13 December 2013

Another Black Eye for Arizona

 By Dixon Hill






I love Arizona... 

























I love the wide-open spaces (We've still got ‘em, though they grow fewer and farther between every day!), the dusty desert terrain dotted by Saguaro (“Su – whar – ro”), Prickly Pear and Cholla (Cho – ya) cactus, the scrub plants you encounter as you work your way north, the rough rocky face of the Mogollon (“Moo - gee – on” and that middle syllable is pronounced with a hard “g” sound) Rim, even the high country with its Ponderosa and Kaibab Pines. Not to mention all the prairie dogs, squirrels and coyotes.

 The warp and woof of Arizona life is filled with Mexican, American Indian and Spanish influences. They mold our architecture, our language, even the way we get our water and eat our meals.

 When I was a kid, we found an old wagon wheel out in the middle of nowhere, while on a picnic. Stuff like that dotted the empty desert back then, including rare rotting wagons, or long-abandoned and unmapped Indian ruins that I ran across at times. Somebody had probably lost that wagon wheel while crossing the desert back in the 18-who-knows-when, heading for a better life in who-knows-where. We loaded it in the trunk and my mom had my dad lean it against a tree in our backyard. When our pool was put in, that wagon wheel got cemented—center stage—into the planter that jutted abruptly from the pool’s back wall.
 Today, only the rusted rim remains.

Soutwestern Black Eye 

These days, Arizona gets a bad rap from a lot of folks. Sometimes because it’s deserved. Other times, because of misunderstandings or imbalanced reporting. 

This past July I learned that two guys in Paradise Valley have evidently come up with a way to give Arizona another black eye. It looks like they’re scamming money off people across the nation, using information they find in official law enforcement sex offender data lists.

 For those who don’t know, Paradise Valley is a suburb of the Phoenix Metro area. PV as it’s commonly known, was planned as a bedroom community for upper-income families. Community planners stipulated, for instance, that a built-in swimming pool had to sit at least twenty-one feet from the property line. They did this to encourage the construction of expensive houses on large lots. And, it worked. They also made it illegal to set up a business—even a gas station—except in very limited areas.

 This doesn't seem to have kept two guys from running an internet business out their house, however. According to an Arizona Republic article by Robert Anglen:

 A network of Arizona-based Internet companies is mining data from sex-offender sites maintained by law-enforcement agencies and using it to demand money and harass those who complain or refuse to pay.

The websites in question are evidently run by two men who have both been convicted on fraud charges in the past. They obtain their information from sex offender data lists published by law enforcement agencies, however their site is not associated with any state or federal agency or law enforcement branch.

 Now, I can hear some of you thinking, “They’re convicted sex offenders; they probably deserve it!” But, the people being scammed aren’t necessarily sex offenders at all. According to the article:

 Among the hundreds of thousands of names that appear, the websites include names and addresses of people who never have been arrested or convicted of a sex crime.

The Internet-savvy operators … have prominently profiled specific individuals, published their home and e-mail addresses, posted photographs of their relatives and copied their Facebook friends onto the offender websites.

“Enjoy the exposure you have created for yourself,” operators said in an e-mail to an offender last year. “Unfortunately you took (your) family with you.”

In Virginia, a man last year stumbled onto (the) profile of his recently deceased brother-in-law. He said he contacted the website in an effort to spare his sister and her two young daughters from learning about the 18-year-old conviction. But when he said he balked at paying, the websites posted his name and e-mail. They also posted his sister’s address, her name and the names of her children, in-laws and other relatives.

 Not enough to convince you? How about this one: A Louisiana schoolteacher, whose only “crime” was buying a house once owned by a sex offender (whose name had been removed from all official registries before she bought the house), found herself caught up in the websites’ snare. “Even after being notified that the offender no longer lived in the house and being paid to remove the profile,” the Republic article states, “(the websites) continued publishing the woman’s address as if the sex offender still resided there.”

That’s right: she’s a teacher. She had no connection to the sex offender in question, except that she happened to buy a house he once lived in. Fearing the website might convince people she was associated with a convicted sex offender—something that could ruin her career—she paid them to remove her address from the website. But, they kept it up anyway. And, the people running these websites are charging people between $79 and $499 to have their names removed.

 Is This Legal? 

The Arizona Department of Public Safety runs an official state registry at azsexoffender.org. Their site states: “misuse of this information may result in criminal prosecution.” Surely this is the case with other agency’s registries, also. 

Yet, though people claim to have complained to attorneys general not only in Arizona, but also in Washington, Virginia, Montana and Louisiana, no law enforcement agencies seem to have taken any action.

Hasn't Anybody Called the Cops? 

That’s what I wondered, and according to the Republic article:

Complaints about … the … websites have been filed with local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies for almost a year. Offenders, their relatives and others who say they have been targeted by the websites say officials won’t act. They say agencies take reports, then decline to open investigations or refer cases elsewhere.

Complaints have been submitted with the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission and the Internet Crime Complaint Center, which works with the FBI to refer Internet criminal cases to various agencies.

One offender said federal prosecutors in Virginia told him they would not open a case.

Neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Virginia would comment. FBI officials in Arizona also declined comment.

Complaints have also been submitted with attorneys general in at least five states, including Arizona.

 One convicted sex offender was quoted as saying: “They don’t take action because of who we are: sex offenders. But we deserve equal protection under the law.”

 Maybe that statement doesn't resonate with you. But, no matter how little pity you feel for sex offenders (and, frankly, I find it hard to pity them), surely their families and friends—or people who buy houses from them!—deserve to be protected from these websites.

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon

12 December 2013

Good Character / Bad Character

by Janice Law

I’ve been reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens, and I was once again struck by his emotional reaction to his characters, especially to Little Nell of The Old Curiosity Shop, a typical Victorian saintly child, whose precarious situation and dodgy health provoked transatlantic anxieties. Folks actually met British steamers at the New York docks to get the latest news of this Dickens’ heroine.

Few of us will create such emotional havoc in our readers and today the internet spills the beans via blogs or Twitter. But it got me thinking about writers’ relationships with characters, in particular, with the way that some characters just write like a dream while others resist their translation to print and even when successful represent a long, hard slog.

I can hear the amateur psychologists in the background muttering about covert self portraits and sub-conscious impulses. Frankly, I hope that’s not true, because the characters that I’ve had the most trouble with are the virtuous ones, while certain weird and wicked people just jumped off the page.

Of course, evil is stock in trade for the mystery writer. But even slightly off that homicidal reservation I’ve found that the wicked make good copy. Years ago, I wrote All the King’s Ladies, an historical novel set at the court of Louis XIV and based on the Affair of the Poisons. Two particularly heinous characters, the Abbe LeSage, a defrocked priest, Black Mass celebrant, and pedophile, and Madame Voisin, abortionist, vendor of love potions, and poisoner were among the easiest characters I’ve ever written.

I might have trouble with the King, with his various ambitious ladies, or with the celebrated Police Commissioner De La Reynie but never with LeSage or Voisin, who greeted me each morning with snappy dialogue and wholly unrepentant attitudes. Given their habits, I really think I would have found them unbearable if they hadn’t also possessed a sort of gleeful energy, which makes me think that robust vitality trumps any number of other virtues – at least on the page.

Short mystery stories are the natural habitat of such types. The short story needs punch and compression, and characters need to be sharply drawn if they are to make an impact in the handful of pages allotted to them. For this reason, I have always favored either first person narratives or single point of view for the form.

But even in mysteries, evil needs to be the seasoning, not the main dish. In All the King’s Ladies, LeSage and La Voisin were minor characters, however vital, and I only occasionally, as in The Writing Workshop about a writer’s murderous search for a sympathetic editor, write a story entirely from the point of view of a cold-blooded perpetrator.

More usually, the narrator is either an observer who only gradually realizes that his or her friend or acquaintance is up to no good or else is drawn into crime by circumstances only partly beyond control. And here, I think, personal tastes and interests do sometimes surface. I found the would-be literary writer who moonlights in fantasy novels in The Ghost Writer sympathetic because he had, like most writers, little rituals to help him get into the writing mode.

The drug dealer’s girlfriend in Star of the Silver Screen lived a totally different sort of life from mine, but she shared my taste for old movies and found a surprising hiding place within movie fantasies. On the other hand, I didn’t like the heroine of The Summer of the Strangler, though I was sympathetic to her role as editor for her philandering husband. Still, she wrote very nicely, in part because she lived in the suburban Connecticut town were I spent a quarter of a century.
So what is my relationship with my characters? I don’t love them like Dickens, and I’ve only become fond enough of a couple to keep writing about them. Anna Peters ran to nine novels, and Madame Selina and her assistant Nip Tompkins look set for several more outings in the short story markets.

As for my relations with the rest, they are curious. Some writers create elaborate backstories for their characters and can tell you their genealogies and private histories. Not me. Maybe it’s an exaggerated respect for the privacy of imaginary beings, but I only know what they choose to reveal. Characters start talking to me and telling me things and I write them down. That’s about it.
Sometimes they tell me a lot and they wind up in a novel. Other times their visits are brief and end in fatality; they’re destined for short stories. To me, a good character has a distinctive voice, insinuating ideas, and mild obsession. Plus, a taste for gossiping – with me.

11 December 2013

The Revolt of The Oyster

by David Edgerley Gates

Don Marquis, who died seventy years ago, is probably best known for ARCHY AND MEHITABEL, but he published some thirty-five books, and his daily newspaper columns were widely read. THE REVOLT OF THE OYSTER came out in 1922, a collection of what are best described as Shaggy Dog stories (some of them in fact told from the dog's POV).

This post, though, isn't really about Don Marquis, that's just a loose hook. I first ran across THE REVOLT OF THE OYSTER in my grandmother Ada's summer house on Salters Point, near New Bedford, on Buzzards Bay. Anybody who's ever rented a vacation cottage remembers that they're often furnished with old Agatha Christie paperbacks, say, or Louis L'Amours, or the Hardy Boys, and I remember going down every year to Ada's house, until I was maybe fourteen or fifteen, and every year I'd go straight to the bookshelf and take out the Don Marquis again. I never took it home with me. I always left it there for the next summer, a talisman, or a touchstone, if you will. I associated the book with that particular place, the smell of the ocean, the light on the water, the house itself, with its porches overlooking the seawall, my grandmother's sister, my Aunt Al, sitting in her room by the windows, playing her endless games of solitaire.

Hancock Pt. library
My other grandmother, my mother's mom, had a cottage up in Maine, at a place called Hancock Point, across from Mt. Desert Island. The way it seems to me now, although I may be misremembering those long-ago summers, is that we'd spend July at Salters, and August in Hancock. Hancock had a little seasonal library, most of the books out-of-date, on loan or donated, and there was a children's wing on one side, a great place to spend a rainy day. The book I checked out every year was THE BEARS' FAMOUS INVASION OF SICILY, and again, I connected it particularly to Hancock Point. I never thought to read it, or even try to find it, anywhere else. It was that physically specific.

Memory is of course inexact, and it shifts under our
feet. Also, we invest old favorites with our own imagination. Was the BEARS book really any good? I really only remember the drawings, which were wonderfully evocative. You could probably say the same thing about the Babar stories---if you look at them from a grown-up perspective, are they an apology for French colonialism? I'd rather no project this kind of moral re-reading into them. It stifles delight. And we were innocent of politics, then. We were kids, after all, and maybe less demanding. We satisfied ourselves by entering an unfamiliar world, one that we inhabited, and populated, that became more familiar over time. If, in fact, not the books, per se, that sense of wonder we recall, that first encounter. It brings back to me the smell of the piney woods, or the salty rocks, or a fire in the fireplace, on a stormy night. My childhood, in a word, a time and a place that no longer exists.

This isn't loss, or regret. It's more a kind of conjuring trick, an act of reimagination. We're never going to be nine years old again, but we can visit, and when I read THE REVOLT OF THE OYSTER, it becomes, for me, a trip to Ada's house by the shore and the world of summers gone, a game of solitaire, shuffling the cards.

10 December 2013

Nothing Wasted

by Janice Law

Thanks to Dale Andrews and Terence Faherty, who have kindly given up space so I can announce the publication today, Dec 10, of Prisoner of the Riviera, the second volume of my mystery trilogy featuring that campy bon vivant and artistic genius, Francis Bacon.

Surprisingly, since I rarely plan anything in fiction, I knew from the start that I wanted to do three novels with this character. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the trilogy involved me in the same sort of plot problems that individual novels have caused. Namely, I had a wonderful idea for the beginning: a mystery set against the London Blitz– the Blackouts, sudden death from the sky, spectacular, if dangerous, light effects, and the disorientations of a totally disrupted urban geography. Who could ask for a better setting?

And then Bacon was a character that I found irresistible if rather foreign to my own experience. He was irrepressible and pleasure loving, but hard working, too. And he lived with his old nanny, the detail that convinced me to use him in fiction.

I also had a pretty good idea about the third novel. Painful experience has taught me that it is folly to embark on a project without some idea of the ending. It’s good, if not essential, to know who the killer is, but I find I absolutely need some idea of how the concluding events are going to go down. And I did know, because, just on the cusp of real success, Bacon embarked on his great erotic passion with a dangerous ex-RAF pilot. In Tangiers, no less, the exotic height of romance. How could I go wrong with that?

The problem, as perspicacious readers will have already divined, was the dreaded middle, the getting from the brilliant idea of the opening (for who ever starts a project without the delusive conviction that this idea is really terrific?) to the clever and satisfying (we do live in hope) ending. The solution was not immediately forthcoming and volume 2 might still be just a faint literary hope if not for personal past literary history.

Over every writer’s desk, in addition to Nora Ephron’s mom’s: “Remember, dear, it’s all copy,” I would add, “Remember not every project works out” and “Nothing is wasted.” Years ago, I wrote a novel called The Countess, which borrowed some of the exploits of a real WW2 SOE agent, a Polish countess in exile. I did a lot of research. I read a lot of books. I visited the Imperial War Museum in London. I even made an attempt at beginning Polish.

But just as sometimes a piece one dashes off turns out to be very good, so sometimes one’s heart’s blood is not enough. The Countess was published to small acclaim and smaller sales and I was left with a working knowledge of the French Underground and SOE circuits, plus acquaintance with the toxic politics of Vichy and the right-wing Milice.

Years passed. Although I forgot, as I tend to do, the names of agents and the dates of significant actions, a notion of the infernal complexity of war time France remained, along with the conviction that the post-war must have been a very confusing and often dangerous place.

When I recalled that Francis’s lover had promised him a gambling trip to France after the war, I had the ah-ha moment. The real Bacon, his lover, and his old Nan had actually gone to France. That was good. And what was better was that I could invent a whole range of people who had scores to settle and secrets to hide. What better environment for Francis, who does have a knack for smelling out trouble?

The French setting of Prisoner of the Riviera also enabled me to add one of my passions to the story, as very soon after the war, the French resumed the Tour de France, still the world’s most glamorous bike race. Handsome young men in bike shorts seemed to me to be just the ticket for a vacationing Francis Bacon, and having given him all sorts of obstacles and miseries, it seemed only fair to let him indulge in a little romance.

Finally, we had spent holidays in France, a number of them in the south, and the sights and sounds of the Riviera have lingered in my mind. With both the physical and emotional setting of the novel well in hand, it remained only for me to trust to the Muse to come up with the incidents. She complied and Prisoner of the Riviera, in which in best mystery novel fashion, the hero, having survived Fires of London goes on vacation and finds himself in the soup, was the result.

09 December 2013

Things I've Learned at Sleuth Sayers

Jan Grape
THINGS I'VE LEARNED AT SLEUTH SAYERS

by Jan Grape

I had two or three ideas tumbling around in my head for my column, however, nothing seemed to jell. I decided to peruse every one's column for this past week and "Wah-la." I decided that "transformative use" information from John M. Floyd made good sense.

As I've mentioned before, the first novel I wrote in 1980-81, was a private eye novel. Since I was a voracious reader of that genre, I noticed that no one was writing books or stories with a female P.I. At the time, I didn't know Marcia Muller had published her first Sharon McCone novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes," in 1977. She's been called the "Mother of the female Private Eye." Marcia modestly smiles and says the second McCone book wasn't published until five years later. Sometime she admits perhaps she's the "Godmother."

To be quite accurate, Maxine O'Callaghan wrote a short story, "A Change of Clients," which debuted, Delilah West, P.I., published in AHMM in 1974. Delilah didn't make it to a book, Death Is Forever until 1980. Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski appeared in Indemnity Only in January, 1982. Immediately following was Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone in "A is For Alibi," in April, 1982. So I honestly didn't steal or copy their ideas because I had began writing my book in 1980. It was just that the idea of a female P.I. was definitely in the air. A friend handed me the Grafton book sometime later in '82, saying I know you're writing a female P.I. and think you might enjoy this book. A month or so after that I saw the Muller book and bought and read it.

The other idea I had when starting my book was a transformative use taken directly from Robert B. Parker of having my P.I., Jenny Gordon, work with a tough, smart, beautiful, black woman, C.J. Gunn. I wanted to show the interaction of the two women being close friends. He had Spencer and a black male friend who was tough and often helped. My naming my character came from the idea of Mickey Spillane having his character named Mike Hammer.  The Mickey and Mike were alliterative and I felt Jenny Gordon by Jan Grape might be memorable.

I published two short stories inspired by songs from singer/songwriters. The first was "Scarlett Fever," published in Deadly Allies inspired by a Kenny Rogers song. I didn't know him  personally but knew all of his songs. The second story was "The Confession" inspired by Thomas Michael Riley, a local Hill Country songwriter and published in Murder Here, Murder There.

The only short story that inspired me was one by Bill Pronzini. I don't remember the title of it, but there was a hit and run accident in it. My story, "The Man In The Red Flannel Suit" was published in Santa Clues, and has a significant hit and run scene.

Fran's definition of cozyesque is fantastic. My friend, Susan Rogers Cooper, writes what she calls, "grisly cozies." They are tougher than cozy but not hard-boiled. A few years ago when I owned the bookstore we called books either soft-boiled, medium-boiled, or hard-boiled.

When I was trying to get my Austin policewoman book sold, Ed Gorman of Tekno Books was packaging books for Five Star. At that time, the editor there was buying cozy mysteries only. Ed asked if I had a book for them to look at. I said, not really. Only thing I have is my policewoman book. He said, "Well, can you cozy it up a little?" I said, "I don't know, but I'll try." That wasn't working too well. As we all know, a bunch of police officers and most bad guys use rough language. I was trying to take out the bad language and checking for how much sex I could gloss over. I was about half-way through when Ed called back. "Our editor has moved up and she's now open to any genre of mystery. Thank goodness, I had a copy that certainly wasn't cozy and sent it to him. They liked it and Austin City Blue found a home.

None of my three novels are the Great American Novel, Eve Fisher, but I didn't try to write one either. I just wrote books that I liked and that I hoped others would like.

As far as researching, Dale Andrews, for the policewoman series, I actually took 10 weeks of classes of Citizen's Police Academy training in 1991. It was a program set up to help neighborhood watch folks learn all about the different aspects of the Austin Police Department. The accepted me because they knew I was a published writer of short stories. We had department heads or second in command come by and talk about SWAT, Fraud and Bunko Squad, Robbery Homicide, Firearms, Fingerprints, Ballistics, Medical Examiners, etc.

One night we all used the laser light, video training program called FATS. You watched a video on a huge screen and you held a laser gun. The scene would play out on the screen and you had to decide whether to "shoot or not shoot." It made you understand how few seconds an officer has to make a decision and to do the right thing. I did okay but I did "shoot" a bad guy in the behind. He was beating up a cop, then suddenly jumped up and ran away. My brain said to shoot and by the time I made the decision he had jumped up and turned to leave. We also did a "ride along" for a full shift with an officer in a squad car. That was fascinating and you soon realized every call could be a potential bad one. Dispatch said, "Check out a suspicious vehicle." At such and such address. We got there and it was a Winnebago vehicle, all dark. The officer didn't know if someone was inside or was gone. He wouldn't let me get out of the car. Turned out it was vacant.

For interesting searches nowadays I sometimes do online on my telephone, is for song lyrics. Not for
writing but for friends and for fun.

This concludes my article, and Leigh, you'll have to check this for commas. I'm sure I have too many. But I think I did okay with quote marks and such.

08 December 2013

Professional Tips: Speech! Speech!

by Leigh Lundin

I’ve been tutoring new writers in the basics. Realistic dialogue is difficult enough, not to mention outside the purview of my lessons, but I’m amazed how many writers haven’t mastered the ‘mechanics’, the essential punctuation required to make dialogue readable.

Punctilious Punctuation

The most obvious indicators of dialogue are the quotation marks that wrap the spoken words themselves. That seems simple enough, but situations arise that flummox many students, including the simplest declarative statement plus a speech tag identifying who spoke. It’s not uncommon to see:
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son.” he said.
The fullstop (period) confuses writers when adding a speech tag naming the speaker. If the phrase ended with a question mark or exclamation mark, then all would be well:
“And has thou slain the Jabberwock?” he said.
Recognizing the end of a declarative sentence, many students want to simply add He said or he said, rather than the correct form, a comma:
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son,” he said.
Is this the party to whom I am speaking?

Roughly half of students omit commas setting off the person being addressed. This can confuse the reader and can change the meaning of the sentence:
“Beware the Jabberwock my son.”
Is the speaker implying he fathered the Jabberwocky? Consider:
“Would you like to eat Mary?”
This works only if Mary is the victim, not the listener. What about the following? Is the speaker referring to a former king?
“Edward I swam the English Channel.”
Always set off the person addressed with commas:
“Yes, sir, I will.”
Beyond a Single Paragraph

What happens when a speaker’s dialogue breaks into uninterrupted paragraphs? The correct response is to place a quotation mark at the beginning of each paragraph, but place a closing quotation mark only after the final sentence of the last paragraph.
“Has thou slain the Jabberwock?
“Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
“O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
Momentarily stepping outside the realm of dialogue, we often wish to enclose words or phrases within quote marks as I did in the first paragraph above. When a comma or period is required, many authors simply write in this form, the ‘always inside’ rule:
(open quote) word/phrase (comma/fullstop)(close quote)
Other writers such as James Lincoln Warren argue that where you put the terminating punctuation depends on context and meaning, and I agree. (JLW also writes convincingly in support of the ‘Oxford comma’ indicating that its exclusion can alter the meaning of a list.)

The Stratemeyer Stain

“Everything I learned about writing, I learned from Edward Stratemeyer,” or so it seems from new writers some days.

Edward Stratemeyer has a lot to answer for. From the late 1800s through the first half of the twentieth century, the Stratemeyer Syndicate dominated the field of youth literature with more than 100 series and 1300 titles, books you’ve probably read: Nancy Drew (1930), The Hardy Boys (1927), Tom Swift (1910), The Bobbsey Twins (1904), The Rover Boys (1899), etc.

While you can find varied speech tags in Dickens and Doyle, Stratemeyer grew notorious for using any verb other than ‘said’. To wit:
Tom acquiesced, added, admitted, advanced, advised, affirmed, articulated, asserted, boasted, bragged, confirmed, demanded, demurred, frowned, grinned, gurgled, injected, murmured, queried, responded, shouted, smiled, snapped, snorted, whimpered, whined, whispered, “Stop the madness!”
When asked why writers shouldn’t use a full, glorious array of verbs, teachers find themselves unarmed. They say “You can’t frown words, you can’t smile an answer,” and hurriedly move on to the next topic.

Intrusion Alert

But there’s a better reason. Many editors and authors consider anything other than ‘said’ and perhaps ‘asked’ to be author intrusion. Instead of letting the words speak for themselves, the author inserts himself into the story to tell the reader how to interpret it. Rob Lopresti brilliantly identifies these as superfluous 'stage directions'. Many professional writers suggest readers don't 'hear' the verb 'said', that it's invisible to the eye and ear.

So it happens many students come prepared with thesauri-enhanced speech tags and they can’t believe it when instructed to slash them from their epics. “This can’t be right to replace our colorful, masterful, steroidal verbs with dull grey ‘said’?

More than one will decline, arguing “It’s just my style. I can’t change my style.” Fair enough, but don’t be surprised if your style might not be your publisher’s.

Low Marks

Here’s a little puzzle from ESLCarissa passed on from Post Secret. Jot your solution in the comments section!

I don't know how to punctuate.

07 December 2013

Grand Theft Litto



by John M. Floyd


One of the things beginning writers seem to worry a lot about is that their stories might be stolen by the editors who receive and read their submissions. Because of that, we usually spend some time in each of my writing courses talking about it, along with the inevitable discussions of copyright, lawsuits, etc. The truth is, it's rarely a problem. I tell my students that editors of respectable publications aren't going to steal your work; worry instead about getting them to buy your work. (Editors of fly-by-night publications probably won't steal it either, but you shouldn't be sending stories to them anyhow.)

The folks who do the stealing are other writers. Even this, though, isn't a cause for concern. Most writers don't steal stories--they steal ideas, and they steal those from stories that have already been published.

Hands up, and back away from the register . . .

It's a fact: all authors, eventually and to some degree, steal ideas from other authors' work. I'm not referring to plagiarism here, or anything overly obvious. I'm talking about reading something by another writer and thinking Whoa, that's a great clue, or an interesting style, or a clever twist--and finding a way to include a version of that in what you're planning for your next story or novel. (It's one of the many reasons that good writers are avid readers as well.) The source of this ripe-for-the-picking idea might bear little resemblance to the final result, but that's okay too. The important thing is, it served as a catalyst. As an inspiration.

In movies, plot theft is done all the time, either subtlely or blatantly, and if you watch enough of them you can pick it out. I knew immediately that Pale Rider was a thinly disguised rehash of Shane, and everyone knows that The Magnificent Seven came from The Seven Samurai. The list goes on and on: The Shop Around the Corner/You've Got Mail, Battle Royale/The Hunger Games, Big/13 Going on 30, Yojimbo/A Fistful of Dollars/Last Man Standing, The Innocents/The Others, Turner & Hooch/K-9, Dances With Wolves/The Last Samurai/Avatar, Here comes Mr. Jordan/Heaven Can Wait, etc. Some of these were authorized remakes and others were just similar. Either way, the plots were recycled, and in a few cases produced as good a result, or better, the second or third time around.

Examples closer to home

In one of my stories, "The Powder Room" (the title refers to an explosives bunker, not a ladies' comfort station), I took an idea that I'd seen in a Jack Ritchie short story years ago and turned it around a bit to suit my purposes. In the Ritchie story a good guy who was about to be murdered secretly placed a wine glass bearing the bad guy's fingerprints into a safe as a way to make sure the holder of the glass didn't go through with the hit. Sort of a reverse blackmail. In my story I had the hero snap a photo of the villain and then put the camera into a vault with a time-lock. I also added a lot more twists to the story, but the threat of the "insurance" in the safe was an important plot point. The resulting story was accepted by AHMM and was later listed in Best American Mystery Stories as one of the "Distinguished Stories of 2009."

In another tale, I used an escape method that I'd once read about in the William Mulvihill novel The Sands of Kalahari. In that book, a murderer had been captured by a band of good guys in the middle of nowhere, and--being good guys--they decided to imprison him rather than kill him. Their makeshift jail was a deep stone pit with smooth, unclimbable sides. The problem was, it rained all that night, and the next morning they discovered that the runoff from the mountains had filled the pit with muddy water. Too bad, they thought--he's drowned. But he hadn't. They later found the pit empty. The captive had simply treaded water until the level rose high enough for him to climb out. One of my characters did the same kind of thing in my story "The Messenger," which first appeared in the magazine Futures, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and was reprinted four times in other publications.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should reiterate that both those stories were bridesmaids instead of brides. The first one was only listed in the Best Mysteries anthology; it wasn't one of the featured stories. And the second one was nominated; it didn't win. Oh well . . .)

Picky, picky

A basic part of this "acceptable" literary theft is that you don't steal the whole story--that would be at worst illegal and unethical and at best unoriginal (as well as stupid). What you do is, you pick out a small part that fascinates you and then weave that idea into an idea of your own. I recently read a Carl Hiaasen novel in which a voodoo queen put a curse on someone but accidentally evil-eyed the wrong person. It was only a tiny part of a subplot, but it got me to thinking. I wound up moving the setting from the Florida Keys to New Orleans, and changed a bunch of things about the hexer and the hexed and the motive and the process, and added some reversals here and there, and came up with what I think is a neat little mystery story. Whether it gets published is another matter, but I did the best I could.

This kind of copying/imitation/larceny can also be less specific. Maybe your inspiration is James Lee Burke's beautifully descriptive settings, or Janet Evanovich's constant use of action verbs, or Robert Parker's nonstop dialogue, or Lee Child's "slowing down" of action scenes to tell the reader exactly what the hero is thinking during the fights, or Harlan Coben's double and triple plot twists, or Kathryn Stockett's use of dialect without phonetic (mis)spellings, or Stephen King's fondness for using brand names for products and using children as protagonists. These ultra-talented authors, by the way, are particularly good candidates to steal from. Pickpockets don't go to the poor side of town; they hang around the country club and the opera house and the financial district.


Masters of fine arts

In closing, I should mention that the premise of Ronald Tobias's outstanding book 20 Master Plots is that every plot in existence is just a variation of one of those twenty. What you write is almost always a different take on an already-used idea. You're just writing it in your own words.

What are your views on all this? Do you find yourself getting story ideas from what you read, or see in movies? Have you ever taken someone else's plot structures, description methods, themes, quirky POVs, dialogue techniques, etc., and remodeled them to come up with your own versions? How far do you go with something like that? How far is too far?

I once heard that it's okay to steal others' ideas as long as you don't steal others' expressions of those ideas. I like that. Another observation that I recall, from someplace: Stealing ideas is an art, and stealing them well is a fine art.

I think it was T. S. Eliot who said, "Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal."

Go thou and do likewise.



06 December 2013

Days of Treachery

by R.T. Lawton

In The Art of Warfare, Sun Tzu says: "All warfare is based on deception."


Tomorrow marks seventy-two years since the Japanese military forces pulled a sneak attack on America's navy at Pearl Harbor. At the time, the U.S. government didn't expect much to happen because the Japanese diplomats were still negotiating in Washington, D.C. to avoid war. We all know how well that turned out. Even though the Japanese had several previous incidents of engaging in military action in other countries without first declaring hostilities, the U.S. did not prepare itself against this same type of incident. Afterwards, president Franklin D. Roosevelt called it "a day to live in infamy." You'd think we'd not only remember that day, but would also learn a lesson from it.

Sun Tzu says: "Attack him when he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected."

Turn the clock forward in time twenty-seven years plus a couple of months from Pearl Harbor. At this point, the U.S. had already been at war in Viet Nam for three years. Our commanders and experts should be prepared for anything, but this is a guerilla war and we have a conventional army. We haven't used guerilla tactics since the American Revolution. Other than several Special Forces teams out in the bush, most commanders are still using strategies left over from Korea and WWII.

Happy New Year to you!!!


For centuries, the calendar used in Viet Nam has been the same as the Chinese one, a lunisolar based calendar. Their new year, called Tet Nguyen Dan, generally falls during late January or early February in our western calendar. Tet is the most important celebration of the year for the Vietnamese. Special foods are cooked and the house is cleaned in preparation for this three-day holiday. On the first day, lucky money in red envelopes is given to children and elders, ancestors are worshiped and there is much wishing of new Year's greetings to friends and family. It is a believed custom that the first person to set foot in the house on that morning determines good luck or bad for that house during the rest of the year. To that end, most families took care to invite whoever was to be the first person stepping into their house on that first day. Sometimes, to avoid any bad luck, the owner himself would leave the house just before midnight and return a few minutes after both clock hands had touched twelve.

It had also been a long standing custom in Viet Nam for both warring sides to call a truce during this holiday period. All of the Vietnamese, soldiers and civilians alike, if they could, went back to their family home to celebrate. The American troops weren't able to return to their homes in the U.S., but since the South Vietnamese and the North Vietnamese had both agreed to the upcoming cease fire, then the Americans could relax for a few days. After all, nothing had happened in-country during the last few Tet holiday truces. Wrong choice again.

Marines retaking the old capital city of Hue
The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had long planned a guerrilla uprising in the south for the first morning of Tet. What better way to show the South Vietnamese their future than to have a Communist guerrilla fighter be the first one to step into their house on this special holiday. In the early morning of January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and troops from the north attacked about one hundred major towns and cities, to include Saigon and the U.S. Embassy. To us, it was treachery in breaking the cease fire they had agreed to, but to them it was just good strategy set forth by an ancient Chinese warrior/philosopher.

American troops quickly rallied and defeated the guerrillas. Some places took a day, some took a month to bring back under control. The Communists lost an estimated 45,000 combatants killed in action. The Americans won the battles, but soon lost the war due to pressure from back on the home front.

So, could the Americans have  been better prepared?

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." ~ George Santayana

In 1941, the Japanese already had a record of attacking countries without warning. The American intelligence agencies got caught sleeping on the job, or else they ignored the danger signs. They paid no attention to history. Thus the Pearl Harbor attack found us with no good defense in place.

Then, in early 1968, our military and intelligence agencies got caught short again. They failed to remember the lesson from Pearl Harbor. Perhaps if they'd delved into the history of Viet Nam, they'd have found the example left by the Trung Sisters and taken heed.

Trung Sisters on war elephants
For centuries, Viet Nam (or parts of it) had fought for independence against various invaders: the Chinese (at least three times), the French (twice), the Japanese (during WWII), and the Americans and their allies, not to mention several ancient civilizations and kingdoms long gone to dust. During the first Chinese occupations centuries past, the Trung Sisters grew tired of their oppressors, raised an army of Vietnamese patriots and threw the Chinese out for a few years. What was the date of their uprising? Strangely enough, it was February 6th, right about Tet Nguyen Dan for that year.

There have long been shrines to the Trung Sisters and their rebellion, especially in the north and around Hanoi. It's not like their existence was a secret or something forgotten over the centuries. Evidently, we didn't pay attention to the history of the country we were in.

What next?

History is still out there teaching lessons, both to those who care to learn and with hard lessons to those who don't pay attention to her. Which leaves us with the question; do we have more surprises coming in the future, or are we paying attention yet?

05 December 2013

The Great American Novel - Yeah, Right

by Eve Fisher

First of all, thank you, Fran, for a great idea for a column!  Fran wrote on Monday a blog called "What's Lit Got To Do With It" -  http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2013/12/whats-lit-got-to-do-with-it.html - in which she unveiled her new Callie Parrish novel, which is great, and I can hardly wait to read it.  But something she said - "it's not the Great American Novel..." - triggered a whole range of responses in me, beginning with,

WHY do we always say that?  (Except of course, for those who think they have written the GAN, and all I can say is, God bless you and just keep moving on.  Nothing to see here.  Nothing to do with you.)  Really, I have heard this rap - "well, thanks, but it's not the Great American Novel" - from all sorts of mystery writers, fantasy writers, romance writers, sci-fi writers...  And here's my response:

(1) Most "literary" novels, most "great" novels, are depressing.  I know this because I have read a lot of them.  They are mostly about how crappy life is, how disillusioning, how people make bad choices, and very few of them have happy endings.
File:Huckleberry Finn book.JPGSIDE NOTE #1:  I believe the only humorous novel that the critics agree is a Great American Novel is Huckleberry Finn - surely there are more than that.  And the last comedy to win Best Picture was "Annie Hall" in the 1970s...  Tells you something right there, doesn't it?  And a lot of people today are embarrassed about "Our Town" winning a Pulitzer Prize "because it's so sappy" - no, it isn't.
SIDE NOTE #2:  Interestingly, the Russians - who always get a bad rap for depression - are much more hopeful than the British and the Americans, but I think that's mostly because Dostoevsky and Tolstoy both had strong spiritual beliefs, and so believed that there was a way out of hell.  (And if you want ribald humor with that, try Gabriel Garcia-Marquez or Gunter Grass.)  But there's a whole lot of authors who simply provide hell, and no way out, and I'm not just talking about Kafka.  Back in Victorian times, after reading Jude the Obscure, Edmund Gosse wondered, "What has Providence done to Mr. [Thomas] Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?"  I tend to ask the same about Cormac McCarthy.  Enough is enough.
SIDE NOTE #3:  I don't have to have a happy ending - I still re-read Edith Wharton and "Madame Bovary," and I loved "Mystic River" - but if your characters are universally unpleasant, violent, inarticulate, and hostile, moving across a bleak landscape in which there is no hope and it's all a mug's game, and everyone ends up miserable, raped, tortured, and/or dead...  I may give it a pass.  Forever.

File:James Thurber NYWTS.jpg
The one and only
James Thurber
(2) What are the novels you read and re-read?  The ones where the spine's broken, and the pages are falling out, and you finally have to buy a new copy because you've read them to death?  My bet is a lot of them are funny.  A lot of them are fun.  A lot of them make you feel good.
SIDE NOTE:  Please feel free to provide your own definition of fun and what makes you feel good:  for some it's Stephen King (personally I read too much Poe and Lovecraft as a child, and I don't like being scared that much anymore).  Other's it's P. G. Wodehouse.  I go all over the place, myself, from the complete works of Patrick O'Brian (who has a wicked sense of humor) to James Thurber to Gunter Grass (everyone talks about "The Tin Drum", and all I can say is, read "The Flounder") to Angela Thirkell.

(3) There are not enough humorous works in the world.  Seriously.  We need more laughter, folks.  We need more jocularity, as Father Mulcahy would say.  And those who write funny, humorous, amusing, entertaining, witty, acerbic, knee-slapping, whimsical, ribald, facetious, farcical, waggish, playful, droll, campy, merry, and/or playful stories, sketches, plays, novels, essays, poems, etc. should never, ever, ever be ashamed of it, or put themselves down for it, or say, "Well, it's not the Great American Novel..."  I repeat, THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH HUMOROUS BOOKS OUT THERE.  Write some more.  People will thank you, read you, love you.  Repeatedly.  I know I will.

File:Chaucer ellesmere.jpg(4) People have been giving the lighter stuff a bad rap for millenia.  Petrarch told Boccaccio that his "Decameron Tales" (the world's largest collection of dirty jokes, told against the background of the bubonic plague, and if the world ever needed a laugh, it was then) were unworthy of a humanist and a scholar.  The result:  Boccaccio quit writing.  Religious pressure made Chaucer add a retraction to his "Canterbury Tales", taking it all back.  Samuel Johnson said that "Tristram Shandy will not last."  All I can say is, "Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah."

To these and every writer who has tickled, amused, and made me burst out laughing, thank you!
Keep it up!









04 December 2013

Loose Genes

by Robert Lopresti

This is not going to be as cohesive as (I hope) most of my pieces here are, because I have three vaguely related things I want to talk about.  And they have only a slight connection to crime or mystery.  The fact that I'm fighting a cold doesn't help.

So if you prefer to skip this and go check your email you won't hurt my feelings. If you're still with me, here goes.

A relative recently told us she had her genome tested and invited us to do the same.  This feat, which would have been the wildest science fiction a few decades ago, now costs about a hundred bucks and takes a couple of weeks.  You spit in a test tube, and wait to get an email.  Not exactly Doctor Who, is it?

And the results, I have to say, are pretty cool.  My background, as far as I know, is one-half Italian, three-eighth English, and one-eighth Irish.  The computers spotted 10% Italian, 3% British/Irish, 2% French/German, and the rest is mostly vaguely European.  There is a tantalizing 0.2% Sub-Saharan African, which I assume comes from my Italian ancestors.  (To paraphrase Pete Seeger, where do you think those Roman emperors got their curly hair?)  Oh, and I am 2.8% Neanderthal.

But more interesting, the same service tells you if you have inherited health risks that are greater or lower than average.  And that is why the Food and Drug Administration just sent them an order to cease their business.  Because, says the FDA, they were giving out medical advice, which is illegal.  I look forward to seeing how it turns out in court, but I will say this: I have a higher-than-average level of one chemical and my doctor has been trying for years to figure out why.  The computer gurus (knowing nothing about my medical test results) were able to tell me that that higher level runs in my genome.

If you want to know more about the controversy, read this and this.

Now, on to the second topic.  I am reading a fascinating and infuriating non-fiction book by Rebecca Skloot entitled THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS.     Ms.  Lacks suffered from bad luck nine ways from Sunday.  She was an African-American woman born in poverty in the rural south in the early-twentieth century.  (I am not saying it is bad luck to be born African-American.  But there have been better times and places for it.)  She died of cervical cancer in 1951 at age 31.

But before she died scientists took samples of her tumor, possibly with her permission (the phrase "informed consent" hadn't even entered the medical vocabulary by that point).  Scientists had been trying for years to grow cells in test tubes, but the cells always died after a few generations.  Not so the HeLa cells (named for their original source).  They were "immortal," and could be cultured, multiplied, sent through the mail, experimented on, etc.

And so cells that began in this poor, hard-luck woman, were used to develop polio vaccines, were sent into space, and became essential parts of thousands of other studies.  (The name of that genome company I was talking about is 23andme, which refers to the 23 chromosomes in the human genome. Guess whose cells were used in figuring out that number?)  Ms. Lacks' cells were so potent that years later many other colonies of cells that were growing around the world were discovered to be contaminated with HeLa cells - even though none had been used in that laboratory. They could sneak in on a dirty test tube, or a scientist's coat.

The book, which I highly recommend, also discusses the baffled horror of Ms. Lacks' family as they discovered, decades after the fact, what had been done to parts of her body without their knowledge or permission. The conflict between the scientists and the family takes on the inevitability of Greek tragedy: there was simply no common ground for communication.  You find yourself expecting the next unintentional outrage.  When it becomes necessary to explain the concept of "genetic markers" to Ms. Lacks's widower, a man with four years of schooling, of course the scientists had it done over the phone by a researcher with a thick Chinese accent and imperfect English.  How could it have been otherwise?

Reasonable people can disagree about whether persons whose cells are used in research deserve any control or compensation. (There are more than 17,000 patents based on HeLa cells.)  But it boggles the mind that  some scientists in the early fifties thought it acceptable to secretly inject HeLa cells (highly  active cancer cells, remember) into surgery patients just to see what would happen. This went on until some physicians refused to participate, pointing out that eight doctors were hanged at Nuremberg for that sort of research.

And on that cheerful note, let's move on to my third topic.  I just finished reading NECESSARY
LIES, the most recent novel by my sister, Diane Chamberlain.  You can certainly accuse me of nepotism for bringing it up here, but I think you will see the connection.  Diane's excellent book is fiction, of course, but it is firmly rooted in the Eugenics Sterilization Program, under which North Carolina sterilized 7,000 people between 1929 and 1975.  They focused on "mentally defective" epilectics, and people on welfare.  Most states with such programs gave them up after World War II (the shadow of Nuremberg, again), but the Tarheel State actually boosted theirs.

Diane's novel is set in 1960 when a brand-new social worker (after three whole days of training!) is given the job of preparing the sterilization request for a pregnant fifteen-year-old.  The idea is that the girl will wake up after giving birth with an "appendectomy scar" and never be told  she has been sterilized.

The book is not a mystery.  It is not a melodrama either: there are no cackling villains.  Everyone thinks they are doing the right thing (just like the scientists who used the HeLa cells).  And Diane is careful to include one woman who is thrilled to get the operation, since birth control was not easily available.

There are crimes and punishments in the book, but whether the crimes are what gets punished is open to interpretation.

Well, I'm going back to my sickbed.  I hope I gave you a few things to think about, anyway.

03 December 2013

Our On-Line Age

by Dale C. Andrews


St. Louis Central Public Library
       In a week when a lot of us of a certain age were reflecting back to events of 50 years ago I found myself off on a related tangent, thinking about how different the task of researching is now from what it entailed back when I was an early teenager in 1963. Some of this was sparked by a comment from Fran to my last SleuthSayers post recalling what it was like to visit a library back then. All of this rang true for me. I remember the process of researching term papers back in the 1960s -- taking the long bus ride to the downtown St. Louis Central Library, spending the morning poring over three by five cards in the card catalogs, filling out a request for various reference texts and then waiting while the librarian gathered the materials and wheeled them out of the stacks. The process was tedious, and if those books piled in front of me spawned their own questions, the follow up research meant starting the whole process over again. It was far easier to forego tracking down a question arising from the review of that first pile of books than it was to follow the thought thread through to fruition.

       The way most of us research and write now bears no relation to that process. A laptop and an internet connection is all that is needed to find just about every factoid imagineable. Personally, I am happy with all of this. But whether we are, in the long run, bettered or hindered by our easy electronic access to information today is a subject that is still open to some debate. It is, in any event, easy to come up with examples of how the ways in which we answer our own questions have changed in a computerized wifi world.

       Personal example one: Some years back two older friends of ours from New York City, Jim McPherson and his wife Phyllis King, were visiting us for the weekend. Jim and Phyllis (now deceased and sorely missed), both poets, were two of the most intelligent and well-read folks you would ever want to stumble across. (Jim was named poet laureate of West Virginia, one of only three in the State’s history, in 1942 at the tender age of 20.)  On this particular visit we were sitting in our living room reading when I came across the word “bookkeeper” and stopped cold, looking at it closely, perhaps for the first time. I turned to Jim and said “Can you name a word in the English language that has three consecutive double letters?” Jim thought a minute and said “bookkeeper.” I was floored -- “did you know that already?” I asked him. “No,” he replied. “It’s just the only example I could think of."  That, in a mind, is astonishing. But with the advent of the internet it is no longer a big deal to secure an answer to that question. Pose it on Yahoo and you instantly get “bookkeeper” and (icing on the cake) “sweettooth” for dessert.

The Little Lost Child (1894)
       Personal example two: When I was a child my maternal grandmother, while working around her house, would repeatedly sing two lines of a song from her childhood. She had long-since forgotten the rest of the song, but remembered that it was about a policeman who found a lost child and, through a convoluted series of verses, the child turned out to be his own. She sang those first two lines so much that the song, over the years, became somewhat of a joke in our family.  Eventually my mother and I tried to find the rest of the lyrics, searching out song encyclopedias at the library, all to no avail. Some years back I even tried a computer search using the first two lines, the only ones my grandmother remembered: "Once a police man, found a little child.” All you get from from an internet inquiry using those words are stories about abducted children. But last week, thinking about this column, I decided to try again. I added the word “lyric” at the beginning of the search. That was all that was needed: The song, lost to my family’s collective memory for probably more than a hundred years, is The Little Lost Child. My grandmother’s memory was wrong -- it actually began “A passing policeman . . . .” But once the inquiry is framed as a search for a lyric, even with that erroneous first word, the internet promptly spits back the complete lyrics to the song, a Wikipedia article about it and (this I could hardly believe) a You Tube rendition. And all of this (as you can confirm by listening in) for a song that is truly terrible and (ironically) would probably have been best left forgotten. But that’s not the point -- the point is that you can now almost instantly find almost anything -- even facts that are largely useless.

       When we have this much researching power at our fingertips you can expect some pretty profound changes to occur in the writing process.  Ready access to such a power allows some research to be performed that simply could not have been done in the past, or at least not without more time and effort than the task warranted. Those followup questions that I ignored late in the day in the St. Louis library back in 1963 are no problem now. 

       Some argue, however, that there may be a dark side to this as well. A notable study of teenagers in Korea, an on-line country where reportedly 65% of all teens have grown up using smartphones, has revealed the prevalence of a condition that the study coins "digital dementia," or deterioration of thinking and memory. A UPI news report concerning the study provides the following example:
Psychiatrist Kim Dae-jin at Seoul St. Mary's Hospital recently diagnosed a 15-year-old boy with symptoms of early onset dementia due to intense exposure to digital technology -- television, computer, smartphone and video games -- since age 5. He could not remember the six-digit keypad code to get into his own home and his memory problems were hurting his grades in school. "His brain's ability to transfer information to long-term memory has been impaired because of his heavy exposure to digital gadgets," the psychiatrist [reported].
       But is the negative connotation involved in calling these symptoms a form of “dementia” really correct here? We know, going all the way back to the writings of William James, that thinking involves the interaction of long term and short term memory.   It is theorized that short term memory cannot handle more than roughly 7 chunks of information (otherwise stored in long-term memory) at any one time, and that the process of thinking involves juggling concepts and facts back and forth between the two in those manageable chunks. Psychologists have also long recognized that we already “share” long-term memories with others and depend on others to fill in our own blanks -- I remember how to do some things, my wife remembers how to do others, and if I was trying to think of a word with three consecutive double letters, well, Jim McPherson would have been my go-to guy.  What we are now learning to do instead is to depend on the computer and the internet to perform this function of data retention and sharing that previously we commited to long term memory -- either or own or others'.  Now what becomes important is not the fact, but how to get to the fact on the computer, e.g. adding that word "lyric" when you are looking for a song.

       A Harvard study, as reported in an article in Science Express examining the effects of a world where information is readily available at the tap of a key, seems to confirm all of this:

The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can “Google” the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies [conducted by Harvard] suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.
       A recent Columbia University study reaches similar conclusions, arguing that we are now using the internet as personal external memory drives. Summarizing that study the Los Angeles Times had this to say:
We’ve come to use our laptops, tablets and smartphones as a 'form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside of ourselves . . . . We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where information can be found.
St. Louis Library -- Atrium where those stacks used to be
       And this, in turn, sounds all in all like a good thing in many respects. Certainly readily accessible information is a boon to those of us who write, and certainly to all of us producing scheduled articles here at SleuthSayers. Reflecting on information and sharing those reflections are far easier tasks without those trips to the library research rooms of our youth. Stated another way, an article such as this one would not have been written if the only sources available were those in the stacks in the St. Louis Central Library back in 1963. Who had the time?

       We are not the only ones changing as the internet renders irrelevant many of the volumes that used to be housed in library stacks.  The St. Louis Central Library that I relied on for research 50 years ago has moved along with the rest of us.  The newly renovated building, scheduled to re-open to the public this month, replaces those stacks where I researched as a teenager with a multi-story sunlit atrium.  There is also a coffee shop where we can wile away some of that time we save.

02 December 2013

What's Lit Got To Do With It?

By Fran Rizer




Did you say,
"WHAT'S LIT GOT TO DO WITH IT?"


                                Not a damn thing!


 My sixth Callie Parrish mystery is out, and it's not the Great American Novel, not anywhere near literary.  It's another cozyesque, which is what I call the Callie books.




Here's a peek at what happens:

                 Callie and Jane love receiving presents, but 
                 the package under their Christmas tree isn't
                 from Santa.  It's the jolly old elf himself
                 though he's not jolly anymore.

                This investigation takes Callie away from her
                mortuary cosmetician duties to unusual places
                like Safe Sister and the first annual St. Mary
               Turkey Trot.  Sheriff Harmon even temporarily
               deputizes her before Santa's killer attacks both
               Callie and Jane.

A Corpse Under the Christmas Tree isn't great literature, but it was a great pleasure to write, and, according to the emails she receives, Callie's fans get lots of fun and mystery from her. (Yes, readers correspond with Callie, including holiday and birthday wishes.)

For a decent definition of the cozy genre, go to Wikipedia. I probably should have done that myself before thinking that's what I was creating.  Writing the first Callie mystery, I believed it was a cozy, but publishers marketed it and the following ones as Mainstream Mystery, and I created my own genre title--the cozyesque.  

Some cozies include recipes, stitchery patterns, and other useful instructions.  Perhaps additions like that would move me more into the cozy genre. I considered adding knitting or crochet patterns. After all, I learned to crochet and knit when I divorced.


I thought I'd need something to keep me busy every other weekend when the boys were at their dad's.  As though two kids, a house, full-time job, and sideline of writing songs and magazine features left a lot of time!

I learned to knit and crochet.  When the afghan for my king size bed was about twelve inches square, I decided I'd rather go dancing.

I'd still rather dance though I don't look quite like this doing it anymore. 

No knitting or crochet patterns for a Callie book.  I did, however, desire more "cozyesqueness" in the new book.

I  added recipes

No, they aren't scattered through the narrative. When other writers do that, it disrupts my reading.  Callie's brother Frankie has added some of Pa's Southern Recipes and Rizzie's Gullah Recipes at the end of the book.

I hope Callie's readers have as much pleasure reading the new Callie as I did writing it.  I  hope they try the recipes, some of which were previously on the website.

To read an article that made me very happy about the new book, go to http://www.free-times.com/pdf/112713/#p=36 .

This is the first novel I've written with an outline.  Next time, I'll share with you why and how.   
        
Until we meet again, take care of … you!



01 December 2013

Professional Tips: Empty Words

by Leigh Lundin

As I grew more proficient at writing and heeded advice not to be overly wordy, especially with modifiers, I began to notice a few words that could be deleted, changing the sentence's meaning little or none at all. Pardon these exaggerated examples:
I certainly somewhat quite like M&Ms, mostly just the red ones.
Translation: I like red M&Ms.
She was very upset that her car somehow couldn't get any traction.
Translation: She was upset her car couldn't get traction.
Somehow they ambled about, very much as if cows, dumb as ever, could ever think.
Translation: The cows ambled dumbly, not as if they could think.
Empty Words

I began to think of these as 'empty words', hollow modifiers with little meaning. Granted, 'very' and 'really' act as intensives, but how useful are they? That question "How useful" is a key that can be applied to any modifier, but for 'empty words', the answer is often: "not at all."

If you say, "He buttered a certain slice of toast," does its particularity matter to the reader? If the answer's no, then the word does nothing but consume space and time– it only slows the story.

As I worked, I compiled a list of empty words and added to it adverbs of marginal utility.

Empty Words

about
any
certain
certainly
ever
just
many
mostly
much
quite
rather
really
so
some
somehow
somewhat
that
very


The word 'that' is a special case. The word can be used as an adverb, a pronoun, a determiner, and a conjunction. We're primarily interested in the conjunction, but the adverb is worth a glance:

Adverb form: Jackson wasn't that drunk.
Conjunction: She said that she was sick.

Inspect the adverbial form of 'that' with an eye toward modifying. Use the conjunction only for clarity to set off confusing clauses, but otherwise avoid it. Deleting 'that' in the second sentence doesn't change the meaning at all.

Fat Words

Not long ago, I came across a list of 'fat words', sort of weasel words used as 'grey noise' in conversations, e.g: "Generally, I don't believe in politics and often I almost nearly always refuse to discuss it."

Many words in these lists can be used legitimately, but they often find themselves employed in writing or dialogue where they add dead weight to stories and drag them to a crawl. I added the word 'hopefully' to the existing list as another common 'filler'.

Be wary of other kinds of padding such as big in size or red in color. Santa is simply big and red.

Fat Words

almost
especially
frequently
generally
mostly
nearly
often
usually
hopefully


It's difficult to write this article without using the words I complain about! What are your most annoying empty words and fat phrases?

The ƒ Word

One obvious word doesn't appear on these lists. More often than not, swear words are part of conversational 'grey noise'. But they're sometimes used as intensives, and the way they're used can reveal character– or lack of character.

I've long wanted to use a conversation from long ago, but I haven't come across the right story for it. I won't confess which line I spoke in the conversation that went like this:

"I ƒ-ing missed you."
"And vice versa!"