04 March 2014

Colin Wilson


by Dale C. Andrews
Colin Wilson at work at his home in England
[T]he basic impulse behind existentialism is optimistic, very much like the impulse behind all science. Existentialism is romanticism, and romanticism is the feeling that man is not the mere he has always taken himself for. Romanticism began as a tremendous surge of optimism about the stature of man. its aim — like that of science — was to raise man above the muddled feelings and impulses of his everyday humanity, and to make him a god-like observer of human existence.
                  Colin Wilson 
                  Introduction to the New                                         Existentialism (1966)
Man’s capacity to doubt is his greatest dignity.
                  Colin Wilson 
                  Necessary Doubt (1964)
Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.
                   Paul Tillich, Theologian 
                   Systematic Theology (Vol. 2, 1957)

       On December 5, 2013 author Colin Wilson died in his native England. 

       Collin Wilson was an enigma -- one of the most prolific and yet least-known authors of our time. Wilson burst into literary prominence in 1956 with his book The Outsider, the introduction to his “new existentialism,” written in longhand by Wilson at a table in the British Museum at a time when he was living in a sleeping bag on the streets of London. The book was heralded by critics as a seminal work and the author, a mere 24, was famous. Over 100 books later, at the age of 82, Wilson died in what some would view as literary obscurity. His death went almost completely unnoticed in the United States. I am unaware of a single obituary that ran this side of the Atlantic. 

       Wilson wrote his 100-odd books during a career that spanned nearly 60 years. And it is hard to imagine an author who mastered and wrote in more genres than Wilson. His works include a multi-volume series on his “new existentialism” that followed publication of The Outsider. But his work also encompasses science fiction novels, including the 1967 cult classic The Mind Parasites, biographies of historical figures as disparate as George Bernard Shaw and Abraham Maslow, and in-depth analyses of murder, sexuality, the Lost City of Atlantis, mysticism, and the occult, to mention but a few. While the genres of Wilson’s works defy any general characterization, there is a shared theme. Whether Colin Wilson was writing non-fiction or fiction his works uniformly provided a vehicle for Wilson to share his views on humanity and the power of human intellect to pull each of us up by our own bootstraps. Each of his books had a message; the take-away for the reader was the growing understanding of Wilson’s life view. 

       Colin Wilson also wrote mysteries, which I devoured. But that is not where I first encountered his works. That story reaches back 45 years. 

       1969 was a strange year for many reasons. It was not so much a watershed year -- that was 1968 -- but it had the crazy momentum of the first year that followed the 1968 watershed. During 1969 I was a student at George Washington University in downtown Washington, D.C.  Ground zero in the anti-war movement. 1969 was a year that inexorably pushed everyone toward extremes:  love it or leave it; change it or lose it. I remember participating in anti-war marches in front of the Nixon White House when members of my fraternity, who were also members of the National Guard, were lined up along the sidewalks with rifles, not trained on me, but still ready, as I marched past them. It was a time to draw lines. Either; or. 

       1969 was also a strange year on a much more personal level. In the Spring my roommate David Schlachter began experiencing increasingly bad headaches. For weeks he brushed these off. We were young at a time when youth had never seemed younger or more powerful. But eventually ignoring was no longer possible. David began to see double. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor, given (“given,” what a strange word) scant months to live. 

       I was away for a long weekend when David was diagnosed. Another friend, Frank DeMarco, had access to his uncle’s beach house in Avalon, New Jersey. And that’s where we were. We received the news about David upon our return.

     About the same time Frank stumbled onto The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson. He knew nothing about Wilson but, for whatever reason, was tempted by the book’s cover when he saw it for sale in a drug store. Frank was transfixed by the book, which is a clever (Wilson was always clever) science fiction send-up (and pastiche) that walks an amazingly thin line between parodying and worshiping the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Like all of Wilson's works, the book is also more than just "that science fiction story."  It is a story told in the trappings of Wilson’s philosophy of life, a philosophy of human enlightenment, of the powers of the mind over the failings of the body. 

       What more opportune time to discover Wilson than at this juncture -- when Frank and I were each starkly confronting the perils facing our friend? 

       Frank recommended the book to me and I read and liked it. But for Frank the book’s message was, I think, more. It was transformational. At a time when we were grappling with the imminent death of a mutual friend a story that offered up a philosophy of transcendence, a path to spiritual powers that were not bound by the mortal limits of flesh and bone, was seductive. 

       I began visiting the library and checking out other Colin Wilson’s books. And while The Mind Parasites did not grab me as tenaciously as it had Frank, the Colin Wilson book that did was Necessary Doubt

     No surprise, Necessary Doubt is a mystery. But, like The Mind Parasites, it is also more. The protagonist (and detective) is a theologian, Zweig, who is modeled after the real-life theologian Paul Tillich. This appealed to me. I was minoring in religious studies and already admired Tillich, a theologian who stood somewhat “existentially” aside from his church -- somewhat of an outsider, looking in. One of Tillich’s (and Zweig’s) philosophical tenets was that to truly believe something one must first doubt it and then explore the factors that underlie that doubt. In effect, Tillich (and Zweig) argue, belief can be found only at the top of a step ladder of doubt. Zweig approaches the mystery in Necessary Doubt as would Tillich -- doubting each step, each conclusion, doubting always until convinced. 

       David, a senior when he was diagnosed, managed to graduate from George Washington University and returned to his parents’ home in Clarinda, Iowa. Months later, back in Washington, D.C., in February of 1970, we received a late night call telling us that David was hospitalized and not likely to survive the night. With little thought (and even less money) Frank and I walked out of our fraternity house shortly after hanging up the phone, got into Frank’s car and headed west. We were convinced (and we were right) that David would wait for us before taking his leave. 

       What followed was a surreal 20 hour drive from Washington, D.C. to Clarinda, Iowa. Like all surreal experiences it is hard to remember precisely what went on in that car but a lot of it involved Colin Wilson and searching the AM bandwidth for Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Waters

       In The Mind Parasites the protagonist discovers, and then embraces, a life view that the mind is capable of nearly everything, and that life never really ends, in other words the belief
that the mind is beyond the accidents of the body, that it is somehow eternal and free; that the body may be trivial and particular, but the mind is universal and general. This attitude makes the mind an eternal spectator, beyond fear.
       Frank and I were with David when he died early on March 2, 1970. The days that we were together on that awful winter journey Frank and I pondered -- perhaps the better word is debated -- life. The sacred and the profane. Do we each carry the spark of sacred immortality, the ability to transcend flesh and bone, or are we simply profane electric mud? And these discussions, at base, involved a mutual examination of Colin Wilson’s views, as expressed in his fiction as well as his non-fiction. We were pretty much Colin Wilson neophytes at that stage, and I pretty much remained so. But not Frank. Frank went on to seek out, and then meet Wilson, and the two knew each other, and were friends, for the rest of Wilson’s life. 

       Frank has recounted his discovery of Colin Wilson and has written about that trip of ours to and from Iowa in his book Muddy Tracks: Exploring an Unsuspected Reality. I occasionally pop up in the book, but you will have to watch carefully -- I’m an unnamed character. Traveling incognito. Here is Frank, in chapter one, describing, in the third person, his 1970 Colin Wilson epiphany:
Colin Wilson's books gave him an opening he could believe in: the development of mental powers! The achievement of supernatural abilities, paranormal skills! He didn't know whether he could believe in them or not, but here was a writer who was investigating reports of such things, and doing so from a point of view quite similar to his own: open and inquiring, yet skeptical and wanting to make sense of it all, rather than merely accepting someone's word for it.
       In a world of full circles, the foreword to Frank’s book was written by none other than Colin Wilson. Here is part of what Wilson himself said about Frank’s transformative experiences that winter 44 years ago:
My own work had played a part in [Frank DeMarco’s] development (as [he] described in the first chapter), which is how I come to be writing this introduction. It helped to crystallize his own feeling that there is something oddly wrong with “this life,” and that there has to be some alternative, some other way.
        Frank may chime in on his own here. He's an in internet presence, has his own blog, and has continued to write extensively there about Colin Wilson. As for me, I often reflect on that February trip, 44 years ago. The philosophical perspectives of Colin Wilson obviously spoke deeply to Frank in a life changing way, and from the works of Wilson and the experience of our friend’s death, 44 years ago last Sunday, Frank, I think, found his life view. 

       That trip was also a watershed point in Frank and my friendship. We remain friends to this day, but we were never again to be the really close friends that we were when we piled into Frank's car and headed west that February night to be with David. And the reason for this, too, can be found in Colin Wilson’s writings. Frank made the jump intuitively to Colin Wilson. 

       My embrace was more limited. I am Zweig. I am still climbing that ladder of Necessary Doubt

03 March 2014

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire


by Fran Rizer

Some of the fiction writers I know claim that we are "licensed to lie."  Today I'm giving you the opportunity to tell when I'm fibbing and when I'm not.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read the following accounts of four events that happened at my book signings and choose the one that did not happen.  Three of them are true.  The first person to correctly identify the false event will receive a copy of Callie's latest: A Corpse Under the Christmas Tree.

THE MINK COAT

At a book signing for Callie's Christmas book last November, I looked up and saw the retired secretary from a school where I taught over twenty-five years ago.  I immediately jumped up and hugged her before I saw that her son stood behind her with a garment bag.  I had lent the mink coat my mother-in-law gave me to the secretary.  I transferred schools and the years passed.  The secretary (now retired) said she saw an interview with me in Free Times that gave info about the signing so she wanted to buy the new book, have her copies of the others autographed, and return my coat. The owner of the book store said that's the first time ever that a fan brought an author a mink coat to a signing in that store.  The only problem is that I'm afraid if I wear it anywhere, the PETA people will get me!

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?      

I decided to share this with you after reading Rob's column on February 19th about carrying the same characters into a new work. Recently, a Callie fan approached me at a signing and wanted to know why that same Free Times interview mentioned above said that I was working on something very different and would not be writing another Callie anytime soon, if ever.  This writer wanted to know if I would be okay with his writing a Callie following the Christmas story, using the same characters, setting, and hopefully voice.  I would, of course, have the option of Callicizing the voice where necessary and nixing anything that went against the established personalities and habits of the characters. Feeling a little like James Patterson (a very little), I said, "Yes."  

MY YOUNGEST FUTURE FAN



Same book signing:  My orthopedic surgeon's nurse showed up with a beautiful little girl.  Linda introduced the child as her ten-year-old grand-daughter Abigail who was visiting her and wanted to come with her to meet "a real author."  Abigail loves to read and likes to write stories.  To make a long story short, Linda bought Abigail a Callie book with the stipulation that they give it to Abigail's mother to determine when she will be allowed to read it.  The next time I saw Linda at the doctor's office, she told me that Abigail took a picture of her with me to "Show and Tell." The youngest readers before Abigail have been thirteen-year-olds. 

SOMEONE ELSE' S STORY

A red-haired woman approached me at a book-signing a year ago.  I expected her to ask me to autograph a Callie book.  Instead, she asked me to write a book for her.  I went into my usual spiel that she would do a better job of putting her story on paper than I would, but we agreed to meet in the coffee shop after the signing.  Writers are frequently approached to write or co-write someone else's story.  Most of the time, we decline politely, but there was something about this woman that made me hesitate to dismiss her so quickly

Upon a Midnight is Julie Bates's story, and it's like nothing I've written before.  Julie and I wound up together many days as I made notes and recordings, and since then I've spent countless nights alone with my computer, scaring myself as I wrote Julie's story from her point of view.  It's scheduled for release in about twelve months. 


Okay, dear readers, cast your vote for the false anecdote in the comments section.  I'll notify the winner how to send me a mailing address for your prize.


Until we meet again, take care of… you!

02 March 2014

Women in Mystery History


women of mystery
by Leigh Lundin

As part of Women’s History Month, this is also Women in Literature Month, and of particular interest to our genre, Women in Mystery Month as well. Today, you’ll find a bit of history and mystery.

Who’s Counting?

I was surprised when I initially joined Sisters-in-Crime to hear women were largely underrepresented in the mystery genre. I say surprised because I read more women authors than men with a strong liking for British women writers. I grew up with Agatha Christie and loved Dorothy Sayers. In my Criminal Brief and SleuthSayers articles, I often refer to Lindsey Davis, who writes the Falco series. I read all of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books and although Elizabeth Peters isn’t English, I very much enjoy her Ramses series.

Here at home, I’ve read something by each of our Criminal Brief and SleuthSayers women authors and enjoyed them all. I’m so pleased we have such talent in house! We could not have done better! Moreover, it may not be obvious to the outside world, but to my knowledge, all of us male SleuthSayers are fans of Liz, Jan, Fran, Eve, and Janice.

My teacher friend Deborah is a major consumer of romance thrillers and she argued S-in-C was wrong. According to the RWA, if one includes crossover romances or romance novels ‘with mystery elements’, then female crime writers considerably outnumber male authors!

Mystery Elements

The definition of the difference is that in ‘pure’ mysteries, the central focus of the novel is a crime and its solution. In romance with mystery elements, a crime is a plot device to move the central relationship.

I sampled a few of the top authors in this latter genre and one thing drove me crazy. You’ll often hear arguments about ‘women in peril’. Such gnashing of teeth is futile because guys like being heroic and women like heroic guys. (It’s a case of being simultaneously correct and politically incorrect.) But in romance thrillers, the heroine more often than not places herself in deadly peril. Yaaargh.

In one such case, a hired killer stalks a female photographer. A guy ('the romantic interest') is hired to keep her safe, but she finds inventive ways to throw herself into the path of danger. In an effort to flee her protector, she magically ‘hot wires’ their only transportation and abruptly drives the vehicle into a ditch. At that moment, I was hoping the killer would succeed.

In another series, the hybristophiliac heroine starts out in pursuit of another hit man but, convinced he’s a sensitive, misunderstood soul who just happens to kill people, she falls in love and cultivates a 'relationship'. (In case of nausea, air-sickness bags are located in the seat pocket in front of you.) Some of you begin to understand why I prefer pure mystery and crime.

American Mystery History

Almost everyone is aware of that mistress of suspense, Mary Roberts Rinehart, who published her first mystery in 1908, more than a dozen years before Agatha Christie. You can’t be a fan of classic crime or classic movies without encountering that great lady. But I draw your attention to two far earlier mystery novelists.

Metta Victoria Fuller Victor
Metta Victoria Fuller Victor (1831-1885), along with her sister Frances, began writing at a tender age in the 1840s. She is credited with writing the first American crime novel in 1866, The Dead Letter, which blazed the way for paranormal mysteries. Writing under her nom de plume of Seeley Regester, she followed with another occult mystery in 1869, The Figure Eight.

Although she wrote poetry and edited a cultural periodical, The Cosmopolitan Art Journal, she became best known for 'dime novels' in the sense of modern day paperbacks, including moralistic dramas and westerns. Her 1862 abolitionist 'romance' novel, Maum Guinea and Her Plantation 'Children' or Holiday-Week on a Louisiana Plantation: a Slave Romance, became her best known, even drawing the attention of President Lincoln. Her supportive husband, author and publisher Orville James Victor, brought her works to the American public.

Anna Katharine Green
Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935) is slightly better known and I occasionally find myself reading one or another of her stories, thanks to Louis Willis. She also was blest with a supportive husband, Charles Rohlfs, who brought some of her stories to the stage, including her 1878 The Leavenworth Case, which is considered one of her best.

She’s known for a number of firsts, such as the first series detective, the first spinster detective, the first girl detective, and I suggest another first. She created the prototype for that terribly popular (and popularly terrible) television show, Charlie’s Angels.

The detective in this case is Miss Violet Strange, a society deb, who not only has intricate access to haut monde, but is brainy as well. Her agency ‘employer’ appreciates that about her and sends her on tasks where she’s usually over-appreciated and underestimated. Those oh-so-thin seventies 'jiggle' television plots could have learned much from her.

So guys, if one weekend you find yourself without a woman, then grab a woman author. Enjoy one of those bits of history, but especially consider Eve, Fran, Jan, Liz, and Janice. You’ll be glad you did.

01 March 2014

Giving Credit to the Editors




by John M. Floyd


I once heard a fellow writer say she had an "epic editor." Assuming she didn't mean "the editor of an epic," I like the term. I could probably use epic, as in "heroic" or "grand," to describe some of the magazine and anthology editors I've worked with in the past twenty years. (Well, heroic might be a stretch, but you get my drift. Worked with is also debatable; in many cases they were merely kind enough to publish what I wrote.)

Twenty years, though, is accurate. The first short story I ever submitted was accepted in January 1994, and appeared in Mystery Time magazine. Editor Linda Hutton is retired now, but she did me a huge favor: she taught me that selling short crime/suspense stories was at least possible. She enclosed a five-dollar bill in the envelope with the acceptance letter, and I remember staring at it as if I'd been handed the Hope Diamond. I went on to publish something in every issue of Mystery Time for the next eight years.

Editor indebtedness

Linda was the first of a number of editors I've come in contact with, and they've taught me a lot. Some of them I never knew well, but others became advisors and even friends. And I can honestly say most were professional and fair in their dealings with writers. Here are some editors, in no particular order, who were or have been extremely kind to me:


Margo Power, Murderous Intent
Andrew McAleer, Crimestalker Casebook
Linda Landrigan, AHMM
Marcia Preston, Byline Magazine
Babs Lakey, Futures
John Hart, Amazon Shorts
Andrew Gulli, The Strand Magazine
Darlene Poier, Pages of Stories
Tony Burton, Wolfmont Press anthologies
Ginger Johnson, Detective Mystery Stories
Janet Hutchings, EQMM
Sherri Armel, Red Herring Mystery Magazine
Johnene Granger, Woman's World
B. J. Bourg, Mouth Full of Bullets
Charity Bishop, Prairie Times
Philip Levin, Gulf Coast anthologies
Patrick Perry, The Saturday Evening Post
Donna Bowman, Short Stuff for Grown-ups
Sandra Ruttan, Spinetingler Magazine
Joseph DeMarco, Mysterical-E
Andrew Perkins, Grit
Jay Hartman, Untreed Reads
Richard Heagy, Orchard Press Mysteries
Cheri Jung, Over My Dead Body
Marvin Kaye, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine

At least half a dozen of those publications are no longer around, but I'm thinking Rob, Janice, Eve, Herschel, and others might remember them.

Letters from the editors

I was asked not long ago if I'd had any interesting experiences in dealing with magazine editors. I could think of only a few, because I try hard not to annoy editors, and when they tell me to do something I just salute and do it. Here are some unusual things that I do recall:


- A few months after I sold Andy McAleer a story for Crimestalker, he suggested that we collaborate on a mystery short. He wrote the first half and I wrote the second, and he immediately submitted it to AHMM under both our names. It was rejected even more immediately.

- Johnene Granger published two of my mysteries in Woman's World with someone else's byline. In fact, it was the same name both times: Elizabeth Hawn. In both instances Johnene phoned me afterward to apologize for the error, but since I'd been paid for the stories I didn't mind. I only hope Ms. Hawn, whoever she is, liked them.

- Loren Logsdon, then editor of Eureka Literary Magazine, wrote in an acceptance letter that the ending to the story I'd sent them was "the best she and her staff had seen in years." After publishing it, they rejected everything else I ever sent them.

- Linda Hutton of Mystery Time once asked me to change the expression "he cut his eyes at her" in one of my submissions to her magazine. She said she'd never heard that phrase before and figured readers hadn't either. I just cut my eyes at my wife, changed the sentence to "he gave her a sneaky look," and all was well.

- Andrew Gulli of The Strand once phoned me to ask where I'd gotten the name of the poison I'd used to kill the villain in a story I'd submitted to him (actually, the first story I ever sold to them). I told him I'd made it up. He paused for what I thought was a frighteningly long time, then said, "Okay."

- The late Cathleen Jordan, the editor of AHMM before Linda Landrigan, once published three of my stories in a period of four months (the March, May, and June 1999 issues). After celebrating--and telling myself that maybe I'd found the goose that laid the golden egg--I received at least a dozen AH rejections in a row.

- Last year I received a contract by mistake from Janet Hutchings at EQMM for something someone else had written. Unlike many of my SleuthSayers colleagues, I usually receive only rejections from EQ, so it was especially hard to make myself confess to her that I was not the lucky (and deserving) party.



For the writers among us, what are some of your experiences with editors, agents, publishers, etc.? Have you found most of them to be pleasant? Knowledgable? Accessible? Demanding? Who are/were some of your favorites?

Your wish is my command . . .

Anytime I get into a discussion like this, I'm reminded of the old saying, "Most editors are failed writers--but then again, so are most writers." I love that quote. I think it's also a reminder that editors and other head freds in the publishing world, revered though they might be, are just regular people like you and me. They have their own preferences, faults, and pet peeves.

And as long as they guard the gates that I'm trying to pass through, I will indeed salute, click my heels, and do what they tell me.




28 February 2014

Bouchercon Workshop


by R.T. Lawton


Bouchercon 2014 is coming up in November. This time, the location is Long Beach, California. For those of you who haven't been to one of these mystery conferences yet, I would definitely recommend attending at least one, and Long Beach might just be the Bouchercon to go to. For those of you who have already attended one of these conferences, you know what I'm talking about. So far, I've gone to those which were held in Austin, Las Vegas, Madison, Indianapolis, San Francisco and St. Louis. I've always met interesting people at these gatherings, plus it's a great venue for networking.

And yes, I will be at the Long Beach Bouchercon. Conference Director Ingrid Willis asked me to put on my Surveillance Workshop. In the past, it's been performed at a Left Coast Crime Conference (Denver), two Mystery Writers of America chapter outings and two Pikes Peak Writers Conferences. And, each time I have been amazed at how good some of the civilian attendees have conducted themselves at this type of endeavor, plus how much fun they have while doing it.

So now, you're wondering how this works and if you should get involved in it. You get two choices; sit in on the lectures or become a player in the game of spies, law enforcement and targets to see and feel what it's actually like. I say register early and join one of the surveillance teams. Here's a rough outline of what the workshop entails.

It's scheduled for Thursday of the conference week. Six to eight celebrity authors are being selected by the Bouchercon Committee as rabbits. Some authors have already been chosen and/or have volunteered. At least two of them I'm aware of have been rabbits in previous workshops, so they should be pretty good at this. On Thursday morning, I will brief the rabbits and have their photos taken and their descriptions written down.

In early afternoon, there will be a one-hour session for any conference attendee who wishes to sit in on the class. During that presentation, they will learn about conducting foot surveillance in teams of four to six people per team. Thirty to forty plus of those class attendees (according to whatever selection process the committee uses) will then be formed into surveillance teams. Each team will receive a street map of the playing area, a description and photo of their rabbit, plus the starting point of their rabbit.

That afternoon at the designated time, the game is on. For one hour, each team has to follow their rabbit on foot through the city streets and businesses. In case they somehow lose their rabbit, each team leader will have my cell phone number so I can tell them where they can relocate their subject at fifteen minute intervals.

At a social hour that evening, there will be a debriefing of team captains on the surveillance results and happenings. Anyone can attend the debrief. This is when funny stories come out on who did what and how various players tried to keep from being burned by their targets. Some players find they can be pretty innovative when they get put on the spot.

So, for an entertaining and fun learning experience come on over to Long Beach for the 2014 Bouchercon. You'll be glad you did. Be sure to sit in on the surveillance lecture and debrief, whether you play the game or not.

See you there in November.

27 February 2014

Tales Around the Fireside


by Eve Fisher

I am a short story writer.  Yes, I've written two novels, one (The Best is Yet to Be) as part of the Guideposts mystery series, "Mystery and the Minister's Wife", the other a sci-fi/fantasy piece that is still sitting in my closet.  I've written plays.  I used to write songs for myself and, later, a Southern rock-and-roll band called "Fantasy's Hand." (Those were fun days...)  But what I really feel most comfortable with is short stories.

I think a lot of this comes from my childhood.  I was an only child, and my parents were 40 when they adopted me; everyone around me was (it seemed) at least 40 years older than me, and back then children were expected to keep their mouths shut and just be there while the adults talked, talked, talked.  Luckily for me, most of them were storytellers.  A story, told in the night, to make you sigh or smile or shiver...  still pretty much the ideal.
File:Johncollier80.jpg
John Collier

And I like reading short stories.  I don't understand why so few magazines carry short stories anymore.  Why there are so few short-story magazines.  (Especially considering that attention spans seem to be growing shorter and shorter all the time, but that's another rant.)  I love them.  And some of the finest writing anywhere has been done in that format.  Here are my picks for some of the greatest short story writers:

John Collier.  "Fancies and Goodnights" contains some of his best work.  (It won the Edgar Award in 1962.)  Read "Bottle Party" to find out what really happens with a genie in the bottle.  "The Chaser" - on how tastes change over time.  "If Youth Knew What Age Could"... One of my favorites, "The Lady on the Grey."  And on and on.  Many of his stories were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected.  He also wrote screenplays (including "Sylvia Scarlett", [uncredited] "The African Queen", and "I am A Camera"), and a couple of novels of which my favorite is the mordant, devilish, unforgettable "His Monkey Wife."

File:Ray Bradbury (1975) -cropped-.jpgRay Bradbury.  There are not enough words in the English language to praise his amazing output of short stories.  From "The Fruit in the Bottom of the Bowl" to "I Sing the Body Electric," "April Witch" to "The Veldt", "A Sound of Thunder" to the heartbreaking "There Will Come Soft Rains", "Dark They Were and Golden Eyed", the whole body of "The Martian Chronicles", and on and on, I gobbled each and every one of his stories I could get my hands on. His work inspired me, amazed me, touched me...  couldn't get enough of it. And he was primarily a short-story writer:  aside from "Fahrenheit 451", his other novels didn't really gel for me.  ("The Martian Chronicles" is a collection of short stories, with a narration in between.)  He showed what could be done in the medium of short fiction.  And, of course, he was a regular writer for "Twilight Zone" and other TV shows...

File:The Letter poster.jpg
Somerset Maugham.  One of the few who could write both great novels, and great short stories.  "The Letter" - made into film twice, most notably with Bette Davis as the cool and collected murderess.  "The Lotus Eater" - when Paradise runs out...  "Red" - what really happens when you look up your old childhood sweetheart...  "The Luncheon" - never ask questions you can't take the answer to...  The hilarious "Three Fat Women of Antibes", "The Vessel of Wrath", "The Verger"...  and, of course, the "Ashenden" series which practically began secret agent stories.  (Alfred Hitchcock combined "The Hairless Mexican" and "The Traitor" into the 1936 movie "Secret Agent" with John Gielgud and Peter Lorre.) Seriously, his short stories are like popcorn at the movies - once I start reading them (I have a four-volume set), I can't quit until I've worked my way through...  way too many.
File:Edgar Allan Poe daguerreotype crop.png
Poe

File:Lovecraft1934.jpg
Lovecraft
File:ShirleyJack.jpg
Jackson
H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Shirley Jackson.  And how do you want to be scared today, my precious?  My sweets?  By many-tentacled horrors from beyond space, or by crumbling ruins of decay and death, or the quiet malevolence of a quiet house or neighborhood? By the breathing darkness or that strange emptiness?  By the sudden creak or that high whistle in the depths?  Any of these will leave you wondering what's really going on next door, when you'll be able to turn the lights off again, and what is that sound in the closet or over head or under the floor...

File:Conan doyle.jpgArthur Conan Doyle.  Let us never forget that 90% of the Memoirs of Dr. John H. Watson about his inimitable companion, Sherlock Holmes, are short stories. We all have our favorites.  (Sadly, the relentless reinterpretations of Holmes and Adler have reduced my pleasure in "A Scandal in Bohemia".)  Among mine are "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches", "The Speckled Band", "The Greek Interpreter", "The Devil's Foot", and "The Norwood Builder".  I have spent many a rainy afternoon curled up in a couch with a hot cup of tea and my father's one-volume "Complete Works", reading, reading, reading, time travelling to Victorian/Edwardian London, as Sherlock Holmes - the world's only private consulting detective - solves case after case after case...  Ah...  Excuse me, I have some reading to do...

NOTE:  These are, of course, only a few of the many tremendous short-story writers I've read.  Flannery O'Connor, Guy de Maupassant, Rudyard Kipling, Roald Dahl, Daphne du Maurier ("The Birds", yes - but never forget "The Little Photographer"), Nikolai Gogol  and Anton Chekhov, Ursula LeGuin and Isaac Asimov, and so many of my esteemed colleagues...  I really do have some reading to do!

26 February 2014

The Dying of the Light


by David Edgerley Gates

I was put in mind of this by a photograph my pal Jack Hrusoff posted on FaceBook. I took it to be Alaska, but it turns out to be Patagonia. The ends of the earth are all too familiar. I asked Jack if he'd read the Bruce Chatwin book, which it turns out he had, at which point my thoughts went South, so to speak.

Chatwin doesn't fit into any easy category, as a writer. He was a traveler, and IN PATAGONIA and THE SONGLINES are travel books, of a sort, but more in the tradition of an eccentric like Robert Byron, and Chatwin himself was a big fan of Patrick Leigh Fermor. THE VICEROY OF OUIDAH is more curious, still, because it's a novel, more or less, but in fact a kind of masquerade. It's about the slave trade in West Africa in the early 19th century, and a very thinly disguised retelling of the life of Felix de Sousa, a Brazilian trafficker in Dahomey, whose career was colorful enough without making any of it up. This was an issue that dogged Chatwin, that he didn't spoil a good story for lack of the facts, and his accounts of both Patagonia and the Australian aborigines were later disputed. That might explain why he chose to call THE VICEROY fiction, so he didn't have to defend his inventions, but it falls between two stools, and ends up feeling incomplete. It's the least satisfying of his books.

Chatwin wasn't above inventing himself, for that matter. He died of AIDS, when he was 48, but he concealed the fact of his illness, and told conflicting stories about it. One could imagine AIDS was simply too generic. He said, for instance, that he'd contracted some weird fungal infection in the wilds of Africa, unknown to modern medicine, or that he was bitten by a Chinese bat.


The sadder aspect of this, aside from self-denial, is that Chatwin was taken over the coals, in some quarters, for not admitting what had actually sickened him. Rock Hudson, when he was dying of AIDS, went public, and used it as a platform, to educate people. This was honorable, and took a lot of balls, on Hudson's part, but why should anybody demand Chatwin turn himself into a poster boy? He was unresponsive to treatment, and suffering from dementia, for openers. It can't have been easy.

The larger point is that we deserve some privacy, at the end of our lives. Dying is a lonely enough
business as it is. Oscar Wilde once remarked, "biography lends death a new terror." Me personally, I can forgive Chatwin his embroideries and evasions. His life was purpose enough, and I don't think he had any obligation to provide an example. The real question is whether we've left something that will live after us.

25 February 2014

Something in the Water


by Terence Faherty

P.G. Wodehouse
In earlier posts, I've mentioned my admiration for two writers:  P.G. Wodehouse, the great humorist and creator of Bertie Wooster, and Raymond Chandler, one of the founders of the hard-boiled private eye school and the creator of Philip Marlowe.  I proudly claim both as influences on my own humble writing.  At first glance, Wodehouse and Chandler would seem to have little in common (besides me).  But there are interesting parallels.  Both men wrote popular fiction for a wide audience but attracted their share of admirers in ivy-covered halls.  Both were wonderful prose stylists, admired by the likes of Evelyn Waugh, despite the handicap of never having set foot inside a university.  And, speaking of schools, both went to the same one at almost the same time. 

Raymond Chandler
Seriously?  The very British and frivolous Wodehouse and the very American and serious Chandler at the same school?  Yes, Dulwich College, outside London, England.  In spite of the college part of its name, Dulwich (pronounced dull itch) is a public school (pronounced private school), a very exclusive prep school.  It was founded in 1619 by Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe's favorite actor, Edward Alleyn.  Wodehouse arrived in 1894 and stayed until 1900.  Chandler arrived in 1900 and stayed until 1905.  So they might have just missed one another, if Wodehouse departed at the end of the spring term and Chandler arrived at the start of the fall term.  (In Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, edited by Frank MacShane, the mystery writer mentions Wodehouse, but doesn't say whether they'd met.) 

Dulwich College
Was there something in the Dulwich water that stimulated great prose writing?  Was there a particular headmaster or a teacher on the staff who inspired and encouraged these two students?  I'd love to know.  If there's a doctoral candidate out there who's stuck for a thesis topic, he or she should snag this one, delve deeply into the subject, and report back to me.  As an added inducement to potential deep delvers, here are some additional  parallels between the two men.

Both were separated from one or both parents at an early age.  Wodehouse was farmed out to boarding schools and relatives in England while his parents lived overseas.  Chandler and his mother were deserted by his father.  The pair moved to England in part because Chandler's mother hoped to educate her son more cheaply there.  After Dulwich, both men tried conventional jobs, Wodehouse in banking and Chandler in civil service, and both soon quit to try journalism.  Wodehouse made a success of that and honed his prose style while contributing to various papers and magazines.  Chandler didn't; he returned to America, worked his way up in the oil industry and only returned to writing when he lost his job due to the Depression (and his drinking).  He then honed his own prose style writing for pulp magazines.

Both men tried their hands at screenwriting in Hollywood, with varying degrees of success.  Both married but neither had children.  Wodehouse loved mysteries and had fairly catholic tastes, enjoying Edgar Wallace, Ngaio Marsh (whose Inspector Alleyn spelled his name the same way as Dulwich's Edward Alleyn), Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Arthur Conan Doyle.  But then, mysteries were an escape for Wodehouse, not being his bread and butter.  They weren't an escape for Chandler, and he tended to be critical of other mystery writers, especially Golden Age writers like Christie.

C.S. Forester
In a recent post, I mentioned my love of coincidences.  While researching this brief column, I ran into another one.  Around the same time I was snubbing Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in favor of Wodehouse and Chandler, another of my favorite writers was C.S. Forester, author of the Horatio Hornblower series, among many other popular novels (including some fairly noir crime stories).  No points for guessing where Forester spent his prep school days.  Yep, good old Dulwich, from 1915 to 1916.

I wish now that during my one and only trip to England I'd stopped by Dulwich and tried the local water.  It couldn't have hurt. 

24 February 2014

My Unusual but Happy Birthday



Jan Grape

by Jan Grape


Have to say, most people don't make too big a deal about birthdays. Mine has to have a special mention. Not because I'll be sixty-fifteen on the twenty-eighth of February, this coming Friday, but because the 28th of Feb. has been extra special since I was nine years old.

When I was seven my mother remarried, she had first been married to my father, Tom Barrow. They divorced when I was three. In 1946, she married Charles King Pierce. Mother, Iva "Pee Wee" Pierce was 25 years old and Daddy Charlie was 35. He had been in World War 11 and they met and corresponded for several months and when he came home, they were married. The three of us went to live in Post, Texas, forty miles southeast of Lubbock, nestled under the Cap Rock formed by the Llano Estacado.  A small town founded by C.W. Post of the cereal fame. He originally had hoped to build his fortune there but the climate was too dry and he moved to Battle Creek, MI where he did well.

Post didn't have a hospital anymore in 1948, but mother had an excellent doctor who would deliver her baby at home. On the evening of February 27th, the parents somehow knew the baby was due to be born so I was sent to my friend, Toni's house down the street two houses and around the corner three houses. The plan was I would come home the next day after the little boy or little girl was born. This was back in the days when sonograms hadn't even been discovered so no one knew the baby's sex before hand.

In the middle of the night the whole household where I was were all awakened by an excited pounding on the door. It was Daddy Charlie telling us my baby sister had arrived and he wanted me to come home immediately and see her. I found my clothes but couldn't find my shoes, I was so excited. Daddy Charlie, said, "Never mind I'll carry you." And he did; down the street, around the corner and to our house.

He actually carried me inside and set me down in the bedroom. My mother was in a bed, looking a bit tired but pleased. I was encouraged to look in the bassinette. I looked and thought I was looking at a baby doll, but it was my little sister. She had big brown eyes and was looking at me as if to say, "Hi there. I'm hoping you're my big sister."

Mother, her words a little strange because she was coming out of her pain medicine said, "Happy Birthday, Janice. This is your new baby sister, Sharla." (It wasn't until I graduated from High School and started X-ray School in Ft. Worth, living with my father and step-mother, that I shortened my name to Jan. I thought it went better with Barrow.)

Wow, a baby sister for my birthday. What a birthday present. Okay, that makes February 28 fairly special in my house. Yet, maybe not anything too unusual.

So this is where things turn extraordinary. Two years later, in 1950, please look at the scenario once more. My mother in once again expecting a baby. I'm eleven years old and Sharla is two. We still don't have a hospital, but Dr. Kahler is still taking care of mother and will deliver her baby at our house. Once again, I'm spending the night with my friend Toni, the night of February 28th. I don't think any of us went to sleep, we somehow expected news shortly. A few minutes after midnight, Daddy Charles came after me. This time I quickly dressed and put on my shoes. Good thing because I was almost too big to carry. Same bedroom, same bassinette, a little baby sister. Mother and Daddy Charles said, "Happy birthday, Janice. This is your second birthday present, your little sister Patsy." Yep, she had actually been born about three minutes before midnight on the 28th.

I don't remember what the odds are that three girls would be born to the same mother on the same day, although the age difference was obvious. Birthdays in our house were fun. Mother somehow managed to have our parties on the same day, but once that one was over she didn't have to worry
about birthdays for the remainder of the year.

A few years later, my mother's younger sister had her second child on February 28th. She called my mother and said, "You thought you had a monopoly on February 28th. That made four out of five grandchildren (on mother's side) with the same birthday. Any mathematician want the figure out the odds on that?

I love my birthday and my sisters, we don't have the chance to all be together on February 28th, but sometimes we can and when we do, it's extra special.

Next post: back to writing.



Patsy, Janice, Sharla, Easter-1951



Birthday: 1955,  Patsy's fifth birthday
Sharla's seventh birthday
Janice's sixteenth birthday

23 February 2014

Two More From “The Dead Witness”


by Louis Willis

The Parody
For this post, I read two more interesting stories from the Dead Witness anthology. One is a Sherlock Holmes parody , and the other involves a missing body part.
I sometimes have difficulty recognizing parodies because I’m too serious and tend to over analyze. But, through “inductive and reductive ratiocination,” I had no trouble recognizing Bret Harte’s “The Stolen Cigar-Case” as a parody of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the greatest cerebral detective who ever lived, greater even than that master of ratiocination, C. Auguste Dupin. What tipped me off you might ask. The name of Hart’s detective: Hemlock Jones. Sherlock is a perceptive person. Hemlock is a poison that was used to execute criminals (and of course to kill Socrates). Hemlock Jones is poison to criminals. And Jones rhymes with Holmes. 
The story is a parody of the Holmes/Dupin method of “inductive and reductive ratiocination.” Hemlock Jones accuses the narrator (his Watson) of stealing his cigar-case and proceeds to present the evidence that without a doubt proves the narrator is the culprit. Jones is so convincing that, after the narrator left and never saw him again, he “often wondered, pondering on that wonderful man’s penetration and insight, if, in some lapse of consciousness, I had not really stolen his cigar-case.”  

The Missing Body Part
I like to read stories in which the title suggests a missing body part, which is why I chose the story “The Mysterious Human Leg” by James McGovan (1845-1919). I wondered how would a 19th century detective find the body, alive or dead, the part belongs to without the aid of forensic science? 
James McGovan was the pen name of William Crawford Honeyman, a professional violinist and orchestra leader who published books on the violin under his real name. In my search for information on Honeyman, under both his real and pen names, neither Google nor Bing was of much help, though Google listed the book How to Play the Violin by William C. Honeyman. Google Books was a little more helpful. From the site, I downloaded a collection of McGovan’s stories, Traced and Tracked: or Memoirs of a City Detective. I found no books on the Gutenberg website under McGovan or Honeyman. I declined Wikipedia’s invitation to create a page for McGovan. All the search engines wanted to change “McGovan” to “McGowan.” 
Searching for information on McGovan/Honeyman, I felt like a detective on the trail of the missing writer. Luck came my way when I visited the Birlinn website and read a review of McGovan’s book The McGovan Casebook: Experiences of a Detective in Victorian Edinburg. The review provides a brief biography, and claims that, although McGovan’s books are mostly forgotten, Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie admired his stories.
McGovan/Honeyman, having no experience in police work, pretended he was a real police detective writing stories about real crimes. The stories were so convincing that in 1888 Publishers’ Circular “proclaimed McGovan’s articles ‘the best detective stories (true stories, we esteem them) that we ever met with.’” But he tells a pretty good story in “The Mysterious Human Leg.” After a young boy brings a left leg full of carpet tacks to him, detective McGovan notices that the leg was expertly cut, suggesting a doctor had performed the surgery. This initial observation leads him to medical student Robert Manson and eventually to the owner of the leg.

Without, I hope, spoiling the ending, my question to the firearm experts is this was it possible in the 19th century to load carpet tacks in any type of firearm and fire them like bullets?

22 February 2014

Is it okay not to win?



by Elizabeth Zelvin

The first few months of the new year are a season of awards and competitions. In the world of mystery and crime fiction, we're waiting to hear who the finalists for the Derringers will be and looking forward to the Edgars and the Agathas. In the general culture, we're recovering from the Superbowl and the Grammys and anticipating the Oscars, which are just around the corner. And the Winter Olympics in Sochi have had most of us riveted to our TVs for the past two weeks.

In American culture, we have a peculiarly ambivalent attitude about being good at something. We adore those with talents and accomplishments, but we expect them to disavow at least some of the pride and pleasure they may feel in their success. And in recent years, we’ve been encouraged to idolize “celebrities” whose visibility has nothing to do with merit or achievement, but rests solely on the accident of their attracting media attention.

I fall somewhere in the middle along that vast continuum between humble, self-effacing saints and narcissists in love with their own importance. For better or worse, I care what people think. In the many years I spent as an unpublished writer, I didn’t exactly doubt my own abilities, but I feared that others would conclude my writing wasn’t good enough.

I learned many valuable life lessons from my mother, an energetic high achiever who went to law school in 1921. My mother faced the world with confidence, no matter what, because she could always say, “I am a lawyer.” Yet she didn’t practice law successfully. Like most of the handful of women lawyers of her generation, she had to find a niche on the sidelines, in her case writing and editing legal books. But so powerful was the illusion created by her sense of her own identity that she was always “my mother the lawyer” to me.

My father, a lawyer too, was one of those crossword puzzle demons who did the Sunday New York Times puzzle in ink every week. When I asked what something meant, he would say, “Look it up.” In those days, this meant not a quick romp through Google but dusting off the Webster’s Unabridged or worse, plodding down the wooden stairs to the cold basement to consult the multi-volume encyclopedia.

In seventh grade, I became a spelling bee champ. We were all natural spellers who played fierce family games of Scrabble when it first came out. I still remember the sense of triumph I felt—I must have been nine or ten—when I gave the correct spelling of “exhilarated” after my mother insisted that middle “a” was an “i” and my dad thought it was an “e.” We settled the argument by looking it up, and I felt—exhilarated.

At my junior high in Queens, we were invited to participate in the National Spelling Bee. It was a big deal back then and is still an annual event that’s covered by the media. Nowadays, they even televise the finals.

I had never had a significant failure in those days. I scored high grades on tests and was praised by teachers, and I did well enough in sports to please my intellectual family. I easily won the seventh grade spelling bee and then the whole school’s, competing against older kids in the eighth and ninth grades. I remember studying long lists of abstruse words with more pleasure than anxiety. Spelling came easily to me: if I’d seen it, I could spell it. I instinctively fell into the pattern of spelling with pauses between syllables to break each word down into manageable parts.

I remember my class breaking into spontaneous applause as I returned to the classroom after winning the schoolwide bee. It had been announced on the PA system. They did the same when I won the competition for the whole school district. Overhauling my paper files, I recently found the newspaper article in which my name was listed—one of only five kids in Queens who qualified—as a participant in the citywide bee. I was proud of my achievement. Why shouldn’t I be?

Then came the New York City bee. Alas, I lost it. I fell afoul of not one of the difficult words I’d studied but a simple one I’d never heard before: “intermittent.” I got that second “e” right, but I failed to double the “t,” and that was it. No trip to Washington DC to compete in the national finals against kids from all over the country. And no applause when I slunk back into the classroom that afternoon.

I’ve never misspelled “intermittent” again.

Since then, life has provided plenty of disappointments and only occasional applause. As a culture, we still love a winner, whether the arena is the Olympics, the Oscars, or the Derringers. There’s even a certain cachet in being nominated for an award or making the finals of a competition. But with so many others clamoring for attention, we’re in trouble if we can’t find self-esteem and validation from within.

21 February 2014

Writing Over the Hump


by Dixon Hill

   Before we begin: I have to apologize for being absent from the Comments section of so many blog posts on SleuthSayers over the past few weeks. I’m afraid I’ve been having a hard time getting online, lately, largely due to computer problems. In fact, I used my daughter’s laptop to post this, today, because I couldn’t get my computer to do it.  (And, I'm afraid, I wasn't permitted to upload pictures for some reason.)  Another culprit, however, is also to blame:

I’ve been riding the rails.

   Not literally, of course. I’ve been riding these rails figuratively. But, though my rides may have been imaginary—emotionally speaking, they felt very real indeed. They also ate a lot of time, but I’m absolutely not complaining.

   I’ve written here in the past, I believe, that writing a story sometimes seems to me, a lot like grabbing hold of a speeding freight train. And that’s what’s been going on.

 For me, sitting down to write is rather analogous to going to the station and trying to catch a train running to a great destination. And, if I’m lucky, it provides a wild ride with highly memorable scenery.

 The station in my imagination isn’t a large one, though. It’s no Grand Central, or Eastern Pacific terminal. Nor is it bustling with a throng of people. It’s a bit less traveled, a bit more rustic, and sort of like the train station in Bad Day at Black Rock.

 When I’m already working on something, I walk in knowing the direction I need to travel and the destination I need to reach. So I check the wall where the schedule is posted, to see if I can find the train I need. If I don’t currently I have a work in progress, my search is less directed and I’m more apt to just check out what’s running that day. In either case, though, I’m not looking for passenger trains, because I have a problem with them.

Problem is: Passenger trains seldom seem to fit the bill. 

 Passenger trains are designed to get people to wonderful destinations, while wrapping them in as much comfort and safety as possible during the journey. That’s just not the sort of story I’m after. Not that stories like that are bad. Long, slow sweeping sagas with vast panoramic vistas and luxurious turns of phrase can be magnificent. But, that’s not what I enjoy doing.

 I’m looking for a story that’s a combination train-ride and roller coaster. It needs to run fast, and direct, stopping or slowing as seldom as possible. It’s okay if the pace slows as the train crawls up a steep mountain grade, but those mountains need to be cruel and foreboding, even threatening. Naturally, this isn’t a route sensible executives would schedule passenger trains on; it’s the sort of route they reserve for pushing freight rapidly from point to point, with an eye on money.

 I also need certain elements to be present for the entire journey, so I can trot them out in the story when I need to—even if I’m currently unsure what those elements should be. Consequently, it helps to know what’s stored in the train cars hooked behind the engine.

 So: I need a train scheduled on a freight route: that’s a freight train. And I need to be sure my chosen freight train is hauling certain cargo. I can check the route schedule on that wall-mounted board in the station. The place to inspect the cargo, however, lies just outside town in a switching yard.  In my head, I have a mental hump yard, and that's not a play on words.

 A hump yard, for those who don’t know, is a type of switching yard used to conserve motive power. When a train comes in, workers uncouple and drive away the engine(s), leaving the cars sitting on the track. Then a small yard engine hooks to the back of the line of freight cars that comprised the train, and it begins to push the cars slowly forward. The initial destination, for each car, is the yard’s namesake—the place where the track runs up over a small hump in the ground.

 In simplest form, things work like this: When the first car crosses the hump, the yard engine stops the train. Yard workers standing at the hump uncouple the car and let it roll down the hump and into the network of branch-lines spanning the yard. Sometimes they give it a kick with one foot, to add a little impetus.

 As the car moves into the yard network, switches are thrown, shunting it to the track where the train cars heading for a particular destination are being lined up and hooked together, awaiting the engine(s) that will pull them there. Meanwhile, the yard engine continues to push each car over the hump, stopping to let it be released and roll down to join the new train it will soon be part of.

 Occasionally, of course, two or three cars in a row happen to be heading for the same destination. In this case, they’re rolled over the hump, and unhooked from the train cars behind, but the group of cars heading for the same place is left hooked together to negotiate the yard network as a unit.

Which reminds me of a funny story. 

 I’m a bit familiar with a hump yard, because I had the opportunity to tour one while studying Target Analysis in the Engineer portion of the SF Qualification Course. We spent a full day closely examining all details of the hump yard’s mechanisms and inner workings, even climbing in and around a diesel-electric train engine—the cab, engine compartments, drive components, etc.—so we could learn the Achilles’ heels inherent in the operation, and the intricacies of how to put the yard or engine out of business for any particularly specified period of time, using the minimal amount of leverage or explosive force, when called upon.

 While we were there, one of the fellows told us that his buddy was trying to remove and replace a frog, one day—a frog being a particular portion of a switch rail. The frog had been in place for decades, however, and the nuts and bolts that held it were locked solid, the metal nearly fused by rust and time. So the yard worker grabbed a long pipe—or “cheater bar”—and slid it down over the large wrench he had locked to the nut, because this added-length significantly increased the torque of his leverage.

 Unfortunately, the nut and bolt were so fused by rust that they snapped off while he was hanging all his body weight on the long pipe. The result was a broken leg. His buddies carried him up to the nurse’s office, where the nurse rapidly began splinting his leg as the ambulance was called from town. As she ministered to the man, the nurse asked how he’d done this to himself. The guy answered honestly: “I was tryin’ to bust the nuts off a frog.”

 The nurse, incensed, harangued him for being ungentlemanly, until the Yard Master, drawn by her yelling, arrived and explained what the yard worker had been trying to accomplish.

Back to my analogy:

 The station in my imagination is located not far from a small hump yard that is overlooked by a hill. After checking the schedule at the station, so I know where the trains being assembled on the different tracks below are going, I pull out binoculars and start looking at the freight cars and cargo.

 It’s hard to explain how I decide which train to choose. Sometimes I’m overcome by a desire to work with the strange combination of cargo carried by freight cars coupled in a certain order. At others, I might be intrigued by the mysterious look of certain cars; perhaps they have evil-looking odd protuberances, or are painted in garish colors that look as if they were splashed across in a fit of violent emotion. Occasionally, I spot a human form darting furtively among the train cars being assembled below, and I want to find out what he’s up to. Sometimes, it’s just a sunny day and the freight below looks like a fun ride, so I take a chance.

 The thing is: It’s always a gamble. When trains run, sometimes they get sided. Another train might be coming along the same track, for instance, so the train I’ve hitched a ride on has to pull into a siding and sit there for hours, waiting for it to pass. And, unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for the train I choose to run hot and fast for several miles, then break down and sit dead on the tracks.

 When the latter happens, I look at the papers posted on my office wall, which encourage writers to forge ahead, not waiting for inspiration to do the heavy lifting for them. Obviously, a writer can’t stand around all day just waiting for inspiration. But, on the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever sold a story, unless I felt that freight train pull while writing it. If I’ve got to get off the train and push it up a steep grade, it’s almost a guarantee that the story won’t sell.

 For some reason, in my experience, a story has to have a motive force of its own, or it just doesn’t go anywhere. If I can’t get the train rolling within a few minutes, I’m in trouble. Pushing a train with a dead engine is a sure way to break a lot of sweat and raise a lot of dust, but the only result will be a deep whole where your feet have been churning-in-place. So when the train grinds to a halt, it’s time to dismount and look for the problem.

 Train cars aren’t just connected by the metal coupling that holds them physically together. There are hoses and cables that run between the cars and have to be connected for the train to operate properly. One of those hoses, for instance, is the hydraulic hose that connects all the brake lines on the cars. If that hose breaks loose between two cars, the hydraulic pressure drops and the brakes in all the cars slam on. They can’t be released until the pressure can be pumped up again. To pump up the pressure, the entire system has to have integrity, so the dropped hose has to be reconnected.

 Disconnection can be a show-stopper in a story too. When two elements of a story don’t work together, the thing just won’t hang right and run. Sometimes the work required is minimal, but sometimes it's as if I have to bodily shove a group of recalcitrant box cars up to where the rest of the train sits, so I can hook everything up and get it rolling again.

 Other times, I might find that a portion of the train has come off the rails; that can be a mind numbing repair problem. But, if after a lot of blood, sweat and tears, I can get everything lined up again, the train will run, carrying me forward to my destination.

 Occasionally, however, the problem is so large I can’t figure out how to fix it. At times like those, I let the engineer call it into the yard. And I walk away, to come back and check on progress at times. Because, while I’m away, the army of yard workers in my subconscious mind will work to get that train back on the track. And that’s a large part of what’s been going on in my life, over the past two weeks.

 I started work on a story three or four years ago (I can’t be sure). It was a great story; the train ran hot and true through valleys of stark resonance and across ridgelines of jagged rock. But I was called away from the train too many times—often for extended periods, so I could help my parents. The engine sat there running, waiting for me to come back, but it used up all the fuel while I was gone, and I didn’t know how to get more fuel out to it, in the middle of nowhere, where it sat.

 Two weeks ago, however ...

When I opened that story to look it over again, I found the fuel stores had been fully topped off. As I crossed the track in front of the engine, the train horn sounded, so loud it nearly took my ears off. The engine leaped forward—from zero to sixty in about a second-and-a-half. And I was pasted, bodily, on the front of the engine cowling, wind tearing at my hair and clothes.

 I knew better than to try climbing into the cab, of course. Sitting there is too much like sitting in a passenger seat. Instead, I stayed where I was and started writing everything I saw as it flashed past. If I were a better liar, I’d tell you I stayed there 24/7, and didn’t climb down till the ride was through. (My dream is an office with a red and green light over the door. The red light would mean I’M WORKING: NO ADMITTANCE, and I’d stay there until the work was done.) But, I’ve got a wife who told me long ago that this sort of behavior didn’t wash with her. She expects me to be there for the family.

 I love my wife, so I had to shut it down at nights and meal times to do my duty. Every morning, however, when I returned, I’d find the train sitting on the tracks, engine running and engineer anxious to be off again. I’d climb back on the front, and away we’d go. I finally finished the first draft of that story—one that I started three or four years ago—late last week.

 At which point I discovered the freights are running hot and hard at the moment. I’ve caught some monster freights that have carried me to surprising destinations, a few of which have stalled, but two of which roared straight to the promised land.

 Yesterday, I caught one that I haven’t finished riding yet. It’s sitting just off on a little siding as I write this, the engineer anxious to get rolling. So I hope you don’t mind if I disappear again for a little while.

 And, who knows? Maybe, one day, we’ll meet up by the tracks: both of us sneaking down to the local switch-yard, looking for the right freight train to hop.

 See you in two weeks!
 --Dixon