22 June 2014

There was a Crooked Village


Little Stomping

Picture a village whose reason for being is a criminal enterprise. Imagine its entire raison d’être, its very existence hinges upon fleecing the public. Typical of such towns, as many as one in fifteen to twenty of residents– men, women, children and chickens– are part of its politico-judicial machinery: crooked cops, municipal machinators, and corrupt clerks.

And not ordinary crooked cops, but heavily armed with the latest in high-power assault weaponry and shiny pursuit vehicles. Police– poorly trained but still police– yet some may not have been certified officers at all. One fancied himself Rambo and stopped tourists with an AR-15 slung across his chest like that inbred couple in Open Carry Texas.

Village authorities arbitrarily moved town limit signs beyond the actual town’s boundaries in a bid to increase exposure to radar patrol… and revenues. When cops sat in lawn chairs aiming their radar guns and sipping from their open containers, they turned a blind eye to the citizens who dried their marijuana in the convenience store’s microwave. Oh, and those shiny police cars? The town often didn’t bother to insure them, this in a village where the police department wrote more tickets than Fort Lauderdale but still outspent its budget.

speed trap
First of three speed traps in
a 20 mile stretch of US 301.
AAA believed to sponsor sign.
Speed Trap

Set this supposition aside for the moment.

When I was a kid who couldn't yet drive, a short story left an impression on me. The plot centered around a man traveling to Florida who was caught in a small town speed trap. The police tossed him in jail.

Andy Griffith they weren't: they kept him imprisoned as the authorities systematically drained his assets like a spider sucks juices from a fly. Who do you turn to when the law is corrupt?

Florida sunshine has always attracted northerners during the icy winter months. In the first half of the 20th century, snowbirds filtered south through the highways and byways of America. Before the 1950s, towns and villages in the arteries of early tourism discovered they could make money fleecing tourists  passing through their area.
Lawtey, Hampton, Waldo
Lawtey, Hampton, Waldo speed traps
 
US 301
US 301: Jacksonville ↔ Gainesville
Atlantic at right, Georgia border at top


Some places in the Deep South considered northern travelers carpetbaggers and therefore fair game. Even so, town fathers and others found it easy to offset moral compunctions when considering the sheer profit involved. Could they help it if a Yankee ran a stop sign obscured by tree branches or failed to notice the speed limit abruptly changed from 55 to 25?

Where’s Waldo?

In the tiny towns of Lawtey, Hampton, and Waldo, that’s exactly what happens as the speed limits bounce every block or so from 55 to 30 to 45 to 25 and back again. If you have the time and patience, you might try locking your cruise control in at 25mph, hoping to beat the system. But they have an answer for that too– tickets for failing to maintain a safe speed.

In the early 1990s, it dawned on Hampton that nearby US 301 was an untapped piggy bank with the emphasis on piggy. The highway had been a source of resentment when it passed within a few hundred metres of the town limits, but devious minds found a way to make the road pay. The village annexed a strip of land 420 yards (384 metres) along the federal highway and began hiring candidates for police officers. Hampton’s speed trap was born.
(See maps below.)

In a state with a governor who committed the largest Medicare/Medicaid fraud in history, it takes a lot to outrage the Florida Legislature, but over time, Hampton succeeded. Their downfall started when they had the audacity to ticket State Representative Charles van Zant. Thanks to him, Florida lawmakers drew up plans to revoke the city's charter and revert the village to an unincorporated plat of county land.

Hampton with annex
Hampton with annex
Hampton with annex
Hampton
The events that set Hampton above (or below?) its speed trap neighbors, Lawtey and Waldo, is the corruption that took place off the highway. The village can’t account for monies in the high six-figures while at the same time failing to provide basic maintenance and repairs. Under one free-spending family that ‘managed’ the little city, it ran up large debts at local stores and on the municipal credit card.

While the town failed to properly bill residents for the water utility, the clerk collected cash– Sorry, no receipts. The water department can’t reconcile nearly half of the water actually distributed, telling auditors the records were “lost in a swamp.” And if residents complained about inefficiency and corruption, their water supply was cut off altogether, prompting Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith to refer to the situation as “Gestapo in Hampton.

As CNN suggested, the town became too corrupt even for Florida to stomach. State and federal auditors agreed and wheels started turning to unincorporate the town and strip it of its charter. The road to perdition seemed inevitable.

Road to Recovery

But not everyone saw it that way. Once corrupt authorities slunk back into the shadows, good citizens of Hampton stepped forward. A former clerk took over the reins. A new resident made plans to run for mayor, replacing the current mayor who resigned from his jail cell. Volunteers put together a plan to bring the town into compliance and moreover, they acted upon it. Among other things, the town plans to de-annex the strip of land encompassing US 301 although the ‘handle’ part of the town’s griddle shape will remain.

At present, efforts to revoke the town’s charter remain in abeyance and it looks like the town may have saved itself. We can only wish legislators had the political gumption to rid the state of speed traps altogether in places like Waldo, Lawtey, and Windemere.

Short Story Bonus

And, in case you were wondering, Jacksonville is probably not named after Shirley Jackson, despite her [in]famous short story about a small town. Read it on-line | download eBook PDF | download audiobook.

21 June 2014

Ruminations of a Senior Citizen


NOTE: Please join me in welcoming my friend Herschel Cozine as our guest blogger.  Herschel is well known to the writers and readers of both SleuthSayers and its predecessor, Criminal Brief, as an accomplished author of short mystery fiction. His credits include AHMMEQMM, Woman's World, and many other publications, and his book The Humpty Dumpty Tragedy was nominated by Long and Short Reviews for Best Book of 2012. (I'm currently on the road and will be back in two weeks--meanwhile, I've left you in good hands. Herschel, thanks again!)
-- John Floyd


In the past few months several of you have commented on the fact you are getting old. Not fifty or sixty type oldies. Let's face it, that's kid stuff. We are talking "old." It should be a four-letter word. Maybe that's why the British put an "e" on the end. On the other hand, with age comes wisdom, or so the saying goes. Speaking from personal experience, I question that. Some people never learn.

But that is not the purpose of this discussion.

I have a birthday looming on the horizon. Another one. That's the third one this year, or so it seems. I suppose I should be grateful. After all, studies have shown that birthdays are good for you. The more you have the longer you live. But I'm at a point in my life where they start to hurt.

I have a T-shirt that reads: "I plan to live forever. So far, so good." An old Steven Wright joke. But at times I feel I have accomplished that goal.

There is no polite way to put it. I am an old man. It certainly is nothing to be ashamed of. It happens to everyone if they are lucky. But it is a sobering time of life, a time when one comes face to face with his mortality. I recently had a financial guru give me a tip on an investment that would double in value in five years. I turned him down. I am no longer a candidate for long term investments.

What has that to do with writing? When I was young and innocent--well, young anyway--I had the irresistible urge to write. As fellow writers, you need no explanation. But I didn't write for any specific market or, for that matter, for any market at all. I wrote because it was something I had to do. I got a certain amount of recognition for this hobby, or whatever word you care to use, when I was in high school. Class writing projects in English usually resulted in my effort being used by the teacher as a model. One of my class projects found its way into the yearbook. It felt good to get this recognition, but in high school no self-respecting boy would admit it. A football hero? Yes. Drag racing champion? Certainly. Writer? Are you kidding me?

Eventually, after college, I was told by someone that I should try my hand at writing for--how crass--money. I had been writing poems and stories for children, but never submitted them to magazines. The thought was intriguing. I found an ad in a writing magazine about a contest being sponsored by the Society of Children's Book Writers. First prize was $100, a princely sum at that time. I had just completed a children's story, in verse. So I typed it up, put it in the standard package of the day--a manila envelope--and sent it in. Lo and behold, it won!

I was hooked. For several years I wrote and sold a fair number of poems and stories to the children's magazines of the day. But, being a big fan of adult mysteries, I eventually turned my attention to writing them. My first success in that arena was a Department of First Stories sale to Ellery Queen.

I won't bore you with any further successes and failures. I have had some of the former and more than my share of the latter. I mention them only as a prelude to what I really want to say.

I have reached a stage in my life where writing for money is no longer important. Oh, I won't turn down a check if some editor wants to buy my story. But this is now merely a fringe benefit and not the main purpose for continuing to write. (Come to think of it, it never was.)

What is important to me is to have the respect of those who take the time to read my efforts. I particularly cherish the recognition afforded me by other writers. They, after all, are fellow travelers who know and appreciate the slings and arrows of this business. They have hit the same bumps, felt the sting of rejection and the giddiness of acceptance. You, my friends, matter.

As I said in the beginning, I am an old man. I no longer write with the fervor and eagerness of youth. Ideas that used to come in torrents now dribble in grudgingly. I continue to write. But it is not the same. I am more critical of my work, often deleting it after several attempts to make it work. But enough of it remains to keep me going. And that will never change. I don't question why. All I know is that I am a writer; whether a good one or not I leave for others to decide. But a writer--a true writer--cannot quit. To paraphrase, neither sleet or snow or dark of night, or old age, will keep a writer from his word processor. And now to bed.

NOTE: A special thanks to Jim Williams, a lifelong friend, for his cartoon. In addition to being a cartoonist, Jim is a fellow writer. His book, Cattle Drive, published by High Noon Press, has just been released and is available on Amazon.

20 June 2014

....and Handlers


(cont'd from two weeks ago)

If an agency doesn't have good procedures and controls in place for their assets and their Handlers, then they are looking for trouble in an area where trouble is easily found. Every agency now probably has its own system and policies in place, but the basics are generally the same, so let's take a look at them.

For security, it's best to give the informant, or asset, a code number to be used in all activity and debriefing reports. Within this code number file should be the informant's fingerprints, which may also help ensure he is who he says he is; a personal history or background, info needed to check up on him now and maybe in the future if he goes on the run; a records check to find any crimes charged with or convicted of in the past; a color photo; and a debriefing report to determine what value the informant may have to your agency.

Also in this file, it would be smart to have a signed copy of the Informant Agreement. This document lays out the parameters of what the informant will and will not do, such as realizing that he is NOT law enforcement, nor is he an agency employee. He also agrees not to break the law, unless specifically authorized, else face possible prosecution if caught.

Special permission is usually needed from some authority before a Handler can use a juvenile, a two-time felon, a drug addict, someone on parole or probation, a current defendant or a prison inmate. Doesn't mean a Handler can't use people in these categories, it merely means that extra steps must be taken and permission from the proper authority is required before use. Why? Because inherent problems need to be addressed before these people can be activated. For instance, use of a parolee requires permission of the affected parole or probation agency, a defendant requires permission of the prosecuting attorney and use of an inmate requires permission of that prison's authorities. The spy world has their own policies on restrictions and categories, which are considerably looser.

Two Handlers should be present at every meeting with an asset in order to prevent false accusations of wrongdoing on the part of the Handler, especially during those times when a Handler is paying funds to the asset. (This may not be feasible in some spy situations.) Informants are paid out of agency funds (or reward money) with paperwork and signatures to document the payments.

Handlers should not engage in personal socializing, joint business ventures or romantic entanglements with the asset, nor should they receive gifts from the asset. I think you can figure out some of the bad possibilities for these situations.

Informants should be searched before and after each controlled meeting with a targeted individual, thus if the informant brings back evidence from that meeting, the presumption is that evidence came from the target, not planted by the informant.

The asset should be debriefed at least every ninety days for new intelligence, else placed on inactive status. Supervisors should review informant status and manage controls.

The Handler should try to independently verify any information received from an informant to ensure it is good intelligence.

NOTE: Private investigators are not held to the same high standards as law enforcement, while spy agencies may have exigent circumstances allowing looser controls and procedures for use of informants.

How do things go bad? Ask the FBI agent who went to prison from the way he handled mobster Whitey Bulger as an informant.

And then there was the state agent who got his informant pregnant, lost his job and had to testify to all those facts during a defendant's subsequent trial in federal court.

We sometimes had one informant buy from another informant who was trafficking while working for us. The second guy went to prison.

Knew a state informant who without his Handler's knowledge, wired up his own house with hidden cameras and microphones and proceeded to act like his favorite movie character when dealing with other criminals.

One informant with a felony record which prevented him from carrying a gun, we soon discovered would sometimes show up at our meetings with his girlfriend who was carrying two concealed automatics.

I think you're starting to see why tight controls are necessary, cuz things can go really bad in a heartbeat. All of which could make good fodder for a crime novel. So, if you get any good writing ideas from the above, feel free to use them.

19 June 2014

The Pure Young Men


"Squeamishness is not a woman's virtue."  - Colette, Earthly Paradise, p. 92

File:Robespierre.jpgOne of the main differences between men and women is that men are far more fastidious.  There is nothing quite so pure as a pure-minded man: but then, he can afford to be.  It's women who have to deal with a constantly recurring emission of blood and other fluids, and when the babies come it only gets worse.  Men can ignore all that and turn up their noses.  Men can insist on ritual purity.  And there have been a lot of pure-minded men, most of them very young, who have made an awful lot of history:  Bernard of Clairvaux, Maximilien Robespierre, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir, to name three.

File:Henry David Thoreau.jpgAnd we've all known them.  The pure young man is usually attractive, with a childlike air of freedom and joy that's almost irresistible.  He is generally obsessively clean.  He often does not swear, smoke, or drink - or, if he does, only a little, and always enjoys giving it up.  (There are also those full moon nights when he goes on a binge that could, he dimly hopes, ruin his life.)  He often likes to go out "into the wild" to pit himself against the forces of Nature, which he sees as a Great Pure Force.  (See Thoreau and Chris McCandless.)  Most women know that Nature will swat you down like a gnat if she gets the chance, and then wild animals gnaw your bones.  But a Pure Young Man sees his death-defying walks into the wild as an initiation, in which he will, somehow, wring from Nature her imprimatur, and he will be made whole and eternal by his quest.  (Sir Galahad was also a Pure Young Man.)

To go back to that childlike air of freedom and joy - it's so attractive.  Except it's too childlike.  It's all self-centered, in a way that isn't clear to those around him until they try to hold on to him in some way.  Then he leaps away, like an animal from a trap, and that's the way they see human intimacy - and I'm not talking just about sexual.  But, with regard to sex, they often don't do that, either, except on full moon nights in leap years.  I always pity the young girl who falls for one, because 9 times out of 10 he will be Hamlet to her Ophelia and throw her away with nothing but words to remember him by.  (Hamlet was another Pure Young Man.)


Anyway, Pure Young Men seem to see emotional intimacy as being as messy and defiling and unnecessary as sexual intimacy.  They make wonderful friends - if your definition of a friend is someone who will stay up all night talking with you, and put up with whatever food and drink you provide.  But if you want someone who will be there when the chips are down, someone who will help you out of a jam - you are going to be in trouble.  IF they're still around (they have a nose for trouble and often disappear overnight), they may or may not try to help.  But they also may simply not care, and tell you that your concerns are ridiculously petty.

The irony is that I think that they think that they are being a good friend, but they have no idea what that entails. They'll give their money, their material possessions, at the drop of a hat - but usually not to a friend, usually to some homeless person - but they will not give themselves on any terms except their own.  They often lie or completely stonewall any questions about themselves, their past, their family, who they are.  They are often very lonely.  But since their loneliness is an elemental choice, it doesn't reek of that desperation that drives people away.  Instead, it can be very attractive. Maybe you'll be the one who will finally crack the barrier, and become their perfect friend. Don't count on it. Their perfect friend is a dog.  Or a genie in a bottle with a strong stopper, you can be their friend. The fact that you might need more will never occur to them; and if you bring it up, you will suddenly become possessive, manipulative, violating. You will be canned. Read Into the Wild, and see how often Chris McCandless abandoned friends who loved him.

And yet they're so likeable, so loveable.  Probably the very best literary analysis of a Pure Young Man is Peter Pan.  Children's story my ass.

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.

Albert
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…

Transcript
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