15 November 2016

Hate Crimes in Canada, Eh



I was supposed to work on my novel on Wednesday. Instead, I found myself on Facebook, looking for wisdom and solace. Most of my friends are either writers, health care workers, or both. I did find comfort in them. But I was also shocked by my newsfeed.
Peterborough is a small city of about 80,000 people and home to Trent University. After I graduated from my program in emergency medicine, I did my first locum in an even smaller town close to Peterborough. Beautiful area, green, lots of smiling people. Almost all white people, but that's the norm in a small Canadian town. Usually, rural-ites are friendly. Not always. In my life, no one has flung urine at me.
Although once, a teenager ran up to my dad in Ottawa with a plastic bag clenched in his hands and said, "Are you Japanese?"
I was maybe twelve and didn't know what to do.
My dad said, truthfully, no.
The guy ran away with his bag, which seemed to contain some sort of brown liquid.
Close call.



This is not isolated to Peterborough. Basically, I'm astonished that some people think they have new and wide permission to spew hate.
It was always simmering. When I took my kids trick-or-treating in Vankleek Hill a few weeks ago, a little girl on Main Street stared at me and starting singing, "I see your Chinese eyes" and more under her breath. I looked at her mother, who was staring blankly into space, and back at the girl, who kept singing. I thought, Do I confront the girl? Do I point this out to her mother?
My kids were tired, and we were heading back to our car, so I opted to glare at the girl and keep going.
Afterward, I mentioned it to my white husband. He hadn't even noticed. He laughed and said, "You like to glare."
Actually, what I like to do is trick-or-treat without racist commentary. Wouldn't that be nice?
If you think none of this is real, or it's exaggerated, or it doesn't matter because no one was beaten or died, you may enjoy reading this report on hate crimes in Canada in 2013: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2015001/article/14191-eng.htm#a2
It has nice charts like this:


I can't not speak.
I respect other Sleuthsayers' right not to engage, but in my mind, there is no point writing about crime fiction and ignoring crimes in real time.
Let me end with some wise words from Dr. Dylan Blacquiere, a neurologist, writer, and friend. I have edited his brilliance for brevity, but you should seek him out:

1. We have to, have to, have to get our own house in order. That could mean engaging with civic politics, writing letters, joining community organizations, running for office yourself. Our institutions are only as strong as the people who participate, and the best way to keep someone like Trump from destroying what we build here is to make sure that we participate fully to strengthen what we have. Clinton lost on turnout. People were not engaged. That means we have to engage. 
2. We have to pay attention to why this happened. Most of his voters are not racists or sexists or stupid. Some of them are, no doubt. But many are people for whom the system is not working, and they saw nothing to lose. That means we have to face these issues head on. Economic inequality. Poverty. Unemployment. Economic uncertainty. Trump's message wins when people are disenfranchised, vulnerable, and uncertain. If our economy is working for everyone in a fairly distributed manner, then a lot of the power of his argument goes away. And ignoring these people, dismissing them, not understanding where they are coming from, not seeing their experiences and not declaring them important, means that they will find some other way to make themselves heard. It's hard to blame them for that; we haven't always been that great at taking their concerns seriously.
3. More than ever we have to stand up and support the vulnerable and stand up for equality. Women, people of colour, LGBT, people with disabilities, immigrants. We have to support our allies and friends in the States who are in a vulnerable and scary place right now. We have to make sure rights and freedoms don't get rolled back here as politicians like Kellie Leitch start rising. 
4. And we have to face some uncomfortable truths - we aren't perfect here, either. Racism exists here. Our relationships with First Nations, especially here, are fraught with broken promises, inequality, and disrespect. Those 
comments that Trump supporters make; Canadians make those too, about women, about natives, about black people and queer people and Muslims and Jews. Many of our institutions have been built on past inequality and oppression. Part of standing against Trump means we have to face up to that and make those things better here. We absolutely do not get to rest on our laurels here; in fact, we have to recognize the fact that in a lot of ways we've done, and are doing just as badly. We need to fix that. If we truly want to stand for something good in a scared and uncertain world it means we have to improve ourselves, too, not just wag a finger at others. 
Bottom line: There's a lot we can't do about this. It's frustrating and it's discouraging and it's depressing. But the sun still came up yesterday. It's going to come up today, and tomorrow, too. There's work to be done. Canada has the chance to be the light the world leaves on for when places like the States and Great Britain come around and come back home. We have to seize that chance by strengthening ourselves, staying involved, and helping to fix the problems that led here and the ones
that will worsen because we're here. 
I spent yesterday numb and avoidant. I plan to spend today roiling up my sleeves and getting to work.

14 November 2016

Getting Away with Murder – and Other Things


I have always believed that writers should try to get away with everything they can as far as plot, characterization, and style go. Experimental writers, naturally, have this as their basic brief and a straining after originality is the usual result. But genre writers and contemporary novelists like to push the envelope as well, and two well received recent novels provide good illustrations of blending genres for striking effect: Liz Moore’s The Unseen World and Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines.
Both incorporate elements of mystery and science fiction. Moore’s novel begins as a sensitive account of Ada, a bright little girl in a distinctly unconventional household. Folks looking for thriller velocity here may be disheartened but my advice is to stick with the story. When Ada’s father shows signs of early onset dementia, the novel morphs into a quest mystery with a good deal of information about artificial intelligence.

Sounds like maybe too rich a blend? Actually, no. Moore skips in time from Ada as a child and an adolescent in the 1980’s, back to her father in the 1930’s and 1950’s, and forward to the 21st century. At the center of Ada’s search is Elixir, her computer scientist dad’s experiment in artificial
intelligence. Elixir was designed as a machine that can learn, and precocious Ada, was one of the many people in her father’s lab who ‘talked’ to the program so that it would increase its vocabulary and eventually pass the Turing Test, that is, communicate in a way indistinguishable from human.

As a result, Elixir not only learns a lot of facts about the world, it learns a great deal about the personalities and histories of its lab friends. I won’t spoil how this works out in the novel, but Moore’s conclusion is imaginative and entirely satisfying.

In a quiet way, The Unseen World is a thriller, the novel structured as an investigation with high stakes on the outcome. The Elixir program and even the various generations of computers that Ada uses to connect with it, have surprising personalities, as do the principle characters, Ada, her father, David, his kindly co-worker and neighbor, Liston, and her family.

The Unseen World is a contemporary novel with what I consider welcome genre elements. Underground Airlines is perhaps the reverse, a thriller with serious literary chops that mixes mystery and science fiction with alternative history. In Winters’ novel, the Civil War was averted by a compromise following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Four Southern states are still slave states; Texas is contested ground between an abolitionist faction and the federal government, bound by the constitution to protect the ‘property rights’ of the so called Hard Four.

The protagonist is a former PB – person bound to labor – who has a kind of quasi-freedom as a federal investigator. He’s a cracker jack detective but as his whole focus is runaways, Victor is a modern version of that hated 19th century figure, the fugitive slave catcher.
   
The character of Victor has attracted notice because Winters’ himself is not African-American, but he has certainly made Victor a complex character with a rich interior life. Further, the detective is not exactly our contemporary. He operates in an environment at once recognizable even in matters of race and politics, and peculiar, rather like the Alternate Universe in the old Fringe series or one of Philip K. Dick’s odd cities.
   
Part of Underground Airlines is straight detective work. Victor is a master of aliases and disguises, and, leashed by a tracking chip in his neck, he mostly focuses on his cases even though the poor souls he finds mirror his own experience and fears. His stoic indifference only begins to weaken after he meets Martha, a harried young white woman desperate to find her recaptured PB lover, and Lionel, their charming inter-racial son. But Victor’s rebellion really develops when a new case with an unsatisfactory file opens up unusual moral and physical dangers as well as unprecedented opportunities.

Victor is preoccupied with the various identities and schemes that comprise the mystery/thriller elements of the plot, but increasingly memories of his terrible slave childhood resurface. Later, certain sci fi elements are added to the mix, not, to my mind entirely successfully, but there is no doubt that they add a chilling note and bring into question Victor’s decision to focus on his own self interest.

The Unseen World and Underground Airlines are two novels with literary ambitions but strong genre elements. I think the mix strengthens both.

13 November 2016

Lost in the Translation


When it comes to translations, we monolingual North Americans are stuck with (and often stuck waiting for) translations as we catch up to the rest of the literary world. That makes us highly dependent upon the talent of the translator who, if not exactly anonymous, nonetheless wields enormous power over the final result.
The Moving Finger

Upon occasion, translators become almost cult figures. Take for example The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Wikipedia lists about twenty different attempts at translation of the famed Tentmaker’s tantra. (Knowing Wikipedia, we can assume that means between two and twice twenty-two.) Its best known English translator is Edward FitzGerald.

To me, FitzGerald represents an interpreter rather than a translator. He sought more the spirit of the original work than a literal, word-for-word conveyance, but also shaped the product in his own seductive way. Rather than translate the entire body of poetry, FitzGerald chose to transmogrify and rework only five to ten percent of key sections, gradually revising his lexical rendering over time.

The Rubáiyát became highly valued in the latter 1800s and was often printed in gorgeous, gold-illuminated editions. A jewel-encrusted copy was lost on the Titanic. In these days of Middle Eastern xenophobia, it’s worth noting the enormous influence of The Rubáiyát upon our language and culture. It’s difficult to read more than a few dozen quatrains without stumbling upon a familiar phrase such as “a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.”

The Rubáiyát is familiar to novelists, especially mystery writers. Many of the golden age authors titled their books or used themes in phrases written by Khayyám. Examples quoting The Rubáiyát include Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novel The Moving Finger, Stephen King’s similarly named short story The Moving Finger, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novel Some Buried Caesar, and Daphne du Maurier titled her memoir Myself when Young. Other genres, especially science fiction, have drawn from the Persian opus.

SleuthSayers
As Rob, Janice, John, Deborah, and I worked to bring this web site to fruition, we struggled to find a perfect name for our cadre. Despite rumors to the contrary, I didn’t come up with ‘SleuthSayers’, Rob Lopresti did and the rest of us burst out with an enthusiastic “Yeah!” Only afterward did it dawn on us the name contained an embedded tip o’ the hat to Dorothy L, kind of a retronym.
By Divine Hand

A couple of my college courses studied Dante’s Divine Comedy, specifically Inferno. One professor required students to purchase two translations, Sayers and Ciardi.

Dorothy Sayers is best known to mystery readers for her Lord Peter Wimsey novels and short stories. To scholars, she’s also well regarded for her analysis of La Divina Commedia. Her translation of Dante’s work focused on maintaining the original rhyming structure, which resulted in occasional idiosyncratic wording. However, her notes are considered unparalleled in their detail and accuracy.

John Ciardi, a highly respected poet, began his translation shortly after Sayers. His version became renown for capturing the spirit of The Divine Comedy. Students read Sayers for the technical aspects and Ciardi for the art. Recently, Mark Musa and Robin Kirkpatrick have published ‘more modern’ versions.

Thumbed by Twain

I often enjoy mysteries by non-English authors– French, Russian, Scandinavian, and of course the famed Argentinian, Jorge Luis Borges, who’s been mentioned in these pages. Note that Borges wrote a history of The Rubáiyát and Borges' father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, wrote a Spanish translation of the FitzGerald version of The Rubáiyát.

Sometimes translations turn out less than satisfactory. Mark Twain did a literal retranslation of one of his stories in French back into English with hilarious results. Twain made the point that we can’t always be sure how much of the author’s original sound and feel make their way into other languages. In many cases, it’s difficult to connect with a story as if trying to penetrate an unseen barrier.

The Unseen Hand

Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander / Mikael Blomkvist series (AKA the Millennium trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) impressed me so much, I haven’t yet seen the films– I didn’t want the movies to mess with the image in my mind. I credit the translator for making that bond possible.

Despite my name, I know less Swedish than Latin or even French, possibly even isiZulu. Not a lot of novels are published in Latin these days, so I require not merely an interpreter but a spirit guide.

Reg Keeland seems to be the pseudonym of translator Steven T Murray. According to his bio, Murray works not only in Swedish, but Danish, Norwegian, German, and Spanish. I can’t guess how much of a translator’s influence colors the underlying work, but I suspect less is more, the less visible the better.

I don’t doubt that takes considerable talent. North American fans owe a debt to the unseen hand that made Larsson accessible to English audiences.

Clever fans may notice the title of this article contains a double meaning. A well-done interpretation of a good novel can indeed leave an absorbed reader lost in the translation.

12 November 2016

Camouflaging Clues


by B.K. Stevens

"The grandest game in the world"--that's how Edward D. Hoch describes the duel between mystery writer and mystery reader. In an essay called "The Pleasure of the Short Story," Hoch explains why he prefers mysteries "in which the reader is given a clue or hint well in advance of the ending. As a reader myself I find the greatest satisfaction in spotting the clue and anticipating the author. If I overlook it, I don't feel cheated--I admire the author's skill!"*

And it takes a lot of skill. In any mystery where this "grandest game" is played, the delightful challenge offered to readers poses daunting challenges for writers. We have to provide readers with clues "well in advance of the ending," as Hoch says. In my opinion (and I bet Hoch would agree), we should provide plenty of clues, and they should start as soon as possible. As a reader, I feel a tad frustrated by mysteries that hinge on a single clue--if we don't pick up on a quick reference indicating the killer was wearing gloves on a warm day, we have no chance of figuring things out. I also don't much enjoy mysteries that look like whodunits but are really just histories of investigations.
The detective questions A, who provides a scrap of information pointing to B, who suggests talking to C. Finally, somewhere around F, the detective happens upon the only truly relevant clue, which leads straight to a solution that's obvious now but would have been impossible to guess even three minutes sooner. That's not much fun.

But working in lots of clues throughout the mystery isn't easy. Hoch identifies "the great clue bugaboo" that plagues many detective stories: "Clues are inserted with such a heavy hand that they almost scream their presence at the reader." Especially in short stories, Hoch says, avoiding that bugaboo requires "a great deal of finesse." I think that's true not only in whodunits but also in mysteries that build suspense by hinting at endings alert readers have a fair chance of predicting before they reach the last page. Luckily, there are ways of camouflaging clues, of hiding them in plain sight so most readers will overlook them.

Here are five camouflage techniques--you've probably used some or all of them yourself. Since it wouldn't be polite to reveal other writers' clues, I'll illustrate the descriptions with examples from my own stories.That way, if I give away too much and spoil the stories, the only person who can get mad at me is me. (By some strange coincidence, all the stories I'll mention happen to be in my recent collection from Wildside Press, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime.)

Sneak clues in before readers expect them: Readers expect the beginning of a mystery to intrigue them and provide crucial back story--or, perhaps, to plunge them into the middle of action. They don't necessarily expect to be slapped in the face with clues right away. So if we slide a clue into our opening sentences, it might go unnoticed. That's what I tried to do in "Aunt Jessica's Party," which first appeared in Woman's World in 1993. It's not a whodunit, but the protagonist's carrying out a scheme, and readers can spot it if they pay attention. Here's how the story begins:
     Carefully, Jessica polished her favorite sherry glass and placed it on the silver tray. Soon, her nephew would arrive. He was to be the only guest at her little party, and everything had to be perfect.
     Five minutes until six--time to call Grace. She went to the phone near the kitchen window, kept her eyes on the driveway, and dialed.
     "Hello, Grace?" she said. "Jessica. How are you? Oh, I'm fine--never better. Did I tell you William's coming today? Yes, it is an accomplishment to get him here. But it's his birthday, and I promised him a special present. He even agreed to pick up some sherry for me. Oh, there he is, pulling into the driveway." She paused. "Goodbye, Grace. You're a dear."
I count at least six facts relevant to the story's solution in these paragraphs; even Jessica's pause is significant. And there's one solid clue, an oddity that should make readers wonder. Jessica's planned the timing of this call ("time to call Grace"), but why call only five minutes before her nephew's scheduled to arrive? She can't be calling to chat--what other purpose might the call serve? I'm hoping that readers won't notice the strange timing, that they'll focus instead on hints about Jessica's relationship with her nephew and the "special present" she's giving him. I've played fair by providing a major clue. If readers aren't ready for it, it's not my fault.

Hide a clue in a series of insignificant details: If a detective searches a crime scene and finds an important clue--an oil-stained rag, say--we're obliged to tell readers. But if we don't want to call too much attention to the clue, we can hide it in a list of other things the detective finds, making sure some sound as intriguing as an oil-stained rag. I used this technique in "Death in Rehab," a whodunit published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 2011. When temporary secretary Leah Abrams accepts a job at a rehab center, her husband, Sam, doesn't like the idea that she'll be "surrounded by addicts." Leah counters that being around recovering addicts will be inspirational, not dangerous, but Sam's not convinced:
"They're still addicts, and addicts do dangerous things. Did you read the local news this morning?" He found the right page and pointed to a headline. "'Gambling Addict Embezzles Millions, Disappears'--probably in Vegas by now, the paper says. Or this story--`Small-time Drug Dealer Killed Execution Style'--probably because he stole from his bosses, the paper says. Or this one--`Shooter Flies into Drunken Rage, Wounds Two'--the police haven't caught that one, either."
Savvy mystery readers may suspect one of these news stories will be relevant to the mystery, but they can't yet know which one (this is another early-in-the-story clue). In fact, I've tried to make the two irrelevant headlines sound more promising than the one that actually matters--and if you decide to read the story, that's a big extra hint for you. About halfway through the story, Sam mentions the three news stories again. By now, readers who have paid attention to all the clues provided during Leah's first day at work should have a good sense of which story is relevant. But I don't think most readers will figure out murderer and motive yet--and if they do, I don't much care. I've packed this story so full of clues that I doubt many readers will spot all of them. Even readers who realize whodunit should find some surprises at the end.

Separate clues from context: We're obliged to provide the reader with clues and also, I think, to provide the context needed to interpret them. But I don't think we're obliged to provide both at the same time. By putting a careful distance between clue and context, we can play fair and still keep the reader guessing. In "The Shopper," a whodunit first published in a 2014 convention anthology, a young librarian's house is burglarized while she's at home, asleep. That's unsettling enough, but her real worries begin when the burglar--a pro the police have nicknamed The Shopper--starts sending her notes and returning some things he stole. He seems obsessed with her. Also, two men she's never seen before--one blond, one dark--start showing up at the library every day. She suspects one of them might be The Shopper, but which one? (And who says you can't have a puzzling whodunit with only two suspects?) Then things get worse:
    
She didn't really feel like going out that night, but she and Lori had a long-standing date for dinner and a movie. It'd be embarrassing to admit she was scared to go out, and the company would do her good. But when she got to the restaurant, she spotted the blond man sitting in a booth, eating a slab of pie. He has a right to eat wherever he wants, she thought; but the minute Lori arrived, Diane grabbed her hand, pulled her to a table at the other end of the restaurant, and sighed with relief when the blond man left after a second cup of coffee.
     The relief didn't last long. As she and Lori walked out, she saw the dark man sitting at the counter, picking at a salad. He must have come in after she had--had he followed her? She couldn't stand it any more.
I'd say there are five major clues in this story. Two are contained--or, in one case, reinforced--in these paragraphs. A reader keeping careful track of all the evidence could identify The Shopper right now, without reading the remaining seven pages. But since these clues are revealing only in the context of information provided five pages earlier, I'm betting most readers won't make the connection. The Shopper's secrets are still safe with me.

Use the protagonist's point of view to mislead readers: This technique isn't reserved for mystery writers. In "Emma Considered as Detective Fiction," P.D. James comments on Jane Austen's skillful manipulation of point of view to conceal the mysteries at the heart of her novel. Emma constantly misinterprets what people do and say, and because we readers see things from Emma's perspective, we're equally oblivious to what's really going on. In our own mysteries, unless our protagonist is a genius who instantly understands everything, we can use the same technique: If our protagonist overlooks clues, chances are readers will overlook them, too. In "A Joy Forever" (AHMM, 2015), photographer Chris is visiting Uncle Mike and his second wife, Gwen. Uncle Mike is a tyrant who's reduced Gwen to the status of domestic slave--he orders her around, never helps her, casually insults her. Gwen takes it all without a murmur. After a dinner during which Uncle Mike behaves even more boorishly than usual, Chris follows Gwen to the kitchen to help with the dishes:
     As I watched her standing at the sink, sympathy overpowered me again. She was barely fifty but looked like an old woman--bent, scrawny, exhausted, her graying hair pulled back in a tight bun. And her drab, shapeless dress had to be at least a decade old.
     "You spend so much on Uncle Mike," I chided. "The golf cart, all that food and liquor. Spend something on yourself. Go to a beauty parlor and have your hair cut and styled. Buy yourself some new clothes."
     She laughed softly. "Oh, Mike really needs what I buy for him--he really, really does. And I don't care how my hair looks, and I don't need new clothes." Her smile hardened. "Not yet."
     I felt so moved, and so sorry, that I leaned over and kissed the top of her head. "You're too good to him."
Chris sees Gwen as a victim, as a woman whose spirit has been utterly crushed by an oppressor. Readers who don't see beyond Chris's perspective have some surprises coming. But in this story, by this point, I think most readers will see more than Chris does. They'll pick up on clues such as Gwen's hard smile, her quiet "not yet." I had fun playing with point of view in this story, with giving alert readers plenty of opportunities to stay one step ahead of the narrator. It's another variation on Hoch's "grandest game."


Distract readers with action or humor: If readers get caught up in an action scene, they may forget they're supposed to be watching for clues; if they're chuckling at a character's dilemma, they may not notice puzzle pieces slipping by. In "Table for None" (AHMM, 2008), apprentice private detective Harriet Russo is having a rough night. She's on a dark, isolated street, staking out a suspect. But he spots her, threatens her, and stalks off. Moments later, her client, Little Dave, pops up unexpectedly and proposes searching the suspect's car. Harriet says it's too dangerous, but Little Dave won't listen:
 
He raced off. For a moment, I stood frozen. Call Miss Woodhouse and tell her how I'd botched things--let Little Dave get himself killed and feel guilty for the rest of my life--follow him into the parking lot and risk getting killed myself. On the whole, the last option seemed most attractive. I raced after Little Dave.
     He stood next to the dirty white car, hissing into his cell phone. "Damn it, Terry," he whispered harshly, "I told you not to call me. No, I won't tell you where I am. Just go home. I'll see ya when I see ya." He snapped his phone shut and yanked on a back door of the car. It didn't budge. He looked straight at me, grinning sheepishly.
     That's pretty much the last thing I remember. I have some vague impression of something crashing down against me, of sharp pain and sudden darkness. But my next definite memory is of fading slowly back into consciousness--of hearing sirens blare, of feeling the cement against my back, of seeing Little Dave sprawled a few feet away from me, of spotting a small iron figurine next to him, of falling into darkness again.
I hope readers will focus on the conflict and confusion in this scene, and on the unseen attack that leaves Harriet in bad shape and Little Dave in worse shape. I hope they won't pause to take careful note of exactly what Little Dave says in his phone conversation, to test it against the way he's behaved earlier and the things people say later. If readers are too focused on the action to pick up on inconsistencies, they'll miss evidence that could help them identify the murderer.

We can also distract readers with clever dialogue, with fascinating characters, with penetrating social satire, with absorbing themes, with keen insights into human nature. In the end, excellent writing is the best way to keep readers from focusing only on the clues we parade past them. Of course, that's not our main reason for trying to make our writing excellent. To use Hoch's phrase again, mysteries invite writers and readers to participate in "the grandest game," but that doesn't mean mysteries are no more than a game. I think mysteries can be as compelling and significant as other kinds of fiction. The grandest game doesn't impose limits on what our stories and novels can achieve. It simply adds another element that I and millions of other readers happen to enjoy.

Do you have favorite ways of camouflaging clues? I'd love to see some examples from your own mysteries. (*Hoch's essay, by the way, is in the Mystery Writers of America Mystery Writer's Handbook, edited by Lawrence Treat, published in 1976, revised and reprinted several times since then. Used copies are available through Amazon.)

11 November 2016

On NOT Talking Politics on Social Media


By Art Taylor

Needless to say, it's been quite a week in U.S. politics—the stunning finale to a long and bitter political campaign. And while a Washington Post feature on Wednesday was headlined "Our Long National Nightmare Is Over" (an article on the election season ending, a different headline in the online version here), the truth is, of course, that the nightmare is just beginning from the perspective of half the country. Another headline that day talked about half of the country being filled with hope, the other half horrified, and I realized that this second headline would have been true no matter which candidate won, and the same would be true of that nightmare beginning—for Republicans if Hillary had claimed the presidency, same as for Democrats now.

As for the meaning behind that first headline—the election done, the ads gone, whatever—clearly it's only half true. The news remains focused on coverage and commentary, office chatter still revolves around the election and what's ahead, and likely your Facebook wall or Twitter feed is still as thick with election talk and post-election talk as mine is.

While I've occasionally shared online an article I've found interesting (I particularly appreciate when the Post covers my home state of North Carolina, as in this article I shared yesterday), I almost steadfastly avoid talking politics in my posts. I rarely post articles with any clear partisanship, and I haven't talked publicly about my own beliefs, hopes or fears. I don't know if I'm the minority here; it seems like so many of my friends are very vocal on such topics, but it's hard to gauge the absence of such talk—who's avoiding politics and, equally important, why.

For me, politics is a fairly private thing. I have very strong feelings on most political issues, and I try to stay educated and informed as best I can. I subscribe to the Post, and its website is the homepage on both my office computer and my laptop, so I'm checking in there several dozen times a day. I read both news coverage and commentary—from both sides of the divide—and I read letters to the editor to get a sense of what readers are thinking. (Despite myself, I occasionally read the comments section on online articles, and then remind myself again why I shouldn't.) Circling back to social media, while some people I know went on Facebook blackouts during the election season, I scanned my newsfeed to see what friends and acquaintances had to say or what they posted. And come election day on any year, I always vote—and my wife and I have taken our son with us each time we've voted in the nearly five years since he was born, hopefully inculcating in him the importance of taking part in the process.

So I read. I listen. I participate. But when it comes to talking about it or posting about it....

My family has never been one of those to passionately debate politics across the dinner table (I assume this happens in reality somewhere and not just in the movies), and on those occasions when we've been divided on topics or candidates, we've politely agreed to disagree and then steered clear of discussing it any further. At times at cocktail parties or dinners, I've had people talk to me with some assumptions (often mistaken assumptions) of my political beliefs, and while I have other friends who would've jumped into such conversations—expressed themselves, explained themselves, gone on the defensive or even on the attack—I usually listen briefly and then steer myself away, exiting rather than engaging. Frankly, I don't see anything to be gained by such a confrontation, especially in this era of solidly entrenched beliefs. (I hope that the other motives don't lurk beneath this, that this isn't evidence of some cowardice on my part.)

Maybe that same aversion to confrontation is true for me of social media conversations. I've seen how one person's passionate post can provoke another person's vitriolic comment and then the endless spiral of back and forth and back and forth on a topic until exhaustion sets in (or perhaps until someone is muted, blocked, unfriended); this is not how I want to spend my time and energy.

Maybe my reluctance comes from recognizing the futility of it all. Many of us—maybe most of us—live to some degree in an echo chamber; we're drawn to people whose interests and values mesh well with our own. It's become a cliche—and then the punchline to a joke—that Facebook posts on politics won't ever change anyone's mind on a topic, won't change anyone's vote or anyone's post-election perspective either. (Revisiting my aside above, maybe it's not cowardice at all but pessimism that drives my decision.)



Maybe it's just that question "Why would anyone care what I think or feel about politics?"

But then a counterpoint there too, because I guess I do care what even strangers think when I see them making those moves. I admire the people who've stood at the Farmer's Market each Saturday or who've gone door to door canvassing, even if my reaction was simply to smile and wave and think that they already have my support, I'll be there, I'll vote. Is social media the same way? Does the voice being heard matter? Or is it just a smile and a wave between those of us who share the same values? And then—further down the sidewalk toward the Farmer's Market—a brisk pass by the other party at the other tent? Just keep on scrolling down the newsfeed.

And sticking with that counterpoint, I recognize that much of speaking out is also standing up, taking a stand and going on the record with it—not just letting your vote be heard in the ballot box but letting your voice be heard as well. As my wife pointed out, reading a rough draft of this post, sometimes being a silent witness isn't enough.

I have indeed appreciated reading what other people have posted online in the wake of the election—their thoughts and reflections, their hopes and fears. In many cases, it's as simple as seeing someone express an idea in print (or pixels) that I've been thinking, of feeling that brief connection of extending that bit of empathy. And I'll admit, in the days since the election, I've been aware of the silences on my own Facebook page—conscious, self-conscious both with the sense that I should say something about what has happened (shouldn't I be an active member of the world?) and with some desire to say something, to get those thoughts and feelings out.

A small step here then:

I could say that my heart hurt watching the election returns roll in, but that's too metaphorical to be accurate enough. It was a physical hurt: not a weight in my chest, not just a tightness, but a clench, a ripping; restless throughout the night, I worried that my heart might simply seize up, stop. When I got up (I can't say "when I woke"), I was haunted by the fear that the America I hoped our four-year-old son would grow up in was suddenly on track to become an America I didn't want him to grow up in. I expect I'll be living under that fear for a long while.

If you agree with me, you'll understand what I mean here. If you don't, you may already be scoffing or at least with your own responses in mind. As I said, half are filled with hope, half horrified, not much middle ground to be found.

The last thing I want is for this post to spur folks to rehash the election, to call attention to or widen that divide. But what I am interested in are the questions I've been circling around: Do you talk politics or avoid talking politics on social media? What prompts you to do it? what do you hope to gain, from others or for yourself?

Whichever side of the aisle you're on, I'm curious about your answers there. And whichever side of the aisle, best wishes to all of us on the road ahead.

10 November 2016

The Worst Thing on the Worst Day


I had an interesting weekend back in October.  My friends and I went to see Don Giovanni.
(Live in HD at our local theater, thanks to the Metropolitan Opera!, AND a great shout-out to Simon Keenlyside, who did the best Don Giovanni I've ever seen.  Wow!)
Then the next night, we watched the PBS Documentary on the making of Hamilton, the Musical. Another excellent choice, and I really hope to see the musical itself some day.
HINT:  There is a connection between these two...
Jonathan Edwards,
Puritan Divine and
Aaron  Burr's grandfather
During the special on "Hamilton", Leslie Odom, Jr. spoke about playing Aaron Burr, and how he could relate to him, offering that you can't "judge a man by the worst thing he does on the worst day of his life..."  At which point I turned to my husband and said, "Yes, but shooting Hamilton wasn't the worst thing Burr did on the worst day of his life."

I can say that, because dueling was common back then:  Burr fought other duels besides the one with Hamilton; Hamilton's son died fighting a duel (not with Burr); future President Andrew Jackson fought in 103 duels.  So, no, the duel is not the worst thing that Burr ever did.

Aaron Burr (1756-1836) was an interesting man of true New England aristocracy.  Not because of wealth, but because of his bloodline.  He was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan Divine who wrote "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God" (a good read for Halloween, and I should have thought of it earlier).  His extreme defense of the most extreme form of Calvinist Predestination terrified people.  They trembled, wept, sobbed, and screamed for mercy in the pews, and this turned into The Great Awakening of 1733-35, the first and perhaps greatest revival in American history. Mr. Edwards eventually became the first president of what would become Princeton University; Burr's father, also a Calvinist minister, was the second.

But both of these men were dead by the time he was 2 years old.  Burr and his sister Sally were taken in by their 21 year-old maternal uncle Timothy Edwards in 1759.  Burr was well educated, and got his BA at 16, and studied theology for 3 years with the noted hard-core Calvinist of his day, Joseph Bellamy. By all accounts, it didn't take. (See below.)  He quit and went to study law with his brother-in-law. He got to Connecticut as Lexington and Concord, and Burr joined the Continental Army.

Burr served well:  he saved an entire brigade from capture after the British landing on Manhattan - but George Washington did not commend him. Nor would he promote Burr to brigadier general, writing, "By all that I have known and heard, Colonel Burr is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue." Ouch.  (No, Washington did not give his reasons.)

After the war, Burr (now married to Theodosia, a widow, by whom he had a daughter, his beloved Theodosia) became a lawyer and went into New York politics. Tammany Hall was already up and running and put him on the Democratic-Republican presidential ticket of 1800 with Thomas Jefferson. The two running mates didn't like each other, but Jefferson needed Burr to get the New York/urban electoral vote. (Electors were chosen by the states' legislatures back then.) But Jefferson neither liked nor trusted Burr to begin with, and it only got worse.

Burr.jpg Jefferson won the popular vote over John Adams, about 41,000 to 26,000 votes.

But the electors told a different story. Back then, every elector could vote for two people as long as they didn't come from the same state as the elector (thereby supposedly cutting down on corruption). Whoever got the most votes became president. Now it was understood, in the 1800 election, that Jefferson was to be President, Burr Vice President. But in the Electoral College vote, Jefferson and Burr came out tied, 73 electoral votes each. This threw the election into the House of Representatives, where it deadlocked for 11 days and 35 ballots, as the Federalist party (who hated Jefferson) tried to make Aaron Burr President.  Read more HERE.)

And Aaron Burr just sat there. He didn't say, "Oh, but Jefferson was the one running for Presdient,"; he didn't decline the honor; he didn't urge everyone to do what they knew was the right thing to do; he sat there and smiled and waited. This might have been the worst thing that Burr did on the worst day(s), because it was cold-blooded betrayal based on monumental ambition, and BTW, shook everyone's faith in the workings of this newborn democracy.

He lost, but only because Hamilton - no friend AT ALL to Jefferson - told his Federalist friends to support Jefferson because he was "by far not so dangerous a man" as Burr. Better someone with the wrong principles than none at all.
NOTE: Yes, this added to the Hamilton-Burr feud, which went back to their days working for Washington.  But part of Hamilton's opposition to Burr was the little matter that Aaron Burr had lied to Hamilton and other Federalists about founding a bank. He said he was going to set up a badly needed water supply company for Manhattan. As soon as he got the backing, he secretly changed the charter to include banking; as soon as it was approved, there was no water company, only a bank. What made this really hurt was that the lousy water led to a malaria epidemic.
NOTE: The 1800 election is what led to the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, which calls for each elector to vote for a President AND a Vice President on their ballot; no more "guess which one wins what spot" politicking.
The Burr-Hamilton duel came in 1804, and 1805 was the end of Burr's Vice Presidency. It was a good time to get out of town, and he went to the Ohio River Valley (which was the Western frontier back then), and started acquiring land and raising a private militia. Later, Burr claimed that he was making preparations for war with Spain. When word got back to Jefferson, he ordered Burr arrested, and he was, twice, and acquitted, twice. But then a whole bunch of correspondence came out which showed that Burr was trying to get a lot of money, help Mexico overthrow Spanish power in the Southwest, and set up his own dynasty.

Burr stood trial for treason in 1807, under Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall. He was acquitted because treason requires direct witnesses, and there weren't any. He immediately fled to Europe and lived there until 1812. He spent his time soliciting funding for a conquest of Mexico (didn't get it), and pursuing women. Lots of women.  He described his pursuits and encounters in great detail, both in his journals and in his letters home to Theodosia, with dozens of women (now do you understand the Don Juan connection?).
Theodosia Burr Alston,
Aaron Burr's daughter
BTW, I can understand the journals, but writing his daughter about his sexual prowess seems... inappropriate? to say the least...
NOTE:   Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote far more about New England life and history than about slavery, made Aaron Burr a major character in her 1859 novel "The Minister's Wooing," portraying him as a Don Juan type, but also as being damaged by an extreme Calvinist upbringing.  She also continued the legend that Theodosia - who at 29 was lost at sea in 1813 - was actually "taken by pirates and [died] amid untold horrors" and said that in all of Burr's post-1800 years "one seems to see in a doom so much above that of other men the power of an avenging Nemesis for sins beyond those of ordinary humanity."
To be fair, Burr believed women to be intellectually equal to men:  he educated Theodosia extremely well, and he submitted a bill to the New York legislature to give women the vote.  He also fought to abolish slavery immediately after the Revolutionary War.  He was generous financially, often to complete strangers, especially women and children. Still, almost all of his contemporaries, and most historians, have agreed that Aaron Burr was ruled by massive self-interest, and ambition.

Image result for simon keenlyside don giovanni
Simon Keenlyside as
Don Giovanni,
(thanks to the Met);
but with the pistol...
Aaron Burr?
Alexander Hamilton:  "Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government – Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself – thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement – and will be content with nothing short of permanent power [struck: and] in his own hands – No compact, that he should make with any [struck: other] passion in his [struck:own] breast except [struck: his] Ambition, could be relied upon by himself – How then should we be able to rely upon any agreement with him? Mr. Jefferson, I suspect will not dare much Mr. Burr will dare every thing in the sanguine hope of effecting every thing –"   Quoted from HERE

John Quincy Adams:   "Burr's life, take it all together, was such as in any country of sound morals his friends would be desirous of burying in quiet oblivion."

Aaron Burr:  "The rule of my life is to make business a pleasure, and pleasure my business."

09 November 2016

Old Mortality


I don't imagine Sir Walter Scott is much read these days. Back in high school, for some of us, IVANHOE was on the reading list, maybe QUENTIN DURWARD or THE TALISMAN. All three of them were made into pretty successful movies, in the 1950's - romantic swashbucklers, not particularly credible, I admit, but incredibly rousing.  

His reputation now perhaps in disrepair, Scott in his lifetime was quite possibly the most widely read novelist in English, and maybe in translation. He's the first brand-name author, at least in trade publishing as we know it. He falls somewhere between Shakespeare and Dickens. not just chronologically, but in how he inhabited the popular imagination. If you look at expressions that have entered out common vocabulary, the Bible of course comes first, with Shakespeare a close second, then Dickens, and then Scott, you might be surprised to realize. The rest of us are back in the pack. Shakespeare, Dickens, and Scott. They're the most-quoted writers in the English language, although more than half the time, nobody's consciously quoting them. Something rotten in the state of Denmark. The best of times, the worst of times. Every dog has his day. Recognize the source? A lot of us wouldn't. They've become commonplaces, There's an interesting transition with the generic. Years ago, Xerox fought bitterly against their name being used as a synonym for copying - "let's Xerox it" - and Rollerblades has done it too, more recently, calling it trademark infringement. Fridgidaire once tried the same thing. Hard to see Dickens complaining about being Uriah Heep'd - it gave him legs.

Shakespeare and Dickens both set out, from the starting blocks, to be rich and famous. Neither of them came from privileged backgrounds, and their ticket to stardom was their skill as writers. Scott had more advantages. He was well-educated, and read for the law. Writing was at first an avocation, not a career. And neither was he drawn to commercial genres. He was fascinated by the Borders, the bloody history, the clan feuds and the religious wars, the Covenanter Rebellion and, later, the doomed Stuarts. His first book was a collection of Border ballads. He'd met Robert Burns when he was fifteen, and it had decided him on being a poet.

Let's be plain about this. Poetry was a gentlemen's profession. It was literature. In the early 1800's, the novel was below the salt. They were written for women, and not to be taken seriously - some obvious irony, here. Scott launched the novel in a new direction. The first of his historicals, WAVERLY, was published in 1814, and it took off like a rocket. I don't think Scott anticipated its success. He wanted to popularize the Jacobite legend, and maybe at the same time, bring it down to earth, make it accessible but show it for the folly it was.

Scott tapped into a hungry audience. They were waiting for it. He
was the missing piece, and he hit the market at exactly the right time, although he hadn't calculated for it. The early books were simply gobbled up.  Of those novels, my own opinion, the best is OLD MORTALITY, which has a political and moral complexity Scott never pulled off again. Yeah, the hero's kind of an insipid boob, but the heavies are jaw-dropping, the Royalist general Claverhouse and the Presbyterian assassin Burley. Think, perhaps, of the IRA Provos, or Islamic fanatics. OLD MORTALITY is deep in those dark woods.  

Scott didn't trade on his celebrity. It was an open secret in Edinburgh literary circles who the so-called Author of Waverly was, but his name never appeared on the title pages of his novels. A quaint convention? Maybe. He put his name to THE LADY OF THE LAKE, which sold like hotcakes, but it was of course epic poetry.

And then the inevitable happens. Scott's success catches up with him. It isn't hubris, or over-reaching, but his publisher, James Ballantyne, goes down. Scott has been a silent partner in the business for years, and his books have supported Ballantyne's bad business decisions. Scott could have thrown them over the side, but he's way too honorable for that. They declare bankruptcy, Scott writes them out of debt, and it kills him, at 61.

This is an over-simplified version of a complicated story. I admire the fact that Scott took responsibility. It speaks to the man. but the later stuff isn't that good, with the exception of ST. RONAN'S WELL, which is patently playing to the romance market, Austen and Bronte, and Scott doesn't shy away from admitting it. 


Seriously, can you envision anybody doing this, in the present predatory publishing climate? I think it's astonishing. The guy's loyal to an old friend, who's been a fool, but not devious. The guy believes that his good name, and his legacy, is more valuable than immediate profit. The guy wants to finish an enormously ambitious building project, Abbotsford, but he won't mortgage his reputation. In other words, Scott's willing to break his ass, and risk his physical health, to make good on his debt to history. I'm not at all sure we could meet that bar.  


Old Mortality


I don't imagine Sir Walter Scott is much read these days. Back in high school, for some of us, IVANHOE was on the reading list, maybe QUENTIN DURWARD or THE TALISMAN. All three of them were made into pretty successful movies, in the 1950's - romantic swashbucklers, not particularly credible, I admit, but incredibly rousing.  


His reputation now perhaps in disrepair, Scott in his lifetime was quite possibly the most widely read novelist in English, and maybe in translation. He's the first brand-name author, at least in trade publishing as we know it. He falls somewhere between Shakespeare and Dickens. not just chronologically, but in how he inhabited the popular imagination. If you look at expressions that have entered out common vocabulary, the Bible of course comes first, with Shakespeare a close second, then Dickens, and then Scott, you might be surprised to realize. The rest of us are back in the pack. Shakespeare, Dickens, and Scott. They're the most-quoted writers in the English language, although more than half the time, nobody's consciously quoting them. Something rotten in the state of Denmark. The best of times, the worst of times. Every dog has his day. Recognize the source? A lot of us wouldn't. They've become commonplaces, There's an interesting transition with the generic. Years ago, Xerox fought bitterly against their name being used as a synonym for copying - "let's Xerox it" - and Rollerblades has done it too, more recently, calling it trademark infringement. Fridgidaire once tried the same thing. Hard to see Dickens complaining about being Uriah Heep'd - it gave him legs.

Shakespeare and Dickens both set out, from the starting blocks, to be rich and famous. Neither of them came from privileged backgrounds, and their ticket to stardom was their skill as writers. Scott had more advantages. He was well-educated, and read for the law. Writing was at first an avocation, not a career. And neither was he drawn to commercial genres. He was fascinated by the Borders, the bloody history, the clan feuds and the religious wars, the Covenanter Rebellion and, later, the doomed Stuarts. His first book was a collection of Border ballads. He'd met Robert Burns when he was fifteen, and it had decided him on being a poet.

Let's be plain about this. Poetry was a gentlemen's profession. It was literature. In the early 1800's, the novel was below the salt. They were written for women, and not to be taken seriously - some obvious irony, here. Scott launched the novel in a new direction. The first of his historicals, WAVERLY, was published in 1814, and it took off like a rocket. I don't think Scott anticipated its success. He wanted to popularize the Jacobite legend, and maybe at the same time, bring it down to earth, make it accessible but show it for the folly it was.

Scott tapped into a hungry audience. They were waiting for it. He
was the missing piece, and he hit the market at exactly the right time, although he hadn't calculated for it. The early books were simply gobbled up.  Of those novels, my own opinion, the best is OLD MORTALITY, which has a political and moral complexity Scott never pulled off again. Yeah, the hero's kind of an insipid boob, but the heavies are jaw-dropping, the Royalist general Claverhouse and the Presbyterian assassin Burley. Think, perhaps, of the IRA Provos, or Islamic fanatics. OLD MORTALITY is deep in those dark woods.  

Scott didn't trade on his celebrity. It was an open secret in Edinburgh literary circles who the so-called Author of Waverly was, but his name never appeared on the title pages of his novels. A quaint convention? Maybe. He put his name to THE LADY OF THE LAKE, which sold like hotcakes, but it was of course epic poetry.

And then the inevitable happens. Scott's success catches up with him. It isn't hubris, or over-reaching, but his publisher, James Ballantyne, goes down. Scott has been a silent partner in the business for years, and his books have supported Ballantyne's bad business decisions. Scott could have thrown them over the side, but he's way too honorable for that. They declare bankruptcy, Scott writes them out of debt, and it kills him, at 61.

This is an over-simplified version of a complicated story. I admire the fact that Scott took responsibility. It speaks to the man. but the later stuff isn't that good, with the exception of ST. RONAN'S WELL, which is patently playing to the romance market, Austen and Bronte, and Scott doesn't shy away from admitting it. 


Seriously, can you envision anybody doing this, in the present predatory publishing climate? I think it's astonishing. The guy's loyal to an old friend, who's been a fool, but not devious. The guy believes that his good name, and his legacy, is more valuable than immediate profit. The guy wants to finish an enormously ambitious building project, Abbotsford, but he won't mortgage his reputation. In other words, Scott's willing to break his ass, and risk his physical health, to make good on his debt to history. I'm not at all sure we could meet that bar.  


08 November 2016

Election Day short stories


by Barb Goffman

I hope you'll excuse me for this short post. As I write this on Monday, the 7th, I'm on day twenty of bronchitis, and while I'm improving, I'm certainly not well.

I hope you'll all celebrate with me, too, because as you read this, it's Election Day, i.e., the end of what feels like the longest election season ever. While we all hope our own candidates will win, in the end, some people will be disappointed, but I hope we can all work to come together in the coming days for the good of ourselves and our nation.

One way to come together is to talk about a common love--short stories. And on this day, it seems perfect to focus on ones involving elections.

I've written one short story involving an election, "Ulterior Motives," which appeared in the anthology Ride 2, published in 2012. (This is an anthology series all about bicycles.) When asked to describe the story back then, I wrote: In "Ulterior Motives" a teenage girl finds herself in danger when she gets involved in a local civic campaign and learns that in politics, everyone has an ulterior motive.

My editor came up with his own description of the story: There's a mystery in this small town, and a secret, and a teenaged girl at the middle of it all who doesn't think the adults around her understand much. Which maybe they don't.

I got the idea for this story from a sad real-life event. Back in 2012, I read about a county in Oregon that was having such money problems, it had to cut back on its policing, with officers on patrol only a few hours each day. And because of the cutbacks, police might not respond to every call, including burglaries, the article said. Well, that got my writer's wheels spinning, and "Ulterior Motives" was born. The story involves a local campaign to get a bond issue on the ballot to fund a sheriff's department in similar straits to the real-life Oregon county. It may sound like a dry topic, but the story is told from the point of view of a teenage girl who cares very much about what happens, and she does her best to make an impact on the campaign. There's humor and danger and, hopefully, everything readers want in a mystery short story. I'm particularly proud of this story because of its local nature. So many political mysteries involve presidential elections. Not too many short stories that I know of involve local campaigns, which can have such a profound impact on day-to-day living. (If I'm wrong on this point, I hope you'll let me know, sharing story information in the comments.)

One other political short story (okay, it's a novella) worth mentioning here is by fellow SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens. The story is "One Shot." This description of the story is from B.K.'s website:


 When rising politician Karen Dodd pushes through the toughest gun-control bill in Ohio’s history, she thinks it’s her ticket to the governor’s office. But soon after she announces her candidacy, on the day she’s slated to receive an award from a gun-control organization, Karen Dodd is found dead in her comfortable suburban home, one bullet through her heart.

Okay, so that's two short stories perfect for Election Day. I hope you'll check them out, and I hope you'll share your favorite Election Day short stories in the comments. In the meanwhile, happy reading. And go vote!





07 November 2016

Fact or Fiction?


Sleuthsayers is delighted to welcome our newest member, Steve Liskow, an award-winning writer who has been a finalist for both the Shamus and the Edgar and has taken home the Black Orchid Prize. His short stories have appeared in Vengeance, the MWA anthology edited by Lee Child, and in Level Best Books’ anthologies.

A retired high school English teacher, Steve experienced what he terms a “horrible experience” with a traditional house. “I bailed as soon as I could without a financial penalty,” Steve says.

In addition to his writing, Steve is a keen guitar player with a special passion for early blues. A number of his mystery titles reflect his musical enthusiasms, including his newest, featuring Detroit PI Chris “Woody” Guthrie, Dark Gonna Catch Me Here and the earlier novels, The Kids Are All Right and Cherry Bomb.

In addition to writing, Steve does editing and conducts fiction workshops. Check out his fine web site, www.SteveLiskow.com and his October 1st appearance on the Jungle Red Writers blog site, where he writes about music and his writing.

Welcome aboard, Steve!


— Janice Law

by Steve Liskow

First of all, let me thank Rob, Leigh, Janice and everyone else for making me feel so welcome here. I hope I don't embarrass them too much.

When I'm conducting a writing workshop or a signing, people often ask me where I get my ideas. I often start with an idea generated by a real event, but I seldom stay with that. Laura Lippman cites real incidents as the seed for several of her novels, including What the Dead Know and After I'm Gone. She stresses that once the original idea occurs, practically everything else changes.

Alafair Burke's The Ex uses a back-story that reminds me of Adam Lanza, who invaded a Connecticut elementary school in 2012 and killed twenty-six teachers and first-graders. Many other writers have used similar starting points, and there's a cottage industry in stories involving fictionalized visions of Jack the Ripper. My own novel Run Straight Down was inspired by teaching in an inner-city high school when one of my students was killed by a rival gang. Nothing in that novel resembles the real story. I even changed the name of the town.

Why?

I don't like to remember that the boy was shot directly below my classroom window. Many other people who were involved are still alive, and examining the case would be a horrible intrusion into their lives, too. In fact, when I was still considering writing the novel, I met attorney-turned-novelist William Landay at a conference, and as soon as he knew that people involved in the case still lived in the area, he said, "Fictionalize it." End of discussion.

Most horrific crimes don't shed much light on the human condition anyway. By and large, the perpetrators are bad people who have been in trouble because of their won stupidity or addiction or some other pathology for most of their lives. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, had been identified as unstable for years and his parents had not heeded warnings. The killer in the Cheshire (CT) home invasion in 2007 were career criminals who had spent major portions of their lives in jail, rehab, or both. Six people died in the Donna Lee Bakery massacre (New Britain, CT, 1974) because the killers planned to rob a liquor store, but the owner felt ill and closed early. The bakery was next door. Again, through my teaching job, I had a two-degree connection to three of those six victims...and the owner of the liquor store was the father of one of my students.

The only case I know that became a major literary event involves Amy Archer-Gilligan, who ran a nursing home about twenty miles from where I live now. She poisoned several residents and was eventually acquitted of murder by reason of insanity. Her story became the basis of the famous play Arsenic and Old Lace, which keeps nothing of the original story except the arsenic.

The only other "true" stories I think about at all are Capote's In Cold Blood, which is as much fiction as fact but invented an entire genre all by itself, and Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. Larson's research is staggering, but his story-telling skills are even better.

Basically, the problem with writing "true crime" is similar to writing a biography. No matter how much research you do, you're still guessing. WHY did this person do this NOW? Why THIS victim? Why did Mozart produce such beautiful music while we consider Salieri a musical joke and someone else with a similar background can't even whistle? Why could Shakespeare write nearly forty plays, the worst of which is still worth reading, while better-educated people with more leisure time can't fill a page? We don't know.

Facts are messy and may not prove anything, but when we move them around and sand down rough edges, we can create the characters and events that develop a logical or emotional point. That's why mysteries or crime fiction or detective stories or whatever you want to call them will always be popular. We want an answer that works. Whether it's Sherlock Holmes or Harry Bosch solving the crime, we want to believe things happen for a reason and the world makes sense.

It's fun to take a real case and fictionalize it to she what "might" have been. The Bobby Fuller killing (Remember "I Fought the Law and the Law Won" in 1966?) is still open 49 years later, but it inspired the film Eddie and the Cruisers. My own novel Blood On the Tracks used a cold case about a dead rock singer, too. I didn't even realize I was channeling the case until one of my guitar-playing friends asked me about it.

So, if you want to talk to me about a "true story," just give me a sentence or two and get out of the way. No, I won't split the profits (Profits, ha-ha-ha) because you may not even recognize your story when I finish with it.

Shakespeare's histories are anything but history, and while Macbeth really existed, little of the story is accurate. King James claimed he was descended from Banquo in the play, but my research never turned up anyone by that name. Shakespeare wrote the play to flatter his king. He was one of the first people to show us that facts can get in the way of a good story.

It's a lesson most writers take to heart.

06 November 2016

The Accountant


Suspend disbelief. Suspend disbelief… Feel sleepy, very sleepy… Count backward from zero, suspend disbelief, accountancy is not boring…

A couple of weeks ago when I found myself at loose ends, my friend Geri and I went to see The Accountant. We… were… surprisingly impressed.

A mere 50% of film critics gave it a thumbs-up, but (IMDB IMHO) audiences got it right– 85% liked it, giving it an A on an A+—F scale. Why the huge gap? Most of the critics couldn’t buy the concept of an autistic, kick-boxing/kick-ass accountant. The film– trust me in this– makes the premise painless.

The Accountant contains a surprisingly intelligent plot for a film surfeited with low-brow violent action. This is not a movie for children although one critic suggested it gives autistic kids their own superhero. Think Bruce Wayne gone totally bats. Or Bruce Willis… either works.

The superhero feel might not be a fluke. It appears Warner Bros may have worked out a deal with DC comics. See animated prequel below.

One Ben Affleck scene might flip stomachs, a scene that features the protagonist in his own bedroom fighting his demons. As a couple of characters discuss, it’s impossible to argue the story doesn’t glorify violence. The saving grace is the Accountant’s moral code.

A Puzzling Error


A couple of times in the screenplay the question arises, “Do you like puzzles?”

Me personally, yes, as readers might recall from past columns. One scene in the film raised a flag, although I didn’t tumble to the reason until I later replayed it in my mind. It dawned on me that the dialogue included a classic puzzle. Surprisingly for a movie about math, they got it wrong. I won’t give away the error, but listen carefully when the Accountant mentions he’d lived in 34 locations in 17 years.

The Prequel

05 November 2016

Tales From the Dark Side



by Michael Bracken



NOTE: I'm pleased today to welcome my friend and 2016 Golden Derringer Award recipient Michael Bracken as a guest blogger. Although Michael has written several books, he is better known as the author of more than 1200 short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery MagazineCrime SquareEllery Queen's Mystery MagazineEspionage MagazineFifty Shades of Grey FedoraFlesh & Blood: Guilty as SinMike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and many other anthologies and periodicals. He has received two Derringer Awards, was nominated for a third, and has earned several awards for advertising copywriting. Stories from anthologies he edited have been short-listed for the Anthony, Derringer, Edgar, and Shamus awards. He lives, writes, and edits in Texas. Learn more at www.CrimeFictionWriter.com and CrimeFictionWriter.blogspot.com. As always, it's great to have you here, Michael! -- John Floyd





I don't discuss editing near as often as I discuss writing, but my editing career stretches back almost as far as my writing career. My first published writing was a poem in my junior high school's literary magazine when I was in the 9th grade. My editing career began two years later with a science fiction fanzine my best friend and I started when we were high school juniors. I then edited my high school newspaper as a senior, continued editing and publishing my fanzine for several years post-high school, and later edited several company and organization newsletters.

For many years now I have been editor of a weekly newsletter, managing editor of a bi-monthly consumer magazine, and an editor for a monthly tabloid newspaper. Additionally, I have edited eight crime fiction anthologies (five published and three cancelled prior to publication) and one essay collection.

Editing Knights, the fanzine Joe Walter and I started in 11th grade, brought my first contact with professional writers. I published regular columns by Grant Carrington, Charles L. Grant, and Thomas F. Monteleone, and work by Robert Bloch, Algis Budrys, David Gerrold, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and many other writers who were then, or later became, widely published science fiction, fastasy, and horror authors. These are the writers--especially Grant, Charlie, and Tom--who taught me by example what it meant to be a professional writer.

I have tried, as a writer, to live up to the standards of professionalism these writers exemplified. As an editor, I wish other writers did the same.

Though I don't have any sordid tales of debauchery to share from the dark side of the editor's desk, I do find that too many writers and would-be writers stumble over fundamental aspects of professionalism. Following are a few examples of how:

Plagiarism. In a word: Don't. Several years ago, a regular contributor to one of the publications I edit submitted an article that included a quotation from a famous play. As part of my editing responsibilities, I searched for the proper attribution (author, play, act, scene, line) and discovered instead that the quote was but a small part of a significant portion of the article that had been lifted verbatim from another source. When confronted about this apparent plagiarism, the writer provided many excuses for the grievous failing. Though I sometimes see that writer's byline in other publications, that writer no longer contributes to the publication I edit, nor will that writer ever contribute to any other publication I may edit in the future.

Failing to withdraw work accepted elsewhere. Within the past year, I prepared an article for publication, all the way from initial editing through page layout. While in the process of determining how best to illustrate the article, I learned it had been published in a non-paying online publication a few days earlier. The article was removed from my publication's production schedule and replaced with another. Not only did this writer lose income, but it is unlikely the publication for which I edit will ever again consider this writer's work.

Failing to incude contact information. Writers frequently fail to provide complete contact information (name, address, phone number, and email address) on their manuscripts. During the production process, email attachments often get separated from submission emails, so that, even if this information is provided in the body of the original email, I have a difficult time tracking it down several months after submission when the work is slated for publication.

Worse, though, is what happened recently. An article made it all the way through to publication. When it came time to pay the writer, we discovered that the only contact information we had on hand--after searching through a year's worth of emails--was the writer's email address, and the writer has not responded to any emails we've sent requesting a mailing address. For this failing, the writer might never be paid.

Submitting sloppy manuscripts. Though I rail against sloppy manuscripts as often as possible, this transgression is irritating rather than career threatening.

I edit far more non-fiction than fiction, so I work with many contributors who are not writers. They are, instead, professionals for whom writing is a secondary task. I have worked with manuscripts prepared using a variety of fonts, a variety of font sizes, a variety of paragraph indents (or no indents at all), and which violate every "rule" of proper manuscript preparation (see this link.)

Part of my job as an editor is to reformat all of these mss. before they are put into the production pipeline. To avoid irritating your editors, consider following these manuscript guidelines:

1. Put your name, address, phone number, and email address on the manuscript itself.

2. Number pages using Word's Header/Footer command.

3. Be consistent. For example: However you indent your paragraphs, indent every paragraph the same way. However many spaces you put between sentences, put the same number of spaces between all sentences. However you indicate an em-dash, indicate an em-dash the same way every time. And so on.

In the end, remember that editors are striving to produce publications that attract readers, and you are striving to produce work for editors that will do just that. So, treat your editors and your work with a high level of professionalism. If you do, you should avoid ever providing the examples someone like me uses to frighten new writers.