09 September 2016

So Long ... at least for now


No, I'm not frowning; the sun is just bright.

By Dixon Hill

As many of you know, we've got a new house that has a relatively empty backyard.  We've got a pool back there, and a concrete slab that was probably poured so some past owner could park an RV on it, but other than that all we've got  is gravel.  Well, gravel ... and three large pallets with plastic wrapped boxes and goods that I need to put in my office.

Problem is, I don't have an office yet.  We need to put one in -- right atop that RV slab back there. The plan is to place a hot tub beside it covered by a loggia.  We've got the loggia, but not the hot tub.

Nor do we have the office, though I've lined-up a nice structure that will be delivered for a good price.  I'll need to do interior and finishing work, though, before I can write in there.

My wife, with her degree in interior design, has some projects she wants me to construct within the house as well.  And, since she handles our home interior, I get the fun of landscaping the backyard once my office is up and running.  (I've revived the grass in our front yard, only needing to add some trees, bushes, and vines that will shade the mostly windowless east and west ends of our ranch house.)

Meanwhile, I also have several writing projects that need my attention.

The result is that I haven't had enough time to take care of home matters, my writing, and my blogging, while still holding down my day job.  One of the things that I've let slip is making comments on my own posts.  I managed to squeeze in time to write my posts, but I haven't often been able to respond to readers' comments.

And that bothers me.  I think, if I'm going to write a blog, that means also taking part in reader discussion of my posts.

I've written for SleuthSayers since its inception, and was wildly excited to be invited to partake of this blog.  At times, I think I've done my best, but lately my best just hasn't been good enough to warrant my continued participation.

I don't look forward to leaving SleuthSayers, but I need to take some extended time off in order to (literally) get my house in order (as well as the grounds), and to concentrate on writing projects I've let slip lately.  SleuthSayers isn't the only activity I've engaged in, that I'm pulling out of at the moment, but it is the only one it makes sense to write about here.  Once I believe I've gotten my writing house back in order, and that it makes sense for me to return to this forum as one of the posters (if that's even the right word?) I'll let you know.

O'Neil De NouxThe Great News!

You'll be very happy to learn that my slot will be filled by award winning mystery writer O'Neil de Noux.

He has written 18 novels and published over 300 short stories, including science-fiction adventure stories, character-driven mysteries, historical fiction and even a smattering of very well executed erotica.

He served as the 2012-2013 Vice President of the Private Eye Writers of America -- and rightly so.  His work has won multiple awards for both long and short fiction, among these a Shamus in 2007 (Best Short Story) and a Derringer in 2009 (Best Novelette), while his The Long Cold is in the running for Best Paperback Original Private Eye Novel this year.  (I've got my fingers crossed for ya', buddy!  Though it's not like you need the luck, because you write great stuff!)

In short, I'm flattered even to be REPLACED by this guy.  And, he's clearly a great fit for this blog site comprising so many other highly successful writers.

I hope you'll join me in welcoming O'Neil de Noux to SleuthSayers, and I strongly encourage you to be sure to catch his inaugural blog in two weeks!

Meanwhile, this time I ... won't ... see you in two weeks!  In the immortal words of Red Green, however, "Keep your stick on the ice; we're all in this together!"
--Dixon








So Long ... at least for now


No, I'm not frowning; the sun is just bright.

By Dixon Hill

As many of you know, we've got a new house that has a relatively empty backyard.  We've got a pool back there, and a concrete slab that was probably poured so some past owner could park an RV on it, but other than that all we've got  is gravel.  Well, gravel ... and three large pallets with plastic wrapped boxes and goods that I need to put in my office.

Problem is, I don't have an office yet.  We need to put one in -- right atop that RV slab back there. The plan is to place a hot tub beside it covered by a loggia.  We've got the loggia, but not the hot tub.

Nor do we have the office, though I've lined-up a nice structure that will be delivered for a good price.  I'll need to do interior and finishing work, though, before I can write in there.

My wife, with her degree in interior design, has some projects she wants me to construct within the house as well.  And, since she handles our home interior, I get the fun of landscaping the backyard once my office is up and running.  (I've revived the grass in our front yard, only needing to add some trees, bushes, and vines that will shade the mostly windowless east and west ends of our ranch house.)

Meanwhile, I also have several writing projects that need my attention.

The result is that I haven't had enough time to take care of home matters, my writing, and my blogging, while still holding down my day job.  One of the things that I've let slip is making comments on my own posts.  I managed to squeeze in time to write my posts, but I haven't often been able to respond to readers' comments.

And that bothers me.  I think, if I'm going to write a blog, that means also taking part in reader discussion of my posts.

I've written for SleuthSayers since its inception, and was wildly excited to be invited to partake of this blog.  At times, I think I've done my best, but lately my best just hasn't been good enough to warrant my continued participation.

I don't look forward to leaving SleuthSayers, but I need to take some extended time off in order to (literally) get my house in order (as well as the grounds), and to concentrate on writing projects I've let slip lately.  SleuthSayers isn't the only activity I've engaged in, that I'm pulling out of at the moment, but it is the only one it makes sense to write about here.  Once I believe I've gotten my writing house back in order, and that it makes sense for me to return to this forum as one of the posters (if that's even the right word?) I'll let you know.

O'Neil De NouxThe Great News!

You'll be very happy to learn that my slot will be filled by award winning mystery writer O'Neil de Noux.

He has written 18 novels and published over 300 short stories, including science-fiction adventure stories, character-driven mysteries, historical fiction and even a smattering of very well executed erotica.

He served as the 2012-2013 Vice President of the Private Eye Writers of America -- and rightly so.  His work has won multiple awards for both long and short fiction, among these a Shamus in 2007 (Best Short Story) and a Derringer in 2009 (Best Novelette), while his The Long Cold is in the running for Best Paperback Original Private Eye Novel this year.  (I've got my fingers crossed for ya', buddy!  Though it's not like you need the luck, because you write great stuff!)

In short, I'm flattered even to be REPLACED by this guy.  And, he's clearly a great fit for this blog site comprising so many other highly successful writers.

I hope you'll join me in welcoming O'Neil de Noux to SleuthSayers, and I strongly encourage you to be sure to catch his inaugural blog in two weeks!

Meanwhile, this time I ... won't ... see you in two weeks!  In the immortal words of Red Green, however, "Keep your stick on the ice; we're all in this together!"
--Dixon








08 September 2016

Don't We All Deserve a Surrogate?


by Brian Thornton

I've come to the conclusion that what this world really needs most right now is more talking heads. Nope, not talking about a potential reunion of David Byrne and his erstwhile bandmates, or more cable news TV hosts (got plenty).
You've got nothing to prove. Stay broken up, guys.

Uh-uh.

Let me clarify: I'm talking about more surrogates.

For those of you wondering what connection a woman willing to carry someone else's baby to term (or a sex worker) has to do with the notion of "talking heads," I'm not talking about that kind of surrogate. (Or THAT one, either.)
Not THIS type of surrogate.

Okay, let me clarify further: I'm talking about more media surrogates.

You might not be familiar with the term, but you know what I'm talking about: people hand-picked, most often by two types of public figures: by politicians running for office (Hillary, Trump) or for other occupants of the public eye running for cover (Roger Ailes, Anthony Weiner), to step in and either take part of their public beating for them, or try to make sense of some of the stupid and often inexplicable things they say or do.

It's a pretty thankless job. And yet there always seems to be a line out the door of people ready and willing to step in and do it. So why not put 'em all to work for regular folks like you and me.

Surrogates are basically tools. These people are media surrogates. So they're media tools. Or. if you prefer, just tools...
Think about it: instead of seeing these jokers with their eyes popped wide and a vein visibly throbbing their forehead, getting into it with an on-air host on CNNMSNBCFIXEDNEWS we could have surrogate interactions that really matter! You know, the important (and not so important) moments in everyone's life where they just wish someone else would step up and deal with their day-to-day ration of B.S.

Some examples spring to mind:

"I think what Brian REALLY intended when he showed that other driver the middle finger of his left hand after the guy clearly cut him off in traffic, was to make the clear statement that 'You're number ONE with me!"

Or:

"Brian did NOT misspeak! He never misspeaks! He always intends to say exactly what comes out of his mouth. Just because you and the rest of the Lamestream Media can't wrap your head around the notion of 'Gribblesnagreckleshaft' doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, or that it's not a powerful force for change in a post-Obama world..."

Or even:

"This audit is just the latest attempt on the part of Brian's enemies in the executive branch to target him and discredit him as a fully enfranchised citizen, and of course, he's going to release his tax returns just as soon as this audit is wrapped up, because, let's face it, by that time Brian'll be retired or dead, and no one's gonna care one way or the other...."

Tool.
And we're not just talking about curation of the surrogee's (see what I did there?) media presence, here. Think about it. The waiter at your favorite restaurant gets your order wrong? No problem. Your surrogate steps in and emphatically explains that you clearly ordered the fish! Problem solved!

Or better yet: you ordered chicken, but changed your mind and want the fish, but don't want to admit you've changed your mind? 

No worries! Your surrogate will insist that your position on dinner has not changed one iota, not backing down and admitting any change of either mind or attitude on your part on the question of chicken or fish: your choice now is the same as it's always been, and an examination of the record will clearly reflect that, and if the waiter continues to protest that your surrogate is not lying in support of your lie (lying by proxy?), then your surrogate just threatens to stiff the poor sap on the tip.

Tool.
Your neighbor kid left their bike in the middle of the street. blocking your driveway again? No problem! Your surrogate will gleefully pick a fight with the snot-nosed punk's ex-Army ranger father, and no matter how much of a beating he takes or how bad he looks for picking on the family of a veteran, will never back down!

And the whole time *you* remain clearly (and safely!) "above the fray."

Lastly, your surrogate can help you with those ticklish professional situations and handling potentially ugly confrontations for you:

"WWE's in town tonight, and Brian rightly considers pro wrestling America's sport. He's got ringside seats and realistically this is likely his best chance to realize his life-long dream of breaking a folding chair over Randy Orton's head, so there's just NO WAY he can work late for you tonight, Jim..."

And of course there's always the potential for an exchange along these lines....

PUBLISHER'S REP: "Well, clearly Brian's sales numbers on that last book don't qualify him for royalties–"
Tool.

SURROGATE: "Says who?"

PUBLISHER'S REP: "–so we'll just–ummm excuse me?"

SURROGATE: "Says who?"

PUBLISHER's REP: "Ummm the sales data?"

SURROGATE: "Which sales data?"

PUBLISHER'S REP: "All of it?"

Could be just the beginning of a new era, folks....

07 September 2016

Enter the Villain


by Robert Lopresti

I'm not going to tell you the author or title of the book I am discussing today, but I will say that it was not written by any past or present SleuthSayer.

The book is a first novel, much anticipated, and written in a particular style.  It is a style I like and I was much looking forward to it.  And everything was going well for the first third of the book.  Then a new character walked in wearing a black top hat covered with neon letters spelling out I'M THE KILLER.

Okay, I am exaggerating.  No hat.  No neon letters.  But as soon as this guy walked in I said: that's the killer.

I am not a reader who feels a need to guess the murderer or feels disappointed if it's too easy or it's too hard.  Most crime novels I read are not even whodunits. But this rankled.

It got worse.  A hundred pages later the heroes received the benefit of what I call an unearned clue.  They visited a place for reasons unconnected to crime, and chatted with a stranger.  When the stranger found out they were cops it was "Oh, by the way..." and out came a big hint that pointed straight to top-hat-man.  They didn't recognize it.

By J.J. at the English language Wikipedia
At this point I kept reading for only one reason: Either this is the best red herring in the history of crime fiction or it is a disaster.


Well, it was a disaster.

The editor - a well-known one in the mystery field - should be embaressed. He or she (I'm not telling) should have spotted the first-time author's mistakes and  insisted that they be fixed, which would not have been that hard.  Instead we have what looks like contempt for the reader, which is never good for future sales.

I checked the blurbs on the cover of the paperback edition.  Only one was from a review.  The rest, and they were plentiful, were from well-known mystery writers.  Perhaps they liked the book, but I suspect they liked the author more.

Enough whining.  Perhaps I can provide a useful writing tip.  Why did I suspect the killer was the killer as soon as he walked in?

Because he had no other plot-related reason for being there at all.  He strolled into his boss' office while the cops were interviewing him, got a detailed description from the author, and was introduced.  No immediate explanation for why he belonged in the story.  And so, my alarm went off.

My penance for that author?  Read five Agatha Christie's.  She had her limits, but nobody could hide a killer or a clue in plain sight with her skill.

So what disappoints you in a mystery?

06 September 2016

The Atlanta Child Murders and My First Mystery


I've been reading mystery fiction since I was a kid. I remember reading Nancy Drew at night with a flashlight the summer I was ten years old.  I started writing mystery fiction in 2001, first with a novel I didn't finish, then with a novel I did finish, and then with short stories, where I've had a nice amount of success.
But my first foray into the mystery writing world came long before that. When I was a kid, my mom and I always watched Good Morning America during breakfast. And in 1980 and 1981, we saw a lot of reports on the Atlanta Child Murders.

If you don't remember or know about this tragic story, here's the nutshell: Between 1979 and 1981, more than two dozen black children and teens, as well as six adults, were found slain in Atlanta. The killer was eventually caught, tried, and convicted, but before that, Good Morning America was all over that story. Each time another child was found dead, it surprised me, because with each death came more media coverage. Surely, I thought, the kids down there know to be on alert. They wouldn't go off with a stranger, especially now, given that a murderer was on the loose.

With hindsight, I realize that not everyone--particularly kids--watched the news as I did. But back then, as an eleven or twelve year old, I didn't realize that kids in the danger zone might be ignorant of that danger. So I tried to figure out how the victims could know of the danger and still end up in the clutches of the murderer. And I came up with a solution.

I blamed it on the mayoral candidates.

Around that same time, Atlanta was in the middle of a mayoral election campaign. This news was also reported on Good Morning America. And I thought, the murdered kids would know not to go off with a stranger, so the person abducting and killing them must be someone known to them, someone trustworthy. But who could be known to all of them? Being a kid who watched a lot of news, I figured it must be one of the candidates running for mayor. (Yes, I know, those poor children in Atlanta were probably not following the local mayoral race as avidly as I was--if at all--but back then, that idea hadn't occurred to me.)

Atlanta
I wrote an essay laying out my theory, and I showed it to my sister (who was then in college). She thought my idea was ridiculous. And in retrospect, it certainly had flaws. Indeed the man ultimately caught and convicted of killing two of the adults (and to whom many of the other murders were attributed) was not one of the mayoral candidates. But as a kid, I really thought I had something there.

If I were an adult when this was going on, I might have turned my idea into a novel. Doesn't the idea simply scream Thriller? (Indeed, several books and movies resulted from the Atlanta Child Murders.) But back then, I just had my essay. And I'm still proud of it. It was an interesting take on a horrific situation, as well as a hint of my future career writing about murder and mysteries.

So, writers, what was the first thing that prompted you to start thinking about mysteries and murders--solving them or writing about them? And did you write the first story that came to you?

05 September 2016

Lies, Lies, Lies


     Did I write about this last year or year before last? Actually, I think I wrote about Telling Lies For Fun and Profit. It's just that telling lies constantly from news media and from politicians is driving me nuts. I know I don't honestly want to write about political stuff but, I'm going to try to just write about lying.

     When we write our stories, we are writing fiction. Stuff we make up in our heads. Yes, it's lying in a sense. However, we're lying to entertain ourselves and our readers or fans. Story tellers have been around for centuries. Anyone who could tell a good story was invited by kings and rulers to attend court and tell a good story. Those who did tell a good story were rewarded and those whose stories fell flat sometimes were imprisoned or even lost their head.

     Thank goodness things aren't quite that bad for we lying fiction writers. If people don't care for our lies, I mean our stories, people won't buy our books and next thing you know publishers won't publish our books. We are predisposed to tell intriguing, believable lies. Stories that entertain. Stories that have characters that our readers can like and root for or maybe even root for a character to be caught and punished.

     What's with all the lies we hear on the news every hour of every day? Television has reached a point where the news anchors repeat lies or they interview people from campaigns or people in Congress who just out and out lie. Supposedly it's to keep higher ratings for the TV network and their advertisers. And I suppose for the newspaper's advertisers. The huge companies can't have a two-cent drop in revenue because their competition might make three cents more.

     A few years ago, we had a political candidate who was a member of the Mormon church. I have nothing against that religion.  I have nothing against any religion or the lack there of. Whatever a person believes is certainly between them and their supreme being. In doing a little research on the Mormon church, I discovered that their attitude was if you were lying for the Lord, it was okay to do so. If we have any Mormon readers and this isn't true, please let me know. What constitutes a lie for the Lord, I wonder?

     I was just taught that lying was about the worst thing you could do. If I had committed some infraction of our house rules, I would get in worst trouble if I lied about it. I might get punished for breaking a house rule but then if I lied about what I had done I was in deep trouble. I tried to bring my own children up with the same lesson.

   You could rightly guess that I really hate liars. I'm not talking little white lies that we have to tell or at least think we have to tell.  Like when a wife ask her hubby if these slacks make her butt look too big. Not when we know we'll hurt some one's feelings way more than necessary if we told the truth.  Not we crazy folks who tell lies for fun and profit. But plain old everyday liars. We've all known people who are pathological liars. They tell lies when telling the truth doesn't matter at all.

     I'm talking about the big whoppers the new media allow politicians to tell on air and the TV talking head doesn't call them out on it. Or the news media that keeps a reporter and allows that person to stay on the air when that person not just lies, but make up facts.

     I think it's setting a horrible example for our children. You listen to television and you hear the lie and you say out loud. "That's a lie. I know because I fact-checked it." Your child hears this and that little brain absorbs that fact. The children don't need the hate and bullying being screamed at them daily from their televisions either. Again, the children thinks it's okay to act that way. It's already showing up in schools all over the country and it's going to only get worse.

     Lies, lies, lies where does it lead us? Into a bad situation, is my sad guess. Can we stop it? Does anyone want to stop it?

     Thanks all, for letting me get this out. It's been bothering me. Let's all get back to telling lies for fun and profit.

04 September 2016

Dystopia Revisited


by Leigh Lundin

By definition, prisons stay out of view of the public eye, and, as Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo taught us, citizens are all too happy to ignore the abuses carried on behind locked bars. Fast forward a century or so where sci-fi acts as a literary bellwether: The golden age of science fiction introduced the concept of corporations taking over a number of government functions often beginning with prison systems. Back then, company prisons were considered too fantastical to appear outside dark imaginations.

Until commercialized incarceration arrived with a vengeance.

Corporation Glossary
BOP • Federal Bureau of Prisons
CCA • Corrections Corporation of America
GEO • formerly Wackenhut formerly G4S
MTC • Management and Training Corp
CCS • Correct Care Solutions (medical)
Bad Tidings

As both Eve and I have written, corporations have found numerous ways to profit from prisoners and take every opportunity to capitalize upon the misery of others. Practices include charging extravagant court and jailhouse fees, usurious interest rates, and for food and ‘accommodations’ in state and federal prisons. These fees make it impossible for many prisoners to ever get out of debt. Although the US has banned debtors’ prisons, courts in the pockets of prison corporations continue to incarcerate those who cannot pay. Indeed, it’s possible for a poor person to be adjudged not guilty and still end up imprisoned for failure to pay jail costs and legal fees. Lobbyists see to it that more and more citizens receive ever longer sentences. It’s good for business and best of all, nobody cares.

It’s come to light that corporate prisons have been ignoring constitutional rights. True, county jails and state prisons have abused prisoners and even served rotting food, but corporations made the assumption they’re not responsible for upholding Amendments to the Constitution. Companies have been caught recording attorney-client sessions… then sharing them. Prison apologists say private enterprise shouldn’t be forced to obey BoP rules because it reduces profits.

But there’s worse. Corporations have implemented a form of slavery right here in the US. If a man or boy refuses to work, he can be punished severely, tasered, thrown in solitary confinement, and even killed. In recent years, Florida’s corporate prisons have become so unsafe, that an inmate per day dies, often murdered by guards or other prisoners. In case you question the term ‘murder’, read the reports. Guards even steamed one prisoner alive, reportedly leaving pieces of his body in the shower.

Within the special federal immigrant contract prisons, the numbers are also appalling regarding so-called ‘medical care’, occasionally provided by CCS. In cases where records were available, medical and mortality reviews determined the quality of medical service was inadequate and in more than a third of cases, directly contributed to prisoners’ deaths. Private companies understaff with LPNs/LVNs, which require no more than a year of study beyond a GED, and permit them to diagnose and prescribe. Rather than sending out lab work, evidence suggest LPNs tended to ‘eyeball’ samples and and simply (and wrongly) guess.

Sad Tidings

Corrections Corporation of America
 
Geo Group
 
Management and Training Corporation
 
Correct Care Solutions
I very much believe in free enterprise, an almost magical engine that works automatically… under the right circumstances. When it comes to economics, I’m also a pragmatician if not a pragmatist. If an industry isn’t regulated, i.e, policed, it will devolve into exploitation and even criminality. We’ve learned time and again that industries cannot police themselves.

By definition, free enterprise also implies that a percentage of people will be unemployed at any given time. If you want 100% employment, turn to socialism, but don’t expect dynamics or efficiency in managed production and consumption. An economy sails best that steers itself.

But economics can resemble religion: capitalists versus communists, free trade versus tariffs. Religionists are convinced they’re right and everyone else is wrong. Both extremes don’t take into account human factors and that’s what prisons are about… assuming you’re among the percentage who still believe the incarcerated are human too. Esquire Magazine used the term ‘faceless bureaucratic indifference to human suffering’ in a different context, but it definitely applies here.

Then we learned the much touted cost-savings to taxpayers turned out moot.

Glad Tidings

As safety, rehabilitation programs, food quality and medical care plummeted, mayhem, injuries and deaths shot up. Protests and property damage increased as well. Our own Eve Fisher touched on mental health and prison terror here and here and here and here.

Mother Jones journalist Shane Bauer went undercover as a prison guard and is being sued by CCA for his trouble. CCA would very much like their policy to remain “What happens here, stays here.” You know, where the bodies are buried.

But the news is promising. Despite furious lobbying and campaign donations, the Justice Department has ordered private contracts with prison corporations not be renewed, concluding corporate administration is less effective and safe. This decision does not apply to the appalling immigration prisons mentioned above nor to the far larger population in state prisons.

Our beloved Florida governor has been the states’ own best lobbyist for corporate prisons with disastrous results. It remains to be seen whether situations will change at the state level. But at least we can give thanks that for federal relief and corporate karma.

03 September 2016

A Literary Lawn Party


Two weeks ago today, while my friend Elizabeth Zelvin was entertaining our loyal SleuthSayers readers far better in this timeslot than I could've, I was in the middle of another kind of literary endeavor. From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on August 20, at the height of our summertime heat and humidity, I participated in what was billed as the state's biggest lawn party: the second annual Mississippi Book Festival, held on and around the grounds of the State Capitol Building in downtown Jackson. Also known as the state's Largest Gathering of Sweaty Writers and Readers.


A quick word of background. As some of you might know, Mississippi has more published writers per capita than any other state. In other words, you can't open your car door around here without bumping into another writer. (A lesser-known fact is that the Delta town of Greenville, Mississippi, has more published writers per capita than any other city in the nation--past and present examples include Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Ellen Douglas, Hodding Carter, Beverly Lowry, William Alexander Percy, Jim Henson, and so on.) We might spit tobacco juice and talk like Forrest Gump and dodge alligators when we mow the back yard, but the ghosts of Faulkner and Welty will forever live in our libraries and bookstores.

My point is, there are a lot of writers here, and I think most of them--at least most of those who are alive and still pushing keys or pencils--came to the recent Book Fest. In fact we had plenty of authors from elsewhere as well. The number of attendees expected last year, at the first annual festival, was 1,000; more than 3,000 showed up, including John Grisham. This year, according to the official figures, some 6,200 people attended the many panels throughout the day, and several hundred more were outside and around the grounds. And, like last year, several attendees DFOed (in medical terms, they succumbed to the heat; in Southern terms, they "done fell out").

This time, more than 120 authors served on 30 different panels held in and around the Capitol Building (I was on the panel for the recently-released Mississippi Noir), and about 70 more were featured in an "Authors' Alley" venue, an area where self-published writers could display and sell their wares. Also on the grounds were tents for different publishers and bookstores here in the state--I was part of Dogwood Press's tent, along with our head honcho Joe Lee and fellow authors Randy Pierce and Valerie Winn. There were also additional activities for panelists, including a cocktail party at the Old Capitol Museum the night before, an authors' breakfast the morning of the festival, and an after-event celebration at a nearby restaurant/bar.


It was a long day, and as hot as Satan's pitchfork, but that surprised no one--this was, after all, mid-August in the Deep South. And I think everybody had a good time. I met a great many interesting people, renewed old friendships, sold and signed some books, guzzled a dozen bottles of water, and gave and received a lot of damp hugs. At the signing tent after my panel, I was fortunate enough to sit beside one of my longtime heroes, John Hart, who's written some of my favorite mystery/crime novels.

Now for my question. I've heard that a number of states have annual literary festivals like this--last year at Bouchercon I visited with a lady who was in the process of organizing a debut bookfest for Virginia. Have any of you gone to and/or participated in one of these, or something similar? Was it state-sponsored? Was it well attended? Did you find it worthwhile?

With this year's Bouchercon drawing ever nearer, our event the other day reminded me how much I enjoy this kind of gathering--being in the company of fellow writers and readers, and spending hours on end talking about nothing but stories and books and writing and the magic of fiction. And the great thing about B'con is that the focus is on mystery writing. What could be more fun than that?

I hope you'll be in New Orleans, I hope we'll be hurricane-free, and I hope it'll be drier and cooler than usual. And if it's not, I hope you won't DFO on Canal Street.

Either way, I'll see you there.

02 September 2016

Teaching Moments


Two weeks ago, the date my last column appeared here, our four-year-old son Dash was on break from pre-school, and he and I took the afternoon train into DC to meet my wife for the National Gallery of Art's Jazz in the Garden series. (We gave Dash other options—a minor-league baseball game or seeing dinosaurs at the Smithsonian—but he loves music and being outdoors, and the choice was his.)

In addition to the train into the city, we traveled one Metro stop, and then had about a 15-minute walk to the Sculpture Garden. The Metro nearest the concert was Judiciary Square, and as we came up the escalator, I saw that we were at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and that we could walk through the space en route to the concert. As with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, this one features the names of men and women killed in the line of duty—more than 20,000 officers, in fact, with more names added each year. As we turned along one of the paths through the memorial, Dash spotted a man kneeling by the wall, paper and pencil in hand, and asked what he was doing. I explained that he was making a rubbing of one of the names, which prompted Dash to ask why. Since we were by then close enough that I thought the man may have heard him, I told Dash that we could ask him —encouraging Dash's curiosity, thinking of this as a teaching moment.

It was only immediately after I said this that I recognized we might be intruding, and in fact, when Dash asked the man what he was doing, there was a brief hesitation, and I was afraid I'd made a unfortunate mistake. But then the man showed the pieces of paper, several of them, where he'd rubbed a single name, and explained that name belonged to a friend of his, his partner in fact, and that he'd died. He took out his phone and pulled up photos of his friend, sharing them with Dash, pointing to other officers and their spouses and children. He explained that the rubbings were a way of remembering his partner, and he was planned to take the extra papers back to other people who'd known and loved him.

Dash was mostly attentive to the story, asked about people in the pictures. In what seemed to be a single motion, the man we were speaking with—I don't remember his name—pulled something from his pocket to give to Dash and asked me if we'd traveled here for a special visit to the memorial. I felt a moment of embarrassment then, since we were, as I said, simply passing through, all of this a chance encounter. Meanwhile, Dash—unembarrassed—eagerly started talking about the train ride and the jazz concert and Mama meeting us for a picnic and.... A teaching moment lost, clearly, that's what I thought, with my own self-consciousness further compounded by the item the man was handing to Dash: a challenge coin from the Las Vegas Police Department, the one pictured here in Dash's hand.



Dash was, as you might imagine, eager to have this coin—even as I was protesting that the gift wasn't necessary. But the man insisted, explaining how a challenge coin worked, how it was proof that you were a member of an organization, all of it a point of pride in so many ways. Dash, for his part, was proud too, proud to have the coin even if he clearly didn't entirely understand it.

I mentioned before that I don't remember the name of the man who spoke with us, but I do remember the name on the wall and on the rubbings: Alyn Beck. I looked him up later, looking for his story, thinking briefly that I might try to resurrect that teaching moment and tell Dash more about him, and was surprised—and saddened—to find that there's actually a Wikipedia article that discusses his death. On June 8, 2014, Beck and another officer, Igor Soldo, were having lunch at a CiCi's Pizza in Las Vegas when they were ambushed and killed by a married couple espousing anti-government views; after shooting the officers, the couple covered Beck's body in a "Don't Tread on Me" flag and a swastika and pinned a note to Soldo's body saying, "This is the beginning of the revolution." The shooting spree continued to Wal-Mart, where a third man was murdered before the couple themselves were killed—the man by police, the woman by her own hand. The links at the bottom of the Wikipedia article provide further and more extensive information about the killings, the couple, and their history of anti-government views and actions; for the story of the officers' murders in particular, here's this article from the Las Vegas Sun the day after the shooting. The officers are picture below in photos I borrowed from CNN. (Needless to say, I have not shared the rest of this story with Dash.)

Alyn Beck, left, and Igor Soldo

As we left the memorial, Dash thanked the man for the coin and then insisted on holding it for the rest of our walk, despite my asking several times to carry it for him so he wouldn't drop it. Truth be told, he did drop it once as we were halfway across Pennsylvania Avenue, and he threw off my hand to duck back and grab it from the street, which prompted another teachable moment: Don't let go of Daddy's hand when you're crossing a busy street! (Exclamation mark then as well as now.)

Dash still didn't pay much attention to holding my hand, but he did hold onto the coin tighter after that—a new toy he didn't want to let go of, a prize of some kind that he was excited to show to Mama. I was already prepping to tell Tara the story here, what I knew of it then, and how the man's sharing his own story at the memorial had been cut short by Dash's enthusiasm about the train and the jazz concert and the picnic. But at the Sculpture Garden, Dash beat me to it—showing her the coin while I'd stepped away briefly to the concession stand.

"It was supposed to be a teaching moment," I started to explain when I got back, "but I think it all got lost."

"No it didn't," Tara said. "Dash told me all about it. The coin is from a man whose friend died and he misses him a lot and the coin is a way to remember him and to tell other people about him."

Some lesson learned for each of us, and now passed along.

Bouchercon Bound

In other news, we're now less than two weeks from Bouchercon—the biggest mystery event of the year and, as Judy Bobalik said, kind of a family reunion for us mystery readers and writers.

I'm looking forward to seeing so many people there and to seeing again and in other cases meeting for the first time some of my fellow SleuthSayers here.

My own schedule formally includes the following events—and between times hope to see others in all those in-between spaces: bars, and hallways, and breakfast lines and....
  • Opening Ceremonies, with Macavity Awards Presentation • Thursday, September 15, 6:30 p.m. [Note: My book On the Road with Del & Louise is a finalist for the Macavity for Best First Novel, and Sleuthsayers Barb Goffman and B.K. Stevens are also up for Macavity Awards in the short story category.]
  • “Me and My Friends,” panel on writing groups, with Donna Andrews, Ellen Crosby, John Gilstrap, and Alan Orloff, moderated by Eleanor Cawood Jones • Friday, September 16, 9:30 a.m.
  • Anthony Awards Presentation • Friday, September 16, 8 p.m. [Note: On the Road with Del & Louise is also a finalist for the Anthony for Best First Novel; the anthology I edited, Murder Under the Oaks, is a finalist for Best Anthology or Collection; and B.K. Stevens is up for the Anthony for Best YA Novel for her book Fighting Chance.]
  • Sisters in Crime Breakfast • Saturday, September 17, 7:30 a.m.
  • “Step in Time,” panel on pacing (as moderator), with Sara BlaedelSuzanne Chazin, Elizabeth Heiter, Reece Hirsch, and Cate Holahan • Saturday, September 17, 4:30 p.m.

Author Newsletter & Giveaway

Before Bouchercon, however, another quick deadline. I'm debuting an author newsletter over the next week or so, and I'm hosting a giveaway of three volumes of Chesapeake Crime anthologies: This Job Is Murder, Homicidal Holidays, and Storm Warning, each featuring one of my stories. Subscribe to the newsletter before end of day on Sunday, Sept. 4, and you'll be entered for the book bundle—and for other giveaways ahead as well! You can subscribe here.

01 September 2016

The Mass Murderer or the Holy Man?


The name of Harney Peak in the Black Hills National
Black Elk Peak
In case you hadn't heard, we had a name change here in South Dakota:  the former Harney Peak, the highest natural site in South Dakota, in the Black Hills, officially had its name changed on August 11, 2016 by the US Board on Geographic Names to Black Elk Peak.  You might ask why the name change?  Because, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.'

A Civil War-era portrait of Gen. William S. Harney,
Gen. William S. Harney,
a/k/a "Woman Killer"
William S. Harney (1800-1889) was a cavalry officer in the Mexican American War, the Indian Wars, and a general during the Civil War.  He was not a nice man.  His infamy began back in June of 1834 when, while serving as a Major in the Paymaster Corps, Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Mo., Harney whipped a female slave named Hannah to death over the misplacement of keys.  When word got out, the Cincinnati Journal reported Harney as "A MONSTER!" and he actually had to flee to Wheeling, Virginia to avoid a mob.  (He was eventually acquitted, but remember the times.  Whites were never actually convicted of killing blacks; in many ways it shows how horrific Hannah's death was that a mob came after him.)

"Here's what the Nebraska State Historical Society has to say about Harney's actions (known as the "Harney Massacre") at an Indian village in 1855 at Blue Water Creek, south of the Black Hills: "While engaged in a delaying parley with Chief Little Thunder" Harney's troops "circled undetected" toward the village, "where the infantry opened fire and forced the Indians toward mounted soldiers, who inflicted terrible casualties. 86 Indians were killed, 70 women and children were captured, and their tipis were looted and burned.""  (See Constant Commoner blog for 8/14/16.)

After that, Harney was known among the Sioux as "Woman Killer."  This is who the mountain was named after in 1855 by American Lieutenant Gouverneur K. Warren, who served under General Harney and apparently loved it.  

Black Elk and Elk of the Oglala Lakota -1887.jpg
Black Elk (l) 
Meanwhile, there's Black Elk (1863-1950).  Lakota Sioux, medicine man, visionary, and author of "Black Elk Speaks", who knew that his visions were given him to help heal his people:
"And while I stood there [on Black Elk Peak] I saw more than I can tell and understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy."
Black Elk is very important to the Lakota, as well as other Native Americans:  In fact, the suggestion of Black Elk Peak came from Basil Brave Heart, a Lakota elder born on Pine Ridge, which, like it or not, is part of South Dakota.  Here's part of an interview with him on the subject:

"About two years ago, I had a very deep, intuitive feeling that Harney Peak represented a very deep atrocity that was committed against the Little Thunder Tiyospaye at Blue Water Creek in 1855. There were women and children massacred. The way this whole thing was conducted by General Harney, to me, was despicable. As a military man, a combat veteran of Korea, I think he violated the deepest, most honorable military code of conduct, which relates to treating the enemy. First, there was a white flag that was lifted by Chief Little Thunder. Harney disregarded that, and he went in. His whole intention was to annihilate. This was to send a message. Soldiers don’t do that. They conduct themselves in a way that is ultimately humane.
Basil Brave Heart
"So, you took the first step?

"It weighed on my heart. You know, we Oglalas still live near this sacred peak. We see it all the time. Knowing as we do General Harney’s history with our people, it has always bothered me. Then a young man came to visit me (Myron Wayne Pourier); he is a direct descendant of Black Elk, and he said he wanted to see the name changed. I said: I don’t want to do it unless I have the Black Elk family’s full support. He said: You have it.

"That must have really raised the stakes?

"It really did. He said: In fact, I have Grandpa Black Elk’s pipe. I said: Well, let’s smoke it. Let’s say a prayer and ask Tunkasila, the Great Spirit, and all the Christology that I embrace, and then will come the effort that we’re going to put into it – but the outcome is up to Tunkasila, the Great Spirit.

"So prayer was there at the beginning?

"Definitely, at the beginning. We filled the pipe and we smoked it."
You'd think this would be a no-brainer, right?  Woman Killer v. the Holy Man? What's to argue with?  Ask our politicians:
Senator John Thune: I’m surprised and upset by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names’ unilateral decision to rename Harney Peak, one of South Dakota’s most well-known landmarks…. The national board’s choice to reject the state’s recommendation to leave the name as-is defies logic, since it was state officials who so carefully solicited public feedback and ultimately came to their decision. I’m also disappointed the board grossly misled my office with respect to the timeline of its decision, which wasn’t expected until next year” [Senator John Thune, press release, 2016.08.11].
NOTE: Lou Yost, the executive secretary for the board, said he was unaware of who in the four-person office told Thune's office that the issue would wait until next year.  "Who told him that it wasn't going to be addressed until next year? As far as I know, we haven't had any correspondence, and we're a pretty small office," he said.  (see USA Today)
Governor Dennis Daugaard: I am surprised by this decision, as I have heard very little support in South Dakota for renaming Harney Peak. This federal decision will cause unnecessary expense and confusion. I suspect very few people know the history of either Harney or Black Elk [Governor Dennis Daugaard, press release, 2016.08.11].  

(All I can say is that most Lakota know a great deal about Black Elk, and they know that Harney was a butcher, so to them it's sort of like if Israel changed the name of a mountain from Mendele Peak to Moshe Peak.  Great rejoicing.)  
“I truly believe that (Daugaard) wants to improve race relations in South Dakota, but comments like that don’t help matters,” said Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, a Rosebud Sioux member who chairs the state tribal relations committee. “Black Elk is still very significant to our culture. So is Harney.... My suggestion would be to have a press release explaining that Black Elk was a spiritual man of peace and welcoming the opportunity for our citizens and the visitors of our great State to learn about the true history, majesty, and importance of the He Sapa (Black Hills).”   (See Argus Leader)

Maybe we should all send Governor Daugaard and Senator Thune a copy of Black Elk Speaks.  Or a history book.    


31 August 2016

Bound for Valparaiso in a Rowboat


It's the end of the summer and I don't feel like tackling anything too heavy. So let's talk about smuggling illegal substances.  Better yet, let's sing about it.

I am sure you have heard of narcocorridos, the Mexican song genre that celebrates and heroizes people who smuggle drugs north across the U.S. border.  Well, that is not our subject for the day.

Instead we have a song from my friend Zeke Hoskin, discussing the true story of some earlier smugglers heading in a different direction.  You may remember Zeke from his occasional words of wisdom in our comment section.  He wanted you to know that he wrote most of the song on Canada Day, 1992, while waiting to cross the border.



That's his wife Flip Breskin on guitar, by the way.

Enjoy.

30 August 2016

Lizabeth Scott: Queen of Noir


Recently at SleuthSayers I did a post ( http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2016/07/a-noir-summer.html ) suggesting some lesser-known movies for a noir summer. Two of those movies, Too Late for Tears and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers starred Emma Matzo… better known as smoky-voiced Lizabeth Scott. Doing that post made me think I should do a post on Scott. And even though she only has about 30 film and TV credits, she is one of the Queens of noir. 

Her noir canon consists mainly of these movies:
  • Dead Reckoning
  • Pitfall
  • Too Late for Tears
  • The Racket
  • I Walk Alone
  • Dark City
  • Two of a Kind
  • The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Mostly they’re pretty good and mostly they’re actually noir.  My faves are:

Dead Reckoning: one of my favorite noirs. In fact, several of her noirs fall on my fave list. Along with Dead Reckoning are Pitfall, Too Late for Tears, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. All good. Some people find Dead Reckoning a rather pedestrian noir, but for me it’s got everything a noir needs. Humphrey Bogart and his buddy are soldiers heading to DC so his buddy can be awarded the Medal of Honor. For some reason, the buddy doesn’t want to be the center of attention and takes a powder, leaving Bogart to try to figure out what happened. He ends up in Gulf City. Enter femme fatale Coral Chandler (Scott): noir ensues.


Pitfall: Dick Powell continues his escape from juvenile leads (actually he’s long away by now) as an insurance exec and family man married to Jane Wyatt (Margaret Anderson on Father Knows Best, so you know she’s a wholesome wife and mom, even though the movie came first). Checking out a case and working with slimy P.I. Raymond Burr, Powell meets femme fatale Scott. Noir ensues.


Too Late for Tears: As I’ve said, this is one of my favorite noirs, period. Scott’s so evil in this one that even Dan Duryea, who’s pretty good at being rotten himself, can’t take her. A husband (Arthur Kennedy) and wife (Scott) are driving their convertible when someone in another car throws a suitcase full of cash into their car. She wants to keep it, he not so much. Noir ensues.

Good, low budget noir. I like this one a lot. Some nice LA locations. It was written by Roy Huggins, who later created The Rockford Files and The Fugitive (TV series), though David Goodis might dispute that. And it’s just recently come out in a new, fancy-dancy restored Blu-ray/DVD edition.

Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The: Scott’s first noir and only her second movie. In this one she’s not the femme fatale, but she’s getting her noir footing down. Van Heflin winds up in his hometown, now run by his childhood sweetheart, Barbara Stanwyck, and her D.A. husband (Kirk Douglas in his first movie). Scott and Heflin have a thing for each other, but Stanwyck has other ideas. You know what happens next: noir ensues.

I Walk Alone: Frankie (Burt Lancaster) gets out of prison, expecting to go back to his old life of crime and high times with Kirk Douglas and Wendell Corey. But Kirk has other plans for his old pal. Things just ain’t the same for Frankie after fourteen years in prison, even if he did take the rap for Kirk. Enter Kay Lawrence (Scott) who’s been told by Douglas to find out what it is Frankie really wants. Guess what: noir ensues.


Becoming a Queen of Noir is a long way from Scott’s seminary upbringing in Scranton, PA. And her life wasn’t without controversy. She had an on again off again relationship with her boss and mentor Hal Wallis, one of the major producers of all time. It was rumored in a 1954 Confidential Magazine article that she was a lesbian and that her name was found in the Rolodex of a notorious Los Angeles madam. Some claim her career was ended by the scandal. 

According to the New York Times: “Ms. Scott sued for $2.5 million, contending that the magazine had portrayed her in a “vicious, slanderous and indecent” manner. The outcome was never made public, but the suit, filed in 1955, was believed to have been settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. The scandal, however, was nearly ruinous.” You can find the full article here:   http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/07/movies/lizabeth-scott-film-noir-siren-dies-at-92.html?_r=0

I don’t think it was ever really proven one way or another, and it certainly doesn’t matter to us today, but at that time it was a big deal and probably one of the reasons her career slowed down. Whatever the truth was, she was an independent woman who didn’t give in to the pressures to put on an act or be something that Hollywood wanted her to be. 

She never married and lived alone in the Hollywood Hills until her death on January 31, 2015 at the age of 92. Lizabeth Scott left a legacy of several great noir films and is definitely one of the Queens of Noir.

***


Please check out my story Deserted Cities of the Heart in Akashic’s recently released “St. Louis Noir.”


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29 August 2016

HELP! (I'm told it's called crowd-sourcing)


by Susan Rogers Cooper

I'm knee-deep in the newest E.J. Pugh novel. Unfortunately, I should be at least hip deep, if not tickling-my-tummy deep. Why is it that, now that I'm retired from everything but writing (outside jobs, motherhood and wifedom) that it's taking longer and longer to write a book? Well, there's always the “hey, I'm retired, I can do it tomorrow” syndrome, wherein tomorrow keeps getting further and further away. And there's also the “I don't have to write X number of pages today. I can catch up tomorrow.” See above about tomorrow. And this summer it's been “the grand kids are coming by in four hours. I really need to rest up” excuse. But with E.J., I'm getting there. Slowly, but I'll make it. I always – okay, usually – do. But then there's the big problem, the one where I'm going to need some help. I'm told this is call crowd sourcing.

I DON'T HAVE A TITLE.

If I give you a quick synopsis with pertinent points can you make a suggestion? Here's the deal. It's taking place on the University of Texas campus. E.J.'s twenty-year-old son finds his obnoxious, much-despised (by everyone) roommate dead in the room – stabbed to death while Graham (E.J.'s son) slept. Guess who becomes the chief suspect? We have other wanna-be suspects, too, of course. The roommate's less than loving mother; his ex-girlfriend who keyed his car twice and sent him Ex-Lax brownies; his BFF whom he belittled in front of the friend's parents; and the roommate's student adviser whose wife the roommate came on to rather aggressively at a party.

Are ideas flooding in? I usually don't have trouble with titles, but this one is giving me a run for my money. Do I want to name it something to do with UT? Campus life? Or just murder in general?

I DON'T KNOW!

As incentive for your cooperation the winner (or the one person who actually gives me a title, any title) gets a copy of the book when it comes out. I'm thrilled, are you? Is my sarcasm showing?

A woman in my apartment complex was recently told by another woman that I had thirty-some-odd (some very odd) books published. The woman looked at me and said, “Then why are you living here?”

Yes, it was a very rude question, but I only laughed it off. I didn't explain that there are only four people who actually become millionaires writing books, and only eight who actually make a livable wage doing it. I didn't explain the “claw” theory – the one that writing success is based on the machine you see in restaurant lobbies full of stuffed animals and you have to get that big old claw to grab on to the one you want – or any one for that matter – and it never does. Success is that claw, and somebody gets pulled up every million or so tries.

So the rest of us just keep writing. Why? Well, I don't know about you, but I do it because if I didn't there would be something very big missing in my life. I once said that if I didn't do this for a living, I'd probably write really great grocery lists. Well, I don't want to write really great grocery lists. I want to write stories. I want to make people ask questions, get anxious, and, sometimes, laugh their butts off. But still and all, I need a title.

Any title will do. Really.

28 August 2016

Ending the Story


In Rob Lopresti's 08/17/16 blog, "The Whole Truth," he wrote about doing the setup for a story, in this case, a novel. Rob's premise was to drop the protagonist in a hole, and if the author writing the novel so desired, then throw rocks at that particular character. Essentially, it was how to setup the beginning of an author's story and then move on into the action of the plot. I liked the concept.
So today, to go with Rob's blog, here's two possible story endings as taken from the book, Story, by Robert McKee. These two endings are general category endings within which all other specific endings, such as happy endings, sad endings, ironic endings, etc., will fit.

The Closed Ending: The closed ending is mainly used with the traditional or classical designed story, the type of story written throughout the ages since Gilgamesh was first transcribed onto clay tablets. The fictional reality in this type of story is consistent and the conflict is mainly focused on the external causes, even though the protagonist may have an inner conflict to go with all the outside problems. In the story climax for the closed ending, the change is irreversible, there is no going back for the hero. As for the reader,, all questions raised in the story should be answered and all emotions satisfied.
(Some movie examples of closed ending from McKee's book are The Seven Samurai, The Hustler, A Fish Called Wanda and Thelma and Louise.)

The Open Ending: The open ending is generally used in a story focused on internal conflicts which is often prodded by external events. Here, the story climax leaves some questions unresolved for the reader, and thus some emotions may be left unsatisfied. The reader is then allowed (or left) to form his or her own conclusion as to what happened to the characters after the last word printed on the last page of the story. Different readers may come to different conclusions on the ending of the same story. For instance, one reader may believe the protagonist has now become mentally strong enough to overcome his situation and go on to a happy life. Another reader may have perceived an undercurrent of weakness and feels that the protagonist would fall back into old bad habits, thereby failing to succeed in the future. Same story; one reader an optimist, the other reader a pessimist; different conclusions on story ending.
(Some movie examples of open endings from McKee's book are Five Easy Pieces, Tender Mercies and A River Runs Through It.)

McKee's book Story is actually a screenwriting book by a screenwriting teacher, therefore it is written from a movie perspective, but to me, a story is a story regardless of the medium used to tell it. I believe it is wise to learn from other storytelling mediums to see what I can apply to my short story writing.

Most of my short stories use a closed ending. Much of that influence comes from the type of stories I've read over the decades since childhood. And, at this point, I will admit that the first few times I ran across an open ending story, I was prone to wonder where the heck the story ending was.

However, in the last couple of years, I've caught myself writing an open ending for one of the stories in my Shan Army series with the two half-brothers contending to see which one will become the heir to their warlord father's opium empire in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, and in one story of my 1660's Paris Underworld series with the orphan, incompetent pickpocket trying to survive in a community of criminals. The open ending just seemed right for these two stories.

So, how about you as a writer? Which endings do you use? And as a reader, which type of endings do you prefer?

27 August 2016

Hey Teach! Why do you do it? (aka Vegetables for Authors)


It all started in 1992.  I’d won a couple of crime fiction awards, and the local college came calling.
Did I want to come on faculty, and teach in the writing program?  Hell, yes!  (Pass the scotch.)

Over the years, I continued to teach fiction writing, but also picked up English Lit, Marketing (my degree) and a few odd ones, like Animation and Theatre.  Such is the life of an itinerant college prof.  (Pass the scotch.)

Twenty-four years later, I’m a full-time author.  Except for Wednesday nights, when I put on my mask, don a cape, and turn into SUPER TEACH!  (Okay, ‘Crazy Author Prof.’ Too much time alone at a keyboard can be scary.  Pass the scotch.)

Why do I do it?   As September lurks ever nearer, I decided to ask myself that question.  And give a completely honest answer.  Here goes:

1.  It’s not the Money
Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?  Part time profs in Canada are poorly paid.  I’m top rate, at $45 an hour.  I’m only paid for my time in the classroom (3 hours a week).  For every hour in the classroom, I spend at least two hours prepping and marking.  We don’t get paid for that.  At end of term, I spend several days evaluating manuscripts.  We don’t get paid for that either.  This means I am getting paid less than minimum wage.  So I’m not doing it for the money.

2.  It’s not all those Book Sales.
Years ago, an author gal more published than I was at the time said a peculiar thing to me:   “Aspiring writers don’t buy books.”

I found this alarming, but other authors since then have said the same.  They teach a workshop, and students beg for feedback on their manuscripts.  But they don’t buy the teacher’s books.  Not even one.  I find this bizarre, because I would want to see how the instructor practices what she preaches. 
Bemusement aside, I’m careful in my classes not to pressure students to buy my books.  They’ve paid money for the course, and that’s enough.

My point is:  if you think by teaching a course, you are going to get an avalanche of book sales, think again.

So why the heck do you do it, Mel?  That’s time you could invest in writing your own books…

3.  It takes me back to first principles
I teach all three terms.  Every four months, I am reminded about goal/motivation/conflict.  Three act structure.  Viewpoint rules.  Creating compelling characters.  Teaching Crafting a Novel forces me to constantly evaluate my own work, as I do my students’.  It’s like ‘vegetables for authors.’  In other words, good for me.

4.  It’s the People 
By far, the most valuable thing about teaching a night course year after year is it allows me to mix with people who would not normally be part of my crowd.  Adult students of all ages and backgrounds meet up in my classrooms, and many are delightful.  I’ve treasured the varied people I’ve met through the years, and keep in touch with many of them.

Getting to know people other than your own crowd (in my case, other writers) is extremely valuable for an author.  You’re not merely guessing how others different from you may think…you actually *know* people who are different.  This helps you create diverse characters in your fiction who come alive.

As well, you meet people from different professions…doctors, lawyers, salesmen and women, bank officers, government workers, labourers, grad students, Starbucks baristas, roofers, police, firefighters, chefs, paramedics.  I have my own list of people to call on, when I need to do research.

5.  It’s good for my Soul


I'm paying it forward.  Believe it or not, I didn't become an author in a vacuum.  I had two mentors along the way who believed in me.  Michael Crawley and Lou Allin - I hope you are having a fab time in the afterlife.  Hugs all around, when I get there.

Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college course credit.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  And when I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.  There is no greater high.

No question, my life is richer through teaching fiction writing, even if my bank account is not.

You can help Melodie’s bank account by buying her humorous books, like The Goddaughter Caper.  This will keep her from writing dreary novels that will depress us all.  Pass the scotch.


On AMAZON