12 March 2016

Why I Stopped Reading Nancy Drew: The Case of the Perfect Protagonist

by B.K. Stevens

I no longer remember the title of the last Nancy Drew mystery I checked out of the public library in Tonawanda, New York. I no longer remember anything about the case Nancy was working on or the clues she'd uncovered. But I do remember, almost word for word, the last two sentences I read before slamming the book shut and vowing never to read another.

ND1tsotoc.JPGNancy is with her friend Bess, investigating something or other outdoors. When the day begins to get foggy, Bess begins to fuss. She'd spent a long time working on her hair that morning, and now the moisture in the air is making her curls droop and die. Here are the sentences that ended my years as a Nancy Drew fan: "Nancy smiled. The damp air just made her own naturally curly hair even bouncier."

That did it. I'd long ago gotten used to the idea that Nancy is uniquely smart, brave, and pretty, that she's always the one who spots the clues and solves the mysteries. I knew her father is kinder and wiser than anyone else's, her boyfriend better looking than anyone else's, her eyes bluer and her roadster sleeker. I'd stopped being surprised when she keeps displaying new areas of expertise. When some snooty diving champions challenge her to a competition, I took it for granted that Nancy's jackknife would put theirs to shame. I was right.

But naturally curly hair? That was too much. Like poor Bess, I had stick-straight hair. I had to torture it to make it look slightly bent. And now, to learn that Nancy Drew, so clearly superior to me in every other respect, also effortlessly enjoys what I could never achieve--I couldn't stand it. I returned the book to the library and began a quest for a more satisfying teenaged detective. Nancy was probably supposed to be a role model, but she was so far out of my league that I couldn't even fantasize about rising to her level. I yearned for a teenaged detective who had flaws as well as strengths, one I could admire but still feel some kinship with, one who would set an inspiring example without depressing the hell out of me.

My favorite was probably Trixie Belden. When I began to think about writing this post, I decided to reread Trixie's first mystery, The Secret of the Mansion, to refresh decades-old memories. I was reminded that, like Nancy, Trixie is quick-thinking and courageous, with a keen sense of right and wrong. Unlike Nancy, though, she sometimes makes mistakes. She can be impetuous, tactless, even foolish. And she's not always the best at everything. Her closest friend, Honey West, is a far better rider. When Trixie impulsively mounts the most spirited horse in the West family stable, she gets thrown and narrowly escapes being trampled. When she dives into a lake to cool off, she forgets to check the depth, bumps her head on the bottom, and nearly passes out. She adores her sensible, loving parents but sometimes chafes at the chores they assign her, sometimes keeps secrets from them. None of that ever kept me from admiring Trixie, or from wishing her well in each of her adventures.

When I started toying with the idea of writing a young adult mystery of my own, I naturally began by reading some recent examples. A lot has changed since the days when Trixie and Honey bicycled down the tranquil streets of their fictional village of Sleepyside. Today's YA detectives may find themselves in the seedier sections of major cities, dealing with dangers ranging from gang violence to cyber-bullying, from serial killers to designer drugs. (Sometimes they also deal with vampires, shape-shifters, and evil wizards--but we'll set those aside.) At least in the books I've read, they seldom enjoy the guidance and protection of parents comparable to Trixie's, or to Nancy's rock-solid widowed father, prominent attorney Carson Drew. More often, their families are fractured by divorce, abandonment, death. Some have never known their fathers; many have to deal with parents who are abusive, addicted, or psychologically damaged. Perhaps to compensate for the lack of strong parents, these protagonists usually have reliable, fiercely loyal friends. I haven't read widely enough to hazard even a tentative generalization, but it seems to me that in some recent YA mysteries, friends play the roles parents used to play: The protagonist's parents may be inadequate or absent, but friends provide advice, support, and unconditional love.

And the young detectives themselves? In the books I read, I didn't find any Nancy Drew-type paragons who excel at everything, but I did encounter protagonists who might be considered paragons of resilience. Generally, they're tough, brave, and smart. They may be cynical and find it difficult to trust others--after all, they've usually been through a lot, and they've often got big problems at home. Aside from that, most of the YA detectives I met are surprisingly unscathed by their experiences and surroundings. Despite their haphazard upbringings, they're people of utter integrity. No matter how harshly they've been treated, they're sensitive and compassionate. And although their parents may be addicts, they live clean. Offhand, I can't think of a single teenaged detective who sneaks so much as a sip of beer, despite circumstances dismal enough to drive most of us to drink.

Reading these contemporary YA mysteries helped me begin to plan my own. I knew three things for sure. First, my protagonist would be male. At the time, I was teaching English in a Cleveland high school, and I wanted to write a book that would appeal to male students who, bright as they might be, often weren't enthusiastic readers. Second, my protagonist would be athletic. When I recommended outside reading novels to my male students, they often responded with a question straight out of The Princess Bride:"Are there any sports?" I wanted to write a book that would respond to that interest. And third, my protagonist would not have naturally curly hair.

Krav Maga trainingBeyond that, I wasn't sure. I had no interest in writing about a protagonist as flawless as Nancy Drew. I wasn't consciously thinking about Trixie Belden--until I started working on this post, I'd barely thought about her in years--but my protagonist, Matt Foley, has more in common with Trixie than with Nancy. He's a thoroughly nice kid with good instincts and a generous nature--for example, he won't stand idly by if someone else is being bullied--but he makes plenty of mistakes. He's not always a good judge of character: He can be taken in by a pretty face or a smooth talker, he's too quick to believe gossip, and he tends to think the people in his own popular crowd at school are superior to the misfits.

Matt's not as accident prone as Trixie, but he too can be impetuous, rushing into situations without pausing to weigh the dangers. (That's one advantage to having a teenaged male protagonist. If a widowed forty-year-old mother of two goes to a deserted spot late at night to search for evidence, she's being so culpably foolish and irresponsible that readers may well be incredulous, unsympathetic, or both. If a seventeen-year-old boy does the same thing--well, what else would you expect from a seventeen-year-old boy? He's young. He'll learn.) Matt treasures his friends, but he doesn't always get along with them smoothly. He clashes with his long-time best friend, Berk, when they both get interested in the same girl, and he jeopardizes his relationship with a new friend, Graciana, by making immature comments. When I think back to my own high-school days, that rings true. Friendships are vitally important, yes, but they can also be delicate, and they don't always last forever.

Then I thought about Matt's family. I ought to have some conflict there, I decided. Maybe his parents should be divorced. Maybe one or both should be abusive, or addicted to something. Maybe the family has been torn apart by some horrible experience, such as the violent death of an older sibling. After all, today's young adult novels are supposed to deal honestly with the problems real families face.

In the end, I decided to pass on divorce, abuse, addiction, and horrible experiences. I'm glad many mysteries for young people deal with such problems. That's important. But I think it's also important for some YA mysteries to acknowledge that even when families are intact, even when loving parents work hard to do their best, young people can still feel alienated and isolated. Even when problems aren't dramatic, they can still be real, still be frustrating--and sometimes, they can have a lighter side. Those are the sorts of family problems Matt faces in Fighting Chance.

Image result for Stevens fighting chance Matt's a good person, his parents are good people, and they all love each other. But they have different interests and different perspectives. Sometimes, those differences lead to relatively minor problems. Matt's resentful because his parents don't pay more attention to his athletic achievements, he doesn't understand how they can be so perpetually perky and upbeat, and he's appalled when his mother serves him tofu stir-fry and quinoa patties instead of the cheeseburgers he craves. Sometimes, the differences have more serious consequences. Determined to provide Matt with a sense of security, his parents don't talk about the problems they're facing. As a result, Matt feels there must be something wrong with him, since he's apparently the only one whose life isn't perfect. Because he assumes his parents won't be able to understand, he often keeps things from them, sometimes flat-out lies to them. He feels guilty about it, but he can't bring himself to open up to them until events in the novel face him to risk it. I like to think Fighting Chance is a coming-of-age novel as well as a whodunit. Reaching a better understanding of his parents is a major element in Matt's transition from childhood to adulthood.

There's no need for Nancy Drew to come of age, of course. In every important respect, she's already an adult on the first page of her first mystery. But she's been part of the coming-of-age process for countless young readers. For a while, at least, she sets an example for them, gets them excited about reading, and makes them love mysteries. Are there any adult female mystery readers or writers who didn't read Nancy Drew novels when they were young? Maybe, but I've never talked to even one who's admitted to such a shocking gap in her literary education. And I'd guess there are few, if any, adult male mystery readers or writers who didn't start out with the Hardy Boys. If we eventually get impatient with Nancy Drew, if we start yearning for mystery protagonists who are more like us and share more of our problems and shortcomings--well, that's probably part of the coming-of-age process, too. The young adult mystery is a genre within a genre, but it's neither narrow nor rigid. It's capacious enough, and flexible enough, to meet the needs of many different sorts of young readers in many different generations, at many stages in their progress toward adulthood. I slammed my last Nancy Drew novel shut many decades ago, but I'll always look back at Nancy with affection, and with gratitude.

Image result for nancy drew silhouette

11 March 2016

My Trip to the Left Coast

by Dixon Hill

If you read my last post, you know I attended Left Coast Crime 2016, held two weeks ago here in Phoenix, and that I promised to tell you of my experiences there.

So, here goes:

First of all, you have to understand that I don't do well in large groups of unknown people, if I don't know what's expected of me.  I don't find it difficult to stand up and speak before a large audience, or to run a battalion sized operation, nor do I mind being a spear-carrier, because I understand where I fit in.  I understand what's expected of me, and I do it.

But, I had never been to a writer's conference before.  I had no idea what I was really supposed to be doing there, or how that little piece called "me" was supposed to fit into the overall scheme of maneuver among 700-odd strangers.

 To complicate things a bit, I live on the Tempe/Scottsdale border (see map on right), so downtown Phoenix is not "right next door."  My car has developed asthma in her later years.  She wheezes, coughs and threatens to pack-it-in if I get her above 50 mph. So, I stay off the freeways these days.

Thankfully, I could drive almost straight to the Hyatt, where the conference convened, simply by jumping onto Washington Ave. and heading west. I had already registered online.

But, what was I supposed to do when I got there?  "What do people do at writer's conferences?" I asked myself.

I mean, even when the army dropped me into a jungle loaded with not-very-friendly folks, I always got a Mission Statement first.  So, even though I might not know all the details of what I'd need to wind up doing, I still knew what I was trying to accomplish there.

But, what does one try to accomplish at a writer's conference?

I knew this was a place where writers met other writers, for instance.  But, why?  Did they meet each other for friendship and camaraderie?  To gain advice, share writing war-stories, or what?  I mean, writing's one of those things you sort of have to do by yourself, it seems to me, so I really didn't get this one.

There were also myriad panels to attend.  But, what was I supposed to get out of them?

I finally decided there was one mission I could initially focus on: Meeting any fellow SleuthSayers in attendance.  If I focused on this mission, I told myself, the other pieces of my mission might resolve into greater clarity over time and acclimation.

Okay, so I've got a mission statement -- at least for an initial mission; I'm hoping I can come up with some successful follow-on missions to round out my time at the conference -- so I'm ready for INFIL.  I jump in my car, drive over the buttes, and head down Washington toward the Hyatt.

There, I discovered that attendance meant a satchel full of great books!  Just for starters.

Shortly after I attended my first panel, I sat down to figure out what I was going to do next, and discovered I was sitting across from a woman who knew R.T. Lawton, with whom I used to alternate Fridays here on SleuthSayers.  She asked me what I expected to get out of the convention. "I'm not sure," I told her.  We spoke for a while, and I began to consider my mission in terms of what I wanted to accomplish there.

I decided I'd like to get ideas that would help me refine my writing, and what I was trying to say or do with it.  I didn't expect to land an agent, but I figured I'd keep my eyes and ears open for anything that might help me land one in the future.  A few minutes later, I ran into Melissa Yi.

It was great to finally get a chance to meet fellow SS'rs Melissa Yi and Melodie Campbell. Unfortunately, familial duties kept me away from the conference when I might easily have shaken hands with Brian Thornton, and for that I shall long be sorry.

I eventually found myself attending many of the same panels as another fellow, for some reason, and we started talking.  We somehow even wound up at the same table for the final dinner.  There, our host, Matthew Quirk, provided each table member with his latest novel Cold Barrel Zero, and a set of lock picking equipment.  He also brought a few locks along to practice on -- some of the most fun I've had in a long time.

I found many of the panels useful in ways I didn't really expect.  I even wound up meeting a couple of guys with backgrounds similar to mine, who had published books with story lines that sounded like they ran down the same highways mine did.  One of these guys mentioned his agent (I didn't tell him I was looking for an agent; nor did I ask; he just told me.), and suggested I might send a query there.  I thought that was awfully nice, and am doing so.

Wandering around in the "book room" I discovered a trove of old "Toff" mysteries.  I'd stripped all the Toff books out of the local bookstores in my area several years ago, and never expected to find more.  I couldn't help myself! -- I bought two.  It was also nice to get my hands on copies of works by panel members who had said something intriguing about their writing technique.  I hope to learn even more by reading them.

But, I think the thing I walked away with -- more than anything else -- was the feeling that I'd been among people who did what I did on a daily basis.  Many evidently faced the same problems I do.  And all were very supportive.

That's not something you get very often in this writing game -- the support of your peers.  As I wrote earlier: writing tends to be something you do by yourself.  Getting a chance to immerse myself, for a long weekend, in a 700-strong sea of like-minded and supportive people ... that's what I decided the real objective was.

Guess it just kinda' snuck up on me.

And I had a great time!

See you in two weeks,
Dixon

10 March 2016

Noir, Sci-Fi & Historical Talk Music & Influence....

by Brian Thornton

(Taken from a recent online chat)

A bit about my guests this week:

S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, Bad Citizen Corporation, is available now from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, Grizzly Season, will be published in September 2016. His standalone novella, Crosswise, is available now from Down & Out Books.


Jeff Reeds is a science fiction writer who lives in Seattle.

Brian

Thanks for weighing in on this topic, guys.

Steve I was thinking during our discussions both before and after the reading we did for Noir on the Air at Left Coast Crime, how music seemed to really heavily inform the work several of us were doing, especially early on in our development as writers. And you referenced your own experiences in the L.A. underground scene.

Steve

There were two things I wanted to do with my life when I was a teenager: play in a touring rock band and write books. I chased the first one into my early thirties, with varying degrees of success and failure. I plan to chase the second into my grave—or until I get bored. Since those dreams were born at the same time, it makes sense that they are colliding now.
Music really turned on for me when I stopped accepting the heavy metal my older brothers were introducing me to, and started discovering music on my own and through my friends. Punk and post-punk mostly, but plenty of other stuff too. I was drawn to lyrics early on and remember being blown away by the clash of anger and energy from bands like The Replacements, The Minutemen, The Clash, Husker Du, Dead Kennedys, 7 Seconds, Black Flag, etc.

At the same time, I’ve always had a soft spot for power pop like Cheap Trick and Big Star, and glam rock like David Bowie, T. Rex and New York Dolls. Now I mostly listen to Taylor Swift, thanks to my kids.

Brian

Sorry about the whole Taylor Swift thing.

Have you considered trying to get some relief by getting your kids to listen to Ryan Adams' cover album where he reworked every single song on Swift ' s 1989 album?

Steve

It's actually not so bad. I genuinely like Taylor Swift's music. As for Ryan Adams--my wife and I are huge fans and have played him for our kids a lot. In fact, when we aren't indulging their pop predilections, we play quite a bit of old school country, roots rock and Americana at them. I knew we were doing something right when I realized they knew all the words to "Rhinestone Cowboy."

Brian

Nice.

Steve

It’s the small things.

Brian

Jeff, what about you?

Jeff

I love creating playlists. Several of them are geared around what I'm writing (I also title some of them rather creatively). When I was trying to write a song that one of my characters sings, I put together the playlist, "Another night at the Old Sand HIll" filled with troubadours like Neil Young, Bon Iver, and J.J.Cale. "Looking out a pub window at the rain" has Band of Horses, Brian Jonestown Massacre, and Horse Feathers. My general writing playlist is "Nectar for the pen" with bands like Massive Attack, Radiohead, and The Cure. It's all to help me snuggle up next to the muse.

Brian

Maybe it's my historical mystery writer roots showing, but I have a playlist o western theme music, think 1960s westerns, like How the West Was Won, The Comancheros, The Sons of Katie Elder, etc cetera. I listen to this when I do either action or fight scenes.

Jeff

That’s cool. I’d like to hear that playlist!

Steve

I can’t listen to music when I write, but I do when I edit. Especially if I am trying to tweak the vibe of a specific scene.

Jeff

I've heard many writers say they can't have music on when they write. I almost have to have it on. Not sure why. But you hit on the point of the vibe of something. Many of the artists I listen to while I write have a certain beat--the trip hop genre more so than others (Massive Attack, DJ Shadow). So is there something vibrational to writing? Does the creative part of our minds flow better when getting hit with certain vibrations? I think scientifically speaking there's been some work on that. Certain brain processes occur more at certain frequencies.

Steve

I'm too easily distrac--SQUIRREL!!!

Kidding aside, I do find that music is a great short cut to developing a character or a scene. The example I've been using is that a character in a Hall & Oates t-shirt is different than a character in a Black Flag t-shirt. That example lacks subtlety, but demonstrates the point. And (to paraphrase something Brian said in a previous conversation): The character becomes even more complicated when they like both bands.

I think the awesome Vancouver crime writer Sam Wiebe originally planted that seed in my impressionable brain.

Brian

Four things:

First: yes, Sam Wiebe is, in fact, AWESOME.

(To take a look at Sam's latest book, Invisible Dead, which just came out, click here.)

Second: sure Jeff, I'm happy to share that playlist.

Third: I feel constrained to add that although I listened to music relentlessly when I first started writing, and still do when writing either nonfiction or fight/action scenes, I have moved into the "can't listen to music when writing fiction camp" in the intervening years.

(Editing, that's another deal).

Fourth: yes, music can be wonderful short-hand for showing character.

Especially if you're poking fun at tropes.

Think Michael Bolton, the computer programmer from Office Space, a nebishy white guy who blasts gangsta rap in the car, knows all the words, and yet still meekly rolls up his window when approached by a black guy panhandling for change and offering to wash windows.

(Check back in two weeks as we wrap this conversation. Any comments/questions left in the comment section will be addressed then as well!)

09 March 2016

Gen. Hayden Comes Out

David Edgerley Gates

A lot of stuff happened on Michael Hayden's watch - or watches. 40-year career military, he retired with four stars. He served as Director of the National Security Agency (DIRNSA) from 1999 to 2005, Deputy Director of National Intelligence (DDNI), 2005 to 2006, and Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), 2006 to 2009.


The last ten years of Hayden's career are, um, interesting, a period that was a particular challenge for the American intelligence community - and for Hayden personally, a time when he became a senior placeholder and the brand label for an emerging subset of spycraft, the Information Domain.

Hayden commanded the Air Intelligence Agency before moving up to NSA. This is one of the three military cryptologic units (each of the major branches have one), and in fact it's my old outfit, the USAF Security Service, dressed up in new clothes and renamed. the basic mission is much the same, but as the electronic battlefield has gotten more sophisticated and elusive, the targeting and analysis strategies have kept pace. Hayden's assignment to AIA was a bellwether of his later tenure as DIRNSA. Although he seems to have miraculously few serious enemies in and around the Beltway, he's known to take no prisoners.

Air Intelligence apparently became something of a test case, both for Hayden and the secret world at large. It's a commonplace that generals fight the last war, and it's just as true of the secret intelligence community. Hayden brought a different mindset to AIA. The enemy was no longer state-sponsored. The environment was target-rich, but suddenly diffuse, amorphous and unfocused. Hayden didn't invent the concept of metadata, but he understood how it could be a useful tool. The problem wasn't too little intercept, it was too muchYou needed a way to shape the raw material, to give it context and collateral, and put the dirty bits in boldface.

Otherwise, your 'product,' in the jargon, turned lumpy and indigestible, like a cake that's fallen in the oven, and your consumers would spit it out. You're only as good as your box office. Hayden understood the relationship was market-driven.

Let's cut to the chase. There's a cloud over Hayden's job performance as DIRNSA, and then as DCI. The complaint is that he was, in effect, a Good German - that he turned a blind eye to excesses. Now that Hayden's published a  memoir, PLAYING TO THE EDGE: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, he gets to tell his side of the story, or at least blow some smoke our way.

Let me 'splain something here, Lucy. Spook memoirs are a mixed bag, a specialized genre like the campaign biography, with peculiar ground rules. There are the outright fabrications, like Kim Philby's MY SILENT WAR, which was ghostwritten by his KGB handlers. On the other hand, some are entirely reticent. Dick Helms' A LOOK OVER MY SHOULDER is so dry you wonder if the guy even has a pulse, until he gets to Nixon and Watergate, and his fury boils over. They usually split the difference, between a poison-pen letter and a sanitized employment application. It helps if you're familiar with the background landscape, and the supporting cast, which of the stories have been told before, from which perspective, and who's gone into Witness Protection. Valerie Plame Wilson and Scooter Libby are going to have two very different recollections of similar events, let's face it, and the possibility of active disinformation is never far from mind. You have to sort it out, and separate the self-serving from the malicious, or purely deceptive.

'Frank' isn't a word that trips immediately off the tongue when you consider Michael Hayden, but the book is revealing in ways he maybe isn't aware of. It surely displays the quality of his mind, and it also betrays an impatience with fools, which is no bad thing. I was put off, though, by a certain rigidity of temperament, or even spirit. Hayden doesn't seem to entertain much self-doubt. He's not a second-guesser. He weighs the arguments, he calls heads or tails, and then the tablets are written in stone.

A case in point is PRISM, the eavesdropping program I've described previously. Hayden refers to it as STELLARWIND, which is how the product was labeled, and although he admits there were some privacy concerns, it was simple necessity to use it. Okay, take his word for it. Then let's talk about Enhanced Interrogation. Opinions vary, but a lot of professional interrogators say torture doesn't get the needed results. Hayden says different. Again, is this philosophical, or metaphysical? Depends whose ox is being gored. If you're the guy on the operating table with water running out your nose, you're in no position to argue. We could also get into the nuts and bolts of the drone program and how targets for elimination are selected.


The larger question here, aside from specific issues, is transparency. Hayden's read on this is spectacularly tone deaf. When he took the helm at NSA, he made an effort to drag them kicking and screaming into the daylight. This was simply good public relations, to position the agency as a visible presence, and sitting with the grown-ups. He'd also inherited a recalcitrant and ungainly command and reporting structure, so Hayden's reorganization went some way toward establishing his own independent power base. What didn't happen, though, was any change in his baseline metabolism. The habit of security, circling the wagons, is ingrained, it becomes second nature.

Hayden falls back on the Honorable Men defense. This is the title of William Colby's memoir of his years as DCI - and comes, in fact, from his testimony in front of the Senate Select Committee. We work in secret, Colby's train of thought goes, and the American public has to trust us to be honorable men, that we know right from wrong. Or, as Mike Hayden puts it, quoting an unexpected source, "To live outside the law, you must be honest."

Stop me if you've heard this. It sounds much the same, set to new music, and sung in the key of Tuned Out.

08 March 2016

Interview with Medical Thriller Author John Burley

by Melissa Yi

Scene: book signing at Left Coast Crime 2016. Melissa Yi and Kenneth Wishnia are fighting off hordes of Jewish Noir fans. Suddenly, a six-foot-one man eases his way to the front of the line.

John Burley: I’d like to introduce myself. My name is John Burley. I’m an emergency doctor and a writer.

Melissa Yi: Are you serious? So am I. You’re the first one I’ve ever met. I’ve met other doctor-writers, but not emergency doctor-writers.

JB: Likewise.

John and Melissa size each other up and shake hands.

Kenneth Wishnia: I want to know about that thing where you take a pen and stab someone in the neck so that they can breathe.

MY: The cricothyroidotomy.

KW: Where do you do it?

MY: Between the thyroid and cricoid cartilage.

JB: Just below the Adam’s apple. You feel it?

KW nods.

MY, to JB: You ever done one?

JB: I’ve done five.

MY: Are you serious?

JB: Yes. The last one was the most challenging, because of congenital malformations and previous tracheal surgery.

MY: Holy crap. That’s crazy. [To Ken] We talk more about crics than we actually do them. So, John, tell me about your latest book. 

JB: My latest novel is titled The Forgetting Place. It's a dark psychological suspense thriller that's told from the perspective of a female psychiatrist who works at a correctional hospital for patients who've committed heinous crimes but have been deemed not guilty by reason of insanity. But there's more to this place than she suspects. At Menaker State Hospital, no one is safe for long. 

MY: And why do you feel the need to write? Isn’t it enough, to be an emergency doctor?

JB: I write for the same reason that most of us do: there's something inside of us that we have to get out. Being an emergency doctor creates more grist for the mill. There's a physical and emotional intensity to the job that shouldn't be bottled up for too long.

MY: I’ll ask you the question everyone asks me: how do you find the time?

JB: It's like anything that you love, I guess -- like any obsession you can't live without. You make time for it, make sacrifices along the way. Everything has its price. 
MY: And would you ever quit medicine, if the writing took off?

JB: I don't think so. Not completely, anyway. Being a writer is an isolated and often lonely profession. Medically speaking, emergency medicine is the antidote. I look forward to my shifts in the ER. It's a chance to help people, to use a different skill set. Also, it gets me out of my own head for a while. For the sake of maintaining one's sanity, I think that's pretty important. 
MY: Did you do any other work before emergency medicine?

JB: Yes. I was a firefighter and a paramedic. Being a firefighter was the best job I ever had. It was like something every little boy dreams about. Hanging out with my friends, racing with lights and sirens to the scene of an emergency, crawling around in burning buildings, using hydraulic tools to free people who are trapped in the wreckage of a crumpled car. Swooping in and saving the day. In terms of job satisfaction, it doesn't get any better than that.  
MY: Okay, you’re officially a superhero. Wait, some fans want to ask you some questions.

Fan #1: Are you ever going to write a series?

JB: When I finish a book, I feel like I’m kind of done with that world for a while. It’s possible, but I like doing new things with every novel.

Fan #2: Are you ever going to set a book entirely in the emergency room?

JB: It’s hard to set a 400-page book in the emergency department. I've set scenes in the ER before, but not a whole book. Besides, I spend enough time there already.

MY: Any final words you want to share with your present and future readers?

JB: Thanks for your love of books, for lending us your imaginations and joining us in the worlds we've created. You make it all worthwhile, and we love hearing from you. Without readers, it would all fall apart. Nothing else in this business would matter.

MY: There you have it, folks. The fans are craving more series, more emergency room carnage, and more John Burley. Can’t exactly blame them. If you’re super lucky, maybe you can go to a conference and have sushi with him. (In Phoenix, I recommend Harumi Sushi.) In the meantime, you can check out his books and the latest happenings at www.john-burley.com.

07 March 2016

Nothing Much Here

by Jan Grape

The hour to post my blog draws nearer and I honestly don't have a topic or even an idea of what to write. I had read a blog written by a friend this week and sent her a message asking if I could repost on my blog. I haven't heard back from her and I'm sure it's because she's busy or else she's been goofing off but not on Face Book.

It was a subject I've talked about before but hers has a new take. Dealing with gaining a deeper understanding of your characters. She mentions something she uses in her writing classes and I've used it also.

Take your character on a field trip to the grocery story or perhaps a WalMart. The way your character responds can tell you a lot. Do they make out a list or do they just go up and down the aisle picking up what happens to catch their eye.

Does your character not only make out a grocery list? If the character is very organized, she may even plan a week or two of meals, that could make the list quite long.

Then how does the character dress? Just in typical jeans and t-shirt or sweats? Or does he or she dress in what might be called crazy laid-back attire? I've seen women in stores in long dresses and high heels as if they were going to a big party after leaving the store. To top it off, one lady wore her hair in rollers because she had to do the comb out in the car as she heads to the party. Okay, maybe you can believe her if she's buying a party tray or dip and chips. If not, then not so much.

Or how about the guy in pajamas? Flannel pajamas with very loose elastic at the waist so that the bottoms sag and you can see his butt crack. Do you feel like you need eye bleach?

Then there is the items your character buys. All junk food? Or all fruits and veggies? Perhaps it's a busty, fussy looking lady who buys Redi-Whip and when you turn the corner to the next aisle and there she is squirting the whipped cream in her mouth.

How about when he or she gets to the Express check-out line. Perhaps your character only has three items and is in a big hurry,  he agitatedly sighs and you can tell he has a short temper on an equally short fuse. You just know he's going to explode any minute. There's a young mother in from of him with a ten month old baby in the baby seat of the grocery basket. The baby looks up at the man and lets out a huge laugh. It's the kind of laugh that no one can ignore.

The demeanor of the man changes immediately. A baby looked up laughed. Somehow the time frame slows and the man can't help smiling back. Now the baby is chuckling and so is the man who now looks at the person behind him in line. It's a older man with a bouquet of yellow roses. Obviously he's bought them to take home to his wife. Maybe it's their anniversary or her birthday. Your character smiles at the older gentleman and they both laugh at the baby again. At that moment, you know your character is actually a likable person although you originally thought he was a horrible stinker.

A little shopping trip with your character constantly in your mind can make a world of difference. It adds depth to your character and to your writing. No editor will come back at you and say your characters are two dimensional or wooden.

Okay class, that's all for today. Use if you need for your own work or as an aid in your role as a writing teacher.



Am sure you all have hear about the death of Nancy Reagan. I'm sure that now she can Rest In Peace.

06 March 2016

WiTchcraFt

by Leigh Lundin

So Tuesday, friends invited me to celebrate a birthday with dining and a movie. Our birthday girl selected a film applauded at Sundance, a ‘Christian horror’ flick that supposedly “terrified” Stephen King– she chose The Witch.

The Witch
Critics praised it with adjectives– thought-provoking, visually compelling, deeply unsettling, intelligent, meticulously researched, historically accurate, carefully crafted, detailed, brooding, numinous, magnificent, smart, artful, gut-wrenching, creepy, atmospheric, beautifully crafted– an immense atmosphere, a little gem.

And yet, friends and I literally struggled to stay awake.

Movie audiences often regard films more positively than reviewers, or rather they side with critics who give higher ratings, but are more reluctant to agree when professionals pan movies. Rotten Tomatoes calculated an 89% approval from 160 reviewers. It’s especially beloved by the Satanic Temple, which endorsed The Witch and hosted screenings. Meanwhile, only half of 22 000 audience members liked it.

Stirring the Pot

Is The Crucible still required reading in high school? We not only read Arthur Miller’s play, we studied the history of Salem witch trials. My girlfriend lived a short oxcart ride from Plimoth Plantation, where the story begins. She suggested a tour of Salem and the nearby cemetery with its slate headstones. I entered the movie theatre looking forward to the story and its history.

Puritans were singularly unpleasant people. The English could not abide them; the Puritans could barely tolerate themselves. They detested other brands of Christians. Once, they hanged two Quaker women– as inoffensive humans as ever one might encounter– passers-by in the wrong place at the wrong time. To take them in, the local Indians must have been saints.

The film commences in 1630, ten years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. For context, the Salem witch trials wouldn’t come until much later, 1692.

Family Portrait

The Witch features surprisingly few Indians… zero, by my count. Instead, the film focuses on one family: husband William, wife Katherine, baby Samuel, Katzenjammer-like twins Mercy and Jonas, coming-of-age son Caleb, and beautiful, ethereal daughter Thomasin. These are the children all parents want.

Caleb follows his father, learning how to build, plant, hunt, and the work that makes a man. Sexual awakenings confuse him. He shares with his older sister a protectiveness toward the baby in the family.


 Witch language: Enochian.

The focus soon shifts to gentle Thomasin and the remainder of the story plays out through her eyes. She seems too delicate for hardscrabble pioneering, yet she works uncomplainingly.

The characters are portrayed well enough, although growing to like people only to see them destroyed is always difficult.

Double, Double Toil and Trouble

Plimoth Plantation
Plimoth Plantation
What was wrong with the movie?

Our David Dean knows something about Christian horror as evidenced by his novel, The Thirteenth Child. That atmosphere builds, mystifies, intimidates and terrifies. In comparison, The Witch merely disappoints.

To writer-director Robert Eggers’ credit, he didn’t belabor the portrayal of witches, wisely choosing to understate. Unfortunately, his deft hand lacked in other ways. My overwhelming feeling was sadness for a likeable, struggling family unraveling through little fault of their own except, you know, they weren’t Puritan enough. Sadness and boredom… and I usually admire historical detail.

Eggers would have been well-served to study writings of New England horror by H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edgar Allan Poe. Lovecraft especially turned environment into atmosphere, forged words into weapons, nay, gnashing teeth that rend a reader’s imagination and devour hope.

Cauldron of Crises

The movie’s far bigger problem is a lack of plot. The family leaves the religious colony to homestead on their own. They face calamities in feeding themselves as crops, livestock, and hunting fail, and later, crises of conscience. William represents Job in the New World. If something goes wrong, it must be God’s will.

This isn’t a plot, it’s a premise, a series of vignettes maybe caused by witches, maybe not, barely threaded on the same spool. Worse, it’s an audience waster for anyone other than film students.

In the hands of M. Night Shyamalan, the production would likely feature a darkly intricate plot, more mystery, less ambivalence. Everyone has to start somewhere and this is Robert Eggers’s first film. But time and money are precious, and whereas we ponder the harsh lives of the Puritans, I suspect future generations will wonder why The Witch received an 89% rating.

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.