04 February 2017

For Dialogue Lovers Only


All writers have things that we enjoy most (and least) about the process of creating fiction. Some of these preferences, I think, are related to our backgrounds--former journalists/nonfiction-writers seem to be especially good at descriptions and exposition, psychology folks seem to focus on emotions and relationships, teachers like style and editing, engineers seem more comfortable with plotting and structure, etc. Then again, some say our prior and non-writing experiences don't matter a whit; we just like what we like.

I can speak only for myself. My two favorite tasks in writing a story are, for whatever reasons, (1) outlining the plot and (2) writing dialogue. Since we've had a great many columns at this blog about the pros and cons of outlining, I thought I'd focus on my second preference.

Talking points


I love to write dialogue. Probably because I love to read dialogue. When I pick up a magazine or anthology or collection of short stories, I almost always find myself flipping through it and looking for "white space." When I find stories that have a lot of that--which of course means short sentences, which means dialogue--I usually read those stories first. Why? Because dialogue means something's happening. I'm cruising along through the tale listening to people talk (and sometimes scream and shout and argue), and not plodding through all that thick, margin-to-margin writing.

Does that searching-for-white-space approach always work? No. Stories with a lot of dialogue, if they're not done well, can be more tiring and tedious than pure narrative, and, since there's no magic formula for all this, stories written either way can be either wonderful or terrible. I've always said dialogue is like playing the guitar: it's hard to do well and easy to do badly.

But I should point out that the amount of dialogue in a piece of fiction depends on the piece. Three of my recent published stories had almost no dialogue, and one of them had none at all. In fact, of the five widely accepted "elements" of fiction (plot, characterization, POV, dialogue, and setting), dialogue is the only one that's not absolutely necessary. Well, okay, I realize that some stories don't have to have plots either, but most good stories do. Another point: I'm convinced that dialogue is a marketing advantage. If you write two stories of equal quality and one has a lot of dialogue and one has very little, I think the one with more dialogue is easier to sell.

Masters of the craft

My fondness for dialogue is probably one of the reasons I've so enjoyed the books of the late Robert B. Parker. His series novels, whether they're about Spenser or Jesse Stone or Sunny Randall or Virgil Cole, contain a LOT of conversations between characters. And it's snappy, believable dialogue that either moves the plot forward or tells us something about the people in the story. Sometimes it does both. Other writers well-known for the quality of their dialogue are George V. Higgins, Dick Francis, Elmore Leonard, James M. Cain, Carl Hiaasen, Toni Morrison, Harlan Coben, John Steinbeck, Janet Evanovich, Joe Lansdale, James Scott Bell, etc. Advice to fellow writers: Read these authors, then go ye and do likewise.

Contrast that kind of fiction with the work of, say, James Michener or Tom Clancy, whose novels usually contain very little dialogue. Don't get me wrong--I liked their books, and I have all of them right here on the packed and groaning shelves of my home office. But I also maintain that those novels were not as much fun to read as (and certainly took longer to read than) those of Parker, Leonard, Coben, and company.

According to Sol

I think all this goes beyond the "easy-read" aspect. I like dialogue because of the rhythm and sound and feel of the sentences, and the way it can immediately create a reversal or plot twist when needed. In his book Stein on Writing, Sol Stein called this "oblique" dialogue, which allows the writer to introduce the unexpected. Here are some examples, from that book:

SHE: How are you?
HE: I suppose I'm okay.
SHE: Why, what's the matter?
HE: I guess you haven't heard.

SHE: How are you? I said how are you?
HE: I heard you the first time.
SHE: I only wanted to know how you were.
HE: How the hell do you think I am?

HE: It's beginning to rain.
SHE: What do you suggest?

In all of these, the responses aren't direct, as they often are in real life. They're indirect and surprising, and serve to turn the story in a different direction. It's a great way to advance the plot and keep the reader interested.

The voices in my own head

Something else dialogue can do, as was mentioned earlier, is help with characterization. In a Western mystery story I just finished writing, a man named Wade Carson is knocked unconscious while trying to rob a bank and wakes up lying with his wrists tied in a room that turns out to be a temporary jail cell. Sitting in a chair beside one of the windows is a young woman in men's clothing and boots, with a five-pointed star pinned to her shirt and a Winchester rifle across her lap.

"Where am I?" he asked her.
"In an extra room, behind the sheriff's house. He was planning to rent it out."
"I don't see any bars. What's keeping me in?"
"I am." She lifted the rifle off her lap, then lowered it again.
"And who might you be?"
"I might be Deputy Morton."
"You a real deputy?"
"This month I am." She tapped her star. "This is my uncle's badge--he's home with a broken leg."
He sighed. "An interim jail and an interim deputy."

Later, still under guard, he tells her he'd been on his way to San Francisco, to see a friend.

"Girlfriend?" she asked.
He broke out a grin. "I think you sound jealous."
"That's probably because of your head injury. What kind of friend?"
"An old partner. Wants me to go into business with him."
"What kind of business?"
Carson hesitated. "You'll think it's funny."
"No I won't."
"Banking. My friend owns a bank. And I'm good with figures."
"You're right," she said. "That is funny."
"You won't think so, when I do it. California's a booming place, these days."
"I've never been there."
He smiled again. "Want to go?"

And so on. I'm not saying these exchanges are great writing, but I am saying they're great fun to write. And I'm always pleased at how they allow a reader to be told, in very few words, a lot about the characters who are speaking.

Real vs. realistic

The main thing about dialogue is, you have to make it sound right. Here's another quote, from Stein on Writing. "If you need proof that dialogue and spoken words are not the same, go to a supermarket. Eavesdrop. Much of what you hear in the aisles sounds like idiot talk. People won't buy your novel to hear idiot talk. They get that free from relatives, friends, and the supermarket." Stein adds, on that same subject, "Elmore Leonard's dialogue is invented. It is a semblance of speech that has the effect of actual speech, which is what his readers prize." To sum all this up, dialogue doesn't have to sound like what we really say or hear. It has to sound better.

Do any of you writers share my obsession with dialogue? Do you find it harder, or easier, to create than other things in the writing process? Are your stories/novels usually heavy on dialogue, or not?

A final note. Having finished the eighth installment in Robert Parker's Appaloosa series (since his death those books have been written by Robert Knott, who does a good job of imitating Parker's "style" and frequent use of dialogue), I've just pre-ordered the ninth novel, Revelation. It's due out next week, and will continue the adventures of Old West lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch.

I can't wait to hear them talking to each other.

03 February 2017

Agatha Best First Novel Finalists & First Impressions


By Art Taylor

Last spring, it was a great thrill to have my book On the Road with Del & Louise named alongside Tessa Arlen’s Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman, Cindy Brown’s Macdeath, Ellen Byron’s Plantation Shudders, and Julianne Holmes’ Just Killing Time as finalists for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. And I was hit with a flood of memories from that experience as I read through the finalists for this year's Agatha Awards in the same category: Marla Cooper's Terror in Taffeta, Alexia Gordon's Murder in G Major, Cynthia Kuhn's The Semester of Our Discontent, 
Nadine Nettmann's Decanting a Murder, and Renee Patrick's Design for Dying—and before I continue here on those memories, congratulations to them all!



Last year, during the months between the announcement of us as finalists and Malice Domestic itself, it was a tremendous pleasure to get to know Tessa, Cindy, Ellen, and Julianne through an array of emails and a group blog tour—a journey that not only introduced us to other readers but also brought us closer together in so many ways. While I missed Left Coast Crime when the other four finalists first met one another in person, by the time we all sat down for lunch together at Malice, it felt like family—and those relationships have continued well beyond last year's Malice, with conversations and celebrations at Bouchercon, continued email correspondence, frequent Facebook interactions and IM chats, and more. (Malice has been very good to me in recent years—and this year again, when I'm joining fellow SleuthSayers Barb Goffman and B.K. Stevens on the slate for Best Short Story!—but those of us in short story circles have already long seemed a family, so the experience last year was to a great degree different.)

When this year’s Best First Novel class was announced, I found myself hoping that their experiences would bring them together as closely as ours had last year. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way; even as I was planning to reach out to the group about a guest post on SleuthSayers, Ellen Byron started a Facebook conversation to connect our group and theirs—sending along our joint congratulations and well wishes to the new class of debuts.

All that in mind, I'm honored today to help Marla, Alexia, Cynthia, Nadine, and Renee kick off their blog tour together, and hope you'll join me in welcoming them and wishing them fun adventures ahead!

Since this is their first outing as a group, my prompt focused specifically on the idea of making a debut: “First impressions can tell us a lot about a person—and first novels may offer us immediate insights into the authors behind them: their interests, their passions, the things they value about the wider world. What drove you to write this book? And what glimpses do we get of you in the characters, the plot, the setting, or the themes?”

I'll let them take it from here:

Marla Cooper, author of Terror in Taffeta (Minotaur)
I love weddings—from casual backyard ceremonies to overblown affairs where too much is spent on calla lilies and the bridesmaids all hate their dress. But that’s not what led me to write this series. A few years back, I got a job ghostwriting a book with a destination wedding planner. As she was telling me about her job, I thought, “What a great premise for a mystery series!” Going off to foreign places with people you don’t really know? Everyone looking to you when things went wrong? It had all the makings of a great amateur sleuth. Although my main character was based on someone else, there is a lot of me in Kelsey. We share the same sense of humor, we both tend to be “control enthusiasts,” and we’re both prone to colorful interior monologues. The only real difference? I’ve never run across a dead body at a wedding. Yet.


Alexia Gordon, author of Murder in G Major (Henery Press)
Murder in G Major originated in Southern Methodist University's Writer's Path program as a class assignment. Our instructor asked us, "What's your story about?" and gave us ten minutes to come up with an answer. I resurrected a "what if?" daydream I'd had—what if an African American violinist was broke and stranded in an Irish village? (I'm an introvert who lives in her head. My daydreams are complex and often cinematic.) I knew I wanted to write a mystery so I added "and found a dead body." A few (dozen) drafts later, that class assignment had morphed into my novel.
What glimpses of me does Murder in G Major reveal? I couldn't find a cozy mystery with an African American sleuth from a middle-class background. Many African Americans are highly educated professionals who enjoy a high living standard, yet we're invisible. When we do appear in crime fiction, we're portrayed as victims or criminals from the lower socioeconomic strata or as police officers who've clawed their way up from that background.  So, I took Toni Morrison's advice and wrote the book I wanted to read. My protagonist is an African American female with multiple degrees, a physician mother, a professor father, and scientist siblings.
I'm a Hibernophile so my novel is set in Ireland. Wish fulfillment's mixed in. I love classical music and wish I had musical talent so my protagonist is a brilliant musician. I've gained an appreciation for the folklore of my Southern heritage as I've grown older so my protagonist learns to admit tales of haints and boo-hags heard in childhood took root in her unconscious and color the way she interprets creaks on stairs and bumps in the night.

Cynthia Kuhn, author of The Semester of Our Discontent (Henery Press)
Ever since discovering the wonderful Kate Fansler series by Amanda Cross (Professor Carolyn G. Heilbrun) in a used bookstore, I have been a huge fan of academic mysteries. They tend to address academia’s complicated issues in thoughtful (and often playful) ways. The Semester of Our Discontent was born of one stressed-out, caffeine-infused night in graduate school during which I was trying to finish a seminar paper. As I struggled to wrestle my uninspired thoughts about the assigned topic into an argument that made any sort of sense, I was struck instead by the basic idea for Semester. I jotted it down, and the story continued to nudge me for years until I finally started writing the book. In response to the second question, the setting is completely opposite: Stonedale is a small private school, and I work at a large public university. And Lila’s a character in her own right, but we do teach the same things, and—so far at least!—we care about the same issues.

Nadine Nettmann, author of Decanting a Murder (Midnight Ink)
Decanting a Murder combines two of my passions: wine and mysteries. After wine became a big part of my life in 2011, I wanted to incorporate it into a novel and have a character solve mysteries with her wine knowledge, similar to a Jessica Fletcher in the wine world. While I’m a Certified Sommelier just like my main character, Katie Stillwell, we’re very different even though we have a lot of the same interests. Sommeliers have the opportunity to share each wine’s story when they open a bottle, so I wanted to set the novel where the wine’s journey begins—in the winery and its sun-kissed vineyards. My state of California is home to many wonderful wine regions so I chose Napa Valley as the location and Decanting a Murder was born.

Renee Patrick (Rosemarie and Vince Keenan), author of Design for Dying (Forge)
Design for Dying is set in Los Angeles in 1937, during Hollywood’s Golden Age. So it won’t come as a surprise we’ve both been huge movie fans since we were kids. Rosemarie once faked illness as a child so she could watch King Kong on the Million Dollar Movie every day for a week. It was our love of classic film that brought us together—we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary just weeks after Design was published—so it made perfect sense that our novel would be set in Tinseltown. Now when we watch Turner Classic Movies, we call it research! More seriously, Lillian Frost, one of our main characters (the other being legendary costume designer Edith Head), is a tribute to Rosemarie’s mother and aunts, women who grew up in the 1920s and ’30s and faced the Depression with grit and grace. Lillian’s journey west was undertaken by many young women attracted to Hollywood. Only a tiny fraction of them could have careers in show business, and the rest needed to make lives for themselves. We wanted to show that resourceful spirit in action.

For the complete list of Agatha finalists, visit Malice Domestic’s website here. Look forward to seeing everyone in Bethesda in late April! 



02 February 2017

Arsenic and Old Lace


There are lots of reasons to prefer modern times: air conditioning, central heating, indoor plumbing, anesthesia, and antibiotics are the top five in my book. I also really enjoy entertainment on tap, as it were - music, television, movies, books. And I certainly do not wax nostalgic about the good old days of 37 pounds of clothing worn over corsets (see Judith Flanders' "Inside the Victorian Home"), food cooked until it was a puddle of goo, or the constant smell of unwashed... everything. Bodies, clothing, you name it.
But the Victorian age was a great age to kill somebody.

For one thing, there were no regulations on food or drugs, and no real recognition of drugs. So you could buy laudanum, cocaine, heroin, and other fun stuff, clearly labeled, over the counter. (Remember Sherlock's 7% solution... he wasn't buying it from one of the Bow Street Runners, although he might have gotten it from the Baker Street Irregulars...) And almost all the patent medicines contained cocaine, heroin, and/or alcohol.

Food itself was pretty hazardous: bread was whitened with chalk and/or alum, strychnine gave an extra kick to beer, sulphate of copper kept pickles green, and lead was added to chocolate, wine, cider, and a whole lot of other foods. Tea leaves were dried and recycled, and dyed with red lead to make them look fresh. Red lead was also added to cheese for coloring, chalk to milk, and copper to gin...  The London County Country Medical Officer discovered, for example, the following in samples of ice cream: cocci, bacilli, torulae, cotton fiber, lice, bed bugs, bug's legs, fleas, straw, human hair, and cat and dog hair. Such contaminated ice cream could cause diphtheria, scarlet fever, diarrhoea, and enteric fever. "The Privy Council estimated in 1862 that one-fifth of butcher's meat in England and Wales came from animals which were 'considerably diseased' or had died of pleuro-pneumonia, and anthacid or anthracoid diseases." (See the Victorian Website HERE) Plus the Victorians didn't believe that either vegetables or fruit were wholesome, unless they were cooked to a puree, and even then, should only be taken in moderation. If you couldn't figure anything else out, you could probably just kill someone by diet alone...

But let's get on to the real stuff: poison. Arsenic was everywhere. Arsenic was in "wallpaper, beer, wine, sweets, wrapping paper, painted toys, sheep dip, insecticides, clothing, dead bodies, stuffed animals, hat ornaments, coal, and candles". It was used as a beauty treatment - soak your flypapers in water, and drink a few drops in fresh water (which probably came through lead pipes - lead was everywhere) to make your skin translucently white. It was used as a treatment for obesity, and it certainly could take the weight off. Sometimes all of it. Green wallpaper and green clothing were both soaked in arsenic to fix the color. And so was that Victorian mandatory wear for women, crepe, which was THE fabric of mourning.

Now widows were required to dress from head to toe in black, including complete veil, for at least one year, if not longer. Sweating in black crepe mourning garments (37 pounds of it) in summer was common, and I've run across receipts telling women how to wash the [arsenic-laden] black stains from their armpits and neck (both prime lymph node areas). Plus they were walking around, breathing through an arsenic-laden veil all day, every day... Personally, I think we have the explanation why the widow in so many Victorian memoirs and novels falls into a decline and dies young...

And then, of course, some people deliberately used arsenic to kill. Charles Francis Hall, an American Arctic explorer in the mid-1800s, died sometime around October, 1871, on his 3rd expedition. The ship was frozen in for the winter, and he'd returned from an outing with an Inuit guide, when he had a cup of coffee, collapsed, and fell into vomiting and delirium. After the expedition, an official investigation said he died of apoplexy, but a 1968 exhumation showed monumental levels of arsenic. It seems there might have been a feud between him and Dr. Bessels...

And there was pretty Madeleine Smith of Glasgow:  In 1857, when she was 20, she (GASP! HORROR!) had an affair with an apprentice nurseryman named Pierre Emile L'Angelier. Her parents, meanwhile, knowing nothing of Madeleine's behavior, found her a husband. Miss Smith tried to break off her affair with L'Angelier, and asked him to return her letters; instead, he blackmailed her. So off she went to an apothecary's and bought some arsenic - for flies, of course.  Or her complexion.  In any case, you could buy it over the counter.  A few days later, L'Angelier died of arsenic poisoning. Her letters were found, she was arrested and charged with murder, and the trial proceeded. Somehow, she was acquitted. (She was young, she was lovely, she had a good lawyer, and the police had messed up the letters, mixing up the pages...) But she had to leave Scotland. (She later married - twice - and lived until 1928.)

Neil-cream.jpg
Dr. Thomas Neill Cream
Strychnine. Distilled from the seeds of the strychnos nux-vomica tree, which arrived in the West in the 17th century from China and India, strychnine became the standard poison used to kill birds in the country and rats in the city. And people. Dr. William Palmer was the first to be caught using it in England, for killing his gambling associates.  Dr. Thomas Neill Cream (what is it with doctors?), a/k/a the Lambeth Poisoner, used it to kill a number of prostitutes, and claimed to have killed more as Jack the Ripper just before he was hanged. (No, he wasn't "Saucy Jacky", because he was in prison in 1888, when Jack the Ripper was writing letters and postcards.)

Chloroform. Also available over the counter. The most famous story of murder (?) by chloroform is the Pimlico Mystery, and the death of Thomas Edwin Bartlett. A wealthy grocer, he married a Frenchwoman 10 years his junior, Adelaide. The couple had a special friend, the Reverend George Dyson, who hung around a lot. Anyway, one morning Adelaide got up and found her husband dead in bed. The coroner opened him up and nearly passed out from the odor of chloroform rising from the stomach. Adelaide said that he'd been threatening suicide. Dyson said he'd bought the chloroform for the Bartlett's to remove grease stains. (Who knows? Maybe it works.)  But there were no burn marks on the inside of Bartlett's throat, which there should have been if he'd been drinking chloroform.  So Bartlett's father - who'd never been able to stand Adelaide - thought it was all suspicious and had her charged with murder.


At the trial what really spared Adelaide's life was a simple incident, remembered by the servants. One day, Mr. Bartlett was looking through his wife's drawers (God only knows why, but it certainly sounds like the archetypal Victorian paterfamilias), found a pill, and took it, without asking anyone what it was or why it was there.  (Again, God only knows why.)  Later he told everyone, including the servants, what he'd done. Adelaide's barrister suggested that Mr. Bartlett had gotten up in the middle of the night with stomach pains or some such, found the bottle of chloroform, and knocked it back without asking any fussy questions of anyone first. (The barrister said that by drinking it quickly, there would be no burns on the throat.)  The jury didn't entirely believe this, but she was acquitted, to rapturous applause from the spectators. An internationally famous surgeon/pathologist of the day, Sir James Paget, said of the case, "Now that she has been acquitted for murder and cannot be tried again, she should tell us in the interest of science how she did it!"  Feel free to post any solutions to that little problem. Adelaide never told anyone, because she vanished immediately after acquittal, and no one knows where she went.

So, the Victorian Age - your environment is deadly, the food could kill you, poisons abound, and the symptoms of all are pretty much the same.  It was a coroner's guessing game, a jury's whim, and there was no CSI team waiting in the wings.  There was only one Sherlock, and he was on paper only.  No cameras, no social media, no radio, no publicity.  You really could get away with murder.  Especially if you were young and pretty...


















01 February 2017

All about me me me, not really


"A writer who claims to have a small ego is either not telling the truth, or lying." — William DeAndrea

In December John Floyd wrote a piece here about twenty years of Best American Mystery Stories and I was honored to get a mention.  But there was something in the comments that surprised me: several writers said they had not known they had been mentioned in the Distinguished Lists at the end of the book until John told them.

Not the case for me.  I doubt there has been a best-of-the-year mystery collection published in the last three decades that I haven't scoured for my name. This may be in part because my third published story, the first in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, found its way into the Honor Roll at the back of one of Edward D. Hoch's best-of-the-year collection, back in the days of hoop skirts and buggy whips.  James L. Swain, in one of his excellent mystery novels about a gambling consultant, says that the worst thing that can happen to a person in a casino is to win the first time they play, because it gets you hooked. So I am an innocent victim.

But I have not seen my name in such a book again until BAMS 2015 when I made the distinguished list, and then hit the big time in 2016.  It may be another few decades for anything like that happens again.

Of course, there are other ways to feed the  habit.  How often do you vanity-Google yourself?  Most writers I know do it, but they tend to feel guilty about it.  Nice to see if anyone is talking about you.  (Or not nice, depending on what they say.)

Sometimes I type in my name and the title of one of my books or stories to see if someone has said anything about them. Occasionally I have found that someone put up a copy of one of my stories on the web illegally.  That's always fun.

But what I am interested in today is people who show up who aren't me.  I'm not talking about identity fraud, but other people with my name.

For instance, there is a psychologist in my home state of New Jersey who probably wishes I had a different name or hadn't gone into writing, since our identities get tangled on the web.  He spells LoPresti with a capital P but Google doesn't recognize that as a difference.

And Google can also show you a striking mug shot of a guy with my name in Florida.  I'm not going to put it here though.

Oddly enough I have been Tuckerized occasionally, although I assume it was an accident.  "Tuckerizing" is when you put a person's name in your book, usually because they bought the rights with a donation to charity.

For example, my name appears in Robert B. Parker's Killing the Blues, a novel by Michael Brandman about Parker's character Jesse Stone.  I don't know Mr. Brandman and assume he picked my name at random, but it's freaky to read about myself being, for example, handcuffed and unconscious.  (That hasn't happened in years.)

And in Bye the Book, a medical thriller by Frank Caceres, I show up behind bars as a murder suspect. Again, I don't know the author.

Someday I will have to read these books and find out what happens to me.  I hope I'm okay.

When I first moved to this part of the world people would ask me if I was related to the local sports writer Mike Lopresti.  I explained that I wasn't related and that he wasn't local; hje just worked for the chain that owned our local newspaper.

And then there is Phil LoPresti who started the LoPresti Aviation Company.  A lot of people have nice things to say about his airplanes.

But the reason I am dragging this out is to tell you this.  I have a nonfiction book coming out later this year entitled When Women Didn't Count (more about that closer to publication date).  I needed to send someone a link to the publisher's pre-pub page so I went to Google and typed in: Lopresti Women.  And what popped up first were a lot of pages like the one on the right. Aaron Lopresti, comic book artist, may be the most famous of my namesakes.  And no, we aren't related either. 



31 January 2017

Editing from Sea to Shining Sea


Anton Graff [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, an anthology of private eye stories (bet you couldn’t figure that out from the title) that I co-edited with Andy McAleer was released yesterday. And while I think it’s a great book with a terrific variety of writers and PI stories—and I hope you’ll all pick up a copy—that’s not exactly what I’m going to talk about here. But it is the jumping off point. And while this might be a little on the BSP side, it’s really meant to talk about the editing process for an anthology.

This is the second volume in the Coast to Coast series, so my second at bat wearing the editor’s green eyeshade.

The process is interesting, at least to me. Maybe once I’ve edited twenty books the novelty will have worn off. But right now everything about it is new and exciting. One of the most unusual aspects of the Coast to Coast editing process is that Andy and I have worked together on two volumes now, and we’ve been friends for many years, and yet we’ve never met in person. We’ve done all of our editing via email, snail mail, phone, etc… So I thought it might be fun to include Andy in this blog and get some of his thoughts on the editing process.

The first step in the process is coming up with a subject or theme for the book. The first volume was Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea, which is pretty much what the title says, murders across the country, from coast to coast.

Private Eyes is the topic for the second volume. And we’re currently thinking up something for the third, though I think we know what it’s going to be….

Next you have to figure out who would be right for the topic. And in our case, since one of the themes is “coast to coast” we have to try to find people from across the country who would be good for that topic and who could set their stories dotted across the map. So even though there might be ten people in L.A. who would be great for the subject matter, we can’t use them all. And the absolute hardest part of the process for me is not being able to use all the great writers out there and having to whittle it down. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and don’t feel bad if you haven’t been asked. There’s a lot of different criteria that goes into choosing authors and one of them with these volumes in particular is trying to get people from various parts of the country, that coast to coast thing you know. Still it pains me when I can’t ask certain people or when people ask me if they can be in it, but for one reason or another we have to say no.

Since these volumes are not done via an open submissions process, we ask people to contribute. Some say yes, others have other commitments. And you have to try again—until you get the right mix—which is fine because there’s a lot of great writers out there. But with our series, as I said, we have the added dimension of having to be spread out from coast to coast so that does make it a little more difficult. But eventually you get your batting lineup. One major hurdle crossed.

Andy McAleer
According to Andy the hardest part of editing was: “…the fear of rejection from authors. I set my heights rather high for the authors I wanted. I wanted authors who knew the PI genre backwards and forwards and knew how to use that knowledge to tell a great story. Everyone I asked very generously agreed to contribute a story. Then I’m like, what was I worried about!”

While waiting for the stories to come in and since we’re both writers as well as editors, Andy and I are working on our own stories for the volume. We’re also in touch with the publisher and his people about cover art, contracts, and all the various other minutia that goes into getting it all together.

Andy said this about his experience writing his story for the anthology: “It was very difficult for me. In this case my story ‘King’s Quarter’ was the first piece of fiction I’d written since I’d returned home from Afghanistan three years prior. I just couldn’t create. So I boxed myself in by making promises I had to keep, having little faith I could make it happen. But like all the other contributors I made a promise to do something and to do it on time. I wasn't about to let my partners in crime—especially Paul—down. This forced me to write and complete what I started.”

As the deadline approaches the stories start to come in and we have to set about reading them. Usually a quick-ish first read just to get the gist and make sure most of the nuts and bolts are in place. Then deeper reads. And as the deadline for getting the stories in gets closer and some still haven’t come in you start panicking. So you begin to nudge people. On one of the volumes one person had to drop out, but we had enough stories to cover.

As Andy says, “Paul and I were committed to getting the manuscript into the hands of our publisher, Down & Out Books, on their schedule not ours. We already knew we had professional authors working with us, so we knew we were going to get great stories in manuscript form—and get them on time!”

Then the editing process begins in earnest, assisted by my wife Amy, who is a pretty darn good editor. As a writer, I know I don’t like it when editors change my words or voice or other things in too big a way. Or when they get captious on me. Or, when they’ve heard some “rule” from on high and now everything/everyone has to follow that rule. One of the reasons I wanted to move out of screenwriting was to have less chefs spoiling the stew, so to speak. So I have a lot of sympathy and empathy for authors and their words. And I hate to change those words ’cause I know how much I hate to be changed. I want to keep the authors’ voices and visions intact. I think that’s important. I will suggest changes if I see problems. I just don’t want to stomp on the voice of the author. And Down & Out was great in respecting our request to be able to do that.

Andy’s best advice for would-be editors: “PLAN. Respect the authors’ and publisher’s time. Paul and I were good about having a definitive game plan before we approached Down & Out with the idea of a second volume of Coast to Coast. We made sure we had realistic deadlines for the contributors and hoped they would find Coast to Coast a worthy project. After the publisher found this acceptable we approached the authors and they seemed okay with the specs. We also created story guidelines so the authors would not have to guess what we wanted. Word limit, what locations in the country were available since we didn’t want multiple stories from the same city—and of course, a private eye had to be the central figure. Last advice, once you have the authors aboard—if they’re professionals—just leave ’em alone. They’ll get the job done.”

Moi
After we do our edit, it goes to the publisher for their edits. Then back to us. And sometimes the publisher wants changes and we try to work with them so everyone is happy. Or we or they will question some colloquialism or other thing and we’ll have to go back to the author to make sure it’s what they want to say. Eventually, the editing gets done. Then it goes back to the publisher for the final touches, putting it all together, marketing and all that good stuff until release day. And after that it’s nothing but glory, right? Right… Awards, fame, riches, groupies. Ah, the glamorous life of the writer.

Andy summed up what he liked most about working on this anthology: “The stories cover so many interesting areas of the country, so I know I had a lot of fun learning about local customs and local word usage. That’s the great thing about crime fiction—you have fun while learning. Seeing the finished project. Something that represents eighteen months of work—satisfying—but best of all is seeing your fellow authors in print, knowing that they created something original for this volume with the intent of pleasing their readers.”

And then it’s on to the next volume before we even have time to hit the Left Bank for a quick absinthe and rest on our laurels.

###

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is available at Amazon.com and Down & Out Books.


30 January 2017

Oops! That Worn't Work


Mary Maloney is a devoted wife and housekeeper. One day her husband, the police chief, announces that he wants a divorce because he has met another woman. Mary is quite angry and kills him with a blow from a frozen leg of lamb. She calls the police and provides am alibi for herself with the story that she'd been out to the store when the murder took place. The investigating officer, Lieutenant Noonan is further frustrated when he cannot find the murder weapon. Knowing of the long and hard hours spent looking into the case, Mary invites Noonan and the other investigators for a bite to eat. They dig into Mary's leg of lamb and Noonan, still thinking about the missing murder weapon, says, "For all we know, it might be right under our very noses."
— Plot summary of LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER, Alfred Hitchcock TV, Season 3 Episode 28. Apl. 58, written by Ronald Dahl (story) Ronald Dahl (teleplay).
What then of Edgar Allan Poe's 1843 story of THE TELL-TELL HEART. The narrator is trying to convince us he is not mad, because he so cleverly treats the old man with such caring and delights. Although that blue eye with the film over it is still looking at him. He plans for a whole seven days. Going so stealthily at mid-night every night to the old man's room and looking in on him. Until finally the great plan comes together and as he quietly opens the door the blue eye looks a him. and after not moving for over an hour begins to hear the beating of the old man's heart.  That only adds to his fury,  he jumps on the old man, the old man screams. He pulls the man to the floor and kills him. The heart is silent.

Then he carefully cuts the corpse up and deposits it under the floor boards of the bedroom chamber. Can anyone who is mad clean up everything and it only took until 4 am. Just as he gets to his own bedroom, there is a loud knocking at the door, A neighbor had reported hearing a dreadful scream.
Three policemen come in. He explains he was the one who screamed waking from a nightmare. He tells then the old man has gone to the country. He takes them all over the house ending in the old man's bed chamber to show them all the old man's precious things are still there. He invites the police to sit and he puts his own chair right over the spot where the dismembered body is located. They sit and talk but after a time he begins to hear a ringing in his ears and then hears the heart beat. It gets louder and louder. he talks more animated and the police keep talking and act as if they don't heat the heart.

Finally he jumps up, rips up the boards and tells the police. "Here, here. I did it and here's the beating of his hideous heart."

Could we ever be as calm and collected  as Mary Maloney? To murder her husband with a leg of lamb then cook and serve it to the policemen who have been investigating?

Or are we as mad and strange as the man committing murder then when he has gotten away with it, slide into total and complete madness because he still hears the heartbeat of the man he killed?

Probably not. But we can write character's who are calm and collected and get totally away with murder. Or a character like the mad man in Poe's story.

However, in real life, just keep your imagination running when you're committing a murder on your laptop. And tell your muse to take a break your are going to cook dinner. You have everything assembled in the crock pot but the final step and notice you need a little more water. You turn the water on and nothing happens. How can that be? You were just using water about five minutes ago.

And your muse says, "How will you clean up all that blood from the kitchen floor if you don't have any water?" And there is quite a lot of blood when you shot your ex-husband who broke into your house, planning to do you bodily harm.

You look up the phone number in the local directory for City Hall to send a crew out to check out what is wrong, but you accidentally dial the police department because the print in the phone book is so small you had placed your finger on the wrong similar number.

"Oops, I dialed the wrong number, Lieutenant. I have a mess on my kitchen floor and suddenly I don't have any water."

29 January 2017

Titles & Expectations


by R.T. Lawton

In days of yore, people used words and phrases that have fallen out of usage in modern times, but words and their use were as powerful then as they are today. Change one word in a phrase or a title and the whole meaning can change.

Take for instance, the medieval era where titles let everyone know what position in life a titled person had and therefore gave expectations as to how you perceived that person and what their duties were. At the top of the hierarchy were the kings and queens. Everyone expected that the ones holding these titles would rule over the people and lands where they held dominance. Next level down were dukes, barons and others, depending upon how the king set up the organizational chart. Your next class of titles, if you will, were more of a job description than a rank, but they still gave everyone an expectation for what the person with that title did in life. These titles fell into labels such as blacksmith, huntsman, cook, scullery maid, etc. However, you add one word to the front of that title, such as head or assistant and that huntsman can move up or down in job position. The power of words and the receiver's expectations.

This brings us to story titles. When The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came out, the book became a bestseller. The author then put out two more books with titles which started with the same first two words. Next thing you know, there are lots of titles starting with The Girl... Agents, editors, publicists and yes, even authors, quickly realized the potential salability of a book with a title starting with the words The Girl... So now you have The Girl on the Train, The Girl in the Spider's Web, The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes, The Girl With No Past, The Girl with The Lower Back Tattoo, The Girl You Lost and several others. The marketing thought here being that there would be a positive carryover from the success of Stieg Larson's novels to the expectations in potential buyers of books with similar sounding titles. And, that marketing thought seems to have some credibility. Once again, the power of and  the expectations of words.

Thus, the words you choose for your story titles should produce the type of expectations you want in potential buyers of your works, plus help convert those buyers into becoming continued readers of your future publications. A kind of gather ye fans while you may, sort of thing. Naturally, to do this, it's best if you have a title that's intriguing, gives the reader an idea of what's in the story and maybe even brands the stories (assuming they are a series) for the author.

In my case, I tried to do all three for the ten titles in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. All of these titles have either the word bond or bail in the title. In these stories, the firm's proprietor and his bail agent manage to obtain some high value collateral from dastardly criminals and then render these clients as deceased, thus making extravagant profits from their demise. The one story with the word bail in it, "The Big Bail Out," is a play on words, since it involves both bailing out a financially troubled corporation and the crooked officers of that company having a fondness for their hobby of skydiving.

"Resolutions"- 9th in Holiday Burglars
AHMM Jan/Feb 2017 issue
In the fourth of my five series in AHMM, the Holiday Burglars series, each story is connected to a caper during a holiday. In this series, I put a play on words in each title. For instance, "Click, Click, Click," the first in the series concerns Christmas. Many of you probably remember some of the words to the song Up on the Housetop. "...up on the housetop, click, click, click, down through the chimney with good Saint Nick..." Well, in this case, Beaumont and Yarnell dressed as santas have entered the back door of a residence in order to steal the cash a drug dealer temporarily conceals in Christmas packages under the tree. Unfortunately for them, the counted houses from their position in the alley instead of from the street side like their informant gave them the information, therefore they have now entered the home of a fanatical NRA member. The clicking sound the two burglars hear is not reindeer hooves on the roof, but rather the clicking noise a big handgun makes when the hammer is being cocked.

For anther title in the series, Labor Day," yep you guessed it. Beaumont, Yarnell and their protege The Thin Guy are descending in a creaky old elevator from the penthouse they just burgled while its owner was off on a Labor Day excursion. The elevator makes a few stops on its way down to take on and unload passengers. Shortly after a very pregnant lady gets on, the elevator becomes stuck between floors. The baby picks this time to enter the world. Firemen, police and news crews are soon aware of the stuck elevator and the pending birth. The only person on the elevator who is remotely qualified to assist in procedures involving anatomy is The Thin Guy who used to be employed as an assistant mortician. The words are all done in fun.

So how do you create your titles? Do you brand? And how? Do you find particular words as powerful or intriguing or more likely for potential readers to buy your story? Or, even for you as a reader to pick up a book in the store and open it to see if your interest continues beyond the title? Do words commonly seen in titles, words such as devil, blood or murder affect your thinking in titling or purchasing a book?

Chime in on your opinions, creative thoughts and branding ideas through titles.

28 January 2017

Hiding in the Garret: Seven Tips for Writing Novels when you are still gainfully employed...


It’s a sad fact of life. The gap between wanting to be an author, and actually becoming a published novelist is a huge crevice bridged by hard work and a lot of time. Writing is a solitary job with no shortcut. You become a writer by spending hours and hours alone in a room with your computer.

I wrote ten books in ten years, while working full time at an executive job. People often ask me how I did it. How? How did I find the time?

It’s simple. You have to make writing your hobby, your passion, and all you do in your spare time.

Anyone can do it. But it means making sacrifices. Like it or not, if you want to be a published writer, and you don’t have anyone to support you financially while you write, time is going to be an issue.

Writing takes time. If you are going to write, you are going to have to give up something. Probably several somethings.

Here’s my list:

1. No television. Those hours at night from 8-10 (or 10-12, if you have kids) are writing hours.

Okay, what do I truly mean by no television? I allow myself one hour a day. (Crime shows, of course!) That’s it, on weekends too. Sometimes I don’t take that hour. I write instead.

2. Forget the gym. I know exercise is good for you. But we have to make sacrifices, people! I cut out every extracurricular activity that didn’t relate directly to writing. No more hours at the gym.

3. Turn your cell phone OFF. Until this year, I didn’t have a smart phone. I had a dumb phone that just took calls. Even now, when I write, the smart phone is in my purse in the hall. Oh yeah – and I don’t pay for data on it. This means, when I’m in a doctor’s waiting room, or on transit, I don’t surf the net. I write.

4. Ignore those facebook alerts! Turn them ALL off. You can check your page at break time. You don’t need to be notified for every post.

5. Make your vacation a writing vacation. I cannot stress this enough. If you are serious about becoming an author, then the prospect of two weeks with nothing to do but write should fill you with delight. (If it fills you with anxiety, we have a problem.)
For me, there is no better vacation than going to a tiny villa in Arizona where there is fab weather but no resort distractions. Going out for every meal. And then coming back to sunny weather on the patio and writing. And writing. I get so much writing done on vacation. It starts on the airplane.

6. Get a dog. Yes, there is a tendency to overdo the author-recluse thing. Having a dog will make you get outside for short walkie breaks (your new exercise.) A dog will keep you company as you slog away at the computer. And a dog is an essential audience for when you read your work out loud to test it. My pooch thinks I’m talking/performing just for him. Win-win.

7. Finally – and most important – collect friends who are writers. As I look back on my writing career (27 years, 100 comedy credits, 12 novels, 40 short stories) I can see that my body of friends has changed over the years. Most of my friends are fellow authors. They encourage me. Inspire me. Rage with me. Drink with me. Most of all, they understand me. Author-friends are the magic that keeps me writing. God bless them.

Melodie Campbell writes crime capers and other comedy-infested work. Check out her comedy blog at www.melodiecampbell.com

27 January 2017

A Dedication


by O'Neil De Noux

For me it started with Poe. The poems first, then the stories.

When I was ten years old, we had a babysitter I thought should be a movie star. She was eighteen, I think, pretty beyond description and so nice even my hard-headed little sister behaved. We lived in Verona, Italy, where her father and my father served in the US Army. There was no television in English so she read to us. Edgar Allan Poe. She read "The Raven" to me and "Annabel Lee" and started my life-long love of Poe's work. I fell a little in love with her as well, as much as any ten year old can.


She had this great smile and those big eyes. She was unlike any babysitter we ever had. She talked to us. She only sat for us twice but I never forgot the smile and the sweetness. I wasn't a bit surprised when she became a movie star. She was radiant.


I was eighteen when she was killed and when I heard, it felt as if someone punched me in the chest. I only saw her twice but she was unforgettable. Not just because she was gorgeous but because she was one of those truly nice people.


1968's THE WRECKING CREW
A Matt Helm spy spoof

When I was sixty-one, an age she never got to reach, I dedicated my novel ENAMORED to her because I will always be a little in love with Sharon Tate. I think most who met her feel the same way.


1967's VALLEY OF THE DOLLS

Our lives are full of good times and bad times, comedies and tragedies and if we're lucky - special moments. Little gems. When people ask why I became a writer, I like to tell them - "Sharon Tate read 'The Raven' to me."

www.oneildenoux.net

26 January 2017

Notes on Author Readings from Noir at the Bar Seattle


by Brian Thornton

So, as I mentioned in my last blog post, I read at Noir at the Bar Seattle, at the wonderful Sorrento Hotel, with a line-up of incredible writers a couple of weeks back. 

As promised, I put the question to several of these ace wordsmiths, asking them to share what, if any, rules/rituals they had for author readings. Strap in, because I’ve shared the resulting pearls of wisdom from four of these worthy scribes below:


1. Six to eight minutes seems to be the sweet spot. Any longer and you're likely asking too much of your audience.

2. Be comedically dense. You're asking a lot of an audience, to sit and listen to you and follow your narrative. Big broad unsubtle laugh lines are a sure way to keep them hooked.

3. Short stories written specifically to be performed seem to play better than novel excerpts. Settings like Noir At The Bar are not the best place to workshop your "serious" material that almost always reads better on the page. A piece shouldn't need more than a few lines of setup, in any case. 

4. Go "big." If your story itself isn't sufficiently outrageous and over-the-top on its own merits, help it along by acting it out.

5. No droning-monotone deliveries. Use an actor's arsenal: dramatic/comedic pauses, original voices/accents for each character, speeding up and going up in register as things intensify, slowing down or using a low voice as a counterpoint to high intensity, etc.

6. Always remember, the reading is about the audience, not about you. Never forget that your job is entertain the shit out of the people who showed up.




I couldn't say it any better than Jim has. I agree with every point. If I were to add anything, it would be to speak loud and clear. And don't have too many drinks before you read.








I used to read for the Braille Reading Radio Service and I learned a lot about reading aloud from them and from some professional voice actors I know. So here's some of the things I bear in mind:

Read about 50% slower than you think is reasonable--it improves your accuracy and raises the listener's comprehension--it also gives the impression that you're confident and in control of the reading, even if you're scared to death. A good read-aloud pace is approximately 300 words per minute, or about 3/4 of a hardcover page.

Select and prep your piece ahead of time. Record yourself reading it two or three times so you have an idea of the actual reading time you'll need and can find and smooth out any difficult areas--or change your selection entirely if needed. Some pieces don't come across as well read aloud as they do when read to yourself in silence, even if they are great pieces of writing. 

If you're good at it, use character voices, but if you're unsure or hesitant, don't--bad voice characterizations can ruin your reading. Also, select a piece with no more than three speakers, if possible, it's much harder to differentiate each character when you have more. You can also use your head or body position to indicate who is talking by turning slightly one way or the other as the speaker changes. This doesn't have to be a big change, but it should be consistent.

If you can, print out your selection in a large font, double spaced, or adjust the font size on your tablet/Kindle rather than reading from a book. Even if you have great vision, this trick makes it easier for you to read. And an added bonus: if you've printed out the selection, you can always offer to sign the reading copy and give it away at the end of the session.

If your throat is a little phlegmy, try drinking warm or hot (not cold) pineapple juice about 30 minutes before your reading; the acid cuts phlegm without encouraging more--unlike citrus juice--the warmth loosens your throat and vocal cords, and most bars have it on hand.




Personally I’m not into theatrics when it comes to reading in public, and I say this not only as a former cult movie impresario, but also as someone who is much better at improv than “acting” from a script, even my own. In fact, speaking strictly subjectively, I’d much rather read a piece quietly to myself than hear an author read it to me, so that I can imagine the voice of the characters for myself. But then I also hate sports and the sun, so I’m a trend bucker and no one should ever listen to me. Basically, in case anyone cares, I see live readings as advertisements not only for one’s particular book, but one's brand name. Your performance should be sincere and lucid, but the product should be able to sell itself. Select a passage that represents your body of work as a whole, not just the piece in question. 

*               *               *

And that’s it for this installment, boys and girls. Tune in two weeks from now for my own “Things to Do For An Author Reading” list, in addition to some final thoughts on the importance of authors doing readings in the first place.

See you in two weeks!

25 January 2017

John Ford's PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND


I had another subject in mind, but then I spotted this coming up on Turner Classic Movies. I couldn't let it slip past unnoticed.


The Prisoner of Shark Island is a lesser-known John Ford, from 1936. It came out after The Lost Patrol and The Informer, and the three pictures he made with Will Rogers. Ford was already established, in other words. He'd won his first directing Oscar for The Informer.  At this point, he probably didn't have to take work he didn't want to, and he didn't suffer much interference. He made Shark Island by choice. Ford said more than once, "It's a job of work," meaning he did what he did for a living, but it's plain his heart was in it.

Shark Island is about Dr. Samuel Mudd, who gets caught up in the conspiracy panic that followed Lincoln's assassination. There was, in fact, a plot, targeting Secretary of State Seward and Vice President Johnson as well as Lincoln, but only John Wilkes Booth got his part right. The others made a hash of it. This didn't keep
four of them from being hanged. Booth himself was shot and killed eleven days after Lincoln's death, but his first night on the run he stopped at a local Maryland doctor's - Dr. Mudd - and the doctor set his broken leg. This was enough to buy Mudd a treason conviction and a life sentence. Was he involved? It's never been established, but Shark Island plays on your sympathies, the innocent man being framed, justice denied.

Let's get the two most serious weak points out of the way. First off, Warner Baxter plays the lead. Big in the silents, made the transition to talkies, but a little overwrought. Admittedly, the acting style goes with the period, and you can get past it. It's a lot harder to get past the second thing, which dates even more badly, and that's the racism. I never thought of Ford as being particularly racist - although a fair number of American Indians might disagree with me - and while he's of course a product of his times, and Hollywood has historically been disrespectful of black people (along with the Chinese, and Mexicans, and plenty of others), Ford is often subversive with his black characters. Stepin Fetchit, in Steamboat Round the Bend, plays it very sly and saucy. His relationship with Will Rogers could be described as two bickering old ladies, Lucy and Ethel. Unhappily, the same can't be said of Ernest Whitman as Buck in Shark Island. Still, it strikes me as an extremely difficult part for a black actor to play without falling into
caricature, and Buck comes perilously close. The real problem is that these attitudes aren't peripheral, they're built into the narrative structure. Buck isn't just comic relief. He's integral to the story, he's a major piece of the action, and he has to walk a very fine line between pretending to Tom it up and demeaning himself. I'm a white guy. I can't step into Ernest Whitman's shoes, or get inside his skin. Maybe he simply figured it was a job of work. I'd like to think he did the best he could by a part that didn't give him much wiggle room - and I wish I could say the script or the director helped him make up for it. Not.

How about what's right with the picture? For openers, Bert Glennon's cinematography. It's the first of eight movies he made with Ford (including Drums Along the Mohawk, Ford's first color feature), and it has one of the most breathtaking pulled-focus shots I've ever seen. Ford's known for not calling attention to himself, or using obtrusive effects. He seems to prefer a static frame, but he moves the camera when he wants to. You see plenty of mobility in his tracking shots. I don't remember a single example of zoom, though. Ford's camera is always the human POV. When he breaks stride, it's doubly startling.

Here's the set-up for the defining moment. Booth slips through the door into the back of Lincoln's box at the theater. You hear the laugh line from the play on-stage, "You sockdologizing old man-trap." Booth shoots the president, and jumps from the box to the stage, but his foot gets tangled in the flag draped from the box. He calls out, "Sic semper tyrannis," and limps off. Lincoln, mortally wounded, is slumped back in his chair. The camera holds. It's a medium shot, Lincoln's upper body and shoulders, his face in three-quarter profile. A curtain falls across, in front of his face. It's lace or embroidery, so you still see Lincoln behind it, slightly blurred. Then he comes into focus, but the embroidered curtain creates a pointillist effect, fragmenting his image, breaking it down into dots, like an engraving. Your eye needs to catch up, and reconstruct him. In that one brief image, Lincoln passes from life into history, leaving a retinal memory. It happens while you're watching.

I first saw Prisoner of Shark Island late one night on a UHF channel, just a programmer they used to fill a time slot. It was some years later that I got to see it in a theater, a Ford revival series at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge - a labor of love, they actually screened something like forty of his pictures over a couple of weeks, and I didn't miss too many. Shark Island drew a capacity crowd, a lot of them film students who hadn't seen it before, and more than a few who were unacquainted with Ford except for the big-ticket movies. Shark Island starts out on a note of low comedy, a joke about the number of kids Buck has, with its obvious racial slant, and Buck asking his mule what the mule thinks, which isn't any too subtle, either. Remember, we're talking about wiseass college kids here, everybody goofing and groaning and poking fun at the picture's dated political attitudes, and when Booth slinks on-screen, practically twirling his mustaches, you've still got people laughing at the exaggerated histrionics of it all. But then. Booth steps forward. He shoots Lincoln. Lincoln sinks back. The curtain falls. Everybody in that movie theater went dead silent. Literally. There wasn't a murmur. Not an embarrassed giggle, not even a gasp. Nothing but absolute, stunned shock.

Okay, the gravity of the event. And maybe these kids were of an age to remember the Kennedy assassination. But there's more to it. Because after Lincoln's murder, the movie goes on to show the courts-martial. You heard that right. The conspirators were tried by military tribunal and without constitutional protections. We see them hooded and shackled during the trial. We see them hanged. The hysteria isn't soft-pedaled, and if the Grassy Knoll is any part of your vocabulary, you feel a familiar dread.


I don't think Shark Island is supposed to be taken as some kind of allegory about the Red Scare or the rise of Fascism or anything like. It's meant to be a rousing yarn, and no more. There is a shark-infested moat, too, but since we're in the Dry Tortugas, that's gilding the lily. And the Yellow Fever epidemic, and the mutiny, no reason to doubt. Dr. Mudd was later pardoned. Whether he was in on the plot has never been decided one way or the other.

TCM is showing The Prisoner of Shark Island on Tuesday, January 31st, at 10:45 PM. Program your DVR's. It's also available on the Ford at Fox boxed DVD set, a collection of Ford's pictures that gives good weight for the money.


23 January 2017

Why does an author need an e-mail list?


People keep telling me to get e-mails from my readers. And they make good points. Like this:

“You can’t build your content on rented land. So many brands and companies build their audiences on Facebook and Google+, which is fine, but we don’t own those names – Facebook and Google do.” Joe Pulizzi, Founder of Content Marketing Institute

"You’re not just a status update that’s there and gone, you’re right in someone’s inbox, where they receive other important communication from their work, family, and friends." Nathalie Lussier, Digital Strategist at Ambition Ally

"Email marketing consistently generates 80-90% of our landing page traffic." Corey Dilley, Marketing Manager at Unbounce

But what really caught my attention was that my friend, Maggie Jaimeson, credits her mailing list with kick-starting her writing career. She took a Facebook ads course with Mark Dawson, learned how to make effective Facebook ads and how to band with fellow authors, and has recently celebrated a milestone: 10,000 subscribers.

Okay! Time for me to get some subscribers. I had a few hundred, mostly students who'd signed up after I'd spoken at health care conferences. Not the same audience as eager book-buyers.

I set up a landing page. I tried Facebook ads, but found them relatively expensive. What really worked for me? Instafreebie.

 You give away a free book--I used the short stories that Kobo had commissioned for the Gone Fishing mystery contest--in exchange for an e-mail address. My first one is here: https://www.instafreebie.com/free/qpGYY

Don't just use their free feature, because then you can't harvest the e-mail addresses. Instafreebie gives you one month free trial of "Plus" ($20/month) or "Pro" ($50/month). You can link it to your Mailchimp account and set up your mailing list there.

Then look on the Instafreebie forum and bundle with other authors in your genre. I bundled with a thriller group and got 350 downloads before I figured out that I had to upgrade to get the addresses (select "opt-in required"). So that was sad--except Instafreebie decided to feature me on their blog, resulting in 600+ e-mails. Altogether, 1000 people downloaded my book without me spending a dime, because I'm still on the free trial.


I'm currently doing a Horror and Suspense giveaway, a Chinese New Year celebration is starting up, and I can’t wait for the chick lit group on February 1st.

Of course, nothing's perfect. One author pointed out that you can end up with a lot of unsubscribers and complainers, because these readers are looking for free books and may get enraged if you a) have the temerity to send them a message, and worse yet, b) charge money for a book. However, I'm looking at my friend Maggie and her 10,000 subscribers. I want to be like her. And so I'm willing to try.

If you want to try, too, this is my Instafreebie referral link. No pressure. https://www.instafreebie.com?invite_code=cpSHuy8qdh

Another thing Maggie does is join with other authors to have contests. We're just finishing up the Transformations Contest on Jan 23rd at 11:45 Pacific Time with $250 in gift cards and $50 in book prizes. Depending on your time zone, you may be able to grab a free copy of EXPENDABLE and other terrific books: http://www.maggielynch.com/giveaways/transformations-contest/

I'm writing this past my bedtime, so please excuse any lack of lucidity. Please feel free to ask questions or provide tips of your own. I'm always looking to learn.
And in case you ever want to sign up for my list, it's very chill. The picture of my kids in squid balaclavas was very popular. https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/x6d4e4