04 July 2015

Epics of Miniature Proportions

by John M. Floyd

Like many of you, I've done different kinds of writing: fiction and nonfiction and subsets of each. A few years ago I even wrote several screenplays, one of which resulted in a movie that came very close to--within two weeks of--being filmed before suffering a sudden and painful death. I've not ventured into the writing side of the cinematic world since then, but that one experience (which was a lot of fun before it fizzled) taught me quite a bit about previously unfamiliar terms like pitches, treatments, scripts, loglines, and taglines.

To me, the most intriguing of these was taglines. Movie taglines are short phrases designed to sum up the premise or "mood" of the film and, very simply, to make you want to see it. It's advertising, like a blurb on a book cover, except that taglines are usually placed on the movie's poster or DVD box. Most are dramatic ("They call me Mister Tibbs"), some are appropriate ("A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), some are mysterious ("An offer you can't refuse"), some are witty ("When he pours, he reigns," from Cocktail), and a few are downright funny ("Escape or die frying," from Chicken Run).

What impresses me most about taglines is that they're a great example to those of us who try to "write tight." Space is at a premium here, maybe more than in any other kind of writing. There can be no rambling, no wasted words. Unlike the writing in this paragraph.

Okay. Puzzle time. I've loosely categorized the following 100 taglines into mystery/crime, adventure (including Westerns), comedy (including kids' movies), drama (including romances), and sci-fi/fantasy/horror--and I've listed 20 in each category, followed by their movies. Your mission, Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it, is to guess the name of the film after reading its tagline. I hope this setup strikes a compromise between mildly interesting and head-buttingly frustrating: the answers aren't sitting right there beside the clues, but you also won't have to wait until my next column to find them. And, as in every quiz like this one, some are easy and some aren't.

Here's the list. Go ahead . . . make my day.


1. They're young, they're in love . . . and they kill people.
2. The mob is tough, but it's nothing like show business.
3. You don't assign him to murder cases. You just turn him loose.
4. Check in. Relax. Take a shower.
5. On every street in every city, there's a nobody who dreams of being a somebody.
6. The true story of a real fake.
7. Handcuffed to the girl who double-crossed him.
8. A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere.
9. Never let her out of your sight. Never let your guard down. Never fall in love.
10. What we've got here is failure to communicate.
11. It's 4 a.m.--do you know where your car is?
12. If these two can learn to stand each other . . . the bad guys don't stand a chance.
13. A blind woman plays a deadly game of survival.
14. Shoot first. Sightsee later.
15. When he said I do, he never said what he did.
16. All it takes is a little confidence.
17. Miracles do happen.
18. Meet the only guy to change his identity more often than he changes his underwear.
19. Three decades of life in the mafia.
20. To enter the mind of a killer, she must challenge the mind of a madman.

1. Bonnie and Clyde
2. Get Shorty
3. Dirty Harry
4. Psycho
5. Taxi Driver
6. Catch Me If You Can
7. The 39 Steps
8. Fargo
9. The Bodyguard
10. Cool Hand Luke
11. Repo Man
12. Lethal Weapon
13. Wait Until Dark
14. In Bruges
15. True Lies
16. The Sting
17. The Green Mile
18. Fletch
19. Goodfellas
20. The Silence of the Lambs


1. An epic of miniature proportions.
2. For Harry and Lloyd, every day is a no-brainer.
3. Never give a saga an even break.
4. The longer you wait, the harder it gets.
5. Her life was in their hands. Now her toe is in the mail.
6. Relive the best seven years of your college education.
7. He's having the worst day of his life. Over and over.
8. Movie? What movie?
9. They'll never get caught. They're on a mission from God.
10. The snobs against the slobs.
11. For anyone who has ever wished upon a star.
12. There are 3.7 trillion fish in the ocean. They're looking for one.
13. Nice planet. We'll take it!
14. A tale of murder, lust, greed, revenge, and seafood.
15. Work sucks.
16. It's scrumdiddlyumptious.
17. One man's struggle to take it easy.
18. Nice guys finish last. Meet the winners.
19. Trust me.
20. Love is in the hair.

1. A Bug's Life
2. Dumb and Dumber
3. Blazing Saddles
4. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
5. The Big Lebowski
6. Animal House
7. Groundhog Day
8. Top Secret!
9. The Blues Brothers
10. Caddyshack
11. Pinocchio
12. Finding Nemo
13. Mars Attacks!
14. A Fish Called Wanda
15. Office Space
16. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
17. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
18. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
19. Liar, Liar
20. There's Something About Mary


1. This is the weekend they didn't play golf.
2. Collide with destiny.
3. Houston, we have a problem.
4. Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond.
5. The coast is toast.
6. Get ready for rush hour.
7. You'll believe a man can fly.
8. Hell, upside down.
9. Earth--it was fun while it lasted.
10. She gets kidnapped. He gets killed. But it all ends up okay.
11. Invisible. Silent. Stolen.
12. The first casualty of war is innocence.
13. An adventure 65 million years in the making.
14. He rules the roads.
15. The world will be watching.
16. The story of a man who was too proud to run.
17. For three men, the Civil War wasn't hell. It was practice.
18. Eight legs, two fangs, and at attitude.
19. The man with the hat is back. And this time he's bringing his dad.
20. Don't let go.

1. Deliverance
2. Titanic
3. Apollo 13
4. You Only Live Twice
5. Volcano
6. Speed
7. Superman
8. The Poseidon Adventure
9. Armageddon
10. The Princess Bride
11. The Hunt for Red October
12. Platoon
13. Jurassic Park
14. Mad Max
15. The Hunger Games
16. High Noon
17. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
18. Arachnophobia
19. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
20. Gravity


1. This is Benjamin. He's a little worried about his future.
2. She brought a small town to its feet and a huge corporation to its knees.
3. A man went looking for America, and couldn't find it anywhere.
4. You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.
5. A love caught in the fire of revolution.
6. The happiest sound in all the world.
7. A story about love at second sight.
8. You had me at hello.
9. Stop dreaming. Start living.
10. A major league love story in a minor league town.
11. The story of two people who got married, met, and then fell in love.
12. It will lift you up where you belong.
13. Catch it.
14. Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.
15. Five reasons to stay single.
16. What a glorious feeling.
17. Can two friends sleep together and still love each other in the morning?
18. Where were you in '62?
19. If he's crazy, what does that make you?
20. His whole life was a million-to-one shot.

1. The Graduate
2. Erin Brokovich
3. Easy Rider
4. The Social Network
5. Doctor Zhivago
6. The Sound of Music
7. While You Were Sleeping
8. Jerry Maguire
9. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
10. Bull Durham
11. Green Card
12. An Officer and a Gentleman
13. Saturday Night Fever
14. Forrest Gump
15. Four Weddings and a Funeral
16. Singin' in the Rain
17. When Harry Met Sally
18. American Graffiti
19. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
20. Rocky


1. Terror has no shape
2. He is afraid. He is alone. He is three million light-years from home.
3. Vampires. No interviews.
4. Whoever wins, we lose.
5. I see dead people.
6. Trapped in time. Surrounded by evil. Low on gas.
7. Pay to get in, pray to get out.
8. Today the pond. Tomorrow the world.
9. Man has met his match. Now it's his problem.
10. Before Sam was murdered, he told Molly he'd love and protect her forever.
11. He's the only kid ever to get in trouble before he was born.
12. They're here.
13. Same make. Same model. New mission.
14. The last man on Earth is not alone.
15. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
16. Man is the warmest place to hide.
17. Size does matter.
18. Don't get him wet, keep him out of bright light, and never feed him after midnight.
19. The night HE came home.
20. Who ya gonna call?

1. The Blob
2. E.T.--The Extraterrestrial
3. From Dusk Till Dawn
4. Alien vs. Predator
5. The Sixth Sense
6. Army of Darkness
7. The Funhouse
8. Frogs
9. Blade Runner
10. Ghost
11. Back to the Future
12. Poltergeist
13. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
14. I Am Legend
15. The Shining
16. The Thing
17. Godzilla
18. Gremlins
19. Halloween
20. Ghostbusters

You might've noticed that I didn't list many movies more than fifty years old or so. There's a reason for that. Unfortunately, most taglines for older films either didn't seem to tell you much, or were just plain silly.
- The greatest screen entertainment of all time. -- Gone With the Wind
- A mighty motion picture of action and adventure. -- Lawrence of Arabia
- Everybody's talking about it! It's terrific! -- Citizen Kane
- The greatest adventure a man ever lived . . . with a woman. -- The African Queen
- Teenage terror torn from today's headlines. -- Rebel Without a Cause
- Brawling their way to greatness on the screen. -- From Here to Eternity
- A story as EXPLOSIVE as his BLAZING automatic! -- The Maltese Falcon

Fortunately, that kind of nonsense improved a little, around the mid-sixties. My all-time favorite taglines are:
- Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free. -- The Shawshank Redemption
- Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water . . . -- Jaws 2
- In space, no one can hear you scream. -- Alien
That's good writing, even it it is in miniature.

For those of you who share my cinemania, I hope all this brought back some fond memories. If it didn't, though, I won't apologize.

A love of movies means never having to say you're sorry . . .

03 July 2015

Not Reading Can Be A Pain

By Dixon Hill

Toward the end of May, I seem to recall receiving a letter with the return address of the National Safety Council on it, complete with the circular seal you see here.

As I recall things: I thought it was another one of those "Watch your kids around water!" notices that get sent out, like confetti at a ticker-tape parade, around Phoenix during the summer.

I seem to further recall tearing the envelope in two, unopened, and tossing it in the garbage can. After all, I taught all three of my kids not only how to swim, but also "safe swim defense" techniques.  And, I figure I did a good job, having earned Swimming and Life Saving Merit Badges back in my youth, along with the BSA Mile Swim Award, and having served as a scout-swimmer in Special Forces during my army days.  I was also a Swimming Merit Badge councilor for the Boy Scouts for several years after I left the army.

So, hey, who needs to read a silly letter from the National Safety Council?  Right?

About two weeks ago, however, I got a tremendous surprise while driving to work.

A police car was pacing me in the left lane, its hood just a little ahead of mine.  (This isn't what surprise me; I've driven alongside police cars before.)  And, when the left lane gave out, I slowed so he could pull into the right lane ahead of me.  He slowed further, so I did too -- just before thinking about what my friend on the Scottsdale PD had told me about not waving to police officers, or acting too friendly, because this is the sort of behavior bad guys think will put cops off their scent.  Hence, in an officer's view, my behavior might be considered suspicious.

Consequently, when the squad car went through the next intersection on a yellow light, but I stopped (I was behind him by that time), I wasn't surprised to watch it turn into a parking lot up ahead, then nose back out toward the street as if waiting for me.  Sure enough, when I passed, he pulled out and followed me.

No problem.  I'm one of the good guys.  Nothing to worry about; I wasn't even speeding.

At the next light he hit his overhead lights and pulled me over.  I was a little surprised, but not terribly so: I know there are enough traffic regulations on the books that an officer can pull over just about anyone, at anytime, and with perfectly legitimate legal cause -- This is actually a useful law enforcement tool, and I don't resent it in the least.  I pulled over, turned down the radio, got my license, registration and proof of insurance out, and waited for him to walk up to my window.

After examining my documentation, the officer asked, "Mr. Hill, do you know why I pulled you over?"

I shook my head.  "No.  Actually I don't.  I don't think I was speeding.  Do I have a taillight out, or something?"

"Actually, sir, I pulled you over because, when I ran your plates, it came back that you have a suspended license."

I was shocked!  ME?  A suspended license?

"Really?  Why is my license suspended?  Are you sure you got the right guy?" I asked.  I didn't have to ask if he was kidding; his demeanor made it clear that he wasn't.

He nodded.  "Wait here, please."  He walked back to his car with my papers.

I sat there, puzzled, until he came back and asked me to step out of the car.  Why does he want me out of the car? I wondered.  Is he going to arrest me for some reason?  This was really getting bizarre.

Once on the sidewalk with the officer, I saw him clip my license to the front of his shirt.  I knew then, I was in trouble.  For the first time, I began to suspect this wasn't just a case of someone having made a mistake that we could iron out in the next ten or twenty minutes.  I asked, "Can you tell me why my license is suspended?  I mean, I had no idea."

He shook his head, and now it was his turn to look a bit surprised.  "No.  I can't.  It just says your license is suspended.  For some reason, it doesn't say why."

I surmised that he was talking about his on-board computer.  I realized he wasn't sure why it didn't tell him the reason for my license suspension, and that this bothered him.  I also began to notice how young he was, and that he didn't have any stripes on his uniform.

"Do you have any idea?" he asked.  "Did you get any traffic tickets lately?"

"No."  I shook my head.  "I got a ticket about six months ago.  First one in about ten years."  I laughed.  "I paid the fine and all, so I don't see how that could be the problem."

He looked troubled.  "Well, if you have anything in the car that you need, please get it out.  We're going to have to do an inventory, and I don't want have to go through all your things.  It might embarrass you.  You seem like a nice guy."

"You're going to inventory my car?"

He nodded, looking a bit sheepish.  "I'm afraid we have to.  I have to impound your vehicle for thirty days, because you're driving on a suspended license.  You seem like a nice guy, and you're really being good about this, but I don't have a choice."

My eyebrows rose through my hairline.  "You're impounding my car?  For thirty days?  Really?"

I couldn't help laughing.  I'd once been on an A-team in the field, when we got into a tight position, and then two of the guys started punching each other out due to frayed nerves.  I started laughing then, too -- so hard that the warring parties quit fighting and came over to demand what I was laughing at.  But, our captain, the Team Leader, beat them to the punch, asking what was so funny.  I told him, "Nothing's funny, Skipper.  It'll take miracle to get us out of this thing, and you either have to laugh about it, or you gotta cry.  And I sure as hell ain't gonna cry about it!"

I was laughing for the same reason this time, too.

"I'm really sorry to do this to you," the young officer reiterated.  "You seem like a really nice guy."

"It's okay, officer.  I've got a friend on the Scottsdale PD, and another who used to be on the Phoenix department.  I know you're just doing your job.  No hard feelings, believe me.  I'm just embarrassed, that's all."

He was kind enough to get a trash bag from his car, so I could put all the items from my car into it.  I appreciated this, as I had recently-cleaned work shirts lying on the back seat at the time.

The young officer suggested I go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to find out why my license had been suspended.  When my son dropped me off there, I found out that I had to take a Defensive Driving class because of  my earlier ticket.  "But, I paid the fine," I said.  "I thought I had to either pay the fine, or take the class."

The woman behind the counter said, "New program.  Now ya' gotta do both."


"Yep.  We mailed you a letter at the end of May.  It told you that you had to take the class, or we'd suspend your license."

"I never got any letter."

"Still gotta take the class, if you want your license reinstated."

"Okay."  So, I paid three bucks for her to print out the letter they'd sent me in May.

When I went to the Defensive Driving course three days later, I learned that there really is a new program in Arizona, requiring almost anyone who gets a ticket to go to a defensive driving class -- even if they pay the fine.  This program is still pretty new; it was evidently enacted after I got my ticket, but I somehow fall into the category of person who has to take such a class.

And, there is a bit of reasoning behind the program.  Seems that, of the five most dangerous cities for driving (i.e. greatest number of traffic fatalities per annum) in the United States, Phoenix ranks No. 1, Mesa ranks No. 3, and Tucson ranks No. 5.  This program was enacted to help stem the tide of death on city streets in Arizona.  Now, the state alerts the MVD about offenders who pay the fine, but don't take a course.  The MVD then sends out a letter, saying that the offender must take a course as well, or risk suspension of his/her license.

And the kicker is:  The DMV sends these letters out, not in envelopes with official seals from the state, but (You guessed it!) in envelopes with the return address and circled green cross of the National Safety Council, because this is considered a safety measure.

Reporting from the rather humorous front lines of the legal system: this is Dixon Hill.

See you in two weeks!

02 July 2015

What We Do for Love...

by Eve Fisher

Here are a few tips regarding those who wish to remain among the unincarcerated:

(1) Don't pick up work-release prisoners and give them a ride anywhere but directly to the pen.
(2) Don't pick up work-release prisoners and take them over to your house for a cup of coffee, much less a six-pack of beer.
(3) Don't pick up work-release prisoners and take them over to your house for sex.
(4) Don't have sex with inmates, even if it's in your car, and you're sure there are no cameras around.
(5) Don't take anything from an inmate, even if it's just a little picture that they want to give you because you're so nice.
(6) Don't give anything to an inmate, even if it's just a picture of you so that they'll always have a memento.
(7) Don't agree to bring anything in to an inmate, even if it will make them so happy and you're their only friend.
(8) Don't agree to give/buy/sell anything to/from an inmate's relative, friend, significant other, etc., even if their grandmother is dying.
(9) Don't have sex with an inmate's relative, friend, significant other, etc., even if they really, really, really find you attractive and always have.
(10) Don't have sex with an inmate, even if the supply closet/classroom/staff bathroom is open and unoccupied and no one's in the pod watching and/or another inmate will keep an eye out for anyone coming.
(11) Don't have sex with an inmate.

Sadly, it happens all the time.  Every year at volunteer/guard training, we hear the stories:  this guard picked up a prisoner on their way home from work-release, took them for a ride, took them home, took them here, took them there...  Had a little coffee/soda/beer/drugs/sex with them.  That guard brought in cell phones/chew/drugs for a prisoner, who paid them with sex and/or cold hard cash. Another person had an affair with a prisoner, and when another prisoner found out about it, the person got blackmailed into having sex with that prisoner, too.  And when yet another inmate found out about that, suddenly the person had to start smuggling contraband...  And then there was the case of a person who got caught having sex with a prisoner, and the prisoner turned around and sued the person for sexual harassment and rape under PREA.  And won.

In each case, beginning the long march to losing job, family, and freedom.

Prison inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat are seen in enhanced pictures released by the New York State police

I'm sure you've all been following the story of convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat, who escaped from the Clinton Correctional facility in upstate New York with the help of two prison employees, Officer Gene Palmer (a prison guard) and Joyce Mitchell (who supervised inmates working in the prison's tailor shop).  I know I have.  (Just as I was finishing this up, Mr. Matt was killed, and Mr. Sweat was wounded and  back in custody.)  Now, I wasn't surprised at all that the prisoners tried to escape, and not that surprised that they succeeded - it happens.  After all, they have all the time in their sentence to sit and think up more or less inventive ways of getting out.  And every once in a while, they come up with a doozy.  One that actually works.  I'm just glad that this time no one was killed in the escape.

But what did surprise me, what always surprises me, is that some employees helped them.  To put it in the simplest English, "WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY THINKING?"
Danged if I know.

Gene Palmer: 5 Things to Know About Second Prison Worker Arrested in Escape Plot
Gene Palmer, in custody, looking shell-shocked

I do know that many inmates are really good at manipulating people.  If it wasn't their way of making a living out on outside, it sure is now.  Here's a great article which outlines a basic prison con:

First, they groom a person. This usually takes the form of either flattery or comfort.  Inmates pay very close attention to staff and volunteers, what they say, how they look, how they act.  (And, no, they literally don't have anything better to do.)  And so they might pay that staff member a compliment, or talk about what a difference the volunteer has made, or how good they are at something.  Given enough time (and believe me, the prisoners  have plenty of time), warm fuzzies abound...

Secondly, they talk, talk, talk, and get the staff/volunteer to talk, talk, talk.  Friendship blossoms. Confidences are made.  Perhaps about something that is slightly... illicit.  That's called instant blackmail.  And suddenly the staff member agrees to look the other way when the rules are bent a little.  And then that little indiscretion is used to hook the person into overlooking rules being really bent, broken, and thrown out in the trash.  And then the prisoners own the staff/volunteer, and anything is possible.  As we've seen.

Personally, I almost feel sorry for Joyce Mitchell (51), who was obviously led to believe that David Sweat (35) was in love with her.  I'll have to hand it to him, he took his time in landing her.  And, even though she still denies having sex with the man (while other inmates are heavily ratting them out and saying yes, they did, over and over again), I kind of hope she got something out of it besides the sickening knowledge that she was used, used, used, because she's going to prison herself, and it would be awful to trade away your entire life for absolutely nothing.

Joyce Mitchell is accused of helping two killers escape an upstate New York prison David Sweat remains at large

But I do not understand, at all, Officer Palmer trading his career and his freedom away for paintings. (At least the cell phone smugglers got money.)  I heard that he's claimed he was getting intelligence on illegal behavior in prison - but everything he did was (1) illegal according to the rules and (2) completely backfired because he ended up giving them at least some of the tools they needed to escape.  He appears to be one of those workers who came to sympathize more with the prisoners than with the institution.  Not that uncommon.  Prison is not a pleasant place to be in, no matter which side of the bars you're on.  But at some point, you've got to be aware of what you're trading when you become the duck.  You're trading your career, perhaps your family and friends, and all of your freedom in order to be a sucker.  A big fat waddling duck.

Prison Gangs
It's really simple:  don't violate the rules and don't trust the prisoners.  Be courteous, professional, even friendly (as in business friendly).  Do your job.  Be present.  Listen.  Care.  But don't trust them with your stuff, your mind, your body, your family, your freedom.  The con games never stop, and you are the obvious target, because you can get them something they want, something they need, and who knows?  You might even get them out of prison.  And put yourself IN.

01 July 2015

Struck by Poe

                                      by Robert Lopresti

No doubt you have heard the phrase struck by an idea.

But have you ever experienced it?

I have.  Twice.  What I mean by this is the act of experiencing a new thought with such force that it feels like a physical  blow.  It is quite a sensation.

The most recent time was a couple of years ago.  It was a Saturday night and I was listening to an NPR quiz show called Says You.  The subject of the program is usually words but on this evening the quiz was apparently about detectives and their arch-enemies (I say apparently because I missed the beginning).  And after Sherlock Holmes (Professor Moriarty!) and Nero Wolfe (Arnold Zeck!) they came to C. Auguste Dupin. 

That flabbergasted me.  Edgar Allan Poe's detective appeared only in three short stories.  Who was his arch-enemy?  Could they possibly mean the orang-outang, the killer in the first-ever detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue?"

They did (although the panelist guessed gorilla).

I thought this was bizarre.  The orang-outang - who never physically appears in the story, by the way - is just a dumb animal, and to treat it as if it were an evil genius--

Boom.  I stumbled, almost falling down.  I had just been struck by an idea.

Could I rewrite the story from the ape's viewpoint?

Let's pause for a moment.  One of my favorite mystery writers is James Powell.  Jim is a Canadian man with enough imagination for a whole team of fantasy writers.  Who else could have come up with stories that feature:

* An armchair detective who happens to be an armchair.

* A city made up of clowns, one of whom is poisoned by being hit in the face with a poisoned pie.

* Ebenezer Scrooge trying to solve Jacob Marley's murder, because "when a man's partner gets killed he's supposed to do something about it."

I have always wished I could come up with a plot as brilliantly twisted as one of Powell's,but never thought I came close.  Was this my chance?

Days later I was still pondering methods to make my version of Poe's story work.  I came up with three approaches:

1.  Naturalistic.  The scent of blood caused the great ape to panic.  It backed toward the window, shrieking...  No.  That would just be retelling Poe's original story.  Not what I wanted.

2.  Comic.  This is the approach I imagined Jim Powell would take: As I was gliding from oil palm to mangrove tree one sunny afternoon my arboreal journey was interrupted by an unexpected sight.  A traveler was wandering through the tangled depths below.  Not one of the local humans who seem to plod around  on the ground without much difficulty, although, if I  may so, they are pathetic at climbing up to the branchy frontier.  I offered a friendly hoot, and  slid down a vine with the alacrity of one born to the Borneo bush, as indeed I was, and addressed the fellow...

Okay, Powell would do that much better than me.  So, that left Door Number...

3.  Steampunk.  If you aren't familiar with the term, here is a definition from Wikipedia: a subgenre of science fiction and sometimes fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery.  Think of the movie Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The  Sea, or the TV show The Wild Wild West.  Lots of leather, polished steel, steam-powered machinery, and mad scientists.

I assume Poe's story is set in the 1830s,  a bit early for steampunk, but I was okay with that.  My idea was that the inevitable mad scientist had experimented on Poe's orang-outang, leaving him able to think and, if not speak, use sign language.  The big challenge would be that nothing in my story could contradict Poe's - although , of course, it might turn out that one of his characters was lying.

I wrote the story, which turned out to be a sort of existentialist parable. (It begins: What am I?)  While I was seeking a happy home for my unhappy ape I read that an anthology of stories inspired by Poe had come up a few thousand words short and was looking for a few more tales.  Sure enough, "Street of the Dead House" was accepted.

This month sees the publication of  nEvermore! Tales of Murder, Mystery and the Macabre and I am very proud of the company I get to keep.  Among my many stablemates are Margaret Atwood, Richard Christian Matheson, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.  Special treat: the book also contains the  last story by horror and fantasy master Tanith Lee, who died this spring. 

Distinguished company; I hope my beastie behaves himself.

30 June 2015

Family Tradition

by Susan Rogers Cooper

This is my first time writing an article for SleuthSayers and I thought I'd start with something a little personal.

I once wrote a short story with the title "Family Tradition," but it wasn't a particularly nice family tradition.  Today I want to talk about a good one -- like three generations of writers.  I started writing when I was about eleven years old, but didn't try to get published until I was in my mid-thirties.  Since that time I've been managed to pump out twenty-something books, several short stories, and been nominated for an Edgar award.  But although we writers like to think we write totally in a vacuum, in my case that's not necessarily true.  When I started my E.J. Pugh series, my late husband Don had already come up with the characters and the first horrific scene (which began a new sub-genre, I was told -- the grizzly cozy), and when I got to a point where I actually needed a plot, Don, my daughter Evin and I sat on our king-sized bed and my teenager gave me the McGuffin.  And also one of the best lines in the book.

Evin started writing as a teenager -- mostly romances  -- but now, in her mid-thirties, she's an accomplished blogger (FOOD GOOD, LAUNDRY BAD) and has been called an "influencial" blogger (she's now driving a Cadillac Escalade as a result of that -- just for a week, but still....)  She's got lots of followers and is heading this year's Austin Blogathon, which is a very big deal.

Today, however, I went to the bookstore and bought my ten year old grandson two chapter books.  He's a voracious reader and I'll do whatever I can to feed that.  When he got to my house to pick them up, he said, "Grandma, I have an idea."  Then went on to tell me of a story he thought of about a boy and his parents on an airplane, the airplane crashes, and the boy is the only survivor.  Or is he?  "I'll write the survival stuff,," he said, "and you put the mystery stuff in, okay?"  And I answered, "You betja."  Now's the time to encourage this, to sew that seed, to get the ball rolling.  Yes, I mixed my metaphors, but what's a grandma to do?

Maybe we'll write this book together, or maybe just start it before something shiny catches our collective short attention span, but the spark is there and I will be the bellows.

On Being Someone Else

by Jim Winter

Today is my final Sleuthsayers post. It's been a blast, but I've decided to hang up my crime writing shoes and go do something else. It's been 15 years, long enough to see if the lab experiment will succeed.

About 15 years ago, I started writing crime fiction under the name Jim Winter. That is not the name that graces my driver's license. So why did I do it?

Privacy was a big concern. Mind you, most of us are privacy conscious. And in an age where employers will look at your social media and Internet footprint to see what you're up to, it's a huge concern. But back in 2000, we didn't have Facebook and MySpace. We had AOL and Yahoo. Essentially the same thing, 'cept different.

But I also had an ego. I was going to be the next Dennis Lehane. And of course, making friends with some heavy hitters only stoked that delusion. If I were to create the next Mystic River, I opined, did I want to get hassled at Kroger?

I don't think I've ever been hassled at Kroger, except for maybe an annoying cashier once.

But by the time I realized this wasn't really an issue, even if I somehow became hugely successful, I was already established as Jim Winter. If I were to change, I'd have to start over again.

And when I did decide to start over again, I switched genres. I do science fiction now, and under my legal name, TS Hottle. But are there good reasons to do pen names besides privacy?

Branding is a good one. Joe Smith may write cop novels, but Joseph E. Smith may write dystopian YA fiction. Might get a bit confusing. And then maybe JE Smith may decide to cash in on his success and do writing books.

In some cases, privacy is an issue. Write erotica, and your employer may have issues with that. There may be nothing illegal about you doing that, but it can go horribly south if it makes someone in marketing or HR squick to find out you write that sort of thing. "Smut queen Lisa Jones works in our IT Department? What if our clients find out?" A pen name covers both you and them.

And then there are the hard-to-pronounce names. For instance, I know two writers whose names are hard to pronounce if you haven't heard them before. One writes under her maiden name, another writes under a rather science fictiony name that is easy to pronounce and remember.

Ultimately, I do wish I had not called myself "Jim Winter" in the beginning. It just became more and more unwieldy to explain it or cover it up as time went on.

Now it's no longer a problem.

29 June 2015

Dear Dad

by Melissa Yi

Dear Dad,

As you may know, last time I wrote about how Mom reads my books now. It only seems fair to talk to you this week, even though we haven’t spoken since 2008. So, how’s it going?

I’ve been concentrating on mysteries lately. I find them satisfying because you can describe the ugliness in the world and bring a bad guy to justice. Since I work in an emergency room, I see a lot of illness, and not a lot of justice. Nice people get cancer. Sometimes nice people die. Meanwhile, a patient punched one of our nurses in the face and another patient attacked a different nurse with a high-heeled shoe. I’m having trouble finding the links, though, because there was an even more dramatic story about a patient hit a third nurse with a metal bar while uttering death threats.
Don’t worry, though. I feel pretty safe. We do have security guards, and I see at least one concrete change: we now have posters on the wall saying that we have a zero tolerance attitude toward violence. I hope the criminals can read.
It’s funny. I know you and mom always approved of me going into medicine because it’s considered a safe career. Much safer than writing, which is considered pretty much equivalent to committing hara-kiri. But now that I think about it, medicine is far more dangerous. You spend years abusing your brain and body, inhaling as much information and working as many hours as possible, exposing yourself to flesh-eating disease and felons, whereas a writer…sits in a room and makes stuff up.
True, writers earn less money on average, and poor people tend to get sick. This article even mentions that almost half of poor children have witnessed a killing.
Still, I remember reading articles saying that most doctors discouraged their children from becoming physicians. The articles slid right off of me as a medical student. I was young. I was excited. I was going to be a doctor!
But now, when my four-year-old daughter says, “I want to be a doctor,” I’m thinking of the deregulated medical school tuition and fees alone that cost up to $24,000 per year. I’m thinking of how much she loves babies (already, she walked around Sears, choosing which carriage and crib her baby should have), and how hard it is to balance children and medicine. And I understand why this survey showed that nine out of ten physicians discourage anyone from entering medicine.
I guess that’s why my other moniker is The Most Unfeeling Doctor in the World.
Anyway, I’m not sure what you think of my writing. The most reaction I got out of you was when I brought you and mom to the joint book launch for Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic and Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction, and you were astonished by the free food and drinks. “Who’s paying for this?” you asked afterward.
I wasn’t sure myself. That’s a mystery, too.
But not as much of a mystery as what you’re up to now, after fighting a high-grade glioma for 18 months before succumbing in May 2008. I’m agnostic, but part of me wants to believe that somehow, you know you now have four adorable grandchildren and that I still love you.


28 June 2015


by Dale C. Andrews

Rationality, that was it. No esoteric mumbo jumbo could fool that fellow. Lord, no! His two feet were planted solidly on God's good earth. 
                                                           Ellery Queen 
                                                          The Lamp of God
[W]hen you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
                                                          Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle) 
                                                          The Sign of the Four
Oh, oh, oh it’s magic, You know -- Never believe it’s not so!

       There's an unavoidable tension between logic and magic -- both in the real world and in fiction. In the realm of Science Fiction novels tend to fall on either side of a great divide -- fantasy (where magic reigns) and classic sci/fi, where logic and science rule. The same riven appears on the mystery side of the ledger -- magic and the inexplicable may be the rule in ghost stories and tales of the paranormal, but in the area of classic mysteries there is an unspoken compact between the author and the reader -- all must, in the end, be explained in logical terms. And for the hard-core mystery reader, the joy of the story is derived in large measure from attempting to discern the answer, the logic behind the madness, the man behind the curtain, before the author reveals not only whodunit, but how. If the room is locked, we expect to know how the crime was accomplished; if there was a dying message, well, it better be explained in the end. 

       Sometimes, however, there are occurrences in real life, let alone fiction, that defy logical analysis. And often that is what we brand as magic -- a conundrum that has yet to be cracked by science. So viewed, magic is a place-holder, utilized while we figure out what is actually going on. And, as Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” 

       In one of Ellery Queen’s eeriest and most atmospheric stories, the novella The Lamp of God, a house in the forest disappears overnight.  Of all of the Ellery Queen mysteries, with the possible exception of And on the Eighth Day, Lamp of God is, in my view, the strangest.  The setting is other-worldly, the characters a bit surreal and the mystery itself seemingly inexplicable,  Right up until the end the reader suspects that there may be something supernatural going on.  But since this is an Ellery Queen story, we also know going in that a logical solution, “however improbable,” will eventually be served up.

       Other writers have crafted logic-based mysteries that also deal with the inexplicable and that sometime leave those aspects of the mystery, well . . . unexplained. In Tana French’s recent novel The Secret Place, the chief mystery is logically solved, but an underlying supernatural sub theme is explored but never resolved. In Sue Gruen’s latest At the Water’s Edge, we again have a mystery that is solved but we are still left to grapple with the possibility of of a real-life Loch Ness monster.   And just who, or what, is "the little stranger" in Sarah Water's book of that title?

      So, what about those troubling aspects of the world that we can’t quite explain? Well, in the "real"world that’s where the argument between logic and the paranormal escalates. Take for example Extra Sensory Perception. In a “How Stuff Works” article author Tom Harris frames the ESP debate succinctly:  
When all is said and done, we simply don't know whether ESP exists. Given what we do understand about the way physics operates in the universe, ESP doesn't make any sense, but this is not a valid reason to rule it out. In the history of mankind, thinkers have reevaluated their model of the universe many times in response to new evidence. The scientific process is never about deciding what can't be; it's always about figuring out what is.
Joseph Banks Rhine testing for ESP at Duke University
        But applying scientific principles and logic to determine whether ESP exists -- and how it works -- has proven to be a daunting task. Back in the 1930s a Duke University Professor, Joseph Banks Rhine, teamed with Zenith Radio Corporation in one of the earliest large scale tests of ESP ever conducted. Zenith assembled a panel of individuals who had arguably demonstrated some degree of psychic ability, and directed those "experts" to agree on a sequence of five Xs and Os that they would then collectively attempt to mentally transmit to the radio audience. The audience was then instructed to write down what they thought the sequence was and to send their answers to Zenith.

       Amazingly (or so it seemed) the largest block of listener responses identified one of the precise sequences agreed upon in advance by the Zenith panel. Based upon this Zenith issued a press release trumpeting that it had proven that ESP exists since the number of correct responses was far greater than that which could be attributed to coincidence. 

       So -- it’s magic! Ahh, but not so fast. It is at this stage that the story’s detective makes his entrance. Not Sherlock Holmes, nor Ellery Queen, but instead a young psychologist named Louis Goodfellow. Not content with leaving the answer “inexplicable,” Goodfellow undertook his own study aimed at determining whether there might be a logical explanation for the results of the Zenith experiment. And, as it turned out, there was a credible scientific explanation for the those results. 

       The string of Xs and Os sent out “telepathically” by the Zenist panelists that was most successfully “identified” by the radio audience was “X-X-O-X-O”.  But when Goodfellow tested responses from the general public he found that when asked to provide a random array of five Xs and Os over 30% responded with precisely that sequence. (Indeed, fully 78% of responses always picked “X” as the first choice in the string).  So the sequence identified had nothing to do with the sequence "transmitted."  From this Goodfellow surmised that the largest number of respondents picked the sequence for reasons that had nothing to do with ESP. Rather, the results simply reflect a universal inability of humans to generate truly random responses, a fact that has led to the formulation of a number of theories aimed at explaining the otherwise inexplicable. One such theory is The Law of Small Numbers, which posits that in our quest for randomness we incorrectly are driven by the supposition that small sets of numbers will be as random as larger sets. This leads us to expect an array that is shuffled. 

       As an example, it is a safe bet that in a test such as that administered by Louis Goodfellow virtually no one, when asked to choose a random sequence will select “O-O-O-O-O” or “X-X-X-X-X,” even though these possibilities are as randomly-likely as any others.  Instead, we approach the question with pre-determined prejudices, and therefore simply find it hard to believe that such a sequence will occur randomly even though, as Goodfellow pointed out, the likelihood that five seriatim coin tosses would all be heads is only 1 in 32.  In other words, statistically it would not be all that unusual, and should in fact occur roughly once every 32 times such a sequence of tosses is attempted.  In short, a large number of people will always gravitate to the sequence X-X-O-X-O because that sequence “feels” random. 

       So logic prevailed -- the response by the audience to the Zenith experiment varied not on the ESP abilities of the listeners, nor on the psychic abilities of the panel, but rather based upon whether the specific sequence chosen by the panel matched one that most people were likely to choose as “random” on their own.  And since the bias of both the panel and the recipients, all of whom were human, are shared, it is only logical that the same percentage of each group would pick sequences that feel random.

       Science fiction writer William Poundstone, in his book Rock Breaks Scissors explores some of the ramifications of Goodfellow’s findings: “It basically demonstrated that a lot of the little everyday decisions we make are incredibly predictable, provided you've got a little bit of data to work from.” A real life example from Poundstone’s book -- if you are playing “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” and your opponent is a male, try choosing “paper.” Why? Well more times than not men have been shown to choose “rock.”

       Magic? Nope. Just observable, predictable and documented, human behavior. According to Poundstone “it's not so easy for a person to make up a random sequence. . . . When people try to do that they fall into certain unconscious patterns, and these patterns are really very similar for everyone." Anyone who watches the pop-up ads on their laptop knows there are some sophisticated deductions being made about what each of us might be interested in purchasing.  As Poundstone also observed, Goodfellow’s conclusions on predictability have “become a very big business today, needless to say.”

     Here is another predictability trick, one that I first encountered 50 years ago when I was in junior high. On a piece of paper write the following: “Why did you choose carrot?” Fold the paper so that the writing cannot be seen and then hand the paper to someone, telling them not to unfold it. Then do the following: 

       First pause, then slowly say “Listen to me carefully, do not ask questions.” Pause again and then ask “What is 5 plus 1?” Wait for the answer. Then ask “What is 4 plus 2,” “What is 3 plus 3,” “What is 2 plus 4,” and “What is 1 plus 5.” Each time wait for the answer and then immediately proceed with the next question. 

      Then immediately ask your subject to say the number “6” 10 times, as rapidly as they can. 

       After they have said “six” for the tenth time immediately ask them to “Name any vegetable.” 

       Nine out of ten times your subject will say “carrot.” When (if!) they do, tell them to unfold the paper in their hand and read it. 

       Magic? Likely not. There is some predictable and shared mental attribute that triggers the same response in a large number of us. Okay, (the mystery reader asks) but how does it work? Apparently no one is really sure. A check on the internet reveals a lot of pondering spread over the 50 years since I first encountered this trick, but no reliable theories. It has been speculated, for example, that perhaps the answer “carrot” is prompted by the fact that the word contains six letters. But apparently the vegetable that is picked the second most is broccoli, so go figure. 

       Swinging back to where we started, how does all of this relate to magic versus science in mysteries? Perhaps it comes down to this: In our choice of fiction are we looking for certainty or the inexplicable?  Do we read fantasy, or do we read science fiction?  When we read Stephen King do we like The Stand, The Shining, or It, where the paranormal reigns, or do we like Mr. Mercedes or Finders Keepers, where none of that resides.

       The Zenith ESP experiment is explainable enough that it fits into the closed world that usually comprises the mystery genre. One can picture Ellery, Sherlock or Hercule offering up the Louis Goodfellow explanation, even though that explanation also leaves some questions unanswered. 

       But I’m not sure about that carrot. I’m still sitting here, years later, waiting for a credible explanation for why that one works. 


                                  *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

       The foregoing text was intended to be my entire article for today.

       I usually avoid wading into the political arena, but after the events on Friday, played out in rainbow hues throughout Washington, D.C., I am going to succumb to temptation.  Hence, this postscript.

       Those keeping track of my articles over the years may have noted my penchant for beginning many with set-up quotes. (See, e.g., above!) This time I’d like to also end with two quotes. 

       The theme today has been the distinction between magic and reason, and the phenomenon that often that which is beyond our abilities to explain is labeled “magic” as an expedient for the fact that we can’t otherwise explain what is happening in the world around us. Sometimes things are inexplicable even when we exert diligent analytic efforts. But sometimes we just allow things to be inexplicable out of sheer laziness, or because we would rather not take the time to figure out what is really going on. So, in honor of that latter group, those who self-contentedly label something “magic” and then move on without further inquiry, I offer the following quote
I have to admit that I’m one of those people that [sic] still thinks the dishwasher is a miracle. What a device! And I have to admit that because I think that way, I like to load it. I like to look in and see how the dishes were magically cleaned.
      Thank you, Justice Clarence Thomas, for explaining so clearly the intellectually myopic wherewithal you bring to the task of analyzing the world around you.  And here is the latest example of Justice Thomas' reasoning, taken from his dissent in the gay marriage case:
[H]uman dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

       This is what you get when someone who thinks dishwashers are magic is given the job of determining the Constitutional protections that are to be accorded to all others.  I am always heartened when the views of Justice Thomas (or Scalia or Alito, for that matter) concerning the reach of the Constitution are consigned to dissenting opinions.

Colin Black Andrews and Kyle Hartwig
At the White House -- June 26, 2015

27 June 2015

Fee or Free?

by John M. Floyd

I was talking to a beginning writer the other day (a writer of short stories, since most of what I do is the short stuff), and she said to me, "Yeah, I want to get published--but the main thing is, I want to get paid."

Hard to argue with that. All writers--including me--want to be paid for what we produce. And while I didn't tell her that she shouldn't aim for that (I'm dumb but I'm not stupid, and neither is she), I did tell her that there are times when she might want to also consider publishing something for which she's not paid. At least not in dollars.

Here you go, buddy--no charge

Let's say you're an aspiring writer of short stories, and let's say I'm a teacher who's smarter than I really am. What I would tell you is, I believe it can be helpful to a shorts writer, especially when starting out, to occasionally submit something to a magazine or anthology that pays only "in copies"--which means they will send you a least one copy of the issue containing your story, sometimes called an "author copy" or a "contributor's copy." This gives you a couple of things besides just something to put on your coffeetable and brag to your friends about. It gives you (1) a publishing credit and (2) exposure.

Well, whoop-de-doo, right? Credentials and exposure won't pay the rent--they won't even buy you a burger and fries, or a stamp to put on your next snailmailed submission. But, hey, if you build up several respectable credits that you can use later in your cover letters and bios, or if a publisher or agent or another editor happens to see your story in, say, a non-paying university litmag, and likes it . . . well, that's not a bad use of your time and your effort.

The same thing goes for speaking engagements. Most writers are regularly asked to visit libraries, schools, senior centers, civic groups, book clubs, etc.--any venue that needs someone to come in and teach a quick workshop or fill a program slot. These places will sometimes reward you with a payment or cover your travel expenses or both, and when they do, that's great. But sometimes they don't, or can't. IF they don't, or can't, why should you do it? Well, if you're Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, maybe you shouldn't. But if you're me, and probably if you're you, there are times when doing these events can be a good move. For one thing--as mentioned earlier--it's exposure. It lets you get your name and your work out there in front of more readers and potential customers. Once again, this kind of goodwill gesture won't pay the light bill--but it can pay off in the long run. And free events often lead to fee events.

On the other hand . . .

Show me the money!

There is a second school of thought--and the longer I write, I find myself inching more and more into that camp--that says "If I'm creating a product and providing a service, I expect to be paid for it." Those who take this approach insist that it's not only sensible but time-saving. It involves less research and fewer submissions. You just concentrate on the publications that pay, and avoid all the others.

While there aren't a ton of paying markets these days, there are some, including  AHMMEQMMThe Strand Magazine, Over My Dead Body, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, and Woman's World. And a good many more if you consider anthologies, and the so-called literary markets that are sometimes receptive to mystery/suspense stories: Zoetrope, The Sun, Thema, The Missouri Review, Harper's, The Saturday Evening Post, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train Stores, Pleiades, Tin House, and so on. We've talked many times at this blog about what it takes to make a story "literary," and the fact that crime fiction sometimes fits into that category. My friend and fellow Mississippian Tom Franklin's short story "Poachers," which won an Edgar Award and appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories 1999, was originally published not in AH or EQ but in The Texas Review.


If you're a writer of short fiction, what's your opinion on this kind of thing? Are you ever willing to send your work to a non-paying publication? If so, which ones do you prefer? If not, under what conditions might you be willing?

Also, what paying mags and anthologies do you submit stories to? At which of these have you been successful, and which ones might you recommend? What do you think about fee vs. free speaking/teaching engagements?

This little piggy went to market . . .

In closing, here are some Web resources I've used in the past, to find possible homes for my work:

Ralan's Webstravaganza -- This isn't just for SF/fantasy stories (even though it says it is). The big mystery magazines, for example, are included. It also lists anthologies.

My Little Corner 

The Short Mystery Fiction Society Blog 

Mystery Readers International


Fiction Factor 

Those last two sites might be a bit dated, but there are still some good listings and good tips to be found there.

Another place--and a great print reference--that lists pay and no-pay markets is Novel & Short Story Writers Market (WD Books). A new edition is printed every year, and it features a "genre index" section that lists those places that consider mystery submissions. And sometimes the best approach is the simplest: Forget the market listings altogether and just key something like "short mystery markets" into Google and check out the resulting links.

Wherever you go and however you do it . . . good hunting! Or, to paraphrase one of my boyhood heroes: Write long and prosper.

26 June 2015

If You're Going to Do a Kidnapping

by R.T. Lawton

If you're going to do a kidnapping, you need to think the plan all the way through, right down to every last detail. Because, if you don't, then things may go terribly wrong. Witness one kidnapping in Kansas City many years ago.

We had an informant who for the purposes of this story, we will call Rat. This particular lowlife was providing information about a local motorcycle gang, a one-percent criminal organization which shall remain nameless. The two patch holders in this nameless club who were involved as story participants, we will refer to as Big Nose George and Little Duffy.

At some point in their motorcycle gang relationship, Big Nose George became suspicious of our boy, Rat. Suspicions led to paranoia, which led to George and Little Duffy putting their heads together to discuss the situation. Coming from a background of limited brain power combined with street cunning and vast amounts of violence, they soon hatched a plot to kidnap the Rat and take him someplace secure and quiet in order to properly interrogate him about their suspicions. To do so, they quickly realized that they couldn't use their customary mode of transportation, Harley choppers, to pull off this particular caper. No, trying to do so with a tied-up and gagged individual who was bungie-corded down behind the driver would be way too obvious that a crime was in progress, especially since some of the travel to the secure interrogation site would require driving on the Interstate through the middle of Kansas City. Their dilemma was apparently solved when Little Duffy suggested they borrow his girlfriend's old Chevrolet Corvair for use as the transportation vehicle. Now ready, the two potential kidnappers set off for the residence where Rat hung his hat.

They pulled up into the driveway and found Rat in the garage, which they considered as an excellent situation for their purposes because it would then be a short trip from the garage and into the trunk of the Corvair. Shorter distance made for less chance of an eye witness observing the abduction and then calling the police. It also made sense in case they had to carry the abductee out to the car.

Approaching the intended victim as if they were merely there for a friendly chat and maybe a couple of beers, they gradually surrounded the Rat. George then knocked the Rat down and both bikers jumped on top of him. One quickly tied his feet together and then his hands behind his back, while the other biker gagged Rat's mouth to ensure his silence. Finished, they then realized that as a result of their enthusiastic restraining of the victim, they really would have to carry Rat out to the trunk after all. Should've just pulled a gun on him and made him walk.

Photo by Greg Gjerdinern
Since the Chevrolet Corvair turned out to be one of those rear engine cars with the trunk in the front, it was an even shorter distance from the garage to the trunk than it would be with a regular car. The two kidnappers congratulated themselves on their foresight in having a plan come together.

Helping themselves to a couple of beers from Rat's refrigerator, the kidnapping party hit the road and merged onto the Interstate. At a nice 65 mph, they enjoyed cruising along on a nice summer day with the windows rolled down to catch a breeze. Toasting their success with purloined cans of Rat's beer, the two kidnappers were feeling good about their clandestine operation.

Meanwhile, under the trunk lid (or hood, depending upon how you see a rear engine car with storage space in the front) Rat had managed to untie his feet. Positioned with his back to the trunk/hood latch, he used one hand to work the release mechanism.

Back inside the Corvair, Little Duffy, in the driver's seat with beer can in hand, suddenly found himself blinded when the trunk/hood lid flew up against the windshield. At 65 mph, the trunk/hood lid compressed across the glass until Duffy could no longer see the road in order to steer between the white lines. Duffy hit the brakes and slid to a stop.

With the decrease in forward motion, Rat rolled out of the front storage space and took off running for the shoulder of the interstate and down a grassy slope toward safety. His hands were still tied behind his back.

Seeing their quarry escape, Big Nose George and Little Duffy opened their doors to give chase and nearly lost both doors to passing motorists. Bleating car horns and the sound of locked-up brakes filled the air. Deciding that all these aggravated witnesses around was not a good thing, George slammed down the storage space lid and they prepared to vacate the premises seeing as how Duffy could now clearly view the road again. Sadly, the Corvair lid would never be the same.

After testifying in federal grand jury as to his harrowing experience, Rat retired from such a risky occupation and moved to a city, far, far away. George and Duffy were subsequently provided with a long opportunity to contemplate how their great plan went awry.

Ah, I loved Kansas City. Never a dull moment.

25 June 2015

The Challenges of Writing Historicals

by Brian Thornton

Just finished reading David Edgerley Gates' excellent post "The Past is Prologue", which directly precedes this one here on the Sleuthsayers blog. And while I like the post and agree with his main points regarding his preference for writing historicals (a preference I by and large share), I couldn't help but think of a few of the drawbacks inherent in writing what we write.

And since I'm writing this from a deck chair overlooking a wonderful beach fronting on the Pacific Ocean, I'll restrict myself to a few bullet points in no particular order:

There's a certain amount of "World Building" involved in writing historicals.

As is the case with the writing of our brethren in the speculative fiction (fantasy and science fiction) end of the fiction spectrum, writers of historicals are often introducing their readers to a thoroughly alien landscape while setting the scene, be it in 17th century France, 1950s Berlin, Han Dynasty China, or Periclean Athens.

So of course this means a LOT of research. No worries, I have an MA in history, and I love this kind of stuff.

That said, it can be time-consuming. And not just the research end of it, the scene-setting can pose a challenge as well.

After all, if you have a character in a modern thriller walking down a street in a Boston suburb, you can afford to write what I call "thumbnail description." Something along the lines of:

"Susan strolled along the sidewalk behind her Fox Terrier Rufus, plastic bag at the ready. Rufus skittered from tree to tree, along manicured lawns, even pausing to sniff at an appealing looking sprinkler."

Now, because of the age in which we live, most people can easily employ visual memory short-hand and fill in that sort of image pretty quickly. After all, who hasn't seen someone fitting the general description of the character above (you know, female), out on a walk with her dog, waiting for him to poop in the last week? The last month?

But if you're writing a series set in 1840s America, as I do, this scene wouldn't work as is for any number of reasons, including, but not limited to: 1. Ladies of a certain age and social standing rarely went about unescorted, and they certainly didn't follow their dogs around doing their business. 2. Sidewalks were far less common in this era, and if they existed at all, they were likely made of wood, not of concrete. 3. The "lawn" as those of us either residing in, or refugees from, the suburbs, understand the notion, did not, by and large, exist in the walking suburbs of the nation's cities during the 1840s. You had something called a "dooryard," which was about as close as you could get (unless you owned a significant estate. They had lawns. BIG ones.). Dooryards tended to be some iteration of dirt or mud (depending on the weather), and were where visitors left their horses/carriages/phaetons, etc.

So describing the mundanity of daily life gets complicated. After all, even though human beings haven't changed all that much in their basic nature over the last few millennia, the same cannot be said about human society/technology.

And how to shoe-horn all of that research into a narrative?

The rule of thumb is that between 60 and 80% of what you dredge up in your research about your era is going to inform your writing indirectly. In other words, you're not going to share most of what you learn while researching the Texas annexation crisis. While riveting to you, the politics surrounding the quest to make Texas a state would likely bore the bejeezus out of most of your readers. So we pick and choose and cherry-pick.

And no matter how hard you work on your book, someone will come out of the woodwork to tell you how you got it wrong!

This one is a virtual certainty. And if anything, with the easy availability of any amount of disinformation on the Internet, this sort of thing has only gotten worse over the last couple of decades. Nearly every writer of historicals I know personally has at least one good story about a reader who contacted them to lay out a detailed list of ways in which they "got their facts wrong."

(And David, if you've got one, I'd LOVE to hear it!)

You can probably guess how productive engaging with someone with that sort of an axe in need of grinding, and any sort of time on their hands, will be for you.

• And then there's the whole "anachronistic characters" thing.

A double-edged sword if ever there was one.

There's quite a bit more to be said on this subject. And since it's a fairly thorny topic, I'll be picking it up in two weeks, when I'll be home from vacation.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a spouse waiting, and a beach in need of walking.

See you all in two weeks!

24 June 2015

The Past Is Prologue

David Edgerley Gates

My pal Michael Davidson, who's a thriller writer - and, as it happens, a 30-year career CIA vet - said one of the things he likes about my Cold War stories is that they take him back to another place and time.  Berlin, and the Wall.

It got me thinking about why we like historicals, and why I like writing them.

I'm not talking so much about Mary Renault, say, and the Peloponnesian War, or Bernard Cornwell and Waterloo, as much as I like those writers and their books, but more recent history. In my case, the Placido Geist bounty hunter stories take place in the years just before America's entry into the First World War, and the Mickey Counihan stories just after WWII, the late 1940's. These are turning points. It's not in dispute that the Great War changed both the world and our worldview. Everything that comes after, in the 20th century, is foreshadowed by it. Total mechanized warfare, chemical weapons, targeting civilian populations. Mass trauma, in other words. And the late 1940's see the atom bomb, jazz, Jackie Robinson in the Dodgers' dug-out, television, the Red Scare.

First off, we have the lure of historical irony. Major league baseball has been integrated for sixty years, the Soviet empire collapsed (sort of, anyway), and nobody smokes Chesterfields anymore. Back then, all of this was just around the corner. But the future, as John Crowley says, is at right angles to the present. In the moment, or at the time, none of it was even a glow on the horizon. 

Secondly, and related to the first, if you can immerse yourself in an era, not just the period detail, but a state of mind or a habit of thinking - because the past, in many ways, is a different country - it's liberating. This might seem counter-intuitive, since you can't avoid historical incident (the Titanic does, in fact, sink), but it actually gives you a lot of latitude. You have to work your way into it, you have to inhabit the landscape. It's like learning a foreign language. Once you've got the grammar down, you begin to pick up the idiom. And when it becomes familiar enough, you can think in that language, instead of stumbling through an awkward mental translation.

Third, and this comes back to Davidson's original remark, when I revisit Berlin, in that time, the landscape is entirely vivid, in my mind's eye. More importantly, I transport myself into an era - not simply a physical place, but a place with a specific density. Berlin, in the here and now, is only a template. I'm walking the streets of memory. But that place is so complete that I can stop worrying about the landmarks. I don't need to look at a map. It's all there in my peripheral vision, and the imagined city is more immediate to me than anywhere in the present day. You could call it my comfort zone. I'm not saying it was a simpler time, or that the world was any less dangerous, but it's almost like a parallel life, one I did in fact experience, only now I'm just a visitor.

We see the past through a lens, from the perspective of this day and age, and we think of it as a distant reflection of our own time, as if Beowulf, or Genghis Khan, had the same mindset we do, and accepted out agreed reality. Which is backwards. We're the reflection. We mirror the past, not the other way around. Beowulf is about as far removed from Shakespeare as he is from us, but the Elizabethan playwrights are still accessible to us, while Old English might as well be written in runes. (It more or less is, as I remember.) BEOWULF is still a rousing yarn, and so is
MACBETH. However. You can make out a shape, a continuity, in the literature, BEOWULF to Chaucer to Shakespeare, and it's a window into an older age of man. Of course, we see it with our own eyes. How not? The witches in MACBETH, for example, might in the modern reading be imagined as a projection of Macbeth's own ambition, preaching to the converted, but to an Elizabethan audience, they were simply evil spirits, manipulating a weak man, and they were real. Grendel's mom, to our mind, might be some earth-mother, the female principle made flesh, a threat to the male warrior mentality, just emerging into the Iron Age. But to a bunch of people in bearskins, sitting in a smoky room inside a stone barricade, somewhere up by Hadrian's Wall, she was a cannibal monster. The meta-drama doesn't play. The subtext is hindsight. These people understood a different reality. They were beset by genuine monsters, predators, Viking raiders, early death in childbirth, disease. To reduce their struggle, against a hostile environment, is to betray their trust, and our legacy.

History is just one damn thing after another. I forget who said that. Might have been Homer, for all I know.