08 April 2016

Voice in Wax

By Dixon Hill
A great voice, but not what I'm talking about.

I suspect I spend far too much time thinking about a thing called "Voice."

I don't think about voice, as it pertains to my writing, most of the time.  I figure the natural voice that comes out in the piece is probably the right one for it.  Of course, there are those times when I sit around wondering if I'm telling a certain story through the right point of view, and at those times I consider how changing the POV, or even perhaps the character who's narrating the work, might alter the story's voice.

Mostly, however, when I think about voice, it's because of my kids.  Usually because I've recently spoken to one of my kids' "Language Arts" teachers, or my kid is working on an essay, or my kid is working on an essay with a "Team" -- which means a group of kids the teacher assigned a group project to, which is quite prevalent in today's classrooms.

There is quite a bit of emphasis placed on voice, these days, in the public school system -- even down to very early grade levels.  And, I can't help thinking it doesn't really belong there.

One reason I think this, is because many Language Arts teachers my kids have had can't seem to properly define voice, themselves, so I question their ability to teach the concept to others.  Another reason, is that I've run into a lot of high school and young college kids who have been taught about voice, in their early years, who wind up telling me voice means essentially: "Writing an essay so you can tell how I really feel about the topic."  They don't use that sentence, of course, but what they tell me boils down to what that sentence says.

Some of my son's Middle School friends, a few days ago, told me much the same thing, adding an idea that I'd heard before from other kids.  This idea can be boiled down to: "The best way to use voice, when writing, is to use the letter 'I' as in 'I think ...' or 'I feel ...' because this tells the teacher what your 'real voice' is about the subject."

As a parent who likes to support schools and teachers, I sometimes feel a bit hamstrung when I run into statements like these.  I don't want to further confuse the kids, but I do want to help them understand things a bit better.  And, I certainly don't want my son's grade to suffer because a teacher gets upset about first-person writing in an essay.

This is a Jump Boot.
Notice the built-up toe and heel.
So, the other day, when my son's friends said this (They were all over at our place, working on a "Team Essay" assignment.) I asked them: "Any of you guys ever polished boots?"

Most of them looked at me as if I had three heads, but one kid had polished a pair of shoes on Sunday
mornings sometimes.  I took that as my lead.  I asked him if he used Kiwi wax.  He didn't know.

And, thus, I began my lesson.

Taking a pair of old Jump Boots out of the closet, along with a battered can of Kiwi and an ancient diaper, I sat down in front of them and began demonstrating how to spit-shine a pair of Corcoran Jump Boots.  They were all boys (thankfully, because I'm much better with boys than girls) and the idea of spit-shining army boots struck them as both cool and gross.

That's a good combination when you want to capture a Seventh Grade boy's attention.

I lit the wax on fire, first -- which blew their minds.  Then I parked the can lid on top to extinguish the flames, explaining that I was trying to melt the wax, in order to make it easier to spread.  When I pulled the lid back off, they leaned forward to peer at the melted wax in the can.

I dipped my diaper in the wax and began to spread it over the boot, while saying, "You know, polishing boots has got a lot in common with writing with voice.  I mean, there are guys who really just concentrate on the head-lights and tail-lights (I pointed to the built-up areas at the toe and heel of the boot as I said this.) and those guys do a good job of shining their boots.  No question about it.  But,,," And here I started polishing the uppers and the instep. "...if a guy pays as much attention to the rest of the boot, as he does to the head-lights and tail-lights, the boot gets polished just as well, but the result is a bit different, don't you think?"

As I worked, I had one kid put some water in the upside-down Kiwi can lid, and I used that water to polish the toe.  I pointed out that a lot of soldiers use water to shine their boots -- they don't really spit on them.

This resulted in a hubub of boys who thought I was saying that I didn't spit on my boots.

"Oh," I said, "I spit on my boots.  Like this."  I spit on the upper and started polishing it with the diaper.  After a minute, I stopped and said, "Look, can you see a difference?"  They agreed that they could (I'm not so sure they really could.), and I said, "Well that's one way polishing boots is like writing with voice.  See I can polish my boots with water, or with saliva from my mouth -- and both ways work -- but it makes things a just a little bit different, doesn't it?  The same way I can make things different by concentrating all my wax on just the head-lights or tail-lights, to highlight those things, or I can give the entire boot -- or my story or essay points -- equal emphasis."

They all agreed there was a difference, but they also unanimously agreed this had nothing to with voice in writing.

"Well," I asked, "what if I move the diaper in a straight line, instead of in small circles like I've been doing?"  I started using a straight line movement.  After a while, they agreed that the way I moved the polishing cloth did have an impact on the result, but not much of an impact.  I explained that the difference was subtle, and not easy to define.

They argued that it was easy to define, because they could see some straight lines in the area where I hadn't made little circles.  Then, because they were in 7th Grade, we had a discussion about the word 'subtle.'  I also tried to work in the idea that the straight lines they saw on the boot were part of the 'structure' of the wax I'd laid down and polished there.  "Aren't there subtle ways you could choose the words, or sentences you construct your essay with, that would also change the structure of what you're writing?" I asked.

In the end, I showed them that they could wave at themselves in my boots.  I'm not sure they finally understood my idea, but I did see some signs of understanding begin to dawn on a few faces.  Some of them seemed to realize that the way they wrote their essay had an impact on the way a reader understood that essay, much in the same way that a person polishing a pair of boots could influence the way somebody perceived the final shine.  I suggested they think about it, and try importing some of these concepts into their writing.  Maybe, I said, they could find a method of writing that would give a teacher the impression of what they really thought about the subject (they INSISTED this was necessary for the teacher to give them a good grade on 'voice' in their essay, so I finally went with it -- I mean, pick your battles, right?), but without using the word-letter 'I', or spelling things out directly.  If you're going for impact from 'voice,' I stressed, remember to keep it subtle.

Over all, it took about 40 minutes to get my point across.  And, another two hours of answering questions about every ten minutes, while they worked on their essay.  But, they got the essay done, and turned it in the next day.

We'll have to wait and see what grade they got -- assuming my son ever bothers to let me know.

See you in two weeks!

07 April 2016

Illustrated Mayhem

by Janice Law

It was a great grief to me when, sometime between the late ’50’s and the ’70’s, publishers stopped illustrating adult fiction. Not that illustrations for adults ever rivaled the glories of children’s books. Forget the full color splendors for volumes like Treasure Island created by N.A. Wyeth or the marvelous line of  John Tenniel’s pictures for Alice in Wonderland.

Just the same, quality novels often had line drawings to enliven the blocks of text which too often today are set up tight to save paper or, in the case of certain popular authors, given ludicrous amounts of spacing and giant margins in order to create a “big” book. Would we had pictures with either or both!

For a time in the ’80’s the lack of illustrations was to some extent compensated for by the care and technical skill of cover art. The book jackets Houghton Mifflin supplied for my first four Anna Peters novels, had beautifully wrought and realistic collage paintings, done by hand, mind you, not on the computer. And this for what were definitely ‘mid-list’ novels. Those jackets, too have gone by the board.

I’ve been thinking about illustrations, especially illustrations for mystery novels and stories, because during a dry spell in painting, I did covers and illustrations for two little three-story collections. I wanted to learn how to put up ebooks, and thought that three mystery short stories (originally published in Alfred Hitchcock and Sherlock) and three stories of the uncanny  (two unpublished, one in the old Fantasy Book, would make good test projects.

Thanks to the kindness of a very patient techie somewhere in Texas, The Double, (the mysteries) and The Man Who Met the Elf Queen are now available for 99¢ from iBooks. The Elf Queen book has chapter illustrations, too. Thus ends the commercial!

All the illustrations were done freehand on my Wacom drawing slate with an electronic pencil. Not everyone likes the process: basically one holds the pad in one hand and “draws” on the white surface with the pen, producing lines over on the computer screen. A certain ability to disassociate is probably helpful, but I like it a lot, because it is easy to combine line with perfect flat areas of color, flowed in via an icon that looks like a bucket.

The only caveat is that enclosed areas must be perfectly enclosed. Even one pixel missing and the flowed color swamps the entire image. Thankfully, there is an Undo button, and even for someone who is not neat and tidy, the bucket tool enables the creation of perfect flat ‘print like’ areas of color.
So much for technique.

The bigger problem for the non-professional is, I think, consistency of image. It is not too hard to produce an attractive illustration. What is difficult is making a character look recognizably the same in different settings and from different angles.

I now appreciate another difficulty. The writer has a notion of what a character, setting, or action should look like and, having suggested that satisfactorily in print, she is sometimes surprised by the changes the illustrator produces. But graphic design has its reasons. When I finished the drawing of the Elf Queen, I thought to check my story. Oh, dear, she was supposedly wearing a sable trimmed cloak! Too bad, the addition of dark brown fur, in addition to being more work, would upset the color balance.

Similarly, the Magus in The Potion of the Empress had dark eyes in print, unsurprising as he was an ancient Roman. However, both an older drawing done in an early Apple graphic program, and my new color version, gave him a chilly light eye, very necessary given the shadows that formed his background.

If nothing else, trying to devise pictures for these little web books has given me sympathy for the illustrators at AHMM who have been illustrating my Madame Selina stories. Do they fit my ideas of the medium and her assistant? Usually not, or not entirely, but they are none the worse for that, being appropriate in size and pattern and style for the magazine and all different, too, which is really interesting.

Just the same, I thought I’d try my hand at both her and Nip and was pleased with the results, but I know better than to attempt a series of panels where I need to keep their features and expressions consistent. Amateur drawings can be lovely but the graphic novel – or even illustrations for a series – are best left to the pros.

06 April 2016

Hearing Bells

by Robert Lopresti

There is probably not much point to this piece except some information about how the mind of a writer works as compared to that of, say, a normal person.  But here goes.

A while back I had a dream in which a crime was committed.  What the crime was, I do not recall, but a detective was called in. I don't know if he was supposed to be a cop, a P.I. or an amateur sleuth, but he dressed - and spoke - like a British gentleman from the 1920s.

And the wealthy owner of the house obviously knew him.  "Thank heavens you've come!"

The detective was cheerfully casual.  "Oh, you know me.  Any bell is the captain's!"

At which point I woke up.  Then I grabbed for the pen and notebook which - like many authors - I keep next to my bed for just such an emergency.  I wrote down: Any bell is the captain's?

I should explain that based on the tone my detective used, this was clearly an old saying or catchphrase.  The sort of quotation you don't bother to put in quotation marks, because everyone knows it's a quote.  All's well that ends well.  You can't win them all.  Any bell is the captain's!

Of course I went to the web and searched for the phrase.  No luck.  I asked friends about it without explaining why.  One thought it was from old sea movies.  Maybe so, but I can't find any evidence to that effect.

So I told some people the context (if I can use such a word for that dream scrap).  We wound up with two possible meanings.

* Because of my rank I can pick any assignment I want.  The captain answers any bell he chooses. 

* I treat every request as the highest priority.  I answer every call as if it is from the captain.

Which are nicely contradictory, aren't they?  Perhaps some night I will return to that dream and ask the smug twit what the hell he was talking about.  In the mean time don't be surprised if that phrase shows up in one of my stories.  And sweet dreams.

05 April 2016

Now’s the Time for Your Tears

by Paul D. Marks

Since this is a blog about crime and crime writing I thought I’d do a post about songs that deal with crimes, both real and fictional. Originally I was going to do this via songs from a variety of artists. And I still will in the future. But in starting to do that one I saw that I was using several Bob Dylan songs and since I’m a huge Dylan fan, particularly of his material from John Wesley Harding and earlier, I thought I’d do it only on Dylan songs this time and save the rest for later.

These songs are, of course, filtered through Dylan’s eyes and may not be 100% accurate in terms of history. But they are “accurate” in terms of the times they represent, which certainly were a changin’. For example, I’m sure that if there was a real Robin Hood he might not have been as pure and good as made out in the ballads, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. But these tales tell us about who we are and what we want as a society at the times they come about. (All song credits are at the end.)

Hurricane tells the story of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a middleweight boxer who was wrongfully convicted of murder in a complicated case that took many years to resolve. After his murder conviction, Carter spent 20 years in prison, eventually being released on a writ of habeas corpus. Though to give both sides, there are those who dispute his innocence. Dylan read Carter’s book, came to believe he was innocent and decided to write a song about it. He goes through many verses telling Hurricane’s story in a way only he can.
Rubin Carter was falsely tried
The crime was murder “one,” guess who testified?
Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied
And the newspapers, they all went along for the ride
How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. This one is from much earlier in his career, 1963 as opposed to 1975 for Hurricane. Hattie Carroll was a 51 year old barmaid killed by wealthy Maryland tobacco heir and farmer William Zantzinger, who Dylan refers to as Zanzinger. I don’t usually shy away from controversial things, but the story of what Zantzinger did that night, assaulting several other people first and then Hattie Carroll, is so unpleasant that if you want to know more about it you’ll have to look it up yourselves. It just makes me cringe. The upshot is that for the murder of Hattie Carroll, Zantzinger received a six month sentence for manslaughter, after which he went back to life on the farm and selling real estate. He did, however, get in trouble with the IRS in later years and died at the age of 69 in 2009, unrepentant. He later claimed the song was a “total lie,” to Howard Sounes for Down the Highway, the Life of Bob Dylan, adding that, "He's a no-account son-of-a-bitch, he's just like a scum of a scum bag of the earth, I should have sued him and put him in jail.”
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears

Only a Pawn in Their Game is Dylan’s take on the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963. Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council (formed in 1954 to resist school integration and civil rights) assassinated Evers. Two all-white juries couldn’t reach verdicts on the trials of Beckwith at the time. It wasn’t until 1994 that Beckwith was finally convicted, based on new evidence that came out. While blaming Beckwith on one level for the murder, Dylan’s song also considers him to be only a pawn in a larger game of politics and societal strife.
A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game

John Wesley Harding, Dylan’s song about old west outlaw John Wesley Hardin, without the “g”. I’d heard that he added the G because in so many instances he dropped Gs from word endings. Is it true? Is it apocryphal? Either way, Hardin was hardly a hero or even an anti-hero. He’s said to have killed 30 to 40 men, depending on who you talk to. One for snoring too loudly.
John Wesley Harding
Was a friend to the poor
He trav’led with a gun in ev’ry hand
All along this countryside
He opened many a door
But he was never known
To hurt an honest man

Much as I like this song, and I do, these lyrics have little to do with the real-life man. In an interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, Dylan said, that the song "started out to be a long ballad. I was gonna write a ballad on ... like maybe one of those old cowboy ... you know, a real long ballad. But in the middle of the second verse, I got tired. I had a tune, and I didn't want to waste the tune; it was a nice little melody, so I just wrote a quick third verse, and I recorded that."

Joey: Dylan expounds on Joey Gallo, an enforcer and hitman for the Profaci crime family. Dylan, at the urging of co-writer Jacques Levy, had a more sympathetic take on him. He also claimed that Levy wrote all the lyrics to the song. I suppose you could say this song continues in the tradition of ballads that tell of the exploits of criminals in a more sympathetic and heroic way than they were in reality. Because of this, critic Lester Bangs, described the song as “repellent romanticist bullshit." Decide for yourself.
Joey, Joey
King of the streets child of clay
Joey, Joey
What made them want to come and blow you away.

The Ballad of Hollis Brown is the story of a South Dakota farmer who, beaten down by hopelessness and poverty, and in desperation, kills his wife and children. Then himself. It seems nobody knows if this is based on a real person. The details of such a real man are hard to find. But again, even if it’s something out of Dylan’s imagination, the sensibilities in it are a reflection of the times.
There’s seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
There’s seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance
There’s seven new people born

The Death of Emmett Till. Fourteen year old African-American Emmett Till was beaten, had one of his eyes gouged out and was shot through the head, for supposedly flirting with a white woman in Mississippi. The woman’s husband and his half-brother were brought to trial and found not guilty. Because of double jeopardy, and knowing they couldn’t be tried again, they later admitted their guilt in a Look Magazine article and got paid for it.

William Faulkner wrote this about the case in On Fear (1956), “If the facts as stated in the Look magazine account of the Till affair are correct, this remains: two adults, armed, in the dark, kidnap a fourteen-year-old boy and take him away to frighten him. Instead of which, the fourteen-year-old boy not only refuses to be frightened, but, unarmed, alone, in the dark, so frightens the two armed adults that they must destroy him… What are we Mississippians afraid of?”
’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till


All of these stories, the true ones at least, are more complicated than the songs might suggest or that I can go into here. My objective in writing this is not to get into the politics but to show how crimes, real and fictional, become song and thus part of the culture and sometimes even change it.

Please also check out my guest post on Madeline Gornell’s blog this week. I talk about “Getting Sucked into the L.A. Vortex,” via various Los Angeles and Southern California locations in my noir novella Vortex. People have said that Los Angeles is a whole ’nother character in my writing. And I agree. The top pic below is The Shakespeare Bridge in the Los Feliz Neighborhood of L.A. The bottom pic is Bombay Beach ruins at the Salton Sea, Southern California.

Oakshade at English Wikipedia [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Song Credits:
Hurricane: written by: Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll: written by: Bob Dylan
Only a Pawn in Their Game: written by: Bob Dylan
John Wesley Harding: written by: Bob Dylan
Joey: written by: Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy
The Ballad of Hollis Brown: written by: Bob Dylan
The Death of Emmett Till: written by: Bob Dylan

04 April 2016

Care and Feeding of a Mystery Bookstore

by Jan Grape

It's almost a forgotten thing which is a shame. Independent mystery bookstores. Yes, still a few around but not so many as there were at one time.

My late husband, Elmer, and I were looking for something for him to do when he retired from commercial construction in late 1989. He had been doing handy man work, house inspections prior to their sale and he had decided he was getting to an age where crawling around attics and under floors in the TX heat was not fun anymore.

We discussed a few options and then our daughter, Karla said, "Why don't you open a mystery bookstore? Mom's writing mysteries and you both enjoy reading. Dad can sit around and read." Oddly enough neither of us had thought of it. We came up with the name Mysteries & More.

We talked to a few people who owned a mystery bookstore and got good advice. It only took a few weeks to realize you'd never have enough time to read all the books you wanted to. We also discovered it might be a little better to mainly have used books. We had a swap policy where the customers could trade in books and we kept a record of their credit.

Our store, Mysteries & More, started about twenty percent new and eighty percent used. It soon became 20 to 30 percent new. And we did offer science fiction, biographies, historical, non-fiction and a few romance if they were romantic suspense, but we didn't routinely order anything new except mysteries. However, we did order any new book a customer requested. Thus the & More in our store name.

We rented a nice space in a strip center near our home. Elmer built all the bookcases and the front counter. In the back we had a small rest room and nice little lounge and storage space. In the beginning, we had a couple of chairs so people could sit and read if they felt like it. That didn't last too long because we need more space for bookcases and books. When we first opened, our shelves ran around the sides and across the back. We had to place books on their backs to make the shelves look full. Later on he built more bookcases which lined the middle part of the store.

Elmer & Jan Grape with Bill Crider & Vivian Vaughn
Grand Opening of Mysteries & More
We opened in July, 1990. And our grand opening was on July 9th and our first author signing for that opening was this mystery writer guy who is the second most famous person from Alvin, Texas. His name is Bill Crider. (Most famous, of course, is some baseball player and owner.) We also had a Dallas lady named Vivian Vaughn who wrote historical romantic suspense.

I'm not sure if Susan Rogers Cooper remembers but we met her that day and I think her second book, Houston In The Rear View Mirror had just come out or was due to come out. We asked her to do a signing shortly after that, which I think was her first ever book signing.

We decided to specialize in local authors (Austin and all of Tx and soon included OK, Ark and NM.) I had started attending Bouchercon in the fall and at least one other mystery con in the spring. Edgars, Malice Domestic and Magna Cum Murder or Left Coast Crime. While attending these cons and meeting authors I was able to set up signings with authors who were not regularly doing book signings in Austin. As my husband always said, he ran the store and I talked about it. I did all the promotions and public relations work.
Elmer, Sue Grafton, and Jan

In Austin, at that time, the major bookstores were Book People, B. Dalton and Barnes & Noble. We began ordering author's back list. Like Sue Grafton's. Guess what? The big box stores began ordering back lists to compete with us. Our first signing with Sue Grafton was such a huge success. We ordered 400 copies, sold out and I had to go to B Dalton a couple miles away and buy fifty more books. Fortunately, I had already made friends with the manager. He sold them to me 30% off which was so nice.

Sue likes to stand up while signing because she likes to be on eye level with people. Elmer had built a large table for author signings. He built a box so Sue could stand and sign comfortably. The box sat on the large table he had built that could seat three or four authors at once and we always tried to do a group signing. That way the author didn't feel alone plus if a person only knew and read one author they might meet someone else they liked.

We also did drive-by signings. Authors who were in the area and just called to come by and sign. I'd call a few regular customers and especially if I knew the customer read that author and invite them to come and get a book signed.

Of course, I did signings in my own bookstore. One of the most fun things we did during this time was host a mystery con in Austin. We named it Southwest Mystery Con.We had bid on Bouchercon and didn't get it. We did our presentation in California and the other group bidding was in Seattle, WA. Most fans attending were from CA and they kept thinking they could drive there easier than to Tx. Turned out that was a blessing. It wasn't until we did the Southwest Mystery Con that we realized how much work was involved.

We had 476 people attend and 125 authors. We had BBQ for our banquet and stopped in the middle of dinner to let everyone who wanted to, to go outside and watch the bats fly out from the Congress Avenue Bridge. It was Memorial Day weekend and the Mexican free-tail bats had just returned for the summer.

We had a wonderful volunteer group but Elmer had to handle all the book stores attendees and their placement and spaces in the book room. I handled the programming, the authors, editors, and agents. (I don't know how Judy Bobalik does it.)

We enjoyed the store and were in business until 1999 and we decided that we wanted to buy an RV and travel. We needed to retire and weren't able to sell the store so we liquidated. We traveled for three summers coming back home in the fall until 2002 and we moved into the RV full time. Our store was able to cover expenses but we never made any real money doing it.

It was a labor of love. Of people and of books. This is what most indie bookstore owners say. There are two or three that have made it. But we enjoyed every day of it. We honestly enjoyed the authors, the customers and being able to read new books and help promote new authors.

03 April 2016

RansomWare 1,
The Threat

by Leigh Lundin

 WARNING  A particularly vicious type of virus poses a severe risk to your computer’s contents. It’s called RansomWare and it’s coming to a computer or cell phone near you.

Although no longer engaged in software design, I enjoy keeping an eye on technology. RansomWare had risen on my radar as an up-and-coming annoyance, but I hadn’t appreciated the level of threat it’s become.

Virus sophistication has risen from the early cutesy messages to vandalism to zombie-bots… hidden programs that turn your computer into a secret spam server. In the past, viruses were largely preventable and recoverable.

That’s changed. Bad guys have figured out how to monetize infections that can wipe out your photos, movies, letters, tax records, your home and work content. They can obliterate your recorded life.

The viciousness doesn’t stop at the personal level. We know only of attacks made public, but ransomware has assailed small businesses and large, county offices, schools, charities and non-profits.

The criminals behind the scenes have no compunctions. A favorite soft target has been hospitals where lives hang in the balance. Forensic experts believe some of those penetrations were deliberate attacks from the inside. To wit, someone deliberately hand-planted a ransom virus in hospital computers.

Even police agencies have been hit and– to the disgust of many– they paid the ransom. How can criminals be stopped if police dump public money into their coffers? For all anyone knows, the attackers may have been terrorists or state-sponsored Daesh/ISIS or al-Qaeda, China or North Korea, all badly in need of euros and dollars.

Destroying a victim’s computer’s contents can ruin years, even decades of work and study, crucial research and development. RansomWare can devastate careers and ruin lives. It even takes lives, at least three known victims, father-son deaths and a student suicide.

What is RansomWare?

A type of virus or infectious malware, ransomware invades a computer, renames and encrypts your files with mathematical, non-reversible encoding. The malicious program then offers to reverse the damage in exchange for a demand ransom ranging from two- or three-hundred in dollars, euros, pounds sterling, or the equivalent in untraceable bitcoin, into thousands. If the black hats recognize a high-value target like a hospital or government agency, they may demand tens of thousands of dollars. Some programs set a three-day deadline after which they promise to wreck the machine beyond repair.

The ransom virus lingers in the target machine long after the damage is done. Worst of all, victims face a substantial probability that even if they pay the ransom, they won’t get their files back.

At present, the worst of ransomware mainly attacks Windows computers, but Macintosh and Unix/Linux users shouldn’t grow complacent. One Mac malware program contains no mechanism to restore files after payment. Black hats have already breached a major Java component (JBoss) and some ƒ-head will figure out how to devise a devastating Unix-based attack. It takes little more than catching a human in a weak or distracted moment.

W-D USB back-up drive
W-D My Passport back-up USB drive
Now is the time for all good men and women…

Kindly accept today’s article as a heads-up, a wake-up call to take steps now to deal with this eventuality. Writers among us may be able to glean facts for a fine techno-thriller, but safety comes first. We’ll be discussing
  • backup, backup, backup
  • computer settings
  • modems, routers, firewalls
  • virus prevention and ransom software
  • pop-up and email software ‘updates’

Next week I’ll share more detail but consider immediately buying one or more external drives for backing up your important files:
  • Western Digital USB Passport series starts about $45 including Mac and Windows back-up programs.
  • Flash drives are conveniently small although speed ratings of larger capacity drives can prove excruciatingly slow. These are convenient if you concentrate on backing up your data rather than your operating system or programs, which you can presumably otherwise recover.
  • Safest and cheapest of all, you can toast a permanent copy of your data to a Blu-Ray DVD if you limit your back-up to data only. Prices start around $120 for single-layer 25gig drives and increase for dual, triple, and quad-layer models. Single-sided media cost less than a dollar a disc; dual-layered discs run less than three dollars.
The key factor is to backup weekly or as frequently as your willingness to risk your most recent data allows. Then, once you’ve taken a backup, disconnect that drive from your system so it won’t fall victim to a ransomware infection.

Take an extra moment and visit your Control Panels (Windows) or Finder Preferences (Mac). Change the default setting to show all file-name extensions. I’ll explain why next week, but it may help you catch malware masquerading as innocent files.

Stay safe. See you next week with malware vampires and zombies.

02 April 2016

Take a Message

by John M. Floyd

As some of you know, I'm a certified, card-carrying movie addict. I grew up watching way too many of them, to the occasional dismay of my parents and teachers, and I still watch way too many of them, to the occasional dismay of my wife. Cable-TV too. I'm especially fond of the new trend whereby Netflix subscribers can binge-watch entire seasons of shows like House of Cards and Longmire and Orange Is the New Black, chain-smoking them like Marlboros. Call it voluntary insomnia.

It won't surprise you that I also often run into movies and series I don't like. Usually it's because they're low-budget and poorly made (Plan 9 From Outer Space comes to mind), but now and then I come across movies that are expensive and acclaimed and hyped to the Nth degree--and are terrible anyway. And sometimes (so often that it's a little scary) it turns out they're "message movies."

What's a message movie? It's a film made to convey an opinion regarding a social problem or social conflict. It's not that I can't understand the temptation to make such a movie--I'd probably do it myself, if I were the producer and I felt strongly enough about a particular movement or issue or cause. So what's wrong with it?

What's wrong is that sometimes the preaching gets in the way of the storytelling.

I think the primary purpose of a movie or a novel or a short story--any piece of fiction--should be to entertain the viewer or the reader. If it happens to enlighten or illuminate or educate as well, that's okay too, so long as such enlightenment doesn't override the entertainment value. Spoken like a true redneck, probably, but that's my take. If I want nothing but facts, I'll dig out my old and dusty Britannicas or watch the Discovery Channel, and if I want to be brainwashed I'll tune in to one of the several channels dedicated to that purpose; you know which ones I mean, and they do a fine job of it. But when I watch a movie or read a work of fiction, I want a gripping plot and a satisfying story. Give me a light-saber battle and spare me the angst and deep thinking.

But they aren't all bad--and when they're good, they're very good. The following films, listed along with the issues they promote, are some of what I thought were well-done "message movies." Entertaining as well as informative:

abortion -- JunoThe Cider House Rules
AIDS -- PhiladelphiaDallas Buyers Club
corporate greed/corruption -- Michael ClaytonWall StreetGlengarry Glen Ross
racism -- CrashTo Kill a Mockingbird, The HelpDriving Miss Daisy
abuse by priests -- DoubtSpotlight
the holocaust -- Schindler's List
political corruption -- All the President's MenThe Contender
war -- PlatoonSaving Private RyanM*A*S*HThe Deer HunterPaths of Glory
cultural diversity -- WitnessDances With WolvesThe Last SamuraiAvatar
gay/lesbian -- Brokeback Mountain
police corruption -- L.A. ConfidentialTraining Day
nuclear power -- SilkwoodThe China Syndrome
organized crime -- The GodfatherGoodfellasCasinoThe Untouchables
prison -- The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile
alcohol/drug addiction -- The Man With the Golden ArmThe Lost Weekend
evolution/creationism -- Inherit the Wind
the bomb -- On the BeachDr. StrangeloveFail-Safe
the media -- Broadcast NewsNetwork
court system -- Twelve Angry MenAbsence of Malice
the environment -- Erin BrockovichA Civil ActionMedicine Man
Big Tobacco -- Thank you For SmokingThe Insider
senior citizens -- The Intern, Gran TorinoA Walk in the Woods
anti-Semitism -- Gentleman's Agreement
revolution -- Doctor ZhivagoReds
spirituality -- Heaven Is for RealThe Passion of the Christ
mental illness -- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestRain Man, A Beautiful Mind
child custody -- Kramer vs. Kramer
The Hollywood blacklist -- TrumboThe Majestic
war crimes -- Judgment at Nuremburg, Marathon Man
con artists/evangelists -- Leap of Faith, Elmer Gantry

A few of these deserve special mention. I thought Shawshank, MockingbirdBroadcast News, Twelve Angry Men, and Medicine Man were particularly outstanding, and I so enjoyed Witness, Crash, Glengarry Glen Ross, and L.A. Confidential that I did separate columns on each of them at Criminal Brief. I was also surprised at how much I liked Trumbo, which I watched just last week. Once again, I haven't listed any that I didn't enjoy or I haven't seen, many of which (The Last Emperor, Leaving Las Vegas, Shakespeare in Love, Chariots of Fire, Ordinary People, Babel, Spotlight, etc.) won Oscars in some category or another.

Taking another tack, here are a few films that might not be considered message movies but really areHigh Noon (social responsibility); Signs (faith/spirituality); RockyRudyAn Officer and a Gentleman (persistence); Wall-E (the environment); Dirty Harry (the criminal justice system); The Alamo (patriotism); Dead Poet's Society (free speech); Duck, You Sucker (revolution); The Searchers (prejudice); Waterworld (global warming); etc. And I've heard that The Andromeda Strain, which at first glance is only a suspenseful SF film, was so influential that it prompted NASA to initiate a program to quarantine astronauts upon their return from space.

Please let me know if you can add some "message movies"--good or bad--to the list.

Meanwhile, bring on the DVDs and the popcorn. There are screenings to be held and worlds to be explored. Where'd I put that remote?

Too many stories, too little time . . .

01 April 2016

Brick by Brick (Some Disassembly Required)

By Art Taylor

Over the last year, my four-year-old son Dashiell and I have been bonding over Lego sets: race cars and motorcycles, a fire station, a police station, a ferry boat, a camper—even the Mystery Machine, complete with Fred, Shaggy, and Scooby, which was a little snow day project that quickly became one of the prides of our growing collection.

While we build these together, my job is technically to supervise, since he's already become a pro at following the directions, finding the right pieces, clicking them together, checking his work, moving ahead. Some of the smaller pieces have indeed proven a challenge for him—a precision he's trying to master—but I'm there to step in as needed. And I'll admit I'm enjoying all of it myself, revisiting one of my own favorite childhood loves and savoring brief getaways from work on the computer, from reading and grading for classes, from the constant struggling against one deadline or another. My wife Tara and some other friends have really gotten into the adult coloring book trend—many benefits to that, I know—but this seems a better fit for me. For my birthday middle of March, Tara and Dash got me a set of my own: the Lego Detective Agency—more than 2200 pieces!—and all of us have slowly been constructing that one together. "Only one level left!" Dash told the teachers at his school, who've been eager to see the finished product, three stories in all, including a pool hall, barber shop, and the detective office itself. Here are a couple of glimpses at highlights so far:

The sets are terrific, not only because of the great attention to detail but also because of the learning opportunities for Dash: those directions I mentioned, but also reinforcement on counting and shapes and sizes and then the longer-term lessons on patience and investment and payoff. But it's also great to see Dash build something out of his own imagination—diving into one of my own old tubs of Lego pieces, stacking up towers or gathering rough walls for a house or just stringing together some bricks, adding a few mismatched sets of wheels, and calling it a racecar.

That car of his own construction may never have the precision of those professionally designed packages, but I think he's just as proud of it—and I know I'm even more proud in many ways of seeing him conjure up something on his own. I wish I had a picture of one of those creations to share here, but I don't. Once we've finished assembling one of the kits we've been collection, it's COMPLETE—not a new project but a new toy and not likely something that he'll ever disassemble. But those made-from-nothing projects are ephemeral, endlessly worked and reworked, taken apart, made new, destroyed, refigured, again and again.

Lego pieces could surely lend themselves to a quick metaphor for writing: "Brick by brick" in the same way many of us repeat Anne Lamott's now-ubiquitous mantra "bird by bird." But I found myself thinking of Lego sets and pieces and writing in a different way while on a panel with Donna Andrews, Jack Bunker, and Meredith Cole during the Virginia Festival of the Book a couple of weekends back. During the q&a section of the panel, another writer friend, Anne DeMarsay, asked a question about what to do when your writing group says that some part of your work-in-progress simply isn't working and, try as you might, you don't know how to fix it (I'm paraphrasing, but that was essentially the question as I took it). My own first response wasn't very helpful, I realize in retrospect—something about keeping at it, about bull-headed determination, about banging your head against the wall until some dent is made (in the wall part of that metaphor, not in the head, I clarified). Donna offered better advice—which was to step away, quite literally, from the troubles; even a short time away from the computer can help to open up the imagination (a walk, a drive, a shower) and longer stretches might offer greater perspectives: I myself have put aside half-finished stories for years before coming back to them with fresh clarity, fresh perspective, forward progress.

And then I thought about my son, building, tearing down, rebuilding—none of it in frustration, but simply letting his imagination play.

Lego, I've recently discovered, comes from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means "play well." And the sense of "play" is something that's easy to forget about writing, which too often feels more like "work" to me and clearly to others. It is work, of course; whether we're writing as our full-time profession or on the edges of day jobs and other responsibilities, most of us who'd call ourselves writers are thinking of it as a career, often one with deadlines real or self-imposed, sometimes one with pay (and never enough). Writing is a business. But from a craft standpoint, in terms of the imaginative work that goes into it, writing should be play—indulgent, liberating, fun....even in those moments when it's tearing things down instead of building things up.

I recognize—no doubt—that there's a difference between a toddler dismantling a Lego tower (timber!) and a writer short on time ripping apart a scene or a story or a chapter that he or she has been toiling on. But the more I think about this as a metaphor, the more I find myself liking it or at least the perspectives it encourages: tearing something down isn't an act of destruction or loss; it's merely the next step toward bringing your vision into reality—and maybe the best approach is just to remind yourself to have fun with it all.

To shift metaphors here at the end: Not only is there light at the end of that tunnel, but maybe even a lighthouse—and an ice cream shop too.

31 March 2016

Barney Got a Gun

by Eve Fisher

I hope everyone had a Happy Easter, Good Passover, and other appropriate holiday.  Up here, one of our Easter Eggs held indictments - at last - for three in one of our South Dakota scandals - Gear Up!

(Wouldn't you know it, the cheap one, only a few million missing, whereas EB-5, with $120 million missing taxpayer dollars, is still blamed on the guy who supposedly shot himself in the stomach in a field while hunting...)  
But let us rejoice in small favors.  What happened was that our own Attorney General, Marty ("I'm going to be running for governor in 2018, so I need to get something on paper") Jackley held a press conference and announced that three, count 'em THREE people were responsible for aiding and abetting Scott and Nicole Westerhuis in their embezzlement and fraud.

Quick reprise:  Early in the morning of September 17, 2015, a fire destroyed the home of Scott and Nicole Westerhuis and their four children in Platte, South Dakota.  It was later declared ed by AG Marty Jackley that Scott Westerhuis shot his entire family, torched the house, and then shot himself. There is still the ongoing mystery of who called Nicole's cell phone in the middle of the night, right before the fire, and what happened to the safe that apparently got up on its hind legs and trotted out of the house before the carnage.

36705 279th Street, Platte, SD. screen cap from Google Maps, 2015.09.22.
36705 279th Street, Platte, SD.
screen cap from Google Maps,
Further reprise:  Scott Westerhuis was the business manager of MCEC, the Mid Central Educational Cooperative, which is, among other things, a hub for distributing federal grand monies to other non-profit organizations, including Gear Up.  Nicole also worked there.  Scott Westerhuis set up as many as 7 non-profit corporations related to Indian education, including - but not limited to! -  the American Indian Institute for Innovation, a/ka AIII.  Scott Westerhuis was incorporator of all of these, CFO of some, including AIII, and his wife Nicole was business manager of at least some of them.  And the Westerhuis family lived on a $1.3 million rural Platte property that included a 7,600 square foot house, a $900,000 gym complete with basketball court, weight-lifting area, and computers, and a loft with a meeting room, rooms for guests, and a kitchen.  This was on an official combined MCEC salary of $130,549.82.

Okay, back to the news conference!  On March 16, 2016, Marty Jackley announced that he filed charges against and arrested: 

Daniel Mark Guericke, MCEC Executive: 2 counts of falsification of evidence, class 6 felony, punishable by up to 2 years imprisonment in the state penitentiary and/or $4,000 fine, 4 counts of conspiracy to offer forged or fraudulent evidence, class 5 felony, punishable as a Class 6 felony, with a maximum sentence of 2 years imprisonment and/or $4,000 fine.  Full transcript of complaint here: (PDF of Complaint filed)

Stephanie A. Hubers, Former MCEC interim business manager: 1 count of grand theft, class 4 felony, punishable by up to 10 years in the state penitentiary and/or $20,000 fine, 2 counts of grand theft by deception, class 4 felony, punishable by up to 10 years in the state penitentiary and/or $20,000 fine, 3 alternative counts of receiving stolen property, class 4 felony, punishable by up to 10 years in the state penitentiary and/or $20,000 fine.

Stacy Lee Phelps, Former AIII (see above)/GEAR UP operator: 2 counts of falsification of evidence, class 6 felony, punishable by up to 2 years imprisonment and/or $4,000 fine, 2 counts of conspiracy to offer forged or fraudulent evidence, class 5 felony, punishable as a Class 6 felony, with a maximum sentence of 2 years imprisonment and/or $4,000 fine.
NOTE:  Mr. Phelps' lawyer is mounting a vigorous defense, based on the idea that Mr. Phelps is a scapegoat.  Perhaps he is.  (If so, he should be thanking his lucky stars that he isn't lying in a field somewhere...)  

Among other things, Guericke, Phelps, the Westerhuises and “other unknown co-conspirators" were all accused of falsifying and backdating contracts, including those of 
  • Dr. Rick Melmer, the Dean of Education of the University of South Dakota, who (memorably) couldn't remember nine $1,000 in payments live on South Dakota television, and 
  • Keith Moore, Governor Mike Rounds' director of Indian education. 
So far, neither Dr. Melmer (who as Secretary of Education under Governor Mike Rounds, moved supervision of Gear Up from the DOE in Pierre to MCEC in Platte), nor Mr. Moore (who also received a good chunk of change), nor former Mid-Central board chairman Lloyd Persson (who actually signed the bogus contracts) have been indicted, and Jackley has indicated that they won't be.

Nor has anyone asked Secretary of Education Melody Schopp to resign, even though she let MCEC continue their interesting approach to funding for three years after she noticed that something smelled a little funny.  Apparently, they are still looking into at least two other MCEC staffers who (according to Hubers) blackmailed some money out of Westerhuis.  Cory Heidelberger suggests that Mr. Jackley look into the board members of the American Indian Institute for Innovation, which was, apparently, the hub of moving stolen money around.  And no one has mentioned my favorite, Dr. Joseph Graves, Mitchell, SD School Superintendent, who received money from the MCEC for teaching "Teaching American History" in a state that has made it optional.  

Also, we're down to only $1 million missing, instead of $14 million, but hey, it's still better than the EB-5 mess.  Right?  

Angela Kennecke, KELO-TV
Well, right now, we're all waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"Sources who have first-hand knowledge within the Department of Education tell KELO-LAND News there were questionable expenses involving GEAR UP grant money as early as 2006 that were brought to the attention of department officials."  Angela Kennecke, 3/23/16

What this means, in South Dakota speak, where no one ever admits anything is actually WRONG, is that there's something else coming.  Possibilities:

(1) People ('sources') know that more hell is about to break loose and are getting ready to get out from under it.
(2) It's possible that someone ('sources') in the higher-ups is authorizing a leak, which is the first step to a flood.
(3) They found the safe.  

Okay, the last one's HIGHLY unlikely.  And if they do find it, it'll probably just be full of pork.

And there's the recent news that "There have been several million dollars diverted out of school funding at Lower Brule [reservation] and as a result they had to go into restructuring which is a federal requirement when you have really low school performance. And so they hired AIII Stacey Phelps, which at the time was the head of AIII, and Scott Westerhuis was the COO. So they (Lower Brule) brought in AIII to manage Lower Brule schools and that had been going on for about two years."  (Thanks again, Cory Heidelberger and the Dakota Free Press!)  And people wonder why the Reservations up here are still in a world of financial hurt...

Anyway, that's the latest update from South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, act like Goodfellas, and the crazy just keeps on coming.


30 March 2016

The Fatal Cup Of Tea

by Robert Lopresti

Arlo Guthrie tells a story about performing in a bar in Chicago in 1971.  After the show a stranger came up and said he wanted to play him a song he wrote.

Well, Arlo had experienced that before and as a result had heard a lot of bad songs.  So he told the stranger, you can buy me a beer, and for as long as it takes me to drink it, you can do whatever you want.

Today he notes, dryly: "It turned out to be one of the finer beers of my life."   The stranger was Steve Goodman and his song was "City of New Orleans."  Arlo's recording of it reached the Billboard Top 20 and made them both a nice chunk of change.

I was reminded of that while pondering a dose of beverage that had a profound effect on my life, albeit not such a lucrative one.  It was tea, not beer, and I drank it in a little cafe in Montclair, NJ, about 30 years ago.

I was with my wife and a friend and while they were chatting I found myself looking out the window at the street and, being a writer of the sort I am, wondering: what if I saw a crime taking place?  And what if there was a reason I couldn't just leap up and do something about it?

Cut ahead two decades and "Shanks At Lunch" appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (February 2003).  I mention all this because the hero of that story, conceived in that Montclair coffee shop, is making his ninth appearance in AHMM  this month (well, the issue date is May 2016, but it is available now).

"Shanks Goes Rogue" was inspired by three different things.  First of all, I wanted to bring back Dixie, a character who had appeared in the story "Shanks Gets Killed."  She is an eccentric woman who runs the charity favored by Shanks' beloved wife, Cora, which gives her plenty of opportunities to annoy my hero, and that's a good thing for my stories.

The second inspiration was this: I had thought of a clue.  Clues are hard for me and I wanted to use this one.  I figured out how Shanks could take advantage of it.

And finally, I had a hole in the book of stories I was putting together.  To be precise: the last story ended on a gloomy note and that would never do for a book of mostly funny stories.  As the saying goes, the first page sells this book and the last page sells the next one.  So "Shanks Goes Rogue" was created to round out my collection of tales.

But then I had an unpleasant encounter with a telephone scammer, which led me to write a quicky story called "Shanks Holds The Line."  I decided as a public service to offer it to Linda Landrigan  for Trace Evidence, the Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine website.  She put it up the next day.  But there was no reason I couldn't use it to round out Shanks On Crime, so I did.

Which left "Shanks Goes Rogue" looking for a home.  Linda adopted it and here we are, happily ensconced in the annual humor issue.  I hope it gives you a chuckle.   Personally, I will celebrate with a nice cup of tea.

29 March 2016


by Melissa Yi

I knew when I went to Left Coast Crime I might pick up some terrific books and make new friends. But I was surprised to meet someone who not only made me admire his writing but made me say, Yep, that’s how I want to live.

See, I felt guilty about going to a writing conference. I felt like I should be working in the emergency room, or raising my kids, or staying at home and working on my manuscripts. 

When you have three careers, the guilt never ends.

But after my favourite panel of police officers-turned-writers, I met panelist David Putnam in the book room. I told him how much I enjoyed his talk (no lie. Cops tell great stories. I was haunted by one of his stories about being called to a domestic dispute with a river of blood). David handed me his book, The Disposables.

Then he and his wife Mary marched over to the book table and bought my book, Stockholm Syndrome.

My jaw dropped.

We just met. He gave me his book for free. And he was buying my book.

“Sure. I want to get you hooked, and then you’ll buy the rest of ’em.”

Right. But wasn’t he worrying about money, space in his suitcase, his to-be-read pile, or the conference fee?

Clearly not.
My only complaint is that I look short. I feel normal-sized.
“We spend money on conferences every year. It’s what we like to do.”

That made so much sense. Intellectually, I know that I’m allowed to go to conferences. Emotionally, I felt like I shouldn’t. It reminded me of an article saying that, if you look at how children turn out, it doesn’t matter so much whether a mother works full-time, part-time, or not at all outside the home. The best correlation with the kids’ well-being is if the mother doesn’t feel guilty about her choice, whatever it is.

I wanted to be like David and Mary. I wanted to enjoy myself and be generous. I was also fascinated to hear that they owned an organic avocado farm and that Mary is something like a rocket scientist as well as a writer herself.

I tore through The Disposables on my flight home. It’s the story of a Bruno Johnson, once a much-feared and respected cop, now a man willing to work outside the law to save the poor and neglected children our society no longer cares for. Fast-paced yet emotionally rich, packed with characters you care about, with a tight plot and an ending that felt right.

And I’m picky about thrillers. I don’t like unbelievable plot twists, cardboard characters like materialistic and treacherous bimbos, and/or info dumps about some technological hoo ha.
The Disposables felt real. Real grit, real heartbreak, and real redemption.

I closed the book feeling good about the journey I’d taken, both in the book and in my own mind. It was even better to know that the author and his wife are mighty cool people.

How about you? Does guilt stop you from achieving more? Or are you already more evolved, like David and Mary Putnam?

If you comment, you could win a signed copy of The Disposables. I’ll send it anywhere in the world. If you like it, please tell a friend and/or post a review.

And if you like crafts, Mary made a video on how to make book cover earrings! https://youtu.be/836Nrrp9ko0

28 March 2016

Research Schmesearch

by Susan Rogers Cooper

I'm not an outgoing person. I'm not like my partner here on SleuthSayers, Jan Grape, who never met a stranger and can and will talk to anyone about anything and has friends all over the world. That's not me. I picked writing (or writing picked me) because I thought it was a solitary endeavor. I knew nothing about conventions, and book signings, and publicity. And all I knew about research was: Get in the car, go to the library and pick out a book on whatever I needed to know. Then along came the internet, and it was even easier. I didn't have to get out of my PJ's or put on shoes. My late husband told me everything I needed to know about guns, and, because he was the exact opposite of me when it came to interacting with people, I used him to make telephone calls and go visit people when necessary. He developed a friendship with the Travis County ME and even got an excellent murder device from Dr. Biardo that I used in a short story. Of course, I never met the man.

Recently I was able to use the internet for intense research into China Marines. My father had been a China Marine – U.S. Marines stationed in China in the 1930s before and during the Japanese invasion. My bad guy in the newest E.J. Pugh mystery DEAD TO THE WORLD, was not the upstanding jarhead my daddy was, but I took him to China and on to the Philippines, following the plight of the many who fell under the forces of the Japanese. Luckily my father was not among them. But this became a very personal research project and one I enjoyed immensely. Also, I didn't have to actually talk to anyone.

But that brings me back to the one book I wrote where I became totally involved with people and their stories, and their sights, and their sounds, even if I was being pulled into it yelling and screaming. Quietly, of course.

Back in the 1990s, I wrote two books with the character of a stand-up comic named Kimmey Kruse. In the second book, FUNNY AS A DEAD RELATIVE, I decided to take Kimmey to a place I knew. Port Arthur, Texas. Now I only knew this town because it was sort of an in-law. It was where my husband had been born and bred and where all my in-laws (and there were a lot of them) lived. My husband was part Cajun and that had always intrigued me (although my idea of a first married Christmas dinner was not goose and dirty rice dressing, but that's another story entirely). The story of DEAD RELATIVE was that Kimmey was called upon to deal with her Cajun grandfather who had broken his leg down in Port Arthur. Me-maw, his wife, had thrown him out many years before, so the cousins all took turns when it was time to deal with Pee-paw. Which meant, that although I knew all about Port Arthur – that it smelled of rotten cabbage from one refinery and dirty socks from another and that it had mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds – I really needed to spend a weekend researching the place.

And my mother-in-law and sister-in-law were happy to take on that challenge. They drove me all over the town, by the ornate homes of the ship captains who had started the town, to the beautiful Buddhist temple in the part of the city that housed mostly Vietnamese immigrants. They took me to a wonderful spot under the Orange Bridge (the bridge isn't orange but it connects Port Arthur to the city of Orange across the Sabine River) with funky restaurants and even funkier homes – Quonset huts and RV's and shacks decorated with art work made of junk. And I knew that this was where Pee-paw now lived.

While wandering around under the bridge, we saw some shrimp boats tied up there on the Sabine. I innocently said to no one in particular, “Gee, it would be nice to see the inside of one,” where upon my mother-in-law (from whom my husband inherited his tendency of never meeting a stranger) shouted out to a man on said shrimp boat, “Hey! Y'all! My daughter-in-law's a writer and she wants to see inside your boat!”

To say I was mortified was an understatement. Unfortunately my complexion lends itself to turning colors under stress, so I could feel the heat of the bright red shade I'd suddenly turned. But, having no other choice, I followed my family members onto the boat, shook hands with the captain and his wife, and got to see all there is to see on a small shrimp boat, and learn all about their lives and the vulnerability of fishing for a living. Thanks to my in-laws, I met several people that weekend, all with a story to tell.

That trip opened my eyes about research and what it can do. For one thing, it made it clear to me that Port Arthur, Texas, was more than a smelly place with big mosquitoes. It was the home to many, many refineries, with containers full of oil and gas and other flammables. It was only a stone's throw from the town of Texas City that had experienced the ultimate nightmare of living in that kind of world. The people of Port Arthur were brave souls, I discovered, living under the constant light of flames shooting from the pipes of the refineries, going to work, taking their kids to school, falling in love, getting married, having babies. Just living their lives, knowing that the horror of what befell Texas City could happen to them, at any time, in any of the many locations. So they drink a lot, eat a lot of sea food, and make bottle trees and paint tires white and bury them half way in their front yards. They listen to very loud zydeco music and still think Justin Wilson is the best comedian who ever lived.

I try to remember that experience when it's time to do research. I try to remember how ultimately good it really was. But I still need a little shove, a push in the right direction. That's where Jan Grape comes in. She shoves hard.