10 April 2016

RansomWare 2,
Vampires and Zombies

by Leigh Lundin

 WARNING  Last week, we discussed a particularly vicious type of virus, one that poses a severe risk to your computer’s contents. It’s called RansomWare and it’s coming to a computer or cell phone near you. This week, we offer specific steps to protect yourself.

Zombies vs Vampires
To infest and infect, one of the givens of vampires is that they must be invited into one’s home. Dracula and his ilk may mesmerize or seduce, but only when a victim throws open the window can the creature waft in.

Viruses– and more typically a variant called Trojan horses– work the same way. A colleague hands the victim a flash drive, or she (or he) clicks a disguised download button or the attachment of an email. Voilà, she’s unknowingly invited the devil into her life.

Sometimes the effects are relatively minor– they may quietly turn the target into a zombie server, a computer that sends out spam, illicit files, and even malware without the owner’s knowledge. The truly bad infections can suck the lifeblood out of the system. Ransomware falls into this latter category.

Recently, Dale Andrews received an apparent email from Velma with an attachment. Strange… she rarely emails and I knew our secretary hadn’t emailed anything since the beginning of the year. Fortunately Dale didn’t open the attached payload. It may have been nothing more than a Nigerian scam letter… or it could have been considerably worse.


My colleague Thrush keeps enough computers to power Bulgaria, nearby Serbia and Romania. He thinks like a pro; he takes security very seriously.

His friend Mark phoned– he’d been hit with ransomeware. Arriving home in the evening, Mark had sat down at his computer, tired and less than alert. One of his emails raised the spectre of a lawsuit; it included attached court documents.

He downloaded them and… innocently unleashed the wolves. Whatever had been attached, they weren’t pleading papers. A screen popped up… his computer had been encrypted by ransomware, demanding a few hundred dollars to return his goods.

The man immediately detached his computer from his local network (LAN), one that included his backup mechanism and his wife’s computer, which fortunately contained their most critical files. His desktop was done for, but quick action saved their most important files.


The best protection against malware (malicious software) and ransomware in particular is to prepare your fortress now.

I. Backups

Back up, back up often. I previously mentioned it’s critical to back up to drives or discs that can be detached. The reason is that if your backup drive is on-line when malware strikes, you could lose your backup and everything on it.

A simple strategy used in the early days of computing is to make grandfather-father-son backups: You cycle through your discs (or tapes or other media) reusing your oldest backup each time. This includes one vulnerability in that you may back up defective or damaged files without realizing it. For that reason, archive a backup each month or so. Tuck it in a drawer or bank vault and exclude it from the recycling.

Consider using Blu-Ray discs with write-once technology. Those discs are not only less expensive than rewritable discs, they’re safer in that they cannot be later altered and their life span could last for decades.

The Macintosh includes a backup program called Time Machine. It can operate in manual mode, which is useful for detachable drives. It also offers a continuous mode in which changed files are backed up every hour to an attached drive, the cloud, or a NAS (network area storage) unit. Continuous backing up is great unless ransomware attacks the backup files.

A method of safe continuous backup is possible for desktop computers using these steps:
  1. Ensure files you want backed up are either in your public folder or outside your home folder altogether. In other words, make sure items to be backed up are visible beyond the confines of your user folder.
  2. W-D USB back-up drive
    W-D My Passport back-up USB drive
    Establish another user account called Backup. If set up properly, it should be able to see the files and folders you want backed up. Keep things pure. Do not use this account to surf, read email, or shop on-line.
  3. Attach a back-up drive, cloud storage, or NAS using a password. Only the Backup account should have the passwords readily available. Don’t access these drives from your main user account(s). (Western Digital external drives not only provide good back-up programs, they also allow the drive to be password protected.)
  4. Start the back-up program, providing its security services with passwords if needed. Don’t log off the Backup account when returning to the main user account.

While you’re working, the Backup account will quietly save your data. If you are attacked, malware won’t be able to get at the back-up drive. You need only consider this for continuous automatic back-up programs like Time Machine.

II. Modems, Routers, and Firewalls

The Backup account acts as a sort of firewall to seal off back-up drives from the rest of the machine. Chances are your router as well as your computer contain software firewalls. Because of the variety of manufacturers, I won’t attempt to address specifics other than to suggest learning how or seeking help in using them.

With the router, keep open ports to a minimum. Use long passwords for both your modem and your router. Be careful whom you let into your network. Some wireless routers allow ‘guests’ with imposed limitations. If both your router and your guest’s computer, tablet, or phone features a WPS button, you can permit guests to connect without giving out a password.

III. Computer Settings

Besides judicious sharing and firewall settings, a seemingly minor option offers major potential. By default, both Windows and the Mac don’t display common extensions (.doc, .rtf, .gif, .mp3, .exe, .app, etc.) An invisible extension might look a little prettier, but that extra piece of information might help you save your computer.

Say you get a breezy email purportedly from a friend containing an attachment called FamilyFotos.jpg. You start to open it but, if you’ve activated the showing of extensions, you’ll see the full name is FamilyFotos.jpg.app … uh oh!

Or, say you visit SexyBuns.com, download HunkyGuys.mp4 (yes, I’m talking about you, Jan Barrow Grape of 103 Rodekyl Lane, Armadillo, Tx 78657) and spot that the complete file name is hunkyguys.mp4.exe

These are big clues that those files are not friendly.

Show extensions by visiting Control Panels Files and Folder Options (Windows) or Finder Preferences (Mac) and checking the appropriate box. Now you can have more confidence that LegalPapers.pdf is truly what it claims.

MacOS Finder prefs
MacOS X show extensions
Use extra caution with .doc and .docx files. Unknown files may contain malicious macros and may even suggest you turn macro support on if it’s not. More recent variants reportedly can leap the divide from MS Word to infecting the rest of your computer.

If you wish to peek at unknown Word files, use WordPad (Windows) or TextEdit (Macintosh) or equivalent text processors that ignore embedded macros. Whenever possible, use .rtf instead of .doc as a far safer alternative.

Windows File and Folder Options
Windows hide extensions
Email filtering not only keeps annoying mail out of your in-box, but it can also provide a line of defense against malware. Even if you blacklist/whitelist, keep in mind that bad guys may have hijacked a friend’s contacts list and try to spoof their address relying upon your trust.

IV. Too Helpful

Be wary of too-helpful emails and pop-up windows that offer updates to Flash, Silver Light, or Java, and especially shortcut links to your banking web site. If you receive an email supposedly from PayPal, your financial institution, HealthVault, IRS, Social Security, or other site containing personal and financial information, don’t click on any embedded links. Instead, type in the URL address yourself to be assured you’re not accessing a ‘spoof’ site trying to trick personal information from you.

virus infection irony
Consider the irony
Notices urging upgrades– usually employing pop-up menus– can serve as fronts for malware. Don’t fall for the false convenience. Be cautious of notices your computers has been infected with a virus. If your browser screen locks up, get help. Don't call the toll-free number on the screen.

Such notices may try to trick you into installing nasty stuff. If you think you might need a newer Flash player or Java component, then hie directly to their web sites and check for download versions.

V. AntiVirus Protection

Obtain a good anti-malware suite, either free (like AVG) or from Kaspersky Lab, Symantec/Norton, BitDefender, Malwarebytes, or WinPatrol. They each take different approaches. BitDefender’s defense works as a sort of vaccine. The free Panda Ransomware Decrypt Tool tries to restore deliberately damaged files.

If at all possible, remove the wounded drive from its computer, or create and boot from an external drive to work on the damaged device. It’s possible the infection has altered the boot sectors of your hard drive. If you’re able to decrypt your damaged files, move them to a safe place and totally reformat the damaged drive.

The Myth of Customer Service

One of the internet ‘memes’ floating around the web speaks of ransomware ‘customer service’. This irresponsible wording is tantamount to insisting a rapist gives good customer service if he doesn’t kill the victim. Even professional developers who should know better use this expression, an indication of naïveté rather than an expert opinion. A paid criminal that restores files only 50-60% of the time does not exhibit good customer service.

More on that next week. In the meantime, avoid zombies, vampires, and malware.

09 April 2016

Short Takes: The 2016 Nominees for the Best Short Story Agatha

by B.K. Stevens

"Being short does not mean being slight," Flannery O'Connor maintains in "Writing Short Stories." "A short story should be long in depth and should give us an experience in meaning." I think all the nominees for this year's Best Short Story Agatha would agree. The nominated stories include whodunits, suspense stories, and character studies. They include contemporary stories and historical mysteries, serious stories and humorous ones, realistic stories and stories laced with fantasy or whimsy. But all the nominated stories, I think, are long in depth, offering readers a variety of experiences in meaning.

All the authors of the nominated stories have contributed to this post. Each picked an excerpt from her story and commented on it briefly. I hope you enjoy these glimpses into the stories and also hope you'll decide to visit the Malice Domestic website to read the stories in full. And if you're going to Malice, I look forward to seeing you there.


"A Year without Santa Claus?" by Barb Goffman
Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, January/February 2015

Here's the passage:

"Look at this email from Santa."

"First someone poisoned Frosty's doppelganger," Stan read aloud. He turned to me. "Doppelganger? Who's he trying to impress with his fancy language?" 

Stan had never been a big fan of Santa's. Something about not getting a certain potato gun he'd wanted as a kid. I sighed loudly and tapped the tablet. "Read."

"Okay, okay." He looked back down. "First someone poisoned Frosty's doppelganger. Then my look-alike was run down. And now someone's offed an Easter Bunny impersonator. Shot him between the ears. New Jersey's too dangerous for me this year. Sorry, Annabelle. Maybe next Christmas. Love, Santa." Stan's eyes returned to mine. "Uh oh."

Uh oh indeed. I shook my head. This was a catastrophe. Santa couldn't skip out on our kids.
It's two weeks till Christmas, and Santa has just notified Annabelle, the head of everything magical that happens in New Jersey, that he's not coming there this year. A murderer is on the loose--it's not safe, he says. Annabelle can't let the poor kids suffer, so she sets out to catch the murderer. But even with her magical powers, Annabelle can't just conjure up whodunit. So she sets off to investigate the old-fashioned way, asking questions and taking names. But will it be enough? Can Christmas be saved?

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Goffman_Year.pdf


"A Questionable Death," by Edith Maxwell
History and Mystery, Oh My (Mystery & Horror, LLC)

In the following passage from "A Questionable Death," 1888 Quaker midwife Rose Carroll has brought a pregnant client of hers to see David Dodge, a physician at the new hospital in the neighboring town. Rose's client, Helen, has been showing symptoms of illness not related to her pregnancy.

"I'll need a small lock of your hair," David told Helen when he was finished examining her.

It had taken us twenty minutes to find a hack, we had to wait a bit to see David, and he had taken care with his examination, so it was now getting on for five o'clock.

"Why?" Helen asked, taken aback.

"Just to aid in assessing your health," David said, slipping me a look behind Helen's back. He handed her a small pair of scissors.

Helen shrugged, but handed the scissors to me. I clipped off a small bit from near her neckline and handed the deep brown lock to David, along with the scissors.

"Thank you for coming in," he said. "I'll have an answer for you within a day's time. And Rose, thanks for bringing her. I'll summon my carriage and driver to take you both back to Amesbury."

"That's very kind of thee," I said.

"I'll need to use the outhouse before we leave." Helen blushed a little.

"Oh, we have the new chain-pull toilets," David said with a note of pride in his voice. "The lavatory is just down the hall to the right. It's labeled Ladies." He pointed the way.

After the door closed behind Helen, I gave him a quizzical glance.

"My teacher in medical school would call it gastric fever." He gazed at me. "I suspect poison."

"Poison?" I whispered, moving to his side.

"Arsenic. I'll tell you for certain after I've analyzed the hair." His brows knit, and he went on, "Don't let on to her. Yet." 

This short scene comes about a third of the way through the story. It reflects the rapid changes in the late 1880s--the new chain-pull toilets in the hospital, the technology to analyze arsenic from a clipping of hair--contrasted with the horse-drawn carriages and Rose's Quaker way of speaking. It also gives the reader a likely cause for Helen's symptoms, which Rose will continue to investigate, and shows that she and David have a relationship as medical professionals in addition to their romantic one.

To read the story: https://edithmaxwell.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/questionabledeath.pdf 

"A Killing at the Beausoleil," by Terrie Farley Moran
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November 2015

My Agatha-nominated story, "A Killing at the Beausoleil,"is a prequel to the Read 'Em and Eat  cozy mystery novels, including the Agatha Award winning Well Read, Then Dead, as well as Caught Read-Handed and the soon-to-be-released Read to Death.

In this excerpt we meet Sassy Cabot and Bridgy Mayfield on their first day in Fort Myers Beach. The building manager of the Beausoleil is showing them their new rental apartment.

Bridgy leaned in. "Sassy, what a gorgeous place to start our new lives."

Pleased with her comment, K. Dooney went for super-wow. He tugged on one cord of a wall's worth of creamy vertical blinds, and, like a well-trained platoon, they made a snappy left turn. Florida sunshine streamed in between the slats and danced all around the room. I fell into an instant fantasy of sipping my morning coffee while sitting on the terrace, drenched in sunlight. Mr. Dooney yanked another cord, and the slats marched in unison, half column left, half column right.

Below us, great white birds with wingspans measured in feet, rather than inches, circled lazily around fishing boat bobbing in the Gulf of Mexico. The horizon pushed on forever.

A view that might seem nice enough standing on the beach appeared majestic from the fourth-floor window. I let out a deep sigh of contentment.

Usually the bouncy one, Bridgy was more restrained. She tapped K. Dooney on the arm. "Who is that man sleeping on our terrace?"

In Well Read, Then Dead Sassy mentions that she and Bridgy moved to Fort Myers Beach three years ago. A number of readers contacted me because they were wondering how Sassy and Bridgy settled into their life on Fort Myers Beach. So at the urging of the readers, I decided to write this prequel short story, which was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

This particular scene comes early in the story. It is a favorite of mine because it gives the reader a glimpse of the vibrant south Florida setting while indicating trouble to come in the person of the "sleeping" man.

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Moran_Beausoleil.pdf

 "Suffer the Poor," by Harriette Sackler
History and Mystery, Oh My (Mystery & Horror, LLC)

Anne Heatherton, my story's protagonist, tours London's East End with a group of philanthropic women of means. The conditions that exist here in the 1890s appall the ladies. The group's leader expresses her view of how they should proceed.

"Well, ladies," Mrs. Pinckney, the group leader, announced, "we have a great deal to think about. But I am truly confident that we can make a difference. I believe it is our moral duty to share the blessings of our fortunate circumstances with others. But certainly not to be patronizing or morally superior. Don't you agree?"

The women nodded emphatically and whispered to each other as they moved toward the outskirts of the East End.
 This passage illustrates the dilemma of offering assistance to people who suffer from abysmal poverty and yet seek to maintain their pride and independence.

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Sackler_SUFFER_THE_POOR.pdf

"A Joy Forever," by B. K. Stevens
Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, March 2015

In "A Joy Forever," narrator Chris, an aspiring photographer, travels to Boston hoping to take a picture that captures "the spirit of New England." To save money, Chris stays with his crude, domineering uncle, Mike Mallinger. After a miserable day of failing to find a good subject for the photograph, Chris returns to the house, where Mike's second wife, Gwen, is working on an embroidery project. Gwen seems to be meek and submissive, seems to have surrendered utterly to Mike's bullying and abuse. She sympathizes with Chris's artistic frustrations and recommends patience, because "sometimes, you can't make good things happen right away." Here, Chris responds.

"You're sure patient." I walked over to look at her tapestry. "That's lovely, Aunt Gwen. Did you design it yourself? Are you going to fill in all that space with those tiny flowers? That takes more patience than I'll ever have."

The design consisted of a mass of flowers--not arranged in a landscape or vase, not forming a pattern in any usual sense, but a joyous profusion ordered by a harmony I could feel but not define. The colors were dazzling, the variety of flowers amazing. No two were exactly alike, and some, I was sure, bloomed only in her imagination, never in any garden. And each flower was composed of dozens of tiny stitches. Each must have taken hours to create.

She blushed--a proud, vibrant blush this time. "I'm glad you like it. I've been working on it for a long time. A long, long time. I take it out whenever I have a spare minute. So I can't do much at a time. But I work on it every day." Her smile hardened. "Every single day. I'll never give up, not till I finish. And when it's done--why, when it's done, it's going to be wonderful."
I hope this passage hints that Gwen may be keeping secrets, that she may be neither as helpless nor as harmless as she seems. I hope readers will sense that everything Gwen says may have a double meaning. She's talking about her tapestry, yes, but is she also talking about some other project she's been working on "every single day" for "a long, long time," some other project she'll "never give up"? Whatever that project is, "when it's done, it's going to be wonderful"--it's going to be a joy forever. This passage also continues the flower imagery I've tried to develop since the story's first paragraph, the imagery that represents Gwen's independence and suppressed creativity. And it juxtaposes, for the first time, Gwen's tapestry and Chris's photograph--two artistic projects that will come together again when the story ends.

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Stevens_Joy.pdf

The Authors

Barb Goffman has won the Macavity and Silver Falchion awards for her short crime fiction. She's been a finalist seventeen times for national crime-writing awards, including the Agatha, Anthony, and Derringer awards. Her award-winning story collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even, includes seven of her nominated stories. She has two new stories scheduled to be published later this month. "Stepmonster" will appear in Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (on sale 4/26), and "The Best-Laid Plans" will appear in Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional (on sale 4/28). Barb runs a freelance editing and proofreading service focusing on crime fiction. http://www.barbgoffman.com/

Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Food Mysteries, the Country Store Mysteries (as Maddie Day), and the Lauren Rousseau Mysteries (as Tace Baker), as well as award-winning short crime fiction. Her "A Questionable Death" is nominated for a 2016 Agatha Award for Best Short Story. The tale features the 1888 setting and characters from Delivering the Truth, which releases on April 8. Maxwell is Vice-President of Sisters in Crime New England and Clerk of Amesbury Friends Meeting. She lives north of Boston and blogs with the other Wicked Cozy Authors, and you can find her on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, and at her website, edithmaxwell.com.

Terrie Farley Moran is the best-selling author of the Read 'Em and Eat cozy mysteries series. Well Read, Then Dead, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel 2014, was followed by Caught Read-Handed in 2015. Read to Death will be released in July 2016. Terrie's short mystery fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and numerous anthologies. Her short story "A Killing at the Beausoleil," prequel to the Read 'Em and Eat novels, has been nominated for an Agatha award for Best Short Story. She also co-writes Laura Child's Scrapbooking Mystery series. Together they have written Parchment and Old Lace (October 2015) and Crepe Factor (October 2016). website: www.terriefarleymoran.com

Harriette Sackler serves as Grants Chair of the Malice Domestic Board of Directors. She is a multi-published short story writer. Her latest story, "Suffer the Poor," appears in History and Mystery, Oh My! and has been nominated for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story. She is a member of Dames of Detection and is co-owner, co-publisher, and co-editor at Level Best Books. Her nonfiction book about House with a Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary will be published in 2017. Harriette lives in the D.C. suburbs with her husband and their two dogs. website: www.harriettesackler.com

B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens is the author of Interpretation of Murder, a traditional whodunit offering insights into deaf culture, and Fighting Chance, a martial arts mystery for young adults. She's also published over fifty short stories, most in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Some of those stories are included in Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime, a collection being published by Wildside Press. B.K. has won half a Derringer and has been nominated for Agatha and Macavity awards. This year, both Fighting Chance and "A Joy Forever" are nominated for Agathas. B.K. and her husband, Dennis, live in Virginia and have two amazing daughters, one amazing son-in-law, and four perfect grandchildren. www.bkstevensmysteries.com

08 April 2016

Voice in Wax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, thus, I began my lesson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in two weeks!

07 April 2016

Illustrated Mayhem

by Janice Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

06 April 2016

Hearing Bells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05 April 2016

Now’s the Time for Your Tears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

04 April 2016

Care and Feeding of a Mystery Bookstore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03 April 2016

RansomWare 1,
The Threat

by Leigh Lundin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is RansomWare?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 April 2016

Take a Message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too many stories, too little time…

01 April 2016

Brick by Brick (Some Disassembly Required)

By Art Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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