27 April 2017

Moving, Moving, moving...


by Eve Fisher

Next week, my husband and I are moving from small town South Dakota to Sioux Falls, South Dakota - which to many people is still small town South Dakota.  (Sioux Falls is South Dakota's largest city, with a population of under 200,000.)  We're moving for many reasons:  the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) work we do at the pen; doctors (we're getting older and frailer); amenities (restaurants, shopping, etc.); cultural events (of all kinds!), etc.  And we already have a network of friends, coworkers, and acquaintances in Sioux Falls.  And we found a real gem of a house, a vintage Craftsman, that I call the "Goldilocks house", because it's not too big, not too small, but just right for the two of us.  Amazing!  (Will post pictures later.)

So excited, exhilarated, exhausted.  Also sad and bittersweet.  We've lived in the old town for almost 27 years, so of course we're going to miss a whole lot of stuff.
  • Everywhere we go, we know somebody, if not everybody.  There is always someone to talk to. 
  • Everywhere we go, they know who we are.  They know our order at the Chinese Restaurant. They know us at the two diners.  And at the library, the grocery store, the post office, and just about everywhere else we go.   
  • We don't have to think about where we're going and how we're going to get there:  there are only so many places to go, and only so many ways to get there, so by now we move on autopilot.  
  • We have a state park two miles from town, which I walk in almost every day.  I've seen deer, eagles, foxes, coyotes, pheasants, and wild turkeys, not to mention geese, ducks, pelicans, seagulls, coots, and cormorants.  
  • Friends.  You all know who you are.  
And there are all the differences of small town living.  Some of my favorite stories are:

When we first moved up here, we rented for the first year, and then went house hunting. There weren't that many houses for sale, so I think we saw all of them.  (In the same way, we visited every church in town.)  When we finally did buy - a huge two-story box a block and a half from campus - after the closing, I went down to City Hall to change the utilities over.  The lady at City Hall said, "Oh, we already took care of that.  It's all in your name now."  They're not going to do that in Sioux Falls.  (We lived in that house for 22 years...)

Northern Exposure-Intertitle.jpgThe local radio station used to broadcast out onto Main Street, so that as you walked around downtown, you could hear the news, weather, music, and the ever-important "locals".  One day I was walking to work and heard that I was going to be interviewed later that day...  This kind of thing was one of the reasons that, back then, I used to tell everyone back East that I lived in the South Dakota equivalent of Cicely, Alaska (of Northern Exposure for those of you who weren't fans.)  They all thought that was pretty cool.

Pharmaceutical shock:  The first time I walked into the local drug store and saw that they had needles for sale to anyone who wanted them I about freaked out.  Then I realized they were for diabetics, and it hadn't occurred to anyone that addicts might want them. Another time, I had to have my wisdom teeth surgically removed, and the pain prescription wasn't going to be ready for another hour.  But Allan had to teach all day, so I called a friend and asked if she could pick me up and take me to the drug store, because the pain was pretty bad?  Fifteen minutes later her husband knocked on the door with my prescription, and told me to write him a check later. It was so sweet of him, but what stunned me was that the pharmacist had given pain meds to someone else to deliver to me...  (In case you can't tell, I was used to big city living - LA and Atlanta - where you show up in person with some serious ID.)

When I first moved up here I was 36 years old, with long black hair down to my waist.  After a couple of years of dealing with prairie winds - either I kept my hair tied back, pinned up, or got whipped almost to death by it - I cut it short.  One of my best friends came up for my 40th birthday, and as I gave her the walking tour, in almost every shop someone came up and said, "Oh, Eve, let me look at your new haircut!"  After about the third or fourth time, Lora stopped on the sidewalk and asked, "Are you telling me that people don't have anything better to do in this town than talk about your hair?"  Pretty much, yep.

The truth is, ANY change in a small town will generate days, if not weeks, sometimes months and even YEARS of talk.  My hair got a couple of days.  But people still talk about when the old hotel downtown burned down, and they still give directions according to buildings that are no longer there. (I have always been grateful that I moved up here BEFORE the Franklin School was torn down, because that way when someone says I need to turn right after the old Franklin School, I know where that is.)

Caring: small towns pull together, show up, bring food, and send cards.  I can't tell you the number of fundraisers that are held in a small town, most of which involve food:  pork loin feeds, pancake feeds, soup suppers, etc.  They're held for cancer patients, accident victims, hospital bills, medical bills, funeral bills, you name it.  And people show up, pay a generous free will donation, and eat heartily. And no death is ever ignored.  When my mother died, I got cards from practically everyone in town, even though no one had ever met her.  When we moved Allan's mother up here, she quickly became part of the community (she was the biggest social butterfly you could ever meet).  Sadly, she lived less than a year after the move (pancreatic cancer), but her church, prayer, and exercise groups called and visited, and at her South Dakota memorial service, over 200 people showed up.

The web.  You sit in a small town cafe, or church supper, or anywhere, and you hear stories.  Families are traced backwards and forwards.  Where they came from, where they lived, where they're buried, where the children / grandchildren / great-grandchildren moved to and what they're doing now.  Who married whom?  Where did they work?  Some stories are repeated with great relish:  You remember the folks that used to live in that big house on the corner:  they separated, and she got the house, but he came back every year to check up on the kids, and every year, nine months later, she had another baby.  Never divorced...  Others - of violence and abuse, or heartbreaking sorrow - are spoken of in hushed voices.  It's endlessly fascinating.  Especially since my family isn't in the mix.  Because the downside of a small town is that they never forget, and all the sins of the fathers are remembered unto the fourth and fifth generation.  This is one of the reasons why people move away from small towns. Small towns never forget.  Allow me to repeat that.  Small towns never forget.

I've enjoyed living in a small town; and I know there are times when I will really miss it.  But it's only an hour's drive away from Sioux Falls, and, as I said, Sioux Falls isn't that large a city.  I will continue to see my friends, and they now have another reason to come to Sioux Falls.  Thank God I live in the age of automobiles and interstates, instead of the days of buggies and dirt roads! And I will continue to write stories set in Laskin, South Dakota, with Grant Tripp and Linda Thompson and Matt Stark.  But who knows?  Some new characters, new settings may be coming into the mix.  I'll keep you posted!






26 April 2017

Life on Mars


Life on Mars is another one of those oddball Brit TV shows you come across from time to time. It ran in the UK from 2006-2007, and then fell off the radar, although David Kelley produced a short-lived American remake, and there were Spanish, Russian, and Czech versions. Later on, the original creative team developed the sequel Ashes to Ashes, which BBC One broadcast from 2008 to 2010.

I came to Life on Mars backwards, by way of an entirely different series called Island at War, about the WWII German occupation of the Channel Islands. Island at War had a high-powered cast, for those of you familiar with British TV - Clare Holman, Saskia Reeves, James Wilby, Laurence Fox, along with a guy who hadn't caught my eye before, Philip Glenister. The show's a little reminiscent of Foyle's War, because of the period, for one, but also the slightly off-center POV. The crushing weakness of Island at War is that it stops dead after six episodes (it apparently didn't pull in enough audience share), so what happens to these characters we've become invested in can never be resolved. They're marooned, foundlings, lost from view. The fates we imagine for them go unsatisfied.

What's a boy to do? I went looking for more Philip Glenister. There's a fair bit of it, he's got a solid list of credits, and as luck would have it, the first thing to turn up on my researches was Life on Mars, two sets, eight episodes each. I could see heartbreak ahead yet again, but I took the plunge.

Here's the premise. The hotshot young DCI, rising star Sam Tyler, is knocked flat by a hit-and-run, and when he wakes up, the time is out of joint. It's thirty-odd years in the past. 1973. Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Mott the Hoople. There are basically three alternatives. Sam has actually traveled back in time? Um. He's stark raving nuts? Could be. Or is this all a figment of his imagination, because in the real world, his own world, he's in a hospital bed in Intensive Care, in a coma? Which is what Sam decides to believe. He's hearing voices, having hallucinations. He must be elsewhere, if he's somehow generating this fiction, this vivid alternative reality.

And into this vivid fiction swaggers Philip Glenister, playing the juiciest part in the show, DCI Gene Hunt, the 'guv,' or as the local Manchester accent has it, Dee-See-AH Hoont. Life in Mars, see, is a police procedural, but the era of Hawaii Five-O, if not Barney Miller. In point of fact, what Sam wakes up to is a cop shop filtered through a TV sensibility. There's enough "Book 'em, Dan-o" to go around, and a grab-bag of generic conceits, but the characters play both into and against type - at the same time - which keeps you guessing. Glenister certainly plays Hunt as larger than life, and Hunt is often shot from a lower camera angle. He looms. Glenister voices him at a rough pitch, too, so he seems more villain, in the Brit sense, than copper. Which makes the moments when he unbends all the more affecting. Hunt isn't confessional, he doesn't admit his vulnerabilities, you'd never catch him getting teary. Sam puts a sympathetic hand on the guv's shoulder in a scene, and Hunt shrugs it off. "Don't go all Dorothy on me," he says.

I'm showing my own hand here, because one of the guilty pleasures in watching Life on Mars is its gleeful political in-correctness. The coarse jokes, the raw vocabulary, the constant smoking - somebody's always lighting a cigarette or putting one out, it's a signature. Less comfortable is the casual violence. The lack of self-discipline is itself corrupting. This isn't a subtext, either, it's front and center, woven into the fabric. I might be reading the signs too closely. Then again, the reason a show like this strikes a nerve, and creates brand loyalty, is because it reflects some hidden thing or open secret, whether it's played for laughs or not. Life on Mars doesn't take itself too seriously, but it invites our complicity.

What, then, accounts for its extended shelf life? People keep discovering or rediscovering the show, the sixteen episodes of those two seasons out on DVD. (Ashes to Ashes, the sequel, is only available so far on Region 2, which makes it more or less out of reach in the U.S. Get a clue, guys, this is a neglected market.) For one, maybe I haven't made it plain that Life on Mars is extremely funny. Sometimes it's gallows humor, sometimes pure burlesque. For another, the cast is terrifically engaging. Glenister owns DCI Hunt, but John Simm as Sam Tyler is the tentpole character. And counter-intuitively, maybe we don't want all those loose ends tied up, everything unambiguous, the answers packaged and portion-controlled. Always leave them waiting for more.



25 April 2017

Still Crazy After All These Years


by Paul D. Marks

Daniel Sickles
Tomorrow, April 26th, is the anniversary of the first time the temporary insanity defense was used in the United States. So, since we’re all a little insane, temporary or otherwise, to be writers, I thought I’d mention it and Daniel Sickles, the first person to use that defense.

Danny Boy (October 20, 1819 – May 3, 1914) was born to a wealthy New York family and had his share of scandals in his life, most notably killing his wife’s paramour, Philip Barton Key II (April 5, 1818 – February 27, 1859), the son of Francis Scott Key, the dude who wrote the little ditty we sing before ballgames, the Star Spangled Banner.

Key and Sickles had been buds, good buds. Sickles was a Congressman and Key was the District Attorney for the District of Columbia (DC).

At Sickles’ behest, Key would often accompanied Sickles’
Teresa Bagioli Sickles
wife, Teresa Bagioli Sickles (1836–1867), to various events when he couldn’t attend. Now that’s a good friend, and a trusting one on Sickles’ side. But the relationship between Key and Mrs. Sickles went from platonic to romantic…and, of course, complications ensued.

Key, who was reputed to be the best looking man in Washington, would stand across Lafayette Square from the Sickles house, waving a handkerchief to Mrs. Sickles as a signal to meet. Sickles figured out what was going and eventually confronted his wife, forcing her to write a letter of confession.

“Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home. You must die!” Sickles shouted on seeing Key waving the kerchief on February 27, 1859. Sickles pulled a pistol, shooting Key, who begged for his life. Maybe the noise of the shots caused Sickles to go temporarily deaf too because Key’s pleas fell on deaf ears. Sickles pulled another pistol and shot him in the chest.


Whether either was singing the Star Spangled Banner at the moment is debatable. What isn’t debatable is that Sickles very clearly murdered Key.
Philip Barton Key II

While Sickles was detained in jail awaiting trial, he was visited by Congressional colleagues, government officials and received a letter of support from Prez James Buchanan. The public was also on his side.

Edwin M. Stanton (December 19, 1814 – December 24, 1869), future Secretary of War for Lincoln, and the rest of Sickles’ legal team came up with a brand, spankin’ new defense: not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. Stanton argued that his wife’s affair caused Sickles to temporarily not be in his right mind when he shot Key, thus he was temporarily insane (just long enough to do the deed of course) and, therefore, shouldn’t be held responsible for his actions. (I want that lawyer!) Newspapers torched up the torrid affair in their pages. That won over most of the public. In court, Stanton argued that Teresa’s infidelity drove Sickles mad, that he wasn’t in his right mind when he shot Key. And Sickles was acquitted. And the rest, as they say, is history. Though Sickles’ history didn’t end there.

The fact that Sickles murdered someone, and that that someone was the son of a very well-known person and an important person in his own rite, doesn’t seem to have hurt his career at all. After that little detour he became a Union general in the Civil War, actually serving with distinction: He was awarded the Medal of Honor. He lost a leg in the war, which he sent to Washington to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery so he could visit it on occasion (not kidding!).

After the war he did a Wild Wild West spy mission to Colombia. He also served as U.S. Minister to Spain from 1869 to 1874. And he was elected to Congress more than once. And we know from his past that he was eminently qualified for the job...

Both Sickles and Teresa claimed to have forgiven one another, which provoked outrage from the public. Though in reality they were estranged from each other. She died young of tuberculosis in 1867. He later married a Spanish woman he’d met while posted in Spain after the war. They had two children.

Sickles’ final resting place is Arlington National Cemetery, so next time you’re out that way stop by and say hello. Though I’m not sure if he was buried with his amputated leg or not so you might have to make a separate trip to pay your respects to it. (Actually, it’s at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, so you will have to make a separate trip. Bummer.)
The Trial of Daniel Sickles

So next time you’re on trial, considering a plea of temp insanity, be sure to remember Sickles and Stanton in your prayers. ;-)

***

Note, while I appreciate any thoughts and comments you have, I might not be able to respond as I usually do this time. But I do appreciate them as I’m sure the others who read this will.

***



And now for the usual BSP:

My story Twelve Angry Days is in the new Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magaine that just went on sale at newsstands on April 25th. Or you can click here to buy online.


***

Anthony Nominations close soon. Which means you still have time to read my story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” from the 12/16 Ellery Queen. And which was voted #1 in Ellery Queen’s Readers Poll for 2016. It’s available FREE on my website along with “Nature of the Beast,” published on David Cranmer’s Beat to a Pulp, and “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” published in Akashic’s St. Louis Noir. All from 2016 and all eligible. Click here to read them for Free.




24 April 2017

Perspective


by Janice Law

Few things are harder than one’s own – or indeed one’s society’s – unspoken assumptions, biases, and thought patterns. Having just made my way though more than 1200 pages of the Chinese science fiction trilogy, The Remembrance of Earth’s Past, I have been struck by how ethnocentric much of our own popular writing is and also how easily good fiction can be constructed out of different materials and ideas.


Cixin Liu is a popular and award winning science fiction writer in the People’s Republic of China. Except for some short stories, his wildly ambitions trilogy about earth’s encounter with an alien civilization was American readers’ introduction to his work. Launched with The Three Body Problem, the trilogy begins with a scientist with a justifiable grudge. After her family was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie was disheartened about humanity’s prospects and willing to explore radical solutions. Sounds familiar at the moment!

When a message from an alien civilization appears on her monitor, Ye Wenjie hits the reply button and unleashes a host of troubles, the most insidious of which are the sophons, super sophisticated spy equipment that is launched at earth. Worse follows.

A Western reader inevitably thinks of Pandora, but in her Chinese version, she is no curious girl but a brilliant physicist and theorist of what comes to be called the Dark Forest view of the cosmos. Given Western assumptions about women and science, it is striking to see the range of female scientific and engineering talent that Liu includes in the novels.

There are some gender differences, however, although they do not necessarily fit our own stereotypes. Cheng Xin, the young aerospace engineer who is the protagonist of Death’s End, the last of the novels, has indeed the feminine virtues of compassion and caution, virtues admirable but, in the novel, only helpful in the short run. On the other hand, the macho Thomas Wade, one of the few important Western characters, is effective in many ways, but his aggression and violence also prove ultimately inadequate.
The two people who come closest to solving the problem of a hostile universe are both unlikely and quite unlike the typical Western heroes. Luo Ji, who temporarily staves off disaster, is a bit of a slacker. Appointed to work on global solutions to the alien crisis, he goofs off in Scandinavia and appears to waste the time that should be devoted to intensive research. I can’t help thinking that he is a modern version of one of the Daoist sages, in tune with the universe and destined to achieve success through a sort of focused passivity.

Even less likely is the second possible savior of humanity, Yun Tianming, an ineffectual young man dying of lung cancer and awaiting euthanasia. When he comes into money at the last minute, he buys a star (don’t ask, it’s complicated) for a woman he’s admired from afar, Cheng Xin. She, in turn, recruits him for what will be a dangerous, decades- spanning mission to the alien civilization.

Like Liu, Tianming with his modesty and lack of ambition (but notice that romantic gesture with the star) proves to be a remarkable individual with a combination of ingredients superior in a crisis to either stereotyped masculine or feminine behavior. His gesture of affection for Cheng Xin, by the way, is the closest the novel comes to sex of any kind. And this too seems rather traditional, like the film Cheng Xin admires about lovers who are separated by the length of a great river and never meet. Real love is poetic, spiritual – and often doomed.

Similarly, the other great staple of our popular literature, violence, is treated in a different way. I think two people are shot during the trilogy and a couple more are murdered by a robot. But fights and quarrels and car chases and the like are definitely out. On the other hand, the body count is tremendous. Whole civilizations are destroyed and the relatively comfortable eras in earth’s history come after terrible population crashes.

The whole history of the earth, the solar system, the galaxy, and ultimately the universe is Darwinian, a matter of the survival of technologically-advanced and lucky civilizations. Nature, itself, hides nasty surprises like the multiple dimensions that can collapse with disastrous results.

Ye Wenjie’s physicist daughter, Yang Dong, even becomes disillusioned by physics, which is as close to a belief system as most of the characters have. She had thought that “The World of our everyday life was only froth floating on the perfect ocean of deep reality. But now, it appeared that the everyday world was a beautiful shell: The micro realities it enclosed and the macro realities that inclosed it were far more ugly and chaotic than the shell itself.”

This melancholy conclusion is more than borne out by the sprawling novels that reach from our Common Era to a scene toward the end of the universe. The latter is more than a little reminiscent of Doctor Who, perhaps because Cheng Xin and her companions are able to time trip, not like the Doctor with a reversible Tardis, but via a combination of hibernation and light speed travel.

Ultimately Cheng Xin and her friends concede that all things must end, but the conclusion of this wildly ambitious and imaginative novel is that the universe can collapse and be reborn, a hope that comforts Liu’s protagonists perhaps more than a Western audience used to heavier doses of positive thinking.

23 April 2017

International Good Books • Great Writers Series


Last month, I talked about Alice and how buying from International GoodBooks (GoGoodBooks.com) donates to a humanitarian cause. From the land of Stephen Ross, the New Zealand Oxfam charity has created two other ads, one I’d seen before and another recommended by a reader (thanks ABA), I wasn’t aware of.
Whereas Alice was surreal, one of the others defines racy and the other esoteric noir. Let’s start with the dark esoteric and save the sexy one to wrap up.

Metamorphosis

This way lies madness…


An advanced education gone horribly wrong.

Havana Heat

This way lays… well…


Once your panting subsides, you know where to order your books.

Go ask Alice.

22 April 2017

The Little Engine That Couldn't: Writers and Self-Doubt



by John M. Floyd



Confidence is a wonderful, magical thing, when applied to creative endeavors. It can sustain us in good times and bad, and when confidence in one's ability is justified it can spur him or her on to great accomplishments.

As for me, I'm no genius, but I try to stay positive and optimistic. I was fortunate in my career with IBM, and I think I do a passable job in my so-called career as a writer. But that doesn't mean I don't suffer lapses in confidence--especially in this crazy world of publishing.

Hills and valleys

I don't personally know a lot of New York Times bestsellers, but I know a few, and one of them told me years ago that she experiences self-doubt on a regular basis. Only half-joking, she said she usually wakes up in the morning thinking Oh God I don't know what the hell I'm doing, then wakes up the next morning thinking You know, I believe I've finally got a handle on this, then the next morning it's This book's going to suck, and everybody's going to find out I'm a fake, and then Okay, I guess I really do know what I'm doing after all, and back and forth and back and forth, day after day. She also told me she doesn't think such feelings are uncommon.

The thing about self-doubt is that it can lead to failure, and failure leads to more doubt, which leads to more failure, and pretty soon the downward spiral is going full speed. And being told not to doubt yourself is like being told not to worry. Everyone worries.

On the other hand, a little doubt can be a good thing, and far better than blind overconfidence. The only time I remember being completely free of self-doubt was a two- or three-week period about twenty years ago, shortly after I'd first started submitting stories to magazines. Having never published anything before, I had submitted five different short stories to five different markets just to see what would happen, and--although I still have trouble believing this--four of those first five stories were accepted, and for the next few weeks I was convinced that I was sitting on a rainbow with the world on a string, like in the old song. I figured Good grief, it it's this easy to get published, I'll just sell a gazillion stories and make a gazillion dollars. That, of course, was not the case. The next thirteen stories I submitted were rejected. Thirteen in a row. That brought me back fast to terra firma, and in retrospect it was one of the best things that could've happened to me. Live and learn.

A necessary evil?

Not necessary, I suppose. But self-doubt is certainly often-present.

Here are a couple of quotes, on the subject. Charles Bukowski once said, "You are better off doing nothing than doing something badly. But the problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt. So the bad writers tend to go on and on writing crap and giving as many readings as possible to sparse audiences. These sparse audiences consist mostly of other bad writers waiting their turn to go on . . . When failures gather together in an attempt at self-congratulation, it only leas to a deeper and more abiding failure. The crowd is the gathering place of the weakest; true creation is a solitary act."

And this, from Stephen King: "Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it's like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There's plenty of opportunity for self-doubt."

I think that goes for a short work of fiction as well. And here's another point: some feel that self-doubt is cured when one's writing happens to win an award or some other form of public recognition. I don't agree. The times that I've been fortunate enough for that to happen, I've often found myself wondering, afterward, if it was just a fluke, sort of a cosmic burp, never to be repeated. And I've heard others say they feel the same way. Self-doubt, deserved or not, seems to follow most writers around like Pigpen's dust cloud.

So what can we do about it?

Hey, if I knew the answer to that, I would've already done it. But here's some wise advice I saw at Chuck Wendig's blog terribleminds: "The key is to let doubt be clarifying rather than muddying. It's important to know that the doubt isn't yours to carry. It's not about you. You needn't doubt your own abilities but rather some aspect of your current work that feels like it's not coming together. Here your self-doubt serves as the standard-bearer for those instincts rising up from your gutty-works. Follow your heart. Thus, self-doubt helps you improve, which in turn helps you defeat self-doubt."

Well said. But it's a hard feeling to overcome. On the lighter side of all this, I remember something else I once heard: "I tried all that 'positive thinking' stuff. I knew it wouldn't work, and sure enough, it didn't." And the sign on the library door that said, "Low Self-Esteem meeting at 6 p.m.--attendees please enter through the back."


Questions

What are your views? Do you ever find yourself doubting your ability or your effectiveness as a writer? If so, how much does it bother you? How do you deal with it? Did any accolades you've received put it to rest? Do you have any advice to offer us Pigpens?

Oh my. Something else just occurred to me.

What if nobody even bothers to read this post . . . ?






21 April 2017

Wonderfulnesses


by
O'Neil De Noux

Ever notice the wonderfulnesses on the covers of books, indicating a book is as radiant as the sun and chock full of unforgettableness? The book is unputdownable? There are 500 5-star reviews of the book on Amazon or it is a best seller? Some covers come dotted with starbursts and little fish with more wonderfullnesses on the back cover.




The sun (really)



I realize these are selling points to get people to peek at the book, maybe

even buy the book. I guess my law enforecment background is showing. Like COP OF THE WEEK - the cop with the most arrests or tickets gets a little star on his pocket lapel. I've seen it. Not recently, thank God.

And then there are the proclamations, the review quotes expounding more wonderfulnesses.

I looked at my 23 published novels and researched reviews for snippets of my wonderfulness to slap all over my next cover. I mean I must be wonderful somewhere. Hell. It's a big world. Some dolt must think I'm a good writer. After a long search I managed to find some quotes and thought I'd run them by you to see which one(s) I should put on the back of my next book. Not sure if they're all complimentary.

Here they are:

“Denoux could be the greatest crime writer in the history of the world.” – The Bayou Goula Gazette

“A good great crime writer.” The Bogalusa Bat

“The most novelist working today.” The Worker’s Review

“Hey, this guy ain’t that bad.” – The North Jersey Petroleum Book Review Club

“The best mystery writer on the planet, or any other planet for that matter.” – The Rotterdam Rag

“Who the hell is this guy?” – Newsweek

“Never heard of him.” – Time

“We wish we could right this good.” – Cajun State University Press-Telegram

“The best thing about Slick Time are the legs on the cover.” – The Persimmon Times

New Orleans Nocturnal is a real sleeper.” – The National Sleep Foundation Newsletter

New Orleans Confidential. There is nothing confidential about New Orleans but if there were confidentialities, then this book would be one.” – New Orleans Tattle-Tale Review

“If he isn’t the best novelist, then it has to be Elmore Leonard or that James Burke guy. I mean, like, come on.” – The Angola Penitentiary Doing Hard Times

“Mr. Denous is the purrrrfect best writer, forever and ever.” – Stella Roux, book reviewer of The Turkish Angora Blue Review

No one spelled my name correctly. Which should tell me something.

OK. None of them really work. So I'll just sit back and chuckle at the hissy fits over the Oxford comma, the Cambridge semi-colon and the Dartmouth diphthong. I mean like, "it's not long enough to be a diphthong!" Do people stay up at night over this?

Just saw a blurb on the back of a new book. The book is 'menacingly erotic' and a 'rollicking romp through fields of sugar cane'



This is what a Louisiana sugar cane field looks like. Have a rollicking romp through it. Go ahead.

www.oneildenoux.com

20 April 2017

The Wellspring & The Touchstone


by Brian Thornton

I was on spring break last week. Always billed as a "time to recharge."

Usually it's a staycation at Casa Thornton, with plenty of spring-specific chores in need of doing. This year, my wife–God love her!–had other ideas.

She dispatched me on an epic quest in search of my touchstone so I could re-tap my wellspring.

In other words, she gave me the gift of time and headspace in order to help me find my groove with my writing. And she did it by sending me to Cannon Beach for a couple of days, so I could write without distractions.

I don't do anything by half-measures, so my particular touchstone really is a stone. Solid rock. Solid, massive rock.

In fact, at 327 feet above the sea, it's the fourth largest sea stack (off-shore monolithic rock) in the world. My touchstone is Haystack Rock.

My touchstone

I just turned 52, and I have been visiting Cannon Beach since I was three months old. I have come on vacations, stayed for long weekends, even once memorably took an overnight road-trip on a whim (Oh, college...) with two friends from Spokane to Cannon Beach. We got there in the middle of the night, stoked the coals of a dying beach fire, enjoyed the rock and the night and the stars for a couple of hours, then turned around and drove home. We were back in Spokane by noon.

And I have come to pay homage to my touchstone after break-ups, before changing jobs, in between moves. So many of the transitional times in my life have involved a pilgrimage to commune with Haystack.

And so it was last weekend. You see, I sold my first book to a publisher in 2004, and saw it in print in 2005. Over the next five years I brought my total of written, sold and published books up to an even ten.

And then I met my wife. In fact, the back-end payment of the advance on my ninth book helped pay for our honeymoon. After that I collected and edited a West Coast-themed crime fiction anthology, wrote and sold a couple of short stories, and my wife and I welcomed our son into the world and into our family.

With these new demands on my time and headspace, something had to give, and it couldn't be my day gig (I teach ancient history to 8th graders. And like I tell them, by "ancient history," I'm not talking about the 1990s!). So it was my writing.

I had to hit pause at the end of the first draft of an historical mystery I'd been researching and working on since before I met my wife. My marriage, my kid and the house all needed to come first.

But like an itch you can't quite scratch, the story had not left me. If anything it tormented me as I attempted to squeeze in time and energy and headspace to try to wrap it up. I wrote thousands of new words, tweaked old scenes, and generally stalled, because I no longer had the option of dropping everything and blocking the world out until I'd hit my daily word count.

This is not to say that it can't be done, that writers can't juggle very small children, a demanding day job, a good marriage and a fulfilling writing career. People manage to do it all the time.

And folks like me are rightly in awe of them. (The immortal Jess Lourey comes to mind: did all that and did it as a single mother, to boot! She's truly a wonder.).

I'm just saying it couldn't be done by me.

Add in the demands of my wonderful wife's corporate gig (she's management now, and I don't tell her nearly enough how incredibly proud I am of her. And I am!), and we needed for me to pull the slack at various times over the last four-plus years.

And I hated stalling out on my writing.

HATE.

HATE.

HATED it.

But what I kept coming back to was that I loved being married to my wife, adored my son, and could not escape the notion that my child did not ask to be born. We wanted children. Specifically, we wanted him.

So I wrote when and where I could, and never quite gave up on it.

And then a funny thing happened.

My son started preschool.

Not "funny," so much as "wondrous."

I also wrapped up a couple of unrelated long-term time-suck commitments that have helped free up my writing time/attention even more in the time since my son started school last September.

And the result is that the first three months of 2017 have been more productive for me that the last two years put together. I am about to release my first novella, and the novel (yes, that novel!) is on-pace to go to my agent in June.

June!

This is not to say that it's all been smooth sailing. I still get bogged down in the day-to-day every now and again. Like a couple of weeks ago.

And my wonderful wife, the smartest manager I know (on so many levels!), sent me on my quest.

Let me show you the view from my writing desk over the course of those two glorious, word-count-packing days:

Magic!
And just like that, the spigot on my internal wellspring got turned back to blast. My writing pump was primed.

And two days later, I got to celebrate the return of my long-lost writer's voice with two people whose opinion matters most to me.

Easter Morning, 2017
Thanks again, Haystack.





19 April 2017

I don't Think That Word Means What You Think It Means




by Robert Lopresti

Not long ago I had an embarrassing moment.  I discovered that the word erstwhile means former.  You may think: well, he's easily embarrassed if that bothers him.  The problem is that I had managed to get to the age of mumbly-mumble thinking it meant alleged.

In one of my stories about Leopold Longshanks, a mystery writer, I said:
Discovering he was using a word he couldn’t define annoyed him, like a carpenter opening his tool box and finding a gadget he didn’t recognize.

Exactly.  I agree with myself completely. I wondered if anyone else had the same experience so I asked my Facebook friends, and got an earful.  Here are some of their examples of words that fooled them.
Toothsome means delicious not toothy.


Nauseous does not mean nauseated.

I used to use venal to mean generally nasty or snide, when it really means to commit crime for money.

For years I thought svelte meant the opposite of what it really means.

 Livid? I always thought it meant flushed red, but it means pale.


Querulous means whiny. I always thought it was about being picky, or a fuddy-duddy.

Enervate. Thought it was kin to energize.

I used to think hoi polloi meant the snooty upper crust. Then I learned some Greek...

How the heck can flammable and inflammable mean the same thing?


Noisome means stinky, not loud.

I used to have a boss that referred to a very crowded space as fulsome.  It means over-the-top flattery.  When she  referred to a fulsome audience I winced.

 Georgette Heyer, in Black Sheep, uses sallow and swarthy interchangeably several times to describe the leading man's complexion (which was swarthy, not sallow).

I tend to mix up chartreuse and puce.

Rather than saying self-deprecating, I'd been using self-depreciating for years. 

dearth

secular

sanguine

obviate 

Although I knew what it meant I always read hyperbole as hyper bowl and couldn't figure out what that meant.


I was an adult before I realized pinochle was pee-nuckle - a card game I used to play with my father - and not some unknown card game pronounced. pin-o-ch-lee.

I was in college before an English teacher told me that AP-ruh-PO and apropos were the same word.

Rob again now: While I was writing this I got an email from someone who said he was "vehemently in favor of" something or other.  I didn't know that was possible.  I knew vehement meant forceful, emphatic, but I thought it was inherently negative.  I regret my erstwhile (ha!) misunderstanding.

So, confession is good for the soul.  What words have you misunderstood all your life?



18 April 2017

Help(,) Police!


Imagine feeling like every kiss goodbye to your loved ones each day might be your last kiss. Police officers and their families feel this way every single day. Karen Salmansohn

Let me be clear - no one is above the law. Not a politician, not a priest, not a criminal, not a police officer. We are all accountable for our actions. Antonio Villaraigosa



The police feel besieged. Like they can’t get anything right. Everyone wants them to save us from the bad guys, yet never persecute or killing any innocent people. That’s the ideal. They’ll never live up to it.
I feel for police. I relate to them. As an emergency doctor, I also have to deal with the most violent, most ignorant, most manipulative people, and I'm not allowed to make mistakes.
And yet we’re all human. We’re all going to make mistakes. Mistakes that sometimes kill people.
It's so easy for those outside the system to point their fingers and talk about how awful we are, yet those same critics never step in the arena.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. Theodore Roosevelt

That said, I am a Black Lives Matter supporter. I never want to detain or kill innocent people. It is never acceptable.

But I feel for individual police officers who are doing their best, who are trying to save the public, who are literally putting their lives on the line every day and every night, for very little thanks and little pay, and a ton of screaming abuse.
So how do we support the police and make sure that the people are protected?
And how do we write about them?
“Where are the police?” Dean Wesley Smith asked me, about my first draft of Code Blues.
Look, they match!
Please admire my new cover.
The truth was, I didn’t know much about the police, so I wrote around them at first and had to add them to subsequent ones. 

Dead bodies? Check. A daring doctor who solves the crime and saves the day? Check. But the police who’d be investigating the murder? Hmm. They came in and dragged away the bad guys at the end of the book, but what about the beginning and middle?

I tried to correct some of my ignorance by attending Writers Police Academy in August.
I’ve written about some of the seminars I attended, but it really made my day when they critiqued my police interrogation scene in Human Remains. Writing about officers is a balancing act. I want to be realistic and portray the police as neither saints nor Satan, but somewhere in between. I want to create tension and drop clues to the murder, yet stay in Dr. Hope Sze's PTSD point of view.

Paul M. Smith wrote, “In a nutshell, the interview sounds very realistic and I don't really have any suggestions for change. You did a good job.  The only thing I could think of is that prior to any interview/interrogation the officers would have read her her rights, even if she wasn't a suspect. Otherwise, if at sometime she would become a suspect none of the interview would be admissible in court.”

Colleen wrote, “The questions you asked are very relevant and realistic. Cops love timelines and nail down timelines  - for suspects. When the timeline doesn’t match, then we begin to peel back the layers of deception for the truth. Nice job.”

Officer Matt wrote, “It looks good and sounds real. The use of the word Billy club is good. Cops call it a baton, but to the normal citizen, it is appropriate.”

Mike Knetzger wrote, “Yes, these are realistic questions. You might also want to explore the cognitive interview technique for some additional insight into questioning people about what they did before a significant event, such as finding a body.”
When Hope asks for a lawyer, Mike suggested that the officer reply, “I can’t give you legal advice.”
At the end, when Hope points out that they’ll be able to track her and her boyfriend’s footprints in the snow, Mike wrote, “When people mention footprints to me, I often reply, “‘Footprints? Are we looking for Big Foot or are we looking, instead, for shoe prints?’”
It made me realize that language has to be precise, especially when you’re dealing with legal matters. So yes, it would be shoe prints (or boot prints, because we’re in Canada), not foot prints.
Mike Knetzger probably had more to say because he’s an author himself. His stepdaughter was killed by an impaired driver one night when he was on duty, and he was unable to save her life. In response, he wrote the book Ashley’s Story, and he speaks out against impaired driving across the Midwest. You can support his cause by buying his book, as I did.

My profound thanks to these officers, and the ones who keep us safe in our beds every night.

Support our police. Support our people. Surely we can do both.

17 April 2017

God Bless the Beta Reader


You have to revise your work, probably several times. That means you're looking at structure, pace, and character development along with accuracy, voice, and grammar. Is your dialogue effective? Does your plot build? Do your characters deepen and grow? Does the whole thing even make sense?

One of the problems with revising is that the more you do it, the more you invest in what you see in front of you. The more you revise and polish, the harder it is to recognize what might be a big problem with pacing or logic because you've been looking at it so long that you begin to take it for granted without even realizing it.

That's why a good beta reader is so important. Someone who hasn't watched you grow and nurture your first several drafts isn't as connected to it and can question your ideas more easily. Distance is a great thing.



Not everyone can be a good beta reader. I know several former English teachers who are so used to correcting grammar and spelling that they can't focus on larger issues like plot or character arc. Dialogue using slang can distract them from the characterization. If they see "literature" as something removed from "genre" or popular" fiction (which many of them do), their bias can get in the way, too.

I've been in two writing groups, and neither of them did the job I would have liked for a number of reasons. The first was composed of people who wrote in all genres: poetry, "literary," memoir, nonfiction...and me. I was dismayed to learn that the rules of good writing don't carry over from form to form. Two people in the group wrote well and offered intelligent feedback, but the rest made me wonder why we'd outlawed flogging. I finally left the group when one woman announced, "This is in the style of Gabriel Garcia Marques," and I, with my usual tact, replied, "So why isn't it in Spanish?" Nobody laughed.

The second group was all genre writers. At one time, we had 23 members, but six or seven showed up at most meetings, four of us regularly and the others at random. One always came to complain that she hadn't had time to write and wanted us to commiserate. I was the only crime/mystery writer, and people complained that my characters kept getting into trouble. Fortunately, the organizer ran into family turmoil and the group dissolved before I had to resort to violence...which I would have called "research."

Both groups had problems with anyone pointing out weaknesses, such as illogical plot twists, 40 pages of description in a 50-page excerpt, or characters who changed speech patterns from meeting to meeting.

Ideally, a beta reader is familiar with the form you write, whether it's mystery, romance, science fiction, free verse or financial theory. They have to understand your work and appreciate it, but still not be impressed by it. Yes, it's a paradox, but it's vital. If people love your work, they'll be reluctant to point out problems, which is the whole reason to be your beta reader.

A good beta reader can spot inconsistencies and inaccuracies but still focus on the big stuff. I remember one reader who wondered if my scene might have more impact in a different point of view, and I realized as soon as he said it that he was right. I changed it.

Another good reader stage-managed several plays that I directed, and she understood my rhythms and my visual/aural sense. She grasped that I "heard" things better than I "saw" them on-stage and blocked scenes and beat changes as a form of punctuation.

When I drifted away from theater, I asked her to read one of my novels. We met a month later, and she pulled out the well-thumbed MA (she'd read the whole thing three times, bless her) and flipped to a page with a paper clip on it.

"Do you know there's a huge energy drop in this scene?" She'd even turned down the page where it started, and it showed me that the scene needed drastic cutting. A ten-page scene became five because I had included so much detail that added nothing to the story.

Both those readers have moved away and I don't have emails for either of them. Alas. I have two or three readers now, and they all have strengths, but they all have weaknesses, too. Fortunately, they complement each other. One is great for details and fact checking (you spelled this name with an "ie" here and with a "y" later) but doesn't get structure or pacing. We constantly argue about a turning point coming too soon (I think 90% of the book is fine, but she wants it in the last ten pages, even though I don't write whodunits). Another, who does physical training, has a sense of my pacing and comprehends my rhythms. Her standard comment is along the lines of "I thought this dragged until incident Z in Scene AA." That helps me enormously.

A good beta reader can tell you what bothers him or her without necessarily telling you how to fix it. Sometimes, a casual comment like "this seems to start more slowly than I expected" is all you need. Or, "was that supposed to be funny?"

A good beta reader is worth his or her weight in chocolate, so if you find one, cherish him or her. And DON'T give him stuff that isn't ready for another pair of eyes. I don't like to show anything until the fourth or fifth draft because by then I've fixed most of the typos and can mention specific concerns, such as shifting POV or a strained plot point.

Whatever your beta reader tells you, listen to it. You don't have to change everything but remember that this is a preview of how other people will respond to your book. Think of it as a first date that you want to go well. Otherwise, what's the point?

16 April 2017

Model Employees


by Leigh Lundin

The French noun librairie looks obvious, right? Library? Mais non, it is one of those words related yet different… it means bookstore. Library en français is bibliothèque. Biblio– the root is obvious once you know the word.

La Librairie Mollat is a sizable bookstore in Bordeaux that has gained a reputation not only for books, but for its photography of books as modeled by store employees. By reputation, I refer to its 50 000 Instagram fans. What makes Librairie Mollat special? Take for example:



The employees photograph book covers… modeled with fellow employees.


Most are amusing, but the precision of the photos astonishes me.




Employees lend body parts or portions of their faces.






The eyes in this lady amaze me.


This case looks almost transparent.


Mustaches are a thing.




Charming, isn't it!


I love this one.


Our paranormal pal Charlaine Harris is very much a thing, too.












Charlaine Harris' covers are by far the most popular.


Enjoy the rest of the show.








Clever!














Backstory…


 Finally for you Star Wars fans…


Thanks to the reader who brought the bookstore to my attention. For other examples, visit here. For the full collection, check the store's Instagram page.