23 April 2014

The Saracen's Head

Way back when (and I mean wa-a-a-y back, in the late Bronze Age), my 4th grade teacher was Miss Sheehan.

There were something like twenty of us in the class, maybe a few more, and a roomful of nine-year-olds, pretty much equally divided between girls and boys, must have been an unruly bunch, but she managed us well, not with iron discipline, either, but by holding our interest. One of the tools in her kit was to read aloud to us, THE BORROWERS and THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, for instance, but the one that sticks in my mind is THE SARACEN'S HEAD, a book by a guy named Osbert Lancaster.

Re-reading it, all these years later, I'm struck by the fact that it wears so well. One thing is that it's very mischievous, the kind of story that a grown-up can read to a kid, and not get bored. It's about a guy who goes off to the Crusades, very reluctantly, we might add, but the journey makes a man of him. He starts out a figure of ridicule, basically a sissy, bullied by his formidable mom, and comes back bronzed and confident, a wimp no more.

Lancaster uses the conventions with a healthy dose of irony. The castle the hero sets out from, on the South Downs, is called Courantsdair. His father, Sir Dagobert, dies as the result of being shot from a catapult at the siege of Limoges. The guy who sends young William off to the Holy Land is one Abbot Slapjack. And so on. Lancaster illustrated the book, too, and the pictures are terrific, filled with sly detail. There's an undercurrent of casual cruelty, as well, and a fair amount of arterial spray, more than satisfying to a bloodthirsty fourth-grader.

We decided to dramatize it. (In retrospect, of course, I can see Miss Sheehan had this up her sleeve the whole time, and we were only persuaded it was our own idea.) Here's where her genius comes in. We didn't use a script. We all knew the story. So with all the speaking parts, the hero, his mom, the cousin he's supposedly engaged to, the Saracen warrior and his manservant---my role---the beautiful Greek princess young Sir William rescues, the attendant lords and ladies, we improvised the action and the dialogue.

It was an involved undertaking, costumes, and props, the whole nine yards, so everybody was in on it, onstage or off. And here's another thing. After rehearsals, we put on two actual performances, one for the so-called Lower School, grades one through six, and one for the Upper School, seventh through twelfth, but it was for us---our parents weren't invited. In other words, you didn't have a bunch of adults jockeying for position with their Kodaks, embarrassing the cast, so we had fun. The play was a great success, both times. We hammed it up no end, and had 'em rolling in the aisles, and not because they found us foolish, either. I'm speaking here of the Upper School, the older girls, who probably thought themselves too sophisticated for a fourth-grade production, but they got into it. For one thing, they got the jokes and puns, which went over the heads of the first, younger audience.

The point I'm making here is about method. By giving us free rein, and letting us trust our instincts, Miss Sheehan allowed us to inhabit the story, and make it our own. It was a transforming experience, for me, anyway, and I think for everybody else. I don't know if another teacher has ever influenced me as much as she did. Somebody once remarked that a good teacher shows you where to look, but they don't tell you what to look for, which is a lesson for a story-teller. Let it seize you.

22 April 2014

Back to the Carnival

       Next month author Herman Wouk turns 99.
Herman Wouk
       In a writing career that has spanned over 70 years Wouk has produced an impressive array of literature. His first novel, The Man in the Trench Coat, was published in 1941. Wouk’s specialty has been the historical novel, particularly war tales and military-based fiction. We know him for Aurora Dawn, published in 1947 when Wouk was still an officer in the Navy. We know him for The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance. He wrote both the Pulitzer prize winning The Caine Mutiny and the theatrical version, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. But Wouk is equally at home in other settings. Marjorie Morningstar focuses on the aspirations of a would-be actress, and Young Bloodhawk (with some autobiographical underpinnings) chronicles the rise and fall of a young writer. Wouk’s latest work, The Lawgiver, published in 2012 when Wouk was 97 -- a Hollywood tale of an attempt to film the life of Moses told through an epistolary array of letters, memos, articles, and text messages -- prompted high praise from the Washington Post:
in some essential way, this book about a movie about a book is also about the very act of writing books. Wouk reminds us of the eternal value of storytelling while he shows 30- and 50- and 80-year-old whippersnappers how it’s done.

Sunset Point, Providenciales, Turks and Caicos
     All of this, however, is not strictly intended as an homage to the incredible career of Herman Wouk. Rather, it is an homage to one particular novel, which you may have never heard of unless you (like I) frequent the Caribbean. And yes, we are about to head south again -- this time to the Turks and Caicos (specifically, to Sunset Point on the island of Providenciales) for a family reunion with my brother Graham and his wife Nik.  We'll get back to that Herman Wouk novel in a little while, but first some background.

       There are very few islands in the Caribbean that Pat and I have not visited over the years. This trip we are settling down in one place, but most of the time we island-jump.  As you head south in the Caribbean it is like going back in time.  The further you go, the more apt you are to stumble upon the West Indies of the 1950s or 1960s -- small towns, secluded beaches dotted with small locally-owned beach front hotels, restaurants and bars. These are islands where large cruise ships never anchor and couldn't tie up even if they wanted to.

Island Windjammer's 24 passenger Sagitta
       For almost 25 years we cruised the small islands of the West Indies on the tall ships of Barefoot Windjammers, until the company went under back in 2007. Since 2009 we have continued to sail on the tall ships run by Island Windjammers, a small company founded by stalwart fans of Barefoot Windjammers. Island Windjammers ships, Sagitta and Diamant, arose from the ashes like phoenixes and now visit the same islands that have always been Windjammer favorites -- including many out of the way places like St. Vincents, Bequia, Statia, Carriacou and Union Island, where secluded Chatham’s Bay is about as great as it gets. Following the trade winds to these unfrequented islands -- mesmerized by the shimmering turquoise, watching for that illusive flash of green at sunset, walking the cobbled streets where activity slows under the sun -- who wouldn't begin to dream, just a little, about chucking it all; about pulling up  roots and heading south for good. Ahh, yes. For good. 

Bequia Book Shop
       And that is what Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival is all about: The Caribbean. You might have to look pretty far to find a copy of Carnival on the shelves of a bookstore in the United States. But it’s everywhere in the Caribbean. If you are walking down the sidewalk street that runs along the bay in Port Elizabeth on Bequia, just duck into the shade of the Bequia Bookshop. You will find a stack of copies. The same will likely be true at the Gaymes Bookshop on St. Vincents or at Nathaniel’s Book and Sports Supplies on St. Lucia. Or try the gift shop at any island hotel. At each of these you will stand a good chance of securing a copy of Wouk’s hilarious, sad and cautionary tale of what ensues when Norman Paperman, blinded by the beaches, breezes and bougainvillea, takes a deep breath and decided to forsake New York to run the Gull Reef Hotel on the mythical (but oh so familiar) island of Kinja. 

       Wouk was not the first author to set a story in the Caribbean. Alec Waugh did it in the 1955 bestseller Island in the Sun, set in Grenada, but now remembered mostly for the title song sung by Harry Belafonte in the 1957 movie adaptation. Ian Fleming used the Caribbean in several novels. Agatha Christie “went” there for A Caribbean Mystery in 1964. Even Stieg Larsson opens The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest with Lisbeth Salander idling the time away on Grand Anse beach in Grenada. But you are unlikely to find any of these tales at “down island” book stores.

       So what is it about Don’t Stop the Carnival that keeps it on the shelves and next to the beach chairs of the tourists and expats who populate the beaches of that magical string of islands to our south? Several things, I think. First, the central character in the book is really the Caribbean itself -- its beauty as well as the rickety, thrown-together nature of its governments and infrastructure. Wouk portrays the alluring charm of the islands (embodied in his fictional Kinja) while also showing the dark underbelly. We understand both why we want to live there as well as why actually doing so might drive us crazy. Second, Wouk accomplishes all of this while walking gracefully the thin line between comedy and tragedy. I laugh my way through Don’t Stop the Carnival every time I read it, but the message of the book is ultimately a sad one of failed and unrealizable dreams. The book, written in 1965, is both dated and timeless -- despite its setting, now 40 years ago, it continues to resonate because of its understanding and love of how the Caribbean works (and doesn't work). 

Ruins of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co.,
which later became the Royal Mail Inn on Hassel Island
       Like many other of Wouk’s works (pardon my alliteration!) Don't Stop the Carnival is premised on real life experiences. In the 1960’s Herman Wouk and his late wife Betty managed the Royal Mail Inn, a small Caribbean hotel located on Hassel Island, which is directly across from the ferry depot at St. Thomas' Charlotte Amalie Harbour. If you find yourself taking the ferry from St. Thomas to Tortola, visit the Petite Pump Room (upstairs above the ferry depot) for a drink and gaze across the harbour -- what you will see is Hassel Island.  And those abandoned buildings and ruins are what used to be the Royal Mail Inn, a real life dream that proved unrealizable for Herman Wouk. So, just as his war novels were based on his experience in the Navy during World War II, so, too, Don’t Stop the Carnival rings with authenticity simply because Herman Wouk wrote what he knew all to well. 

The Jimmy Buffett album
       Unlike Island in the Sun, Don’t Stop the Carnival was never filmed.  It did, however, spawn a musical adaptation written by another hero of all Caribbean expats and wannabe expats, Jimmy Buffett, in collaboration with Herman Wouk himself. I recommend that album, where Wouk cameos as narrator, as heartily as I do the original book.  The score and libretto are more operetta than musical -- taken together they "tell" Wouk's tale in its entirety.  It’s all there in song, from dream to disillusionment. You will, however, have a difficult time tracking down the album. It’s a little out of the ordinary for Buffett, and like the original book by Wouk caters best to the fanatical few who return whenever possible to the islands.  That tends to be a narrow (but deep) market.  

       Don’t Stop the Carnival ends with Norman Paperman’s wife Henny telling him “time to go home, Norman.” We all get there. But where we love to be is at the beginning, when Wouk sets the stage: 
Kinja was the name of the island when it was British. The actual name was King George III Island, but the islanders shortened that to Kinja. Now the names in the maps and guidebooks is Amerigo, but everybody who lives there still calls it Kinja.
The United States acquired the island peacefully in 1940 as part of the shuffling of old destroyers and Caribbean real estate that went on between Mr.Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill. The details of the transaction were, and are, vague to the inhabitants. The West Indian is not exactly hostile to change, but he's not much inclined to believe in it.
Meantime, in a fashion, Amerigo was getting American-ized; the inflow of cash was making everybody more prosperous. Most Kinjans go along cheerily with this explosion of American energy in the Caribbean. To them, it seems a new, harmless, and apparently endless, carnival.
       Want to try that again with music, pictures, and Herman Wouk narrating?  No problem, Mon.  Just click here

21 April 2014

Shameless Promotions

Jan Grape A few years ago, the Sisters In Crime organization published a little booklet titled, "Shameless Promotion For Brazen Hussies."  I don't know if they still have it in their publications. I couldn't find it listed on their website publications but I'll briefly talk a bit about promotions.

This will have to be a short article because I'm dealing with vertigo and don't know how long I can last here. Most of my problem is what I've discovered on google. It does have a name, Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. It mainly happens for only seconds when I lay down or get up from that position. And it's an inner ear problem.  Okay class, back to promotions.

Some of the information in the booklet will more or less be out of date now, however, there are a few ideas that might help. If you can come up with a clever idea to give to bookstores, book buyers and fans that promotes your book and you have a little money to spend on your book, then by all means do it.

For example: a few years ago, Dean James and I co-edited a book titled DEADLY WOMEN. It had interviews, articles and histories about, written by, for and featuring women mystery authors. For some reason I came up with the idea of a pink record using the known duo of surfer singers Jan and Dean. I mean Dean and I just happened to have the perfect names for that. We had a jar gripper opener made (you know those little rubber thingies that help you grip the lid of a jar to open it.) Any way it was a pink square with black lettering. I found a company that made promotional ideas for companies. The middle of the gripper had what looked like a black 45 rpm (anyone remember those) record. Around the center hole of the record was printed "The best of Jan & Dean. '97" In tiny font on one side of the middle hole of the record was printed Published by Carroll & Graf.  Opposite that was printed Due Date, November '97. At the bottom of the record and underneath the center hole was printed DEADLY WOMEN and under that in smaller font it said, with Ellen Nehr. (Ellen had originally been scheduled to edit with me, but she passed away and we tagged Dr. Dean James, who at that time was a co-manager of Murder By The Book bookstore in Houston, TX. My husband and I owned Mysteries & More bookstore in Austin. Outside the printed black record in one diagonal corner of the gripper was printed "Get A Grip" with the ISBN number of the book. Again the book title, DEADLY WOMEN in a larger font than on the record was on the opposite corner. And underneath that in smaller font, Edited by Dean James and Jan Grape with Ellen Nehr. Across the bottom of the gripper, again in smaller font was printed: The Major Surfers and not "a little ole lady among them." Underneath that still in the small font but in all caps: Mary Higgins Clark, Elizabeth Peters, Margaret Maron, Marcia Muller, Nancy Pickard, Minette Walters, Joan Hess and many more of today's top mystery authors. We ordered 500 I think, because it was cheaper. We mailed them to bookstores, took them to conventions and handed them out handed them out at book signings. I still run into someone who says they still have their jar gripper. I still have mine and would show you a picture of it if I knew how to scan with this computer. I can't even get it to print.  I love to hate technology.

Alright you say, but that was years ago. What about nowadays? Two items I got recently that had nothing to do with books but were items that are quite useful and there's no reason you couldn't come up with something similar. First I have a little fan that is shaped like a Frisbee but is flexible. It's metal edges twist into a little round thing about the size of a drink coaster and now fits into a little bag to be slipped in your purse or shirt pocket. When needed you pull it out of the bag and it pops open. It's an advertisement for a legal document website. It came in green and in purple. I have one of each. It's probably more useful for a female than a male yet it's very handy. The other useful item (and from two different advertisers) is those little microfiber type cloth glasses lens cleaners. One is from the same legal document website and the other is from a bank where I have an account. All you have to do is go online and look for promotional items online and come up with a useful item and have your book cover printed on it along with due date, ordering information, etc.

When we had our bookstore we got author postcards, bookmarks, pens, pencils, drink cozies, key rings, a couple of ball caps, T-shirts, pins with book covers and a huge assortment of promotional materials. I can say without a doubt, booksellers are thrilled to have little promo items like this. And so are your readers. You can give away a smaller item like a No. 2 pencil or an emery board to everyone who drops by your signing and save your larger items like caps, cozies and such for the people who actually buy your books. Is it worth spending money on items like this? I think so if you really want to have your name and your book title to get word of mouth recognition. And bookmarks are still useful items.

If you're doing a signing at a book store or an event, it's especially nice if you have a poster made they can put on display prior to your signing. Be sure to add the day and time and location of your signing. Even during the signing, if the store will put the poster on an easel or close to the signing table. Most print shops will do those large blow-up picture sizes for you and you can attach to a poster board.  Often the best thing is to ask your publisher to do some blow-ups for you. It doesn't really cost them that much to do it.

Now the other main thing in my opinion is to do something especially nice for the book store where you are signing. If there's is a female you have been dealing with, how about taking her a rosebud or two?  If it's a man who is the signing coordinator, how about some fresh baked cookies or candy?
You really want your bookstore to be happy you were there, especially if it's your local bookstore and even more especially if it's an independent bookstore. At least two months before the signing, send a press kit to the store with a recent photo of yourself and either an ARC or if the book is out, a copy of the book. If possible send a press kit to your local newspaper. I know newspapers are slowly dying out but most cities and towns still have one. They might do a write up on you. To increase your chances, tell them a little something about your book so they might find a hook and do a story. If your character is a lawyer or a doctor find something different to make your book more interesting than others. Like if your character has a memory problem, send some memory tags that the character uses to help. Or if your character is a jazz lover, you're probably already a minor expert on jazz and can write a paragraph or two to send with your press kit.

Use your imagination. You're a creative person. I know an author who had baked goods or cookies to all her bookstore signings. She shipped them to the stores who were out of town. Her main character was a caterer and she generally had recipes in her book. The first time Mysteries and More had Sue Grafton sign at our store, she suggested we advertise a peanut butter and pickle sandwich contest for fans and she would taste, declare a winner and then our store gave an autographed copy of the book. I think it was for L. For those of you who are not Grafton fans, her character Kinsey Millhone LOVES peanut butter and pickle sandwiches and often eats them. It was a big success. We probably had a dozen or so entrants, Sue dutifully tasted each one and found her winner. People called and asked if they should use smooth or crunchy PB and what kind of pickle, sweet or dill or what. She had said to tell them to use whatever they liked or what appealed to them.

And last, but not least, if you have a bookstore signing, don't forget to write a thank you note. Same with a newspaper or magazine reporter. Do whatever you can to get word of mouth going about your book. I think you can get more sales from that than from all the social media. But of course, do the social media too.

20 April 2014

Library in the Clouds

by Leigh Lundin

During my Criminal Brief days, I began experiencing down time hours on end, even days at a time. It was early days for residential internet, but that didn’t mitigate the anguish, er, annoyance of being unable to access that giant library in the cloud.

Local cable and DSL companies were upgrading their lines and equipment. The closer crews made their way to my house, the worse the situation became. It turned out the rearmost corner of my property was designated some sort of hub. Cables from it fed my neighbors and me, so I often found men traipsing through my yard. As long as they kept me posted as to their comings and goings, I didn’t so much mind having a trencher, backhoe, and big hole in my yard as I did constant interruptions of service. I’d come to depend on the World Wide Web for my research of almost any topic.

Before the internet, I’d depended upon my father as my research center. He was a… well… I’d have to say a renaissance farmer. He farmed the land and livestock, but in the evenings, he read… everything. No topic escaped his interest: not the sciences, not the arts, not sports, not history and current events. If he didn’t know the particulars of a given subject, he knew where to look it up.

His library consumed a cramped room, expanded into a walk-in closet, found its way into barrister bookcases in the living room, then crept into the various bedrooms like a gothic creature. I can’t say he had more books than the local county seat library, but he certainly competed with it. Long after he died, I’d catch myself reaching for the telephone to ask, “Dad, what do you know about…?”

Starting early this year, I began experiencing spotty service. While outages weren’t frequent, the internet slowed to the pace of a snail’s pet tortoise.

Defining Slow

In South Africa five years ago (and Britain and Australia), one of the providers was so excruciatingly slow, some wags held a race sending files via homing pigeons versus their internet provider. The pigeons won.

But by now, there and here, that should be a thing of the past.

It’s awful when karma and déjà vu plot together. For many days, I had no internet at all and Road Runner was out all together. The various providers couldn’t figure out the Road Runner problem, which may have something to do with Wiley Coyote. I could easily live without RR, but not basic internet. And to be fair, that latter problem is my own because my house is torn apart for repairs.

To bridge the gap of a month or two without a regular ISP, I purchased a couple of wireless devices from NetZero and FreedomPop… and promptly managed to misplace one and today discovered the other isn’t working. Ah, technology. Now I have to galavant to the local wifi eatery, justifying my visit with a sandwich while cadging internet time.

I’ve come to realize how dependent I’ve become upon the internet. I didn’t replace my research and reference books lost in the hurricanes, volumes ranging from the small print edition of the OED to the CRC– the equivalent of an alchemist’s bible, purchased ‘back when’ by every math, science, and engineering student.

And of course, I still miss my dad, bigger-than-life, much more than a walking Alexandrian repository of knowledge. I often think how he would have loved the World Wide Web, no topic out of reach. Unless one doesn’t have internet at all. Like me.

Until my internet service returns, I miss all those subjects, just out of touch. But wait! There’s always Burger King.

19 April 2014

Case Closed: the Appeal of Crime Fiction

by Elizabeth Zelvin

The talented Jenny Milchman is my guest on SleuthSayers while I'm off in Europe celebrating a big round birthday. See you in two weeks! Liz Zelvin

Jenny Milchman's debut novel, Cover of Snow, was chosen as an IndieNext and Target Pick and has been nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Jenny’s second novel, Ruin Falls, is coming out on April 22nd, and she will hit the road with her family on the second of her multi-month book tours.

I was on the Vermont leg of my 7 month/35,000 mile book tour…Wait. Did I hook you with that mention of my uber long book tour? That’s actually a story for another post. But since we’re mostly crime writers here—some crime fighters, too—I figured the hook might be a concept worth demonstrating. I hope I was successful.

Anyway, at this terrific bookstore in Vermont, an audience member raised his hand and asked me if I ever scared myself while writing.

I tend to tell stories about other writers at book events. After all, if you do two hundred of them, you’d get pretty sick of just droning on about yourself. So when this man asked his question, I was reminded of what Stephen King said about Pet Semetary. Apparently when the master finished this novel, he had to put it in a drawer for a year because he had frightened himself so badly.

I can understand that. Pet Semetary provided some of my biggest scares to date, too. (And not, by the way, because of how creepy that cat on the cover was. What I think is truly terrifying about this book is its exploration of mortality. How far any of us would go to avoid it).

At the book event, I told the Stephen King story, but then I said that I have a very different experience while writing. And I think that the experience I have goes a long way toward explaining why crime fiction is such a popular genre.

I told the man at the bookstore that when I am writing a new novel, I am actually less scared than I am during non-writing times. That was a novel enough—pardon the pun—response that I knew I would have to dig a little deeper to be anything like satisfying.

This is what I came up with.

I think that I live with a lot of fear. On a regular, day-to-day basis, I would call myself a scared person. If I am standing on a subway platform, it won’t be the billboards, or the sickening smells of refuse and bodily secretions, or even that super cool subway poetry project that jumps out at me.

Instead it will be the swath of bright yellow paint above the tracks, and the blisters of concrete embedded in the paint in case someone is blind—or maybe just color blind—and requires texture to prevent his going over the platform and falling onto the third rail and dying.

Those are the kinds of thoughts that go through my mind when I am about to take a train. Except in my mind it won’t be an accidental tumble onto the tracks, because there will be something else on that platform. Someone else. A bad guy, in the vernacular of crime fiction.

If it’s not a subway platform, it’s a darkened movie theater. Or a play date.

I’m not kidding. The most benign experience can generate fear in my mind. The other day one of my kids got invited on a play date and the mom called and said, “I know we’ve never met, but if you are comfortable with it, we’d love to have your daughter come home with mine on the bus.”

Of course I have to be comfortable with it. What kind of crazy mom would say, “You may not realize it, but you just delivered exactly the kind of line a bad guy would say when he wants you to think that he isn’t a bad guy.”

Just about any experience can generate fear in my mind. Or…it can generate a novel.

I am less scared when I am writing a book, even though all sorts of malevolent things are going on, because there is a wonderful thing called an arc. The arc delivers a sense of satisfaction, of closure, so exhilarating that I breathe easier every day I am writing. Not because I’m all-powerful in the world of my novel—but because justice is. Things in crime fiction have a way of making sense, which real life too often doesn’t provide.

Mortality, remember, is the real reason Pet Semetary is so scary. I’d wager that it’s the real reason everything is so scary. And the reason crime fiction, as grisly as it can be, satisfies at a very core level. If people are going to get hurt and die, at least let us understand the reason.

Remember that monster who pushed the tourist family from Utah onto the tracks? We never really learned why he did it. But subway platforms have scared me ever since. Must be time to start a new novel.

18 April 2014

Post Tax-Day Fun Post (A Short One ... for a change!)

David Dean’s tax-day post, asking for advice concerning an upcoming talk to writers, stymied me.

I’m usually pretty long-winded, but I had no idea what to suggest to the guy, because I’d never found myself in such a situation. On the other hand, I also know that—to me—the difficult part of writing is not the writing; it’s the selling of what I’ve written. And I figure that holds pretty true for most writers.

Thus, I thought “How to sell your writing” might be a good topic, but felt too inexperienced to make such a suggestion. It did get me thinking, however, of how I go about selling work, which brought me into direct confrontation with my feeling that markets tend to be hard to find sometimes.

In an effort to find markets that might be interested, I follow blogs such as Cindi Myers Market News. Every so often, I get an email with a list of markets seeking work. The list has embedded URL’s I can follow to get further details and writers guidelines.

On Wednesday, I noticed that my latest email from Cindi Myers held a tidbit I thought other SS’ers might find interesting.

It seems that the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University—a school sometimes better known as “Hofstra Law”—is holding a mystery writing contest. For those who don’t know, Hofstra University is located in Hempstead, Long Island, 25 miles east of NYC.

And, not only are they holding a contest, the judges include Lee Child and Marcia Clark (Yep! The same Marcia Clark we saw in the O.J. Simpson trial has now written three novels featuring Los Angeles Special Trials prosecutor Rachel Knight. TNT has optioned her books to create a drama series.). The third contest judge is Alafair Burke, a Hofstra Law prof. who has written ten novels, including her Ellie Hatcher series.

The prizes aren’t huge, and contests really aren't my cup of tea, but anyone looking for a possible chance to have Lee Child or Marcia Clark look over a manuscript of 3500 words or less (maybe just for S&G lol), might like to click HERE. for more details.

I wonder what blogs YOU follow, or other sources you use to learn about new markets.  Love to hear about them in the comments.

See you all in two weeks!

17 April 2014

Whence Inspiration: "Counting Coup"

by Brian Thornton

A blizzard strands a group of strangers in an isolated railway depot during an Indian uprising. Two cowboys known only as "Wash" and "Chance," make it into the depot one step ahead of a Cheyenne war party. Night falls and two more people join the party trapped in the depot: a bounty hunter and the Cheyenne brave he's intent on turning in for a reward. Before dawn someone is murdered...

That's the thumbnail of "Counting Coup" a short story of mine that ran in the November, 2006 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Although it was not my first paying story, I consider it my first professional fiction sale (my books written and published up to that point were all non-fiction).

For today's blog post I'd like to talk about how I came to write "Counting Coup".

The story is, first and foremost, an homage to the classic western films I cut my teeth on growing up. It features timeless tropes to be found in films from John Ford's The Searchers to High Noon to Stagecoach to My Darling Clementine. (It's no accident that three of these four examples were directed by John Ford).

But it really all started with Millard Mitchell.

I can hear you thinking it now: "Who?"

Millard Mitchell was a Hollywood character actor probably most famous for playing movie mogul R.F. Simpson in Singin' in the Rain.

Not this guy.

This guy!
What does a mystery short story set in 1873 Montana have to do with a basset-hound-faced Hollywood character actor you likely never heard of?

Here's the connection: Millard Mitchell co-starred in many films beginning in the 1930s and running until his death from lung cancer in 1953 at age 50. Many of these films were westerns.

One of those westerns was 1950's Winchester '73, directed by famed noir film auteur Anthony Mann,and starring Jimmy Stewart.

Winchester '73 did what many successful westerns of the era did: it took a razor-thin plot premise and surrounded it with first-rate acting talent who sold the ridiculous plot point (A man chases down his brother, ostensibly because that brother, now an outlaw, stole his prized Winchester rifle, but in reality because said brother murdered their father in cold blood). Shirley Booth co-starred, and the supporting cast included such rock-solid character actors as the scene-stealing Dan Duryea, Will Geer and John McIntyre. Incidentally the film also featured newcomers Rock Hudson (and go figure, he had his shirt off for most of his scenes) and Tony Curtis in a memorable role as a greenhorn cavalryman.
Irrefutable proof that sucking on a cancer stick does not make you look older!
Millard Mitchell was also a castmember, playing "High Spade" Frankie Wilson, Stewart's side-kick and trail companion in his quest to track down his murdering coyote of a brother. He does a credible job, working with what's given him, and proving a wonderfully droll foil for Stewart's dour character ("Lin McAdam").

Now here's the funny thing: Mitchell is credited as "High Spade" Frankie Wilson, and at one point in
Mitchell's the hang-dog fellow on the left.
the film introduces himself using that exact moniker, nick-name and all. And yet throughout the film, Stewart continually addresses him as "Wash."

No explanation, no drawing attention to it. I've always figured that Anthony Mann had his reasons for writing it into the script, and left it at that.

One night a couple of years before I submitted "Counting Coup" to AHMM I was watching Winchester '73 (and not for the first time), and was struck by the timelessness of the image of two men, trusted companions, on some sort of quest. And that called to mind The Searchers, which in turn got me thinking about John Wayne, and the onward my thoughts ran to my favorite of Wayne's films: Rio Bravo. More on that below.

Working on the theme of two cowboys riding into town/camp, etc., I began to put together the story that eventually took shape as "Counting Coup," deciding to make it the homage listed above. And what better way to do so than to name the two cowboys in question after two of my favorite characters in a couple of my favorite classic westerns?

That's how Wash, the elder/mentor cowboy in my story, got his name. In the course of the action it is revealed that "Wash" is short for "Washburne," although I never mentioned whether that's a first or a last name.

My younger cowboy got a full name, lifted from the protagonist of my favorite John Wayne movie: Sheriff John T. Chance, in Rio Bravo, although he's simply called "Chance" for most of my story.

Where Winchester '73 is serious, even grim, Rio Bravo is just fun. John Wayne sort of standing down a powerful cattle baron bent on sparing his no-good brother from a well-deserved hanging is how the plot reads, but the film really is about friendship. So Wayne pals around with Dean Martin and Walter Brennan for most of it, even serving as the straight man for wonderfully droll love interest Angie Dickinson, playing, what else? A sexpot with a checkered past, coming through town on the stage.

Ahhh friendship!

Which led me in turn to the central idea behind another Wayne movie, the one that saved his budding film career, 1939's Stagecoach. Several very different people from all walks of life, pinned down in a desert stage depot by Geronimo and his Apaches....the circumstances diverge there, and my story wound up very different, with a murder in the middle of the night, followed by an early morning solution, and just like that, the whole story just sort of crystalized for me.

All I had left to do was write it.

How about the rest of you (especially my fellow Sleuthsayers!): got a story laying out how you came up with one of your pieces? Let's hear it!


16 April 2014

Gardner had it covered

by Robert Lopresti

Topic for the day: Cover letters.  Do you use them when you send a short story to a magazine?  Most magazines say they're optional.

Personally I only use one if I have something specific to say about a story.  Only when--

Oh, skip it.  You are welcome to write about cover letters in the comments if you want, but that was just an excuse to tell you this story. Let's get to the point, because getting to the point is  exactly the point of what I am about to tell you.

I have been reading Dorothy B. Hughes' biography Earl Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason.  It seems that early in Gardner's career, when he was turning out stories and novelettes like a printing press on steroids, his best market was Black Mask, and he started getting too many rejections from them.

Obviously this called for the attorney to use his best diplomatic skills and eloquence to persuade the editors that he was an author they wanted to work with.  So he wrote the following cover letter, which I quote in its entirety:

'Three O'Clock in the Morning' is a damned good story.  If you have any comments on it, write them on the back of a check.

Editor Harry North not only bought the story, he printed the cover letter in front of it.  And bought a lot more of Gardner's work after that.

Which shows you what you can do, if you're a future MWA Grand Master.  For the rest of us, your mileage may vary.

15 April 2014

Writing For Fun And Profit

In a very few weeks I will have the privilege of making a presentation on short story writing at the Pennwriters Group (as in Pennsylvania) convention. A kind friend of mine, a writer of several fine thrillers, recommended me for the job, and not knowing any better, the staff approved. For months now I have been sweating this assignment. After all, I will be addressing writers who (regardless of where they are on their career paths) probably know as much I do. In fact, upon sober reflection (obviously that was not the case when I agreed to this), I find that I do not actually know much about writing anyway. I just do it.

So at this stage of my planning process, I'm picturing myself appearing before these dear people and saying something along the lines of, "I like short stories. I've read a bunch. There are some real good ones out there. Read a lot of those real good ones (at this stage I hand out smudged, mimeographed lists of real good stories). Then write a lot, okay? Practice makes perfect. Oh, I almost forgot...don't imitate those writers of real good stories. Write original-like. Ummm...any questions?"

Then I wake up screaming, "It's not my fault! It's all been said before!"

Which it has really.

Or … maybe, I lay down at the bottom of the stairs on the big day, just as Robin gets home, and start moaning incoherently, "Owww...my head! What happened? Who are you, beautiful lady? Do I know you?" This has worked in the past.

Here's my problem— I'm not an academic. I'm a high school drop-out that got a GED in the army and a junior college degree later. Not much in the way of credentials. I have played instructor on occasion, but the circumstances were very different. In the military, I gave classes on Soviet equipment identification, and sometime led P.T. (physical training). While a police officer, I taught search and seizure, and patrol techniques, at the academy. In both instances I had what amounted to a captive audience. They needed me more than I needed them. Also, if I noticed anyone's attention wavering, I could drop them for push-ups, or make humorous remarks about their family lineage and chances of graduating. Rank had its privileges. Not so much now.

So, do I dredge up the history of the short story, perhaps discuss its definition(s)? Or do I assume that they know that much already? Do I offer brief examples by the form's greatest practitioners, or figure they are probably better read than I am? Maybe, I'll just concentrate on the writing aspect. Or is that too subjective? Perhaps, I'll just ask them what the hell they want from me?

What say you, fellow SleuthSayers (especially you, John Floyd, as I know you give classes on this very thing), and dear readers? Any suggestions of what you'd want to hear or have discussed at such a gathering? What has worked for you? I'm all ears.

14 April 2014

Curled Up In a Feeble Position

by Fran Rizer

Did you catch all the words that were misused?  I thought I did, but when I went back to read it again, I found two more.  I disagree with the thought at the beginning that misuse might be the result of someone wishing to sound more elite or educated though I believe that's the cause of those people who use "I" as the object of a compound pronoun.  

Somehow they seem to think "me" is an inferior pronoun, so they say such things as "Between you and I..." which is incorrect since "I" is the nominative form and "me" is objective. As you writers know, "Between you and me" is correct.  Another one that is heard sometimes is "for you and I."  Once again, as the object of the preposition "for," the correct choice is "me."  When I taught, I told my students on those compound objects of prepositions, they could find the right word by leaving out the "you."  As they used to tell me, "You're right, Ms. Rizer, I wouldn't say 'for I.'"

Nobody confesses to ever watching "Honey Boo Boo," so this will be news to everyone--Mama June and her girls constantly misuse words, sometimes homophones, sometimes just words that sound similar in their speech. The problem here is that while they do it to appear hopelessly stupid rednecks, it's very obvious that those bits are scripted.

I had a character who did that in one of the Callie books.  Among other misused words, she didn't want to stay out in the night air very long because she was afraid of catching "ammonia." I think she was the young wife of the old pharmacist found dead in the hot tub in Casket Case, but I'm not positive.

I can be amused by such language, but I recently sent out a manuscript where the protagonist swiped her bank debit card and entered her "pen" instead of her PIN....just wasn't being careful in my writing.  Nothing wrong with writing it that way (we all make mistakes), but I should have caught it in proofing. The problem is that I SENT IT TO MY AGENT.  Maybe it will work more like the cartoon below than like him thinking I'm losing it.

This gives me the idea for another contest.  Somewhere in this blog is a mispelled word. The first one to point it out on comments will get a prize.

Now, for my favorite:

Since this blog has just been playing around with words anyway and Leigh loves puns, I'll add this:

That's enough foolishness for one day.  Have a great one, and 

Until we meet again, take care of… you.

13 April 2014

Dumb Ways to Kill

by Leigh Lundin

Fair warning: Today’s post contains dark and macabre humour. Australia’s Metro Rail is running a public ad that’s proved amazingly popular, Dumb Ways to Die. One example: Sell both your kidneys on the internet.

They also have an interactive web site where you scroll down and can slice and dice incorrigibly cheerful little victims.

That started me thinking that all homicides are dumb, and therefore dumb ways to kill. Pay no attention to meter… but here are my suggestions for dumb ways to kill.

Dumb Ways to Kill
Give yourself a helpful edge,
Push your brother from a ledge.
When she drives you too insane,
Shove your sister from a plane.

Poison is extra nice.
You can use it more than twice.
In coffees and in soups
Or toxic-laced Froot Loops.

Don’t gamble losing your house,
When divorcing a wicked spouse.
Sharpen up a carving knife
For that inconvenient wife.
Dumb ways to kill,
So many dumb ways to kill.
Say your prayers and leave a will,
So many dumb ways to kill.
Rid yourself of that old nag
Using a garrotte and a gag.
Say goodbye to that old hag,
And toss her body in a bag.

Having trouble in your dorm?
Where bad roommates are the norm.
Dose a rag with chloroform.
Drag ’em through a lightning storm.

It’s a very common plight
To get your ass kicked in a fight.
So in the middle of the night,
Set your victim's house alight.
Dumb ways to kill,
So many dumb ways to kill.
Say your prayers and leave a will,
So many dumb ways to kill.
You meet a stalker in a bar
Drinking moonshine from a jar.
When he's drunker than you are,
Drag him home behind your car.

Say your partner’s gagged and bound,
And you have him freshly drowned,
You don’t want the body found
By nosy cop or baying hound.

There’s a rich, white-haired old geezer
Sleeps serenely in your freezer.
He looks quite peacefully at rest,
'Cept for the dagger in his chest.
Dumb ways to kill,
So many dumb ways to kill.
Say your prayers and leave a will,
So many dumb ways to kill.
Failed to get that last pay raise?
Fret no more with wasted days.
Invite your boss around to dine
In secret cut his car’s brake line.

Don’t act stupid like a dunce.
Shoot the victim more than once.
A double-tap to the head
And the victim’s good and dead.

You’re offered a hundred large
To set an explosive charge.
You do your best to make it fast
And trigger a pipe bomb blast.
Dumb ways to kill,
So many dumb ways to kill.
Say your prayers and leave a will,
So many dumb ways to kill.
Draw your pistol, load and lock
When you learn how to cock.
Pull the slide on your trusty Glock,
But you might find yourself in shock…

Although you’ve tried your very best,
You find yourself under arrest,
Tried, convicted, and all the rest,
An electrode strapped to your chest.

Dumb ways to kill…
What dumb ways do you suggest?

Abbey Road

12 April 2014

On the Wire

by John M. Floyd

A few nights ago, I watched the final episode of the final season of the HBO series The Wire. I came into this project a little late--most of my writer friends had already seen the series in real-time, week by week, during its run from 2002 to 2008. I watched it on DVD, but thank goodness I never heard any spoilers beforehand and went through the whole sixty episodes without any prior knowledge or preconceived ideas. And I can now tell you this: The Wire is one of the best TV shows I've ever seen. Great setting, great acting, and--above all else--great writing.

Much has been said about this series, especially its authenticity and production values. I won't bore you with a rehash of all that, except to say that it's an extremely honest, gritty, and realistic view of the police and the drug trade and the press and city politics. And it's done nothing but reinforce my belief that HBO has created some of the best series on television: The Sopranos, Rome, Deadwood, The Newsroom, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and others.

Street talk

We writers love things like good storylines and character arcs, and--probably because its screenwriters included novelists like Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos--The Wire had some of the best. Those of you who saw the whole series might especially remember the journey of drug addict Reginald "Bubbles" Cousins, but there were many others as well. The show also consistently delivered smart, snappy, believable dialogue.

Speaking of dialogue (speaking of dialogue?), my mission today is to give you some of what I consider the best quotes from The Wire. The characters who spoke these lines will live forever in my memory, but--since my memory is certainly not the best--some of the following quotes are paraphrased.

A man must have a code. -- Detective Bunk Moreland

I ain't no suit-wearing businessman like you. I'm just a gangsta, I suppose. -- Avon Barksdale

McNulty, I hold you in contempt. / Who doesn't? -- Judge Daniel Phelan and Detective Jimmy McNulty

It's Baltimore, gentlemen. The gods will not save you. -- Police Commissioner Ervin Burrell

A lie ain't a side of a story. It's just a lie. -- victim of inaccurate newspaper article

A life, Jimmy. It's the s*** that happens while you wait for moments that never come. -- Detective Lester Freamon

The game is out there. And it's either play, or get played. It's that simple. -- Omar Little

Did he have hands? Did he have a face? Yes? Then it wasn't us. -- Russian mobster

Hell, if you can't win the war on drugs in a prison, where the hell you gonna win it? -- McNulty

Pawns, man, in the game--they get capped quick. They be out the game early. -- D'Angelo Barksdale

Look around. The pond is shrinkin', the fish are nervous. -- Baltimore Sun editor, after a recent downsizing

For you I would suggest some pant-suits, perhaps, muted in color. Something to offset Detective Moreland's pinstriped lawyerly affectations and the brash, tweedy impertinence of Detective Freamon. -- Sgt. Jay Landsman

The thing is, you only got to f*** up once. Be a little slow, a little late, just once. And how you gonna never be slow, never be late? You can't plan for no s*** like this, man. It's life. -- Avon, to D'Angelo

There ain't no rules for dope fiends. -- "Bubbles" Cousins

He was a dead man when he opened his mouth. He's just walkin' around not knowin' it. -- Marlo Stanfield

I look at you these days and you know what I see? I see a man without a country. Not smart enough for this right here. And maybe, just maybe, not smart enough for them out there. -- Avon, to Stringer Bell

You can't even call this a war. / Why not? / Wars end. -- Officers Carter and Herc

You're stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite who-- / Just like you, man. / Excuse me? / I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. -- Omar and attorney Maurice Levy, in court

You follow the drugs, you get the drug addicts and the drug dealers. But you start to follow the money . . . and you don't know where it's gonna take you. -- Lester Freamon

I will kick his ass. But the next morning I'll still wake up white in a city that ain't. / Just a weak-ass mayor in a broke-ass city. -- Tommy Carcetti and Norman Wilson, discussing upcoming election

That's my money. / Man, money ain't got no owners. Only spenders. -- Marlo and Omar

We used to make s*** in this country. Build s***. Now we just put our hand in the next guy's pocket. -- dockworker Frank Sabotka

You put fire to everything you touch, McNulty, and then you walk away while it burns. -- Freamon

Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. -- Detective Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski

The bigger the lie, the more they believe. -- Bunk Moreland

Murder ain't no thang, but this here--this is some assassination s***. -- Slim Charles

Ain't no shame in holdin' onto grief. As long as you make room for other things too. -- Bubbles

What exactly do you do for a living, Mr. Little? / I robs drug dealers. / How does a man rob drug dealers for eight or nine years and live to tell about it? / A day at a time, I suppose. -- prosecutor and Omar, in court

It's a cold world, Bodie. / I thought you said it was gettin' warmer. / World goin' one way, people another, yo. -- Poot Carr and Bodie Broadus

You put a textbook in front of these kids, put a problem on the blackboard, teach them every problem in some statewide test, it won't matter. None of it. Cause they're not learning for our world. They're learning for theirs. -- ex-cop Bunny Colvin

You'd rather live in s*** than let the world see you work a shovel. -- Lt. Cedrick Daniels

You come at the king, you best not miss. -- Omar

What makes you think they'll promote the wrong man? / We do it all the time. -- Daniels and Burrell

On the boardwalk

One more favorite quote. This isn't from The Wire--it's from an episode in the second season of Boardwalk Empire, another great HBO series. A Catholic priest, hoping to receive a donation to the church, is speaking to the wife of Atlantic City gangster Nucky Thompson. Again, I'm paraphrasing:

A man once was invited to visit both heaven and hell. First he went to hell, where all the tormented souls were sitting at tables laden with food, yet they were starving and howling with hunger. Each soul had a spoon, but the spoons were so long that they couldn't get them into their mouths. Their frustration was their torment.

Then he visited heaven. In heaven, to his amazement, the man found the souls of the blessed sitting at similar tables laden with food, but they were all fed and contented. Each had a spoon and the spoons were just as long as the spoons in hell, but they were able to eat all they needed . . . because they were feeding each other.

Who says you can't pick up a life lesson from a TV show?

At least that's the excuse I make to my wife

11 April 2014

Crime Cruise-Panama Canal

Our ship made its approach into the Panama Canal just before dawn. Since cruise ships have priority for passage, several dozen freighters lay at anchor in the bay, waiting their turn. In the misty grey of early morning, all those ships on the near horizon resembled an old movie scene of an invasion fleet during war time.

Entrance to 1st lock and hanging roadway for vehicles
As we entered the channel for the first lock, a hanging roadway could be seen several feet above the water line and running across the face of the lock. It was one-way vehicle traffic until a signal sounded and traffic could then go the other direction. When our ship moved further into the the channel, guards closed traffic gates on both banks and all vehicles were stopped. The hanging roadway parted in the middle and each section rotated to the side, allowing room for our ship to pass.

Two 'mules" guiding the freighter next to us

Eight "mules," resembling small train engines on railroad tracks, attached cables to the ship to help guide her through the narrow locks. (Some very large freighters left grey paint smears along the walls of the locks.) There were four "mules" to a side, two forward and two aft. When we had transited all three locks on the Caribbean side, the cables were released from the ship and reeled in by the "mules." Then the little engines were off to assist the next ship.

Off to the right, we observed a narrow waterway, the site of the French attempt to build the canal before the Americans took over. Unfortunately for the French, they were used to digging in sand like they did for the Suez Canal, whereas the Panama Canal turned out to be a process of blasting in hard rock. To the left is the construction for another set of locks being built for much wider ships to transit the shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific. These locks are set to open in 2015 or 2016.

Narrow channel on right is the French attempt at canal
a few interesting facts

1~ The earliest mention of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama dates back to 1534, when the King of Spain ordered a survey for a route through the Americas that would ease the voyage for ships traveling between Spain and Peru. This route would provide the Spanish with a military advantage over the Portuguese.  In a 1788-93 expedition, Alessandro Malaspina outlined plans for the canal's construction.

2~ Backed by the U.S., Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903, which allowed the canal to be built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914.

3~ President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty in 1977 giving the canal back to the Panamanians. They took complete control in 1999, however the U.S. reserved the right to defend the canal.

4~ Passenger vessels in excess of 30K tons, also known as cruise ships, pay a passage rate based on the number of passengers that can be accommodated in permanent beds. This charge is currently $92 per unoccupied berths and &115 per occupied berth. Freighters have different rates. Our ship paid well over two hundred thousand dollars to enter Gatun Lake through the three locks and go back out the same day.

5~ The lowest toll paid was 36 cents by American Richard Halliburton who swam the Panama Canal in 1928. Wonder if he was aware of crocodiles living in canal waters? We saw one taking his own swim for free.

6~ John Le Carre wrote The Tailor of Panama, a spy thriller novel which was later made into a movie. Parts of the movie were filmed in Panama to include the canal and Gatun Lake.

Re-entry from Gatun Lake, gates close behind us
The Tour

There were several scheduled land tours, but we elected to stay on board and watch the operation of the locks and the "mules." After the ship had passed out of Gatun Lake, back through the locks and into the bay, she docked at Colon for a few hours in order to pick up passengers who had gone land tours. We picked this time to go ashore and take in the locals. Shopping wasn't much, but we did enjoy some Panama beers at an open sidewalk bar called the Lucky Seven with its very friendly owner. Once again, we found, too late, that the bar had wi-fi.

Get your Panama beer at the Lucky 7 in Colon
The Crime

Time was, back in the '80's, you could buy a cargo plane in Spain, register it in Panama, fly to a clandestine airstrip guarded by the Colombian army in the Colombian jungle, load up your contraband, get airborne after midnight, fly across the Gulf, enter U.S. airspace, pass over the SAC base in Omaha without being noticed and land in a wheat stubble field along the Missouri River about the crack of dawn to unload your cargo. If you were lucky, the law didn't catch you on the ground. One plane in particular wasn't lucky. We took the load, crew and ground crew.

On December 1989, the U.S. invaded Panama. Its dictator, Manuel Noriega, was subsequently taken as a prisoner of war. He was flown to Miami and tried on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering. His forty year sentence was later reduced to seventeen years based on good behavior and he was extradited to France in April 2010 on a money laundering conviction. In December 2011, he was extradited back to Panama for murder and human rights abuses where he had been sentenced in absentia for a term of twenty years. Guess it's good to be the dictator, unless you screw up and the U.S. comes knocking on your door.

Would I go back to see Panama? You bet. We are already thinking about a Panama Canal cruise in 2016 when the new set of locks is open to wider ships.

See you in two weeks in Limon, Costa Rica.