21 May 2014

A Greek God in Every Book

Jim Winter
Born near Cleveland in 1966, Jim Winter had a vivid imagination – maybe too vivid for his own good – that he spun into a career as a writer. He is the author of Northcoast Shakedown, a tale of sex, lies, and insurance fraud – and Road Rules, an absurd heist story involving a stolen holy relic.

Jim now lives in Cincinnati with his wife Nita and stepson AJ. To keep the lights on, he is a web developer and network administrator by day. Visit him at JamesRWinter.net , like Jim Winter Fiction on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter @authorjimwinter.

There’s a Greek God in Every Book

by Jim Winter

Lately, a lot has been made about the Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s template for myths and legends. It’s most obvious examples in modern times are Star Wars and the Harry Potter series. But sometimes, trying to plot around the Hero’s Journey can lead to formulaic writing. It can also lead to some very shallow clichés. There’s a difference between paying homage to The Maltese Falcon and creating unintentional parody.

Not that I know anyone who’s ever done that.

A few years ago, however, someone introduced me to a pair of books by psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen. The first was called The Goddesses in Every Woman. It had a companion book, which I also read called The Gods in Every Man. In them, Bolen posits that the pantheon of Greek gods served as a personality spectrum for the human race. If you find a Greek god or goddess to attach to a character, I discovered, you can use that to flesh out a character. Does it apply to crime fiction?

Oh, come on! Really? Let’s take a look at some of the more common ones. You’ll be surprised.

ZEUS: Zeus is the king of the Greek gods. His personality is simultaneously the calm, solid leader and the petulant overlord who will preserve his position at all costs. Think of most CEO’s. They range from the brilliant innovators (Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google) to the self-absorbed jerk with too much money and power (Donald Trump). Perhaps the darkest crime fiction example is Noah Cross, the water baron in Chinatown.

ATHENA: Athena was the goddess of wisdom and the goddess of the law. Athena types tend to be a bit aloof, a little ruthless if only because their mission calls for it, and extremely logical. Hilary Clinton is an Athena, as are tech CEO’s Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina. In crime fiction, they are the female judges, who tend to be less hot-headed and more strict than their male counterparts.

POSEIDON: Brother of Zeus, king of the seas, Poseidons either wish they could be leaders, blaming others for their shortcomings, or they are leaders lacking confidence. History’s best known Poseidon is Richard Nixon, whose worst enemy was himself. A more benign example might be Bill Lumberg from the cult classic movie Office Space, who can’t relate to his underlings and speaks with a huge lack of confidence. Many male PI characters are Poseidons, such as Philip Marlowe. Marlowe does not play nice with others and vents his cynicism and anger at the system through wisecracks and semi-poetic similes.

ARTEMIS: Artemis is the twin brother of Apollo. Like her twin, she is often competitive and fiercely independent. Artemis types are a good model for female PI characters as they don’t really like being told what to do. Erin Brokovitch, the brassy activist, is a good example of an Artemis, refusing to accept the status quo. In crime, Kinsey Millhonne is a prime example.

HADES: The lord of the underworld is a tough one to figure out. He’s the role model for both Obi-wan Kenobi and for Hannibal Lecter. It all depends on which direction you want to go. Hades types spend a lot of time up in their heads. When it works, they’re contemplative philosophers. When it doesn’t, they’re in a world of their own that can be dangerous to those around them. The Dalai Lama and Ted Bundy are two sides of this very strange coin. Dexter would be a crime fiction example. Then again, so would Joe Pike.

HERA/DEMETER: Hera is the wife of Zeus and goddess of marriage. Demeter is the goddess of the harvest and mother of Persephone. I put these two together because they are defined by fierce loyalty. Hera is fiercely loyal to her husband. Demeter is loyal to the point of murder to her daughter. One is proverbial woman behind the man. Think Nancy Reagan. The other can easily be the overbearing mother. Think Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.

HERMES: Messenger of the gods and the Greeks’ answer to the Trickster archetype. (Think Loki, Thor fans.) Hermes is forever boyish and forever the smartass. A typical Hermes response to a stressful situation is to crack wise. That’s almost every male (and quite a few female) PI character you ever met. Spenser is the king of the Hermes PI character, followed very closely by Elvis Cole.

APHRODITE: You’d probably think Aphrodite is the archetypal slut. You’d be right, but you’d also be wrong. It’s much deeper than that. The movie There’s Something About Mary is a whole treatise on the Aphrodite personality. Cameron Diaz’s Mary is hardly a loose woman, but every male character in the movie falls hopelessly in love with her to the point of insanity. Sometimes, a woman of this time knows how she affects those around her and uses it. That’s the classic definition of the femme fatale. Other times, they seem oblivious to it. They may or may not be the damsel in distress, but men either want to her or to possess her.

DIONYSUS: This is the strangest one of all, and you need only look at the prime examples of this personality type. Dionysus, the god of wine and debauchery, also had a rebirth component to his myth. So Dionysus is either the eternal hedonist or the martyred messiah. In crime fiction, rock star Johnny Boz dies at the hands of Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. Both are hedonistic Dionysus types. From the more messianic perspective, take a look at Sean Chercover’s The Trinity Game, where huckster televangelist Tim Trinity finds himself becoming an unwilling mouthpiece for God. You know where this is going to end.

There’s more, of course, and Dr. Bolen’s books aren’t really writing guides. Nonetheless, they offer a fascinating insight into how ancient cultures tried to use their religions to sort out the confusing vagaries of human behavior. They were almost the first psychology guides ever written.

20 May 2014

Which-es Brew

I found that Thai was the only language which wanted to pass my lips in any coherent form, and the only word which I seemed capable of forming was, why?
                        The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August 
                        Claire North 

       Two weeks ago, in the context of a discussion on Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, I wrote about the ability of most authors to develop a “writer’s ear.” Simply put, writing with a “writer’s ear” means that the test of the narrative is “does it sound right?” If so, so be it. Writing from Strunk and White is like flying on instruments, writing from your own ear is like flying by dead reckoning. And dead reckoning is sort of where we all want to be -- we learn the rules so that we can freely write without reference to them. 

       Whether this works, however, depends upon how well we have developed that “writer’s ear,” how well we have mastered the rules before we begin to grant ourselves the luxury of ignoring them.

       How much freedom does our "writer's ear" deserve?  Back in 2006 James J. Kilpatrick had this to say in one of his On Writing pieces: 
Is "woken" a legitimate verb? We're talking style today, so stick around. The question came last week from George Woodward of Berlin, Conn. He enclosed a clipping about a fellow who is regularly "woken up by garbage trucks." He asked: Should an editor have changed it to read, "awakened by garbage trucks"? The answer lies in a writer's ear. "Woken" is indeed a legitimate alternative to the more popular "awakened." The thing is, we read with our ears as well as our eyes. What does your ear tell you? I believe an editor with a lively sense of style would leave the sentence alone.
        Of course, all of this pretty much depends upon how good that “ear” is. Kilpatrick offers a pretty strict test: If there are multiple usages, each of which is correct but one of which is more popular, the writer (and his or her editor) may choose either based on what sounds right to the writer’s ear 

       But what if the ear is, in some respect, untrained? What if the choice is one between a correct usage and a grammatically incorrect usage? Return with me now to that quote at the top of today’s piece. How many of you are bothered by the quotation, from the pseudonymous Claire North’s new novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August? Do the two usages of “which” grate? It’s understandable if they do, because In each case the indisputably correct word should have been “that.” 

       Before moving on here I need to state that I thoroughly enjoyed The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. It is a very engaging science fiction novel with great characters, a neat time-travel plot and an inspired underlying story. I recommend it as a great read. But if you are a stickler on the correct usage of “which” and “that” (and I confess that I am), be prepared for some eye rolling. Throughout the book the author (and her editor) get it wrong almost every time. 

        By all accounts, figuring out when to use “which” and when to use “that” is one of the great stumbling blocks for writers to master. Ms. North is therefore in good company. Stephen King consistently mixed up the two words for years until, somewhere around ten years ago, something clicked in his head or in the head of his editor. And I was a member of those same ranks. I wrote and edited legal papers for decades without figuring this one out. Finally, about 20 years ago when documents kept coming back to me from the General Counsel’s office with “which” changed to “that” and “that” changed to “which” I hunkered down and learned the rule. And strangely, once you “get” the rule your writer’s ear will predictably kick in. That which previously slipped by unnoticed will then begin to grate. 

       Many of you, I am sure, are already on board. You know when to use “which" and when to use “that” and you are likely feeling a bit bored with all of this. You folks can quit here and just jump down and read (or re-read) Fran Rizer's excellent article from yesterday, or maybe Stephen Ross' thoughtful guest article from Sunday.   

       But for the rest of you, here is the rule as simply as I know how to put it:  Use “that” as the opening word in a restrictive clause; use “which” as the opening word in a non-restrictive clause.

Which is which? Well, if you can’t eliminate the clause from the sentence the clause is restrictive. An example would be “SleuthSayers is the daily blog that brings together mystery short story writers.” You can’t get rid of “that brings together mystery short story writers” and still have the sentence make sense.  So the clause is restrictive and requires “that.”

By contrast, if our example read “SleuthSayers, which offers a new article every day, is the mystery short story writers’ blog” it would contain a non-restrictive clause. The sentence still makes sense without the phrase “which offers a new article every day.” So the non-restrictive modifying clause requires a “which.” Clauses with “which” are therefore not unlike the extra information imparted when you use a parenthetical, which is another way to recognize them. 

       Want an even simpler rule? This one works something like 95% of the time, which is enough for most of our writer’s ears: If a clause is set off by commas it should begin with “which.” Otherwise, use “that.” Of course, this all presupposes that one also knows when to set off a clause with commas. And when do you do this? Well, when the first word is “which!” 

       If which-es were horses …

19 May 2014

Odds & Ends, Bits & Pieces

by Fran Rizer

My most recent post was one week ago (5/12/14) when I interviewed Darlene Poier, publisher of the Canadian magazine Ficta Fabula, and Laura Crowe, editor.  For some reason beyond me, their photos disappeared though they still show on my preview.  Here they are again, and I sure hope whatever went wrong last week doesn't happen again.

Darlene Poier

Laura Crowe


As some of you know, I've been working on an anthology of ghost stories.  It turned into a labor-intensive project, but the manuscript is complete, and the publisher accepted it Friday.  More about that later.

All this thought about anthologies set me to thinking of some I'd like to see in print:

Woman's World One Page Mystery Rejections -  An anthology of stories that have been rejected for this market where John does so well.

Very First Stories by Successful Authors

Historical Bloopers in Historical Fiction

A Collection of Leigh's Reasons Not to Move to Florida

An Anthology of Travelogue Pieces by SleuthSayers Who Vacationed this Year

All of John M. Floyd's and Rob Lopresti's Lists

Anything else you can think of and share with SS


I agree with all of the above except Agatha Christie's.  

What's on your mind this morning?  Share it!

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

18 May 2014

The Nothing

Stephen Ross
Stephen Ross
Stephen Ross is a New Zealand mystery writer. His stories have appeared in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine where he appears in the current July/August issue, and other publications. 

Many of you know Stephen through his long, strong friendship with Criminal Brief, where he became one of our most loyal supporters. No man is a prophet in his own land, or at least a writer in the land of Ngaio Marsh. We followed his efforts toward recognition in his own nation as the rest of the world honoured his talent. We at SleuthSayers have great admiration for this author, commentator, and friend, Stephen Ross, who writes…

Before the Internet, there was nothing

by Stephen Ross

Before the Internet, there was nothing. It was like living in a tent at an outpost at the end of the world. I'm talking about writing. Books were only in the library or at the bookstore. Finding a magazine full of fiction in my hometown (Auckland City) was like embarking on a quest to find a three-toed sloth. Finding mystery fiction in a magazine was like looking for the dodo. Other writers simply didn't exist. I wrote in isolation.

There's a black and white photo of me (somewhere, I lost the print and I never owned the negative) sitting at a typewriter with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. It could have been taken in 1930. It was taken in 1988.

By 1990, I had come to know only two other writers, and both of them were playwrights -- both 10 years older than me and hardened to the rule that you can't make any money out of writing, and no one will ever publish you. And maybe you should just shoot yourself.

And then the Internet happened… Actually, personal computers happened first, and that changed everything.

1969 Triumph
The typewriter I wrote on was a 1969 Triumph Gabriele 10. It belonged to my mother and I had been bashing away on it since I was 5. Stories and screenplays: sci-fi, horror, and mystery.

Not one thing I ever wrote on that poor, long suffering machine ever got past my bedroom door. The world is lucky.

In the late 1980s, one of those playwright friends of mine acquired a personal computer. I have no memory of what operating system it was running, but it had a word processor on it (the other playwright hated technology and wrote in long hand (and probably by candlelight, and with a quill)). I could immediately see the benefit of writing on a word processor: Freedom & Fluidity.

Writing on a typewriter forces the writer to commit to the typed. It was a rigid way to work; like trying to dance in concrete. It meant hours of retyping for corrections, or adding a permafrost layer of correction fluid to each page.

I used to cheat. I did a lot of paragraph snipping. If there was a typo or something that needed to be changed on a page, I'd simply retype the offending paragraph and cut and paste it over the faulty one.

Once I eventually got onto a PC, my writing method changed overnight. I became an abstract expressionist. Think Jackson Pollock, only instead of oils, words.

My first drafts (even of this short piece) are complete messes of text. In fact, I often write my firsts on my iPhone, bluetoothing to it via a wireless keyboard. I don't even look at the screen while I type.

For me, writing is rewriting. That's where the good stuff lies. The first draft is like– I'm trying to think of an analogy that doesn't sound like projectile vomiting. Here we go: It's like leaping off a tall building… and maybe the parachute will open.
current writing desk

I haven't written anything on a typewriter since 1991.

And then the Internet happened. And that changed everything else.

My computer connected to the Internet in 1996. Instead of just seeing what was residing on my PC's hard drive, I could now look out into the world. What I found there were a handful websites about writing– and all of them decked out in the glorious three-tone website design of the day: gray background, black text, blue hyperlinks (does anyone still say "hyperlink" anymore?). And I found other writers– for a long time I lurked in the background of writing newsgroups, soaking up the chatter, tips, and experiences.

As more and more websites and resources came online, the Internet started to make research easier, and it began to make it easier to find magazines. In fact, when I got up the nerve to finally submit a story to one, I had gotten the address and submission instructions off the magazine's website (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, if you're curious).

The last ten years has seen the rise of the blog. There are now countless blogs on the Internet catering to writers. The first one of these I followed (right from its beginning) was Criminal Brief. Naturally, I followed along when it evolved in SleuthSayers, which is now my current place of background lurkage.

There are also cool new things happening on the Net, like writers.StackExchange.com, which in many ways is like the newsgroups of yesteryear: People ask questions about writing, and people respond with help, tips, and advice. It's not very chatty, but at least it's spared the newsgroups' old habit of descending into chaos (and the subsequent invention of Godwin's Law).

For me, writing has a learning curve that began with a nice slow upward ascent, which quickly went vertical. The Internet has made climbing that a lot easier.

17 May 2014

Christopher Columbus and Me

by Elizabeth Zelvin

For those of you who haven't yet discovered my latest novel, Voyage of Strangers, it's about what really happened when Columbus discovered America, and it's the sequel to my short story "The Green Cross", which first appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Short Story.

Here's how it came about that I wrote "The Green Cross." One night about five years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with an unfamiliar but insistent voice knocking on the inside of my head.

"Let me out! Let me out!" it said.

It was Diego, a young marrano sailor, who would board the Santa Maria with Columbus in 1492, on the same day the Jews were expelled from Spain.

"Leave me alone!" I said. "I don't want to get out of bed and write your story down. I don't write historical fiction. I don't want to do research. I hate research."

"Let me out! Let me out!" Diego said. "I've been waiting five hundred years for you to tell my story."

Eventually, if only to shut him up, I got out of bed and scribbled a few notes. In the morning, reading them over, I still didn't want to write the story. I hated research. But Diego's voice was still insistent. I went online and discovered that material was readily available. It even included portions of the logbook that Columbus himself kept on the voyage. Within half an hour, I had enough for that first story, which took place on the Santa Maria and ended with the sighting of the first signs of land.

In turn, "The Green Cross" led to its sequel, "Navidad," which also appeared in EQMM. The novel itself continues the story of my protagonist Diego and his sister Rachel on Columbus's second voyage in 1493-1495. By that time, I had changed my mind about research, having fallen under the spell that motivates writers of historical fiction, learned a lot more about the tragic course of Columbus's discovery, and become fascinated by the many details that were more mindboggling than any I could have invented. My character Columbus changed from a kindly father-figure with detective skills to an obsessed and deluded leader who destroyed an earthly paradise and committed genocide on its people.

Diego and Rachel, secret Jews and therefore outsiders surrounded by the Spaniards' Christian culture, come of age in this doomed paradise, experiencing divided loyalties, love, and heartbreak in the course of Voyage of Strangers. Rachel, who was born as I wrote the first draft, is one of my favorite characters among all those I've created. Her voice and Diego's got stronger and stronger. The story poured out of me--not my usual experience with the first draft of a novel--my hero and heroine's fictional adventures weaving themselves almost effortlessly into the fabric of what actually happened in history.

In another of those stranger-than-fiction scenarios, as I wrote Voyage of Strangers, our own early-twenty-first-century world underwent a paradigm shift. The publishing industry imploded. By the time my novel was ready, everything had changed for both readers and writers. Over the next two years, I tried assiduously to find an agent or a publisher. I had some near misses, but the net result of 150 attempts was zero. Finally, I decided to publish Voyage of Strangers myself as an e-book.

But it ain't over till it's over, and it wasn't over yet. Two months after I uploaded Voyage of Strangers to Amazon as an indie e-book for Kindle, I got an email from a senior acquisitions editor at Amazon Publishing's Lake Union imprint for literary and general fiction, saying they loved the book and wanted to publish it and market it to a wider audience. So Voyage of Strangers will be out again in September as an e-book and trade paperback from Lake Union. And I'm happily researching and writing a sequel, which takes Diego first to war-torn Italy and then to Istanbul, where many of the Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition found refuge.

Note: A version of this post appeared on Poe's Deadly Daughters.

16 May 2014

In the Heart of Dark Ghost Trains

     We’ve mentioned NetFlix on this blog, in the past, and I recently saw an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, on NetFlix, which contained elements that I found applicable to writers.

     In this episode, Bourdain visited the Republic of the Congo, and traveled down part of the Congo river. On the trip, they visited a railway station, with dilapidated rolling stock and ruined rail lines.

     Frankly, it reminded me of a rail station near the Jungle Warfare School in Ghana, West Africa. When we were there, running a leadership academy for Ghana Army NCO’s, we ran some patrols that encountered the defunct rail station/junction.

     I was in Ghana for work, not photo-tourism, so I took no photographs. And, unfortunately, I was unable to find photos of that junction, but I did find some that have the same attributes found there. They might give you a good feel for the place.

     It was a hauntingly beautiful sight:  Dozens of rusting rail cars—freight cars, old passenger cars, even a lone caboose—sprouting up from green growth where “The Bush” had encroached and begun to consume them. Inside the cars: ancient antique fixtures, rusted and decaying remains that would have made a railroad enthusiast’s or antique hunter’s heart race.

     We climbed the rickety steps to the dilapidated switch tower (which looked a lot like this one below) and marveled over the huge clamp-lever manual switches (left) that had once been used to shunt trains from one line to another on the switch yard below.


    No trains ran through that yard at the time. The tracks weren’t just rusted; whole sections were missing. And the sections that remained boasted not only profound ruination and tall grass, but also bushes and small trees that grew up between the ties.

    Yet, back at our barracks, late at night, we sometimes heard a locomotive hauling a train of many cars at high speed down through that switch yard. Our ears would catch the rumble of steel wheels grinding against the narrow-gauge rails, the rhythmic thump and rattle of quick-rolling cars clattering down the track, sometimes a long mournful horn blast as the engineer warned people or animals to clear the way. But no trains rolled down those tracks.
No train crossed that overgrown, ruined switch yard. So what did we hear?


     The Ghanaians said, “Oh, sir, that is the ghost train. It comes at night. It is bad luck to be at the station at night, when it comes by, because then it might stop for you. This would not be a good thing.”


Congo’s rail line in that show looks like the one I saw in "The Bush" in Ghana, but men still work on that Congo rail line. According to a 2011 BBC report, they hadn’t been paid for over four years. But, still they worked. On a railway system with nearly no rolling stock, large sections of missing track, almost no hope of revival -- though the PRC may have come through some capital to begin reconstruction.

     Meanwhile, at a defunct research facility up-river, Bourdain found a group of volunteers maintaining the large library that had been abandoned when the facility was closed in the Sixties.

     Why work to maintain a library of old, outdated research material, virtually in the middle of nowhere, for over fifty years? Without pay? Without access to electricity? Keeping an antiquated card catalogue system in rough, but working order while trying to keep the books from mildewing into muck? Why?

     To me, the answer to both questions— Why the railroad workers keep going to work and the library volunteers continue their work — seemed to boil down to a single answer. I think it’s called hopeful persistence.

     They persist in their work, in the belief it will one day pay dividends of some kind—either to them, to their loved ones, or to some future human beings who will one day benefit from all that thankless work.

     When a writer gets a rejection, I think this hopeful persistence is a good thing to have in abundance. In fact, I suspect that’s why the men in these stories appealed to me: I felt a common bond with them. Though, hopefully, my goals are more attainable.

     Here’s wishing you an abundance of Hopeful Persistence, and a long string of acceptances that renders your persistence superfluous.

See you in two weeks!

15 May 2014

More Fun With Music

by Brian Thornton

My last post was about tinnitus and how it inhibited me from (most of the time) listening to music while I was writing. I went on to mention that I do occasionally listen to certain types of music while writing certain scenes.

Today I'm going to delve into what music I actually listen to when writing.

I break it down into four general categories completely of my own invention: evocative; action; timely; and romantic.

Why, yes, this is what "cool" looks like.

The second short story I published with Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine was a tale about a mob "fixer" in 1962 Las Vegas. It was titled "Suicide Blonde."

The entire time I worked on this story I had Miles Davis' immortal "Kind of Blue" (1959) playing in the background. I know it's been mentioned so many times that it's pretty much a cliché, but 50s/60s club jazz is practically a soundtrack for the crime fiction of the era.

Songs such as "So What?", "Freddie Freeloader, and especially "All Blues" just paint a picture for me: a landscape populated by slick guys in sharp suits, driving long cars with fins, dating glamorous women...

Yep, Davis's stuff from the era definitely helped set the mood.

There's so much to make fun of here.
How about we start with the hair?

As I mentioned in my last post, I listen to a lot of soundtrack stuff when I'm writing action scenes. (How the West Was Won, I mentioned explicitly). But I don't just listen to soundtracks and western themes when writing action. I listen to anything with a driving, compelling beat. I once listened to Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55", the Scorpions' "Lovedrive" and Golden Earring's "Radar Love" over and over on a loop while writing a car chase scene (and did it for so long that I still haven't listened to any of them since!).


Similar to evocative above, but not necessarily the same thing. These are literally "period pieces," music written and performed during the era I'm writing about. For example, I write a lot of mid-19th century America stuff. And if you're gonna use mid-19th century American music, you've got two choices: Stephen Foster, and anything else.

Foster just depresses me.

And I think it's pretty clear WHY…
So I tend to go with the "anything else." I mostly listen to mid-19th century music from this gent:

Oh come on! The medals! That mustache!
This guy practically screams FUN!
 He is, of course, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a half Jewish/half Creole piano maestro and composer from Louisiana who studied in Paris (where he was duly snubbed for being American.) and toured the world giving concerts up until he dropped dead on a concert stage (from malaria) in Rio at the age of 40.

Gottschalk's stuff is both timely and evocative. I listen to it a goodly bit while writing in the period. I am partial to the interpretations of Laure Favre-Kahn, but your mileage may vary.

Which leaves us with …


And by this I mean "emotional" more than "lovestruck" (although the two are hardly mutually exclusive). Any good singer-songwriter stuff will work for these scenes: Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Sarah McLaughlin, Elton John. Stuff that makes you FEEL.

And yes, that includes stuff by THIS guy:

I defy you to listen to "The Pretender" and not have an emotional response!
I use this stuff to fuel my dialogue in these sorts of scenes, because music that sparks an emotional responses helps me get the right words flowing.

How about you? What music gets your right words flowing?

14 May 2014

In The Frame

by David Edgerley Gates

A departure from the usual.

My pal Justin Sachs owns a frame shop here in Santa Fe, Justin's Frame Designs, and he's been badly needing some time off. He prevailed on me to take the reins for these past ten days, so he could go down to Corpus and windsurf. I'm familiar enough with his business to be okay with it. Little did I anticipate.

The experience was instructive, shall we say. Some of you, I know, have been teachers, some of you military or law enforcement, and of course being writers, we're in effect running a small business, as in self-employed, but being responsible for somebody else's livelihood is a different kettle of fish. Put bluntly, it's nerve-wracking. You da man. You have to make the decisions. You have to direct a staff. You have to keep a close eye on the bottom line.

Years ago, my dad had an apron factory in Boston, in the old garment district. Long gone now, plowed under with the Big Dig and redevelopment around South Station, but this was then. It was more than a little reminiscent of THE PAJAMA GAME, a couple of floors in a warehouse, banks of sewing machines. They were manned by women of what used to be called a certain age, mostly Italian. I remember the marzipan cookies they baked for Christmas. My father sunk a lot of money into it, much of it borrowed, but in the end he couldn't keep it afloat, and he took the failure personally. Who wouldn't? The problem was that the bottom fell out of the market. This was the late 1950's, and the big hotels had stopped buying their own linens and doing their own laundry. They contracted out. Nor did even rich people keep household servants, Upstairs, Downstairs, and they had no need to supply them with uniforms. My dad had figured to move into the retail end, and sell to local five-and-dimes, but they were a dying breed, too. The big chains were pricing them out, and it was cheaper to buy imports. In other words, the timing was terrible. He bought in when the domestic rag trade was taking a nosedive headfirst into the toilet.

Anybody who starts a business, in this day or any other, has an uphill climb. You have to research the marketplace, the need. Goods and services. Can you survive downtime? There's always going to be contraction. And when times are tight, you still have to make payroll, you have to pay suppliers, and of course you have to answer to your client base, who are inevitably cranky and fickle. This isn't Russia, and a command economy. You can lose your customers with a single disappointment, even one they've imagined.

So, a burden. And no excuses. There ain't no hierarchy to blame. You're at the top of the food chain. There's a familiar axiom from my time as a GI, which might bring a rueful smile from a few of you. You can delegate authority but not responsibility. This is where the buck stops.

Mind you, I'm not the FNG, or a total cherry. I've known Justin for fifteen years or so. This is, in fact, the third frame shop we've worked in together. It's, however, the first one that's his, and his alone. He calls on me to fill in the gaps, whether it's balancing the checkbook, or filing quarterly tax returns, the enormous paper trail, but my schedule is pretty much on my own time, two or three mornings a week, maybe, if that. I don't begrudge it, either. It's a little spare change, and it's no big deal. It doesn't cut into my time that much. I want his business to succeed. He's got a daughter to put through college. More than that, he's honest, he works his ass off, he gives good weight.

What did I learn? Well, personnel issues can suck. At least none of the guys called in sick because their hair hurt, while Justin was gone. And the clients can really be a pain in the ass. They all think they're the center of the universe. Then your suppliers screw you up. They ship late, or they don't send you what you need to finish the job, so there's a constant tension between what people expect, or demand, and what you can accomplish, given labor and materials. You're holding the bag, you're trying to keep your head above water, and into the bargain, you have to be nice to people, which you might realize isn't exactly my strong suit. I don't suffer fools gladly.

Anyway. Long sigh. Sometimes you get thrown into the deep end of the pool. Not necessarily a bad thing. We should know our strengths and weaknesses. I lasted the week, and the frame shop didn't go under, unlike the apron factory. I think I gave the guy good weight. It wasn't easy, and I took the work home at night. Come the end of the day, it's really about small satisfactions, or minor victories.

Oh, and friendship. It's a currency we trade in, and don't spend lightly. So the guy owes me one. Then again, I owe him. Call it even. He got some time on the beach, to decompress, and I spent some time in the saddle, the senior NCO again. Can't honestly say I've missed it.

13 May 2014

Animal Attraction

Shortly before Christmas our dog died.  Silke, our ancient corgi, was just shy of her seventeenth birthday.  Robin and I were heartbroken at the loss of this venerable and uncompromising herder of Deans.  We had all come a long way since the kids discovered her in a pet store in Virginia.  Naturally, we had not gone to the great commonwealth in order to get a dog, but to check out a college for Bridgid.  She did not select the school, but she and her little brother did select a wee doggie that was too young to have been properly weaned from her mother.  As it turned out her mam had been killed by a car. 
I said no.  The kids pleaded and promised good behavior for all their natural lives (they lied).  Robin interceded on their behalf.  The dog was purchased for a whopping thirty dollars American, and the die was cast.

This is what a corgi looks like
For the next four months, Silke (so named because her fur was...yes, silky to the touch) made not a sound--not a whine, whimper, bark, or growl.  Nothing.  I was convinced that she was mute.  Then one day as Julian was roughhousing with her on the floor, she emitted a tiny squeak of a bark.  We were all thunderstruck.  It might have been the roar of a mighty lion!  She looked as surprised as we. 

She never shut up after that.  Her vocabulary of barks, whines, snorts, moans, sighs, and even sneezes of impatience, were never-ending.  Having found her voice she became a full-throated participant in all things Dean.  Intensely opinionated, critical of innovation, and ever the protector of the status quo as she saw it, she set about keeping order within our family through both rigorous physical and mental efforts.  She despised a closed door and was intolerant of privacy in general.  She never tired of testing our rules while ruthlessly enforcing her own.  Anyone exhibiting uninhibited behavior was subjected to her racing around them in ever-tightening circles while being barked at incessantly.  I suppose this worked on cattle back in Wales.  She had no love of spontaneity.  Affection expressed with restraint and a proper sense of decorum was allowed and even encouraged--especially if that affection was directed at her.  All others need get a room. 

She never met another dog, cat, squirrel, or rabbit, that she liked.  She was completely indifferent to birds, however; even the large flock of turkeys that swept through our yard from time to time.  Didn't care.  It was like they didn't exist.

She also hated cars.  Not those passing by, but any vehicle someone might want her to get into.  No, thank you very much.  If she couldn't get there by walking she didn't want to go.  The only places a car took a corgi was to the vet's or the kennel--both bad places.  She didn't like veterinarians or kennel owners. They were added to the list.

In spite of all this, she was just what the doctor ordered for our little family.  She had arrived at just that moment when we needed her most--that juncture of adolescent angst and turmoil that rocks families and sows discord.  We had two teenagers and couldn't stop bickering,fighting, and challenging one another on every issue known to man, and some that passed human understanding altogether.  Silke would have none of it.

Either by crawling beneath the coffee table and peering out fearfully, thereby shaming us, or by interjecting her thick body between the warring parties, and reminding us to keep our distance, she did her part.  If all that failed, she would simply console the person most visibly upset and lay across their lap like an old-fashioned car rug.  Even during some of our stormiest times, we always found common ground in Silke.  Her antics, behavior, health, and happiness were subjects that we could all agree on and discuss civilly at the dinner table.  She was our family touchstone.

After the children went away to college and their adult lives, Silke became "our" dog--mine and Robin's.  She still went berserk when the kids came home, totally throwing us over for them, but as I grew grey, so did she.  More and more, she was content to be where I was, and go where I went around the house and yard.  I found she crept into a number of my stories; her character full-blown and ready to go.  In "Spooky" a dog tries to warn her master of something evil coming.  In "Whistle" a corgi goes missing, and when her mistress goes in search of her she finds the same fate.  "Little Things" features a corgi that helps fulfill her master's paranoid imaginings.

Silke is now buried in our back yard, watched over by a small statute of the Virgin Mary.  I'm not sure that's theologically correct, but that's the way it is.  What follows is a St. Francis Day joke that captures how I feel and provides some comfort: 

A priest was asked by an elderly widow, "Father, can my dog be with me in heaven?" 
After thinking it over for a moment, he asked in turn, "Would you be happy there without her?"  When the old woman shook her head emphatically, he added, "Then she'll be there." 

I hope so...I really do.




12 May 2014

A Visit with Darlene Poier and Laura Crowe

Alberta, Canada’s Darlene Poier is no stranger to SleuthSayers readers and writers.  Both Leigh Lundin and I wrote about her several years ago when John Floyd, Leigh, and I had stories published in the same issue of her magazine Pages of Stories.  Recently I interviewed Darlene about her new magazine, Ficta Fabula, which includes include my story "Positive Proof" in this issue.

     What is your mission statement for Ficta Fabula?
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Darlene Poier, Publisher of Ficta Fabula
What a great question. It’s good to know what a business stands for. Our mission statement at Pages Of Stories, Inc. is “To inspire creativity and imagination by providing high quality reading entertainment for people all over the world.” I truly believe that too many people just concentrate on making it through the day unscathed. We don’t seem to get very many opportunities to use our imaginations and be creative and ultimately have fun. Short stories provide a great 10 – 15 minute break where the reader has no responsibilities and can just sit back, relax and let the words on the page create pictures in their minds.
    Do you publish stories in all genres?  If so, what is the most common in the magazine?  If not, what genres are not acceptable?
We accept all genres of fiction and it seems that crime and mystery lend themselves to making excellent short stories. Romance and dramas are also right up there with good tales.

     What is the most frequent weakness that prevents acceptance of a story?

Ah, that’s the million dollar question. Each magazine has its own set of standards and requirements. I’d like to emphasize that when we turn down a story, it’s not really a rejection but more of a statement that it’s not the right story for the magazine at that time. I strongly encourage each author to keep shopping their story around. If it’s a well constructed and compelling story a magazine will pick it up.
As for Ficta Fabula and its predecessor Pages Of Stories, well, it’s tricky. We want stories that appeal to the mainstream public and as a result I’m very fortunate to have the assistance of a story selection committee. There is no one thing that I could pinpoint. Sometimes it’s the plot that doesn’t work for this market, sometimes it’s incomplete character development, and sometimes it’s too many loose ends in the story.
Editor Laura: Final acceptance decisions are made by Darlene but from my point of view, weaknesses that cause a story to be rejected—and involve too much editing time—include proofreading and typographical errors, disappointing or unfinished endings, or weak storytelling skills. Stories that work unfold on the page and draw readers in, and connect with them on an emotional level; too many authors rush through the vital elements of setting and character development and the story suffers for it.

     What are the word requirements for Ficta Fabula stories, both minimum and maximum? Can you tell us how, or perhaps why, you determined the limits?

The minimum word limit is 1,000 words. I like to give our readers stories that have more detail in them so that when they are enjoying this escape in their day, they can really dig into it.

     Ficta Fabula has a new editor, Laura Crowe.  Please tell us about her.

Laura and I first met when she submitted a story to Ficta Fabula’s predecessor, Pages Of Stories. She is a talented author in her own right and has done an awesome job editing FF. I’ll let her tell you the rest..
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Laura Crowe, Editor of Ficta Fabula
Laura: I am a writer, editor, teacher, and owner of Imagine It In Writing. My short stories and articles have appeared in numerous Canadian magazines including Pages Of Stories, The Prairie Journal, Every Day Fiction, and Horizons. My first book, Take Flight: True Stories of How Dreams Shape Our Lives, is a unique collection of true short stories contributed by thirteen authors that I edited and compiled.
Besides writing, I love working with authors one-on-one as an editor, specializing in fiction and memoir. I also offer mentoring programs, and am available for speaking about the writing and editing process, doing readings of my work, and teaching writing classes. 
When not writing, I'm usually in my piano studio, or outside on my deck with a cup of coffee and a great book. I live in Alberta with my  husband, two daughters, and two quarter-Siamese cats.
I can be contacted at 403-518-5858.  Or find me on the web at www.imagineitinwriting.com.

     Back to Darlene:  When will the next issue of Ficta Fabula be available and how can readers obtain it both electronically and in print.

Alas, FF is no longer available electronically but I’m working hard to bring it back. The next printed issue is available this month.  If anyone would like to order this awesome magazine (said completely objectively!) containing the work of the most talented authors surrounding the globe, then just send me an email at info@pagesofstories.com.

      Please tell us a little about you personally such as who's in your immediate family, where you live, and what do you enjoy in addition to publishing? 

Ok, a little about me. I’ve been married to Gary for nearly 20 years and we have no children but two gorgeous critters. Kayla is an awesome 14 year old canine companion. She’s our little girl with a fantastic and funny personality. Persephone is a wonderfully cuddly feline friend. (I’m a fan of alliteration). She’s a 3 ½ year old long haired beauty. She’s a bit of a stinker in the middle of the night but in all the time we’ve had her, we’ve never heard her hiss at anyone or anything.
We live in a little town just north of Calgary, Alberta where we are blessed with mountain views and prairie sky.
In addition to publishing? What else is there?  Gary and I are big fans of warm tropical locations and go down to the Caribbean just about every spring. Gary is a huge football fan and I love old movies and when the weather permits I like to spend time in my garden. We love to travel and this year we’re determined to see more of the natural beauty that is all around us. I also enjoy giving back. Both Kayla and Persephone were adopted from animal shelters so we work to give to them. As well, the YWCA women’s shelter program is dear to my heart and I participate in a fundraiser every year (if interested the link to my fundraising page, it is: https://www.ywcakeeparoofcalgary.com/darlenepoier2014. Beyond these activities and working at a day job outside of publishing – that makes for a pretty busy time.

How did you select the name Ficta Fabula for this magazine and what are your plans (or dreams) for your publishing company, Pages of Stories, Inc.?
Well, the name came with the help of Google Translate and roughly translated from Latin it means fiction story. I’d been playing around with different titles in different languages and when ficta fabula showed up in the window I knew it was a winner.
I’m planning on Pages Of Stories, Publishing being the provider of the best fiction to our readers out there. Our special ABBA issue is the start of what I hope will be an annual magazine of special issues. I’d like to start publishing novels and novellas in 2015 and we’ve just launched Fabulous Fiction Fridays where everyone who registers can enjoy a short story direct to their inbox every Friday. I also want Pages Of Stories Publishing to be the publisher of choice for many authors. I sense much of the frustration with other publishing companies and I’m determined that we’ll operate differently. It’s no easy thing for an author to submit their work to a complete stranger for evaluation and I want people to know that we respect and appreciate that effort. Laura and I are collaborating on a book for authors with tips and suggestions about preparing novels and other stories before submitting to a publisher and how to best go about submitting it for the best results. Down the road we’d also like to offer workshops and retreats. We also want to offer more value to the discerning reader. Soon we’ll be announcing something special for them off the Pages Of Stories website. I believe that collecting good fiction and sending it out into the world will bring a smile to someone’s face at some point in the day. If we’ve made someone’s day better, then we’ve achieved something special.
Is there anything else you'd like to say?
Darlene:  Happy reading.
Fran:  Ditto

11 May 2014

Literary Rags

by Leigh Lundin

Last week, I joined the ranks of my betters appearing in Ellery Queen’s Something is Going to Happen blog with a little literary history cloaked in a Hardy Boys story. It was fun to write, but that little piece about the most famous mystery author you never heard of, “The Mystery of the Writer’s Ghost,” took a surprising amount of research and included supporting work by Dale Andrews and Rob Lopresti.

I’ll leave it to you to discover how that article unexpectedly ties into this one, but the research of the above led me to focus on a prolific and hugely popular American author I’d read about, but never before read. And to my surprise, reading his works wasn’t work at all. The books are delightful, they are fun and entertaining, not what you might presuppose considering their influence on society.

Exemplars and Archetypes

What other author has the cachet of a man whose writings not only parallels that of Industrial Age America, but so captures the American Dream, he is used as an iconic metaphor?
Horatio Alger, Jr
Horatio Alger, Jr.

Occasionally, we hear comparisons with literary figures and when we do, they’re seldom flattering: an Ebenezer Scrooge, a Mrs. Havisham, a Simon Legree, a Stepford wife. When it comes to authors, I’m hard pressed to come up with any names… except one.

A Horatio Alger story

Horatio Alger, Jr. is the full name, one of many facts I confess I didn’t know. I’ll pretend my ignorance of the man isn’t abysmal although you’ll see I’m taking steps to correct that.

And why didn’t I know? I grew up often hearing the phrase, “His is a regular Horatio Alger story, knowing what was meant, but without knowing who was referred to. We didn’t study the stories in school, they weren’t on our reading list, and I don’t recall seeing even one Alger novel in my family’s children’s library or my father’s extensive book collection. That’s no excuse, perhaps.

Ragged Dick

This week I read the first Horatio Alger story, Ragged Dick, serialized in Student and Schoolmate shortly after the end of the American Civil War in 1867. It’s set in a burgeoning pre-modern New York City: Central Park is partly developed, the grandest marble and limestone buildings stand only a few stories tall, street commerce is conducted in shillings and the Brooklyn Ferry costs 2¢.

What I didn’t expect was such a fast, easy read, a fun and funny romp through the streets of New York. The story’s written on multiple levels and it takes a bit of education to get some of the humor. Arguably, Alger’s stories and characters parallel those of Charles Dickens, although contemporary audiences will find Alger more approachable, less literary, and a hell of a lot funnier. (From a writer’s standpoint, I note that Dickens was paid by the word and accordingly padded out his works. In contrast, Alger wrote sparingly and his stories move considerably faster.)

A century and a half ago, the vocabulary of an educated American was 40% larger than it is now. Glance at schoolbooks of the era; the readers were considerably more advanced than those of today, an issue Common Core takes a stab at establishing in a national standard, weak-kneed as it is. Back in the day, advanced curricula included logic, rhetoric, debate, Latin and sometimes Greek. The nineteenth century was a time when schoolwork meant work. An educated child of yesteryear might well outstrip an adult of today in given topics.

The Streets of New York

Ragged Dick is a playful and slyly humorous story with much of the drollery coming from the titular character. For SleuthSayers fans, there is crime: hustles, scams, and thievery. Our little hero is street-wise but he refuses to steal, although there’s one scene where he out-cons a con-man.

With the success of this novel, Alger must have thought he’d stumbled upon a winning formula. In more than a hundred novels aimed at working class youth (but operating on other levels, as above), he repeated the same plot with the same stock characters.

His books have often been called ‘rags to riches’, but ‘rags to respectability’ is far more accurate, earning a way into the middle class structure of this Land of Opportunity through hard work and honesty. It’s hardly surprising his books fell out of favor and out of print during the depths of the Great Depression. Then as now, when the free market stumbled thanks to greed and fraud, Marxism started to look more attractive. But the economic wheel cycled and Alger’s philosophy received new interest and respect during America’s rebuilding in the 1950s.
Read it and Reap

I may have begun the book fearing a century-and-a-half-old work might be a bit of drudgery, but to my surprise, I enjoyed the novel despite flaws. Like most children’s books prior to the 1950s, it’s morally instructive but not onerously so. Most readers can take pleasure in the novel’s cleverness and humor.

If I had to come up with a tag line for this witty story, I’d hazard this:
If you enjoyed Spanky and Our Gang’s Little Rascals, you’ll love Ragged Dick.
Oh, and you can find the novels free at several places on the web, and don’t forget to check out the Ellery Queen blog that prompted all this.

10 May 2014

A Saturday Morning Post

by John M. Floyd

A word about the title of today's piece: It might not be imaginative, but it's appropriate. This is, after all, a column that was posted on Saturday morning. The subject of the column is appropriate as well, I hope, because it deals with writing in different genres and coming up with characters and story ideas and targeting certain pieces to a certain publication. In my case, it was several stories of mine that have recently been featured in The Saturday Evening Post.

Only one of those three stories, which appears in the current (May/June 2014) issue, has a mystery at its core, and even that one is not primarily about the mystery. It's more of a story about the love between two unlikely friends, set in the rural South of the 1970s. More about that in a minute.

Exchanging guns for roses

A little over a year ago, I was informed that The Saturday Evening Post publishes six pieces of short fiction every year--one in every bimonthly issue--and that that market might be a possibility for some of the stories I like to write. Since that time, due primarily to an oversized dose of blind luck, I have managed to sell three stories to the Post.

The first, a 2600-word story called "The Outside World" (March/April 2013 issue), dealt not with my usual crime-related themes but with injury and hardship and the rays of hope that can sometimes appear in seemingly hopeless situations. The inspiration for it came in part from my vague memories of Mark Hellinger's short story "The Window," in which an elderly woman in a sanitarium tells her bedridden roommates what she sees from her window every day. My characters were based on people I have known, which probably isn't surprising: author Greg Iles said in a recent interview that any writer of fiction who says his characters aren't based in some way on himself or his acquaintances is lying. What was surprising, at least to me, is that this twisty-plot story of mine sold to that particular magazine. Not that I spent much time analyzing how or why; I just counted my blessings and wrote another one.

That second story, "The First of October," sold to the Post as well, a few months later (the November/December 2013 issue). This one was short, around 1600 words. In truth, it was more of a romance story than anything else, but it also dealt--as the first one did--with folks who have experienced and overcome physical and mental obstacles. The idea for it first appeared one night when my wife and I were watching an episode of As Time Goes By, a BBC series about a couple who'd fallen in love long ago, were then separated during World War II, and years later met by chance, rekindled their love for each other, and were married. My story once again featured characters from my past, or at least composites of people from my past. and again didn't contain any of the murder and mayhem that I usually enjoy sprinkling throughout my fiction. Who says old mystery writers can't learn new tricks? I will confess, though, that it too contained several plot reversals--no matter what the genre, I can't seem to resist those.

Writing what you know

My third story, "Margaret's Hero," which is in the current issue of the Post, is a bit different from the first two. For one thing, it's longer--about 5500 words--and it does include some criminal activity. What I set out to do in this story was to point out that the racial tensions that have always been present in the Deep South are sometimes overruled by the genuine love people can have for one another, the kind that transcends age and race and social status. Unlike the previous story, this isn't romantic love--instead, it's the strong feelings that develop between a little white girl named Margaret Kindy and a grandfatherlike African American named Gus Newberry, who is the foreman of the ranch/farm owned by Margaret's actual grandfather. It's also a tale about rural life and tornadoes and dysfunctional families--this is the South, remember--and about the attachment between Margaret and a horse she and Gus decide to raise from a colt, and the ways that the horse affects both their lives. The title itself has a double meaning: Hero is the name the child gives her pony. And, once again, there's sort of a surprise ending.

The foreman--the story's real hero--is patterned closely after someone from my own childhood: an old, wise, and always cheerful black man who often took me hunting and fishing with him in the swamps and bottoms near my hometown when I was barely ten years old. Almost everything about this character, from his kindness and patience to his salt-and-pepper hair to his great size to his bib overalls and baseball cap, was true to life, and brought back good memories throughout the writing process. The setting, too, was comfortable to me, because I grew up in a tiny Mississippi town that was almost the same as living out in the country. We owned a horse and other livestock and raised many of our own crops, and at Margaret's age I happily roamed the woods and pastures every chance I got.

Post scripts

NOTE: I've included links to all three of my Post stories in the text above, and I should mention here that although the version of "Margaret's Hero" in the printed magazine is complete, the version posted at the S.E.P. web site accidentally omitted a paragraph (?!?) from the middle of the story. That works out well for me, actually, because if you decide to read it online and you think something might not sound exactly right, I have a built-in excuse . . .

NOTE 2: I said earlier that luck played a big part in my selling that first story to the magazine. Well, I was lucky afterward as well. In the issues immediately following the ones that featured my first two stories, the LETTERS section of the Post included two glowing reviews from readers, along with requests that the editors publish more of my stories in the future, and I suspect that that was a factor in their decision to accept my next efforts. I didn't know those two kind readers (no, they were not my mother and my sister), but I will always be sincerely grateful for their letters to the editor.

My point, here, is that even though I certainly prefer writing mystery/crime/suspense, it's sometimes fun and even profitable to reach beyond the genres you're used to and try writing something different. It's also fun to occasionally test some previously untried publications with your stories.

The worst they can do is say no, right? And you might even get a pleasant surprise.

Or three.