06 July 2016

Topping Up and Ticking Off in Scotland


Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye (also in the new movie The BFG)
My wife and I just got back from a lovely trip to Scotland.  In future pieces I will probably write more about that but right now I want to concentrate on something that has nothing to do with crime fiction, unless you stretch that to communication issues and petty theft.  Bear with me.  I will include some lovely pictures of our trip to ease the way, okay?

Terri and I are not big cell phone users but we knew we wanted to be able to call home, especially to check our messages.  We went to our Verizon dealer who assured us our phone was unlocked and we could buy the necessary sim card in Scotland.  He recommended a company called EE.

Glasgow Dunce Cap
So when we landed in Glasgow we found an EE store and told a salesman named Scott exactly what we needed.  But he couldn't figure out how to open our phone.  I don't mean he couldn't unlock the electronic system; I mean he couldn't figure out how to physically open it and get at the sim card.

So we talked about buying a cheap phone.  All we need is to be able to call the U.S., we explained.  Don't care about local calls; don't care about texting.

The Kelpies, near Falkirk
No problem, he said.  For ten pounds he sold us a cheapie phone.  A five pound "topping up" fee gave us 250 minutes of US phone calls.  Excellent!

That night I called and checked messages.  Took almost ten minutes.

Next day I tried again and was told we had no money left on the phone.  Problem.

We were heading off to Edinburgh, so we found an EE shop on Princes Street, the main shopping drag in the capital city, where mobile phone shops seemed as thick as plague fleas on a medieval rat.

Edinburgh Castle, seen from Princes Street
The saleswoman told us that  Scott in Glasgow had sold us the wrong plan and there was nothing she could do for us except sell us a different one.  So you won't fix your company's mistake? No. You won't give back our money?  There's nothing we can do.  No, I said, there is obviously something you can do.  Your company just chooses not to.

So we went next door to a Three Mobile Phone store (like I said, thick as fleas).  We told the whole sad story to the man there.  "Why didn't the man in Glasgow check Google to see how to open your phone?"  Good question.  It hadn't occurred to Scott, or to us.

Plockton Harbor
Three Man did so and quickly learned how to remove the sim card from our phone.  He put in his sim and found that it was useless.  In spite of what Verizon had promised us, our phone was apparently locked.  We discussed what Three could do for us but their plans were not a match for our needs.  So we thanked them and marched on.

Soon we came to a second EE store (we eventually passed three on Princes Street).  The salesman there contradicted the saleswoman at his neighboring shop.  There was nothing wrong with the plan; the topping up had somehow failed to register.  He spent ten minutes in the back, calling someone for help twice.  Eventually he came back and told us the topping up was now properly set up and he had added £15 pounds in time for our trouble.  It would take an hour to register and then everything would be fine.  I shook his hand and we went back to the hotel, happy.

Stirling Castle
But the phone still didn't work.

For the next few days we traveled through Orkney, the Isle of Skye, and Stirling.  All wonderful places, but not crammed with EE shops.  On the last day we returned to Glasgow and made our way back to the scene of the crime and, believe it or not, the original salesman, Scott.  He confirmed what the last man in Edinburgh had told us: the topping up had not registered.

So what could he do for us now?  Nothing.  He won't give us our money back?  No; we had received a working phone; it was fine for texting and making local calls.

Satan's willing handmaids
I replied that it didn't matter whether  the phone could text, make local calls, or swim across the river Clyde whistling "Will Ye No Come Back Again?"  He knew when he sold it to us that the only thing we wanted it for was overseas calls, and for that it was as useful as a paperweight.

But EE apparently doesn't stand behind its products, promises, staff, or services.  We were out fifteen pounds.  So my goal in writing this is to do them much more than fifteen pounds worth of damage.  If you are in Britain and need a phone, try Three or one of the other companies.

Enough of that nonsense.  Let's move on to bigger topics.  We were in Scotland during the Brexit vote and you may want to hear my observations about that important event.  Happy to oblige.

I predict that Brexit will drive EE into bankruptcy and the CEO will be reduced to living under the Forth Bridge on cheap blended whisky and spoiled haggis.  But if you want a somewhat more informative opinion, try this one by Luke Bailey and Tom Phillips.  It's hilarious and you will learn something.  "By this point, actual British political news was basically indistinguishable from a random word generator..."

05 July 2016

Writing What You Know -- the Hard Way


We've all heard this advice: write what you know. I've had editing clients take this advice the wrong way, thinking if they haven't experienced something themselves, they shouldn't write about it. In actuality, if you want to write about something and don't have enough information to get the details right, then do research. Learn all about it. Then you'll be able to write about what you know.
I got some firsthand experience Friday night about kidney stones. I'd never had one before, and I hope I never go through this process again. It started as a slight nagging pain, as if I'd slept wrong and a small area of my lower back had a knot in it. Within just two or three minutes, the nagging had become throbbing, and I swallowed an Advil. Not ten minutes later, the pain had become so acute that I thought I had really injured my back from briefly (thirty seconds, tops) carrying something heavy earlier in the day. (Last autumn, I aggravated some back muscles carrying home my escaped dog--I had no leash with me when I found him. A diagonal area across my back suddenly began throbbing hours later. This pain was similar.) I found the leftover pain medicine from the autumn injury and downed a muscle relaxer. Ten minutes after that, the pain was still increasing, and with tears in my eyes, I headed to the emergency room.

The pain came and went over the next few hours in waves. Sometimes I had no pain whatsoever. Three minutes later, I was crying for help, my pain a ten on the 1 - 10 pain scale. That is the way with a kidney stone, I've learned, which is what they diagnosed me with. My friend Becky Muth told me that she had kidney stone once. The pain of passing it was worse than when she had a baby, she said, so much so that she said she'd "rather go through childbirth again than pass another kidney stone." Mine hasn't passed yet (I don't think). I'm afraid of what's to come.

I don't know if I'll ever have the opportunity to use this firsthand knowledge in my writing, but I began thinking that perhaps I know people with firsthand knowledge that might be helpful to me and other authors. So I asked friends to share their stories. Here goes.

Having Nearly a Fifth of Your Teeth Pulled at Once

This tooth looks too happy.
I had my impacted wisdom teeth out long ago, and it wasn't fun. But it was nothing like what Becky (yes, same Becky from above) went through when she had six molars removed at once. Her words:

"I had six teeth extracted--all molars in the back. It felt like someone smacked me in the face with a baseball bat. The dentist's office miscalculated when I'd need [[to start]] my prescription, and the anesthesia started to wear off on the way home (about a thirty-five minute drive). I have an okay tolerance for pain as long as I have an outlet for general complaining, but this pain was so intense I couldn't speak. It hurt to nod my head when my husband asked me something. It was the first time I ever used painkillers around the clock. Two more dental visits are required to finish the work, and I'm dreading them. I'd probably choose the kidney stone. At least the medication for that caused me to sleep through a lot of the discomfort."


Experiencing Mysterious Back Pain

My friend author Meriah Crawford had terrible undiagnosed back pain. Turns out it was (is) a herniated disc in her lower back, but she didn't know that at the time. Her words:

"I have a herniated disc right now. It's given me my first real taste of what disability/chronic pain can be. Not sure I could handle it. What has struck me, though, is that it's less painful than the cramps I get (SO HORRIBLE), but I know cramps will pass and won't kill me. The fear (terror, at times) of the back pain gives it a whole other quality, though. I was genuinely afraid of becoming severely disabled or paralyzed through all this. When you don't know what it is, or you know enough to know it can be BAD, that's so much worse, at least for me."


Getting Pinned in a Car Wreck

My friend Diane Hale shares this harrowing tale:

"I was sixteen when it happened. One of those bizarre things; we had a sharp curve in the road, and the rear axle had crystallized, so when Dad thought it was a flat and tried to steer into the desert, it turned out the wheel was bent under the truck. He thought he was steering straight, but the front wheels were turned to compensate. When they hit a build-up of sand, it flipped us. [[The pickup]] flew forty feet before landing on the cab. I was stunned, blacked out when I thought I was pinned, then crawled out. My dad and I walked half a mile before a car came. I still wasn't feeling any pain, but turned out I had a broken pelvis. Perhaps I'm just one who's stunned first, doesn't feel pain until the adrenaline wears off. By the time help arrived (very rural area, a neighbor put a mattress in the back of his station wagon), I was beginning to hurt. I couldn't bend, so they had to pick me up and ease me onto the mattress for the hour-long ride to the hospital. [[It]] was so scary when I first woke up because I'm claustrophobic. Turned out I was sort-of pinned--between my dad and the back of the seat. I still vividly remember crawling out of the truck--both doors popped open--and seeing blood trickling down Dad's forehead. I was more worried about him than about me."

Having Undiagnosed Meningitis

A friend who wishes to remain anonymous tells this story:

"I had meningitis about seventeen years ago this summer. Through a series of horrible bouts of bad luck, I wasn't properly diagnosed and treated for a week. (A small-town doctor diagnosed it as a migraine and gave me pills for nausea and pain, which helped a little). By the time the worst came (I passed out and was sent to the ER), the pain was so intense that ending everything seemed like a wonderful relief. I was young, newly married, and had a six-month-old baby, but I was perfectly happy to accept death if it meant I could escape the pain. I want to stress that that all changed as soon as a neurologist got a hold of me and admitted me into the hospital--within days I felt like a new person who would never trade her life for anything. I've never thought it was a scary or unusual part of my personality, but when I hear of people in intense pain saying they prayed for death, I give a proverbial shrug and say 'yeah, I can see that'." 

Getting Your Nose Broken 

My friend author Alice Loweecey shares this story:


"I got my nose fractured at a karate self-defense class. The brown belt teacher was showing me how to break someone's nose. She made her hand into a stiff chopping weapon and promised to stop short every time. Once--fine. Twice--fine. Three times--WHAM! I literally saw stars and blood GUSHED out of my nose. It started to throb a minute later, and I got a wicked headache shortly after. It took forever to stop the bleeding and the next day my face swelled up and my got a very colorful bruise. To this day that side of my nose crackles a little and I can't rest sunglasses on it."

Being Stabbed

I'll wrap this up with a harrowing story from my friend author CiCi Coughlin, who has been shot and stabbed. Here she focuses on the stabbing, though she mentions the shooting too:

"The thing about an experience like [[being stabbed]] is it's rarely an accident. So, on top of the physical pain and trauma, you generally have a rash of emotions happening: panic, fear, a little bit of anger. There's also a sense of unreality, like it's such an extreme thing to be happening that you almost can't process that it's happening to you. In my case, it was a very unexpected attack when I was 18 and it was a fight for my life situation, so it wasn't just one stab, the end. By the time he stabbed me, I was already pretty banged up and had a concussion, so adrenaline was really high but I was also kinda wonky from the head damage. In some ways, I felt like I was both in the fight and outside watching, wondering who was going to win. 


"Physically, being stabbed was two things. First, it was like a major impact, like getting punched in the shoulder, but with the added issue of a blade. I was stabbed with a very thin, long blade, so that part was more almost a burning sensation, I suspect because the blade was so fine. The other thing is, with a stab wound, there's an in and an out and they are two very distinct sensations. In my case, there was about a five-second delay in between, so it was even more so. Plus, I was stabbed in a joint. The blade nicked the bone, and I had some ligament damage, though not a lot. But I also knew, sort of somewhere in the back of my mind, that it wasn't a potentially fatal blow, and I didn't lose blood as fast as I would have with a torso wound, so I wasn't as woozy as I might have been. Oddly, I'd already been shot in the same shoulder a year or so prior, so I can kind of 'compare.' At least in a shoulder like that, I'd far rather be shot. Might have been different if the shot hadn't gone all the way through, though. The knife actually did, too, so I had a skin puncture front and back. The difference with the knife, again, though, is it doesn't just go in, it goes in and comes out. So it's kind of a double trauma. Also, the bullet was a stray; no one was trying to shoot me, so there wasn't the kind of personal malice to deal with. Even if they had been specifically after me, it still would have been at something of a distance. Someone has to be really in your personal space to stab you, especially from the front. It's very personal and one-on-one -- kind of a twisted intimacy, if that makes sense."

I hope this information is helpful to my author friends. If you have any additional personal experiences you think might help other writers, feel free to share. And they don't have to be bad things. I've never jumped from a plane, for instance, and I never would, but I'd be interested in what that really feels like to do it. And I'd be interested in whether the perspective changes depending on whether the diver was eager or scared before the jump. Readers, please share your experiences, good and bad!

04 July 2016

An Independence Day Conspiracy Theory


As today is the Fourth of July, I felt it only fitting that I do something patriotic, and what's more patriotic than a good conspiracy theory? Nothing notable has happened in our country that hasn't been clouded (or, to some, sprinkled with sunshine) by a good conspiracy theory. Was there someone on that grassy knoll? Did John Wilkes Both really act alone? Did FDR really know about Pearl Harbor before it happened? Did the FBI have forewarning of 9/11? Who knows? Well, somebody surely does, but maybe not the ones who purport the juicy theories.

I decided (mainly because I'm not beneath loving a good theory or two myself) to research rumors that might have been running a muck during those latter years of the 18th century. And I came across a doozy: Massachusetts writer J.L. Bell, a leading historian on the Revolutionary War (author of, among others, THE ROAD TO CONCORD), revealed some interesting tidbits in an article entitled, “History, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in Massachusetts.”

In an article written on July 19, 1775, The Reverend Ezra Stiles of Newport reported that on a trip to Paris, British Captain Jno. Hansen, due to irrelevant (in my view) circumstances, became intimately acquainted with the French Pretender's secretary. During a meeting with this unnamed secretary, he – the secretary – left Capt. Hansen alone in his office. On the secretary's desk was an unsealed packet. Capt. Hansen read the contents of this packet, which stated that Lord North and the Earl of Bute (present and past First Ministers of Britain) said the “plan” was almost finished, that the “draught of troops for America would soon leave England so defenseless that the Pretender with 20,000 troops might land and march all over England.”

Hansen fled with the packet to England and informed Lord North of the contends of the packet. Lord North then paid off Capt. Hansen. But by spring of that year, America was “deluged” in war and Hansen felt guilty about his part in this. He went to New York where he told the Congress, which credited the information and sent Capt. Hansen to show it to the Continental Congress.

Rev. Stiles concluded in this article that Lord North had regained the packet from Capt. Hansen. Stiles felt that if Capt. Hansen had retained custody of the packet he could have convinced the King and the Nation and “restore tranquility between Britain and America.” Rev. Stiles went on to surmise that perhaps the top ministers of the British government had started the trouble in America just to tie up the British army, letting the Pretender sail from France and seize power.

Rev. Stiles wasn't the only one to think along the lines of a conspiracy theory. Roger Lamb, a sergeant in the British army, wrote in an article that, in essence, the French supported America in the Revolution so as to separate Great Britain from the colonies and help France regain their former station in Europe. He went so far as to claim France sent “secret emissaries” to the colonies to “spread dissatisfaction.” The colonists began to gradually change from the “warmth of attachment to the mother country, which had so particularly characterized them,” to, well, pissed off. As J.L. Bell concluded, Sergeant Lamb, writing for a British audience, could not concede that the American colonists might have felt dissatisfaction all on their own.

On reading this, my take is we must thank the French for more than just the Statue of Liberty. Whatever their reasons for supporting the colonies in their bid for independence, we appreciate the help. So this fourth of July, tilt back a Coors Lite with a Perrier chaser, and grill yourself a cheese burger with a side of escargot. Just a thought.

AN INDEPENDENCE DAY CONSPIRACY THEORY


As today is the Fourth of July, I felt it only fitting that I do something patriotic, and what's more patriotic than a good conspiracy theory? Nothing notable has happened in our country that hasn't been clouded (or, to some, sprinkled with sunshine) by a good conspiracy theory. Was there someone on that grassy knoll? Did John Wilkes Both really act alone? Did FDR really know about Pearl Harbor before it happened? Did the FBI have forewarning of 9/11? Who knows? Well, somebody surely does, but maybe not the ones who purport the juicy theories.

I decided (mainly because I'm not beneath loving a good theory or two myself) to research rumors that might have been running a muck during those latter years of the 18th century. And I came across a doozy: Massachusetts writer J.L. Bell, a leading historian on the Revolutionary War (author of, among others, THE ROAD TO CONCORD), revealed some interesting tidbits in an article entitled, “History, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in Massachusetts.”

In an article written on July 19, 1775, The Reverend Ezra Stiles of Newport reported that on a trip to Paris, British Captain Jno. Hansen, due to irrelevant (in my view) circumstances, became intimately acquainted with the French Pretender's secretary. During a meeting with this unnamed secretary, he – the secretary – left Capt. Hansen alone in his office. On the secretary's desk was an unsealed packet. Capt. Hansen read the contents of this packet, which stated that Lord North and the Earl of Bute (present and past First Ministers of Britain) said the “plan” was almost finished, that the “draught of troops for America would soon leave England so defenseless that the Pretender with 20,000 troops might land and march all over England.”

Hansen fled with the packet to England and informed Lord North of the contends of the packet. Lord North then paid off Capt. Hansen. But by spring of that year, America was “deluged” in war and Hansen felt guilty about his part in this. He went to New York where he told the Congress, which credited the information and sent Capt. Hansen to show it to the Continental Congress.

Rev. Stiles concluded in this article that Lord North had regained the packet from Capt. Hansen. Stiles felt that if Capt. Hansen had retained custody of the packet he could have convinced the King and the Nation and “restore tranquility between Britain and America.” Rev. Stiles went on to surmise that perhaps the top ministers of the British government had started the trouble in America just to tie up the British army, letting the Pretender sail from France and seize power.

Rev. Stiles wasn't the only one to think along the lines of a conspiracy theory. Roger Lamb, a sergeant in the British army, wrote in an article that, in essence, the French supported America in the Revolution so as to separate Great Britain from the colonies and help France regain their former station in Europe. He went so far as to claim France sent “secret emissaries” to the colonies to “spread dissatisfaction.” The colonists began to gradually change from the “warmth of attachment to the mother country, which had so particularly characterized them,” to, well, pissed off. As J.L. Bell concluded, Sergeant Lamb, writing for a British audience, could not concede that the American colonists might have felt dissatisfaction all on their own.

On reading this, my take is we must thank the French for more than just the Statue of Liberty. Whatever their reasons for supporting the colonies in their bid for independence, we appreciate the help. So this fourth of July, tilt back a Coors Lite with a Perrier chaser, and grill yourself a cheese burger with a side of escargot. Just a thought.

03 July 2016

Hats off to Larry


Larry Jonas
Larry Jonas, man with a noteworthy superpower
We occasionally touch upon real-life events that would never work in fiction because they beggar belief. Thanks to friends and classmates Kristi and Larry Jonas, we bring you such a tale, the true story of a man with his very own superpower, one he used to detect and defeat a small but ongoing crime.

Larry’s married to Kristi. For many reasons, he’s her superhero. Larry is also the president of the town council (i.e, mayor) of the pretty little town of New Palestine, Indiana, where Kristi keeps a beautiful house and a lovely garden.

Sitting around their kitchen table, they shared this story, one that lends a bright glow to those small injustices all of us experience from time to time.

The Fast-Fingered Filcher

In a fast food restaurant, Larry placed an order. He handed the girl behind the counter a $20 bill. She rang it up and gave him back change.
Larry said, “Excuse me, miss, I gave you a twenty. You returned change for a ten.”
“No, you handed me only a ten.”
“Not a ten, a twenty. You placed it under the drawer.”
“It was only a ten.”
“A twenty.”
“A ten. Next customer, please.”
“I’m not leaving until I receive the correct change.”
She jutted out her chin. “If you don’t leave, I’ll call the manager.”
The manager came out, wiping his hands on a towel. He inquired what the problem was.
The clerk snapped her gum and said in a disparaging tone, “He gave me a ten but demands change for a twenty.”
The manager looked at Larry. “Sir?”
Larry said, “Under the drawer you’ll find the twenty-dollar bill I gave her.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Duh. That’s where we keep bigger bills.”
“But if you look at that one, you’ll find the series date is 2006 and the serial number is IK-6952317-E.”
The manager pulled the top bill from under the drawer. He stared at it in disbelief.
“What was that number again?”
“IK-6952317-E. Kind of a knack, see, I remember numbers. Also, someone scratched a pencil mark on the back.”
The manager gazed at Larry in awe, then handed him the twenty. “Thank you for bringing this to our attention, sir. I’m giving your money back and your meal is on us. As for you, young lady…” He fired the petty purloining perp on the spot.

Ah, Karma! Don’t you love a story that turns out right?

02 July 2016

Edit As You Go?


As I mentioned in my column on defining mysteries a couple of weeks ago, there are a lot of questions that always come up when writers get together--and some of the answers depend not so much on knowledge or experience but on the individual quirks of individual writers. Some of our methods and practices seem to be done or not done simply because that's the way our brains are wired, like whether to squeeze the toothpaste from the end of the tube or the middle, or whether we're always early to appointments or always late, or whether we prefer to unroll the T.P. from the front of the roll or from the back. For writers, one of those questions is do you edit as you go. or do you edit only after the first draft?

Some authors feel it's necessary to make each page (or each paragraph) as perfect as it can possibly be before proceeding to the next; others don't worry much about rewriting or refining until the entire piece is complete, whether it's a poem, a short story, or a novel. (NOTE: I'll concentrate mostly on shorts here because that's mostly what I write, but the process can apply to longer works as well.)


For the record, I fall into the second group. My first drafts of a project are not only first drafts, they're rough drafts. And I mean really rough. In my first drafts, I don't worry about style (grammar, sentence structure, paragraph structure, spelling, capitalization, word choice, word usage) at all. I just write down a stream-of-consciousness summary of the story, sometimes plugging in place-holders like D for detective, K for killer, V1 for first victim, LND for lady next door, etc., and laying out the plot from start to finish. Then I go back and start rewriting and polishing and assigning names and personalities. I've often said that if I'm run over by a truck, anybody who later finds one of my first drafts would think I'd lost my mind, because those yet-to-be-edited works-in-process are truly unreadable to anyone but me.

Again, though, many writers I know choose not to postpone the task of editing. They go ahead and edit their current output, whether it's a hundred words or five thousand, in order to be ready for the next day's work. Some even edit their sentences and paragraphs as they create them. One writer friend of mine is so efficient at doing that, she says that when she's completed editing the final page of her book, she's done. There's no need to do any more editing on anything. I can only imagine that, and in fact I'm in awe of those who can do it. And--for most of us at least--I'm not sure that's the best approach.

My reason is simple. If I did that, if I studied and corrected the words or pages I've completed today
and kept on editing until they're as perfect as I can make them before proceeding, and if I continued to do that day after day . . . what would happen if I suddenly decided, later on in the project, that I need to add something to the plotline, or take something out, or otherwise change the flow of the narrative? I'll tell you what would happen: I'd have to go back and rewrite what I've already rewritten. And I'd wind up wasting a great deal of time. (I should mention here that I use the same edit-only-after-the-first-draft process for nonfiction pieces as well; in fact that's the way I wrote this column. I typed some overall points I wanted to make, all the way to the end, and when all that was finished I went back and tried to fine-tune everything until (hopefully) it made sense.

Okay, I know what you're thinking. I know because if you were telling me this, it's what I would be thinking. I would be thinking, If you find you're having to go back into the story and correct so many things, structurewise, maybe you should plan a little more carefully before you start, and then you wouldn't have to backtrack and change things so much. And that'd be good advice, if it worked. For me it doesn't always work. I do plan, and pretty carefully, before I start. Matter of fact, as I've said before at this blog, I'm an outliner rather than a seat-of-the-pantser. I try to map things out all the way from the opening to the ending, at least in my head, before I begin writing. But (which might mean I'm not very good at it) I do often find, during the heat of battle, that I want to improve something or introduce another character, or maybe even change the POV--and when that happens I go back into the story and insert, remove, or rearrange words, phrases, paragraphs, or pages. And when I do that, I don't want to have already edited that part of the story to the degree that I'm satisfied with it. I want instead to plug in the new material and/or remove the old and only then do my final editing. But that's just me.

My edit-as-you-go pals tell me there are several advantages to their way of doing things. One is the fact that (as I've already mentioned) when you're done, you're done. If you're finished, and you've competently edited your work after each page all along the way, let's say, then your story is now complete--no extensive rewriting is required. Another advantage is that you might feel a little more enthused about starting the next day's writing if the previous day's is already edited and near-perfect. And a third reason, I guess, is that if you are constantly editing, improving, and correcting, nonstop, then maybe you're staying sharp(er) and consistently doing what will turn out to be a better job in the end.

I can see that. I can understand those reasons. But I still can't, and won't, do it that way. To me, the advantage of first putting the entire rough story down on paper (or onto your hard drive) is that when that's been accomplished, the hard, creative, most important work is already done. All that's left is the playing around and the polishing, and I'm one of those weird purple who actually likes to rewrite. I like to adjust and refine and tweak a story and try to make it shine--and I'm not at all put off or bored by that process, or by doing it all at one swoop. But I can see that some writers are. To each his own.

A couple more opinions. In a review published in The Writer several years ago, Chuck Leddy wrote: "Irish novelist Anne Enright says, 'I work the sentences and the rhythms all the time. I can't move on from a bad sentence; it gets more and more painful, like leaving a child behind you on the road.' Curtis Sittenfield, however, completely disagrees: 'I strongly feel that trying, in a first draft, to make every sentence shine and be perfect before moving on to the next one is a recipe for never finishing a novel.'"

Which brings up the inevitable questions: Do you prefer to edit your manuscripts as you go? Or do you like to write it all down first, warts and all, and then do the editing? Does it depend on the category (or the length) of the manuscript--short/long, fiction/non? Do you see a distinct advantage to either approach? Do you think the preference is by choice, or that it's already ingrained in our DNA?

And the best question of all: If the final product is good . . . does it really matter?

01 July 2016

Zombie Hunter ... or ... Serial Killer?


Police say he was BOTH!

By Dixon Hill


67-year-old retired police detective Leo Speliopoulos was called to a crime scene in 2015.  Cold case investigators had cracked a case that had baffled and frustrated Speliopoulos for over two decades, -- a case that had alarmed Phoenix residents, afraid that a serial killer was stalking and stabbing women around the Arizona Canal, which winds like a spangled snake throughout the Valley of the Sun.



In 1992, 22-year-old Angela Brosso (left) had graduated from college in Los Angeles.  She took a job with Phoenix electronics firm Syntellect and moved in with her boyfriend.  In an interview, later, her mother, Linda, described Angela as "A force," adding, "...her father said she changed the nature of a room when she entered it.  And it's true, you know? She really did."

Sadly, one November evening, that year, not long after moving to Phoenix, miss Brosso went for a bike ride.  Her decapitated body was found near 25th avenue and Cactus road in Phoenix a short time later.


Eleven days after that, somebody spotted her head, stuck in a grate, in the Arizona Canal.



About ten months later, in September of 1993, Melanie Bernas, a 17-year-old Arcadia High School student, disappeared on a bike ride along the Arizona Canal.  (There are some very nice bike paths along the top of the bank.)

Her corpse was found, bobbing, near where the canal passes beneath I-17 a little north of Dunlap Avenue.  She had been stabbed and sexually assaulted.

Friends described her as a high-achiever who planned to become a doctor. Her death prevented her from completing slated visits to both Berkley and Pepperdine.

Six months after her body was found, using forensic evidence, police connected her murder to Brosso's.  They also noted that both Brosso's purple 21-speed Diamnondback mountain bike and Bernas' green SPC Hardrock Sport mountain bike remained missing.

They would remain missing for years afterward.  The night Leo Speliopoulos received that call, police carried rusted bikes from the suspect's backyard storage shed.

Police are pretty cagey about the forensic evidence in the case, worried they might taint a future jury pool, but it's a pretty good bet that DNA, reportedly found on both bodies, was what originally tied the two murders together.  And, there is no doubt it's the smoking gun that led to an arrest in 2015.

In the early 90's, the level of science used to work with DNA had not been developed enough to help in the right way. Police interviewed hundreds of potential suspects, and possible witnesses, but drew a blank when it came to the killer's identity.

Back in 1993, Bryan Patrick Miller was just one name among hundreds, which police received in tips.  The Phoenix PD Cold Case Homicide Unit didn't sit around eating doughnuts for twenty years, however.  They revisited the case hundreds of times, amassing so much evidence that an entire file cabinet was turned over to that case alone.  They even enlisted the aid of an organization of forensics experts called the Vidocq Society.

The Zombie Hunter in earlier days, his car in background.
Vidocq gave investigators a probable profile of the perpetrator, suggesting a man who still lived in the area and had probably been involved in precursor crimes, possibly even setting fires.

Vidocq suggested he would be a man who acted out his fantasies.  And, a man who had probably crossed paths with investigators before.



From among the list of hundreds of names, Phoenix Police tagged 42-year-old Bryan Patrick Miller, who often went by the name "Zombie Hunter."

Miller had been arrested in 1990 for stabbing a woman in Paradise Valley Mall.  The then-juvenile Miller had said the woman reminded him of his mother.

Miller had also been tried and acquitted of stabbing a woman in Washington state in 2002. He evidently moved there, not long after the murder of Melanie Burnas.

Melissa Ruiz-Ramirez says she was walking in Everett Washington when Miller offered her a ride. Later, he took her to work so she could use his phone, according to Ruiz-Ramirez, and he stabbed her. Miller beat the rap by claiming she had asked him for money, then tried to stab him when he refused. He claimed he had wrestled the knife away from her and turned the tables on his assailant.  The jury believed him.  Consequently, his DNA was not entered into CODIS, a national databank of DNA from convicted felons.

Now, however, he was back in Phoenix, driving around in a decommissioned police car that he festooned with yellow caution lights and painted "Zombie Hunter" on.  He reportedly called himself "The Arizona Zombie Killer," and offered the car and himself for hire to those planning Zombie themed activities.  He was also a regular at Comicon and Zombie Walks.

Police won't disclose how they obtained his DNA, but they arrested Miller because his DNA was on both bodies, and they can't figure out any other way it could have gotten there.  They also refuse to disclose many of the items removed from his property when they served the search warrant, fearing they may taint witnesses or jurors.  When local media tried to gain access to the warrant report, Superior Court Judge Michael W. Kemp shot them down, writing:  "Some of the items seized would be perceived as extremely alarming and evidence of guilt."
His true face.

Meanwhile, police are investigating Miller's possible involvement in the killing of two more young women in The Valley, including one who was selling Girl Scout cookies at the time of her death.

His trial is set for April 2017.








30 June 2016

Kids These Days....


So, about my day gig.
I teach ancient history to eighth graders.

And like I tell them all the time, when I say, "Ancient history," I'm not talking about the 1990s.
For thirteen/fourteen year-olds, mired hopelessly in the present by a relentless combination of societal trends and biochemistry, there's not much discernible difference between the two eras.

It's a great job. But even great jobs have their stressors.

Like being assigned chaperone duty during the end-of-the-year dance.

Maybe you're familiar with what currently passes for "popular music" among fourteen year-olds these days. I gotta say, I don't much care for it. Then again, I'm fifty-one. And I can't imagine that most fifty-one year-olds in 1979 much cared for the stuff that I was listening to then.

And it's not as if I'm saying *I* had great taste in music as a fourteen year-old. If I were trying to make myself look good I'd try to sell you some line about how I only listened to jazz if it was Billie Holiday or Miles Davis, and thought the Police were smokin' and of course I bought Dire Straits' immortal "Makin' Movies" album, as well Zeppelin's "In Through The Out Door" when they both came out that year.

Well. No.

In 1979 I owned a Village People vinyl album ("Go West," with "YMCA" on it), and a number of Elvis Presley albums and 8-track tapes. I also listened to my dad's Eagles albums quite a bit. An uncle bought Supertramp's "Breakfast in America" for me, and I was hooked on a neighbor's copy of "Freedom at Point Zero" by Jefferson Starship, but really only because of the slammin' guitar solo Craig Chaquico played on its only hit single: "Jane." And I listened to a lot of yacht rock on the radio. I didn't know it was "yacht rock" back then. Would it have mattered?

But bear in mind we didn't have streaming music back then. And my allowance I spent mostly on comic books.

Ah, youth.

Anyway, my point is that someone my age back then may very well have cringed hard and long and as deeply if forced to listen to what *I* was listening to at eardrum-bursting decibels, and for the better part of two hours.

That was me on the second-to-the-last-day of school a week or so back.

Two hours.

Two hours of rapper after rapper (if it's not Eminem, Tupac, or the Beastie Boys, I must confess it all sounds the same to me) alternating with "singing" by Rihanna, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, etc.
Thank God we got some relief in the form of the occasional Bruno Mars song. Bruno, he brings it.
And through it all, the kids were out there on the floor. Mostly girls, and mostly dancing with each other.

 One group of these kids in particular caught my attention. Three girls, all fourteen, all of whom I knew. All wearing what '80s pop-rock band Mr. Mister once referred to as the "Uniform of Youth."

Of course, the uniform continues to change, just as youth itself does.

But in embracing that change, does youth itself actually change? Bear with me while I quote someone a whole lot smarter than I on the matter:

"Kids today love luxury. They have terrible manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love to gab instead of getting off their butts and moving around."

The guy quoted (in translation) was Socrates, quoted by his pupil Plato, 2,400 years ago.

And some things never change.

Getting back to the three girls mentioned above, their "uniform of youth" was the one au courant in malls and school courtyards across the length and breadth of this country: too-tight jeans, short-sleeved or sleeveless t-shirts, tennis-shoes. They looked a whole lot like so many other girls their age, out there shaking it in ways that mothers the world over would not approve of.

In other words, they looked like thousands, hell, millions of American girls out there running around today, listening to watered down pablum foisted on them by a rapacious, corporate-bottom-line-dominated music industry as "good music", for which they pay entirely too much of their loving parents' money, and to which they will constantly shake way too much of what Nature gave them–even under the vigilant eyes of long-suffering school staff members.

Yep, American girls. From the soles of their sneakers to the hijabs covering their hair.

Oh, right. Did I mention that these girls were Muslims? Well, they are. One from Afghanistan. One from Turkmenistan, and one from Sudan. At least two of them are political refugees.

You see, I teach in one of the most diverse school districts in the nation. One of the main reasons for this ethnic diversity is that there is a refugee center in my district. The center helps acclimate newcomers to the United States and then assists in resettling them; some in my district, some across the country.

So in this campaign season, when I hear some orange-skinned buffoon talking trash about Muslims, stirring up some of my fellow Americans with talk of the dangerous "foreign" *other*, it rarely squares with the reality I've witnessed first-hand getting to know Muslim families and the children they have sent to my school to get an education: something the kids tend to take for granted (because, you know, they're kids, and hey, kids don't change). Something for which their parents have sacrificed in ways that I, a native-born American descendant of a myriad of immigrant families, can scarcely imagine.

(And it ought to go without saying that this truth holds for the countless *Latino* families I've known over the years as well.)

I'm not saying they're saints. I'm saying they're people. And they're here out of choice. Whether we like that or whether we don't, they're raising their kids *here*. And guess what? These kids get more American every day. Regardless of where their birth certificate says they're from.

Just something to think about, as we kick into the final leg of this excruciating election season.
Oh, come on. You didn't think this piece was gonna be just me grousing about kids having lousy taste in music, did ya?

(And they do, but that's really beside the point.)

Blessed Eid.

29 June 2016

Sherlock Holmes by the Numbers



Recently I discovered a Sherlock Holmes story, previously unknown to me, in the government documents collection of the library where I work. No, this is not one of those rare-but-real incidents of someone opening an ancient box of manuscripts and finding an unknown treasure - like this one I read about yesterday. In fact, the story I discovered was not even by Arthur Conan Doyle.

It appeared, of all places in a book published in 1980 by the Census Bureau: Reflections of America: Commemorating the Statistical Abstract Centennial. As you can probably deduce, the book was intended to celebrate the 100th edition of Statistical Abstract of the United States. If you aren't familiar with these books, they are a type of almanac of varied data, covering whatever the Census Bureau thought was most important about life in the United States that year.

Just for kicks, here are some of the tables in Statistical Abstract, and the first year they appeared.  It gives you some idea when the public - or at least the government - got particularly interested in a topic.
Immigrants of each nationality. 1878.
Public schools in the U.S. 1879.
Vessels wrecked. 1885.
Area of Indian Reservations. 1888.
Telephones, number of. 1889.
Civil Service, number of positions. 1910.
Homicides in selected cities. 1922.
Accidents and fatalities, aircraft. 1944/5. 
Population using fluoridated water. 1965.
Motor Vehicle Safety Defect Recalls. 1978.
Firearm mortality among children, youth, and young adults. 1992.
Student use of computers. 1995.
Internet publishing and broadcasting. 2008.

Reflections of America features essays by distinguished authors discussing many different aspects of Statistical Abstract: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Michener, John Kenneth Galbraith,and Jeane Kirkpatrick, to name a few.

The essay on international trade, cleverly titled "A Case of International Trade," was written by business journalist J.A. Livingston,.  It begins as you see on the right over there.

It goes on for many pages.  You can read it all here if you wish.  But what I am pondering is: why would anyone think that's a good idea?

I'm not talking about parodies, or what I call fan fiction (creating a new case for your favorite detective).  I understand those impulses. But I think it is a bit weird to use a character for a completely different purpose than what made that character famous.

So, for instance, here are a few books about (or "about") Sherlock Holmes:

The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes



 Conned Again, Watson!: Cautionary Tales of Logic, Maths and Probability

What other fictional characters have become cats's paws for authors who wanted to teach a subject painlessly?  I knew without looking that one young lady must be on the list and sure enough:

Alice in Quantumland

I even thought of one book in which the author himself  did this to his character.  Harry Kemelman's Conversations With Rabbi Small is an introduction to Judaism thinly disguised as a non-mystery novel about the amateur sleuth.

I still say the instinct to do this is an odd one.

And as long as we are tying government publications to mysteries, let me point out an old federal document that is not available for free on the web: The Battle of the Aleutians: A Graphic History 1942-1943.   What's the mystery connection?  It was co-authored by a rather superannuated corporal who served in that frozen wilderness: Dashiell Hammett.




28 June 2016

Sometimes The Movie Is Better Than The Book – Case Study: In A Lonely Place


A classic film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, based on a book by Dorothy B. Hughes. In a Lonely Place is one of my favorite film noirs. Hell, it’s one of my favorite movies of any genre. But there are two In a Lonely Places. The book and the movie. Some people are fans of both. Others fans of one or the other. I’m the other. I’m a much bigger fan of the movie than the book. That said, I like the book, but I don’t love it. I know a lot of Hughes fans will take what I say here as sacrilege, so get the bricks and bats ready. Uh, for those literalists out there I’m talkin’ figurative bricks and bats.

And that said, the focus of this piece is pretty narrow, dealing mostly with just one aspect of the movie vs. the book. But a major one.


***SPOILERS AHEAD – DO NOT TREAD BEYOND THIS POINT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE OR READ THE BOOK***

There are several differences between the novel and the movie. But the main thing is that the book is a pretty straight-forward story about a psychopath who murders for fun, if not profit. In the book, he’s a novelist who sponges off his uncle…and worse. The movie (written by Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North, and directed by Nicholas Ray) is about a screenwriter with a temper and poor impulse control, to say the least. He’s a war hero. A previously successful screenwriter trying to get his mojo back, though I doubt that’s a term he would recognize.

He’s up to do a screenplay based on a book that he doesn’t want to read. So, he brings a woman home to his apartment to read the book to him. He gives her cab money when she’s done. She splits…and is murdered that night. Naturally, he’s a suspect. His alibi witness, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), just moved into his building. He’s charismatic in his own special way and after they meet at the police station, a romance buds between them. But, as the story progresses, she sees the negative sides of his personality, his rage, his jealousy, the way he treats his agent, and she begins to doubt his innocence.

In the book it’s pretty straight-forward. He’s guilty—he’s a psychopath who gets off on killing. In the
movie, we’re not sure because we haven’t actually seen him kill anyone, though we have seen him lose his temper, get into fights, and nearly kill an innocent kid. So, like Laurel, we, too, begin to doubt his innocence.

The novel is, to me, a much more straight-forward story about a serial killer and a more overt bad guy. He’s a psychopathic killer, no doubt about it. In the movie, we’re just not sure. That makes all the difference, especially in his relationship with Grahame. The movie is more ambiguous and with a more ironic ending. Because of this, in my opinion, the movie works much better and seems to strike a fuller chord. However, maybe when the book came out dealing with this psychopath it was more shocking and in turn seemed to have more depth than I see in it today.

Also, in the movie, Dix Steele is much more complex with many more layers to his personality. We like him or at least want to like him. But it’s hard, just as Laurel finds it harder and harder to like him, and especially trust him as time goes on and she sees the dark sides of his personality. We relate to Laurel’s dilemma and find ourselves going along with her and doubting Dix’s truthfulness. We start to believe he really is the killer. We judge him and convict him in our heads just like Laurel does. And we eventually realize how wrong we were as we and Laurel discover the truth.

In the end, Dix and Laurel’s relationship is destroyed by doubt, fear and distrust, even though he’s innocent, because she’s seen that other side of him. And even though Dix Steele doesn’t turn out to be the killer, this is far from a Hollywood happy ending. Very far from it.

The movie takes the basics of the book and adds an ambiguity that leads to a much more bittersweet and poignant story and ending than in the book. So this is a case where the filmmakers did change a certain essence of the story, but it works out for the better.

The movie is noir in the sense that Bogart is tripped up by his own Achilles Heel, his fatal flaw. To me, the thing that most makes something noir is not rain, not shadows, not femme fatales, not slumming with lowlifes. It’s a character who trips over their own faults: somebody who has some kind of defect, some kind of shortcoming, greed, want or desire…temper or insecurity, that leads them down a dark path, and then his or her life spins out of control because of their own weaknesses or failings. Here, Dix is innocent, but a loser, at least in a sense, and will always be a loser. His personality has driven away the one woman who really loved him. Love loses here too, as does Grahame’s character. Her inability to completely trust and believe in Dix leads to her losing what would have been the love of her life. It’s this ambivalence that make it a better movie than book, at least for me. There is, of course, much more to say about this movie, but my point in this piece is just to point out why I like the movie better than the book.

Dix and Laurel love each other, but they can’t be with each other—summed up in some famous lines from the film:

          I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a
          few weeks while she loved me.

Ultimately both versions need to stand on their own and they do. But for me, the bottom line is: I’d say: Good book, great movie.



***

As a side note, a long time ago I bought a poster of the movie from Pat DiNizio (lead singer and songwriter of the Smithereens), who did a great song based on the movie called—of all things—In a Lonely Place. The lyrics paraphrase the famous lines from the movie above. So, every time I look at the poster I think about him sitting under it, writing that song. Doubt he’d remember me, but for me that’s a cool memory. Click here to watch the YouTube music video.




***

Also, here are some pictures from my book signing last week with Pam Ripling at The Open Book in Valencia:



And my radio interview at KHTS AM 1220. Click here for the podcast.




27 June 2016

Who Is At Fault?


A judge ruled this week that the six dogs that mauled and killed a woman near Austin, TX this past week will be euthanized.

A thirty-six year old woman was attempting to serve Court papers, on June 15th, at a northern Travis County home when she was attacked by six dogs. The attack resulted in her death.

The woman's family and the dog's owners were present at the hearing.

She didn't deserve to die and these dogs don't have a license to kill, the Judge said in making his ruling.

The Travis County medical examiner's office ruled that the dog's mauling caused the woman's death.

After the judge made his ruling the dog's chief owner said he would appeal the ruling.

No mercy was shown to our daughter so how can we show any mercy to these animals, the woman's parents said in a statement. She was innocent, doing her job. These dogs do not deserve to live. To euthanize them will be a small justice. Also it may prevent them from harming another person.

The dog's owner said his uncle and his wife were chief caretakers for the dogs and claims they are the victims. If she had heeded the warning signs that say, "NO Trespassing." This wouldn't have happened. The caretaker uncle is who found the woman's body.

Texas law states it doesn't matter whether or not a person has a right to be on a property in fatal dog maulings.

Four of the dogs are Labrador mixes and two are Australian cattle mixes. They range from two to six years old.

No word on when the dogs will be euthanized.

This was all taken from the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, Saturday, June 25, 2016

Maybe I'm strange but, personally I'm upset with the dog's owners and caretakers. Maybe they should be the ones euthanized. Somehow these owners trained or a least let the dogs understand that anyone who came on the property were to be attacked. I don't think dogs want or even think about harming a human. I suppose we'll never know if the dog owners's actually commanded the animals to "get" the woman.

I'm assuming this case isn't over and probably won't be for some time. I know other state's have laws that hold owners responsible for dog biting, mauling or killing a person. And unless I'm mistaken Texas law is that you must have your dog in your house on inside your fenced yard. The law also states you cannot have or keep your dog chained up.

I'm interested in knowing how my fellow sleuthsayers feel about this so please comment.

26 June 2016

April in Manhattan


AHMM editor Linda Landrigan
 at Notaro's Ristorante
The plane lands at La Guardia and passengers proceed through the walkway. Now, it's down the stairs to claim luggage and find ground transportation. Out on the sidewalk, drivers for black Town Cars hawk $63 rides to Manhattan, but a taxi, even for two passengers, is a less expensive fare to the Grand Hyatt at Grand Central Terminal. Check into the hotel, up to the room, unpack and we're ready for a little relaxation. Start with a draft beer at $9 each in the hotel lounge. The price alone lets you know you are no longer in one of the fly-over states.

3 SleuthSayers at DELL reception
R.T., Liz Zelvin & David Dean
Wednesday morning is breakfast at Pershing Square Restaurant across the street from the Hyatt and nestled under an overhead street. Nice atmosphere, short waiting line, good service. Eggs Benedict are fine and the final bill is fairly reasonable for breakfast in mid-Manhattan.

Supper that evening is with AHMM editor Linda Landrigan at Notaro's Ristorante, 635 2nd Avenue. This is a family owned business, the atmosphere is homey, the food is superb, the waiters are friendly and the prices are good. Try their Rigatoni alla Vodka with a glass of Pinot Noir. You'll come back to dine again. Even though we were all full, I got into a several minute discussion with our waiter about the Italian dessert Tiramisu and learned a few things. The waiter promptly returned with a plate of Tiramisu (on the house) and three forks. Best I've ever had, to include the one I ate in northern Italy where this dessert originated. Turns out our waiter is part of the family who owns the restaurant. It's not a large place, so I would recommend reservations. We will definitely eat there again.

Some of the fancy dessert
at Edgars Banquet.
Edgar is white chocolate.
Thursday afternoon is the DELL Publishing (AHMM & EQMM) Cocktail Reception. Editors Linda Landrigan (AHMM) and Janet Hutchings (EQMM), Senior Assistant Editor Jackie Sherbow, Carol Dumont (the nice lady who sends contracts and paychecks to writers whose stories are accepted) and other names on the masthead are there to greet attendees. Nicely, three other SleuthSayers (David Dean, Liz Zelvin and Brian Thornton) plus a gentleman from our predecessor Criminal Brief (James Lincoln Warren), all short story authors,  also showed up. This event is always a good time, where one gets to meet other short story mystery authors and discuss all sorts of topics.

Then, it's back to the Grand Hyatt for the Edgar Awards Banquet. The wife and I start with the Edgar Nominees Champagne Reception in a large room on the Ballroom level. As chief judge for the Best Novel category (509 hardcovers in ten months) it's interesting to meet and be able to chat with some of the Nominees. Best Novel Judges Brian Thornton and James Lincoln Warren are also in attendance.
R.T. presenting to Edgars Best Novel Winner - Lori Roy
Next comes the general cocktail reception, followed by the banquet itself. Supper is served, speakers talk and awards are presented. Winners (and their publishers) are elated, while the rest of the Nominees get to look forward to the possibility of their next work earning them the status of Nominee and maybe Winner at the next Edgar Awards Banquet. Still, it's a good time and you get to meet and network with lots of fascinating people. Meanwhile, outside the banquet room, publishers have set up lines of tables with free books of their Nominee authors. I'm still waiting for one of my stories to make me a Nominee in the Best Short Story category. For now, it looks like a long wait.

The Pond in Central Park
Reflections in Central Park
Friday is free time and an enjoyable walk north to Central Park. On the south end of the park where the horse and carriage drivers hawk their rides, we see two people sitting in the back of a carriage within an area that's been blocked off. The driver, wearing a top hat, is perched on his seat, but there is no horse in the harness. A closer look reveals two movie cameras, a boom mike and some guys holding huge light reflector panels. Someone says "action" and a man steps into the horse harness. He has a plume on top of his head like the horses wear and as he pulls the carriage  forward about fifty feet, he bobs his head like a horse would do so that the plume has a horse's rhythm to its movement. The driver even flicks his reins as if a horse is in harness. The camera is shooting over what would be the horse's head and into the carriage. The carriage stops, three men back it up to its original starting position and they do another take. Must be easier for men to move the carriage in both directions than to back up a horse. Wonder what the horse thought about all this process as he stood off to the side doing nothing.

Baltika #3 in the Russian Vodka Room
SleuthSayer Brian Thornton & wife Robyn
at Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal
Ate Nathan's hot dogs from a vendor's cart. Not bad. Don't know if this is what native New Yorkers do or if it's just tourists. Then, it's a walk south to the Russian Vodka Room where large bottles of Baltika #3 and Baltika #7 are only $4 a bottle. Beats the much higher prices at other lounges and bars, and it is a great tasting beer. Right next door, The Jersey Boys is playing at the same off-Broadway theater that it has for the last several years. Supper is in a nice Irish restaurant near Times Square and dessert is at The Oyster Bar in the depths of Grand Central Terminal.

It was a great trip. If you haven't yet been to the Edgars, you should try it one of these Aprils. Just plan on spending some money.

Saturday is an early taxi ride back to La Guardia and a flight home.

Catch ya later.

25 June 2016

Damn Right, there's ME in my Characters!


Several times a year we do these reading and signing events.  And people ask you a pile of questions about your books.  Most are repeat queries that you’ve heard a dozen times before.  So you get pretty good at answering them.

Lately, I was asked a question that I didn’t have a pat answer to.  In fact, it really made me think.

“Do you make up all your characters, or do you put some of yourself in them?”

I’d like to say that every character I write comes completely from my imagination.  For the most part, they do.  I can honestly say that I have never seen a real person who matches the physical description of any of my characters.  (Not that I would mind meeting Pete.  But I digress…)

Back to the question:  are there bits of myself in my protagonists? 

PROOF NO. 1 (others will follow in later posts)

“I am SO not a salad girl.”

Some people say this is one of the funniest lines in my screwball mob comedy, THE GODDAUGHTER.  It is spoken by Gina Galla, goddaughter to the mob boss in Hamilton, the industrial city in Canada near Buffalo, also known as The Hammer.  Gina is a curvy girl.  She says this line to her new guy Pete, as a kind of warning.   And then she proceeds to tell him she wants a steak, medium rare, with a baked potato and a side of mushrooms.

Apparently, that’s me.  So say my kids, spouse, and everyone else in the family.

Eat a meal of salad?  Are you kidding me?  When there is pasta, fresh panno and cannoli about?  (I’ve come to the conclusion that women who remain slim past the age of fifty must actually like salad.  Yes, it’s an astonishing fact.  For some people, eating raw green weeds is not a punishment. )

Not me.  I’m Italian, just like my protagonist.  We know our food.  Ever been to an Italian wedding?  First, you load up with appetizers and wine, or Campari with Orange Juice if you’re lucky.  When you are too stuffed to stand  up anymore (why did you wear three inch heals?  Honestly you do this every time…) you sit down, kerplunk.  Bring on the antipasto.  Meat, olives, marinated veggies, breadsticks, yum.  Melon with prosciutto.  Bread with olive oil/balsamic vinegar dip.  White wine.   

Then comes the pasta al olio.  Sublime.  Carbs are important fuel, right?  And I’m gonna need that fuel to get through the main course, because it’s going to be roast chicken, veal parmesan, osso buco, risotto, polenta, stuffed artichokes (yum), more bread, red wine.

Ever notice that salad is served after the main course in an Italian meal?  Good reason for that.  We aren’t stupid.  Hopefully, you will have no room left for it.

So yes, my protagonist Gina shares an important trait with me.  She likes meat, dammit.

So you can be a bunny and eat salad all you like.  Bunnies are cute and harmless.

But Gina and I are more like frontier wolves.   Try making us live on salad, and see how harmless we will be.

Which is what you might expect from a mob goddaughter from The Hammer.

Do you find bits of yourself sneaking into your fiction?  Tell us here, in the comments.

Melodie Campbell writes the award-winning Goddaughter mob comedy series, starting with The Goddaughter which happens to be on sale now for $2.50.  Buy it.  It's an offer you can't refuse. 
P.S.  My maiden name was 'Offer.'  No joke.  Although I've heard a few in my time.