22 November 2016

JFK, the Beatles and the Beginning of the Sixties

by Paul D. Marks

What were we doing fifty-three years ago and a day from today? As a country, many of us were listening to and/or watching Alan Sherman, Victor Borge, Topo Gigio, Senor Wences, Mitch Miller, Perry Como, Bobby Darin, the Dick Van Dyke show, Donna Reed, Leave it to Beaver, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Ben Casey, Leslie Gore, Peter Paul and Mary, Sukiyaki by Kyu Sakamoto, the Ronnettes, the Shirelles, the Drifters, Jan and Dean, Vaughn Meader, and Jose Jimenez (yes, I know, but that was then and this is now). And more.

On November 21, 1963, four guys did a gig at the ABC Cinema, Carlisle, England. In the summer and fall of 1963, a young folk singer was recording his third album, but still not too many people were aware of him outside of a small circle of friends (to paraphrase another Sixties folk singer). Some people might have known some of his songs as done by other people, but they didn’t really know him…yet.

The President and his wife spent the day in Fort Worth. A loser and lost soul spent the night at Ruth Paine’s home, a friend of his.

As the sun came up the next day, November 22, 1963, everything seemed fine.  A group called the Beatles released With the Beatles in England, but they’d yet to make their mark on this side of the pond. And that folk singer, Bob Dylan, was a long way off from his Nobel Prize.

And then it all went to hell.

JFK said, “If anyone is crazy enough to want to kill a president of the United States, he can do it. All he must be prepared to do is give his life for the president's.” Unfortunately this was a prophetic statement. Someone was crazy enough.

There’s been a lot written about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I doubt I can add much to it. Some say it was the end of innocence for the country. The country went into a deep depression after his death. We started slipping waist deep into the big muddy. The 60s happened: protests, riots, hippies, counter culture, the Summer of Love, Woodstock , Altamont.

So where was I that winter day in 1963? I was a school safety, standing in a hallway monitoring student “traffic”.

***

“Stop, don’t run,” I shouted to some kid charging down the hall, wearing my AAA safety badge on
my arm. He slowed down, but I could hear him hard-charge again as soon as he rounded the corner, out of my sight. I could have given him a written demerit, but chose not to. I guess I was in a good mood. Either that or I hadn’t yet learned the power trip that the badge could give me.

A few minutes later, he ran back down the hall. I was already getting my little ticket book out when he shouted, “The President’s dead.” I dropped the book in dazed silence.

In class later, the principal’s voice came over the tinny sounding loudspeaker. “I have the bad fortune to announce that President Kennedy has been shot.” A collective gasp escaped through the room. Even Jamie Badger (name changed to protect the guilty), the class bad boy, was stunned long enough to stop making spitballs. The principal continued, “It’s unknown what his condition is, though it’s thought that he’s still alive.”

But we found out that wasn’t the case after all.

We were young, but that didn’t stop us from being stunned. Even the boys cried. Teachers tried to control themselves, they had to keep it together for their students. Mary Smith (name changed to protect the innocent) nearly collapsed in my arms – she was the first girl who’d ever sent me a love note.

That long weekend and week that followed the assassination, my parents and I (and my younger brothers to a lesser extent) were glued to the television, as was the rest of the country. LBJ taking the oath of office. The capture of Oswald. Speculation on the whys and wherefores and whos. John-John saluting as the caisson carrying his father rolled by. Jack Ruby shooting Oswald. Conspiracy theories forming.

So we watched in silence as the procession marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. And there were no psychologists, no shrinks to salve our wounds. It was like landing in Oz, only to find the Wicked Witch of the East in control in the dark, forbidding forest of snarled trees and flying monkeys. And we hung our heads. And we cried. I cried. And we didn’t know where we were heading on that cold day in November, 1963.

***

The very popular Vaughn Meader, who’d made a living and career impersonating JFK and the First Family, was out of a job. And we were out of laughter and joy. No more touch football on the White House lawn. No more pill box hats and white gloves. And somehow none of our backyard barbecues would taste as good or as sweet for a long, long time to come, if ever.

Here's a YouTube video of Vaughn Meader.

We needed something to buoy our spirits through the dark winter months of 1963/64. And for many of us that something came on February 9, 1964 in the form of those four mop tops from Liverpool and their first appearance on Ed Sullivan, which was most people’s first exposure to them. My dad called me into the den to watch and I’ve been hooked ever since. But they helped a good part of the country bounce back, at least a little, from the events of a couple of months before, with their effervescent sound, happy music and wit. So at least for a while we could forget about the darkness in our hearts.



It’s hard to say when one decade begins and another one ends or vice versa, because the zeitgeist of the times doesn’t necessarily coincide with the years that end in zero. But I think the Sixties really began with those two events, the assassination of President Kennedy and the coming of the Beatles and the British Invasion, and it ended with Watergate in 1973.

Several year later, when I was in DC, I made a side trip to Arlington Cemetery in Virginia in part to see JFK’s grave (see photo). I know Kennedy wasn’t perfect and Camelot wasn’t all that, but seeing the memorial made me remember a time when there was hope and optimism and maybe even a sense of innocence.



So, what were you doing 53 years ago, if you were around?

***

And now for something not quite completely different: My story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” is in the brand new, hot off the presses December 2016 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Get ’em while you can. And if you like the story, maybe you’ll remember it for the Ellery Queen Readers Award (the ballot for which is at the end of this issue), and others. Thanks.



Oh, and that is, of course, Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, not that “other” one on the East Coast. And more on this in a future blog.

www.PaulDMarks.com

21 November 2016

Dreaming the Life: Self-Publishing Part I

by Steve Liskow

Before I say anything else, if you don't already know this, no legitimate publisher will charge you money up front to publish your work. If someone offers you a deal that involves you paying first, walk away. Once your book is available, you should be able to order as many or as few copies as you want at a discounted price, too. If that's not the case, look somewhere else. These are called vanity presses, and a few in particular have given self-publishing authors a bad name.

Several years ago, Laura Lippman commented that many people ask the wrong question. Instead of asking "How can I get my book published?" she suggested that the better question is "Is my book ready to be published?" While self-publishing doesn't carry the stigma it did ten years ago when those vanity presses ran rampant, you need to work a lot harder if you decide to publish yourself. Find a good editor and conscientious beta readers. Take their advice. Yes, it costs money, and you won't break even financially, but you may produce a book you can show proudly. If you're really lucky, a handful of readers will tell you so, too.

Five years ago, someone asked me if I'd considered self-publishing and I laughed. But things change. As I write this, I have eleven self-published novels available and plan to release two more in the next year or so (I publish short stories through traditional markets).

A small publisher produced my first novel in spring of 2010, but I knew my WIP set in the world of roller derby was too long and too dark for that publisher's catalog. By the time Who Wrote the Book of Death? appeared in print, I was already looking elsewhere.

I pitched The Whammer Jammers to an agent at Crime Bake in November of 2010. She asked for a full MS and rejected it about a month later. Between January and April 2011, I submitted that MS to fifty other agents in groups of ten every four weeks. The book became a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest and earned a positive review from Publisher's Weekly, but I couldn't sell it. Six years later, I still have seventeen unanswered queries.

That spring, I joined a panel of local authors for a presentation and everyone else self-published. Two of them had been with prestigious firms and left for various reasons. They all urged me to go it alone and one mentioned Create Space. When I checked it out, I was leery, but as more rejections came in, I investigated more fully.

Then I met an actor and designer who created posters for a dozen plays I had directed in a past life and we talked about book covers. He looked at my existing cover and explained how he would change it and why--very specifically. I told him about The Whammer Jammers and three weeks later he showed me a mock-up. I published the book in September of that year, ended my association with my previous publisher a month later, and re-edited and published the first book only weeks after that. By then I was revising two other novels that had collected fifty rejections between them (but positive feedback). I even found established writers to blurb them.

None of that should mean anything to you. That is my journey and my decision, but yours may be different. Self-publishing has advantages and disadvantages, and you need to consider them carefully.

First, you are in charge of everything. You write, you edit,
you draft the cover copy, you oversee the cover design, you develop the promotion, you arrange for the blurbs, you format, you publish, you register the copyright, and you arrange your own events. Maybe you even run your own website. If you're very organized and like keeping control--and actually have expertise in all these areas--it's OK. But the multi-tasking means less time for your primary job, which is to write books.

Whether you know spelling and grammar or not, you need beta readers. I belong to the Guppy (acronym for the Great UnPublished) chapter of Sisters in Crime because they feature manuscript swaps for critiques. You need editing, too. I do most of that myself, but my beta readers are writers and editors. I do my own formatting for Create Space because I figured out an easy visual style that eliminates hassles with different headers and footers, but I have little visual or graphic sense.

Fortunately, my cover designer and I worked together in theater long enough to figure out how to communicate with each other. We live about ten miles apart so we can discuss a synopsis or images in person. That's very helpful. My designer also has a good eye and ear for language and we work together on cover copy--along with my webmistress, my daughter with a double Masters in Communications and Marketing. My wife used to write advertising copy for radio, so she's a huge asset, too.

Ignore what you see on the Internet. Nobody has yet found a one-size-fits-all method of promoting, whether it's Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, blogs, or anything else. Your friends can come to events and buy books, but asking them to review is risky because most of them don't know enough about reading or writing to craft a review that doesn't look bogus. In the October 28, 2016 issue of Publishers Weekly, longtime agent Peter Riva tells why he thinks Amazon reviews are worthless anyway. I have business cards and bookmarks because I also conduct fiction writing workshops and edit fiction. I know thirty librarians on a first-name basis, but that doesn't mean they can get me into their building. Funding for libraries is diminishing like common sense during election campaigns.

If you conduct workshops, the preparation and promotion also take you away from your "real" writing.

If you're self-published, many established authors will not blurb you. For some, it's a philosophical issue, and for others it's a contractual one. I was lucky to get a few blurbs for early novels because I met many members of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America (I appear on panels for both groups) at events, but I ran out of connections. Six of my last seven novels bear no blurb.

Remember that if you've self-published, most agents and traditional publishing houses may treat you like toxic waste if you query them later. I don't agree or disagree, but that's how it is. I've heard of self-pubbed authors (generally very young) getting picked up by major houses, but what have they produced since then? Amanda Hocking comes to mind.

Self-published authors have trouble getting publicity. My local newspaper, the Hartford Courant, has gutted its staff and is owned by the Tribune. That means it's edited in Chicago and local news is low priority. The reviewer who used to support local authors now sees her work trimmed or deleted. She used to promote my events, but last year I couldn't even get mentioned when the Private Eye Writers of America named me as a finalist for the Shamus Award.
The largest independent bookstore in Connecticut demands a payment of $125 from self-published authors for an appearance there, and they will only do a fifty-fifty consignment split. I would have to bring the books with me, sell seventeen just to pay that fee, and take the unsold copies with me again.

Most bookstores won't carry your books because they can't get the same distributor's discount and free returns they have with traditional publishers. Your book will cost them more to buy, and if you bring your own, they get a smaller percentage from the sale price (see above). That hurts their margin so they probably can't afford you. Maybe you can make a special deal with your local store, but maybe not.

Those are the shortcomings I've discovered so far. Sound bleak? Well, maybe, but next time, we'll look at the advantages. I think those outweigh the problems.


20 November 2016

Timeless Prose

by Leigh Lundin

It’s amazing when you realize many of our grandparents were raised in a horse-and-buggy era and eventually saw us land a man on the moon. Yet among us reside Millennials who’ve never been without a computer or HDTV, a microwave or a cell phone. With rapid technological evolution, we can hardly fault them for any lack of historical perspective, never mind survival skills.

Children of my acquaintance were devastated when they wanted to make popcorn and the microwave broke. Their auntie calmed them and found a lidded pot in the kitchen cupboard. As the kids watched in open-mouth wonder, she ripped open the familiar Orville Redenbacher packets and poured them into the cookware, added butter and placed the lid on. Five minutes later the kids happily munched popcorn in awe of their aunt's accomplishment. Who knew?

Working antiques surrounded us kids on a centuries-old, self-sufficient farm steeped in family history. I still keep antique ‘coal oil’ lamps to light when the power goes out. Our childhood provided a sense how our pioneer ancestors lived, so when I read an incongruity, it really jars.

David Edgerley Gates has touched upon the subject of anachronisms. Among other issues, he raises the topic of modernisms in period speech. I agree, although I give British author Lindsey Davis a pass because her characters are so engaging.

Getting it Right

A couple of years ago when I was critiquing a teenager’s story for his literature class. It was set, if I remember right, in the 1980s. His on-the-run hero escapes on a jet-ski and phones his girlfriend. Our conversation went something like:
“He phones his girlfriend? With what?”
“A phone, of course.”
“In 1985?”
“Sure.”
“While piloting his jet-ski?”
“Yes.”
“You don’t see the problem?”
“With what?”
“Cell phones in the 1980s?”
“They didn’t have them?”
“Correct.”
“Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure.”
“What did you use?”
“Pay phones and you needed a quarter.”
“What about a two-way radio?”
“Sure, a walkie-talkie might work.”
“But no cell phones?”
“Nope. Car phones were available in the ’70s, but they came in a briefcase and were expensive.”
“That’s a real pain.”
“That pretty well sums it up.”
Getting it Wrong

Somewhat defensively, Quentin Tarantino hyped the historicity of Django Unchained. Examples escape me, but the glaring inaccuracies and anachronisms must have jolted historians.

In one of his Rumpole of the Bailey stories, John Mortimer introduces a celebrity historical romance author beloved by the public and especially the judge. Rumpole, however, feels plagued by her wildly inaccurate juxtapositions of people, places and things as much as a century or so apart. Technically, this type of error– mixing periods– is called metachronism.

Kick the Can

I was critiquing a Southern antebellum novel about a plantation owner’s wife and a slave. I found quibbles, but a scene in one of the early chapters brought me up short. In it, the slave was drinking from a tin can. Whoa, I told the author, tin cans as we know them are a 20th century invention. I offered citations pointing out early tin cans, circa WW-I. The writer refused advice, partly because of ‘atmosphere’, but she also claimed an unnamed historical source despite my research. The anachronism spoiled the atmosphere for me.
[British canning technology may have preceded and surpassed that of North America in the 1800s. A reader has pointed out that while cans were a 19th century invention, the modern tin can as we know them originated around 1900 and came into use by WW-I, not WW-II as the article originally stated. The reader included photos of tins from WW-I and from Scott’s Antarctic expedition dated 1911 that are virtually indistinguishable from modern cans.]
Maschinengewehr MG42In the Spaghetti Western The Grand Duel (Il Grande duello also called The Big Showdown), the effeminate psychopath, Adam Saxon, mows down a wagon train with a machine gun. I don’t know much about machine guns, but it looked oddly out of place, not like Civil War engineering at all. I suspected it was closer to WW-I era, but I underestimated. It turns out the Maschinengewehr was a German WW-II MG42, first introduced in 1942, about ¾-century after the setting of that Old West movie.

Many movies feature British Intelligence or the OSS infiltrating Nazi strongholds, plots that have fed the film industry for decades. Typical gadgetry features lots of knobs and dials and… LEDs, not commercially viable until about 1970. A few may show Nixie tubes, but even those weren’t invented until 1955.

Listen, Punk

In steampunk, you can invent anything you want– LCDs, Nixie tubes, plasma graphics. If you write historicals, you can’t.

Details, Details

Sometimes writers introduce errors that have little to do with anachronisms. As much as I admire The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, the authors, Larsson and Lagercrantz (or possibly their translators) make mistakes about handguns. They mention a revolver when they mean an automatic, refer to a telescopic sight when Lagercrantz probably intends a laser sight, and portray Blomkvist with his finger jammed in the trigger guard of a machine pistol when the author probably meant between the trigger and the body of the weapon. Small things but I give Larsson credit for portraying computers and networks in a realistic manner. (He also named a couple of characters Lundin, so I can’t bicker too much.)

Without local mystery authors, in my early days I worked with romance writers, particularly my editor/teacher friend Sharon. One of Sharon’s favorite authors referenced a car several times in the novel, perhaps something like a Pontiac Bonneville. Sharon realized the details were all wrong, invalidating part of the plot line in her head.

I’ve saved the worst for last.

Red Sage Publishing specialized in novella anthologies called Secrets. One of their American authors set her story in Scotland… and kept referring to the Scottish mesquite.

Oops.

What errors and omissions bug you?

19 November 2016

Past or Present: A Tense Situation


by John M. Floyd





Western actor: Are those our teepees?
Director: We've upsized to wigwams. Teepees are past tense.



Consider this. You've come up with a great idea for a short story. In fact, you've been thinking about it awhile, you know who your POV character is, you have a pretty good feel for the plot, and you've even picked out a catchy title. But when you sit down to start typing the opening, there's something else you'll have to decide on, something you might never have thought about, only a few years ago:

Will your story be told in past tense or present tense?

The truth is, I don't think about it at all. I prefer past tense, and so far that's how all my stories have been told.

Feeling tense?

Here's the strange thing: I don't mind reading stories written in present tense. I just don't like to write them that way. I don't think I'd feel comfortable doing it, and besides, I would probably always be accidentally reverting to past tense and having to correct myself. (As Dirty Harry Callahan once said, "A man's gotta know his limitations.") I sure don't need to be bothered with doing any more self-editing than I already have to do.

Obviously, many of my writer friends don't share this preference. Stories written in present tense seem to be everywhere, nowadays--and, as I mentioned earlier, that was not always the case. The first novel I remember reading that was written in present tense was, I think, Presumed Innocent, back in the late 80s. No criticism, there; it's still one of my favorites. And I think all of John Updike's Rabbit novels were written in present tense as well. I can't recall many old-time novels written that way, though, except Charles Dickens's Bleak House.

Pitching tense

Why is present tense so popular in contemporary fiction? Most writers say it's because it lends a sense of immediacy to the story--a sense that this is happening right now, at this very moment, and we're all witnesses to it. When the robber turns away, the security guard draws his gun and fires. BAM.

That's not a bad idea, and when done well it works well. But writing in the past tense--when the robber turned away, the security guard drew his gun and fired--seems more natural to me. I like feeling as though I'm telling the reader what happened, not what's happening, and I'm not convinced that I give up any suspense by doing it that way. Past tense is traditional storytelling, the old classic once-upon-a-time approach. Or maybe I'm just getting old.

Upsides and downsides

From what I've been able to find, it seems that there are several big advantages and several big disadvantages to present-tense fiction. On the plus side of the writing ledger are (1) the aforementioned "immediacy" and vividness of the action and (2) the fact that present tense probably makes it easier for the reader to feel a connection to the protagonist. On the minus side, present tense supposedly makes it harder to (1) manipulate time, (2) generate suspense, and (3) create complex characters.

Arthur Plotnik (what a great name for a writer, sort of like Francine Prose) says, in his book Spunk & Bite, "Present tense . . . imparts a live-camera mood that is relatively new to literary prose, as well as to journalism." Then he adds, "But in lesser hands, present tense can diminish the spell . . . It can seem affected, breathless, and flighty." He says it can be used to keep readers on edge, but that it can also "grow tedious if the inventiveness flags."

The key phrase, there, seems to be "in lesser hands." Maybe present-tense fiction is one of those don't-try-this-at-home endeavors. If you're a novice, proceed with caution. If you're talented enough, full speed ahead. (But watch out for those inventiveness flags, on the side of the road.)

NOTE: It did occur to me, while putting together this column, that there are at least two forms of writing that are and have always been done in present tense: jokes ("A guy walks into a bar . . .") and screenplays. I've never written jokes, but I have created several screenplays--and strangely enough, writing those in present tense seems correct and natural. Go figure.

My tense-sense summary

I would, as always, be interested in hearing your opinions. Do you enjoy reading stories/novels written in present tense? (I do--or at least I don't object to it.) Do you ever write stories/novels in present tense? (I don't. But only because I doubt I'd be good at it.)


He types the last sentence of the SleuthSayers post, clicks "Publish," closes the Blogger program, and pushes back from the computer. His Saturday column is finished and scheduled. "Guess it's time to rake leaves now," he says to his wife.

He typed the last sentence of the SleuthSayers post, clicked "Publish," closed the Blogger program, and pushed back from the computer. His Saturday column was finished and scheduled. "Guess it's time to rake leaves now," he said to his wife.

Different keystrokes for different folks.



18 November 2016

It Starts with a Title

by O'Neil De Noux

Can you write a story from a title? Sure. There's a YouTube video of John Lennon claiming his young son Julian rushed into the house once and pointed outside and said something that sounded like LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS and John wrote the lyrics to the song. I saw another YouTube video in which Lennon said something else about how the song was written but both times he claimed he wrote the song from the title. And not from a drug-induced hallucination.

Looking back, I realize how many of my stories started with a title and nothing else. Inspirations from something heard or read.

Two of my New Orleans police stories came from old New Orleans sayings - "Love and Murder" (goes together like beans and rice) and "Women Are Like Streetcars" (wait ten minutes and another will come along). Two of my stories came from a word that made me stop and look in a dictionary. The first was "Erotophobia" (fear of erotic situations). That story's been printed five times, including in two BEST OF anthologies. The second was "Romanesque" (a medieval architectural style). I applied it to a woman and it was printed twice, once in another BEST OF anthology.

My wife walked into my home office once with a catalog (either a Victoria's Secret or Frederick's of Hollywood). She declared, "Did you know they make a bra called the Kissable Cleavage bra?"

I told her no and thanked her for the title. She rolled her eyes as I opened a new word file and called it KISSABLE CLEAVAGE IDEA. It didn't take long to figure this needed to be a private eye story so I gave it to my part-time lothario PI Lucien Caye. "Kissable Cleavage" has been published three times, including in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW EROTICA, VOL. 7 Caroll & Graf (US) and Robinson Publishing (UK).


It isn't alwasy easy. Writer-Editor-Publisher Maxim Jakubowski, father of London's MURDER ONE bookshop, explains, "Half of my books/stories begin with a title and somehow I have to come up with the subject and/or plot to suit it! And further, I've seldom managed to get a single piece of fiction started without knowing the title from the outset and only rarely has it changed in the writing process! I wouldn't recommend this way of doing things, but it works, albeit sometimes rather painfully, for me at least."

Reading Harry Whittington's 1958 mystery, WEB OF MURDER, I saw the lines - "Once a man breaks a law, he can expect consequences. Not just some of them. All of them." My story "Expect Consequences" was published twice.

My Cajun grandmother used to sing in French while she quilted in her work room. After I became a writer, I asked an aunt about one refrain that resonated with me. It sounded lovely in French. The English interpretation was - "the heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing." I challenged myself to write something from that saying. I wrote a 7200 word short story, "The Heart Has Reasons," which was published in ALFRED HITCHCOCK MYSTERY MAGAZINE. The story was awarded the 2007 SHAMUS Award for Best Private Eye Short Story.

Los Angeles mystery writer Paul Bishop, author of the CROAKER novels, among many others, explains, "I almost away have to have a title before I begin a novel. I'm unsettled otherwise and the writing does not go well."

I guess my favorite is another wife-inspired story. One evening she came into the living room and spied me watching an Agatha Christie movie I'd been catching every time it came on. She asked, "Is that Death on The Nile?" Only I heard "Is that Death on Denial?" My story "Death on Denial" featured a gun moll, a hit man and a old gangster who repeatedly watched DEATH ON THE NILE, over and over. That story has been published five times, including in Otto Penzler's BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2003 (Houghton-Mifflin).

In each case there was no story, no plot. It started with a title. How many of your stories or novels started this way?


www.oneildenoux.net

17 November 2016

Agon

by Brian Thornton

(No pics this time around, and there's a writing connection, but it only comes at the end. Read on, if you dare...)


I believe that we are defined by struggle. The ancient Greeks had a word for it (of course!).

"Agon."

We get our English word "agony" from it.

Not really the same thing.

The idea behind the notion of "agon" is that working to overcome obstacles placed in our paths by the gods/Fate/Yahweh/Allah/A Head of Lettuce Named Bob improves us. That it is literally not the achievement of the goal, but the effort it took to overcome opposition that kept us from it, which makes us who we are.

I further believe that we as human beings currently inhabit the Age of Agon.

I've been doing pretty lousy in the prediction market lately (*cough*I'm with Her*cough* *cough* *cough*), but I'm going to go out on a limb and make a couple now, just to get them down and out there. At the very least they might be good for a laugh when viewed some day soon with the benefit of hindsight.

Here we go:

FIRST:

I am going to be MUCH more productive writing-wise over the next eighteen months. 

All that time saved no longer checking the 538 blog multiple times per day, and that headspace freed up by no longer following election news in rags like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vox*... all much better spent devoted to any number of works in progress.

And it's not just about headspace. There is a school of thought out there that art flourishes in direct proportion to the amount of chaos in the world. The more "unsettled" the society, the greater expression of that societal upset. So collective angst finds its outlet in modes of expression such as art.

Plus, let's face it: writing is cathartic. And writing about what bugs us can be profitable. It's really all about having an audience and finding them. Something tells me that an audience for the sort of fiction I have in mind for the coming months won't be too difficult to find.

As completely arbitrary proof of this, I produced way more in the way of paying and paid-for writing from 2004 (when I signed my first book deal) till 2009 (When I met my future wife) than during the past eight happy years. Some would say that finding a wonderful woman, marrying up, combining our households, buying a nice house in a terrific neighborhood, and having a child might have had something to do with that. And they might have a point.

But if the past two years have proven anything, it's that these days, in the current climate, facts are what you make of them.

Oh, and let's all save our jokes about the coming age being a potential golden age for satire. We've been living in one of those for at least the last two millennia. Maybe the last three.

(*Sarcasm. I don't really think they're rags. I think they collectively blew the single biggest story of the decade, but they had a lot of company.)

SECOND:

The current round of angst in all corners of this country will not pass quickly, but it will pass. And when it finally does come, it'll be swift. Nearly overnight.

Because nothing unites the American people like a common enemy.

Just ask Jimmy Carter.

(I'd suggest asking Richard Nixon, but he's dead.)

And on that optimistic note, I'm going to close this, my sole politically-related post (One and done, I promise. No more after this. There's "grieving," and there's "wallowing." The former is healthy. The latter is the stuff of melodrama.), and get back to talking about the writing craft.

See you in two weeks, on Thanksgiving Day, when the subject will be "plot". Which, when you think about it, is really a completely different form of agon!

16 November 2016

The Night The Old Nostalgia Burned Down, Again

by Robert Lopresti

Last month I wrote about books I dug up recently  because I remembered them from my childhood.  I ended by saying "Maybe next time I will talk about childhood favorites I bought my daughter when she was a kid."  But instead I talked about my non-conversation with a taxi driver.  So here we go.

If you are familiar with Crockett Johnson it is probably because of his wonderful books about Harold and the Purple Crayon which have inspired children's imagination (and the occasional wall-scribble spanking) for many years. Bill Watterson, the creator of the marvelous Calvin and Hobbes comic strip,  also said that Harold was all he knew of Johnson.

The reason he was asked about Johnson is that Calvin bears a certain resemblance to Ellen's Lion.  Both feature a young kid (Ellen is a preschooler, a bit younger than Calvin) whose best friend is  a stuffed animal.  In both cases the beastie has a completely different personality than the kid, but the animal can't speak if the kid's mouth is covered.  (And now that I think about it, it sounds like both artists were describing a child having a psychotic break.  But put that out of your mind.  Sorry I brought it up.)

What I like best about Johnson's stories is that the imaginary friend, so to speak, is the realist in the pair.  When Ellen asks the Lion about his life before they met she wants to hear about steaming hot jungles, but all he remembers is a department store.

By the way, Johnson also created one of the most brilliant comic strips of all time. Barnaby ran during the early forties and featured another preschooler who, in the first episode, wishes for a fairy godmother.  Due to wartime shortages he was instead assigned Jackeen J. O'Malley, a three-foot-tall fairy godfather with a grubby raincoat, magenta wings, and a malfunctioning magic cigar.  Mr. O'Malley introduces Barnaby to such characters as Atlas, a three-foot-tall giant (he's a mental giant), some Republican ghosts, and a talking dog who will not shut up.











The other book I hunted down for my kiddo has nothing to do with Crockett Johnson but does mention Atlas.  The original one.

d'Auliare's Book of Greek Myths, written and illustrated by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire, started me on my lifelong love of mythology.  Not only are the pictures unforgettable but the writing is very well done.

One thing I love about it is how cleverly they slip around, well, the naughty bits that you might not want to explain to an eight-year-old.  In the chapter on Theseus they explain that Poseidon, god of the sea, sent a white bull to the island of Crete, which King Minos was supposed to sacrifice to him:

But Queen Pasiphaë was so taken by the beauty of the white bull that she persuaded the king to let it live.  She admired the bull so much that she ordered Daedalus to construct a hollow wooden cow, so she could hide inside it and enjoy the beauty of the bull at close range....

To punish the king and queen, Poseidon caused Pasiphaë to give birth to a monster, the Minotaur.  He was half man,, half bull...

Every adult, I imagine, understands exactly what the dAulaires said that the Greeks were saying about Pasiphaë, but it goes right over a kid's head.  (Did mine, anyway.)

The book is still in print.  Unfortunately the binding is not as long-lasting as the text and pictures.  I have had to replace it about once a decade.

Ah well, no mysteries this week, unless you count the mystery religions.  Or Mr. O'Malley's encounter with the fur coat thieves...

15 November 2016

Hate Crimes in Canada, Eh

by Melissa Yi

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

by Janice Law

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

by Leigh Lundin

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.