19 June 2015

Crime Tour of Phoenix Part 1


Uncle Sal's

By Dixon Hill

Left Coast Crime will be convening at the Hyatt Regency of Phoenix, Arizona February 26th - 28th,2016.

Knowing that LCC attendees lurk on this blog, and suspecting some of them might like to take their own self-guided tour of the Phoenix historical crime scene, I've decided to post some articles this year that would lend themselves to just that use.


Starbuck's Location
"Office Max Center"
Corner of Osborn and Hayden roads
in Scottsdale











Across the parking lot from this unassuming Starbuck's where my son and daughter worked in high school, and less than a quarter mile from the house I grew up in, sits this place:

Uncle Sal's Italian Ristorante
Uncle Sal's Location
About 23 mins. from the Hyatt
according to Google Maps










At first glance, the contemporary cookie-cutter strip mall location and hole-in-the-wall frontage might indicate Uncle Sal's is one of those Italian restaurants run by somebody about as Italian as my Polish grandmother.

In truth, however, this is the place once owned by the wife of Salvatore "Sammy The Bull" Gravano, who billed her restaurant as: "The best kept secret in Scottsdale," Sammy the Bull loved to eat here, and it was frequented not only by members of his family, but -- reputedly -- also by drug dealers, underworld figures and the like.  (On several occasions, my mom and I enjoyed the pizza there, when I was home on leave from the army.)

Gravano had been given plastic surgery to alter his appearance, then he and his family moved to The Valley in 1995, as part of the witness protection program following the John Gotti trial.  The former member of the New York based Gambino family was rechristened "Jimmy Moran."  He opened a construction company called Marathon Development at 45th Street and University drive in Phoenix, where he employed 15 people and earned nearly a million dollars a year.  He also did business as Creative Pools, a pool installation company.
Gravano's Phx. Mug Shot

All of this came to an end in 2000, when Sammy the Bull, as well as his wife, son and daughter were arrested as part of a sting on organized drug dealing in The Valley.

Salvatore (then living as Jimmy Moran) reportedly provided consultation and cash to the drug-dealing arm of the "Devil Dogs" a Phoenix gang known for barking as they beat people up.  It was further reported that pool company and restaurant employees were involved in the dealing, and that drugs were being sold out of Uncle Sal's.  Salvatore was eventually convicted, and sentenced to 19 years in prison.

The Bar






The Patio
Uncle Sal's is still there, of course. And, if you'd like to go get a bite
to eat and look around the place, I think you'll enjoy your meal.  The bar is nice, and so is the food.  You can even eat on the patio.

Outdoor temperatures should be quite comfortable during the LCC period in February.

While the pasta is good here, the steak is my favorite.  The green bean side is excellent!


Dress is casual during the day, and business casual in the evening.  If you want to pull out the stops and dress to the nines, they'll love you for it!


Pricing is not bad either.  A single person can enjoy the steak in the photo to the right and some beer or wine and still get out the door for under fifty bucks.


According to his daughter, Gravano ate at Uncle Sal's regularly, often sneaking in the back and sometimes taking his food to go.  There are those who suspect his practice provided the catalyst for the opening of this second eatery, which shares the same kitchen with Uncle Sal's, and is known as: The Side Door.


If your wallet doesn't tend to be over-stuffed, and your culinary tastes run toward good beer, burgers and dogs (And perhaps you'd secretly like to get a feel for what it was like for Sammy the Bull to sneak in the back for his chow while the Feds were closing in!) then I suggest you walk around the north end of the building that houses Uncle Sal's and eat here.  They sell Vienna Beef hot dogs for only $4.00 each -- or, Chicago style for six bucks!  There is also a large selection of beer on tap or in bottles, as well as a large wine selection, and some higher-end food -- even ice cream!

Overhead View of Strip Mall with Uncle Sal's and Side Door


This photo is taken looking west.

Osborn Rd. is on the right side of the photo, while Hayden Rd. runs across the bottom.  The building at the lower left is Starbucks.  The large main building is Office Max and Big Five sporting goods.

The small square building, which -- as you can see on the schematic below -- is not quite connected to the Office Max bldg., is where you'll find Uncle Sal's.  It's in the lower left (south-east) corner of that small square building.

If you walk around the north (photo-right) side of this building, you will find The Side Door at the west (photo-top) end of it, facing out to the north.

Do not be confused by the bank building (lower right).





Fastest way there from the Hyatt Regency Phoenix
  • Take Monroe to 4th Street
  • Turn LEFT to head NORTH on 4th Street, being sure to BEAR LEFT just past Garfield St.  
  • 4th Street will then become the north-bound lane of 3rd Street.  
  • STAY IN THE RIGHT LANE at this point.  
  • TURN RIGHT onto the HOV on-ramp for I-10 East (also known as 101 East).  
  • Follow the 101 East until you exit (off to right) onto 202 North.  
  • (Note: 202 Exit is to the right side of the 101, but you want the LEFT lane of the RIGHT-SIDE EXIT lanes -- 2nd or third lane from the right side of freeway.  If you bear all the way to the right, you will end up on the 202 South.  If this happens, exit ASAP and get back onto the 202 North)
  • Follow 202 North and take Indian School Rd. exit.  
  • At the base of the off-ramp, TURN LEFT onto Indian School.
  • TURN RIGHT onto Hayden Rd.  
  • Uncle Sal's is in Office Max strip mall on the corner of Hayden and Osborn, a half-mile ahead of you, on the left.


18 June 2015

Having Fun Being Bad


by Eve Fisher

Frank Underwood - House of Cards.jpgI have, like so many people, been watching House of Cards via Netflix DVDs.  The first season was hypnotic.  The second season not so much.  I may not watch the third season.  Why? It's real simple: Nobody seems to be having any fun. Not the President, not his wife, not the staff, not the Secret Service guys, and especially not Francis and Clare Underwood.  I mean, what's the point of pursuing power by any means, if you're not going to have a good time screwing everyone over?  Even the sex romps are grim. More on that later.

Think about prime-time TV these days.  Who's enjoying the game on Game of Thrones?  Did Walter White ever kick back and watch trash TV on Breaking Bad?  I experienced the world of Mad Men, and the people I remember had a lot more fun drinking and screwing than Draper and pals ever did. Do The Americans ever just go fishing? Wayward Pines is so dark you can't see the road, much less the actors.  Every plot is convoluted, everybody is up to their necks in conspiracies, everyone is always plotting their next move, and everyone is soooo serious...

But that isn't the way the real world works.  People go fishing.  They relax.  They get hooked on Candy Crush or Triple Town.  They binge-watch anything they can.  Joseph Stalin liked cowboy movies, Charlie Chaplin, Georgian wine, and billiards.  The man knew how to relax.  So did others: Mao Zedong was a master calligrapher and a fairly decent poet. He also really enjoyed women. Hitler loved listening to Putzi Hanfstaengl play piano, and apparently had a fondness for dogs.  Osama bin Laden wrote love letters in between calls for jihad. Napoleon loved Josephine and cheating at cards. In other words, in the real world, even totalitarian monsters take a break once in a while and have a good time.

Meanwhile, Francis Underwood even gave up ribs.  (And considering how solemn everyone was before and after, that three-way didn't do much to loosen anyone up.)

Nathaniel Parker as Harold Skimpole
in the 2005 BBC production of
"Bleak House"
I miss the villains of yesteryear.  Count Fosco, hugely fat, delighting in pastry, the endless cigarettes his wife hand rolls for him, great glasses of sugar water, and playing with his tiny little mice while he works [successfully] to have Lady Glyde declared dead after he imprisons her in a madhouse.  And all despite his deep admiration, love, passion, for her sister, Marian Halcombe. Now there's a villain who is not only ruthless - read The Woman in White and see - but knows how to have fun while doing it.  Or there's Harold Skimpole, the middle-aged "child" who cannot understand why people are so cruel and harsh as to not supply him with his daily needs, gratis, so that he can live like the charming butterfly he is, while betraying everyone in Bleak House in the worst possible way.  (He is the reason that the child street-sweeper Jo dies.)  You want to kill him, but he's certainly having a great time.  Of course, Dickens really knew how to write hand-rubbing, chuckling, glint-in-the-eye villains:  Ebenezer Scrooge, the Marquis St. Evremonde, Fagin, and that ultimate hypocrite, Josiah Bounderby.

Or, on screen:
  • Henry Fonda's Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West,
  • Basil Rathbone's Andre Trochard in We're No Angels
  • Lionel Barrymore's Harry F. Potter in It's A Wonderful Life
  • Peter Ustinov's Nero in Quo Vadis, and, of course, 
  • Charlton Heston's Richelieu in The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers.
  • The late, great Christopher Lee in The Man With the Golden Gun.

Now granted, there was a lot of over-acting in these - Henry Fonda and Charlton Heston were obviously having the time of their lives as they FINALLY got to play the villain!  But I think there's a lot of over-underacting today.  It's the latest style:  very self-controlled, laser-serious, apparently clinically depressed villains who don't take pleasure in anything, even power once they get it (if they ever do). But if you go back a few decades, and you find villains who smirked, sneered, sauntered, and basically acted like Bette Davis in The Little Foxes.

Francis Urquhart.jpg
Or you can always go back to the original:  Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart in the original, UK House of Cards, who was ruthless, deadly, witty, with a smile like a silver-haired Puck.  "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment."  Watching Richardson's Francis, I always felt that, while he'd definitely sold his soul to the devil, he got full price for it. (And it was a hell of a lot more than one shared cigarette a night...)  And he enjoyed everything he got.

Still available on Netflix, here's a preview of Francis Urquhart's best monologues to whet your appetite:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRNNhcQutTQ




17 June 2015

Opening bottles and books



by Robert Lopresti

She was the most interesting thing that barroom had seen in a long time.

Well, I had only been there an hour, but the look on the bartender's face told me had been waiting for a woman who looked like that for  a whole lot longer.  Maybe his whole life.

Her clothes were a little skimpy for March.  Nothing to shock the church ladies, if such existed in Portland, Oregon these days, but enough to get a man's attention.  I happened to be a man.

The only thing that spoiled her appearance was the thirty degree tilt to her frame that came from the heavy vinyl sack over one bare shoulder.  Since it said LEFT COAST CRIME I deduced that it was full of new mystery novels.She shifted the bag onto the floor and climbed onto a stool a few seats away from me.  The bartender came up with an eagerness he had not shown when I ordered my white wine.

"Martini," she said.

"Gin or vodka?" asked the barman.  He had a face like a burlap sack full of grapefruits.

"Steve," she replied.

He frowned -- much shifting of citrus- - and went down the aisle, presumably to consult his drinkology manual.

After a moment she turned my direction and gave me a careful lookover.  A more thorough one than the subject deserved, really.

She smiled and batted her long eyelashes.  Then she said: "Starting on the day Charlotte Mayhew murdered her husband -- October 23, 1985 -- she became very suspicious of cats."

I don't have the equipment to bat my eyelashes but I can blink.  I did so.  "Excuse me?"

"I said, 'Starting on the day...'"

"I heard you.  But why did you say it?"

The bartender had arrived with a drink - whether it was a Steve Martini I am not prepared to say.  She gave him a smile which threatened to turn him into a puddle on the duckboards.

"It is the opening line of a story by Jane Haddam," she explained.  "Crazy Cat Ladies."

"I remember," I said.  "I read it in Ellery Queen last month.  But why say it now?"

She turned that smile on me.  "It's a great opening line, isn't it?"

I nodded.

"I had an insight when I read it.  It occurred to me that an opening line is like a pickup line."

"How do you figure?"

"They have the same purpose, don't they?  To attract someone's attention.  Pique the curiosity.  Convince someone to spend some time with you.  In other words, to seduce."

At the other end of his dog run,  the bartender dropped something. It tinkled.

"I never thought of it that way," I admitted.  "So you're a mystery fan?"


"Death is my beat."

 "Michael Connelly.  The Poet."

She shrugged.  Her shoulders, specifically.  "It's one of the great romances, isn't it?  The writer and the reader?'

"Older than that," I said.  "The storyteller and the listener."

She nodded enthusiastically.  "But it's usually a fling, right?  Even the best book doesn't keep us forever."

"I suppose not.  But just like a love affair, one can change your life, and stick in your memory all your days."

She gave me her sleepy grin.  "You're a romantic."

"I'm too much of  a realist not to be."

A frown.  "What does that mean, exactly?"

"Beats me, but it sounds good."  I did a quick drag through the shallow river of my memory.  "I saw her entrance.  It would have been hard to miss."

Her eyebrows rose.  "Why, how sweet!  Lawrence Block, isn't it?"

I nodded.  "Eight million Ways To Die."

She finished her drink.  "Wanna go somewhere and discuss literature?"

I shook my head.  "I'm meeting my wife in a few minutes."

She sighed.  "Happy families are all alike."

"Anna Karenina," I said.  "Not mystery fiction."

"When I drink I get promiscuous."  The bartender was staring at her.  "In my reading, I mean.  Stout, please."

He nodded.  "Pale or dark?"

"Rex," we said together.

"Enjoy the rest of the conference," she told me as I paid my bill.

"You too--" I frowned.  "Your name isn't Velma, by any chance?"

She shook her head.  "Call me Ishmael."

"No, I don't think I will."

Note: In searching for more openers to put in here I discovered that Fran Rizer had had the same insight as my mysterious friend. 

16 June 2015

WeeGee in the Public Eye


by Paul D. Marks

“My name is Weegee. I’m the world’s greatest photographer…”

weegee d1 - CopyIf Raymond Chandler’s streets were mean, Weegee’s were meaner and they were real. “To me a photograph is a page from life,” he said, “and that being the case, it must be real.” And they were, sometimes too real, showing the underside of the city, the dark side of the American Dream with a hot jazz soundtrack playing hard in the background.

Most of us in the crime writing community are familiar with Weegee, Arthur Felig. He was an immigrant to the US, who became known for his stark and dark photos of crimes scenes in the 1930s and 40s. That’s not all he photographed, but that’s what he’s mostly remembered for.

Weegee-carStarting off as a darkroom tech, by 1935 he was a freelance photographer. He didn’t wait for stories to come to him, he went out and found them. Of his start, he said “In my particular case I didn't wait 'til somebody gave me a job or something, I went and created a job for myself—freelance photographer. And what I did, anybody else can do. What I did simply was this: I went down to Manhattan Police Headquarters and for two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over a police teletype, I would go to it. The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something.”

Weegee often beat the cops to the scene of the crime. He worked out of his office, uh, his trunk. He estimated that he shot 5,000 pictures of murders in the 1930s and ’40s. In our narcissistic age, we tend to think that crime and viciousness is unique to our era as we watch the local news and see the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ stories stacked up, one on top of the other. And we ask, what’s wrong with society today? But maybe it’s not society, but people. After all, ancient Rome had gladiator fights and it’s speculated that the Mayans and Aztecs played a ball game using human heads as the ball. So there’s really nothing new under the sun. That said, I wonder what his dreams were like.



Weegee and Film Noir:

There seems to be some disagreement among the cognoscenti about whether or not Weegee’s photos influenced the noir look in films. Everyone acknowledges that much of that look came from European refugees fleeing Hitler, who came from a German expressionism background. But even if
Weegee didn’t directly influence film noir, take a look at some of his pix and see the symbiotic relationship between them.

The photos that Weegee is best known for are stark, high-contrast black and white pictures taken with a bright flash, often of the seedier side of life. Everything from murder and other crime scenes, to gangsters, nightclubs, hookers.

There is often a sense of menace, sometimes overt, sometimes more subtle. And the angle of the shots adds to the unsettling effect. And he didn’t only point his camera at the subject at hand, but turned it around for the reverse angle of those watching from the sidelines, or composed shots to see those watchers in the background of some grisly scene.

His images often look like stills from the sets of film noir movies.
 Weegee collage 1  D1 Ver 2a - Copy
Eventually Weegee and film noir came together. Producer Mark Hellinger, inspired by Weegee’s book Naked City, bought the rights and recreated Weegee’s style in the film The Naked City. Weegee also worked as a consultant on the film and had a small part in it. His work also influenced Stanley Kubrick and The Man with a Camera TV series. And Joe Pesci’s character of Bernzy in The Public Eye is a direct rip off of Weegee, as the producers couldn’t obtain the rights to his story.

Weegee was the inspiration for Bob Winger, the main character in my short story Poison Heart, found in the 2010 Deadly Ink collection. Winger’s a burned out, pissed off, fed up crime photog, who winds up staging crime scene photos, inspired by Weegee, and passes them off as the real thing...until things totally spin out of control. (Deadly Ink 2010 Anthology)

“When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track.”
—Weegee                                    


***Note: As far as I can tell, all of the pictures/photos in this article are “free to share and use” according to Bing’s license search feature.


***

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15 June 2015

Converting a Reluctant Reader: My Mother


by Melissa Yi


“I never read fiction,” my mother used to say, as a point of pride. When I was a kid, she would glance at my library books and say, “Why are you reading that? You already read it!”
After I won second place in Writers of the Future, my first big milestone, I signed one of my complimentary copies to my parents, thanking them for their (ahem) support. “Do you want it back?” said my mother, a few weeks later. “We already read it!”
“No, thanks,” I said annoyed. My then-boyfriend, now-husband, Matt, always encouraged me to write. My parents didn’t care. You know how writers joke, “I only sold two copies, and one of them was to my mom”? I’m like, You’re lucky your mom reads. Good on ya.
My parents & my newborn son: better than a book!
My mother did occasionally come to my book readings and/or buy a copy. She lives in Ottawa (about 1.5 hours’ drive away from me), or she’d come more often. I suspected that she shoved the books in a corner, or gave them away, but was grateful for her presence. As you may know, it’s a challenge to get people out.
But a few years ago, after while taking the bus, she got so bored that she started reading one of my anthologies, Indian Country Noir. “It was good!” she said, sounding astonished.
I think she also read The Dragon and the Stars, which won the Aurora Award in 2011, but I didn’t hear anything for four years.

Not until Tuesday, when she attended the ChiZine Reading Series and marched right up to the book table. “I have to support my daughter,” she said, and bought WOLF ICE and NOTORIOUS D.O.C.
Would I have given the books to my mother? Of course. But I also think she really wants to support me. As in sustain me, help lift me up. And since I’ve come to realize that success depends not just on financial vagaries, but psychological toughness, I accepted. I’m not to proud to accept charity from my mom (or Patreon from my fans).
Then on Friday, I spotted WOLF ICE not only splayed open on her bed, but halfway finished.
“It’s so good. I can’t put it down,” she told me and Matt. “It’s actually bad, because I wanted to do the gardening on Thursday, and I never got out, and on Friday, it rained, so I didn’t get anything done. How much is TERMINALLY ILL? The next time I come, I’ll buy that one.”
Wow. A compliment from my mom. I’ll take that over gardening any day.

How about you? How does your family react to your writing and your passions? Did they encourage you, or tell you to knuckle down and study the times table instead? How has that changed over time? And how do you support your children, if you have any?
I have to admit that when my son announced he wanted to be a police officer, I gulped.

14 June 2015

Ransom


by Leigh Lundin

Today’s article will be a short two minutes —or— two hours long— if you wish to take the whole trip.

John Floyd and I’ve mentioned that Mel Gibson has returned to making movies and we’ve enjoyed a couple of his recent films. He seems to have begun a rehabilitation as a man and an actor. While many feel Gibson has not paid for his sins, he's kept his head down and his nose to the grindstone. People love it when a lost soul finds their way back on track and into our minds and hearts, and it would be good if he manages to dig his way out of the hole he dug himself into.

While not thinking of Gibson at all, I found myself reading about a 1954 United States Steel Hour teleplay “Fearful Decision”. It spawned a loosely based 1956 film, Ransom! starring Glenn Ford. That spawned a loosely based 1996 film, Ransom, starring Gary Sinise and our friend, ta-da… Mel Gibson. The central thread of the plots centers upon fathers forced to deal with the kidnappers of their sons, making tough decisions condemned by others, but with method to their madness.

I’d seen the 1996 film and thought it brilliant. Frankly I’d forgotten Gibson was in it and it was nice to reconnect. If you haven’t seen Ransom, the plot is superb. It’s so well done, SleuthSayers is bringing it to you here.

This is the full film which you can stream to your television or watch on your computer. I highly recommend it.

13 June 2015

Shorts and Shortcuts



by John M. Floyd



When I first purchased a smartphone several years ago I was stunned by all the things I was able to do, in addition to trivial tasks like making/receiving telephone calls. All of a sudden I could text, e-mail, Google, check the weather, watch the stock market, leave myself reminders, listen to music, and use my phone as a flashlight, calculator, compass, level, alarm clock, stopwatch, GPS device, calendar, radio, camera, and video recorder. I could also use these functions to become (even more of) a pain in the ass to friends, family, and total strangers, but I try to minimize that.

Because of all these "extras," my mobile phone became an item not only of necessity but of great convenience. And I love finding out about new iPhone apps and shortcuts.

Which brings me to my topic for today. My home computer, which happens to be an iMac (I finally leaped out of Windows several years ago and fled screaming to the Apple orchard), is used partly for e-mail, Netflix, Facebook, Web surfing, and such--but I use it mostly for my writing. For creating and submitting stories and cover letters, and for all the associated research, printing, copying, and recordkeeping.

There are, of course, some shortcuts to all that stuff as well.

Bear with me. Much of what follows is basic, and consists of hints and tips about computers, writing, manuscripts, etc., that you probably already know. But they're also things that have been extremely helpful to me as a writer. (And remember, all you novelists, I write mostly short stories--that's me up there waving to you from the cheap seats--so the submission tips are geared toward shorts.)

Here they are, in no particular order:


1. Copy/Cut/Paste using the keyboard: Crtl-C, Ctrl-X, Ctrl-V. Many of my author friends still choose to click on these buttons in the Word toolbar, but to me it's much faster and easier to do it via the keyboard shortcuts. (For the Mac, the Command key is used instead of Ctrl.)

2. Use the mouse to enlarge documents and images. In most applications, you can hold down the Control key and use the mouse "wheel" to zoom in and out, thus making text easier to read and photos easier to see. Sometimes you can also double-click the mouse to enlarge the image, as in Google Maps.

3. Replace italics with underlining, and vice versa. Some markets (AHMM is one) prefer underlining instead of italics, in their submissions. If you have a completed manuscript that includes italics, it's nice to be able to change all italicized text to underlined text at one swoop. This can be done by following these instructions: Open "Find and Replace," click in the "Find What" box, click on "Format" in the dropdown menu, then click "Font" and choose "Italic" and click OK. Then click in the "Replace With" box, and (under Format/Font) choose a single underline under "Underline Style" and click OK. Then click "Replace All," and it's done. To change it back again, reverse the operation.

4. "Find" using the keyboard: Ctrl-F. I need to locate words and phrases so often, I prefer using keys rather than the mouse and the toolbar. (Again, Apple users should substitute the Command key for Ctrl.) Another keyboard shortcut I use a lot is Ctrl-A to "Select All."

5. Turn off Grammar Check. If you want the Word police to be constantly blowing their whistles and shouting, that's up to you. To me, the grammar-checking feature is frustrating at best and maddening at worst. As a writer of fiction, I happily fragment sentences, splice commas, split infinitives, combine uncombinable words, and make up others (like uncombinable), and I don't want my computer telling me not to. (Did I just end that sentence with a preposition . . . ?)

6. Save items in your "Reading List." Reading List is a separate part of the Safari web browser's bookmarking feature that allows you to save articles/information that you might want to come back to and read later. Unlike regular bookmarking, this makes the content available even when you're offline. Entries are intended to be temporary rather than permanent, and are easily deleted.

7. Replace straight quotes with curly quotes. As anyone who's converted Courier to TNR knows, it's difficult to find and change all the straight-up-and-down apostrophes and quotation marks in a manuscript to proper "curved" apostrophes and quotes. A quick way to do it is to just pull up "Find and Replace" and key a single quotation mark into both the "Find What" box and the "Replace With" box and click "Replace All." Then do the same with double quotation marks. When finished, all apostrophes, single quotes, and double quotes should now be corrected.

8. Turn off widows and orphans. This sounds cruel, right? What I mean is turn off the suppression of widows and orphans. If widow/orphan control is left activated, you'll wind up with some manuscript pages that have way too much blank space left at the bottom. It doesn't matter one whit to me whether there might be a single ending line of a paragraph at the top of a page or a single beginning line of a paragraph at the bottom of a page. I think a consistent appearance is far more important.

9. Insert a # (or similar character) as part of your scene breaks. All that's really required to signal a scene break is an extra double-space, and for years that's exactly how I indicated one. Then I had a bad experience: an editor printed my accepted story without including one of those scene breaks. He just left it out completely and continued the story without any break there at all. Since then, I have always double-spaced once, then typed a centered character or group of characters (#, *, ***, etc.), and then double-spaced once more. My book publisher prefers three asterisks, I prefer the #.

10. Highlight using the arrow keys. Sometimes it's difficult to properly highlight certain text with just the mouse. If ever you need to be exact, and (for example) highlight everything up to a particular character but not including that character, you can always fine-tune by holding down the Shift key while pressing the right- or left-arrow key.

11. Copy/paste a manuscript into the body of an e-mail. If a market requires submission of a manuscript as a part of the e-mail rather than as an attachment, it can be hard to paste the story directly in to the body of the e-mail without goofing up the spacing and formatting. Here's a good way to do that without risk: Save the manuscript first as a plain-text (.txt) file in your Word program, then close it and open it again, and then paste it into your e-mail. It will now be formatted correctly. NOTE: Saving an ordinary (TNR, .doc) manuscript in plain-text will automatically convert everything to Courier 10-point font whether you want it to or not, and will lose any special features like italics and underlining. (You'll see this only after you close the file and open it again.) Emphasized text can still be indicated, however, by typing an underscore (_) immediately before and after any text (letter, word, phrase, whatever) that should've been italicized or underlined. By the way, it never hurts to e-mail the submission to yourself first, to check out the formatting, before e-mailing it to the publication.

12. Write your story title on the inside flap of your SASE. Most short-story submissions are now made electronically, thank goodness--but some markets still require snailmailed submissions. And if you wind up doing something called multiple submissions (subbing another story or two to them before you've heard back from the first), there's something you should know. If they reject one of your submissions and the rejection letter doesn't say which story was rejected (believe me, that happens), then you have a problem. Solution: When you submit a story, lightly hand-print the title of the story in pencil on the inside flap of its accompanying SASE. Then, if you receive a rejection letter, you can look inside the SASE flap and see which story got the axe--and submit it elsewhere.

Those are just a few timesavers and stress-relievers that come to mind--I'm sure I'll think of more as soon as this column is posted. And, again, I realize that a lot of this is preaching to the choir.

Please let me know of any other handy tricks-of-the-trade you might've discovered. I would especially like to find out how to determine, beforehand, whether whatever story I'm submitting will be accepted or rejected.

Dream on, right?



12 June 2015

The Third Deadly Sin


by R.T. Lawton

For twenty years, Giuseppe Nicoli Civella had ruled his Kansas City fiefdom with a firm and steady hand. Even the local FBI considered him to be a cunning, capable leader and a competent crime boss, but his mafia family was about to open a treasure chest of wealth only to find it would give free rein to the monster of greed within their organization. That lure of power and easy money soon put the Civella crime family on a downhill slide.

The main war zone opened up in the River Quay area as contestants to this conflict lined up into two main groups: the old guys (Made Men) versus the Young Turks (family associates not yet admitted to the inner circle). As the Made Men closest to Nick Civella saw it, they had the privilege of first rights on anything involving power and money, and they had no intention of letting anyone else in on the potential flow of money. From the Young Turks point of view, they thought they should be let in on the action, especially if it was a project they started, and the old guys should quit holding them down. In the end, it came down to two groups of dangerous men competing for two valuable prizes the old guys wanted only for themselves.

During the 1850's, the River Quay (originally known as Westport Landing) was where river boats landed merchandise for sale and exchange in the Kansas City area. By 1970, it consisted mostly of old warehouses no longer used for the river trade. However, city businessman Marion Trozzolo started visualizing this old section of town as a fine place for trendy restaurants, bars, boutiques and art galleries. In 1972, Fred Harvey Bonadonna, son of mobster David Bonadonna, acquired a lot from Trozzolo and set up a restaurant named Poor Freddie's. When mob boss Nick Civella came around for a visit, Freddie made the mistake of bragging about the restaurant's earnings. This story soon reached the ears of a couple of Civella's henchmen, Joe Cammisano and Paul "Paulie the Pig" Scola, who had previously thought the River Quay area was a waste of resources. But, now that Bonadonna was making big money, these two wanted in. Bonadonna opposed them.

At the same time, the Spero brothers, Mike, Nick, Joe and Carl (associates of the family), were seen as challengers to the old system. Nick Spero was thought to be trying to gain too much power in the local Teamsters Union where the Made Guys already had their own programs in play. The decision was made that Nick Spero had to go. In April 1973, Nick Spero was found in the trunk of his Cadillac convertible. He'd been shot twice with a .38. The three surviving Spero brothers blamed the killing on underlings of mafia boss Nick Civella and  his brother Corky (the underboss).

By October 1973, Paulie the Pig managed to get a foothold in the River Quay with his restaurant Delaware Daddy's in direct competition to Freddie's place. His pal, Joe Cammisano, tried to establish strippers and the trade that went with them. Bonadonna feared the area would become a red light district and continued his opposition. Cammisano became angry with this problem of access to the area. Finally, in 1975, Joe opened up Uncle Joe's Tavern. More bars followed and an x-rated movie theater opened its doors. The Cammisano brothers, Joe and William, also tried to take over the lucrative parking lots owned by the Bonadonna's in the River Quay district.

Eventually, Nick Civella sent William "Willie the Rat" Cammisano (a future KC godfather) to tax Poor Freddie's and attempt a full takeover. On July 22, 1976, David Bonadonna (father to Freddie and part owner of the restaurant) was found in the trunk of his Cadillac which was parked on a Kansas City street. Freddie fingered Willie the Rat as the killer and later testified in federal court against him and the local mafia. After Johnny Broccato turned up in the trunk of his car, it was starting to look like the killer had a fetish for Cadillac trunks.

The war continued. Come May 16, 1978, the three surviving Spero brothers were in the Virginian Tavern on Admiral Street in the River Quay district. Mike and Joe were sitting in a booth and Carl was up to the bar, when three masked men with weapons walked in. Bullets flew. Mike was killed and Joe was wounded. Carl exited via a rear door, but got shot-gunned in the back and ended up paralyzed and in a wheelchair. In a subsequent letter to authorities, Joe identified the shooters as three of Civella's henchmen. Not taking the shootings too well, Joe crafted a home-made bomb that October and placed it under the car of one of the henchmen. Unfortunately for Joe, the FBI interfered, retrieved the bomb and got Joe a prison sentence. There's no indication that the saved henchman ever thanked the FBI for their diligent services in preventing this violent crime.

Towards the end, you had to admit that Civella's group had a flair for irony. In June 1980, a  bomb, later alleged to be a booby-trap, exploded in a storage shed while Joe Spero was inside. The blast put him out through the shed wall and into eternity. Four and a half years later, as brother Carl was entering his cousin's car lot, a nail bomb went off. It wiped out Carl and his wheelchair. That wrapped up any future opposition from the Spero brothers. By this time,mob boss Nick Civella had already passed on from natural causes, so this last action was merely unfinished business. It was left to Corky Civella, as the new boss, to oversee the declining fortunes of the Civella crime family. Seemed the feds had lots of indictments waiting for several family members, to include those going down for the casino skimming charges in Las Vegas.

As for the River Quay area, bombings of several taverns and businesses, plus the shootings and intra-family strife turned the district into a desolate area for the public to avoid. The wealth was gone for now and there were few players left standing.

11 June 2015

Is Cincinnati Reenacting The Wire?


By Jim Winter

Police and politics have been in the news here in Cincinnati in recent weeks. We've been spared the latest round of shootings followed by riots that seems to have overtaken other cities. (Twice in the case of Cleveland, just four hours north of here.) But other problems have arisen.

Our police chief is a man named Jeffery Blackwell, who came to the Queen City from Columbus. Blackwell was named near the end of the previous mayor's term. Three weeks ago, it became news that the Chief would resign after two years on the job, then changed his mind. Despite denials from Blackwell, Mayor John Cranley, and other officials, stories of discord between city hall and the police department are rampant. Then this week, in the wake of a rash of shootings in the Avondale neighborhood, the city demanded Blackwell come up with a 90-day plan to reduce violence. I've seen this before.

It was a recurring theme on The Wire.

To recap, David Simon's Baltimore had a police department hamstrung by senior officers jockeying for position to become the next commissioner. Division captains and lieutenants found themselves terrorized by promotion-minded assistant chiefs at "comstat" meetings, where they had to explain why the crime rate was so high and what they planned to do about it. Never mind that the criminals causing all the trouble had to cooperate. Many of the plans and the personnel moves were tied to politics. Watching the news, I can't help but notice that so are the real-life moves in Cincinnati.

For starters, the increased crime in Avondale, while horrifying, belies a crime rate lower than in past years. There have been increased shootings on the West Side as well, but they make the news as individual incidents, not as a sudden spike in gun crime in one part of the city. But Avondale is two neighborhoods away from downtown and Over-the-Rhine, far enough out to spare the business district and the gentrifying neighborhood to the north of it, but close enough to the stadium to spook city leaders. Why are they spooked?

The All Star Game is coming in a couple of weeks. And so, with the local stations harping on Avondale's rise in shootings, city leaders have turned to that time-tested means of looking like they're on the job: Tell the police to do something, dammit. So Chief Blackwell was given a week to solve a problem that has been building since last year.

Sound like The Wire?

Then we have the hostility between city hall and the CPD. Chief Blackwell replaced James Craig, who left to take over the police department in his native Detroit. However, Blackwell started shortly before the last mayoral election, which means Mayor Cranley did not have a hand in choosing the chief. The current city manager also did not have a hand in the decision. One has to wonder if the administration's need to put its stamp on the police department is outweighing the need for stable leadership in the CPD.

That is speculation, of course, but every time Chief Blackwell, Mayor Cranley, or some council member opens their mouth now, I can't help but think back to Mayors Royce and Carcetti ripping some hapless commissioner a new one on The Wire. Cincinnati does not have all of Baltimore 's problems. If anything, we manage our police-race relation issues better than cities that looked at us funny during the 2001 riots. But when politicians fall all over themselves on the eve of a major sporting event, I can't help but wonder if life is imitating art. It wouldn't surprise me. Some of the cops and criminals depicted on The Wire were also writers and actors on the show.

10 June 2015

Heavy Breathing


David Edgerley Gates

Warning: NSFW

About a third of the way into writing VIPER, my Cold War novella - which is about the antiwar movement in Berlin in the 1970's, a KGB deception, and a love affair, among other things - I realized I had to do a SEX SCENE. I'd boxed myself in, there was no way around it. It couldn't happen off-stage, you had to see these people doing the horizontal mambo. Otherwise, the story wouldn't make any sense.

Now, let's face it, this can be a deeply embarrassing prospect. How many writers do you know who've done it convincingly? With the possible exception of D.H. Lawrence, my own feeling is that women are better at erotic material than men. Harold Robbins? Gimme a break. Or maybe Norman Mailer, THE TIME OF HER TIME? You might as well just call a plumber, since it's all about leaky pipes.

Twist Phelan has what amounts almost to a comedy routine, talking about writing sex. She says, you avoid at all costs an overwrought euphemism, 'the scepter of love,' for instance. On the other hand, you should steer clear of clinical description - you don't actually have to use the word 'cock.' If you manhandle, so to speak, a turn of phrase like, 'she took me in her lips,' the astute reader can probably imagine she's not hanging onto a subway strap. Less, at least in this situation, is probably more.

I like the way Deb Coonts deals this particular card, and she deals it from the bottom of the deck. Near the end of LUCKY CATCH, there's a really hot scene. First of all, she sneaks it up on you. You're not ready for it at all. You're going, like whoa! Secondly, she doesn't cheat your expectations. She goes all the way. And last but not least, she defuses it afterwards with a laugh line. Who'd expect you could make sex funny? Then again, why is it always taken so seriously, or in books, anyway? C'mon. We're supposed to be enjoying it.

Craig Johnson tells a story. Somewhere around the third Longmire book, he puts two major characters in bed together. Of course, this has consequences, but the point is that Craig gets them in and out of the sack in maybe three sentences. ("Which shows you how much of a pussy I am," he says.) Down the road, he's at a reading, and he's taking questions, and a woman raises her hand, and says, we need to talk about that sex scene. Craig says okay. She says, it went on forever

Craig gives this a long beat, and then he asks her, well, how many times did you read it?

Which brings us back to VIPER. The novella is 17K words. The sex scene takes up two pages, so I lapped Craig. Then again, those two pages took me something like three or four days to write. I was sweating bullets. It was as though I'd set myself a hurdle. Writers do this, of course. You sometimes trick yourself, and set something up, and then you have to do it. (For example, the dive sequence in "Cover of Darkness." That's basically the whole story, and because you're underwater, there's no dialogue. It's all physical action, it's nothing but description. Try it some time - you'd be surprised how hard it is.) Anyway, by the time I got done, I was completely exhausted. I'd been having sex for four days. But the end result works. It's not a complete embarrassment. How many times did I read it aloud to myself? It seemed to go on forever

Here's the thing, though. The real point of the scene is that these two people are invested in each other. If it doesn't have emotional resonance, it's just plumbing. And that was the tricky part. The grappling, the earthiness, showing skin, all of that is to no purpose, if you're just waving it around in a warm room. The money shot was making their physical hunger count for something. Martina tells herself afterward, I surrendered, this was rescue. And if I haven't convinced you of that, it's a dry hump.

What it comes down to is purpose. Why do you need it in the story? Anybody in their right mind would turn and run. Unless you're into whips and chains. Let's be honest. Doing it is terrific. It's consuming, It lights you on fire. But trying to convey that sensation is like pushing water uphill with a rake. In this case, it was utterly necessary. Do you have to ask, would I do it again? Bring on the whips and chains. I'm putty in your hands.



09 June 2015

Building the Brand


by Janice Law 

I went to a mystery writers’ convention this past weekend. A nice event, well run, full of mystery fans and valiant souls willing to present their heart’s blood – i.e. manuscripts and query letters – to the scrutiny of big city agents and editors. Everyone was pleasant, but, sad to say, the event marked a passage in my life. Sitting listening to people busy with Instagram, Smashwords, Kindle, and Pinterest, all in the interests of building their brand, I felt myself slipping from being a woman of a certain age to a certified old fart.

There is no doubt over the years I’ve been a writer that the publishing business has changed for better and for worse simultaneously. Feeling grumpy, I wondered when some of these so very with-it literary entrepreneurs actually have time to write – or as much to the point, think of something new.

But then I considered that branding and self-promotion have always been part of the literary game, at least for some writers. Certain of our predecessors would have been naturals for Twitter. Think of Papa Hemingway at the Seville bull ring with iPhone in hand. He was made for the tech.

And consider the Fitzgerald’s, the gayest of the gay celebs of the roaring twenties. Selfies, anyone? If F. Scott would maybe have reservations (he wanted to keep everything for his readers, including Zelda’s diaries), I think she would have enjoyed snapping those bathtubs full of gin and folks kicking up their heels doing the Charleston.

Across the water, we have Colette and wouldn’t she have enjoyed posting her cats’ pix on Pinterest? Not to mention a shot or two of the lover of the moment. George Sand, one of the great galley slaves of nineteenth century prose, would surely have had enough energy for blogging, as would that master of the serial novel, Charles Dickens, who reveled in responses from his many fans.

Earlier times had their own blatant forms of self-promotion. Whitman wrote positive reviews of Leaves of Grass when sufficient praise wasn’t forthcoming, and the eighteenth century Scot, James Boswell, was also known to ghost a glowing review when his prose required one.

Boswell, indeed, should probably be enshrined for his extraordinary literary selfies: the wonderful early London Journal and his monumental biography of Dr. Samuel Johnston. But though tolerant of his assiduous biographer, the creator of the English dictionary would not, I think, have indulged in blogging or tweeting, declaring famously that “none but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
Shakespeare, the greatest poet of all, might have had a different tack. Although raised to literary divinity in the centuries since he strode the boards and scribbled up the greatest plays in our language, Shakespeare was very much the entrepreneur and hard-headed businessman. If a blog would bring more patrons to the Globe, I suspect he would have churned out the copy and posted it everywhere.

But do these brand-conscious eminences reconcile me to the new world of catering to reader curiosity and sharing my inner thoughts with my Facebook “friends”? Not really. I must confess I prefer to think of those whose “brand,” if we have to use the term, grew naturally. I find it hard to imagine what the withdrawn and eccentric Emily Bronte would have tweeted. Walked on the moor with Keeper? (her mastiff)? Storm brewing over the hills? Great idea for an irresistible anti-hero? Not very likely.

Jane Austen, though a sociable person, devoted to family and friends, would be even less likely to share her thoughts with the world or to update strangers with accounts of local whist parties, carriage rides, and balls. Ladies simply did not wish to be known in such a way, although the Divine Jane was as fond of literary advances and royalty payments as any other writer.

And what about our own American recluse, Emily Dickinson? Though her short poems are certainly tweet length, and she claimed that they were “her letter to the world,” I don’t think we could expect any great revelations from the Belle of Amherst, who also wrote that “my wars are laid away in books.” Passion, regrets, losses, sorrows, angers she had in plenty, and tweet-able phrases, too, but she did not spend her emotions so easily or carelessly. Rather she distilled them into the poems that still perplex and fascinate today.

So although money is good and a recognizable brand can be profitable, I’m not convinced that the assiduous tending of an image is a wholly good thing. It is all too easy to be type-cast in this world, and I suspect that it is also easy to diffuse one’s ideas and energy into catering to fans and indulging in a writerly form of busyness instead of focusing on the hard work of writing.

08 June 2015

What Goes On In Your Town?


 by Jan Grape

Product Details1960s AUSTIN GANGSTERS Organized Crime That Rocked the Capital by Jesse Sublett. The History Press 2015

I may have mentioned this book before, not sure, but I just finished it this week and am still intrigued. Mainly, I guess because I was in and around Austin, TX during the 1960s. No, I didn't moved to Austin until the last 60s and then only for about 16 months. I moved here for twelve years beginning in 1987. My Dad and Bonus Mom moved to Austin in 1957. They both worked at the State Offices of the State Employment Commission (now known as Texas Workforce Commission.) And because my family lived in Austin, I visited often. I'm sure I knew like most people that Austin had a certain criminal element, but Organized Crime?

Mr. Sublett's true crime book is outstanding for the history buff and for the crime writing gang. Okay, the Austin mobs weren't exactly like the old Italian mobs I've read about in crime stories and saw in movies like The Godfather. But the elements of crime were organized even if it could be considered a rather loose organization. Mr. Sublett says it was called a White Trash mafia.

Two high school football players, Tim Overton of Austin TX had every thing a young footballer could ever hope or dream for and yet threw it all away for a life of crime. Tim Overton a youngster from the wrong side of town whose mother died from a brain tumor when he was a senior in high School was a big offensive guard and Mike Cotton,a running back. from the more affluent side of town both received athletic scholarships from the new head coach Darrel Royal. Mike Cotton stayed out of the crime business, but Tim was drawn deeper and deeper into that world.

Tim Overton didn't just go nuts after his mother died, although some people thought he was really never the same. He did go on to college and was making decent grades that first year. After his first problems with the police, Coach Royal helped Tim and gave him more than one opportunity. Overton idolized Coach Royal and felt the coach turned his back on him. Probably harder on the coach than Tim Overton ever realized.

Before long, Tim and his associates or crew were driving Cadillacs, wearing diamond pinkie rings and running roughshod over prostitutes, pimps, banks and small businesses. Tim was involved with crooked lawyers, pimps and used car dealers. Smuggling and prostitution rings were high on the White Trash Mafia's plans and crimes. Murder often came into play and trying to outsmart the police was a big order of the day.



 Mr. Sublett has done fantastic research, with court transcripts, police files, Austin History Center files, talking to people who were around then and knew the players. He was able to also come up with photos of the players, their families, their victims and suddenly you realize while you're reading that you are totally involved with this story. Not to romanticize these criminals, but to be interested in the history of a town you've been in and around for over fifty year and a history you actually weren't aware of and in a way surprised about it.

If you have a chance and are interested in the history a small time frame of the capitol of Texas, I strongly advise you to pick up a copy of 1960s Austin Gangsters by Jesse Sublett.

A little personal note: Here's a photo of the beautiful Sage Award that was presented to me on May 17th from the Barbara Burnett Smith Aspiring Writers Foundation. It's  lucite and has a silver colored star on top and is engraved. My picture wasn't  the best but I think you can get a sense of it.

07 June 2015

Dread Pirate Roberts


by Leigh Lundin

Day in history, 1 October 2013: A half-cocked Texas Tea Party senator shut down the federal government for seventeen days. The resulting outcry in Washington, panic on Wall Street, and consternation in world markets eclipsed another important news story. Outside of crime and tech circles, the public barely took notice of the seizure of Silk Road, the largest, most far-reaching criminal enterprise in the world, and the arrest of its young founder, Ross Ulbricht, aka, Dread Pirate Roberts.

A few days ago, a judge sentenced Ulbricht to two life terms.

Joshuah Bearman and Tomer Hanuka of Wired Magazine have created a fascinating and comprehensive article. I recommend checking their story, part 1 and part 2. Their article reads like a crime novella… and a Greek tragedy.

Recap

The hallmark of a Greek tragedy is hubris, encapsulated in mythology because of human (and human-like) failing. The putative Greek hero ascends, attaining glory and fame, only to be brought low by his (or her) own weaknesses and arrogance.

Such happened to Ross Ulbricht, an entrepreneur, ardent libertarian, former Eagle Scout and non-violent idealist… until the day he wasn’t. He began what he called a libertarian experiment, an on-line drug bazaar, a better eBay than eBay. He named the enterprise Silk Road after the ancient Asian trade routes.

Silk Road didn’t sell only drugs, they sold collectibles, electronics, and other goods much like Craig’s List. The web site also featured Silk Road chat, Silk Road forums, Silk Road wiki, Silk Road exchange, Silk Road credit union, Silk Road market, Silk Road bookstore, and Silk Road libertarian musings by its founder.

Ulbricht promoted trust, partly through anonymity, and partly through BitCoin exchange, but also through efforts to see customers were treated right. He devised an on-line escrow (which eBay should have done years ago), provided reviews and customer support. Ulbricht is noted for writing in his journal “This is more than a business to me. It’s a revolution and is becoming my life’s work.”

Security and anonymity were provided by software originally created by the US Navy. TOR, an acronym for The Onion Router, offered encryption for web sites behind the curtain that hides both legal and illegal activities, as seen in this video Inside the Dark Web or the recent movie, The Deep Web.

Ulbricht used a clever pseudonym as suggested by his mentor, Variety Jones. That alias was Dread Pirate Roberts, from the novel and subsequent film, The Princess Bride. In the story, Dread Pirate Roberts isn’t merely one person but, like Lee Falk’s The Phantom, a series of leaders who hand off the reins and the DPR name to a chosen successor when they become rich enough to retire. In conjunction with Silk Road, the sobriquet obscured who DPR was. Indeed many people believed Roberts was multiple people.

Operation Onion Peeler

The FBI geeks who went after the leader of Silk Road faced an intriguing challenge from a guy who made few mistakes… but a couple of errors was all it took. The digital police didn’t use a battering ram to get their man, they used finesse– or, as one described it, a form of ballet.

There’s little question Ulbricht ran Silk Road nor doubt he deserved a prison sentence for his misdeeds. But two life terms? The judge succumbed to pleas from the prosecutor to “send a message.”

Not all of us are fans of judicial messaging and over-sentencing, but a few other issues need to be considered. One is conspiracy and intent to commit the murder of at least one person and possibly five others who had stolen from the enterprise. That certainly shatters the image of the gentle idealist who wanted freedom for everyone.

However, the murder charge is murky. A Silk Road employee named Curtis Green had supposedly stolen $350,000. Ulbricht lamented how to handle it, writing that he didn’t want to use violence if Green would simply return the money. But Variety Jones, his mentor, urged Ulbricht to kill Green and referred to Green as the ‘organ donor’.

But the plot sickens. It turns out the money was actually stolen by Secret Service agent Shaun Bridges and facilitated by DEA agent Carl Force, who are being charged with the theft as well as other crimes, including laundering another half million dollars in BitCoins.

In other words, two federal agents stole funds using Green’s account, implicating him in the eyes of Ulbricht and moving him to homicide. One wonders if this constitutes entrapment, tipping Ulbricht over the edge of using violence to protect his interests. The only good part was that Green was in custody and not in imminent danger.

Ulbricht’s attorney is appealing the verdict.

06 June 2015

Proper Care and Feeding of Authors – in which our writer tries to be serious for a few minutes…


by Melodie Campbell

Here’s part one of the series (reprinted with permission):

What NOT to ask an author… (especially a Crime Writer who knows at least twenty ways to kill you and not get caught)

There is nothing I love better than meeting readers, both those who already know my writing, and those who are new to my books. But recently, I was asked to talk about those things that are touchy for an author.  So here goes…a short list of No-Nos!

1.  Do not ask an author how many books she has sold.

Trust me, don’t ask this.
Really, you don’t want to.  It wouldn’t help you anyway.
Because honestly, I’ll lie.

I’m amazed that complete strangers regularly ask this.  Would you ask a lawyer how much money he makes?

Because here’s the bottom line: most of us with traditional publishers make about a buck for every book sold, whether paperback, trade paperback or ebook.  Sometimes, it’s less than that.  (Yes, we were shocked too, when we found out.)  So by asking how many books we’ve sold, you can pretty well figure out our income.  And frankly, I don’t want you to.  You see, I write comedies, and it would depress both of us.

Also:  our royalty statements are at least six months behind (at least mine are.)  We don’t KNOW how many books we’ve sold to date on new releases.  Which is probably a good thing for our egos, if we want to keep writing.

Dare I say it?  The supreme irony is: the only ones likely to make a living in the writing biz are those on the business end.  The agents, and those editors and others employed by publishers, booksellers and libraries.  Sadly, you can't expect to make a living in the arts if you are a creator.

2.  Do not ask an author to read your manuscript and critique it for free.

So many times, I’ve been asked to do this, in a public place, with people overhearing.  Sometimes, by people who don’t even have the decency to buy a single book of mine first. 

Why this is bad:

First: I am in a place that has been booked for me to sell my books and meet with readers. That’s what I’m there for.  You are taking precious time away from me and my readers.  Believe me, my publisher won’t be happy about this.  Ditto, the bookseller!

Second: Every hour I spend critiquing an aspiring author’s book is an hour I can’t spend working on my own books and marketing them.  Like most novelists, I have a day job.  That means every hour I have to work on my fiction is precious.  Most of us do critique – for a fee.  And many of us teach fiction writing at colleges. 

I’m happy to critique my college students’ work.  I’m getting paid (mind you, meagerly) to do so.  And that’s what I always recommend:  take a college course in writing.  You’ll get great info on how to become a better writer, and also valuable critiquing of your own work.

3.  Do not ask an author to introduce you to her publisher or agent.

Want to see me cringe?

Similar to number 2 above, this puts the author in a very awkward position.  You are in fact asking for an endorsement.  If the author hasn’t read your book, she cannot possibly give it (an honest endorsement.)

Second: You are asking the author to put HER reputation on the line for you.  Do you have the sort of close relationship that makes this worthwhile for her?

4.  Do not ask an author: where do you get your ideas?

Okay, be honest.  You thought I was going to lead with this one.
Actually, you can ask me this.  I’ll probably answer something fun and ridiculous, like:
From Ebay. 
Or: From my magic idea jar.
Or: They come to me on the toilet.  You should spend more time there.

Because the truth is, we don’t know exactly.  After teaching over 1000 fiction writing students at Sheridan College, I have discovered something: some students are bubbling over with ideas.  Others – the ones who won’t make it – have to struggle for plots.  It seems to be a gift and a curse, to have the sort of brain that constantly makes up things.

I’ve been doing it since I was four.  My parents called it lying.  That was so short-sighted of them.



Opening to THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE (Orca Books) winner of the 2014 Derringer (US) and Arthur Ellis (Canada)

    Okay, I admit it. I would rather be the proud possessor of a rare gemstone than a lakefront condo with parking. Yes, I know this makes me weird. Young women today are supposed to crave the security of owning their own home
     But I say this. Real estate, shmeel estate. You can’t hold an address in your hand. It doesn’t flash and sparkle with the intensity of a thousand night stars, or lure you away from the straight and narrow like a siren from some Greek odyssey.
     Let’s face it. Nobody has ever gone to jail for smuggling a one bedroom plus den out of the country.
     However, make that a 10-carat cyan blue topaz with a past as long as your arm, and I’d do almost anything to possess it.
    But don’t tell the police.
 
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05 June 2015

One Hero's "Masque" May Be Another's Costume


By Dixon Hill

As well as being a writer, I'm also a husband and dad.  I spent this past weekend (May 28th through
31st) at Phoenix ComiCon with my 12-year-old son, and gained some very interesting insight there.

My youngest son, Quentin, likes to practice Cosplay.  Cosplay is a compound word created by the combination of Costume and Play (or player), and hence denotes a person who is play-acting that s/he is the character (sci/fi or anime usually) s/he is dressed as.

Cosplayers may spend hundreds of dollars on their costumes, and work diligently to achieve detailed accuracy (similar to a Civil War reenactor I once knew).  And, at conventions such as this, the prizes for best costume can run into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Believe it or not, there are Professional Cosplayers who earn big bucks by dressing as characters from video games, television shows, or even movies.  They earn this money not only by winning cosplay contests, but also by doing work for sponsors.  I suppose this shouldn't have come as a big surprise to me; after all there's a guy who frequents the cigar store, who earns a six-figure annual income by portraying Sean Connery at business conventions or on the radio.  Pro Cosplayers earn money in a very similar manner.

I once posted here about an activity my youngest son, Quentin and I engaged in, last summer, called ICon ("eye-con"). At that convention, Quentin cosplayed (dressed and acted) as Edward Elric, the title character of the anime TV series The Full Metal Alchemist.

ICon was not a particularly giant convention, recalling (in my mind) the gaming conventions my older son, Joe, had attended when he was in middle school.  There, Joe and his buddies played Dungeons and Dragons or other board games for several days straight.

But, ICon lasted only one full day.

The Phoenix Comicon, however, lasted four days and was held at the Phoenix Convention Center (very close to where Left Coast Crime will be held in 2016). Last year, over 15,000 people attended Comicon, and this year the numbers were believed to be even larger.  Having been there, I believe it!

The Venues Included Writers! 
Storm Troopers posed for free with folks.
Phoenix Comicon had multiple venues within the convention center, but the admission "membership" bought access to all of these venues for the given day(s) of the membership.

Quen being tossed into
Batman's Arkham Asylum
Venues included two film festivals, one of which permitted members to submit films in advance, in hopes of winning honors.  There were also extensive panels and classes on writing, headed-up by successful Sci-Fi, Fantasy or Romance writers, and myriad author signings, as well as classes on screenplay writing, comic book writing and even something detailing how to become a professional still camera photographer for Hollywood movies.

Writers and pros had booths in the underground area, where steampunk and cosplay items competed for sale against Star Trek, Star Wars and other Sci-Fi and Fantasy memorabilia.

There were also movie and TV stars galore, available for autographs (about $40 to $60 each, additional cost) or to pose in photos with you (that would set a person back a hundred or two hundred bucks each),  The local Dr.Who society was on the top floor (by the stars) with their Tardis, two life-sized Daleks (one of which moved and had a suspicious-looking "Sidekick" badge taped to the front!), and a remote-control K-9.  On this floor also, one could find the Delorean from Back to the
Q sits with "Greedo" on Star Wars "set"
Future
(photo prices supposedly donated to charity -- photos with the actor who played "Doc" in the film were even more expensive), several Star Wars "sets" created by local and distant Star Wars fan clubs, and even the Zombie Defense League and a local Pirate group.

Cosplay filled a lot of con space also, with classes and panels that ranged from how to buy and style wigs, how to sew costumes or make realistic-looking armor that wouldn't weight you down, to panels of professional cosplayers giving tips on the contests and how to make money at cosplaying.

Membership is NOT Cheap

An adult membership for all four days cost about $97.00 (a significant savings!), while a "sidekick" ticket for a kid 12-or-under cost $10.75 for the full four days.

Lunch for 2 = $45.00 LOL
By the time I finished work on Thursday, and we got downtown to the convention center, all of the full-time adult memberships were sold out.  I still managed to get a "Sidekick" membership for Quen -- though he initially didn't like it, feeling embarrassed I believe -- so he was set for all four days, as long as he was accompanied by a paid adult.

By the time it was all said and done, I purchased two adult memberships for Thursday ($30 each) so Q wouldn't have to wear his embarrassing Sidekick badge, two adult memberships for Friday (about $47 each) so my wife could go with him in the morning while I was at work, and my older son's girlfriend could join her until I relieved my wife, three adult memberships for Saturday ($57 each) so my older son, Joe, could attend with his girlfriend and myself, while Q used his Sidekick badge (and the older kids could go to the Steampunk ball or some other adult venue that night), and an adult membership for Sunday ($35) so I could go with Quen on my day off.

COSPLAY  (Hmmm.......)
A Family of Dr. Who's . . . Plus a Cyberman son ....
Talk about dysfunctional teen years! LOL


The main catalyst for our going, of course was that Quen wanted to participate in a Cosplay Contest. The problem was: Though we downloaded Comicon info from their website to our cell phones, months in advance, and that info kept updating over time, we NEVER saw anything labeled: "Cosplay Contest."

Instead, there was a "Cosplay Fasion Show" on Thursday morning, and a "Prejudging for Masquerade" at 4:00 pm on Saturday, and a "Masquerade" at a local Hotel, where the steampunk venues were being held, at 9:00 pm Saturday night.

Was the Cosplay Fashion Show a contest?  Evidently not.  Was "Masquerade" the contest, or was this a codeword for something dealing with steampunk?  We didn't know.  Nor could we find out ahead of time.

At one point, we ran into the evil "boss" from Kingdom Hearts.
You can't see it, but there is a crowd
jumping up and down and screaming behind me.
Quentin planned to dress as Sora, from Kingdom Hearts, a video game in which a young anime boy battles evil creatures with the help of Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Pluto -- though this game is not for toddlers imho.

To that end, for over a month, Quentin worked with my wife as she diligently followed his instructions, as well as online pics, to sew a Sora costume for him.  We bought a pair of too-large shoes at Goodwill, then he and I turned them into Sora's shoes using paint, tape and paper mache.  He and I constructed a "KeyBlade": Sora's primary weapon, using PVC pipe, cardboard, Styrofoam, paint, a small chain, etc.  My wife even styled his hair to match Sora's.

Thursday afternoon, Q and I entered the convention, neither of us in any costume.  Our plan was to orient ourselves to the premises, attend a few panels on cosplay or some other things, and form a strategy for the weekend.  Unfortunately, the maps in the program, cross-indexed with the buildings we were in, didn't make sense to me.  In fact, I'm embarrassed to admit that I -- an ex-SF Sergeant, known for finding my way for miles across empty and inhospitable terrain using only a map and compass -- never did quite manage to orient myself inside those buildings until the end our last day there.

It was not a stationary battle.  Q is waving his keyblade
as the "boss" waves his arms in attack.
I was able to navigate us to several panels . . . only to discover that Quen didn't want to attend most of them.  "I don't want to go to this.  It's like a class in school.  I just got out of school for the summer; I don't want to go to school for fun!"

I didn't blame him.  And, since he was the reason we were there, we did what he wanted to do -- while I scratched my head a lot and tried to figure out where we were on the myriad of seemingly unrelated maps inside my program.

By Thursday night, at last, I figured a few things out.  So, on Friday morning, my wife, Madeleine, and our son's girlfriend, Suzanne, knew where they had to take Q for the fashion show, while I was at work.  My daughter, Raven, wound up there to cheer him on, too.

Suzanne fixes Q's "Sora" hairstyle.
Q got a chance, there, to strut his stuff in his Sora costume, up on a stage in a huge hotel ballroom, in
front of hot lights and hundreds of people -- which I have no doubt was a good experience for him.  He encountered stage fright, but dealt with it on his own --HUWAH!!  I got there too late to see the show, but heard all about it from the kids.  My wife went back to work, while Suzanne, Raven and I took Q back into the con.  The younger folks decided to wander around together for awhile.

One panel I attended alone was called, "How to be the parent of a Comicon Nerd."  Quen had protested his attendance, saying the adults on the panel would make jokes about kids in cosplay.

He couldn't have been more wrong!

From the Mouths of Babes 

This panel was made up of a half-dozen kids ranging in age from about 14 to 17.  The theme of their panel was essentially: "What sort of Comicon Parent are you: Supportive, Disinterested, or Abhorrent?"  (Yes, they actually used the word "abhorrent." LOL)

First, each speaker explained a different facet of what a parent's comicon kid might be "into" and why it was usually "really nothing to be worried about."  They covered comic books, films, TV series, online comic books (webcomics, such as Homestuck), cosplay and other things.

They stressed the idea that "forbidding" a kid to play a game or watch a show wouldn't keep that kid from playing the game or watching the show at a friend's house.  Instead, they stressed open communication as the best way to address parental concerns.  Finally, each kid on the panel told us what her parents were like (supportive, disinterested, or abhorrent) so that we could compare ourselves to them, and adjust our actions if need be.

I was deeply moved when the girl with two supposedly "abhorrent" parents, wiped her eyes as she told us about her dad making fun of her cosplay outfit, and of how her mother refused to drive her to the con, making her take the bus, because "...that stuff is Devil worship -- you can burn in Hell alone!"  (Maybe her parents weren't really that bad, but her perception was that they were.  And, the really heart-rending part, was that I could hear how much she loved her parents and wanted to connect with them.)

Some feel EMPOWERED by cosplay.
The really eye-opening part of this program, however, was that I saw the impact of cosplay on some of these kids' lives.  Several of the panel members were dressed in cosplay outfits, which surprised me at first. Later, however, a couple specifically said words to the effect of, "I'm pretty shy, and I don't ever speak up at school or anything.  But, when I wear this cosplay, I can cosplay that I'm this strong character.  While I'm dressed like (this character), I act like (this character) and that's what gives me the ability to speak to you in front of this room, like this.  I could never do that, if I was just me."

It wasn't just what they said, either.  I could see it in their mannerism; their conviction was clearly evident, as was the importance of what they were doing, and why they wanted to speak to parents about their concerns.  Frankly, I wished that more than five or six parents had come to the panel. I also made sure to ask questions when it came time for Q & A: I wanted the kids to know I valued what they were doing.

And, I got to see one mother obtain relief when she asked, "Please tell me, what the heck is this Homestuck?  Why is my eleven-year-old daughter going to school with gray paint on her face and hands, and orange horns on her head!?!"

All the girls on the panel, along with a few kids sitting in the audience, screamed with joy, then laughed and sighed and comforted her, assuring her that it was alright, that they had all been into Homestuck and painted themselves gray at eleven and twelve.  At one point, one girl held up her arms and said, "See?  No more gray paint on my face or arms.  I outgrew it and she will too.  It's okay.  It won't hurt her.  Your daughter is fine and happy." Then, they gave the mom tips, such as: "The important thing is to keep her from getting in trouble at school, by getting paint on the walls if it rubs off her hands.  The way you do this is to seal with ...(I don't remember: something about baby powder and stuff -- but the mom took notes!)

I Realized:
Entrance to Cosplay Lounge.
Sign for Diversity Lounge in background.

Cosplay empowers people like this -- people who, for one reason or another, feel outcast or sidelined by life.  And, as these kids spoke, though they never addressed the issue, I finally began to understand why gender-bending is an important part of cosplay to many people; so much so that the "Diversity Lounge" was located next to the "Cosplay Lounge" at the con.

I also realized why taking photographs inside the Cosplay Lounge was so carefully forbidden -- because cosplayers take off their costumes in there; they are naked and themselves; they have lain their defensive bulwarks to one side and are vulnerable until they gird themselves, once more, in the armor of their character.

As the kids also pointed out: People (adults and children, both) engage in cosplay or other comicon activities for hundreds of different personal reasons.  Not every cosplayer is looking for a strength or defense that eludes him or her in real life.  Many, like my son, Quentin, just enjoy playing the part of fictional characters -- something I do, every day, when I write.  And I can understand this; I always have.

But, thanks to those brave kids, I now understand more about the genre, and the factors that may be at play in other practitioners lives.

But What About the Cosplay Contest???

Door to PreJudging Room
No Entrance W/O Permission
It finally wound up that the "Masquerade" WAS the cosplay contest.  Q and I camped out, in the hallway outside the prejudging, for several hours, but he did not get in.  The condensed answer is that we didn't understand how to apply online.  We've learned a lot, however, and next year -- WE'LL  BE  READY!

The hallway outside, 2.5 hours later.
In fact, with the help of a friendly "Sailor Venus" cosplayer, we learned of two cosplay contests he can enter in the interim, here in The Valley, so that he can get some more practice in front of a large audience.

A particularly humorous encounter I witnessed at the con occurred during lunch one day.  Q and I were eating, out on a sort of bench under shade, and there was a male-female couple in their late twenties not far from us.  The woman dressed as a Harry Potter character insisted (for some reason, I wasn't sure) on giving her husband/boyfriend a hard time about wanting to watch World Wrestling Federation on TV at home.  When the guy finally griped, "What's wrong with wrestling?" she responded, "It's completely
FAKE!"  At which point, he looked at her and mumbled, "Right.  And like you go to Hogwarts!"

For the Hill family, though, Phoenix Comicon and the lead-up -- gathering info, making the costume -- all of it, was a family activity.  And, in the end, our family really enjoyed it.  So, chalk-up a win this time!

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon