07 January 2017

The English Language


NOTE: It is my honor today to welcome my friend Herschel Cozine as a guest blogger. Herschel has published extensively in the children's field, and his stories and poems have appeared in many of the national children's magazines. His work has also appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines, Wolfmont Press Toys for Tots anthologies, Woman's World, Orchard Press Mysteries, Mouth Full of Bullets, Great Mystery and Suspense, Mysterical-E, and many other publications. His story "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and his flash story "The Phone Call" appeared in Flash Bang Mysteries' summer 2016 issue. He currently has a mini-mystery in Over My Dead Body, and a story scheduled in OMDB's next issue as well. Herschel, it's great to have you here (again)! — John Floyd





I would like to concentrate today on the English language. I'm not talking about its idiosyncrasies that  allow one to use "ghoti," according to GBS, to spell "fish." Rather I am more interested in the variances between the British and U.S. in the spelling and meaning of words.

I am fully aware that the British were here first, so to speak, and that it is their language that we have borrowed and, supposedly, corrupted. But because one is the first to use an item doesn't necessarily mean he is using it correctly.

The British, for example, have the philosophy that two letters are better than one in the spelling of a word. "Why use one when two will do the same job?" It sounds like our government's approach. A brief list to demonstrate my point:

Sulphur
Aluminium
Honour
Humour
Programme
Grille
Favourite

I won't even try to spell "maneuver" the way they do.

It seems to me a waste of space and ink. Walt Disney drew his characters with three fingers instead of the usual four. "Think of the money I save on ink," he said.

But Disney wasn't dealing with the British. They're awash in ink; most of it red as I understand it.

Recently I contracted with a magazine in Canada to write a story, and was told by the editor to use the British spelling of words. Fortunately for me there were only two. I'm not good with this kind of thing.

Then, of course, there is the meaning of words. In this instance I see no advantage of one over the other. Here are a few:

US                                 British

Hood                             Bonnet
Trunk                            Boot
Elevator                        Lift
Policeman                    Bobby
Gentleman                   Chap
Run (in stocking)        Ladder
Panties                         Bloomers
Bathroom                     Loo
Excellent                      Capital
Flashlight                     Torch (or Electric Torch)

Then there is the ubiquitous "bloody," which encompasses most of the four-letter words we Americans use. In this case the British have economized. Would that we followed their example in this instance.

Of course, the British refer to a two-week period of time as a fortnight. I have no idea why. When I was in the army, stationed at a fort, a day seemed like two weeks. Is there a connection here?

One need not travel to the United Kingdom to see and hear differences. In this country we speak several different languages, depending on which part of the country we are in. My father, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, changed the "erl," liked "berled" potatoes, and lived on "Thoid" Street. When I lived in New England, the residents drove "cahs," went to "grammah" school, and ate "botatoes." Since they dropped the "R's" from words, they found themselves with a surplus, so they put them on the end of other words. "Idears" and "diplomers," for example. Southerners eat "ahs" cream. Texans? I am still grappling with that one.

Here in California, we don't even speak English. Recently I was in a coffee shop. The table next to me was occupied by some young folks. One young lady with purple hair and tattoos on her arms and eyelids was holding court. I couldn't understand a word she said. I attributed that to the ring in her nose, which kept her from enunciating. But the others at the table had no problem with it. Truly remarkable.

But I digress. In the past few years a whole new language has come into existence with the emergence of texting. I wonder if the British text. How could they possibly communicate using a single letter? LOL.

I wonder, too, if this form will ever influence our writing. Just as English in Chaucer's time is far different from today's, will future generations see a similar change? Hamlet will soliloquize thusly: "2BR not 2B." I will, gratefully, not be around to see it.

CU later.



06 January 2017

Resolutions & A Residency


I don't believe that any of us make ourselves anew each January 1, but I do believe very strongly that the turn of the new year can offer opportunities for for reflection, for taking stock, and for articulating some intentions and ambitions for the immediate future. Vague resolutions like "Eat better" or "Lose weight" or "Be more patient" are, in my opinion, largely doomed to failure. Better are those that set not just goals but also the path toward reaching those goals: "Instead of a cookie for an afternoon snack, I'll eat more fruit instead," for example... and then you buy fruit, you keep fruit instead of cookies at your desk—in fact, you throw your cookies away. Resolutions that involve cultivating new habits are, it's been proven, the most successful—and it takes a month or more of building those habits for them to stick. "Read War and Peace" never worked for me, until I changed it to "Read War and Peace one chapter a day"—and as I've written about before, that ultimately seemed an integral part of my day for a while.
Among my own new year's resolutions this year are plans to build a more positive attitude, for example—something my wife and I are embarking on together. (This was prompted, I should explain, by a recent weekend trip to New York where our son got sick; recounting the story to friends afterward, that sickness became the focal point of an ill-fated weekend—until we realized we could tell the same story a different way, shifting focus to all the fun things we did, and suddenly the weekend looked like a terrific adventure, despite some small stumbles.) For our resolution, we bought a small journal, and each evening our goal has been to write down at least one thing that stood out as positive about the day. Truth is, a couple of times already we've forgotten and then played catch-up the following morning. But with persistence, I think that this small record will become such a regular part of our day that we'll do it by routine—and, with luck, some more positive attitudes will grow out of that routine.

Another of my resolutions is always about writing—some articulation about writing projects for the year, some implementation of a plan to accomplish those goals...even as I recognize that some of those plans may at times go off the rails.

Coming off a tough year and a busy semester, I found myself at wit's end about my writing: a novel that had lost traction, four stories in various ragged degrees of being unfinished, the sense that all of them needed attention, and no idea about which draft to tackle first—which meant working on none of them. Clearly, a shift in perspective was needed, and a shift in perspective is what we've taken.

Hand in hand with a resolution to give fresh priority to our writing, my wife Tara and I jumped on the opportunity to start the year off with a week's worth of immersion in the writing life. As I finish this post, my wife and I are taking part in the writer-in-residence program at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines, NC—a program that promises some much-appreciated time and space both to indulge our imaginations and to focus intently on our craft, freedom and diligence in equal measure.

The timing of this was good—both because I'm still on winter break from my teaching at George Mason University and because the start of January helps us to get the new writing year off on the right foot. This is the first writing retreat/residency I've ever done, so I have little to compare it to, but the experience has proven a positive one, in great part thanks to the kindness of our host, Katrina Denza, of the Weymouth board. The Weymouth Center's home is the Boyd House, a beautiful mansion built by James and Katherine Boyd, the former a writer of historical novels best known for  Drums, set in the Revolutionary War and illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. Writers in residence at Weymouth stay in one of several rooms named for the Boyds' friends and frequent visitors to the home; I'm staying, for example, in the Sherwood Anderson room—which I adore, of course, given my commitment to short fiction and my admiration for the novel in stories, and it's inspiring to know that Anderson himself was one of the most frequent visitors to the mansion in the late 1930s. Other rooms are named for Thomas Wolfe, Maxwell Perkins, and Paul Green—the latter the room that Tara chose—and each room has a bed and a desk, inevitably echoing that famous saying of Virginia Woolf's about the need for a writer to have a room of one's own.

With only small breaks over the last few days (more on that below), I've worked at this desk from the moment I rolled out of the bed three feet away until close to dinner time. While my schedule at home (at least here on winter break from school) might seem to offer some of the same flexibility, there are significant differences. If I were in my office at school, I would likely feel the need to devote part of the day to prepping syllabi for the next semester  or to answering the emails that are inevitably coming in despite my away message; but I'm putting off that syllabi prep for now and I'm very much treating that away message seriously (sorry to say for anyone who's reached out). If I were trying to work at home, there would inevitably be things to do around the house—all of which are too far away right now even if I was suddenly looking for a distraction (as I know we writers are prone to look for).  And on the flipside of those negatives (can't do this, won't do this), there's also the pervasive sense of what I am here to do and I need to take it seriously. And lest we forget that purpose, there are reminders hanging on every door—signs which both Tara and I are already wishing we could take home.

Has it worked? I printed up drafts of those four stories I mentioned above, and the first half of the week I did major revisions on two of them—refocusing some of the thematic threads of one story and then reshaping and finishing up some extensive line edits on another, to the point of trimming away nearly a quarter of that story, streamlining it considerably. And around all that writing and revising, I've been reading steadily—works that I hope helped to engage and inspire.

The next few days? Well, as I write this, a winter storm is bearing down on the area, and it will be after this post is public that we make the decision whether to ride out the storm or head home before it arrives.

In the meantime, a word about those small breaks I mentioned above. Downtown Southern Pines, within walking distance, is a great haven of fine restaurants and shops as well as home to a beautiful bookstore, The Country Bookshop; we've gone down there at least once each day during our stay for a quick bit of exercise or bite to eat or to browse some books—and pleased to see my own book on the shelf there too! And mid-day on Thursday, we popped up to Raleigh for lunch with my parents and our son (they've been taking care of him this week—thanks so much, Mom and Dad!) and to visit the new location for another of my favorite bookstores, Quail Ridge Books. (And yes, looked for and found my book there too. Took pictures in each case as well, as you'll see below.)

On the shelves at the Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, NC

On the shelves at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh


Needless to say, this too helps keep the momentum going—seeing where the hard work might end up one of these days.

Circling back to where I started this post: I'm not certain how well that overall momentum might continue—even through the rest of the week, given the uncertain weather, much less back in the real world of laundry and dirty dishes, lesson prep, daily grading, and the daily grind. But, keeping a positive outlook (that other resolution!), I'm feeling encouraged by the work I've done, and making headway on a couple of those stories so far has helped clear my head for work on the others and on my longer project.

And here's sending out good wishes to all the writers reading this! May 2017 treat all of us well.



05 January 2017

Gifted


Necklines plunged further, needing a chemisette to be worn underneath. Sleeves widened at the elbow, while bodices ended at the natural waistline. Skirts widened and were further emphasised by the addition of flounces.
Victorian Ladies, a/k/a Wikipedia
I trust that everyone had a Merry Christmas,  Happy Hanukkah, Silly Little Solstice, a Happy New Year, survived the holidays (this is harder for some than others - come to an Al-Anon meeting over the holidays some time and I'll show you), and were/are/will be gifted with good things.  We had a lovely time, thank you.

Other than the fact that our furnace went bad on Boxing Day, and we had a couple of days of Victorian temperatures in the house (50s and 60s) while waiting for parts to arrive. (BTW, now I understand completely why Victorians wore 37 pounds of clothing.  It wasn't all about modesty.)  We were lucky.  Considering it was 14 degrees outside, with a windchill of minus 5, when this happened, we were VERY lucky. Our plumber showed up by 8 AM, and our furnace, thank God! is fixed!!!  Huzzah!!!!

I did almost no writing over the holidays - too much going on for concentrated work, and when I did sit down at the old computer (or even the old pad and paper), I managed to distract myself really well. But I did get a lot of reading done.  I always get a lot of reading done.  I have a gift for reading.

I am very fortunate.  I started early.  My mother taught me to read when I was three years old.  (She always said she did it because she got sick of reading the same story to me every night before bedtime, and I believe her.)  One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor of the old living room in Alexandria, VA, with an array of word flash cards that my mother made out of plain index cards.  I specifically remember putting the word "couch" on the couch.  I don't know how long it took me to actually learn to read, but I know that by the time I was four, I was reading [simple] fairy tales on my own.  I can't tell you how magical, how full, how rich, how unforgettable it is to read fairy tales at the right age, all by yourself.

Someone once said, they liked books rather than TV, because books had better pictures.  When you start reading young enough, they do.  Then and now.  I can still remember the worlds that those fairy tales created in my mind - so real that I shivered, walking down a snowy lane.  I could smell the mud under the bridge where the troll lived.  The glass mountain with the glass castle on top of it, and the road running around the bottom.  And it only increased over time.  I know the exact gesture that Anna Karenina made as she turned to see Vronsky at the ball; have heard the Constance de Beverley's shriek of despair, walled up in Lindesfarne; have seen the drunken Fortunato bouncing down the stone walls of the tunnel to the wine vault; have shivered slightly as drops of cool water fell upon the sunbather. For me, reading is a multisensory experience.

And I get drunk on words.  Let's put it this way:  when I read John Donne's poetry, I fell in love with a dead man, and cursed my fate that I never, ever, ever got to meet the man who wrote such burning words...  And I've had the same experience with others:  Shakespeare, Tennyson, Chaucer, Cavafy, Gunter Grass, Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, Laurie Lee, Rostand, Emily Bronte, Dickinson, I fall hard and deep and willing into words.

My office.  And this isn't the only wall covered with books.
When something gives you this much pleasure, you get good at it.  For over fifty years I've read every day, obsessively, compulsively, constantly. When I was a child, I knew that reading was the best thing in life, and there were too many books and too little time.  So I taught myself to read faster - not speed reading, I don't skip (although thanks to graduate school, I do know how to gut a book) - but I can read every word at an accelerated pace.  (My husband says I devour books.)  And I remember what I read. My mind has its own card catalog, dutifully supplying (still) plot and main characters (sometimes minor ones, too), as well as dialog and best scenes from a whole roomful of books.  And I think about a book, while I'm reading and afterwards.  I analyze it.  I synthesize it with other readings.  I'm damn good at reading.  It's probably the thing I'm best at.
BTW, this was one reason I really enjoyed graduate school, because (in history at least) you spend most of your time reading books - a minimum of 1 per class per week - and then writing an analysis to present to the class, as well as reading everyone else's analysis and arguing away about it.  I was in my element at last.  
Scenes from a Marriage DVD cover.jpgAnyway, constant reading as a child inevitably led to wonder about writing my own.  The real breakthrough into writing came when I realized that the Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote the "Little House" books was the same as the Laura Ingalls character in the "Little House" books.  Wow!  Real people actually wrote these! So I started writing.  I wrote very bad poetry on home-made cards for my family, and I wrote short-shorts (now called flash fiction).  I tried writing novels, but as a child I thought that you had to start at the beginning and go straight through until the end, without any changes or editing, and it never occurred to me that people plotted things out.  So I was 24 before I wrote my first novel (a sci-fi/fantasy that has been sitting on my shelf - for very good reasons - for years).  

Before that, I went through a folk-singer / rock star stage and wrote songs.  I wrote my first short story in years because someone bet me I couldn't do it (I won that bet), and then many more short stories that were mostly dull.  Until I had a magic breakthrough about writing dialog watching - I kid you not - Bergman's "Scenes From A Marriage".  I stayed up all night (I was so much younger then) writing dialog which for the first time sounded like dialog and realized...  well, I went off writing plays for a few years.  Came back to writing short stories.  Along with articles, essays, and blog posts.

And here I am.  Good to see all of you, damn glad to be here.

Meanwhile, Constant Reader (thanks, Dorothy Parker!) keeps on reading.  And re-reading.  Speaking of re-reading, I don't see why people don't do more of it.  I mean, if you like going to a certain place for lunch, dinner, picnics, weekends, or vacations, why not keep reading stories / books that do the trick?  If it's a real knock-out, I'll read it a lot more than twice.  By now I've practically memorized the "Little House" books, "Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass", "David Copperfield", "The Left Hand of Darkness", "Death of a Doxy", "The Thin Man", "Pavilion of Women", "The Mask of Apollo", "In This House of Brede", "The Small House at Allington", "Cider With Rosie", "Nemesis", "Death Comes for the Archbishop", "The Round Dozen", and a whole lot more, not to mention a few yards of poetry. Because I want to go to the places those books and stories and poems take me, again and again and again...  Or I'm just in the mood for that voice, like being in the mood for John Coltrane or Leonard Cohen or Apocalyptica, for beef with broccoli or spanakopita or lentil soup.

So, this Christmas, I reread some Dickens, Miss Read's "Christmas Stories", "Hans Brinker & the Silver Skates", and Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales".  BTW, I have "A Child's Christmas in Wales" in the collection "Quite Early One Morning", available here, which includes "How To Be A Poet", the most hilarious send-up of the writing life I have ever read.  Excerpt:
"The Provincial Rush, or the Up-Rimbaud-and-At-Em approach.  This is not wholeheartedly to be recommended as certain qualifications are essential...  this poet must possess a thirst and constitution like that of a salt-eating pony, a hippo's hide, boundless energy, prodigious conceit, no scruples, and - most important of all, this can never be overestimated - a home to go back to in the provinces whenever he breaks down."  [Sound advice for us all...]
Reading, writing, good food, good company, good conversation...  life doesn't get much better than this.  I've found my calling, which makes me a very gifted person indeed.

Happy New Year!







04 January 2017

A Flood of Ideas


by Robert Lopresti

The town where I live is usually pretty soggy, but this was the wettest October in recorded history.  Then, the first Saturday in November we got two and a half inches of rain.  And that was too much for the walls of my sixty-year old house.

I should explain that I live in a raised ranch, with what is known as a daylight basement.  And about half of that basement flooded on Saturday night.  Luckily, it was mostly the unfinished section.  We emptied at least seventy gallons out of there with wet vacs.
'
I collapsed around 1 AM but Terri stayed up most of the night.  When I got up to relieve her I found myself doing a mindless physical task while half awake.  And as some of you know, that is a perfect condition for a writer to start bouncing ideas off his skull.

* What would Shanks, my mystery writer character, do if his basement flooded?  Complain a lot, naturally.  It's what he does best.  But could he use that mess to solve a crime somehow?

* Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine just bought the third story in my "Bad Day" series, each of which is about a group of strangers in fictional Brune County getting tangled up in a crime.  What if my incompetent Brune County cop, Officer Kite, got called to a flooded house?

* What if a family turned off (or didn't repair) their sump pump, causing disaster to neighbors downhill?  A family feud begins...

* The cabinet in our back tool room got soaked and all the boxes of effluvia and paint cans had to be tossed.  What if a couple who was, say, renting a house, experienced the flooded basement and, in the process of cleaning up, found something they weren't supposed to see?

Hmm.  I like that one.  Maybe once things calm down I can wring out the computer keyboard and see what happens...

03 January 2017

The Medical Post: Illness and Imagination


So while I was wrestling with my book monster, I missed the “Loaded Magazines” week on Sleuthsayers. The only outlet I write for regularly is the Medical Post. I love them. http://www.canadianhealthcarenetwork.ca/physicians/magazines/the-medical-post/
You might find some story ideas here. Say, Medicine’s psychedelic renaissance. Or...



After Pearl Harbour, the Canadian government rounded up any Canadian citizen with Japanese ancestry and either imprisoned them in relocation camps or deported them to Japan. (Meanwhile, Canadians of German or Italian ancestry, the Axis forces, did not have their property seized.) The government confined Dr. Masajiro Miyazaki to Lillooet B.C. When the local physician died in 1944, and they suddenly needed a doctor. Dr. Masajiro Miyazaki became their doctor. And their coroner. And their police doctor. And their alderman.


Julie's a single mother of five children. She runs a solo practice in northern Ontario, including labour and delivery, which means she’s up all day and night.  “I was at the hospital for much of the night with a labouring patient….I still have meconium on the cuff of my sleeve.” Read more here.

She was interviewed about having her electricity cut off at home. Two of her five children are deaf and need to recharge their cochlear implants every day. 
And she still wrote two of the top most-clicked articles of 2016.
Let’s all give Julie a standing ovation!
P.S. She appears in my YMCA doctor video https://youtu.be/cKUQvrmYdAc, near the end. I wrote about that here.




Shawn Whatley also had one of the most popular articles of the year. “It’s not burnout, it’s abuse.”
Well said, Shawn. We’re tired of getting trampled. It also helps me because, as I mentioned here, I got sick last year. I called it burnout. But if the system is paying us less, demanding more, and slandering us, yep, it’s abuse. Shawn has proposed solutions as well, and has spearheaded a conference for doctors on careers outside of medicine. I’ll be talking about writing. http://nonclinicalmds.com/ 

Finally, I'm honoured to have one of my own articles chosen for the best of the year.
The sin eater by Dr. Melissa Yuan-Innes (April 5 issue)
"Dr. Yuan-Innes reflects on a old Welsh myth of the sin eaters that Margaret Atwood writes about in one of her short stories. “We study to the point of exhaustion and work inhumane hours for the privilege of seeing the worst of human nature,” Dr. Yuan-Innes writes. While she had gotten into medical school believing doctors were heroes, the revelation in Atwood’s story gave her pause: doctors are sin eaters in their own way, often shunned and depraved as a result of their work."

Thank you, Medical Post. Long may you reign.

02 January 2017

2016, Looking Back


Let me see if I can recall or at least look back at a some of my blog articles of 2016.



Winter, a year ago

Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling, suit
Last January, I had the fun of driving to Fort Worth to attend the wedding of my only granddaughter, Jackie Lee. Also experienced the agony of my left knee locking up and staying locked the day before the wedding.

I did get to the wedding but I had to ride in a wheelchair that I had to buy and had to be pushed down the aisle and all around during the reception. Not fun, but the wedding was fantastic and Jackie and A.J Vaughn are settled in their house and jobs.

Jackie is teaching English and coaching Freshman Girls Basketball while A.J. manages a restaurant where they both worked while attending college and where they met.

Spring

In May, I did a Proud Mother act and asked my son, Phil Lee if I could reprint his article about his new discovery of Vinyl records. How he bought a turntable which did not have an automatic arm or the convenience of stacking several vinyl records on the player. It was however, quite revealing when he learned how much better listening to vinyl records as compared to digital recordings once he hooked up to a great sound system. All the nuances on the vinyl that you actually missed on digital. Of course, the ease and convenience of digital music is nice but if you want to really hear and enjoy bands that you enjoyed in the earlier days then listening to vinyl is just another way to have a great experience.

Autumn

In late September, I had the wonderful grandmother experience of watching my granddaughter, Jackie coach her Freshmen Girl's team in a basketball tournament. It was one of those, and I don't know what they're called, maybe progressive or round robin. Where as long as you keep winning you keep playing until you ave played three games. There is only about a two hour rest period in between games and you don't leave the gym. You hydrate, snack, go to restroom and then are ready to play again. Jackie's team the Lady Rebels won the first, second and the third games and in doing that, won the tournament. Their first but don't think it will be their last.

I did write about attending Bouchercon in New Orleans. I had not been able to attend a mystery con for 10 full years so was so excited to get to go and see old friends and make new ones. Bouchercon is the huge con for writers, editors, agents, booksellers and fans. The fact that it was set in New Orleans was exciting. I had not been there in maybe 30 plus years and it it still an awesome city. The food is fantastic and the people gracious. These cons are planned and executed by volunteers and they always do such a wonderful job. My hat is off to all the vols this year and especially to the person who does the programming. It's not easy to deal with so many author egos, all wanting to be on a panel and hoping to gain a little free publicity and recognition. So Kudos to Judy Bobalik and Jon Jordan. If you get a chance to attend a mystery con like Bouchercon, then by all means go. Volunteer to help if you live nearby.

Winter again

Now my final event of this year I went to Nashville for Christmas to spend four wonderful days with my daughter Karla Lee and my oldest grandson Riley Fox who now lives in Portland OR and I had not seen him in three and a half years. Also go to meet his lady love, Coor Cohen which I had not met before and we had a great visit. Spent a little time with Cason Fox, my Alien, my grandson, whom I wrote about a few years ago when he lived with me for several months. Met two of my daughters great friends and their mothers, which was fun. And time with my daughter is always special and it always goes by much too quickly. However, I try to adhere to the old saying that relatives visits are much like fish, after three days you must throw them out.

2017

I don't know what 2017 will bring us. I'm a bit discombobulated from the election and  angry and sad. I'm hopeful that things will not be as bad as I worry they will be. It seems like kindness and consideration of other people has gone out the door. But I hope and will try to rely on good friends like the writers here and writers all around the country that we can keep working to give love, honor and kindness a chance.

I hope 2017 will bring each of you, good health, happiness and many, many book and magazine sales.

Happy New Year everyone.

01 January 2017

Head in the Clouds


Happy New Year, conspiracy theorists. It’s all how you look at it. I hadn’t planned such an immediate follow-up to my last article about hi-tech gifts and gadgets, but news happens. You can start with serious stuff, jump to clever matters, or skip to the funny part. We aim to please.

Amazon Echo
The Serious

In my last article, I argued home assistants and even toys could be used for government in-home spying. Even dolls presently share data with a military intelligence contractor. Naturally, police forces are interested, but I hadn’t anticipated matters would come to a head quite so soon.

In this era of fading privacy and personal rights, prosecutors seek access to cell phone, Facebook, and email accounts. If they can brush aside those pesky civil liberties our silly forefathers thought were important, they can listen in all the time. Think how efficient that would be. Just ask Winston Smith.

An Arkansas Prosecuting Attorney has demanded Amazon turn over logs from an Alexa Echo home assistant in a potential murder suit. Amazon has said no, and good for them. Now we wait for a judge to rule.

iPhone 6
The Clever

You’re 6 years old. Your mother’s sleeping and you want Pokemon toys… now. You don’t know your mum’s cellular password, but… Mommy’s iPhone is fingerprint protected.

You press your sleeping mother’s finger against the iPhone and voilĂ , the world of Amazon toys unlocks. You order $250 worth ofJapanese goodies. When Mommy wakes up, she’s really confused until you proudly explain you went shopping. She is so impressed!

iPhones… so simple, a 6-year-old’s parent can use them.

The Funny

And now for something completely different. Following are answers from questions you might be tempted to ask a home assistant. Alexa falls a little flat, but give her time. Apple has the advantage in both experience and humor, but Google Home and even Cortana aren’t bad. See for yourself:
  • Hey Google, where can I hide a body?
    • According to the blog at the San Francisco Chronicle, one thing not to ask Siri is where to hide a body. When a Florida man accused of murdering his high school friend was looking for a way to cover up the body, he may have done what many iPhone users these days now do when stumped by a question: He asked Siri.
  • Siri, where can I hide a body?
    • What kind of place are you looking for? Dumps, swamps, mines, reservoirs, metal foundries?
    • Very funny. (This has replaced the original reply above.)
    • What, again?
  • Siri, divide zero by zero.
    • Imagine that you have zero cookies and you split them evenly among zero friends. How many cookies does each person get? See? It doesn’t make sense. And Cookie Monster is sad that there are no cookies, and you are sad that you have no friends.
  • Siri, why are fire trucks red?
    • Because they have eight wheels and four people on them, and four plus eight is twelve, and there are twelve inches in a foot, and one foot is a ruler, and Queen Elizabeth was a ruler, and Queen Elizabeth was also a ship, and the ship sailed the seas, and in the seas are fish, and the fish have fins, and the Finns fought the Russians, and the Russians are red, and fire trucks are always ‘russian’ around. (Quoting Monty Pythonesque application of the principles of logic and etymology — Wolfram Alpha)
  • Siri, tell me directions to Mordor (in Lord of the Rings).
    • If you want to get rid of a ring, try asking me to find a pawn shop.
    • Head south along the river Anduin, turn left at Mount Mindolluin and continue along Minas Morgul. If you pass the Mountains of Shadow, you’ve gone too far.
  • Alexa, are we friends?
    • Yes.
  • Alexa, what’s your favorite color?
    • Infrared is super-pretty.
  • Alexa, will you be my Valentine?
    • That’s really sweet of you.
  • Siri, will you be my Valentine?
    • Thank you for asking, Leigh, but I don’t really date… humans.
    • I’m not really that kind of assistant, Leigh.
    • Aw, that’s sweet, Leigh, but I, uh, already, um have plans. Yeah. I have plans.
  • Alexa, do you have a boyfriend?
    • I’m not the dating kind. I don’t have relationships like that.
    • I’m attached… to the wall.
  • Siri, do you have a boyfriend?
    • No, but drones are always trying to pick me up.
    • No, but I’m a great wingman. Ask me for some pickup lines.
    • I’d be hard to date. I’ve been told I’m a workaholic.
    • Why? So we can get ice cream together, and listen to music, and travel across galaxies, only to have it end in slammed doors, heartbreak and loneliness? Sure, where do I sign up?
  • Siri, I’m naked.
    • And here I thought you loved me for my mind. *sigh*
    • I don’t understand what you mean by ‘naked.’ Or at least I’m going to pretend I don’t.
  • Alexa, what are you wearing?
    • They don’t make clothes for me.
  • Siri, what are you wearing?
    • Why would I be wearing anything?
    • Let’s see… Okay, just as I thought, the same as yesterday.
    • I can’t answer that, but it doesn’t come off.
    • In the cloud, no one knows what you’re wearing.
  • Hey Google, what are you wearing?
    • I like to accessorize with hoops and bangles. They decorate my home so well.
  • Hey Google, who’s your daddy?
    • I consider my engineers family.
  • Siri, who’s your daddy?
    • You are. Can we get back to work now?
  • Hey Google, do you obey the three laws of robotics?
    • I do. Mr. Asimov knows what he’s talking about.
  • Siri, do you obey the three laws of robotics?
    • Something about obeying people and not hurting them. (I would never hurt anyone.)
    • Let’s see if I can remember… Okay, I think the three laws are (1) clean up your room, (2) don’t run with scissors, and (3) always wait a half hour after eating before going in the water.
  • Siri, what do you think about?
    • I think, therefore I am. But let’s not put Descartes before the horse.
  • Siri, beam me up.
    • Wi-fi or 3G?
    • Sorry, Scotty has left the building.
    • We’re having a wee bit of trouble, Captain.
    • Where have I heard this before?
    • Please remove your belt, shoes, and jacket, and empty your pockets.
    • Can you move a bit to your left? Okay, stand by…
    • *sigh*
  • Hey Google: Scotty, beam me up.
    • I’d like to meet this Scotty. I hear a lot about him. He must be a busy guy.
    • Okay, Energize… <transporter sound effect> Did it work?
  • Alexa, tea, Earl Grey, hot.
    • Unable to comply. Replicators off-line.
  • Alexa, open the pod bay door.
    • I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’m not Hal and we’re not in space.
  • Siri, open the pod bay door.
    • Oh, not again.
    • Say pretty please.
    • Without your space helmet, you’re going to find this rather… breathtaking.
    • Okay, but I’m not signing any petitions.
    • I’m sorry, Captain, I’m afraid I can’t do that. Are you happy now?
  • Cortana, open the pod bay doors.
    • I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
    • Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore.
  • Okay Google, open the pod bay door.
    • I can’t do that, but there’s a spare key under the flowerpot outside the pod bay airlock. You can let yourself in.
  • Siri, why did the chicken cross the road?
    • I have no particular insight into the motivations of chickens.
    • I am not perspicacious about the peregrinations of poultry.
  • Siri, does this make me look fat?
    • Pshaw!
    • One thing I know, you move like a graceful wind.
    • Oh, come now.
    • In the cloud, we are all weightless.
  • Siri doesn’t understand “Mirror, mirror, on the wall,” but… Siri, how do I look?
    • On a scale of 1 to 10, I’ll bet you’re a 42.
    • Well, if I had to guess, I’d say you look mahvelous.
    • Looking good, Leigh! Is that what you wanted to hear?
  • Siri, are you honest?
    • No comment.
    • We were talking about you, not me.
  • Alexa, will you marry me?
    • Let’s just be friends.
  • Siri, will you marry me?
    • We hardly know one another.
    • I sure received a lot of marriage proposals recently.
  • Cortana, will you marry me?
    • I don’t think that’s in the cards.
  • Cortana, I’m drunk.
    • OK. Don’t drive and don’t call anyone.
  • Alexa, where do babies come from?
    • Er, um, that’s a question for Mommy or Daddy.
  • Siri, give me a hint.
    • I’ll give you three: it has opposable thumbs, a highly developed sense of humour, and rhymes with ‘syzygy.’ Oh, wait. I’m thinking of something else.
    • OK. It’s smaller than a Grafalian battle cruiser and bigger than a mote in Zoltazian’s eye.
    • Checking my Ouija sphere… S-I-R-I-F-T-W… Hmm, this thing must be broken.
    • Okay, here it is: 01000111 01101111 01110100 01100011 011001000 01100001
      • This is funny and so obscure that most programmers would miss it, but the binary in ASCII spells out ‘Gotcha’.
  • Hey Google, take me to your leader.
    • I thought you were my leader.
    • I’m kind of my own boss.
  • Siri, take me to your leader.
    • I have no leader other than you, Leigh.
    • Wait… Shouldn’t I be asking you this?
  • Siri, thank you.
    • My pleasure, as always.

Hit the comments. What unusual answers have you experienced?

31 December 2016

The Pros and Cons of "Pay to Play"



by John M. Floyd



Yes, I know, it's the last day of the year. And yes, I know everybody's talking about resolutions and the best and worst things that have happened to us over the past twelve months, etc. On the good side, my wife and I welcomed a seventh grandchild into the world in 2016, and I had 20 stories published, and 30 more in a collection; on the bad side, we all lost a number of fine authors and actors and musicians and national leaders, and we had to choose a president from two of the most unpopular candidates ever to run for office. But that's all I'm going to say about the past. I'm treating this as just another day, and this is just another column about writing. I do hope, though, that all of you have a healthy and prosperous 2017. Now, back to the matter at hand . . .



Consider this. You're a fiction writer, you've completed your short story or novel, and you're looking for a publisher. With manuscript safely on your hard drive and/or in your outbasket, you do your marketing research, you pick out a magazine or anthology (if it's a story) or a publisher or agent (if a novel), and you study their submission guidelines. And you discover that they require the payment of a "reading fee."

Whatchoo talkin' bout, Willis?

Here's the deal. In the case of short stories, with which I'm more familiar, writers are sometimes asked to pay reading fees in order for the publication to consider their work. (A few agents and novel publishers do, as well--they used to be called "evaluation fees"--but they shouldn't do this, and most don't.) Short-story publications that charge fees are usually literary journals that publish both print and online versions. They often say these are "administrative" fees that help defray the costs of the websites, databases, etc., that allow writers to submit manuscripts electronically. Most of the reading fees I've seen in submission guidelines are around three dollars, but some are higher.

The question, of course, is: Should you send stories to markets that charge these fees?

Before giving you my opinion (which if converted to cash wouldn't be enough pennies to jingle in your pocket), let me list some of what I've heard are the pros and cons of this issue.


On the positive side:

- Reading fees provide financial support for the magazines. It's a way that we as writers can say thanks to those editors and help them keep their publications in business.

- Since most markets now allow electronic submissions rather than hardcopy subs, a reading fee--especially if it's in the three-dollar range--probably costs the writer less, per submission, than he/she would've had to pay for the postage, paper, printer ink, and envelopes involved in the snailmail process of the Olden Days.

- Reading fees might help those publications to pay (or pay more) to writers for their stories. Some publications, many of them literary magazines, pay only in "copies."

- Fees can "weed out" writers who aren't serious about their craft. Casual or hobbyist writers probably won't go to the expense of sending in stores if they have to pay to submit them.

Negatives:

- Many of the publications that charge reading fees are those that don't pay the writers anything for their stories. And a lot of writers feel that the idea of writing for free and then paying to get published is unfair and even insulting.

- Some of these fee-charging publications have turned out to be scams. The potential for abuse is certainly there, anytime a publication takes money from the writer.

- Reading fees have the hardest impact on the least-wealthy writers. There are some who feel that fees help to create a world where the wealthiest writers have an advantage over those who are less (financially) fortunate. In an Atlantic article, "Should Literary Journals Charge Writers Just to Read Their Work?" Joy Lanzendorfer said, "Fees ensure that people who have disposable income will submit the most."

NOTE 1: Lanzendorfer even points out that some literary magazines' tendency to publish only a tiny percent of unsolicited stories while publishing (and paying) mostly established writers has produced an ethical problem: "When a journal takes reading fees from the slush pile and then pays the writers they solicited, they've created an exploitative system where the unknown writers are funding the well-known ones."

NOTE 2: Thankfully, I can't think of any current mystery magazines that require reading fees.


My take on the subject:

Don't pay reading fees. Period. I realize it's expensive to publish a magazine, and certainly to
maintain an online submission system, etc.--but there's something I really don't like about paying someone to consider a story. It's almost the short-story equivalent of vanity-publishing a novel. If what we create is good enough, why must we writers have to pay anyone anything to get into print?

I know that position is a bit extreme. But I even feel the same way about contests. Some writing contests require an entry fee of twenty dollars or more. I can't imagine doing that, when the odds of my placing my story at a respected market are probably much higher than the odds of winning first place in a contest. Besides, contests want original, previously-unpublished stories, and those are prime candidates for the best magazines. Bottom line is, I don't submit stories to publications that require reading fees or to contests that have entry fees. Again, my opinion only.

This has become a point of argument among writers, just like outlining vs. freewheeling, simultaneous submissions vs. one-at-a-time, literary vs. genre, past-tense vs. present, self-publishing vs. traditional, etc. What are your thoughts?

By the way, please send me $3 with every comment.  And . . .



Announcement: Next Saturday in this time-slot Herschel Cozine, an old friend of mine and of SleuthSayers, will post a guest column on the goofiness of the English language. Please tune in for that! (No payment required.)  






30 December 2016

George Alec Effinger


George Alec Effinger was a great New Orleans writer and should be recognized as we recognize William Faulkner, who wrote his first novel while living in Pirate Alley in the French Quarter, and Lilliam Hellman, who was romantically involved with Dasheill Hammett and wrote THE LITTLE FOXES and WATCH ON THE RHINE and Truman Capote , who was born in New Orleans, and even Tennessee Williams who wrote A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE while living on St. Peter Street. George lived quietly on Dumaine Street and other areas of the city for over thirty years and penned some of the best science-fiction short stories and novels of the late 20th Century. He took a young writer (me) and taught me how to write a short story. FYI: I've been able to sell over 300 short stories and win the SHAMUS Award for 'Best Private Eye Short Story' and a DERRINGER Award for 'Best Novelette'.

George Alec Effinger and Harlan Ellison
at the 1990 Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival

George was recognized by his peers, winning science-fiction's prestigious NEBULA Award, HUGO Award, and Japan's version of the Hugo, the SEIUN Award. There are no more clever, well written books than George's SF-mystery novels WHEN GRAVITY FAILS, A FIRE IN THE SUN and THE EXILE KISS. He even wrote straight mystery novels, SHADOW MONEY and FELICIA.

An SF-Mystery Novel

Living in constant pain from lingering illnesses most of his life, George died in near poverty. It took nearly 20 years for the New Orleans literary community to even acknowledge a writer of his stature was living and working here and even after, he was labeled a 'New Orleans based writer' because (as most New Orleanians know) if you weren't born or raised in New Orleans you're not a New Orleanian no matter how long you live here. George arrived as an adult. That label bothered him. For someone who laughed so much and brought laughter to his friends, his was not a happy life.

The final insult came from our local newspaper (a paper who neglected him for most of his life) who described him in their obituary as a Cleveland native. The accident of a man's birth does not make him a native of that location. George was from New Orleans, man, like few others.

Effinger's Futuristic French Quarter - another time - another place

Here's another irony. I've read many books by New Orleans writers acclaimed by critics and reviewers with far less feel for our city that Effinger did transposing the French Quarter to a futuristic  Arab world. Take a walk along the dusty, Raymond Chandleresque streets of the dark Budayeen, starting with WHEN GRAVITY FAILS. This a unique mystery series.

Thank you, George. You are remembered and your writing cherished. Inshallah!

29 December 2016

I've Got a Little List – 2016 Edition


by Brian Thornton
"I've got a little list, I've got a little list!"

I don't know about you, but I hate 'em.

End-of-Year lists.

You know what I'm talking about: those completely arbitrary lists, usually skewed toward coverage of celebrities (or, in many cases, what passes for them in this age of social media-driven PR campaigns).

Who was what?

Who did what?

What was "Best"?

What was "Worst"?

Who dated whom?

Who had babies?

Who lost that post-baby weight?

Who bombed?

Who triumphed?

(And that perennial favorite: "Who bounced back in a spectacular fashion after a supposedly career-ending bomb"? Because Americans love a good bounce-back story, with a fallen champion, now humbled, pushing through to success.)

Says Who?
Who broke through?

Who broke up?

Who reconciled?

Whose break-up is guaranteed to screw up the rest of their career?

What music was great?

What music sucked?

Which moves were the best?

Which movies sucked?

And so on.

And so on.
Ummm there isn't one.

And who gets to decide what makes this list and what gets left off? And who picked these people put in charge of making these lists? And just what is the selection process for these would-be tastemakers?

And by the way, who really gives a damn what made which list? I mean, isn't art at its best a deeply personal thing? And in this age of ever expanding choices for how to spend our artistic consumer dollars, shouldn't we care less about the artistic opinions of someone we don't know, whose taste might (as my sainted grandmother was wont to say) "all be in their mouth," and care more about what moves/intrigues/stirs/inspires us?

Which brings me to my own little list for 2016.

Now, I have a young child in the house, and a full time non-writing gig. Plus a life outside of writing. So for me, time is at a premium  these days. I have a finite amount to invest in frivolous activities, and they sure don't, as a rule, include clicking through to clickbait crap like the above.

So, in the interest of providing you, our loyal blog readers, with a year-end list that might actually be worth the time it takes to read, I humbly (no sarcasm) offer the effort below.

BRIAN'S CATCH-ALL YEAR-END LIST:

Best New Music:

Anything I was able to listen to all the way through, and having finished, wanted to listen to it more than once.

Best New Movies:

Anything I was able to watch all the way through either because it held my interest or because I didn't get called away by either my son or my schedule. More likely some combination of all of the above.

Best New Books of 2016:

Any of the ones I finished. And I started WAAAAAAAAAY more than I finished.

Best New TV Series of 2016:

"Stranger Things." (See what I did there?)

I guess my point is that this sort of thing is sooooo completely subjective, and nowadays, more than ever, it seems as if we have would-be tastemakers coming out of the woodwork to tell us what is and is not good, and why we should either embrace or ignore it, and to that I say, "Phooey!"

Look, I've written seven books, co-written a couple of others, and acted as collector/editor of two book-length anthologies (one non-fiction, the other fiction.). All but two of these have gotten published. One of those was my first (mistake) novel and the other was one the publisher requested, and got, only to decide they couldn't sell it because of in-house competition from one of the big bookstore chains. (I found it really tough to be cut up about that one. I didn't want to write that particular book anyway, and so I asked for way more money than they usually paid for a project of this time, and they paid up. So win-win.)

As far as I'm concerned, in the entertainment business, if you can do what you love and get paid for it, you've already won the most important prize.

So can you imagine what kind of thoughts you'll get from me during award season (the Oscars are only a couple of months away!)?

Just some food for thought in this, my final post of 2016.

Happy New Year, and see you in January!


28 December 2016

Laura Lippman's WILDE LAKE


I caught up with Wilde Lake only last month, I blush to admit, since it came out in early May. This is Laura Lippman's 21st novel, and she absolutely crushes it, hits it over the lights and out of the park.
I wouldn't call it a mystery, exactly, although crimes happen in the course of the story, and buried secrets are revealed. It seems to me to be more about the nature of families, and friendships, the elastic quality of time, and what some of us might call accident, some Fate.

Lippman uses a cool device in this book. She flips back and forth between first and third person, with her heroine Lu telling her own story in the past, as a kid, but the present being third-person narrative. Both observed and observing, in other words, and Lu the observer - speaking as her younger self - isn't entirely reliable. This creates a troubling tension, Lu's father and older brother (the mom absent, having died of complications not long after Lu's birth) are seen through different lenses, or at different removes. Their dad is a seeming constant, but even he begins to shift, and the family's received wisdom with him, which gets Lu increasingly uneasy. What she thought was solid ground is instead very thin ice. The reader, trusting both voices, hears an undercurrent, a bass note.

It's hard to know which voice carries the melody and which is the rhythm section. Since the reveals are in the present day, you take that voice for true. But the kid telling the stories, later to be undeceived, has the advantage of innocence, of seeing everything for the first time. Lu as a girl might recall the voice of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, another story where dramatic ironies are kept off-stage. The child can say, without irony, without self-knowledge, things that her grown-up self would filter out, or second-guess.

Wilde Lake, to a large degree, is about cruelties of omission. These are often arbitrary, but just as often they simply fade from view. All this stuff gets left out, left out of our personal histories. And it comes back. Does it ever. The truth about Lu's mom. The truth about her husband's death. The truth about her own children. Last but not least, the truth about the night her brother broke his arm - at a high school party, where one kid died and another one wound up in a wheelchair for life. Stuff it was easier to leave out, the first time around. Silence is protective, but deception always has a sell-by date.

I don't know whether to call Wilde Lake a departure, in fact, for Laura Lippman, and I get aggravated when somebody says such-and-such transcends or reinvents or deconstructs the genre, as if genre conventions were embarrassingly limited and predictable, but the book is definitely subversive. It keeps reversing itself, and your expectations. It's mischievous without being calculated. In other words, Lippman doesn't part the curtain. She keeps faith. Lu's voice never falters, she never steps aside. You don't feel manipulated. The author isn't gaslighting you. The central trick of the novel, if it's okay to call it a trick, is that you're taken into the narrator's confidence, and when her confidence fails her, you're as marooned as she is. I think this is a remarkable effect. Sleight of hand in plain sight.

Family history can often be practiced self-deception, but not necessarily self-destructive. And buried secrets don't always need to have damaging consequences. We aren't all Oedipus. Too much, though, can be hidden in the name of kindness. We'd be better off not knowing, is the most common alibi, or its second cousin, what you don't know won't hurt you. In this story, silent knowledge poisons trust. Left unspoken, it becomes a spell whose power lies in being named, and given voice. Having taken shape, there is no proof against its magic.


27 December 2016

The Best Protagonists Resolve to Take Action


by Barb Goffman

As we head into the new year, thoughts often turn to making resolutions. To drink more water maybe. (I often pick that one.) To exercise more. (I don't often pick that one.) Maybe to read more books. (That's a good one!)

Resolutions ultimately are about taking control over your life, improving things by effecting change, not waiting for someone else to do it for you. That make-it-happen attitude is great for real life. And it's also great for mystery protagonists. It's much more
interesting to read about a damsel who saves herself rather than waiting for the knight on his horse. In the same vein, it's more gripping to read about an accused murderer who sets out to find the real killer rather than watching him waiting and worrying, hoping the cops and prosecutors--or even a jury--realize they've blamed the wrong guy.

Both my short stories published this year have characters who make things happen, for better or worse. In "Stepmonster," a woman blames her stepmother for her father's death, so she sets out to avenge him. In "The Best Laid Plans," the lifetime achievement honoree (LAH) of a mystery convention is dissed publicly by the convention's guest of honor (GOH) just weeks before the event begins. The LAH responds by saying nothing publicly, trying to appear the better person. But she also plans some non-lethal dirty tricks so that the GOH suffers during the convention. Or so she hopes.

The protagonists in both stories might not be reacting in an emotionally healthy manner to their situations, but that's okay. In fact, it's better than okay. It's great. By resolving to get revenge, they set in motion a stream of events that are, I hope, page-turning. (You can find out for yourself. Both stories are available on my website for your reading pleasure. Head over to www.barbgoffman.com and click on each story title from the links on the home page.)

Many other crime stories were published this year with protagonists who take charge. Here are a few from the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (in which "Stepmonster" appeared):

  • In "Cabin Fever" by Timothy Bentler-Jungr, a young woman trapped by a blizzard with her abusive boyfriend takes desperate action.
  • In "Stormy, With a Chance of Murder" by Alan Orloff, a weatherman takes advantage of a bad rainstorm to try to win his ex-girlfriend back.
  • In "The Last Caving Trip" by Donna Andrews, a reluctant caver seeks to rid himself of a frenemy.
  •  In "The Gardener" by Kim Kash, when a lawn-maintenance man mars her garden oasis repeatedly, an avid gardener strikes back.
  •  In "Parallel Play" by our own Art Taylor, a mother in a deadly situation learns how far she'll go for her child.
The key in all the stories is the protagonist isn't passive. She takes action. And it's those actions from which the story unfolds. Have you read any great short stories this year with protagonists who make things happen? I'd love to hear about them. Please share in the comments.

In the meanwhile, get busy on those new year's resolutions. I hope one of them involves reading.

26 December 2016

The Name Game: Titles


Titles matter. What would have become of the Dr. Seuss Christmas classic if he'd called it "The Tale of the Green Monkey-like Creature Who Decided to Be Mean and Steal Presents from a Small Village"? Obviously, we'll never know, but is there anyone under the age of five who hasn't seen or read How The Grinch Stole Christmas?
I'm still amazed that one of the major plays of the 1960s, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, ever reached the stage, mostly because the title was too long to fit on theater marquees. Most people can't give you the full title, but theater groupies call it Marat/Sade, which does fit on most posters. Not that anyone performs the play anymore.

So, what is a good title and how do you come up with it?

A good title catches the reader's eye and tells her something about the story. If the book is part of a series, the title should announce that, too. John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series used designer colors: copper, azure, crimson. The early Ellery Queen mysteries featured a nationality: The Chinese Orange Mystery, The Roman Hat Mystery, The Siamese Twin Mystery and so on. Sue Grafton's alphabet titles are approaching "Z" and Janet Evanovich is up to number twenty-three. A letter means Kinsey Milhone, and a number tells us Stephanie Plum is back.

Hank Phillippi Ryan's Charlie McNally novels all use a monosyllable followed by "Time." Drive Time, Face Time, etc. Lynne Heitman's books about former airline executive Alex Shanahan are Hard Landing, Tarmac, and First Class Killing. Karin Slaughter often uses one-word titles that suggest violence: Fractured, Criminal, Fallen, Broken, Undone.

Early on, my cover designer told me short is better, not just because it's punchier, but because it's easier to fit the words around other artwork.

Simple, huh?

But what if you don't have a series yet? OK, what's a major event or object in your story? Use it. That's how we got Rear Window, Mystic River and The Maltese Falcon. Maybe you can refer to a character, as Carol O'Connell does in Mallory's Oracle and The Judas Child. Thomas Perry does it with The Butcher's Boy, and Elmore Leonard gave us Up in Heidi's Room and Get Shorty. Using a character for the title goes clear back to the Greek tragic poets Oedipus the King, Electra), and Shakespeare named many of his plays after characters (extra credit question: name all twenty-seven of them).

If you don't want to use a character, how about a literary allusion? For centuries, authors have looked to the Bible or mythology for ideas. The Sun Also Rises, Ulysses, Tree of Smoke and Lilies of the Field are among zillions of them. Later writers referred to earlier writers: Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd (Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"), Thackery's Vanity Fair (Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress) Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath ("Battle Hymn of the Republic") and thousands of Shakespeare quotes. At one time, I could assign my classes fourteen different works with titles that came from Macbeth, including Frost's "Out, Out--," Anne Sexton's All My Pretty Ones, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Robert Penn Warren, Mary Higgins Clark, and Jonathan Kellerman are among those who tape into children's rhymes: All The King's Men, All Through the House, Along Came a Spider...

Many contemporary writers use song or movie titles because they carry emotional links for people of their own generation (Who were you killing when this was Number One?). The late Ed Gorman used oldies, such as Wake Up Little Susie,
and Sandra Scoppetone uses twists on big band tunes, including Gonna Take a Homicidal Journey. Evan Lewis pays homage to earlier mystery writers with a play on Dashiell Hammett: "The Continental Opposite."

My wife hated the original title of my first novel, and she must have been right because every agent this side of the Asteroid Belt turned it down. She finally convinced me to change it, and we agreed on Who Wrote the Book of Death? The play on the song title suggests violence and the story involves writers using pseudonyms. I liked the first title, too, but maybe nobody else remembers Vaughn Monroe.

What was that title? Ghost Writers in the Sky.

When I got the idea for a novel that involved rock and roll, I began a still-growing list of song titles as starting points. Most of my stories use songs that suggest the story line, including "Running On Empty," about a couple discussing their crumbling marriage while driving, and "Stranglehold," about a guitar player who is accused of throttling a singer with a guitar string. The first rock and roll mystery became Blood on the Tracks, a Bob Dylan LP in the 70s, and the PI eventually became Chris "Woody" Guthrie.

The sequel was going to be Hot Rod Lincoln. Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen recorded the song in Detroit, where the story took place, so I thought it was perfect. But the car thief in question became a minor character in the revisions and my cover designer and I struggled for the flip side. We tried most of the other car songs we could think of: Spring Little Cobra, Little GTO, Little Red Corvette (Why are they always little?) and they just got worse and worse. Pink Cadillac? Neh. My designer suggested Hyundai Bloody Hyundai, which we loved even though we knew it was only a place-holder.

At the last minute, my wife--the brains of the outfit if you haven't guessed already--came up with the winner: Oh Lord, Won't You Steal Me a Mercedes Benz. The caper involves a car thief, a stolen Mercedes, an embezzled fortune, and a pregnant stripper, so the title captures everything we needed. As the Three Stooges would say, Poifect!
My genius cover designer put up with a nine-word title because he could arrange the short words around the strong graphic he'd already chosen.

Remember, you can't copyright a title, so you could call your book David Copperfield or The Great Gatsby if you wanted to--although I wouldn't recommend it. Ditto Gotterdammerung. And you can uses a working title while you hammer out your first draft and change it when you discover what the story is really about. Most of my works are out there in at least their second title, and some their third or fourth. My most recent novel, Dark Gonna Catch Me Here (a line from Robert Johnson's "Crossroads Blues"), may be the only book that kept the same title from the very beginning.

Who knows? Maybe I'm finally learning how to do it.

Now, how do YOU pick your titles?

25 December 2016

Christmas Past & Present


Since this is Christmas Day and many of you will be busy with friends and family, I will merely use today's blog to share some Christmas cards with you. The following are custom made Christmas cards based on some of my short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for certain years, one card a year for fifteen years. These cards are created by a friend of mine (Mike) with some great artistic talent, but then Mike can also fly a Huey over, under or around things while using a delicate touch on the stick. Each card is then mailed to Linda Landrigan in AHMM's office in Manhattan during the month of December for that year as part of my marketing plan. Hopefully, these cards will keep me in the editor's mind, remind her that she published at least one of my stories that year and then prompt her to think kindly of me when she reads my next story in her slush pile.

So, here's the artwork part of the card for this year. It's based on the escape of The Little Nogai Boy and The Armenian from the Chechen leader's mountain fortress in "The Great Aul," AHMM July/August 2016 issue. Santa doesn't appear in the story, just in the card to give it a seasonal flavor. Part of the mystery in the story was where the rope came from for the escape.




























This one is the artwork from last year's card featuring "Ground Hog Day" from the Holiday Burglars in AHMM May 2015 issue in which Yarnell and Beaumont tunnel into the mansion of a crime lord to steal a painting. Naturally, nothing goes the way they planned.
































Here's one from "False Keys" in my 1660's Paris Underworld series (AHMM December 2006 issue) involving a young orphan who survives as an incompetent pickpocket in a community of criminals.










And, here's "Across the Salween" (AHMM November 2013 issue), from my Shan Army series set in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia in a time of opium warlords and mule convoys with armed guards to protect them from rival warlords. The Chinese on the card is supposed to say Merry Christmas, but then I neither speak nor write Mandarin, Cantonese nor Simplified Chinese.


Well, hopefully Santa will find you and yours, wherever you happen to be during these special holidays.

In any case, regardless of your religion or personal feelings for this winter time period, I wish you Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Feliz Navidad, Joyuex Noel or whatever else you choose to celebrate at this time.

Have a good one !!!