11 September 2013

The Duck Guy

I, too, like Dale, (post of 27-Aug-2013) read a lot of Hardy Boys books. But over time, they came to seem pretty thin, and they weren't a lasting influence. The guy who was in fact an early and lasting influence is Carl Barks.

Who he? you ask, as well you might. Barks was the Duck Guy. He started in 1942, with "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold," and for the next thirty years, he wrote and illustrated the duck comics for Disney. This was a very different Donald from the animated cartoons. Barks reinvented him. He also came up with Duckburg itself, Scrooge, Gladstone, the Beagle Boys, the Junior Woodchucks, and the indispensable Woodchuck Handbook.

There were two basic storylines, the exotic and the domestic, with some variations. The exotics were adventure stories, like "The Golden Man," where Donald hares off to South America in search of the rarest stamp in the world---Barks himself was a homebody: he said he was inspired by back issues of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. The domestics were broad comedies, Donald the dogcatcher, for example, or his sudden enthusiasms for some new-found craze, like Flippism (which I can't fully explain, but Barks gets it across in a couple of quick brushstrokes).

He got better, too. Both the scripts and the draftsmanship are more and more sophisticated, moving into the 1950's. Some of the big panels are breathtaking, but often it's in the very small details, something that furnishes a room, or the way a static drawing can show Donald in full physical flight. There's a sense of plasticity, if that's a word, a shapeliness in the framing of the images, and in the lack of clutter, although everything has a specific density. I'd like to call it genius. Barks knew how to make a panel chewy, so you had to look more than once.

And the plots. The familiar taken to a level of insane abandon is a favorite device, whether it's a snowball fight or the hunt for Ali Baba's cave. And it's snappy. There isn't any wasted motion. Most of the stories were told in ten pages, six panels to the page, but there were also more elaborate, extended adventures, that took up a whole issue of the Uncle Scrooge line, which was a quarterly title, not monthly. See below.

WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES came out every month. The lead feature was a duck story, then a Li'l Bad Wolf, and last, an installment of a Mickey detective serial, usually three parts. Back in the day, a year's subscription cost a buck, and any kid could cadge that up in bottle returns. Remember bottle returns? That was when the newsstand price of a comic book was one thin dime, and so was a raspberry lime rickey at the Linnean Drug soda counter. (Showing my age.) Each issue came to the door in a paper sleeve, and it was like opening a bag of potato chips. You couldn't stop yourself. Instant gratification. And the back issues were just as much fun, too.

The thing about Barks is that you can pick up one of those duck stories today, and read it again, and get the same rush. He's that good. It stands the test of time. And in fact, this is the guy who showed me how to tell a story. We outgrow the Hardy Boys, or Nancy Drew, all due respect, but Barks will never grow old. His stuff is still as fresh as when I was in short pants.

10 September 2013

SleuthSayers' Second Anniversary! Part 1

                                    When I was one 
                                     I had just begun. 
                                     When I was two 
                                     I was nearly new . . . 

                                          Now We Are Six 
                                          A. A. Milne 

       Next week, on Tuesday September 17, SleuthSayers celebrates its second anniversary. Since that date falls on a Tuesday Terence Faherty and I (who share that day on a bi-weekly basis) were asked to kick off the festivities. We pondered how best to do this, and ultimately decided to let SleuthSayers speak for itself. (Err, ourselves!)  So this week and next week you are getting our nominees for memorable articles of years one (today) and two (next week). 

       When Terry and I decided on this approach it was our goal, going in, to identify three to five articles for each month of each year, articles that when viewed in the context of each twelve month period would show what SleuthSayers is all about. Terry is still working on the next installment, but I have to say at the beginning of mine that, as is evident below, I failed. There are too many great articles out there to whittle a year into 60 or fewer entries. In fact, there is a good argument that each of us should have just thrown up our hands and said “hey, gang, go back and read, or re-read, them all.” 

       The list set forth below is therefore both too long and too short. I've had recurring worries as to the articles not included, and all I can say is that my list (and, I suspect, Terry’s next week) is highly subjective. Ultimately I tried to identify articles that were timeless -- that will always bring out a smile or a nod of agreement from the reader.  If I missed a favorite, well tell me -- that's what the Comments feature is for.

       So, herewith, SleuthSayers, the First Year: September 17, 2011 through September 16, 2012. And, as a result of the wonders of our blogger program, together with a good dose of tedious rote work on my part, all of the titles set forth below have click-able links that will get you back to the underlying article.  So discover, re-discover, and have fun.

SleuthSayers -- The First Year


Plots and Plans -- John Floyd starts the ball rolling with the first posting on Sleuthsayers.  

Should classic novels be re-written for modern tastes? What happens when we start down that slippery slope. Dale Andrews looked at this in Rewrites

Desperately Seeking Detectives --Writing characters with real-life flaws? Janice Law took a look at this, with particular emphasis on Alice LaPlante’s excellent Turn of Mind, a story narrated by a character descending into Alzheimer.  


The Crime of Capital Punishment -- Leigh Lundin spins the history of gallows, “old sparky,” and capital punishment generally over the years. 

Different Strokes -- John Floyd (who has more published stories than many of us have read) gives pointers for writing and submitting mystery stories. 

Speaking of Lists and Series -- Fran Rizer expounds on the best mystery stories of all times, and some other matters! 

Do Writers Write to Trends? Should they? -- Elizabeth Zelvin offers advice concerning whether trends should be followed or ignored by budding authors. 

The Death of the Detective -- Janice Law discusses authors’ decisions to kill off their detective. And what do you do when later you change your mind? 

My Uncle the Bootlegger -- Louis Willis’ colorful recollections of growing up in the hills and hollows of the east Tennessee back-country.  


Ideas Are Us -- At a loss concerning how to start a project? Jan Grape tells how she finds ideas for books and stories. 

Digitally Yours -- Neil Schofield take a tongue-in-cheek look at how computers worm their way into each of our lives.  

When the Grammar Cops Comma Calling -- John Floyd takes a look at the trouble we can get into when we drop a comma in the wrong place. As the title suggests, be ready for some humor in this one. 

Twin Peaks -- Leigh Lundin turns back the way-back machine for one more look at one of the strangest mystery shows ever to grace network television. 

My Name is Fran and . . .  -- Fran Rizer offers up a primer on one of the things she does best -- writing cozies. 

Wellerness -- What is a wellerism? Generally it’s a cliche applied with humorous effect. Want some funny examples and a discussion of the origin of the word? Check out Leigh Lundin’s column. 

Flying Without a Parachute -- R.T. Lawton takes us inside one of his police investigations. And tells a neat story while he is at it. 

Metaphor Hunting -- Louis Willis celebrates Thanksgiving and at the same time offers some of his favorite literary metaphors -- some from fellow SleuthSayers. 

When We Were Very Young -- Why do we write? When and how did we take that first step that sent us down this road? David Dean ruminates on all of the above.  

Digging Up Old Crimes -- Attending the fourteenth annual Biblical Archaeology Fest in San Francisco Rob Lopresti discusses mysteries covered in presentations on archaeology and early Judaism. 


How Can a Martian Wax VentuVenusian? -- Dixon Hill offers up an insightful and at times humorous look at the differences between male and female audiences. 

Editorial Crimes -- Liz Zelvin gives us a fine discussion on finding the right voice for fictional characters.  

Mr. Swann Toasts Mr. Wolfe -- Guest columnist (and sort of the grandfather of SleuthSayers) James Lincoln Warren gives us the written remarks he delivered when his novella Inner Fire was awarded the 2011 Black Orchid Novella Award. 

Do You See What I See? -- Jan Grape uses the holiday season as a catalyst for a discussion on getting dialog right. 

At the End of Your Trope -- Rob Lopresti presents a great discussion of tropes. What are tropes? As Rob points out they are “a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction.” 

to e or not to e -- R.T. Lawton discusses taking the leap into e-publishing. 

What’s in a Word? -- Fran Rizer takes the first of several SleuthSayer looks at how the English language grows.  

Crime Family -- David Dean shows us that sometimes our criminal antagonists are fashioned on someone, well, . . . close to home.  

Hugo and Shakespeare -- Leigh Lundin recounts the struggles we all face at times trying to make a story work.  

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol -- Dale Andrews' holiday essay on one of the favorite yuletide novels of all time. 

My Thoughts on the Big Lie -- Santa Claus -- Louis Willis’ title says it all. 


Janus -- New Year reflections by Jan Grape. 

Nothing But the Best -- Rob Lopresti offers his annual list of the previous year’s best mystery stories. 

The Brazilian Connection -- The only SleuthSayers guest article by the great (and sadly, now late) Leighton Gage. A must read. 

Profiled -- Deborah Elliott-Upton discusses profiling -- real life and fiction. 

No, No, I Really Am . . .  -- Undercover stories from R.T. Lawton, who has been there and done that.  

Tricky Diction -- John Floyd’s hilarious piece on “saying it right.” 

Red Rum -- Fran Rizer gives us a two-for. First, her reflections on real-life South Carolina murderers, and second Evelyn Baker’s chilling account of “The Good Twins.” 

Character Flaws -- Jan Grape talks about how to make fictional character real. 


RSI -- A SleuthSayers classic by Rob Lopresti. No spoiler here -- just go and read it! 

Computers? They're not my Type -- Guest columnist Herschel Corzine grouses humorously about being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the future. Err, present! 

Mind Control -- David Dean looks at mind control and, in the process, re-examines Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation army. 

Waging Love in Ink -- Dixon Hill’s salute to Valentine’s Day.  

Before Stalking had a Name -- Liz Zelvin's personal (and chilling) account of stalking.  

Beginnings -- Janice Law talks about how to get the first paragraph right.  

No Name Blog -- Jan Rizer on the curse of all mystery writers -- rejection.  

Daturas -- An article discussing a beautiful flower that is also a dangerous narcotic and poison. The mystery to the author, Dale Andrews, is how this article, which garnered only a few comments, became the most widely read in the history of SleuthSayers 


Lawyers and Writers, Oh My! -- Deborah Elliott-Upton’s send-up of lawyers generally and lawyer authors particularly. 

The Sixth Sense -- R. T. Lawton discusses where those premonitions may be coming from. 

A Familiar Face -- John Floyd provides a road-map for spotting all those cameos by Alfred Hitchcock. 


Florida’s Right to Kill Law -- A serious piece by Leigh Lundin, and one of a series, exploring real life crime in Florida. This provides early insight into the Travon Martin case and Florida’s “Stand your Ground” statute. 

Young at Heart (and Death) -- Fran Rizer looks at fairy tales over the years.  

Evil Under the Sun (Part One and Two) -- David Dean’s riveting account of a murder and subsequent investigation in the Bahamas. In two parts.  

Easter Eggs -- the Sequel -- Dale Andrews explores the recurring, obscure and perplexing references to Easter that occur throughout the works of Ellery Queen. 

Close, but no Springroll -- Neil Schofield's personal account of how things sometimes get lost in translation when mysteries cross the Pacific. 

Outrageous Older Woman: Getting the Music Out There -- Liz Zelvin shows that she sports more than just a literary hat. 

Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite -- Jan Grape warns us to do exactly what the title orders.  

Paraprosdokia -- Dale Andrews' humorous collection of those sayings that, like many mysteries, sport a surprise ending.  

The Court Reporter’s Tale -- Forget about television depictions. Eve Fisher shows us the criminal justice system from the inside. 

No, Thank You -- R.T. Lawton discusses drug use among police officers and why it is a rare occurrence.  

Deja Vu All Over Again -- John Floyd’s discussion of commonplace redundancies in the English language.  

My Two Cents Worth -- Louis Wills discusses the ever-present debate concerning the literary worth of genre versus literary fiction. 


Tough Broads -- Deborah Elliott-Upton’s advice on writing strong female characters.  

Cowboy Days -- R.T. Lawton re-visits the rodeo experiences of his childhood.  

Dream On -- John Floyd addresses the glory and the tedium of book signing events.  

Crime and PUNishment -- Leigh Lundin continues a spate of literary humor that infected us all that spring.  

Worst of the First -- The groans continue with Fran Rizer’s collection of the worst introductory passages ever written. 

A Word about Crime -- Turning the tables, Rob Lopresti offers a collection of some of his favorite quotes from crime fiction. 

Silence is Golden -- Dixon Hill addresses various audible intrusions that are just going to happen. So don’t pretend that they won’t in your stories. 

Hell’s Bellows -- Dale Andrews proves that lawyers have long memories when he finally serves up a response to Deborah’s March column on lawyer authors.  

It’s Alive! -- David Dean recounts the travails, obstacles and joys encountered in writing his first novel, The Thirteenth Child.  

Notes from the Penitentiary -- Eve Fisher gives us a look at what it is like, everyday, inside. 

Trifling through “Trifles” -- Deborah Elliott-Upton addresses the early lack of meaningful women characters in detective stories, and the fight to overcome the "trifles" characterization.  


How do you Write a Crime Novel?  -- Jan Grape collects the best advice from some who have done it. 

The Asparagus Bed -- Nearly a full year of essays and -- finally -- a real story!  A gem by Eve Fisher. 

It’s a Long Story -- John Floyd discusses the novella -- one of the most difficult types of story to market. 

Professional Tips -- Ray Bradbury -- Leigh Lundin offers a collection of story telling tips from the master. 

Do Books Change over Time or Is it Me? -- Liz Zelvin explores a recurring theme on SleuthSayers -- returning to the books of our youth. 

ABC -- Idle thoughts on Auden, Bradbury and Christie by Neil Schofield. 

Summertime and the Heat is Killing Me -- That’s what heat will do to you, as Deborah Elliott-Upton explains. 

Guys Read -- Among kids it’s easier to find girl readers. Dixon Hill discusses motivating boys to become lifelong readers and a project aimed at accomplishing that.  

The Unmaking of Books -- As always, an entertaining glimpse inside the thought process of Rob Lopresti.  

Selling Short -- Looking for a market for your short story? An invaluable guide by John Lloyd, who has sold hundreds. 

AKA -- Fran Rizer discusses early women writers who decided to publish under male pseudonyms. 


The Writing Life -- Janice Law gives us a two-bladed essay on Latin words that stick to the English language like glue and trying to fathom why some stories work for the writer but not for the reader. Or at least not for the reader writing those rejection letters! 

E-Volution -- Dale Andrews’ essay on Michael S. Hart, the founder of Project Guttenberg. 

Forty Whacks -- Yep, David Dean tells us all about Lizzie Borden.  

Summer Love -- Rob Lopresti begins writing a novel and falls in love.  

Brain Exercises -- Jan Grape explains how writers can hone their craft by paying attention to what works of other writers. 


Two Golden Threads -- Rob Lopresti’s loving memorial to John Mortimer. 

Sovereign Citizens -- Strange characters? Sometimes they are all around us. Ask Eve Fischer. 

Me and the Mini Mystery -- R.T. Lawton offers tips on how to tackle the mini market..  

John Buchan: The Power House -- David Edgerton Gates’ first SleuthSayers article tells us all about the author of The Thirty Nine Steps and one of his best books -- The Power House

A Woman’s World Survivors’ Guide -- John Floyd’s hornbook on what Woman’s World looks for in a mini-mystery.  

She Said What? -- Fran Rizer’s tribute to Helen Gurley Brown.  

The Name is Familiar -- Rob Lopresti looks at eponyms -- people whose names became words.  

What Do You Do? -- Jan Grape talks about tackling writers’ block.  

Ellery Queen’s Backstory -- Well, it’s complicated, as Dale Andrews explains. 

My Favorite Characters -- Eve Fisher discusses how she finds inspiration for characters all around her. 

Copyedited by Tekno Books -- R.T. Lawton explains how it wasn't all fun after his short story was accepted for inclusion in the latest MWA anthology. 


The Fires of London -- Janice Law discusses her newest novel on the day before publication. 

A “Feyn” Idea -- Dixon Hill’s intriguing article on famed physicist Richard Feynman. 

Locke and Leather -- Leigh Lundin explores some of the darker sides of self-publishing. 

The Washed and the Unwashed -- John Floyd takes another look at differences between literature and genre fiction. 

       And that is it for year one!  Next week Terry will post his take on the highlights of SleuthSayers -- Year Two!

09 September 2013

Of Love and Sardines and Chocolate

by Fran Rizer

Leigh Lundin reminded us that SleuthSayers will be two years old on September 17, 2013, and asked each of us to write about the anniversary of its birth.   </

What should I write about?

How about the unusual birthday customs of other lands?  I know a lot about that because I taught ESL classes and frequently bought birthday cakes for students who'd never had one before.  To be honest, writing about that idea fell flat because it was too much like writing a lesson plan.

SleuthSayers is "A criminally compelling website by professional crime writers and crime fighters," but there's more to this spot than that. We've had posts about authors, explosives, undercover police procedures (some funny, some scary), writers' seminars, swimming in the ocean, book reviews, computers, publications and awards, movies, lists, and more. I even wrote about bras near Christmas last year.  As Robert Earl Keen, Jr., wrote "The road goes on forever."

Sometimes the blogs are about specific problems encountered by writers.  One of my difficulties relates to similes and metaphors.

The problem is two-fold.  I over-react to writers who don't know the difference between a simile and a metaphor because that's taught in fourth grade, and I don't use as many metaphors as others because, quite simply, mine seem weak and I generally delete them before reaching my final revision.  

A gentle reminder, dear reader:  Both similes and metaphors are comparisons with the primary difference being that a simile uses the words like or as.  Examples:  "The clouds are like cotton candy in the sky" is a simile.  "The clouds are cotton candy in the sky" is a metaphor.

When I taught fourth and fifth grades, I always taught similes around Valentine's Day and introduced the topic with Robert Burns's "My love is like a red, red rose."  The students loved hearing about Burns's life. (What other teacher discussed pubs with them?)  Then they wrote poems beginning with "My love is like..."  Their homework was to find an example of a simile.

By far the most common example given on homework papers was the quote that Forrest Gump attributed to his mother:

Life is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you're going to get.

Allan Rufus gave us this:

Life is like a sandwich                   
Birth is one slice 
and death is the other.
What you put in between
the slices is up to you.

My delight with the student who brought in the next one can be attributed to what many of my friends call my "quirky" sense of humor.

                               Alan Bennett wrote:

Life is rather like a tin of sardines--we're all of us looking for the key.

My absolute favorite though is from the late Leo Buscaglia in one of my favorite nonfiction books, Living, Loving, and Learning:
Leo Buscaglia

I love to think that the day you're born, you're given the world as your birthday present.  It frightens me to think that so few people even bother to open up the ribbon!  Rip it open!  Tear off the top! It's just full of love and magic and joy and wonder and pain and tears.  All of the things that are your gift for being human.

In its two years' of life, SleuthSayers has become, in its own way, like both a box of chocolates and a beautifully wrapped gift. You never know what you'll find when you open it, but you can depend on finding something good. 

I'm proud to have been part of it!  

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

08 September 2013

The Kemper Case

If I were to blame someone for my interest in a life of crime, it would be my Aunt Rae, Rachel Kemper. She devoured mysteries leaving them for this impressionable child to read– Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr… she seemed to prefer male authors. By the time I was ten, I would discover the detective stories of Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and of course Agatha Christie.

John Kemper
John Kemper
My cousin, John Kemper, has also been doing detective work in libraries and on the internet, researching our ancestors, a passion of our mothers and grandmother. John is exacting and meticulous. If he can’t nail down each and every particular, a questionable link won’t fly with him.

He turned up the fact at least one ancestor floated over on the Mayflower, Stephen Hopkins. Hopkins is the only person to appear in both Jamestown and Plymouth. A contentious hard-head with authority issues (yes, the bloodline tells), he damned near got himself hanged for mutiny in Bermuda. Shakespeare may have modeled the character Stephano in The Tempest after our Stephen.

After Jamestown, this true adventurer signed up to come to the New World a second time, bringing his family to what would become Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, Massachusetts. Indeed, Hopkins contributed majorly to the success of Plymouth.

In choosing to battle Indians rather than live with and learn from them, the Jamestown colony provoked a disaster, worsened for the Indians by the arrival of a despicable historical character, Lord De la Warr (Delaware), with a genocidal mandate to wipe out Indians altogether.

The surname Kemper is considered either a Dutch-German place name from the Kempen regions or a Germanic occupational name meaning peasant farmer or hemp grower, the latter of considerable interest to some. It may also be an English corruption of the French Camp or Champ from the Latin Campus, a military field.
In Plymouth, Hopkins and Indians cooperated. Before leaving England, Hopkins had purchased gifts and offerings for the natives. The Pilgrims repaid Indians for caches of corn they’d discovered and filched upon arrival. The colony tried and executed at least one man for killing an Indian. Hopkins’ house became a regional meeting place between Indians and the Europeans. The result was a peace and partnership that lasted half a century.

But wait, there’s more!

Years ago, I remember mailings from a company that promised to research one's royal lineage and produce a book, complete with history, heraldic symbols, and the opportunity to buy wall plaques and coffee mugs with your coat-of-arms. Turns out they had ways of surmising royal connections for just about everyone. The book, titled something like The Snerdsbottoms of America, turned out to be generic, mostly a history of heraldry itself, great houses of Europe, and finally a few paragraphs about the Snerdsbottom family, their supposed connection to the Duchy of Snerdly, and their "painstakingly researched" coat-of-arms. That and a £5 or €10 ticket will get you into Versailles or the Tower of London to view your Crown Jewels.

Plantagenet Coat-of-Arms
It turns out we’re also descended from another rascal, Edward III, son of the failed Edward II. Thus we bear the burden of the Battle of Bannockburn, the Hundred Years War, not to mention the death of Jean d'Arc and that whole French Templar debacle. Ah, the chains of history.

I may not be a monarchist, but everyone likes to think they have royal blood, don’t they? Excuse me for a moment whilst I polish my brassy snob appeal.

But how meaningful is such a claim? Those who follow my articles know I enjoy math puzzles, so let's assume thirty generations of descent, and if you graph the numbers on n children to the 30th power or n30, it becomes obvious you, you, possibly you and millions of other people can brag of their distant royal ancestry. It's called 'pedigree collapse', a phrase I picked up from John and apparently discussed in a Stephen Fry QI episode. But for an instant or two, we can enjoy those few strands of regal DNA.

When Good Kempers Go Bad

A column on crime wouldn’t be complete without villainy. I’m not talking about an unfortunate character in the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (glad I didn't see either), but I couldn’t help but admire a girl so taken with the character’s name Kemper, she tenderly named her baby after him. I hope that’s the last we hear of him in this context.

John also researched Edmund Emil Kemper III and determined, much to his relief, that Edmund Emil is not related. This Kemper is the sort of character the television program Criminal Minds focuses on– bad childhood, badder adulthood. He was one sick… well, rather than the word that comes to mind, let's say malefactor.

With high IQ and low resistance to his mother’s depravations, Edmund’s become a poster boy for the belief murderers aren’t born, they’re made. His older sister threw him in the deep end of a pool and may have tried to push him under a train.

The word ‘necrophilia’, literally ‘love of corpses’, isn’t capable of expressing the depth of Edmund’s sickness and frankly neither am I. Suffice to say it’s a stomach-churning read. The only positive note after ten murders– three of them relatives– he realized he was one sick, well, miscreant and turned himself in to police. Until that point, authorities hadn’t a clue who the perpetrator was.

Thus I’m happy to report, thanks to the laudable work of John Kemper, we’re not related to Mr. Edmund Kemper III.

07 September 2013

SleuthSingers? Who Knew?

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Four of the regular bloggers on SleuthSayers are songwriters: Rob Lopresti, Fran Rizer, Jan Grape, and me. (Am I missing anyone?) What are the odds? SleuthSayers was created a couple of years ago as the successor to the highly successful mystery short story blog Criminal Brief. Most of us write mystery short stories, though some of us, including me, also write novels. Our tag line is “Crime writers and crime fighters.” Some of us (not me) share law enforcement and military professional interests and have been known to blog about weapons, explosives, and spycraft. Not surprising. But what about all those songwriters? Is it a coincidence? Or does it make perfect sense?

Fran lives in Nashville and has sold songs to the commercial country market, if I’m not mistaken. Rob has published a mystery about the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in 1963 that took me on a delightful stroll down Memory Lane. Jan has set a series in Austin, TX, another country music town. And I have an album out, Outrageous Older Woman, in a category best described as urban folk; it’s the best of fifty years of singing and writing songs.

I can’t speak for my blog brothers and sisters (though I hope they’ll comment), but when I write a song, I’m telling a story. It horrifies me when someone says, “Oh, I never listen to the lyrics.” To me, much as I love music, the lyrics are the point—one reason I’m so fond of country music, even the New Country, often disparaged by purists. Although I’m a child of the Fifties and Sixties, most rock, with its repetitious or worse, unintelligible lyrics, leaves me cold. I want to engage with a song in the same way I engage with a work of fiction: to delight in the language, fall in love with the characters, and experience a burning desire to know what happens next.

We mystery writers pride ourselves on the fact that in our stories, something happens: crime, investigation, solution in the traditional mystery; unexpected encounter or stumble into danger, impending catastrophe, ticking clock in the classic thriller. While many commercial songs have no more theme than what I’ve heard the great Jimmie Dale Gilmore call “boy girl boy girl,” plenty of them have a narrative structure that resembles that of a short story. They can deal with serious themes, such as ambition, loss, and alcoholism. And there are plenty of songs about murder. My favorite is still “Long Black Veil” (written in the 1950s and covered many times), but I’ve been singing the traditional Appalachian ballads, “Pretty Polly, “Banks of the Ohio,” et al. my whole life. Rob made me chuckle when one of his characters referred to the folk-revival crossover hit “Tom Dooley” (in which the eponymous protagonist is hanged for murder) as “more cheerful” than some of the other high lonesome tunes.

You can listen to several of my songs below. Each one tells a story.
"Outrageous Older Woman" - A woman reflects on a lifetime rich in experience.
"Online Loving" - A woman gets impatient with virtual romance.
"All She Ever Wanted" - A young woman pursues her creative dream.
"The Rain Came Down" - A man and a woman reach a turning point in their separate lives.
"The Mayor of Central Park" - The true life story of a legendary New York character.
"Prayer (Next Year in Jerusalem" - A vision of a better world.

06 September 2013

Black-Clad Avenger

by Dixon Hill
Image credit: sad444 / 123RF Stock Photo

For today's blog, I simply can't think of ANYTHING that could top this story from the L.A. Times.  So, without further adieu, I suggest you click on the link below.  I couldn't make this stuff up (though I wish I had).


See you in two weeks,

05 September 2013

Regrets, I've had a few....

by Brian Thornton

(After a month-long hiatus it's nice to be back. And I don't regret skipping one of my turns in the least!)

While wrestling with the middle of my current WIP, and putting in some hard work to keep up the tension and the plot moving along during the portion of the book that by many accounts is most likely to be where "the doldrums" can set in, it occurred to me that there's one tool in the writer's toolbox that frequently gets misused.


This is not to say that writers don't use it. I'm saying that "regret" as a character-defining aspect of a character's personality is something most writers tend to either over-use or under-use. Regret is one of those aspects of a character's personality that is really easy to get wrong, and damned hard to get right.

But when it's done wright, it can work wonders character exposition and moving plot along.

Because regret is a foundational emotion. It undergirds and enhances other emotions. Envy, fear, sorrow, guilt, even greed, are all made more palpable, more vivid by being coupled with well-demonstrated and carefully delivered (by the writer) regret.

Take one of the touchstone pictures of the 20th century, Casablanca. If ever a story was about a mountain of regret, and how it drives the actions of the characters within the framework of the narrative, it's Casablanca. The trick is in the nuance.

We all know the "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world" scene where Rick Blaine drunkenly demonstrates his profound regret at having loved and lost Ilse Lund. And the next day when he's sober he expresses regret what he said the night before while drunk.

For her part, Ilse is the definition of regret. It fuels her guilt and indecision at loving loving two very different men.

Her husband Victor Laszlo regrets not being able to guarantee his wife's safety, to the point of asking Rick to take her with him out of town, because "I want my wife to be safe."

Even Captain Renault, the calcuating French collaborationist prefect of police allows regret to work on him to the point where he betrays his own instincts and throws in with Rick, who has just shot and killed the top nazi in Casablanca.

Director Michael Curtiz, better know for his command of light and shadow that of his ability to get the most out of his actors, nailed the nuance here. His command of just how much to show and how much to let simmer below the surface is dead on. It's one reason why Casablanca has remained a classic for so many years.

And it all comes down to one word.


Today's question for the readers: how much regret is too much for you? Whether you're writing it or reading it, at what point does a character stop being interesting and start seeming like a whinier version of a Woody Allen protagonist?

04 September 2013

Suddenly, I got a buzz

It is September and almost time to kick the little one out of the nest and tell it to find its own home.

I am referring, of course, to my novel.  I am doing the last ritual dances before sending it off in the hopes of finding an agent/publisher/bestseller list.

And that means I am currently going through a file on my computer labeled buzz.  This is my private file of buzzwords, the ones I tend to use over and over again.  I am checking each example of them in my book to see if I can replace any of them with something stronger.  Here are some examples.

Suddenly.  The late great Elmore Leonard said never to write suddenly or all hell broke loose.  In  this book  my omniscient narrator says " In the park building things were going to hell at supersonic speeds."  I like it; it stays.

I agree with Leonard that you shouldn't say "Suddenly the door burst open," or the like, but I still use the word occasionally to describe a  realization: "Sal suddenly realized he couldn't see the gun."

Very.  A weak word.  I permit it in dialog.  (People do use it, after all).  Otherwise, it has to fight for its life.

Got.  Michael Bracken, author of many hundreds of stories, hates this word, as I discovered when I was lucky enough to have a story in an anthology he edited.  He doesn't even want it in dialog.

I don't feel so strongly about it, but I agree it is worth a look.  Often got is a hint that you could say the same thing in a better way.  "They got out of the car."  Nah.  "They left the car."  You just saved three words.

Ly.   Suddenly may be the worst example, but all adverbs should be treated as guilty until proven neccessary.  They are crutches; telling what you have failed to show.

Frown, shrug, sigh, shake head.  These are the bits of physical punctuation I use habitually to separate lines of dialog.  I have been going through the manuscript encouriaging my characters to adjust their glasses, scratch their heads, raise their eyebrows, narrow their eyes, anything instead of the big four above.

Are there any words you try to chase out of your work?

03 September 2013

Sing Me a Siren Song

Dale Andrews' very enjoyable piece on the Hardy Boys from last Tuesday evoked a lot of memories for me.  My first completed story, written in the sixth grade, was an thinly disguised Hardy Boys mystery complete with illustrations.   I still have the one and only copy, and it's conclusive proof that my taste for run-on sentences is a congenital condition.

Motif the First
Motif the Second
Even more evocative than the book excerpts Dale included were the book covers he reproduced.  The Hardy Boys editions published in the 1950s and early 1960s had wonderful covers, siren songs done with a brush.  Those covers were always snapshots of some suspenseful moment, often night scenes.  Two recurring motifs were "Hardy Boys Observing Something From a Place of Concealment " and "Hardy Boys Engaged in Foolhardy Enterprise While Someone Sneaks Up Behind Them."   Examples of both types are reproduced here.

A favorite subject of discussion among mystery book authors is book covers.  I could just as easily have typed "subject of complaint."  Bestsellers can complain about the way their books are translated onto film.  The rest of us have to be content with complaining about how our characters are depicted on book jackets.  That's not to say that every author dislikes his or her covers, but it's a lucky writer who's never been let down once by a cover designer.

When my Owen Keane series started, St. Martin's commissioned covers that were dark, moody, and, I thought at the time, rather artsy.  Keane is a failed seminarian whose investigations often involve metaphysics, so I couldn't exactly blame them.  I liked the covers, but I still felt a nameless void.  I didn't diagnose it until Worldwide began bringing the books out as paperbacks.  Then I realized what I'd been longing for:  Hardy Boys book covers.  With the Worldwide editions, I got them.

Compare the two covers for Live To Regret.  They're very similar in subject and composition, but the cover on the right is recognizably from the Hardy Boys school.  The second figure, the follower, is represented only by a shadow.   The implication is that the first figure (a very small one at the top of the boardwalk) has someone sneaking up behind him, as in Hardy Boys Motif #2 described above. 

The sinister shadow would appear often on my subsequent Worldwide covers.  It's an authentic variation on Hardy Boys Motif #2, as the cover on the right demonstrates. 

Hardy Boys Motif #1 (see example on the left) was also represented in my Worldwide editions, by the cover for The Ordained.  That's Keane concealed behind the tree.  It could easily be the cover for The Twisted Claw or The Hooded Hawk.

I had one more brush (no pun intended) with a Hardy Boys cover, and that was when Hayakawa brought out a Japanese edition of The Lost Keats.  Its cover shows Keane leaning against his faithful Karmann-Ghia, which looks showroom new despite being described in the book as being equal parts rusted steel and body putty.  Keane doesn't look like his description, either, but when I saw him, I smiled.  He looks like a close relation of Joe Hardy after Joe had gotten his late '60s makeover.  Come to think of it, Keane is a relation.  Maybe a first cousin, once removed.  

Owen Keane returns to a book jacket this fall.  It will be wrapped round his first book-length adventure to be published in fourteen years.  I'll have more to say about that adventure, Eastward In Eden (and its cover), in a later post.  For now, thanks again, Dale, for the Memory Lane trip.  And, Frank and Joe, look out behind you!

02 September 2013

Baby to Toddler to Published

Jan Grape
Our SleuthSayers blog is coming up on its second birthday on the 17th of this month. Wow, we're not babies anymore. We started out not really knowing where we'd go or who we might meet along the way, but it's been fun so far. We have an outstanding group of award-nominated and award-winning authors. We have a couple of writers who had to go on hiatus because of writing deadlines, yet we were able to add wonderful new folks immediately. Now at the terrible two stage, I expect more mystery, murder and mayhem, daily. If you only come around periodically, I suggest you try to come by on a regular basis. You might be surprised at our new running, walking, toddling stage and the very grown up published state.

The idea of comparing SleuthSayers to a baby just brings to mind how a writer is born, grows and develops. Not every writer, okay, there is the odd one or two published the first time out. Those are rare cases. And in reality most of those honed their craft in newspaper or magazine writing or editing. They could even have a background in public relations, advertising or graphic work. It's possible they have a background/work history which they then used to write, like a policeman, a CIA agent, a lawyer, a crime-beat reporter or they were a real private detective. Being a bit of an expert in their field helped their writing craft.

Most writers have to start somewhere in their life, usually at an early age writing. I know authors who wrote a novel when they were ten or twelve or fourteen years old. At any rate, they almost always thought about or wanted to be a writer. I knew one children's author who told stories to her class when the class work was over each day. She quickly learned in telling her tales to stop at the day at an exciting part so the other kids wanted her to continue the story the next day. She was a baby writer who grew up fast.

Another friend who wrote a novel at age 12, went around neighborhood selling copies. I know writers now who write and have children in school. They have to work their schedule around when the kids are gone and then be ready to be a parent when the kids come home from school. I knew one lady who had toddlers underfoot, who would type a line or two, then change a diaper or fix a bottle. More power to her.

I know a lady who is a best-selling author whose husband died from a heart attack and she had three small children and since she had always wanted to be a writer, decided to see if she could make it. She did.

Another writer I know, also a best-selling author who wrote a couple of medical mysteries because his wife was a doctor and he had someone who could help him with the technical parts. Then he wrote private-eye novels and next wonderful thrillers and he stays home and takes care of the kids, being Mr. Mom while he writes.

I always wanted to write and publish books but I worked as an X-ray Technician and Radiation Therapist and after doing that all day and with three kids at home, I didn't try to have anything published. Well, that's not exactly true. I wrote an essay for English class my senior year and unbeknownst to me, my teacher had it published in the school paper. The paper came out that morning and after first period class a bunch of kids came running up and told me that Miss Moore had published my essay in the school news paper. It was What Christmas Means To Me. I was so excited, kids wanted my autograph and that's when I knew I wanted to be a writer. Unfortunately, that publication didn't survive and I don't have a copy of it.

My next publication was a scientific paper on a new machine we got in Austin at Holy Cross Hospital called a telecopier. This was before fax machines. The oncology radiologist I worked with was able to send a preliminary treatment plan using this machine and transmit this plan to an oncology radiologist specialist in Houston (not MD Anderson) where they also had a physicist. The Houston folks worked out all the details and transmitted the final plans back to our department in Austin. The article I wrote was entered in the Local Radiological Society contest and the Texas State Radiological Society contest and I won both prizes. The TSRS sent it to the American Society and they published it in their monthly journal. The local prize was $50 and local publication, but the TX RT Society prize was $500 and the promise of the publication in the national journal. That was the first paid publications and it was about twenty years before I was paid for a short story. And it wasn't a mystery. Another five years passed before I published my first mystery short story. Good thing I kept my day job.

But when I started writing with an eye to actually trying to be published, I was a baby writer. I had to learn to crawl, then to walk, and finally to run as a writer and get published more often.. I learned that as long as I kept writing...not really worrying about getting published but sending query letters out and eventually getting feed-back that I improved. I grew as a writer. And strangely enough I noticed there seemed to be a change, or a growth spurt about every six months. The best way to do that as all you SleuthSayers know and any of you aspiring writers want to know is to write, write, write. and read, read, read.

So keep in mind most of us start out as baby writers and we keep growing with all the trials and pains of a toddler and then a teenager, but finally we learn and become a published author. There're a lot of growing pains along the way but it's worth it. Just ask any SleuthSayer.

01 September 2013

Criminal Book Covers

by Leigh Lundin

I have a nice kitchen stove with digital temperature, slow pre-heat, glass top, USB and firewire ports, automatic transmission, and other features I'm sure. I also own pots and pans and a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil. Just because I have them, doesn’t mean I should attempt to use them.

When it comes to vanity publishing, I’m of the opinion just because some have the weapons to write a book, doesn’t mean they should. Indeed, 98% should refrain.

A blog called Lousy Book Covers applies my opinion to book covers using the motto “Just because you CAN design your own book cover doesn't mean you SHOULD.” It made me realize if one can’t or won’t use an artist, they sure as hell won’t pay an editor.

My friend Deborah used to point out the Ellora’s Cave covers that looked like sixth-graders had discovered Smith Micro art programs, software putting the S&M in Poser, creating oddly stiff mannequin figures committing unnatural acts in unnatural positions.

Later in a LinkedIn discussion on self-pubbing with the attendant interpersonal drama, one ‘historical’ writer became a hysterical writer, attacking a friend and colleague, calling her a slut for writing sex scenes while insisting his were tasteful. He was bent on pushing his Civil War ‘true-life’ story which cover featured an ultra-busty plastic Poser babe dressed in six-guns and a plunging leather vest. He claimed the cover had cost him a thousand or so, but it still looked like it was cobbled by a hormonal driven teen in a hurry.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that thin-skinned 'indy' writers are equally thin-skinned about their pride-n-joy covers. But, as one observer said, “If you can't take the heat, stay out of the Photoshop.” And oh, Lord… vanity press book covers have become internet cannon fodder with sites like the Caustic Cover Critic, Judge a Book, Bad BookCovers, More Bad Book Covers, Awful Library Books, WTF Bad RomanceCovers, Something Awful, of course Lousy Book Covers and more!

If you can stand the crimes, here are a few mostly ‘indy’ self-published books and their covers flogged on an unsuspecting internet audience.

Being a crime writer, my first thought was severed heads in a field… but why are they smiling so strangely?
Burning… Hey! Not literally, it's a figure of speech. Like a hunk'a hunk'a burning love.
Critics agree… Athink thith ith one of the ghastliest coverth ever!
I suppose this is supposed to be an administration-hating, art-hating, literacy-hating book. With all the out-sourcing, shouldn't they depict an Indian elephant for true symbolism?
Now we know where the extra heads in the first book came from. Usually the number one rule in graphic design is leave the heads on people.
Seriously? This is for sale?
I think this is about head, but I'm not sure it's in a good way. Could this be why those in the first book are grinning?
This is a literary oxymoron, with an emphasis on the last two syllables. What? Half of you don't mind?
Really, doesn't Michigan have enough problems? And don't blame it on the Upper Peninsula. Or Detroit.
What? Starting with the title… no, belay that, I'd rather not. Insane eyes? The phallic arrow? 'Double Penetrator' action? What could be so wrong?
Granted, this isn't a new book or indy, but it speaks volumes about cover design.
Uh, I know this isn't politically correct, but aren't all younger sisters sort of …? Well, you know what I mean.
Whew! Poser and Photoshop and talent. And what a concept for Stuart Little.
A truly abominable snowman. There's nothing to fear except clip art in the hands of a noobee Poser/Photoshop user.
At last! Combine Poser models for that perfect androgynous look!
What is it with Nazi romance novels?
One of the worst covers ever. Even on Earth, I never liked Charlie's Angels.
Some people shouldn't be allowed crayons.
I don't so much object to this cover on aesthetic grounds, but grammar. "Beneath your Beautiful what?" The mind stalls, just like the phrase.
This scares the hell out of me.
   I can't add a thing.