17 July 2014

The National Pasttime


It's a golden Sunday afternoon in South Dakota as I write this, and my husband and I are headed off to a minor league baseball game later.  There's a whole bunch of reasons I love baseball.  When I was a kid, I lived in southern California, and we watched the Dodgers every chance we could on TV.  I had a major crush on Sandy Koufax.  My second favorite team, of course, was the San Francisco Giants.  And my mother and I hissed the damn Yankees every chance we got.

Now I have a theory that there is something about baseball that makes it fuel for great novels and great movies, in a way that no other sport seems to do. Granted, every sport has at least one fantastic book and/or movie based on it. And before you start screaming about why I didn't include certain movies, I know that every sport has its dying player movie (Brian's Song v. Bang the Drum Slowly, James Caan v. Robert DeNiro, for example, take your pick), and its unusual and/or unlikable and/or unbeatable coach movie (often ad nauseum, make your own list).  And the occasional one with animal players, often monkeys (Every Which Way But Loose leaps to mind).  SO:

SURFING (my second favorite sport to watch - can you tell I'm a California girl?):  Endless Summer, of course, and Riding Giants.  (And, just for a time capsule and a so-bad-its-good movie, Gidget.)

BASKETBALL:  Hoosiers, Hoop Dreams, and He Got Game.

FOOTBALL:  Friday Night Lights, book, movie and show.  But my personal guilty pleasure is, Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins, sadly made into an incredibly bad movie in the 70's.
(NOTE to Dan Jenkins:  get Kevin Smith to direct a new version of Semi-Tough, PLEASE, because he's the only director I can think of that could do justice to your profanity-laced, sex-sodden, really f---ing hilarious take on football, rivalry, and true love.  You do that, and it might wash the taste of that Michael Ritchie version out of my mind...)

ICE HOCKEY:  Slapshot.

Now these are good, but if you want depth, I think there are only two sports that really bring it out:  baseball and boxing.

TheNaturalFirstEdition.jpgThe Natural by Bernard Malamud.  Forget the movie version, though it's good in its own way.  The novel is raw and angry and sad and an allegory of life from the point of view of all of us who have screwed at least one thing up so badly it will never come right or have had fate step in and snatch everything away just as we had it in our hand:
"Roy, will you be the best there ever was in the game?"  "That's right."  She pulled the trigger...
"We have two lives; the life we learn with and the life we live after that."
Back when I put myself through college teaching ESL, we used The Natural to teach our Puerto Rican baseball scholarship students in order to get them to read - and it worked.  It also broke (some of) their adolescent, ambitious little hearts. Great book.  Good movie.

You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner.  A collection of short stories, all letters from the road, penned by Jack Keefe, the dumbest, greediest, most cluelessly self-absorbed pitcher the Chicago White Sox ever had.  I don't think even Will Farrell could capture Jack Keefe, because he is...  just read it and laugh your head off. (NOTE:  Ring Lardner ranks as one of the greatest short story writers of all time, imho, if nothing else for these and "Haircut" and "The Golden Honeymoon")

Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella.  Read it, please.  And, yes, go get the movie.  I hold my breath through half the movie, and then cry shamelessly (usually after the appearance of Burt Lancaster) every time I see the damn thing.



Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof and Stephen Jay Gould.  A meticulous, well-written, time capsule of the time and events of the worst baseball scandal in history.  The movie isn't any slouch, either, directed by John Sayles with a strong, strong cast, especially D. B. Sweeney as Shoeless Joe Jackson and Studs Terkel as sportswriter Hugh Fullerton.

Speaking of baseball movies, here's a few, in no particular order:
Bull Durham
The Pride of the Yankees
Damn Yankees (whatever Lola wants...)
Ken Burns' Baseball
A League of Their Own
The Rookie
The Babe Ruth Story
Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings

Now I said baseball and boxing, and first of all, here are some great boxing movies:

Raging Bull.  Rocky.  Requiem for a HeavyweightWhen We Were Kings.  The Harder They Fall.

And I think I may have found the connection.  We all know both boxing and baseball from the inside out. Most of us have played baseball, from sandlot on up.  Most of us have either gotten into a fight or watched one, with a lot (of pride, if nothing else) riding on the outcome.  Both sports give the illusion that anybody with enough heart can do it, otherwise we wouldn't be so damned bothered by all the allegations of doping in baseball, at least.  After all, we don't mind what are essentially genetic freaks (most people aren't 7 feet tall, folks!) in basketball; and when is someone going to bring up the size of American football players, especially fullbacks?  Surfers are too cool dude; and you can't even see hockey players...

But baseball players and boxers are right out there, for us all to see.  And both boxing and baseball movies and novels tend to focus on individual heroism and/or failure.  Both sports allow an individual to take center stage, to let us get to know them, and then watch them sink or swim.  We can make emotional connections. And they can be made into allegories that almost everyone can relate to.

Or at least that's my theory.  Meanwhile, I've got to get out to the ballpark!



16 July 2014

New choice!


by Robert Lopresti

I am writing this a few days after the Arthur Ellis Awards were announced by the Crime Writers of Canada.  Of course,  I am delighted that our latest blogger, Melodie Campbell,  won the award for best novella for "The Goddaughter's Revenge."  Such is the incredible power of the SleuthSayers brand that she started winning awards even before it was announced that she had signed up!

(By the way the award is named after Arthur Ellis, which was the nom de corde of several of Canada's official hangmen.  Fun fact!)

But  the truth is that today's piece was inspired by another of this year's winners: Twist Phelan's "Footprints in water," the champ in the short story category.  I wrote about it last year and it found a place on my best-of list as well.  It tells the tale of an African-born police detective in New York City who is called to a case involving a Congolese family.  But he is there as a translator, while the detective in charge of the case is newly-promoted, a person he has supervised in the past.

And here is my point: the cliche - and you've read it a dozen times, and probably seen it a hundred because TV loves cliches - would be for the two cops to butt heads, fighting for control of the case.  Instead Phelan turns it around: the new cop wants the senior detective's help and he politely but firmly insists that she run the show instead.  That unexpected source of conflict is one of the things that makes the story work so well and, naturally, it made me think of improv comedy.

Perhaps you don't spot the connection.  Let me explain.

My little city has been a hotbed for improv since the great comic Ryan Stiles moved here in 2004.  To indulge his passion he created the Upfront Theatre where improv is taught and performed.  And one of the games they play there is called "New Choice."  It starts with--  Wait.  Why should I try to explain it when you can see a demonstration by Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochry.  If it isn't working directly below you can find it http://tinyurl.com/oty5qsp


The point is, when I am writing (or more likely, rewriting) and I find myself face-to-screen with a cliche, I yell (internally, usually) "New choice!" and try to find a different way around the plot point.  Often, it is an improvement.

Another favorite example is from the movie Alien Nation, which takes place a few years after a huge saucer full of aliens ("the Newcomers") has landed, and they are trying to find a place in society.  Unfortunately some find their way into a life of crime and as the movie opens some of them kill a cop.

The dead detective's partner naturally wants nothing to do with Newcomers but one of them has just been promoted to detective and the bosses force our hero to work with  -- 

New choice!  The cliche would be our hero being forced to partner with the new guy (and in fact, that is exactly how they did it in the generally-better-than-that TV series), but in the movie our hero  astonishes and infuriates his peers by volunteering to work with the Newcomer.  Why?  Because he figures it improves his chances of catching the killers.  Logical, right?

A related thought:  Have you ever head of the Bechdel Test?   Alison Bechdel is a very talented cartoonist.  One of her characters once explained that she will only watch a movie if 1) there are at least two women it, and 2) there is at least one scene in which they talk together 3) about something other than a  man.

Doesn't sound like a  very high standard, but  there are tons of movies that don't reach it.  There is a website that rates more than 5000 movies as to whether they pass the Test.

And before we get distracted let me say I don't think anyone should be forced to put gratuitous women into a movie, a book, or for that matter, a comic strip. (I don't think Bechdel means that either.)  But the Test does give you a chance to look for stereotypes, which are just another kind of cliche, after all.

When I was editing my new novel I realized it didn't pass the Bechdel Test.  After a little thought I changed the sound technician in one scene from Stu to Serona.  Didn't hurt a bit (well, didn't hurt me.  I don't know how Stu/Serona felt about the operation.) 

And you know what?  It improved the scene.

Which is the point of it, after all.

15 July 2014

Criminal Savants


by Jim Winter

About a decade ago, several businesses on Cincinnati's east side suffered break-ins, almost always on a Sunday night. Police could not get a handle of the suspects. They would break in, lift the safe, and leave absolutely no evidence behind. By the time they had an arrest, they had found several safes in the nearby Little Miami River, and businesses had lost well over $100,000.

Surprisingly, two of the safe crackers worked for cigarettes. So how did the police find out?

Ring leader Jimmy Godfrey liked to walk into an East End bar and brag about his heists to his buddies.

Yes, the man smart enough to hit safes when they would hold the most money and insist on his fellow thieves wearing gloves while not allowing them to spit or use the bathroom was not smart enough to keep his mouth shut. The story of how the police busted this ring is straight out of a Tarantino film.

You would think Godfrey was a criminal mastermind. He forbade his fellow thieves from eating, drinking, smoking, or going to the bathroom to avoid leaving any traces behind for forensic technicians to find. See, Godfrey was a fan of CSI, and he actually learned something from the show. He even avoided wearing the same shoes twice on a job. Why? He didn't want anyone tracing the shoe prints.

Godfrey was also persuasive. He convinced his girlfriend and two relatives to work for cigarettes while Godfrey himself pocketed the cash. The problem was how Godfrey disposed of some of the swag he stole. One neighbor in East End, a rundown neighborhood along the Ohio River known at the time more for its Confederate flags and rusty cars than anything else, took a big-screen TV from a nearby shop and mounted it in his apartment. In 2004, big screens and LCD's were about as common as electric cars are today. Godfrey's girlfriend helped herself to a handful of expensive Christmas tree toppers.

Worse for Godfrey, some of his relatives were more than willing to sell him out to the police for very little. One woman received $35 in exchange for information about Godfrey's nocturnal activities. But they weren't the only ones. Godfrey's own worst enemy was Godfrey himself.

He paid very close attention to detail on his jobs: Taking care to leave no evidence, using rubber gloves, even timing his jobs for maximum take. However, he did two things wrong. His own cohorts sold him out since he would keep all the cash. But that was not his worst mistake. If you wanted to know who robbed Mt. Lookout Television, City Beverage, or the Sky Galley restaurant, just ask anyone living along Eastern Avenue, the main drag through East End. Godfrey would brag about his crimes to anyone who would listen.

To add insult to injury, Godfrey would have been done in by his own brother, who was sloppy by Jimmy Godfrey's standards. The younger Godfrey would frequently leave traces of himself behind, and once banged his head during a job. The injury bled which gave evidence technicians a nice DNA sample to use just in case Jimmy Godfrey clammed up.

14 July 2014

Places I Have Lived


Last Tuesday, Stephen Ross posted "Friends and Influences" which began with a description of a time he spent living with several friends in an interesting farm house.

For some reason, my mind immediately traveled back to the year I was ten when my dad took a six-month leave from his job as an electrical engineer to write a book.  He'd saved for this and was joyfully enthusiastic to put one of his dreams into action.  As part of his plan, he rented out our home and we became tenants in a more rural, less expensive house.

The reason the rent was so cheap is because that house was so old.

It looked okay from the outside– a large building with a porch across the front with a swing. The small yard in front of the porch was fenced, but the driveway on the left was not enclosed. That drive led to the door into the kitchen at the back of the house and to what seemed tremendous to a ten year old, but was probably no more than an acre of land planted with grape arbors and fruit trees--lots of pear trees, apple trees, and peach trees. 


How Daddy probably saw the same house.
Add a fence, trees, and a driveway on
the left and this is similar to how I
remember that house.

Every room had a fire-place, the only form of heat available and of course, there was no air conditioning. We had to go out the back door to a porch to use the bathroom because it had been added and opened to the porch and not to the inside of the house.

My favorite room was the kitchen because that's where Mama usually could be found. There was a round, pot-bellied stove in there, and the room was always warm.It also smelled good. When I awoke in the morning, the scent of bacon and eggs wafted into my room.  When I got off the school bus, I could smell dinner cooking before I even reached the house.

Thinking back, those must have been very hard times on my mother.  She spent those months hauling wood into the house and keeping those fires burning. Daddy had made a budget and it didn't allow for the same kind of groceries we'd been accustomed to. Mama had to learn to cook less expensive foods, which was great with me because what's known as "soul food" evolved from making the best of limited resources in the South, and to this day, I love that kind of food.

The front room was Daddy's work room.  Now, I confess that I was totally spoiled as a child, but the rules were firm:  Don't make loud noises that would disturb him and don't go in that room.  He wrote from 8:00 AM until 6:00 PM and then we had supper.

I have some happy memories from that house and the trees out back.  There was one that was perfect to climb and sit in.  I spent many weekend hours and time between school and supper sitting in my favorite tree and reading.  Perched atop my favorite limb, I met Oliver Twist and became an avid Charles Dickens fan. I'm sure my mother was far less happy than I was because of the extra work and because when the writing didn't go well, my father was capable of extreme irritability.

However, my most vivid memory is fear.  We moved into the house in the fall.  I was terrified of the front yard. The only trees in that small fenced yard were deciduous and all the leaves fell off leaving naked branches.

There were bare trees in the back yard, but they didn't scare me. When I got off the school bus, I ran as fast as I could down the drive to get past the fenced area. I always arrived at the back door breathless and rushed inside to my mother and the warmth and good smells. I don't know what I thought might get me in the front yard, but I don't recall ever going across from the gate to the front door by myself, and I don't remember ever using that swing.  

What does all this have to do with writing?  Stephen Ross's jogging of my memory of living there brought two facts about writing to mind.

FACT 1:  It is most helpful, perhaps even necessary, to have a designated, private place to write. Stephen King recommends this and adds that it should be a space with no distractions. 

FACT 2:  We, both as writers and readers, react to how a place makes us feel from its "aura" more than from the reality of the site. This was vital in my writing of The True Haunting of Julia Bates, my horror novel that is now seeking a publisher. I tried to make the reader feel what I felt as a small child dashing past that scary place that I knew in my heart was fenced to keep the monsters within its borders.



Postscript One: That was my father's first book, and it was published by the University of Texas at Austin.

Postscript Two: I've wanted to try one of those houses where authors live together and write since I first read Frankenstein and the story of its creation.  That's not what Ross wrote about, but his description of that week dampens that idea a little.

Until we meet again, take care of … you!

13 July 2014

Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 2


Last week, I wrote about a 1997 case of where a victim appeared to have committed a murder after she was killed. Impossible, it seemed, and so it was.

This week, we move to a crime wave that plagued parts of western Europe for a decade and a half. In 2009, authorities offered an reward of €300 000 ($415 000) to bring the perpetrator– a woman– to justice.

German police, and later French and Austrian investigators, captured the DNA of a woman with few clues to her identity other than she came from a Slavic bloodline. Female serial killers are not yet as common as male killers, but this one was criminally prolific, engaging in burglary, robbery, car theft, home invasion, drug dealing, and murder– including the slaying of a police woman, which ramped up the manhunt, or woman-hunt, if you will. European news media began to call her the Heilbronner Phantom– the Woman Without a Face.

Silver Blaze

Profilers from across Europe were asked to imagine the suspect. Heilbronn police estimate 16 000 hours of overtime went into tracking the elusive woman. Concern heightened again when German investigators found the same DNA in a car used to transport three corpses, followed by the execution of a policewoman, Michèle Kiesewetter, and the nearly fatal attack upon her partner.

One clue was like the Sherlock Holmes’ dog in the night-time: Although DNA cropped up in crime scenes surrounding the German state of Bavaria, none was discovered in Bavaria itself, a sign of omission. Whether that raised eyebrows of detectives isn’t known, but two subsequent crimes cast doubt on the Phantom’s identity.

The first flag came from a fire when officers sampled a male corpse… and turned up female DNA, that of their long-running suspect. Eye-witnesses had occasionally reported seeing a man at crime scenes– not a woman– but eye-witnesses are notoriously prone to errors of identification. Investigators resampled the deceased using different cotton swabs and came up with a different result– no female DNA.

The final nail in the theory followed a shootout with a neo-Nazi terror cadre that killed two men. At the death scene, detectives found police handcuffs belonging to Michèle Kiesewetter. The Phantom DNA did not match the only woman in the terrorist cell, Beate Zschäpe, which raised doubts that the attack on police woman and her partner was committed by the Phantom of Heilbronn.

DNA
System Reset

While German tabloids like Bild ridiculed police by asking if their heads were stuffed with cotton wool, investigators quietly reexamined their methodology and the source of their instruments and test materials. They identified the real culprit– the departments’ miserly buyer of cotton swabs.

As Dr Mike Silverman discovered in last week's article, sterile doesn’t mean DNA-free. Sterilization might kill viruses and bacteria, but it doesn’t necessarily eradicate DNA strands. Police departments throughout Germany– except Bavaria– were buying inexpensive cotton buds from an Austrian company, Greiner. The company certified their Bio-One swabs sterile but not suitable for human DNA collection.

The mysterious ‘Phantom’ was none other than one of Greiner's assembly line employees. She'd accidentally contaminated countless cotton buds with her own DNA.

Credit Due

Several readers and SleuthSayers suggested further reading. Thanks to C.J. Dowse, Peter DiChellis, Fran, Eve, and Dixon.

Further reading:

12 July 2014

The Old and the New


Like most of my SleuthSayers colleagues, I've been writing fiction for a long time. I like to think that I've learned, during those years, some things about the craft. Unfortunately, though, putting the right words together in the right order is not enough to ensure success in this crazy business, so I have also tried (and often failed) to keep up with changes in all the kinds of things editors want to see, in the submissions they receive. That, as everyone knows, can be a moving target.

A small-caliber evolver

That's what I am, I suppose. A low-profile writer of crime fiction who has finally realized that novels and short stories, like the language they're written in, are evolving--and that if I want to survive I have to evolve also. I won't attempt in today's column to address issues like traditional publishing vs. self-publishing, printed fiction vs. e-books, mailed submissions vs. electronic submissions, and zombie/vampire trends--but I do want to talk a little about small changes in the way we're supposed to put our stories and novels on paper. Or, more accurately, on our hard drives. 

Twenty years ago, when I started writing for publication, there were a group of formatting rules that writers followed, in order to better their chances of getting accepted and published. Some of those requirements are still around and some have become optional, but a great many have disappeared, or at least changed.

Once upon a time …

Consider the following half-dozen "old" rules of writing. Most of them were made because of typewriters and their limitations, but the rules somehow remained in effect for quite some time after computers and word-processing programs and laser/inkjet printers arrived.

1. Always use Courier font. A lot of writers still choose to use Courier for their manuscripts because of its readability, but very few markets require it anymore in their guidelines. I switched over to Times New Roman years ago because so many editors and publishers seem to prefer it. Only once have I had to use something different: an editor asked me awhile back to submit using Verdana. Verdana?? But I did it, and she bought the story.

2. Always put two spaces after a period. This goes back to the way most of us learned to type, in high school. When you had only one font available (Courier), and that font was non-proportional (every letter was the same width), two spaces after a period made sense; one space just didn't seem to "look" right. Now some short-fiction markets and some book publishers--mine, for example--require only one space after a period. I still use two spaces in my e-mails, text messages, personal letters, etc., because it somehow seems more natural and comfortable, but I dutifully follow the current one-space-after-a-period rule in all my manuscripts and in my SleuthSayers columns.

3. Always underline to indicate italics. This is another throwback to the times when there was no way to italicize text in a manuscript. I don't obey that rule anymore, except when submitting to certain publications; some markets, like AHMM, still require underlining rather than italicizing in their submissions. (I suspect that it's because an underlined word can be easier to spot than an italicized word.) Underlined text is of course then changed to italics in the printed, published version of the story. NOTE: If you submit to a market electronically and are asked to copy/paste your manuscript into the body of an e-mail, special features like italics and underlining are of course lost when you save and reopen the file in .txt format. In that case, I use the underscore key ( _ ) just before and just after the word or phrase that should be italicized. The editor will know what you mean.

4. Always round off your word count. I still do this occasionally before typing it in at the upper right corner of the first page of my ready-to-be-submitted manuscript--and when I do, I round it to the nearest 100 words. Usually, though, I just highlight the manuscript text--everything between my byline and the words THE END--and press the "word count" key. I then use that exact figure. This isn't something I worry much about, since I doubt editors really care whether I say "about 2400 words" or "2389 words." But I imagine Faulkner and Hemingway would have been tickled pink and shocked sober to be able to hit a key and get an exact word count.

5. Always use two hyphens for a dash. Some submission guidelines still ask that we writers do that--but most markets are fine with the em dash, which is created by typing the two hyphens together with no spaces before or after and then hitting the space bar after the next word. (Assuming, of course, that that feature has been activated in your word processor.) In my opinion, an em dash is another of those things that just "looks" more correct, and more professional, in a manuscript.

6. Always double-space twice to indicate a scene break. For years I did exactly that. The only time I typed any kind of character in between the ending line of a scene and the beginning line of the next was for clarity purposes, if the break occurred at the very top or bottom of a page. And then something crazy happened: a magazine accepted my correctly typed manuscript and then published my story without one of my scene breaks. They just left it out and butted the two paragraphs together, presumably because they or their formatting software never noticed the two blank lines between the scenes. I've been paranoid about it ever since then, and have always put something in there, between the scenes: an asterisk, several asterisks, a pound-sign (hash), whatever. AHMM, in its submission guidelines, specifically requests that writers insert a centered "#" between scenes, and my publisher requires three grouped asterisks (***). I prefer the #.

Post scripts

There are plenty of other manuscript formatting rules: use one-inch margins, use 12-point font, double-space, left-justify, and so on, and all of those appear to have remained in force to this day. There are also a lot of formatting rules for cover letters, envelopes, etc. I guess the main thing is, standardize as much as possible but try also to be aware of any changing of those standards. Getting published is an uphill battle anyway; you certainly want to appear knowledgable and not be annoying, at least not to an editor/agent/publisher. More and more of these "gatekeepers" seem to be young and female and far more receptive to change than the old male stereotypes who used to read our stories and make decisions about which ones to publish and which ones to reject. Don't get me wrong--that change is probably a good thing.

How about you? What writing rules do you follow, or voluntarily break, in the creation and submission of your fiction manuscripts? Do you still stand by the older rules, or have you evolved along with some of the requirements?

In closing, and on an entirely different subject, I'd like to again welcome Melodie Campbell to our group. I'm proud and honored to have her as my new Saturday blog-sister, and I look forward to her posts every other week. (I'm even hoping some of her fans might get their Saturdays mixed up and pop in to read my columns now and then as well.)

To today's readers, whether you're here on purpose or by accident, I hope to see you here again in two weeks.

And I'll try to stick to the rules.

11 July 2014

Have You Seen This Book?


PBY Catalina
I once read a wonderful non-fiction book about a man who flew early seaplanes -- including the PBYCatalina . Though, due to his nationality, I believe he called it a Canso in his book.

He didn't start out in a PBY, however. Suffering from malaise brought on by his experience as a pilot (fighter pilot, I think) in WWI, he bought a small second-hand seaplane. He also purchased a tent, packing it and his few belongings into this fragile, floating biplane built of canvas stretched across a light wood frame. I suspect the plane may have looked a bit like the one of those below.



This work was autobiographical, you see, and the man who wrote it lived in Australia or New Zealand. I’m not sure he was originally FROM that down-under portion of the world; he may have been born and raised in England, or one of the other Commonwealth countries. I’m afraid I just don’t remember. I read the book too long ago. But, I know he knocked-around there after the war.

He and his dog spent a few years flying that tiny, wood and fabric seaplane from secluded inlet to unoccupied small bay, around Australia or New Zealand, sometimes venturing to a deserted island or two. They’d fly in, and he’d anchor the plane off an empty beach, fishing for food, camping on the coastline, playing with his dog, staying for a day, a few days, maybe a week or two before moving on.
He rigged a rod on a spring, which he dropped down to hang vertically from the side of the fuselage when landing at night. He called this “my fishing pole,” and used it to gauge his altitude above the waves when landing during low vision conditions—not a stupid guy. When he needed fuel or foodstuffs he couldn’t scavenge, he’d land in a harbor and find work to supply the funds he needed to keep going.

His was a happy vagabond’s lifestyle during that time, chosen in order to escape the bonds of gravity, freeing him from the earth and worldly cares. An antidote to civilization, we might say. Though, to him—and I don’t believe he ever states this outright—I think it proved an antidote to the mechanized mayhem he’d witnessed on the battlefields of Europe. A sort of mental pressure relief valve, perhaps. He took the one, really good thing he’d gotten from the war: his knowledge of aviation. And he used it to erect a gateway to the rest of his life.

He and his dog bummed around the world down under, until he was approached by a fellow looking to build a new airline there. Then, he began flying for pay, charting flyways across the continent and to local islands, with his boss, later flying passengers and freight along the routes they’d laid down.

As I mentioned, I read the book several years ago. But, if memory serves me right, that airline job didn’t last too long, before he was tapped to fly anthropologists, geologists, geographers and other explorers among the islands of the south Pacific. His flying and navigational knowledge soon led to
his being asked to staff aircrews trying to set new distance records, or connect spots on the globe by air for the first time. I believe he even helped scout and establish the routes Pan American would use for their trans-Pacific flying boat service.

In truth: His writings came as an unexpected, and extremely pleasant surprise to me: an aviation book, written by an aviator, filled with technical information presented in an exciting manner, because this technical data was all part and parcel with the decades of flying adventures described in his narrative.

Over time, he found himself at the controls of larger, more expensive and more powerful flying boats, capable of covering much longer distance between refueling. I think he even wound up flying several of the early PBY models during this time, such as the aircraft in the photo on the left.

He worked with others, setting distance records, or making first-time flights between remote, tiny specs of land dotted among the vast enormity of the indifferent Pacific Ocean. An ocean known for devouring even the bones of many adventurers, swallowing them whole into its mysterious depths, leaving only a question mark to float through history. His was not a boring life.

When WWII came along, he volunteered for the air corps, and was stationed in Nova Scotia, or
Iceland, or somewhere like that, flying PBY’s on search and rescue and anti-submarine patrols. After the war, he returned to the south Pacific, helping to set records by flying between South America and Pitcairn Island and Australia—places like that at least. I no longer remember most of the details.

I recall, however, that at one point, while crewing a PBY on a distance record flight over the ocean, they suddenly ran into a problem. They couldn’t transfer oil from one engine to the other, and one of their engines needed more oil, or it would soon burn out. He pulled the short straw, and thus—in mid-flight!—had to climb out onto one of the angular struts holding the wing up. 
This photo shows the angular wing struts on the PBY pretty well.

There, he tapped that engine’s oil pan and filled a can with oil. Then he struggled back inside the fuselage, clambering back out on the other side to partially fill the other engine’s empty oil pan. This process had to be repeated several times, during the flight.

Can I vouch for the veracity of such an occurrence? How could I? I have no idea if such a thing would be possible. The way he wrote it, however, I could feel his sheer terror while out on that wing strut, frigid wind whipping his hair and clothing, making his eyes water, the vast unforgiving Pacific yawning far below his tightly grasping feet and hands as the wind whipped the oil everywhere, turning the strut slick between his fingers. Yet, he presented the information almost as if saying: “Well, you know, that’s the sort of thing you had to do back then. It was just a job.” In sum, I wound up believing his story completely. I don’t doubt it at all—impossible as it may sound.

I learned a lot from this book.

I learned that the way to look for an island in all that empty ocean, was not search for the invisibly small speck of land, but to look for the clouds that always rose up over land in the middle of the sea. These clouds were the flag that spoke of the islands below, and a good pilot listened with his eyes to what they told him.

So too, he knew the proper sound and feel of his aircraft, the way I know the sound and feel of my wife’s car or my jeep. When something went wrong, he could hear it, feel it through the controls, as if the plane were a living thing in his hands. He spoke of the gauges, and what they meant—usually when describing what he suspected had gone wrong with the plane, nearly always when they couldn’t land.



I learned that seaplanes, flying boats, can’t land on the open ocean. Not really. Not without running a high risk of coming to grief. The swells of the open sea are just too much for a seaplane to take, on landing. Instead, landing requires a bay or inlet, some stretch of water protected from such high seas, so the surface is calmer, flatter, smoother, giving the aircraft a much better chance of staying in one piece during the touch-down impact.

As I say, this book taught me a lot. But, much of it has fallen out of my memory over the years. And, now, I find I need this technical information he shared.

Unfortunately, I can’t find the book! The library I checked it out of, says it was almost never borrowed (a truly sad fact imho—It’s a glorious read!), so they sold it for probably around 50-cents. 

I’ve Googled and searched and tried library sites. But, I don’t know the title or author. I’ve even tried looking up the names of men who crewed aircraft on record-breaking runs in the south Pacific—all to no avail.

So, if you, or someone you know, happens to recognize the book I’ve described, and you can give me any info that would help me find it again, I’d really appreciate it.

You can just place the information in the comments section. I’ll have my notification button turned on.  So, even if you’ve stumbled across this post years after I’ve put it here, please leave me any info you have: I’ll get an email notification that you’ve posted here.

Thanks! And, I hope the rest of you have gotten some little something out of this post.

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon

10 July 2014

15 Tips For Writing Your Novel With An Exotic Setting


By Jenni Gate 

Note: friend and colleague Jenni Gate (who does both mystery and travel-writing) is pinch-hitting for me in my regular spot in the Sleuthsayers line-up today. Her subject: exotic locations in fiction writing–a timely subject during high vacation season! I'll be back in two weeks with my regular helping of half-baked ideas, sentence fragments, and poor spelling. In the mean-time, enjoy! –Brian

"To either side of the long-tail boat, dark and mysterious mangrove swamps shrouded
their secrets from view. The long-tail boat driver hefted an elongated pole with an antique, four-cylinder Fiat engine sputtering to life at the end over the back of the narrow vessel into restless water. Engines roared as diesel fumes and greasy, choking smoke billowed, launching our craft into the murky, gray-green Andaman Sea. It was a wet day to tour James Bond Island, known as God’s Nail to the Thai people. I should have listened to the ironic gut-ache I felt when I boarded the boat, its blue, green and yellow-patterned colors dimmed by dark, angry skies. Asian coastal monsoons whipped wind, rain, and frothy salt water into my face. I felt alive, yet exposed, the weather mirroring my turmoil. Like the other tourists on board, I snapped photos through a fogged lens of karst mountains rising from the sea, their limestone facades like candle-wax dripping over temples hidden deep within gloomy jungle caverns below. As we sped towards the island, I noticed the long-tail boat driver, thin, dark brows lowered over his anguished face. He searched the swamps to either side, their hidden waterways a perfect hiding place for modern-day pirates in the Strait of Malacca."

The place described in the piece quoted above: James Bond Island


Writing a story set in an exotic location is challenging. Too many details, and we risk losing our reader; too few, and we fail to anchor a reader into the world of our story. An opening paragraph needs to set the scene and give a sense of time and place, yet push the action forward. Our reader needs to know that the exotic setting is as integral to the story as the plot and characters. In stories where the setting is common or familiar, fewer details may be needed to set the scene. In fantasy novels and in mysteries set in uncommon locations, we need to hook our reader while threading details and references into setting descriptions to place the reader deep into the scene.

A childhood growing up overseas without TV and reading mysteries for entertainment led me to notice when a setting in a novel did or did not ring true, based on my own experience of a place. Get the details wrong, and a multi-cultural reader will notice.

Here are a few tips for setting your story in an exotic location:

1.     Know how to pronounce the name of the place, the names of people, and common objects in the setting. In news stories and books on tape, it grates to hear Kabul pronounced as Ka-Buwl, sahib pronounced as sa-heeb, Celtic pronounced as Seltic. If you write about a place, you should know how it is pronounced locally. It will come through in your writing.
2.     With exotic locations, including fantasy locations, maps can help orient a reader to the setting of the world of the story. Whether it is a map of a world or a map of a floor plan, consider including one or some either within or appended to your story.
3.     Research the people, culture, and subcultures of the location. Interactions between subcultures and counter-cultures with the main culture of a place are ripe with conflict for your story. Another source of potential conflict is when your protagonist is an outsider to the culture. If people in the setting are closed in outlook and limited in their experience of others, your character could have a challenge learning how to maneuver this new world. If people are open and friendly there are still clashes of culture, customs, and belief systems that can play turmoil with your character’s goals. Remember that what may be exotic to you as a writer is home to the people who live there. Knowing traditions and cultural norms, and understanding how those systems affect the daily lives of the people living there may help you find the elements necessary to craft a story with universal appeal.
4.     Know the history of a place and thread those historical details and references into setting descriptions to give the reader a deep sense of setting, layered with meaning. This works in fantasy settings as well. In Game of Thrones, for instance, frequent references to historical events and to legacies of the various family lines add meaning to the actions of the characters and provide a sense of their birthright.
5.     Setting impacts different people in different ways. Know your character before setting a scene in that character’s point of view. To write the paragraph at the beginning of this post, I created in my mind a character full of secrets who is ripe for an adventure. A romance novel with a wistful protagonist looking for love, would focus on the romantic elements of the setting instead. The details you choose to include should have something to do with the point of view character and the genre of the story. Setting also impacts characters in different ways when they are under pressure or out of their element. This can be a source of instant conflict.
6.     Any setting is exotic to someone who has never been there. Sometimes a fresh description of a well-known location can make a common setting exotic again.
7.     When researching your location, remember that photographs you may find on the internet or in a book can’t show the temperature or humidity or the insect life of a place. For example, on a recent trip to Thailand, my husband and I took hundreds of photographs. None showed the smothering effect of the heat and humidity, how simple actions became more difficult in that environment. All around us, ants of different sizes scurried everywhere. When we noticed a bright orange beetle at an elephant camp in the jungle, our guide vigorously stomped on it. He showed us a scar on his neck and said the beetle exudes an acid that eats through skin and gets infected in the muggy heat. Details like these can be used to add depth and texture to the theme and to the world of the story.
8.     Comparisons of an exotic setting with the more familiar settings of a character’s home can provide conflict as well as an emotional appeal to the reader. A character who is homesick and feeling isolated and distant from his or her family will experience a location differently from a character who has adapted to the place and feels at home among its people. Choose the details that mirror the emotions of the character or foreshadow the plot or theme. As with any story, don’t over-describe a palm tree if that tree will have nothing to do with the storyline. Unless your character is going to hide behind the tree, the reader does not need to know every detail about it. The details you choose to include, woven into the action of the story, help bring the scene alive. A list of setting details will lose your reader and distance them from the world of the story.
9.     Determine the purpose of a scene before adding exotic details. The details chosen to flesh out the setting should progress the goals of the scene, whether it is to advance the action of the story, highlight theme, or move a character from one location to another. A refugee forced to hide under a pile of snake skins to cross a border in the open back of a cargo truck will notice specific details such as the stench of the skins, the thick or smooth quality of the scales, and will know what type of poison her guards dipped their spears into. A tourist crossing the same border would notice other details such as how old the border guards are, the red tape required to cross, how close the guards scrutinize the vehicles and the individuals crossing at any given time. The details chosen for your scenes should mirror the characters’ emotions, expand the theme, and add tension to the story. Details set the mood, help the reader see the setting, and further the plot.
10.  To help anchor the reader in an exotic setting, sprinkle in similes and metaphors so that there are comparisons to what the reader may know of their own world.  
11.  Use all five senses, if possible, in each scene. The scent of Thai chilis cooking can make your character’s eyes water, choke their sinuses and fill the air with an unforgettable aroma. If your character’s respiratory system is in full reaction, coughing and sneezing from the pepper scent, they may not notice an attacker enter the room.
12.  Themes that can be paired with exotic locations include environmental themes such as deforestation, development, resources, exploitation. Conflict of indigenous populations with modern ones. Lifestyles vs. traditions. Fragile ecosystems, natural and un-natural boundaries and limits, blurred and disrupted borders. Ruins and crumbling structures contrasting with a jungle as a labyrinth. Mysterious creatures, monsters, spirits, enigmatic figures with supernatural powers. Found artifacts and gems, special objects. Dread, fear, darkness, horror, contrasted with awe, wonder, peace, and acceptance.
13.  Identification between a reader and the story is crucial. A familiar element to the story may help maintain a connection. If the setting is too different, or what happens in the plot is too shocking, readers may disconnect. Just as showing the photos of your last foreign trip to friends may cause their eyes to glaze over, readers may get bored if they don’t feel a connection or have a reason to care about the exotic setting and the lives of the characters in it. A shocking experience such as a coup, riot, or war, can be difficult for someone who has never left the U.S. to relate to. Our readers may understand the experience of a soldier in these situations to some extent, given that many Americans have either served in the military or know friends or family members who have served. Most Americans have no frame of reference for empathizing with a civilian caught in that sort of violence. There is a fine balance in the telling of these experiences. Careful selection of the details that will make a connection to keep our readers with us must be made early and kept in mind throughout the story.
14.  Be careful of making assumptions that may seem biased, racist, or offensive to a reader who is native to your chosen location. Be wary of using your setting as a backdrop for the bizarre or irrational as this has become a cliché in stories with exotic settings.
15.  Finally, a thought to keep in mind as you craft your story. “We all carry within us places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves and others.” Albert Camus.
The mantra to write what you know about the emotions and motivations of human nature still apply, but it is possible to write about an unusual location just with careful research. A setting your protagonist is unfamiliar with immediately puts the character under some level of stress. An exotic setting can be treated like a character in your story, its characteristics naturally generating conflict, themes, and plot.
Jenni Gate is an accomplished wanderer and aspiring writer. Born in Libya and raised throughout Africa and Asia, Jenni’s upbringing as a global nomad provided a unique perspective on life. As a child, she lived in Libya, Nigeria, the Congo, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the Washington DC area. As an adult, she has lived in Alaska, England, and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Much of her work draws on her extensive experience in the legal field. Her published work includes several articles for a monthly business magazine in Alaska and a local interest magazine in Idaho. She has written several award-winning memoir pieces for writing contests. Jenni currently writes non-fiction, memoir, and fiction, drawing upon her global experiences.

To read more about Jenni's adventures around the world, visit her blog at Nomad Trails and Tales, like her page on Facebook, and follow her on Pinterest.

09 July 2014

The Leslie Howard Mystery


by David Edgerley Gates

This is about a personal enthusiasm - although I might not be the only one, if you're into older, classic movies - and it's also a little bit about eating crow.


Leslie Howard was a big star, between the wars. He made his bones as a stage actor, and then hit the big-time when he came to Hollywood. His best-known pictures are THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, PETRIFIED FOREST, and, of course, GONE WITH THE WIND. As it happens, he hated playing Ashley Wilkes. He thought he was way too old for the part, and he remarked that when they got him in costume, he looked like "that sissy doorman at the Beverly Wilshire." Which raises the following question.

I always thought Leslie Howard was kind of effeminate. He certainly camped it up in SCARLET PIMPERNEL. But it turns out, in real life, that he was a disarming charmer, who may very well have slept with most of his leading ladies. ("I don't chase women, but I couldn't always be bothered to run away.") That languid persona he developed for the movies wasn't him at all. He was in fact an earthy kind of guy.

He was also extremely loyal to his friends. The story goes that when PETRIFIED FOREST was made into a movie, from the stage play, Warners wanted Eddie Robinson for Duke Mantee - the character based on Dillinger - but Howard held out for Bogart, because they'd done the play together. Bogart runs away with the picture, and it made him an A-list star.

Howard was deeply loyal to England, as well. He described himself as a man with two homes, America, which had made his fortune, and the UK, where he was born. When the war broke out, in 1939, he went back, and he wasn't the only one. There was a big Brit colony in Hollywood, and some of the guys who could have made a bundle, sitting the war out, went home instead and applied for active service. David Niven, for one, had been to Sandhurst, and was commissioned in the Highland Light Infantry, before he got into movies, and he got his commission back. Noel Coward, who was arguably the most famous of the Brits expats at the time, volunteered for war work, and found himself seconded to the Secret Service. All three of them wound up making propaganda pictures, too. Niven did THE WAY AHEAD, Coward wrote and directed IN WHICH WE SERVE, Leslie Howard put his shoulder to the wheel with 49th PARALLEL.


Niven and Noel Coward survived the war. Leslie Howard didn't. He was on a civil aircraft, flying to Lisbon, when the plane was shot down by German fighters over the Bay of Biscay, in 1943. There's a lot of speculation about this incident. For one thing, the Luftwaffe pilots were operating well beyond their normal patrol zone. For another, did German intelligence know Howard was aboard the plane? Evidence suggests they did. A lot of the German spy nets in Britain had been rolled up or turned, but some were still active, and it wouldn't have been that hard to get the passenger list. Howard was regarded by the Germans as a very able and dangerous propagandist for the British war effort, even possibly a covert agent. But maybe he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Knowing how he died, if not exactly why, puts a different spin on things, in retrospect. Here's where I eat crow. Maybe he really was the Scarlet Pimpernel, masquerading as a hapless fop, an exaggerated stage Englishman, languid and fey. Far from it, it appears.


What changed my mind about him is 49th PARALLEL. This is one of the many collaborations between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger - the most celebrated being THE RED SHOES - but the real muscle behind it is Leslie Howard, who takes no on-screen producer credit. In brief, here's the storyline. It's 1939, and Canada, as a Commonwealth country, has entered WWII in support of Great Britain (the US, as yet, is still sitting on the fence). A roving German sub attacks Allied shipping off the east coast of Canada, and is then hunted down and sunk, but they've left behind a landing party, sent ashore to forage. The surviving U-boat crew tries to evade pursuit, and runs all the way across Canada. Little by little, their numbers are whittled away until only one of them is left.


The trick of the movie is that the fugitive German is the common thread, although he's not sympathetic, but he meets all manner of people while he's on the run, Eskimos, Hudson Bay trappers, Hutterite farmers, Indians, you name it, and it doesn't make a dent. He's a convinced Nazi, and his exposure to these other people only hardens him in his conviction. You'd think he was on a journey of redemption, but it ain't so.


The line-up of cameos is pretty amazing. Laurence Olivier, Finlay Currie, Anton Walbrook, Glynis Johns, Raymond Massie, Leslie Howard himself. They play the characters whose lives the German interrupts, and it's no stretch to imagine Howard, as unnamed executive producer, getting them on board. What - a couple of days on the shoot, and ten minutes of screen time? Olivier, bless his heart, is terrible, phony French trapper accent and all. But when, near the end, you get to the Leslie Howard scenes, it's incredible. He plays his trademark lightweight, silly and dandyish, a sheep to be sheared, and then he suddenly turns into an Old Testament revenge figure, iron in his bones. 

So who was he, really? A shape-shifter. A guy who worked at his trade, enjoyed it enormously, and made good money at it. He once remarked that an actor can't conceal himself. He did a fair job of it, though. The mystery of Leslie Howard isn't in his self-deprecating appeal, but in what he didn't often show. The naked steel.

08 July 2014

Friends & Influences


In the late summer of 1988, I spent a week living inside a novel. I was staying with a friend (Albert), who himself was staying with a friend (Victoria), at a dilapidated farmhouse on the edge of a town that didn't seem to have anyone in it or even a name. There was a school house, closed for the summer (or maybe forever), and a general store that had a CLOSED sign in its door (also probably forever). The town was about forty minutes out of Hamilton, in a direction I couldn't tell you.

A long dirt track led up to the farmhouse through fields of corn, and Victoria's landlord, the farmer of said corn, who I never saw, apparently had a limp and only ever came to collect the rent after dark. Apparently, he'd turn up, like a character out of Dickens, clutching a lantern, his raincoat damp with the rain, even if it hadn't rained all week.

I was starting a screenplay (at that time of my life, I had wanted to be a screenwriter). Albert was writing a new play (he was a reasonably successful playwright), and Victoria was learning lines for two different upcoming productions (she was an actress). Victoria and Albert are not their real names. There was also a cat at the farmhouse, whose name I don't remember at all, and for the purposes of this telling, I'll call William Makepeace Thackeray.

Victoria and Albert were both ten years older than me; and Victoria probably a further ten on top of that. If a movie could have been made of that week, I would have cast George Sanders as Albert, Ida Lupino as Victoria, and in the part of "me" that confused-looking bystander who is always the last one to get the point and run when the foot of Godzilla slams down.


A condition of my staying over, as a guest of a guest, was to paint the living room -- in any color I liked. The farmer had left behind some leftover buckets of paint: beige and yellow. I painted the living room in a curious shade of sunshine. The front hallway, by contrast, had been painted (by Albert, a month earlier) entirely in black (walls, ceiling, and floor) and he'd trimmed it with a band of silver foil. It looked like the inside of a packet of cigarettes.

The days of that week were largely made up of writing; rehearsing, in the case of Victoria; and additionally in my case, an hour or two of painting. The evenings were given over to discussion and alcohol. Albert and Victoria were professional drinkers. I was (and still am) a mere amateur at that game. The paint fumes kept us out of the living room, and our nights were confined to the kitchen.

The kitchen was the heart of the house: a bare wood floor, off-white paint peeling off the ceiling, and a blue brick fireplace, which had been bricked up a decade earlier on account of the aged chimney being a fire risk. Irony in blue. Commanding the center of the room stood the kitchen table: a wide, worn, bare wooden artifact that had probably been in the farmhouse since it had been built (circa. 1920). It was the type of table on which you just knew a dead body had been laid out, many farmers' stubby fists had been slammed in anger, and more than one couple had made love. The kitchen was also William Makepeace Thackeray's bedroom.

Dinners were conducted like Pinter plays: non sequitur remarks and sullen pauses. Lots. Of. Pauses. With only the sound in-between of crickets in the twilight through the open window.

By the end of the first bottle, the three of us had largely returned to humanity and the conversation unfailingly moved onto the theatre. Ponderables, such as: What if Hamlet had been a decisive alpha-male? What if Martha and George had actually been happily married and really did have a son? What if Godot had turned up? And of course, memories of productions past (such as the murder mystery where the door jammed at the beginning of act two and the cast had to enter the cozy drawing room in London by coming out of the fireplace). I had my own share of those stories, having worked on and off in amateur and semi-professional theatre since I had been a kid (it was how I had come to know V and A).

On the third drunken night at the kitchen table, we got into a long discussion on narrative, and by about 3 a.m., we had drained six bottles of red and had distilled the discussion down to this: What is the most important thing in a story? Any story -- be it a play, a book, or a movie?

Moments of poetry was Victoria's response (an actor's perspective). And she backed up her claim with empirical evidence. An hour's worth of it.  

Structure was my answer. A couple of years earlier, I had embarked on a very long learning curve of story structure (I'm probably still on it) and structure at that time was foremost in my mind.

Get the hell out of my room was William Makepeace Thackeray's answer.

At around 4 a.m., Albert, who had been hitherto staring drunkenly at the bricks of the fireplace, slammed his fist down on the table. Having gotten our attention, he lit a cigarette (he already had one smoldering in the ashtray). In addition to playwright, Albert was a theatre director and, drunk or not, he knew exactly how to direct his audience.

"Characters," he said. "That's what's it all about. The characters are the only thing the audience or the reader cares about. It's the only thing they're interested in or that matters to them. They might recognize the odd passing moment of poetry, they might be peripherally aware if a plot has a solid structure, but what will stay in their minds long after the curtain closes, the end credits roll, or the book is closed, are the characters."

William Makepeace Thackeray mounted the table, strolled its length with bored indifference, examined a leftover slice of bread, and then dismounted.

Albert continued: "A story is viewed through the filter of its characters; it is only through them an audience experiences that story. It is a vicarious interaction."

I'm paraphrasing him from memory, of course, but the sentiments have long remained in my memory, to be revisited and re-examined at odd intervals. And honestly, it took me 20 years to fully appreciate what he meant. Movie director François Truffaut once said (again a paraphrase, because I don't remember exactly where I read it): What is behind the camera is not important; it's what is in front that is.

I lost contact with Albert and Victoria over the years. Albert was probably the closest I ever got to having a mentor. His knowledge slid off in chunks, and I followed him around for a while picking it up. Friends are curious things. Some stick around, some vanish. You can never tell. A great friend this year a year from now could be a distant memory. It's the friends that leave their mark, that induce changes to your sails and alter the course of your life that you never forget. Sadly, sometimes, they're not even aware they've done it.

Somebody asked Jean-Luc Godard why a character in one of his movies suddenly walks off and never makes a return appearance. He answered: Because life is like that.

Be seeing you!