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!
  

    

07 December 2014

A Mixed Bag

by Leigh Lundin

In the realm of teen music, nothing is sacred. It began with the DJ-as-artist movement. Once upon a time disc jockeys with an entertaining line of patter were fêted: Wolfman Jack, Casey Kasem, and America’s television DJ, Dick Clark. Some might suggest that as consumer music became less creative, DJs became more so. They ruled their club kingdom and, for a few hours each night, they became stars.

FL Studio
FL Studio
DJs began to ‘remix’, then ‘scratch’, laying down alternate tracks, overlaying dance rhythms like dubstep, adding percussion, reverb, echo, sampling, hip-hop lyrics, and autotune. Some remixes became B-sides of the originals. Remixes were seldom improvements over the underlying works, but they proved popular.

Kids emulate their heroes. They download bootleg copies of FL-Studio, a powerful program to create music, but also remix beyond the recognizable. Confined to garages and high school dances, there isn’t anything overtly criminal, not counting the illegality of purloined programs and pirated music.

But kids learn one thing, to take someone else’s work and make it their own.

Hegemann
Helene Hegemann, 17
Bagged in Berlin

Imagine such activity in the literary world. An aspiring author combines plots from Rob Lopresti and John Floyd, then sets it in Stephen Ross’ New Zealand. They borrow a lingerie-challenged character from Fran Rizer and crib entire pages of humour from Melodie Campbell. Because they can’t grok the tradecraft details from Dixon Hill and RT Lawton, they copy them verbatim.

They call that work their own, no credit given. They win acclaim, they win awards, they win movie rights.

When caught and challenged, they not only claim everyone does it, they insist Rob, John, Stephen, Fran, Melodie, Dixon, and RT nobbled their ideas from others.

One of our readers pointed out this is happening in Germany and, instead of being punished, the young authoress is being honored. Seventeen-year-old Helene Hegemann filched phrases and pages from others including passages from the novel Strobo by pseudonymous author ‘Airen’. Helene says everybody does it, that’s what kids do these days. She calls it ‘mixing’, not plagiarism. She has her defenders, including the finalists committee for the $20,000 prize at the Leipzig Book Fair.

Sandbagged by Bitches

Readers might remember famed romance writer Cassie Edwards, author of a hundred novels which resulted in ten million copies sold. Ms Edwards, noted for her research, lifted paragraphs, passages, and poems from the non-fiction material of others and offered no attribution. Romance reviewers ‘Smart Bitches’ ripped her throat out, ruining an otherwise envious career.

Defenders of new age appropriation point out Cassie Edwards was a different generation, that those were the dark ages of six years ago.

Returning to the music comparison, I suppose one might argue the anthem America the Beautiful was the result of a remix. A third party combined the poetry of Katharine Lee Bates with the melody separately composed by Samuel A. Ward and arrived at a composition greater than the sum of its parts. The difference is that the ‘remixer’ neither claimed credit for the work nor pretended to wield a talent greater than the original authors.

Bagging the Question

Hegemann
If there was one statement that caused me to entirely lose respect and sympathy for Helene Hegemann, it was this jaw-dropping, in-your-face sentence: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.

I kept returning to her words, trying to forgive by asking what the hell does she know at seventeen? Other than residing in a moral vacuum, of course. I take pride in creativity and originality and my colleagues do as well, chosen for those very qualities.

But this is my unoriginal opinion. What is yours?

06 December 2014

Today’s Phones are Ruining Crime Fiction!

by Melodie Campbell

(Yes, this post actually gets around to mentioning crime fiction.  Wait for it…)

I’m getting awfully tired of ads for phone companies, begging me to switch, hounding me to spend more money for their latest plan, month after month after month.

Frankly, I’m longing for the good old days, when all you could get from a phone company was an ugly black rotary phone.  And by gawd, you were grateful for it too, because you had to sweat to get it.

Remember those days?  You would move into a new apartment in November, and you would phone up some snotty service rep at Ma Bell, who would treat you as if you were some sort of macrobiotic slime culture.  <Sniff – sorry!  I’m becoming nostalgic.>

You:  I’d like to get a phone as soon as possible, please.

Rep:  Let me see…how about…say…July 2017?  We can send a man out sometime between the 4th and the 28th.  You’ll have to make sure that someone’s home every second.

You:  Yes!  Oh Yes!  I’m so grateful.  Thank you!

Rep:   The colour will be black.

You:  Great! Black is cool.

Rep:  Okay, now we’ll need your first born as a deposit.

I really liked those old back dial phones.  I mean, those phones had substance; they had weight.  You could do a lot to them and they would bounce back.  I remember once playing kickball in the hallway at university, and our team would have won, but the darn ball (phone) started ringing and some fool on the other team picked it up.

Try playing kickball with a smartphone.  It ain’t so smart after a play or two.

Take my word for it: today’s flimsy phones are simply wuss. Not to mention, they are ruining crime fiction. 

At this point, I know readers are going to say, ‘Of course they are ruining crime fiction!  You can’t isolate your protagonist anymore.”  And yes, this is a problem, unless your protagonist has the intelligence of a demented chipmonk and perpetually forgets to charge their phone just before the climax in every book you write (cliché alert).

But I’m thinking beyond the obvious here.

Think of how those old black phones had significance in old black and white movies.  Remember Jimmy Stewart with the broken leg in Rear Window?  Remember those desperate calls he made over the heavy 1950s telephone…would they really be as fear-inducing if he was using an iPhone with a ring tone of ‘La Bomba?’

I mean, really.  How can you commit a really good murder with a receiver that weighs less than a padded bra?  What are you supposed to do…stuff it down someone’s throat until they choke on it?

What’s more, who can get really excited about an obscene phone call made over a cellphone the size of a playing card?  Come on now…do I really need to spell out the symbolism?

Melodie Campbell writes funny books, like the award-winning mob comedy, The Goddaughter’s Revenge.  You can buy them in stores and online at all the usual sources.

05 December 2014

Piano of Mystery Sold

by Dixon Hill

The Monday before Thanksgiving, a very special piano was auctioned off at Bonhams in New York.

Yes, this is primarily supposed to be a mystery writing web site, but sometimes inanimate objects are central to mystery plots.  Small, odd little objects may sometimes even point a detective to perceive the complex Rube Goldberg device behind a locked-room mystery.

Pianos also fit here in SS, I believe, because we have authors here who are just as passionate about their music as they are about their writing.  This auctioned piano combines mystery, adventure and music -- along with love.  In fact, it played a central role in all four at one time.  A seminal role, one might say. Which is perhaps not abnormal for certain inanimate objects.

This is the small, 58-key upright piano, probably made in 1927, that a production company altered slightly in 1942, by relocating some hinges, so that the character Rick Blaine could hide letters of transit inside.

That's right.  It's the piano that drummer Dooley Wilson, playing "Sam," sat at when Ingrid Bergman, as "Ilsa Lund," told him, "Play it, Sam.  Play, 'As Time Goes By,'" in the movie Casablanca.

This is the one.  He's not really playing, but he is singing.
Hiding the Letters of Transit

How central can an inanimate object really be to the heart of a film, or the plot of a novel?

Well, let's look at just a few of the roles this piano (and its brother) played in Casablanca.
"Play it for me, Sam."

The movie's "brother piano" used in flashbacks.




In the end, the piano reportedly sold for $3,413,000.00 which included a 12% commission.

I have no idea who bought it, though I've searched the web.

You can click on this New York Times article here for more details.










Mystery lovers might also like to know that a certain Maltese Falcon has the honor of having grossed more at auction, than any other movie prop, reportedly landing  $4,085,000.00 during Bonham's TCM auction last year. (This statistic should not be confused with the "overall record for a piece of movie memorabilia," which goes to the Aston Martin [$4.6 M] driven by Sean Connery's "Bond" in Gold Finger.

See you in two weeks,
— Dixon

04 December 2014

The Surplus Population

by Eve Fisher

First off, Bouchercon was great. It was so good to finally meet in person fellow SleuthSayers Brian Thornton, Rob Lopresti, R. T. Lawton, and Melodie Campbell. Huzzah! I went to panels, wandered the halls, talked to all kinds of people, and I got a chance to hang out with Linda Landrigan and do a podcast for AHMM. Believe me, I'll let everyone know when that's up.

It was also interesting being back in California. I grew up there, but hadn't been back in 40 years, for a variety of reasons. Other than the fact that almost every square inch has been built up, upon, and over. Okay, the Pacific Coast Highway used to be a two-lane ribbon of road, running with a clear view of the ocean everywhere, and innumerable places where you could stop for a dip or a stroll on the beach. Now it's solid developments on both sides, at least down to Laguna Beach, and try to find beach access. [Sigh.]

But California's always been multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and quirky, in everything from people to food. Surfers with dreads were around back then, too, although 40 years ago it was just called snarled. And there were homeless people everywhere then, too. It's a warm climate. You can live without much shelter, thank God. Up here in Sioux Falls, right before we flew out for Bouchercon, a 46 year old homeless woman froze to death in an outside stairwell.
      At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge… it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
      “Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge… "And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?” … “The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
      “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
      “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
— Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol"

What do we do about the homeless? Well, the city of Manteca, California, passed two laws that will go in effect today, December 4th, just in time for Christmas. The first one outlaws any type of shelter that might be used by the homeless - including public porta-potties, by the way - whether they are on public OR private property, and even if the owner of said private property gave the homeless person permission to put it up and/or use it. The second ordinance outlaws any public bathroom behavior on any public or private property. And, to put the cherry on that cake, the city closed all the public restrooms. (I wonder where non-homeless people - especially small children and the elderly - are expected to go when they're downtown?) Manteca's government is very creative, by the way: in order to discourage the homeless from camping in Library Park, the city purposely changed the water sprinkler schedule so that people couldn't sleep in the park without getting wet.

Venice, California, has outlawed sleeping in RVs. In fact, 81 cities around the country have banned sleeping in cars or RVs, and enforce the laws by arresting people and confiscating their one and only major possession, the car - thus making them even more homeless than before. The Joads would never have made it to California in the first place if their old jalopy had been confiscated in, say, Arizona...

Sarasota, Florida, outlawed smoking first in a public park that was notoriously used by the homeless, then expanded it to all public parks. Fair, right? But they gave an exemption to golf courses because "golfers are so often smokers." In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, they banned alcohol consumption in Van Eps and Tower Parks, where it's mostly "the wrong type" of people who are drinking (there are rooming houses all around these parks, and for those renters the park is basically their living room). Meanwhile, almost every other Sioux Falls park allows drinking. Especially in the "nice" sections of town.

In Houston, Texas, it's illegal for people to go dumpster-diving for food. (So much for freegans and Food Not Bombs.) And, of course, there was the 90 year old man in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who along with two pastors was arrested for feeding the homeless (November 4, 2014), because "the provision of food to vagrants in public" has been outlawed there, along with 33 other cities in the US. Fort Lauderdale also made it illegal for homeless people to have possessions with them, and to sit or lie down on sidewalks. Sitting or lying down in public, by the way, is illegal in 70 cities.

Here's quote from a supporter of the Fort Lauderdale ban on feeding the homeless: "The people feeding them are enablers, and they enable the homeless by making their lives easier... Hunger is a big motivator. Are people more likely to seek help when they're hungry or when they're fed and happy? Feeding people on the streets is sanctioning homelessness... Whatever discourages feeding people on the streets is a positive thing."

Who knew that homeless people choose the lifestyle for the food?

Look, let's be honest: homeless people are a pain in the ass. They're often dirty, smelly, crusty around the edges. They're generally not pretty. They're often mentally ill. They mutter and they wander and they stare and sometimes they beg. But above all, they're inconvenient. And they're there. Right in your face. But let's face facts: the real reason that all these laws are passed isn't because people don't want to enable them, it's because people - especially businesses - want them out of sight. And they come up with all sorts of reasons why we need to move the homeless along, away, out of town. And they always have.

Read Charles Dickens: in his books, the rich were always talking about how dangerous it is to create "dependency" among the poor, and that only the deserving poor should be helped. Of course, one of the ways to tell the deserving from the undeserving poor is that the deserving poor never want help, but only want to work hard and starve quietly. Now, remember, back in Victorian times, ALL help was private. The national government did nothing to help the poor. The local government offered only workhouses and orphanages, and no one wanted to go to either. The workhouses were literal prisons, where families were split up forever. And orphanages... well, orphans were sold out to the highest bidder as slave labor (think Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, etc.), until they were old enough to run away.

And today... we're back to Victorian times. Now I could perhaps be persuaded that it's not the government's job to take care of the poor or the homeless. Maybe. (Maybe not.) But the new crop of laws are making it illegal for one private person to hand food to another. Private charity is being made a criminal offense, city by city. Which raises the question, what happened to my right to feed the poor? Even Scrooge bought a turkey and gave it to Tiny Tim…

God help us, every one.

03 December 2014

Short thoughts from Long Beach



by Robert Lopresti

I was in Long Beach, California back in mid-November for Bouchercon, the International Mystery Convention.  Attached is a photo of the SleuthSayers who were in attendance: Rob, Eve, Melodie, and Brian.  R.T. was apparently  demonstrating his skill at disguise.

Bcon - four days of 2000 readers and writers - is overwhelming, so I don't know what to cover.  One highlight, new to me, was Speed Dating.  A continental breakfast was provided.  You picked yours up, sat at one of about seventy tables and every five minutes a bell rang.  When it rang two writers would trot over to your table and each would have two minutes to explain why you wanted to read their book.  I definitely copied down some names for future purchase. 


But my favorite parts of the Dating event were two:  Lisa Fernow describing her book as "sexy cozy."  Doesn't that exactly capture it?  And Michael H. Rubin was able to rattle his elevator speech off so perfectly that it was as if a trained actor was reading it off the book cover.  He got applause at every table.

Another highlight for me was the panel  "Short but Mighty," in which I discussed  short stories with Travis Richardson, Barb Goffman, Art Taylor, Paul D. Marks, and Craig Faustus Buck.  During a discussion of Plotters versus Pantsers (do you plot or fly by the seat of your pants?) Barb Goffman took a firm stand:  "I'm a plantser."  

Plus I got to chat with my two of my favorite editors, Linda Landrigan and Janet Hutchings, and meet another: Andrew Gulli.  

 And I have to admit it was a great joy to pick up my Derringer Award (as I'm sure Melodie would agree).  Thanks to everyone at the Short Mystery Fiction Society for making that possible.  If you want to hear my brief acceptance speech, here it is.


As you probably know, I love a good quote, so I will leave you with a bundle from Bcon.  Each was copied feverishly into my notebook at the time so I apologize to anyone whose words I garbled. Some of the quotations would benefit from context, but I am not going to give you any.  Here's why. 

By the time you are halfway through a Bouchercon you are so overstimulated that everything seems out of context.  (Notice our picture above seems a little blurry?  That was taken on the last day and we really were blurry.)  So consider this an accurate reenactment of the experience.  Enjoy.

"All great novels are mysteries."  - Sharon Fiffer

"Short stories exist only to stun you." - Jeffrey Deaver

"Does this novel make me look fat?" -Mara Purl

"I write short stories for the purpose of procrastination."  - Craig Faustus Buck

Moderator: How do you avoid cliches?
Brad Parks: I take it one day at a time.

"This is a really British novel.  Not cute British.  The other British.  Everyone's got a bad cough and a brown couch."  - Catriona McPherson

Waitress: So you're with the mystery convention!  Are you writers or readers?
Steven Steinbock: We are all murderers.

"I got a letter that said 'are you retired or are you dead?'" -Thomas Perry

"I have a short attention span.  I'm like a goldfish on cocaine sometimes." -Jay Stringer

"Nonfiction is about facts.  Fiction is about truth." - Mara Purl

"I'm the wrong person to ask about that, but I'll answer it anyway."  - Steven Steinbock

"If my story featured a hemophiliac it would take place in a razor blade factory." - Simon Wood

"Put him down for a whimper, not a bang." - Brian Thornton

"The story is not the plot."  -David Rich

"Westlake said to the movie producer: 'If you don't like the book why did you buy it?  Do you want to punish it?'" - Thomas Perry

"Don't kill your darlings.  Just lock them in the basement."  - Jon McGoran

"Panelists, do you have any questions for the audience?"  - Kevin B. Smith

"Everyone's in the cake.  No one's in the frosting." - Seth Harwood

"You don't choose your obsessions.  They choose you."  - Jodi Compton

"I'm not ashamed to say I write to a formula.  We don't get into a car that hasn't been designed to a formula."  - Jeffrey Deaver

  "Good storytelling requires that you be a good listener." - Steve Steinbock

"I had ethics in those days." - Thomas Perry

 "I'm going to turn it over to the crowd.  They're dangerous because they're hungover and they're punchy." - Claire Toohey

Craig Faustus Buck: How many lungs do you have?
Max Allan Collins: How many do you need?

Next time: the odd phenomenon of books, those flat dead tree things, at Bouchercon.

02 December 2014

Early Christmas Present: A Short Story

by Jim Winter

Hey, all. Jim here. On my blog, I have a feature called Get Into Jim's Shorts, where I run a new short story every month. This being Christmas, I went with a seasonal theme. As an early present, I'm going to share this month's story here as well. So without further ado…



SUNNY ACRES CHRISTMAS

            Frank knew he had exactly four hours to clean out Sunny Acres Trailer Park on Christmas Eve. He figured an hour for people to grab dinner and make their way to Willowbrook Methodist Church, an hour for the first act of the annual Christmas pageant, half an hour for intermission (cake and punch in the church basement during a meet-in-greet with Joseph, Mary, and the Angel of the Lord), one hour for the second act, and half an hour before the faithful returned home. In the meantime, his name was not Frank.
            He was Santa Claus. The idea came from seeing Jim Carrey in How the Grinch Stole Christmas a couple of weeks earlier. Only Frank’s idea was better. The Grinch had a dog. Frank had a 1998 Crown Victoria with a huge trunk and only minor engine problems.
            The job, of course, could not begin until Amon Yoder, the police chief, left with his wife and kids piled up in their aging minivan. On Christmas Eve, the Willowbrook Police Department shut down, leaving the Sheriff’s Department to patrol the town. That meant the deputy who drew the short straw would park his cruiser downtown and keep an eye on the storefronts until about midnight, when his overnight relief would simply make a few passes on their way through town. But until Yoder and his family drove out to the Cracker Barrel on Route 20, Frank had to stay hunched down out of sight, eyes peering through the steering wheel with endless Christmas music playing on WJLB.
            By 6 PM, half the trailer park had emptied. The other half – the heathen half, Frank had come to call them – were getting blissfully drunk on Big Muskie beer and watching whatever movies they’d seen a dozen times before on Christmas Eves past. No one would notice Frank trudging about Sunny Acres in the dark.
            They would notice Santa.

01 December 2014

Holiday Blues

Jan Grape
by Jan Grape


My good friend, Harlan Coben had an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times on Thursday and he graciously gave me permission to quote from it. I'll actually take advantage and use the whole article and  along the way make comments.

RIDGEWOOD, NJ - THANKSGIVING weekend in1990, I spent two hours at the loneliest place in the world for an obscure novelist  -- the book signing table at a Waldenbook in a suburban New Jersey mall.

[Have any of you had this experience?]

I sat at the table smiling like a game show host. Store patrons scurried past me, doing all they could to avoid eye contact. I kept smiling.

[If I had know Harlan back then, I would have advised him to try his best to speak to people as they walked by. It's not easy if you're shy, but you just have to push yourself. Think of yourself as an actor playing the part of a well-known author signing books.]

I straightened out my pile of free bookmarks for the umpteenth time, though so far none had been taken. I played with my pen. Authors at signings like this get good at playing with their pens. I pushed it to and fro. I curled my upper lip around the pen and made it into a makeshift mustache. I clipped it to my lower lip, in an almost masochistic way, and was able to click the pen open by moving my jaw and pressing it against my nose. You can't teach that skill, by the way. Practice. At one point, I took out a second pen, rolled up a spitball, and then let the two pens play hockey against each other. The Rollerball beat the Sharpie in overtime,

[Maybe offer to give each one walking by a free bookmark and sign it for them. One of my big show stoppers is to ask someone, "Do you read mysteries?" If they say yes, then I point to my book. If they say no, then I say, I'll bet you know someone who does. This will take care of your Christmas list or their birthday list or Father's, Mother's Day? You know, improvise your holiday.]

During the first hour of my signing, a grand total of four approached me. Two asked me where the bathroom was. The third explained his conspiracy theory linking the J.F.K. assassination with the decision by General Mills to add Crunch Berries to Cap'n Crunch breakfast cereal. The fourth asked me if we had a copy of the new Stephen King.

I kept smiling. Four copies of my brand-spanking-new-first novel -- Waldenbooks knew not to order too many -- stood limply on the shelf behind me. I missed the Barcalounger in my den. I longed for home and hearth, for stuffing my face with leftover turkey, for half-watching football games in which I had no rooting interest. Instead slow-baked under the fluorescent Waldenbook lights, the early Hipster booksellers glaring at me as though I was some kind of pedantic squatter. I had become the literary equivalent of a poster child -- "you could buy his book or you could turn the page."

Time didn't just pass slowly. It seemed to be moonwalking backward.

Then, with maybe 15 minutes left before I could scrape up the scraps of my dignity and head home., an old man shuffled toward me. He wiped his nose with I hoped was a beige hankie. His eyes were runny. Odds were this was going to be a where's-the-bathroom question, but this guy had all the makings of another conspiracy theorist.

The old man's gaze drifted over my shoulder, "What's that like?"

"Excuse me."

He gestured at the four books on the shelf behind me.

"Right," I said.

He shook his head in awe. "That's my dream, man. Seeing my book on a shelf in a bookstore." He lowered his gaze and met my eye. "So what's that like?"

I paused, letting the question sink in, but before I could reply, the old man lifted his eyes back to the bookshelf, smiled and shook his head again. "Lucky," he said, before turning and walking away.

He didn't buy a book. He didn't have to.
 [Harlan Coben is the NY Times best-selling author of   MISSING YOU, TELL NO ONE and the forthcoming title THE STRANGER]

And I know for a fact that Harlan doesn't sit unnoticed anymore at any book signing. When you feel alone at a book signing, think about what you MUST do to make it a fun experience. Bring along a bowl of chocolate kisses or some peppermint candy. Have some ball point pens made with your name and book title printed on them and hand those out when you catch someone's eye. You don't have to give out everyone of them but one every ten or fifteen minutes or so won't wreck your pocketbook.
Have some free bookmarks or postcards to give to everyone. You have to do more to promote yourself than just sit there like a bump on a log. Get creative. If you can't think of anything ask a friend or relative who is a craft person. You know...sell your book.

That's my best advice for the moment. See you next time.

[Harlan's article used with permission from Mr. Coben.]