18 August 2015

The Watts Riots, Rodney King and Me

By Paul D. Marks

The fiftieth anniversary of the Watts Riots was last week. It was an earthshattering event in this country. Around the same time, the Sixties exploded on the scene, not just the various riots and protests, but the music, the counterculture, the war in Viet Nam, civil rights. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Things changed. They’ve never been the same.

I was young when the riots happened, but not too long after them I had the experience recounted below. It’s been printed/published elsewhere but I think it’s worth another look. And since this a crime writers and crime writing blog, I think I can tie it in since my Shamus-Award winning novel, White Heat, takes place during the explosive Rodney King riots of 1992.

~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~

When people think of Watts they think of the Watts Towers—and the Watts Riots of August, 1965. That year, while the Beatles sang about Yesterday, another chant went up in South Central Los Angeles.
~.~.~.~

1965: "Burn, baby, burn!" is the anthem that many remember the Watts Riots by. It is theWattsriots-burningbuildings-loc -- Public Domain chant shouted by people as the city burns. The spark that sets off the riots is a black man being stopped for a traffic ticket. Long-simmering frustration boils over and the city ignites. Thirty-four people are killed, a thousand-plus are wounded and almost four thousand arrested. Tensions in Los Angeles are as high as the smoke rising from the smoldering city streets.

     Los Angeles is burning.

~.~.~.~


1991: Another motorist is stopped for speeding and evading the police. His beatdown isrodney_king_riot__1992 -- Free to share and use per Bing Licensing caught on video:

1992: The cops accused of beating Rodney King are acquitted. People pour into the streets. Looting. Assault. Arson. Murder. Fifty-three dead. Twenty-three hundred injured and sixteen-hundred buildings damaged or destroyed.

     Los Angeles is burning.

 ~.~.~.~


I was in Los Angeles in both '65 and '92. I remember the smoke, the fear permeating every quarter of the city.

But I have a different memory of Watts. It isn't of the riots, but occurred during another hot summer, not long after.

I met a boy named Walter in my summer school class. Unlike everyone else in the class and just about everyone in the school, he was black. And he wasn't a local, but was on some kind of student exchange program from Jordan High in Watts.

I'm sure we were as much a curiosity to him as he was to us. After all, we were the privileged white kids and he was the angry young black man. Only he didn't seem angry. He seemed like just another nice guy with glasses. He invited a group of us to come down and see where he lived: Watts. A word that sent shivers down a lot of Angelinos' spines in those days.

We were a little apprehensive about going down there, especially as Walter had told us to come in the crappiest cars we had. No shiny new cars. There were six or eight teenaged boys and girls in our little caravan of two crappy cars. But crappy in our neighborhood meant something different than it did in Walter's.

We met Walter in Will Rogers Park (now I believe Ted Watkins Park) in Watts and sat under a shady tree, a bunch of white kids and one black guy. We sat, just rapping—in the vernacular of the time—talking about music and houses and politics. We stood out like the proverbial sore thumb and people started coming over. Big dudes, little dudes. Cool dudes. Girls. No one seemed to resent our being there. In fact, they seemed glad to have us. Glad to be able to share with us and have us share with them. There was no sense of rancor or resentment. Just curiosity—a curiosity that went both ways. This was a time when people wanted to come together, not be separated. None of them knew Walter and they certainly didn't know us. But they joined our group and we rapped on.

Then Walter said, "You want to see where I live?"

Jordan-Downs_4-Edited-1024x576 -- Free to share and use commercially per Bing License
Of course we did. So he took us to the projects—Jordan Downs. We drove past burned out buildings and vacant lots that had not so long ago had buildings on them. And we saw how the other half lived.

"It's not the best place in the world to live," Walter said. "But it could be a whole lot worse."

Our last stop was a trip to the Watts Towers, those soaring spires of glass, steel and concrete built by Simon Rodia. They are a monument to what anyone can do if they put their mind to it.

Watts Towers 11400919376_747ed8aa89_z
We returned to our cars and, to our relief, they hadn't been stolen. And, corny as it might sound, I think we all learned that we're more alike than different, with the same aspirations, hopes and fears.

That day was one of the most memorable experiences of my life—one that I wouldn't trade for anything. It was a wonderful day and we all went home full of hope for the future. We just wanted to get to know each other. Ultimately I think Rodney King had it right when he said, "Can we all get along?"

Why the hell can't we?

~.~.~.~.~.~.~



And now for some delightful BSP—remember, there’s a P at the end of the BS!

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00019]
Vortex: My new Mystery-Thriller novella coming September 1st. Available for pre-order now.

“...a nonstop staccato action noir... Vortex lives up to its name, quickly creating a maelstrom of action and purpose to draw readers into a whirlpool of intrigue and mystery... but be forewarned: once picked up, it's nearly impossible to put down before the end.”
      —D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review




Akashic Fade Out Annoucement D1d--C w full date
http://www.akashicbooks.com/fade-out-by-paul-d-marks/


Fade Out: flash fiction story—set at the infamous corner of Hollywood and Vine—came out Monday August 17th on Akashic’s Mondays Are Murder, Monday (big surprise, huh?), and still available, of course.









Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks  and  Twitter: @PaulDMarks

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###

17 August 2015

Creative Plagiarism

by Jan Grape

Have you ever stolen a idea for a story or book from another writer? No. Of course not, that's plagiarism, you say. You are exactly right. However, we all know in reality there are only  thirty-six literary plots. Or maybe only twenty. Or perhaps only seven.
  1. Wo/man vs nature
  2. Wo/man vs wo/man
  3. Wo/man vs the environment 
  4. Wo/man vs machine/technology
  5. Wo/man vs the supernatural 
  6. Wo/man vs self
  7. Wo/man vs. God/religion
I could continue with twenty master plots like quest, adventure, pursuit, escape, revenge, love, sacrifice… but you all get the idea. Maybe it is true but writers and even readers know that it's the shading, the ins and outs, the grays bleeding into the black and white that we all turn to as we write. We read something that we consider good book or story and when we finish the story or book we sometimes say to our self, I like that story idea or plot and then we wonder how we might have written it.

Soon we play the "what-if" game. What if John Doe had done this and Jane Doe had done that?  What if the storm had happened earlier? What if Mr. Smith had not been murdered but Mrs. Smith was the one killed?  And the next thing you know, a whole different story is taking place in your mind. And guess what you're not stealing, but you're likely doing what the gifted writer and teacher, Lawrence Block calls "Creative Plagiarism" in his book TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT. And I've spoken those words, telling lies for fun and profit, many times and in classes or article writing give Mr. Block the credit although I have no idea if he was the first to coin the phrase.

I've tried to remember when a story inspired me so that I used some "creative plagiarism" to write a story.  I can only remember one instance although I imagine there could be more. The only similarity came when I read  a Bill Pronzini short story in an anthology. I can't tell you the story's name or the anthology or collection the story was in. I only remember there was a hit and run accident. And a hit and run accident was the only thing I used in my short story "The Man In The Red Flannel Suit."  That was a Christmas story published in an anthology titled SANTA CLUES. I do remember at the time my story idea was more or less going along with Bill's story, but by the time I got that idea inkling off the back burner it was entirely different from what I originally thought. The only thing left was the hit and run and that accident was altogether a different animal.

The only two other "creative plagiarism" stories came from songs. One song written and sung by Kenny Rogers called "Scarlett" and was about a young man falling in love with an exotic dancer. One night he goes into the club and Scarlett is gone. It breaks his heart because his fantasy was that she loved him. The nightclub people can't tell him where Scarlett has gone because dancers come and go, always looking for brighter lights. 

I couldn't get the song out of mind, well, I couldn't get Scarlett out of my mind. What happened to her? Did she leave and move to Houston? Dallas? Las Vegas? Was she kidnapped?  Was she murdered? 

Scarlett rattled around in my brain for two or three years and one day popped up as a short story, titled "Scarlett Fever" in the DEADLY ALLIES anthology. It's  still one of my favorite short stories. The other story inspired by a song is titled "The Confession." It was published in the MURDER HERE, MURDER THERE anthology. Since I personally knew the singer/songwriter, Thomas Michael Riley, he gave me permission to use as much or as little of the song as I wanted. It was a great "what if" idea.

If any if you have used any "Creative Plagiarism" ideas you may confess them to me. I won't tell anyone, I promise. 

16 August 2015

Rocky King: One Minute for Murder

by Leigh Lundin

The show must go on: In this episode, Rocky King does not appear in Rocky King.

Roscoe Karns found himself ill and could not go on the air. A popular misconception claims his real-life son, Todd Karns, took over the lead rôle for that episode. Todd, however, had not yet joined the cast. Instead Earl Hammond, who portrayed Sergeant Lane, led the investigation that day.

The series was noted for sly touches of humor and in this case, the inspector made an appearance of sorts… banging on the wall. The dialogue also references live performances going on, no matter what.

Careful listeners could catch little quips to the audience. One of the cleverest subtext jokes came in the episode, ‘Return for Death’ in the domestic badinage between Rocky and his beloved wife, Mabel. As they discuss growing older and the wisdom of picking out a burial plot, Detective Hart phones in to say that a case has erupted in the local cemetery. Hart fumbles a joke about the graveyard shift, and then we’re treated to this double entendre:
Mabel: “Do you think you should go there, dear, after our conversation?”
Rocky: ”Yes, dear. We should plan on having a little plot somewhere.”
During the homicide investigation of a famous mystery writer in ‘Murder in Advance’, Hart asks Rocky King to name his favorite television mystery. King says, “It’s kind of personal.”

Of course it is!

One Minute for Murder
broadcast: 1952-Sep-28


in which a scandal sheet gossip columnist is found murdered in the theatre. Shockingly some people regard that as a crime…

15 August 2015

A Rainy Day at the Beach


by John M. Floyd



Several weeks ago I attended a one-day writers' conference in Long Beach, Mississippi, called The Magic of Books. I conducted an afternoon workshop on writing and selling short stories--which are of course not books, but they asked me to do it anyway--and it was a fun session, at least for me. But the highlight of my day there (besides lunch) was the chance to hear a presentation by my friend and longtime mentor Carolyn Haines.

For those of you who don't know her, Carolyn is the author of more than seventy novels, including the "Bones" mysteries featuring Sarah Booth Delaney and set in the fictional Mississippi Delta town of Zinnia. (The latest in the series is Bone to be Wild--one of my favorite titles.) Carolyn is also a crazy and delightful lady who has been a tremendous help to my so-called writing career and who always makes me laugh. She has written under at least three pseudonyms and in a number of genres.

Vive la difference

Among the many words of wisdom she gave us that day, on the topic of "Writing in Multiple Genres," were the following:

- In mystery fiction, justice prevails

- In romance fiction, love prevails

- In historical fiction, the details must be accurate right down to the clothing and the dialect.

- In horror, fantasy, and historical fiction, setting is of primary importance.

- The key to POV is consistency.

- Thrillers must include some kind of ticking clock.

- In traditional mystery fiction, the protagonist knows more than the reader; in suspense/thriller fiction, the reader knows more than the protagonist.

- In thrillers, the antagonist must be the equal of the protagonist.

- Literary fiction requires deep character development and usually addresses social issues.

- SF is mainly plot-oriented and appeals mostly to male readers.

- In fantasy fiction, world-building is all-important.

- High fantasy involves elves, fairies, etc.

- Low fantasy involves vampires, werewolves, etc.

Not that it matters, but during much of Carolyn's presentation about mystery/noir fiction it was gloomy and raining outside, and it even thundered once or twice when she mentioned horror stories. The woman is so talented she can control the weather.

Elements, my dear Watson

Another of the things she talked about in her session was the "elements" of fiction. All of us think of different things when we hear that term. Personally, I think of plot, character, dialogue, POV, and possibly setting. Carolyn's take on it wasn't too far from mine: she said the elements consist of (1) plot, (2) character, (3) setting, and (4) theme. I think her point was that these are the ingredients of a story or novel--and she's right. But I think of the elements of fiction in a different way. I see them as the things you have to be good at in order to write it well.

Example: One of the elements Carolyn names is theme, and while I agree that theme is certainly a part of a story, I don't think theme is something I have to worry much about, as a writer. I once heard someone say that you should never try to come up with a theme beforehand, because there's no need to; you should just write your story, and if the story's a good one, it'll have a theme. Another way of phrasing that, I suppose, is if it doesn't have a theme, then it's not much of a story and it won't sell anyway.

I believe Carolyn's mention of theme, here, is tied to a couple of her pieces of advice that I listed earlier: in mysteries the theme (the overall point) is "justice prevails," and in romances it's "love prevails." I think she was saying the author must know these things and keep them in mind during the writing process--otherwise, the story or novel will fail. Or at least it will fail as a mystery or a romance.

Another place where our "elements" list varies is that I think things like dialogue and viewpoint are so vitally important they should probably be included. And yes, I know, dialogue isn't something that has to be a part of every story--I sold one to the Strand a couple years ago that had no dialogue at all--but when it IS a part of the story, it has to be nearly perfect in order to work. Bad dialogue is like a torpedo hit to the engine room; your project can't survive it. And POV, while it's not something to obsess over, is still one of those things that can badly hurt your story if it's misused.


The other difference in our definitions is setting. Carolyn includes it in her list; sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. I agree with her that it's a necessary ingredient in a piece of fiction--it obviously has to be there, or the characters would have no place to live and talk and make the story happen. But I find myself worrying less and less about setting, the more I write. I sort of feel that if the setting is truly important to your story--if, let's say, your characters are on a desert island, or in a hut on Mt. Everest, or at the bottom of a mine shaft, or in a nuclear testing facility, or in a lifeboat--then you'd certainly be wise to spend some time and a lot of words describing that setting and making it crystal clear to the reader. But if your story is such that it could possibly be told just as well using a different setting, if for example most of your story involves a conversation between two people sitting in a city park, or a restaurant, or an apartment or an office building or a suburban backyard, etc., maybe it's not that necessary to spell out a lot of detail about their surroundings. Especially if it's short fiction. That's my opinion only, by the way, and I welcome any thoughts you might have on this.

NOTE: I assure you that Carolyn knows more about all this than I do--after all, she's the mentor and I'm the mentee, she's Obi-Wan and I'm Luke. (Well, maybe I'm C3PO.) Let me ask you: If you had to make a list, what would you consider to be the "elements" of a novel or a story? I've heard that some writers include such things as symbolism and conflict--and, to me, conflict is a part of plot. Different folks, different strokes.

Noms de plume

Yet another good point she made during her session was Use a pseudonym if you feel your fans/audience might not like a new or different genre. This was, I assume, one of the reasons that Nora Roberts is also J. D. Robb, John Camp is John Sandford, J.K. Rowling is Robert Galbraith, and Evan Hunter was Ed McBain (actually, neither Hunter nor McBain was his real name). As for Carolyn, she has written as Carolyn Haines, R. B. Chesterton, Lizzie Hart, and Caroline Burnes, and believe me, all those incarnations do a darn good job of writing.

Have any of you taken this approach, and decided to use one or more pen names? If so, did you do it because of a genre switch? Or did you choose to keep your own name (as Larry McMurtry and James Patterson have done) regardless of genre? Have any of you chosen a pseudonym for other reasons? This is a subject I find fascinating, probably because--even though I consider myself fairly imaginative--I doubt I would ever be able to come up with a suitable alias no matter how hard I tried. As the intoxicated writer once answered when asked for his pen name, I just say, "Bic."

And that's my pitch, for today. May all your trips to the seashore be sunny, not rainy; may all of us make progress toward mastering the elements of fiction no matter how they're defined; and if you've not read Carolyn Haines, under her own name or any other, I hope you will. There is much to be learned from her novels and short stories. Here's her web site. Prepare to be entertained!




BY THE WAY: Two weeks ago at this blog, when I wrote about my story that appears in the current print issue (July/August) of The Saturday Evening Post, I said I would include a link to it when it appeared online. That story, "Saving Grace," was finally posted on August 7. Also, I was asked awhile back to write a piece for EQMM's blog, Something Is Going to Happen, and that post, called "From Page to Screen," went live last week as well. If you have time to read either (or both), I hope you enjoy it (or them). See you on the 29th! 





14 August 2015

Minotaur and Mystery

By Dixon Hill

I'd like to welcome any aspiring writers who've stumbled across this post.

Pull up a chair.

Sit a while.

We like your sort here.

SleuthSayers can be thought of as the online home (or maybe "watering hole") for a collection of published writers and authors.  While we're all joined by the fact that we've published crime or mystery fiction, the fact is:

SleuthSayers writers have been published in a myriad of genres: Science Fiction, Romance, Historical and Young Adult, just to name a few.This blog provides an outlet where we share tricks of the trade, useful habits, and even gripes about what we've encountered while stumping through the publishing jungle.

For aspiring novelists or short story writers, the effluence from this literary wellspring can sometimes prove pure gold.  I've gleaned just the info I needed on more than one occasion, myself.  And I've read comments from many others who have too, in past posts.

You'll find How-To ..., How I did it ..., How I DO it ..., What went right?, and What went wrong? articles written by folks who've published numerous short stories in national magazines and several novels that did (or are doing) quite well out there on bookstore shelves.  In fact, some of these articles are written by people who owned bookstores, or worked as editors in the publishing industry. Other contributors teach (or have taught) college writing classes, but here on this website you get to tap their knowledge and experience for free.

And, that publishing jungle can be rough: the size of the challenge crushing the unwary, while the glacial pace of the industry forces long waits and grave doubts upon even the most active or the bravest of souls.  It can be easy to let your work become derailed.  God knows, there are a lot of writers' souls lost in that jungle out there.

The aspiring writer can find consolation here, however, written by successful folks who still have to deal with the dreaded Rejection Letter, editorial "black holes" that seem to simply swallow manuscripts for eternity, or even the drudgery of endless rewrites.  We've been there.  We ARE there.  We feel your pain, and commiserate.

One other useful item:  We occasionally post info about writing contests (or, at least, I do).  Minotaur Books (a division of St. Martin's Press) has teamed with the Mystery Writers of America, for instance, to sponsor the:

First Crime Novel Competition  If you're an unpublished novelist and can manage to submit a manuscript of at least 40,000 words, featuring a murder or other serious crime, by December 14, 2015, then you might like to enter.  The winner gets a contract and 10 Grand advance against royalties.  You'll find the publisher's details here. 

Good luck out there, to all who enter!

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon

13 August 2015

No Sex, Please, We're Skittish

by Eve Fisher

"If you mention sex at an AA meeting, even the non-smokers light up."
--Father Tom, "Learning to Live With Crazy People"
Agatha Christie.png
Agatha Christie

And so do a lot of mystery writers and readers.  There are those who write and/or love cozies, and want everything as asexual as they think Agatha Christie was.  Except, of course, that if you actually read your Agatha Christie, there's a lot of hot stuff going on:  In AT BERTRAM'S HOTEL, Ladislaw Malinowski is sleeping with both Elvira Blake and her mother Bess Sedgwick, and that fact alone is one of the major drivers of the plot.  In SAD CYPRESS, Roddy Welman's sudden, overwhelming attraction to Mary Gerrard makes everything homicidal possible.  And, in at least three novels, a man's lust for one woman, combined with his lust for money, makes it possible for him to marry and murder a rich wife.

Then there's the noir crowd:  


“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”
― Raymond Chandler, FAREWELL, MY LOVELY
“I loved her like a rabbit loves a rattlesnake.”
― James M. Cain, DOUBLE INDEMNITY
Brigid O'Shaughnessy: “I haven't lived a good life. I've been bad, worse than you could know.”
Sam Spade: “You know, that's good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we'd never get anywhere.”
― Dashiell Hammett, THE MALTESE FALCON

In noir, EVERYTHING is about sex.  That and greed.  But mostly sex, and often violent sex. (Prime examples are probably the "rip me" scene of James M. Cain's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE - and Mickey Spillane's VENGEANCE IS MINE, in which - and I think it's the first chapter - he beats a woman before having his way with her and she loves it all.)  The noir guys all moon over the virgins (Walter Huff over his victim's daughter; Mike Hammer over Velda), but the women who obsess them are anything but. And so of course they hurt them, twist them, torture them, betray them, all of the above.  Truth is, after a long day in noir-land, you want to yell at them, "Try somewhere else besides a bar to meet women!   Buy the girl some flowers!  Try to stay sober for ten minutes!" but it's all a waste of breath.  (Except, apparently, to Nick Charles who got a clue and a rich wife.)

And spies...

The upper center of the poster reads "Meet James Bond, secret agent 007. His new incredible women ... His new incredible enemies ... His new incredible adventures ..." To the right is Bond holding a gun, to the left a montage of women, fights and an explosion. On the bottom of the poster are the credits.

Spy stories, of course, depend on global locales, tech wizardry, constant weapons, supervillains, and a high body count for both sex and death.   Women, women, women, of all ethnicities, although Russian spies are a perennial favorite.  (Is it the accent, or the idea of nudity and fur?)  I just read a novel in which the male American spy and the female Russian spy were mutually obsessed, madly, madly in love/lust/etc., to the point where I really thought that the cover should be of her holding him against her exceptionally large chest, hair flowing like a female Fabio...  Anyway, sex drives these plots as well, no matter what the spy or the supervillain think, because - besides providing objects of rescue, thus securing another reason for the ensuing sex - 90% of the time at least one of those women is going to save the male spy from certain death. The game is to figure out which one by, say, page five.  

Horror.  Sex = death.  The survivor's a virgin.  What more can I say?  



So, to all of those who say that mysteries are all about cerebral detection, and that there isn't much place for sex in them - WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?  

As Oscar Wilde once said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”  

You could look it up...





12 August 2015

Hanging by Your Fingernails

by David Edgerley Gates

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, here's another story from the New Mexico headlines.


Santa Fe's police chief just resigned. Eric Garcia was on the job for about a year and a day. His immediate predecessor, Ray Rael, served a little under three years. Before that, there was Aric Wheeler (two years), Eric Johnson (three), Beverly Lennen (three), and John Denko (four), which is some kind of record. By comparison, Cathy Lanier in Washington, DC, has been the chief there for fifteen years.    

Why this pattern? you ask. We're talking about a police force with only 150+ officers, serving a population of some 69,000, which is a crappy staffing ratio, in a town with surprisingly high crime statistics for its size. Drug trafficking, gang-bangers, road rage, domestic violence, all the weaknesses flesh is heir to. From what I hear, morale in the rank-and-file, patrol officers, is pretty good, but they don't have much trust in chain of command. There seems to be a real issue with senior management. As a for instance, Chief Garcia was undermined by a group of his lieutenants who wrote a memo - leaked to the press - to the city manager, accusing the chief of favoritism in hiring practices and creating a hostile work environment. Might be something to it. In any case, it made his job all but impossible, and he quit.

It may well be that running a smaller police department is tougher than running a big one. Everybody probably knows everybody, and people hold grudges, promotions, salary levels, territory. It gets parochial. Any of us who've worked in a hierarchal company model, whether it's the military or a cubical farm, know you have to put up with dicks. It applies across the board. But active sabotage, trying to degrade a guy's authority and effectiveness, is a different order of business. It's sedition.

What happens in a situation like this, not to put too fine a point on
it, is that it jeopardizes public safety, for one, and it puts working cops in a bad position, too. If you've lost faith in the people serving over you, you're leaderless. Good generalship is as much about creating a climate of confidence as it is about strategy and politics, or communication skills. In other words, you follow a business plan. If this were the private sector, the Santa Fe PD would be in Chapter 11. I don't have anything prescriptive to suggest, because I'm not on the inside, but it seems pretty obvious the next chief can't come from the inside, because the internal divisions run too deep. Maybe it's not my place to say, but it's an embarrassment.


On the other hand, speaking as a writer, it makes for terrific soap opera, sorry to say. I like nothing better than blood in the water, everybody at daggers drawn. I use this kind of stuff all the time. It's red meat. Nothing like a good turf fight to bring out the worst. I just wish I didn't have such a wealth of material. It sucks.

11 August 2015

No Plot. Mo' Problem.

by Melissa Yi

Do you like to plot your story, point by point?

Fantasy writer Tim Powers advocated this method at my Writers of the Future winners’ workshop. He outlines his novel meticulously, sells it on proposal, and then never gets writers’ block because he just follows the outline he already wrote.

Sounds perfect, right? Except I like to just run to the computer and type madly, before my kids wake up and/or I have to run to work. Sometimes, I have almost no idea what came out of my fingers, except it was up to 1000 words and I’m done for the day.
My kids need supervision.

It means I’m a pantser (as in “flying by the seat of”). I let my characters shoot off their mouths, and possibly other body parts. They run into and out of danger. It’s a lot of fun. My characters really do surprise me, and my subconscious brain comes up with a lot of bizarre plot twists.

So the good news is that I’m 66,000 words into my latest Hope Sze novel, Human Remains.

The bad news is that I haven’t decided on a plot.

For me, if I don’t have a good plot, I don’t have the backbone of my mystery. Even though Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith teach that character and setting are the keys of mystery, especially important in a series character, I just can’t get a handle on a book when I’m constantly spinning new plot points and antagonists. It’s CRAZY.

Usually, I end up punching a bunch of words out, throwing half of them in the garbage, then stitching the survivors into a slamming good story, but it takes me so much time and energy that I spend a year or longer writing each mystery and I’m wrung out by the end of it.

So I probably should plot more.

What about you? Do you like to write into the darkness, or craft each scene in advance?A lil’ bit o’ both? Or just check out some illustrious suggestions from Jan Grape, which I discovered after I’d already written this column….

10 August 2015

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

by Susan Rogers Cooper

Back in the early 90's, I saw an article in the Austin paper about a family tragedy. The mother committed suicide in her car by carbon monoxide poisoning, but the garage was attached to the house and the door didn't shut properly. Her husband and three children all died. When investigators entered the house, they found a filthy horror – open pizza cartons next to dirty diapers, all three children on a mattress on the floor of a bedroom, sharing space with food and more dirty diapers.
But there was more to this story. In interviewing the mother's co-workers they found a real estate agent who was always dressed to the nines, and had a pristine car in which to take clients to view homes. The teachers at the two older children's school said the children were healthy and well dressed and quite respectful.
Reading this article I had one burning question: What happened to this woman when she stepped over the threshold of her own home? There was no answer in the article. It ended with the sad news that no extended family members ever claimed the bodies, and the only reminder of this family was a plaque on the playground of the school the older children attended.
And I kept asking myself why?

Since there were no answers given, I decided to make up my own, and wrote OTHER PEOPLE’S HOUSES, the third Milt Kovak mystery.

Years ago at a convention I heard two writers belittled the often asked fan question: “Where do your ideas come from?” They thought it was a dumb question. I disagree. I think the origin, the nut, of the idea is fascinating, and have asked the question myself of fellow writers.

In 1998, I went w/ my extended family to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was my daughter and me, along with both my brothers, their wives, and my two nephews. We rented a large house on the water and when we finally got to the island, a real estate lady led us to the house and then took us on a tour, explaining garbage pick up and water delivery (there’s very little water on St. John so it has to be shipped in from one of the larger islands.) In the middle of the living room, the real estate lady lifted up a section of the ceramic tile floor to reveal a cistern – a hole in the middle of the living room floor where the water was stored. Every single member of my family turned and looked at me. Finally, one of them said, “What a great place to hide a body.”

The real estate lady turned a little green and we had to explain my penchant for hiding dead bodies.

But that’s exactly what I did. In DON’T DRINK THE WATER, E.J. Pugh and her husband, her three sisters and their significant others, go to St. John and stay in the exact same house. First day in, the water pressure is way off – no one can take a shower, they go to investigate and voila!

All our ideas come from somewhere and is it any wonder that fans who love our books want to know where that kernel came from? If a writer can't answer that question, maybe the problem is theirs.

Just last week I was talking w/ a friend who had just taken her young daughter to the circus. She said they were standing around before the show, looking at the animals. Three year old Marissa was fascinated w/ the elephants. My friend said it made her nervous because they were so big, and what would happen if one of them got spooked?

And I thought, hum? What would happen? And how could you spook an elephant? A dart gun loaded w/ amphetamines? Then the elephant starts charging everything in site? And why? Because – because – because there’s this witness, see, that you need dead. But it needs to look like an accident, so---

That’s where ideas come from.




09 August 2015

Rocky King: The Hermit’s Cat

by Leigh Lundin

As mentioned last week (2nd August), Rocky King, Detective was shot live. Besides the thread of the plot, it adds a level of interest for me as I figure out how they managed the telecast on live television from the DuMont Studio premises.

This episode contains an outdoor scene utilizing a couple of different shots. The oncoming car headlights sequence is cleverly done. I imagine a couple of small light bulbs on a black-painted board moving closer to the camera. The camera shows a car wheel, not an actual car itself, rolling to a stop against the victim’s body. The scene in the garage was assembled with only a few props; at no time did the cameras leave the studio.

Note the touches of humor, some of it self-deprecating.
Norton (gardener): “I like to read these and sometimes I get scared.”
R.King: “Oh, detective magazines, huh. You can find out a lot from these, here.”

Norton: “They sure kill people funny ways, don’t they.”
R.King: “That depends on your sense of humor.”
Notice the hideous clown picture in the King family’s house at the beginning of the episode… it will come up again before the episode ends.

My apologies to Bonnie Stevens; even Rocky King, Detective, wasn't able to save the cat.

Grab your popcorn, settle in your armchair, and watch…

The Hermit’s Cat
broadcast: 1952-Aug-31


in which a cat dies and a lawyer loses the will to marry…

08 August 2015

Saving the Cat


by B.K. Stevens

In the delightful Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life (1991), the souls of the dead go to Judgment City, where they must prove they deserve to break free from the reincarnation cycle and move to a higher level of existence. During trials, prosecutors and defenders support their arguments by showing film clips from the dead person's life. (Yes, your most paranoid fantasies are true: Everything you've ever done has been filmed and filed, and can eventually be used against you.) The onward progress of Meryl Streep's character is assured by a clip from the night her house caught fire. We see her rushing out of the burning building, leading her two children to safety. Then we see her rushing back in, flames all around her, to emerge moments later with the family cat safe in her arms.

I don't know if Blake Snyder had this scene in mind when he wrote his 2005 guide to screenwriting, Save the Cat! It seems possible. Snyder defines a Save the Cat scene as "the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something--like saving a cat--that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him."
True, he admits, not all protagonists are sterling sorts likely to save cats or help old ladies across the street. He cites Pulp Fiction as an example of a movie with protagonists who are, to put it mildly, not very nice. (But even then, he argues, the writers manage to get us interested in the protagonists, to come close to sympathizing with them.)
 Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need
 
I think many insights in Snyder's book apply not only to movies but also to novels and stories. As a writer, I've found his ideas about plot structure helpful, and I've been careful to include Save the Cat scenes in the first chapters of my recently released novel (Interpretation of Murder) and my soon-to-be-released young adult novel (Fighting Chance). Much as I'd love to talk about my own books, though, I decided more authoritative examples would provide more convincing support for Snyder's ideas. So I pulled some mysteries and thrillers from my bookshelf, not quite at random, and looked for Save the Cat scenes.

I'll start with an obvious example, Tom Clancy's Patriot Games. Jack Ryan is strolling down a London street with his wife and daughter when he hears an explosion. Grenade, he realizes instantly. He hears a burst of gunfire, sees a Rolls Royce forced to a halt in the middle of the street, sees one man firing a rifle at it and another man racing toward its rear. IRA, Ryan thinks. He yanks his wife and daughter to the ground to keep them safe. Then he takes off. He tackles one attacker, grabs his gun, shoots the other attacker. Ryan gets shot, too, in the shoulder, but he hardly notices. He's done what he had to do. He's protected his family and stopped the attack. He's saved the cat. 






So now we know, after only a few pages, that Jack Ryan is observant, courageous, quick, and capable. His first thought is to keep his wife and daughter safe, but he doesn't hesitate to risk his own life to rescue the people in the Rolls. His actions match a pattern we easily recognize as heroic. If we want to keep reading about him, if we want to see him triumph, no wonder.

The second book I looked at was Dick Francis' Banker. Even before I read Save the Cat, I'd noticed how often Francis uses his first chapter to make us like and admire his protagonist. Banker begins when one of Tim Ekaterin's co-workers looks out a window at the bank and  sees an executive, Gordon Michaels, standing fully clothed in the courtyard fountain. The co-worker exclaims about it but does nothing more. Ekaterin "whisk[s] straight out of the deep-carpeted office, through the fire doors, down the flights of gritty stone staircase and across the marbled expanse of entrance hall." He rushes past a "uniformed man at the security desk," who presumably should know how to handle unsettling situations but instead stands "staring . . . with his fillings showing," past two customers who are frozen in place, "looking stunned." "I went past them at a rush into the open air," Ekaterin says, "and slowed only in the last few strides before the fountain."  He tries to reason with his boss and learns Michaels is gripped by hallucinations about "people with white faces," who are following him and are, presumably, up to no good. The chairman of the bank, a "firm and longtime" friend of Gordon Michaels, scurries into the courtyard. "My dear chap," he says to his friend, but evidently can think of nothing else to say, nothing else to do. He turns to Ekaterin."Do something, Tim," he says.







Banker
"So I stepped into the fountain," Tim Ekaterin says. He takes his boss by the arm, gently assures him he'll be safe even if he leaves the fountain, gets him to come into the bank, takes him home, helps get him into bed. Ekaterin's actions aren't heroic in a traditional sense--he's never in physical danger--but he's shown himself to be compassionate, intelligent, and determined. And he's acted. When other people are too stunned and stymied to do anything but stare, Ekaterin runs past them "at a rush" and solves the problem. He saves the cat.

Then there's Harry Kemelman's Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, the Edgar-winning first novel in the Rabbi Small series. David Small doesn't have much in common with Jack Ryan. He's slight and pale, he'd trip over his own feet if he tried to tackle a terrorist, and if he picked up an a bad guy's gun, he wouldn't know how to fire it. But he takes decisive actions when, in Chapter One, two of his congregants are locked in a silly dispute about damages to a car one borrowed from the other. The two men are longtime friends, but neither is willing to admit he could be at fault, and both are so angry and frustrated they refuse to talk to each other, or even to pray in the same room. Rabbi Small persuades them to submit their case to an informal rabbinic court at which he presides. As he explains his judgment, he applies centuries-old Talmudic principles to this contemporary situation, displaying deep knowledge of complicated texts, impressive mental agility, and penetrating insight into human nature. By the time he's finished, the two men are friends again, relieved to put their differences behind them. The dispute about the car has no relevance to the novel's central mystery, to the murder that hasn't yet been committed. But the scene has served its purpose. We like and admire Rabbi Small and want to keep reading about him. And, once again, the cat is safe.






Friday the Rabbi Slept Late
A week or so ago, I bought Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, embarrassed to realize I'd never read it. It's a mystery classic, I'm a mystery writer--high time I get down to business and read Rebecca. I started reading and felt the pull of that famous first sentence, of that haunting opening description--the trees, the smokeless chimneys, the threadlike drive, the nettles, the moonlight. Next comes the second chapter's account of a couple living in a comfortless hotel, welcoming boredom as an alternative to fear, waiting impatiently for newspapers that bring them scores from cricket matches and schoolboy sports--not because they care about such things, but because trivial news offers some relief from the "ennui" that otherwise envelopes them. Then Chapter Two merges into Chapter Three, into memories of a time when the narrator was dominated by the repellant Mrs. Van Hopper and felt incapable of fighting back. That's as far as I've gotten.

   
I'm not saying Rebecca isn't good. The quality of the writing impresses me, the situation beginning to develop in Chapter Three intrigues me, and generations of readers have loved this novel. There must be wonderful things lying ahead. But I've got to admit I missed a Save the Cat scene. As I read the opening chapters of Rebecca, I kept waiting for the narrator to do something.She didn't.
 

That, I think, is the essence of the Save the Cat scene. As Snyder says in his definition, "the hero does something"--his italics. Or, as the befuddled chairman in Banker says, "Do something, Tim"--my italics.

I think readers are drawn to protagonists who do things. I'd guess that's probably true of most readers, especially true of mystery readers. In mysteries, after all, there's always a problem to be solved, an injustice to be set right. Sitting around and feeling overwhelmed by circumstances doesn't cut it. Feeling sorry for oneself definitely doesn't cut it. If we're going to commit ourselves to spending time with a protagonist, we mystery readers want it to be someone who responds to a tough situation by taking action. We can forgive a protagonist who makes mistakes. Passivity, though--that's harder to forgive.

I fully intend to read the rest of Rebecca. But not yet. While I was browsing through my bookshelves to find examples for this post, I got hooked by a protagonist who does things, who knows how to save a cat. I'll finish reading Rebecca right after I finish re-reading Friday the Rabbi Slept Late.

07 August 2015

Biker Gangs & the Military

by R.T. Lawton

Myth has it that the Hell's Angels MC was started up by a group of military pilots in the years after World War II ended, however the current H.A.'s dispute that version of their origin. After some historical checking on their part, they claim there were several aviation units in WWII that used the name Hell's Angels as their unit's designation, but none of those were the guys who started the motorcycle gang. Myth or reality, it's not the past we have to worry about. Instead, we should be concerned with the current relationship between motorcycle gangs and the members of our nation's military, and where this relationship is going.

Several motorcycle gangs across America are now actively trying to recruit members of our military services. Why is that, you ask? Because people with military training have a multitude of skills that gangs can utilize to make their criminal endeavors stronger and more efficient. Weapons and explosives are two areas of expertise that gangs can turn into immediate use in their bids for territory and dominance in the environment of motorcycle gangs, or to make inroads into illicit business enterprises run by other criminal organizations, and even to make money from legitimate businessmen.

Other military skills such as combat tactics, communications and security also help the gang to tighten up their game, making it harder for a rival gang to compete against them. It can also make it more difficult for law enforcement to catch them in their criminal acts and then bring them successfully to trial.

For some military members back from deployment in a hostile country, a motorcycle gang offers the allure of continuing the excitement and adrenaline. An "us against them" mentality of being part of a special group. And, with the structured chain of command set up in most motorcycle gangs, it's a familiar type of leadership situation for the serviceman to transfer into.

Naturally, our military leaders have strong concerns about their people joining the ranks of any criminal organization. If it can be proved that a serviceman has an affiliation with a banned group, then he or she can be subject to discharge.

To avoid the appearance of an open affiliation, at least one gang, the Sons of Silence MC, has allegedly created a subgroup known as the Silent Warriors. This subgroup, according to two sources close to the SOS MC, is made up mostly of active members of the military. What can a Silent Warrior do for a 1% motorcycle gang? Well, for one thing, being an active member of today's military requires that person to have a clean record with law enforcement. And what does it take to purchase a firearm these days? Right, a records check. His clean record makes it easy for a Silent Warrior to conduct straw purchases of firearms for the gang.

As is necessary for their duties and training, members of the military have access to assault weapons, ammunition, explosives and detonators, night vision googles, ballistic vests and other equipment desirable for fighting against other groups. Of course when the military realizes that equipment has gone astray, they take follow-up action. For instance, our local army post locks down the entire fort while they search for the missing items. But, since the army also has other important matters to tend to, at some point, whether it is days or weeks, the lock down is lifted and the fort opens up again even if the stolen or "misplaced" items have not been located.

From time to time, agents from the Army CID, the ATF or other law enforcement agencies will conduct undercover operations to arrest those personnel who attempt to remove military equipment and weapons out through the back door. Unfortunately, it's impossible to catch every violator or to retrieve every stolen item. Some of those goods still get out to various criminal organizations, to include those motorcycle gangs which are actively pursuing them.

So what's the answer?

Good question.

06 August 2015

History: a Study in Coincidences

by Brian Thornton

"We are continually shaped by the forces of coincidence."

                                                                                                   – Paul Auster

Have you ever heard the one about how two men, born one year and and a hundred miles apart, went in different directions while still children, and grew up to be antagonists in this country's greatest internal struggle, the American Civil War?

Yes, that's right, Jefferson Davis, born in 1808, just outside what is now Fairview, Kentucky, spent his earliest days just about a hundred miles due west of Hodgenville, Kentucky, the closest metropolitan center to the hardscrabble farm that became the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln in 1809.


Davis' family moved south into the newly-settled lands along the lower Mississippi, where his father quickly established a successful plantation. Lincoln's father–an illiterate carpenter who resented both the slaves his elder brother had inherited along with the family farm upon their father's death and how slave labor undercut the fees free tradesmen could charge–uprooted his family and moved north, across the Ohio River into Indiana, and eventually into southern Illinois.

Davis' Birthplace in Kentucky – There is no accurate depiction of Lincoln's birthplace

This is just one example of the coincidences which pop up in history from time to time. I mean, think about it: through a coincidence of birth, the first openly abolitionist president and one of the antebellum South's wealthiest slave-owning politicians were born within a year of each other, in the same state, nearly next-door to each other, and yet look how differently they turned out!

Here's one you may not have heard about though.

 Two men, born on adjacent Caribbean islands, within five miles of each other, their birth places separated only by a shallow, two mile-wide stretch of ocean known as "The Narrows." Both of these men were born out of wedlock to members of their respective island's planter class. Both of their fathers were British-born and raised, coming out to the "Sugar Islands" seeking their fortunes.

The view from one of the Caribbean Islands mentioned above to the other Caribbean island mentioned above
Both of these men early demonstrated so much native intelligence that they were sent abroad (One to England, the other to New York City) to receive an education superior to the one they could have received at home.

Both of these men became very successful in both business and politics. They were both products of slave-holding societies during the 18th century, and it was on the subject of slavery that these two men could not have been further apart. One of them, impressed by the writings of Enlightenment philosophers on the subject, became a confirmed abolitionist at a time when it was rare for a gentleman, even those who found slavery distasteful, to express an interest in completely destroying the practice.

The other inherited his father's sugar plantation back home, and owned slaves until the very day the practice was abolished.

Oh, and there was one other area in which the two men vastly differed. Ethnically. One was Scottish and English, and the other was the half-Welsh son of a plantation owner and one of his black slaves, and thus born into slavery himself.

Care to guess which one was the abolitionist, and which one was the slave-owner?

Tune in right here in two weeks to find out.

Feel free to express an opinion or hazard a guess in the comments section.

See you in two weeks!


05 August 2015

As long as a piece of string

by Robert Lopresti

If you catch me talking to myself, don't worry.  No more than you usually worry about me, anyway.  I am practicing - rehearsing, I suppose.  In a few weeks I will be doing a signing at my local bookstore, and I will be reading from my new novel.

Which brings up an old question: how long should one of those events be?  My feeling is this:
* Five minutes of introductory prattle
* 20-30 minutes of reading
* Half an hour of Q&A.
* Two hours of frenzied crowds standing in line for autographed copies.

Okay, the last bullet is sheer fantasy, but do the rest of them sound right to you?

When my book of short stories came out last year I picked out a few fragments that added up to twenty minutes and thought I had nailed it.  But a friend of mine said that he thought it had been too short.

Trust me when I say I am not used to people telling me I don't talk enough.  That is not the standard complaint.

There is another complication in this case.  My current book, being about the Mafia, features a good deal of violence, sex, and profanity.  And I ain't reading those scenes out loud.

I deliberately created a few key scenes at the beginning that are free of those three special treats, figuring that those are the ones I would read.  Turns out they aren't long enough, so I expect I will bowdlerize a few naughty words, warning the audience in advance that they are being subject to censorship.  Any thoughts on that are welcome.

Hey, maybe nobody will show up and I won't have to worry about it.  But, regrettably my friends are extremely loyal and I can count on them.  Terrible the way I suffer.

So, writers: how do you organize a reading?  And readers: what do you hope for at one?


04 August 2015

The Importance of Mentors

Photo by Robin Templeton
by Barb Goffman

I'm so pleased to be joining the SleuthSayers blog. As I contemplated what to write in my first post here, I remembered another time when I was the new kid. It was the summer of 1993, and I was interning as a reporter at Newsday on Long Island. Newsday is a big newspaper now, but back then it was even bigger--its circulation placed it in the top ten of US daily newspapers. Getting that summer job was a huge deal, and I arrived on my first day excited and eager and more than a little nervous. And then I met my editor for the summer, Dennis Bell.

Dennis Bell
I've had my share of good and bad bosses over the years. Dennis was one of the best. He had a smile that even now, twenty plus years later, makes me break out into a smile of my own. Dennis believed in his reporters. He backed them up. He helped them improve. He came to a barbecue I threw and hung out with everyone, just one of the gang, kind and cool, a great mentor.

But Dennis was more than that. He was a guy who started out at Newsday as a janitor, and he worked his way up and became a reporter. He went on to win a Pulitzer Prize as part of a reporting team sent to cover famine in Ethiopia. And then he became an editor and tried to help young people succeed, just as he had. Dennis was a role model, someone I hoped to emulate in my career, and someone I hoped to keep in touch with forever.

Forever came to a screeching halt two years later when Dennis died. To this day, I'm still a bit heartbroken.

Yet Dennis lives on, not only in my memory, but surely in the memories of all the reporters who worked for him on the Suffolk County desk, as well as his family and friends. He lives on as reminder to work your hardest--you never know how far you can go--but to also have a little fun along the way. I hope to do that here at SleuthSayers: a good job talking about writing, and having a little fun while I'm at it.

My dog, Jingle. More on him later.
Which reminds me, I've told you about Dennis, but not much about me. After working as a reporter for a few years, I went to law school. And after working as an attorney for nearly a dozen years, I became a freelance fiction editor. In my spare time, I'm a voracious reader, and I've been writing crime short stories for more than a decade.

I've had the good fortune to win the Macavity and Silver Falchion awards for my short stories, and I've been named a finalist for other awards (eight times for the Agatha, and three times each for the Macavity and Anthony awards). Two years ago, Wildside Press published my first collection of short stories, Don't Get Mad, Get Even, which won the Silver Falchion for best collection of 2013. Being a short-story writer has been a ton of fun, and with hard work, tenacity, and a bit of luck, I've succeeded far beyond what I'd imagined the first day I put fingers to keyboard. I'd like to think that somewhere, Dennis Bell is grinning at me.

He may also be thinking of the advice he gave me before I left his employ: don't sweat the first six months of any job as a reporter. That's the time to get your feet wet and to get to know your beat. But after the end of your second six months, if you haven't gotten someone arrested, you're not doing your job right. So let's consider this my settling-in period here at SleuthSayers. I hope it turns out all right. Will anyone be arrested by this time next summer? Well, maybe in my short stories. Keep a look out for a character named Dennis. If you see him, you'll know he's one of the good guys.

Do you have a mentor who's made a big difference in your life? I'd love to hear about him or her.

03 August 2015

With a Little Help From My Friends


Mystery Author Jan Grape

                         by Jan Grape

When I'm writing fiction, I don't outline because I'm a seat-of-the-pants style writer. I also hate writing synopses. Recently, I had to write a synopsis for a Short Story. Now I'm having trouble writing the story. Any of y'all have a suggestion on how to unblock my muse?

I posted this statement yesterday on my author page and on my home page, tagging several published writers that I thought might have some idea for me. The responses were fantastic and I thought it would be a good idea to share.

Jan Burke: Next time use the old Nora Roberts trick--write the story, then the synopsis. (She did this book after book to make her editor happy. When the editor realized what was going on, she told Nora to stop bothering with the synopses.) For this one, tell yourself the truth--you don't have to follow the synopsis at all. It has nothing to do with you anymore. I promise you, if the story is good, no editor worth his or her salt will turn it down.

Nancy Pickard: Amen. Why did you "have" to write the synopsis, Jan? You don't have to say, I'm just nosy.

Alafair Burke: ^^^^Jan Burke is smart.

Billie Sue Mosiman: Jan Burke has the best advice possible.

Will Thornton: Always do it your way, Jan Grape. We don't do this for our sole income and living. It's therapy and very personal.

Ron Tatar: Sometimes I just let it sit, and when I come back to it I see things I missed. Once I looked at a scene I had written on a script, and realized that in ONE line of dialogue I had three key characters that hadn't been key before. Two got into the main character's goal and the other one the reason he was doing what he was doing. I was thrilled that what I missed was already there and I just had to find it.

Paul D. Marks: I agree with Jan (Burke), write the story first. I hate doing synopses or treatments. I have a lot of little tricks I do, take drives, listen to music, walk. Once when I was having trouble with something, I went down to Palm Desert and hung by the pool all day, wrote all night. But the real key for me anyway, is to just sit at the keyboard and write. Just let your characters talk and walk and it doesn't matter if you end up using any or all or none of it. You're getting to know them and see them in action. Eventually you'll break through--(I just happened to do a blog post for the Criminal Minds a few weeks ago if you want to check it out.)

Brendan DuBois: It seems like the act of writing the synopsis tossed you off--so I'd put the synopsis in the shredder, start fresh and just do it.

Robert Lopresti: I was going to say what Brendan said, but I also point out the piece Brendan wrote in the latest issue of The Third Degree, if you receive that. Some helpful hints there.

Les Roberts: Jan Grape and Jan Burke - as you both know, I've been good friends with Robert Crais for twenty-five years. One night, back in the day, we were talking over drinks and he said he always writes at least a sixty-page outline before he begins writing his book. I told him my "outline" is approximately two paragraphs about the plot, which I then put into a drawer and never read again. I told him while he was writing his sixty-page outline and or synopsis I was busy writing the first sixty pages of my book. I dunno - he's a GREAT writer and I really respect what he does - but for me, outlining just doesn't work.

Kathy Waller: Trying to outline makes me nervous. Tony Hillerman didn't outline. Said he couldn't. Good enough for me.

Jill D'Aubery: The one and only time I ever attempted to outline or synopsis a story and then write the thing I got as far as five pages into the actual writing when the characters took over and what was  going to be a humorous spy story with a ghost spy from the 19th century helping a modern day spy became a full-on unamusing, rather violent thriller with no ghosts at all. No suggestions. Just get the synopsis out of your head and ask the characters what's going on with the story. Then do what you always do - by the seat of your pants.

Louise Stone: Relax in a comfortable room, with a tape recorder, close your eyes; take deep breaths to fully relax, and let your mind wander on the subject of the story. Something will come.

Jan Grape: All these suggestions/ideas were excellent. And I did actually get to the bottom of y problem, thanks to something Nancy said, "Why did you HAVE to write the synopsis?"
As I thought about that I discovered what I think had happened. This was a new editor and I suppose the editor thought I needed to show that I was capable of writing a decent short story since I'd never done a story for this editor before. I think that by thinking the editor might not think I was capable somehow got stuck in my subconscious. My inner self was doubtful that I was capable. Silly me, I know. I know I'm capable. I won an Anthony Award for Best Short Story for goodness sake. Other stories I've written have been chosen for more than one anthology. I've been nominated and won other awards. I know I can do it. Thanks, Nancy, for asking that question and thanks, Jan and Brendan for reminding me I don't have to follow that synopsis. And thanks to Everyone for great ideas and suggestions. And for my friends, Amber, who said on my author page that I could smoke pot or have a glass of wine to help. To Jeff Baker, who wished he could do a "half-asshat synopsis. And to my sister, Sharla, who reminded me that somehow to just go back to my story idea before I was rudely interrupted by writing the synopsis and go for it.
And to my friend Les Roberts, who reminded me of his four word advice to aspiring writers: Shut Up and Write. Good advice for all of us. Now back to my story which is moving along nicely.

02 August 2015

Rocky King: Murder Scores a Knockout

by Leigh Lundin

Rocky King, Inside Detective, did not take himself too seriously. He was, after all, working for the DuMont Television Network, which was constantly starved for cash. Unlike flashier big-screen dicks, the down-to-earth detective proved popular with audiences. Played by Roscoe Karns, he enjoyed the domestic life, scraped by financially, and took his lunch to work.

Rocky’s wife Mabel never appeared on screen originally due to cost-savings measures so she could appear in other rôles without changing costumes. The audience loved that little twist and actress Grace Carney developed her own fan following. At the end of each program, actor Karns would ad-lib a conversation with his wife usually over the phone, ending with a signature sound bite, “Great gal, that Mabel.”

Roscoe Karns’ real-life wife Mary appeared at least once in the show. Their real-life son, Todd Karns, would eventually take over the rôle of Sergeant Lane, presently played by Earl Hammond in the episode presented below.

In the next few weeks, I’ll share more about Rocky King, but take note these broadcasts were performed live, mostly in the DuMont Tele-Center, often using the offices as impromptu sets. While live television suffered from miscues and occasional dropped lines, it’s fascinating to imagine the planning and logistics involved in telecasting a drama like this. Note this as we watch …

Murder Scores a Knockout
broadcast: 1952-Jul-13

In which a magician takes one drink too many…

01 August 2015

Now, That's a Different Story


by John M. Floyd



As some of you know, I write mostly short fiction. I've done SF, fantasy, romance, Westerns, horror, and all kinds of combinations, but most of my stories are mysteries, and for good reason: that's what I prefer to read. My favorite books, stories, and authors have always been in the mystery/crime/suspense genre.

I have also come to realize that a mystery story can sometimes fit into a non-mystery market. It probably won't surprise you that most of my mystery/crime stories are submitted first to either (1) themed anthologies or (2) magazines like AHMMEQMM, and The Strand. If you're a writer of that kind of fiction, I suspect that you do the same. But occasionally it makes sense to also send mystery stories to other kinds of magazines and anthos.

Post-production notes

A few months ago, I wrote a story called "Saving Grace," that was sort of a sentimental paranormal mystery. In fact I wrote it with the mystery mags firmly in mind, and planned from the start to submit it first to Hitchcock because they sometimes seem a bit more receptive than the others to stories with otherworldly plots. When I finished it, though, it had a "literary" feel to it as well--it dealt heavily with family relationships and the main character changes his outlook on life in the course of the story, etc.--so I decided to send it first to The Saturday Evening Post, which has been kind to me lately anyway. I was pleased to find that they liked it, and it wound up being published in their current print issue (July/August 2015). It will also be released online on August 7 at their web site--I'll try to remember to post a link to it in my next SleuthSayers column.

The idea for that story came to me years ago, from a Sidney Sheldon novel--I can't remember its name--that included what I considered a clever way to emotionally "connect" the reader to a protagonist. In that book, as I recall, an always-reliable female prison inmate had been asked by the warden to watch over his small child each day, out in the off-limits area near the prison gates. As any fan of crime fiction knows, routines can be risky, and sure enough, the inmate winds up planning an escape via the laundry truck that departs through that area every morning. But on that particular day, as she prepares to jump into the truck and hide on its way out of the prison grounds, the child she's babysitting slips and falls into a water tank and is about to drown. The inmate abandons her escape attempt, dives into the tank instead of into the truck, and saves the child. This happens early on and is not really that big a plot point in the novel, but it's one that stuck in my memory. After all, few things are more endearing to readers than the sacrifice of personal gain--the prisoner's freedom, in this case--in order to perform a noble and selfless act.

With that idea in the back of my mind, I built a story that begins with a situation happening in the present, goes back twenty-five years to tell a different story with a different plot, and then flashes forward again to the present for the conclusion. I sort of like that kind of "framed" story-within-a-story construction anyway, where the events of the past connect directly and unexpectedly to the protagonist's current dilemma. That of course doesn't work for every story, but for some it does--and when it does, it creates a "circular" ending that seems to appeal to readers.

The long and short of it

Consider this. My "Saving Grace" story is multi-genre, about 5000 words in length, uses two different storylines, teaches the protagonist a "life lesson," and features sixteen different characters and several different settings. I sold another story last week, called "A Friend in Need," that's a straight mystery, less than 700 words long, teaches no lessons at all (but is, hopefully, entertaining), and uses only one setting and a total of three characters, one of whom is only a voice on the telephone. That second story, not that it matters to this discussion, marked my 70th sale to Woman's World magazine. (If someone had told me, years ago, that I would write 70 stories for a women's magazine, I would probably have asked him to give me some of what he was smoking.) The really strange thing is, both those mysteries--different is so many ways--were equally enjoyable to write. And as it turns out, I was paid almost the same for both of them.

My point is, I think there will always be places to sell mystery/crime stories, short or long, lighthearted or profound, straight or diluted--and not just to the mystery pubs. All good stories need conflict, and I believe one of the two advantages of crime stories is that a degree of conflict is always there, already built in. (The other advantage is that in crime stories justice usually prevails, and readers are attracted to that.) If you don't like that kind of story, if you prefer reading/writing only "literary" fiction, so be it--or, as Arthur Fonzarelli might've said, Go sit on a watchman. Seriously, as for myself, having now read both of Harper Lee's novels, I've decided that one of the many reasons I prefer Mockingbird to its sequel (prequel?) is that TKaM was, at its core, a mystery story. It was of course many other kinds of fiction as well--Southern, coming-of-age, historical, courtroom drama, literary, etc.--but I think the mystery/suspense element involving Boo Radley was what made it special, and enduring.

Let's hear it for crossing genres



All of you are readers, and many of you are writers. To those of you who (exclusively or occasionally) write short mysteries: Do you always have certain markets in mind when you craft your stories? Do you write them and only then think of where they might be sent? Have you tried submitting any of your mystery/crime stories to a non-mystery publication? I'm a firm believer that some mystery stories and novels can be just as "literary" as the Zhivagos and the Cuckoo's Nests and the Grapes of Wraths of this world; in fact I would put crime/adventure novels like Mystic River and Deliverance and The Silence of the Lambs up against any of them, literaturewise. Pet peeve alert: Why should the fact that a crime is central to the plot (the widely accepted definition of mystery fiction) make it any less literary? Over the years, my mystery stories have sneaked in under the wire at Pleiades, Thema, The Atlantean Press Review, and several other so-called litmags.

You might even consider trying your mystery/suspense stories at other genre publications. I've not published any mysteries in places like Asimov's or Analog, but I see no reason you couldn't. Again, the presence of a crime doesn't exclude the elements of another genre as well. Look at the stories that spawned Blade Runner, or Minority Report, or even 3:10 to Yuma. I've sold plenty of crime stories to Western magazines.

The only advice I would presume to give, about all this, is (1) write the story or novel you want to write, without worrying much about the category; (2) submit it to an editor or publisher who'll make you proud if it's accepted; and then (3) forget it and write something else. I've been doing that for twenty-one years now.

God help me, I love it.