13 June 2013

An Interview with Hist-Myst Author Ruth Downie

Ruth Downie is the author of five historical mysteries set in ancient Roman-occupied Britain. Her protagonist Gaius Petreius Ruso is a Gaul-born Roman citizen serving in Britain as an army doctor. In the first book he saves the life of a dying slave- a strong-willed Briton named Tilla, who becomes Ruso's "housekeeper," and eventually his wife. Together the pair find themselves plunged into a series of awkward situations (with Tilla usually doing the plunging!) invariably resulting in Ruso's reluctant investigation of some sort of ill-concealed malfeasance.

Ruth, thanks very much for taking the time to answer some questions about yourself and your work. First: please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I worked as a secretary/administrator after University, and made a mental escape into creative writing as an adult. This started with short stories, and I was hugely encouraged by being runner-up in a “Start a Novel” competition for a national newspaper (The Daily Mail) and by winning the Fay Weldon section of the BBC’s “End of Story” competition. ‘Medicus’ started as three chapters for another “start a novel” competition run by the Historical Novel Society, (to whom I’m hugely grateful). There are now five novels in the series, and a sixth should be published in the summer of 2014. Who’d have thought it?!

Meanwhile I’m delighted to have returned to live in the West Country after many years’ absence. I have a husband, two grown-up sons and a cat, and am never happier than when on an archaeological dig in the sunshine.
How did you come to being a writer?
My degree was in English literature, but frankly that put me off - when you spend three years reading literary masters, anything you might produce yourself looks feeble in comparison. It was only years later when I had small children at home and was studying for an accountancy exam in the evenings that I decided I needed to loosen my brain up, and tentatively ventured into a Creative Writing class.

So why write historical mystery? And why a character from Britain's distant past? Especially someone so "non-Briton" as Gaius Petreius Ruso?
I never realised how interesting ancient history was until we went on a family visit to Hadrian’s Wall. Rather late, it dawned on me that the past was populated by real people, and that they had been here. When we learned in a museum that, “Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry, but were allowed to have relationships with local women”, I began to wonder what must have happened to those women. So initially I was fascinated by the mystery of all those lost stories: the murders came later.  
As for Ruso: I wanted a foreigner’s take on the Britons, and I liked the tension of that foreigner being part of a long-term occupying force. It was interesting to have Britannia as what we’d now think of as a “developing country” – especially as plenty of the Britons were not at all interested in development, and would rather have been left alone.
The character of Tilla is dynamically drawn, possessed of a unique voice, and plays an important role in each of the books in this series. Did you envision writing something wherein a "female counterpart" would play such a large role when you first started writing about Ruso and his world, or did Tilla "intrude" on your original plans?
Tilla was definitely there from the start: she’s the “local woman” who has a thing or two to teach the know-it-all Romans.
In my limited experience with writing and publishing mystery-themed historical fiction I've found the research itself to be something of a necessary quagmire. On the one hand it's a requirement (albeit an enjoyable one) if you wish to have the ring of authenticity to your work. On the other hand, it's possible to go too far, to place too much emphasis on it, to include so much historical description that it bogs down the narrative. You seem to have a terrific handle on this, including enough historical detail to give your narrative the proper "feel" for the period involved, without overdoing it. How do you tackle the question of research: how much to do, how much to include? And do you continue to research once you've begun your actual drafting of the novel?
To be honest I’ve never really got the research under control. I’d happily read books, wander round
sites and museums, and trawl around the Internet all day every day. (Who wouldn’t?) I’ve also done a lot of archaeological digging on a Roman villa site and a certain amount of hanging around re-enactors and wearing mock Roman clothes, which is great for getting the ‘feel’ of the past.  It’s quite a struggle to set all this aside and get on with putting the words in order, and I’m very easily distracted back into research if something crops up that I’m not sure about.

As a reader, however, I’m very impatient. I want to know what happens next. I’m not interested in struggling through the undigested fruits of the author’s research - although if I ever find a way to fit a clue into the patterns on Romano-British box flue tiles, they’ll turn up somewhere in a plot.  I’m aware of the advice that everything should be relevant to the story, although I fear I don’t always abide by it.  Sometimes I can’t resist slipping in an entertaining fact. SEMPER FIDELIS has the “epispasm,” the procedure on offer in the ancient world for any gentleman brave enough to want to disguise his circumcision. I suspect that my subconscious may have arranged part of the plot specially to get that in…
In your nonfiction asides outside the narrative of you novels you do a nice job of breaking down what stems from fact and what is pure invention within your work. Do you find fans appreciative of that?
I’m glad you asked that! I’ve often wondered whether it was a good idea or not, because people seldom comment on it. However - I’m writing this from Crimefest, (http://www.crimefest.com) so yesterday I took advantage of being on a discussion panel to ask the audience what they thought. It turns out that most people think it’s a good idea. Several said they glance through the notes before they read a book, which I confess I do, too. And as my fellow-panellist Jane Finnis (http://www.janefinnis.com) pointed out, ‘nobody has to read it if they don’t want to.’
Speaking of "fans," every writer of historical fiction who stays in the game long enough eventually has at least one encounter with someone who approaches them either in person or via email, etc., and insists they got this or that historical detail "wrong." Do you find this a challenge? How do you address this sort of thing?

I’m not a historian, but mercifully this doesn’t happen as often as it did in my nightmares after I found out the first novel was going to be published. I’m fine with it if people contact me personally – sometimes it gives me a chance to explain. (I really MUST check future US editions to make sure the word ‘corn’ is translated into ‘wheat’ because it’s very distracting for the discerning American reader to find the Romano-Britons apparently growing what we call sweetcorn, or maize.)

At other times, although it’s always a blow to the pride to realise you’ve got something very publicly wrong, it’s useful to know for next time and I’m glad people are interested enough to care. What I do struggle with is the very occasional internet reviewer who complains about an error that isn’t an error at all. I don’t reply to reviews but it does bother me that someone else might read that, assume the critic is correct and be put off trying the book.

Speaking of the writing, can you briefly walk us through your process?
Well I’ll try, but only because it will serve as a warning to others. On a good day I wake up with an idea about something I’ve been wrestling with the day before, and scribble it down in the bedside notebook – I try to write a page or two about something every morning, even if it’s only the weather. Then I type it up later and with luck, I get sufficiently involved in it to lose track of time. On a bad day I footle about checking emails for far too long, waste the most productive part of the day, and end up with nothing except a feeling of guilt.

A good day will see 1000 words added to the count. A nearly-at-the-deadline day might even see 3000 words, but not necessarily the right ones.  I’ve now bought “Freedom” software in an attempt to keep myself away from the Internet. And yes, I do know how feeble that sounds!

The best part of the process is re-writing, when the editor has pointed out what doesn’t work and hopefully what does, and you have a chance to try and fix it.

Setting sure seems to play a vital role in your work. So far in your series you've resisted setting any of your books in the same place twice, featuring locations such as Deva (Chester), Londinium (London), Eburacum (York), and the area north of Hadrian's Wall in lowland Scotland and in southern Gaul (France). Any chance of a return to one or any of these places? Also, any chance that Ruso and Tilla will eventually wind up in Aquae Sulis (Bath), perhaps to take the waters, only to find....?
Book Six, which isn’t due out until August 2014, will be back in the Hadrian’s Wall region, because
historically I’ve reached the years when the wall was built. But instead of Corbridge, we’ll be thirty miles away in the central region, nearer to Vindolanda and up in the hills.
As for Aquae Sulis - Book Two was very nearly set there. I’d bought all the research books and been for the field trip – but told nobody else - when I discovered Kelli Stanley’s website and found that she was about to send her own Roman medic there in her next book. There’s only a limited amount of source material to work with and it would have been silly to try and draw from the same well, so I fear Ruso won’t be taking the waters after all!
Which authors, regardless of genre categorization, do you consider your primary influences as an author? And are there authors whose work you enjoy, but don't consider influences?
That’s tricky, because I suspect in some way we’re influenced by everything we read. (*Note to self: spend less time messing about on the Internet, LOL*) Discovering Lindsey Davis’s Falco novels gave me the confidence to carry on writing Roman-era fiction with modern dialogue and humour – something I wasn’t sure was ‘allowed’ when I started doing it. I love Martin Cruz Smith’s Russian novels, because Renko is such a superb lead character. CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series is a must-read, and anything by Elmore Leonard is an example of how to tell a fine story with a few words.
Thanks so much for taking the time to be interviewed! As a sign-off, please tell us what you're reading right now?
I’ve just finished ‘Pigs in Clover’ by Simon Dawson – the story of a couple who abandoned their jobs in London to live on a smallholding. It’s a very honest, moving and funny account, especially as I’ve both met and eaten some of the livestock Simon mentions.
Next up: Robert Goddard’s “The Ways of the World” – a proof copy for review. I’m looking forward to being taken to Paris in 1919.


12 June 2013

The Haunted Wood

The hysteria of the Red Scare in the 1950's is a sad chapter in recent American history. Joe McCarthy was a blowhard and an opportunist, who targeted the innocent along with the merely suspect, and destroyed the careers of honorable people, inside the government and out.

To take one example, it was an article of faith on the Left for many years that the Rosenbergs were railroaded to the electric chair. And likewise, that Alger Hiss was the victim of a smear campaign by the despicable turncoat Whittaker Chambers. The fact that the Hiss case gave legs to Richard Nixon's early political career is only proof positive that the bottom-feeders of the Far Right have no shame, and are happy to use the basest of lies to promote a culture of fear.

Slight cognitive dissonance, here. What gets lost in the shuffle is that Stalin had in fact mounted an enormous clandestine espionage operation inside the United States in the postwar years. Not that McCarthy made a dent in it.

Which brings us to THE HAUNTED WOOD.  In 1995, the FBI began to release the declassified transcripts of the Venona intercepts. Venona was a U.S. counterintelligence program that decrypted cable traffic, specifically Soviet agents reporting back to Moscow. The authors of THE HAUNTED WOOD were given access to KGB archives, and cross-collateralized with Venona, they reconstruct a secret world.

There's an obvious question of provenance. To what degree are the KGB documents---or the FBI documents, for that matter---redacted, or sanitized, or doctored? No security service wittingly gives up material that makes them look bad. The answer seems to be that when both versions of the traffic are available---e.g., the original Russian in Moscow's archive, and the FBI translations---the content matches, with only minor differences such as wording, small errors in vocabulary or grammar that would naturally creep in. A non-native Russian speaker (like this writer, for instance) is bound to make some mistakes. In other words, the resulting analysis is trustworthy. The authors haven't been led down the garden path.

THE HAUNTED WOOD makes a hash of the apologists' case. Alger Hiss, for one, was alomst certainly recruited by GRU, Soviet military intelligence, in the 1930's. And the Russians, of course, found other sympathizers among the anti-Fascist Left, particularly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. You could ascribe this to idealism, or naivete, or a thirst for social justice. There were a lot of people on the Left, in the '30's, who saw the rise of Hitler as the handwriting on the wall, nor were they far wrong. It took a willing blindness, though, to see Stalin as a champion of the oppressed, and as time passed, many of these former willing acolytes fell away from the faith. After the arrest of the Rosenbergs, the Moscow intelligence apparat discarded well-intentioned Old Lefties and turned to pros. Rudolph Abel established a spy network out of Brooklyn that lasted nine years before the FBI rolled him up. Soviet illegals, working under deep cover, weren't a fabrication of J. Edgar Hoover's fevered reptile brain.

None of this is meant to be an alibi for malignant windbags like McCarthy, or the moral cowardice of his enablers. It's widely accepted that the Red-hunters never exposed a single agent of Communist influence. It was all smoke and mirrors. What they did do was create an abiding climate of mistrust, and enshrine the habit of betrayal. It's not a stretch to say that the hearings themselves, with their odor of Stalin's purge trials, the posturing, the parade of friendly witnesses, the public disgrace of others, and the blacklist, the fruit of a corrupt bargain, did more to damage the American political fabric than any number of actual enemy subversives could have hoped for. It poisoned the well for a generation.

The war in the shadows went on. A long stalemate, between two adversaries who each recognized a genuine threat in the other, and found, it seems, their mirror image. This is not in any way to suggest a moral equivalency, but there's a lesson to be taken from the Cold War. We were looking into the past, and trying to see the future through the wrong end of the telescope.

11 June 2013

Putting a Face to the Name

Last year a friend lent me his well-worn copy of The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins.  My friend was aghast that I'd never read a book he considered seminal in the crime fiction field.  I enjoyed the novel.  It was easy to see that it would have been a standout when it was first published in 1971, since so much of it is told in dialogue and that dialogue is almost straight goodfellaese (almost twenty years before Goodfellas).  The novel appeared just after the publication of Mario Puzo's The Godfather (1969), but in tone it's almost the anti-Godfather.  The characters (Irish rather than Italian) are lower middle class and most of their crimes are two-bit.  Higgins' refusal to romanticize organized crime makes the book ring true.  That and the dialogue.

But it seems to me that Higgins' reliance on dialogue is both a strength and weakness of the novel.  It gives the book an immediacy that's almost like listening in on a wiretap, but it also makes it hard to root for or identify with any character in the book, including the title character, Eddie Coyle.  That mutes the ending a bit--or it did for me.  You can argue that a story without a hero was exactly what Higgins was after, but that isn't the issue I want to talk about today.  I want to stick with dialogue, with its advantages and limitations for presenting character.

When I write, I depend a lot on dialogue to help me get to know my characters.  That is, I get to know them by listening to them speak.  This is especially true of minor characters, the ones who weren't given much attention in my outline.  I seldom write much physical description of characters or very detailed "stage directions" in an early draft of a scene.  I come to see the character and how the character moves or fidgets or doesn't by listening to his or her voice.  Then I go back and add the non-dialogue elements.  In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, these elements are either missing or pared to the bone.  And because so many of the characters are speaking in the wise guy voice, it's hard to separate individuals from the pack.   I love the wiretap, but I'd like more video surveillance.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle intrigued me so much I decided to rent the movie version from Netflix.  It was released in 1973 and starred Robert Mitchum.  I enjoyed it even more than the novel.  For one thing, the clothes and cars and settings were out of a time capsule from my college years.  It was filmed around Boston, probably in '72 or early '73.  I arrived at Boston College (George V. Higgins' alma mater) in the fall of 1972.  I even once owned a Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia, like the one driven by one of the lowlifes in the movie.  (He gets razzed for it by his crook buddies, understandably.)  The movie easily overcame the problem I had with the book:  my inability to identify with or develop much sympathy for Coyle.  With a world-weary Mitchum in the part , I automatically rooted for him (to no avail).  All the actors in the movie provide the same service, giving faces to the voices of the book.

As a closing aside, It's amazing how adult the movies of the 70s were.  In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, there was no gratuitous romance, no showy violence, no soapbox posturing, and no big name star cast in a part he really isn't right for.  (Tom Cruise, call your office.)  In contrast, 2012's Killing Them Softly, based on another Higgins' novel, Cogan's Trade, was a disappointment.  It had a solid central performance by Brad Pitt, but it was marred by the grand opera style violence that's fashionable now.  Not to mention some high concept parallels to the 2008 financial meltdown that bowed the legs of Higgins' simple plot.  A better film might have sparked a Higgins revival.  This one didn't. 

10 June 2013

Smith's Law

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape
Bet you've never heard of Smith's Law. Well, don't fret. I'm sure you've heard of Murphy's Law? Well, my late husband, Elmer Grape used to claim that Murphy was an optimist. That whatever did go wrong was going to get worse.

So I had my internet tech out last week & got my desktop back online and then sorta got the laptop going also.  Well, it was working; it just takes thirty minutes plus to load. Since computers were working I delayed buying a new laptop. And today is when Murphy's Law kicked in. Things got worse.

This afternoon while trying to get my article written and posted, I cannot get online with either computer. The desktop is totally hopeless. I managed to get online with laptop but after 40 minutes of the cursor spinning it just would NOT open the sleuthsayer website.  So I'm writing this on my phone. Thank goodness I bought a styles thingy last week. I can't  imagine trying to type this much with a fingertip.

And so things won't be a total crying towel, pitiful Patty, I'll give you an idea of what my original article was about.  I've had people say that my policewoman sounds exactly like me. Or that this character or that character is Aunt Whosit or Uncle What's his name. In reality none of that is so. The characters I make up are just that "made up."

If Zoe Barrow sounds like me...it's probably because you give her a Texas accent because I'm from Texas.  Like most writers say, there's a little bit of me in several of my characters. But Zoe is younger, thinner, prettier and braver than me. (I got that one from Sue Grafton about comparing Kinsey to her.)

However, I take bits and pieces of people I know or see to compose a character. I've gone to a mall to people watch. To note gestures, walks, body language.   You may take a trait of Aunt Whosit and marry it with Cousin Whom.  When you do that you do need to be careful they don't recognize themselves. A friend once said she made her mother-in-law into a yippy dog but the MIL never caught it.

Characters are fun to create. But don't just give a list.of hair and eye color. Give us something to their makeup as a person. Thats when characters come to life.

I think this is about all I can type this way . So until next time watch out for Murphy.

09 June 2013

The Digital Detective, Banking part 2

Continued from last week, where we explained the basics of kiting and how banks work

The Crumpled Kite

As mentioned earlier, kiting isn’t as common as it used to be, partly because of stiff penalties, but also because the time it takes to clear a check with another bank has shrunk from many days– sometimes a couple of weeks– to just a day or two. But when I consulted, I witnessed a kiting scheme that could have fooled financial institutions and their computers almost indefinitely.

A bank in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley decided to invest its excess computer resources in software development and I contracted as their consultant. It was an odd relationship because they feared me as if they’d hired a gunslinger to guard the vault.

One evening I idled, waiting for computer time; in fact, I was waiting for a new guy to finish the night’s reconciliation run. As I sat tapping my fingers, he called the lead operator over and pointed out a worn, battered check. The lead glanced and dismissed it, saying “Just stick it in an envelope, imprint it, and run it through again.”

“But…” said the new guy hesitantly, aware the lead seemed annoyed he didn’t jump to it. “But, we can’t. I mean, it arrived in a carrier envelope and look, it’s not our routing number. And it's really old.”

Curious, I wandered over and the operations supervisor stepped in, obviously impatient at the delay. He read the check, stared at it, lips moving as he re-read the numbers. He ran his thumb under the date, several months old. Puzzled, he picked up the phone and beeped the operations manager.

It was still early evening when the manager strolled in. He looked at the check and made a phone call. When he hung up, he shrugged and turned to the supervisor, “No matter, we’ll find out in the morning what’s going on.”

But by now, the worn check had captured my curiosity and that of my colleagues. Three of us sat down to figure it out. We discovered a scam, and this is how it worked.

The Endless Kite

cheque numbers

From a common check supply company, our schemer bought checks printed with Frugal Savings & Loan’s name, address, and logo, but with Penury Bank’s routing number. He waltzed into a bank other than Frugal Savings & Loan, cashed his check, and departed without a care in the world.

That evening during the check run, the machine sorted his check into a tray to be delivered to the clearing house. From there on out, the following cycle endlessly repeated:
  1. The check arrives at the clearing house. Its routing number routes the check to Penury Bank & Trust.
  2. During the check run at Penury, the computer accepts the routing number but doesn’t recognize the check’s bogus account number and kicks it into the rejects pocket.
  3. A Penury operator plucks it out of the rejects pocket, notices it bears a Frugal Savings & Loan logo and address on it, and either manually packages it to send directly to Frugal S&L or bundles it to send back to the central clearing house for forwarding to Frugal. Either way, the check winds up at Frugal Savings & Loan.
  4. At Frugal, the MICR reader sees another bank’s routing number, knows that’s wrong, and kicks the check into the rejects pocket. It goes back to the clearing house to repeat the cycle again.
Meanwhile, the bank that cashed the check hasn’t received their money, but neither has the check been denied.

The Kite that Crashed

The cycle eventually broke because constant transit nearly wore out the check and an inexperienced operator questioned why a draft on his bank contained an unfamiliar routing number.

We don’t know how many experienced operators routinely handled the check, seeing the bank name and logo and not the routing number, just as their computers saw the routing number and not the bank name.

Banks (at least at that time) did not have a standardized way of handling a check that forever floated but never cleared. In many cases, the bank software simply left the deposit unresolved with neither the funds transferred nor reserved– it simply stayed on the books, so to speak. In banks that impose holds, their programs might be written to release the hold after a number of days if the check isn’t returned, even if the funds aren’t actually received.

I speculate the scheme might have been harder to detect if non-magnetic digits had been printed over ‘invisible’ MICR ink. In other words, the pigment in MICR ink is for the convenience of people. The computer itself doesn’t use optical recognition (OCR) but senses the microscopic particles in the numbers.

No one’s immune to bunco, not even banks.

08 June 2013

In So Many Words

by John M. Floyd

A couple of weeks ago I received a nice surprise: an acceptance from The Strand Magazine. I was informed that my short mystery, "Secrets," will be featured in their summer issue. My friend Rob Lopresti had a story in their winter/spring issue, so I'm pleased to be able to carry the SleuthSayers banner forward into the fall of the year. (Rob, hand it over.) Note to members of our group: one of you must now get a story accepted for the next issue . . .

Here's a quick summary. My story involves two (mysterious) strangers who happen to meet on a ferry between the mainland and an island where one of them has scheduled a (mysterious) meeting. All the action takes place within an hour or so, during which the two characters on the ferry discover things about each other and about themselves and about the suddenly deadly situation they've been thrown into. (Hey, what can I say?--I love that kind of stuff.)

One unusual thing about writing this story is that I had trouble deciding on a title. I liked "Secrets" because there are so many of them in the story--secrets kept from the characters by their bosses, spouses, etc.; secrets that the two keep from each other; even secrets that I try to keep from the reader until certain points in the story. But I almost called it "Secrets: a Ferry Tale." I finally decided not to, for two reasons. First, it sounded a little too cutesy, and second, I'm not crazy about titles that contain a colon.

Now, having said that . . .

I should confess that none of this has anything to do with the reason for today's column. The reason I'm writing this column is that I recently discovered something a little odd about the eight stories I have so far sold to The Strand. The strange thing (besides the fact that they were accepted at all) is this: they were all very close to the same length. About 4000 words. Part of that was because the guidelines said 2000 to 6000, and it doesn't take a genius to realize that hitting that range right in the middle can probably help your chances. Another part of it, though, was coincidence. That length just sort of turned out to feel "right" for those particular stories.

Which brings up a question. Should you try to write stories specifically for certain markets, and of certain lengths, or should you just write the story with no preconceived ideas about how long it should be or where it's going?

I guess I do both. Woman's World mysteries have to be a set length--just under 700 words--so yes, I do write those with that wordcount in mind beforehand. But that's unusual for me. I've always believed that it's better to write the story first, let it reach whatever length it needs to be, and only then--when it's completed--decide where you want to submit it.

Thankfully, there are some good markets, including EQMM and AHMM, where length doesn't matter much. The shortest story I've sold to AH was 1200 words, the longest was 14,000, and a few days ago I sold them one that was 5400. I believe their guidelines now specify a max of 12K or so, but that still leaves authors plenty of leeway. (And I should emphasize here that all Strand stories don't have to be the same length either. Mine just happened to be.)


Another question: generally speaking, are shorter stories easier to sell? I think that answer's usually yes, for several reasons. For one thing, it's easier for an editor to fit a shorter piece into a magazine or an anthology than a longer one. Also, if you're not an already established name, an editor might be more apt to hang in there and read your story all the way to the end if it's shorter rather than longer. I honestly think markets these days--both literary and genre, both magazines and anthologies--are more receptive to shorter stories than they used to be. Case in point: many of them, in their submission guidelines, seem to have lowered their maximum wordcount.

Why would this be true? One school of thought says that editors want only what readers want, and since we as readers have so many distractions nowadays, so much competition for our attention, we just won't sit still long enough to read a really long story. I'm a little skeptical of that; after all, we sit still long enough to read novels. But maybe those folks who are already drawn to short stories prefer them shorter now. Who knows.

A mixed bag

I'm one of those people who like to write, and read, stories and novels of all different lengths. My latest collection of short fiction contains thirty stories that range from 500 words to 15,000 words (one might argue that a 15K story isn't a short story at all, but I continue to believe that novellas begin around 20K). I think that kind of variety makes for a more effective collection and a more interesting read, but that's just me. I also believe that shorter is not necessarily better, and that every story seeks its own length. My favorite story that I've written was about 10,000 words. But I also believe, as I said earlier, that shorter stories are easier to sell.

What do you think? Which--shorter or longer--had you rather write, and read? If you're a writer, do you write with a certain length or market in mind? What do you consider the break point to be (in wordcount), between shorts and novellas? Between novellas and novels? Between short-shorts and short stories? Between flash fiction and short-shorts? Do such distinctions even matter?

Perhaps more importantly, how long should a column be? No more than a thousand words? Well, I just checked, and this one is already 996.

So I'll stop here.

07 June 2013

Bottom of the Glass

Several of the Sleuth Sayer bloggers have written about the agony of receiving rejection slips from editors, agents and/or publishers, so now I guess it's my turn to stand up and say, "Hi, my name is R.T. Lawton and I am a writer." And then, after the polite applause that's usually received at these types of meetings in church basements or wherever, I guess I'll have to tell my story. That's the way these things work.

"Well, lately I've received four straight rejections, with personal hand-written notes from the column editor at Woman's World magazine. In the past, this has been one of my bread and butter markets. One of the rejections even credited me for having an original idea which hadn't been submitted to her before....but the story still wasn't quite right for her. Damn.

At this point, I saw two possibilities. One, I was slipping. Nah, that couldn't be. And two, the solution I preferred to accept, was that my friend and fellow blogger, John Floyd, had cornered the market with his engaging series characters. Darn you John, your excellent writing is making for some hard competition for the rest of us. Keep on going though, as I may learn something yet.

So here I am looking at the bottom of the glass. But since those of us who have spent time on the edge, one way or another, usually have a strange sense of humor from operating on the darker side of life, I like to put a little something back in the glass by remembering my most favorite rejection. You see, I am probably one of the few writers who has been rejected by a jail. It went something like this.

When I was vice-prez of the Black Hills Writers Group, a stranger showed up at one of our monthly meetings. This in itself wasn't odd, because we often had some newcomer sitting in for a meeting or more. However, this newcomer said he was the editor of a newspaper for one of the more infamous biker campgrounds at the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and he was looking for biker stories to purchase for his rag. He didn't know me, but I knew him professionally and it wasn't from the writing side of my profession.

Since I'd had stories published in Easyriders and Outlaw Biker under some of my undercover aliases, I figured I had a good shot at this, a mere campground newspaper. I wrote up a story, submitted it under an alias with a return address to an undercover post office box and awaited the results. Several days later, I received an envelope  from the Pennington County Jail with a rejection  and the request that in the future I not send anything consisting of more than four pages.

While I knew that the editor was on probation for violating the state drug laws, I had no idea that he subsequently violated his probation and got put back inside. At which point, this same editor had all his mail forwarded to the country jail, to include my manuscript. Thus, sad to say, I was promptly rejected by the jail officials who read all incoming mail for prisoners. My manuscript never saw print in the public venue.

Therefore on occasions such as today, I still raise my partially filled glass and toast the fallen editor who never knew my true identity. God bless the idiot. In later years I would ride my Harley out to the infamous biker campground during the rally and watch this same editor as he MC'ed the Miss Bear Butte (Bare Butt) Contest in his white suit, white bowler hat, white spats, white shoes and white cane. You had to be there to appreciate it.

Sometimes, just the memory of this rejection keeps me laughing. To me, it's an inspiration, but then I've led a rather odd life and tend to see the world in a different perspective than most folk.

So, it's on my mind that you should lighten up when you get rejected. Just keep on writing and submitting. Sometimes you have absolutely no control over what happens to your stories. You're a writer though, just go get 'em.

06 June 2013

The $3500 Shirt - A History Lesson in Economics

One of the great advantages of being a historian is that you don't get your knickers in as much of a twist over how bad things are today. If you think this year is bad, try 1347, when the Black Death covered most of Europe, one-third of the world had died, and (to add insult to injury) there was also (in Europe) the little matter of the Hundred Years' War and the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (where the pope had moved to Avignon, France, and basically the Church was being transformed into a subsidiary of the French regime). Things are looking up already, aren't they?

Another thing is economics. Everyone complains about taxes, prices, and how expensive it is to live any more. I'm not going to go into taxes - that way lies madness. But I can tell you that living has never been cheaper. We live in a country awash in stuff - food, clothing, appliances, machines, cheap crap from China - but it's never enough. $4 t-shirts? Please. We want five for $10, and even then, can we get them on sale? And yet, compared to a world where everything is made by hand - we're talking barely 200 years ago - everything is cheap and plentiful, and we are appallingly ungrateful.

Let's talk clothing. When the Industrial Revolution began, it started with factories making cloth. Why? Because clothing used to be frighteningly expensive. Back in my teaching days I gave a standard lecture, which is about to follow, on the $3,500 shirt, or why peasants owned so little clothing. Here's the way it worked:

NOTE:  As of 4/6/16 I have updated the mathematics of this here at this blog post.  It's still astounding.

See this guy below, lying asleep under the tree? And the guys still working in the field?  They're all wearing a standard medieval shirt. It has a yoke, a bit of smocking and gathering around the neck, armholes, and the wrists would be banded, so they could tie or button them close.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder- The Harvesters - Google Art Project.jpg

Oh, and in the middle ages, it would be expected that all of the inside sleeves would be finished. This was all done by hand. A practiced seamstress could probably sew it in 7 hours. But that's not all that would go into the making. There's the cloth. A shirt like this would take about 5 yards of cloth, and it would be a fine weave: the Knoxville Museum of Art estimates two inches an hour. So 4(yards)*36(inches)/2 = 72 hours. (I'm a weaver - or at least I used to be - so this sounds accurate to me.) Okay, so hand weaving and hand sewing would take 79 hours. Now the estimate for spinning has always been complex, so stick with me for a minute: Yardage of thread for 4 yards of cloth, one yard wide (although old looms often only wove about 24" wide cloth), and requires 25 threads per inch, so:

25 threads * 36" wide = 900 threads, which each needs to be (4 yards + 1 yards for tie-up = 5 yards long), so 900 * 5 = 4,500 yards of thread for the warp. And you'd need about the same for a weft, or a total of about 9,000 yards of thread for one shirt.

9,000 yards would take a while to spin. At a Dark Ages recreation site, they figured out a good spinner could do 4 yards in an hour, so that would be 2,250 hours to make the thread for the weaving.  Now, A lot of modern spinners disagree with this figure, saying they can spin much faster than that.  So let's say they're right.  And we'll say that the spinner is in a hurry to make this thread because the shirt's for her or someone she knows (all spinners were female in medieval times), so we'll say she worked her tail off and did it in 500 hours.

So, 7 hours for sewing, 72 for weaving, 500 for spinning, or 579 hours total to make one shirt. At minimum wage - $7.25 an hour - that shirt would cost $4,197.25.
And that's just a standard shirt.
And that's not counting the work that goes into raising sheep or growing cotton and then making the fiber fit for weaving. Or making the thread for the sewing.
And you'd still need pants (tights or breeches) or a skirt, a bodice or vest, a jacket or cloak, stockings, and, if at all possible, but a rare luxury, shoes.

NOTE (1/30/15) - Please see a further commentary on this piece at:  Is Time Money or is Money Time?

NOTE: Back in the pre-industrial days, the making of thread, cloth, and clothing ate up all the time that a woman wasn't spending cooking and cleaning and raising the children. That's why single women were called "spinsters" - spinning thread was their primary job. "I somehow or somewhere got the idea," wrote Lucy Larcom in the 18th century, "when I was a small child, that the chief end of woman was to make clothing for mankind." Ellen Rollins: "The moaning of the big [spinning] wheel was the saddest sound of my childhood. It was like a low wail from out of the lengthened monotony of the spinner's life." (Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, p. 26)

Anyway, with clothing that expensive and hard to make, every item was something you wore until it literally disintegrated. Even in 1800, a farm woman would be lucky to own three dresses - one for best and the other two for daily living. Heck, my mother, in 1930, went to college with that exact number of dresses to her name... This is why old clothing is rare: even the wealthy passed their old clothes on to the next generation or the poorer classes. The poor wore theirs until it could be worn no more, and then it was cut down for their children, and then used for rags of all kinds, and then, finally, sold to the rag and bone man who would transport it off to be made into (among other things) paper.
And speaking of paper, that was another thing that had to be invented for our society to exist: cheap paper. Good rag paper (made literally with expensive cloth rag) was always pricey, just not as pricey as parchment which was goat, sheep, or calf skin. (This is why medieval manuscripts were so few and why they were often kept chained up for fear of theft. It took at least a whole herd of animals to make the Book of Kells, for example. On the other hand, well-kept parchment can last thousands of years.) In fact, paper remained expensive long after clothing got cheaper, because it took a long time to figure out how to make paper out of nothing but wood pulp, without all that expensive rag content. It wasn't until the production of wood pulp paper was perfected in the mid-1800's that books (schoolbooks, fiction, non-fiction), magazines, and newspapers became available to the general public. Including pulp fiction - the first was Argosy Magazine in 1896 - a genre that was named for the cheapest of cheap fiber paper that it was published on. And without that pulp paper, where would our entire genre be?
File:Argosy 1906 04.jpg        

05 June 2013

George Jetson, to the white courtesy phone

Last week I demonstrated my new webcam with a tune, but I didn't actually purchase it to fill your lives with the glories of music.  I had an ulterior motive, which I shall now reveal.

There is a group of folk  music fans in New Jersey called the Folk Project, and they have retreats twice a year where people go to a camp and play music together.  Good times.

Well, recently they added a new feature to these weekends: a book club. The coordinator chooses a book related to folk music and you can guess the rest.

A few months ago the title was announced for the spring retreat: SUCH A KILLING CRIME, a mystery set in Greenwich Village during the great folk music scare of 1963. 

One member of the Folk Project is Lori Falco, and she and I have been friends since we met while waiting for a bus on the first day of high school. quite a few years ago.  Lori asked the coordinator: "Do you know the author of that book used to be a member of the Folk Project?"

The coordinator had not known that.  But I was promptly invited to come to the retreat for the discussion.  That wasn't possible but I got a webcam and a skype account and made a virtual appearance.

It was a lot of fun.  Oh, the usual technical hiccups (no matter how long Lori and I spent prepping before the show started).  Interested people asking good questions.  My favorite: "What was it like putting words in Phil Ochs' mouth?"

My answer: not as scary as putting words in the mouth of Tom Paxton.  After all, Tom is still alive.  Therefore I was extremely careful to make him a sympathetic character.  (Even though he offered to be the murderer.  And he graciously gave me the following blurb:  "Spooky. If I'd have known he was watching us so carefully, I would have been MUCH  better."

Well, I had a good time and I would like the chance to chat with ALL the folk music book clubs in the world.  Unfortunately, I suspect I just did.

On a related note, Kearney Street Books informed me this week that SUCH A KILLING CRIME is now available on Kindle, for those who don't care to read their books, uh, acoustically.  

Not the future anyone was expecting in 1963, huh?

04 June 2013

The Death of Laura Foster

Today's article will interest both followers of American music and true crime, an investigation into the hanging of a folk figure, Tom Dooley, as researched and written by a descendent of parties involved.

John Fletcher and I began corresponding following an investigative article I wrote about Tom Dooley titled (with a nod to Twin Peaks), "Who Killed Laura Foster?" He was just beginning his research, which has become a new book, The True Story of Tom Dooley, published by History Press. It's a must for those interested in this legend.

Today, John shares the genealogy with us. Follow along with this tale from yesteryear…

Leigh Lundin

John Edward Fletcher
John Edward Fletcher
The Death of Laura Foster

by John Edward Fletcher

The Legend of Tom Dooley is an enduring mystery in western North Carolina even a century and a half after the incident occurred. Why is that the case? In part, the 1959 ballad hit by the Kingston Trio, “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley,” has helped to keep the story alive.

However, an examination of the existing records of the case raise many questions. For example, the original arrest record names Thomas Dula, Ann Pauline Dula, Granville Dula, and Ann Pauline Melton as the suspects in the disappearance of Laura Foster. The Court records, in contrast, name Thomas Dula and Ann Melton as the defendants and name Lotty Foster, Pauline Foster, and several others as material witnesses for the Prosecution. Who were these individuals and what was their relationship to the Murder of Laura Foster?

The murder Indictment charged only Tom Dula with Laura Foster’s murder, but it also indicted Ann Melton as an accessory before and after the fact. The “after the fact” charge was later dropped from Ann Melton’s charges, and her trial was separated from Tom Dula’s trial. This separation was made because if Tom were not guilty of the murder, then there could be no valid charge against Ann Melton. But, who were the other two suspects, Ann Pauline Dula and Granville Dula; and, what was their involvement in the murder of Laura Foster? Furthermore, who were the witnesses, Lotty foster and Pauline (or “Perline”) Foster in the local vernacular?

A search of census records from 1850 to 1870 reveals a curious result. Lotty Foster, Ann Melton’s mother, turns up as Carlotta “Lotty” Triplett in some records, but as Lotty Foster in other records. Her daughter, Anne, turns up as Angeline Pauline Triplett in some records, but as Ann or Anne Foster in other records. The other Dulas, mentioned in the arrest warrant, turn up as the children of Tom Dula’s uncle Bennett J. Dula II. That is, Ann Pauline Dula, age 16 and her brother, Granville Dula, age 13 appear in the 1860 Census. They are Tom Dula’s first cousins as their father is Thomas P. Dula’s (Tom’s father) brother. The question naturally arises, “Why are they never mentioned again in court records?

A second unknown is the mysterious person, Pauline (“Perline”) Foster who is not found in census or other records. She is identified in the court records only as a young woman from Watauga County who is a distant relative of Ann Melton. She reportedly came to Wilkes County to visit her (unidentified) grandfather and to see the local doctor to be treated for a venereal disease that she had contracted in Watauga County. Looking for local work to pay for her medical treatments, she was hired by the James Meltons to work for them during the summer of 1866 while receiving medical treatments for her disease. The Meltons were not aware that she was undergoing treatments when they hired her.

The court records show that Tom Dula’s cousins, Ann Pauline Dula and Granville Dula had nothing to do with the Laura Foster murder, and the person who was arrested with Ann Pauline Melton was actually Pauline Foster, not Pauline Dula, but why Granville Dula was arrested has not been explained. Possibly, he was a suitor of Laura Foster’s at the time of her disappearance.

Laura had many suitors, and was known locally to have “round heels,” meaning she was easily moved onto her backside by her suitors. Three of the persons named in the arrest warrant were arrested, but provided alibis for the time that Laura disappeared, thus were released as “not guilty”. The central question remains, “Who is this Perline Foster and how is she involved in the murder case?”

A search of Watauga County records turns up two census records in the years 1850 and 1870.

In 1850, a Levi F. Foster, age 25, is found with a daughter Anna age 4. In the 1870 census, the same family is found but is missing the daughter Anna. However, living next door to Levi is a John Scott with wife Anna P. Scott, who is possibly the missing daughter Ann Pauline Foster, age about 26. If ‘Perline’ Foster is a distant relative of Ann Foster Melton, then the connection must be through her Foster father. That means that the relationship of Levi Leander Foster must be traced to Ann Foster Melton’s Foster family. Levi Foster does not appear in the 1860 census of Watauga County; however, a careful search of the 1860s tri-county censuses for the first names, turns up a Levi F. Dula with exactly the same family members as Levi Foster’s family in the 1850 census of Watauga County. Living next door is the family of John ‘Jack’ Dula of Kings Creek, Caldwell County, NC.

To make a very long genealogical story short, Levi Foster turns out to be the illegitimate son of John ‘Jack’ Dula with a daughter of Robert Foster and Mary Allison, also residents of King’s Creek in Caldwell County. Robert Foster was the brother of Thomas Bell Foster of Wilkes County and he was the father of Wilson Foster, Laura Foster’s father, and Carlotta Foster, Ann Foster Melton’s mother. That explains Pauline Foster’s relationship with Ann Melton.

In fact, Pauline turns out to be the fourth cousin of both Ann Melton and Laura Foster. Also, Laura Foster is the first cousin of Ann Foster Melton. John “Jack” Dula is the grandfather that Pauline Foster is visiting there in Caldwell County, and also makes her a second cousin of the defendant, Thomas Dula.

In 1860, the Levi Foster family are using the surname of Dula, his father’s name and Ann Pauline Foster is actually known locally as Ann Pauline Dula. That is why Wilson Foster named Ann Pauline Foster as Ann Pauline Dula in the arrest warrant. That was the name he knew her by when they were living near him in the 1860s. By 1866, her family had moved back to Watauga County, but she returned to Wilkes for medical treatments. These relations also explain why Perline knew and was fond of Tom Dula; she was his second cousin, and probably knew both him and Laura Foster well from the time she lived near them while growing up in Caldwell County.

That brings us back to “Lotty” Foster, aka Carlotta Foster Triplett. The 1860 records list her as Lotty Triplett, with her three children, Pinkney Andrew Triplett, Angleine Pauline Triplett, and Thomas Triplett. Why are they listed with the Triplett name if all her children were illegitimate as other authors have written? A detailed genealogical search of the Thomas Bell Foster family lists the first name of her husband as ‘Francis’, but no last name is given. One easily then surmises that his surname must have been Francis Triplett.

Who was Francis Triplett? A detailed search of period records does not reveal anyone by that name. However, there is a clue in Carlotta Triplett’s census records from 1850. She is living in the household Of James and Nancey Brookshire Brown, who are in their 70s. Why is she living with them? It turns out the Browns have two daughters, Nancey Brown and Adeline Minerva Brown. The first daughter, Nancey, was married to a Martin Triplett in 1820. The second daughter, Adeline, was married to Bennet J. Dula II, and they were the parents of Ann Pauline Dula and Granville Dula.

Martin Triplett was divorced from Nancey Brown by 1822, but they had two children, a daughter Irene and a son. After the divorce, the son remained with his father and a stepmother Mary Winifred Hall, the daughter of Thomas Hall and Judith Dula. The daughter remained with her mother after the divorce. The son, Francis Triplett, married Carlotta Foster about 1839-40 and he fathered, at least, the first three of Carlotta’s children. By 1850, Francis is absent from their household, and Carlotta with her three children, are living with her mother-in-law’s parents. In other words, her children’s great-grandparents.

What happened to Francis is unknown. One might speculate that he left for the 1849 Gold Rush and may not have returned. Sometime after that, about 1859, Carlotta Foster Triplett changed her and her children’s surname to Foster, her maiden name. Exactly why she did this is unknown, but it must have had something to do with her husband’s disappearance. Thus, we now know why Lottie Foster, Pauline Foster, and Ann Foster Melton each had two different surnames. Carlotta’s children, at least the first three, were not illegitimate as is popularly believed, and Ann Pauline Dula who was named in Wilson Foster’s arrest warrant was actually Levi Foster’s daughter, Ann Pauline Foster.

Perline Foster, the principal Witness for the Prosecution, may not have been of high moral character, but her objective during the summer of 1866 was to be cured of her venereal disease so she could complete her marriage bond with her fiancé, John Scott. For that reason, she was not a paramour of Tom Dula, who was her second cousin, and was not a romantic rival with Ann Melton and Laura Foster and others for Tom’s romantic attentions. She did not transmit her disease to Tom Dula, who in turn, passed it on to Ann Melton. That disease transmission became the primary motive for the murder of Laura Foster. The evidence is that Laura was, in fact, the source of Tom’s infection.

Pauline Foster may have slanted her testimony during the trials to protect Tom Dula and to implicate Ann Melton. Pauline certainly had no love for Ann Melton who had treated her quite badly during the summer of 1866. However, others testified that her testimony was very consistent during both Tom Dula’s trials. She implicated Tom and Ann Melton in the events leading up to the disappearance of Laura Foster and to the subsequent discovery of her burial site. Her testimony coupled with the other circumstantial evidence clearly defined Tom Dula as the likely murderer and that Ann Melton was fully engaged in its planning and the instigation of Tom Dula to commit the murder.

Tom’s final heroic act was to take sole responsibility for the murder of Laura Foster and to absolve Ann Melton from her involvement. Because of his final written confession, the Wilkes County Jury had little choice, but to set her free.

Angeline Pauline Triplett Foster Melton lived another seven years after her final trial. She bore a second daughter, Ida V. Melton, in 1871 with her husband James Melton. She died a very painful death in about 1875 from internal injuries received in a buggy accident. Justice was apparently finally served.

03 June 2013


Many years ago when I was a high school student, I innocently remarked to my art teacher that I would like to be an artist. I’ve always remembered his response: “Learn to be a painter then hope.”

No doubt today he would be pilloried for discouraging young creativity, but, of course, he was entirely correct. Art and that illusive thing, creativity, emerge out of craft and not out of thin air.

For this reason, and because I was largely self taught in both writing and painting, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of ‘creative’ writing courses. Twenty years plus teaching college students also convinced me that we go about teaching writing almost entirely backwards, emphasizing academic and research-oriented writing, which few people will ever do once they leave the ivy halls, and teaching the sort of professional writing most will do in business and journalism as an upper level speciality.

So what do my reservations about college writing courses have to do with mystery writing? Just this. If you are trying to write mysteries or their big cousins, thrillers, or their more distant relatives the romance or fantasy, first learn the basic functional professional writing style and then learn the formats of your chosen genre.

Sure, we all like to think our writing is stylish and that on good days we could channel Raymond Chandler or Fred Vargas or Kate Atkinson. But lets face it. Most genre writing relies on clean, straight-forward prose with fast moving verbs and only a judicious sprinkle of eye-catching adjectives.

It’s no secret that many highly successful genre writers move over from journalism or other professional writing where they learned to write clearly, grammatically cleanly, and concisely. They also learned something else which I spent almost two decades teaching humanities majors desperate for some practical advice: how to discover a writing format, how to analyze it, and how to copy it.

I realize the ‘C’ word is out of favor, but whether you are learning to construct a press release – always my publishing class’s first exercise – or the cliff-hanging save the world type thriller, you’ve got to master the form. Ideas are great, style is wonderful, but both need a container, and that container is the format, the form that readers expect.

Of course, it is a lot easier to teach someone how to write a press release – who, where, what, why, when, in the first graph, a couple of the now obligatory quotes, a brief elaboration of facts, plus contact info– than it is to write a novel or even a short story. But as with learning languages, learn one and the second is easier. In the case of writing, easier because the beginner is already looking for structure and has taken the first steps by learning to analyze one form.

And how is this done? Read, read, read, but read actively. That is, begin to pay attention not just to the story, in this case, but to how it was done, what the various ingredients are – action, dialogue, exposition– and in what proportions.

If one does that consistently, soon one realizes that there are only so many patterns. In our genre, these include the chase, the woman in jeopardy, the step-by-step investigation, the revenge plot, the caper, the sure thing gone wrong, and my own favorite, the so called ‘biter bit,’ where a bad guy is ‘hoist on his own petard’ as Shakespeare, that master of many genres, so aptly put it.

Unlike a lot of writers, I started first on novels and came to short stories later, but the process was still the same. In my case, I destroyed cheap paperbacks of several favorite writers – Eric Ambler, Raymond Chandler, and Dorothy Sayers, to be exact – by underlining dialogue, exposition and action in various colors, giving me a visual representation of the structures and making me read the novels ultra carefully.

Was this self education successful? Modestly. I am not a gifted plotter and, yes, structure is still a difficulty for me. Someone with a greater talent for plot structure, even if a less skillful writer, would do as well or probably better. But one plays the hand one is dealt.

One cannot acquire more talent or better ideas. But one can become a skillful enough writer to convey the ideas one does have and good enough at developing the structure of stories and novels to put them in.

02 June 2013

The Digital Detective, Banking part 1

Banking on Naïveté

Readers and writers may be aware of many internet ploys attributed to Nigerians and occasionally Russians. One of the first I saw came in an eMail and read something like:
Hello, my name is Renaldo. I’m a Ukraine artist and I sell my works all over the world. Some customers want to pay by cheque or money order, which is expensive and difficult to cash here. I will pay you 10% if you can cash cheques and wire me 90%. Please?
Consider three possibilities:
  1. It’s barely possible although unlikely the request is legitimate.
  2. It’s a money laundering scheme.
  3. It’s an outright scam to grab your money.
In the third outcome, the schemers arrange to have a number of checks sent, which you cash and forward the proceeds. Eventually you receive a large money order or draft drawn on a major bank. Your bank likes it, cashes it, and gives you the money, whereupon you forward 90%.

Two or three weeks later, your now angry banker calls you, demanding restitution for a bad money order. The forgery was so good, it not only fooled you, it fooled them, but by now the money’s in Asia or Africa and you’re stuck, having to repay your bank several thousand dollars.

This works in a similar way to an eBay / Craig’s List scam. You advertise an item for sale and the bid closes at $150. To your surprise, you receive a money order for $1500 followed by a panicky eMail, wherein the buyer claims their bank or post office made a typo and added an extra zero. Instead of returning the check, they say they trust your honesty and since they need the item you’re selling, they suggest you cash the money order and return the excess along with the item you sold.

All goes well until your bank belatedly discovers the money order is fraudulent. Not only is your precious item long gone, but you must repay your bank.

During the next few weeks, I’m going to write about bank and brokerage fraud.

How to Fly a Kite

Kiting was once a commonplace fraud where the perpetrator opens accounts in at least two separate banks, neither of which places a hold on checks. Indeed, kiting exploits the hold greedy banks place on checks, holds where they use your money for free. High-speed electronic banking and stiff penalties have made the crime less common now because many checks can be instantaneously verified.

Here is how traditional kiting works: Our perpetrator, whom we'll call James Whitcomb Wiley III of Beaver Meadows, Indiana (no relation to the real James Whitcomb Wiley III of Beaver Meadows, Indiana) establishes accounts at Frugal Savings & Loan and Penury Bank & Trust, with no money to speak of in either account. Still, our man Wiley wants $1000.

He goes to Frugal S&L and withdraws $1000, covering it with a simultaneous deposit of a check for $1000 drawn upon his Penury Bank account. He’s just kited his first check. An honest person would scurry over to Penury and deposit funds there before the flaky check arrives, but not Wiley.

Wiley intends to live in Beaver Meadows for a while, but his prospects of earning $1000 to reimburse Penury Bank remain elusive. So he writes a check drawn on Frugal S&L to deposit in Penury Bank– whereupon he kites his second check, and now Penury is waiting for Frugal's check to clear. Before the empty account can be discovered, he deposits a fresh but worthless Penury check into Frugal, and continues the cycle.

Theoretically, a diligent fraudster could continue this a long time. In times past, people have pulled it off for weeks, even months. However, such schemes are subject to human error and unforeseen events that eventually expose the kite and bring the party to a halt. Meanwhile, Mr. Wiley has probably moved on to another state, possibly opening an account with a check drawn upon Penury Bank & Trust.

bank vault
A Bank's Back Office

At the bottom of your checks is a row of numbers and hyphens printed in a distinctive 'MICR' type style using special magnetic ink.

You’ll notice at least two groups of numbers. One group you’ll recognize as your account number. The group before it contains nine digits, which represents the bank’s routing number, unique to each institution. You may also find the check number and, after it’s returned from the bank, possibly the amount of the check, which it’s wise to verify.


Banks don’t require customers to use checks they provide, indeed, as the story ‘Swamped’ pointed out, you can write out a check on anything, even a paper napkin. Many people buy checks from a paper supplier, like those that advertise in the local ad sheets.

At the end of a business day, banks gather checks and deposits made during the day and checks received from federal clearing houses, which they feed through a MICR device. MICR (pronounced my’cur) stands for magnetic ink character recognition and the machine, a magnetic ink character reader, reads those numbers from checks and deposits slips into the computer.

Occasionally checks jam or the machine fails to read the numbers. An operator may glue a strip at the bottom or place the check in a glassine envelope and manually key the numbers with a MICR imprinter. If the clearing house sends a check to the wrong bank, it will be kicked out and sent back to be routed to the correct one. Experienced operators are used to this and handle flaws and flubs as a matter of course.

Here I've built background for next week, where I'll reveal the Endless Kite.

01 June 2013

Cozy vs Traditional: Not a fight to the death, but please don’t say they’re not different

by Elizabeth Zelvin

In certain mystery circles, you can’t mention the definition of a cozy without opening a can of worms. The discussion can get a little, er, heated, if not squirmy. And woe betide anyone who calls a book a cozy to the author’s face, if the author does not herself (or himself) define the work as a cozy.

I am really, truly not using the term “cozy” pejoratively. The dozen or so cozy writers I know well are as committed to their craft as any writers I know. They’re also more successful than most of us who started out at about the same time, ten years ago or thereabouts. They have multiple series contracts, enough readers to make the New York Times paperback bestseller lists, and have received a number of major awards and nominations. However, “cozy” nowadays is a tightly defined category that does not apply to all traditional mysteries or even all amateur-sleuth whodunits.

The present-day cozy is not merely any mystery that’s not hardboiled. It’s not just one with an amateur-sleuth protagonist and one or more murders that take place within a limited circle of people known to one another. It’s not merely one that eschews gratuitous violence, explicit sex, and four-letter words. The quintessential cozy is the kind published by Berkley Prime Crime, which actually breaks out the categories of Culinary, Hobbies, and Pet Lovers on its mystery list. The titles run to puns and word play on the series theme. In addition to the story, readers are offered recipes, patterns, or some kind of household tips. Typically, the amateur sleuth is a woman, but early in the series, she begins a romance with a man in law enforcement—the investigating detective, sheriff, or chief of police. If they are adversaries rather than lovers, that makes them no different than the hero and heroine of a romance novel, who will probably get together in spite of, if not because of, the flying sparks.

I don’t write cozies. I write traditional mysteries, and I admit that I prefer reading traditional mysteries. My mysteries are character driven, and I’ve taken on some challenging and even controversial themes. Cozy characters grow over the course of a series, and there’s certainly an arc in their relationships and changes in how they live their lives. They have issues to deal with that might include illness, death, divorce, family conflict, and financial insecurity. But in cozies, there has to be some kind of cap on how bad things get or how controversial the themes can be.

I’m not saying cozy writers are too fastidious. Whatever the limits are, I believe they’re set by publishers’ perceptions of what readers of this kind of mystery want to read. I think writers of traditional mysteries have permission to dig a little deeper. Nor is their language censored. I no longer need to go to the barricades over the right to use the F word, but lately I’ve noticed characters in Berkley cozies limiting their expletives to “gosh” and “darn,” which makes them unrealistic for the 21st century that I live in.

In my mystery series, my main theme is alcoholism and recovery. That means it’s inevitable that such issues as drug addiction, domestic violence, and sexual abuse and trauma come up now and then. I also write about Jewish characters. So far, the theme of anti-Semitism has come up only in my historical stories set in 1492, when the Inquisition was in flower. But at any time, a character might take me down that road, and I don’t want any roadblocks in the way.

I don’t consider Agatha Christie my literary progenitor. I claim descent (I hope not too presumptuously) from Dorothy L. Sayers, who revolutionized the detective story when she turned Lord Peter Wimsey from a flat to a rounded, feeling character in the middle of her series. Some of the themes in her later novels that I’d call passionate are the exploration of feminism in Gaudy Night and how deeply she takes us, at the end of Busman’s Honeymoon, into how traumatic it is for Lord Peter to feel responsible to sending someone to the gallows.

Another terrific exemplar of the traditional mystery is Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series. Now there’s an amateur sleuth, a clergywoman, who takes up with a law enforcement guy. But there’s nothing cozy about the difficulties they have to overcome to be together—including his marriage, her ethics, and their guilty feelings even when the barriers are removed, not to mention her deployment to Iraq and the trauma that she and her fellow soldiers bring back with them. There’s tremendous passion in that relationship as well as in the way Spencer-Fleming handles the material, such as environmental issues, around which she weaves her mystery plots. And they’re not the kind of stories that leave the reader hoping for recipes.