18 June 2014

Writing the Travel Writer

Special treat today. Jeff Soloway is the winner of this year's Robert L. Fish Award, given by the Mystery Writers of America to the best first mystery short story by an American author.  Since "The Wentworth Letter" appeared in an e-book, he thinks he may be the first person to win an MWA writing award without appearing in print.   He used to be a writer of travel guides and is now a book editor in New York. —Robert Lopresti

by Jeff Soloway

Last year, Robert Lopresti and I both had stories published in an ebook collection called Malfeasance Occasional: Girl Trouble. Rob liked my story (and I liked his!), and when he heard that my first novel was being published by Alibi, Random House’s new digital imprint for crime fiction, he asked me to write about my experience. So here goes.

The Travel Writer is about a travel-guidebook author and freelancer who accepts a free trip to a swanky hotel in Bolivia, ostensibly to provide a glowing review of the hotel but really to investigate the disappearance of an American journalist. When I sent the manuscript to an editor at an independent publishing house, she told me that though the writing was great, no one was interested in mysteries that take place in South America. I was advised to stick to the U.S., or—if I absolutely had to get all exotic—England or Italy.

Luckily for me, Alibi’s editors took a broader view of the tastes of the mystery-reading public. Soon after I sent the manuscript in to Alibi (just by email to the address on the website—I had no connection to any of the editors and still don’t have an agent), the editor told me he liked both the novel and the concept of a travel-writer detective.  He asked for synopses of two sequels so he could pitch the idea of a new series. I assured him that I had a number of great ideas, and then spent the weekend holed up in my bedroom trying to think up some great ideas.

Nothing in publishing ever works as quickly as you want it to, so it was several months later that I finally got the good news: Alibi wanted to sign me for three books. I was told that all of Alibi’s books would be priced very low—the idea was that these digital originals would recapture that market that used to be served by the little mass-market paperbacks that were once ubiquitous in drug stores and supermarkets. I was given the choice between a traditional publishing deal that provides a small advance against the usual royalty for ebooks, or a less traditional one providing no advance against a much higher royalty rate. I chose the first. Of course, now, after publication, I have to hope that I’ve chosen wrong—that the book sells so well that I curse myself for forsaking the higher rate. But I wanted some sort of financial guarantee.

The editing process was a real surprise to me—remarkably, and admirably, traditional. My editor, Dana Edwin Isaacson, printed out the manuscript, marked it up by hand, scanned the pages, and emailed them to me. He had suggestions both minor and major, and did a nice job of sweetening them with compliments along the way. After a month or so at the hard labor of revising, I resubmitted the manuscript. Dana said he loved it. His love, however, did not prevent him from emailing several dozen more pages with additional edits.

After Dana was done with it, the manuscript went to Random House’s production department, where it was exhaustively copyedited. The copyeditor checked my character’s wanderings against a map of La Paz, Bolivia and even queried the political graffiti I quoted, among many other things. I appreciated the back-stopping, though I did occasionally assert my privilege as a novelist to make things up.

Several months after the copyediting I received another small set of editor’s queries, clearly from a proofreader. I didn’t even know they had proofreading (as opposed to one round of copyediting) for digital books.

 Now the novel is finally out. It’s priced at $2.99, which means it’s cheap enough at least to tempt a lot of readers but also that it has to sell a lot of copies to make anybody any money. Will it? The publicity people at Random House are working hard to get the word out. They sent the novel to the mystery author Christopher Fowler and received a terrific blurb in return, and they’ve launched an online marketing campaign. And of course, I personally think the novel is pretty good. The main character brings an original perspective to the traditional mystery, and the writing is funny—I hope. All I know for sure is that I wrote the thing as well as I could.

17 June 2014

Pictures and Words

One of my fantasies is to be a painter. Oil on canvas. I have this vision of myself in a New York loft: A large room with a bare wooden floor, sofa, an open window with traffic sounds from the street below, open bottle of red wine, no glasses. No wall clock.

And what would I paint? People. I like a good landscape, I like a good abstract, but what moves me are paintings of people. A picture tells a thousand words, but in every face there are a million.

One of the best places to go and see paintings of people is the National Portrait Gallery in London. The NPG has nearly 200,000 paintings in its collection, and it's a great place to lose yourself in hall after hall of faces (and history).

Alan Bennett (Tom Wood, 1993)
Tom Wood's painting of Alan Bennett hangs in the NPG (Bennett is one of my favorite playwrights), and at first glance this appears to be a conventional portrait of the man. Quickly, its element of casualness becomes apparent. It's a picture of a writer taking a break; a few minutes to collect his thoughts, a cup of tea and a brown bag.

And then you notice the power cable and plug. What has Bennett unplugged? An electric fan? A jukebox? Maybe it's symbolic. The cable extends from the viewer's point of view, so maybe Bennett's taking a break from us (i.e. he's unplugged the world). And then what exactly is concealed inside that tightly tied up brown paper bag? Lunch, or is it also perhaps symbolic of something? Secrets? Privacy?

It's a straightforward painting of a complex man and some props, but collectively they suggest the possibility of a story. If I painted, I'd definitely want to paint a story.

The Betrayal (Jack Vettriano, Circa. 2001)
You won't find anything by Jack Vettriano in the NPG (although you will find him in the National Scottish Portrait Gallery up in his native Scotland). South of the border (i.e. London), Vettriano gets bad press. Too commercial, too crass. Point in fact, I first encountered this painting on a greeting card. But so what?

Without even knowing the title, when you first see this painting you sense conflict. The man at the rear, highlighted in a background of glowing red, stares at the couple kissing in the foreground. The decor and fashions suggest a fancy club, circa. London 1950. Are the couple embracing on a dance floor? And that isn't a mere kiss, it's a full-throttle commitment. Has the man at the rear caught his lover cheating on him? He has a hand reaching inside his jacket. A gun?

When you have two or more people in a painting, you almost automatically invoke a plot. And once there's a plot in play, our mind suggests what might happen next. In this instance, a heated confrontation; it'll probably get messy. The Betrayal is like a two-dimensional piece of flash fiction.

It has to be said, of course, another viewer might glance at this painting and simply see a bored waiter staring at an amorous couple. And therein lies the fundamental difference between a written story and a painted one. A written story lays it out fairly clearly for the reader to follow. A painting only suggests and is largely open to "reader" interpretation.

The Scream (Edvard Munch, 1893)
I first encountered Edvard Munch's iconic painting The Scream in an art history book when I was in high school. The ghost-like person in the foreground is presented in a frozen moment of absolute terror. Why? Is it from fear of the two shadowy people behind? Are they after him/her for purposes of no good? Is it from fear of the blood sky (the original title for the work was "The Scream of Nature")? It could be any of these, and I could easily think up several more "plots" for this painting -- none of them cozy.

I was lucky enough to visit an exhibition of Munch lithographs a few years ago at the Waikato Museum (a modest building on the left bank of the Waikato River in Hamilton, New Zealand). Munch made several lithographs of The Scream, and even reproduced in black and white, the image chills you to the bone when you stand in front of it. And this is despite the fact the painting's impact today has been lessened, nay flattened, by its continual referencing in popular culture (children's lunchboxes, anyone?). The painting is as ubiquitous today as the Mona Lisa.

The Scream contains what I like to find in a painting (and in a story, too): character and emotion. So along with a plot, I'd definitely want to paint characters and strong emotions.

So, I guess, if I was a painter, I'd be a figurative expressionist. Throw Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper, Frida Kahlo, Munch, the Pre-Raphaelites, and a bucket of paint into a blender and then point me at a canvas.

And why am I not a painter? That's easy: I can't paint and I can't draw. I can't even render a decent stick, let alone a figure.

But wait. There's more...

The Riverboat (Eric Ross, 1997)
Declaiming my artistic abilities was originally going to be the end of this piece, but by happy coincidence, I learnt today that Crime City Central are podcasting The Riverboat this week (a story of mine that was first published last year by Spinetingler Magazine).

I mention this because the story was inspired by a picture of a riverboat painted by my father. He painted it several years ago and it's hung on my wall ever since. My story didn't create a "plot" for his painting, but used its image as the story's centerpiece.

Be seeing you!

16 June 2014

Those Quickie Mysteries

How true.  It's addictive!

Several weeks have passed since I last joined you on this side of SleuthSayers.  My mini-vacation wasn't planned, but it worked out well for me because I haven't had much to say beyond an occasional comment along with moans and cries of pain caused by Shingles. Unlike Leigh, who can write humor inspired by his kidney stones and uninvited guests on his dock, I can't think of anything amusing to say about shingles except they hurt far more than I ever expected. Before anyone tells me I should have taken the immunization shot, let me explain that I'm violently allergic to neomycin which makes me ineligible for the vaccination.

Some of you may recall that I recently made the decision to stop writing, but, as has happened before, that resolution didn't last. What I'm experiencing is a spell when my muse has abandoned me.  I need to write something different, at least for me. I've had six Callie Parrish mysteries published under my name and a few best forgotten thrillers under a pen name. I have no desire to begin another of either.  My horror novel doesn't have a publisher yet, and I'm not interested in writing paranormal romance. So, what should I do? 

I started out in this business writing feature magazine articles.  I've gone back to that and have sent out three. We'll see if those maintain my old track record which was 100% acceptance, certainly far better than I do with fiction.  I've also been writing press releases for the charity concert my friends and I in SC Screams Team are sponsoring in July. 

It would be nice to say that press releases and magazine features are satisfying my addiction to fiction, but I'd be lying. Though being a fiction writer is a license to lie, I don't feel right lying to you, the readers and writers of SleuthSayers. I've begun some co-writing with fellow songwriter, Gene Holdway, but I want to write fiction. Not motivated to begin another novel, I decided to go to the other extreme and tackle John M. Floyd's market--those solve-it-yourself mysteries for Woman's World. For any newcomers among us, Woman's World features one mystery and one romance story every week. The pay is good, but the word limits are restrictive.  Maximum for mysteries is 700; for romances, 800.

This isn't exactly my first rodeo with WW. I've had two romances that they suggested changes and invited me to resubmit, but I hadn't tried mysteries previously.

I pick up WW each week to see if John has a story in it, so I was fairly familiar with what they print.  I feel the need to warn everyone though that if you read those short, short mysteries constantly, you reach the point that you can spot the important clue as you read, so the solution is hardly ever a surprise with some of the authors, but not with John M. Floyd.  

No problem with characters, crimes, and knowing who's guilty, but coming up with those clues required in the solve-it-yourself mysteries was leaving me clueless. I don't want clues to jump off the page at the reader, but I don't want them so elusive that after reading the ending, the reader has to go back searching to see if the author actually included them.

I shared my first solve-it-yourself mystery effort with my friend, Richard D. Laudenslager, who helped me out with some great suggestions.  I returned the favor by inspiring him to try one of his own. His first solve-it-yourself seems absolutely perfect.  I questioned how he'd zeroed in on the style.  His answer:
"I read John Floyd's blog about Woman's World fiction on SleuthSayers."

Now, the truth is that I probably did read that blog back in 2012, but since I was concentrating on book-length manuscripts at that time, I didn't remember it in detail until I went back and read it again a week ago.

I highly recommend reading John's blog before writing one of those quickie mysteries. John M. Floyd's A Woman's World Survival Guide.

John gives personal statistics for his sales to WW as well as a brief history of how their fiction has changed since his first mini-mystery appeared in WW in 1999. He also shares hints and tips for the mysteries which I'll repeat here: 
  1. Make the good guys win.
  2. Include humor if possible.
  3. Use a lot of dialogue.
  4. Include a female protagonist.
  5. Include a real crime, not a situation that appears to be crime, but is revealed not to be.
  6. Keep it fairly clean and fairly simple.  Avoid extreme violence, explicit sex, strong language, technical jargon, characters with physical or mental disabilities, overly complex plots, and exotic locations.  (John, I have to say this sounds a lot like the "cozy formula.")
  7. Don't jeopardize babies or pets. (Another cozy rule.)
  8. Stay below the 700 word count.  (John says his run between 680 and 690.)

After reading John's hints and tips, I knew immediately that my second try would be rejected and had to be revised before submitting it.  

Of course, Richard and I both hope to have stories accepted, but even if we don't, writing for this market is great exercise.  We have become far more conscientious about unnecessary words and tightening up expressions. The restrictions also encourage writers to jump right in with the action instead of spending a lot of words on set-up.  John suggests that his repeated characters of bossy retired teacher Angela Potts and her ex-student lawman alleviate the need for a lot of set up.  To that, I say, "But John, we have to sell the first story before we can repeat the characters."

How did I know WW wouldn't accept my second mystery?

As a retired teacher of disabled and visually handicapped children, I frequently include challenged or visually handicapped adults living fairly normal lives in my writing. (Example: Jane in the Callie Parrish books) The protagonist in the story was blind. See Tip 6 above.

I'd like to hear from the rest of you. Have you submitted fiction to Woman's World? What were your experiences in dealing with the restrictions?  John, how about some current statistics?
On the left, my partner in crime, Richard D. Laudenslager.
On the right, my partner in rhyme, Gene Holdway.
I'm 5'3", but I think this photo demonstrates that
I should be able to write short.
Until we meet again, take care of … you.

15 June 2014

Reptilian Florida

Albert and Pogo
Albert and Pogo
A couple of incidences have caused me to connect again with my first published story, ‘Swamped’.

For one thing, I caught an alligator. Over my dock spreads a marvelous shade tree. I enjoy meals there watching the animals and the birds– herons, anhingas (snake birds), ducks and egrets. An amazing delegation of white pelicans visited, first combing the lake in a straight line and then moving into the canal, tightly bunched, fishing as a coordinated group. Not long ago, a fish eagle, an osprey plunged into the water a few feet from me, carrying off a bream for lunch.

I flip scraps to the fish, especially the minnows, although bigger fish and turtles pull themselves up to the table. Recently, an uninvited visitor began showing up whenever I stepped out on the dock.

It was an alligator, a juvenile a little less than four feet long. A couple of people suggested my neighbor was feeding gators and others said teens flipped them food near the bridge. Someone obviously was feeding the beast because it not only showed no fear, it arrived with a dinner napkin.

Floridians are instructed never to feed gators because they come to associate people with food. An alligator fifteen inches long might seem cute, but when it’s fifteen feet and hungry, that’s another matter. Pets and people have been killed by gators that lost their instinctive fear of humans. Unchallenged backyard gators could cause bigger problems later.

The alligator continued to visit and aggressively shouldered aside turtles to get close to the pier. On Mother’s Day, I carried lunch out to the dock and there he lounged, serviette tucked under his chin ready to celebrate.

East meets West

Setting down my tray, I picked up a rope. I lassoed the guy and pulled him out of the water despite unpleasant protests and naughty words about my ancestry.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure of handling alligators, one has to be careful of both ends– the powerful jaws are only half the story. The tail is armored muscle, part whip, part club. In or out of the water, a twist of the tail can roll a gator faster than a person can move. The claws can be nasty too, so one has to act with certainty.

A guy who should have known better.

With the help of the lasso, I grabbed him behind the shoulders, letting him thrash his tail until he tired. Opening a large trash can, I lowered Fuzzy inside. I poured in a couple of litres of water so he wouldn’t dehydrate and phoned Wildlife Services.

Pausing for a moment, readers of the Dell Magazine Forum may remember my saga with my pet reptile, Albert. When I was a teen, I brought home an alligator and it lived in our living room for twenty-five years. Named after a character in Walt Kelly's Pogo comic strip, he was a good pet and loved my dad. Albert proved particularly beneficial keeping salesmen away from the door. Over the years, he appeared in ads and our high school play. I hasten to add this was up north and not in Florida.
Actually, I called Animal Control first, the cat and dog people. They said, “You got a what? Really? On purpose? What’s it’s name?”

“Fuzzy,” I said. Apparently their forms have a slot that require a pet’s name.

“Really? How big is he?” she said. “Does he bite? We don’t handle alligators. You’ve got to call Wildlife Services.”

So I phoned Wildlife Services. To my surprise, they sent an earnest, very competent officer on Mother’s Day to pick up Fuzzy. He taped Fuzzy’s mouth shut, which muffled the cursing. He seated Fuzzy in the back of his truck. I like to think Fuzzy is basking in the sun in a secluded marsh with lots of girlie gators to flirt with.

And then… and then about a week later, TWO of Fuzzy’s siblings showed up for breakfast. I’d like to say they wore fedoras and shoulder holsters, but they were about the same size as Fuzzy, a little over a metre long. I spotted a five-footer cruising the middle of the canal although it ignored the local hospitality. He could have been smoking a ‘see-gar’ like Pogo’s Albert. I’m certain I’m in an alligator reality show.

Other Reptiles

If you think Fuzzy might have been a scary creature…

Judge: If I had a rock, I would throw it at you right now. Stop pissing me off! Just sit down! I’ll take care of it. I don’t need your help. Sit… down!
P.D. : I’m the public defender, I have the right to be here and I have a right to stand and represent my clients.
Judge: Sit down. If you want to fight, let’s go out back and I’ll just beat your ass.
P.D. : Let’s go right now.[In corridor, judge sucker-punches PD; scuffle]
Judge: You wanna ƒ with me? Do ya?
When I wrote the story ‘Swamped’, I worried readers might not think the mad judge was realistic. He was based on an actual Orange County judge whose bizarre behavior made the news. The incidences of citing people in a diner for contempt and ordering a cop who stopped the judge for DUI to appear before him in court truly happened. Throughout, the powers that be seemed powerless to stop him.

Although that situation proved weirder than most, other judges have slipped the rails including one who harangued jurors and threatened them with jail. Often other judges will set matters right after the fact, but it shouldn’t have to be that way. With a state as punitive as Florida, who wants to take chances?

Now another central Florida judge has lost it, swearing at and slugging a lawyer. I hear some of you applauding the judge for pummeling the lawyer, doing what most of us want to do at one time or another, but remember virtually all judges are lawyers. Anyone other than a judge would be arrested for punching and verbally abusing any citizen. But in Florida, at least, judges act as if they're immune from such mundane concerns, merely cajoled to seek treatment for 'anger management'. Ironically, the defendant was in court for assault charges.

I doubt the applause in the courtroom will get defendants very far.

A judge who should have known better.

Reporting from Florida…

Pogo and Albert

14 June 2014

Evolution of a Reader

by Elizabeth Zelvin

The older I get, the pickier I get as a reader. Life is too short, and I'm too experienced a reader to waste my time on books I'm not enjoying. I admit that as a reader, I take full advantage of the lower prices of e-books. I still buy hardcovers of the few cherished authors I hope will keep their series going forever and the even fewer I trust to write a new series I'll love almost as much as the last. And if I attend a friend's book launch party, I buy the book. Otherwise, if I lose interest or get annoyed, that's it for me. I'll close the book, toss it in a box to be given away, or in rare instances, throw it across the room.

I can remember only one book that I actually chucked into the garbage. It was a battered paperback of a Robert Heinlein science fiction novel I'd never read before and picked up for 25 cents at the outdoor bargain table of a library in the Hamptons. I'll spare you the title, because I don't want anybody else to read it if they can possibly help it. It was written in 1982, so there's no excuse for the scene that made me dump it in with the chicken bones and coffee grounds: where the genetically engineered superwoman protagonist runs into one of the guys who gang-raped her earlier in the book, forgives him when he explains he only participated because he found her so sexy, and invites him to be part of her group marriage.

One aspect of my long experience as a mystery writer is that I can now see plot twists coming and unidentified villains lurking a mile away. This doesn't necessarily mean I'd be a good detective in real life. But I know crime fiction conventions, and as they say, there are only seven original plots. The unreliable narrator, the cross-dresser or transsexual, the dissociated identity because the character was molested as a child are all familiar ploys. When the detective, amateur or professional, mulls over the motives of every possible suspect but one, I know that one will turn out to be the killer.

Spotting the solution does not make me stop reading. It just makes me feel kind of clever. However, bad writing, flat characterization, and insipid dialogue do. I've found these in debut novels and highly touted bestsellers alike, just as I've found delightful characters and what a couple of my own reviewers, bless them, have called deft prose, all along the spectrum. I'm also looking for intelligent plotting, whether it's plausible detection in a puzzle or police procedural or actual suspense in a novel of suspense.

Nowadays I still read quite a bit of crime fiction, though a lot less than I used to. I read a little SF and fantasy, a very little literary fiction (I was a college English major and have done my time with those and the classics), and an occasional book that would qualify as romance. More and more of my reading in all these genres is historical fiction, which I've always liked, and which naturally interests me more since I started writing it myself. Whatever I read, the writing has to be top-notch and the stories character driven.

Here's the short list of authors by whom I don't want to miss a single book: At the top, Lois McMaster Bujold, Diana Gabaldon, Sharon Shinn, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Naomi Novik, Laurie R. King, Charlaine Harris, Michael Gruber. The late Reginald Hill was on that list as well. Second tier, Deborah Crombie, William Kent Krueger, Sara Paretsky, Margaret Maron. For their best-known series characters, I still read Marcia Muller, Dana Stabenow, and Nevada Barr. New to me in 2013, and good enough that I went back and got the earlier books and/or will definitely read the next one: Jane Casey, Linda Lee Peterson, and Anne Cleeland. Oh, and Robert Galbraith, aka JK Rowling: I can't wait for the sequel to The Cuckoo's Calling.

13 June 2014

How We Infuriated Two Generals and a Town Mayor

(For those wondering why my comments disappeared for a while this week, all I can say is that I was recovering from horrifying flash-backs brought on by Leigh’s kidney stone post. LOL)

Two weeks ago, I posted here asking what readers thought of mixing romance and mystery genres.

I wondered: When do the two genres make a good fit, why does this happen (or not), and how can a writer mix the two genres to best effect? I received many excellent comments, which I’ll talk about in my post on June 27th.

I’ve also thought a lot about those comments, as well as other ideas associated with genre mixing, and have formulated an idea I’d like to submit here. That, too, will have to wait until my next post, however, if you don’t want to read something seven pages long.

So, in the interest of brevity (he said, a bit deceptively), I will first tell you a humorous story that is very important to the idea I plan to submit for your comments on the 27th. It’s about how explosions create sine waves, and ways in which the amplitude of these sine waves may be manipulated—which probably sounds as entertaining as doing the laundry. But, please: bear with me. I think you’ll like this.

A Quick but Important Explanation 

Harmony and resonance are two terms most people probably identify with music. Being more comfortable with explosives than music, however—as my grade school band leader could undoubtedly attest!—I’m probably more inclined to think of harmony and resonance in relation to shockwaves created by the carefully synchronized detonations of properly located charges.

These shock waves, created when explosives are detonated, manifest themselves as sine waves that travel through those items targeted for demolition. In fact, according to explosive theory, they are largely the force that does the dirty work: tearing steel girders apart, punching holes through reinforced concrete, or throwing dirt high into the air while creating large holes in the ground.

They don’t just travel through the demolition target however. These explosion-created sine waves travel through the surrounding earth and air (or, in some cases, water), and can sometimes be felt miles away from the blast site, usually manifesting themselves as a rumbling roar and causing plates or windows to rattle, walls to crack, or glass to shatter. 

How I Learned to Play With Sine Waves 

Using sine waves to proper effect is an important part of explosives theory, of course, which I learned in the demolitions portion of the Special Forces Qualification Course.

Years after I graduated the Q Course, however, and was on an A-Team, we had a fellow from a civilian blasting company come out to share information about how he used explosives to break up rock at a nearby quarry. Around twenty of us (SF Demo Sgts.) went down to one of the demolition ranges at Ft. Bragg, where we met a nice young man. His boss had sent him down there, saying the young guy might learn something, too, if he kept his eyes and ears open while working with a bunch of SF guys. He proudly showed us the sausage charges and “nonel” ignition system he used, as well as his computer.

Then, we monkeyed around with them in a manner that really freaked this guy out, and got us in trouble.

What We Played With

The “sausage charges” he brought were well named. These low-order explosive charges really did look like oversize Jimmy Dean sausages—the kind that come stuffed in plastic tubes at the grocery store. Each tubular plastic-wrapped charge was probably about two feet long by four inches in diameter.

nonel fuse
The nonel fuse ignition system, which he commonly used to set off his charges, came with a blasting cap factory-installed on one end of each short fuse section. This fuse was tiny, compared to standard time fuse, probably about a sixteenth-inch in diameter and bright orange. It was also a bit stiffer than time fuse.

“Nonel” is considered an instantaneous non-electric firing system because that thin, orange plastic-tubed “fuse” carries a powder train designed to ignite at the rate of around 2000 meters per second. Thus, the person doing the blasting (called “the blaster”) connects a firing machine to one end of the nonel, then pulls a trigger, or pushes a button, which creates a spark that ignites the powder train. The flame shoots down the length of the fuse at around 2000 meters/second, finally shooting a brief spit of flame into the blasting cap at the far end and—BOOM!

Nonel is not really instantaneous, of course. It takes a little while—maybe half-a-second, or a second or two—from the time the blaster hits the button, to the instant of explosion, depending on distance from blaster to initial charge. But, nonel ignition is fast enough; it’s generally considered instantaneous.

Nonel clipped together for firing.
Nonel fuse is available in large rolls, so the blaster can get some ‘standoff distance’ before detonating his/her charges. As I mentioned earlier, however, it also comes in short sections. These sections can be rapidly and easily clipped together, and the ones we were using had 25-millisecond delays built into them.

The photo above, right, shows a short segment of nonel with a blasting cap at one end and the clip at the other. The photo at left shows multiple nonel fuses linked together.

How It’s Supposed to Work

Our visiting quarry blaster normally used his computer to create a model, which told him where to place his charges and how many milliseconds to delay each detonation by, in order to reduce the impact on people or structures in the local area.

By placing his charges where the computer told him to and using the computer-suggested time delay between detonations, he was able to cause the explosive sine wave created by one detonation to be cancelled out, when it collided with the sine wave created by the next detonation, and vice-versa.

You may recall, from my earlier posts about explosives, that ‘low order’ explosives may be thought of similarly to ‘low gear’ in a truck—they push and heave heavy things, like dirt and rock. This means their sine waves are very powerful. So, using distance and time-delay to cancel-out the sine waves created by these explosions strongly muted what, otherwise, would have been a series of long, deep sine wave vibrations created by low order explosives, from shaking up people in the surrounding areas or potentially damaging buildings hit by the deep sine wave’s rumbling THUMP!

Roots of an Idea

The first time we took the explosives down-range and set them off, we did it the way the guy suggested. We wanted to see how well the technique worked. And, it worked pretty well. In fact, the result was rather boring.

Each man set up two charges, for a total of around forty charges. Since the blaster had only brought a limited amount of ‘standoff’ nonel fuse along, that day, we used time fuse to detonate the initial charge, daisy chaining the rest of our charges with those nonel sections that incorporated the 25-millisecond delays.

Forty charges went off, each about 25-milliseconds apart. Nothing to write home about. There wasn’t even a satisfactory big THUMP! in the ground beneath our feet, because the charges had canceled out each other’s sine waves.

While walking down to plant those charges, however, a few of us, who’d been talking it over, asked the visiting quarry blaster if he thought adjusting the calculations for charge location and timing, in ‘thus and so’ manner might result in something a bit more exciting.

“Oh, you wouldn't want to do that,” he said. “That might increase the amplitude of the sine wave instead of canceling it out.”

“Exactly!” we responded, smiling. At this point, we reached the location where we had to fan out and start planting our charges.

We couldn't ask him more questions on the way up the range to the bunker, before firing that first shot, however, because he wasn't with us. Evidently, he’d used nonel all his life, and never dealt with time fuse before.

When we ignited the time fuse, to set off the initial charge, his eyes went wide and he said, “What are you doing?”

“Igniting the time fuse.”

“While we’re still here? Standing beside the charges!?!”

“Well, we’ve got four and a half feet of time fuse. That’s enough to let us get back to the bunker.” 

“But … we aren’t leaving!”

“Right. We have to make sure the time fuse is burning, first. Then, we’ll remove the mechanical matches from the fuse, so we can reload them.”

“WHAT!?! The fuse is burning? NOW?

“Yeah, see how it’s melting here? That’s good. In just a minute we’ll be able to remove—”

But that guy was gone, buddy! He looked like a character on Scooby Doo, legs churning wildly as he smoked-it back up the hill to the bunker.

The rest of us followed at a leisurely pace, a few of us discussing our idea of increasing the sine wave’s amplitude. We figured the idea made sense, but we had to decide how to calculate for it.

How We Pissed-off A Lot of People

When something happens that changes the size of a sine wave, it’s called Amplitude Modulation. When the quarry blaster used his charges to cancel out his explosions’ sine waves, that was just another example of amplitude modulation. And the small group of us, who’d been discussing how to increase the amplitude of the sine wave, were really discussing just that—amplitude modulation.

By now, we’d formulated a few ideas about how to accomplish what we wanted. So, while standing in the bunker, waiting for the time fuse to burn down, we quizzed our visiting blaster about what he thought.

He professed not to know, saying there was no way to tell what the result would be. He even kept claiming he didn’t know what formulas his computer used to arrive at its conclusions. Naturally, a bunch of guys who walked around, on a daily basis, with umpteen charge formulas, relative effectiveness factors, and other arcane explosives details in their heads, found this claim a little suspect. Besides, he kept interspersing this claim with the statement: “You guys are scary. You’re really, REALLY scary!”

Unfortunately for this fellow, he’d chosen the wrong words.

His repeated “You’re scary” encouraged us to believe we were on the right path, so we continued with our discussion. And, other guys heard this repeated phrase and came over to find out what he was talking about. After all, they wanted to be scary too.

By the time our first set of charges had disappointingly gone off, everyone was discussing the idea. In the end, about fifteen of us decided to experiment with a rudimentary formula on the next shot, while the rest decided to just adhere to the original plan.

We ran our calcs, then took our charges (two per man, again) down-range and planted them. This time, our visiting blaster decided not to accompany us, staying at the bunker and trusting the sergeant in charge to connect his standoff line to the daisy-chained line segments.

With everyone back up in the bunker, the visiting blaster hooked up his blast machine and fired.

The charges of the first five guys—ten charges total—went off, cancelling each other’s sine waves.

Then, one by one, the next thirty charges went off …
… the sine waves building on each other as they went along.

Each time another charge went off, the blast got louder, deeper and more satisfying. Soon, though we wore earplugs, we had our hands over our ears, and the ground beneath our feet was dancing a nice jig. Finally, it all came to an end. The final shot was not visually exciting, but the roaring cacophony and deep thump in our feet were truly GLORIOUS!

Amid an extended round of whistles, yells and cat calls, I turned to look at the young quarry blaster. I can still see him in my mind’s eye: blonde hair sticking up on one side, where he’d yanked on it with his hand, face ashen, eyes wild. He looked as if he’d just survived a strafing run by an A-10.

I was still laughing when the field phone in the bunker went off. People were making a lot of excited noise, but the instant the sergeant in charge, who’d answered the phone, popped to rigid attention, all noise cut off abruptly. We knew what his behavior meant. It was Pavlovian, and we’d all responded in similar manner in the past. Every man in the bunker knew: somebody BIG was tearing into the sergeant on the phone.

In the sudden silence, we could hear the angry voice bellowing on the other end, but not what he was yelling. On his end, the sergeant just kept answering with things like: “Yes, Sir!” “Only twenty charges, sir!” “I’m sorry, sir. That wasn’t planned.” “No, sir. It wasn’t intentional.” “I understand, Sir!” “It won’t happen again, sir!” “Yes, sir! Yes, sir!”  He concluded with the phrase: “Crystal, sir!”

After he hung up, the sergeant turned his back to us, asking: “So, I know most of it’s missing, because it just got royally chewed off, but . . . have I got ANY ass left?”

He explained that the caller had been the General commanding the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg. In other words, this was the guy who issued the commanding generals of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions, and several other major units, their marching orders. He had none-too-gently informed the sergeant that his staff was receiving reports concerning our little science experiment from across Ft. Bragg and the gate town of Fayetteville, as well as personal phone calls from the commander of Pope Air Force Base next door, and the Fayetteville mayor who was upset that shop owners were complaining of damaged merchandise.

To top it off, the 18th Airborne Corps Commander’s wife had called him directly, to complain of a house that rocked from the blasts and windows that had threatened to shatter—as well as an expensive antique China tea set that had been bounced around, and which she was currently inspecting for potential damage.

“Pray the tea set has no cracks,” said the sergeant. “The general said he’d call me back, if it was damaged.”

Thus, our little science experiment ended— at the direct orders of the 18th ABN Corps Commander.

Thankfully, the sergeant in charge never got a call about the tea set. But, I never forgot what I learned about amplitude modulation that day, and the way it can depend on location and timing.

And, that’s the take-away I want you to remember for my next post, on June 27th.

See ya’ then!

12 June 2014


by Janice Law

The first week in June, The Prisoner of the Riviera won a Lambda award for best gay mystery, a very pleasant surprise that has gotten me thinking about proper fictional subjects and about the way that what’s considered suitable is altered over time. Although any writer worth her salt believes implicitly– if not explicitly– in the Muse, that tricky little goddess is not immune to changes in opportunity or fashion.

I doubt very much that she would have offered me Francis Bacon as a good bet when I first started out in the 1970’s, even if the Anglo-Irish painter had been racking up the multi-million dollar sales that now benefit his heirs and fancy galleries. One only has to read Raymond Chandler, whom I otherwise much admire, to see how homophobic and bigoted his Philip Marlowe was. I suspect that Francis, breezy and witty and quite upfront about his recreations, would have been a tough sell.

My Muse, however, did have a wayward streak, and she initially suggested that my Anna Peters – one, I think, of the very first female working class sleuths– be a woman with children. Fortunately, she didn’t push that idea. Although commonplace today, in the late 70’s the world was no more ready for a woman investigator with children than Conan Doyle’s audience was for the Tale of the Giant Sumatra Rat. Anna emerged in print shorn of family and remained childless through nine adventures.

Times change. Certain topics are no longer off limits for women writers. Pat Barker has written gripping novels about World War One and the idea that nice women don’t write about sex has now been dead for at least a generation. During the same time, however, other divisions emerged. Older readers will still remember the uproar that The Confessions of Nat Turner aroused, because Styron was a white novelist writing about a black historical figure. Like attacks on male novelists like Norman Mailer who were seen as misogynistic, the controversy over The Confessions was an attempt by a marginalized group to control, or at least to influence, the way it was being depicted.

With the emergence of best selling authors from a variety of hitherto ignored groups, image control is perhaps a less pressing concern, but it does linger around the fringes of literary life. Who gets to draw the pictures? Who gets to present The Other, whatever that other might be, and how neatly can– or should– any society pigeonhole its writers?

These are questions properly for philosophers and political thinkers. The writer is a different beast altogether and should, I submit, properly stake as much territory as she can get away with. And create as diverse a set of characters as the Muse allows.

So why Francis? Why now?

One, practical concern: historical characters as detectives are currently popular. OK. Once in a while it is good to pay attention to fashion. Two, he started talking to me. Did I ignore him at first? You bet. Did I really want to research gay life in London after the Second World War? Not particularly. Was I enchanted with his work? Not really, although I thought– and still think– it very original and a quite brilliant example of a painter making even his weaknesses work for him. Did I find his sexual habits, not his orientation but his masochistic propensities, intriguing? I did not.

And yet, when you come right down to it, even a man as promiscuous as Bacon, even one as fond of drink and gambling and rough trade spent most of his time in less exotic pursuits. He worked hard and he was a strict critic of his own work. Alas that he destroyed much of his early work, for what survives is immensely interesting, and he slashed inadequate canvases both early and late. He lived with his old nanny and read the crime news to her when her sight started to go. And she, despite incipient blindness, went shop-lifting for them when they were broke.

He had friends, a number of them women, and patrons and artistic enemies. He made acquaintance with the notorious Kray Brothers and dabbled in an underground gambling venture and took holidays in the sun with his respectable lover.

In short, he was a man in full, a complicated human being, and as such he escapes the neat pigeonholes that society favors– and relies on. So, why Francis Bacon?

Why not?