12 October 2015

Changes Are A Coming--Part 2


Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

As most of you already know, changes have come and things keep changing almost daily. Is publishing as we know it dead or dying? Are we heading for a world of "No real books?" Maybe, and seriously I hope not. E-readers are the future but for a little time longer I hope we continue with books made with paper.

Some words from my friend and fellow writer, Noreen Ayres regarding changes in the publishing landscape. She wrote this to the American Crime Writers League but, agreed to let me share it with all of you.
Advice proliferates in carefully thought-out newsletter pieces which a writer has stolen time to offer, the same for author blogs, and as topics in panels at writers' conferences. For instance, intricate advice is available in the July/August MWA newsletter as to how to go about self-publishing, an effort that formerly carried a stigma that has largely since vanished.

What I see in either traditional or self-publishing is an exhausting list of marketing and publicity demands requiring an author to have the vitality of a twenty-year-old, the available time of an unemployed person with no family demands, or the madness of an obsessive/compulsive idealist with ironclad armor. Bleak as it goes, some of us will simply say thanks for the wonderful party as long as it lasted and now it's time to move on to other endeavors and pleasures-if we can tear loose.

But I do want to offer this thought. When I heard Walter Mosley in the middle of his career answer the question about how to get published, I was (sadly) amused. He said he didn't know anything about anything, nothing at all. And let's not forget screenwriter William Goldman, in his "Adventures in the Screen Trade", offering his famous statement about the movie industry: "Nobody knows anything." What it means for any of us is that doors open for seemingly no reason and shut for the same. If we keep on and don't publish again, there's a bunch of trash for relatives to figure out what to do with. If we keep on and do publish, we make new friends, and friends are the second-best gift of love after family, wouldn't you say?

Just one more thing while I'm rattling on. The article I learned the most from as editor of our ACWL newsletter contained responses to my interviews with our true-crime author members. I will always admire the extra hard work of those whose research includes interviews of crime investigators, victims, or even perpetrators. If you're still "out there," authors, thanks again.

It is easy to get discouraged nowadays about publishing Yet I know people who are writing books like crazy and getting contracts from publishing houses. I think it still is true that you have to be read by the right editor at the right time. And the right time can be crucial. An editor admitted to me once that she bought a manuscript simply because she had set a coffee cup down on the top page, leaving coffee rings, so many times she was too embarrassed to send it back to the author and it just so happened she had an open slot. She immediately sent a contract. Okay, the book was good, not great and the editor hadn't totally decided to accept or reject but she did accept to keep from sending it back. I remember a writer years ago saying, getting published it like playing that arcade game where the Big Claw hovers over a pile of plush toys and occasionally the claw reaches down and grabs a winner. That's just about how it works.

However, many writers are turning to publishing books online as E-books. Some are putting their back list online as E-books and are making fairly good money doing so. Some publishers are publishing a book in hard copy and in their own imprint form of E-books. I know some authors who are doing both. Publishing with an established publishing house and also publishing new books as E-books. And many writers are using online publishing totally, having given up on being published by a brick and mortar publisher. Either way you go has to be what you think is the best thing for you. Where you can make enough money to continue this fond habit we have of wanting to tell a story.

My best advice is to Keep On Writing.

Now: A funny, frustrating cautionary true tale. Two weeks ago I went to Round Rock Kia, a car dealership in a northern suburb of Austin, to consider purchasing a newer pre-owned vehicle. It was late afternoon when I arrived around 6 p.m. I soon was test-driving and deciding on a brand new Kia Soul. I like the car a lot and since it was the last of the month and the 2015 line was closing out I was able to get a reasonable deal. Something I could afford. By the time I had signed reams and reams of paper, promising a pint of blood and the next male child born into my family I was ready to leave the dealer. I was the proud owner of what the company called an Alien Green 2015 Kia Soul. I called my sister a few minutes before I left as she lived nearby and I wanted to go by and show-off. It was 10 p.m. when I left the car place. I drove around the block and onto Interstate 35. Approximately a mile from the car dealer, I was sideswiped. My brand new car went...Kerruunnch. I wasn't hurt. My airbags didn't even deploy. My side view mirror was destroyed.

I couldn't believe it, there was a white car that passed right in front of me and there was an off ramp. I saw the car go off and I followed, thinking they were going to pull over and we'd exchange insurance information. Nope, they weren't into that. Stopping, I mean. I had slowed down looking for a place to pull over while the white car, way up ahead now, sped up and hopped back on the freeway. For a minute I thought I should follow and get their license number but then I realized it was foolish to do that. I pulled over and called my sister and told her what had happened. She reminded me that the police wouldn't come out they'd just have you fill out an accident report.

I drove to my sister's house and started to get out. That's when I discovered my door wouldn't open any more than a couple of inches. My brother-in-law said he could bang that binding metal out for me but I was afraid the insurance company might consider that tampering with the car so we left it alone and I drove the 65 mile trip to my house. Now picture a 76 year old woman with bursitis in the left hip and two knees that aren't the best, trying to climb over the console to get out the passenger door. Took several long minutes before I noticed the hand hold above the passenger door and lifted my "large bootie" out. I had been a little afraid I'd have to spend the night in my new damaged car.

Next morning I call my insurance agent at State Farm and verified that I was indeed covered and that my insurance covered a rental car. I had two things scheduled that I needed to go to so I made arrangements for the repair shop to get my door open for me. They did and the next day I took my new damaged car to be repaired. I got my car back yesterday and it is fixed good as new.
Thank goodness I wasn't hurt. Thank goodness I had good insurance. And now I don't have to worry about getting a ding in my new car. It's already been dinged.

However, I'm hoping karma has already bitten the driver of the white car and keeps on biting.

Until next time, drive safely.

11 October 2015

Spider-Mable


by Leigh Lundin

Spider-Mable
Spidey and
Spider-Mable
In the chillier climate of Canada, the harvests come in weeks earlier than in the States. As a result, Canada celebrates Thanksgiving tomorrow while we’re still planning– or dreading– Halloween. Nonetheless, Canada brings us a beautiful costume story.



The town of Edmonton may be freezing, but it’s warm of heart. Sadly, a bubble-headed villain named Mysterio struck, kidnapping hockey celebrity Andrew Ference of the Oilers. The call went out to… Spider-Mable.



The little heroine has been battling leukemia. When Make-a-Wish asked her what she’d like most, she wanted to become a crimefighter like Spiderman. The entire city of Edmonton called upon her to rescue the captain of the hockey team. The mayor personally invited Spider-Mable to his office to request her assistance. Warning: A lot of pepper spray still clouds the air as my blurry eyes discovered while working this story.



Clues led to the local zoo where Spiderman and Spider-Mable brought the dastardly Mysterio to justice.



After saving the day, the tiny heroine kindly consented to sign autographs for citizens of Edmonton.



Frankly, everyone in Edmonton is my hero.

10 October 2015

Write What You Know?


by B.K. Stevens

On a rainy night in late September (and this year, in Virginia, on just about every night in late September, it rained plenty), I had the pleasure of participating in a Mystery Writers of America panel at George Mason University's Fall for the Book festival. The moderator, fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, opened things up by asking us to respond to a time-honored piece of writing advice: "Write what you know." To what extent, Art asked, did we draw on our own experiences when we created our characters and stories? How much did we push beyond the limits of those experiences?

The question came exactly one week before the release of my young adult mystery, Fighting Chance (The Poisoned Pencil/Poisoned Pen Press). My protagonist is a seventeen-year-old male athlete growing up in a small town in Virginia. I'm a woman, I'm decades past seventeen, I was never an athlete at any age, and I grew up in Buffalo, New York. If it's smart to write what we know, I'm in trouble.

The situation made me think back to a guest blog I wrote several years ago for Sleuths' Ink, a writers' group in Springfield, Missouri. In that blog, I compared the views of several classic authors who express opinions about whether writers should stick to writing about what they know. I decided to go back to that topic in this month's SleuthSayer's post. If two or three people on the planet still remember my old Sleuth's Ink blog--and that's undoubtedly a generous estimate--I can assure you this post will be different. Among other things, two of the authors I'll discuss this time are new.

"Write what you know"--next to "show, don't tell," that's probably the advice fiction writers hear most often. It can feel painfully limiting. What if you want to write a war novel, and you've never been to war? You can research battles and weapons, you can read soldiers' memoirs, but can you really know how it feels to run forward into a barrage of bullets or hurl a hand grenade at another human being? Can you describe those moments vividly enough to bring them alive for readers? Or should you forget the war novel and stick to writing novels about preparing tax returns, or tempting toddlers to try new vegetables, or doing whatever else your personal experience has taught you how to do?

Jane Austen stuck to writing what she knew, and she apparently made a conscious decision to do so. In letters written in 1815  and 1816, James Clarke, the Prince Regent's librarian, urges her to broaden her horizons. But when he suggests she write about a learned clergyman, Austen says she lacks the necessary education. When Clarke suggests she write a historical romance about the royal house of Belgium, her refusal is more emphatic. "I could no more write a romance than an epic poem," she says. "I could not sit down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life." Austen insists she should write only about the people, places, and situations she knows best.: "I must keep to my own style, and go on in my own way."

CassandraAusten-JaneAusten(c.1810) hires.jpgDid she think all writers should follow her example? In an 1816 letter to her nephew Edward, Austen praises his "strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow." She contrasts them with her own novels, which she describes as "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labor." Some writers, Austen seems to imply, are right to attempt works with greater "variety" than her own.

It's possible, of course, that she didn't really admire her nephew's writing as much as she claims, and didn't really think so little of her own work. We all know how unreliable beta readers can be. But it's clear she thought some writers are wise to limit themselves to writing about what they know best.

Edith Wharton, in The Writing of Fiction, rejects such limits. "As to experience," she says, "the creative imagination can make a little go a long way, provided it remains long enough in the mind and is sufficiently brooded upon. One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, and the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break." The crucial thing for writers, according to Wharton, isn't experience itself. Even if your experiences are limited, your imagination can help you use what you've experienced as a basis for writing about what you haven't.

The Writing of FictionIf writers don't need to experience the things they write about, what do they need? Wharton sees two things as essential. First, writers must have emotional depth: "they must have hearts that can break." Could an emotionally stunted person create characters with powerful feelings, characters readers will care about? Also, writers must spend time reflecting about the events and emotions they've experienced, trying to understand them. Writers may not immediately recognize the significance in their own experiences. After an experience "remains long enough in the mind," however, its potential as the basis for fiction may become clear. 

Wharton's words echo Wordsworth's statement that poetry "takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." Both writers seem to agree that we should write not when experiences are new and emotions are raw but after some time has passed, after we've had time to think about what what happened. I'm struck, too, by Wharton's use of the word "brood." It calls to mind the image of a hen brooding over her eggs, warming them, nurturing the life within them. If we brood about our experiences, will we awaken the hidden life they hold? If so, maybe it's the quality of the brooding that matters most, rather than the experiences themselves. Maybe brooding is the key to finding a way to, in Wharton's phrase, "make a little go a long way."

Flannery O'Connor agrees. In "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," she has nothing good to say about people who "think they are already writers by virtue of some experience they've had." "These people," she says, "should be stifled with all deliberate speed." Not all Senators can write riveting political thrillers, and not all police detectives can write gripping mysteries.

If you're meant to be a writer, O'Connor says, you don't need a wide variety of experiences: "The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can't make something out of a little experience, you probably won't be able to make it out of a lot. The writer's business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it." Like Wharton, O'Connor emphasizes the importance of contemplating or brooding upon experience.

Flannery-O'Connor 1947.jpg Both Jane Austen and Flannery O'Connor led quiet lives. Neither ever married. Both died young. Unlike Austen, however, O'Connor sometimes chose to write about bizarre characters and violent situations that lay far outside her personal experience. These two authors chose different paths, but both created enduring works of fiction.

Henry James agrees a good writer can "make something out of a little experience." In "The Art of Fiction," James describes experience as a "huge spider-web" that can catch "every air-borne particle in its tissue." Like a spider web, an imaginative mind "takes to itself the faintest hints of life." A true writer can convert those hints into compelling fiction.

To illustrate his point, James describes an unnamed English novelist who wrote a highly praised tale about young French Protestants. When, people asked her, had she observed her subjects closely enough to be able to portray them so realistically? The novelist told James she'd simply passed an open door in Paris and glimpsed some young French Protestants sitting around a table. "The glimpse made a picture," James says. "It lasted only a moment, but that moment was an experience." Writers don't need much actual experience, not if they have active, fertile minds. The crucial thing, James says, is to "try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost!"

Henry James.jpg"Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost"--has better advice ever been offered to writers? Some people can pass through all sorts of experiences without gaining significant insights into them, or having much to say about them. Other people can grasp at "the faintest hints of life" and use them to create characters and situations that go far beyond their own experiences.

Write what you know? Sure. But if your talents and interests lead you in other directions, you can also write what you guess, what you imagine, what you conclude after careful thought, what you infer from the inevitably limited opportunities for experience any single human life supplies.

If you want to write a war novel but have never been to war, go ahead. Stephen Crane did that, and The Red Badge of Courage has given millions of readers insights into what it feels like to be locked in a battle they can neither control nor understand. Take what you know of fear, of desperation, of honor, and infuse it into a situation you've never directly experienced. If you've observed closely enough, if you've brooded long enough, if you've analyzed deeply enough and imagined fiercely enough, you might just have something.

(One final note--when this post appears, I'll be at Bouchercon. I'll have access to my husband's laptop, but I hate laptops. It takes me many minutes to peck out a single sentence, and I utter many unpleasant words while I'm doing it. I'll try, but I may not do a good job of replying to comments on Saturday. But I'll reply to every one once I get home on Sunday.)

09 October 2015

Jeanne Tovrea's Murder (Part 2)


Jeanne and Ed Tovrea
By Dixon Hill

[NOTE:  This is part of a series of posts designed to provide information concerning famous Phoenix crime scenes, and often providing their locations, in the belief it may be of interest to those attending Left Coast Crime's next annual meeting: Feb. 25th -28th in Phoenix, AZ.]

In today's post, we continue with the saga of the Tovrea wives.

Their P.V. home:
North of 35th St. & East of Lincoln Dr.
Initially, I wrote about the robbery of one Tovrea wife: Della Tovrea, wife of E.A. Tovrea, who lived in the Tovrea Mansion in Phoenix.  In my last post, I provided the first installment concerning the murder of Jeanne Tovrea in the couple's Paradise Valley home.

As you may recall: Jeanne married E.A. Tovrea's son, Edward Tovrea, in 1973.   And, while Valley society welcomed Jeanne with open arms, Jeanne's step children -- Edward Tovrea Jr. (better known as "Hap") and his sisters, Georgia and Priscilla -- considered her a gold-digger.  This feeling reportedly intensified after their father died in 1983, leaving each adult child with a $200,000 trust fund designed to pay out $1,500 monthly, while Jeanne received the bulk of his $8 million estate, including a large home in Paradise Valley and an expensive art collection
Jeanne was shot in this bed.

Roughly five years later, on April Fools Day of 1988, Jeanne was shot in the head five times with a .22 caliber weapon as she lay sleeping in bed.   Evidence seemed to indicate the killer had inside knowledge: the window entered through was reportedly the only weak point in the burglar alarm system, while indications on the white carpet that ran throughout the house showed the killer had made a quick beeline to Jeanne's bedroom without having to search for her beforehand.

Other odd circumstances also came to light:
  • Costume jewelry had been strewn about the bedroom, evidently to give the appearance that Jeanne had been killed during a botched robbery attempt, but expensive jewelry easily available in the next room lay undisturbed. 
  • Though the killer had entered through a window that raised no alarm, he left through a sliding glass door, setting off the alarm on the way out.  (Police suspected a contract killing, believing the killer had purposefully set off the alarm, after the deed was done, in order to provide rapid verification of the killing for his paymaster.)
  • Investigators soon discovered that Jeanne had been stalked by someone using the alias Gordon Phillips during the final weeks of her life.  Phillips had initially asked to interview her about her husband's POW experiences.  Ed Sr. had been captured after being shot down over the English Channel, in WWII, and later became a tunnel construction worker on what Hollywood would eventually dub: "The Great Escape."   Jeanne demurred, however, after learning Phillips was not who he claimed to be.  That was when he began leaving mysterious messages on her phone, and evidently began shadowing her.

Entry Point
Meanwhile, eighteen finger prints left throughout the home -- including on the glass pane opened in the kitchen window by the killer -- were found to match no one in the family or on the house staff.

Investigators frantically tried to find a connection between the man calling himself Gordon Phillips, those 18 unknown finger prints, and the murder.

But, to no avail.

The eighteen unidentifiable prints in the murder home blossomed to 208 as detectives worked the case over time, yet the murder weapon was never found.

And, instead of too few suspects, who might have the knowledge required for this 'inside job,' they had too many.

Ed Sr. had left his three children a $4 million trust that they could only tap into after their stepmother died.

Police also eyed Jeanne's married boyfriend -- a professional rodeo rider -- and his wife.  The suspect list included: a friend who had engaged in a sour land deal with Jeanne, land speculators the dead woman had crossed when doing business in the past, and even mobsters.  For a while, police also suspected Jeanne's own daughter, Deborah Nolan-Luster, because she received over $2 million when Jeanne died.

Meanwhile:  No one had a clue to the identity of Gordon Phillips.  Nor did they have any hard evidence, beyond those prints that they couldn't match to anyone.

Eventually, the case foundered.

In 1992, the case was reopened by Detective Ed Reynolds who felt determined to find the 55-year-old woman's killer.  He finally got a break in 1995, when an anonymous caller tipped police that "Butch" Harrod had once bragged of being involved in the killing.

The Prints on the Window
On September 14th, 1995 the detective interviewed 41-yr-old James "Butch" Harrod, a man previously best known for being an idea man whose ideas seldom bore fruit, but who nevertheless spent a lot of time bragging about them.

With the exception of a misdemeanor marijuana bust in the 1970's, he had no record. Police quickly learned, however, that 19 of the unidentified prints at the crime scene belonged to Butch, including one on the front gate, a dozen on the glass pane that had been lifted out so the murderer could gain entrance, and some inside the kitchen beyond that window.

Butch Harrod (Left) and Hap Tovrea (Right) 
Police believed Butch had been suborned by Hap Tovrea.  Even Maricopa County Attorney Rich Romley said, "I do not believe this is the whole story," after Butch's arrest.  Yet, Butch refused to confess, or to name any conspirators, though police tried to convince him that he was needlessly taking the fall for a friend who had used him.

"And old Hap Tovrea is ... laughing.  He conned you big time," Detective Reynolds told Butch.


But Butch wouldn't give in.  He told the Phoenix New Times newspaper: "It's obvious they're trying to prosecute someone else by using me.  Hap Tovrea is a flag-waving, searchlight-on-me suspect, I know that.  But I don't for a minute think he had anything to do with this."

That didn't keep police from raiding Hap Tovrea's home in La Holla, California in November of 1995, with a search warrant obtained, in part, with the supposed justification: "Edward Arthur 'Hap' Tovrea and James Cornel Harrod, a.k.a. Gordon Phillips, had entered in an agreement for Harrod to murder Jeanne Tovrea."  The motive, according to police documents, was money: each adult child of Ed Tovrea Sr. received $800,000 from a trust fund held by Jeanne when she died.  And there seems to have been evidence that Hap Tovrea was living beyond his means for years before that.

Police were unable to turn up any evidence during the search, however, so in 1987 Butch Harrod stood trial alone for the murder.  During the trial, Harrod's ex-wife, Anne -- evidently the 'anonymous caller' who tipped-off police -- testified that Butch had once bragged of "facilitating" the murder of Jeanne because Hap Tovrea had promised to pay him $100,000.  In later testimony, the jury learned there had been a flurry of phone calls between Butch and Hap during the days before the murder, and that a $35,000 payment had later been made to Butch by Hap's company.


In the end, Butch was found guilty of killing Jeanne Tovrea for money.  He has lived the rest of his life in prison.

But that makes little difference to most of the stake-holders in this situation.

Hap and his family members maintain that he had nothing to do with the murder.  Butch and his backers claim he was set up by powerful people who were trying to frame Hap for the killing.  Others argue for and against each, and some suggest the guilt of completely unnamed suspects.  The only link among these different factions is the similarity of strident voices and their no-holds-barred attitude.




As for myself, I consider two things:

First: the words of Detective Reynolds as he grilled Butch Harrod, according to a 1997 Phoenix New Times article: "You're not a professional killer. ... What would it take to get you to give me number one and number two and three? ..."  I ask myself if this means that, among those 209 prints at the crime scene, perhaps police have narrowed it down to all of them having been made by four people (three plus Butch Harrod).

E.A. Tovrea (Haps grandfather)

Secondly: I think of The Valley of my childhood, and consider the paraphrase of one older Phoenix resident, found in another New Times story : "I think of Big Daddy (E.A. Tovrea), who built that empire with handshake deals and a lot of hard work.  He knew how to handle cattle ... and people."  He adds that "The Tovreas kind of ruled things around here ... .  They were a family to recon with ... ."





I think of that when I look upon the Tovrea's old wedding cake-shaped "castle" sitting in the midst of a cactus garden in Phoenix.

See you in two weeks,
Dixon




08 October 2015

The First Cartel


by Eve Fisher

Well, probably not the first, but back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the main drug cartels were selling opium to Asia, and shipping the money home to Britain and the United States and the Netherlands.  And I'm not talking about little dribs and drabs:  in the mid-1800's, the opium trade provided one-third of British colonial revenues, and those millions of pounds (trillions in today's money) were just what actually made it home to the Crown.

The East India Company was the major player in India, where the opium was grown and processed. It was a private British joint-stock venture that effectively ruled India from 1757-1858.  Raw opium was processed into the smokeable stuff for the China market (in Western Europe, people preferred drinkable laudanum) - chests weighing about 133 pounds each, which went for $1,000 dollars (about $25,000 in today's money.)  The East India Company established a trading post in Canton, China in 1699, but leased out the trading rights to the trading companies, or hongs, which took the opium from Canton and smuggled it into China (via rivers, etc.).  The major players were:

Jardine and Matheson
  • Jardine, Matheson and Company, a/k/a The Honorable Company, was founded in 1832 in Canton with the partnership of William Jardine and James Matheson, both University of Edinburgh graduates. They were always the biggest trading company, or hong, and (having diversified heavily in the 20th century) are still going strong in Asia, even though they're incorporated out of Bermuda.  (Their official website is interesting: http://www.jardines.com/  NOTE: Jardine-Matheson was fictionalized - and I would say cleaned up to the point of unrecognizability - by James Clavell in Tai-Pan.)  
  • Dent & Company, another British smuggler under Thomas Dent's leadership.
  • The Dutch East India Company, about which I know tragically little.  
  • And the Americans:  Russell & Company was the major player.  One of the senior officers was Warren Delano, grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  (In case you're wondering where some of the Roosevelt money came from...)  The other officer, Samuel Russell, was filthy rich and left a Russell Trust, which (among other things) is the original source of endowment funding for the Skull & Bones Society at Yale.  
Jardine-Matheson, Dent & Company, and Russell & Company all began - unofficially - as agents of the East India Company, and then for the British government.  They also took on more "official" jobs. James Matheson was the Danish consul for years, Thomas Dent the Sardinian consul, even though neither were from either country.  And they became hugely rich.

You see, up until the early 1800s, there was a major trade imbalance with China (and you thought that was a modern phenomenon!).  There were a lot of reasons:  China wasn't particularly interested in trade, they kept the British and other merchants hemmed into specific treaty ports and didn't let them into the rest of the country, 90% of their population was too poor to buy anything, and finally, the British didn't have much that they wanted.  Except silver.  So, for 130 years, China sold the West silk, porcelain, navigation equipment, firecrackers, and above all, tea.  And since in those days trade involved either hard goods or hard cash, the British were being drained of silver at an alarming rate. And then someone got the bright idea to sell them opium.


Charles Elliot 
The fact that opium was illegal in China didn't matter.  The British smuggled it in, as much as 1,400 tons of opium a year.  And, as the opium flowed in, the silver flowed out (in 1800's dollars, $21,000,000 a year; in today's terms, multiply that by about 25,000, making it $52.5 trillion a year), destabilizing the Chinese economy, not to mention creating a huge number of hopeless drug addicts.  Eventually even the Imperial Court - locked up in the Forbidden City in distant Beijing - launched a war on drugs. The Emperor sent an imperial commissioner Lin Zexu to Canton, where he seized 2.6 million pounds of opium and burned it.  (A lot of boats sailed and held themselves downwind of that fire...)

Now the British charge d'affaires in Canton was Brian Thornton's and my favorite 19th century British agent, Captain Charles Elliot, R.N.  He basically said that that opium (despite being illegal) was the property of the British crown and the Chinese needed to reimburse the merchants.  They wouldn't, Elliot seized Hong Kong for starters, and the war was on.

There aren't too many wars which have been fought for the specific purpose of requiring the losing nation to legalize drugs.  The Opium Wars were about the only ones I can think of.  And, in terms of size and wealth disparities, it was the equivalent of the Colombian government aligning with the Colombian drug cartels to declare war on the United States in order to legalize cocaine in the 1970s. And winning.  And, getting the following results:
Sir Robert Hart
  • China had to open more treaty ports to foreigners.
  • China had to give Britain Hong Kong permanently.
  • China had to pay a $21,000,000 indemnity for all the costs of the war.  (In today's terms, $52 trillion.)
  • China had to give the British the right to set, control, and collect its own tariffs.  NOTE:  The Imperial Maritime Customs Service was manned by British officers from 1854-1950.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Look, it takes a long, long time to extort $52 trillion from any country, much less the additional revenues that Britain consistently expected. Over time, besides collecting maritime trade taxes and managing domestic customs administration, the IMCS collected maritime trade taxes, managed domestic customs administration, postal administration, harbor and waterway management, weather reporting, and published monthly Returns of Trade.  The most famous Inspector-General was Sir Robert Hart, who held the post from 1863-1911.  
  • All foreigners got the equivalent of diplomatic immunity (called extraterritoriality back then); the right to be tried only by its own consul (i.e., whichever Jardine-Matheson-Dent was there). What really stuck in the Chinese craw was that this was extended to any Chinese employees of foreigners, making them suddenly beyond Chinese law.
  • China had to allow foreigners to travel freely into the Chinese interior and live in Beijing.
  • China had to legalize opium.
  • China had to legalize Christianity.  (You may wonder why China was upset about this.  I'll talk more about that, and the one and only Karl Gutzlaff, missionary and opium trader, in another post.)
Opium Den, unromanticized by Hollywood

Imagine the United States having to submit to Colombian rule.  Or any other...  Imagine having a foreign power in charge of our taxes and tariffs for almost a hundred years.  Imagine having our country carved up into "spheres of influence", until there's hardly anything officially Chinese left. And now wonder why the Chinese have viewed, and still view, the West with suspicion.  We think we have excellent reasons to distrust China.  I'd say that if we do, it's called revenge.

07 October 2015

In the book, from the Book



by Robert Lopresti

I have a ridiculous three stories coming out in anthologies this fall.  I wrote about one of them here and here is number two.

Last year at Bouchercon in Long Beach there was a panel entitled "Jewish Noir."  I couldn't attend but my wife did and it turned out to be about an anthology that was being planned.  Afterwards Terri talked to the editor, Kenneth Wishnia.  She asked two questions: were there any openings left?  And did the authors have to be Jewish?  Ken replied: yes and no, in that order.

Now as it happens, I am not Jewish but my wife and daughter are, so I have some familiarity with the culture.  Could I come up with something appropriate in a hurry?

I remembered one of my favorite Jewish tales, a Midrash, meaning a story the Rabbis invented to explain something odd in the Bible.   It tells of Nachshon, a Hebrew slave in Egypt who saved the day at the parting of the Red Sea.  When I first heard the tale I loved it so much I wrote a song about it.  Now I saw how I could use it as the kernel of a story for the Jewish Noir anthology.

I checked it with my two favorite experts on Judaism, Steve Steinbock and Terri.  They offered useful suggestions.  (By the way, here is Steve discussing, among other things, my song on the subject.)

I wrote fast and what do you know?  Ken Wishnia bought it.  So I am happy that "Nakhshon" (all the stories had to use the same alliteration system) found a place beside stories by Marge Piercy, Harlan Ellison,  SJ Rozan, and many others.


Here's a video of that song, by the way:


*    *   *   *

Changing the subject!  Last week I gave you 25 movie quotations.  Here are the titles of the movies, and who said each line.

Oh, remember  I said there were two movies in a row based on books by the same author, with the same character?  Parker and Payback, based on novels about Parker, by Richard Stark.

Enjoy.

1. Your mother mates out of season. - Sam "George" Francisco (Mandy Patinkin) Alien Nation

2. Get off my lawn! -Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) Gran Torino

3. You can tell, you can really tell. You must be physic!  -  Lew Harper (Paul Newman)  Harper

4. Forget it Nick... it's Sandford. - Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) in Hot Fuzz.

5. -There's no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality.
-Yes sir. -Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart)/ Waiter (George Davis) In A Lonely Place

6. -I got a hot date.
-Yeah?  Who is she and what did you arrest her for?   - Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) / Bud White (Russell Crowe) L.A. Confidential

7. My name? If you knew that, you'd be as clever as me. -? (Daniel Craig) Layer Cake
8. -We makin' trouble for someone?
-Yep.
Which kind?
-The forever kind.   -Uncle John (Joe Dallesandro)/ Stacy (Nicky Katt  )  in The Limey

9. You're nobody till somebody shoots you.  - Earl (Laurence Mason) in The Lincoln Lawyer
 
10. Yeah, it's always heartwarming to see a prejudice defeated by a deeper prejudice.  -Cliff (Stephen Mendillo) Lone Star

11.  My old man used to say to me, probably the only thing we ever really agreed on, was that whoever has the money has the power. You might wanna jot that down in your book. It's something you're gonna need to remember.- Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode)  The Lookout.

12. I'm the girl they rush home from.  - Simone  (Cathy Tyson) Mona Lisa

13. I think all those stories about you being dead are true. You're just too thick-headed to admit it.  - Rosie (Maria Bello) Payback

14. -How do you sleep at night?
-I don't drink coffee after seven.   - Leslie Rodgers (Jennifer Lopez)/ Parker (Jason Statham) Parker

15. -I want to see my daughter.
-I don't think that would be a good idea.
-Why wouldn't that be a good idea?
-Because we hardly dared to look ourselves. - Duane Larsen (Michael O'Keefe)/ Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), The Pledge

16. Do I ice her?  Do I marry her?  -Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) Prizzi's Honor

17. I'll catch up with you guys.  I forgot my bullets.  - Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon)  Premium Rush

18. No, I do not want that in the house. That is my car gun. My house gun is already in the house. Now, put that back in the glove compartment, and don't let me catch you fooling with my guns again.  - Wynn Quantrill (William Daniels) The President's Analyst.
19. -Is life always this hard, or is it just when you're a kid?
-Always like this.  Mathilde (Natalie Portman ), Leon (Jean Reno)  The Professional

20.  Well, if the woman up there is Mrs. Bates... who's that woman buried out in Greenlawn Cemetery? - Sheriff Chambers (John McIntyre) Psycho

21. You'll never see one dollar of this money, because no ransom will ever be paid for my son. Not one dime, not one penny. Instead, I'm offering this money as a reward on your head. Dead or alive, it doesn't matter. - Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson) Ransom

22. Go ahead. Jump. He never loved you, so why go on living? Jump and it will all be over...  -Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) Rebecca

23. Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers. - John Rooney (Paul Newman) The Road to Perdition

24. - You ever kill anybody?
 - I hurt somebody's feelings once.  -Spence (Sean Bean) / Sam (Robert DeNiro) Ronin

25. -Where you going?
-To the Lincoln Memorial.
-It's closed.  It won't be open for another hour.
-I don't understand.
-He's an old man.  He needs his sleep.  -Luther Burton (Milton Berle)/ Girl Scout Leader (unidentified) Who's Minding The Mint?


06 October 2015

Murder at a Nudist Colony? Ah, the Joys of Research.


by Barb Goffman

Questions I've asked over the last few years that never would have crossed my mind before I became a mystery writer and editor:
  • If you're found with a murder victim and the police take your clothes for examination, will they also take your underwear?
  • If a murder occurs at a nudist colony, and the suspect is a colony member, how does the pat down work during arrest?
  • Is it easy to break into a home by crawling through a doggy door?
  • How does a groundhog react when cornered?
  • What's the approval process for exhuming a body? How hard is it to dig up a casket? What does an exhumed body look like? And smell like?
  • If I'm writing about someone who's a douchebag, when I spell out the word, is the bag removed from the douche?
  • How many synonyms are there for male genitalia, and why does the word johnson make some women laugh so much?
Yes, I now know the answers to all these questions. I'll give the answers below. But first, a few observations:

It pays to have friends. How do I know the answer to the underwear question? I asked my friend
Robin Burcell
author Robin Burcell, a former police detective, who's always there in a pinch to take my odd questions. Robin's not the only expert who helps mystery authors. Dr. Doug Lyle, Luci "the Poison Lady" Zahray, and Lee Lofland, another former member of the law-enforcement community, have all shared knowledge with me (and many other authors) over the years. A big thank you to you all.

It pays to have friends who pay attention. How did I even come up with the nudist colony question? I learned from my friend Donna Andrews (thank you, Donna) that a Catholic church in our neighborhood used to be the home of a nudist colony, and in the 1940s, a murder occurred
there. That sparked a very interesting discussion about where a nudist might try to hide a weapon (not having pockets and whatnot), and it
Donna Andrews
resulted in my story "Murder a la Mode," which appeared in the anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Second Helping. It's set at a nude Thanksgiving, and was a lot of fun to write.

It also pays to have friends with a good sense of humor. My unpublished novel involves a phone-sex operator, and writing it required coming up with a lot of synonyms for certain body parts. How a writer toils for her art. And what she learns, sometimes, is that the wrong word can take a reader from eagerly turning pages to laughing out loud. And not at an intended time, either. So thank you to my friend Laura Weatherly, who several years ago burst out laughing when she read about a man on the phone talking about his johnson. "You have to find another word," she told me. Done.

It pays to have access to the Internet. No, this isn't for research for the phone-sex book. It was for the groundhog research. When I began writing my short story "The Shadow Knows," (which is a finalist for the Macavity and the Anthony awards at this week's Bouchercon mystery convention), I knew I wanted to write a caper about a grumpy man who believes his town's groundhog is responsible for
Old groundhog who visited my yard.
every long winter, so he decides to get rid of him. But it wouldn't be a caper if things went smoothly. So I began researching things that could go wrong, and I learned many fun tidbits. Did you know that when groundhogs feel cornered, they might bite? Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg learned this the hard way. Thank you, Mister Mayor. Groundhogs will also squeal extremely loudly when upset, dig up drywall, and scratch with their long, sharp claws. All this detail went to good use in the story. Yes, research sure can be fun.

Now, back to the questions:
  • Will the police take your underwear? If the victim's blood has soaked through to them, they might indeed.
  • Can you break into a home by crawling through a doggy door? Yep, if you're petite. But beware: there's going to be a dog inside. And he might not be too happy with you.
  • What are the details about exhuming a body? Every state's process is different, but it's not that easy to get approval, and digging up a casket, then breaking the vault open, is hard work. And then there's the state the body might be in. I'll give you one word: mold. Yuck.
  • If I'm writing about someone who's a douchebag, when I spell out the word, is the bag removed from the douche? Nope. In this context, it's all one word. (And you thought copy editing was boring.)
  • How many synonyms are there for male genitalia, and why does the word johnson make some women laugh so much? This one, I'm leaving up to you to find out. Ask your friends. Make a party of it.
  • How does the pat down work during arrest of a nudist? This one ... well, you'll have to read "Murder a la Mode" to find out. It's too good to give away.
  • And, finally, how does a groundhog react when cornered? This question is answered above, but if you want to see the resulting story, which puts all the fun facts to good use, head over to my website: http://www.barbgoffman.com/The_Shadow_Knows.html
But don't stop there. All the other nominated stories are available online, too, through these links: http://www.bouchercon.info/nominees.html (for the Anthony finalists) and http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/06/read-all-macavity-short-story.html (for the Macavity finalists). You should check them all out, especially if you're going to vote. They're all good reading--no question about it.

So, authors, what's the most interesting question you've researched while writing? And readers, what's the most interesting tidbit you've learned from fiction? Please share your fun facts. I really want to know.


05 October 2015

Good Books and Old Movies, Part I


by Susan Rogers Cooper

I've been honored over the past few years to be asked to teach classes at Austin's Lifetime Learning Institute. This is a wonderful organization for people 55+ to take classes in just about anything and for a very nominal fee. I've taught classes on writing the mystery a couple of times, which is always fun – especially when I'm able to dazzle my students with guest speakers like Jan Grape and Joan Hess.

This semester I'm teaching a class called: “The Mystery: From Novel to Film.” We read the book, we watch the movie. And we compare and contrast. Our first book was John Buchan's “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” and, of course, we watched the Hitchcock movie version. There were a lot of differences, the main being that in the book there were no women – in the movie there were plenty. I preferred the movie myself. As did a lot of the class.

Our second movie was the William Powell and Myrna Loy version of Dashiel Hammett's “The Thin Man.” After rereading the book, I noted that the alcohol consumption was even higher in the book than in the movie, and those people could drink!

Tomorrow we watch the 1974 version of Dame Agatha's “Murder on the Orient Express,” with Albert Finney as Hercule. I'm rereading the book now and have come full circle in my appreciation of Christie's talent. She was amazing. Even knowing the ending, I'm still fascinated with how she got there.

It's going to take two classes to watch all of that very long movie, but the next, and last, movie will star two of my favorite actors in the film version of a book by one of my favorite writers: the Bogart and Bacall version of Raymond Chandler's “The Big Sleep.”

Teaching this class has given me a chance to reread some classic mysteries and re-watch some wonderful old movies. I'm already thinking about next semester and what new treasures I can share.

Any suggestions?

04 October 2015

SOS


by Leigh Lundin

The Prisoner
For a writer who doesn’t own a television, I’ve been watching a lot lately. Friends Steve and Sharon offered their home as an autumn retreat in exchange for house-sitting. And recently I was granted nearly unlimited access to television archives from the past decade, including difficult-to-find productions such as the 2009 update of The Prisoner.

Watching an entire miniseries or season at once offers advantages.
  • Without having to wait a week between episodes and potentially forget clues that occurred in the interim, the viewer gets the full, undiluted impact of the program.
  • Ads become a non-issue. Even with current, prime-time shows, I record episodes and watch them an hour or two later when I can skip ads.
  • Networks have a nasty habit of cancelling series, especially science fiction, but crime-related programs as well. Far too often, these series start with an over-arching plot that never gets resolved. Occasionally long-running programs sour. By having entire seasons on tap, the viewer can decide whether they wish to vest time in watching many hours of television programming that may go nowhere.
Longmire
The disadvantage is that such a viewer chatting with the water cooler set might not be au fait with the latest episode. Not just bubbly conversers, of course, because conversations continue on-line in blogs and Facebook. In this case, TV becomes a shared activity, a social glue that becomes part of our societal fabric.

It’s a choice of course, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the impact of Longmire for an hour or two, night after night for the duration.

SOS

My most serious complaint about television is what I call soap opera… well, to use the British spelling, soap opera shite. SOS is a catchall for the tacky interpersonal dramas inserted by hapless writers to pad out 47 minutes amid a dearth of ideas. While couched as characterization, SOS is a poor parody of characterization through a Bizarro ray, a devolution of unlasting relationships into superficiality, a script device that muddies everything it touches.

Perry Mason
Among the worst offenders have been legal dramas– LA Law, The Practice, Boston Legal, The Good Wife, etc. But also consider the grand exception, the 1957 original Perry Mason series, purist plots in black and white. If the show was re-imagined today, Paul Drake would be shedding his briefs with Della Street who is having an affair with the wife of a hitman hired by Hamilton Burger who’s the father of Perry and Paul’s love child secretly married to Lieutenant Tragg, sleeping with Judge Barlow’s court reporter who’s a secret CIA operative…

To be sure, some programs are deliberately set up to explore relationships between characters, the Sherlock series offering one example and Twin Peaks another. But, as we learned, Twin Peaks followed spiraling devolution as show runners encouraged mattress mix-and-match, pajama plug-and-play. SOS relationships have less structural integrity than a politician’s promise. In another hallmark, when writers can think of nothing else, one character will be found to work for the CIA (or NSA or MI-5).

Murder One
The Minimal Maxim
The axiom regarding television dramas is that creativity decreases as the number of episodes in a series increases and, as a corollary, increases the likelihood of SOS.
Over time, most television dramas descend into SOS, but a few manage to avoid the pitfalls such as the 1993 Murder One and the recent Murder in the First. True Detective also evaded the trap by devoting each season to one story but took matters a step further by completely revising season two with a new cast, plot, location, and theme music. Only its title remained the same.

Promising Premises

The premises of Limitless, Blindspot and Quantico are auspicious although the latter two show early signs of SOS peril. Viewers can hope for the best, but I want to touch upon another program.

The Player
The Player could turn out to be very, very good or really, really bad. It’s a combination of the once brilliant Person of Interest and… remember Admiral Poindexter’s Policy Analysis Market? For that alone, I’d give it a shot while wondering if something like PAM may secretly be happening. The Player's Vegas-based on-line casino gives high-rollers the opportunity to bet on the outcome of terrorism and police action, on life and death itself.

While I find the setup intriguing, the program needs to rapidly build characterization, something beyond fast cars and slow-mo fights. While star Philip Winchester has fully deployed all his first semester drama class skills, Wesley Snipes is its most interesting character. Well played, Mr. Snipes. Critics are betting against it, nearly 2-to-1, and they may be right.

Pure Escape

Escape Plan
I mentioned Person of Interest, which co-starred Jim Caviezel as quiet-spoken John Reese along with unassuming Michael Emerson as Harold Finch. Caviezel appeared as a hard-ass prison warden in a 2013 movie, Escape Plan. I was unaware of it when it made its initial rounds, but I caught it in one of those 3AM BlahTV channel reruns.

Normally, I wouldn’t expect to recommend a film starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger but, while the Escape Plan isn’t genius (50% positive rating), it takes an intelligent stab at plotting. It’s entertaining watching Stallone, who tests security by breaking out of prisons, do his jailbreak thing.

What is your take?

03 October 2015

Milestone



by John M. Floyd



I've been writing for so long now--21 years--that I no longer have many "first-time" happenings, in this business. But I did finally reach one of my goals recently: I had my first story published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. In the past, editor Janet Hutchings has been kind enough to buy a couple of my "mystery poems," but unlike many of my SleuthSayers colleagues, I had never before been able to sell her a short story. (Not for lack of trying, by the way.)

When I last saw her, Janet told me that one of the things that swayed her this time was that my story (it's called "Dentonville," in the November 2015 issue) was so offbeat. That's probably a good description. After all, one of the lead characters is a woman seven feet tall, with an attitude that's different as well--she's normally kindhearted but can be formidable when the situation requires it, and several situations in this story require it. The other main character is an easygoing accountant with a seven-year-old son and a shady past whose old enemies are being released from prison with revenge on their minds, and for most of the story he's not quite sure who (including the aforementioned giant mystery-woman) is friend or foe. The plot soon becomes complicated, with strange alliances and hidden agendas playing a big part in the outcome.

As for other reasons why "Dentonville" might've been accepted for publication, all I know is that we as authors occasionally run into a story that is just plain fun to write, and this one was. And sometimes I think that kind of enthusiasm comes through to the editor who's making the buy-or-don't-buy decision. Whatever the case, I'm thankful that this one made the cut.

Also, I received my author's copies a couple weeks ago, and I found--no surprise, here--that the other stories featured in the November issue are excellent. One of my favorites is "The Lake Tenant," by Brendan DuBois, a mystery that's told with almost no dialogue but paints an unforgettable picture of small-town New Hampshire. It also contains a lot of humor and some delicious twists and turns. Another favorite is "Ninth Caller," by Philip Lowery, from EQMM's Department of First Stories. It's a delightful account of a couple of women who decide to swindle a radio-station call-in program.

In the magazine's lead story, a group of ladies are again up to no good: veteran author Carolyn Hart spins a devious tale of murder between girlfriends in "What Goes Around." Later, in Katia Lief's "The Orchid Grower," a suburban housewife takes us on a fast-moving adventure in survival, and Brazilian author Raphael Montes's "Black Widow" introduces us--in a yarn told almost entirely in dialogue--to a suspicious but remarkable woman who has watched several husbands die after only a year or two of marriage with each. I won't spoil things by giving you a body count on any of these stories, but I will say there's plenty of misbehavior going on, and much of it by the fairer sex.

There are also stories about murder among the Florida elite ("A Killing at the Beausoleil" by my friend Terrie Moran), the ins and outs of professional women's wrestling ("The Female of the Species" by Chris Muessig and Steve Seder), and a serial killer with a Jack-the-Ripper-style M.O. ("Like Jack" by Peter Turnbull). On the lighter side, Golden Derringer Award winner James Powell gives us a story called "Guy Talk" about a private detective who just happens to be a hummingbird.

The quality of these other authors' stories in the November issue makes me even more proud to be featured among them.

Thanks, Janet, for allowing me into the party.




02 October 2015

Breaking Out Of Solitary


By Art Taylor

My first official post as a SleuthSayers contributor—my first big deadline here!—arrives at a busy confluence of events. The Fall for the Book festival, which I've helped run for more than 12 years at George Mason University, is still underway as this post appears (and battening down, scrambling to reorganize as a hurricane looms), and next week, Bouchercon begins down in Raleigh, and just a couple of weeks back, my first book came out (with all the busyness that entails), and on the same day as the launch party, I was a speaker at the Fairfax County Public Library's Book Club Conference and....

Well, the point of all this isn't that it's a busy time, but rather that I wanted to set up a focus on one of the elements that threads through all these various events.

My role at the library's Book Club Conference was to talk about how to moderate a book group—tips and tactics to help keep discussion going, keep the focus on the book (instead of the wine!), and keep everyone involved and engaged. Before I got into specific recommendations, however, I asked people what they wanted from a book club in the first place.

I already had my PowerPoint prepared—the next slide ready to provide my answer to the question—so I hoped that the comments from the attendees would jibe with my own thoughts and expectations, and it turned out they did. "I want to learn something." "I want to read a book I might otherwise not have picked up." "I want to see what other people thought about what we read." "I like getting together with friends." "I wanted to meet new people." Or even as simple as: "I wanted to do something different, and I learned that I liked it."

Here's the PowerPoint slide that I put up at the end of that part of the conversation:



And it's those bolded words at the bottom of the slide I want to talk about now—and not just in terms of reading, but also writing, another solitary act.

In certain circumstances, reading isn't a solitary act, of course. We can attend a reading; my wife and I can read to our son; and in fact, I read to my wife pretty regularly as part of our evening routine, as I talked about in a recent column for the Washington Independent Review of Books. But most of the time, reading is one person engaging with one book at their own individual pace.

Similar, writing can be a collaborative process, of course, but that image of the writer alone with her pen or alone in front of the computer is a persistent one for a reason. We engage with the page—trying to capture in words those characters and stories our imagination has conjured up.

The connection, then, becomes this: solitary writer --> piece of writing --> solitary reader. And in the process, there's also this connection implicit in that one: solitary writer --> solitary reader.

A book club provide the opportunity to expand that solitary reading experience into a shared one. What did you take from the book? What were your attitudes about this character? What did you think of the author's decision to....? And in the process, what emerges is: What did we think of....? —not a decision that will reach unanimity, but a conversation that serves to be bigger than the sum of its parts.

During all my years with Fall for the Book, there have been two types of moments that have struck me as central to our mission—and neither depends exclusively on the actual programming we've hosted year after year. Those readings and panel discussions are part of the larger engagement, of course: hearing authors read from or speak about their works. But what strikes me as more important is when a reader comes in holding a well-loved copy of a book and meets and asks a question of the person who wrote it—making manifest somehow the connection that already exists by virtue of those two solitary experiences I mentioned above, with the book as the connecting point. The other moment is when that reader turns to another person holding another well-loved copy of the same book and says something like, "Didn't you love it when....?"

A book club or a book festival serve to turn the solitary experience of reading into a communal experience, hopefully enriching connections and perspectives and understanding.

And for an event like Bouchercon ahead, opportunities exist not just to connect readers and writers but also to connect people within the community of writer. Networking is inevitably an important aspect of conferences. (How many people will be meeting with their agent or editor next week? How many will be looking for a new agent or courting an editor? How many might ask a writer friend to suggest an agent?) But beyond those more goal-oriented aspects, there's something more important that's gained by being not so alone—by meeting and greeting and sharing anecdotes with others who have elsewhere been toiling alone over those notebooks or in front of that screen, making physical and concrete those connections and that camaraderie that already exist in myriad ways.

I enjoyed your book. I admire your work so much. What you do—it matters, it meant something to me.

I just wanted to say that.




01 October 2015

Secondary Characters, Primary Purpose, Part Two


by Brian Thornton

(Part One of this subject can be found here.)

 Two weeks ago I began to delve into the importance of secondary characters, wherein I summed up with a series of questions and concluded with a promise:

I have been thinking of this sort of thing quite a bit lately, as I toil on my current Work-In-Progress. How do I make my secondary characters more organic? More believable? Less stock? How do I ensure that everyone who appears in my work serves a vital purpose, and isn't just some guy putting watermelons in a crate, or one of a couple of guys carrying a plate glass window back and forth across a street?

I have some answers, and I'll share them next week. If you've got ideas, drop them in the comment section, and I'll share them with the rest of the class in my next blog post in two short weeks.


The calendar confirms that it's a full two weeks later, and I'm gonna take its word for that, because it's September, and during this month, my day gig (teacher) keeps me hopping like Frogger crossing a highway, and I tend to be somewhat organizationally challenged.


That tiny, frantic flash of green you see in the screen capture above? Me in September.

And on that note, let's delve into secondary characters, what they are. what they aren't, and how you can use them to make your work better.

At best, a secondary character is a thumbnail. At worst, an iceberg.

Yup, this guy again.
Let's be clear what I'm talking about when I say "secondary characters." I am referring neither to what the theatre and film industries refer to as "supporting leads," nor to the sorts of stock characters who get a "walk-on" in your book, with maybe a line or two before making their exit, stage right.

I mean the ones who have enough screen time to be impactful, without being either protagonist, antagonist, or some sort of secondary lead. This can literally be a cast of thousands. It's easy to get lost in this sea of faces.

So how to make full, effective use of them?

My friend and colleague David Corbett says (I am paraphrasing here, not quoting, so forgive the inexact nature of the statement) that it's a mistake to think of the secondary characters in your novel (or the primary ones, for that matter) as existing independent of the work.

That makes so much sense to me that it effectively trumps all counterarguments save one: Noted critic and literary snob Harold Bloom has famously remarked that the character of Prince Hamlet in Shakespeare's play of the same name is so large, so fleshed out and so impactful, that he literally transcends the play (especially when Nicol Williamson, arguably the greatest film Hamlet EVER, plays him).

Greatest. Hamlet. Ever. And he wasn't half bad as Merlin a decade later in John Boorman's Excalibur.
Bloom is right.

Literary Sage/Crank Harold Bloom
But the melancholy Dane is the exception. And there's certainly never been a secondary character who so transcended the work of art that framed him.

For the rest of us (and this is especially true of secondary characters), they're one with their setting, appear when where and how they appear in order to suit the dictates of the author's plot/action. They do what they do not because it's in their best interests to do so, or because they're addicted to the actions in question. They don't do them because they love gay marriage or hate the color yellow.

They do the things they do in service to the story.

That.

Is.

Everything.

I realize there is a large and accomplished corner of the greater writing universe who embrace the notion of their characters having lives of their own, and doing things like whispering in the ears of the authors who created them. I've heard them speak at personal appearances and at conferences. I understand where they're coming from.

It does nothing to change the simple, immutable fact that characters do not exist outside of story.

That realization can be freeing. I know it certainly was for me once I came to it. When I heard Corbett say it out loud, he was only confirming for me what I had already worked out for myself.

And I repeat for emphasis: It was so freeing!

Now, before you start saying, "Wait a minute, what about believability? Continuity? What about making it realistic?


The maxim of service of the story takes care of all of that.

This is especially true for secondary characters.

Uberagent and successful writing guru Donald Maas has a thing he does where he has workshop denizens write down a series of observations about their characters: "What is your character's favorite color? Now write down a secret they've kept all their lives. What was the first job they ever had?" And so on.

As an exercise in fleshing out characters it is pretty effective.

And if you do it with secondary characters you'll waste time and drive yourself half out of your own skull.

That begs the question: how do we as writers give our secondary characters life without investing the sort of time/effort we do in our more fully fleshed out characters?

The answer in two weeks, when I wrap up this topic with "Secondary Characters, Primary Purpose, Part Two"!

Until then....