18 August 2016

Cyberspace, Cyberpunks, Cyberwar


by Eve Fisher

Leigh Lundin has, for some time now, been scaring the pants off of us with regard to all the hazards of cyberspace, like RansomWare - (Thanks, big guy!  And tell Velda to pour me another drink...)  And God knows that cybercriminals and hackers are out there, doing all kinds of nasty things.  (Go, right now, and change all your passwords to something elaborate and unbreakable, preferably in Mongolian.)

NOTE:  A big shout-out to our local university, Dakota State University (http://dsu.edu/), which trains people in "ethical hacking", cybersecurity, cyber operations, etc.  Training the good guys (I hope) to tackle future cybercriminals around the world!
But there's another problem with cyberspace, and that is that it's an open platform for anyone at any time.

Look, we are having our hearts broken, over and over again, by terrorist acts.  Bastille Day saw the terrorist act in Nice, France, a beautiful city that I remember with especial fondness because it was the highlight of my last European trip.

Nice, France - Michaelphillipr, Wikimedia
Anyway, a true rat bastard got into a rented refrigerator truck, plowed into a crowd on Bastille Day, killing 84 people and injuring at least 50 others.  He died in a gunfight with the police.  While he had a history of petty theft, "he is completely unknown by intelligence services, both at the national and local levels,” Paris Prosecutor Molins said. “He has never been in any database or been flagged for radicalization.”  Now here's the nub of it:  "Although neither the Islamic State or Al Qaeda asserted any role, online accounts associated with the groups welcomed the massacre."  Source:  (NYT)


Vladimir Putin,
the day after the attack
I'll bet they did.  Why not?  Made them feel important, like they'd nabbed another one for their cause, whether they did or not, and it helped add to the general sense of terror and frustration.  And every time ISIS or Al Qaeda claim credit for something, politicians worldwide scream for action, action, action, NOW!

But what kind of action?  Do something violent to take out ISIS and the threat of radical Islamic terrorism - like pave Syria?  Ban all Muslims from here or there or anywhere?  Patrol Muslim neighborhoods at home and abroad?  Etc.  Now we could do all these things.  And more.  But it won't stop the problem.

Because the real problem is that jihad (like every other kind of extremism) is now on the internet. From Facebook to Twitter to the Dark Web, there are all sorts of slick, persuasive sites proselytizing (among other things) jihad.  And these sites are telling people - mostly young men - all across the globe that they can make a difference, that they can save the world, that they can make everyone honor and respect them and kiss their feet and fannies.  And they can have revenge upon a world that has never given them the respect or money or women or lifestyle they think they deserve.  All they need is a gun, a truck, a car, a bomb, a lot of guns, some cohorts, any combination - just go out there and kill a lot of people for the cause.  And, if they die in the process, they go to heaven and the 72 virgins while, back on earth, their deeds and their names will be splashed all across the international news media, and everyone will be terrified and horror struck and wounded by what they did, because they are so powerful and important.  At last.

That's what we're really up against.  Not some 40,000 "fighters" trying to hang on to their caliphate of bloody sand in Syria.  If that was all there was to it, the solution would be relatively simple.  But we're up against an idea, metastasizing across the internet, and gobbling up people's minds and lives in cyberspace.  And what do you do about that?

NOTE:  The average person now spends 8 hours and 41 minutes per day online.  (See here.) 

Visualization of Internet routing paths
Visualization of Internet Routing Paths
by the Opte Project, Wikipedia
Let's face facts, the internet is the current Tower of Babel - we have created a virtual world that allows constant extremist views to be spread and taught worldwide, without any central supervision, rules, or policing.  From jihad to neo-Nazis and everything in between and beyond, there are sites for it, multiple sites, that are all free of charge and available 24/7 to any lonely person who doesn't have anything better to do.  Nobody's in charge of the internet.  Nobody's policing the internet - or not enough.  There are no rules on the internet. You can say anything on the internet and get away with it.  (Everyone who's been flamed, raise your hand!  Don't worry, they can't see you - which is the exact logic of the flamer...) You can show anything on the internet and get away with it.  You can promote anything - from suicide to to bullying to treason to beheading - on the internet and get away with it.  And everyone is so locked away in their own virtual world of sites, friends and likes that they don't have any idea that there are all these other sites, spreading and spewing all these other views, and people are just as dedicated to "theirs" as "we" are to "ours."

NOTE:  The average person now spends 8 hours and 41 minutes per day online.  (See here.) 

The most harmless one
I could find for an example
- by Dimboukas, Wikipedia
Consider the sites you use.  The ones you go to because what they say "makes sense", or "they tell the truth".  Who's writing them?  Who's making all the memes that we are all trading around on-line?  Do you have any idea?  Is there any way to find out?  Do you care, as long as they're telling you what you want to hear?  Not to mention the implication that, by sharing their meme, YOU'RE an American Thinker, a FreeThinker, a TruthTeller, an Everlasting GOP Stopper, an American Voice of Reason, etc.  Except, when all we do is share the content someone else provides, we're just copycats, not thinking at all.  Clicking like, endlessly.  Agreeing, endlessly...

So what are we to do with all the sites - and the people behind them - who are using the internet to brainwash the world?  Ourselves included?  Who are fomenting hatred and bigotry, jihad and racism, murder and violence, death and war, war, war, all in the name of truth, whether religious or political? How do we stop this?  how do we change this? Because the war is in cyberspace, not on the ground. We want to stop "soft" terrorism?  Lone wolves, brothers, friends - influenced, radicalized, persuaded, perhaps even instructed in the privacy of their own bedrooms?

We're going to have to tackle cyberspace. BECAUSE THAT'S WHERE THE TERRORISTS (of all kinds) ARE BEING CREATED.
NOTE:  Don't even start about how parents need to keep an eye on what their kids are doing.  Remember your own childhood, even if it was cyber-free.  Parents have always been trying to keep an eye on their kids and failing miserably, because teenagers will not be led, driven, watched, or followed, and will do anything under the sun to keep their parents having any idea of what is going on in their locked world.  
(Re the Nice perpetrator, he is apparently no longer a "lone wolf", according to prosecutor Molins, who recently arrested 2 men for giving the perpetrator "logistical support", and said that the perpetrator had plotted the attack for months with "support and accomplices".  BUT, so far, all that support was done on line - via cell phones, computers, etc.)

The cyberworld is addictive and consuming enough even when it's harmless.  People can't get their eyes off their smartphone, even while "supervising" their children at the playground.  They fall off cliffs playing Pokemon Go.  They stay on Facebook even in their sleep.  They sleep with their smartphones.  And, in the process, they create their own cyberworlds.  And if you live in a cyberworld of hate and fear and menace, it really doesn't matter what the real life around you is.  You believe.  What's before your screen-stuck eyes.  And you act accordingly.

NOTE:  The average person now spends 8 hours and 41 minutes per day online.  (See here.) 

17 August 2016

The Hole Truth


In a hole, in Ramat Rachel, Israel.
by Robert Lopresti

Someone once said that the essence of story is this: Drop your hero in a hole.

He* tries to get out. Or he dies trying. Or he resigns himself to life in the hole. You get the idea.

More recently, somebody - again, I don't know who - said the key to successful fiction is this: Put your hero in a hole. Then drop rocks on him.

In other words, get the character in a bad situation and keep making it worse.

All this came to mind because I just finished Tipping the Valet, a recent mystery by K.K. Beck. And she takes an approach to that basic formula that I don't recall seeing before. (If you can think of examples, stick 'em in the comments section.)

Here is the set-up for the novel: Tyler Benson is a young man working for a valet service in Seattle. He parks the cars at various fancy restaurants, and he's good at his job.

But on his first night in a new restaurant someone zooms by in a fast car and tries to assassinate Scott Duckworth, a software billionaire, injuring another valet in the process. And just to make things messier, Tyler's dad shows up drunk, hoping to run into his old pal Duckworth, who fired him years ago.

That may not sound like Tyler is in a very deep hole. More like a small dip in the road.

But here is what the reader knows and Tyler doesn't: A gang of Ukrainian car thieves is working with some of the other valets. There is a dead body, and Tyler's fingerprints are intimately associated with it. Plus the cops suspect Tyler's father of the attempted murder of the billionaire.

Pretty messy, huh? But here's what strikes me as unique: Beck has all these rocks piled up over Tyler's head but none of them have landed yet. The reader knows he is in deep doo-doo, but he thinks he's just suffering a minor inconvenence.

And that is a very cool form of suspense.

When the rocks tumble down, about one-third of the way through the book, they all strike at once, and Tyler finds he is in a very deep hole indeed.

But Beck - and the reader - are flying pretty high.

Getting back to the man in a hole theory, I say no. What you see below, two-minutes from the wonderful movie Microcosmos, is the essence of story. I saw it in a theatre and when our hero conquered, the audience went mad with cheers.



* I'm using masculine terms because the protagonist of the book I am going to talk about is a man.

16 August 2016

Shannon and Jess Get Short with Readers


by Shannon Baker and Jessica Lourey

Thanks, Barb Goffman, for giving up her blogging spot so Shannon Baker and I can visit, and thanks to SleuthSayers for this warm welcome! We brought popcorn and root beer floats but don’t know if there is enough to go around, so raise your hand quick if you’re hungry/thirsty.

Whee! See all those hands, Shannon? You pass out the treats while I handle the intros.

The beautiful Shannon and I are on a whirlwind 25-stop blog tour, an idea that seemed genius when we realized our next books both release on September 6. Shannon’s is Stripped Bare. It’s been called Longmire meets The Good Wife and is about a woman sheriff in the Nebraska Sandhills. My book is Salem’s Cipher, a breakneck thriller about a race to save the first viable U.S. female presidential candidate from assassination. Both books are available for preorder.
Today, we’d like to talk about short stories, primarily because Barb is an Agatha Award-winning short story WIZARD, and so this is sort of a gift to her. Except not really, because Shannon and I blow at writing short stories. So, it’s either an un-gift in that we could never match Barb’s insight, or a huge gift because we’ll have set the bar so low that you’ll clamor for Barb’s return, even if she doesn’t bring the ice cream like we do.

Shannon here, adding her two cents: While Barb is undoubtedly the queen, don’t believe Jess when she says she’s not great at short stories. For a treat, grab hold of her Death by Potato Salad, Murder by the Minute. You WILL laugh.

These chips aren't in the story.
They're just funny.
Shannon, you vixen, sneaking in the kind words like that. Thank you. Now tell me, what’s the first short story you ever published?

Shannon: The Phoenix chapter of Sisters in Crime, Desert Sleuths, periodically publishes an anthology and were kind enough to take on my first short story in SoWest: Desert Justice. It combined my love of the Grand Canyon and my delight at killing off lousy men. It’s roughly based on a 9-day river trip I convinced my non-lousy husband to paddle with me. Hiking, riding rapids, jumping into waterfalls, all the good stuff. He loves an exciting adventure, but has some claustrophobia and a mild fear of heights (despite being a pilot). At one point, lying with a damp sheet over us because the nights were so incredibly hot, he turned to me and sweetly said, “This is like a fucking Outward Bound trip.” Ah, good times.

Not Shannon.
Jess here. Shannon, you make me laugh. And want to take river trips, weirdly. Okay, my first published short story was “The Locked Fish-cleaning Room Mystery.” Snappy, yes? I wrote it at the request of a group of Minnesota crime writers, William Kent Krueger among them, who were putting together an anthology called Resort to Murder. When I was asked to contribute, I said yes. I figured I could write novels, so why not short stories?

Folks, that’s like figuring you can paint a house, so why not carve the Taj Mahal on a piece of rice. I failed miserably and repeatedly until I decided to research classic crime fiction shorts. I stumbled across the locked room mystery (a la Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders at the Rue Morgue”) and fell in love with its neat and sweet format. I strapped a Minnesota setting onto that structure, and voila!

Shannon, do you have a technique when it comes to writing short stories?

Shannon: No. Hell no. I wish I did. I’m going to try your method, whatever it is, because we’re both giving away shorts if readers preorder our books. I haven’t written mine, yet. I get hives thinking about it. What’s your best advice on this?

Jess again. I wish I had a technique. I write short stories like a kid runs down a hill: poorly, hoping not to fall on my face. I am exploring novellas right now, though, because there are two books left in my humorous Murder-by-Month series, and my agent and my publisher are taking forever to figure out that contract. I miss the characters in the series, and it turns out that I am free to write about them in a novella form. How fun is that? I think novellas might be a growing self-pub market.
Not a kid but still funny.

What do you think about self-pubbing, Shannon, whether short story, novella, or novel?

Shannon: (whining) Why are you asking me the hard questions? Yes, sure. I’d love to self pub. But I’d have to write something first, wouldn’t I? The not so secret thing about me is that I’m really lazy. Right now, I’m working hard on the Kate Fox series and happily letting a publisher figure out the cover, distribution, and production side.

That’s it today with lazy Shannon (my favorite piece of furniture) and Hard-Question-Asking Jessie. Stick with us on our road trip as we head to Word Nerds tomorrow for a little friendly banter and a writing tip or two. We promise to make a potty stop along the way if you need it.

Share your favorite short story writing tip (god, please), or leave a comment below for a chance to win an advance copy of Salem’s Cipher or Stripped Bare.

Not these kind of tips!
And for even more fun:

If you order Salem's Cipher before September 6, 2016, you are invited to forward your receipt to salemscipher@gmail.com to receive a Salem short story and to be automatically entered in a drawing to win a 50-book gift basket mailed to the winner's home!

If you order Stripped Bare before September 6, 2016, you are invited to forward your receipt to katefoxstrippedbare@gmail.com to receive a Kate Fox short story and be entered for a book gift basket mailed to your home.

You’re welcome to preorder each to enter each contest.



Jessica (Jess) Lourey is best known for her critically acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft's 2014 Excellence in Teaching fellowship, and leads interactive writing workshops all over the world. Salem’s Cipher, the first in her thrilling Witch Hunt Series, hits stores September 2016. You can find out more at www.jessicalourey.com, or find Jess on Facebook or Twitter.

Shannon Baker is the author of the Nora Abbott mystery series from Midnight Ink, a fast-paced mix of Hopi Indian mysticism, environmental issues, and murder set in western landscapes of Flagstaff, AZ, Boulder, CO, and Moab, UT. Seconds before quitting writing forever and taking up competitive drinking, Shannon was nominated for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s 2014 Writer of the Year. Buoyed with that confidence, she acquired an agent who secured a multi-book contract with Tor/Forge. The first in the Kate Fox Mystery Series, Stripped Bare, will release in hardcover September 2016. Set in the isolated cattle country of the Nebraska Sandhills, it’s been called Longmire meets The Good Wife. Visit Shannon at www.Shannon-Baker.com.

15 August 2016

Origins of a Character


by Susan Rogers Cooper

Way back in the olden days when I came up with the character of Milt Kovak, then deputy sheriff of Prophesy County, Oklahoma, I imbued him with the best features of every man in my life: husband, father, brothers, and even a little bit of my father-in-law. And, yes, there was some of me in there, too. They say we all have a feminine side and a masculine side. My masculine side went wholeheartedly into Milt.

Later came E.J. Pugh and her family, which were basically loosely patterned after my own nuclear family of husband, daughter and myself. So much so that, in the first book, when my husband read it, he asked (he said commanded, I said begged) me to let E.J.'s husband Willis save her at least once, instead of E.J. saving him four times. I reluctantly agreed.

My short-lived Kimmey Kruse series came from watching too much Comedy Central on cable, and the fact that a good friend of mine had moved to California and become a stand-up comic. Kimmey wasn't really based on her, but rather inspired. And, of course, my friend gave me all sorts of inside scoop on the biz.

But have you ever just met someone you'd love to turn into a character? Well, I met that someone last week. I'd known her since I was nineteen years old – we won't say how long ago that was – but only as my best friend's cousin. That older cousin who told her what to do and when to do it and took all the fun away from what we'd been about to get into. We'll call my best friend Kathy, mainly because that's her name. Her cousin, we'll call her Jon, again because that was her name, I'd only known as that mean one who was always making Kathy sad, mad, and very occasionally glad.

Then last week I drove to Houston for Jon's funeral. She'd been fighting cancer valiantly for the last two and a half years, but lost that battle last week. Theirs is a big family and well represented, as was every place Jon had ever worked in a long and varied career of helping people – mostly kids and the elderly.

And then something wonderful happened. Jon's granddaughter, now the mother of two small children, took the podium and began to speak. Her sister came up with her and held her hand as she gave the eulogy. She talked about how many things her grandmother had taught her, how her grandmother and stood by her in thick and thin, and then she asked for a show of hands of the people in the room that Jon had pissed off on a regular basis. Almost every hand was raised. Then she asked for a show of hands of those people who loved her anyway. Again, almost every hand was raised. And I began to discover, listening to her granddaughter and later hearing her friends and other family members speak, that this was a woman who did not suffer fools gladly. She said what she thought and to hell with those who didn't want to hear it. She fought unconditionally for those she loved and those who had no one else to fight for them. And it occurred to me, sitting in that over-crowded chapel, that I could only hope to have a quarter of the amount of people at my funeral, hoping that a lot of daughter's friends would show up. But Kathy and I agreed, on the drive back to her house, that we'd come to each other's funeral. It might be hard to achieve this goal, but we're going to try.

Since then I've been thinking about Jon and the kind of person she was and what a profoundly challenging and awe-inspiring character she would make – if, God willing, I have the talent to do her justice. She laughed loud, fought hard, and loved unconditionally. It's going to be a privilege to attempt to do her justice.

14 August 2016

Pricing Your Book


by Leigh Lundin

Shareware and Bookware

You’ve heard or tried or even purchased shareware, programs that independent or amateur developers offer to try before you buy. Prices vary wildly, from a dollar or two on up, sometimes way up. An acquaintance who wrote an application complained he wasn’t making money from his shareware program. Setting aside that no one gets rich writing shareware, he was asked why he charged $45.

“Because it’s worth it,” he said. “I deserve to get $45. If I charge less, it will take longer to make money. Besides, Macrosoft Blotto costs $49 and I undercut them.”

Face Palm

For the hundredth time, I lamented that we aren’t educated in economics. To be sure, it’s not an exciting subject, but it’s essential to living in a modern age. Just as judges should have law degrees, politicians should be required to pass an economics exam. Without an understanding of economics, their decisions about budgets and taxes, fiscal and monetary policy are nothing but guesswork.

Unlike some of our shareware friends, merchants in the Apple and Android stores price much more sensibly, usually charging no more than a dollar or two. Why is charging $1 better than charging $45?

Because the guy with a $1 program is likely to sell thousands, perhaps tens of thousands or more, while the fellow with a $40 application will sell only a few. The lower the price, the more an item will sell.

book sales based on price
price sold made
$9 1 $09
$8 2 $16
$7 4 $28
$6 6 $36
$5 10 $50
$4 15 $60
$3 21 $63
$2 32 $64
$1 72 $72
Making Book

Let’s turn our attention to publishing, particularly ebooks since we won’t have to factor in printing costs. You write a brilliant 200 000 word opus, Gone with the Wind in the Willows. Sadly, traditional publishers, those dastardly gatekeepers, don’t appreciate your Cinderella superheroine and the Trotskyite plot in an 1880s Wild West space setting.

Curse those professionals! What can you do? You publish electronically. And because it’s that good, you price it at $9. Your dismayed financial advisor asks how you arrived at that price. Obviously yours has many pages and $9 seems a lot less than $10, which all the really, really good books cost.

So you go to market and sell… exactly one.

After thanking mom, you wonder what went wrong? Disgusted, you slash a dollar off the price now set at $8. You check back the next month in case one or two sold. And… two it is. You thank your sisters and price the damn thing at $5.

That month, you sell ten for a total of $50. Not great, but better than previous months. Still, you made more money selling those velvet Star Wars paintings at roadside rest stops.

units sold as a function of price
Reality Bites

Realization dawns that a Lamborghini will remain out of reach a while longer. Obviously your financial advisor was right about overpricing, but maybe you can still make a little beer money, the cheap stuff, nothing imported.

In disgust, you price your novel at $1. Looking at the numbers sold in previous months, you should sell a lot if you slash the price to just one American greenback, one Canadian loonie, one New Zealand kiwi, one aussie, one euro, one quid… You don’t care anymore. At a dollar a copy, you won’t see a profit until next Tisha B’Av.

Weeks later, you glumly look into the ebook site and a funny thing has happened. Your sales report says your book sold 72 copies. Wow, that’s great. You’ll never grow rich, but you’re excelling and you just finished your second book, Salomé versus Godzilla. If you can get a hundred novels on-line, you might be able to retire from the garden gnome insurance industry you’ve been slaving in.

You become curious about pricing models and wonder what sales might be at different price points. In the following months, you methodically adjust the price and graph the results. You discover that the lower the price, the more money you make.

You’re no John Floyd, but you write hundreds of stories, giving you an opportunity to test market price sensitivity. You carefully map price versus sales of your latest works. In the process, you learn a few surprises. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred and one, the lower the price, the more you make. Except…

units sold increased but revenue dropped
price sold made
$9 1 $09
$8 2 $16
$7 4 $28
$6 6 $36
$5 10 $50
$4 15 $60
$3 21 $63
$2 32 $64
$1 60 $60
Thrown Curve

For the initial eight months of Conan the Badass, sales figures match those of the first. Although projections suggest month nine should return sales of $70-75, that doesn’t happen although the graph still looks positive. For month nine, sales nearly doubled, but you made only $60. What happened?

You need a different graph, one that reflects not just sales, but revenue, the total dollar amount taken in each month.

You’ve learned lowering the price increased demand, increased it so much that customers started buying. To recap, in your first month, you sold one copy at $9 for a total of $9. The second month, you sold 2 at $8 each and made $16. When you lowered the price to $5, you made $50.

But your fickle customers didn’t meet expectations when prices hit the $1 mark. Although consumers bought fewer copies at $2, you made more money. Most interesting, you’ve discovered this without doing any math. Sure, a market professional could derive a y-intercept equation, but you don’t need it. All you require are revenue numbers and a sheet of graph paper.

lowering price increases sales, but…
Sweet Spots

Economics textbooks usually graph in nice, straight lines, but occasionally consumers behave in less predictable ways. This can happen with fads and booms, anti-cyclical products, and a concept called inelasticity.

Coffee tends to be inelastic… consumers will pay almost any price. A parent with a baby must buy milk and diapers; they have no choice. Once identified, patterns can be mathematically followed and foreseen.

Occasionally luxury goods prove inelastic. Packard was a premier motorcar favored by the very rich and desired by ordinary hoi polloi. When Packard priced an automobile like a Chevrolet, sales collapsed. The company had inadvertently devalued their brand. Once anyone could own one, nobody wanted one.

Your model might turn out to be a flat line or inelastic. That can happen in two ways. The bad way is that not even your mom buys your brilliant biography, the one titled Karl, the Sixth Marx Brother. The good way is that your Harry Potter and the 50 Shades of Godawful Grey flies off the shelf no matter how much you charge. One can always hope.

Soft Spots

Contrarily, the volatile nature of fads makes trends difficult to anticipate. In the latter 1990s, Ty Warner’s Beanie Babies mania became an incredible craze, retailing in limited editions for $5 and reselling as much as $5000 on-line with a few going for six figures. At one time Beanie Babies comprised 10% of eBay sales. Like other fads, the bubble burst. Ty Inc. no longer lists Beanie Babies among their toys. Most Beanie collections now sell in bulk for 50¢ apiece.

Some products can be labeled anti-cyclical. The Great Depression brought about textbook examples of movie attendance, ice cream, and women’s hosiery. Grand movie palaces were built and, for the price of a nickel, gave people sanctuary for a few hours and a chance to forget their troubles. A three-penny sundae might be the highlight of a dreadful day standing in unemployment lines. At a time when many things were going wrong, silk hose could make a woman feel more positive about herself. In a down market, sales of these products rose.

revenue as a function of price…
sometimes things go wrong
Meanwhile…

In setting your price point, plotting units sold (books in our case) versus price tells only part of the story. The real key is plotting revenue (price x units) against price. Consider the graph above and then this one.

According to the trend line, the book should have sold 70 or 75 copies, but thanks to quirks of buyers or a softening of the market, the audience didn’t behave as expected.

If you meticulously plotted your sales revenue on a graph, you see the ideal price point isn’t $1, but $2. This isn’t typical, but public tastes and trends can develop quirks. A popular author might publish novels in her mainstream series at $2 a copy and her lesser offshoots and novellas at $1 each. In this case, pricing aids in ‘product differentiation’, helping the customer distinguish merchandise.

The Bottom Line

Your mileage may vary. Generally, the lower the price, the more books you will sell and the more money you will likely make. Graphs help explain what happens behind the scenes. E-publishing provides a huge advantage in that your manufacturing costs are practically nil. If you’re going to take your novel to market, seize that advantage and give your book its best possible chance.

What is your experience?



“Until next Tisha B’Av” (pronounced “tish-above”) is an expression meaning an indefinite time, like saying “second Tuesday of next week” or the “twelfth of Never”.

13 August 2016

Happy Birthday, Hitch!


by B.K. Stevens

On August 13, 1899, Alfred Hitchcock was born in London. True, 117 is not generally regarded as a milestone birthday, but if I wait around until one of Hitchcock's true milestone birthdays falls on a date when I'm slated to write a SleuthSayers post--well, I'm not clever enough to figure out when that might happen, but I'm pretty sure I won't still be around when it does. So I'd better celebrate his 117th. I welcome any chance to celebrate Alfred Hitchcock. I admire his movies, I have fond memories of his television programs, and I'm a loyal, grateful Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine author. When the topic for this post first occurred to me, I checked on how many of my stories have made it into the magazine. Thirty-nine. Thirty-nine steps, thirty-nine stories--it felt like a sign. I had to write a post about Hitch.

But although I'm a Hitchcock fan, I'm by no means a Hitchcock expert. I don't have any insights weighty enough to develop into a unified post. So I dipped into a couple of books, looking for any thoughts or scraps of information that might be of interest. I re-watched several favorite Hitchcock movies, watched a few of the less famous ones for the first time. And I got a little help from my friends.

Alfred and Edgar

(or, why short story writers love movies) 

In a 1950 interview for the New York Times Magazine, Hitchcock explains why he sees "the chase" (which he defines broadly) as "the final expression of the motion picture medium." For one thing, as a visual medium, film is ideally suited for showing cars "careening around corners after each other." Perhaps even more important, "the basic film shape is continuous." "Once a movie starts," Hitchcock says, "it goes right on. You don't stop it for scene changes, or to go out and have a cigarette."

That reminded me of a comment Edgar Allan Poe makes in an 1842 review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, when he argues that works short enough to be read in one sitting can have a more unified, more powerful effect than longer works. A poem short enough to be read in one hour, or a prose tale short enough to be read in no more than two, can have an "unblemished, because undisturbed" impact: "The soul of the reader is at the writer's control.  There are no external or extrinsic influences resulting from weariness or interruption." If a work is so long that the reader has to put it down before finishing it, though, "worldly interests" intervene to "modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book." Maybe that's one reason that short story writers (or at least the ones who hang around this blog) seem to have such an affinity for movies: The movies we watch, like the stories we write, can be enjoyed without interruption and therefore, if Hitchcock and Poe are right, with an undiminished impact.

Some of Hitchcock's most memorable movies--Rear Window, The Birds--are based on short stories, and I think they do benefit from the sort of concentrated focus Poe describes. But I wouldn't want to argue that Hitchcock movies based on plays or novels are less focused, not if writers and director have done a good job of adapting them to their new medium.

Just the other night, I re-watched one of my all-time favorite Hitchcock movies, 1954's Dial M for Murder, and enjoyed it just as much as I always have. With these thoughts in mind, though, I noticed that Dial M for Murder has an intermission (perhaps partly because it's based on a play, and plays traditionally have intermissions). Lots of movies used to have intermissions, too, but I can't remember the last time I went to a new movie that does. I doubt that's because movies have gotten shorter--plenty still last two hours or more--or because theaters are now less eager to have a second chance to sell popcorn and soft drinks. Maybe it's because movie makers have become more and more convinced that, as Hitchcock puts it, "the basic film shape is continuous." Maybe they've decided an intermission breaks the mood, interrupts the suspense, and dilutes the movie's effect. But I'm just guessing. If anyone has inside information about why movie intermissions are less popular than they used to be, I'd be glad to hear it. (I should mention a relevant SleuthSayers post here, Leigh Lundin's 2015 "Long Shots," which looks at Hitchcock's use of the continuous tracking shot in Rope.)

Columbo's Uncle? 

Speaking of Dial M for Murder, when my husband and I were watching the final scenes, he commented that Chief Inspector Hubbard reminded him of Columbo--the determined police detective who gets a strong hunch about who the murderer is and won't give up until he confirms it. Like Columbo, Hubbard pretends to be sympathetic and self-effacing while setting up a clever trap to catch an arrogant, socially superior villain. And he wears a raincoat (which makes more sense in London than it does in Los Angeles). The thing that really caught my husband's attention, though, was that at one point Hubbard says, "Just one other thing" as he questions the person he rightly suspects to be guilty. That made the similarities too striking to ignore. True, Hubbard is more elegant and fastidious than Columbo. It's hard to imagine Columbo whipping out a tiny comb to smooth his mustache. (For that matter, it's hard to imagine Columbo with a mustache.) But did this supporting character from a 1954 Hitchcock movie inspire one of America's most beloved television detectives?

I have no idea. I wasted a couple of delightful hours Googling about and found many intriguing hints but no definite link (an inside joke for Columbo fans). The information I did find wasn't completely consistent--one site says one thing, another says something slightly different--but apparently the Columbo character first showed up in a 1960 short story written by Richard Levinson and William Link and published in--where else?--Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The character next appeared on the television program Chevy Mystery Show, in a 1960 episode called "Enough Rope." Levinson and Link later reworked that into a stage play called Prescription: Murder, which eventually became the pilot for the Columbo series. The titles recall Hitchcock titles, and the plot and form of Prescription: Murder bear significant similarities to the plot and form of Dial M for Murder. A suave, nearly emotionless husband schemes to get rid of his wife and get his hands on her money; he underestimates the police detective assigned to the case; the audience knows from the outset that the husband is guilty. Maybe all that is coincidence. Or maybe not. Here's something that's almost certainly coincidence, but I find it charming: John Williams, who played Chief Inspector Hubbard both on stage and in the Hitchcock movie, is featured in the 1972 Columbo episode "Dagger of the Mind," playing murder victim Sir Roger Haversham.

Alfred and Edgar, Part 2

(or, not taking suspense too seriously)

In a 1960 article called "Why I Am Afraid of the Dark," Hitchcock comments on ways in which he and Poe are similar, and also on ways in which they're different. Hitchcock was sixteen, he says, when he read a biography of Poe "at random" and was moved by the sadness of his life: "I felt an immense pity for him because, in spite of his talent, he had always been unhappy." Later, when Hitchcock was working in an office, he'd hurry back to his room to read a cheap edition of Poe's stories. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" got him thoroughly scared, he says, and he thoroughly enjoyed it.

The experience led him to an important discovery: "Fear, you see, is a feeling that people like to feel when they are certain of being in safety." A "gruesome story" can be terrifying, but "as one finds oneself in a familiar surrounding, and when one realizes that it's only imagination which is responsible for the fear, one is invaded by an extraordinary happiness." Hitchcock compares the sensation to the relief we feel when we're very thirsty and then take a drink. It's an interesting idea. When we scream through the shower scene in Psycho, is it the fear itself we enjoy? Or do we enjoy the relief we feel when we stop screaming, look around, and realize we're still in a dark but safe theater (or, these days, when we realize we're still in our well-lit family rooms, with our cats dozing in our laps)?

Hitchcock acknowledges a kinship with Poe. "We are both," he says, "prisoners of a genre: suspense." Further, "I can't help but compare what I try to put in my films with what Poe puts in his stories: a perfectly unbelievable story recounted to readers with such a hallucinatory logic that one has the impression that this same story can happen to you tomorrow." Even so, he says, 
I don't think that there exists a real resemblance between Edgar Allan Poe and myself. Poe is a poete maudit and I am a commercial filmmaker. He liked to make people shiver. Me too. But he didn't really have a sense of humor. And for me, "suspense" doesn't have any value if it's not balanced by humor.
You probably already know what poete maudit means. Despite five years of high-school and college French, I had to look it up. According to the Merriam Webster website, a poete maudit is an "accursed poet," a "writer dogged by misfortune and lack of recognition."

I find these comments fascinating. I don't know enough about either Hitchcock or Poe to speak with any authority--I don't know how honest Hitchcock is being, or how accurate his views of Poe may be--but he seems to present himself as a happy, successful artist who has won the sort of recognition that eluded Poe. He creates terrifying movies but stands at a distance from them, well balanced enough to realize the stories he tells are "perfectly unbelievable." Does Hitchcock imply that Poe lacked such balance, that the nightmares he created reflect his own experience of life? Perhaps. At any rate, Hitchcock presents himself as someone who makes scary movies because he enjoys making people "shiver," not because he shares the sorts of torments he depicts. So no matter how horrifying the visions on the screen become, he can see the humor in the situation.

Many would challenge the idea that Hitchcock was happy and well balanced. His sense of humor seems hard to deny. In a 1963 Redbook interview, Hitchcock comments, "In producing the movies that I do, I find it would be impossible without a sense of humor." And in the New York Times Magazine interview mentioned earlier, he says comic relief can be effective even during a chase, as long as the humor isn't too broad and doesn't make the hero look foolish. We probably all have favorite examples of comic relief in Hitchcock movies, of moments when we laugh out loud even while cringing in fear. For example, there's the climax of Strangers on a Train. (If you haven't seen the movie, please skip the rest of this paragraph, and the next paragraph, too. Then please go see the movie.) Hitchcock cuts from one frightening image to another as hero and villain grapple, as people on the carousel scream, as an old man crawls slowly toward the off switch, in danger of being crushed at any moment. It's terrifying.

But it's funny, too. The old man looks like a comic figure, not a tragic one--he's chewing on something as he inches forward, and at one point he pauses to wipe his nose. And amid all the screaming, scrambling people on the carousel, one little boy sits up straight on his horse, smiling broadly, clearly having the time of his life. Maybe he's unaware of the danger. Or maybe he's enjoying it.

That brings us to "The Enjoyment of Fear," an article Hitchcock published in Good Housekeeping in 1949. (Remember when women's magazines used to include some articles with real substance?) It echoes some ideas I've already mentioned, but I can't resist the temptation to quote a passage that, I think, gives us an additional insight into Hitchcock's technique, and into the nature of literary suspense. He says again that viewers can enjoy the fear of watching a frightening movie because they know they're safe--they're not on that madly careening carousel in Strangers on a Train. Then he takes things one step further:
But the audience must also be aware that the characters in the picture, with whom they strongly identify themselves, are not to pay the price of fear. This awareness must be entirely subconscious; the spectator must know the spy ring will never succeed in pitching Madeleine Carroll off London Bridge, and the spectator must be induced to forget what he knows. If he didn't know, he would be genuinely worried; if he didn't forget, he would be bored.
Over the years, I've gotten addicted to several television dramas that kill off secondary characters at a sometimes alarming rate. Whatever dangers they may face, we know Tony Soprano, Jack Bauer, and Carrie Mathison will survive more or less intact, at least until they reach the final show of the final season. Even then, if there's any chance of a follow-up movie or a reunion show, we know the protagonist is safe. But we also know their friends, co-workers, and lovers are fair game at any moment. That's one way to keep the audience in suspense. Hitchcock describes a more delicate approach: Deep down, we know the protagonist is safe, but the suspense reaches such a height that we forget. That sounds almost impossible, but I think it happens. Think of a moment when a Hitchcock protagonist seems to be in mortal danger. Don't we forget, just for a moment, that Hitchcock wouldn't really kill Jimmy Stewart?

And then, of course, there's the shower scene in Psycho. (If you haven't seen Psycho--but everybody's seen Psycho.) Doesn't that violate the trust between director and audience, the trust that allows us to enjoy being scared? Maybe--maybe that's why many would say Psycho crosses the line between suspense and horror. But I think Hitchcock tries to make sure we don't "strongly identify" with Janet Leigh's character. After all, she's a thief. And the first time we see her, she's in bed with a lover--that might not alienate many viewers today, but I bet it alienated plenty in 1960. Also, before we have time to get deeply attached to her, she's gone. Her violent death shocks us, but I'm not sure it saddens us all that much. If Cary Grant plummeted to the base of Mount Rushmore, I think we'd be more upset.

Last Thoughts

As I said, when I started work on this post, I decided to get a little help from my friends. A birthday tribute should include some sort of biographical perspective, but I didn't feel up to doing the necessary research myself. So I turned to a promising young scholar, Shlomo Mordechai Gershone (a.k.a. my ten-year-old grandson, Moty). He contributed these insights:
I read Who Was Alfred Hitchcock? and learned a lot. Alfred Hitchcock was a very interesting person. He was big, loud, and funny, but also wrote things that were full of suspense and mystery. He told stories about being locked in a jail cell at the age of five. He would say that five minutes felt like five years to the young Hitch. That suspense was expressed in his movies, his television shows, and the stories in his magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. (Where have I heard that before?) He spent his whole life talking and writing about mystery, but passed away peacefully in his sleep. (Anticlimax)
An ability to say a great deal in a short space, a sense of humor, a critical perspective--maybe I'm slightly biased, but I think this young man has a future as a writer.

Also, I thought it would be fun to do a quick survey of my Facebook friends (mostly mystery readers and writers), asking them to name their favorite Hitchcock movies. Obviously, there's nothing scientific about this survey, but perhaps it points to at least some of the Hitchcock movies that are standing the test of time.

Rear Window topped the survey with nine votes. Shawn Reilly Simmons saw it when she was quite young and still remembers "jumping out of my seat at the suspense." (Many other people put Rear Window second or third on their lists, but I decided to count only the first movie each person mentioned.) Vertigo came in second with five votes. Art Taylor admires it for many reasons, "but really what may fascinate me most is the fact that so much of it is told purely through images." Rob Lopresti is also enthusiastic, saying the movie has a "ridiculous plot that I believe completely when I am watching." (That reminded me of Hitchcock's statement that he tells "perfectly unbelievable" stories with such strong "hallucinatory logic" that viewers think "this same story can happen to [them] tomorrow." I think Hitch would love Rob's comment.) Three movies tied for third place, with four votes each--Rebecca, North by Northwest, The Birds. (Diane Vallere, the next president of Sisters in Crime, made Rear Window her top choice but loves The Birds so much she once created a Halloween costume inspired by it.) Several other movies scored one or two votes--Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, The Trouble with Harry, Foreign Correspondent. So even in this tiny sample, there's plenty of disagreement. In my opinion, that points to the vitality and breadth of Hitchcock's achievement: He created many masterpieces that, decades after his death, still have passionate advocates.

Finally, I'll add a couple of personal notes. As I said, thirty-nine of my stories have been fortunate enough to appear in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. One of them, "A Joy Forever," is a Macavity finalist this year. If you'll be voting on the Macavity awards, and even if you won't, perhaps you'd like to read the story. You can find it on my website, at http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com/book/a-joy-forever/.

And two nights ago, when I took a break from working on this post and checked my e-mail, I learned that AHMM has accepted a fortieth story, "Death under Construction." I've been watching my e-mail for some time, hoping for this news. Thank goodness the suspense has ended.

(I won't be able to respond to comments on Saturday, 
but I'll respond to every comment on Sunday. I promise.)

12 August 2016

Requiem for a Fedora


By Dixon Hill

A good friend of mine made what will probably be its final passing from my life last week.

It was brown, beaten, dented and scuffed, frayed and holed.  It used to have a small spray of feathers sticking up from the bow round it's band, at the base of its crown.

But, now it lies in state atop a bookshelf, with our two hallowed flags, never to be worn again.

The Presidio of Monterey.


I've owned several hats in my lifetime, but only two fedoras.  One was black with a wide brim, but cheaply made.  The other was brown.

I bought the black one while in high school, and took it with me when I joined the army, wearing it all around Monterey, CA while stationed at the Presidio studying Arabic, then around Texas and Massachusetts while studying for my job in Military Intelligence, and finally around Clarksville TN, the gate town outside Fort Campbell, KY, where I met my wife when we were both part of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault)

As some of you know, when I left Ft. Campbell, I had only a couple of days to clear post in order to reach the SF Qualification Course on time. I had to take a plane, in Class A uniform, from Campbell to Ft. Bragg, so my black fedora made the trip to Smoke Bomb Hill crushed in the top of my duffel bag.   And there it stayed, until I finished Phase One out at Camp McKall four weeks later.

To celebrate passing Phase I, I checked into a hotel for the weekend, and bought an expensive fedora at the only shopping mall in Fayetteville, Ft. Bragg's gate town.

That was the brown one.  I liked that hat, but always felt the brim was just a touch too narrow.  However, it was of much higher quality than my cheap black one and better constructed,  It had a silk liner, a leather headband around the interior, a stitched edge around the rim of the brim, and its felt body was thicker and better formed, less brittle-feeling.  Its ribbon was thicker, too, taller that is, than the thin ribbon around the crown of my wide-brimmed black fedora.

I wore both those fedoras for many years.  Nearly every time I donned civilian clothes, while in the army.  They accompanied me on deployments to foreign countries (crushed, once more, into my duffel or ruck), and sometimes on field problems if I thought I could get away with wearing them in place of my patrol cap or boonie hat.

You could get away with a lot if you were in Special Forces back then.  And, if you had developed the requisite SF set of "eyes in the back of your head" when it came to gauging when the brass was about to come visiting.  My buddies were used to seeing me run the demolitions range while wearing a leather jacket under my BDU uniform smock, my fedora perched on my head, on cold nights.

These days, from what I've seen and heard, Special Operations Command has pretty much programmed that sort of "unmilitary behavior" right out of SF soldiers.  Which is a real shame for us all, in my opinion. Pulling off the successful Unconventional Warfare mission usually seems to require not only tactical and technical proficiency, but also more than just a modicum of brazen insanity, tempered by a surprising touch of optimism and whimsy.  If asked why this is so, I'd be at a loss to give you scientific reason, but would probably say, "It's like adding that 'Little Dab'll Do Ya' when working with explosives.  You calculate how many pounds of explosive you need, and where to place your charges, but then you always add that 'Little Dab'll Do Ya' or that bridge you're trying to blow will probably still be staring you in the eye after your charges go off.  Add that little dab, however, and down she comes.  I have no idea why this works; I only know that this is why working with explosives in an ART, not a SCIENCE."  And it's the same with UW operations.

But, enough of that diatribe.  We're here to remember a hat.  A fedora to be exact.  A good hat, if not a great one.  But, hey! who here is perfect?  That hat kept my head warm on cold nights, and shaded on hot days, in more geographic locations than I can properly remember.  My brown and black fedoras went everywhere I did, along with my leather jacket, for as long as I served.

After I popped smoke on the army, they came back home to Arizona with me, down to the blazing desert.  There, I wore them a bit less, but still they served me well.

The black fedora was too cheap to last long in the desert air, literally coming unglued while my oldest son played Indiana Jones one day.  But, the brown one stood the test of time.  In fact, I wore it quite a bit around the conference at Left Coast Crime in Phoenix earlier this year.

It served me as clothing and decor, as well as acting as costume and plaything for all three of my kids (a fedora makes a pretty mean Frisbee when needed).  Thus, I heard a catch in my daughter's voice, last week, when she called, "Patta!" from the laundry room adjoining the patio on our new house.

I found her standing there, before the washing machine, holding what looked like a soggy, thick paper towel spindle in both her petite hands.

It was my brown fedora, crushed into a tube shape. Soaking.  Crumpled.  Shrunken.

Somehow, it had gotten mixed in with the dirty clothes, and my wife had accidentally tossed it into the wash.

I'd seen the hat in bad shape before, so I punched the crown back up, pulled the hat back into shape, and pushed an approximation of the right dent into the top.

But, when I parked it on my head ... felt like I was wearing a yarmulke!

My hat had shrunk beyond recoverability.

And, thus, this post: Requiem for a Fedora.  (Or, drink a beer and call it a wake!)


See you in two weeks!
--Dixon




11 August 2016

Crowdsourcing Writer's Block


by Brian Thornton

So if you've spent any time trying to get thoughts down on paper, you eventually run into the bane of productive writers from time immemorial.

I'm talking about "Writer's Block."
Not THIS type of Writer's Block.

Every artist has suffered from creative dry spells. For some, it's because of a lack of inspiration. For others, it's a lack of time. For others, it's a lack of headspace.

I have a four year-old and a mortgage. I recently suffered from a perfect storm of all of the above, running concurrently.

So I set about trying to get around it. After all, this isn't my first rodeo. I finished my first book in 2003. I published my first book (not the same book) in 2005. I've published ten more since.

So obviously, I've dealt with this particular daemon before.

But I've found that a child trumps all previous approaches. After all, he didn't ask to be born. And he didn't ask to be plopped in front of a TV screen by himself for hours at a time. I owe him more of a life than that.

So there's the scheduling part of that. Thank God I have a spouse who has embarked on her own writing career, and is particularly sensitive to the vicissitudes of this particular affliction. So she has really stepped up in the "helping provide time" department as I navigated the shoals of Writer's Block earlier this year. I owe her. Yet another reason this current book project will be dedicated to her when it sees publication.

But then there's the problem of headspace, and clearing out enough of it to allow your book to continue to set up house in there, along with the requirements of your day-gig (assuming you have one), paying bills, your golf game, you know....Life.

So what to do to get around it all, clear the mechanism and get on with it?

I once heard the great G.M. Ford prescribe a cure for writer's block as something along the lines of "Ass in chair. Write. Repeat."

If you're looking for ways around your writer's block that aren't so completely predicated on sheer force of will, I've compiled a brief list below. Please feel free to add your own tried and true methods in the comments section. This is the kind of thing that can use a good crowd-sourcing!

Here's the list:

1. Change it up. If your current W-I-P isn't singing for you, change the singer. Work on a different project, and see whether the fresh scenery doesn't spark something that can bleed over into the one on which you're currently blocked. And if you don't have anything else you're currently working on, then START ONE.

2. Take a walk. Seriously. Exercise is always a great way to get the creative juices going.

3. Take a walk to a coffeeshop. If you're not getting it done in your current venue, change the venue. A literal change of scenery. If you usually write a coffeeshop, try another coffeeshop. If you're too cheap or too agoraphobic to leave the house (I'm only half-kidding), change the room. Stephen King wrote his first three novels at a tiny desk nestled between the washer and dryer of the laundry room in his double-wide trailer. (Come to think of it, the King example might be another instance of G.M. Ford's whole "ass in chair" dictum.).

4. Jump ahead. If you're stuck on a scene, jump ahead to one you're intending to write later. That frequently shakes something loose.

5. Go back to your outline. Rework it, if need be. If you don't outline, consider outlining. If you consider it and reject it, do the following: go back to the beginning of your W-I-P and reread it, writing either scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter summaries. It should help you get and keep your head back into the story.

Have something to add? A tried and true method for defeating the writer's block goblin? Please share in the Comments section!

10 August 2016

Apologies for the S-18's


David Edgerley Gates


More than a few years ago, I was helping my friend Alice move. She was living in the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts, and she was headed for Cape Cod. He dad, Joe Pelkey, had a silkscreen print shop in Pittsfield called Editions Ltd., and he shipped product all over the country. He told her to come by and pick up packing materials, and when we got there, Joe said, "What you guys want is a couple of sleeves of S-18's." Corrugated cardboard boxes. They come folded flat, you open them up and tape the seams, ready to go. They get their name because dimensionally, they measure 18 by 18 by 18 inches, which makes them practical for books or record albums, say. Or bricks. They don't weigh that much when they're full.

Like a lot of writers, or probably most, I've got a soft spot for nomenclature. The difference between a reveal and a rabbet, or a
clip and a magazine. Not everybody makes that big a deal out of it, but there are of course those of us who wax wroth over the Oxford comma. We dislike lower standards, cutting corners, getting sloppy. "Use the right word," Twain cautions, "not its second cousin."

Somehow the term S-18 stuck in my head. I relish arcane knowledge, insider lingo. When the subject of shipping cartons came up, S-18 was my mental default, and I'd deploy it like plumage. Over time, it turned into an inside joke, a private shorthand. Alice would read one of my stories, and when I asked her what she thought, she'd say, Well, you lost me in the S-18's. It was generally valid. Writers have a common weakness, and it's showing off. How better than turning over the chosen card, like a magic trick? Yes and no. The trick isn't effective if you call attention to it.

In performing close-up magic, an effect is made up of sleights, or manipulations. You use misdirection, verbal or physical distractions, to establish a false narrative - what people think they're being shown - and the narrative is a construct, a house of cards. Its structural integrity is sustained by the willing suspension of disbelief, an investment on the part of the audience, and we agree not to break the spell.

I heard Mark Billingham make an interesting remark about thriller
writing. He started out as a character actor, and then did stand-up, and he says comedy and thrillers are both about timing your
punchlines. 
You're at the mike, and you've got thirty seconds to get the laugh.

You don't break the spell. You've shaken hands with the reader, you've agreed to the purchase-and-sale. You don't need to be a know-it-all. Just keep faith. With apologies for the S-18's. You can leave out most of the stuff you know. Hemingway said that, and he was right. Don't be afraid to leave some space. Give yourself room to breathe. You don't have to fill every silence.

09 August 2016

Meet Me in St. Louis


by Paul D. Marks

Meet me in St. Louie Louie, meet me at the fair…

No, not the St. Louis of the title song, Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien and the cakewalk, but of the darker, more cynical St. Louis of Akashic’s recently released St. Louis Noir.

Fellow SleuthSayer John Floyd and I think alike, or at least we both have stories in one of the new Akashic Noir books that were released on August 2nd and wanted to write about them here on SleuthSayers. And I want to congratulate John on his story Pit Stop in Mississippi Noir, which I’ve ordered and am very much looking forward to reading.

I’d also like to congratulate fellow SleuthSayers Art Taylor (Best First Mystery), Barb Goffman (Best Short Story) and BK Stevens (Best Short Story) on their Macavity noms! Good luck to all of you! — And I hope I haven’t missed anyone.


Now to my noir tale:


Lights. Camera. Action.
Apparently there were lights over the Gateway Arch in St. Louis a few days ago. Everybody’s trying to figure out what they were. Kansas City TV station KMBC says “Mysterious light over Gateway Arch stumps St. Louis.” (http://www.kmbc.com/news/mysterious-light-over-gateway-arch-stumps-st-louis/41052670 ) I have an idea about what it might have been, which I’ll get to later. In the meantime, how’s this for a segue, from mysterious lights over the Arch to Akashic’s new St. Louis Noir anthology, which was just released last Tuesday.

The book is edited by Scott Phillips. Among several other great books, Scott is the author of the terrific The Ice Harvest, which was also made into a movie starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. I’m honored that my story Deserted Cities of the Heart is included among the many impressive stories in this collection, along with such talented writers as: John Lutz, Scott Phillips, Calvin Wilson, Lavelle Wilkins-Chinn, Colleen J. McElroy, Jason Makansi, S.L. Coney, Michael Castro, Laura Benedict, Jedidiah Ayres, Umar Lee, Chris Barsanti, and L.J. Smith.

In the intro, Scott says, “Amid all this is a rich, multicultural history of art and literature both high and low, stemming from conflict and passions running hot...This collection strives for some of that same energy that the collision of high and low can produce...All these writers come at their work with different perspectives and styles but all with a connection to and a passion for our troubled city and its surroundings.”

The Akashic Noir Series
The Akashic Noir series, begun in 2004, takes one to dark corners all around the world, literally. From Baltimore to Barcelona and Mumbai to Memphis. Even Prison Noir and Wall Street Noir—hmm…is there a connection there?

Like other Akashic noir books set in a certain locale the stories in St. Louis Noir take you on a Magical Mystery—or should I say Noir—Tour of the city and its surrounds, from Dogtown to downtown, from Gaslight Square to Glendale. And everything in between.


Gateway Arch 2001 by Rick Dickeman
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Deserted Cities of the Heart
My story, Deserted Cities of the Heart, is set at the Gateway Arch, or at least begins there. The reason I chose the Arch as my setting is because I see it as aspirational, thrusting into the heavens. The promise of a bright future and bigger and better things. So, when my protagonist, Daniel, meets a hipster girl who shares his love for all things high-tech and geeky, including computer gaming, we think things are looking up for him. Then we start to wonder who’s ‘gaming’ who?

One of the things I like to do in my writing is to capture the mood or feel of a place. And I tried to do that with this story, which moves from the Arch to the Washington Avenue Historic District, the hipster-joint Atomic Cowboy and even Meramec Caverns, said to be one of Jesse James’ hideouts and deep into the core of cyberspace.

Here’s an excerpt:

Daniel looked up, thought he saw a mourning dove flying through the Gateway Arch, heading out in the direction of Route 66. It was gone now. He wasn’t sure if it was even there in the first place. Like Route 66, there but not there at the same time. What was left of that legendary highway passed right through St. Louis. Once America’s Mother Road, much of it now decommissioned, it existed more like a ghost or a shadow on the land. Daniel had always looked on it as an escape route. But escape to where? Besides, escape was nothing more than illusion. Wherever he went he’d take his baggage with him.

He wanted to forget the last three months had ever happened. Yeah, he wanted to shut those memories out. He didn’t want to think about yesterday. Didn’t want to think about today. And he definitely didn’t want to think about tomorrow. He never thought it would turn out like this.

Do you have to be from St. Louis to write about noir there or be in this volume? No, though I have been there. And I like absorbing the local color and history of a place. I hope I’ve expressed that with St. Louis. The fact is, I consider myself an LA writer, but I’ve been here and there, if not everywhere, and enjoy writing about many locales.

We probably all have goals that we’ve set for our writing careers. They might not be the same from one person to another, but we all have things we want to achieve. One of my goals has been to have a story in one of the Akashic Noir anthologies. I think that’s my major point here: that we all have goals and that with hard work and perseverance we will eventually achieve many of them, if not all.
And I’m happy to say that the book has been getting good reviews, and my story as well:

“…[I]t’s no surprise that the most notable tales are the work of three genre veterans…” including “…‘Deserted Cities of the Heart,’ by Paul D. Marks (‘White Heat’), [which] charts the fall of loner Daniel Hayden after he meets femme fatale Amber Loy at the Gateway Arch.” 
—Publishers Weekly

“Joining Seattle, Memphis, Phoenix, and other noir outposts, St. Louis gets a turn to show its dark side in Phillips' collection of 13 dark tales and a poetic interlude...[A] spirited, black-hearted collection.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Among my favorite stories in St. Louis Noir is one called ‘Deserted Cities of the Heart’ (by Paul D. Marks) in which a loner of an IT nerd with a security clearance is convinced to hack into a witness protection data base with disastrous results by the attractive young out-of-towner who suddenly comes into his life. …The bottom line: St. Louis Noir is another worthy addition to what is perhaps already the best series of short story collections to be published in decades.”
—Sam Sattler, Book Chase


Lights over the Arch 
So what were those mysterious lights over the Arch? I think I know: they were the lights for the premier launch of Akashic’s St. Louis Noir!



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www.PaulDMarks.com

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