20 February 2016

A Writer's Guide to Booksignings


by John M. Floyd



My favorite story about signings was told by Erma Bombeck years ago. She said that during one of her booksigning events at a large store, only two people stopped by her signing table all day: one needed directions to the restroom and one asked her how much she wanted for the table. Funny story, but it can be a pretty accurate description of some of these signings. Nothing's ever certain, nothing's ever guaranteed. All you can do is show up, bring along a positive attitude, and hope you don't wind up sitting there twiddling your thumbs, or playing checkers with the manager in an otherwise empty store.

By the way, note that the title of this piece isn't "The Writer's Guide . . ."--it's "A Writer's Guide . . ." The opinions this writer will voice later are mine alone, and I welcome any and all opposing views (I might learn something).

The best of times/the worst of times

The nicest thing ever to happen to me at a booksigning occurred last spring, at a noon-to-four Saturday signing at a Books-A-Million in Meridian, Mississippi (about 100 miles east of my home). A middle-aged guy came in, saw me signing books, and introduced himself. He told me he had been here in this very store a week earlier, when he'd been driving through on I-20 on his way to Atlanta from his home in Dallas, and had spotted one of my books in the mystery section and had purchased it to have something to read during his spare time in Georgia. I thanked him for having done that, and he said, "No, thank you. The reason I'm here again is that I'm on my way back to Texas today and I liked the book so much I stopped in to buy your other four books too." That was of course music to my ears, and I would never have known anything about it if I hadn't happened to be signing there that afternoon.

On the flip side of that is a trip I made a couple years ago to a signing at an indie store elsewhere in the state. I ended up sitting there for three hours, staring out the window at the street and watching the parking meters expire. Not one customer came through the front door that afternoon. The owner of the store was as gracious as could be, and I enjoyed meeting her, but saleswise that was my worst day so far, at a signing. My best days at regular (non-special-event) signings have been at chain bookstores at Christmastime, and my best days otherwise have been the launch/kickoff signings for new books (all my launches so far have been at Lemuria, a wonderful independent bookstore here in Jackson). All writers seem to do well at those "special" events because they're widely publicized and attract friends and family.

It goes without saying that every author has his or her own approach to booksignings. Some sit there with arms folded and glare at everyone who passes, and others leap over tables in frantic pursuit of any customer who happens to glance in their direction. Most, thank goodness, use methods that fall somewhere between these two extremes.

Not that it matters, but here's what I have always done (or tried to do) at non-indie-store booksignings:


Ten-point checklist

1. I arrive early.

2. When I get there, I introduce myself to the manager and as many of the staff as I can. These are people you want on your side, and they're usually interesting folks anyhow.

3. If my signing area hasn't already been set up, I offer suggestions of where I'd like to be located. I've found that someplace near the front entrance works best. You might think that would be obvious, but some managers like to position their visiting authors in the in-store cafe area, or in an out-of-the-way spot to give them more room. That doesn't work well, for me. If you're in the cafe you're stuck among a bunch of folks more interested in eating and drinking and talking to each other than in buying your book--or having to listen to you talk to people about buying your book--and if you're in the back of the store or any other low-traffic area there's always the chance that a potential buyer will enter and leave without ever even knowing you're there.

4. Again, if everything hasn't been set up yet, I go back to the shelves or the storeroom and help the staff carry my books to my table. In some cases I've even lugged the table and chair to the signing area myself. Authors who consider themselves above these kinds of menial tasks should get a grip on reality. (Unless maybe they're Stephen King. Nobody's going to think less of me for doing it, because nobody knows who I am anyway.)

5. If there's an in-store cafe, I ask whoever's behind the counter for a bottle of water or a refillable cup of water to keep with me at the signing table. If he or she later happens to bring me a cookie or an apple danish to help sustain me during my ordeal, so much the better.

6. I remain standing most of the time, and use my chair only when I'm signing a book. But that's just me. And I'm careful never to have more than one chair at my table. I did that once, and a tired lady with two babies in a stroller wound up sitting there and talking to me for half an hour. She of course didn't buy a book.

7. I try to make eye contact and at least nod a greeting to shoppers when they enter the store or pass my table. If it seems natural enough, I'll walk over and hand them a brochure of my book and say, "I'm John Floyd--I'm here signing books today," and then get out of their way. I don't ask them if they like to read or if they like mystery stories or if they've heard of my books. There's a fine line here, between being proactive and being annoying, and I have an extremely low tolerance level for this kind of thing, when I'm the shopper. Besides, the person you give a brochure to will often come back later and want to hear about your books, and when that happens you have a far better chance of a sale. (NOTE: My publisher provides a simple three-fold color brochure for each book title, and to me those are more important than bookmarks, posters, or any other kind of promotional material.)

8. If a buyer wants me to personalize his or her book, I ask how the name is spelled. Even if it's John or Jane. And I have yet to guess correctly on Sara vs. Sarah.

9. I stick a bookmark (usually for one of my other titles) in every book I sign.

10. I leave late.


Random observations

If I have observed anything in the ten years I've been doing this (my first collection of shorts was published in '06), I have observed that a writer stands a better chance of selling a lot of books if he or she signs at a chain bookstore. Independent stores are fantastic and will always be dear to my heart, but unless you're hosting a launch or the store is in your hometown, I predict you'll sign more books at a Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, etc., simply because there'll be more people in the store. More foot-traffic equals more sales.

In the Believe-It-or-Not department, I have learned that you'll sell more books at a solo signing than at a joint signing with other authors. You'll probably have more fun at the multiple-author signings because you always meet new contacts and renew old friendships, but I can almost guarantee that you will sell fewer books. In my case, I always, always sell more if I'm the only writer signing in a particular venue on a particular day. I think it has something to do with human nature: a prospective buyer is much more likely to approach one person at a table than to approach a group of people, especially a group of people who might already be chatting with each other. Another thing I have found is that sometimes a reader will hesitate to buy a book from only one writer at a multi-author table for fear the other(s) might take offense. Maybe this is just a southern thing.

A third observation: If your best chance of selling a reasonable number of books is at a mega-bookstore, your least chance is (1) at a store that doesn't otherwise sell books and (2) a presentation to a group of people other than readers. Don't get me wrong: I gratefully accept invitations to do signings at coffeeshops and gift shops and to speak to groups at retirement homes and local schools--I spoke to a high-school class last week, and had a great time. But if we're talking profitability, those places obviously don't produce a lot of sales. I think the ten best-to-worst venues, in terms of the probability of selling/signing a lot of books at one time, are:

1. Chain bookstores (B&N, B.A.M, the now-defunct Borders, etc.)
2. Independent bookstores
3. Writers' conferences and book festivals (local, regional, national)
4. Book clubs
5. "Friends of the Library" groups
6. Other library events (brown-bag luncheons, author roundtables, etc.)
7. Civic club meetings (Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, etc.)
8. Area events (fairs, flea markets, church socials)
9. Stores other than bookstores
10. Senior centers and school classrooms

Many of you will certainly disagree with this ranking, and that's fine. Some authors' comfort level at something like a library or church event might be greater than at a more commercial or unfamiliar venue, and if that's true for you, do whatever works. Again, these are my observations only. Remember too that ANY of these opportunities is a lot better than sitting at home or in your publisher's office looking at your hopefully-good-but-possibly-dismal sales figures.

Let me mention a couple more advantages/disadvantages regarding chain bookstores vs. indies. Chain-store signings can sometimes be easier on the author because the books are usually already on the shelves (handled via the publisher and distributor), and you don't have to transport them to and from the store as you might at a smaller bookstore. Conversely, though, if you sell out of all your books in a chain store, they often won't allow you to bring more books in; at independent stores you can just go out to your car and fetch another stack.

A final note. I've found that the best signing times are the last two or three weekends before Mother's Day and the eight or ten weekends before Christmas. (At least here in the South.) My publisher always tries to schedule me at large bookstores almost every Saturday in December, November, and late October. For the past seven or eight years, I've even appeared at some of the same stores twice during the pre-Christmas season (once in October and once in December). I have never yet signed on Christmas Eve because that's family time for me, but that's obviously one of the best days of the year if it suits your schedule.

Questions

For those of you who are writers, where are the places you most enjoy signing books? At which places have you been most successful? Do you consider signings fun, or a chore? (I actually enjoy them.) Do you schedule your own events, or does your publisher handle that? Do you prefer solo signings or multi-author events? Do you ever try to schedule signings in different locations for different times of the same day? (I don't.) Have your sales been better at indie stores or the big chains? Do you or your publisher produce bookmarks and/or brochures, and do you use them during signings? Do you often speak to civic/library/school groups and sell your books there? How aggressive are you at approaching readers (potential buyers) at signings? Are you sick of shoppers who go into a bookstore, buy an Elf on the Shelf or a Batman T-shirt, and never once look at a book? Are you sick of these questions?

The truth is, unless you're a big-name writer, signings are a necessary task. Like 'em or not, they remain a great way to meet the reading public and move the books you've written. So, as my publisher would say, grin and bear it.

Is that name spelled Catherine or Katherine?



BY THE WAY . . . I'd like to announce that my friend and fellow writer Herschel Cozine will be posting a guest column in this space two weeks from now, on March 5. Be sure to tune in for that piece--I suspect it will be shorter than this one and I'm certain it will be better written. Herschel, welcome once again to SleuthSayers!






19 February 2016

Learning From Children's Books

By Art Taylor

I'm almost certain that I never read Arnold Lobel's books when I was a child myself—or at least none of them stand among all the many books I do remember reading and rereading and adoring when I was younger. Lobel, as many probably already know, was the author and illustrator behind nearly 100 books, some of which he wrote himself, some which he illustrated for others. Among his best-known creations are probably the various Frog and Toad books—Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970), Frog and Toad Together (1972), Frog and Toad All Year (1976), and Days with Frog and Toad (1979)—but he's also the author of Prince Bertram the Bad (1963), Small Pig (1969), Owl at Home (1975), Mouse Soup (1977), Uncle Elephant (1981), and the Caldecott Medal winner Fables (1980), among scores of others.

While many of these books were certainly published in time for me to have read them as a child myself, my own experiences with Lobel's books has come later. The son of an old girlfriend loved Small Pig, and the two of us bonded over a reading of it. One of my wife Tara's favorite childhood books was Prince Bertram the Bad, a well-worn copy now, and when our son Dash was born, I tracked down a pristine first edition of it for us to share with him. And in addition to that book, Dash has grown to love other of the titles above—particular those Frog and Toad books (a gift from good friends) and Uncle Elephant, the title that first introduced him to the idea of chapter books, of stories that add up to a larger story. (Is this the point where I plug my own novel-in-stories? Oh, well, why not?)

I don't know that there's any part of the day I enjoy better than reading stories with Dash, and when I get to pick the evening's books, I often gravitate toward the Lobel titles on his shelves—stories that strike me again and again with their simplicity, their beauty, and their humanity.

Many people may think of children's books as teaching opportunities on various levels. Children need to learn to read, of course (our Frog and Toad collection is part of the "I Can Read!" series), but there's also the sense of lessons being learned, values being instilled, often some moral to the story in many books at this level. And I'm certain that there are lessons to be found in Lobel's books too—in the case of Frog and Toad, lessons about what friendship means and how friendship works, clearly, and it's been argued, persuasively, that these books also promote positive images of same-sex relationships; here's just one essay of many on this idea.

What strikes me as much as those positive messages, however, is the fact that not everything in the books stays positive—which isn't to say that it's negative, but rather that the author seems to acknowledge and appreciate the foibles and faults of characters as much as their strengths; in the story "A Swim," Toad is embarrassed by people seeing his bathing suit and laughing at him, and while a conventional story might have Frog ease him out of his embarrassment, boosting his ego, saving his pride, this one has Frog laughing along with everyone else at the end of the story, because, as he says, "you do look funny in your bathing suit." The stories recognize too the capriciousness of the world, maybe even the indifference of the universe. I adore the story "The Surprise" in which Frog and Toad each sneak over to the other's yard to rake October's messy fallen leaves—such generosity!—but then, as each of them are returning home, a wind comes up and the piles of leaves that each of them have raked blow everywhere. With this twist, each of them get home to find not a freshly raked yard but the same old mess they'd left. As Frog says, "Tomorrow I will clean up the leaves that are all over my own lawn. How surprised Toad must be!" And in perfect balance, over at his own house, Toad says, "Tomorrow I will get to work and rake all of my own leaves. How surprised Frog must be!" The story ends with the sentence, "That night Frog and Toad were both happy when they each turned out the light and went to bed." O. Henry couldn't have done it better.

When I read Lobel with my son, I find myself not thinking of the lessons learned or the values instilled but of the sheer perfection—I do not use that word lightly—of the stories as stories...and of what I as a writer might take from them. I mentioned simplicity above as a hallmark of his work, but I'm often in awe of the brilliant balance in these stories: the establishment of character, the laying in of only the necessary elements, the balance of all those elements, and the rightness of the endings—which seem to me to strike that ideal mixture of being both surprising and inevitable...and, to fall back on that other word, all too human. In the story "Christmas Eve," Toad is worried that Frog is late for the holiday dinner but he doesn't know how late because his clock is broken. Stuck in that timelessness and the literally immeasurable waiting, Toad begins to imagine the worst that could've happened to his friend, and he begins to gather everything he needs to save him: a rope to pull him from the hole he must have fallen in, a lantern to guide him from wherever he's become lost, a frying pan to battle the beast who might be threatening him. Thus armed, he rushes out into the cold night—only to run into Frog coming in. "I am very sorry to be late," says Frog. "I was wrapping your present"—which is, of course....

The New York Times obituary for Lobel noted that drawing came easier for him than writing: ''Writing is very painful to me,'' he said in an interview in 1979. ''I have to force myself not to think in visual terms, because I know if I start to think of pictures, I'll cop out on the text.'' Whatever the process, the stories themselves prove that the pain paid off—at least for us readers and us writers too, who maybe can learn something of our own from all this.

What about others? Any other writers out there who can point to children's books or stories that have informed their own work? or that serve as a model for what you yourself want to do? I'm intrigued to hear—for selfish reasons, ultimately. Dash always needs more good things to read.

18 February 2016

The Good Soldier

by Eve Fisher

Fordmadoxford.jpg
Ford Madox Ford
I was on a panel about writing at our local library and the moderator asked each of us "What book or story would you love to have written, and have put your name to?"  My answer was - and is - The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford.

It may be the perfect novel.  I read it every year both for pleasure and to analyze its amazing structure.  Very short (under 200 pages), tightly woven, seemingly infinitely layered and complex, Ford himself said that "I had never really tried to put into any novel of mine all that I knew about writing...  On the day I was 40, I sat down to show what I could do – and The Good Soldier resulted."

It begins, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard."  And right there is the first hint that we're dealing with one of the most unreliable narrators in history.  Because John Dowell didn't hear this story:  he lived it.  John Dowell and his wife Florence, both Americans, meet Captain Edward Ashburnham and his wife, Leonora, of Branshaw Teleragh, England, at a spa in Nauheim, Germany, where Edward and Florence are being treated for heart ailments.  The Ashburnhams "take up" with the Dowells, and they spend all their time together for the next nine years.  Until it all collapses when Florence dies, and Dowell discovers a number of things:
  • that Edward and Florence having an affair, which he never knew.
  • that Florence never had a heart problem at all.  Instead, she'd faked a heart complaint to stay in Europe, originally so that she could continue her affair with her uncle's American bodyguard and helper, Jimmy. 
  • that Edward and Leonora hadn't spoken in private for perhaps twenty years.
  • that Edward was a serial philanderer, whose known adventures began with a conviction (!) for assaulting an Irish servant on a train.  
  • that Edward was now in love with his young ward, Nancy Rufford.  
  • that Florence killed herself... well, look down under questions...

From left: Jeremy Brett, Susan Fleetwood, Robin Ellis and Vickery Turner in the 1981 TV adaptation o
The 1981 TV adaptation, with Jeremy Brett and others
Dowell also admits a few things:
  • that he and Florence never had sex, because of her supposed heart problem.
  • that he is extremely glad to be rid of Florence.  Florence begins as "poor dear Florence" and ends up "a contaminating influence...  vulgar... a common flirt... an unstoppable talker..."
  • that he is now extremely wealthy, because Florence was an heiress. 
  • that he wants to marry Nancy Rufford. 
And then there are the things that are hinted at, implied, downright said but then denied.
  • Dowell admires Leonora Ashburnham more than any woman on earth, and also considers her "the villain of the piece".  
  • Dowell's admiration of certain men, beginning and ending with Edward Ashburnham, of whom he says, "I loved Edward Ashburnham - and that I love him because he was just myself.  If I had had the courage and the virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did..."  But there was also a nephew, Carter ("handsome and dark and gentle and tall and modest....  [whose] relatives... seemed to have something darkly mysterious against him") , and hints at others.  
  • Dowell's greed for the sensuous pleasures of life, from caviar to Kummel to... other things...
  • Dowell has never worked a day in his life.
The first reading of the book is heartbreaking.  Both Edward and Florence commit suicide, and Nancy Rufford goes insane.  Believe it or not, this is not a spoiler:  this is first chapter stuff.  The point is, that the first reading, gives you the plot, the second - maybe - gives you the motivations, and the third...  well, there's a lot of questions.
  • Why did Florence commit suicide?  Was she really that heartbroken about Edward and/or that terrified of Dowell?  (Dowell describes them both as "violent" men...) 
  • Did Florence commit suicide?  (There was a letter...) 
  • What was Dowell doing during the two to four hours between Florence's death and and the discovery of her body? 
  • Why did Dowell marry Florence, a woman he did not love, take her straight to Europe, and do everything she and the doctors told him to?  
  • How many women was Edward Ashburnham involved with?  (Six are detailed, but there's also "the poor girl, the daughter of one of his gardeners" who was accused of murdering her baby at the end...) 
  • Did Edward commit suicide?  And how?  Two different ways are given...
  • What about Edward's alcoholism?  
  • What about Dowell's alcoholism?
In other words, what the blazing hell really happened?

And all is told in a magnificent, elegiac, Edwardian style that is rich as plumcake.  Read it, and let me know what you think.

Available at Gutenberg Press for free at:  Gutenberg Press Edition
Available on Kindle for free at Kindle Edition
(Though I still prefer a hard copy, where I can scribble notes - almost as cryptic as the text - all over it...)

Also, the most interesting article of all that I've ever found on "The Good Soldier" compares Ford Madox Ford to H. P. Lovecraft:  "Ford Madox Ford: As Scary as HP Lovecraft?"



Maybe...

17 February 2016

The Two and Only

by Robert Lopresti

NOTE: I wrote the first paragraph BEFORE Justice Scalia passed away.

I am sure you have noticed that a lot of celebrities have died so far in 2016.   I mean no disrespect to the rock stars and actors who have passed, but the death that meant the most to me was that of a 92-year-old comedian.

Bob Elliott was one half of Bob and Ray, who made a lot of people laugh for 40 years.  (Ray Goulding died in 1990.)  Dave Letterman once said that if you wanted to know if someone had a good sense of humor, just ask them if they like Bob and Ray.

While they occasionally dabbled in TV, movies, and even Broadway, radio was their natural habitat.  They were sketch artists (like Key and Peele, or Nichols and May) as opposed to persona comics (like Burns and Allen, or the Smothers Brothers, who always played the same characters).

Here are videos of a few of their best bits:
Most Beautiful Face
Slow Talkers of America
The Komodo Dragon Expert (Okay, it's audio only.  But it's my favorite.)

Each of those is in interview format, which is easy to do on TV (or Broadway) but on the radio they used to do dramas as well, including their own versions of some familiar crime shows.

For example, anyone who remembers a certain series that was very popular on radio, then TV - then a decade later again on TV - will recognize the summing up at the end of  "Squad Car 119."
...The suspect apprehended in that case at Rossmore and LaBrea was convicted on three counts of being apprehended and one count of being a suspect.  Apprehended suspects are punishable under state law by a term of not less than five years in the correctional institution at Soledad.

And there was "Blimmix," about a tough private eye who gets beaten up in every episode, by people such as this:
I'm with Rent-a-Thug, Incorporated.  A lot of the syndicate people are letting their regular hoodlums go and utilizing our service for machine-gunnings and roughing up and things like that.  It saves all the bookwork that goes with having full-time employees.

Or "Rorshack," about a hard-as-nails New York police lieutenant.  In this case he has misplaced ten cents:
Steinberg, search every customer in the store.  If you find one concealing a dime, kill him.  Lopez, put out an A.P.B. for anybody trying to pass a coin with Roosevelt's picture on it.  Caruso, you take the bus stations, airports, rail terminals.  Nobody goes in or out of this city until I give the word.

Bob and Ray were invariably described as low-key.  (Bob once said they were both both straight men) but I liked them best when they went, well, surreal, like in this episode of "Fern Ock Veek, Sickly Whale Oil Processor," about an Eskimo co-ed from California hiding out in the Alaskan bush:
FERN: I suppose I could go back to U.C.L.A. and hide out for a while.  So many of the students there are on the lam that they'd never notice one more.
OFFICER WISHMILLER: That's a great idea.  And even if they did find you, you'd be in another state and could fight extradition.
FERN: No.  If I recall, I fought him once and he knocked me cold in the third round.  I certainly don't want any more of that.
OFFICER WISHMILLER: Fern, I think you have extradition confused in your mind with Muhammad Ali.

I could go on, but I'll restrain myself.  Write if you get work, Bob.  And hang by your thumbs.

16 February 2016

Creative Drought

by Melissa Yi
I don’t usually talk about writer’s block because I’m more like a machine. Working in the emergency room? I’ll do 500 words before or after my shift. Not working? Bump it up to 1000. More if possible, but set the bar low so you can always hit the target. That was my recipe for years.

Usually, if the creative juices aren’t flowing, I can switch to non-fiction or poetry and get the job done. I can write about a patient I saw or the cuteness of my kids without batting an eye.

But recently, I’m not feeling it.

Only once before did I take a break from writing, after a death in the family. I’d been forcing myself to keep going, keep marching, soldier, at 2000 words/day, until I mentioned it to Kris Rusch/Nelscott, and she said something like, “I’m surprised you’re still writing. You could make yourself hate it that way.” Slowly, I let myself recuperate.

I found myself trying a few creative things like sketching or baking. The funniest example was that I made a zucchini chocolate chip cake with treats baked inside. My friend forgot to tell one of the construction workers who ate it and ended up chewing on a ring. And eventually, I started writing again.
Author Allie Larkin talks about balance here.
This time, it’s much more insidious. After burning myself out in December, and now starting a new job as a hospitalist, where I have to work every day, looking after admitted patients, instead of working erratic hours as an emergency doctor, I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing this week. I was working on a back pain book in January, so it’s not like I was overflowing with outlandish ideas before that.
This is not going to be a cheery list of ten ways to break writer’s block. Just a note that I’ve been here before. I had to refill the well, and then I carried on.

I recently picked up a book by David Whyte called The Three Marriages. His theory is that during your lifetime, you will generally marry another person, a career, and yourself.

By marrying yourself, you listen to your heart and what you want, not the external demands of money, prestige, or your partner’s demands. That can be hard to do. When I was sick but still dragged myself to the Cornwall Public Library’s annual party to celebrate volunteers, one of the coordinators asked me how I was doing as a person. Not as a doctor, not as a writer, but as myself. And I was silenced, because it feels like people approve of my accomplishments, but most of them don’t know the human being underneath.

After burning out, I decided not to flagellate myself anymore. I will do my best. But if the words don’t get written every single day or night, I won’t fret. I’ll just write again the next day.

The flip side is that during this week as a hospitalist, I haven’t made the time. But that’s okay. I wanted to spend my energy on medicine this week, and I did. My time is up on Tuesday, and then I have 24 hours before I start up as an emergency doctor again.

Buddhism talks about not getting fixed on ideas and labels about ourselves. “I am a writer.” “I am a doctor.” Labels change. Life is long. Things are fluid.

What about you? Have you ever encountered writer’s block? What did you do?

15 February 2016

Confessions of an Addict

by Susan Rogers Cooper

I'm an addict. I wasn't exactly born this way, but, to my shame, I was encouraged by my parents, and my peers. It started small: a little Nancy Drew, a couple of Hardy Boys, the elusive Winslow Brothers. It didn't take long before I was mainlining Agatha Christie. For a while I switched drugs, went with Steinbeck and McCullers and a few Russians. But your first hit is always the best: I found John D. MacDonald and I was back on the hard stuff.

It wasn't until my mid-thirties that I became a truly hard-core addict. I'd played around with the real drugs a little as a kid, writing short stories and plays, starting a couple of novels. But in my mid-thirties it hit me: I should try writing mystery! Oh the rush. The tingle of my nerve ends. The fast beating heart. And so it began, this never-ending torture of writing a mystery. How many times have I told myself you can stop this. All you have to do is turn off the computer! And I do! Lord help me, I do! Every night I turn the damn thing off.

But then the morning comes. I try to ignore the siren song, but it just sits there, right in my living room, taunting me. Beckoning me. “Just turn me on,” it says. “You don't have to write. You need to check your email, don't you? You need to see what's on Facebook, right? Maybe play a game or two? It'll be okay. Really.”

But it isn't. Oh, I can do all those things: email, Facebook, a game or two, but in the end I'm right back at it: writing a mystery.

The books do end, which is just a hoax, really. My agent wants me to change this, my editor wants me to change that. Then the copy editor and the galley copies and it's over! But it isn't. Not really. Because the buzz is going on in my head, and my pulse is beginning to race. A new idea is forming. And it wants to come out and play. I've tried to stop. I held off for almost six months once, but this addiction has me by the balls. If I had balls. One day I might be able to pull it off. To stop. To end this torture of endless hours at the computer, of trying to figure out why one character did that when the other character should have seen it coming. Of wondering if there really is a plot, or if I'm just fooling myself. One day. Or I'll die trying.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Is it too obvious that I've been binge watching “Nurse Jackie” on Netflix? I didn't think so.

14 February 2016

Abe Lincoln's Mystery

Lincoln
by Leigh Lundin

Abe Lincoln: rail splitter, a riverboat crewman, an inventor, a country lawyer, a congressman, a poet, a president, the great emancipator… and murder mystery author.

Tomorrow is Presidents Day in celebration of our great presidents, Abraham Lincoln (12 Feb), George Washington (22 Feb), and in some states, Thomas Jefferson (13 Apr). To honor them, SleuthSayers brings you a murder mystery written by our 16th president. (Bet you didn’t see that coming.)

We normally picture the lawyerish Lincoln involved in contracts and torts, bailments and agreements, the dry essence of civil law. The man also practised criminal law. He’s particularly recognized for winning what became known as the Almanac Case, in which he looked up the position of the moon in lunar tables to discredit a witness.

Lincoln
Earlier, Lincoln wrote “A Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder” back when he was still a country lawyer. To be candid, it’s not a murder mystery in the expected sense, but based upon an actual 1841 case in which Lincoln defended one of three brothers accused of murder. His client didn’t pay him, so Honest Abe monetized the experience in a different way… by selling a story about it. Fortunately, he went on to other pursuits and the rest, as they say, is history.

Unlike traditional murder mysteries, the story doesn’t contain the customary dénouement. It’s written as a puzzling happenstance without a true resolution. Some contend Wilkie Collins’ charming 1873 novella, The Dead Alive (a.k.a John Jago’s Ghost) suggests a solution for Lincoln’s story, but in fact Collins based his tale on another American true crime story known as the Boorn Brothers murder case.


Now from the Presidential files…

The Trailor Murder Mystery

A Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder
by Abraham Lincoln

In the year 1841, there resided, at different points in the State of Illinois, three brothers by the name of Trailor. Their Christian names were William, Henry and Archibald. Archibald resided at Springfield, then as now the seat of Government of the State. He was a sober, retiring, and industrious man, of about thirty years of age; a carpenter by trade, and a bachelor, boarding with his partner in business — a Mr. Myers. Henry, a year or two older, was a man of like retiring and industrious habits; had a family, and resided with it on a farm, at Clary’s Grove, about twenty miles distant from Springfield in a north-westerly direction. — William, still older, and with similar habits, resided on a farm in Warren county, distant from Springfield something more than a hundred miles in the same north-westerly direction. He was a widower, with several children.
In the neighborhood of William’s residence, there was, and had been for several years, a man by the name of Fisher, who was somewhat above the age of fifty; had no family, and no settled home; but who boarded and lodged a while here and a while there, with persons for whom he did little jobs of work. His habits were remarkably economical, so that an impression got about that he had accumulated a considerable amount of money.
In the latter part of May, in the year mentioned, William formed the purpose of visiting his brothers at Clary’s Grove and Springfield; and Fisher, at the time having his temporary residence at his house, resolved to accompany him. They set out together in a buggy with a single horse. On Sunday evening they reached Henry’s residence, and stayed over night. On Monday morning, being the first Monday of June, they started on to Springfield, Henry accompanying them on horseback. They reached town about noon, met Archibald, went with him to his boarding house, and there took up their lodgings for the time they should remain.
After dinner, the three Trailors and Fisher left the boarding house in company, for the avowed purpose of spending the evening together in looking about the town. At supper, the Trailors had all returned, but Fisher was missing, and some inquiry was made about him. After supper, the Trailors went out professedly in search of him. One by one they returned, the last coming in after late tea time, and each stating that he had been unable to discover anything of Fisher.
The next day, both before and after breakfast, they went professedly in search again, and returned at noon, still unsuccessful. Dinner again being had, William and Henry expressed a determination to give up the search, and start for their homes. This was remonstrated against by some of the boarders about the house, on the ground that Fisher was somewhere in the vicinity, and would be left without any conveyance, as he and William had come in the same buggy. The remonstrance was disregarded, and they departed for their homes respectively.
Up to this time, the knowledge of Fisher’s mysterious disappearance had spread very little beyond the few boarders at Myers’, and excited no considerable interest. After the lapse of three or four days, Henry returned to Springfield, for the ostensible purpose of making further search for Fisher. Procuring some of the boarders, he, together with them and Archibald, spent another day in ineffectual search, when it was again abandoned, and he returned home.
No general interest was yet excited.
On the Friday, week after Fisher’s disappearance, the Postmaster at Springfield received a letter from the Postmaster nearest William’s residence, in Warren county, stating that William had returned home without Fisher, and was saying, rather boastfully, that Fisher was dead, and had willed him his money, and that he had got about fifteen hundred dollars by it. The letter further stated that William’s story and conduct seemed strange, and desired the Postmaster at Springfield to ascertain and write what was the truth in the matter.
The Postmaster at Springfield made the letter public, and at once, excitement became universal and intense. Springfield, at that time, had a population of about 3 500, with a city organization. The Attorney General of the State resided there. A purpose was forthwith formed to ferret out the mystery, in putting which into execution, the Mayor of the city and the Attorney General took the lead. To make search for, and, if possible, find the body of the man supposed to be murdered, was resolved on as the first step.
In pursuance of this, men were formed into large parties, and marched abreast, in all directions, so as to let no inch of ground in the vicinity remain unsearched. Examinations were made of cellars, wells, and pits of all descriptions, where it was thought possible the body might be concealed. All the fresh, or tolerably fresh graves in the graveyard, were pried into, and dead horses and dead dogs were disinterred, where, in some instances, they had been buried by their partial masters.
This search, as has appeared, commenced on Friday. It continued until Saturday afternoon without success, when it was determined to dispatch officers to arrest William and Henry, at their residences, respectively. The officers started on Sunday morning; meanwhile, the search for the body was continued, and rumors got afloat of the Trailors having passed, at different times and places, several gold pieces, which were readily supposed to have belonged to Fisher.
On Monday, the officers sent for Henry, having arrested him, arrived with him. The Mayor and Attorney Gen’l took charge of him, and set their wits to work to elicit a discovery from him. He denied, and denied, and persisted in denying.
Lincoln
They still plied him in every conceivable way, till Wednesday, when, protesting his own innocence, he stated that his brothers, William and Archibald, had murdered Fisher; that they had killed him, without his (Henry’s) knowledge at the time, and made a temporary concealment of his body; that, immediately preceding his and William’s departure from Springfield for home, on Tuesday, the day after Fisher’s disappearance, William and Archibald communicated the fact to him, and engaged his assistance in making a permanent concealment of the body; that, at the time he and William left professedly for home, they did not take the road directly, but, meandering their way through the streets, entered the woods at the North West of the city, two or three hundred yards to the right of where the road they should have travelled, entered them; that, penetrating the woods some few hundred yards, they halted and Archibald came a somewhat different route, on foot, and joined them; that William and Archibald then stationed him (Henry) on an old and disused road that ran near by, as a sentinel, to give warning of the approach of any intruder; that William and Archibald then removed the buggy to the edge of a dense brush thicket, about forty yards distant from his (Henry’s) position, where, leaving the buggy, they entered the thicket, and in a few minutes returned with the body, and placed it in the buggy; that from his station he could and did distinctly see that the object placed in the buggy was a dead man, of the general appearance and size of Fisher; that William and Archibald then moved off with the buggy in the direction of Hickox’s mill pond, and after an absence of half an hour, returned, saying they had put him in a safe place; that Archibald then left for town, and he and William found their way to the road, and made for their homes.
At this disclosure, all lingering credulity was broken down, and excitement rose to an almost inconceivable height. Up to this time, the well-known character of Archibald had repelled and put down all suspicions as to him. Till then, those who were ready to swear that a murder had been committed, were almost as confident that Archibald had had no part in it. But now, he was seized and thrown into jail; and indeed, his personal security rendered it by no means objectionable to him.
And now came the search for the brush thicket, and the search of the mill pond. The thicket was found, and the buggy tracks at the point indicated. At a point within the thicket, the signs of a struggle were discovered, and a trail from thence to the buggy track was traced. In attempting to follow the track of the buggy from the thicket, it was found to proceed in the direction of the mill pond, but could not be traced all the way. At the pond, however, it was found that a buggy had been backed down to, and partially into the water’s edge.
Search was now to be made in the pond; and it was made in every imaginable way. Hundreds and hundreds were engaged in raking, fishing, and draining. After much fruitless effort in this way, on Thursday morning the mill dam was cut down, and the water of the pond partially drawn off, and the same processes of search again gone through with.
About noon of this day, the officer sent for William, returned having him in custody; and a man calling himself Dr. Gilmore, came in company with them. It seems that the officer arrested William at his own house, early in the day on Tuesday, and started to Springfield with him; that after dark awhile, they reached Lewiston, in Fulton county, where they stopped for the night; that late in the night this Dr. Gilmore arrived, stating that Fisher was alive at his house, and that he had followed on to give the information, so that William might be released without further trouble; that the officer, distrusting Dr. Gilmore, refused to release William, but brought him on to Springfield, and the Dr. accompanied them.
On reaching Springfield, the Dr. reasserted that Fisher was alive, and at his house. At this, the multitude for a time, were utterly confounded. Gilmore’s story was communicated to Henry Trailor, who without faltering, reaffirmed his own story about Fisher’s murder. Henry’s adherence to his own story was communicated to the crowd, and at once the idea started, and became nearly, if not quite universal, that Gilmore was a confederate of the Trailors, and had invented the tale he was telling, to secure their release and escape.
Excitement was again at its zenith.
About three o’clock the same evening, Myers, Archibald’s partner, started with a two-horse carriage, for the purpose of ascertaining whether Fisher was alive, as stated by Gilmore, and if so, of bringing him back to Springfield with him.
On Friday a legal examination was gone into before two Justices, on the charge of murder against William and Archibald. Henry was introduced as a witness by the prosecution, and on oath re-affirmed his statements, as heretofore detailed, and at the end of which he bore a thorough and rigid cross-examination without faltering or exposure. The prosecution also proved, by a respectable lady, that on the Monday evening of Fisher’s disappearance, she saw Archibald, whom she well knew, and another man whom she did not then know, but whom she believed at the time of testifying to be William, (then present,) and still another, answering the description of Fisher, all enter the timber at the North West of town, (the point indicated by Henry,) and after one or two hours, saw William and Archibald return without Fisher.
Several other witnesses testified, that on Tuesday, at the time William and Henry professedly gave up the search for Fisher’s body, and started for home, they did not take the road directly, but did go into the woods, as stated by Henry. By others, also, it was proved, that since Fisher’s disappearance, William and Archibald had passed rather an unusual number of gold pieces. The statements heretofore made about the thicket, the signs of a struggle, the buggy tracks, &c., were fully proven by numerous witnesses.
At this the prosecution rested.
Dr. Gilmore was then introduced by the defendants. He stated that he resided in Warren county, about seven miles distant from William’s residence; that on the morning of William’s arrest, he was out from home, and heard of the arrest, and of its being on a charge of the murder of Fisher; that on returning to his own house, he found Fisher there; that Fisher was in very feeble health, and could give no rational account as to where he had been during his absence; that he (Gilmore) then started in pursuit of the officer, as before stated; and that he should have taken Fisher with him, only that the state of his health did not permit. Gilmore also stated that he had known Fisher for several years, and that he had understood he was subject to temporary derangement of mind, owing to an injury about his head received in early life.
There was about Dr. Gilmore so much of the air and manner of truth, that his statement prevailed in the minds of the audience and of the court, and the Trailors were discharged, although they attempted no explanation of the circumstances proven by the other witnesses.
On the next Monday, Myers arrived in Springfield, bringing with him the now famed Fisher, in full life and proper person.
Thus ended this strange affair and while it is readily conceived that a writer of novels could bring a story to a more perfect climax, it may well be doubted whether a stranger affair ever really occurred. Much of the matter remains in mystery to this day. The going into the woods with Fisher, and returning without him, by the Trailors; their going into the woods at the same place the next day, after they professed to have given up the search; the signs of a struggle in the thicket, the buggy tracks at the edge of it; and the location of the thicket, and the signs about it, corresponding precisely with Henry’s story, are circumstances that have never been explained. William and Archibald have both died since — William in less than a year, and Archibald in about two years after the supposed murder. Henry is still living, but never speaks of the subject.
It is not the object of the writer of this to enter into the many curious speculations that might be indulged upon the facts of this narrative; yet he can scarcely forbear a remark upon what would, almost certainly, have been the fate of William and Archibald, had Fisher not been found alive. It seems he had wandered away in mental derangement, and, had he died in this condition, and his body been found in the vicinity, it is difficult to conceive what could have saved the Trailors from the consequence of having murdered him. Or, if he had died, and his body never found, the case against them would have been quite as bad, for, although it is a principle of law that a conviction for murder shall not be had, unless the body of the deceased be discovered, it is to be remembered, that Henry testified that he saw Fisher’s dead body.

—❦—

13 February 2016

Downton Abbey--Story, Plot, Mystery

by B.K. Stevens

I love Downton Abbey. I've watched every episode, and I'll keep watching till the end. I own the DVD sets for two seasons. I also own The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook, and I use it often. I've made one dish so many times, in fact, that I decided to include a version of it in my next story, which will appear in the April Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. (The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook calls the dish Noisette Potatoes. My story calls it Spudballs.)

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So I think I qualify as a loyal fan. When I criticize the show, I do so in a spirit of love, as a regretful witness to the elegant decline of something that was once more than elegant. I don't think Downton Abbey is very good this season, and I don't think it was very good last season, either. Judging from comments I see on Facebook, a lot of other loyal fans feel the same way. As I was watching the show last Sunday, some comments E.M. Forster makes in Aspects of the Novel came to mind. They helped me focus more sharply on some crucial elements Downton Abbey now lacks--elements that are crucial to mysteries, too.

Forster's distinction between story and plot is justly famous. A story, Forster says, is "a narrative of events in their time sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. `The king died and then the queen died" is a story. `The king died, and then the queen died of grief' is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it." A story appeals to our curiosity, Forster says. Like cave-dwellers sitting around the fire or the sultan listening to Scheherazade's tales, we want to know what happens next. But curiosity, according to Forster, "is one of the lowest of the human faculties." And ultimately, a story that appeals only to our curiosity doesn't satisfy us.


I think that's the problem with Downton Abbey. During the last two seasons, it's become a story. It no longer has a plot. Things keep happening--there are plenty of incidents, some of them dramatic. A child goes missing. A beloved character has a frightening medical crisis at the dinner table. Romantic attractions flare up, little conflicts erupt, secrets nudge toward the surface. Meanwhile, there are many amusing verbal sparring matches and many tender exchanges, and of course there are always beautiful things to look at--rooms, dresses, pastoral landscapes. And since Downton Abbey has wonderfully rich characters we've come to know well and care about deeply, we want to know what will happen to them next, how things will turn out. So we keep watching.

But it's not enough to keep us satisfied, because there's no real plot. We seldom get a sense that one incident has caused another, or that it's likely to have significant consequences. Daisy says imprudent things, Tom comes back from America, Baxter won't have to testify after all--the incidents may be more or less interesting, but they often don't even seem related to each other. And they don't give us much of a basis for trying to figure out what's likely to happen next.
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A plot does give us such a basis. A plot, Forster says, appeals not only to curiosity but also to "intelligence and memory"--and it does this by introducing the element of "mystery." He offers a further extension of his basic example: "The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king." This is "a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development." It engages our minds far more fully than a mere story could, because now we're using our memories to keep track of what's happening--we know that's important, because we have to remember incidents in order to understand how one might cause another. We're also using our intelligence to grasp each incident's significance and try to figure out what might happen next. "To appreciate a mystery," Forster maintains, "part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on."

I find that last sentence an important key to understanding what's wrong with the current season of Downton Abbey, and an illuminating description of what a satisfying mystery does.If a mystery has a suspenseful, fast-paced plot, our curiosity keeps us turning pages. At the same time, memory and intelligence linger behind, "brooding" about evidence and making predictions. No wonder we love good mysteries so much. They force us to read actively, and we enjoy the workout. Really good mysteries also reward us for our hard work by giving us endings that bring everything together seamlessly. We can see how all the incidents related to each other, how each built on what had happened before, how one incident caused another until the mystery reached a conclusion that feels inevitable. Even if we fail to predict what that conclusion is, we feel satisfied--we blame our own memory and intelligence for our failure, not the author.

So one way of describing the problems with the final seasons of Downton Abbey might be to say they needed more mystery. Not mystery in any narrow, generic sense--heaven knows, nobody wanted to see Bates or Anna accused of murder again. But these last seasons might have been far more satisfying if they had included fewer entertaining little incidents and instead developed two or three plotlines more fully. I wish those plotlines had engaged our memories and intelligence. I wish they'd challenged us to think about what caused an incident and what its effects might be, to debate ethical dilemmas the characters faced, to analyze relationships and feel we have a rational basis for thinking they will or won't succeed.


But none of that happened--at least, not in my opinion. So I'll watch the final episodes, but I don't expect them to give me the sort of satisfaction the ending of a really good mystery does. I imagine the final episodes will give us at least one incident featuring each of our favorite characters. I imagine some characters' stories will end happily, and some will end less happily. And I'd guess decisions about which characters get happy endings and which don't will be based primarily on the producers' guesses about what viewers want, not by any internal necessities created during these last two seasons. ("Will viewers think it's a bit much if both Mary and Edith find true love at last? If neither does, it might seem too bleak. Shall we have things work out for only one of them? Which one? Who has a sixpence we can toss?") We'll get some final witty exchanges between Violet and Isobel, some stunning final interior and exterior shots, and then Downton Abbey will join the assembly of once-great shows that kept going a season or two too long.

Oh, well. I'll still have those two earlier seasons on DVD. And at least getting frustrated with Downton reminded me of what a fascinating little book Aspects of the Novel is. The passages I quoted are from the fifth chapter, "The Plot." Forster has other interesting things to say about mysteries, too. If you're not already familiar with the book, you might want to check it out.


I can't resist the temptation to end with a personal note. When the Agatha nominations were announced not long ago, I was thrilled to see that both a story and a book of mine had made the list. "A Joy Forever" was nominated for Best Short Story, and Fighting Chance was nominated for Best Children's/Young Adult. Since it's unlikely that anything like this will ever happen again for the rest of my life, I decided to go ahead and brag about it. If you'd like to read "A Joy Forever," you can find it at the Malice Domestic website--http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Stevens_Joy.pdf. You can read the first chapter of Fighting Chance on my website, at http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com/book/fighting-chance-a-martial-arts-mystery-for-young-adults/. I'm stunned, delighted, and very grateful.


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