24 March 2015

The Battle Of A Thousand Slain

I would venture to guess that one of the least known periods in American history lies between the years of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.  Many of us are pretty well versed in the events leading to the creation of the United States, and that later titanic struggle to keep them united, but what lies between them is often murky, if not completely unknown.  For instance, how many folks do you know who can tell you anything coherent about the War of 1812 or the Mexican-American War?  Not many, I bet.  It seems to be a rather obscure period to most people, almost as if we, as a nation, had yet to gel, to come completely into focus.  And maybe there's some truth in that.  If you are wondering to what literary purpose this line of thought could possibly lead, I can only offer this historical terra incognita as potentially fertile ground for the writer's imagination.  The following is a brief account of one event during this period with which you may not be acquainted.  If you are, I salute you, if not, read on.

In the year 1791, the brand new nation of the United States, still recovering from years of protracted warfare with England, faced one of its greatest challenges--the Northwest Frontier.  Not the northwest that now encompasses Idaho, Oregon and Rob Lopresti's beloved Washington State, but a great swath of territory bounded by the Ohio River to the east and south, the Mississippi to the west, with Canada as its northern border.  An area that now includes the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kentucky, West Virginia, and part of Pennsylvania.  This was Indian Country.  Of course, it had always been Indian country, but in the years leading up to 1791, it had become more so due to the pressure of westward expansion by the new Americans.  Many tribes that had once lived in New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas had coalesced in the Ohio River Valley, and there was a growing sentiment among them that they had been pushed far enough. 
Portrait of Daniel Boone

At this time the Ohio Valley and its environs were a vast and abundant wilderness, teeming with game.  Bison still roamed its verdant terrain, as did bear, wolves, cougar, beaver, otter, and elk.  Most European-Americans had never been beyond the boundary of the Allegheny Mountains and the Ohio River was the demarcation line between two vastly different worlds.  Based on the explorations and hunting tales of the legendary Daniel Boone and others, it was rumored to be a paradise on earth, and in many ways it was.  However, this was a paradise that demanded blood from interlopers.  Daniel Boone  himself had narrowly escaped death there on several occasions, and had lost both his eldest son and youngest brother to Indian warriors.  And their deaths had not been easy ones.  Torture and terror were familiar tactics in wilderness warfare, and Boone's loved ones had suffered terribly before their deaths.  He had enjoyed some protection in his travels as the adopted son of the Shawnee Chief Black Fish, but it was no guarantee of a long life in this part of the world, as inter-tribal rivalries and conflict were a part of the fabric there too. As a literary aside, James Fennimore Cooper's "Last Of The Mohicans" was based largely on Boone's actual exploits and adventures. 

Warfare between the Native Americans and the Europeans was nothing new in this region.  In fact, by 1791, it had been on-going, with only brief interludes of true peace, since 1754.  Literally thousands had died beginning with the French and Indian War, followed by Pontiac's Uprising, Lord Dunmore's War, and most lately, the Revolutionary War.  The largely Algonquian-speaking tribes of the region had sided with the British in the War of Independence, and with the French in the first war.  The two wars in between had been on their own initiative.  None of these choices had  endeared them to the New Americans.  In 1783, the Treaty of Paris settled the peace between Britain and its former colony, resulting in His Majesty's government ceding all of its territory as far west as the Mississippi River to the new American government.  And therein lay the rub--the Indians considered these lands as their own to use and live upon and they had not signed any treaty nor been invited to Paris to do so.  They did not intend to abide by it.

Romanticized Painting of Pontiac
The idea of a separate Pan-Indian Nation had been growing amongst the various tribes since Chief Pontiac's doomed coalition of tribal nations, and many felt the Ohio River should be their new national border.  But, to complicate matters for the intransigent tribes , the Six Nations (a confederacy of Iroquoian tribes consisting of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora) claimed the Ohio Valley as their own, though they did not reside there, and that the largely Algonquian tribes in the region had been subjugated by them and dwelled there under their sufferance.  Though there was some truth to the claim of having subdued these neighbors at one time or another, there was little to support their declaration of territorial ownership, a concept largely foreign to Native American society.  Nonetheless, the new American government negotiated with them, gaining the Six Nations' blessing for settling the area, while guaranteeing them the inviolability of their own homeland in upstate New York.   

Little Turtle
Though there were dozens of Ohioan tribes affected by these events, some indigenous to the valley, as well as a number newly arrived there, three stood out in their stiff resistance to the new regime: the Miami, the Shawnee, and the Delaware; each of these led by particularly gifted warriors: Little Turtle, Blue Jacket, and Buckongahelas, respectively.  They intended to enforce the line of demarcation and waged a particularly vicious campaign against the whites that crossed the river.  By the time President Washington determined to take action, the death toll of westward traveling pioneers had risen to some 1,500 slain.

The first attempt by the fledgling American government to force the issue in what became known as Little Turtle's War, was in 1790.  After the War of Independence, the army had largely been disbanded, and what was left was under-funded and woefully equipped.  Under the leadership of General Josiah Harmar, a force of approximately 1,100 poorly-trained militia, stiffened by some 320 regular soldiers of the First (and only) Regiment of the U.S. Army, headed west into Ohio country.  There, on Oct. 22, near present day Ft. Wayne, Indiana they were met by 1,100 Indian warriors primed for a fight.  For reasons known only to the general (some say that he was drunk at the time) he only committed 400 of his men to the attack.  This was not sufficient to carry the day, but when he was informed that things were going badly for the vanguard, he refused to send reinforcements, setting the remainder of the regiment into a defensive posture.  In the end, he managed a retreat, losing a 129 soldiers killed, 94 wounded before the day was done.  Estimates of Native American casualties (wounded and killed) was 120 to 150.  Though their losses were similar, the Northwestern Tribal Coalition had unquestionably triumphed...and they were just getting warmed up.

Having been thoroughly chastised for their encroachment, Harmar's army fell back across the river.  Their Commander-In-Chief, President Washington, no stranger to military set-backs and defeats himself, re-evaluated the situation.  Deciding that the faults exhibited by Harmar could be addressed through an experienced and competent commander, Washington appointed his old friend and comrade-in-arms, General Arthur St. Clair to take the fight to the enemy.  A veteran of the Revolution, and current governor (at least in name) of the newly acquired Northwest Territory, he appeared to be a sound choice and a steady, combat-proven, leader.  Perhaps his only obvious drawbacks were his age and declining health; of his resolve and courage, there was no question.  These he would need.

Gen. Arthur St. Clair
Instructed to mount his campaign during the summer months, St. Clair set about his task.  Congress agreed to raise a second regiment for his use and to augment the sadly demoralized First Regiment.  In the end, they were only able to recruit about half of the numbers required, and the First had become reduced to a mere 299 soldiers.  St. Clair was forced to recruit militia from Kentucky, as well as two regiments of six-month levies.  It was not the army he would have wished for.

St. Clair's target was the Miami capital of Kekionga, where he hoped to strike a decisive and winning blow.  However, plagued by supply and logistics problems, his army was delayed in their departure until October.  Setting out from Fort Washington (present-day Cincinnati), he led a force of around 2,000 men, of which only 600 were regulars.  They also had about 200 camp followers attach themselves to the expedition--mostly wives, children, prostitutes, and laundresses.  Desertions had begun even before they left the fort and within a short while, as they made exceedingly slow progress, their numbers fell to about 1,500 ill-trained and equipped fighting men.  Undoubtedly, it was not how St. Clair had envisioned things.

To make matters worse, the commander made a decision to build a series of forts along their route of march.  Whether these were intended to function as future garrisons, or as potential fallback positions, is not clear, perhaps he was thinking of both.  In any event, the effort involved in these undertakings was considerable and further slowed their march into the wilderness.  This, and the unusually cold autumn, may also have encouraged further desertions, which continued unabated throughout their westward movement.  As if these difficulties were not enough, the expedition was shadowed daily by hostile forces who reported their progress (and lack thereof) as well as their troop strengths and dispositions to their leaders.  No doubt Little Turtle, Blue Jacket, and Buckongahelas were  encouraged at the continued bleed-off of manpower.  These same skirmishers made numerous deadly forays into the Americans' columns, as well, howling out of the shadow of the forest in a fast-moving terror of whirling tomahawks and war clubs.  Almost before the soldiers could react, the Indians would vanish back into the woods spattered with the blood of their enemies and lofting their scalps in triumph.  Troubled by both gout and a personal feud with his second-in command, St. Clair forced his troops deeper into the heart of darkness.  By November 2, All-Souls Day, he commanded only 920 soldiers and the ever-dogged camp followers. 

The following day, St. Clair ordered his men to set up an encampment at the headwaters of the Wabash River.  They were within reach of their goal.  Inexplicably, and against the advice of President Washington, he failed to order the fortification of the camp before nightfall, seeming to forget that his forces were also within easy reach of their enemies' main body of warriors.  The three chiefs decided that this would be the spot that they would fight.

Watching unseen from the wood line the following dawn, over 1,100 Native American warriors waited for their opponents to stack their arms in preparation for morning chow--a ritual they had witnessed many times.  They were not disappointed, and reacted by swooping down upon the unarmed militia first.  The unseasoned civilian/soldiers fled before the onslaught without their weapons, and were chased down and killed almost before the others could react.
The Demise Of Maj. Gen Butler (St. Clair's Second-In-Command)
The regulars, under St. Clair's direction grabbed their muskets and formed a battle line, discharging their weapons into the attackers, breaking their charge and causing them to fall back.  On a slight rise above the camp, artillerymen rallied to prepare their small cannon and place fire on the screaming, killing horde.  But they had been anticipated by the cunning chiefs.  Indian sharp-shooters cut them down, driving the survivors off the hillock and into the arms of their enemies.  Meanwhile, Little Turtle and his co-commanders directed a flanking movement to pour fire into the American troops.  Desperate, St. Clair ordered a bayonet charge to break up the enemy's attack.  The Indians fell back into the woods where the Americans followed, only to be surrounded and cut down.

Leading additional bayonet charges time and again, St. Clair met with the same results, his army was being cut to pieces.  While attempting to rally his men, he had several horses shot out from under him, and was seen dragging men out from hiding beneath wagons, calling them cowards, and ordering them to take up the fight once more.  It was all for naught.  After several hours of blood and chaos, he formed up what was left of his force and led yet another charge--this one to open a path to the direction from which they had come.  Leaving the dead and dying behind, the remnant was dogged for three hours more as they desperately made their way eastward.  Then, the triumphant Confederation warriors, distracted by the opportunity for scalps and booty, broke off the pursuit and returned to the battlefield.  Those that lay dead there were the lucky ones.  The rest were tortured and burned alive.  It was said that the field of human torches lit the night sky.

At the end of the day, 832 whites had been killed (including nearly all of the camp followers) and 264 wounded, a casualty rate of 97.4 percent.  Only 21 Indian warriors had been slain; another 40 wounded.  It remains the worst single defeat ever suffered by the U.S. Army, and amounted to three times the number of Custer's troops slain at Little Big Horn.  The contest would enter the history books as the Battle of the Wabash, a rather innocuous title.  The Indian Nations would call it the Battle of a Thousand Slain, a somewhat more accurate description.

Several "firsts" emerged from the disaster: Congress issued its first-ever demand for White House records regarding the conflict, and the president, in his turn, exercised the first recorded instance of executive privilege.  He denied the demand until the records could be copied, as he felt it unwise to hand over the only originals extant.  Gen. St. Clair demanded a court-martial, feeling it would clear his name, but his boss denied him.  The congressional investigation largely exonerated him nonetheless, accepting his explanation that the expedition had been doomed from the start by a Department of War that refused to furnish sufficient, and properly trained, troops and barely supplied them enough shot, powder, and food to survive the undertaking. 

Of course this was not the end of the matter.  Washington appointed, yet another, hero-veteran of the Revolution, "Mad" Anthony Wayne, to head up a third military expedition.  On this occasion, however, Wayne was granted his demands for enough time in which to train his troops, and that they be properly equipped and supplied throughout.  In return, he promised both success and an army worthy of the name.  His new American "Legion" was not ready until 1794, but when they went into action at the Battle of Fallen Timbers they broke the back of the Northwestern Confederacy.  Scattered and defeated, the Native Americans were forced to withdraw further west, many crossing the Mississippi to escape the steady encroachment of the settlers.  But the dream of a Native American Nation was not dead, and a young Shawnee named Tecumseh would revive it in less than a generation.  But that's another story.

Romanticized Portrait of Tecumseh

23 March 2015

The Detective Doctor

"You see, doctors are detectives, are they not, Rra? You look for clues. I do too.”
--Mma Ramotswe, proprietrix of the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. "Doctors, detectives, and common sense," by Alexander McCall Smith

Mystery readers are clever, so you may have deduced that your newest SleuthSayer (moi) is also an emergency physician. I consider this great training for my detective alter ego, Dr. Hope Sze, because medicine trains you to…

1. Talk to people.

On a vacation in Hawaii, I met a 29-year-old who’d been retired for a year. Who does that? I set about quizzing him. How did he do it? Why was he so eager to make bank? I could tell he wasn’t crazy about answering me, so I explained, “I’m an emergency doctor! My job is to extract the most amount of information in the least amount of time.”

Granted, a detective may be more tactful than me. But we both have to learn how to ask intelligent questions, listen to the answers, and throw out the B.S.

Ancient Hawaiian justice system: if you broke a kapu (sacred law),
your only hope was to swim to a sacred place of refuge
like this one at Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park.

2. Learn patience.

You know how long doctors slog in school? I spent 25 years of my life from kindergarten until my emergency fellowship. And I’m not, say, a vascular surgeon with seven years of residency under my belt. Plus they estimate that doctors spend 50 percent of their time doing paperwork. You never see ER, Nurse Jackie,and Grey’s Anatomy spending half their waking hours on forms.

As for detectives, the New York Times recently published the provocatively-titiled essay, The Boring Life of a Private Investigator.

For both of us, TV cuts out the dull bits and maximizes the drama. Wise move.

3. Use your powers of observation as well as technology.

Once my senior resident told me, “The more I practice, the more I realize that the history and physical exam don’t matter. It’s all the tests you order, like the ultrasound or CT.”

Within the hour, the attending staff asked me, “Did you see bed 4?”


“Did you notice anything unusual on the physical exam?”

“I noticed a systolic murmur.”

“That senior resident [a year above you] missed a grade III aortic stenosis murmur. You could feel the delayed upstroke during systole.”

Which may sound like jibber-jabber to people outside the trade, but what it means is, even in the age of technology, you should use your brain at all times. The imaging and other technology will help you, so you may end up doing the right thing, but you can look like an idiot.

Or, to quote Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes."

At the moment, I’m enjoying both medicine and writing. As Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective said in Whose Body?: “It is full of variety and it forces one to keep up to the mark and not get slack. And there's a future to it. Yes, I like it. Why?"

So if you’d like to follow how my fictional medical resident became a detective in her spare time, take a gander at Dr. Hope Sze.

Or if you can take medical stories straight up, for the next week, I’ll also post a free excerpt from my book, Fifty Shades of Grey’s Anatomy.

What do you think? Does medicine train you for detective work? Or is another profession better? Let me know in the comments.

And tune in on April 6th, when I plan to talk about book trailers.

22 March 2015

Keeping It Real

Shimmer by David Morrell
SleuthSayers has entertained open-ended discussions by readers and writers about when (and whether) to use actual place names. This decision ultimately comes down to the rôle location plays in a story and the inclinations of the author. Recently, I came across an example where I wondered why a popular author chose not only to fabricate (or ‘re-imagine’) a real place, but real people.

A friend gave me a tattered copied of Shimmer by thriller author David Morrell, a writer admired by our own David Edgerley Gates. Suffused with a Dean Koontz-like inexplicable supernatural presence, its genre is difficult to classify– not exactly science fiction, not paranormal, not quite a crime novel.

The premise draws a reader in: without explanation, wife leaves cop husband, stops en route to her mother to visit a ‘lights in the sky’ phenomena, and subsequently all hell breaks loose. Although this mysterious phenomenon exerts an amorally moral force over people and events, it remains unexplained, which happens to work in this case.

Morrell would probably agree Shimmer isn’t his best novel, but it’s worthwhile. Initially the novel’s speech tags disconcerted me. Although I’m not overly religious about them, I’m with the group that tries to avoid speech ‘assists’. For the first few chapters, my eye stopped every time I encountered one until the plot eventually captured my attention and moved on. And that’s the hallmark: capturing a reader’s attention.

People, Places, and Things

The West Texas town of Rostov had a genuine feeling that made it seem it was based upon a real community. At times authors base locales on real settings but, because of minor liberties with details, change the names. Rostov felt like that.

The story referred to a movie ‘Birthright’, filmed in that area. By the second mention of its actor James Deacon, I began to wonder if the author was making an oblique reference to James Dean, if Birthright was actually the 1956 film Giant, and if ‘Rostov’ was Marfa, Texas. Each subsequent revelation convinced me ‘Deacon’ was a stand-in for Dean, finally confirmed in the afterword. Indeed, most of the details (except the age of Rock Hudson) appeared to be accurate.

Bear in mind these were passing mentions, not actual characters. So why invent James ‘Deacon’ when we could have learned details about James Dean himself? Why indeed?

Compare and Contrast

Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean
When I was a kid, I read Alistair MacLean’s novel, The Guns of Navarone, inspired by the actual Battle of Leros following the fall of Rhodes in the Dodecanese Campaign. One of the central characters was a New Zealand adventurer in his early 20s, a WW-II soldier and world-class mountaineer, chosen to scale the impassible south cliff and sabotage an impregnable Nazi fortress.

Not long after, I read about the conquering of Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand adventurer in his early 20s, a WW-II veteran and world-class mountaineer… Wait, Navarone… Was that character’s name the same?

I went back to The Guns of Navarone and realized MacLean had named his hero Mallory, not Hillary, but it became clear Mallory was patterned upon the gentleman from New Zealand.

Interesting, especially since I thought this ‘semi-verisimilitude’ worked better in The Guns of Navarone than it did it did in Shimmer. Why?

Unfair Comparison

At the time of MacLean's writing, Sir Edmund Hillary was still alive. While one can legitimately refer to a living public person, casting them as a full-fledged character would be a highly dubious undertaking. Alistair MacLean simply used Hillary as a prototype.

In Shimmer, David Morrell mostly alluded to Deacon in bits of semi-historical trivia. Since references to the real James Dean would have served equally well– no, better since the audience might have learned something– why didn’t the author simply name the actual person?

Writers Bloc

I can’t answer for the author, but beginning writers might find the choice confusing. A Facebook self-publishing group is convinced HUGE LEGAL BARRIERS don’t allow mention of any real person at all, not Albert Einstein nor Martin Luther King or a not-so-real Ronald McDonald, without invoking lawsuits and huge fees, and God help them if they whisper the name Elvis™ or Marilyn™, intellectual properties owned by The National Enquirer. They know this because a cousin of an aunt whose friend worked in a cocktail lounge and wrote about JFK suffered CIA reprisals and, ratted out by ‘traditional publishers’, had to pull her book off Amazon. Okay, I exaggerate… slightly.

Writers are pretty safe referring to public figures as long as they stop short of outright libel. But I also suggest keeping one’s biases in check. I recall a novel that depicted Jimmy Carter improbably abusing White House servants, a political prejudice where an author’s distaste became authorial bad taste.

So what’s your take? If an author wants to refer to historical events and persons, should they fabricate pseudonyms for real people? And if so, why?

21 March 2015

East Texas Tales

NOTE: Many thanks to Leigh Lundin for pinch-hitting for me two weeks ago, and posting one of my Criminal Brief columns in this space. My computer had put all four feet in the air, and I'm afraid my iPad and iPhone weren't up to the task of creating a new SleuthSayers column. I'm now back in the saddle, so to speak, with a repaired iMac and poorer by several hundred bucks, and I do appreciate the help, Leigh. (As promised, the answers to the fifty movie quotes that appeared in my post two weeks ago are included at the end of today's column.) — JF

Years ago, not long after I had begun this whole writing-and-submitting-stories thing, I joined a mystery readers' group in nearby Jackson, Mississippi. During my second or third meeting I sat beside a local news reporter named Bill Minor, an avid reader and author who even in his retirement from journalism still writes an occasional column for the state newspaper. Bill always gave me good writing advice, and on that particular day in 2001 he gave me a book and told me to take it home. "Don't just read it, study it," he said to me. "It's one of the best mysteries I ever read, by one of the best writers around." The novel was Joe R. Lansdale's The Bottoms, which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel and a slew of other awards as well. Bill was right, by the way, about how good it is. To this day it remains one of my favorite books.

And Lansdale, although not exactly a household word, is no one-hit wonder. He was writing and publishing stories and novels long before The Bottoms, and is still turning out great fiction in several different genres--mainly mystery, horror, and fantasy. I like his work for the same reason I like Stephen King's: his writing is always, above all else, entertaining. Sometimes it's profound and meaningful and even beautiful, none of which is a bad thing. But it's always entertaining.

Odd can be good

Lansdale is probably best known for--what's the word?--quirky fiction. His plots are complex, twisty, and violent; his characters are unique and at times outrageous (the legendary and terrifying Goat Man in The Bottoms, a gunslinging midget in The Thicket, a backwoods killer-for-hire named Skunk in Edge of Dark Water); and his settings are usually east Texas, which in landscape and attitudes is more like the Deep South than Texas. And much of his fiction seems to involve dysfunctional families, racial tension, coming-of-age plots, and a Great-Depression-era timeframe. (Another similarity to King is that Lansdale often uses children as his protagonists.)

I haven't read all of his many novels and story collections, but I've read most of them, and even though it's hard to pick favorites when you can think of a lot of things you like about each one, these are the six novels I've enjoyed the most:

The Thicket (2013)
Edge of Dark Water (2012)
The Bottoms (2000)
A Fine Dark Line (2002)
Sunset and Sawdust (2004)
Freezer Burn (1999)

Hap, Leonard, and friends

The books I've mentioned are standalone tales, but Lansdale has also written a number of series novels featuring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, one of the most delightful partnerships in fiction. Their adventures include Savage Season, Mucho Mojo, Captains Outrageous, Bad Chili, Devil Red, and Dead Aim. And thankfully, we'll soon be seeing them as well as reading about them: I'm told a TV series is under development for the Sundance Channel, which will feature Michael Kenneth Williams (from The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) as Leonard. Hap is yet to be cast.

A movie version of The Bottoms is also in the works, to be directed by actor Bill Paxton, and other film adaptations include Cold in July and Jonah Hex.

Whether you see his characters onscreen or on the page, I hope you'll give Joe Lansdale's work a try.

You'll like it.


Answers to my March 7 "movie quotes" quiz:

1. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
Apocalypse Now (Robert Duvall to troops after an attack)

2. Where's that Joe Buck?
Midnight Cowboy (restaurant owner to his staff, concerning employee Jon Voight)

3. Be careful, out there among them English.
Witness (old Amish farmer to Harrison Ford, as Ford leaves for the city)

4. In the end you wind up dying all alone on some dusty street. And for what? A tin star?
High Noon (Lon Chaney, offering advice to Gary Cooper)

5. Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing.
To Kill a Mockingbird (old man to Scout--Mary Badham--after the trial)

6. You design TOY airplanes?
The Flight of the Phoenix (Jimmy Stewart to engineer Hardy Kruger)

7. Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool.
The Hustler (Paul Newman to Jackie Gleason)

8. I'm George, George McFly. I am your density. I mean . . . your destiny.
Back to the Future (Crispin Glover to Lea Thompson, in the diner)

9. He did it! He missed the barn!
Cat Ballou (Michael Callan, when a drunk Lee Marvin tries to prove his marksmanship)

10. Remember me? I came in here yesterday and you wouldn't wait on me. Big mistake.
Pretty Woman (the new and improved Julia Roberts, to salesclerk)

11. We in the FBI don't have a sense of humor that I'm aware of.
Men in Black (Tommy Lee Jones to housewife, when she asks if he's making fun of her)

12. I saw it. It was a run-by fruiting.
Mrs. Doubtfire (Robin Williams to Pierce Brosnan)

13. Any man don't wanna get killed, better clear on out the back.
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood to the group in the saloon)

14. Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Alfred Molina to a desperate Harrison Ford)

15. That's a negative, Ghostrider, the pattern is full.
Top Gun (control tower to Tom Cruise, when he requests a flyby)

16. You can't fight in here--this is the War Room.
Dr. Strangelove (President Peter Sellers, during the crisis)

17. I've got the motive, which is money, and the body, which is dead.
In the Heat of the Night (Rod Steiger to Sidney Poitier)

18. They say they're going to repeal Prohibition. What will you do then? / I think I'll have another drink.
The Untouchables (reporter to Kevin Costner and Costner's reply, at the end)

19. All these things I can do, all these powers . . . and I couldn't even save him.
Superman (Christopher Reeve to his mother, referring to his late father)

20. The next time I see Blue Duck, I'll kill him for you.
Lonesome Dove (Robert Duvall to Chris Cooper)

21. He can't go down with three barrels on him. Not with three, he can't.
Jaws (Robert Shaw to Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, on the ill-fated boat)

22. A wed wose. How womantic.
Blazing Saddles (Madeline Kahn to Cleavon Little)

23. How will you die, Joan Wilder? Slow like a snail? Or fast, like a shooting star?
Romancing the Stone (soldier to Kathleen Turner, before their fight)

24. Oh, my. I hope that wasn't a hostage.
Die Hard (cop Paul Gleason to himself as he watches a body fall from the skyscraper)

25. I'll take these Huggies and whatever you got in the register.
Raising Arizona (Nicholas Cage to convenience store clerk)

26. He saved my life, and yours, and Arliss's. You can't just kill him, like he was nothin'!
Old Yeller (Tommy Kirk to his mother Dorothy Maguire)

27. Stay on or get off? STAY ON OR GET OFF?
Speed (Sandra Bullock to Keanu Reeves, as they approach freeway exit ramp)

28. Snake Plissken? I heard you were dead.
Escape From New York (cab driver Ernest Borgnine to Kurt Russell)

29. And for a brief moment, Gordo Cooper became the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen.
The Right Stuff (narrator, at the end)

30. He kissed you? What happened next? / Then he had to go invade Libya.
The American President (Annette Bening's sister to Bening, and reply)

31. Nobody ever won a war by dying for his country. You win a war by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.
Patton (George C. Scott, during the opening speech)

32. I wish they wouldn't land those things here while we're playing golf.
M*A*S*H (Elliott Gould to Donald Sutherland, referring to incoming chopper)

33. Oh Captain, my Captain.
Dead Poets Society (Ethan Hawke and other students, to fired teacher Robin Williams)

34. I don't reckon I got no reason to kill nobody.
Sling Blade (Billy Bob Thornton, in answer to reporter's question)

35. Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you knights of New England.
Cider House Rules (Michael Caine, and later Tobey Maguire, to the orphans)

36. Sometimes nothin' can be a mighty cool hand.
Cool Hand Luke (Paul Newman to the other poker players, after bluffing)

37. Today I saw a slave become more powerful than the Emperor of Rome
Gladiator (Connie Nielsen, referring to Russell Crowe)

38. Talk to her, Dad. She's a doctor. / Of what? Her first name could be Doctor.
Sleepless in Seattle (Tom Hanks' son, and Hanks' reply, while they're on hold)

39. Come on, Hobbs, knock the cover off the ball.
The Natural (Coach Wilford Brimley to Robert Redford)

40. Way to go, Paula! Way to go.
An Officer and a Gentleman (Lisa Blount to Debra Winger, at the end)

41. I see you've been missing a lot of work. / Well, I wouldn't say I've been missing it.
Office Space (downsizing team to employee Ron Livingston, and reply)

42. I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.
True Grit (Robert Duvall to John Wayne, before the shootout)

43. Docta Jones, Docta Jones! No more parachutes!
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Jonathan Ke Quan to Harrison Ford, in their pilotless plane)

44. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her everything's all right. And there aren't any more guns in the valley.
Shane (Alan Ladd to Brandon de Wilde, after the shootout)

45. I'm thinking your head would make a real good toilet brush.
Heaven's Prisoners (Alec Baldwin to thug, in a New Orleans dive)

46. Left early. Please come with the money . . . or you keep the car. Love, Tommy.
The Thomas Crown Affair (Steve McQueen's note to Faye Dunaway, at the end)

47. Active is pinging back something really big.
The Abyss (sonar operator Chris Elliott, to commander)

48. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers.
Pulp Fiction (Samuel L. Jackson to a doomed Frank Whaley)

49. I need a ride in your el trucko to the next towno.
The Mexican (Brad Pitt, thumbing a ride from the locals)

50. This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.
Alien (Sigourney Weaver, after a really hard day)

20 March 2015

St. Thomas

by R.T. Lawton

Overlooking the harbor at St. Thomas
With February comes icy winds and blowing snow to the mountain ranges in the state where we live. This becomes a time for us to seek bright sun, warm sand and salt water breezes. Often, that means somewhere off the continent where internet access is limited, non-existent or highly expensive. In any case, I still wouldn't blog from those places about those places because such activity also advertises to potential burglars that I would not be at home, 9mm in hand to greet unwanted intruders (this does not apply to you guys). Thus, any photos and travelogue you get here are a few weeks behind actuality.

               *                 *                  *                

Columbus sighted the island of St. Thomas in 1493 during his second voyage to the New World, but he kept on going. The Dutch West India Company subsequently established a post in 1657. A few years later, the Dutch conquered the original inhabitants, the Arawaks, and turned the land into sugar cane plantations. Along came the U.S. in 1917 and bought the island for $25 million as part of their defensive strategy to control the Caribbean and the Panama Canal during World War I. Ten years later, U.S. citizenship was granted to the island's residents and they were given home rule in 1970.

I quickly found out that the U.S. Virgin Islands are the only place in the U.S. where vehicles drive on the left side of the road. This practice was inherited from the Dutch, however most vehicles on the island are of American make, thus the driver sits on the left side. It was explained to me by a local that this way the driver could better see how close his wheels were to falling off the edge of their steep and twisty mountain roads. Since I was seated behind our driver on the left side of the vehicle, I could see his concern. There were no safety rails on the road and it was a long ways down. We'll skip over the hazards of oncoming traffic at hairpin turns.

Blackbeard's Castle, his statue is behind the camera.
Further inland, there's an old stone tower built high up on a mountain ridge, It overlooks the harbor which serves the city of Charlotte Amalie. Locals refer to the tower as Blackbeard's Castle and there is a larger than life statue of Edward Teach on a plaza in front of the tower. On the statue, you can see the ten firearms (eight flintlock pistols and two blunderbusses) he carried strapped to his body for battle, a cutlass in one hand and a hatchet in the other, plus you can picture the burning cannon fuses he wove into his hair and beard to make him look like the devil himself. In truth, the Danes built the four-story structure they called Skytsborg Tower in 1679 as a watchtower over approaches to the harbor. And, while Blackbeard did sail the Caribbean, there is no historical proof that he ever set foot in said tower.

Coming down from the tower is a foot route known as 99 Steps, which leads through several old buildings more or less maintained as museums of the old days, complete with period furniture and other items of the past. Once you descend to the city streets, you are free to shop as a tourist. Since the harbor in St. Thomas, known for being a deep water harbor, is referred to as Taphus, which roughly translates to rum house or tap house, we skipped the Rolex and high end jewelry shops and instead went in search of libation to quench our thirst on this warm tropical day. In one of the many alleys, we found a small place called Greengo's Cantina. Here we indulged in a couple rounds of beers and an excellent platter of nachos to be shared by the four of us sailing companions. If you ever find yourself in St. Thomas, USVI, I definitely recommend Greengo's Cantina and their nachos.

Next, we're off to Dominica and a story about 1970's mercenaries. That's two weeks for you, but a one-day cruise for us. See ya.

19 March 2015


"Mighty oaks from little acorns grow." 

                                                            - Fourteenth century English proverb

 "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."                                                                     

                                                                                       - Laozi, Tao Te Ching

"'The cat sat on the mat' is not the beginning of a story, but 'the cat sat on the dog’s mat' is."
                                                                                              - John LeCarré

Last week I had both the honor and the pleasure of attending Left Coast Crime just down I-5 in Portland, Oregon ("Crimelandia"). While I was there I crossed paths with many old friends, and made some new ones. Attended some panels. Moderated one on novellas.

Learned a lot.

Had some fun.

Experienced one of the luckiest days of my life (behind, of course, the day that my wife agreed to marry me and the one when my son was born). Cleaned up at poker (got cleaned OUT the next night) and won a signed, inscribed copy of Steven Saylor's latest book!

You know, like you do.

One guy I ran into at this year's LCC Vancouver native Sam Wiebe. We originally met at last year's Bouchercon, and I liked him, so I picked up a copy of his novel Last of the Independents.With this, his debut novel Sam has penned one of the truly unforgettable opening paragraphs in modern crime fiction. It is by turns profane (and potentially offensive) and uproariously funny, which in turn also renders it completely subversive.

If you're interested in reading it, take a look at the sample offered here. And then do yourself a favor and BUY HIS BOOK!

Talking with Sam and a host of other friends/authors in (would you believe it?) the event bar about favorite books and the ones that pack an opening gate wallop like Last of the Independents does got me to thinking about beginnings. Specifically, about openings, and about how a story opens.

With all of the current emphasis on pacing, plot, character and a whizz-bang ending, the need for a solid opening scene for today's attention-challenged literary audience sometimes gets short shrift. And while I can recall terrific ending lines from some of my favorite novels, ("And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." comes to mind.), I can recall a lot more great openers.

(Note that distinguished between "opener" and "opening line" here. More on that in a bit.)

Take this one, for example:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard
wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Most people who read and write crime fiction recognize that opener right away. It is, of course, from The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler's first novel, which introduces his famous private detective, Phillip Marlowe.

Chandler had a way with openers. Take this other one from his short story "Red Wind":

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Now that is what I call a "table-setter"!

Your opening paragraphs are your first, best and really, only chance to set the scene, establish character/tone/setting, and do it all quick, before your reader loses interest. Looking at The Big Sleep again, it's readily apparent that Chandler does all of this with two short paragraphs. The first one quoted above, in which he memorably establishes his protagonist's personality and voice, and in the next one, where he sets the scene:

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying.

And just like that your scene is set, complete with a stained-glass window that serves as a ready-made metaphor for the book's action that is obvious, without hitting you over the head.

So good it's been imitated a million times since, up to and past the point of parody.

How about you? Feel free to scroll down to the comments section and use it weigh in with your favorite opening lines/paragraphs/scenes, and what makes the special for you!

18 March 2015


by Robert Lopresti

Panel on short stories at Left Coast Crime: Travis Richardson, Bharti Kirchner, Deborah J. Ledford, Brian Thornton, What's-his-name.  Photo by Teresa Wong, used by permission.
I spent the weekend in Portland, Oregon, at Crimelandia, the 25th Left Coast Crime. A good time was had by all, or at least by me. And just as I did at Bouchercon in November, I took notes on some of the words of wisdom that the panelists distributed, as well as some of the nonsense.  You get to decide which is which.  Apologies for any misquotes or misattributions.

"Watching cartoons is really good for writing sex scenes."  - Linda Joffe Hull

"We are living in the golden age of nonfiction."  -Brian Thornton

"What really hurt is that this reader trusted Wikipedia more than me."  - Steven Saylor

"(My character) believes that what separates us from the rest of the animals is our ability to accessorize." - Heather Haven

"She was built like sadness." - Johnny Shaw

"You can't just have your character say the kidney was kidney-shaped.'-Terry Odell

"As we used to say in the navy, maintain rigid flexibility."  - Janet Dawson 

"When I read violence and it doesn't hurt that makes me angry.  Because that's the only violence that's dangerous."  -Josh Stallings.

"We're all twelve year old boys at heart." - Holly West

"No one in Britain has enough money to put twenty writers in a room long enough to write Seinfeld." - Catriona McPherson

"My true stories are more like independent films."  -Johnny Shaw

"I went on the FBI tour today and found out I'm on the watch list." - Linda Joffe Hall

"I grew up in the seventies and my parents were so high that they couldn't start a commune.  So they just invited people over."  - Jess Lourey

"When you're doing research, never skip the footnotes."  -Jeri Westerson 

 "You can stand on any street corner in Bangkok and have five novels in ten minutes."  - Tim Hallinan

"I call the info-dump 'As you know, Bob.' For example,  'As you know, Bob, as forensic psychologists, we can...'" -Andrew E. Kaufman

"I live in Colorado and I'm probably one of four people who doesn't have a concealed weapon permit."  - Terry Odell

"Helen's work is critically acclaimed, best-selling, and award-winning, which is just greedy." -  Catriona McPherson

"When I started writing I used alcohol.  It diminished my anxiety completely.  It diminished other things too."  - Tim Hallinan

"I don't put years in my books because things change."  - Andrew E. Kaufman

"You're always on the psychoanalysis couch when you're writing these books."  - Steven Saylor

"Research is like fishing.  You never know what you're going to catch."  -V.M. Giambanco

"Adverbs are the date that wouldn't leave."  -Brian Thornton

"I'm supposed to repeat all questions, so: Parnell Hall's room number is 618."  -Jess Lourey

"Don't touch a menopausal woman and don't give her a gun." -Terry Odell

"They're not very interesting people before the murder."  - Frederick Ramsay

"If you can't laugh at your life, it's going to be a long life."  - Heather Haven.

"Adolescence is essentially a country-western song."  -Tim Hallinan

"Fun fact: Chris is wearing a training bra, but not in the traditional manner." - Simon Wood

"Good writing is good writing." - Josh Stallings

17 March 2015

The St. Patrick’s Day Crime Blotter, and a Whole Lot of Blarney***

Crime Blotter d1

In honor of my post falling on St. Patrick’s Day and in keeping with the crime nature of this blog, I thought I should pay homage to the day with the St. Patrick’s Day Crime Blotter.

Everybody knows the famousinfamousSt. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. So one might think St. Patrick got short shrift. I mean in a world where “my massacre is bigger than your massacre” is important stuff, one might think St. Paddy and St. Val would come to blows over who has the better holiday and, of course, who has a more impressive spot on the crime blotter.

After all, See’s Candy makes marshmallow-shaped hearts for Valentine’s Day, but what do they do for St. Patrick’s Day? A handful of chocolates in green boxes and green tinfoil and chocolate “potatoes”. Major slight. Which reminds me of the line from the Ernst Lubitsch classic To Be or Not to Be, where Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) says, “They named a brandy after Napoleon, they made a herring out of Bismarck, and the Fuhrer is going to end up as a piece of cheese!”

Well, the chocolate potato is like the cheese, especially compared to marshmallow hearts. Where the herring fits in I’m not quite sure.

So, let’s take a little quiz:

Alex, I’ll take St. Paddy’s Day deaths for $100, please.

Who was the first St. Patrick’s Day death?

Uh, that’s a tough one, let me think. St. Patrick.

Right you are. That’s why the holiday is observed on the date of his death, March 17th.

*     *    *

Now, let’s see. It seems St. Val’s Day is in the lead what with the Massacre named after him, and seven murders from shotgun, pistol and Tommy gun blasts, the latter most likely emerging from Stradivarius violin cases.

So, it looks like St. Val is ahead in the Crime Blotter Race. But the fact is that St. Pat’s day can compete with St. Valentine’s Day. First, a couple minor examples:

On March 17, 1921, mafia hood Albert Anastasia was convicted of murdering GeorgePaul_Muni-scarface_1932 d1 Turino, a longshoreman. They’d quarreled. And I guess you don’t quarrel with one of the founding members of Murder, Inc. Due to a legal technicality, Anastasia was given a retrial in 1922, and because four of the original prosecution witnesses had somehow magically disappeared, Anastasia’s sentence was overturned.  The question is, were they given anesthesia by Anastasia before their disappearing acts? Like I said, I guess it doesn’t pay to quarrel with one of the founders of Murder, Inc.

March 17, 1996, the play Getting Away with Murder, by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth opened. March 31, 1996: the Broadway production of the play closes after seventeen performances one day for each day of March leading up to St. Pat’s day. Maybe not a record, but not bad. Even Sondheim couldn’t get away with this one.

And there’s a couple more pretty gruesome events that occurred on March 17th in history that my wife asked me to excise in the name of good taste, but if you look up Richard Ramirez, a.k.a. The Night Stalker, Rachel Manger Hudson and Uganda on this date you’ll get an idea.

*     *     *

The St. Patrick’s Day Massacre

Now here’s the KickerSt. Pat does have a massacre named in his honor. Bet you didn’t know that, did’ja?

St. Patrick: “I’ll see your St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and raise you one St. Pat’s Day Massacre.”

St. Valentine: “Ha.”

But let’s see.

March 16, 1926: Chicago gangster Jean Arnaud is having a St. Patrick’s Day party at his sister-in-law’s apartment. (Even though it’s the day before, it counts for St. Pat’s Day since it is in honor of that holiday and is, indeed, known as the St. Patrick’s Day Massacre.) Rival hood Alphonse “Scarface” Lambert wants to off Arnaud and his peeps. The party starts around 4:30pm and Scarface has several teams of gunmen hit the party by 5pm. Besides the in-house teams, sniper teams are on the buildings across the street. Scarface really wants this dude dead and gone. The whole attack takes less than ten minutes. There are no survivors, and the death count is never officially known, as some of the people who attended the party are never found.

A cop on the scene describes it as a "human slaughterhouse." And you thought your last party bombed.

All of the shooters, Scarface, and everyone involved in the crime escaped. No prosecutions follow.
And even with all that blood and gore, Scarface didn’t get what he wanted as one of Arnaud’s lieutenant’s took up the reigns of Arnaud’s crime family and then finked Scarface out to the cops. Equilibrium was restored and all was right with the world of crime again.

But for some reason St. Patrick’s Day gets the short shrift on this Massacre, which occurred before the more famous St. Val’s. So you see, it’s sort of like Betamax vs. VHS, and maybe the “best” massacre is forgotten. But, as we now know, St. Val ain’t got nothin’ on St. Pat in the Crime Blotter Department.

***Disclaimer: No already-dead people were hurt in the making of this article. Nor is itsAlice's Restaurant intention to cast aspersions on them or make light of their fate, or on the fate of the guilty, or innocent. Nor to cast aspersions on Thompson submachine guns, Betamax players, St. Patrick or his day, St. Val or his day, Irish people, Irish men, Irish women, Irish girls, Irish boys, Ireland, Jill Ireland, Kathy Ireland, John Ireland, Irish holidays, James Joyce, Ulysses, William Butler Yeats, J.M. Synge, Bono, Enya, Celtic Women (in general and the singing group), Danny Boy, my friend Denise, leprechauns, the blarney stone, blarney, the color green in all its variations, the Emerald Isle, Alphonse “Scarface” Lambert, Jean Arnaud, Stephen Sondheim, George Furth, Murder, Inc., the years 1921, 1926, 1929, 1996 (or any other years), chocolate potatoes, Alex Trebek, Jeopardy, Double Jeopardy, the Daily Double, Ernst Lubitsch, Sig Ruman, Col. Ehrhardt, Bismark, Napoleon, herrings, cheese, the massacree at Alice’s Restaurant, massacres in specific and massacres in general, and the specific massacres mentioned in this piece, but not limited only to those mentioned by name, Jack Webb or R.A. Cinader. No names have been changed to protect the guilty or innocent. Jack Webb had nothing to do with the writing of this article.

And yes, murder is bad, I get that. This article is satireGallows Humoras such it closes Saturday night.  But, we also know, Saturday’s alright for fighting.

Just one more thing, is it too late to buy stock in Murder, Inc.?

Oh, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone. Please pass the green beer.


*     *     *

And from the Department of BSP: I’m happy and honored to announce that my story, “Howling at the Moon,” came in at #7 in the Ellery Queen Readers Award Poll. And that fellow Sleuthsayer David Dean has threeThree!stories in the top ten. Way to go, David.

Ellery Queen 2014 Readers Award Poll -- 3-13-15 -- D1

16 March 2015

Organize and Join

Jan Grape
There are many mystery writer organizations around.

Here’re a few to keep in mind.

Mystery Writers of America aka MWA

MWA's logoThe oldest American organization formed in 1945 is  most the well-known and in many eyes the most prestigious. Membership is open to published authors in the mystery field, including fiction, and fact books and stories, magazines and motion pictures. An associate membership, includes editors, agents, directors, booksellers and fans, all known as friends of mystery. Later the memberships were reclassified as “Active” for published writers. “Associate” for non-writers in the mystery field for editors, agents, booksellers, etc. and “Afilliate” for fans and unpublished writers.  MWA gives the Edgar Award each year and the nominees and recipients are chosen by a committee of peers and given at the annual Awards Banquet in New York each spring, usually in April. MWA has chapters all around the country. More information and how to join may be found at www.mysterywriters.org
PWA LogoPrivate Eye Writers of America aka PWA

Began by Private Eye author and Executive Director: Robert J. Randisi in 1982. Their purpose was defined to identify, promote, recognize and honor the writers who write books and stories featuring a private eye as the main character. PWA gives an award known as the Shamus and is given out each year at the PWA banquet during the Bouchercon event in the fall. The nominees and winners are chosen by a committee of peers. There are no chapters located around the country, all members belong to the National organization as either “Active” or “Associate” members. More information and how to join may be found at www.privateeyewriters.com

Sisters-In-Crime aka S-in-C

In 1986-87 this organization was discussed and organized by several women who had discovered women mystery writers were not reviewed as often or as well as their male counterpoints. Sara Paretsky was the major driving force, aided by Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Charlotte MacLeod, Nancy Pickard, and Susan Dunlap. The main goal of Sisters was to combat discrimination against women in the field of mystery, educate publishers and the public at large about the inequalities in the treatment of female authors. Along with that goal was to raise the awareness of the role of women writers and their contribution to the whole mystery genre. Many have asked why just for women? Actually, S-in-C has many talented men who are also members. In many ways the whole genre needed to be recognized as serious writing. People still today when they hear or know a woman is a mystery writer are asked “When are you going to write a “REAL book?”

One major project for S-in-C has been to contact newspapers and magazines and ask them to publish more reviews of women authors. Progress has been made, but it’s still a man’s world. Sisters has also worked to assure that women authors are judged for mystery awards the same as men are. Sisters strive to be more educational that anything political. There are chapters all around the country and even international chapters. The national organization has published book guides to selling, to promotions and specifically for author signings. Sisters national organization generally meets at Malice Domestic in May and at Bouchercon in the fall.

More information and how to join may be found at www.sistersincrime.org

Other Organizations include: Thriller Writers of America and American Crime Writers League.

15 March 2015

Professional Tips– Homophones (mostly)

by Leigh Lundin

In editing for others, I occasionally come across words that slip in when no one’s looking. Some of these are accidental– gremlins are bound to lurk in any author’s sizeable draft. These particular persons know eyes have sight, not site, but in the frenzied throes of creation, the fingers do the talking.

One of these writers mentioned she struggles with ‘which’. I misinterpreted it to mean the which/that conundrum I battle with, whereas she struggles with which/whom (which hadn’t occurred to me).

We’ve talked about word usage before, but I began to wonder if new writers might find a recap useful. Following are a few homophones (mostly) I’ve encountered while editing.


They adopted a new code of conduct adapted from the Boy Scout Law.
‘Adapt’ means to make an object suitable by adjusting or modifying. ‘Adopt’ means to assume, take up, take on, or make use of. In parts of the English-speaking world, the two are nearly homophones.


The further you advance your training, the farther you’ll travel. Even the dictionary hedges, but consider yourself on solid ground if you use ‘farther’ for physical distances and ‘further’ otherwise. “You won’t go far” couldn’t be further from the truth.


Fewer people means less tax. Although Wikipedia and Wiktionary sneer at the distinction, if you switch the two determiners in the previous sentence, you may hear the difference. I user ‘fewer’ with items I can count, but recently I came across the rule that ‘fewer’ should be used with plural nouns and ‘less’ with singular nouns.


He flaunted his arrogance when he flouted the law. Flaunt means to show off or wantonly display. Flout means to openly defy rules or convention.

A flounder is an odd fish. When young, it swims upright, but as it matures, it lies flat in offshore shallows, often perfectly mimicking the ocean bed. The most curious aspect is that in adulthood, a flounder’s eyes migrate atop its new topside and in some members, its mouth shifts to the opposite side, which has led to some wits calling it the ‘Picasso fish’.

As the ship foundered in the shallows, the sailor floundered helplessly. Similarly: The company foundered as its executives floundered. Here again, the dictionary appears to have adapted to misuse and conflated the words. The OED suggests “perhaps a blend of founder and blunder, or perhaps symbolic, fl- frequently beginning words connected with swift or sudden movement.” This makes it difficult to establish a firm rule, but consider it safe to use ‘founder’ for anything sinking, whether a ship, company, or institutional policy.


Lay down your book, lie back, and say “Now I lay me down to sleep…” This is a pair I know how to use but find difficult to explain. Many find they’re confused because not only is ‘lay’ a present tense, transitive verb meaning to set or place something, but it’s also the past tense of the intransitive verb ‘lie’ meaning to recline or assume a prone or supine posture on a surface. With all the emphasis about positioning, it becomes doubly confusing when talking about the lie of the land or that Orlando lies north of Miami. Never mind, substitute sensible words like sit and set. No, wait…


Her nauseous manner nauseated me ad nauseam. Yep, the word ‘nauseous’ means sickening, so be careful when you say you’re nauseous. You probably mean you’re sickened or nauseated.


The surveyor sighted the transit along the construction site. ‘Site’, either web or physical, refers to places, whereas ‘sight’ refers to vision… but you know that.

Further Reading

Some time back, ABA had sent an email of forty often misused combinations that traces back to an article by business writer Jeff Haden. Likely you use most if not all correctly, but sometimes it’s helpful to have refreshers.

See you next week!

14 March 2015

A Note of Their Own

A serious post from me (don’t everyone faint….)

Sometimes a simple sentence can make you gulp back tears and realize how lucky you've been.

I received the following note from the Hamilton Literacy Council re the donation of sales revenue from the launch of The Artful Goddaughter mob caper:

"As I write this note to thank you...I am reminded of the dream of some of our clients that they will one day be able to write a note of their own."

The Hamilton Literacy Council is my charity of choice.  I first came across them when I worked in health care at an urban hospital.  We had an Out of the Cold program that treated homeless people with health problems, and provided people with blankets and extra clothing to keep them warm on the streets.

Warm on the streets…I should mention here that I live south of Toronto in Canada, where we have winter for four months of the year.  Real winter.  This year we have had 38 days in a row below freezing.

I won’t describe the health problems suffered by people who live day and night on the streets, under bridges, and in bus shelters.  That is a topic for an even more serious post.

The person I am thinking of now is a woman I met during that time.  She was middle-aged, which at the time I thought was forty-five.  (My guideline has changed since then.)  We gave her care, for which she was grateful.  And for that care, we required her signature on a piece of paper, in order to please our sponsors.

She stalled.  We pressed again, in plainer English, in case it was her second language.  It wasn’t.

We were baffled. She looked away and then she told us.  She couldn’t write her name.

It’s an odd thing.  When I think of someone being illiterate, I think of them not being able to read books and newspapers.  It wasn’t until this moment that it dawned on me that being illiterate also meant not being able to write.

At SleuthSayers, many of us make at least part of our income from writing fiction tales.  We produce reams of manuscript pages, year after year.  We may labour over the perfect sentence.  We grumble when editors try to change our words.  We joke (at least I do) about putting a mob hit on said editors, or at the very least, killing them off in our next book.

Writing is my therapy.  Reading is my escape from the real world.  I can’t imagine enduring the calamities of life without that escape.  And I don’t live under bridges or in bus shelters.

Next year, I will have a book launch again, and I will donate the sales from that launch to the literacy council.  It’s so little to do, when compared to those who actually volunteer as tutors.  I will continue to write books that are easy to read, and hopefully, entertaining for those who are acquiring the skill of reading.

Learning to read as an adult takes concentration, determination, and immense courage.  I think, perhaps, that no one understands the value of the written word more than those who have struggled to master it.

This is my salute to the men and women who dream of writing a note of their own.

Melodie Campbell occasionally writes serious stuff, but her books are mainly comedies. This is probably a good thing.

The Artful Goddaughter on Amazon