13 November 2017

Reviews: Melissa Yi, Bill Pronzini, Bill Crider


by Jan Grape

Jan Grape
When did I get so behind on reading and writing reviews of books that I said I would review?  Heaven only knows and I haven't heard from an Angel with an answer either. Think my line to beyond the clouds has somehow been broken. Or maybe I was late paying my heavenly mobile bill.

I know when I got back from my awesome trip to Nashville then to Ft Worth to visit my son and his family, Then to my sister's 50th Wedding Anniversary party. I settled in back here at home and had every intention of taking care of business. 

But I had to attend my 60th high school reunion out in Post Texas. Which was great fun and I saw some people I had not seen in 60 years and others who had been without my crazy self only 25 or 30 years. 

At any rate, there were still wonderful books to be read and written about when I got home. I just somehow got busy reading but not reviewing.

Think I must start with the one I read quite awhile ago.
Human Remains by Melissa Yi, one of our own SleuthSayers.  My first introduction to Dr. Hope Sze was in Stockholm Syndrome. both published by Windtree Press in the USA. Dr. Sze is a fully drawn character who draws you into the medical mileau as well as into the mystery. In the beginning of Human Remains, I was a bit petrubed  with the idea that Hope was in love with two men. One she had left behind in Montreal, Dr. John Tucker where she had been taken in hostage but had survived. The other man, Ryan Wun, her first love, she found again as she begins working in a stem cell lab. 

Almost immediately Hope and Ryan and Ryan's new puppy Roxy stumble over a human body with a black bag taped over the head. She knew she shouldn't touch a crime scene but she is a doctor, well, a resident doctor but still. She felt for the radial pulse at the wrist. While still deciding about removing the black bag the police arrive and by then Dr. Hope has decided to do CPR. 

There's no way you can put the book down from that opening and soon you are caught up in the who and why. Along with  the ongoing story of Dr. Hope Sze dealing with her love life.

Some writers write awesome, thrilling books and the absolute best are written by Bill Pronzini. His early summer rrlease of  new Nameless Detective book, titled, End Game, fills my heart with eager anticipation.. Nameless and Bill don't let me down.

Namless gets a new client, James Cahill whose wife Alice has disappeared. Alice has a strong agoraphobia and  never ventures outside. Soon Namless is suspecting his client, With more twist and turns to leave you up most of the night, you can understand the suspicions that Nameless has. 

Jake Runyon, the field operative in Nameless' office comes up with a strange case of his own. Philip Dennison has been found dead in a remote cabin in the Sierras. With all the windows locked and the door barred from the inside Dennison's death is ruled an accident. However, Dennison's wife believes her husband was murdered and wants Jake to find out if there was someone else in the remost cabin with her husband. Even if it means heartbreak.

This is one you have trouble stopping long enough to eat or even check Facebook. You have to read just one more chapter.

Next on my reading stack was Dead To Begin With by Bill Crider.
Beginning a new Sheriff Dan Rhodes book is like slipping into your most comfortable pair of boots, sitting down in a comfortable recliner and reading about your old friend.

Dan Rhodes is Sheriff of Clearview, Texas, small town Texas, much like the town where I grew up. And with the wonderful quirky characters who inhabit the area, including Hack Jansen, the dispatcher, who calls the Sheriff to report that Jake Marley is dead.
There is no way you'll be disappointed.

Crider sets up an almost impossible murder scenario. Marley is a town's rich beyond your dreams, recluse that no one has seen in many years except late night at WalMart or going through the Dairy Queen drive-thru. He didn't attend church nor have any friends. All his immediate family was dead. The out-lying kin had moved away to spend their black gold money in other countries like California, or Florida or the Bahamas.

But he had taken a sudden interest in the Clearview Opera House and wanted in renovated and a play presented there. Marley had been supervising the project but had fallen to his death from a ladder or the walkway high up above the lights. No one was sure. Of course, Dan Rhodes was the logical person to solve the crazy unsolvable puzzle.

As usual you are happy to spend time in Sheriff Rhodes' world and if you haven't read Crider's books before then, get busy and download or buy them. You'll be glad you did.

That's all for now, folks. The others will have to wait until next time.

12 November 2017

Breathing


by Mary Fernando

I still remember standing there, in that hospital room, decades ago. We had news to tell the patient and her family. Although at first it didn't look like it was going to be a bad diagnosis, it was indeed, very bad. That is medicine in a nutshell: we see behind and beneath and in the end the news is ours to tell, but not to craft.

As we told them the news the patient and the family held their breath. A whole room not breathing. Me too.

Afterwards, my supervisor, not fooled by my tough exterior - which I have found fools no one at all- gently said to me ‘When patients tell us their stories and let us help them, it is a privilege. Never forget that. Even if the story ends in tragedy, it is a privilege. Honour it by serving those who trust you.” Sometimes you are lucky enough to find people who define you, who are in your life and shape you to be better. This was the man and he shaped my approach to patients for the decades. It taught me to serve. To know it is a privilege. And that patients don't breathe when the news is bad.
I scuba dive. In the boat, at the dive site, the ocean stretches out, and there is a sense of glass and ripples. Diving in, there is coral, turtles and fish. I love that there is another world under the water. I love the beauty of it and how hidden it is. Most of all I love being able to breathe underwater as I move forward deep in the ocean.
Back to patients. There is nothing that prepares you for what medicine is either. What the surface of medicine looks like is nothing like the truth of the practice. Yes, you help. Yes there are medicines to offer but the reality is the stories. The ability and privilege to immerse yourself in the lives of patients where you see their hopes, their loves, their fears and finally, even their deaths. And this brings me back to breathing.

In many books, authors will say that, in response to bad news, people feel ‘punched in the gut’ or ‘their world collapsed’ In reality, what I have seen is that patients, and the people that love them, hold their breath. And I recently learned why.

I have had many people who have shaped me, made me better, because goodness knows, I have needed that, perhaps more than most people.

The person who shaped me most, I met when I was about 6 or 7. She had a blond pixie cut and bright blue eyes. We were the same age but she was much smaller than me. When the large school bully kicked the cello she was carrying, she grabbed his arm and twirled him around and around and sent him flying into a wall. She would wander streams, ride her bike in the woods, and strangely, at the corner store while the rest of us bought chocolate, she would buy a carton of milk. An original from start to finish. I did what any sane person would do: loved her for life.

In our teens she grew and became a 5’10” blond beauty, who towered over me. Which was fitting because she was built for the life she wanted to lead - bold and strong.

Over the last fifty years, she and I have talked every few days. When she headed off to Europe at 18, with a backpack and panache, I stayed in university and worried about her. When she wandered into the woods for long camping trips on her own, I would worry while writing my exams. She got a PhD and turned into a crack research scientists who still takes off for lone camping trips that worry the crap out of me. The real truth of who she is to me is that she was the first person who came when my children were born and the first to come every time I needed her. If she detected a tremor in my voice, I would find her on my doorstep even if we lived in different cities and she had to travel for miles.

This summer, while we sat sipping coffee on a patio of a restaurant, she gently told me that she had breast cancer. I stopped breathing. I looked at her, blond hair now darker and longer, lines around her eyes, and I finally took a breath. Because the not breathing was wanting to stop the world, to go back to before, when illness wasn't real. And the breathing part was because I knew that I had to breathe and move forward. Because she needed me. Because I needed to be there. Every step.

And I was. The mastectomy was hard, and I was there for that. I was there at the hospital, and when she was home, we laughed in our zany way about all things cancer related. Then after she had eaten the food I had made for her, she gently told me that that cancer had spread to her bones. I couldn't breathe. This time, my lungs simply refused to take in any air. Then I did. Because I had to be there for that too.

When tragedy hits, and in books it must, I think it is important to dive in and write about breathing. Because that tells the story. Of wanting to stop time, and go back. Of breathing and moving forward.

11 November 2017

Everything I Learned About Writing I Learned From The Shield


by Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore
If you’ve read my novel, The Big Rewind, or maybe stopped by my Twitter feed (@libbycudmore) or talked to me for, I dunno, 10 minutes, you’ll learn that there are three things I love above all else in this world: Raymond Chandler, Steely Dan and The Shield.

The Shield was the catalyst for much of what’s now considered a Golden Age of television. Without Shawn Ryan’s ground-breaking cop show, there would be no Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul, no Sons of Anarchy and no The Walking Dead. The series revitalized Michael Chiklis’ flagging post-Commish career and, better still, introduced us to Walton Goggins, who went on to steal the show on Justified, co-star on Vice Principals and appear in basically every movie that’s coming out next year. And for this we are all so, so thankful.

But more than just seven seasons of white-knuckle brilliance (and an excuse to step away from your manuscript for a few minutes) The Shield can serve as a master class in writing – from plot twists to characters and world-building. It’s available on Hulu and Amazon Prime, so you really have no excuse not to at least watch the pilot.

  • Three Sides To Every Story: A typical episode is layered anywhere between 3-5 sets of storylines. There’s generally one Strike Team story, a Dutch/Claudette B-story, a Danny/Julian or Acaveda storyline, a family or personal drama and connections to the larger season arc. But it’s all about balance – too few and the plot feels dry after awhile, too many and your manuscript gets cluttered. A good rule of thumb is to remember your ABCs – have one main A plot, a secondary B-story and a third C-story that informs the other two.

  • Waste Not, Want Not: Every line of dialogue of The Shield crackles with tension. Not because of catchphrases or vulgarity, but because Shawn Ryan staffed his writers room with people who understood the value of every word an actor would say. Your dialogue must serve at least one of two purposes—move the characters or the story forward and, in an ideal situation, both. Page after page of “As you know, Bob” dialogue or mundane exchanges about the weather get boring fast. As you write the dialogues between your characters, load each sentence with the kind of tension that keeps the reader turning pages.

  • Every Character Is The Main Character: Too often, writers make the mistake of short-changing their minor characters. They appear only to feed the Main Character a line of dialogue or the occasional McGuffin. But what The Shield shows is that some of the most memorable characters are ones that only appear in a handful of scenes.  Van Bro, Taylor Orr and Connie may only appear in a few episodes, but they—and so many others—are all elevated to hint at a much larger world beyond the few lines that they are given. So when you write a minor character, write them as though they might be the star of your next book.

  • For Every Bad, There Is Good: There’s a moment in season three where Detective Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) strangles a stray cat in order to better understand the Cuddler Rapist (Clark Gregg) he’s chased for half the season. It’s an intensely uncomfortable scene that threatens to destroy an otherwise likeable character…until the season finale, where he rescues the last stray kitten left in a box in the Barn.  It’s a literal “Save the Cat” moment, as screenwriter Blake Snyder might say, that re-redeems a character you though you could never care for again.

The Shield
No character in The Shield was wholly good or wholly evil. Sure, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) routinely beats suspects, but he also brings groceries to a women’s shelter. Claudette Wyms’s (CCH Pounder) moral code may help her take down murderers and rapists, but it also alienates her daughters. And Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) might be responsible for one of TV’s devastating season finales in season five, but he knows why he does it and trusts that the audience does too. These characters are written as whole and complicated, challenging your expectations, and you should strive to write characters who reflect the range of the human condition. Nothing is more boring than a goody two-shoes, and nothing is more infuriating than a one-note villain.

Still In Hollywood: Farmington may be fictional, but it’s a city that lives and breathes, from the Barn to the Biz Lats territory. You’re dropped into the world from the start and expected to run to keep up, and better still, know your gangland and where you can and can’t go after dark. And while much of this is because film is a visual medium, there’s no reason you can’t take some of that world-building advice for yourself.

Try this: Draw out a map of where your characters live and work, where they buy groceries or hard drugs, where they go to hear music, where they go to pick up women. Know your streets, create neighborhoods, populate them with teens who rake their elderly neighbors’ lawns and people who don’t pick up after their dogs. Then fill it with your characters, main and otherwise, give them conversations that spark like an old electric chair.

And when that part’s done, maybe kick back and watch some TV. You’ve earned it.

10 November 2017

Planning Ahead: True Crime


By Art Taylor

After I wrote the headline above, I realized that it might suggest something more sinister—that I'm planning some sort of criminal activity of my own.

...which I'm not.

(...or at least I'm smart enough not to write about it publicly if I was.)

What I am planning is the syllabus for my "True Crime" course this spring at George Mason University.

I've taught this course before a few years ago, and it was enlightening to me as well, though I'd actually included several of the books before in other classes not specifically dedicated to this topic: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Beverly Lowry's Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir, which focuses on Karla Faye Tucker, the pickax murderer, who became the first woman executed in the state of Texas since the mid-1800s. That latter book remains one of my own favorites—such a rich mix or reportage and reflection, of a writer grappling with issues in the wider world (the impact of place on a person, for example, or the workings of the justice system) at the same time she's struggling with more personal issues, about parenting particularly, what it means to be a parent, those roles and responsibilities and the weight of it all. (As a parent now myself, I think about the book in different ways myself, with greater weight.) I'd also included Errol Morris's documentary The Thin Blue Line, which continues to astound me each and every time I've watched it.

Much of the reading that was new that first time I taught "True Crime" came from the Library of America's True Crime: An American Anthology—some well-known essays that covered a wider history and also a wider breadth of approaches, from the more strictly journalistic (Meyer Berger's Pulitzer Prize-winning article "Veteran Kills 12 in Mad Rampage on Camden Street") to works that bordered very close to fiction (Jim Thompson's "Ditch of Doom").

The course requires students both to craft analytical essays and try their hand at their own  creative writing—or at least the opportunity to do the latter. The first assignment asks students to choose a crime that's been covered in the class and to research other documents related to it—additional newspaper coverage from the same era as well as (potentially) more recent essays looking back on the crime—and to compare the approach in each, to evaluate which approaches might help reveal more about the "truth" of the crime. The creative writing assignment allows students to craft their own true crime essays, whether as memoir (amazing how many of us have been at least adjacent to crimes if not involved more intricately in them) or as investigative journalism at least at some rudimentary level.

There are several new texts I'm considering for the course—some I know better than others.

I had the great opportunity this summer to meet Thomas Wolfe, the co-author of Midnight Assassin: Murder in America's Heartland, which explores a crime that I've taught many times in the past: The Hossack Murder, in which an Iowa farmer was killed in the middle of the night by his wife. The story was covered in the press by Susan Glaspell, who went on to write both a well-known play, Trifles, and a short story, "A Jury of Her Peers," both based on the crime. Those three sets of documents all by the same author—newspaper reporting, a play, a short story—have always made for good texts to analyze: how they compare with one another, how the story is transmuted from fact into fiction, how themes persist one to another. And I'm looking forward to the opportunity of teaching Midnight Assassin itself—which puts all this into even greater perspective, looking back on it all from the vantage point of today (or 2005, I mean)—and to having Wolf himself visit the class.

I was just recently reading several reviews of a new YA book, The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater, and I think it would be fascinating to teach, both because of the very contemporary themes explored here and because of the opportunity to explore the differences in writing true crime for young adults and for adults—that shift in audience. Here's the review from the Washington Post that first alerted me to the book:
On the afternoon of Nov. 4, 2013, a 16-year-old boy in Oakland, Calif., set fire to another teenager’s thin white skirt. The victim received second- and third-degree burns and spent the next few weeks undergoing multiple surgeries. In The 57 Bus (Farrar Straus Giroux, ages 12 to 18), Dashka Slater examines this horrific incident from several angles, providing a nuanced portrait of the assailant and the victim, a brainy teen who identifies as agender (neither male or female). The book also sensitively explores the hot-button issues of gender nonconformity, bias crimes and juvenile justice. And since the attack occurred at one point along the sprawling route of the 57 bus, the city of Oakland — a diverse community beset by inequalities in income, opportunity and safety — also figures heavily in the narrative. For kids in East Oakland, “life had a way of sticking its foot out, sending you sprawling,” and Slater well describes the bleak and bleaker prospects they face. 

Mason is fortunate to have a true crime writer visiting at the end of next semester: Cutter Wood, author of Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime, which promises to be a potent mix of investigation and introspection (see Crossed Over above again for the works I'm drawn toward). Here's the promotional copy for the book:
When a stolen car is recovered on the Gulf Coast of Florida, it sets off a search for a missing woman, local motel owner Sabine Musil-Buehler. Three men are named persons of interest—her husband, her boyfriend, and the man who stole the car—and the residents of Anna Maria Island, with few facts to fuel their speculation, begin to fear the worst. Then, with the days passing quickly, her motel is set on fire, her boyfriend flees the county, and detectives begin digging on the beach.

Cutter Wood was a guest at Musil-Buehler’s motel as the search for the missing woman gained momentum, and he found himself drawn steadily deeper into the case. Driven by his own need to understand how a relationship could spin to pieces in such a fatal fashion, he began to meet with the eccentric inhabitants of Anna Maria Island, with the earnest but stymied detectives, and with the affable man soon presumed to be her murderer. But there is only so much that interviews and records can reveal; in trying to understand why we hurt those we love, this book, like Truman Capote’s classic In Cold Blood, tells a story that exists outside of documentary evidence. Wood carries the investigation beyond the facts of the case and into his own life, crafting a tale of misguided love, writerly naiveté, and the dark and often humorous conflicts at the heart of every relationship.

Sounds good? Only trouble is that Love and Death in the Sunshine State doesn't come out until the very end of the semester, so getting it on the syllabus will be a challenge. We'll see what I can do!

And finally, another addition—and a switch in media too—with the podcast series Mared & Karen: The WVU Coed Murders, and I'm hoping to get the man behind the podcast to visit my class as well next semester. As the WV Explorer explains, the podcast "explores the kidnapping, murder, and decapitation of two West Virginia University freshmen in 1970" and "presents the case for a wrongful conviction, offers new evidence about who really killed the coeds, and examines the crime’s social and cultural impacts on West Virginia and Appalachia." This one is a definite, and thanks to English Department chair Debra Lattanzi Shutika both for suggesting the podcast and (in advance!) for helping to set up my guest lecturer too!

Any other suggestions for texts I should consider? I'm still finalizing my plans!

09 November 2017

Mornings in London by Janice Law


by Eve Fisher

Mornings in London (The Francis Bacon Mysteries) by [Law, Janice]
Amazon Link Here
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Well, not if you have a really good nanny. Which Francis Bacon has.  (But more about that later.)

Yes, Francis Bacon, artist, gay, designer, bon vivant, adventurer, sometime spy, and always, always, always up to his neck in trouble is back in Janice Law's latest mystery, "Mornings in London".

But the first morning is in the country, at Larkin Manor, where Francis wakes up with a hangover and a naked footman, which is fine with him.  The trouble is, all around him are the county set, and (aside from the footman) Francis is already bored to death.  But he's down there at the request of a lady, his cousin Poppy, whom he hopes to rescue from Freddie, a bounder and a cad whom Francis knows a little too well and a little too much about.

Actually, that problem gets solved pretty quickly:
The morning of the hangover, Francis gets up to go to the bathroom and finds Signor Rinaldi, Italian diplomat under Mussolini, emerging from Freddie's room wearing nothing but a dressing gown.  "I was returning a book he so kindly lent me," Rinaldi offers - but no one believes that, especially Poppy.  The fight that follows attracts everyone's attention, and the main topic at dinner is that Poppy broke her engagement.  The next day, she and Francis go for a restorative walk, they find Freddie, his throat cut, lying in the grass.

Now everyone at Larkin Manor know that none of them could have done it.
Francis Bacon by John Dekin.jpg
Francis Bacon, Wikipedia

Signor Rinaldi?  A diplomat?  Never!
Lady Larkin, wealthy, a supporter of fascist movements at home and abroad?  Never!
Major Larkin, "the nice old architecture buff, the henpecked husband of a rich and politically ambitious wife"?  Never!
Basil Grove and his horsey wife, the wealthy Daphne?  Peter Tollman, the silver-haired government man and his trilling wife Lea?  The Larkins' pudgy daughter?  Never, never, never!

But Francis Bacon, dodgy decorator of rugs and furniture?  And his cousin Poppy, who broke off the engagement in a fury?  Well...  maybe.  Why not?

Francis knows trouble when he sees it - and it grows by leaps and bounds.  Someone - as well as the police - are after Poppy.  Someone mugs her.  Someone searches her rooms.  And when the lady vanishes, Francis knows he has to find out what's really going on.

Was Freddie murdered for love?  For blackmail?  For politics?  And the last is possible.  "Mornings in London" is set in the late 1920s, early 1930s, when fascism was rising both on the Continent and in England, especially among the aristocrats, to whom Mussolini was a handy tool for providing social stability.  (They thought.)  Everywhere Francis turns he runs into intelligence officers, including his exceptionally dodgy Uncle Lastings, who shows up with his own ideas on the murder...

Image result for jessie lightfootAnd then there's Nan.  I am so glad she is a major player in this book.  I love Nan.

Nan, who "sometimes has more imagination than a nanny requires.  Of course, that was exactly why she was ideal for me." 
Nan, who always knows a secret place to slip a bit of evidence.
Nan, who will sleep / eat / live anywhere to be with Francis.  (Seriously, in the 1940's, when Francis lived in Millais' old studio in South Kensington, for lack of an "alternative location", Nan slept on the kitchen table. Wikipedia.)
Nan, who encourages Francis to give up decorating and go into painting full-time, saying, "I've been poor.  Money's better, but life's too short to pass on happiness." 
Nan, who cooks and cleans and nurses - believe me, after reading about her, I am certain that all artists, of any genre, need a nanny like Jessie Lightfoot.  

Thanks, Janice, for giving us Francis, Nan, and "Mornings in London". 

                                                










08 November 2017

Trabismo


David Edgerley Gates

My pal Michael Parnell alerted me to an event this past Saturday, the 11th Annual Parade of Trabants, held at the International Spy Museum in DC. What's the significance of this? Funny you should ask.

Trabis were churned out in East Germany for a little over thirty years, from 1957 to 1990 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It had a two-cycle engine with 26 horsepower, zero to 60 in 21 seconds. You had to add oil to the gas, like a lawnmower or an outboard motor. They coughed and choked, and blew smoke. They didn't have a fuel pump, the gas tank was in the engine compartment, on top of the engine, the fuel was gravity-fed. 3 million of them were manufactured, and the basic design never changed.

Trabis are kind of like currywurst. The nostalgia element is tempered by the reality. They were cheap, they were crappy, they were a necessary fact of life for those East Germans who could even afford them, crappy as they were. They turned into the punchline of a joke that wasn't funny the first time it made the rounds. Then that world shifted on its axis. In mid-1989, the dominant Cold War paradigm began to collapse of its own weight, a suffocating inertia that just puddled on the floorboards. Thousands of Ossis packed up their household goods and drove their loaded, laboring vehicles through Hungary or Czechoslovakia, to get to West Germany. Like the Joads escaping the Dust Bowl, it was a leap of faith.

A lot of Trabis fell by the wayside on this journey to a better life. Abandoned, derelict, giving up the last gasp. The ones that made it had to be granted exceptions from pollution standards, they burned so dirty. And they were representative, they became proxies for everything that had gone wrong in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain.

This is an interesting transformation, or perhaps transubstantiation - the specific to the generic, water into wine - technically, I think it's an example of metonymy, where a part stands in for the whole. More than that, it's evolved. Language isn't static. Trabis are emblematic of an era, but they're a moving target. They're shorthand for the Cold War, yes, and at the same time, for Reunification and its discontents. Germans can be very thin-skinned. Like most of us, they don't like being reminded of past humiliations, especially when they've been self-inflicted. Trabants smell of failure. Not only failed history, and the failed state of East Germany, but the failure of West Germany to effectively assimiliate those former East Germans, those Ossis.

This is very much about the present, not the past, although dark echoes of the past are ready to hand. Too many Ossis were unskilled labor, not at a premium in a high-tech labor market. A lot of industry in the East was smokestack, and couldn't be retooled. West Germany was trying to integrate a territory, an infrastructure, and a population half of its own size, which had been economically and politically paralyzed since Berlin fell to the Russians in 1944. There were dislocations and disappointments. It shouldn't come as a surprise that there was a boiling point, a surge in anti-immigrant incidents, skinhead violence, scapegoating, a little too reminiscent of the Germany of the 1920's, with its pervading sense of grievance. 

Ossis are still underrepresented in the German business and political establishment (although Angela Merkel herself is an Ossi). In last September's elections, the far-right Alternative for Germany polled at 21.9 percent in the former East - they were at 12.6 nationally. This phenomenon, this alienation, is fueled by a perceived 'cultural colonialism,' an institutional condescension on the part of West Germans. The structural weaknesses of the East are abiding and genuine.

Twenty-eight years ago tomorrow, November 9th is the anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall fell.  

07 November 2017

Great Gifts for Readers and Writers


by Barb Goffman

This is my last column before the madness that is the Christmas (and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and any other holiday I'm leaving out) shopping season begins on the day after we eat the bird. Yes, some of you may start your shopping on the very day we eat the bird, but I'm a traditionalist. No holiday shopping until the day after Thanksgiving--unless we're talking about books. Then you can shop any time. In bed. While you're at Grandma's. Take a quick run to Barnes and Noble while you're supposed to be grocery shopping. There's always room for more books. And more and more. Not that I have a problem or anything. Nope. Not me.

So, given that I don't have a problem, I thought this would be the perfect time to suggest gifts for readers and writers. You know, people like me (and you, I bet) who don't have a problem with coveting books or writing them, no matter how much they try to quit--wait. What? Quit? Who would want to quit? But I digress. These suggestions are not going to be books themselves. No, that would be silly. Of course the readers in your life want books. And the writers in your life want to write and sell them. You know that. But what you don't know is there are things that go along with books, things the readers and writers on your shopping list secretly want.

What are these wondrous items? Come on. I'll show you.

First we'll start with gifts for readers

Love Beacon

You think this is a book bag, right? It is, but it's so much more.

We'll start with its function as a bag. Every reader needs a book bag. Something to take with her to the library or when she's out and about. It shouldn't be too small because she might finish the book she's reading and need another one. She shouldn't be caught without options. So she'll need to carry several books with her wherever she goes. So make that bag sturdy.

But sturdiness is only one important quality of the bag. It should say something. Does your reader love sci fi? Make sure your bag shows it. Or does your reader coo at cozy mysteries? Let the bag share that with the world. Or, if your reader has eclectic taste, you can simply use the bag to proclaim that its owner loves books. But the bag should make a statement because a book bag can do more than carry books. A book bag can help readers find each other. So keep that in mind when shopping. With a book bag, you're not just giving a tote, you're giving a love beacon--a signal someone can send to the world that she is a reader. And maybe, just maybe, another reader will see the beacon and respond. What better thing to bond over than books?

Book Light

You might have bought a book light decades ago and realized they weren't made well. You might have even had a store clerk at a Waldenbooks discourage you from buying a book light back in the eighties because of their poor quality. (Nope. That wasn't me. No siree.) But today's book lights have come of age. Not only do they work well, but they're lightweight and pretty. Oh so pretty. Doesn't the reader on your list deserve a sturdy way to read in bed without the lamp on. (And to that point, doesn't the reader's mate deserve a way for the reader to read in bed without the lamp on?) So buy a book light. It's a gift for two, all in one.

Go for the Gold

Book bags and book lights are nice, you're thinking. But you want to show the reader in your life just how much you love her. Isn't there something nicer (read: pricier) you can buy? But of course. First, there's an e-reader. Yes, most people who would like a e-reader already have them, but I'd be remiss without mentioning them. When wrists get weak, e-readers can be easier to hold than books. And when eyes get tired, e-readers let you increase the type size, which can be nice too. And if you want a book and have an e-reader, you can click and have that book at your disposal in mere seconds, which is a pretty nifty thing indeed.

But, Barb, you're saying. I don't want to give an e-reader. I want to truly show the love of my life that I get her, right down to her introverted little toes. What can I buy that will show her I understand her completely? (Besides, of course, a vacation for her alone with her books.)

Well, okay. Get out your wallet. Besides a gift card for books, the best thing you can buy a reader is a ... bookshelf. Or two. Or two dozen. More and more and more. There are small bookshelves to go into niches in your bedroom. There are large bookshelves to cover walls in your study. And then, there's the granddaddy gift of them all.

Built-ins.

Nothing says love like a built-in bookshelf. Be still my page-turning heart.


 Gifts for Writers

 The Anti-Welcome Mat

We all know the standard ways people indicate they don't want others knocking on their doors. The Beware Dog sign. The doormat beseeching you to Go Away. The sock on the handle of a dorm room door, indicating that ... well, you know.

Writers need something like this too. All too often, a person toiling at home (especially someone who spends his days making up conversations for imaginary people) is viewed as interruptible.

"Mom, where are the cookies?"

"Have you checked the jar?"  Grumble, grumble.

"Dad, can you drive me to my friend's house?"

"What, your legs don't work?" Even more grumbling.

"Honey, the house is on fire."

"I swear, if I get interrupted one more time I--oh, wait. That's an interruption I'm okay with."

Let's hope that house fires are few and far between. For those other times, your writer needs a way to nicely tell the member of his family to Go Away. So here we have it, a simple sign the writer can hang on his office door. Interrupt thereafter at your peril.

Page Holder

Until you've tried to type in edits, hunching forward to look down at a page on your desk then looking back up to your screen, then hunching forward again to find your place, then straightening up to type the next edits in before hunching once more, over and over and over, you haven't typed in edits first done on paper. Yes, some authors might do all their editing on the computer, but many people edit and proofread the old-fashioned way. I'm one of them. Reading off screen enables me to spot errors I believe I'd otherwise miss. And that's great, until it's time to type in the changes.

That's where a Page Holder comes in. It allows you to have your pages standing upright, so you can sit in the same position, with your eyes on the pages and your fingers on the keys, typing away. And when you need to look to the screen, it's so much easier moments later to simply scan to the left to find your place again on the paper page. This may seem like something silly or unnecessary, but oh my goodness, the writer in your life needs it. Since I got mine a few months ago, typing in edits goes So Much Faster. And, even more exciting, I don't have to worry any more about actually becoming a hunchback, which might be good for fiction set at Notre Dame, but in real life, not so much.

An editor

Every writer needs an editor. You never know when you might be telling too much instead of showing, or writing stilted dialogue, or not recognizing a plot hole so big Big Foot could fit through it. That's why it's always good to get a second pair of eyes, especially someone who specializes in this type of work.

Some authors rely on critique groups, and they can be great. But sometimes an author needs a professional. A freelance editor. This can be especially true for authors trying to sell a first manuscript and authors planning to self-publish. But freelance editors can be pricey, so if you love an author, perhaps the best present you can give is the gift of an editor's time.
I know all about this--it's how I make my living. I can't tell you how rewarding it is to help an author reach his potential, to see a writer sell the story she toiled over, to witness a smile when an author's book lands on a bookstore shelf. So if you have a writer in the family, consider helping him or her splurge on an editor. But be sure to do it after you eat the bird. Holiday shopping can wait. We do have traditions to follow, after all.

So, do you have a great gift you can recommend for the reader or writer in your life? Please share in the comments. And happy early Thanksgiving!

06 November 2017

Killer Tunes


by Steve Liskow

I've played guitar since the Monkees hit it big, and I read music (a little) and know (a little) theory, but I don't write songs.

I've been known to commit poetry under extreme circumstances, but songs have more technical demands than I can handle: melody, rhythm, lyrics, harmony, maybe even a bass line...and that's all assuming I can sing, which is still a topic of heated debate.

Strangely enough, several of my stories involve made-up songs. I had to convince people they're real to make the stories work.

In Blood On The Tracks, my first Woody Guthrie novel, we learn that dead singer Jeremy Garth wrote a song to Megan Traine. At the recording session, Meg blew a chord change and her mistake caused lots of bad stuff to happen. Since the session was years ago and Guthrie is only a so-so guitar player (probably a little better than I am), I had two problems. First, how would he figure out that the song was written for Meg? That was easy because I could put a hint into the lyrics. But how could Guthrie surmise that Meg made a mistake years after the fact?

That took some thought. I know just enough about music to recognize typical chord progressions, and I changed one chord so it wouldn't quite fit the rest of the song. It took me about half an hour to create a logical chord sequence for a song no reader will ever hear. Once I had it, I knew how a brilliant musician could make the necessary mistake, too. Several musicians have told me they enjoyed the music background in the book, and nobody has ever had any trouble believing what happened. I still have a general idea what the song sounds like, but don't expect to hear it on my next CD. Don't hold your breath for the CD, either.

Two other stories explore musical plagiarism. "Hot Sugar Blues," which appeared in the MWA anthology Vengeance (and was nominated for an Edgar) tells of a white blues singer who copied a song he heard a black man perform in a southern bar. I had to make it logical that he'd have trouble figuring out the chords until the performer showed him what they were, so I had Deacon Maddix put his guitar into a special tuning.
Keith Richards, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Joni Mitchell and Richard Thompson all frequently re-tune for different voicings in their songs. Robert Johnson's early blues are hard to figure out, too, partly because he had amazing technique, but also because he played most of them in different tunings so he could use a slide or reach unusual notes. Johnson gave me the idea, and I put Maddix's song into a tuning I've never heard anyone ever use. Maybe someday I'll try playing a song in that tuning to hear if it even works. Maybe I'll do it for that same CD.

"Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma," in last summer's Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, casts Woody Guthrie and Megan Train in another musical mystery. A man claimed that a singer worked with him on several songs, but released them without giving him any credit or royalties. Since the singer was known for her lyrics, I could work with words more than music, and had far too much fun creating esoteric rhymes. I even made one song use the rhyme scheme AAAAAAAA, which is harder in English than in the romance languages with an inflected ending. I simply listed the words that rhyme. I'd hate to try to write verses with those words that actually made sense, though. Maybe that's why someone ends up getting killed.

Right now, I'm polishing another story that involves a song. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes classic "The Musgrave Ritual" may have been my unconscious starting point because I was on a panel with Lindsay Faye, who recently published a collection of "new" Holmes stories. The song in my new story seems to be an obscure old ballad, but the characters suspect it's really much newer...and that the message is dangerous. I've written out five verses and even have a general idea of the chords and melody.

Look for it on the second CD I don't plan to produce.



05 November 2017

Electric Sheep


by Leigh Lundin


In the third grade, I loved the concept behind Fritz Leiber’s Gather Darkness, my first adult novel, the one I remember. It hooked me on science fiction.

Why this on a mystery site? Partly because it’s about story telling and because many mystery writers and readers find they enjoy sci-fi too.

As mentioned before, only hard science fiction appeals to me. Here the adjective ‘hard’ serves to modify ‘science’ as much as it does science fiction.

Much as mystery writing has its rules about fairness to the reader, a major rule in real SF is that the science must be either real or at least plausible within a given universe. For the most part, that rules out magic and monsters.

As opposed to sci-fi, many stories are termed science fantasy or, in the case of Star Wars, ‘space opera’. They can entertain, but they aren’t sci-fi in the purest, purist sense.

The main point of true science fiction isn’t about blobs and alien abductions of busty beauties. It’s about society, it’s about us, about the condition of humankind. Look for a message, and you’ll probably find one.
The Ship Who Sang

Anne McCaffrey

But wait, you say. What about Anne McCaffrey? She writes about dragons and… and… dragony stuff, yet you have a soft spot for her?

It’s not the dragons. Anne McCaffrey is a force of fantasy, if not nature. I think I’ve seen a movie based on one of her dragony books, I’ve not read them. Instead, I go back to one of her earliest published works when I was in the 5th or 6th grade, The Ship Who Sang.

What beautiful names for a sailboat, I thought, Helva, The Ship Who Sang. What a beautiful story.

It’s a stunning novella, awkward according to some critics (and re-edited in response), but made even the more poignant. If Helva doesn’t make you tear up, you missed the ship. McCaffrey herself said it’s her favorite and understandably so. I’ve read a lot since, but I’ve never forgotten that story.

Stand on Zanzibar
John Brunner

As a country kid, I consumed science fiction in a vacuum, not knowing how highly regarded John Brunner was among his peers. I knew only that I admired his works.

The most visionary writers can predict the future. Brunner’s novels read so much like tomorrow’s newspaper, a casual reader might not recognize them as science fiction.

Brunner predicted computer viruses (Shockwave Rider), disastrous climate change (The Sheep Look Up), and a need to deal with overpopulation (Stand on Zanzibar). Along with his novel about urban eco-planning (The Squares of the City), his stories are usually uplifting, the excepting being The Sheep Look Up.

Except for thrillers, science fiction deals with topics crime writing can’t handle. One commonality is that both can make you think.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K Dick

I absorbed Golden Age short stories in pulp magazines. You’d recognize most of the authors and one of my favorites was Philip K Dick. Not only did he publish more than one-hundred twenty shorts, but he went on to write forty-four novels.

You’ve seen television shows and movies such as The Man in the High Castle (2015), Total Recall (1990, 2012), Minority Report (2002), A Scanner Darkly (2006), The Adjustment Bureau (2011), and today’s topic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1982, 2017), aka Blade Runner.

I mention this because Blade Runner 2049 is still in theatres. The first one (1982) was excellent, and please, watch it before watching its sequel.

A number of actors appear in both. The pixels of one original actress, Sean Young, appear in a remarkable blending of actresses, one old, one young.

Man in the High Castle
Speaking of actresses, one compelling scene contains a sort of birth of an android. It’s so delicate, I couldn’t help but wonder if its Dutch actress had dance training.

A handful of ‘easter eggs’ hark back to the original film and at least one to Dick’s story title. An aging Edward James Olmos drops an origami sheep on a table.

So what’s the message in Blade Runner? Like the original, it’s about humanity. At the end of the 1982 and the 2017 films, the question becomes: Who’s human? Who’s humane?

The answer isn’t homo sapiens.

04 November 2017

Old Friends and Old Castles




by John M. Floyd


In our columns at this blog, we Sayers of Sleuth try to stick to the subject of mystery writing. I'm often guilty, though, of wandering off topic (especially to things like movies and TV), and sure enough, my focus today is on a book of narrative nonfiction. But today's post is also vaguely connected to the mysterious, because if I hadn't become acquainted several years ago with fellow mystery writer Joseph D'Agnese, he probably wouldn't have recently offered me what turned out to be an interesting opportunity.

Here's what I mean. Back in early September Joe emailed me from his home in North Carolina to tell me his wife, Denise Kiernan, was about to do a nationwide tour for her new book, The Last Castle. In fact I had already heard about the book, and had even pre-ordered it from Amazon a month or so earlier, partly because my wife Carolyn and I had so enjoyed Denise's previous book--a New York Times bestseller called The Girls of Atomic City--and partly because The Last Castle is a narrative history of the Biltmore House, an attraction in Asheville, North Carolina, that we've visited several times over the years.

Anyhow, Joe also explained in his email that one of the stops Denise would make on the tour was Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and that Denise usually prefers not to do a solo reading/signing; when possible, she asks someone she knows to come and appear with her at the event, and in effect interview her about the book in the popular "a conversation with the author" format. And since I'd met Joe and Denise a couple of years ago in Raleigh and we've swapped several books and emails since then, he asked if I'd like to appear with Denise at the event in Oxford, which is only about three hours' drive from my home near Jackson.

So that's what we did, on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 25. I drove up there, met with Denise beforehand to strategize and catch up a bit, and then she and I spent an hour or so discussing her book in front of an audience of readers and writers. She was of course a better interviewee than I was an interviewer, but I think we all had a good time, and everyone (except Denise, already an expert) learned a great deal about the famous Biltmore estate, the Vanderbilts who constructed it, and America's Gilded Age. Afterward she signed a bunch of books and we all stood around and chatted until seven or so, at which point I headed home and Denise drove to Memphis to catch a flight the following morning to New York, her next stop. (She'd spent the previous two days in Seattle and L.A. I remember once being told that national book tours are like attending Epcot Center in Florida: Every Person Comes Out Tired.)

I should mention here that Square Books is one of several excellent and widely-known independent bookstores here in Mississippi--others include Lemuria in Jackson and Turnrow in Greenwood--and that the bookstore staff there in Oxford showed both of us an incredibly warm welcome. Many thanks to Richard Howorth, Alissa Lilly, Toby Morrison, and everyone else at Square Books. Denise had been to Oxford twice before, to speak at Ole Miss, and my most recent trip there was as one of the signers of Mississippi Noir a year ago, but we both agreed that this trip was the most fun.


A final note. Like The Girls of Atomic City (subtitled The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II), The Last Castle is a fascinating book about a fascinating place and time in our history. Many of you probably know that the Biltmore House is the largest private residence in America, a sort of giant French Renaissance chateau constructed by George Vanderbilt in the late 1800s. What you might not know is that the house is 175,000 square feet (larger than the castle where Downton Abbey was filmed), with 250 rooms, 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces, located on an estate of around 125,000 acres. And the people involved in its history are no less interesting than the setting. According to the description/subtitle on the front cover of Denise's book, The Last Castle is "the epic story of love, loss, and American royalty in the nation's largest home." I couldn't have said it better myself. And by the way, this book also made the New York Times bestseller list, as soon as it was released.


If you've read The Last Castle already, you know what a literary achievement it is. If you've not read it, I hope you will. It's a marvelously entertaining and eye-opening look at not only an American landmark but at America itself.

To Joe D'Agnese and Denise Kiernan: Thank you for allowing me a small connection to all this. I had a great time.




03 November 2017

NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month!


Bluto cosplayer Thomas Pluck


Thomas Pluck

November is National Novel Writing Month and you're three days behind already!

NaNoWriMo for short, you're about to get flooded with word counts on social media as people try to write 50,000 words in one month. Steve Liskow wrote about this last month, and he gives courses on it, so check out his post for an introduction. I wrote my first novel, a draft called Beat the Jinx, for NaNo 2011. After three more drafts it would become Bad Boy Boogie, my second published novel, and the first in my Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller series. The drafting and rewriting is the important part, here. There's a National Novel Editing Month in March, to give you time to rest and sit on the manuscript so you have perspective, and I highly recommend taking time off and editing whatever you blast through this month, especially if you are a newer novelist.

What's new to me this year is that it's the first time I've had a novel under deadline. The second Jay Desmarteaux novel is due in mid-January, and as of now it's called Born on the Bayou. It's set entirely in Louisiana, drawing on my many visits there, and I've had many of the scenes in my head for a long time. I put together a rough outline: I like mileposts, which I can move or swerve to avoid, rather than a strict structure. Another writer called this "writing to the end of the headlights" and I like that, having just enough road to see where you're going, but not knowing where you might end up. That way the reader will hopefully be as surprised as you are.

So I cheated a bit for this year's NaNoWriMo. I began just before Bouchercon. I wanted to wait until after the convention, when I was full of energy from talking with readers and fellow writers, but I couldn't wait. I sat down and wrote the opening chapter--a prologue, even--and I've read it at two Noirs at the Bar already. The audiences have liked it. I took a big chance there, because if it went over like a fart in church, I might have been discouraged to write further. Or agonized about the direction the novel was going. So I got lucky, there. As of last night when I hammered out 2,000 words, the manuscript is around 16,500 words as November begins. So I'm cheating, kind of. It's easier to write when a novel is in motion. Inertia and all that. So my plan is to hit at least 66,500 by midnight November 30th, and have 75,000 by mid-December, giving me a month to edit (without a rest) before it goes to the publisher. This is the tightest deadline I've ever been on.

Bad Boy Boogie went through four drafts before I queried. My beta readers liked it, but a very generous agent--Elizabeth Kracht--gave me good notes on the beginning, and I amped things up for a final draft. I essentially pulled the infamous "chapter 3 is now chapter 1" switcheroo, putting strong action in the first chapter where there had been a slow burn. And it worked. My editor at the publisher had no developmental edits. Oh, there were plenty of edits to be done, but the bones were good. The novel needed a chemical peel. This is a bit of a tangent, but you should make a list of "problem words" you use and search for them before you write "final" on your draft. Some of problem words are "just," "only," "But," and "So," and you can add "ly " if you overuse adverbs. My characters nod and grin and wince and grimace and squint more than Clint Eastwood in need of Ex-Lax, as well.

This draft feels cleaner than my previous ones, as I am getting better at editing on the fly. I also go back and edit as I go, and sometimes read the last chapter I wrote before I begin the night's writing. I'm a nightowl with the writing, I wish I could do it first thing in the morning. Charles Willeford suggested writing before you use the bathroom in the morning, much less a cup of coffee. I couldn't hack that, I prefer to start between 8 and 9pm and write until 11;30, and read for a half hour before bed. It's good to have a reward set. The few TV shows I still watch? I don't use them as rewards because I like to watch them with my wife. And some of them are news shows, and it's good for me to get riled up before writing.

So are you joining NaNoWriMo this year? It's about 1350 words a day. You don't have to write every day to be a writer, but I like Larry Block's admonition, "you can't write four lousy pages?" It can seem insurmountable, but having a pro diminish it so casually makes it feel less so. To do this you need to trust your voice and silence the inner critic. As Joyce Carol Oates says, write fearlessly.

This doesn't mean you should be able to bang out a book a month or even in a year. Everyone is different, and I feel that the "book a year train" has hurt a lot of writers whose best work had more time to simmer, but this is a challenge you don't have to accept. If you've been hemming and hawing about writing a book, there are worse ways to tackle it than NaNoWriMo. You'll have a bunch of us cheering you on.

Ready?
Set?
...
Go!



02 November 2017

Ten Years Gone


by Brian Thornton

I'm 52. I'm happily married, with a challenging day job, and an even more challenging five year-old son. Don't get me wrong: when I say, "challenging," I guess what I really mean is "tiring." My kid is great, and he's a ton of exhausting fun.

When I was 42 I was single, with the same day job, and no kids. I had published my first book two years previously, at the age of 40. I had time to write every day. And when it came to generating content, I was a machine.

Ten years ago this week I accomplished the unlikely (I hesitate to call it "impossible," for reasons I hope will become obvious as you read on.).

I wrote 80,000 words in eight weeks, while working a full-time day job.

And when I say, "I wrote 80,000 words in eight weeks," I don't mean that I sat down and wrote 1,000 words per day, and then went back and fixed things later.

No.

I started from scratch the first day of September, and turned in two completed 40,000 word manuscripts to my publisher on November 1st, exactly eight weeks later.



Without going too deeply into the circumstances which led to my landing in this situation, let's suffice to say that I double-booked my time, got in the middle of a tug-of-war between two editors (one fantastic, the other, well... NOT fantastic) who worked at the same publisher, and voila: I was up against a short, short deadline.

Now, bear in mind, my day gig is teaching. Can you guess which part of the year is highest impact for me as a teacher: which part of the year demands the greatest portion of my headspace and energy, which part requires the greatest investment of extra time outside of the regular workday?

Here's a hint: it ain't summer!

Looking back, I can hardly believe I managed to pull it off. Then I stop to think: I didn't have a mortgage, a marriage, or a child to take care of. I had my work and my friends and my writing.

So, I didn't have a lot of claims on my time.

Fast-forward ten years, and I have completed eleven books, sold ten of them and had nine actually see publication (the book I wrote and sold, but which was never published was a nonfiction piece about teaching that the publisher paid for but ultimately decided it couldn't sell in the current marketplace. I had been approached to write the book, so it was work for hire, and as a result, I wasn't all that attached to it. So I supposed you could say of my emotional reaction to the news that my publisher was honoring the contract but had decided to shelve the content they'd  commissioned, that my feelings were hurt right up until the check cleared.).

And not of one of them published since 2011.

I got married in 2010, and my son was born in 2012. The money from that last book helped pay for my honeymoon.

I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this.

My priorities at 52

I've written plenty in the intervening years, and published a bit of short form stuff, kept my hand in, if you will. I've done my best to improve across the board.

I have few illusions about my strengths and shortcomings. I have a finite amount of both energy and headspace, and so my late 40s became all about priorities.

I love being married. And I am proud of my marriage, and the work my wife and I have put in to make it work. I have a lot of friends whose marriages seem to be cratering these days, people growing apart, priorities shifting. I feel for my friends going through this experience.

And because I met me wife later in life (I turned 44 the day after our first date), I don't think I have as much to worry about with regard to growing apart (*knock wood*) as those of my friends who married and had kids in their 20s.

But that's not something I'm prepared to leave to chance, and so I work hard at my marriage. The same goes for raising my son.

So he gets a lot of my time and attention. He didn't ask to be born, and by virtue of our relationship, he's more than entitled to everything I can muster on his behalf.

I'll admit there were times over the past five years when I despaired ever again finishing a writing project, let alone publishing it. Everyone has been there at one time or another, and this was my turn at this particular wheel.

And then a funny thing happened.

My son started preschool.

In the fourteen months since that blessed event occurred, I have written a few things of which I am particularly proud. I've also finished some things started long ago, and left to sit half-finished for a good long while. And I've started a few things about which I am incredibly excited.

I am not at liberty to go into detail about what's on the horizon, except to say this: I just wrapped up negotiations with a new publisher to get two of my long-form fiction projects into print in 2019.

TWO!

And there's so much more on the horizon. I have a couple of partially completed novel--length collaboration with other authors on track to wrap in late 2018/early 2019. And then there are the short stories and novellas.

The irony?

I have less unspoken-for blocks of time available to me than I did a decade ago, and yet I stand to be far more productive over the next couple of years than I was a decade ago when I averaged two books every eighteen months.

How?

Simple.

One: I'm more efficient at managing my time (a product of getting married/having a child).

Two: I'm a much better writer now.

Stay tuned to this space. More to come!


01 November 2017

Gutter Dwellers and Chair Thieves


by Robert Lopresti

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” - Oscar Wilde

A few months ago I read a story called "Crow Mountain"  by John Floyd in the latest issue of The Strand.  A good story it was, but what amused me was that it included a plot twist that I had used a decade before.


I am not suggesting anything nefarious.  First of all, John needs to steal ideas from me like  Bryan Bowers needs me to give him autoharp lessons.  (Slow down, Bryan!  Make some mistakes!)  But most important - if he had read my story and instantly said I can use that it would have still been all right.  It would be what Lawrence Block calls "creative plagiarism."  You take the original idea in use it in some new and original way.

Here's what I mean by the shared plot twist: If you read John's story and then started mine when you got to a certain point you might say: "Huh.  I bet I know how it ends."  And you'd be right  Same if you read mine first, then John's.

I told John I liked the story and mentioned the coincidence.  I said it reminded me of one of my father's favorite sayings: "Great minds run in the same gutter."

John graciously replied: "I’ll share a gutter with you anytime."

I mention this because I have a story in the new November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  (My 27th appearance there, he said modestly.)   And "The Chair Thief" definitely involved creative plagiarism.

I wish I could tell you who I stole from, but I don't know.  A few decades ago I went through all the mystery shorts I could find in the public library.  I fell in love with a tale by Lawrence Block and when his collected stories came out I looked forward to repeating my acquaintance with that one.  But it wasn't there.  

I emailed him, describing the story.  Larry politely replied that it sounded like a great idea, but it wasn't his.  So I'm stuck.

Here is the plot of that original story; A true paranoiac gets ready for his day, putting fresh tin foil in his hat to keep out the mind controllers, and wrapping his torso in plastic wrap to foil the death rays.  Then he goes out for a stroll.  Things happen.

My story, on the other hand, is about two office-mates who get mad at a co-worker.  

You might say "those two plots have nothing in common."  Well, maybe not.  But it comes down to what I said before: If you read them one after another you would probably guess how the second one ends.

But since the first one is lost, we don't have to worry about that.  

I hope you enjoy "The Chair Thief." And if anyone remembers the author and title of the other story, I wish you would let me know.