when I grew up to be 5'3", I looked tall when with my female family members.  I felt tall

At a songwriters' meeting where Chuck Cannon was the featured speaker, he performed his original "You Can't Go Home Again."  The host wanted a picture of the guests and said, "Taller people in the back."

I stepped to the back row beside Chuck.  He gently took my shoulders and moved me to the front row, saying, "You belong up here."  Sure enough, when I received a copy of the photo, not only was the front row the place for me, I was the SHORTEST person there!

Bet you're wondering, "Now where is she going with this?  It should be related to writing and/or mystery, but then, perhaps that's the mystery...what's she writing about today?"

Could it be about short people, even short writers?  William Faulkner was only five feet, five inches tall--taller than I am, but not especially tall for a man. 

Could it be about Chuck Cannon?  He wrote many of my favorite songs, including "How Do You Like Me Now?"

Could it be about literary techniques?  We've recently had blogs about constrained writing and frame stories.  (Actually the stream of consciousness technique is related to the writer today's blog is about.  He's classified as writing his Bildungsroman novels in stream of consciousness technique.)
None of those are right.  Some of you liked reading about my awesome moments in music.  Today I'm writing about an awesome moment in my teenaged years involving the person who made me want to be a writer.

The photo to the right shows one of American literature's most famous landmarks.  In an epic, autobiographical novel, this rambling Victorian building was called "Dixieland," but in reality the author grew up there when it was called "Old Kentucky Home."  I read the book when I was about thirteen.  When I got a car and license at sixteen, I took myself to Asheville, North Carolina, to see the house. 

There was a small card on one of the bedroom door frames.  On it was printed, "This is the room where Ben died."  Now, I was a pretty flip teenager, and Ben was a character in the book, but standing at that door brought tears to my eyes.  I thought, "If just the memory of a fiction scene can make me cry, then words are powerful stuff!  I want to do that."

While in Asheville that trip and many times since then, I visited the graves of O. Henry and, within walking distance, the writer who impressed me so --- Thomas Wolfe.
Cover of the first
edition, published
in 1929

I'm not talking about Tom Wolfe, who wrote Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and feuded with John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal.  I'm speaking of North Carolina's Thomas Wolfe who wrote Look Homeward Angel, which has not been out of print since it was first published in 1929.

Classified as possibly the most autobiographical Bildungsroman (a specific type of coming of age novel) by an American novelist, Look Homeward Angel follows the life of protagonist Eugene Gant from birth to age nineteen.  While I loved visiting the Asheville places Wolfe had used and renamed in the book, the people of Asheville weren't happy with his frank and realistic reminiscences. In fact,  Look Homeward Angel was banned from Asheville's public libraries for seven years. Today, Wolfe has become one of Asheville's most famous citizens, and his boyhood home is a National Historic Landmark museum in his honor.

Thomas Wolfe, 1930-1938
As an early teenager, I simply assumed that the title Look Homeward Angel referred to a stone statue of an angel that both Eugene and Wolfe's fathers used as porch advertisements at family graveyard monument shops each owned. (I saw the angel in a cemetery in Hendersonville, NC.) Wolfe's first title was The Building of a Wall, which he changed to O Lost before renaming it Look Homeward Angel: A Story of a Buried Life.  The title comes from the John Milton poem Lycidas. 

"Look homeward angel now, and melt with ruth; 
And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth."
                                                            ---   John Milton

Asheville's reaction to Look Homeward Angel played a large part in Wolfe's next book--You Can't Go Home Again, that line so frequently used by songwriters.  (Chuck Cannon also has a song entitled "Look Homeward, Angel.")  I don't believe the inspiration for songs and other prose using Wolfe's titles came directly from Milton. Their influence is Thomas Wolfe.  Wouldn't each of us be filled with pride to have one or more of the titles of our writings inspire the work of so many other writers?

When young Thomas Wolfe gave his manuscript to Scribner's Maxwell Perkins, the editor insisted it be condensed to a more manageable publication size.  They cut sixty thousand words from Wolfe's manuscript before it was published at five hundred, forty-four pages. 

Why do I want to praise Thomas Wolfe to mystery writers?  In addition to being the writer who convinced me I wanted to write, I  believe good writing shares common features, whether literary or specific genre.  My words don't have the power of those of Thomas Wolfe, but I always aim to do for my readers what he did for me.  I want them to react with some kind of emotion.  I want to make them happy or sad or scared, but I always want to create feelings for Callie's fans.  (I cleaned up that last line.  At book-talks, I've been known to say I want my readers to laugh, cry, or wet their undies, but, as I've told you before, I'm trying to become more lady-like in my old age.)

The other reason is to give me the chance to share with you a quote from Thomas Wolfe in the event you have an editor who wants to cut some little darlings from your work:

U S Postage Thomas Wolfe
Memorial Stamp
"What I had to face, the very bitter lesson that everyone who wants to write has got to learn , was that a thing may in itself be the finest piece of writing one has ever done, and yet have absolutely no place in the manuscript one wishes to publish."

                                                        --- Thomas Wolfe
How about you?  Is there a particular author, book, or event that made you want to be a writer?

Until we meet again... take care of you!

14 April 2013

Lords of the Ring

Imagine a world where good guys and bad guys fight out their grievances in front of an audience. Imagine a blood sport so intense fans not only confuse mythology with reality, but it spills over into the real world. That scene isn't ancient Rome and the venue isn't the Colosseum. It's modern day North America and the venue is the television set.

My excuse for today's article related to crime… umm, well, it's about a despised so-called sport– televised wrestling. I don't need much of a reason to relate it to a crime, do I? And as you'll see, it certainly involves story-telling.

It's always mystified me why grownups watch fake wrestling, but I'm told the reason isn't the bashing– it's the storyline. While Rob, Dixon, RT, Elizabeth and others sometimes appeal to intellect, I spent the weekend doing the opposite, reading about the ancient sport of wrestling.

And it does date back: The ancient Greeks wrestled naked, which I prefer not to dwell on, other than to mention my Aunt Rae– Professor Kemper to her students– included a sculpture slide in her art classes of a wrestler holding another around the waist upside down– and the upside-down wrestler seizes the advantage– or at least the delicate bits of his opponent. It all slid downhill from there.

Religion on Sunday

When my brothers and I were kids, my parents didn't allow television, which ruined our childhood but has proved immensely useful as an adult. Thus it came to pass, each Sunday after church, we boys ran down the hill to my grandmother's house to watch Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, Woody, Sylvester, Mighty Mouse, and Heckle and Jeckle. (As an aside, don't you love the classical music in those old Warner Bros cartoons?)

Unfortunately, my grandmother took in a boarder, my partially senile great uncle Ott. I say 'unfortunately' because Uncle Ott loved wrestling more than he loved Jesus, which was why he worshiped the idiot box. Having higher status in grandmother's home than we kids, he chose to watch it on the only television in the house to the exclusion of everything else.

His devotion to obviously fake 'rasslin' mystified us. How could a grown man watch this drivel? Even when it wasn't on, he fruitlessly checked and rechecked channels trying to find The Destroyer, Chief Don Eagle, Gorgeous George, or other denizens of the ring. It's claimed Gorgeous George, the Liberace of wrestling, prompted as many sales of TV sets as Milton Berle.

Uncle Ott's monopolization of the telly seemed unfair to us kids who had only a precious hour to watch, but he possessed an Achilles Heel, or at least an Achilles bladder. Every forty minutes or so, he'd totter off to the bathroom for several minutes. We'd immediately switch the telly to cartoons or that great science fiction program, The Invaders. Upon his return, Uncle Ott wouldn't immediately realize his channel had been switched. It usually took him another five or ten minutes to figure out his station had gone missing then snarling, "Those damn kids!"

We developed delaying tactics: "Oh, let us help you find it, Uncle…" (twiddle, twiddle) "Where, O where is that rasslin program?" Because he was one skinny-ass man with a petite intestinal system and we were devious, er, devoted and kind, we plied him with goodies. "How about another oatmeal molasses cookie, Uncle? Yum, lots of fiber."

lucha libre
Behind the Scenes

A couple of years ago, I read the opening of a new writer's novel about professional wrestlers. To them, it was just a job they shared with colleagues. In a clinch, a conversation might run something like: "Didn't hurt you, did I? Jane says you're not coming to the pub?" "No, we're going to Ben's bar mitzvah. You're coming, aren't you?" "Glad you reminded me. Ready for the next pinfall?"

Fighters are designated either 'faces' or 'heels'. Faces are the good guys and heels are bad guys, loathed by audiences, usually for cheating but sometimes for their personalities and peccadillos.

One thing that can't be argued is that most of these so-called wrestlers are athletes. Fake wrestling is hard work and they labor to avoid injuring themselves and others. Still things go wrong as Stone Cold Steve Austin learned when a mistimed pile-drive broke his neck. Even steroids became a problem as uncovered following the Chris Benoit double murder / suicide.

lucha libre
Get with the Program

As much as the action is choreographed, so are the 'story lines' scripted. They usually center around one or more contrived feuds among players, but can include subplots of affairs, one's sexuality, or abuse. Most feuds feature faces versus heels, usually involving cheating, underhanded tactics, or public humiliation. The heels story line possibly peaked during the 'Mr. McMahon' years, when executive Vince McMahon played the part of an abusive, dictatorial CEO who wasn't above bumping off his own wife.

Historians can't say when wrestling changed from competitive natch wrestling into pretense entertainment. Early promoters opted to maintain a constant and complete illusion for outsiders and considered it necessary to keep audience interest. Wrestlers who performed under their own names lived their public lives as though they were their character. Others maintained their secret identity much like Bruce Wayne and Batman.

I suspect wrestling gives devotees a chance to join in a sort of mythology greater than their immediate world. Fans find the story lines as immersive as sci-fi events and murder mystery gatherings and far more real. They take fake wrestling so seriously, that Wikipedia devotes dozens upon dozens of articles and thousands of words to the subject, usually treating the story lines as 'real'.

I don't get it, but I don't have to. The real winners are shareholders.

lucha libre
New Kid on the (Chopping) Block

I maintain a dim view of wrestling and the ongoing WWF and WCW soap operas are beyond me. But if you thought fake wrestling was passé, Latin American and especially Mexico have taken it to a new level called Lucha Libre.

Lucha means fighting or combat in Spanish, and lucha libre means freestyle fighting. They do the 1950s TV wrestlers, er, proud, if that doesn't sound contradictory. They're loud, flamboyant, and all about the show. These players aren't merely athletic, they're acrobatic.

Then there are the babes. Spanish television is known for hot women. I used to watch Jorge Porcel's variety show on Telemundo without understanding a word and loved every minute.

Lucha libre mixes male and female fighters, which offends my sensibilities. My chivalrous instincts kick in when I see a woman hit, even if it's sport, even if it's fake. It's bad enough men can be persuaded to hit each other, but I worry lucha libre gives tacit permission for a guy to hit a girl.

Refereeing is a loose term. Refs like Sexy Starr are often buxom beauties in skimpy outfits who waggle their derrières as much as their fingers. I'm not sure they know the rules, assuming there are any.

Skip the first third of this clip, Hèroes Inmortales VI. It's oddly hypnotic as if I'd been transported back to my grandmother's living room with my great uncle watching television. But now the wrestlers have become cartoons– or perhaps they've always been. I begin to see this as grist for a Stephen King novel.

13 April 2013

Flying Blind or Outlined?

by John M. Floyd

I've always enjoyed hearing writers talk about the process of writing. Everyone seems to have different ways of getting ideas, describing settings, using dialogue, developing characters and plots, even rewriting and marketing.

Last week at this blog, Rob Lopresti posted what I thought was a fascinating column about the way he constructs a short story. He first writes the parts that are the most important and enjoyable (to him), and fills in the other parts later. I also read with interest the comment by our new colleague Terence Faherty, which mentioned his preference for outlining. And although I'd never thought about it before, I realized then that I use a combination of those two techniques. I always do an outline and I also always write my favorite parts first--the opening and the ending, usually, and a few scenes in the middle--and, as Rob said, build a bridge between the islands. Rob and Terry both turn out great stories, so I feel I'm doing at least a few things right. (I also like to use lists similar to those that R.T. Lawton talked about in his column yesterday--devious minds do indeed think alike.)

The question of whether to outline or to fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants has always been interesting to me both as a writer and a teacher. In my fiction-writing courses my students are usually divided equally, on that subject. Some are outliners and some are freewheelers, and I never ever try to steer them away from their chosen path--mainly because I don't think it's chosen at all; I think our brains are just wired either one way or the other. Some folks need to begin with a blank slate and let their creativity run wild, and others need to have that preconceived structure firmly in mind before they start writing.

Thinking inside the box

I've always said, at this blog and at Criminal Brief, that I'm an outliner. Not because I want to be--I actually admire those who can start from scratch and see their story develop as they go, never knowing what's around the next corner. I'm an outliner only because I wouldn't be able to do it any other way.

I often hear writer friends say they outline their novels but not their short stories, because the stories are, well, short. I maintain that if you're an outliner you're an outliner, period. The difference is, the outline for a novel is almost always written out, whereas the outline for a short story might be solely in your head. My short stories are always outlined that way--I map out the plot in my mind, all the way through to the ending, for several days or even several weeks before I begin writing. The plot might change as the actual writing is done, and usually does, but that unwritten layout of the story is always in place beforehand. It's just the way I have to do it.

Unplugging the GPS

As an outliner and primarily a "genre" writer, I was surprised to learn that many of my favorite genre authors (Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and others) have stated that they never outline their work before they start writing. King has said he enjoys not knowing what will happen before it flows from his pen or keyboard, and Leonard has said the same. I respect their views, but I suspect that they do in fact outline to some degree. After writing so many successful novels and stories, I imagine they have a pretty good idea of what the storyline will be and how it will flow, when they start out. After a while, that kind of thing becomes second nature. If you've hiked the same woods over and over for many years you probably don't need a map anymore, and--as I believe Loren Estleman once said--if you've built a thousand houses, number 1001 can probably be finished without your having to rely on a blueprint.

Authors can sometimes go to extremes as well, where outlining is concerned. I once heard a famous writer say his novel outlines sometimes run two hundred pages or more. To me, that doesn't sound like an outline at all; it sounds like a first draft. And the late Robert B. Parker said he liked to compromise, and do a pseudo-outline, maybe of certain parts of the novel. Whatever the case, I'm a believer in doing what works for the individual writer, however different and/or crazy that might be. Forgive the cliche, but if it ain't broke don't fix it.

Holding the course

A quick word about one of the biggest criticisms of outlining. Many think that once a writer knows what happens in his story, his interest in the story flies right out the window, and he loses the incentive to keep writing it. I don't feel that way. Knowing my ending ahead of time ensures that I won't put anything in the story that doesn't point toward that ending. I'm also one of those odd folks who truly enjoy the process of rewriting and polishing a story, so it doesn't bother me to put up the framework first and then hammer merrily away at a half-finished structure.

Besides, I didn't major in writing in college. I majored in engineering. How could I not want to plan my stories out beforehand?


This has been asked before, but now that we have new SleuthSayers in the fold, and hopefully new readers as well, I'll ask it again: if you're a writer, are you an outliner or a blank-pager? And why do you like your side of that fence?

Either way, I hope you write a zillion stories and sell every one.

12 April 2013


by R.T. Lawton

Most times, a character or potential scene will pop into my head while I am half-asleep and dreaming or when my conscious mind runs free and daydreams take over. With either set of circumstances, I try to write down those ideas or impressions as soon as possible, retrieve them later and insert them into specific story categories in my computer files. Then, when it is time to write another story, I have something to start with rather than facing that empty white page with a blank mind to work on it.

And, to assist my muse and I, while she is sitting there on my shoulder impatiently waiting for me to get on with it, I have various cheat sheets to help move the story forward. These cheat sheets may be considered as low tech and not on a scholarly level, but they work for me. Here is my list of categories used in writing mystery short stories, as I tend to break them down. You probably already have similar info stored in your brain, but go ahead and take a peek, see if anything sparks a new idea for you, or if you have your own brainstorming ideas to add to this particular list.

Dupin questions sailor in
"The Murders in the
Rue Morgue"  (US PD)
01) The Locked Room ~ a crime occurs in a locked room and the detective/reader must figure out how the crime was committed and who did it, such as:
     a) "Murder in the Rue Morgue" - an orangutan climbs in the locked door apartment, kills and escapes up the chimney.
     b) "In Bond" - the warehouse roof is purposely hinged and the thief uses a nearby construction crane to lift out the bonded wine.
     c) "The Bond Market" - a bond courier is killed in a locked and safety chained hotel room. Thief/killer uses a bent metal strip fashioned to re-hook the safety chain after he leaves the room. (It's a modern burglar tool.)
     d) strings have been used remotely to fire a gun, etc.
     e) what NEW ideas can be brainstormed?

02) Deductions ~ the detective derives a conclusion by reasoning and/or clues.
     a) amateurs - Miss Marple, Cletus Johnston & Theodore, etc.
     b) PI stories - to include Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe & Archie, Sam Spade, Marlowe, Mike Hammer, etc.
     c) Police procedural - 87th Precinct stories, Law and Order, CSI
     d) the pertinent clue comes out in a witness or suspect interview.
     e) what other ideas for how the crime or criminal was deduced? Or, what clue can be inserted and how?

03) A Mistake ~ the criminal makes a mistake.
     a) Mister X's alibi doesn't hold up because he was in the wrong place to see something, or he wasn't left
       handed, or couldn't have known important info, etc.
     b) He left behind an incriminating piece of evidence.
     c) What fresh and innovative types of mistakes can be capitalized on?

04) Confusion & Red Herrings ~ a misleading clue has been inserted into the story.
     a) The clues make someone appear to be the criminal, but the detective/reader doesn't have a full
       understanding of the clue yet.
     b) The real clue is hidden in with several other clues.
     c) The important clue is glossed over by one of the characters for some reason.
     d) What other Blue Smoke and Mirrors can be used?

05) Suspense or Thriller ~ a feeling of intenseness, may be combined with action
     a) The ticking time bomb - will hero get there in time and do what must be done?
     b) Reader knows the killer - will hero stop killer in time?
     c) What new gimmicks can be conjured up, other than:
          1) runaway train, car with no brakes, bus with speed bomb device, aircraft with no live pilot
          2) bomb with timer, which wire to cut?
          3) will an object central to story be found and acquired?

work in progress: my 5th e-book
06) Caper ~ the theft or attempted theft of a valuable object or commodity, often by humorous criminals
      (one of my favorites)
     a) Donald Westlake's stories - Dortmunder series
     b) Lawrence Block's stories - Bernie Rhodenbarr series
     c) Holiday Burglars series

07) Historical ~ use a lot of research to set these (another favorite of mine)
     a) The crime, solution, setting and characters come from the research into that time period.

08) Noir ~ dark atmosphere, hero loses out (haven't written one of these

Many of those listed above can be intermingled with one of the other categories.

Anyway, this is one sample of many lists or cheat sheets I keep around while writing short mysteries. By having a reference to glance at when needed, I can have a jump start on brainstorming, or in the case of other lists; names for characters of different ethnicity; crimes to commit other than common murder; types of swag to be acquired from various crimes; a chronology of historical events; a catalog of series character's traits, history and happenings for individual historical series; and so on. In short, I have choices which can be quickly made without interrupting the story writing in order to research for the needed information. The information is already available at hand and is added to periodically as I find new data.

So what lists do you use to make your writing easier for you?

11 April 2013

History is Mystery

File:NAMA Machine d'Anticythère 1.jpg
Part of the mechanism in the Athens Museum
Some of you might have caught the Nova show a week ago on the Antikythera mechanism, a device from approximately 100 BCE found in 1901 in a Greek shipwreck near the island of Antikythera.  It is the world's oldest (yet found) working analog computer:

File:NAMA Machine d'Anticythère 6.jpg
Reconstruction in Athens Museum

and it generated complete astronomical information and forecasts:  sun, moon, planets, and eclipses, from now until...  whenever.  A very complex machine.  It's assumed the found object was a factory reproduction of an original designed by the great Syracusan mathematician, Archimedes.  In the process of discovering all of this information, the historians used all sorts of mystery-solving techniques - questions, x-rays, research, reconstructions, debates, etc. - to try and figure out what that super-corroded device was, what it was for, and how it was made.  Fascinating.  Catch the reruns, or rent the DVD.

And it explains why so many of us historians are also mystery fans/writers/etc.  Because history is all about solving mysteries, very cold case mysteries, with limited evidence, almost no eye-witnesses, and a whole lot of deduction.  Yes, a lot of people think that history is nothing but names and dates, but I can assure you that's the least of it - the historical equivalent of a GPS system, keeping you afloat in a vast sea of time.  But the real purpose for history is to find out how things got the way they are. History is all about solving the mystery of us. 

Of course, some things never change: human nature (curiosity, greed, anger, pride, love, lust, all the emotions and desires), and what comes of that human nature (the pursuit of power, pleasure, wealth, appetite, and occasionally peace). 

Frontisepiece to Rousseau's "Emile"
Some things change dramatically, in a paradigm shift that makes it inconceivable (to us) that things were ever different:  our modern concepts of privacy, romance, childhood, individual rights, and personal comfort are all just that, MODERN concepts. Romantic love used to be considered a form of mental illness (read Chaucer).  What we call privacy used to be proof that you were either had no status or were in prison (who would ever be alone if they didn't have to be?).  Rousseau practically invented modern childhood in "Emile" (ironic, considering that he put each of his four children in an orphanage).  And most societies have always been willing to sacrifice individual rights for societal order, especially if it keeps the barbarians (within and without) at bay.

And some things change all the time, especially fashion and beauty, which are simply exercises in the verb "to change". 

Where does technology fit into this?  Well, I couldn't help noticing that, even on Nova, the scientists were constantly amazed at the complexity of the Antikythera Mechanism, and the ingenuity of the ancients.  And this is a classic example of one of the two great biases that historians face, within themselves and within their students/readers/society:
BIAS # 1.  Time is an arrow, leading to us, and we, right now, are living in the best of all possible worlds at the best of all possible times, and anyone in the past who didn't live the way we do, especially in terms of morality, government, technology, and religion, were stupid, not to mention just plain wrong.  A major subsection of this bias against our ancestors' intelligence is all about technology.  I cannot tell you the number of people who say, well, if the ancients were so smart, how come they didn't come up with the technology of today? The answer is to consider where and how technology was used in the ancient world:
    File:Rome Colosseum interior.jpg
  • WAR:  Greek fire; gunpowder; Archimedes and his war machines (first laser prototype; the Archimedes Claw).
  • TIMEKEEPING and ASTRONOMY:  Chinese paper and compasses, originally used for timekeeping, astronomical observations, divination, and prayers; the Antikythera Mechanism, used for timekeeping and astronomy; water clocks, mechanical clocks, etc. 
  • ENTERTAINMENT:  Look no further than the Roman Colosseum, which used a huge amount of technology of all kinds to present battles on land and sea. 
  • PUBLIC HEALTH:  Flush toilets and sanitary systems of the Indus Valley (Harappa, 26th c. BCE), Knossos (18th c. BCE) and other ancient civilizations; public baths (Indus Valley, Greece, Rome,Ottomans, Japanese).
        Sounds pretty modern to me...
    • NOTE:  I'm well aware that time only moves in one direction (at least in this brane), but it's far more like a tree, with multiple branches and twigs and stems and leaves, than an arrow. There have been societies and civilizations that have vanished completely off of the face of the earth. There are echoes everywhere of things and people that were, but left no trace. And even if they leave a trace, no explanation. Not everything connects. History is full of red herrings. 
The other major bias is the exact opposite:  

    File:Leonidas I of Sparta.jpg
BIAS # 2.  We are a degenerate and weakened species, and things used to be much better, back in... well, the Greeks believed in a Golden Age before their own Age of Iron; the Hindus for millenia have believed we are in Kali Yuga, the age of the demon; and today a surprising number of people like to tell me how much better things were in the 1950's (and I suppose they were, if you weren't a woman, gay, black, or other minority).
    • NOTE:  Just to show how dangerous this bias can be, a classic work of nostalgia history is Plutarch's (ca. 46-120 CE) "On Sparta", in which that violent, anti-education military slave state is presented as the ideal civilization, strong, brave, and free from the corruptions of commerce and money.  Obviously, Plutarch had an axe to grind.  But very few people even think about that.  Because he himself is an "ancient writer" a lot of people swallow everything he wrote as if it were absolute truth, not paying attention to the fact that he wrote almost 500 YEARS AFTER SPARTA'S DEMISE.  That's the kind of thing you have to look out for.  And part of the reason yes, you do have to know your dates... 
My general analysis of bias holders is that the first is primarily held by the young and/or successful; the second is primarily held by older people and/or those who feel throttled by present-day culture (whatever the present day is).  My other great observation is that either bias gives you a perfectly logical reason to ignore the past.  They both imply that we can learn nothing from the past, either because we are absolutely superior or infinitely inferior.  Either way, we are on our own.  Me?  I know that everyone who ever lived were just as human as I, and the basic lesson of the past is that, until human nature changes as completely as fashion or song stylings, history is going to continue to be the same damn thing over and over again.  We'd better start paying attention. 

10 April 2013

The Night of The Generals

Not that many movies begin with a guy hiding in a stairwell toilet, peeking through a crack in the door. Warsaw, 1942, the German occupation. A whore is murdered. A major in German intelligence is called in by the Polish police, because the case may have unhappy political considerations. The girl was a German informant. Oh, and the guy in the toilet? He saw somebody coming down the stairs, but he can't identify him, because all he saw was the lower half of a Wehrmacht uniform, with a red stripe down the leg. It happens only German generals wear the red stripe.

Three of the generals posted to Warsaw have no explanation for where they were on the night in question, and Major Grau of Intelligence takes it on himself to narrow the field of suspects. His immediate subordinate, a captain, asks him why it matters who killed the girl, a nobody. Grau asks him in return, Have you ever heard of the Eumenides? Grau's point is that even a whore's lonely death, unrevenged, will call down the Furies. One of the suspected officers, General Tanz, makes the explicit counterargument, later in the picture, when he says, Why should this woman's murder attract any attention at all?---our century has seen millions of deaths more horrible than hers. From this perspective, the moral question is one of degree.

NIGHT OF THE GENERALS is compelling not because of the mystery---it's pretty transparent from the get-go which of our guys is a nutjob---but because it's about a murder in wartime. Everything plays out against the worsening backdrop of Germany's coming collapse, from Warsaw in '42 to Paris in July of '44, after the Allied landings in Normandy, and everybody's got something to hide. One of the major plot strands is the conspiracy in the German high command to assassinate Hitler, for example. This raises the stakes considerably, and while you might not agree with General Tanz, and his moral relativism, you can see where he's coming from. With defeat looming, who seriously cares about dead whores? (There's more than one victim as the movie goes on. It turns out there's a serial killer on the loose.) And the dogged military cop, Grau, keeps getting the brush-off, swatted away by higher ranks, and reassigned because he's a nuisance. Not necessarily by the murderer, either. That's where the real mystery lies, not in the homicide investigation itself, but why all these people are so determined to throw Grau off the scent.

Donald Pleasance, Peter O'Toole, Charles Gray, Omar Sharif

The picture uses an effective structural device, which is basically a frame story, although that's not immediately apparent, since it begins in media res, but then it starts to shift back and forth in time, between the war and the present day---the present day being twenty years later. This allows people to comment on the events of the past, as you see them in flashback, or flash-forward, and often enough, they get it wrong. So there's an element of unreliable narrative mixed in. You don't know whether to trust the witnesses. Their memories may be corrupted by dubious loyalties, or simply self-serving, or they're still protecting old secrets.

Lastly, although this is perhaps parenthetical, when I first saw the movie, in late '67, I think it was, I'd been in Berlin almost two years, and one of the things I thought the picture got dead right was the German habit of mind. In particular, the way the Germans chose to to think about the war, or more to the point, the way they chose not to. In one scene, a veteran officer, now managing an automotive plant, laments that the Wehrmacht might have been able to stop the Allies, if the Army hadn't been stabbed in the back---as usual, he adds. This is willful disbelief, and a denial of history.  In another instance, an aging general is writing his memoirs, and he's gotten as far as the July 1944 plot against Hitler. He remarks that one has to be circumspect, so as not to re-open old wounds, particularly, he says, since so many of the convicted war criminals are now being released. This beggars imagination. Most people, on the other hand, can't be blamed for wanting to reinvent themselves, or be cast in a better light. For example, the French, everybody secretly in the Resistance, and nobody a willing collaborator. Or the Russians, or the Brits, or the Japanese, or us. Americans conveniently forget how strong the isolationist sentiment in this country was, before Pearl Harbor, and how many people thought Hitler was right about the Jews. In this sense, then, NIGHT OF THE GENERALS is subversive. It chooses both to forget, or to blur memory, and at the same time to serve as a sharp reminder, that only some of us are guilty, but none of us are innocent. No less than the Germans, we congratulate ourselves on learning the wrong lessons. No matter how this turns out, Rommel says, talking about the soon-to-fail July plot, history will judge us as patriots, or traitors.

At the end, though, NIGHT OF THE GENERALS does in fact turn on justice for those murdered whores, and there's some small satisfaction in that. In spite of its large canvas, and larger issues, the picture manages to keep a tight focus, and the Furies are held at bay. Or as Stalin is said to have remarked, one death is a tragedy, millions are a statistic.

IMDb movie website link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062038/

09 April 2013

Tomfoolery! Happy Birthday to Tom Lehrer

    When I was 14 years old (an unbelievable 50 years ago) a friend of mine and I were spending an otherwise boring evening pawing through my parents’ LP records, which were collected in a dusty rack in the knotty-pined basement of our suburban St. Louis home.  My friend pulled an abnormally small record from the stack.  It was a record I had been ignoring for years.

    The cover cried out cheapness – a flimsy cardboard sleeve featuring a drawing of a small man, sporting devil’s horns and tail, seated in front of a stylized piano keyboard.  Red flames ringed the borders of the album.  The title was Songs by Tom Lehrer

    “This,” my friend opined knowingly (since he had already discovered the record in his parents' collection), “is an awesome album.” 

    We positioned the 10 inch vinyl record on the nearby turntable, turned up the volume, and laughed for thirty minutes straight.  Afterwards, tears still in my eyes, I took the album upstairs where my parents were watching Ed Sullivan, oblivious to the merriment that had transpired below. 

    “I didn’t know we had this record,’ I said, holding out the album toward my father.

    In unison the blood drained from my parents’ faces.  My mother stared, aghast, at my father.  “You weren’t supposed to,” my father stammered, reaching for the album cover, which by the next morning had been relegated by my parents to a more secure hiding place.

                                *         *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

    Every once in a while I get lucky on SleuthSayers.  My every other Tuesday rolls up on a “winner.”  So far I have drawn New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day and November 22nd – each of which readily suggests themes for an article.  And today, though a bit more obscure, is another such winning Tuesday.  I can't really make today's article into something about mysteries, or crime, though it does, at base, have a lot to do with clever writing.

    Today professor, satirist, and sporadic performer Thomas Andrew Lehrer celebrates his 85th birthday. 

    So, what was it about that little record that fifty years ago both sent my 14 year old friend and me into gales of laughter while turning my parents ashen when confronted with the fact that we had discovered it in their collection?  One does not have to listen long to Mr. Lehrer’s 1953 collection of songs to understand both reactions.  Here, for example, is one of those songs -- My Home Town:


More to come on the musical front, but let’s pause first for a little backstory on one of the greatest satirists of our age.

    Tom Lehrer, born this day in 1928, is famous for three record albums released between 1953 and 1965.  (While more than three albums show up in various catalogs, do not be fooled – the differences reflect only whether the songs were recorded in a studio or before a live audience.  Any way you slice it, there basically are only three albums of songs.)  Not only is the list of songs small, by his own count Tom Lehrer also performed a grand total of only 109 concerts.  As Lehrer observed in a 2010 interview, writing “37 songs in 20 years is hardly what I would call a career.”   But what songs!

    It is true that Tom Lehrer apparently never saw himself as a composer or entertainer.  His principal career was mathematics professor.  He graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard in 1946, went on to earn a master’s degree in mathematics and worked toward, but never completed, his doctorate.  He earned his living teaching mathematics at Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, and in later years at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  (At Santa Cruz he taught an introductory mathematics class for Bachelor of Arts students that he referred to as “Math for Tenors.”)  If we were to ignore his musical contributions, Mr. Lehrer’s published works would consist of pretty thin and dry stuff – he co-authored Random Walks with Restraining Barrier as Applied to the Biased Binary Counter, which appeared in a 1958 issue of the Journal of the Society for Industrial Applied Mathematics, and The Distribution of the Number of Locally Maximal Elements in a Random Sample, published in 1957 in the Annals of Mathematical Statistics.  Obviously it is not in honor of these works that we are assembled here today. 

    It was while studying mathematics at Harvard in the1940s that Lehrer began to compose humorous songs.  Trained as a child on the piano, his self-accompanied renditions of his compositions rapidly gained a following among the Harvard student body.  Inspired by this success, Lehrer self-funded an LP album – that one with the red flames at the top of the article, the one my father had not quite hidden well enough.

    At first Lehrer sold the 10 inch vinyl albums himself for $3.00 a piece, but eventually demand became great enough that local stores around the Harvard campus began selling the album for $3.50, pocketing the half buck as profit.  The popularity of the record continued to grow by word-of-mouth, and by the early to mid-1950s Lehrer’s first album was available in record stores across the country.  The word “available” is used, however, advisedly.  The album was virtually always sold only “under the counter,” since the songs were deemed too risqué and dark-humored for public display and sales.  Eventually a second album was recorded, More of Tom Lehrer, a studio recording, and An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, consisting of the same songs, but performed in a live concert. 

    Slowly, but steadily, Tom Lehrer was discovered.  As an example, Lehrer performed his songs sporadically in nightclubs in the 1950s, and while playing Boston in October of 1954 a young writer named Isaac Asimov wandered in to listen.  Asimov promptly became a fan, and the evening proved memorable enough that it is recounted in Asimov’s autobiography In Joy Still Felt.  The song Lehrer reportedly was playing as Asimov entered the nightclub was I Got it from Sally, which over the years morphed into I Got it from Agnes.  During the course of the song it became obvious to the audience, including Asimov, as he recounts in his autobiography, that the “it” was a sexually transmitted disease, and that the ways that “it” was acquired grew increasingly, shall we say, less normative as the song progressed.  Asimov wrote "I haven't gone to nightclubs often, but of all the times I have gone, it was on this occasion that I had by far the best time."  Although, as Asimov marvelled, the song contains no word that standing alone would have been unacceptable to a 1954 listener, in its entirety the piece was nonetheless deemed too over the edge to be included in either of Lehrer’s early albums. 

    But that does not stop us here at SleuthSayers – in all its glory, here is Tom Lehrer singing  I Got it from Agnes.

    No further albums were forthcoming, and by all appearances in the late 1950s Tom Lehrer had left satire behind and was concentrating on his day job at Harvard.  Then along came an NBC series:  That Was the Week That Was

    There are those in my generation who still hold cherished memories of TW3 (as it was known to its sadly few fans).  Satire, it is said, closes on Saturday night.  TW3, NBC’s experiment in live satire, lasted a scant one and a half seasons, finally expiring on a Tuesday.  While it was around it offered a weekly live send-up of the notable news stories of the previous seven days.  If you don’t remember this gem, or if you are too young to have been there, the show was sort of a Daily Show, but done in a variety format.  Reportedly Professor Lehrer tuned in, liked what he saw, and, upon listening to its musical odes to the events of the week, thought to himself  “I could do that.”   He began submitting songs to the show.  The first one accepted, performed live on TW3 (if memory serves) by Broadway performer Stanley Grover, commemorated National Brotherhood Week.

   The songs written for TW3 provided the fodder for Tom Lehrer’s third, and final, album – That Was the Year That Was, recorded live at San Francisco's famous Hungry I, and released in 1965.  The album not only contains all of the TW3 songs as performed by Tom Lehrer, it offers the original versions of those songs without the dampening (and damning) revisions made by nervous NBC censors.  Fueled by the success of his TW3 songs Tom Lehrer toured briefly in 1965 and 1966.  There were several other short tours, but by 1972 Tom Lehrer had once again largely stepped back from the public eye. 

    Explaining his disdain for touring Lehrer has observed “if you have already gone to Cincinnati, there is really no reason to go on to Cleveland.”  There is also an urban legend that Tom Lehrer retired from performing after Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, explaining that the event rendered satire forevermore obsolete.

    Nevertheless Tom Lehrer again re-emerged, at least vicariously, in 1981, thanks to the efforts of Sir Cameron Macintosh, the Broadway producer extraordinaire later known for producing Cats, Les Miz, Phantom of the Opera, Lady Saigon and Mary Poppins.  Macintosh decided that the world needed a revival of Lehrer’s mischievous musings, and took it upon himself to accomplish this.   

    Tomfoolery, Macintosh's theatrical revue of Lehrer’s works, was  fashioned along the lines of Jacque Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris -- the show is a musical revue, without story, presented in a cabaret setting.  The revue played in various cities across the United States – I saw a production at Washington’s Arena Stage in 1982 – and played off Broadway for 120 performances.  It featured songs from Tom Lehrer’s three albums, as well as some additional songs he wrote for the PBS children’s television series The Electric Company.

    Thereafter, other than some re-issues of his albums, notably a nice newly re-engineered 2010 offering, The Tom Lehrer Collection (highly recommended, purchase it here), that  has pretty much been it.  What nevertheless has fueled the fire and kept Professor Lehrer popular all of these intervening years?  Certainly not his formal reviews.  The following are included, tongue in cheek, on his album covers:

•    "Mr. Lehrer's muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste."  New York Times

•    "More desperate than amusing" —  New York Herald Tribune

•    "He seldom has any point to make except obvious ones" —  The Christian Science Monitor

•    "Plays the piano acceptably" — The Oakland Tribune

Nor has Mr. Lehrer’s music been widely accepted by other entertainers.  I can think of only one “cover” for a Lehrer song, although that one is brilliant.  Listen to Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe introducing and then performing the Lehrer classic The Elements.

    In a 2010 interview Lehrer reflected on the continued vitality of his satiric works.  He noted at the time that what he tried to do in his pieces was to use internal rhymes and clever word play so as to produce songs that one not only would want to listen to, but would want to listen to over and over again.  It certainly has worked for me over the last 50 years.  And why do the songs, with all of their dark humor, continue to resonate, more than 60 years after many of them were written?  Again, in the words of Tom Lehrer:  “if you predict the worst, you are likely to be hailed as a prophet.”

    All of that said, the truly amazing thing about Lehrer’s songs is how well they do in fact (even if darkly) continue to resonate.

    A new Pope faced with issues of reform in the Catholic Church?  Time for The Vatican Rag.

    The Supreme Court re-examining provisions of the Voting Rights Act?  Lets listen, once again, to Dixie.

    Scandal in the ranks of the Boy Scouts?  That calls for Be Prepared.

    Censorship?  In a word, Smut.

    Pollution?  Pollution.

    Harvard unimaginably wins the first round in March Madness?  Fight Fiercely, Harvard!  (Okay, its about  football but you'll get the picture!)

    My favorite professor did emerge from the ivy covered halls at least one last time, in 1998, when, after 25 years he agreed to perform in London at a gala tribute to Sir Cameron Macintosh.  As we are poised to enter yet another spring, what could be more appropriate than this?

        Tom Lehrer has famously observed that "[i]f, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”   Sorry, but it's not going to happen.  We are too busy, even after all of these years, laughing.

   Happy Birthday, Professor!