12 August 2017

The Man Who Forgot, Part I


Bonnie BK Stevens
with B.K. Stevens and Leigh Lundin

I can’t mimic an Australian accent and Leigh’s sounds even worse than a Cockney Kiwi in Botswana, but we conspired to bring you a little crime story from out back. I mean out back in the shed where Rob keeps dusty tales in orange crates. Okay, all three of us conspired but Leigh and I are divvying up this folksy story, presenting half today and half tomorrow. Fix Australian accents in your head, mates (pronounce it ‘mites’), and let’s have at it…


The Man Who Forgot

from 1896’s

While the Billy Boils

by Henry Lawson

Part I
“Well, I dunno,” said Tom Marshall― known as ‘The Oracle’― “I’ve heerd o’ sich cases before: they aint commin, but― I’ve heerd o’ sich cases before,” and he screwed up the left side of his face whilst he reflectively scraped his capacious right ear with the large blade of a pocket knife.
They were sitting at the western end of the rouseabouts’ hut, enjoying the breeze that came up when the sun went down, and smoking and yarning. The ‘case’ in question was a wretchedly forlorn looking specimen of the swag-carrying clan whom a boundary rider had found wandering about the adjacent plain, and had brought into the station. He was a small, scraggy man, painfully fair, with a big, baby-like head, vacant watery eyes, long thin hairy hands, that felt like pieces of damp seaweed, and an apologetic cringe-and-look-up-at-you manner. He professed to have forgotten who he was and all about himself.
The Oracle was deeply interested in this case, as indeed he was in anything else that ‘looked curious’. He was a big, simple-minded shearer, with more heart than brains, more experience than sense, and more curiosity than either. It was a wonder that he had not profited, even indirectly, by the last characteristic. His heart was filled with a kind of reverential pity for anyone who was fortunate or unfortunate enough to possess an ‘affliction;’ and amongst his mates had been counted a deaf man, a blind man, a poet, and a man who ‘had rats’. Tom had dropped across them individually, when they were down in the world, and had befriended them, and studied them with great interest especially the poet; and they thought kindly of him, and were grateful― except the individual with the rats, who reckoned Tom had an axe to grind― that he, in fact, wanted to cut his (Rat’s) liver out as a bait for Darling cod― and so renounced the mateship.
It was natural, then, for The Oracle to take the present case under his wing. He used his influence with the boss to get the Mystery on ‘picking up’, and studied him in spare time, and did his best to assist the poor hushed memory, which nothing the men could say or do seemed able to push further back than the day on which the stranger ‘kind o’ woke up’ on the plain, and found a swag beside him. The swag had been prospected and fossicked for a clue, but yielded none. The chaps were sceptical at first, and inclined to make fun of the Mystery; but Tom interfered, and intimated that if they were skunks enough to chyack or try on any of their ‘funny business’ with a ‘pore afflicted chap,” he (Tom) would be obliged to ‘perform.’ Most of the men there had witnessed Tom’s performance, and no one seemed ambitious to take a leading part in it. They preferred to be in the audience.
“Yes,” reflected The Oracle, “it’s a curious case, and I dare say some of them big doctors, like Morell McKenzie, would be glad to give a thousand or two to get holt on a case like this.”
“Done,” cried Mitchell, the goat of the shed. “I’ll go halves!― or stay, let’s form a syndicate and work the Mystery.”
Some of the rouseabouts laughed, but the joke fell as flat with Tom as any other joke.
“The worst of it is,” said the Mystery himself, in the whine that was natural to him, and with a timid side look up at Tom― “the worst of it is I might be a lord or a duke, and don’t know anything about it. I might be a rich man, with a lot of houses and money. I might be a lord.”
The chaps guffawed.
“Wot’yer laughing at?” asked Mitchell. “I don’t see anything unreasonable about it; he might be a lord as far as looks go. I’ve seen two.”
“Yes,” reflected Tom, ignoring Mitchell, “there’s something in that; but then again, you see, you might be Jack the Ripper. Better let it slide, mate; let the dead past bury its dead. Start fresh with a clean sheet.”
“But I don’t even know my name, or whether I’m married or not,” whined the outcast. “I might have a good wife and little ones.”
“Better keep on forgetting, mate,” Mitchell said, “and as for a name, that’s nothing. I don’t know mine, and I’ve had eight. There’s plenty good names knocking round. I knew a man named Jim Smith that died. Take his name, it just suits you, and he ain’t likely to call round for it; if he does you can say you was born with it.”
So they called him Smith, and soon began to regard him as a harmless lunatic and to take no notice of his eccentricities.
Great interest was taken in the case for a time, and even Mitchell put in his oar and tried all sort of ways to assist the Mystery in his weak, helpless, and almost pitiful endeavours to recollect who he was. A similar case happened to appear in the papers at this time, and the thing caught on to such an extent that The Oracle was moved to impart some advice from his store of wisdom.
“I wouldn’t think too much over it if I was you,” said he to Mitchell. “Hundreds of sensible men went mad over that there Tichborne case who didn’t have anything to do with it, but just through thinking on it; and you’re ratty enough already, Jack. Let it alone and trust me to find out who’s Smith just as soon as ever we cut out.”
Meanwhile Smith ate, worked, and slept, and borrowed tobacco and forgot to return it which was made a note of. He talked freely about his case when asked, but if he addressed anyone, it was with the air of the timid but good young man, who is fully aware of the extent and power of this world’s wickedness, and stands somewhat in awe of it, but yet would beg you to favour a humble worker in the vineyard by kindly accepting a tract, and passing it on to friends after perusal.
to be continued…
Henry Lawson

Crime? What crime, you ask. As Little Orphan Annie said, tomorrow… tomorrow…



Henry Lawson (1867-1922) became a fondly revered Australian writer and bush poet. Among the best-known Australian poets and authors of the colonial period, he is often considered Australia’s greatest short story writer.

11 August 2017

A Review Can Be a Plum, or It Can Be the Pits...


Thomas Pluck
by Thomas Pluck

I just ate a flavor grenade.

At least that's what it's branded. It's a pluot. What's a pluot, you may ask? A hybrid of a plum and an apricot, of course. I would say the "flavor" part is a bit of false advertising. It wasn't a fragmentation or thermite explosion of flavor. But thankfully, it didn't taste like a grenade. It was good. But good isn't good enough, is it?

We need a flavor grenade, not a plum.

I like plums.

William Carlos Williams, the poet who elegized Paterson and lived in Rutherford, where he told us of the importance of the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens, also wrote of plums with a beautiful simplicity. He did not say "I'm sorry I ate the flavor grenade that were in the ice box and you were probably saving for later, they were delicious and so cold." Plum was enough.

What does this have to do with anything? Hyperbole is the standard response on the internet, on social media especially. You must love or hate everything, with a razor thin line of "meh" in between. It's okay to simply like something, especially a book. Though I've seen authors have meltdowns when someone, heaven help us if it's another author, give their book a 3 star review. That's still a passing grade, but to some it feels like a knife to the heart.

Personally I don't see a need to let someone know if I disliked a book enough to leave less than a 3. I rarely leave a rant. If it's a book that won't be hurt by my review and I feel strongly about it, I'll say why. But if it's just another author trying to get by, I don't see the need to fling my monkey excretions. I'm not a critic, and I don't want to be one. I want to write my stories. I get to write them, which makes me happy, and when a reader says they enjoyed it, I am even happier. This isn't a business for me, and I am tickled a thousand shades of fuchsia that this is the case.

Not everyone has the luxury of a day job. I have great respect for the full-time career writers, whether their spouse works or not. It ups the stakes. And my less than honest review policy--which boils down to, "if you don't have anything good to say, say nothing at all," is my acknowledgement of those stakes. Now, you do what you like. I'm not judging others, nor suggesting that my way is right or wrong. I'm sure someone will tell me.

This comes up because two of my favorite writers are going out of print. Ones I look up to, who when I was cutting my teeth on flash fiction, were the writers I hoped to be in ten years. After careful study of "overnight successes," I saw that on average, they put in seven to fourteen years in the granola mines toiling away before they were declared an "overnight success." So I gave myself ten years as a goal. I've been pecking away for nearly seven, so I'm on my way. But back to the writers who have been dropped, or whose books are going out of print for the crime of selling five to seven thousand copies. It's a tough row to hoe out there. I'm not going to make it tougher. I wish I could buy every novel my crime writing pals write, but I can't. I use the library, and I review on Goodreads and Big A when I like the book. And if it's not my cup of joe, I keep my mouth shut.

I won't write a dishonest review, so my sin for not leaving 1 and 2 star reviews is one of omission. As a former Catholic, I know those count, but aren't venal. I'm already doing a five to ten in purgatory when Grimmy comes calling, so add it to my jacket. I can do that time standing on my head. I won't say I've never written a bad review, I'm human. If you're on the gravy train and write a book that I think insults the reader by not being your best, I might leave my two cents. The champs can take a punch, get up, and keep swinging. The chumps whine to their "minions" online about it.

Which comes to the other side of hyperbole. A bad review isn't the end of the world. I've had a few that sting, from the kid who said my idea of blue collar comes from Bruce Springsteen--can I help that my dad was a construction worker and my ma was a hairdresser in New Jersey, buddy? or the one who thought the book with a sword on the cover is "awful bloody." Their opinions are theirs, and just as valid as mine. And as far as Bezos is concerned, their 2 or 3 stars are as good as any toward that magical 50, 100, 1000 count that supposedly brings angels singing from on high holding big royalty checks.

I try not to read reviews, really. But you have to take the good with the bad. If I'm gonna crow that Scott Montgomery called my book "James Lee Burke slammed into old-school Dennis Lehane... with a voice all its own" I have to acknowledge the blogger who was upset that Bad Boy Boogie wasn't short and sweet like Stark. The book wasn't for him, but it was for Mr M. (Thanks, Scott).

I know the two writers whose books are going out of print will find new homes at publishers who love their work like I do. They are pros, they write great books, and readers will find them. Who are they? You'll know when their next book comes out and I say how much I loved it. Because there's one duty we do have, as readers and writers, and that's to crow about what we love. If we don't, we have only ourselves to blame if it disappears.

It reminds me of the restaurant biz, where I used to be a food blogger. Whenever a great place shut down, people would say, "I loved that place! We used to go there all the time. Why'd they close?" Then I'd ask them for the last time they ate there. "Oh, uh, six months ago, maybe?"

Why'd they close? There's your answer.

10 August 2017

Independent Editor Stacy Robinson on the Novella


by Stacy Robinson

(As part of my on-going exploration of the novella as art form and resurgent commercial enterprise, I tapped the great independent editor Stacy Robinson (I admit I'm biased. She's also MY editor, poor thing!) to add a few thoughts from the perspective of, you guessed it: the editor! Stacy is the owner/operator of The Next Chapter Editing Services, and can be reached via her Facebook page here and directly via email here.) - Brian Thornton

Stacy Robinson of "The Next Chapter"
A college professor of mine once said, “The way you tell a story largely depends on the time you have to tell it.” To be clear, this particular prof was teaching Film Theory to a bunch of over-indulged university brats at the time, so what he was specifically referring to was the difference between a ninety-minute RomCom and a three-hour Fantasy film such as “Lord of the Rings,” but I would argue that the maxim remains true for prose-based storytelling as well. In a world where so many of us are digesting bite-sized pieces of information (140 characters, are you serious?) via web-based sources as our primary method of daily intelligence–gathering, recognizing that our audiences might not always have the time (or attention span) to delve head-first into a 100,000 word epic might be the difference between success and failure at garnering a following. While it may be true that the majority of readers won’t be scrapping novel-length fiction as their preferred method of literary recreation anytime soon, it is also true that short stories and novella-length fiction have enjoyed a dramatic up-tick in interest over the last few years, particularly those in the mystery, crime and historical genres. Flash-fiction (stories between five and 1,000 words, depending on who you’re asking) is also gaining traction amongst purveyors of “alternative” fiction and, if you want to get published (and quickly), is not something to dismiss out of hand. Both trends are something to capitalize on, if you have the knowledge and will to make it work.


As an editor, my approach to a novella-length manuscript is vastly different than the one I would employ for a much longer piece. Other than the basics, there is really only one primary aspect that I focus on throughout the editorial process, and that is, “Does the story get told in its entirety or does it leave the reader unsatisfied and longing for more?” Writing a piece of fiction, regardless of length, is rather like a dance. Or, if you prefer, a wrestling match. Once you’ve wrangled your partner (or opponent) into position, it’s up to you to bring it home, whether it be a gravity-defying dip or undeniable submission. With a novel, the writer has the time and space to achieve these types of “word acrobatics.” With a novella, the dance (or match) is performed at a considerably faster pace. Scenes need to be set, characters developed and plot played out at break-neck speed. And it needs to be done with as much attention to detail as would be employed in a more traditional framework. Sound impossible? The trick is to minimize as much as you can, eliminating the superfluous and delivering your words in such a way that the reader absorbs the pertinent and forgets that much more could be said.


Though it may sound as if the novella is the harder beast to tame, there are many upsides to the structure. The primary (and therefore, more obvious) benefit is that it’s a hell of a lot quicker to bang one out. Rather than taking years to complete, some novellas can be accomplished in a matter of months, leaving you, the author, to pursue other, more time-intensive pursuits while enjoying the satisfaction of publication.  Also, the limited word count means that you can end with a dramatic cliff-hanger, one that leaves the audience panting for the next installment, should you chose to deliver one. Another major advantage is that there are a plethora of publications that only publish works of novella-length, offering a specific market for your work. 


Times are tough. Life is short. If you have a story brewing inside that needs to be told, but in a limited way, give the novella a shot. You’ll find out soon enough if you can do it in 50,000 words or less, and if not . . . You’ve always got the novel. 
Happy writing to you all!

Check back in two weeks when I tie it all together with a final roundtable where my gang of novella experts answers a final round of questions and adds a few last thoughts on the future of the novella, and of those adventurous souls who take the plunge and try their luck with them. See you in two weeks! – Brian
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09 August 2017

Going Away


Clancy Sigal died last month. He was a friend of friends, I didn't know him, although we had a flurry of Facebook posts and private e-mails back and forth in the last couple of years, and I relished them.

Clancy wasn't a household name, but that of course depends on your household. For those of us of a certain age, and a certain political persuasion, he was something of a heroic figure. He was an old-time Lefty, and proud of it, but I'm thinking of his 1961 novel, Going Away.

Going Away is a road novel. Subtitled 'a Report, a Memoir,' it reverses the usual convention, the westward journey, and travels West to East. At the end of the book, even, the narrator takes ship for Europe, the Old World. It's also generational, a voyage of recovery - not the twelve steps, but the recovery of memory, of history, and the ever-retreating past. It had an enormous influence on me. More than Catcher in the Rye or On the Road, or Bill Goldman's first novel, The Temple of Gold, all of which I'd devoured and attached myself to. What they had in common, both with each other and with Going Away, was a sense of yearning, a place just over the horizon. And larger than this, Going Away suggested that a life of engagement was not only possible, or worth seeking out, but necessary. In other words, that moral energy is nourishing.



Going Away is really about a legacy, and Clancy uses the word, or its first cousin. "We are the residual legatees," he says, of something good and even noble in American politics. The fight for social justice is no mean thing. We can argue about whether the Left was hijacked by the Communists, or how Organized Labor lost its way, and unions got mobbed up, but you have to admit that once upon a time there was maybe an ideal to live up to. Maybe that's in fact the problem, that the ideal is impossible to live up to, that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Going Away is a chronicle of disillusion, and loss. Our hopes held in trust, only to be sold off, a dime on the dollar.

There's a halfway famous remark Isaac Asimov once made, which I may have quoted before. He's asked, "When was the Golden Age of science fiction?" and he says, "Fifteen." You know where I'm going with this. We all too often have some terrific enthusiasm, at whatever age, and then we outgrow it. This is very true of books. Some of them just don't bear re-reading. There's a writer you couldn't get enough of, then, and now they leave you cold. It could be that we get more sophisticated, because the opposite happens - I could never have appreciated Trollope, for example, when I was in my teens or twenties, I had a hard enough time with Dickens. So with regard to Clancy, and Going Away, it's terrifically heartening for me to report that fifty years on, the book stands up just fine. It's still as much of a gas to read. I'd actually forgotten how funny it is. Clancy never took himself too seriously.

There's also a larger point to be made here, I think, about influences. I can say I never realized how much influence Kipling had on me, not until I read Puck of Pook's Hill years later. (My dad had read it aloud to me when I was five or six.) I could say the same about Walt Kelly and Pogo, or Carl Barks and the Disney duck comics. Then there are the conscious influences. Steinbeck, say. Hemingway. No apologies. Eudora Welty. John O'Hara. Mary Renault. You read more. You get older. You do get more supple, and more sophisticated. You pick up more tricks. Here's the thing. Clancy Sigal didn't influence me in terms of style, or method, a way of telling a story, or certainly not the way O'Hara did. Clancy influenced my life. He wrote a book that fundamentally changed the way I looked out at the world. He made me a participant.

08 August 2017

The Writer Unplugged


MTV and Palladia often do “unplugged” shows of various bands, where they go acoustic instead of electric. And it’s fun to see acoustic versions of songs we know and love. In fact, sacrilege as it might be, I prefer Eric Clapton’s unplugged version of Layla more than the electric version. So I’m not opposed to going unplugged.

However – and you knew there had to be a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you? – we went unplugged a couple of weeks ago, not by choice, and it wasn’t any fun. Of course it’s not the first or only time this has happened. But it did make me think of some things that I’d like to share here.

There was a fire relatively near us, though not near enough that we were concerned about evacuating, which we’ve had to do two or three times in the past, so I guess that was a plus. But this fire caused both our internet and cell service to go out. We did still have satellite TV and our landline. And luckily we had electricity – nothing’s worse than having that or water go out. So we weren’t totally unplugged. But we were largely disconnected from the world. It’s like in the unplugged concerts when they still have the bass plugged in but everything else is acoustic.

So, we couldn’t check on the fire to see if it was coming our way. TV and radio news don’t give you a lot of info. And when there are fires near us we mostly rely on the internet to know what’s going on. But since we had no internet (via cable) and since the cell service was out too, we really felt “blind” and disconnected. And couldn’t get updates on the fire. That wasn’t a good feeling.

But since we did have electricity we could continue to work on computers or do other things. And here’s how this connects to writers and writing: I was working on rewriting a story. Normally when I do that I’m flying all over the internet, researching this and checking that as I write. And playing hooky from writing, pretending that the “extra” research I’m doing is really necessary. But I couldn’t do that that weekend. No internet research – no playing hooky on the net. And that was beyond frustrating. I have a pretty good reference library but you get spoiled with the ease of finding things without having to leave your desk. So, while I could continue to work on the story I had to leave a lot of things blank to be filled in later, once the net came back on. This disrupts the flow and the “zen” space of writing and can get very frustrating. It also shows just how dependent we’ve become on all of these modern conveniences.

On top of that, our microwave “blew up” around the same time. And we’ve now been without a microwave for a while. And that’s been very frustrating too. How do you quickly reheat that cup of coffee that keeps you up all hours while doing those rewrites? How do you warm up leftovers? And a million other things?

In ye olden days, of course, we did things differently and in a pinch we can go back to them, but it isn’t the same once you’ve tasted the “good life” of the modern world. When I began as a writer I was on a typewriter. And when PCs first came out I thought who the hell needs this? I was happy working on the latest incarnation of a typewriter, the Selectric that had a ball that you could actually change fonts with. Wowser! And moving a paragraph from page 3 to page 93 was simple. All you had to do was get out a scissors, snip snip snip, move the paragraph, Scotch tape it to the new page, white out the lines, Xerox it and hope the lines where it was taped didn’t show too badly. So who needed a computer to write? Then, my then-writing partner got one of the very early PCs and I went over to his house one day and saw him magically move that paragraph from page 3 to 93 and I was hooked. I was the second person I knew to get a computer, one of those fancy shmancy things with two floppy drives, no hard drive, a thimble full of memory. But it was, indeed, Magic. No literal cutting and pasting. No Liquid Paper (“white out”) – and supporting Mike Nesmith and his mother 😉. It was liberating. You felt more creative because now you could move something and just try it out. You could cut and paste and re-cut and re-paste to your heart’s content. You could change a character’s name on a whim and not worry about it. It really freed the imagination. Hard to believe now how we made things work before. Before you would be hesitant to make changes because it was so hard to make them. Time consuming and impossible to do.

But not only have we become uber dependent on computers, we’re also dependent on “mini computers,” like cell phones with Skype and Uber and that can search the net and TVs that are largely running on computer chips. I just downloaded a pedometer to my phone and can track the number of steps I take every day.

My wife and I can communicate at almost any time, especially in an emergency. She takes the train from work and just the other day got stuck in a flash flood. If it weren’t for e-mail, texting and voice calls on the cell phone we would never have been able to communicate.

So, while we can still do things the way our parents and grandparents did, and even we did in the olden days, we’ve become accustomed to the plugged in conveniences of modern life. We might still like to read a paper book or love to eat a slow cooked meal when we get tired of microwaved food. And we still need to unplug sometimes, turn off the cell phone, log out of Facebook and even take a break from writing and let our minds drift. But we want to do it at our convenience. Let me tell you it was no fun when we lost most of our communication with the outside world.

As writers, and in general, we’ve become so dependent on these devices that it becomes very difficult when we don’t have access to them. Of course our pioneer forbearers would laugh at what we find inconvenient, but a hundred years from now our great grandchildren will think about how primitive we are.

###

And now for the usual BSP.

My short story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” from the December 2016 Ellery Queen is nominated for a Macavity Award. If you’d like to read it, and the stories of all the nominated authors, please check them out at the links below. If you like my story I hope you’ll want to vote for it. And thank you to everyone who voted for it and got it this far:

Lawrence Block, “Autumn at the Automat”: http://amzn.to/2vsnyBP
Craig Faustus Buck, “Blank Shot”: http://tinyurl.com/BlankShot-Buck
Greg Herren, “Survivor’s Guilt”: https://gregwritesblog.com/2017/07/21/cant-stop-the-world/
Paul D. Marks, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” http://pauldmarks.com/Ghosts-of-Bunker-Hill
Joyce Carol Oates, “The Crawl Space”: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01N6INC6I
Art Taylor, “Parallel Play”: http://www.arttaylorwriter.com/books/6715-2/

If you want to read a great article on the Macavity nominees, check out Greg Herren's blog: https://gregwritesblog.com/2017/07/24/beatnik-beach/

My story “Blood Moon” appears in “Day of the Dark, Stories of the Eclipse” from Wildside Press, edited by Kaye George. Stories about the eclipse – just in time for the real eclipse on August 21st. Twenty-four stories in all. Available on Amazon.



07 August 2017

Two Different Worlds


We’ve had a lot of Sleuthsayers columns on different types of mystery writers: noir vs psychological, cozy vs hard boiled. And also considering different approaches: stories planned with outlines vs developed on the fly, even that big question to revise or not to revise.

I’d like to suggest a different division that encompasses a lot of these varieties, namely closed vs open plotting. By closed, I mean something like the traditional mystery which, despite its relative modernity, has classical antecedents. Back in the day, Aristotle talked up the unities of time, place, and action, basing his analysis on the Greek tragedies that favored a tightly focused action with a few protagonists in one locale. Contemporary short mystery stories, anyone?

The Greeks also liked to begin in media res, in the heart of the action, another favorite device of most modern mysteries, not to mention thrillers.

Beyond this, we see an interesting split. If the closed mystery may no longer be set in the country house or the isolated motel, it has a small universe of suspects and usually a fairly compact geographic area. This is particularly clear in the various UK mysteries that adorn PBS each season. Vera may be set out on the windswept moors and empty sands, but there are rarely more than five real suspects and, in this show at least, they are as apt to be related as in any Greek tragedy.

Midsomer Murders is also fond of a half dozen suspects, mostly unpleasant people who will never be missed. Ditto for Doctor Blake who, with all of Australia, sticks close to Ballarat and, yes, the handy five or so possibilities. Clearly, the attractions of this sort of story for the TV producers are the same attributes that pleased the Athenian town fathers: compact locations, smallish casts, one clear action. The emphasis is on the puzzle factors of mysteries, and at their best such works are admirably neat and logical.

The open mystery takes another tack, flirts with thriller territory, and likes to break out of confined spaces both geographic and psychological. If it has ancestors, they’re not the classically structured tragedies, but tall stories, quest narratives and, if we need a big name, Shakespeare, who loved shipwrecks and runaways and nights in the woods, as well as mixing comedy and tragedy and all things in between.

I’ve thinking about this divide for two reasons. First, I just finished what will be the last novel in the second Francis Bacon trilogy, Mornings in London. I really wanted a little bow to the great British tradition of the country house mystery, and I managed a country mansion – just the sort of place Francis hates – and a nice half dozen suspects. I had a victim nobody much liked and rather a nice crime scene, and I must confess that neither Francis nor I was really happy until I could get us both back to London and off to other places less claustrophobic.

Turns out what I had long suspected was true: I’m not cut out for tidy and classical and ingenious puzzles. And I don’t write that way, either. I like to meander from one idea to the next, a method of composition much more conducive to glorified chases and quests than to Murder at the Manor. Too bad.

The other reason I got thinking about closed vs open plots was a quick dip into a Carl Hiaasen novel, one of his orgies of invention that spins off in every possible direction without somehow losing a coherent plot. If Agatha Christie is still the godmother of every good puzzle mystery, Hiassen’s satiric crime romps have certainly taken chases, quests, bizarre personalities, and imaginative disasters about as far as they can go.

I wonder now if writing style is inevitably connected with a certain type of mystery. Perhaps those who compose traditional, classically inspired mysteries are the same clever folk who can plan the whole business from the start. And maybe those of us with less foresight are inevitably drawn to a chase structure with a looser time frame, wider real estate, and more characters.

06 August 2017

How I Spent My Summer Vacation


Any other time, the waterfall would have appeared beautiful, thundering down the Venezuelan mountainside where its waters swirled off into the jungle. Holstering my automatics, I raised handfuls of water to my mouth, keeping a watch out for Colonel DeSperado and his henchmen.

Only last week, I battled him in a Zimbabwean borogrove, then tracked his criminal crew to Athabasca where I rappelled down the glacier’s ice face. That night we tangled in an Edmonton warehouse where bullets tore through my parka, fortunately missing essential flesh. Escaping with little more than bruised knuckles and pride, I caught up with the mercenary outside Caracas.
Tyrannosaurus Rex

He’d ridden the teleférico up the mountain. Only by luck did I discover he’d abandoned the cable car at the way station. While a helicopter chuttered over our heads, he slid down a rope before setting fire to it as I followed, the Colonel’s idea of a joke.

A sound crackled in the forest. I wiped sweat from my eyes and peered… something big moved among the trees. A snort… no, a sniffing… Of course my scent wafted in the dense, humid air.

It… No, two of them, three… crashed through the vines. Damn velociraptors and their keen sense of smell.

I tumbled down the cliff face surprising a tyrannosaurus as I crashed past him, barely avoiding his snapping jaws. Rolling, I lost my rifle at the worst possible moment. DeSperado and three of his goons fired their hijacked CIA AR-15s, volleys of slugs glancing off boulders. They gave chase as I dashed for shelter.

Tyrannosaurus Rex
Unburdened by a rifle, I outdistanced them, but there in the middle of the trail stood a cart used to haul guns into the jungle and cocaine out. The telling ker-chuck of a grenade launcher sounded. With accelerated momentum, I leapt over the cart and…

Wham! I didn’t see it coming. Unexpectedly a table rose and smashed into my face, knocking me to the ground, rendering me dizzy.

It had torn my eyelid. Blood obscured my vision, but I gathered myself. Unable to see, I felt around… floor… coffee table… sofa… What the hell?


  Little known Leigh factoid  
I act out dreams in my sleep.


Leigh Lundin
Impactful Dreams

It started a few years earlier with action dramas during REM activity: I punch, elbow, kick, leap tall buildings in a single bound… all while I’m sleeping. It’s severe enough I started fearing I might hurt my girlfriend.

Acting out dreams is my own term for a type of hypnagogia unrelated to sleepwalking. Normally the brain paralyzes the body during REM sleep, a muscle inhibition called REM atonia. You may dream you’re running or swimming, but your body remains dormant. My suppression mechanism has developed a software problem.

After a wild phantasmagoria where I was running and jumping and landed beside the bed, I found it bemusing and perhaps amusing enough to look up the phenomenon. I discovered nothing funny about it at all. This type of hypnagogia can be a precursor to Parkinson’s disease or a common type of dementia… or nothing at all… but the thought is scary.

Now comes an interesting wrinkle.

The most popular antidepressants (SSRIs, SNRIs, TCAs) don’t work on me. Depression can be caused by a hundred different factors that require the right key to unlock. Your arm might hurt, but is it battered, bruised, bloodied, barbed, bitten, bullet-riddled, broken, or burnt? Treatment is specific to the cause.

Following research several years ago, I suspected a modified monoamine oxidase inhibitors might work. At the time, reverse MAOIs were available in Europe and the rest of the world, but not the US. The German manufacturer concluded US product testing was not cost-effective to carve out a market niche.

MAOIs were the original antidepressant, developed long before Prozac and the ‘modern’ drugs that followed. They were considered dangerous, even lethal, because they badly interact with many common foods, especially anything aged like cheeses, an enormous range of Japanese foods that I dearly love made with soy and soy sauces, a number of other sauces and marinades, sausages, sauerkraut and kimchi, yeast, spinach, raspberries, bananas, avocados– foods you seldom think about as dangerous– and of course a wide range of pharmaceuticals. SSRIs and those that followed were considered much safer… if they happened to work.

Trials and Tribulation

About ten years ago, I became involved with a clinical trial of a drug called selegiline, brand name Emsam. The chemical was originally developed for Parkinson’s disease, but once researchers realized it was a potent MAOI, they began testing it on depression. The great thing is that it’s not a pill but a patch applied daily. Because it enters the blood stream directly through the skin, it bypasses the liver and the problems associated with all those forbidden foods.

Emsam/selegiline worked well for me, the only side-effect being skin irritation. I ate normally, even drank wine. For a year and a half, it was wonderful and then the clinical trial ended. In the intervening time, I haven’t been able to find a physician willing to prescribe it– they’d see ‘MAOI’ and stop cold, not understanding how the new drug works.

Recently my insurance company helped me track down a local doctor minutes away who knew the drug and was using it on other patients. Although frightfully expensive, it works well at the maximum dosage. During that time, the acting out tapered off and then rarely happened at all. As a precaution, I barely touch red wine and Roquefort, but I eat most of the otherwise forbidden foods without worry.

Little Nemo in Slumberland (1908) walking bed cartoon
How my furniture behaves  ðŸ–±
Out of Mind, Out of Sight

In March, the dosage was reduced. The depression returned and so did the action dream sequences. Hollywood offered nothing compared to my inner world.

Then came the dastardly dream sketched above. I was chasing and being chased. In my path was a small cart and I sailed over it… and crashed into the corner of a low table, eye first. The thunk was so intense, it reverberated in the computer lab in the other end of the house.

Fortunately the table’s corner is beveled, so although the impact tore a gash in my eyelid and scratched my eyeball, the blunted corner saved my eye from further damage. My eyesight was badly blurred and the eye swelled nearly closed, but, as the ophthalmologist predicted, my vision has mostly returned.

Rapid Eye Research

One of the conditions of REM sleep is that monoamine neurotransmitter tanks of serotonin, norepinephrine, and histamine must read Empty. Anti-depressants, including MAOIs, short-circuit the REM mechanism by firing up those pumps.

The key take-away is that a MAOI drug does not fix muscle activity blocking in REM sleep, instead it disables REM itself. Normally that’s not a good thing, but apparently the physiological jury hasn’t ruled yet. Combine that with the factor that the selegiline drug was developed to treat Parkinson’s disease and REM atonia can be a precursor to Parkinson’s, we have a medical mystery with several suggestive clues.

MAOI withdrawal (or too great a reduction) causes an REM rebound effect. It’s true. A coffee table rebounded off my eye socket. Damn, that hurt.

The good news is that life is returning to what passes for normal in Florida. Within days, I’ll look as beautiful as ever.

The Eyes Have It


This article comes as a challenge from my friend Thrush. He’s not been the first to tell me that I rarely reveal truly personal things about myself. A corporate manager once remarked about my being closed-mouth about personal matters. “On rare occasions, Leigh lifts the lid and we get a peek inside.”

Although I’m private, I don’t think of myself being cryptic until it’s pointed out. At least I managed to lift the lid a little.



Little Nemo visits the Moon cartoon
Little Nemo visits the Moon (1905)
Little Nemo in Slumberland

The walking bed cartoon panel above is from famed cartoonist, Winsor McCay, who began writing Little Nemo in Slumberland in 1905. He dabbled in dreamscape fears such as architectural distortions, flying, falling, clowns, and the inability to control an outcome. He also wove in fantasy, such as Nemo’s friendship with a princess.

Little Nemo, who’s not very brave, often lands in trouble either in Slumberland or the real world with resulting consequences. Always in the last panel he wakes, sometimes fallen to the floor, other times with his parents either soothing or gently scolding him.

McCay was particularly known for the beauty and innovation of artwork. In the example below (unfortunately in Dutch, but see translation beneath), note the progression of the elephant.

Little Nemo elephant cartoon

Translation
panel Dutch English
1. Ik moet opschieten!
He! Heb je Jumbo al gevoerd?
Hier! Pak aan! Ik heb haast.
Oh! Hy is klaar!
Jongens! Kom! Opschieten!
Ga jy by Jumbo helpen?
We kommen te laat.
Kalm, kalm.
Hooghed, we doen wat we kunnen!
Word wakker.
Wat een bende.
I must hurry!
Hey! Have you been to Jumbo already?
Here! Take this! I'm in a hurry.
Oh! He's done!
Boys! Come on! Hurry up!
Are you going to help Jumbo?
We'll be late.
Calm, calm.
Highness, we do what we can!
Wake up.
What a gang.
2. Tjee, wat waren die opgewonden!
Ja, we zyn wat laat. Maar we zyn er nu vlug.
Cheers, they're excited!
Yes, we're late. But be quick now.
3. Oh! En Oooh!
Op zyn rug gaan we naar pappa.
Oh! And Oooh!
On elephant-back, we're going to Daddy.
4. Kom, hy is zo’n bkaaf beest. Niet bang zyn.
Ik wil niet gaan.
Come on, he's such a noisy beast. Don't be afraid.
I don't want to go.
5. Jawel! Kom nou mee, anders komen te laat Yes! Come on, otherwise we arrive too late.
6. Ik vind dit helemaal niet leuk!
Straks, boven, vind je 't heel leuk!
I do not like this at all!
Immediately, get up. You'll find it fun!
7. Kalm, maar, liefje. Er is niets aan de hand. Calm, my sweetheart. There is nothing going on.

05 August 2017

Who Put the B in the BSP?



by John M. Floyd



Here's the question of the day, for all you writers out there: How Blatant should Self-Promotion be?

Consider this definition, found at the Oxford Learner's Dictionaries site:
Blatant self-promotion is the activity of making people notice you and your abilities, especially in a way that annoys other people.

Everyone knows what the key word is, in that sentence. And nobody wants to be annoying. The sad thing is, I think many of us are annoying without realizing it--and somehow that's even worse. Most of us grow weary of having people show us their grandchildren's (or their cats' and dogs' ) photos on their cell phones, but we can't imagine how anyone could grow weary of seeing ours. This isn't quite the same as the blinders we wear regarding self-promotion, but it comes close.

These days, it's an unpleasant fact of life that we authors, whether self-published or not, are expected to do a certain amount of marketing, of both ourselves and our product. Otherwise, unless we're famous to begin with, no one except friends and family are going to know who we are or what we've done. I understand that. We're told constantly that we need a "platform," and a plan for spreading the word, whether it's via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, websites, interviews, signings, speaking engagements, or all of the above. But the question is, how much of that can you do before you go overboard, and become an embarrassment to yourself and to friends and family?


How much is too much?

One thing that makes self-promotion appealing, at least to the self-promoter, is that talking or writing about yourself isn't all that hard. You know yourself and your accomplishments, better than anybody else does. Whether you can be objective about it is another matter, but the truth is, something like a blog post about your latest project is pretty darn easy to do--it doesn't require any research or any real work. So, do I do that, now and then? Sure I do. But nobody, including my mother, wants to hear too much about me, or to hear about me all the time. (Well, maybe Mom does, but she's the only one.)

I think the answer--and it seems to be the answer to a lot of life's problems--is moderation. Of course we should try to get our names out there, and put our best foot forward in things like bios, cover letters, press releases, etc. But I think that process has to be grounded in some measure  of common sense. Nobody wants to get emails every day from the same person, asking for five-star reviews and "likes" and visits to author websites and votes for best-novel-cover contests. I mean, Sweet Jumpin' Jiminy.

By the way, I am not innocent of BSP crimes. After all, my post here at SleuthSayers a week ago was a discussion of several of my own stories that appeared in recent publications. I guess all of us do that kind of thing occasionally--some more than others. As Brother Dave Gardner once said, of a traveling preacher who made a whistle stop in Irondale, Alabama, and was addressing the crowd: "He said, 'Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,' and BLAP that rock hit him."

Bios and egos

BSP can take many forms. A writer's bio that goes on and on and on can make a reader's stomach cramp and his eyes glaze over, and there's even a school of thought that says the longer the printed bio, the less the writer has actually accomplished--the wannabe author just writes more words about less important things. Even the automatic signature you place at the end of your emails can be too much. Twenty lines of text following your name and listing all your publications and awards and nominations and third-place wins in contests might be overdoing it just a bit. In fact, it might be eighteen or nineteen lines too long.
Same thing goes for booksignings. I'm not saying it's a good idea to sit there at the signing table and stare at prospective buyers like a frog on a log, but it's also not good to call out to passersby like a snake-oil salesman at the county fair or chase them down and pester them with questions. As a customer, I have often strolled over to chat with an author, especially one who smiles and makes eye contact, and I have often (maybe too often) bought his or her book as a result--but I will probably never buy anything from an author who eagerly blurts "Hey, do you like reading mysteries? You'll like this one. Come over here and take a look." Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I like to feel that the buy/no-buy decision is my own to make, without a lot of arm-twisting. Whether it's a book or a pair of shoes or a bag of peanuts.

I do try to post my upcoming booksignings on Facebook, mainly because my publisher (who's much smarter than I am, on these matters) has encouraged me to, and also because I know that it has occasionally steered folks to the bookstore on the day I'm there. I don't think that kind of thing is being too pushy; I think it makes sense. But some of the all-out blitzes people do on social media, especially regarding book launches, can get out of hand. All of you know what I mean. There's a fine line there, between aggressive and excessive, and I'm thinking (and hoping) that most of us know where to draw that line and not to leap over it.

What do you think?

Author and editor Ramona DeFelice Long said, at her blog, that writers should keep Goldilocks in mind and do what feels right.

But what does feel right? Do too little, you're shy or lazy. Do too much, you're obnoxious. You're either a wallflower that nobody knows or an insurance salesman that nobody wants to know.

What's your response to this? How do you, as a writer, try to do what's required without being overwhelming? What are your personal "rules"? Also, what makes you, as a potential buyer of a piece of fiction, uncomfortable or annoyed? When does SP become BSP?

By the way, do you like reading mysteries? Have I got a deal for you . . .

Just kidding.







04 August 2017

Where do you get your inspiration?


How many times are writers asked, "Where do you get your inspiration for a book?"

Since you asked, I'll tell you about an inspiration.

I was an army brat who lived in a lot of places, went to a lot of schools. From 1960 through 1963, we lived in Italy and I attended the Verona American School on a via called Borgo Milano in Verona. The school had an excellent library where I discovered a series of young adult novels written and illustrated by Clayton Knight. It was a series of WE WERE THERE books, featuring kids who witnessed historcal events, like WERE WERE THERE AT PEARL HARBOR, WE WERE THERE AT THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN and WE WERE THERE WITH THE LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE.


I read them all, my favorite was WE WERE THERE AT THE NORMANDY INVASION because the kids were French and I'm French-American (half Sicilian-American but there was no WE WERE THERE AT THE LIBERATION OF SICILY probably because one would have to ask 'which liberation of Sicily?'). Also the soldiers in the book were paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division and my father was in the 82nd before he became an army CID agent.

Loved that book. I was maybe eleven when I read it but it stuck with me as I grew up and earned a degree in European History, became a cop, became a writer. It floated in my mind, not the storyline, not even the characters, but the vision of France during World War II.

After I started writing mysteries, I began to daydream about writing an historical novel about France during the war and slowly characters formed in my mind. Not at all like Clayton Knight's kids caught up in battle around D-Day. And no paratroopers.

A few years ago, I watched the movie IS PARIS BURNING? (Paramount, 1966) and my imagination created a storyline. Le Maquis. The French Resistance. Eventually my characters took shape and I dropped them into France in 1943 where the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the French resistance wrecked havoc on the Nazi conquerors of occupied France.

My characters formed a special unit. A secret cell. A cadre of young operatives given the code names of archangels, including Samael, the angel of death. These agents called themselves Death Angels. And I let my mind wander with them from an opening scene blowing up a train to the assassinations of Nazi officers and French collaborators. Scene after scene played out in my brain until the Death Angels arrived in Paris to help liberate the City of Light.

Did a lot of research before I started writing. Then I let the character loose and ran after them and wrote down what the did.

Four characters: French resistance fighters Louis (code name Michael), Chico (code name Gabriel) and American assassin Jack (code name Samael) and the most lethal member, French courtesan Arianne (code name Jopiel).

My vision. My story. All triggered, prodded, inspired by thoughts of Normandy and le Maquis and Paris during the occupation.

cover art ©2016 Dana De Noux

Several of my mystery novels and short stories were also inspired by true events. I'll continue with another blog.

That's all for now.

www.oneildenoux.com



03 August 2017

Learning Experiences 101


Image result for alternatives to violence projectI spent last weekend at the pen, doing another Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop.  This time we were training inside facilitators, which we do every two years or so.  These are inmates who have done basic and advanced workshops, and have shown themselves to be really good at walking the walk as well as talking the talk.  These are guys who have gone a long time without being written up or put in the SHU, who know how to and do defuse situations on the ground, and want to be a part of spreading the word to others.  Without them, we couldn't do AVP.  (NOTE:  Check us out on Facebook!)  We outside facilitators need their help in all sorts of ways, and I can't say enough good stuff about them or give enough thanks for their help.

Meanwhile, I'm so glad I'm not in prison.  It's one of the things for which I am truly thankful.  And I don't take it for granted.  There's a long, long, long list of things which will send you to prison and I know very few people who have done none of them.  And it can happen so fast...  I've seen guys in the pen who are absolutely shell-shocked because suddenly they are there, and they almost don't know what's happened.  (Some, who are mentally disabled, really don't know what's happened.)


Image result for prison v. nursing homeMeanwhile, this meme - the one on the right - has been going around the internet for a long, long time, comparing prison (favorably) to nursing homes.  And I've refuted it every time I see it, and will continue to do so.  One version of it starts "Let's put Grandma in prison", to which I always respond, you must really hate your Grandma.  And then I explain why this meme is absolutely, one hundred percent false.  Not to mention pretty damn hateful...

So, let's compare apples to oranges, prisons to nursing homes:

Yes, prisoners get a shower every day - it's to prevent lice, mites, and scabies.  It's a health measure, not for their pleasure.  Believe me, a lot of prisoners would just as soon not take showers, because they don't want to be in a large group of naked men, some of whom are hostile, and - what with steam, slippery tile, soap, etc. - it's a place where rape and other assaults can happen.  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?
(NOTE:  In a nursing home, they do get a bath or shower every day, but in private.)

Image result for prison cell usa toilet in front
Prison cell
Yes, there is 24/7 video surveillance.  That's for security.  Yes, the lights don't go off at 7 PM in the pen - they don't go off at all.  That's for security.  The average prison cell is 6 x 8 feet, and (except for lifers) it's shared by two inmates, and the toilet is open, right in the front, by the door, so that literally everyone can see them doing their business.  That's for security, too.  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?
(NOTE:  The average nursing home room is at least six times that size, and the toilet is in a private bathroom with a door.  And no, the lights are NOT turned off in a nursing home at 7:00 PM.)

Yes, there are three meals a day.  They're awful.  I know, I've eaten a lot of them.  (We don't go out for meals during a weekend workshop.)  They get no fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, or red meat.  (The exceptions:  once a day they get canned corn or canned green beans or lettuce or raw carrots.)  There are a lot of carbs, which is why, even if you don't have diabetes before you go into the pen, there's a good chance you'll develop it before you go.  (Nationally, 21% of inmates have diabetes.)  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?
(NOTE:  I've eaten many a meal in assisted living centers, while visiting my parents, God rest their souls, and they weren't cold, except the salads, and they were pretty good.)

Yes, prisoners are allowed to have a TV - if they can afford it.  (No, they're not free.)  This is also a security measure, believe it or not.  Unless they have a job (and as many as half the prisoners don't), they're locked down, in their 6x8 cell 23/24.  Lately, they're also being given tablets (provided for free by private corporations, and not on the taxpayers' dime), which allow them to make telephone calls from their cells (using earbuds), listen to music, and access the digital law library.
(NOTE:  The digital law library has caused some prisons to quit having a paralegal on staff to explain the law to the inmates, which is sort of like providing a medical library and firing the doctors.)  Working or not, inmates are only allowed 1 hour for recreation (rec).  Depending on staffing levels, or climate, even rec is cancelled.  Inside rec is in the gym, which does come equipped with basketball hoops and weight equipment.  (Personally, I want them to burn off their energy somewhere....)

Prison tiers, SDSP
When the weather is nice and staffing levels are good, rec is outside, where inmates can play baseball and walk / jog around the track.  But, as soon as the temperature goes below 50, all rec is indoors, because the inmates - for security reasons - aren't given coats unless they have a specific job outside.  So, here in South Dakota, that generally means that for six months out of the year, inmates don't get to go outside, at all.  And because of the configuration of cell blocks, most cells don't have windows; and where there are windows, they're covered with iron mesh, which means that inmates don't even get to see the sun for six months out of the year.  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?

Now let's talk about medication.  Most prisoners are now given Vitamin B and D supplements, because of the lack of sunlight, the food, and the constant fluorescent lighting.  Yes, there's generally a paramedic and a nurse on duty 24/7 at a prison.  Yes, there is free prescription medication, and if you really want people with bi-polar, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses to go without medication in an over-crowded environment of people who are stuck there for years for criminal behavior, well...  that one's beyond me...

But notice I said prescribed medication.  You have to get that prescription, and getting it can take a while.  First you have to get an appointment to see the doctor, which takes a while.  Diagnosis takes a while.  And the medications are given out on the prison time schedule, not the prisoners.  Diabetics don't get to check their blood sugar and medicate accordingly.  They get their insulin at the scheduled time.  Period.  Inmates on chemo get to ride out the side effects in their 6x8 cell, without any special diet or help.  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?

Image result for elderly in prisonA lot of prisoners are elderly.  You get 20, 30, 40, 50 years or life, you're going to grow old in prison.  Eventually, elderly and disabled prisoners are allowed knee braces, walkers, and eventually even wheelchairs.  Those who are in wheelchairs are often assigned a pusher, which in this case is an inmate who will push them to where they want to go.  But they're not given any special help in and out of bed, on and off the toilet, up and down the stairs, to and from the chow hall, the medication line, etc., until they're actually at the hospice stage.  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?

All I can say, is that if your elderly loved ones are in a nursing home that does what the meme says, you have put them in the wrong nursing home.  (That or you really do hate them.)  Get them out.  Immediately.  Here are the official Nursing Home Care Standards:  find some place that follows them!

Meanwhile, I hope that reading this has made us all truly thankful for the things we have:  a home, with a private bathroom, a soft bed with comforters and pillows, weather-appropriate clothing, the ability to go outside whenever we want, do what we want, eat whatever we want.  The simple fact that I can actually turn the lights on and off is wonderful.  The fact that I can have a Thanksgiving Dinner with friends, loaded with good food...  it's fantastic.  I am truly, truly, truly, thankful.






02 August 2017

The Uncanny Valley of the Kings


I have been thinking a lot about the uncanny valley this year.  As I understand it, the concept was first described by Masahiro Mori in 1970, though it took a while to work its way into English.

Here's the idea, as I understand it: If something looks sort of human we tend to like it more until it looks too much  like a human and then we register it as creepy.  That creepy zone is the uncanny valley.  I suppose the evolutionary psychology explanation would be that there is an advantage to being turned off by someone a little too biologically far away to produce  successful offspring with.

Early this year I saw Rogue One,  the new Star Wars film.  There are two characters in it who appeared in the earliest films and have been reproduced here through computer imagery.  The first one I thought was a complete success; I felt totally convinced.  (On the other hand, a teenager who was with me said she "wasn't sure he was human."  So obviously not everyone bought it.)  And speaking of not buying it, the second CGI-built character, well.  To me, that one was the definition of the Uncanny Valley.  Unconvincing and just plain creepy.

A few months ago someone, I don't recall who, described Robert Goldsborough's novels about Rex Stout's character Nero Wolfe as occupying "the uncanny valley of literature."  In other words, they are recognizably not the real thing, but close enough to make a reader uncomfortable.

I bring all this up because July saw the release of The Painted Queen, Elizabeth Peters' last novel about Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody.  If you aren't familiar with these charming books, hop to it.  Peters covered several decades in the adventures of Peabody's family.  When she finished her main storyline she started filling in "missing years" in the saga.

And this book does that, exploring the circumstances of the discovery (and mysterious disappearance and resurfacing) of a magnificent bust of Nefertiti.  Naturally, all the odd historical events turn out to be related to the actions of the Peabody/Emerson clan.

And what does this have to do with my main topic, you may ask?  Elizabeth Peters died before the novel was finished.  We have it because her estate asked Joan Hess  to finish the book.  It certainly made sense; Hess is a talented mystery writer with a sardonic wit not unlike Peters, and they had been friends for three decades.  They had even discussed the plot.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so is this dish a banquet or a case of too many cooks?  (And that metaphor is a bit uncanny too.) I will start by saying  that if you are a fan of Peters you should read it.

 But to my mind, the uncanny valley is definitely visible.  I may be completely wrong but I felt like I knew to the very page when Hess took over the pen.  One of the characters just jumped, uh, out of character, and never jumped back.

It disturbed me for a while.  All I could notice were what I saw as false notes.

But eventually, I got used to it.  I found that if I concentrated on the plot and not the character details I could still enjoy the book.  It felt something like watching a movie based on a familiar book: a similar experience, but not the same.

I am not criticizing Joan Hess for honoring her friend in this way.  (You might argue she also did it to make money.  I would reply: Good; I hope she does.  And I imagine Elizabeth Peters would agree with me.)  But I hope no one feels the need  to write more in the series.

By the way, the book takes place mostly in Amarna, not the Valley of the Kings, but you can't expect me to resist a title like that, can you?

01 August 2017

The Writer and the Dragon


I don’t want to write.

It’s a strange thing for me to say. I have been writing stories since I could hold a pencil. I remember transcribing stories for my friends in grade one, in self-taught cursive. When the teacher realized what I was doing, she said, “I don’t know what I’m going to teach you,” and walked away.

I realize that my reluctance to write at the moment is largely dependent on my energy levels. On Saturday, I penned an unexpectedly popular Facebook post about how doctors are getting cut to the bone. For example, on any money I manage to save for my own retirement (because I have to fund my own maternity leave, sick leave, retirement, the whole shebang), the Canadian government now wants to increase its taxation rate to 38%. After that post, I wrote 500 words, did a bit of yoga, and popped in to the ER for my day shift.

When I came home, I was so tired that my daughter was reading me interesting facts about bugs, and I fell asleep. It was the first time that my six-year-old read me to sleep.

On Sunday, I didn’t write, procrastinating for hours, until finally I described a fictionalized case I'd seen, and then I shut my computer down and asked who wanted to come with me to see a gigantic dragon-horse and a spider battle in the streets of downtown Ottawa.

“I don’t want to drive for two hours,” said my son. Actually, it’s more like three.


“I want to mow the lawn and get my motorcycle put back together,” said my husband.

“After I eat,” said my daughter. Score!

We were super late, and the real battle was finding parking and trying to wade through thousands of people streaming in the opposite direction while Anastasia and I held on to each other, a stuffed sheep, a lunch bag, and my purse. 

When we finally caught up to Long Ma, the dragon-horse, we were walking its wake, in the hot sun, while bathing in its exhaust.

It was nice to see it spread its wings and bawl and emit smoke from its head, but I was pretty sure Anastasia was hot and tired and couldn’t see much of anything. (“Do you see the wings?” “No. Oh. Oh, yeah.”)

Unfortunate. I was stoked about witnessing the North American debut of La Machine, the street artists from Nantes, France, headed by François Delarozière, but we ended up hot and tired and facing the exhaust from its hind end.


So we stopped, and Anastasia drank her milk, and it turned out the Library and Archives Canada was open, in all its air-conditioned glory, so we could refill our water bottles, use the facilities, and listen to recordings of “Sweet Canada” and “Jack Canuck.”

Mostly, Anastasia hid in a crevice and played with a magnetic board game, but it made me realize why tourists love coming to Canada: it’s safe, it’s clean, and so many things are free. I relaxed, sitting with her, playing her game, instead of worrying about writing. Anastasia had plenty of stories of her own. After about five minutes of playing the game the prescribed way, she called one of the peg people Donald Trump and booted him into the ocean.

Then she wanted to eat at Tim Horton’s. I found one on Queen Street that was open 24 hours, and I people-watched the entire time, from little kids running in the street to a homeless-looking man buying food and giving it to someone else.

I realized that this whole trip was a metaphor for the writing life. You launch your books/stories/articles. You’re hoping for something like La Machine’s crowds, where 750,000 people cheer you on. This is unlikely.

But you try. You keep building. And in the meantime, you try to enjoy the small pieces and pauses around your art, like your daughter pretending to punch Long Ma in the face. Because there are no guarantees in writing, or in life in general, so you might as well relish the ride.