18 December 2014

Absolute Powerlessness


by Eve Fisher

Back in August of 1970, when I was 16 years old, I got caught up in a riot in Los Angeles. Wrong place, wrong time. At the time, I had no idea what had sparked it. All I knew was that I was on foot, alone, in a part of the city I didn't know, and couldn't get out of except on foot. (No buses were running, and I didn't have taxi fare even if I'd spotted one.) Meanwhile, there was a lot of action, everywhere I looked, and none of it looked good. There were cops with sticks, cops with guns, cops with tear gas, people throwing bricks, everyone screaming, running, tripping… And then, as night fell, the scavengers came out, and things got very bad.

East LA riots

I was lucky: I found shelter. One of those strange blessings that I could never use in a story (truth is always stranger than fiction), a man came out of a building and said, "You need to get off the street. Now." And gave me his apartment for the night. For free. He even went somewhere else. I spent the night, barely sleeping - I didn't really trust my good luck with him or the mob in the streets - but in the morning, it was safe to get out and go back to my base.

File:RubenSalazar.jpg
Ruben Salazar (1928-1970)
A few days later I was told that it was all about the death of Ruben Salazar, a Mexican-American journalist, back from reporting in Vietnam, and who had turned his attention and articles to the unjust treatment of Chicanos by the LAPD. Naturally, he was hugely unpopular with the LAPD. Anyway, he'd been covering a Chicano march/rally against the Vietnam War and slipped off to have a quiet beer in a local bar. What I was told at the time was that the police had firebombed the bar, killing him, and then claimed they thought he was a drug dealer they were looking for.

What really happened? Well, for whatever reason the LAPD decided to break up the rally, despite the fact that everyone agrees it was peaceful. The police claimed they'd gotten reports that a local liquor store was being robbed; reason enough to declare the rally (20,000+ people) to be an illegal assembly and call out the riot squads. Tear gas, guns, the whole nine yards; the marchers retaliated; 150 were arrested, and 4 killed - including Salazar, who was having a quiet beer in a local bar when a deputy sheriff lobbed a 10-inch, wall-piercing tear gas missile (designed for barricade situations according to Wikipedia) into the bar, hitting Salazar in the head and killing him instantly. The LAPD claimed that they thought the robber had gone into the bar; then they claimed that there were drug dealers there. The deputy sheriff was never indicted or even reprimanded. That part of Los Angeles burned for a while, but that was nothing new. Nobody cared.
"It is a cliche that 'Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Like all cliches, it has a considerable element of truth. Nonetheless, one of the major purposes of any AVP workshop is to empower the participants, and to teach them to share power in community for the benefit of all. This is essential because the negative side of the old cliche is as true as the positive: 'Powerlessness corrupts, and absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.' All people need, for survival, a measure of power over their own lives and over their own environment... If people are deprived of the legitimate use of their necessary power they will use what power they have destructively and with violence." — Alternatives to Violence Project Basic Manual - p. C-2, my emphasis added.

riotsI've been thinking about the underlined passages above for a long time. I've been thinking about it because of everyone raised in homes are virtual prisons of alcohol, addiction, or abuse, as tightly controlled as a tomb. I've been thinking about it because of all the slaves in history, from the days of Gilgamesh to current-day human trafficking. I've been thinking about it because of all the subject peoples of military empires in history, from the Sumerians under Sargon the Great to the current day economic and political empires. I've been thinking about it because of all those who believe, deep down in their hearts, that some people just should not be allowed to have any power, any rights, any pleasures. And work very, very hard to make sure they don't get any. And then are horrified and appalled when the worms finally turn.

Look, fear, intimidation, bullying, all work very well at getting obedience. So does suborning the judicial process, whether within the family or in the town or on up the food chain. You can strip away every shred of power from someone and virtually (if not literally) own them. But rebellion will out. And when there is absolute powerlessness - where there is literally nothing you can do against whatever or whoever is controlling you - rebellion can come in some very strange forms. Rage. Cutting. Depression. Rage. Anorexia. Hostility. Aggression. Rage. Rioting. Burning. Rage. Things will happen.

Martin Luther
Of course, none of them are the right things. Whenever there has been an attempt at redress of grievances by the underlings, the people in power have always considered it outrageous, unjust, ridiculous, insane, criminal, animal, and generally unacceptable. Violent protest is ipso facto proof that the protesters are wrong, aren't capable of reason, and should not be listened to, only punished. I read the comments on-line calling the Ferguson protesters dogs who should be shot, and it didn't surprise me at all: In 1525, during the Reformation, when the German peasants revolted against their lords, Martin Luther wrote a pamphlet telling the nobles to kill them: "It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you." Yes, Luther was a social conservative. No, nothing much changes in history. During the American Revolution, the "Sons of Liberty" were seen by the British as "truly nothing but a drunken, canting, lying, praying, hypocritical rabble without order or cleanliness" who needed to be shot on sight.

Mr. Gandhi
Nonviolent protest doesn't earn any more respect. Listen to Winston Churchill on Gandhi: "It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir [which Churchill pronounced faker] of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor." Martin Luther King, Jr. received constant insults, arrests, death threats, and was eventually assassinated, as were Medgar Evers and others. It's no better on the family level. The person who leaves is always a selfish traitor who should have stuck it out to the end; the one who tries to live a separate, different life is stuck-up and needs to be brought down a notch. And, if it's an abusive marriage we're talking about, there's a good chance that the spouse who leaves will be harassed, assaulted, stalked and even killed.

So basically, from the point of view of power, neither violent nor nonviolent protest are acceptable: instead of protesting, trust the existing system to dole out rights, etc., as the system deems appropriate. And, of course, if there is no protest, then nothing is wrong, and nothing needs to change. "But you never complained..." "You never said a word about this when you were a child!" "She never said no!" "I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!" "S/He never told me to stop…”

And that is what makes people crazy.

Meanwhile, there is the alternative of "shar[ing] power in community for the benefit of all." That's hard for many people, who see life as a zero-sum game, and are terrified of having to share their toys, their power, their breathing space. But we had all better be prepared to do this, because no one - I repeat, NO ONE gets to hang on to all the cookies forever. Every empire has collapsed and/or been conquered. Every tyrant - whether they ruled empires, countries, kingdoms or families - has died. And there are no U-hauls behind hearses. When the last rattle comes, we are all absolutely powerless.

drawing by Allan Fisher©

17 December 2014

Any Flat Surface




by Robert Lopresti

Still thinking about Bouchercon.  (When you only blog every other week this kind of postmortum can take time.)

Attached you will find a photo of Catherine Dilts, standing in front of a mountain of carrier bags.  This picture was taken at Bouchercon, and is used by her gracious permission.

You see, upon arriving at one of these hootenannies you receive a specially made goody bag (just like the Oscars!) containing information and a whole bunch of free books.  Different bags get different books, all random. Inevitably some of the books will not match up perfectly with your reading preferences.

I heard one conference-goer asking: "Will there be a swap table for books?"

The volunteer replied: "Any flat surface."

Which brings up the odd phenomena of the book as physical object at these events.  Upstairs there is the Dealers' Room, filled with wonderful people who have traveled, in some cases, thousands of miles for the chance to sell you books. At least one had a long, lovely display of old and rare volumes. 

But all around the hotel there are publishers eagerly giving away books, in the hopes of getting you to read the rest of a series. 

Many years ago I visited a publisher's office and an editor asked "Have you read so-and-so?"  He took me into a little storeroom and started piling books into my arms, like I had won the grand prize on some quiz show.  I was flabbergasted.  Weren't they supposed to be trying to sell the things?

Back to the recent Bouchercon.  Someone did set up a few swap tables and, to my astonishment they did not fill up.  A dozen books would appear and then, a few minutes later most would be gone.  I expected that on Sunday, the last day of the fest, there would be a stack-up as people decided which books fit in their luggage for the plane.  But it hadn't happened by the time I left.  I am guessing that this conference (in Long Beach, an hour from L.A.) had a higher than usual percentage of attendees traveling by car.  So they had plenty of room for another dozen or so extra titles.

There was a mailing service there, as well, happy to box up your books and ship them home.  I took advantage of that. All the illustrations in the blog today are books that were giveaways - except one gift -- Thanks, Kate Thornton!

Last time I went to a Bouchercon the swap table was piled with tomes on the last day.  As I was shuffling through them I found an ARC (advance reader copy) of the new unpublished Matt Scudder novel by Lawrence Block.  As I grabbed it up I remember thinking: 1) who didn't want a copy of that? and 2) where the hell was I when they were giving them out?

It's weird how we feel about these remnants of dead trees.  Almost every day I bring one to put on the freebie pile in my library, hoping some college student will enjoy it.  Others I cherish and have carried along with me since high school.  And some books I am happy to read on my tablet and never own in a tangible form.

Back when I was even younger than I am now I remember buying a hardcover book at an event and taking it to the author to be signed.  His proud publisher was standing next to him.   "Oh, you'll enjoy that one!" said the publisher. 

"I know," I said.  "I already read it."

They stared at me. 


"I don't buy a hardcover unless I know I want to keep it."

Well, money was tight in those days.  And by God, I still have that book.

How about you?  Which ones do you keep and which do you give away?



16 December 2014

Mystery And History--A Story


by David Dean

A number of my fellow SleuthSayers regularly contribute pieces based on history, and I usually find them intensely interesting.  Eve Fisher has done some wonderful pieces, as have David Edgerly Gates, R.T. Lawton, and others.  I've taken a stab at a few myself.  I like history, especially American, English, Native American, and when it's not too turgid, Catholic history.

A few years ago my wife, Robin, gave me a very slim book entitled, "A Journey Into Mohawk And Oneida Country 1634-1635."  It was not so much a history (at least it was not intended to be so) as a journal of a Dutch surgeon/barber sent with two merchants to renegotiate a trade agreement with the Iroquois.  All three were employee/colonists for the Dutch West India Company and living at an outpost known as Fort Orange near present day Albany, New York.  It appeared that the impetus for this dangerous task was French interference in the lucrative beaver pelt trade.  They threatened to undercut their Dutch rivals with their Algonquian alliances, so an adjustment was needed from the Iroquois in order for the guild to continue to prosper.  All pretty cut and dry, and to be honest, the author, while diligent, was not putting together a future best-seller here.  Nonetheless, I was very excited to have, and anxious to read, the little volume simply because it was a rare, and very early, first-hand account of life among the Mohawk and Oneida.
Battle Between Iroquois and Algonquian Tribes

But where's the mystery, you may be asking yourself?  To begin with the author was the mystery.  The man attributed to writing this brief record never identifies himself within its pages.  It was a journal, after all, which he was keeping for the company records.  He probably just assumed that the audience he was writing for would know who had written it.  After all there were only three of them, and they had been commissioned by the Company.  His two companions are identified within its pages.  However, for the historians, it would take over two hundred years for the author's identity to be revealed.

This began with the fortunate discovery of the document itself in 1895; stored in a forgotten archive in Holland.  It was one of the very few Dutch West India Company records to have escaped the great purge that was accomplished when that institution was dissolved hundreds of years before.  Its discoverer was an American, who recognized its worth, bought it, and brought it back to the States.  It would take additional minds and decades before a list of possible authors was made up based on colonial census records and passenger lists from Holland.  In the end, it was narrowed down to a young man in his early twenties who recorded his profession as surgeon/barber when he boarded a vessel for the colonies.  His name was Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert and bound for New Amsterdam.  He was the right age, at the right time, practicing the right profession, and headed for the right place.  There were no others that fit that bill so exactly.  Once identified, his name was found numerous times throughout the colony's transactions and history during the 1600's.  He was to prosper in the New World and grow into a much respected figure.  He would not die that way.

Bogaert's selection for this dangerous, but important, assignment gives us some indication that he was well thought of and trusted after only a few years in the colony.  His being a surgeon (read blood-letter, and first aid practitioner) was, no doubt, a part in their decision-making process.  There must have been a feeling of great urgency in this matter, as well, as the intrepid three were being sent forth just days from Christmas during an intensely cold winter.  Wearing clothing and footwear totally unsuitable for the journey ahead, they followed their Indian guide out of the village and onto barely discernible trails knee-deep in snow with drifts sometimes chest-high.  Their all-day treks were measured in mere miles; often traveling no more that two or three in a day.  During all this Bogaert makes entries in his journal that are both brief and laconic.  In their first encounter with the natives, they chance upon and surprise a group who throw down their packs and flee into the trees upon seeing the white men.  The Dutchmen and their guide then proceed to help themselves to any food that they can find among the Indians' discarded goods, while the owners watch them from the shadows.  The natives make no move to stop, or molest them, and the trade party moves on.  Bogaert makes no further comment on this episode. 

When they reach the first village of a chain they must visit, they are greeted warmly.  It is never expressed in Bogaert's diary, but one gets the impression that the Mohawk chiefs had been apprised in advance of their arrival and were expecting them; knew their purpose.  Brought into longhouses containing as many as forty occupants, the exhausted travelers are given a place by one of the many fires.  Bogaert and his men are wet and frozen.  They are fed bear and beaver meat.  Bogaert never offers his opinion of this fare, but it is apparent that he eats it readily.  They do some trading, sleep, and move on the next day with a new guide to the next village.  These actions are repeated throughout their adventure, with only chance observations of how their hosts lived; their customs.  He writes once of a chief showing him the tribe's "god," a stuffed marten with protruding teeth, decorated with beads and feathers.  In another example he records, with chilling understatement, that one of the braves they are bedding down with for the night wishes to cut him.  They arise the following day and move on with no further mention of the threat, or how they spent their night.  The writer in me couldn't help but wonder--did they sleep?  Did they ask for the chief's intervention and protection?  Was there any trouble that night, or did the threat turn out to be completely baseless?  And what was the warrior's motivation in this instance?  Had he been offended, or was he just curious to see if the Dutch bled the same color as the Iroquois?  Maddening little details.

On another occasion they are treated to a curing ceremony conducted by two of the tribe's shaman.  Inside a small bark-covered longhouse filled with smoke from a roaring fire, the two sweating elders put sticks down their throats and projectile vomit onto the hapless patient, a young man laid low with fever.  Again, our hero offers little enlightenment.  Being a surgeon, had he asked to witness one of their healing ceremonies?  Was the patient cured?  What were his, and his companions, reactions to this extraordinary display?  Silence.

As to his own doctoring abilities we are given only a glimpse.  When one of his companion's legs begins to swell, he records cutting it three times with his knife and dressing it with bear grease.  We can only assume that the result was salutary, as they all continue their travels shortly thereafter.

We are left to infer that the Mohawk and Oneida are lacking firearms at this date, as Bogaert makes no mention of them, but records their fascination with the European's guns.  Though on two occasions the trio is entreated by entire villages to discharge the weapons into the air, they steadfastly refuse to do so.  Bogaert writes of their disappointment, as the Indians are well aware of the fire and thunder the guns produce and are excited to witness it, but again frustrates the reader as to the reason for the refusals.  One can only guess that the Dutchmen were loathe to empty their one-shot weapons and become helpless to defend themselves.  Perhaps this was the Iroquois' secret intent, or our pilgrims feared it might be.  After all, there had been that troubling earlier instance with the warrior and his knife. 

Yet, at the end of Bogaert's brief journal the adventurer-merchants return unharmed to their colony.  Perhaps due to the success of their efforts, Bogaert himself becomes a respected trading merchant in the coming years, and prosperous enough to buy part ownership of the privateer vessel, La Garce, and uses it to prey on Spanish shipping in the West Indies.  At twenty-nine, he marries a woman living in the colony and they have four children over the next several years.  He continues to gain both wealth and stature within the hard-working community.  Then, at age thirty-six, he is charged with sodomy and flees the colony for the relative safety of the Mohawks he had visited years before.  Just like that, everything changes.

Van den Bogaert stood accused of having sexual relations with a black male servant in his employ named Tobias.  The servant was captured while Bogaert remained at large amongst the Native Americans.  Undaunted, it seems, the colony appointed a man-catcher to go after him and bring Bogaert out of Indian country.  Whether this was a difficult undertaking, or not, is never explained, only that his capture results.  On the return trek, Bogaert manages to escape once more, and in his desperation, attempts to flee across a frozen river.  Unable to support his weight, the ice gives way and he plunges into the frigid waters and perishes.  It is not recorded if his body was ever recovered, or if an attempt was made to do so.

Likewise, we never learn of Bogaert's own feelings about the events he participated in during his extraordinary travels among the Iroquois.  He never once expresses his own feelings and impressions in his terse, business-like journal.  The historians responsible for researching his time among the Iroquoian peoples wisely refrain from interpreting his writings to conform with modern opinions and prejudices.  The scant, and ultimately startling, events comprising the biographic introduction to the piece are, likewise, left to tell their own tale without interpretation or embellishment.  We know what happened, but not why.  There are so many unanswered questions that I find it tempting to fill in the blanks.  Clearly, this was a capable and complex man.  Ultimately, we know what he did, but not who he really was, and it is difficult not to assign him modern motives and thinking.  But that wouldn't actually be the truth, would it?  We so seldom know what our own contemporaries really think and feel; even when they do express themselves freely and often.  So, in the end, Herr Bogaert forms the juncture of both history and mystery, revealed in his actions and writing, but still shrouded in the mystery of human behavior--an intriguing, but frustrating, cipher.

15 December 2014

Odds & Ends, Bits & Pieces


By Fran Rizer


Yes, today is Jan's day, but she's sick, so I'm filling in.  Just add "write blog" to the list above.  My first thought was to write about "a few of my favorite things."  That song has been hanging out in my mind several days and would work well with the idea of naming lots of my greatest loves, but I decided to save that in my list of "possibles" for the future.


Next, I thought about telling everyone about the horror novel I'm presently revising.  That brought the above cartoon to mind.  I love it for several reasons: (1)  I really enjoy reading King whether it's horror or sci fi--almost anything he writes (2) I taught a young lady when she was in fifth grade who read King and wrote stories that sometimes got the same reaction as the above cartoon.  She ran away from home two years later and I pray that she found her way to a good life.








I love this warning sign.  It's posted on the door to my office, and if the reason for a break is that lunch is ready, it had better be something good. .





I've included this one because I sincerely believe that some English teachers do stretch the limits on symbolism and other literary devices when analyzing literature with their students.

Also, because, since I've expanded my genres, I am using an occasional word that would not have fit into the Callie series.

My copy reader informed me that I misspelled the "m-f" word the first time it appeared in one of my manuscripts.  I got the letters right, but I never can remember what kind of compound word it is--open, closed, or hyphenated.





After posting the Beaufort, Lowcountry, Frogmore stew recipe from A Corpse Under the Christmas Tree, I received several emails from readers who had tried it and liked it.

In honor of the season, I now present you with Pa's favorite holiday recipe:






Pa's No-Bake Bourbon Balls

Ingredients

12 ounces gingersnaps, graham crackers, vanilla wafers, or animal crackers, completely crushed
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 1/2 cups finely chopped pecans or walnuts
1/4 cup light corn syrup
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1/2 cup bourbon or rum
1/2 cup granulated sugar

Optional:  powdered sugar, cocoa, nuts for coating the outsides

Directions

Stir everything together except the granulated sugar in a large mixing bowl.  Shape into one-inch balls. Pour granulated sugar in a paper plate with an edge or a shallow bowl.  Roll each ball in the sugar (or one of the optional coatings), then store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.  These are actually better a day or so after making them, but they don't freeze well.

Notes

Pa's favorite version of these is to make them with gingersnaps and bourbon.  The vanilla wafer ones are especially tasty with rum.  Pa cautions, "Don't use cooking beverages. I use top-shelf bourbon or rum.  If I won't drink it, I don't cook with it."  He also advises that one way to crush the crackers is to put them in a gallon-size zipper bag.  Close it tight and crush with a rolling pin.  (Don't use a sandwich bag because they are thinner than the larger ones.)




Whether you say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays," the busy-ness of this season sometimes makes writing even more difficult.  Just remember the above quote.  If it was sometimes that hard for Hemingway, we can expect some bumps along the road.



Enough said!

Until we meet again, take care of . . . you!




14 December 2014

A Callie Parrish Christmas


by Leigh Lundin

Callie Parrish Christmas
Mortuary Cosmetology News…

In Fran Rizer's Christmas novel, A Corpse under the Christmas Tree, Callie ‘Calamine Lotion’ Parrish is the main protagonist in a panoply of memorable characters, including her family, the ever patient Sheriff Harmon, the Middleton twins, and Big Boy, her dog who’s very shy about ‘doing his bidnez’ in public.

Callie couldn’t celebrate Christmas without her BFF blind Jane. I’m relieved to report Jane gave up shoplifting in the second novel in the series. Instead, she turned her oral talents to working as a phone sex operator at the expense of breaking off her engagement to one of Callie’s brothers. That didn’t stop Callie’s family– she insists on calling them rednecks but they’re considerably more than that– from inviting Jane to celebrate Christmas.

So as Christmas winds down, what could possibly go wrong?

The title offers a clue, A Corpse under the Christmas Tree. Callie couldn’t fit her extra-giant humongous tannenbaum through the door, so the girls (who hate being called girls by guys) set up and decorated the tree on their front veranda.

There, someone left a fully-wrapped Santa under it. Dead. Or as Fran and Mickey Spillane might say, dead as hell. (See Fran Rizer’s Kudzu River.) Sheriff Harmon worries about a possible break in. It’s difficult to determine because, thanks to Callie’s housekeeping standards, he can’t tell if the place has been trashed or not.

This is a story about birth and death, one on the floor of the Gullah Grill and the other wrapped around a tree, and somehow the author makes it all seem hilarious.

About the Author

Fran Rizer writes cozies, but she slips in a bit of sly and gently naughty humor. She’s also a keen observer, both of eye and ear, and she writes some of the best 30-something dialogue in the business.

The author is a dedicated researcher, a necessity when casting a heroine who works as a cosmetician in a South Carolina funeral home. I like to think the setting in the village of St. Mary’s is a tip o’ the cloche to Aunt Agatha.

About the Book

The playful typography at first led me to think the book might be a collection of short stories, but no, it’s another full-fledged Callie novel. Each chapter is demarcated by an Alice-in-Wonderland-like separator shaped like a Christmas tree that reads something like:


ON
THE

FIRST
D A Y  O F
CHRISTMAS MY
TRUE LOVE GAVE
TO
ME

A CORPSE UNDER
THE CHRISTMAS TREE

This perfectly coincides with a trademark of the Callie series that never contain a chapter 13.

Notice that Fran knows what modern celebrants have nearly forgotten: The first day of Christmas is the 25th, meaning January 5 is the 12th day of Christmas, followed by the final feast of the season on January 6. That’s right, you can officially keep your lights and decorations up through the 6th of January and give a Callie book on any one of those days. You know… just in case you overlooked Auntie Maude in Dubuque.


ON
THE

ELEVENTH
D A Y  O F
CHRISTMAS MY
TRUE LOVE GAVE
TO
ME

ELEVEN AXES GRINDIN’

I have no axe to grind, but in the interest of full disclosure I’m a colleague, fan, and friend of the author’s. That said, if you enjoy Christmas and chicklit cozies, you’ll love this Callie story.

But wait… there’s more! The book includes a number of Southern recipes making it a gift that keeps on giving.


ON
THE

TWELFTH
D A Y  O F
CHRISTMAS MY
TRUE LOVE GAVE
TO
ME

TWELVE EGGS A’NOGGIN

13 December 2014

Readings and Spellings





by John M. Floyd


A year or so ago, my wife and I were invited to attend a dance program featuring our granddaughter Susannah, who was at that time four years old. That afternoon, as we took our seats in the school auditorium alongside our son and his wife and family, our grandson Charlie (then six years old) crawled up into my lap holding one of his storybooks he had brought from home. Keeping my voice low (things had quieted down and everyone was waiting and watching the stage by that time), I said to him, "Charlie, why'd you bring a book along? Don't you want to watch your sister dance?"

"I might," he said, "and I might not. I think this is going to be B-O-R-I-N-G."

I'm not sure why he needed to spell it out, but I had to admire his foresight. He was prepared for anything. As it turned out, the program was entertaining, even for my grandson--but I later remembered that moment, when I was asked to do a reading from my new book following its "launch" signing at a local bookstore a couple of months ago. I decided that whatever happened that night, I wanted to try hard not to be B-O-R-I-N-G. And sometimes that's easier said than done.

King author and the signing table

I and others at this blog, including my friend Fran Rizer several weeks ago, have written about the good and bad and hilarious things that can happen at a typical bookstore signing. But what about other kinds of booksigning events, ones that include a reading and/or a speech? That kind of gig, my friends, can be a whole different ballgame. You don't want your captive audience to feel like captives.

Let me begin by saying something controversial: I don't particularly like readings. Not only do I not enjoy reading aloud from my own work, I'm usually not fond of listening to others read aloud from theirs. To me, the best way to enjoy a story or novel is to read it yourself, silently, at your own pace and in a location of your own choosing. I think that was, after all, what the writer intended when he wrote it. Besides, at bookstore readings, I've usually just finished standing in line and buying the book, which I plan to take home and read and enjoy later; why would I want to sit there and listen to the author read part of it to me now?

I know, I know: it's a chance to find out how the author expresses his writing, in his own spoken words. The truth is, though, that I don't find that very interesting. I also doubt that readers are interested in hearing the way I express my own writing, in spoken words. I'd rather read their words, and have them read mine. As a listener, I'd much rather hear authors tell us about the way they plot, and develop characters, and rewrite, and market their work. But maybe that's just me. (I should mention, so you'll know that I'm not completely insensitive, that I certainly don't turn down offers from those places that are kind enough to invite me to do a reading. I get up there and smile and soldier on, and I'm grateful for the invitation. But I make darn sure to keep the excerpt mercifully short.)

Okay, bub--close that book and step away from the podium . . .

How about those events that don't involve a reading? Maybe you're just asked to make a talk to the local Rotary Club, let's say, or to the Friends of the Library, or to a book club, or to a high-school class. Suppose the president or librarian or facilitator or teacher just wants you to tell the audience a little about yourself and your writing and your latest literary accomplishment. What's the best way to do that?

I think the wisest approach in that situation is to (1) keep your remarks brief, (2) make the audience laugh a bit, and (3) close with a question/answer session. The Q&A seems to work especially well. If what you've said is interesting to the group, there'll be plenty of questions, and if you run a bit too long it won't be your fault. But (one might well ask) what if there aren't any questions? Well, if there aren't any questions it means that what you've said wasn't very interesting, and you might as well shut up anyway. It's a lot better to finish early than to fall victim to the Baptist Revival Syndrome and drone on until your audience either passes out or walks out.

Thank goodness, you will probably find that most listeners in just about any venue seem to enjoy hearing about writers and about the process of writing. (I certainly do.) They also seem to like asking questions. (I do, too.) With any luck, you'll find that very few attendees have brought their own storybooks along with them to read in case you turn out to be B-O-R-I-N-G.

Q's from me to you:

Do any of you share my reluctance to read my own words aloud to a group? Do you enjoy hearing other authors read theirs? (I know many who do.) Do you find such readings inspiring? Enlightening? Nap-inspiring? Would you rather hear instead about how and why these authors write what they do? If you're asked to speak to a library or a class or a civic group, do you offer to do a reading as well? What advice would you give to a beginning writer, about addressing an audience?

I'll close with a sincere "Thank you!" to those who are kind enough to invite us authors to be guest speakers, and a sincere "Good luck!" to my fellow writers with any and all signings/speeches/readings that you perform. 

May all of them be F-U-N.



NOTE: I'll be away most of today at an out-of-town booksigning. (Not a reading, just a signing.) Wish me luck . . .



12 December 2014

After Action Report


by R.T. Lawton

In my blog article back on February 28th, I mentioned my upcoming Surveillance Workshop which was to be conducted at the Long Beach Bouchercon on November 13,2014. Roughly, it was to be eight celebrity author "Rabbits" and eight teams of conference attendees being taught how  to follow those Rabbits.

So, on Thursday morning at the conference, the Rabbits got a one-hour briefing as to what they could and couldn't do. Their pictures and physical descriptions were taken and they were provided with maps of the playing area and a separate starting location for each of the eight Rabbits.

Diagramming the ABC Method
Early that afternoon, the Surveillance Team Members received a one-hour lecture on the ABC Method of Surveillance, were quickly divided into eight teams and were given maps of the playing area, plus 8x10 photos of their individual Rabbits and a location for where their Rabbit would be at starting time. Cell phones and hand signals were to be used as communication in place of radios. Because conference attendees other than players were allowed to sit in on the lecture and the debriefing, the room was packed, with others left standing in the hallway outside the door.

At 2:30 PM, the Rabbits were off and, just like reality in the world of surveillance, anything that could go wrong did. Once again, I was amazed at how many of these civilians could adapt to and overcome adverse situations on the street. Since I was the only one in possession of the Master Rabbit Plan, I manned the base of operations where those who lost their Rabbit could call my cell phone and find out where to relocate their Rabbit at fifteen minute intervals. The phone soon began to ring, beep, chirp, whatever it is that cell phones do these days.

By 4 PM, everyone returned to the conference room for the Debrief. Each Rabbit, followed by the captain of the team conducting surveillance on that Rabbit got a few minutes of microphone time to tell their side of the story. The laughter began. One team started out trailing a member of another surveillance team. Well, in their defense, she did look a lot like their Rabbit photo. A local business, Radio Shack, got talked into recharging one team member's dead cell phone so she could continue playing, while another team kept running into what soon became a very paranoid drug dealer. No doubt he has moved his street business to another part of town to calm his nerves.

Here are some excerpts from an article in Ransom Notes (a newsletter from a Sisters in Crime Chapter in California) as written by Evelyn Moore with contributions by Eileen Magill, both players in the workshop.

     Our team's rabbit dashed north up the main road, cut across street against the light and stopped to talk with another rabbit under a yellow awning on the northwest corner. I raced up to the southeast corner and did my best to hide behind a palm tree. Ducking and weaving back and forth to avoid our rabbit's ever-scanning eyes, I attracted the notice of another sort. My attention was so intent on the rabbit that I didn't notice that I was standing outside the main entrance to a bank, and the security guard was not pleased with my furtive behavior.

     The tap on my shoulder nearly made me jump out of my skin. I was so rattled , I wasn't quite sure what he said to me, but the tone of his voice was rather harsh. I realized how bad the whole situation looked. The only things I had in my bag were multiple changes of clothes and disguises. No ID. Nothing to say that I was taking part in an exercise with Bouchercon. Gosh, nothing suspicious here. He did not look convinced when I described the exercise. Well, as they say, a good defense is a strong offense. When he told me to look at him--which would have meant turning away from my rabbit--I told him, "Sure, but you'll need to watch my rabbit for me," and then described the man I was watching.

     About this time, one of the members of the other team that was following the rabbit that my rabbit was meeting sidled up to the electrical box a few feet to my north. The guard looked back and forth between us, rolled his eyes, and disappeared back into the bank.

                                                     *      *       *

     At one point, while our rabbit was spending a long time under that yellow awning, I was on the other side of the street hiding in a doorway, or behind a large utility vehicle talking to Eileen on our cell phones while changing back and forth from my jacket to my sweatshirt. I noticed this woman who was also hanging out in my area. She was dressed in a provocative manner in a fancy black dress adorned with black roses and black lace. She kept glaring at me and I thought at one point she was going to come up and yell at me, but instead she angrily bustled away. It then occurred to me that she was perhaps what one would politely call "a lady of the night" and I was bad for business.

                                                       *      *       *

     I was also aware while running from one side of the street to the other that I needed to be very careful watching out for cars and buses. I didn't want my epitaph to read, "She got hit by a car while chasing a rabbit."

                                                        *      *       *

     At the end of the hour we followed our rabbit back to the hotel. We were certain that at several points he had made us, but were thrilled to find out during the debrief, that he hadn't. According to our rabbit Con Lehane, he had a good time but was "terribly disappointed that despite constant vigilance and innumerable evasive actions, I wasn't able to shake (or even see) you guys."

The SinC newsletter article afterwards concluded with hyperlinks to the four SleuthSayers blog articles I had written on surveillance tradecraft. These links allowed their SinC readers to obtain more information on how to conduct surveillance, both by foot and by vehicle, not to mention that it advertised our web site.

Other photos from the conference:
Eve, R.T. & Brian

Saturday panel on feds who write

View of the Queen Mary across the harbor at night

Making a podcast of AHMM story for editor Linda Landrigan

Old Russian sub berthed by Queen Mary (Ignore the people)

View from our room of Carnival Cruise ship & Queen Mary

11 December 2014

The 8th of November, 1951


by Dale C. Andrews

    Sometimes when I settle down in the evening in front of the television I think back to the origins of this strange little device that we have welcomed into our homes over the past 65 or more years.

    Television actually got its start even earlier, in the 1920’s, and for several years what was the first television station sending out commercial broadcasts, WGY – broadcasting out of a General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York -- contented itself with showing Felix the Cat riding around on a turntable for two hours a day.  But regular commercial broadcasting likely dates from 1948, the year that Texaco Star Theater starring Milton Berle became the first “must see” TV.

    The early years of television saw an avalanche of new programming hit the airwaves, some original series and some transplanted from the about-to-be-supplanted radio airwaves.  Mysteries were a staple of radio and many moved readily to this new medium as well.  Included in this rush to offer televised entertainment were three different series featuring my personal favorite, Ellery Queen, making the jump from radio.  Ellery Queen series variously aired on the old Dumont network, as well as on ABC and NBC.  These early television attempts at conquering the whodunit were a far cry from NBC’s 1975 Ellery Queen series that graced the Thursday and then Sunday night schedule for one short year.  The 1975 series is now available in a great DVD collection, but most of these early Queen televised adventures are now lost to us – they were either performed live, or on lost kinescope tapes.  You can read about them, and their radio predecessors, either in Francis Nevins magnum opus Ellery Queen:  The Art of Detection, or on Kurt Sercu's website Ellery Queen:  A Website on Deduction.  But watching those early shows, that's another matter.  Well, maybe . . . .  There are always exceptions, bits of the past lurking out there ready to be discovered (or re-discovered) by the intrepid detective.

    So step with me, now, into Mr. Peabody’s wayback machine, as we set the dial for November 8, 1951.  When we get there, get comfy on the couch, or on the floor with a pillow.  Pull the popcorn bowl up close.  All eyes on that magnificent 9 inch black and white screen as we eagerly await tonight’s Ellery Queen adventure -- “Murder to Music.”




Note that Dale Andrews returns to SleuthSayers the last Sunday of the month, commencing 25 January 2015.

10 December 2014

The Masks of Mary Renault


David Edgerley Gates


I've spoken about Mary Renault as an influence before, but it's time I brought her full-front. She's not a mystery writer, of course, but she's probably had more effect on my writing than anybody else, possibly excepting John LeCarre - and that's a toss-up. I'm talking about conscious influences, not something half-buried, like N.C. Wyeth's illustrations for TREASURE ISLAND, say, but more along the lines of picking up on some startling coup de theatre and asking yourself how they pulled it off. Writers are jackdaws, scavenging shiny objects and hiding them in our nests. Sooner or later we persuade ourselves we owned them all along. Always steal from the best, Hemingway said.

Renault's style is hard to quantify, because it appears so unforced. There's nothing self-conscious about it. But you begin to catch on to certain tropes, or tricks, after a while. She has a habit, for example, of not overstaying her welcome. Once a scene has done its work, she leaves it alone, and lets you wonder what happened off-stage. This is like Dutch Leonard's method, Don't bother with stuff the reader's going to skip anyway. Another thing she does is set up a kind of internal opposition in sentence structure, a dialectic, and reversing herself, or your expectations, particularly with interior monologue. In other words, she waits a beat for the punchline. This is from THE LAST OF THE WINE. Out of context, but maybe you can see what I mean. "No man is all of a piece - if I had myself to choose someone who should find me out in a lie, Plato would come very low on my list." (The inversion sets the hook.)


Renault is also a master of voice. Of the eight Greek historical novels, six are told in the first person - all from a male POV, for that matter, and completely convincing - but each narrator's voice is different. Theseus tells his own story in THE KING MUST DIE and THE BULL FROM THE SEA, and he sounds Bronze Age, not like Alexias, later, the Athenian soldier fighting in the Pelopponesian War (LAST OF THE WINE), or the actor Niko in THE MASK OF APOLLO. Niko, for that matter, is somewhat mischievous, and even a little bitchy, full of theater gossip. Bagoas, the Persian boy, is less confiding, not an unreliable witness, but more chasteshall we say, than Niko, who has a flirty nature and a pair of round heels. The notable exception to this is FUNERAL GAMES, told in third person, and with terse declarative prose (I don't remember a dependent clause in the book), and easily the most chilling of Renault's novels, because nothing is elliptical, or withheld. There's no mediating narrative speaker. Any reluctant veil is stripped away. We have only Renault's wintry eye.

Excepting the Theseus books - which have plenty of carnal sex, the guy fathered more children than Zeus - the novels are cast as love stories, THE LAST OF THE WINE, THE MASK OF APOLLO, THE PERSIAN BOY, and she manages this without any affectation or embarrassment. Whether it's physically consuming, or kept at a distance, or simply an old ember that still gives off heat, we feel both a lightness of heart and the breathless pull of Eros. Here are Alexias and Lysis on the beach. Alexias has cut his foot on a sharp stone. "I sat on a flat-topped rock, and trailed my foot in the sea. The water was clear, and the blood unrolled in it like smoke in a blue sky.... A gull screamed over us, an empty sound, to tell us we two were alone upon the shore." Tell me that's not a metaphor you'd kill for, We two alone upon the shore.


The thing I've always admired most about Mary Renault, and the thing I've always most wanted to imitate, is that her books are all of a piece, from breast to back, familiar and contained, and utterly confident, as if sprung full-blown from the brow of a god. They're entirely natural, without any sense of being labored over. Her voice, or voices, seem to come from inside your own head, like an echo. They don't smell of the lamp.

Craft is a matter of practice, and application. We learn by doing. But transcendence is a gift, and like as not, it catches us by surprise.

09 December 2014

Adapting (to the conditions)


by Stephen Ross
I'm writing this on a bus, on a laptop. I have a 75 minute commute to the office each morning, and home again in the evening. Auckland is a spread-out city (think LA, but without the permafrost cloud of pollution). I live in a nice neighborhood, and I work in a nice neighborhood; unfortunately there's about 40 kilometers of road in between.

New Zealand is a car nation, and Auckland is the capital of cars. Public transportation exists, but it's little more than buses. There's no underground (or elevated), no streetcars (they were phased out in the 1960s). There is a rail line, but it's only a single line, and unless you are fortunate enough to live on it (I don't), it serves no benefit to you.

So, for the last couple of years, I've been taking the bus. It's hysterically cheaper than petrol and parking for the car, and until three weeks ago, when I bought a laptop, it gave me guaranteed time built into each day in which to read.

Learning to read while in motion was a new experience for me. For most of my life, I had been a confirmed motion sickness sufferer, a strictly stare-out-the-window-and-wait-until-we-get-there traveler.
  • Reading comics in the car as a child: ill 
  • Reading a magazine on a 747: ill 
  • Reading a plaque while standing on the deck of the HMS Endeavour replica while anchored in port: nautically ill
  • Trying to take photos out of the window of a helicopter 300 feet over Diamond Head: scenically ill
When I started commuting by bus I thought, at 400 kilometers a week, I was going to go out of my mind unless I did something to occupy myself. So I took a book one morning and committed to learning how to read. I was nauseous for about two weeks, and it was hell, but I broke through. Now I can read anything while in motion: books, my Kindle, emails, Facebook, WhatsApp, whatever.

However.

I am a writer, and in the times when I wasn't reading on the bus, I did a lot of thinking about writing; but thinking only, with the frustration that I couldn't do anything. So, after two and a half years, I finally bought a laptop. Reading a book every week or two is all fine and good, but it's NOT writing.

 If I was to code the problem, it might look like this:

$Writer == WHERE words(Output > Input);
Writing on a bus has meant learning to adapt. Probably 95% of all the fiction I've ever written has been done seated at the desk in my office at my house. The conditions for writing there have been finely tuned over the years and are optimal. Writing on a bus is like writing on a rollercoaster; you don't know what lies ahead.

As with learning to read while in motion, it's taken a couple of weeks to learn how to write while in motion, but it hasn't been too difficult. There are the usual distractions: other people and noise (generally forgotten about with a set of earbuds and the right music track). I honestly think I could write anywhere now. In fact, I'm getting adventurous; I today sat in a café in my lunch break, with the laptop and a cup of coffee which, for me, is completely out of the ordinary.

Writing in public, especially on a bus, does have one pitfall: if someone sits right behind you and can read what's on your screen. That's one distraction I find hard to ignore. Yesterday, I was writing a sex scene in my book. I had the impression the woman seated behind was trying to read what I was typing. In my mind, she was busting an eye socket trying to read my purple scarlet prose. In reality, she probably couldn't even make out the words, or even the language -- my font size is pretty small (so that I can see 3 pages spread across the screen). But it's the thought of it that's distracting.
Pick your bus seat wisely.

And while I'm talking about bus seats, allow me to gripe about the dimensions of bus seating on Auckland City buses. I'm 6 foot 1, hardly a contender for the Guinness Book of Records. The seats on buses here were designed for hobbits. Seriously.

A couple of other tips for writing on a bus:
  • Avoid the glare. If you can, sit on the side of the bus that's opposite to the sun.
  • The back seats are where the kids hang out. They like to fidget and kick seat backs. Only sit there if you're researching a story about teen angst.
  • Don't sit near anyone over 40 with an old phone in his/her hand. He/she will use it. Loudly. Everybody else quietly social networks on smartphones.
  • Sit near to people with books (they're the nice people)
  • Know the route: know the corners and potholes where it's a good idea to hang on tightly to your laptop.
How do you write? What distractions can you tolerate, or not? Can you write anywhere?

Be seeing you!

08 December 2014

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night


By Fran Rizer


Meet Shug

"I'm sorry, so sorry.  I should have told you.  Let me  go.  No one will ever know.  You'll never see me again.  I'm begging you: please, please let me go!"
    The fearful pleading had no effect on Shug, nor did the sheer terror on Carly's face.  Shug no longer wanted to be parked in a tiny sports car with Carly--much less during a horrific storm--but his maniacal rage was directed as much at life as it was toward Carly and the weather.  Shug closed his eyes and slapped himself frantically, repeatedly pounding his hands against his face, wide-spread fingers beating against ears that couldn't stand hearing Carly's words.
    Lightning streaked through the darkness and into the car, illuminating Carly's anguished face and naked body.  Screaming unidentifiable words, Shug pulled a .38 from under the driver's seat.
    "No! Oh, God, no!" Carly shouted and grabbed at the door handle, but it wouldn't work.  Tried the window control.  Still no way out.  Hammered at the glass with clenched fists--desperate to escape.
    "Bye, bitch," Shug said and pulled the trigger.
    Once. Keerack! Twice. Keerack! Three times. Keerack!  The harsh stench of gunpowder filled the air.  Torrents of crimson gushed from the crater in the back of Carly's head.  Gobbets of bloody tissue spattered on the shattered glass.

"Dead as hell."
    Those words echoed in Shug's mind as his trembling hands clenched the steering wheel, trying to hold the battered old Ford on the road.  Wind whipped against the vehicle and rocked it from side to side.  Worn wipers battled against rain sheeting the windshield.  He gave up on reaching his destination--a wooded area on the other side of town--and stomped the brakes.  The car slid across the empty street before skidding to a stop beside the gutter.
    "Damned sure dead as hell," Shug whispered while looking into the rear at Carly's naked remains."Not she . . . it.  That dead body is an it," the killer thought.  Its arms ended in bloody stumps, and the smooth legs bent awkwardly, obscenely.  Shug stepped out into the rain and opened the back door.  Streaming water splashed the corpse as he struggled to pull it from the Ford.  His muscles burned from the strain.  Carly's body felt heavier than when he'd moved it from the sports car to Carly's battered old Ford.  The carcass plopped in the gutter.
    Just as well.  The front of the head was a big mess of bloody tissue and bone--leaving no clue to what the victim had looked like.  This pleased Shug and brought more shrill laughter from his lips. No face, no clothes, no hands.  The appearance had lied just as much as the garments had.  Carly didn't deserve to be identified.
    The .38 lay on the front seat.  Shug reached across for it and dropped the gun onto the pavement before sliding back into the car.  Soaked to the bone, he shivered.  The full quotation returned to his mind as he drove away from the abandoned remains and weapon.
    "The guy was dead as hell."
    They were the opening words of an old Mickey Spillane novel that Shug had sneaked out of Father's private bookcase and read as a child.  A recent issue of one of Shug's literary magazine subscriptions had stated that Charles Dickens's "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times" in A Tale of Two Cities was the finest opening sentence ever written.  Screw that.  "The guy was dead as hell" was much better.


Meet Katie Wray

    "Darn! Darn! Darn!" Rain pounded the windshield so brutally that Katie Wray couldn't see the lines on the superhighway, even when lightning brightened the night sky.  She'd almost run off the road when she exited I-26 onto I-95.  Now she could barely distinguish the exit to Walterboro.  Best get off the road and find a room for the night.
    As she swerved onto the exit lane, the car hydroplaned into a spin.  Katie forgot everything she'd ever known about handling skids and screamed as she lost control of the vehicle.
    Miraculously, the movement stopped with the passenger side of the car slammed against a retaining wall.  Katie patted herself to see if anything were broken or bleeding.  She'd probably have some bruises from the seat belts, but the air bags hadn't inflated.  She shook herself and lost some of the anger she'd been carrying against the rental agent for not having a compact available and forcing her into their most expensive rental--though possibly one of the safest--a Mercedes.
    The loss of that fury made room for Katie's rage at her sister Maggie.  A long day of delayed flights had left Katie worn out and eager to be off the plane when it landed after eleven o'clock that night.  All summer long, her sister Maggie had used Katie's apartment and new Fusion free of charge--while promising to meet her at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport when Katie returned to South Carolina.
    Katie realized she should have planned to come home for a few days between her summer tutoring out west and returning to work at Tanner Elementary School. "Weary."  It was an old-fashioned word, but it described how Katie felt--totally exhausted.  She'd looked forward to sleeping during the three-hour drive to her hometown, Tanner, South Carolina.  Instead, she was battling a terrible rainstorm in a rental car at three in the morning because her sister Maggie had let her down as usual.  Katie didn't even consider that Maggie might have forgotten.  They'd spoken by phone right before Katie boarded the plane.  Like so many times before, Maggie had chosen to do something else instead of meeting responsibility.
    As she walked around the car to look at the damage, Katie stumbled.  No tires had blown, and nothing seemed to be seriously bent though there was definitely some cosmetic damage.  The Mercedes appeared driveable.
    Whoosh!  An old Ford came out of nowhere and nearly hit her.  Katie hadn't seen it before it sped around her.  She felt assaulted.

Comments

    If you're still with me (and I hope you are), you've just met two of the main characters in Kudzu River as they appear in the first chapter. I'm already being asked, "Why'd you quit cozies?" The answer is that I haven't quit cozies; I've added thrillers and a horror that is scheduled for publication in 2015.  There's another cozy (but it's not a Callie) half-done on my computer and another horror haunting my mind.

    The questions about genre lead me to a question for fellow SleuthSayers and readers today:
Why do you write? Though some writers become wealthy, there are millions more who don't.  What makes us write?  My answer:  To me, writing is similar to playing dolls when I was a child.  I create an environment and characters and then I'm free to manipulate them however I please.  The difference is that my doll characters are not all Barbies, but I'm still having fun controlling them. Does that mean that psychologically I have "control issues"or does it mean, in Madonna's words: "Girls just wannna have fun"?

It's time to share----------Why do you write?



  
Kudzu River is a novel of abuse, murder, and retribution. It's a tale of a serial killer and how his actions entangle the lives of three women. Odyssey South Publishing is releasing it January 6, 2015.
     
Until we meet again, take care of . . . you!