10 May 2014

A Saturday Morning Post

by John M. Floyd

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

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

Exchanging guns for roses

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

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

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

Writing what you know

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

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

Post scripts

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

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

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

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

Or three.

09 May 2014

Crime Cruise-Ocho Rios

Everybody dreams about going to Jamaica on holiday. It's tropical breezes, sandy beaches, clear ocean water, dark rum, exotic flowers and coconuts. Tourists of one type or another have been coming to this island since Christopher Columbus discovered it on one of his voyages. Even the pirates of centuries ago enjoyed this paradise on earth until an earthquake destroyed their town and harbor of Port Royal. A later fire finished the destruction. Survivors moved over a few miles to establish the town of Kingston, destined to become the capital of Jamaica after the Governor moved the government offices out of Spanish Town due to the scandal of brothels in said community.
Ian Fleming's house, now a resort hotel
No doubt, many of you original James Bond fans will remember scenes of Jamaica from the movie Doctor No.If you don't remember the scenery and you are a guy, you were probably distracted by the sight of Honey Rider coming out of the ocean in her white bikini, a daring piece of swimwear in those days. In any case, the scenery was beautiful. Ian Fleming, author of the Bond series, liked the place so much he kept a house, Goldeneye, in Jamaica.

The Tour
Dunn's River Falls

After four previous ports of call, we were pretty well toured out for scheduled land excursions, so we went ashore on our own. Plus, Kiti and I had been to Ocho Rios some thirty-two years before, at which time we toured Fern Gully. (Them crazy bus drivers insist on driving on the wrong side of the road, which is slightly unnerving when you're sitting in the forward part of the bus and see oncoming fast vehicles also driving on the wrong side. What were the British thinking when they came up with that system?). During that earlier trip, we went on to climb Dunn's River Falls in swimsuits and tennis shoes, wet but refreshing in the heat of day. Of course, when our cruise ship ported thirty-two years ago, Ocho Rios didn't have the nice new dock it now has. Instead, we docked at the wharf for the local bauxite mine shipping point. Way back then when I got off the tour bus at the mandatory shopping site, a local Rastafarian sidled up beside me and in a whispered voice offered to sell me some "bud." I told him I couldn't because I was on vacation. He had a very confused look on his face as I walked away.

New cruise ship dock in Ocho Rios
For our 2014 port of call, our group of four went down the gang plank, up the new winding dock, through Jamaican Customs and into the new construction of the town of Ocho Rios. Incidentally, there are no eight rivers here. It is speculated that the British corrupted the Spanish words "Las Chorreras," which means the waterfalls, a name given to the village because of the nearby Dunn's River Falls. (As writers, we all know what a problem language can be.)

Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville on the beach
After running the gauntlet of vendors and taxi drivers (it's only a three block walk to town and the price decreases considerably the further you walk), we went through the usual tourist shops, Blue Mountain coffee stores and jewelry establishments (the latter maintained armed guards out front). Then it was time to head for Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville on a nearby beach. Here we whiled away the hours with Jamaican nachos, the local Red Stripe beer, rum drinks and one free margarita for every customer. Thank you Jimmy Buffet.

The Crime

According to United Nations estimates, Jamaica has had one of the highest murder rates in the world. Kingston, Montego Bay and Spanish Town were cursed with high incidents of crime and violence over the years. In 2005, Jamaica had a murder rate of 58 for every 100,000 people, the highest in the world for that year. Three years later, the Jamaican Parliament voted to retain the death penalty by hanging. Due to subsequent increases in police patrols, curfews and more effective anti-gang activities, that high murder rate fell and continued to fall. Many of the murders were reported to have been committed by organized crime involved in the illegal drug trade.

In 1976, Bob Marley, the famous reggae singer, and two others were wounded in an assault by unknown gunmen in his Kingston home. This murder attempt was thought to have been politically motivated by one of two warring political groups, since Marley's then upcoming free concert was seen by some as backing one particular politician.

A view of the old bauxite mine and wharf from the other side of ship
During the mid-1980's, I flew into Kingston to follow the paper trail of one of our fugitives. Parts of Kingston that we drove through were burned out buildings with political slogans painted on the walls still standing. That night, the other agent and I stayed at a hotel which was surrounded by cyclone fence with concertina wire on top. We were advised not to go outside the compound at night. It was explained to us that there were two political parties in the country and that a different criminal gang had attached itself to each of the parties. Kingston being on the opposite end of the island from the tourist resorts, we were assured the resort areas were kept safe because no one wanted to scare away the tourist money. The two Jamaican feds we worked with, and who escorted us everywhere, informed us to stay out of the mountain country at night and not to run any army checkpoints in the middle of the country. Those guys will machine gun you, we were told. But that was back then.

For our 2014 walk into the resort area of Ocho Rios, I was entirely comfortable with our environment. Our worst problem was saying "No" to vendors and taxi drivers. My only regret was not having the gear and time to go snorkeling on my own. Seems I should have signed up for the snorkeling excursion. Still had a great time at a beachside bar in a warm sun with balmy breezes...and out of the Colorado snow and cold. Sure, we'd go again sometime.

That was our last port of call before heading back to Ft. Lauderdale, disembarkation, U.S. Customs and the airport for home. It was a fun trip, seeing the tourist side, yet knowing what was or had been lurking in the past of each city and/or country we had visited.

08 May 2014

Other Places

by Eve Fisher

In a shameless attempt to win a vacation, I filled out a survey the other day about past vacations.  It asked - among an endless list of things - for a memorable sight, restaurant, etc., from various cities that my husband and I have been lucky enough to seen.  And I decided to share some of them with you.

Herodion Roof-top Bar
Athens, Greece.  We were given a tip by a cousin to stay at the Herodion Hotel in Athens (http://www.herodion.gr/).  If you ever go, stay there.  Well-run, surprisingly quiet, and three wonderful advantages:
(1)  It's right around the corner from the Acropolis Museum.
(2)  It has a rooftop restaurant with a view to die for.
(3)  Every room (or at least ours did) has a balcony from which you can see the Acropolis. At night, with the Parthenon lit up, an appropriate beverage, the warm air...  you never want to go back inside...
Movie Tip:  (none of these are specifically in Athens, but...)  Mediterraneo; Zorba the Greek; A Touch of Spice
Mystery Tip:  Anne Zouroudi's Hermes Diaktoros mysteries; also quite a few Mary Stewart's (old, but well-written)

Florence, Italy.  We went there on a guided tour, and I'm not giving names because I don't want to get sued. We were NOT happy, because they ran our feet off, didn't listen to any suggestions (like can we stop to get a bottle of water or use the toilet), and basically didn't know as much as we did about Italian art.  Sigh. Anyway, of course they took us to see Michaelangelo's David, giving us a full hour or so to appreciate the masterpiece.  I was satisfied in about 10 minutes (so I'm a Philistine), and I went wandering around the rest of the museum (Galleria dell'Accademia), and right around the corner was a wonderful room that was full of discarded Madonna altarpieces:

I mean, all four walls were covered in these, stacked seven high, heavy beaten gold, with blue-robed Madonnas with heavy-lidded eyes...  And yes, discarded altarpieces - because in Italy, as the Renaissance came in, you wanted something a lot more modern than these hypnotic, incense-laden half-domes of gold...
Movie Tip:  "Obsession"; "A Room with a View"
Mystery Tip:  Giulio Leoni - The Mosaic Crimes starring Dante Alighieri as sleuth

File:Amsterdam canals in summer.JPGAmsterdam, the Netherlands.  Besides canals, bicycles, the Rembrandthuis, the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, etc., there is also my favorite activity in any foreign city, eating.  I always try to find an obscure one where locals eat, and one night in Amsterdam we lucked out:  a restaurant which was chockful of elderly patrons, eating and talking.  We sat next to a table of eight little old ladies who were gossiping over their wine and lamb with huge whoops of laughter.  I don't remember where it was - but we loved it.  The lamb was very good, too.
Movie Tip:  "The Girl with the Pearl Earring"
Mystery Tip:  Jansillem van de Wetering, the Henk Grijpstra and Rinus de Gier mysteries.

Venice.  I fell for Venice the way a teenaged girl falls for that sexy older man who everyone knows is wrong for her.  Including her.  But it doesn't matter:  the look, the voice, the touch, everything is intoxicating.  I still feel that way. Riding the vaporettos to Murano and Burano, not to mention San Michele (I like old cemeteries); eating spaghetti a vongole and minestrone every chance I got; chamomile tea on a rainy afternoon, overlooking the canals; the smell of the place, the feel of the place, the light, oh, the light...  Give me half a chance, and I'm going back there, and staying as long as my pension will allow.

File:Canal Grande Chiesa della Salute e Dogana dal ponte dell Accademia.jpg

Movie Tip:  "Don't Look Now".  (We actually stayed in the hotel that part of this movie was set in.)
Mystery Tip:  "Don't Look Now" (du Maurier), and, of course, Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti mysteries.

Well, there's a start.  Now, if only that survey will send me back to one of these places...

07 May 2014

Busy week

Been an interesting and busy week at Casa Lopresti.
For instance, on Sunday I looked at My Little Corner, Sandra Seaman's indispensible blog and saw a link to Angie's Desk's listing of anthologies looking for stories.  And I had a tale that would fit one.  The next morning I checked my records and found that that story had been sitting at a magazine for six months, waiting for judgment.  So, obviously I couldn't send it it somewhere else.

Five minutes later I received an email rejection from the magazine.  Okay, I guess fate wanted me to send that story to the anthology.  We will see if the editor agrees.

Last month I had an idea for a piece of flash fiction (under 1000 words).  Problem was, it was about a new scam that is making the rounds and if I sent it to one of the paper magazines it might not appear for a year.  And, darn it, I wanted to make sure people knew about the scam now.

So I got a brain storm.  On Sunday I contacted Linda Landrigan and she agreed.  "Shanks Holds The Line" is now up on the Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine blog, Trace Evidence.  I hope you enjoy it.  (And thanks to our own R.T. Lawton for editorial help along the way.) 

But wait!  There's more!  Crime City Central is part of District of Wonders, a series of free podcasts that include readings of short stories.  (My favorite title is their science fiction entry: Starship Sofa!)

They asked me to contribute a story and so in their current entry you will find "Shanks On The Prowl," which originally appeared in AHMM back in May 2006.  The expert reading is by Rob Smales.  I had a fun time e-chatting with Mr. Smales, who wanted to make sure he got all the pronunciations of the character's names right.  I think he scored one hundred percent.

Okay, I'm sure the next few months will be back to humdrum normal.  I can cope.  Hoping you the same.

And here are last week's movie quotations, with the sources:

1.  -Well, I also feel it's about time someone knocked the Axis back on its heels.
-Excuse me, Baby. What she means it's about time someone knocked those heels back on their axis.  Leda Hamilton  ( Kaaren Verne)/ Gloves Donahue (Humphrey Bogart) All Through The Night

2.  Twelve people go off into a room: twelve different minds, twelve different hearts, from twelve different walks of life; twelve sets of eyes, ears, shapes, and sizes. And these twelve people are asked to judge another human being as different from them as they are from each other. And in their judgment, they must become of one mind - unanimous. It's one of the miracles of Man's disorganized soul that they can do it, and in most instances, do it right well. God bless juries.  -Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell) Anatomy of a Murder

3.  -If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus. 
-I thought we did.  -Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston)/ Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck)  Argo

4.  Exactly how many laws are we breaking here?
-You don't want to know. - Senator (Victor A. Young)/ Edgar Clenteen (David Morse) Bait

5.  -Your demands are very great under the circumstances.
-Why shouldn't they be?  Fat Gut's my best friend, and I will not betray him cheaply.  -Ahmed (Manuel Serano) / Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart) Beat The Devil

6.  - I'm a brother shamus!
-Brother Shamus?  Like an Irish monk? -Da Fino (Jon Polito)/ The Dude (Jeff Bridges) The Big Lebowshi

7.  -Why did you have to go on?
-Too many people told me to stop.  -Vivian (Lauren Bacall)/ Marlowe  (Humphrey Bogart)  The Big Sleep

8.  Of course, you won't be able to lie on your back for a while but then you can lie from any position, can't you?  - Reggie Lambert (Audrey Hepburn) , Charade

9.  Saddam? His name's Saddam? Oh, that's real good, Bruce. Yeah, I'm gonna pin a medal on an Iraqi named Saddam. Give yourself a raise, will you? -Rick Cabot (Brendan Fraser) -Crash.

10.  Freedom is overrated.  - John Booth (David Morse).  The Crossing Guard.

11.  -Will two hundred dollars be enough in advance, Mr Reardon?
-Two hundred, I'd shoot my grandmother.
-That won't be neccessary.
-Never can tell. In my last case, I had to throw my own brother out of an airplane.
- Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward)  / RIgby Reardon (Steve Martin) Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid

12.  There's a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don't need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you're on your own. Do you understand? -Driver (Ryan Gosling) Drive

13.  I am Nikita! - Guess Who (Anne Parillaud)  La Femme Nikita

14.  -My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.
-Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don't have men killed.
-Oh. Who's being naive, Kay?  - Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) / Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) The Godfather

15.  When you think of what they have to carry, all those jimmies and torches and skeleton keys, it's a miracle anyone ever gets burgled at all. - Lady Constance (Maggie Smith) Gosford Park

16.  Locked, from the inside. That can only mean one thing. And I don't know what it is. - Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) Murder By Death

17.  You know, this'll be the first time I've ever killed anyone I knew so little and liked so well.  - Helen Grayle (Claire Treveor) Murder, My Sweet

18.  Well, you take a big chance getting up in the morning, crossing the street, or sticking your face in a fan.  - Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) The Naked Gun

19.  -It's a mess, ain't it, sheriff?
-If it ain't, it'll do till the mess gets here.-Wendell (Garrett Dillahunt) / Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones)  No Country For Old Men

20.  -Is there a way to win?
-There's a way to lose more slowly.  Kathie Moffatt (Jane Greer) / Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) Out Of The Past

21.  At least meet her. Maybe she'd be someone you'd like to kill.  - Owen (Danny DeVito)  Throw Momma Off The Train.

22.   He's a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.  -George Smiley (Gary Oldham) in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

23.  On TV is where we learn about who we really are.  Because what's the point of doing anything worthwhile if no one's watching?  And if people are watching it makes you a better person.  - Suzanne Stone Maretto (Nicole Kitman) To Die For

24.  - I need your help. I can't tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it later, and we're gonna hurt some people.
- Whose car are we gonna' take?  -Doug McRay (Ben Affleck) /  James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner)  The Town

25.  The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. –Verbal Kint  (Kevin Spacey) The Usual Suspects

06 May 2014

The Elements of Style

       Before retiring in 2009 I did my fair share of legal writing. But I did an even greater amount of editing. My approach to editing is a simple one to state, harder to put into practice. I told those whose work I was charged with reviewing (and revising) that they should write as though there were one thousand ways to write their piece erroneously and one thousand ways to write it correctly. If they got it right, it would be right, even if I might have chosen a different one of those thousand acceptable approaches. But if they got it wrong, well, then it was in my hands and I had free rein when I revised it.

       Those of us who have written for a living -- as I did when I was editing those (uninteresting) legal briefs and memoranda -- have learned how to write through a prolonged process of trial and error. If successful, this process eventually results in the development of an ear for the language, an ability to “hear” what works on the page and what does not. But the process of getting there can be agonizing, and generally begins with the boot camp of learning (and following) a set of strict rules that are drilled into us at an early age. For many of us, at least those in my generation, those rules were probably initially encountered in The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.
       The Elements of Style was originally written and self-published by Strunk, an English professor at Cornell, who was White’s teacher in 1919. Popularly, however, the volume has been available for 55 years, dating from 1959, the year when White, who had written a New Yorker article praising the volume and Professor Strunk, edited and updated Strunk’s slender guide and for the first time published it for the mass market. Almost immediately the volume took off. Dorothy Parker said of it “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

       But, as is the case with almost any “how to write” treatise Strunk and White (as the book is often called) also has its detractors. Much of their criticism stems from the brittleness of the volume’s approach, its tendency to prescribe hard and fast rules in circumstances where guidance might be a better approach. In an article “celebrating” the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style, “Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” (The Chronicle Review, April 17, 2009) Edinburgh English professor Geoffrey K. Pullum had very little good to say about the volume. As an example, Pullum takes issue with Strunk and White’s position on split infinitives.The Elements of Style advises that split infinitives "should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb." Pullum rejects the approach, labeling it “completely wrong”:
Tucking the adverb in before the verb actually de-emphasizes the adverb, so a sentence like "The dean's statements tend to completely polarize the faculty" places the stress on polarizing the faculty. The way to stress the completeness of the polarization would be to write, "The dean's statements tend to polarize the faculty completely."
       But arguably Pullum has fallen into the same “brittleness” trap for which he derides Strunk and White. In fact, as a purported universal rule, Pullum’s rule on adverb placement fares no better than does the Strunk and White rule. All Star Trek fans, for example, know that the word “boldly” is stronger under the Strunk and White "exception" approach (“to boldly go where no man has gone before”) than it would be under the Pullum alternative (“to go where no man has gone before boldly”). When one approach works for the “dean’s statement” sentence but the other works for the Star Trek opening, one can only conclude that there in fact can be no universal rule, nor universal exception.

       Are there other pitfalls encountered when a writer follows black and white approaches religiously? Certainly. For example, Strunk and White dictates that no sentence must ever begin with the word "and" or “however.” We are told to avoid “certainly” in almost all circumstances. “Factor” and “feature,” we are told, are “hackneyed words.” And the rule, as originally set forth by Strunk and White, is that “to-day”, “to-night” and “to-morrow,” are only to be written using hyphens. There may be guidance in this, but hardly unbreakable rules.

       In a 2009 article, also celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style the New York Times had this to say:
The little book had big pretensions, which were not always appreciated by writers or even grammarians. Had they followed all the rules (avoid injecting fancy words, foreign languages and opinion), Thomas Wolfe, Vladmir Nabokov, William F. Buckley and Murray Kempton (a comma before “and” — or not?), to name a few successful writers, might have been shunted into very different careers.
       Pullum’s article goes further. To make its point that rules of English usage cannot be hard and fast Pullum takes on the Strunk and White rule that the phrase “none of us” requires the singular “is.” Using computerized searches of which the authors of The Elements of Style could only have dreamt, Pullum points out that Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea consistently and and almost invariably use “none of us are.”

       These examples illustrates the problem with any stark approach when it comes to setting usage rules. English simply refuses to play by those rules. It evolves. I used to work with someone who railed at anyone who spelled “supersede” with a “c”, decrying that this was the most common misspelling in the English language. But today “supercede” clears most spellcheckers just fine. And hardly anyone today (no hyphen) would hyphenate tonight or tomorrow as prescribed by The Elements of Style.

       The truth is, that while it is good to know the underlying rules when developing your writer’s ear, the rules themselves need to be taken with grains of salt. Once your ear has matured and developed it needs to be relied upon more than the rules. If the prose sounds right to an educated ear as it is written, it likely is right to the ear of the reader. This point was not lost on White, who, as anyone who has marveled at Charlotte’s Web fully realizes, was possessed of a great writer’s ear. White in fact acknowledged that his own approach to writing was at least a bit at loggerheads with the black letter law of The Elements of Style:
E.B. White, at work at The New York Times
I felt uneasy at posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear, . . . [but] [u]nless someone is willing to entertain notions of superiority, the English language disintegrates, just as a home disintegrates unless someone in the family sets standards of good taste, good conduct and simple justice.
       To me, that says it all. The rules set forth in The Elements of Style are foundational. Knowing them is like learning how to outline a story, or essay, in advance. Usage rules and outlining skills are tools that each of us should first master so that our writing is constructed on a solid foundation. Then, when and if we abandon the rules, or at least loosen the reins, it is with full knowledge of what we are doing.

       And (I purposely begin) even then we have to be careful. In that 2009 article celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Elements of Style, The New York Times noted that the latest edition of the book contained “ a forward by White’s stepson, Roger Angell.” Soon thereafter The Times published a correction. 

        It should have been “foreword.”

05 May 2014

Random Thoughts On Writing

Jan Grape
Random thoughts running thru my head today. Both are good subjects, I hope. The first is, do you let an idea jell or percolate in your head before you start writing? I try to do that but have certainly been guilty of not letting the idea jell long enough. And to be honest, you can also take too long to let an idea come out of your head and onto the computer screen or on to the paper.

I don't think there's a specific amount of time that one should use. No right or wrong way here. Sometimes a story demands that you sit yourself down and write while the idea is fresh on your mind or when the muse says, do it, just do it now.

It's always possible you'll have an idea, maybe make some notes so you won't forget it. Then you set it aside. Perhaps you might need to do some research on the subject. On the location or on the character's life or on some part of the idea. Somewhere your creative muse says, whoa, slow down here, we need to get this right. Or maybe you've written about half-way through and you're not exactly sure where to go. Place it on the back burner and let it percolate. Most likely it will come spilling out when you least expect it, but it will solve your problem.

Most writers I know, write both novels and short stories, but I once was editing an anthology and asked an Edgar winner if he would write a short story to be included.  He declined by saying, sorry I only have one idea a year and I need to use that for my next novel. It was a strange response but perhaps it's true.  I don't recall seeing many if any short stories from him through the years, but he does write terrific novels.

Personally I seem to do better when I have a deadline so I don't let my story or idea simmer too long. And I have on occasion had a story come pouring out and finishing a decent short story in a day.  I do try to set it aside then and jell at least a day or two then reread before I edit.  If I have the time, I think I'm mentioned before that I like to let a story sit for three or four days before I start on editing or rewriting. But each writer does things differently and each story or book demands different actions.
I do think it's a good thing to be easy going and do whatever works for you in the long run.


My other random thoughts are about mentoring aspiring writers. How many of you have done that? I enjoy doing it and actually do it every year for my Sisters-in-Crime local chapter. We have an event every year in May which is to honor our good friend, Barbara Burnett Smith who had a fatal accident in 2005. Barbara enjoyed mentoring and her son, W.D. Smith set up this event with our Heart of Texas Chapter. The authors who agree to participate, are sent the name of an aspiring writer. The author contacts the writer and the writer sends along 500-750 words of their work in progress. A very short synopsis is also included.

The author reads and critiques and spends as much time as the author wishes. Then on the scheduled date for the S-in-C meeting and event, the author and writer meet. The regular meeting occurs and the participants are recognized. Usually a portion of the aspiring writer's work is read. Also one author is usually chosen as being an outstanding mentor. At the end of the meeting, the mentor and mentee have a few minutes to discuss the mentees work and hopes. The author gives the aspiring writer a couple of their books and autographs them.

One major thing I enjoy about being a mentor is when I read the new writer's work, I can see myself with my early work. I can usually see where they might be going wrong and do my best to set them on the right path. However, you might find an outstanding aspiring writer and decide you want to introduce them to your editor or agent. That hasn't happened to me yet, but I've had a couple come close and hope I'll see them published soon.

I also enjoy the idea of giving back or paying it forward is really the right term. I had so many wonderful writers help me when I was getting started and I remember telling one that I'd never be able to repay him. He said, don't ever even think about it. But to pay it forward. That he'd had great help when he started and someone had told him to pay it forward. It was something that he always tried to do. And it's something I always try to do. It's such a wonderful feeling to see the growth of an aspiring writer and know that you were able to help them get to complete their goal.

Happy Spring, Happy May, and Happy Cinco de Mayo.

Like my partner in crime, Fran, always says, until we meet next time take good care of yourself.

04 May 2014

Castle Defense

by Leigh Lundin

As April ended, two remarkably similar homicide cases created headlines, one ending, the other just beginning. In both situations, men trapped and executed clean-cut teens who’d entered their property. In both cases, the perpetrators claimed they were trapping burglars and doing the job of police.

Except it’s not the duty of police to execute trespassers or even burglars.

Here is where opinions split: Property and guns-rights advocates believe their position trumps human rights including the right to life. The counter view is that human life is far more precious than mere things. Mixed into this madness is Florida’s insane Shoot First / Stand Your Ground law that’s metastasized to other states.

To speak out against the SF/SYG law is to invite challenges that one is anti-gun (and by extension, anti-American). I’m not, in fact, I’m an owner. My father was an incredible marksman and my mother put food on the table with her own carbine. To rural families, rifles were tools, not toys. Happiness wasn’t a warm gun and that’s where I step apart from those who lovingly stroke their weapons. Something’s terribly wrong in our culture.

Lines of Fire

One example: A former employee of mine– a likable guy if he wasn’t such a bonehead– got into a mess with the wives of a couple of his neighbors. (Yep, I said he was a bonehead!) One of the husbands threatened to send around a recently out-of-prison convict who liked to hurt people.

When I suggested he beef up his home security, bonehead said, “Why? I don’t lock my doors, I’m waiting for them. Laid out my trip wires, planned my field of fire, I can cover most of the house from one hallway.”

My jaw didn’t drop, but it wanted to. He absolutely believed that protected by Florida’s laws, if anyone stepped foot on his property, he had a right to kill them. No DA would prosecute him, no court would convict him.

(And indeed, we’ve seen teens shot for taking shortcuts across lawns and a lost man killed for simply knocking on a door for directions. “Fear for one’s life,” that’s the pass-phrase of the SF/SYG law.)

So in a house with three children and usually one or two women (girlfriends, other men’s wives), he could have taken a dozen precautions to avoid conflict, but instead, he preferred to lie in wait, armed and thirsty for blood, convinced it wouldn’t be his.

The sheriff’s department may have had a quiet word with one or more parties, but the drama died down. One of the wives returned to her husband and baby, and the other wife went on to advance her career in stripping and finding a new sugar daddy.

But what if one of those men had knocked on the door one evening? What if anyone, any kid, walked in, tripping the invisible fishing lines? Another death and the resident saying, “Yep, I feared for my life.”

Kifer and Brady
Haile Kifer and Nick Brady
Turkey Shoot I

That brings us to the Minnesota case. Thanksgiving Day, 2012. A man’s home had been burgled. For reasons that aren’t clear, he believed it would happen again. His extensive preparations included setting up a recording system and preparing a hidey-hole (a so-called ‘deer blind’) stocked with a novel, an easy chair, a hunting rifle, a handgun, food and water… and a tarp. Eschewing dinner with friends and family, he made the home appear unoccupied and retreated to his ‘deer blind’.

And then he waited. He waited until 17-year-old Nick Brady descended the cellar steps and, like a hunter, he wounded him, mocked the downed boy, then executed him and wrapped him in the tarp.

And then he waited. He waited until 18-year-old Haile Kifer descended the steps whispering “Nick?” He fired again and his automatic jammed. He cleared it as the girl cried, “Oh, my God,” and shot her, taunting her before and after administering a coup de grâce.

A man who’d seen too many Dirty Harry movies, he recorded a chilling justification, calling the teens vermin. The tape that was supposed to be his saving grace in court, became his undoing. Sympathy for a man with a burgled property became horror toward a man without feeling, without regard for the young lives he’d taken. It’s impossible to say what the verdict might have been without the recording, but the jury took only three hours to sentence Byron Smith to life in prison.

Diren Dede
Diren Dede
Turkey Shoot II

On the night of 27 April, two Montana homeowners 300 miles apart shot teens in their attached garages. One was a house guest and seminary student who stepped into the garage to make a phone call without disturbing the rest of the family. The owner of the house, not bothering to identify his target, brought the boy down with a blast to the chest.

To the west in Missoula, a security specialist and his girlfriend turned his garage into a lethal trap for presumed teen burglars. They activated surveillance equipment and then sat up and waited.

Janelle Pflager had baited the trap with her purse sitting out, left the garage door ¾ open, and switched on a monitor. When a motion sensor tripped, Markus Hendrik Kaarma grabbed his shotgun and headed outside to confront the intruder.

Kaarma shotgunned 17-year-old Diren Dede, a high school junior, talented athlete, and foreign exchange student. It’s not clear why Dede entered the garage. I’ve been known to close my neighbors’ doors, but we don’t know.

But follow this: Kaarma announced in advance he wanted to "shoot some ƒ-ing kid." Although he said he didn’t want the boy to get away, that he wanted him caught and that the police can’t catch burglars in the act, he invoked the magic words of the SF/SYG law: He said he feared for his life and thought he was going to die.

See, Montana aped the Florida Shoot First / Stand Your Ground law, supplanting wording of the ancient Castle Doctrine. Indeed, Kaarma’s attorney announced he’d use those very provisions to defend his client.

As pro-gun lobbyist Gary Marbut explains, the SF/SYG “revisions allow a structure’s resident to be presumed innocent when using lethal force to defend his or her property.” So innocent, in fact, that in the early months of Florida’s law, 100 shooters who would have otherwise been prosecuted and possibly imprisoned were not arrested, not prosecuted, not convicted, or had charges dismissed due to Shoot First / Stand Your Ground.

Castle Keep

Montana State Representative Ellie Hill, a Second Amendment supporter, doesn’t oppose the historic version of the castle doctrine, but she takes issue with the Shoot First / Stand Your Ground provisions added in 2009.

“What the [new law] has done in this country is it has created a culture of gun violence and vigilante justice,” Hill said, “and it’s created a culture that it’s OK to shoot first and ask questions later… What’s missing from the law is common sense.”

And that’s the problem. What are your views?

03 May 2014


by Elizabeth Zelvin

Who hasn’t dreamed of flying? To oversimplify the classic interpretations of flying dreams, Freud saw them as symbolic of sexuality, while for Jung, they signified freedom and transcendence. We live in an era in which sexuality is out in the open, while freedom and transcendence are still hard to come by. Although I’m a shrink as well as a writer, what interests me most about dreams is how they feel: gloriously exhilarating and utterly convincing, so that I wake thinking that maybe, just maybe, I could fly in waking life.

My favorite fictional descriptions of flying appear in Sharon Shinn’s Samaria series, which appears in the first book to be fantasy but is revealed over the course of the series as science fiction, albeit brilliantly character driven and superbly plotted. The beings who share the planet Samaria with humans are known as angels. They have powerful wings that allow them to fly to great heights from which they use their glorious singing voices to intercede with the god on behalf of the people.

He ascended effortlessly into the opalescent whiteness of the cloudless morning sky. Higher and higher, aiming straight for the zenith of the heavens, so high that even to his superheated blood the air seemed cool; so high that beyond the blank blueness of the sky he could sense an eternal, waiting night….Aloft in the icy air…Gabriel flung his arms wide and began to sing. He could hear every sound, this high up: the rhythmic stroking of his great wings, the brief catch and intake of his own breath, the faint sluicing of blood through the canals of his ears. – Sharon Shinn, Archangel

Because of the rain, she had flown in low, and now she spiraled upward over the broken mountain. The air was treacly, clinging to her wings with actual malice; she had to fight her way higher to get as far above the storm as possible. Even after she cleared the worst of the rain, the air about her felt dense and unforgiving…. Usually, this far above the earth, the air currents felt alive; even before she started singing, she would hear the echoes of her wingbeats batted from star to star. – Sharon Shinn, Jovah’s Angel

She flung herself aloft…and beat her wings against the sullen air….It felt good to fly, to unfurl her clenched wings and feel the thick, viscous ocean air lay its cushions under her feathers. – Sharon Shinn, The Alleluia Files

She…drove her wings in short hard sweeps against the air…She was aware of the steady, rhythmic beating of her wings, the tensing and relaxing of the sinews across her back, but nonetheless she felt like she was floating through the air. She…drifted peacefully across the broken terrain, silent and light as milkweed, circled once over the rocky margin of the shore, and settled easily a few yards from the sea. – Sharon Shinn, The Alleluia Files

I’d be happy to tell you that in my dreams, I soar high into the sky like Samaria’s angels. But I don’t. In my most consistent recurring dream about flying, I hover about three feet from the ground and have to push at the air with my hands in a kind of dog-paddle to stay up. When I try to remember more, the image that springs to my mind is the sidewalk in front of my parents’ house in Queens. My interpretation: I started having this dream when I was so young that I wasn’t allowed to cross the street. But you know what? It still gives me an enormous sense of freedom—the phrase “ability to escape” floats into my mind as I write this, and you’re welcome to interpret that however you like—and I’d be thrilled if I could really do it. I wake from this dream thinking, “How hard could it be? If I just push against the air....”

What are your dreams of flying like?

02 May 2014

Twilight of the Temperature

By Dixon Hill 

This post is slated to go up at midnight on Friday, May 2nd. But, that’s about 11:00 p.m., Thursday night here in Scottsdale. So, I’m writing this on the day it will go up here: Thursday, May 1st.

Depending on where you’re currently hanging your hat, it May not look as if Spring has sprung yet.

Sitting here, writing on the balcony of our new apartment, however, with a hummingbird that keeps flitting in to look around (I suspect it’s attracted by the scent of my pipe smoke.), it sure looks like Spring time to me.

Besides:   It’s May First.   It’s my birthday.

So, I know it really is Spring. Which, in the mythical Dirk Gently’s Dictionary of the Sonoran Desert, is defined as: “That short twilight-like interlude between the chilly temps of Winter, and the roasting hell that is—for so many, at least—Summer in the Valley of the Sun.”

I’m not one of those folks who decry the Summer heat, however. I welcome Summer as a time when I can jump in the pool the way the Snow Birds have done all Winter. The thermometer rises, the Snow Birds depart, and the water calls.

On the other hand, I also get a kick out of some other folks, such as a fellow I met the other night. He’s a young guy, recently graduated from college and now working an entry-level job of his chosen career field, eyeing that long and long-anticipated ladder-climb. We were talking, and he mentioned, “Everyone says how hot it is here, but I’ve been here since October and it’s not really all that hot.”

I couldn’t stifle a slight chuckle as I said, “That’s because it’s not hot yet.”

“It has been,” he retorted. “It was in the high eighties, and even hit ninety of few weeks ago.”

I nodded, and shared my standard thoughts on 90-degrees. “Right. Ninety degrees: that’s my favorite temperature, actually. If it’s at night—or you’re in the shade—with a slight breeze, it’s like heaven. Without shade or breeze, it’s a nice temp to hit the pool; you can lay out without looking like an egg left on the sidewalk too long. Perfect temperature!”

Now that quip about an egg left on the sidewalk is a joke, of course, but here are a couple of YouTube videos of eggs being fried on frying pans on sidewalks in Arizona. In both cases, however, I have to say I think they’re actually being fried by the frying pan, instead of the sidewalk. Sidewalks tend to dissipate heat too well to fry eggs. Frying pans, on the other hand, can make all the difference.

 VIDEO 1           VIDEO 2 

Meanwhile, I’ve been pleased to discover the management team at our new apartments is throwing a party in honor of my birthday! I discovered this after picking my son up from school, and finding a flyer on our door about a “Taco Night” picnic scheduled to take place on the lawn outside in a few hours. How kind of them.

Though I really don’t do birthday parties, and though I suspect it might be no more than a collection of Taco Bell fare, I suppose I should make at least make an appearance. Who knows? Perhaps it will be fun. At the very least, I’ll have the chance to people-watch while eating tacos.

See you in two weeks!

01 May 2014

Chimes at Midnight, Nothing...

...imagine hearing them every waking moment!
Me, writing. (Well, okay, me, *signing*…)

As some of you know, I suffer from tinnitus in my left ear–the result of a run-in with German measles when I was four. Most of the time I can tune it out, but not when I'm writing.

(For those of you who have never experienced tinnitus, count yourselves lucky. For the subset of you eaten alive by curiosity as to what tinnitus actually sounds like to those who suffer from it, the variety that plagues me most resembles the noise you can find here.)

This is in large part because I'm one of those guys who writes without music playing in the background. I used to be a "put in the playlist and let'er rip" kind of writer, but I eventually realized that when writing I pretty much shut out extraneous sound anyhow, so I don't usually bother with music, unless it's ambient stuff (which is, literally, in the words of Brian Eno, who founded the subgenre, and coined the phrase, "ambient music", intended to be "like the furniture in your living room. It's there, but do you really pay any attention to it?"), and that less and less these days.

All this said, there are occasions when I still ramp up the music while writing. More on that below.

It's just that most of the time silence really works best for me.

But then oh, yeah, that's right...

Hell-LOOOOO tinnitus!

So what's a savvy veteran writer to do when that damned ringinginginginging keeps him from forming so much as single coherent sentence?

That's easy. Music isn't the only type of sound considered "ambient." In fact I've found the most interesting ambient noise-employing tool to combat the distraction which is my chronic ringing left ear:

Star Trek on Youtube!

I can hear you now, scoffing.

Well, go click the link here and give this a listen, because it actually masks 90% of the ringing I hear in an otherwise silent room.

And God bless the fellow Trekkie who decided to loop the sound of the starship Enterprise's "warp engines" for a 24-hour continuous thread. It's been a genuine boon to my writing production!

The single exception to my no music while writing rule is when I'm writing action scenes. Whether they involve a chase, a fight, murder or mayhem, if the reader's pulse is intended to ramp up a notch, I find it helpful to turn to the masters for help.

Guys like Alfred Newman.

Noooo not THIS guy!
The Alfred Newman I'm referring to is the composer who wrote (among many other pieces of timeless music, the film score for the ultimate 1960s Western, How the West Was Won.

THIS guy!

And not just him, but other giants in the field: especially Howard Shore (famous for scoring The Lord of the Rings), the brilliant Michael Giacchino (too many to list, but definitely including John Carter, The Incredibles, Star Trek (the newest incarnation), and of course other auteurs who scored 60s westerns (call it a quirk of mine, that music gets me to thinking about things and people moving, and the next thing you know, that fight scene's written!), not least of them the immortal Elmer Bernstein, whose film work on the score for The Magnificent Seven alone can always get my creative juices going.

I defy you to listen to this score and NOT have your imagination run wild (you can test my theory by clicking here – in fact the guy conducting this orchestra is none other than Good Ol' Elmer himself!).

So there you have it: my recipe for success–and it is definitely
The Immortal Elmer With The Immortal Oscar!
mine and mine alone. It works for me. Feel free to weigh in: when it comes to writing soundtracks, what works best for you? Silence? Ambient noise? Bruce Springsteen? Judy Garland?

Inquiring minds want to know!