05 March 2016

Writing No-No's and When to Use Them


by Herschel Cozine




For those of you who don't know him, Herschel Cozine's work has appeared not only in many of the national children's magazines but also in AHMMEQMM, Wolfmont Press's Toys for Tots anthologies, and Woman's World. Additionally, he is the author of many stories in Orchard Press MysteriesMouth Full of BulletsUntreed ReadsGreat Mystery and SuspenseMysterical-E, and others. His story "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and he has a story in the upcoming Dark House anthology Black Coffee, due for release in May. Thanks, Herschel! -- The SleuthSayers team




(Caveat: The following is for your amusement only. Anyone who survived Creative Writing 101 will find nothing new in this piece.)

Recently I had the good fortune to have a couple of stories published in Woman's World (or, as it is otherwise known, "John Floyd's journal"). I was taken to task by some readers because they had to suspend disbelief when they read it. Under the circumstances it was a legitimate criticism. But at the same time, I felt it was unwarranted.

In this particular instance I had my protagonist, a police detective, discussing an ongoing case with a member of the family. This is, of course, not allowed in real life. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. I have seen defense attorneys and prosecutors discussing open cases on talk shows. Granted, they are not participants in the case. But often the cases they are discussing have not yet come to trial. So they are influencing potential jurors. Do you suppose for one instant that similar conversations do not take place among family members?

Suspension of disbelief in performing arts and literature has been around since Shakespeare. If a woman can don a hat and put on men's clothing and fool her husband of twenty years (as is done in Shakespeare), the poor sap is either completely bereft of any intelligence, or the audience has to suspend disbelief.  In this case, both.

I was a huge fan of the TV program Columbo. Peter Falk had developed a character, an outwardly bumbling police lieutenant who fumbled his way through murder investigations, while in reality he was a keen and competent investigator. But his methods, if tried in the real world, should have had him dismissed from the force. Carrying crucial evidence around in a paper bag, accosting the suspect at work and home and at all hours of the day and night. Discussing key issues of the investigation in public places. You get the point. Did one have to suspend disbelief? Absolutely. Was this a problem? Evidently not. The program was a huge success and ran for several seasons.

I will not bore you with the many instances that occur with regularity on this subject. (Relax, Jessica Fletcher.) And it isn't just happening with poor writing. It is, to my way of thinking, a literary tool that is used to get information to the reader or to create a situation in an interesting manner that is critical to the story. If one stops to think about it, they wouldn't want it any other way. Without the privilege of using it, many stories would become dull dissertations that readers would quit reading by the end of the first chapter.

Another common complaint is that of coincidence. This is not to be used in writing. It is a copout. It is sloppy writing by a writer who is too lazy or too inept to come up with an alternative.

Again I say "Poppycock." Coincidences occur all the time in real life, and nobody pooh poohs them. Some pretty wild coincidences have happened to me, and I'm sure to all of you as well. Could I use them in a story and get anyone to believe it? Doubtful. But it convinces me that coincidence in storytelling is not much different from life itself.

When Ilsa walked into Rick's place in Casablanca, that was a coincidence of the highest order. By an even bigger coincidence, Rick held the documents she and Laszlo needed to escape Casablanca. If she had shown up a few days earlier she would have been dealing with Ugarte. So instead of Bogart/Bergman chemistry we have Bergman/Lorre. Not even the beautiful and talented Ingrid could pull this off. Thank God for coincidence. Without it we would be denied one of the great movies of all time.

And what is all the fuss about the use of adverbs? I suspect this came about with the advent of the Tom Swift books. (I also suspect the sin of opening a story with a weather report was caused by Lytton). In both cases, the hue and cry is deserved. But why should these isolated cases cause a wholesale banishment of legitimate tools?

When I was learning the rules of grammar and was tasked with parsing sentences, I learned about nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, etc. At no time was I told that I couldn't or shouldn't use adverbs. They are legitimate words. They are a part of the language. Why are they there if we aren't supposed to use them?

I recently read one of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct stories. Among the comments on the blurb page was a quote by Elmore Leonard, the "rules of writing" man, praising McBain's storytelling skills. By the end of the first chapter, McBain had used adverbs on several occasions. Shocking! How could this possibly happen?

I--and I am confident that some or all of you--have used adverbs from time to time. Consider this: A laugh can mean many things. If one of my characters laughs he can be doing so because he is amused, disdainful, disbelieving, or a host of other reasons. It can be loud, soft, and so on. It is important for the reader to know how he laughed.

"He gave a disdainful laugh." Or, "he laughed disdainfully."

My preference would be the latter. It uses fewer words, and it is a smoother read. But what about the adverb? Ah, yes, We must do something about that. It is not allowed. "He laughed a disdainful laugh." "His laugh was disdainful." Oh, the hell with it. "He laughed disdainfully." There. I said it and I'm glad.

Then there is the rule one learns in Writing 101: Show, don't tell. I won't insult your intelligence by defining this. I just mention it because it is so basic to writing that I had to include it. Again I ask, inviolate?

Evidently Sinclair Lewis didn't think so.

"Elmer Gantry was drunk."

To my way of thinking, a perfect opening line. Succinct. Defining. Efficient.

To sum it up, the use of coincidence and the suspension of disbelief in writing are--warning: adverb ahead--perfectly acceptable. So, too, is the use of adverbs. They must be used (OMG, more adverbs!) sparingly, intelligently, and in such a way as to not get in the way of the story. So, too, may one "tell" and not "show" when the occasion calls for it. I will suffer the slings and arrows of irate readers while continuing to use these tools of the trade. "To thine own self be true."

(I am well aware that the split infinitive in the above paragraph is a writing sin of epic proportions. I make no apologies.)

If there is an inviolate rule in writing, especially for mystery writers, it is this: Play fair with your readers. That may be good advice for our fearless, upright congressmen as well.

Now, about these adjectives.

Thanks, John, for this opportunity.




04 March 2016

(Book) Club Hopping

By Art Taylor

Even though we're still more than two weeks from the official start of spring, this coming week is our Spring Break at George Mason University, where I teach. Even though I'm often lugging a pile of grading into our week "off" and using other big chunks of break to get a head start on reading for the classes just beyond, my wife and I usually plan some long weekend getaway in between things. This year, however, the week's schedule is marked by several events I'm pleased to be a part of.

On Saturday afternoon, March 5, I'll be the featured speaker at a Book Club Conference hosted by the Loudoun County Public Library—offering tips and tactics about how to run a successful book club and talking about Gabrielle Zevin's delightful novel The Stories Life of A.J. Fikry (a book I'll very likely talk about in another direction here at a later date—stay tuned!).

Mid-week, I'm grateful to have been invited to join in a chat with a local book club that's recently been reading my own novel, On the Road with Del & Louise—and keeping my fingers crossed that they all liked the book!

Then on Thursday, I'm joining Laura Ellen Scott and Steve Weddle—two writers who've been categorized on opposite sides of the literary/genre divide but whose writing in each case is "crime-inclined" (to use Laura's own phrase)—for a writing and publishing panel at the Burke Centre Library that will look at questions of genre and form and the slipperiness in defining and categorizing anything clearly these days.

I mention all this not simply as a shout-out about some upcoming events but also to explain why book clubs and book talks have been on my mind lately.

I don't want to preview here all those tips and tactics—my Powerpoint is proprietary! I don't to spoil the surprise! attendance is mandatory!—but I do want to share some anecdotes about my own experiences with some of the book clubs I've been involved in, each of them distinctive in their own way. And as you'll see, I use that phrase "book club" a little loosely.

The first and then the most recent book clubs I've been a part of have been more traditional in many ways—regularly scheduled meetings, formed by a loose mix of co-workers, acquaintances and friends, and equal parts book discussion and drinking/eating. That most recent book club was focused exclusively on contemporary fiction—very contemporary, in fact, since they tried to stay on top of the titles that were getting buzz, getting rave reviews, winning awards. The first one, however, organized back in the late ’90s by fellow staff members at the North Carolina Museum of Art, was more of a mishmash of titles and deliberately so. Each member was responsible for selecting one book in the rotation—a chance for each of us to have input and an opportunity for all of us to read books we might not have picked up ourselves, a system which has many benefits. I remember that the first book we read was Oral History by Lee Smith, an author local to us, and that we had our first meeting at a sushi restaurant that Lee and her husband Hal Crowther had opened over in Carrboro. I don't remember all of the books that we covered, but my own selection for the club was S├ębastian Japrisot's The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun, mainly because I hadn't read anything by him and I liked the title (fun book, not a very good discussion). I also remember Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True, mainly because of the heft of the book and because of the conversations with other club members about having to slog through it and because of the friend who dutifully stayed up all night to finish it before our meeting—and then because the woman who selected it in the first place didn't come to the meeting because she hadn't had time to read it herself.

That was the end of that book club.

My other two book clubs weren't traditional ones at all. The first was actually a writer's group whose members briefly turned away from talking about our own writing—not because we weren't writing but because each of us was working on longer projects and didn't yet feel comfortable sharing small parts of early drafts (dangerous to get feedback too early sometimes). But we did want to keep meeting, so we started talking about other people's books, studying them specifically with an eye toward craft—and in one case with a focus on first chapters, each of us bringing in the first chapter of a book we really admired so we could all try to analyze what made it work.

Later, my wife and I set up our own two-person "book club"—reading and chatting about some novels that each of us felt like we should have read but had never gotten around to, like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. (How did we miss that one in high school, right?) Eventually, this book club morphed into something different; we still read books together for discussion, but now I read them aloud, as I've talked about elsewhere.

While these experiences have been varied and variously rewarding, this coming week will be the first time that I've taken part in a book club as the focus of the discussion. I'll have to report back how that goes—if I survive!

How about everyone else? Any stories from your own book clubs—successes or stumbles? I'd love to hear—and can add to my PowerPoint presentation as needed, of course!


03 March 2016

A Sorry State of Affairs...

by Eve Fisher

All right, I admit it, I'm running late on this blog, but I've been spending the last two weeks e-mailing my state legislators and governor over a variety of bills that seem to come straight out of the minds of ALEC. (Look it up.  Also, here:  SD Legislators with ALEC ties.) You see, we only have a 2-month legislature, that only sits 38 working days, so if I don't express my opinions now, I won't have time later on. Seriously - the session is going to end March 11. (Veto Day is March 29.)

First off, South Dakota is still officially missing $120 million dollars in EB-5 fees and investments, $14 million dollars spent (somewhere) of Gear Up! federal money, 7 people dead, cell phones wiped by the managing company the morning after an arson/murders/suicide (maybe), and a safe that had legs like a dog and walked out the door in the middle of the night. So, what's on our legislature's minds? Transgender potties and single women.



There's also House Joint Resolution 1002, which wants a new Constitutional Convention to propose “amendments to the Constitution of the United States that impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office for its officials and members of Congress.” That'll fly.

Meanwhile, we're last in the nation for teacher pay, and our legislature is trying desperately, DESPERATELY to not put into action Governor Daugaard's proposal to increase sales tax by 1/2 of a cent to pay for increases. My favorite excuses are (1) that they haven't had time to read the bill and (2) that they haven't had time to come up with an alternate funding proposal. They've known about this since December. This is called kicking the can so far down the road that maybe it will disappear. At one point the House rejected it. Finally, though, late yesterday, through sheer shaming by most of us citizenry, it passed. We will no longer be 50th.

Wild Bill Janklow
There was also HB 1161, which would preemptively render useless an intiative that we the people are planning on voting on in November to rein in payday loans. South Dakota is, in case you don't know it, the usury capital of the country, thanks to the 1978 SCOTUS ruling in Marquette Nat. Bank of Minneapolis v. First of Omaha Service Corp, which (summed up) says that your individual state anti-usury laws cannot be enforced against nationally chartered banks located out of state. Our then governor, "Wild Bill" Janklow, heard that and persuaded the legislature to pass a bill that repealed South Dakota's cap on interest rates. And so Citibank, Wells Fargo, and other institutions moved here and life is sweet.

My favorite bill was HB 1107, which was "to ensure government nondiscrimination in matters of religious beliefs and moral convictions," as long as their religious beliefs and moral convictions were the following:
The Compound, West River in Pringle, South Dakota
  1. Marriage is or should only be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;
  2. Sexual relations are properly reserved to marriage; or
  3. The terms male or man and female or woman refer to distinct and immutable biological sexes that are determined by anatomy and genetics by the time of birth.
(I have yet to determine why we apparently have religious beliefs and moral convictions about sex: what about usury? war? violence? lying? greed?)

Anyway, one of the great ironies of this bill is that at least one of the sponsors was an unmarried man who posted pictures of himself and his hot girlfriend all over social media. (It's a small state: you can find these things out.) I wrote many of my legislators about this bill, but my first question wasn't the obvious, "And were you a virgin on your wedding night?" Instead, it was, "Does this mean you guys are finally going to take on the polygamous sects living in compounds out West River?" (No one answered that question.) I also pointed out that birth anatomy and birth genetics can be entirely different (I used to work at Medical Genetics - see my blog post here (Medical Genetics). Everyone assured me that this was a non-discriminatory bill, to which I replied, politely, "Bull hockey." This bill has been - thankfully - tabled. Hopefully it will stay that way.
NEWS FLASH: The feds have actually taken on the polygamous sect led by Warren Jeffs' brother Seth in Pringle, South Dakota over food stamp fraud! Huzzah! Federal Probe Shows Details of Polygamous Sect. BTW, to those who don't know, the way these polygamous sects get around the laws against polygamy is by having "spiritual" marriages, which are not registered anywhere. The women - usually child brides, with no power of refusal - are then registered for food stamps, etc., as single mothers. Sadly, most of their sons are booted out of the compound as soon as they get to puberty, because there aren't enough brides to go around, since the old men are marrying all the daughters as soon as they hit puberty. Now you know why I asked about that...
But the one that's taken up most of my writing time is the transgender potty bill, which would would prohibit public school students from using a bathroom or locker room for a sex other than theirs at birth. (We really made the national news with that one. Sigh.) It passed the House, it passed the Senate, and now it's on Governor Daugaard's desk. I've been writing him almost every day, with at least one of the following arguments:
  1. Transgender people don't want to do anything but use the bathroom safely. A boy who is transgendering to a girl doesn't want to assault girls, he wants to become one. A girl who is transgendering to a boy doesn't want to assault boys, she wants to become one.
  2. Every student I've talked to doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. They all know some transgender students and have no problem with them using whichever bathroom they're comfortable in. (Bathrooms have stalls, with doors that lock.)
  3. Gender is something that is not obvious, and is not always determined at birth. (See my Medical Genetics article link above.)
  4. There is one bathroom which everyone uses - old and young, straight and gay, male and female, adults and children - and no one is worried about assault or trauma or shock: it's the one in your home. You go in, and shut the door.


The latest one - and I'm about to start writing my legislators on as soon as I finish this blog - is SB 159, which gives insurance companies credits on their premium and annuity taxes for granting “scholarships” for private K-12 school tuition to low-income students. The fun part of this is that the legislator who sponsored this bill is married to (who'd a thunk it?) the founder and owner since 1972 of an insurance company, and was past president of the Sioux Falls Catholic Schools Foundation, and past chairman of Advanced Gifts for the O’Gorman High School Building Funding Drive. Great joy in the morning, who could possibly think there was any conflict of interest?

What's especially irritating about all of this is that we're a relatively poor state; we are, as I said, ranked last in the nation for teacher pay. Governor Daugaard just refused to expand Medicaid again, after he said he would ONLY if the feds will move all Native American healthcare to their dime. Well, the feds did, and now Daugaard announced today that South Dakota still "can't afford" to expand Medicaid - keep kicking that can. Our infrastructure and roads are constantly crumbling (we have hard winters), and, as I said, we have over $120 million missing in taxpayer funds on scandals and corruption. But, rather than deal with any of these problems, our legislature keeps trying to pass bills that will only lead to lawsuits. Apparently, we have plenty of money for those. Not for investigating things that are really and truly affecting us right now.

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



NOTE: Huzzah! Daugaard vetoed the transgender potty bill!

02 March 2016

Taxonomy Lesson

by Robert Lopresti

Hey folks...  the Short Mystery Fiction Society announced the finalists for the 2016 Derringer Awards yesterday and fully 25% of the stories are by SleuthSayers!  John Floyd scored in two categories.  Barb Goffman, Elizabeth Zelvin, and I settled for one each.  Congratulations to all the finalists!

Back in November I had the chance to speak at the university where I work about my novel Greenfellas. The good folks there have put a video of my talk on the web, which reminded me of something I wanted to discuss about it.

I guessed correctly that a lot of people in the audience would not be mystery fans and since this is an educational institution, I figured I should educate them a little on the field.  When you ask someone not familiar with the genre to think about mysteries they tend to conjure up Agatha-Christie style whodunits so I explained that there are also hardboiled, police procedurals, inverted detective stories, noir, caper, and so on.

All of which is fine and dandy.  But in the Q&A someone asked me what types of mysteries I particularly enjoyed.  I happened to mention Elmore Leonard - and then I was stumped as the thought ran through my head:  What type of mystery did Elmore Leonard write?

Well, you could say, he wrote Elmore Leonard novels.  That's not as silly as it sounds.  He wrote a novel called Touch, about a man who acquired the ability to heal people by touching them.  At first publishers didn't want it because it was not a crime novel, but by 1987 they were willing to take a chance on it because it was an Elmore Leonard novel, and readers knew what that meant.

The subject was also on my mind because I had recently read Ace Atkins novel The Redeemers, which struck me as being very much in Leonard's territory.  (That's a compliment to Atkins, by the way.) And I can't exactly say he is writing Elmore Leonard novels.

So, what am I talking about?  A third person narration story from multiple points of view, and most of those characters are criminals, each of whom has a nefarious scheme going.  The main character might be a good guy or just a slightly-less-bad guy.

You know I love quotations, so here is one from Mr. Leonard: "I don’t think of my bad guys as bad guys. I just think of them as, for the most part, normal people who get up in the morning and they wonder what they’re going to have for breakfast, and they sneeze, and they wonder if they should call their mother, and then they rob a bank."

Is there a name for this category of book?  Crime novel is useless.  Suspense doesn't really cut it.

You could argue that my book Greenfellas falls into that category, but I don't think it does.  First of all, it's a comic crime novel.  It's an organized crime novel, about the Mafia.  (Leonard's characters tend to be disorganized crime.)  And - I have harder time explaining this one - to me it's a criminal's Pilgrim's Progress, concentrating on one bad guy as he goes through a life-changing crisis.

So that's three category names for my novel.  But I'm still thinking about Leonard's.



01 March 2016

Leap Dog on a Leap Day


by Barb Goffman

The dog ate my homework. It's a well known expression, supposedly used by children because it's so easy. No worries if you didn't do the assignment. Blame it on the dog.

Alas, this week, I really am blaming it on the dog. I have no words of wisdom about writing for you today. No editorial insights. I'm stressed because I have a project I expected to finish today (Leap Day, as I write this post) and I'm behind schedule because of ... you guessed it ... the dog.

Pay attention to me now!
This is my dog, Jingle. He's probably part beagle and part dachshund. He's one hundred percent escape artist.

I have a large backyard for him to run in. He loves it. It backs up to woods filled with foxes, deer, squirrels, and other enemies that he loves to chase. The yard is surrounded by a split-rail fence covered with wire built into the ground. The fence is probably around five feet tall. Jingle is probably one foot tall. Yet he escapes the yard repeatedly.

I've seen him walking the perimeter, pushing at the wire, looking for weak spots he can exploit. He must have once crawled under the gate, because when a neighbor found him, his front paws were covered in dirt. And lately, he has figured out how to jump on an old stump, jump on the top of the fence like an acrobat on a high wire (I kid you not--I saw him standing on a rail with my own eyes), and jump to the other side.

Making himself taller
When he creates weak spots, I get them fixed or blocked. When he crawled under the gate, I had it lowered so he couldn't fit through the hole again. When he started using the stump as a springboard, I had a friend bring over a thick, tall, and heavy tree slab to sit on the stump, assuming the stump's new height with the slab would deter Jingle.

Nope. Somehow my twenty-five-pound dog pushed the slab off the stump and has continued his wily ways.

Panting after too much running
In fact, coincidentally, as I was writing this blog, Jingle ran away. I looked up and saw him in the woods behind the house. I stopped writing the prior paragraph, ran outside, called for him repeatedly, saw him run across the cul de sac toward a neighbor's house, got in my car, drove around calling for him, and finally found him running into a neighbor's garage. If this were a novel I was editing, I'd tell my client to cut the coincidence--no one would believe the dog escaped the yard while you were writing about him escaping the yard. But as we all know, truth can be stranger than fiction.

This little incident took twenty minutes of my time, and I've had many of them over the last few months. So that is why I'm behind schedule on my client work and didn't have time to come up with any writing wisdom for you today. But if there was any day for Jingle to leap over the fence, it was today, Leap Day. So that kind of makes it okay, right?
It's a good thing he's so cute.

I hope your Leap Day yesterday was less eventful than mine. And if you have any dog escape stories you'd like to share, please do. We can commiserate together.

BREAKING NEWS: A little Tuesday morning addition: Congratulations to my fellow SleuthSayers for being named finalists this morning for the Derringer Award given out by the Short Mystery Fiction Society. In the Long Story category, John Floyd, Robert Lopresti, and former SleuthSayer Elizabeth Zelvin all have nominated stories. John is also a finalist in the Novelette category--a twofer. Very cool. I'm so happy for you all. And, I'm happy to add, I'm a finalist in the Flash category for my story "The Wrong Girl" from the anthology Flash and Bang. This is my first Derringer Award nomination, and I'm thrilled.

29 February 2016

Rules?

By Susan Rogers Cooper

While teaching classes over the years on how to write a mystery, I've come across other people's rules for how to and how not to write. And there are some fine rules out there. But, let's face it, as writers we are already dancing to the beat of a different drummer. Is it okay to bend some of these rules? Break one or two? Or totally ignore them? To screw up a wonderful quote, “Rules? We don't need no stinky rules!”

Now a man named Resnicow wrote some charming rules on how to write a mystery. He didn't specify – but I must – that these rules are only for the classics, or cozies, or drawing room mysteries.

Number one I agree with, unless you're writing under the name of Carolyn Keene:

1. You're writing a mystery: so kill someone.” That's mostly a keeper.

2. All clues should be presented clearly and preferably more than once.” Unless you're writing a police procedural, hard-boiled, or suspense.

3. The information given the reader must be accurate. Do your research.” Okay, another keeper.

4. All questions must be answered, all loose ends tied up.” Unless, of course, the book is going to have a sequel, or the whole point of the story is unanswered questions.

 That's just some of Mr. Resnicow's rules. But he's not the only one with a list. Back in the day, I found an interesting publication by a group of sci-fi writers out of Houston. They called their opus “The Turkey City Lexicon,” and they divided their rules into groups: Words, Sentences and Paragraphs, Background, and Plot. I'll just recount some of my favorites.

From Words:

“Said” Bookism: Artificial, literary verb used to avoid the perfectly good word “said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the language; it is almost impossible to overuse. Infinitely less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” or the all time favorite, “he ejaculated.”
 
And on that subject, my own pet peeve, no identifiers in a discussion involving more than two people. For God's sake, it's two extra words, people! (Now putting soap box away.)

 Tom Swifty: Similar compulsion to follow the word “said” with an adverb. As in, “We'd better hurry,” said Tom swiftly.” Remember, the adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb. (I love that last line!)

“Burly Detective” Syndrome: Fear of proper names. This is when you can't call Mike Shayne “Shayne,” but substitute “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.” It comes from the entirely wrong-headed conviction that you can't use the same word twice in the same sentence.
 
From Sentences and Paragraphs:
 
Laugh-track: Characters giving cues to the reader as to how to react. They laugh at their own jokes, cry at their own pain, and (unintentionally) feel everything so the reader doesn't have to.
 
Hand Waving: Distracting readers with dazzling prose or other fireworks to keep them from noticing a severe logical flaw.
 
Fuzz: Element of motivation the author is too lazy to supply. The word “somehow” is an automatic tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story: “Somehow she forgot to bring her gun.”
Background:
 
Info Dump: large chunks of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. This can be overt, as in fake newspaper of “Encyclopedia Glactia” articles inserted in the test, or covert, in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures.
 
As you Know, Bob: A form of info dump in which the characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up to speed.
 
I've Suffered for My Art And Now It's Your turn: Research dump.
 
I call this my personal favorite because, if I do the research, by damn, I'm gonna use it! Okay, half the time I have to go back and delete the boring stuff I learned, but please, ask me about it! I'll give you all the details!
 
And my favorite under Plots:
 
God-in-the-Box: Miraculous solution to an otherwise insoluble problem. “Look, the Martians all caught cold and died!”
 
Like I mentioned earlier, rules are meant to be used, edited, adapted or broken, but sometimes it's fun to see what other people think good writing is all about.

28 February 2016

Harper Lee and Alabama

by Dale C. Andrews
Sign in front of the Harper Lee Museum, Monroeville, Alabama 
(From FiveThirtyEight; attributed to Andrea Mabry, AP)
Fleetingly we will skirt Georgia before our southerly run continues down the State of Alabama, through Birmingham, and then just east of Monroeville, where Harper Lee still resides.
                         Me                                                                      SleuthSayers
                         January 31, 2016
You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. 
Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.
                                                                 Harper Lee 
                                                                 To Kill a Mockingbird 

       One month ago I drove south through the State of Alabama, and as always I thought of Harper Lee when we passed just east of Monroeville, her Alabama refuge for most of her life and the model for the Alabama town of Maycomb, in which To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman take place. It was while I was in Alabama last year that it was announced that Go Set a Watchman, a book that took most of us completely by surprise, would be published. And now this year, during our annual month in Alabama, Harper Lee has passed.  Tomorrow we leave.  But again this year I have spent a lot of time here thinking about Harper Lee, her two books, and what they teach us about Alabama.

       Harper Lee rarely gave interviews. But in one of the few that she did give she had this to say back in 1964:
I would like . . . to do one thing, and I’ve never spoken much about it because it’s such a personal thing. I would like to leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world.
All told Harper Lee left us only two novels -- To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. Publication of the latter volume was the catalyst for a lot of criticism. That criticism, both literary and ad hominem, is familiar to most readers and need not be regurgitated here. But I would argue (in fact, I have argued) that the two volumes, comprising virtually all of Harper Lee’s literary output, tell us a lot about Harper Lee’s Alabama, and much of what she tells us remains true today. 

       For most of my life I never set foot in Alabama. But in each of the last five years my wife and I have spent the month of February in the State, hunkered down in a rented condominium in Gulf Shores overlooking the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. We first made this trip at the urging of my wife’s sisters, who had already discovered Gulf Shores, which is convenient to their Midwest homes. They were hardly alone in this discovery -- the stretch of South Alabama has become a flocking ground for so-called “snowbirds,” since it offers a very reasonable retreat from the weather extremes that roll across the nation several hundred miles to the north. This small strip of Alabama shoreline is not as warm as Florida, but is more reasonably priced, enticing us northerners to trade a few degrees of warmth for several dollars of savings. 

       So, what’s not to like?  Well, there is that little problem of history and its imprints.

       The United States has a large footprint, and its many regions have spawned many sub cultures, some of which tend to divide us. So I will admit that when my wife and I first considered re-locating here for the month of February I approached the possibility with a significant degree of historical trepidation. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, which certainly is not the liberal bastion of my present home in Washington, D.C. But even in St. Louis, in the 1950s and 1960s of my childhood, Alabama was a place we looked at uncomprehendingly and, well, a bit aghast. From afar we watched the civil rights marches and riots on our television news.  We watched George Wallace’s defiant confrontation with Federal marshals as he attempted to block the doorway to the registrar’s office on the steps of the University of Alabama. 

       All of this had an effect. It was easy -- very easy -- to conclude that while we were far from perfect, these angry folks digging in their heels against racial equality were still uncomfortably different from us. We couldn't figure them out and, indeed, we really did not want to.  My father, I remember, vowed never to set foot in the state. Mississippi either. But today we are talking Alabama. 

      All of this was pretty deeply ingrained in me that first time, five years ago, that I drove south to Alabama. But just as life presents many faces, so, too, does Alabama. Driving south down Interstate 65 the occasional Confederate flag flying by the side of the highway was, in each case, both a confirmation of what I already expected and also off-putting. In contrast, the people we encountered were uniformly charming, gracious and inviting. Alabama’s stories, like all of ours, are complex.

       Here are two. 

       On our first trip to Gulf Shores I wandered into a liquor store on West Beach Boulevard to purchase some scotch. There were no large bottles of Dewars, my favorite brand, on display and I asked the manager if he had any in the back. Shaking his head he apologized, telling me that their stock was a bit low since February was still off season. Then, smiling, he told me to just pick up two smaller bottles and he would knock a few bucks off. Wow, I thought. Never had that happen before. When I brought the two bottles up to checkout the manager pulled a bottle of single malt scotch from under the counter. “This is my favorite,” he said. He then produced two glasses, poured a finger in each, and handed one to me. I picked up the proffered glass and, at 10:30 in the morning we sipped scotch together and talked about the weather and good places to purchase seafood. When I finally got back to the car my wife, waiting patiently inside, asked where I had been for such a long time. “Drinking scotch with my new best friend,” I replied. 

       But then there is this:  On that same trip one evening we went to dinner at DeSoto’s Seafood Kitchen, a Gulf Shores restaurant popular for its southern charm and local fare. As we ate our dinner we became aware of a woman seated at a nearby table.  Indeed, she couldn't be ignored.  In a voice loud enough to make clear that her words were intended to reach beyond her immediate dinner party we (and many others) heard the following harangue:  “Things have gotten so bad,” she hectored, for all to hear, “that in Washington they went and passed a secret Constitutional amendment making it legal for a black man from Kenya to be president.” 

       Each of these stories is Alabama. 

       For years now I have enjoyed the warmth of the sun and of the people here in Gulf Shores. Everyone is uniformly friendly. Smiles abound. But just as Sherlock Holmes famously observed in the context of the dog that did not bark in the night, we need to pay attention to what is present and also to what may be absent.  I never noticed this at first, but it eventually struck me that in all of the restaurants, supermarkets, pharmacies, fish markets, liquor stores and souvenir shops that I have visited in and around Gulf Shores over the years all of the employees that I recall encountering have been Caucasian. Just like in that Sherlock Holmes story, when you recognize the absence, well, it can tell you a lot.  And that is yet another Alabama story.

       As noted at the outset of this piece, Harper Lee was subjected to a good deal of criticism last year when Go Tell a Watchman was published. Many critics could not abide the contrasting portrayals of Atticus Finch that Lee’s two books offered up. How can we square the paragon of Mockingbird with the segregationist of Watchman? Like Alabama, the answer to that question is complex. 

     The two Harper Lee passages at the top of this piece illustrate the dual, and at times conflicting perspectives that the author brought to her life view and to her writing. She balanced the competing tasks of understanding those around her while at the same time judging those characters, and herself, by her own conscience. While some have been critical of Watchman, and its portrayal of Atticus, it seems to me that we need both books to understand Harper Lee and her complicated verdict on Alabama.

       It is Mockingbird that allows us to understand the conscience of Atticus, what Harper Lee identified as “the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule.” But it is Watchman that reminds us that for all of this Atticus was still a son of Alabama. As Harper Lee explained, you cannot understand anyone, even Atticus, “until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Climbing into that skin is Watchman. Abiding by your own conscience is To Kill a Mockingbird. Both are Atticus and both are Alabama. Harper Lee could understand, and love without condoning.

       In the wake of Harper Lee's death the statistical website FiveThirtyEight posted an article this week summarizing the historical demographics of Harper Lee’s town, Monroeville.  The article concluded that little there has really changed over the years.  The 1930s, when Mockingbird was set, appears to be not all that different from the the 1960s, when the novel was published, and not all that different from today. I have never visited Monroeville.  But this sure sounds like Alabama. History leaves footprints, and they sometimes wash away very slowly. 

       Just after the prophet Isaiah uttered the words “go set a watchman” he continued with these: “Let him declare what he seeth.” That is what Harper Lee did when she wrote about Alabama.  And that is what she said she would do in that 1964 interview.

27 February 2016

That Astounding Teaching Moment: The Bechdel Test

by Melodie Campbell

In which we address the question:  Will your book appeal to both men and women?

As part of my Crafting a Novel course, which I teach at Sheridan College, I introduce the concept of The Bechdel Test:  that is, does your book (or screenplay) have more than one woman in it with a speaking part; if so, do those two women talk to each other; if so, do they talk about more than a man?

I teach this from the point of view of marketing.  Sixty percent of book purchasers are female.  If you want a female audience as well as male, it’s smart to have a likeable female character that girls or women readers can relate to.  (To contrast, can you imagine many men wanting to read endless books where there was only one male in the book, and he turned out to be a rotter?)

At this point in the last class, one of my thirty-something male students looked down at his own work, in which the only female character turns out to be bad, and is killed before the end.  He then looked up, stunned, and said, “I can’t believe it.  White male privilege – I pride myself in thinking I am especially sensitive to this, and yet, here I am, guilty of it in my own novel. Without even realizing it.”

It was an astounding teaching moment.

Of my current class of ten, four out of five men were indeed writing books that failed the Bechdel test.  They hadn’t even realized it.  They certainly didn’t intend this.  And they all plan to revise their manuscripts to address it.

Which brings me to the second point of this post: sometimes the teacher can be the student.

I love when this happens. 

A few weeks ago, I asked another student of mine why she liked to read genre romance books.  I am not a romance reader, so I am always curious about what compels other women to read the genre.  She said, “Because they’re about women.”

Huh? That shocked me. I responded, “Well, really they are about the growing romance between a two people and overcoming obstacles to being together.”  We had covered this in depth, during our breakdown of the genres.  Did she miss that class?

My student said, “But they are written from the point of view of a woman.  And the woman always has friends.  Ever since I stopped reading YA, I’ve had problems finding strong female characters in novels, or sometimes any at all. That’s what was so good about YA.  There were always female characters I could relate to.”

Which got me thinking.  Many fantasy books are published, including both sword and sorcery, and dystopian.  But I bet when you think of recent bestsellers (meaning 21st century) you think of Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games.  Okay, and maybe Twilight.  Did the soaring success of these have a lot to do with the fact that there were strong female characters in significant roles? 

Damn straight. Hermione is a delight.  What a role model for young female readers.  The female star of The Hunger Games is a very different sort of heroine, but also wonderful.  One might even say, unique.

Like many, many readers, when I read a book, the experience is all the better if I can find a character to relate to.  Let me go further:  I like to sit on the shoulder of this character, and even imagine I have become the character for the duration of the story.  That’s magic for me.

And it’s magic for many readers. 

This term, while my students learned about The Bechtel Test, I discovered, or perhaps relearned, another important lesson from my romance-reading student:

Write for readers.  Anyone can write for themselves.  That’s easy.  Writing for 10,000 readers - that's much harder.

If you are a professional, you are writing for others, as well as yourself. 
Always keep your reader in mind.

Melodie Campbell's award-winning mob Goddaughter series passes the Bechdel test for both men and women.   The latest has just been released:  THE GODDAUGHTER CAPER
You can buy it most places.
on Amazon

26 February 2016

A Short Post (Shocking, I know)

By Dixon Hill

If all goes well, as you read this I'm beginning my second day at my first mystery writers conference.

I've never attended a conference of this type before.  For one thing, I have neither the resources nor time to travel much.  When I learned that Left Coast Crime was to be held in downtown Phoenix, however, my travel concerns evaporated.  And, when I got the word, a few days ago, that my employer was willing to let me take the necessary time off work, I suddenly found I could finally attend a writers conference!

So, this weekend, I'm attending Left Coast Crime.

I have no idea what I'm in for.  But, I'm looking forward to meeting other members of SleuthSayers, as well as other authors and various members of the publishing industry.  I only got my final permissions lined up at the last moment, however, so I'm busy jumping through hoops to complete everything I need to finish before taking off for the conference.

Thus, my entry today will be short.  Something that's sure to astound most folks who've read my posts!

I'll do my best to take some pics, so I can post them and let you know how things went.

If you have any suggestions for me -- such as, for instance, conference activities I should definitely attend -- feel free to make them in the "Comments" section of this blog post.  I'll have my cell phone with me, so I should get the chance to read them, though I might not have the chance to respond in a timely manner.

See you in two weeks!
--Dixon





25 February 2016

R.I.P. Maurice White

by Brian Thornton

Another month, another death of a musical icon who made a name for himself in the musical proving ground of the 1970s.

I did not start out as a fan of Earth, Wind & Fire. In fact, it was years after their late '70s peak before I
The great Maurice White, sans kalimba
gave them much thought at all. That goes double for the guy dancing center stage, singing and either joyfully whacking on a tympani or joyfully playing on a kalimba, Maurice White.

At the time I was barely into my teens, and like many (but hardly all) of my peers, I had an intense loathing for that hottest of music fads of the era: disco. So when Earth, Wind & Fire released "Boogie Wonderland," with that steady beat and those simplistic lyrics, I lumped them in with the likes of K.C. & the Sunshine Band, Alicia Bridges, Amii Stewart, Andy Gibb (Lot of "A" listers there, I know!), Yvonne Eliman, the S.O.S. Band, and so on.

In other words, I didn't get Earth, Wind & Fire, at all.

Because you could call these guys a soul band, or a funk band, a pop band or even a rock band,  but disco? Nope. Bassist Verdine White (Maurice's younger brother) famously said of "Boogie Wonderland": "I guess you could say we were at the party but didn't get on the dance floor."

The great Maurice White, with kalimba, but sans fashion sense
And it all started with the inimitable Maurice White.

From a recent article in UK paper The Independent:

"Maurice White, a sometime jazz session drummer for the Ramsey Lewis Trio, founded the band that would become Earth, Wind & Fire in Chicago in pre-disco 1969. His outfit has undergone several sonic shifts over the years. 'When we go to Europe everyone says we’re a funk group,' says Bailey. 'But if you got to know us through "Zanzibar" [from the 1973 LP Head to the Sky], you’d say we were a fusion band. If you came in on [the 1979 single] "After the Love is Gone", you’d say we were a love song group. We’re a cross between all of those things. Maurice always called it ‘Spectrum Music’.”

And giving their catalog a listen bears this notion out. Songs like "September", "After the Love Is Gone", "Fantasy", "Shining Star", "That's The Way Of The World", "Sing A Song", and "Let's Groove", just to name a few, are all over the place, tied together by a soulful approach and the infectious joy that is EWF's calling card.

In interview after interview, band members like vocalists Phillip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and younger
Verdine and Maurice, showing some joy, but still not much fashion sense
brother Verdine are unanimous in laying the credit for this core of joy in their music at the feet of EWF founder and long-time front man Maurice White.

Of all things it was not one of their terrific original songs, but their cover of a Beatles song that really got me to pay attention and really listen to EWF. I'm speaking, of course, about "Got To Get You Into My Life". I mean, jeeze, just listen to those horn lines! And everything is so tight.

Truly a masterpiece.

And can there be a better example of "Spectrum Music" than this "Afro-Soul" reinterpretation of one of a British pop-rock band's lesser hits?

I think not.

Maurice White had health problems for decades, suffering first from Multiple Sclerosis and then from Parkinson's Disease, the combination of which led to him giving up first touring and eventually even recording with the band that he founded and helped make into a decades-spanning legend.


All that said, he seems never to have lost that megawatt smile and the joie de vivre that seems to have been his defining characteristic.

Maurice White: at age 74, still gone too soon.

Truly a masterpiece.

24 February 2016

Sauce for the Goose

David Edgerley Gates

Meanwhile, back on the spook front, a couple or three developments. Maybe not all of a piece. They just bunched up on the radar around the same time.

To begin with, NSA has announced the establishment of a new Directorate of Operations, to oversee two previously separate missions - known as Signals Intelligence and Information Assurance - the first their offensive eavesdropping capacity, and the second their security firewalls. This is kind of a big deal, although it might not seem like it to an outside. The intelligence agencies prefer not to cross-pollinate.


Although inter-agency and intra-agency transparency looks good on paper, there are inherent risks, and they don't necessarily have a lot to do with jurisdiction or budget fights. Yes, you always have to live with dedicated turf warriors, but this is actually about keeping your assets secure and compartmentalized. For many years, CIA has maintained an institutional divide between Intelligence and Operations, and resisted calls to integrate. You could argue one mission is passive and the other active, but more to the point, a compromise on one side of the shop doesn't jeopardize the other. You limit your exposure. You're not giving up a roadmap to sources and methods.

So it's a trade-off. NSA may well enhance its analytical skills, of intercepted traffic and in defense against cyber attack. They may also be opening the watertight doors.

The next thing that caught my attention probably falls under the heading of Old Wine, New Bottles. Some while ago, DARPA came up with a program, or a menu of programs, called Total Information Awareness. This was shelved, for a time, and then implemented by fits and starts, not as a fully coherent approach. Then come the Snowden leaks, and data-mining is on everybody's lips. Nancy Pelosi and the House Intelligence Committee are shocked, shocked, but eventually the smoke blows away. Now a new tool has surfaced, called Information Volume and Velocity. (Don't you love these names?) This is designed to model trends on social media, among other platforms.


The most obvious application is counterterrorism. ISIS, for one, and the insurgents in the North Caucasus, for another, are more than familiar with Twitter and Facebook. They use them for recruitment, and public relations, and for command-and-control in the field - although lately the more popular vehicle has been on-line simulator games. You can see the appeal of a first-person shooter.

The problem, from NSA's point of view (or CIA, or the FBI, or Homeland Security), isn't data collection. The issue is how to process the material, and spin gold out of straw. The volume, not to mention the velocity, is impossible to keep up with. What they've got is an embarrassment of riches. The information environment is overwhelming. They need a filtering mechanism, to define the threat posture.


Last but not least, we have the recent Apple dust-up. This isn't a theoretical, or preventative policing. It's a question that came up after the San Bernadino shootings last December. Farook, one of the shooters, had an iPhone. FBI investigators would like to unlock it, and Apple says they won't provide a way to defeat the encryption. What we got here is real quicksand.

These issues are nowhere near clear-cut, although Apple CEO Tim Cook seems determined to frame it in apocalyptic terms and FBI Director James Comey is taking a predictably hard line. The law-and-order argument is uncomplicated. Comey says, we need to pursue every lead, in case other people are involved. We have a duly-issued search warrant for the digital contents of the phone, and the manufacturer has a legal and moral obligation to comply. Apple has in fact given the FBI everything it could download from the Cloud, but it refuses to write code that would reverse-engineer the encrypted data that's on the phone itself. Apple maintains that this would of necessity amount to a master key, that would unlock any iPhone. In other words, they could no longer market a secure product. They may cloak it in civil liberties, but it's a business decision.


The disingenuousness, or hypocrisy, on both sides, doesn't take away from either position. Comey's point is perfectly well taken, and so is Cook's. And for once, although I'm sure there are people who probably think I never met a surveillance program I didn't like, I'm with Apple on this one. Whether you trust U.S. federal agencies to take the high road is irrelevant. There are other countries in the world. There are more than a few that bully their own citizens, and whose management of information technology is anything but benign. We'd be handing them a loaded gun.

Is there a common thread? I dunno. There's no hard and fast. Maybe it signifies, maybe not. Stuff drifts past in my peripheral vision, and sometimes it catches the light.

23 February 2016

The Line-Up (Great Lines) – Pt. I, Film Noir 1

by Paul D. Marks

One of my favorite film noirs is Born to Kill, with Lawrence Tierney, Claire Trevor, Walter Slezak and Elisha Cook, Jr. If you’re in too good of a mood and you want to get knocked down a little, spend a couple hours with these people. Some of the nastiest in the original noir cycle. After you do you’ll need a shower.

That said, the movie has one of my favorite lines of any movie, spoken by Walter Slezak’s sleazy detective character:

Delivery Boy: My that coffee smells good. Ain't it funny how coffee never tastes as good as it smells.

Albert Arnett (Slezak): As you grow older, you'll discover that life is very much like coffee: the aroma is always better than the actuality. May that be your thought for the day.

I think about that line a lot because it’s so true. Not just about coffee but about all kinds of things in life, the expectation of something often being better than the reality. But this post isn’t really about the line and its philosophical undertones. So maybe I’ll leave that for another time.

But the line got me thinking about a lot of great lines. So that’s what this post is about and Part One will be great lines from three of my favorite noir movies (though not my top 3 except for Double Indemnity). Later parts will deal with other types of movies, westerns, dramas, etc. And then onto the books... But since I’m a noir addict I’ll start with my favorite film addiction.

***

Double Indemnity

For my money the ultimate film noir. If I had to show one noir to a Martian to say “this is film noir” it would be this one. Fred MacMurray plays Walter Neff, the hapless insurance salesman to Barbara Stanwyck’s blonde-wigged femme fatale. She hooks him with her anklet and it’s off to the races after that:

Walter Neff: That's a honey of an anklet you're wearing, Mrs. Dietrichson.

*

Walter Neff: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it

*

Walter Neff: Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it's true, so help me. I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.

*

Walter Neff: How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?

*

Phyllis: We're both rotten.
Walter Neff: Only you're a little more rotten.

*

Phyllis: I'm a native Californian. Born right here in Los Angeles.
Walter Neff: They say all native Californians come from Iowa.

*

Walter Neff: You'll be here too?
Phyllis: I guess so, I usually am.
Walter Neff: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.
Walter Neff: I wonder if you wonder.

*

Walter Neff: It's just like the first time I came here, isn't it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet.

*

Walter Neff: Know why you couldn't figure this one, Keyes? I'll tell ya. 'Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.
Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson): Closer than that, Walter.
Walter Neff: I love you, too.

***

Born to Kill

Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney play two of the lowest, meanest, nastiest people you never want to run across. Different from some noirs, much of the movie takes place in upper class San Francisco instead of on the meaner, lower class streets. We see the sleaze and depravity beneath the veneer of civility and respectability. Tierney is a thug, and apparently that’s not too far from the reality of his life. He was busted for drunk and disorderly and assault and battery. And apparently even in his 70s he was getting into trouble. When he played Elaine’s father (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) on Seinfeld they were so scared of him they never asked him back to repeat the role. And on Reservoir Dogs he almost came to blows with Quentin Tarantino because he would show up drunk and not take directions.

In Born to Kill, we have the coffee line mentioned above and several other good ones as well:

Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney): Oh, I see. You cross the tracks on May Day with a basket of goodies
for the poor slum kid, but back you scoot - and fast - to your own neck o' the woods. Don't you?
Helen Brent (Claire Trevor): I wouldn't say that.
Sam Wild: No, you wouldn't *say* it... but that's the way it is.

*

Mrs. Kraft (to Claire Trevor): You're the coldest iceberg of a woman I ever saw, and the rottenest inside. I've seen plenty, too. I wouldn't trade places with you if they sliced me into little pieces.

*

Helen Brent: I must warn you, though, liquor makes me nosy. I've been known to ask all sorts of personal questions after four cocktails.
Marty Waterman (Cook): 'Sallright. I've been known to tell people to mind their own business. Cold sober, too.

*

Mrs. Kraft: How come you got a hold of this information?
Marty Waterman (Cook): Through underworld connections, like it says in the newspapers. I'm a bad boy.

*

Marty Waterman: You can't just go around killing people when the notion strikes you. It's just not feasible.

*

Mrs. Kraft: Are you trying to scare me?
Helen Brent: I'm just warning you. Perhaps you don't realize - it's painful being killed. A piece of metal sliding into your body, finding its way into your heart. Or a bullet tearing through your skin, crashing into a bone. It takes a while to die, too. Sometimes a long while.

***

The Blue Dahlia

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake’s third full outing together and probably my favorite. Along for the ride in this Raymond Chandler original screenplay are Hugh Beaumont (later Leave it Beaver’s dad) and the great character actor William Bendix (who also had TV success in The Life of Riley). Ladd and his buddies Bendix and Beaumont are just back from the war—and you know when you say just ‘the war’ it has to be World War II. It seems that Ladd’s wife has been fooling around on him and when she ends up dead the police suspect the estranged husband—or maybe it’s the crazy vet with the plate in his head (Bendix). We’ll see.

Talk about subtext:
'Dad' Newell (Wil Wright): Well, I guess I better be goin', Mr. Harwood.
Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva): Wait a minute - you forgot your cigar.
'Dad' Newell: Oh.
Eddie Harwood: I think it's out.
Eddie Harwood: [he lights it] Cigars go out awful easy, don't they, Dad?
Eddie Harwood: [he blows out his lighter for emphasis] Good night.

*

Eddie Harwood: Half the cops in L.A. are looking for you.
Johnny Morrison (Ladd): Only half?

*

Joyce Harwood (Lake): [Joyce offers Johnny a lift in the rain] Get in.
[Johnny hesitates]
Joyce Harwood: Well, you could get wetter if you lie down in the gutter.

*

Eddie Harwood: Drink?
'Dad' Newell: Don't mind if I do but easy on the water.

*

Corelli, motel operator: You still want that room?
Johnny Morrison: [sarcastically] You sure nobody's dead in it?
Corelli, motel operator: [leading him to the room] Right back this way. You live in San Francisco?
Johnny Morrison: [laconically] Yeah, when I'm there.

*

'Dad' Newell: [examining Helen's – Ladd’s wife – body] Been dead for hours.
Mr. Hughes, assistant hotel manager: Suicide?
'Dad' Newell: Could be.
Mr. Hughes, assistant hotel manager: Better be!
'Dad' Newell: Unh-unh! Too much gun!

*

Johnny Morrison: [discovering his wife in close proximity to Harwood] You've got the wrong lipstick on, Mister.

*

Helen Morrison (Ladd’s wife): I take all the drinks I like, any time, any place. I go where I want to with anybody I want. I just happen to be that kind of a girl.

*

Johnny Morrison: [to the partygoers] Seems I've lost my manners or would anyone here know the difference?

***

Please check out Pam Stack of Authors on the Air Interviewing me a couple of weeks ago: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/authorsontheair/2016/02/04/paul-d-marks-talks-about-writing-and-more-on-authors-on-the-air-live 

And my reading of my Anthony and Macavity-nominated story Howling at the Moon, from Ellery Queen. I don’t think the Barrymore clan has to worry: http://eqmm.podomatic.com/entry/2016-02-01T06_56_00-08_00 

And look for my post on Drinks with Reads at Mystery Playground, going live on Wednesday, Feb. 26th, but one of the pix is already up on the front page: http://www.mysteryplayground.net/p/summer-drinks-with-reads-series.html 


Check out my website: PaulDMarks.com

Well, that’s all folks. At least for now.




22 February 2016

Too Many Cooks...er,Uh...Characters

by Jan Grape

I love to read good books with characters I can care about, root for or at last give them a chance to grow on me enough to keep turning pages and finish the book. Sometimes I think an author gets carried away or else so many characters keep talking that he has to write them all down before they quit talking and he doesn't know what to do.

There are many, many books that have characters that I like so much I'll keep buying that authors books forever. Even in hardback because I can't wait for the next installment. Lee Child's books starring Jack Reacher is one. Child starts off many times giving you a bit of background, a bit of scenery or immediately telling you the problem that Reacher is facing. You may read twenty or thirty pages with only three or four characters introduced. There might be two or three other names mentioned but they probably aren't going to be major...like a sheriff who picks up the walking Jack Reacher or Navy lieutenant who will escort Reacher to a private jet. Before long you've read the aforementioned twenty or so pages and you are right there into the story and know what is going on.

I looked at a half a dozen books on my shelf and discovered that was more or less exactly what Harlan Coben, Sara Paretsky, Michael Collins, Marcia Muller, James Lee Burke and Bill Pronzini do. In the first twenty or thirty pages they will introduce their main character and perhaps two or four other characters that may have something major to contribute to the story. They may even mention three or four other characters who probably only have a walk-in part but are necessary.

Recently, I read a book by an author I admire very much but had not read in years. Everything was fine in the first twenty-five or thirty pages but suddenly a new scene opened up with two new characters. Okay, I guess these two were necessary. Turned out they were what I might call minor/major characters.

They showed up every so often and were important to the story but before I could turn around twice another major/minor showed up and then three more major/minor folks and this happened in the first fifty pages. And the real major character was lost in the shuffle in my opinion.

Honestly, it seemed to me as if the major character should be the one introducing in these other characters and not handling them all out at once. I more or less got so lost that I lost interest in the book. It took me weeks to finish it. And in between I read three other books.

No, I can't say I enjoyed that book as much and I doubt I'll ever purchase another by that particular author. The author did connect all the dots at the end but I mostly didn't care one way or the other. I may be the only one who feels this way but I don't think so. After thinking about it this week, I remembered when we owned our bookstore there were a few customers who complained about too many characters dumped on you immediately. I don't mind if you wind up with 79 characters but please don't dump them on me in the first forty or so pages. I confuse easily.

Which in turn led to my title...too many cooks spoil...er...uh too many characters spoil the book.

Let me know what you think. See you on down the road.