15 February 2017

Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing



by Robert Lopresti

I'm not sure this title fits the subject matter, but it's a pretty song.

As you are probably sick of being told, I review a short story every week.  I try to be a fair judge, treating every candidate equally but I admit that sometimes I will find myself rooting for a story to succeed because of a wonderful opening line, beautiful writing, or a great concept.  It's yours to lose.  Don't blow it!

And sometimes they succeed. But sometimes they blow it.

Recently I read a story with a great premise, one I loved so much I read a few key lines out loud to my wife.  I kept rolling along, having a great time, for the first three quarters of the narrative.  Then all four tires slowly deflated.

I'm not going to get specific because I don't say bad things about individual stories.  (There's a reason I review the best story each week.)  But vaguely, here's the plot:

The author establishes the great premise and deals with it, apparently resolving it.  Then a character is murdered.  The hero, call him Sam Sleuth, starts to investigate.  The character closest to him, call him X, is the Most Likely Suspect.

All of which is great.  Still rolling merrily.  But we are at the three-quarter point.

Sleuth begins to suspect that X really is  the killer.  He digs more, and finds evidence pointing in that direction.  He confronts X who more or less admits his guilt, but not in a way that would hold up in court.  And Sleuth vows to find a way to prove it.  The end.

That's no ending, says me.  Not a good  ending, anyway.  Our hero has been treading water for the last quarter.

So here are some suggestions as to how the author might have created a better conclusion, one which might have made my Best of the Week, if I liked the writing, and was in the right mood, and Saturn was on the cusp of Capricorn.

Good for the Soul.  Sleuth could have tricked/guilted X into a confession that would have held up in court.

In the Pudding.  Sleuth discovers proof that X did the killing.

Had it coming. X reveals (this requires a ton of foreshadowing) that the victim was such a horrible person that he deserved what he got.  Sleuth is convinced and tells him to go and sin no more.

Surprise Party.  It wasn't X at all!  Turns out it was Y, that dirty devil!

Reverse Surprise.  If our author really wants to end with Sleuth vowing to catch X, then Sleuth needs to think it is Y until - Boom - the Big Reveal.

Immune to Murder.  Sleuth is sure that X is guilty but he can never be convicted because he is the nephew of the President/Mafia Chief/Billionaire, or is the Ambassador from Barataria.  Much noirish brooding in bourbon follows.

Any of those had a chance to be better than what I got. But on the bright side, I got a blog out of it didn't I?  Now, back to a hunt for the Best.



14 February 2017

Do You Do Artist Dates?


by Melissa Yi

“The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore
something that interests you.” Julia Cameron

An artist date is permission to play. Every week, you are supposed to explore something that makes you smile.

When I first heard about them, I was excited, but I circled around the idea cautiously, like an animal scenting something new. What is this thing called play? Am I allowed to indulge in it, or do I have to spend every waking moment working as a doctor, a writer, and a mother?

For me, because I live in the country, one of the barriers is physically getting to something that interests me. It takes me an hour to drive to Montreal, 1.5 hours to drive to Ottawa, and more if there’s snow or traffic.

And yet, it’s almost always worth it.

I think this is why writers love conferences. You go from isolation to a collective army of smart, funny people who love the same things you do (reading, writing, and Riesling). You can get some of the same vibe online, but it’s not as fun as in person.

Steve Steinbock & Melissa Yi at Bloody Words 2014
“It’s Brigadoon!” said Steve Steinbock, of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, who suggested I come to Bloody Words, the former Canadian crime conference.

“Huh? What’s Brigadoon?”

He explained that it’s a town that materializes out of nowhere, and then it’s gone. “Brigadoon!”


“Brigadoon,” I repeated, still a bit confused, but enjoying his enthusiasm.

Another barrier for me is that I hate spending money. I went to Left Coast Crime last year, felt guilty about spending money, and quizzed other authors in attendance if they felt guilty, too. The answer: no, with the unspoken corollary of "Why are you wasting your time here worrying about it?" Stacy Allen was kind enough to answer in detail. She said something to the effect of, “You have a gift. Everyone here has a gift. It’s a crime not to use it.”
With thanks to Lisa de Nikolits for the photo!

I just spent a long, long weekend in Toronto. The main goal was speaking at OLA, the Ontario Library Association superconference, through Crime Writers of Canada, on the Friday. I spent my two minutes explaining the genesis of Stockholm Syndrome (chasing after an escaped prisoner, as I explained in my interview with CBC Radio's Robyn Bresnahan here), connected with new readers, learned of literary conferences in Renfrew and Kingston, met James Wigmore, an author who’s a retired forensic toxicologist, and Judy Penz Sheluk invited me to post on her blog.

I stayed extra-long so that I could sing in a mass choir with MILCK, my favourite new singer--a brave, talented, risk-taker whom I'd like to emulate in many ways.

How about you? Do you do artist dates? Do you spend money on your art, and on your writing career?

13 February 2017

Great Short Stories Revisited




by Jan Grape

I've been reading short stories in anthologies published in 1990s and 2000s. I blushingly admit I have stories in them and it started as a project of rereading my stories. Some I had forgotten like "Whatever Had To Be Done" published in Deadly Allies by Doubleday in 1992 and Bantam paperback in 1993. This was the first collaborative anthology by the Private Eye Writers of America and Sisters In Crime. It was edited by Robert J. Randisi and Marilyn Wallace. This story was probably my second story ever published where I actually received money. I had published two or three stories for small indie magazines that were subscription only and I was paid in copies.

The very first short story I had published happened in 1981 or so and I got $100 for it. It was not a mystery but a Christmas story published in the Wichita Falls City Magazine. I don't even have a copy of it anymore because Elmer, our kids and I moved a few times I remember. I think still had copies  on the last move to Austin. When Elmer and I moved out of our house and into our RV full time we ran out of time and I have no idea where my copies of that magazine wound up.

I do remember the story pretty well. My main character was myself and it was about returning to a small town and in every store I entered, people were friendly and full of the Christmas spirit. If I made a purchase the store gift-wrapped my purchase for free. I compared that joyful attitude to major city stores in Houston where I lived at the time. I'm not sure how the story ended and I don't remember the editor's name, gosh it was  35 or 36 years ago. However, I'll never forget her phone call to me. "Jan, I'm calling to tell you we're publishing your short story." I remember gushing a bit and then she said, "Actually, the story has already been published in this month's issue and along with a check for $100 I'm sending four or five copies of the magazine."

I was beside myself as was my family. I had been trying to be published for a couple of years, had a private-eye novel almost finished and this was my big dream. Good thing I didn't quit my day job because I didn't publish anything else for FIVE years and then only a couple of small articles, which I was paid real money for but nothing over the hundred I had first received.

The first, second and third stories I sold happened all about the same time. In Invitation to Murder published first in hardcover by Dark Harvest in 1990, paperback by Diamond in 1993, edited by Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg, featured my story, "A Bunch of Mumbo Jumbo." In  Mary Higgins Presents Malice Domestic, from Pocket Books in 1993, featured "Arsenic and Old Ideas."
I received verbal acceptance, contracts and money all around the same time although Mumbo Jumbo was actually published first.

After than I was in many theme anthologies, in about 10-12 Cat Crime, Partners In Crime, Deadly Allies 11, Lethal Ladies 1 & ll, Santa Clues, Midnight Louie Pet Detectives, Murder For Mother and White House Pet Detective. I was lucky in that I found editors, including Bob Randisi, Ed Gorman and Marty Greenberg who liked what I did and kept buying my stories.

My 1998 Anthony Award winning story, "A Front Row Seat," was in Vengeance Is Hers anthology, edited by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins published by Penguin/Signet in 1997, featuring all hard-boiled women writers.

Shortly after that I finally sold my first Zoe Barrow, Austin policewoman novel and have only written a few short stories since. I enjoy the short form and have been able to feature my female private-eye characters, Jenny Gordon and C.J. Gunn in around ten stories. They were characters from my very first novel which never sold.

I am so proud that many of my fellow SleuthSayers are short story writers and are being nominated and winning awards. I think the short story will continue to thrive although at times we think the heydays are over. I do appreciate Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine & Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine who keep publishing wonderful short stories every month. Maybe one day soon I'll crack that market.

12 February 2017

The Aging of Information


by Leigh Lundin

Ada, Countess of Lovelace
What degree of separation lies between the legendary Lord Byron and the developer of the first computer? The answer is one. In writing an article describing the connection, I fell into another story.

Wikipedia appears at the top of on-line searches. I often do quick look-ups because I know exactly where to glance to find a birth date, an affiliation, or a geographic location. As for opinion-free articles, it’s a bit less useful, but it provides links to launch research projects.

Supposedly anyone can edit Wikipedia but, for someone not familiar with the mountain of rules and the complexity of cliques and cadres with their own agendas, adding or modifying an article can drop one into a minefield. So I’m reading the article on Charles Babbage and I see a note questioning a salient point in the article. I knew I’d seen that before and found it in the Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition. No harm opening Wikipedia and documenting that, right?

Except it was immediately reverted. What? Why?

“The reference is too old,” I’m told. That made the second time that’s happened to me.

Modern teenagers abhor anything ‘old’… old music, old movies, old technology, even if a song, film, or cell phone is a two-week-old antiquity, and God forbid if a recording or movie happens to be years old. But I had committed the unpardonable… I’d used a reference a century old, because the latest edition resides behind a paywall.

It never pays to argue with rabid Wiki bureaucrats, but I did. I pointed out Wikipedia was founded on the public domain 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. (Trivia: The Britannica was subsequently purchased by Sears, Roebuck & Co. in 1920.)

Wikipedia’s administrator replied, “We don’t use it because it’s unreliable, sexist, racist, elitist, ethno-centrist, …” (and a passel of other -ists). In fact, no less than mystery author S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) claimed Britannica was “characterized by misstatement, inexcusable omissions, rabid and patriotic prejudices, personal animosities, blatant errors of fact, scholastic ignorance, gross neglect of non-British culture, an astounding egotism, and an undisguised contempt for American progress.”

Funny, that seems ironically close to the same accusations leveled at Wikipedia. But they try.

For three-quarters of a century, the massive encyclopedia has been lauded “the finest edition of the Britannica ever issued, and ranks with the Enciclopedia Italiana and the Espasa as one of the three greatest encyclopædias.” It was the edition when T. S. Eliot wrote Animula:
Curl up the small soul in the window seat
Behind the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Sir Kenneth Clark referred to Eliot’s poem when he wrote, “It must be the last encyclopædia in the tradition of Diderot (writer and editor of the famous French Encyclopédie) which assumes that information can be made memorable only when it is slightly coloured by prejudice.”

Therein lies the rub. The 1911 edition is prejudiced. Americans were struggling with racism, but Britain lagged far behind and it shows in the articles. Our physical sciences have pushed unimaginably ahead and mathematics was never Britannica’s strong suit.

My own Marshall McLuhan-like rule runs something like “Data is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom.” Data ages. Knowledge can be updated and kept current. But does wisdom age?

Should Socrates be ignored because he’s too ancient to know anything? Should the music of Bach, as I was told, stop being published because it’s ‘old’ and its attention shifted to young, new, upcoming songwriters? Should an entire century-old reference be discarded because some few articles are now out of date, racist or sexist?

What do you think?

Lord Byron and the Analytical Difference Engines

The irascible Lord Byron not only became the focus of modern romantic literature, he was also an example of the picaresque anti-hero found throughout English literature. He bore only one legitimate daughter, Augusta ‘Ada’ Byron, Countess of Lovelace, whom he called ‘Ada’.

Men of science and mathematics respected Ada for her brilliant mind and interest in ‘poetic science’. Starting as a teen, she became acquainted with Sir David Brewster, Andrew Crosse, Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, Charles Wheatstone, and Charles Babbage, this last introduced by her tutor, science writer and polymath Mary Fairfax Somerville.

Babbage designed what many consider the first mechanical computer. We software people fondly refer to Ada Lovelace as our first programmer. We even named a programming language after her. That she’s not mentioned in the 11th edition might be less a case of sexism (Lord Byron isn’t listed either) and more a lack of prognostication– computers wouldn’t be invented for another half century. But to be sure, Lady Lovelace was well regarded in her own time and remains highly respected today.

Both Ada and her father died at the young age of 36.



Bonus material for picaresque/romance fans: Lord Byron as a Boy

11 February 2017

Remakes, Reinterpretations, and Replies


by B.K. Stevens

When I read that Kenneth Branagh is directing and starring in a new movie version of Murder on the Orient Express, I had mixed feelings. I love just about everything Branagh has done--his Dead Again is probably my favorite mystery movie of all time--and seeing him play Poirot is bound to be fun. But the 1974 movie version of Murder on the Orient Express is so delightful that making another one seems unnecessary. It also seems dangerous: Any new version is sure to be compared to the 1974 one, almost sure to suffer by comparison.

That got me thinking about movie remakes, wondering if it's possible to draw any tentative generalizations about why some work and some don't. I'm no expert on movies, but it seems to me that some of the best movie remakes are more than remakes: They're independent movies in their own right, genuine reinterpretations of an original text, a character, or a central premise. Other movies (or, in at least one case, television series) aren't remakes but seem shaped by an earlier movie in a fundamental way. They may extend some element of the original movie, or they may challenge it. For lack of a better term, I'll call them replies.


And that's my ulterior motive for writing this post. For fear of burying my lede, I'll tell you right now: If you haven't seen a quiet 2012 movie called Liberal Arts, I think you should. Better yet, re-watch Woody Allen's Manhattan, and then watch Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts. I think Liberal Arts is wonderful, and I think it may represent a truly creative way of responding to a classic movie. More about that later.

For now, back to remakes. We often regard them skeptically, partly because there are so many of them: Apparently, 2017 will bring us remakes of everything from The Mummy to Disney's Beauty and the Beast (live action this time) to Death Wish. "Why," we ask, "can't Hollywood come up with something new, instead of recycling the same old plots?" Writers have special reasons for feeling that way. If Kenneth Branagh wants to make a mystery movie, why crank out yet another version of Murder on the Orient Express, when he's more than welcome to the screen rights for our stories and novels?

And we've all seen remakes that disappointed us, irritated us, perhaps left us sputtering with disbelief and indignation. (Obviously, the opinions I'm about to express are my own opinions and nothing more. I apologize if they disappoint you, irritate you, or leave you sputtering.) For example, I was looking forward to the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. I enjoyed the 1960 movie and didn't see any reason not to remake it--after all, it's a remake itself, of 1954's Seven Samurai. Plus, like just about everyone else, I love Denzel Washington. But the remake left me cold. The cast is more diverse than the 1960 one, the acting is fine, the action scenes are well choreographed (and very long), and some details are educational--who knew pioneer women showed so much decolletage? Aside from that, though, not much about the 2016 version is new. And, at least to me, characterization seems weak. In the 1960 movie, each of the seven becomes a distinct, memorable character, often after only a few minutes of screen time. In the remake, as one after another of the seven fell during the final shootout, I had to keep asking my husband, "Which one was that?" And I found myself wondering why the director decided to remake the movie in the first place, since he didn't seem to have anything new to say.

I wondered the same thing when I saw the 2010 remake of 1984's The Karate Kid. (My husband is a fifth-degree black belt, so I have seen every martial arts movie ever made.) The remake takes place in Beijing rather than Los Angeles, and the protagonist is five or six years younger. Other than that, it's almost the same movie. (The director even kept the romantic subplot, so we're treated to the slightly creepy experience of watching two twelve-year-olds kiss. Some additional tweaking of the old script might have been nice.) I'll admit I skipped the remakes of Arthur and The Pink Panther. In each case, I think, the original movie's appeal rests primarily on one actor's remarkable performance, and I doubted the replacement actor could equal it; reviews I've read and comments I've heard confirmed my doubts. I did see the remakes of The Wicker Man and The Haunting, and I wish I hadn't. Remakes that awful feel like insults to the original movies. In general, I think remakes are unlikely to succeed if they feel like no more than attempts to reach a younger audience, promote a promising actor, amp up the special effects, or cash in on a popular movie's name.

But we've probably all seen remakes we enjoyed, too. I liked the 1995 remake of Sabrina and the 1978 Heaven Can Wait (a remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan). With both, it may have helped that I hadn't seen the original movies first and wasn't tempted to make comparisons--I could simply enjoy the new versions as clever, well-acted movies. After watching the remakes, I made a point of watching the original movies and enjoyed those, too. So maybe that's one thing to be said for remakes: The good ones may attract some new viewers for classic movies.

And a pretty good remake my help us more fully appreciate the qualities that make the original movie excellent. For example, I think 1998's A Perfect Murder is a respectable remake of 1954's Dial M for Murder. It borrows key elements (yes, that's a pun) from the original movie but doesn't follow it slavishly. For one thing, the newer movie tries to make the wife a stronger, more independent character--she's highly educated, she has an important job, and she investigates the murder on her own and figures out part of the mystery for herself. She can also be unbelievably gullible, though, and she takes foolish risks that seem inconsistent with her character. And when we compare A Perfect Murder with Dial M for Murder, we see how much has been lost. The humor and the irony are gone. The relationships are less complex, and the characters aren't as subtle and fascinating. (A special note to writers: While preparing to write this post, I re-watched both movies, and it struck me that the characters and relationships in Dial M for Murder are more complex, subtle, and fascinating partly because Hitchcock allows himself two long stretches of dialogue we would today disdain as "info dumps." Yes, it's back story. Yes, the characters are telling and not showing. But it's done well, the back story is engrossing, and telling is probably the only concise way of giving the action a depth it would otherwise lack. Maybe we should reconsider some of the current truisms we all repeat with such confidence.) My guess is that fifty years from now--a safe prediction, since I won't be around to have to admit it if I'm wrong--people will still be watching and enjoying Dial M for Murder, and A Perfect Murder will be, at most, a footnote in books on screen history. It's not a bad movie, though, and if you've got a couple of hours to spare, you might give it a try.

Once in a while,  a remake may be even better than the original, or at least so good that it's debatable. I'd put the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate in that category. It follows the general outline of the 1962 movie but makes fundamental changes in plot, characters, and theme. It's an interesting movie in its own right, we can see a legitimate reason for returning to the story and reworking it to comment on contemporary situations, and some viewers (including me) think the overall production rises above the impressive original. This time, Denzel Washington found a remake worthy of his talents.

People can also debate the relative merits of the 1956 and 1978 versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and some will stick up for a 2007 remake called The Invasion. The two remakes aren't simply glitzier versions of the original: Each makes major changes in plot and characters, and each develops its own themes. People can debate about the themes, too. Does the 1956 original comment on Cold War tensions, with the pod people representing either soulless Communist infiltrators or followers of Joseph McCarthy bent on suppressing nonconformity? (Each theory has its advocates.) Does the 1978 remake reflect a post-Watergate view of government as riddled with conspiracies? What do we make of all the references to the Iraq war in the 2007 version? The two remakes also offer different ways of resolving a logistical problem the original movie ignores: Once a pod person takes over a human's mind, what happens to the human's body?

All three of these movies, as you may know, are adaptations of Jack Finney's 1954 science fiction novel, The Body Snatchers. So should the two later versions be seen as remakes of the original movie, or as reinterpretations of Finney's novel? I can't answer that question--I don't know if the people who made the later movies even read the novel--but I do think some movies often called remakes might more aptly be called reinterpretations. For example, there's the 2010 True Grit. Like its 1969 predecessor, the 2010 movie is based on a 1968 Charles Portis novel of the same name. I haven't read True Grit, but all the reviews and articles I've seen agree the second movie follows the novel more closely than the first one with regard to plot, characters, tone, and other elements. And Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote, directed, and produced the 2010 movie, have said they decided to make it because they were intrigued by the book and particularly by the voice of its narrator, Mattie. In this case, then, "reinterpretation" may be more accurate than "remake."

That may also be the term to use when talking about the many movie versions of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, of other novels and stories, of plays by Shakespeare and others, of legends such as the story of Robin Hood, and so on. It's probably helpful to see most of these as reinterpretations of the original source, more than as remakes of earlier movies. That's what I hope Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express will be--a fresh interpretation of Agatha Christie's novel, not just an attempt to duplicate the success of the 1974 movie. After all, there have been several film versions of Ten Little Indians / And Then There Were None. When a story's so gripping, it's no wonder many moviemakers want to take a turn at telling it.

Branagh still faces a daunting challenge, since the 1974 movie was so good. It's almost like attempting another movie version of The Godfather or To Kill a Mockingbird--probably not a smart move. (People are welcome to keep making movie versions of Pride and Prejudice, though, until somebody finally gets it right. In my opinion--and again, it's merely an opinion--the only movie that does Jane Austen justice is Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility. It still breaks my heart that Thompson and Branagh got divorced.) Anyway, I wish Kenneth Branagh well with his reinterpretation. I can't think of anyone more likely to succeed at the task he's taken on.

And then there are some movies and television series that can't really be called either remakes or reinterpretations but still seem linked to earlier movies, either explicitly or implicitly. I don't know if there's an official term for them, so I'll just call them replies. For example, the television series Fargo isn't a remake, but the movie version clearly supplies its inspiration. The movie and the series share a Minnesota setting and similar characters and plots: People who don't think of themselves as criminals blunder into crime and end up destroying many lives, including their own; ruthless criminals help spread the misery; and ordinary, hard-working police officers restore order, both by bringing the guilty to justice and by providing a redemptive model of decency and simple family joys. The pattern is the same, but each season of the series has introduced new characters and stories. To me, the television series Fargo provides an interesting alternative to remakes and sequels. (It doesn't hurt, of course, that the writing and acting are so consistently excellent.)

Then there's Liberal Arts. I don't have proof--I've spent several hours looking around online but could never find confirmation--but I think Josh Radnor's 2012 Liberal Arts is a reply to Woody Allen's 1979 Manhattan. This has been a pet theory of mine for some time, and I'd love to know what you think. (I'd also love it if you'd give Liberal Arts a try--and I'm not saying that only because writer, director, and star Josh Radnor and I are both Kenyon College alumni, and most of the movie is filmed on Kenyon's exquisite campus. I've never met Mr. Radnor, and I don't own stock in the movie. Wish I did.)

Liberal Arts centers on the attraction between thirty-five-year-old Jesse and nineteen-year-old Zibby. (Sound familiar?) Jesse's a bookish, discontented admissions counselor at a New York City college. He goes back to Kenyon for a favorite professor's retirement dinner and meets Zibby, a sophomore. They strike up a friendship. The next day, they take a long walk around campus, talking about books, music, life. After he returns to New York, they write to each other, and the friendship deepens. She invites him to come back to campus to visit her. When he does, she says she wants to have a sexual relationship with him.

I'll stop the plot summary there, both for fear of spoiling the movie for you and in hopes of enticing you to see it. Instead, I'll mention a few similarities and differences between Liberal Arts and Manhattan--I assume you've all seen Manhattan, so I won't worry about spoiling that. Manhattan is set entirely in--well, Manhattan; Liberal Arts balances New York scenes against scenes set in the nearly pastoral village of Gambier, Ohio. In both movies, the age difference between the man and the woman is considerable, but Manhattan's Isaac is forty-two, and Tracy is seventeen--a significantly larger difference, especially since Tracy's still in high school and below the legal age of consent. Isaac's fiercely solipsistic, almost exclusively focused on his own problems and needs. He cites concern for Tracy's welfare as his reason for breaking up with her, but is his attraction to another woman his real motive? When his relationship with the other woman ends, and a depressed Isaac realizes "Tracy's face" is one of the things that makes his life worth living, he tries to persuade her to come back to him, even though she's about to embark on a journey that could enrich her life.


Jesse, like Isaac, spends time fretting about his needs and disappointments. But he clearly cares about other people, too, including Dean, a brilliant but troubled student Jesse meets during his first trip back to Kenyon. When Dean's life comes to a crisis, Jesse rushes to the college again to help him through. And when eminently desirable Zibby invites Jesse into her bed, he responds with sentiments seldom expressed in movies these days. "I believe in consequences," he says. "No, you believe in guilt," she counters. "Maybe," he admits. "But guilt before we act is called morality."

Well, that's probably a spoiler. But it's one of my primary reasons for thinking Liberal Arts is a reply to Manhattan. Both movies are well-written, well-acted, visually stunning, deliciously witty. Both center on similar situations. But the protagonist in Manhattan is ruled by his desires, and the protagonist in Liberal Arts can put his desires aside and make careful moral choices--again, something we seldom encounter in movies these days. Does Josh Radnor see Liberal Arts as a reply to Manhattan? Did he ever even see Woody Allen's movie? I don't know. If he didn't, it's a remarkable coincidence--the kind of coincidence any good mystery writer rejects as unbelievable.

When I was a freshman at Kenyon College, taking a year-long survey course in the history of British literature, I was often struck by the way the writers we studied seemed to be carrying on a dialogue with each other, a dialogue stretching across centuries. Writers alluded to their predecessors, imitated them, rebelled against them, borrowed from them, reshaped what they borrowed. It's natural for writers to influence each other and try to outdo each other. Moviemakers seem to be engaged in a dialogue with their predecessors, too. At this point, the dialogue often takes the form of remakes. As time goes on, the dialogue may become more varied, as writers and directors discover new ways to respond to movies that inspire or provoke them. In the meantime, we viewers wade through many remakes, avoiding or enduring the mediocre ones, surprised by joy when an old favorite gets transformed into a new delight.


Are there movie remakes or reinterpretations you especially like or dislike? Are there movies you see as replies to earlier ones? If I've maligned a movie you love or praised one you despise, please don't hesitate to say so. People get passionate about movies--that's one thing that makes talking about them so much fun. And I'm sure we'll all be nice to each other.

As others have already noted, three SleuthSayers have been nominated for the Best Short Story Agatha this year--Barb Goffman, Art Taylor, and me. Gretchen Archer and Edith Maxwell have been nominated, too. I'm thrilled and honored to be named along with these fine writers. You can read all the nominated stories here.


10 February 2017

Censorship and the Indie Writer


by
O'Neil De Noux

One of the freedoms of being an Indie writer is choosing the cover of your book. A writer is no longer at the mercy of a publisher who has no clue about your cover. One of my publishers let it slip how they planned to put a 'police shield' on the cover of one of my books. I asked what shield and found out it was a Philadelphia PD shield. I went crazy, asked if they read the book where I describe the unique NOPD star-and-crescent badge. I sent them a picture of the badge and prayed they'd listen. They said it was too late but did change the cover. I anguished for a couple months.


Since becoming an Indie writer in 2009, I've enjoyed commissioning art and taking photos for the covers of my books. Only recently, however, I ran into censorship. Amazon's Kindle Scout program blocked the original version of the cover of my WWII novel DEATH ANGELS because it had the flag of Nazi Germany along with the US flag and the flag of Free France with the cross of Lorraine on the cover. Apparently the swastika is taboo with the Kindle Scout Program. The Nazis were the villains ... never mind. Later, when I tried to PAY for an Amazon ad for my book HOLD ME, BABE, the book was rejected because there's a gun on the cover. It's a Private Eye novel. Private Eyes carry guns. So do cops so there's no advertising JOHN RAVEN BEAU.


At least Amazon and CreateSpace have allowed me to publish the books with my original covers, just not advertise or enter into certain probrams like Kindle Scout. Frustrating.

More disturbingly was the decision by Smashwords to refuse to carry my books THE BLUE NUDE and NUDE IN RED because of nudity on the covers. Uh ... we're talking about oil paintings of a woman's torso. I didn't invent the naked female body. Blame God for that. And the women in the paintings are simply posing. No sex act. Nothing but a woman standing.


The cover paintings are more than attention grabbers, the paintings appear in  each book and are important in the development of the characters and their relationships.

So what's next? Censorship of content? Will some tight-ass start counting how many times my characters use the word fuck in a book? Cops curse. We do so to let off steam, otherwise we'll explode.

So I guess I don't get to pay for an ad for my caper novel SLICK TIME because you can see a slice of the fully-clothed model's white panties. We'll see what happens with my next LaStanza novel. There's a young woman in a black bikini. Lotta skin there.



I just hate censorship.

www.oneildenoux.net

09 February 2017

If Not Now, When? If Not Me, Who?


by Brian Thornton


Okay on the last day of January, I needed to pick up some things at Costco.


You know. Like you do.

I had the day to myself (grading day–wife at work and son at school), so I headed for Costco early in the day, wanting to get my trip in before the crowds descended on the place like the proverbial locusts.

As I was getting out of my car I saw him out of the corner of my eye. A stocky guy, blond hair, medium height, coatless, no hat (It was cold) walking through the parking lot carrying something black and vaguely resembling a cross between a hoola hoop and a piece of rope, talking to people. I saw him peer in the direction of my car, and then, as I locked up and turned in the direction of Costco's front entrance, I heard, "Good morning."

I turned. There he was: standing not ten feet from me.

As soon as I turned he started talking: he was here on a trip from Yakima with his three kids. His car had broken down: the fan-belt. He held it aloft for me to see.

Like this.
And he was exactly nineteen bucks short of what he needed to get a replacement.

I told him the truth: I was sorry, but I didn't have any cash on me.

I rarely carry cash.

I wished him luck and turned once more in the direction of Costco's entrance. 

As I was turning away from him, the image of his hands struck me and stayed with me as I started across the parking lot.

They were the hands of a laborer. Large. Powerful. Covered in the kind of black you get on them when you've been working on an engine, no matter how clean.

A couple of contradictory thoughts ran through my mind: "What if he's really got three kids waiting in a car in need of a fanbelt?"

"He first approached from behind my car. I bought the car in Yakima, and the license plate holder would give him that piece of information. Is that why he mentioned coming from Yakima?"

And then I thought of those times in my twenties, after I got out of the Navy and went to college and was b-r-o-k-e most of the time, and *always* fixing something on my old, cheap cars.

Always.

And I couldn't get the image of his hands out of my head, and then the image of my own hands and how they had looked after a morning spent freezing in January in Spokane, just trying to get my piece of crap 1974 Dodge Dart to turn over just ONCE so I could get it to limp home. (It was mostly the electrical system that was shot on that car, in retrospect. Pain in the neck!).

And then I thought, "Jesus, Brian, who cares if the guy's lying about where he's from? Who cares if he's playing you at some level and to what extent he is? It's twenty bucks, not a kidney. How many times did you get lucky and have strangers take pity on you and help you out?"

And I thought about one of the times there were no generous strangers to give a hand. About the Chevy S-10 with what I later learned was a bad valve cover gasket leak, and how, on my way from Spokane to take my first full-time teaching job in Las Vegas, that truck seized up on me right by the side of the I-15 freeway on an August afternoon, five miles north of Cedar City, Utah.

I remembered slinging my laptop over my shoulder, and slogging every step of the five miles in to town to get it towed and looked at and eventually jerry-rigged so it would run and so that I could get it into Vegas, still hours away to the south.

I recalled how I'd stuck my thumb out every time I heard a car behind me, and how every single time that car passed without even slowing down. Every one of those cars had plates bearing the distinctive Utah beehive on them. And I recalled the four separate times some wise-ass in the passenger seat stuck their own thumb out in my direction as some sort of weird, mocking salute.
The truck stop in Cedar City where I got a tow truck after a nice, five-mile long hike through a rain storm.

Couldn't they see my broken down truck a mile, then two miles, then three, then four miles back? Couldn't they put two and two together that I was walking down the highway for a reason?

And then, with about two miles to go, it started to rain.

"Family-friendly Utah."

Sure. 

And like that, I snapped back to the present, turned on my heel and got the guy's attention. He was standing there where I'd left him, looking around and looking like he hadn't a friend in the world. I told him to come with me.

Costco has a cash machine. As we walked across the lot toward it, he thanked me several times, and then asked how I was doing that day.

You know, like you do.

I looked up at the sky. It looked like rain.

"Doing great today," I said.

08 February 2017

Mike Hammer: Through a Glass, Darkly


David Edgerley Gates


The start point here is that Ralph Meeker wandered into my mind's eye, I'm not sure why, but I remembered a play called Something About a Soldier. It went maybe a dozen performances when it opened in New York, but I'd seen it in a try-out run. Shows used to open in Toronto, and then travel to Boston or Philadelphia, working out the kinks on the road before they got to Broadway. This one starred Sal Mineo, along with Kevin McCarthy and, yup, Ralph Meeker.

My first Mike Hammer was Darren McGavin, on TV. The series lasted two seasons in syndication, half-hour episodes, black and white. (I'd prefer to draw a veil across the later version - meaning no disrespect to Stacy Keach - but seriously, a show that manages to make both the character and the star appear brain-dead, and then wastes Don Stroud, into the bargain? Please.)

Now. Mickey Spillane. I, the Jury sold more than six million copies, domestic. An interviewer asked Mickey how it felt to be a best-selling author. He told the guy, "I'm not an author, I'm a writer." The story goes that he cranked out the first book in nineteen days. What you have to realize about Spillane, and Mike Hammer, is that the books are very like fever-dreams. They come out of a collective unconscious. Spillane just gives voice to it. He doesn't second-guess himself, and Hammer isn't the kind of character who's plagued by doubts. I, the Jury still has a shocker of an ending, even these days. A lot of people thought it was snuff pulp, utter trash. Spillane, again. "People eat more salted peanuts than caviar." He was tapping into something, no question. A generalized postwar unease, an appetite for the sensational, vicarious thrills. Hammer smacked punks around and dished out vigilante justice with relish. He was brute force. He was the raw, elemental, unreconstructed Id.

Ralph Meeker never made it big. He had some good parts over the years, The Naked Spur, Jeopardy, Run of the Arrow, Paths of Glory. Did a fair amount of television. Got a lot of attention for Picnic, on stage, in 1954, but he turned down a chance to do the picture, and it went to Bill Holden. He's probably best known for his Mike Hammer in Kiss Me, Deadly. Thing is, though, the Mike Hammer of Kiss Me, Deadly is not only odd, he's for sure not Spillane's.

The received wisdom seems to be that Robert Aldrich was hostile to the material. He certainly reshaped the story and the character. Aldrich wasn't at this point the marquee-name director he later became, but he'd had a solid hit the year before with Vera Cruz, and he was able to write his own ticket with his next movie. He and Meeker make Hammer pretty repellent. His saving grace is that there ain't no quit to him, he just keeps coming. In the context of the story, though, this comes across less as grit and determination than as psychopathology. Hammer's a bully, a thuggish bottom-feeder.

Then there's the MacGuffin. Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street had come out in 1953, two years before. Fuller has a little more of the Commie menace in his picture than Aldrich does, but I don't think either one of them really cares much about the politics, it's a handy dramatic device that heightens the paranoia. And stuffing the H-bomb in a suitcase? Not all that farfetched in this day and age, but back then it was pure science fiction. Story elements you wouldn't associate with Mickey Spillane, in other words. His brand of hysteria is more likely to be sexual, or maybe gun porn, but he was always red meat, never a Red-baiter.

Last but not least, the visual style. Kiss Me, Deadly is relentlessly claustrophobic, with a lot of tight close-ups, which are all the scarier when the face is Jack Elam's. (The cinematographer was Ernest Laszlo, who did seven pictures with Aldrich.) You don't think of Aldrich as a guy who uses shock effects - or at least, not like Fuller - but he's got his arresting moments. And the design of the movie, the set dressing and decor, is 1950's garish contemporary. Hammer's apartment, for one. You couldn't live with that furniture, let alone the artwork he's got on the walls. It's oppressive.

So, what have we got? More than an artifact. Kiss Me, Deadly is disturbing. It throws you off-balance from the beginning, the darkened highway, and the woman running into the headlights. The less than certain POV, an unreliable narrator. The sudden stops and starts, the false flags. Hammer manipulated by sinister forces, utterly indifferent to him, and taking his frustrations out on people who can't help themselves. This is beyond noir, it's nihilism, the lowest common denominator. Everything's a transaction, and everybody's for sale. It's all about negotiating a price. You have to wonder whether Aldrich really means to leave us with nothing but the taste of ashes in our mouths,

07 February 2017

A Good Mystery Writer is like a Magician


by Barb Goffman

Kids have long known that if you want a specific toy for your birthday or Christmas, you need to start dropping hints early. Picture Ralphie, the star of the movie A Christmas Story, telling everyone who'll listen that he wants a Red Ryder carbine-action two-hundred-shot range-model air rifle. (He needed to start dropping hints early just to get the whole name out.)
You'll shoot your eye out, kid.

Kids who grow up and become writers still love dropping hints. They're just more subtle about it. Think about the movie The Sixth Sense. (Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen this movie, dear Lord, stop reading and go watch it right now before returning here. You're welcome.) Haley Joel Osment gave the film's big secret away when he looked right at Bruce Willis and told the audience, "I see dead people." But the film was written so well that the viewer likely (hopefully) didn't get the hint until the big reveal at the end.

As a writer, it can be a lot of fun to drop in hints designed to fly right past the reader, knowing that when the story's secret is revealed at the end, the reader will say, "Ohhh, I should have known," because the clues were all there if only the poor reader had noticed them.

And that's really such an important part of writing mysteries--acting like a good magician, distracting readers from the clues that are right there on the page so the readers can be surprised at the end.

I was reminded of this point last week while watching a rerun of Modern Family. The TV show isn't about crime or mystery, but the writers must read them. In the episode titled "The Alliance" (season eight, episode eight), the story starts with members of the large extended family casually talking about where they all could go on a big family vacation. The vacation discussion is portrayed as background music. Something mentioned and then forgotten as the real meat of the episode begins. But when you get to the end, you realize there's been a long con going on, and the clues were buried right before the viewers eyes in multiple scenes. It was so much fun to realize I'd been tricked. And then the writers took it a step further and showed how they fooled you with each clue. Excellent writing!

Of course there are a lot of good examples of writers who hide clues right before your eyes. If you're a movie fan, you might want to check out Screenrant.com. They have a page where they discuss The Ten Best Movie Clues You Totally Missed.

And, last but not least, are books and stories with well-hidden clues. One story in which I successfully hid the clues (at least I think I did) is called "Ulterior Motives," which came out a few years ago in an anthology named Ride 2. All the stories involved cycling. Mine was the only mystery--and actually the story had two mysteries. The central plot revolved around a teenage girl who volunteers for a political campaign and is threatened. Who's behind the
threats is the main mystery (as well as whether the campaign is successful), and I hid some clues along the way addressing those questions. But there's a second mystery in the tale, one buried so well--again, I hope--that the reader doesn't even realize the mystery is at work until the end. Early in the story it's mentioned that a quirky burglar is at work in town, going into people's homes and taking small items, then leaving them in the homeowners' mailboxes. Who is the burglar, and why does he/she act so oddly? I had fun burying those clues. Although it was a bit disconcerting when I read one review that showed the reviewer hadn't recognized some of the clues, even at the end. I'm not sure if that's good or bad. Can you hide a clue too well? Maybe.

In a more recent story, "The Best-Laid Plans," I drop some details along the way foreshadowing what's to come. The main character, Eloise, writes cozies. Her antagonist, Kim, writes edgier mysteries. The characters' personalities match the mysteries they write. So when Kim insults Eloise publicly just weeks before they are both to appear as honored guests at a mystery convention, it makes sense that Eloise responds with a plan of revenge--a cozy plan. How does it turn out? I don't want to ruin it for you. But bear in mind that the characters' personalities affect their habits and how they deal with stress, so if you read carefully enough, you might be able to see where the story is going. But the ending should still take you by surprise. The story was published in Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional. You can read it at my website. I'm honored that this story is currently a finalist for the Agatha Award, up against tough competition, including from two of my fellow SleuthSayers, B.K. Stevens and Art Taylor, as well as from writers Gretchen Archer and Edith Maxwell. You can read all the stories online. Head on over to the Malice Domestic website, where the story titles are links either to the stories themselves or a way to buy them.

So, what's your favorite movie, TV show, or book with hidden clues and why? Let's all add to each others' to-be-read/watched list.

06 February 2017

Writing by Ear


by Steve Liskow

My Grandmother and her cousin were elementary school teachers, and her daughter and her husband (my aunt and uncle) were reporters long enough ago that they weren't yet called "journalists." My sister and I were the youngest of eleven cousins, seven of whom also became teachers. Another cousin is a lawyer and at least three of us got involved in theater along the way. They joined my parents in reading to me--and, later, my sister--from the time we could sit upright, and they read with vitality and expression.

That's probably why both my sister and I entered kindergarten reading at about fifth grade level. I also grew up hearing a voice saying the words when I read. Later, a reading specialist told me this was a problem, but I never believed it. I still don't, even though means I can't read more quickly than I can hear the words.

Since we grew up in the Midwest, those rhythms, broad consonants and nasalized vowels became my default sound track. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Roethke (whose sister taught me ninth grade English), and later Elmore Leonard, Loren Estleman and Linda Barnes sounded like family. I left Saginaw, Michigan fifty years ago but the rhythm is still an internal metronome when I write.


That's good because American English creates meaning by rhythm instead of case endings like the Romance languages. Stress different words in "I can't really bring myself to trust the fellow" and listen to how it changes the meaning of the sentence.

Shakespeare's vocabulary isn't that different from ours--he's writing in Modern English, after all--but he's a master of using rhythm to show actors how he wants a line delivered. The usual iambic pentameter line (ten syllables with the even-numbered ones receiving more stress) is the norm, but if Bill throws in an extra stress, especially in the middle of a line, it forces you to slow down for emphasis. A line with many monosyllabic words goes very slowly and gets lots of attention.

Good queen, my lord, good queen I say, good queen.

This is the only fully monosyllabic line I remember in the canon, and Paulina (my wife in the picture) says it to Leontes in The Winter's Tale when the latter accuses his wife of being a strumpet and she disagrees. Can you hear how slowly she pronounces the words, nearly hammering them into his head? During my stage career, I performed in about a dozen Shakespearean productions and directed six more. I know several actors who were so comfortable with the language that they could improvise in blank verse if they had to. That's the power of strong rhythms.

Hearing the words I read helped me learn lines on-stage, too. I was one of many actors who learned the lines along with the movement (blocking) because it helped fix the words into my body. It's also how I blocked (choreographed) scenes when I directed: a rhythm shift always told me that someone on the stage should move.

I don't act anymore, but rhythm helps writing, too.

Worry less about being grammatically correct--especially in dialogue--and more about whether or not you can SAY what you've written down. That's my final test, and it's my main point here.

In your final draft, READ YOUR WORDS OUT LOUD. I walk around the room while I read, too (my wife and our cats have learned to ignore me), because speech rhythms and movement rhythms work together. If I break stride or stumble over a word, it means I wrote the wrong word or put it in the wrong place.

Some grammar rules are misleading, too. A split infinitive is a mistake only when it confuses the audience. Sometimes, it makes more sense with the adverb between "to" and the verb, and it may flow more smoothly. The same goes for ending a sentence with a preposition. People tell you it's wrong, but the real issue is that it means your sentence ends with a weak rhythm. In English, you put the words you want to emphasize AT THE END (Thank you, Strunk & White).

When you read out loud, you're more apt to notice repetitions or awkward phrases, too. If you put several words with the same sounds close together, they're hard to pronounce. My favorite, a line I stumbled on one night in performance, comes from Twelfth Night:

Notable pirate, thou salt-water thief,
What foolish boldness brought thee to their mercies  
Whom thou in terms so bloody and so dear
Hast made thine enemies?

Hear the repeated and overlapping consonants? Try saying the speech five times fast after four frozen daiquiris.

Punctuation should help the reader read your words aloud, too, so forget the debate about the Oxford comma, the serial comma, the non-restrictive clause, the direct address and everything else. Where do you want the reader to pause to make the words impart the meaning you intend them to have? That's where you put the comma, period, or whatever else you need. If you walk as you read aloud, you can tell. Walking helps you find a smooth natural pace. Speed up for action scenes or slow down for drama. If you walk too slowly, you may lose your place, too. If that happens to me, I need to cut exposition or description, both of which I dislike writing anyway.

I don't write poetry, but I try to end a scene with a strong beat or cadence. I play guitar, too, and at least three bass players will tell you they like to play behind me because I'm easy to follow, which I assume is a good thing.

Nowhere does rhythm matter more than in writing humor. We talk about comic timing, but it's flexible, not absolute. Some people (remember Jack Benny?) can hold a pause so long you feel your hair turning gray, but they still get the laugh. Others deliver the same punch line more quickly and get the same laugh. You have to find your own rhythm when you write, and that means you have to hear it and feel it.

Look on-line and check your local library. If you can find Mark Twain's essay on how to tell a joke, it's still the last word on the subject, a century after his death.

So there it is. Read your work out loud. If you feel yourself falling into a drone or losing your place, you need to change something (cut adjectives, more active verbs, etc.).

With a little practice, you will find that your ears will help you more than your eyes.

And I still hear a voice when I read.

05 February 2017

How to Vanish a Car


by Leigh Lundin

Previously, David Edgerley Gates mentioned the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge. That brought back memories of the theatre and a sports car. Don’t worry, I can connect the two. I can even tell you how to spirit an automobile out of a closed parking lot.

Brockton Historical Notes
of major importance
  • 1896, Brockton became the first city in the country to abolish railroad grade crossings.
  • 2011, Brockton doubled the city's Santa Claus hat-wearing record.
(source: Wikipedia)
In the 1970s, I lived in the scenic town of Brockton. For those who might not know Eastern Massachusetts, Brockton’s an industrial site south of Boston, having neither the charm nor historical significance of surrounding settlements. Brockton was named after a British Army officer, Isaac Brock, known for ignoring United States sovereignty, kicking Detroit’s ass in the War of 1812, and never setting foot in the village named after him. Naming the hamlet after one of our nation’s enemies was considered a step up since previously the burg had unimaginatively borrowed the name of a neighboring town.

Once known for shoe production, Brockton’s major output has been Brockton Girls.™ As explained to me, Brockton girls are known for their toughness and making roller derby dames tremble and cry like third graders. Seriously. It should be noted that no wussy member of Daesh/ISIS has ever tangled with a Brockton girl and lived to tell about it.
[Brockton letters of complaint should be addressed to Velma@idontcare.com]
This cultural background should give you an idea why I liked visiting Cambridge, Boston, Plymouth, Buzzard’s Bay or pretty much any place other than Brockton.

The Cambridge Culture

After David Edgerley Gates’ article, he and I exchanged notes about the Orson Welles. I asked if he remembered the Exeter Street Theater, my other favorite movie house. David wrote:
Orson Welles Cinema
I started writing movie columns for the Cambridge Phoenix in late 1970, which is when the Orson Welles, WBCN, and the Tea Party were just getting legs. Boston Tea Party was one of the two big clubs that headlined live bands, aside from theatrical venues. It was started by a guy named Ray Riepen from Kansas City, who also began ’BCN and the Phoenix. Ray brought in a guy named Harper Barnes from St. Louis as editor of the Phoenix. and it was Harper who hired me. I was at the Welles a lot over the next three years or so, the theater, the restaurant, and the film school– there was some talk about my doing a course (film appreciation, something along those lines) but we never firmed it up.

I remember the Exeter well. My family took me when I was little because it was basically a high-end art house and by myself later. That's where we saw Olivier’s Richard III.

My neighborhood theater was the University in Harvard Square (later renamed the Harvard Sq.), sometimes the Brattle, and very occasionally the Eliot, which was further up Mass. Ave. past Porter Sq. and the Sears, so North Cambridge and off my turf. I took the subway downtown all the time, probably from the time I was 8 or 9, to the theaters on Washington St. A misspent youth.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

The Orson Welles, the Exeter, and the Brattle were everything the local Cineplex wasn’t. They offered film festivals and celluloid that had withstood the test of time.

My date loved noir and particularly Bogart. If Bogie hadn’t died when she was about seven, Wendy might have arm-wrestled that bitch Bacall for him.

My car at the time was a Saab Sonett III, which looked like a baby Corvette in peculiar green. It was a cute little car. The sobriquet ‘Sonett’ had nothing to do with music but came from the Swedish phrase “Så nätt!” which translates “So neat!”

Saab Sonett III

Despite the fact its roofline came only to my belt buckle, the car easily accommodated my long legs. It attained much better gas mileage than my Land Cruiser and Saab’s front-wheel-drive made for good road-handing. But…

It had frightfully expensive mufflers that rusted out between car washes. With its little Ford V-4 engine, I could buy off-the-shelf Pinto and Mercury Capri parts, but changing the Nº 1 spark plug meant loosening the damned engine mounts. Worst of all, it was a crash magnet. Bostonians are infamously terrible drivers (think citywide dodge’em bumper cars) and they seemed to target the little machine.

The Sonett Saves the Evening

Near the Orson Welles Cinema was a large walled parking lot next to a dry cleaners where I usually parked. This particular evening, we attended a Warner Bros. film festival of World War II propaganda cartoons, Bugs Bunny takes on Hitler, and the like.

The parking lot looked unusually empty, but I didn’t pay particular attention. We strolled to the theatre, enjoyed the show and left around midnight. When we arrived at the parking lot, we were shocked to find a heavy chain across the entrance.

What the hell? Then we saw it: On the back wall hung a sign that said the lot closed when the cleaners closed. After so many years, it seemed selfish to ban visitors from a public lot after hours, but it was their property and perhaps they’d endured problems we didn’t know about.

Damn. I inspected the chain, secured by sturdy bolts. The threads hadn’t been peened down and simple wrenches could have undone them, but I carried no tools in the car. We were nearly an hour away from my house in Brockton and more than an hour from Wendy’s home in Plymouth– 45 miles. A taxi wasn’t feasible. We weren’t even close to a hotel.

We debated options, none of them good. We might have found a pay phone, but we were desperately short of change. No cell phone of course… early mobile phones were just hitting the market, briefcase-size units affordable only to the wealthy.

A fun evening appeared ruined. Worse, we looked forward to a miserable night if we couldn’t find a motel.

And then an idea struck. The back of the Sonett featured kind of a hatchback with a floor covered by heavy carpet. I pulled out the carpet and the floor mats as Wendy climbed in the driver’s seat.

She let in the clutch as I positioned the carpet and mats over the windshield and roof. I raised the chain… it cleared the hood. Wendy eased the car forward. I hefted the heavy steel segments to bypass the wipers. The car inched ahead until the chain met the floor mats covering the upper windscreen. The links tightened. I forced them up.

The car crept onward. The chain, now taut, remained an inch short of clearing the glass; it had maxed out. Still pulling up on it, I put my body weight on the car, cursing the heavy-duty shocks I’d installed.

But as Wendy edged the Sonett ever forward, the swept-back windshield and my muscling the chain up while forcing the car down brought the steel links up to the roofline.

Carefully, ever carefully, its fiberglass top protected by the carpet, Saab slid under the chain. And then…

The worst had passed. We were on the down slope. Now it was a matter of protecting the paint and rear window as the chain slid away.

Whew! We were ebullient, exuberant, joyful to be on our way, but grateful and well aware of our blessed luck and fortunate outcome.

Even so, we would have loved to be flies on the wall (or pigeons on the pavement) when the mean parking lot owners returned and found the vehicle missing. They must have scratched their heads wondering how we spirited that car out of a walled parking lot.

What magic tricks have caught your fancy?

04 February 2017

For Dialogue Lovers Only



by John M. Floyd



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.