04 May 2018

Bittersweet Goodbyes


By Art Taylor

Yesterday was the last day of my classes this semester at George Mason University. Though plenty of grading still lies ahead, the final face-to-face meeting with students—more than the ultimate posting of the grades themselves—always feels like the actual close of a course.

I've often used the word bittersweet to talk about this time of year. The sweet part is easy: No doubt it's a thrill and a relief to have gotten through all the classes and lesson prep and grading and everything; as I'm writing this, one fellow professor passed by my office, and when I asked how things were going, she said, "Well, we're almost there, so... great!" But all endings arrive with a persistent sense of something lost—and mixed in with the "Whew, glad that's over!" the end of the semester has often left me with anxious little questions and small bits of... pensiveness? melancholy?

Was the course a success? What didn't we cover well? Did the students learn anything? These questions linger.

And deeper than any academic second-guessing: Because my classes are often workshops, because of the intimacy of the workshop setting, because of the connections that are built between all of us, some sense of loss regularly rears its head in early May, as we all take that step of saying goodbye to one another after months of sharing not just our time and our work but also little bits of ourselves.

This semester, that feeling has hit me particularly hard.

One of the students in my class has taken at least one course with me every semester for the past three-and-a-half years—with the exception of his first semester, basically his entire college career. When he landed in my fiction workshop the spring of his freshmen year, he was already distinguishing himself as a careful, thoughtful craftsman in his own right and as a leader in workshop discussions too—able to zero in on problems with his fellow students' drafts, to offer helpful suggestions to improve those drafts, and also to celebrate others' accomplishments, to praise what was working well. Semester after semester, he has honed those skills further—across the board. Here at the end, he's proven himself a top-notch writer and clear-eyed thinker about craft—working on a novel that I feel certain will find publication somewhere down the road.

It's been a joy to see his talents evolve. I'm proud to have shared somehow in his accomplishments. I'm going to miss having him in the classroom. I feel that loss.

Along the way, he has also become part of a core of fine creative writing students—maybe has been central to the formation of that group, in fact. Over time, another of his writer friends joined my classes, and then another, and another. Very often they've signed up again the next semester for some class I'm teaching, and then the next as well. Together this cadre of writers has displayed tremendous talent in their individual works and such extraordinary support and encouragement for one another.... They've become the closest of friends together, and in many ways they've become my friends as well. My latest workshop—Advanced Creative Nonfiction—has surely been one of the most exciting and energetic courses I've ever led, and that's thanks not to me but to the high caliber of the writers sitting in the circle around the room and to the intensity of those friendships and that support.

And now, they're all graduating.

So multiply those sentences above ten-fold:

It's been a joy to see their talents evolve—and soar. I'm proud to have shared somehow in their accomplishments, the hard-earned brilliance, the stunning breadth. I'm going to miss having them in the classroom—all of them. I feel that personal loss—profoundly—even as I celebrate all the great things ahead for this group.

Some fine writers are finding their way out into the wider world this month.

Keep a watch for what they do next.


03 May 2018

The Fine Art of M.S.U.


No, this is not a guided tour of the fine arts program at Michigan State University. or of the art school at Montana State University. And it sure ain't a discussion of the pros and cons of attending the fine arts program at Minot State University.

Today I'm talking about the Fine Art of Making Shit Up.

Recently I've been enjoying the RCN series of novels by science fiction author David Drake. Drake, a fan of the Aubrey/Maturin nautical adventure novels of the late Patrick O'Brian, has based this series on O'Brian's work, setting it in a far future where the space-faring navy of the planetary "Republic of Cinnabar" (A thinly veiled avatar for late 18th/early 19th century Great Britain) finds itself locked in a life or death struggle with a cosmic avatar of Bonapartist France called "The Alliance of Free Stars" (which, it turns out, is neither an "alliance," nor "free." Discuss!).

It's all great fun.

One of the things I enjoy most about Drake's work in this series is his tapping the existing record of past human history and using it as source material for the dramatic twists and turns his narratives take.

And Drake is sanguine about the limitations under which he operates. Writing in the forward for Some Golden Harbor, he addresses the existence of the English and metric measuring systems whole cloth in a far future on which two millennia of human development ought to have worked to make them unrecognizable to our 21st century eyes:

"The scattered human societies I postulate for this series would have many systems of weights and measures. Rather that try to duplicate that reality and thereby confuse readers without advancing my story, I've simply put Cinnabar on the English system while the Alliance is metric. I don't believe either system will be in use two millennia from now, but regardless: my business is storytelling, not prediction."

I like that last line especially. my business is storytelling, not prediction.

This is a sentiment he has expressed elsewhere in slightly different form. In an author's note for an earlier work in the series (When the Tide Rises), he writes: "I write to entertain readers, not to advance a personal or political philosophy (I don't have a political philosophy); nonetheless, my fiction is almost always based on historical models."

Note the use of the word "almost" in that final sentence.

Boy, do I connect with that sentiment.

But I don't write futuristic fiction.

I write historical fiction.

And there's this strain of thought concerning historical fiction these days that flies in the face of what I've quoted above.

We historical fiction writers are supposed to make it realistic. Believable. Authentic.

I hear that in nearly every conversation where two or more historical fiction writers are part of of the back-and-forth.

And I think it's nonsense.

I'm not saying that historical fiction should not be realistic, believable and authentic.

I'm saying that "realistic" is not the same thing as "real." That "believable" is not the same thing as "true." That reading "authentic" is not the same thing as the actuality of "authenticity."

I have fellow travelers among the historical mystery writers I know and love. I've heard it said many times and more succinctly than what I managed above: "We're writing historical fiction, not history."

I have a Master's degree in history. I understand and practice historical analysis on a daily basis in my day gig (I teach history). I have also written and published in the field.

The two are not the same thing.

I hear you saying, "No kidding, Brian!"

Bear with me.

There are fans out there who will hold a fiction writer's feet to the fire over getting a detail about the workings of the brake system of a Pullman car wrong (I know this from experience). For some people it seems almost a point of perverse pride to try to catch out an author making a mistake.

And I can see their point.

Mostly.

When you're reading fiction you don't want to read something that's going to take you out of the story. For example, I was reading a historical mystery set in ancient Rome by an author who shall remain nameless (I will say that the author in question has advanced degrees in ancient history, and has taught classics at the university level for a number of years).

This author had an annoying habit of writing ancient Romans speaking Latin as if they were speaking cockney slang. When one character told another not to "get your knickers in a twist," it did jar me out of the story.

Much easier to take is an author  such as the late, great Philip Kerr, who wrote early 20th century German characters using translations of German slang: a gun was a "lighter," for example. A cigarette, a "nail." And so on.

But was Kerr being "authentic," or was he just a damned good writer with the uncanny ability to make what he was writing feel "authentic"?

I have no idea. I don't speak enough German to fact check him.

But with historical fiction, it is all about feel. You paint a portrait. You do your level best to evoke a certain lost time and place, while hopefully not neglecting the unchanging nature of the human condition, regardless of time period.

I have read historical authors whose prose reads like the pages of a Sears catalogue: laying out historically accurate inventories of this sitting room, or that dining room.

Frankly, this type of writing always calls to mind the writing of thriller master Tom Clancy to me. Remember Tom Clancy?

The guy who camped out in the Library of the Congress and researched and researched until he could write with authority on a host of military/espionage fronts, including discussing over the course of many pages in books such as his breakthrough novel The Hunt For Red October the technical details of Russian torpedoes and American antisubmarine warfare.

That kind of writing is: Accurate. Real. Authentic.

And it absolutely bores the crap out of me.

Give me a story which evokes an age: and populates it with memorable characters who don't step on their feet, historically speaking, and I will read that before I read another tech-manual-cum-thriller every single time.

The bottom line is that people who write that sort of thing are good writers. They excel at "Making Shit Up."

By the way: that guy Clancy? In The Hunt For Red October, he hung his hat on the accuracy of what he wrote. Made a career out of it. Good for him.

And yet...

In that book, he discusses the American navy's use of an auxiliary submarine rescue ship called the U.S.S. Pigeon during the hunt for the titular Russian sub.

One problem with that.

The Hunt For Red October takes place in the Atlantic Ocean.

The U.S.S. Pigeon was homeported out of San Diego, and served exclusively in the Pacific, along the West Coast of the United States.

How do I know?

The Pigeon was my first ship when I was in the navy back in the 1980s. In fact, I was serving onboard her when I read about her in The Hunt For Red October.

See? It only takes getting one thing wrong.

Better to write the best damned story you can  and not sweat every single detail.

That's the real art of making shit up!

That sure ain't the Atlantic she's sailing through!

02 May 2018

A Close Shave


by Robert Lopresti

I'm going to ramble a bit today on the subject of logic. (We will see how often I can tie it to the subject of crime fiction.) I am doing this because I just heard, for the millionth time, someone define Occam's razor incorrectly. Specifically, the person claimed that Occam's razor says that the simplest explanation is probably correct.

It doesn't say that.

Occam's razor is, of course, a principle for scientific research, and it is usually attributed to a thirteenth century monk named William of Ockham (Ockham is an English village. Occam comes from the Latin translation). Actually, we owe the most famous famous version of the rule ("entitles must not be multiplied beyond necessity") to John Punch, several centuries later. The principle, in one form or another, goes back at least to Aristotle. I recently realized that it also hides within one of my favorite quotes of Albert Einstein: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." (And speaking of things, not being simple, Einstein apparently never said that.)

One of Ockham's more distinguished, if fictional, students.
In his famous quote above John Punch (what a great name!) warned us to watch out for unnecessary entities, as in someone or something that played an active part in causing an action. Punch means that if you walk outside and something knocks your hat off, you don't start out by assuming there is  a malevolent invisible demon in the vicinity. It might have just been a breeze.

But my point is that Punch/Occam is not saying that the simpler explanation is the most likely one. It is simply the one you should examine first. Not because it is the most likely to be correct, but because examining it is the fastest way to reach the truth.

Let's take an example from our own field. The police are called to a building. They find that the store on the ground floor has been robbed, and that a man has been murdered on the third floor. Should the robbery squad be called to one crime scene and the homicide team to the other? Or are we looking at a single event?

Brother William made no specific recommendations about police personnel matters, but his principle advises treating this as the "simpler" situation, i.e. one event. If the cops do that, and if they do their job properly, they are more likely to find something wrong with their solution, than if they start at the other end. 

Perhaps the two crimes happened at the same time, or maybe the robber was right-handed and the killer was a southpaw. But if instead they begin by assuming there were two separate criminals - and there was only one - it is going to be harder for them to realize that one of their proposed culprits is imaginary (an unnecessary entity).

You may remember the TV series House, MD, which was a medical detective show, about a diagnostician (whose name was a tribute to Sherlock Holmes, by the way). In an episode called (surprise!) "Occam's Razor," the physicians are unable to explain all of a patient's symptoms with one disease, so House suggests that there are two illnesses present. His team is not buying it.

Foreman: Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation is always the best.

House: And you think one is simpler than two.

Cameron: Pretty sure it is, yeah.

House: Baby shows up. Chase tells you that two people exchanged fluids to create this being. I tell you that one stork dropped the little tyke off in a diaper. You going to go with the two or the one?

Foreman: I think your argument is specious.

House: I think your tie is ugly.

Leaving aside House's maturity issues, he is making a point about Dr. Foreman's misunderstanding of the 'ol razor. And that brings us, naturally, to Asimov's elephant.

Isaac Asimov was, of course, a great science fiction writer. He also wrote devilishly clever mystery stories, and was a brilliant explainer of science. One of his contributions was the concept of unexplaining. He said that pseudoscience typically unexplained more than it explained. Consider his little parable:

Imagine you are strolling through a park and see a tall tree split right down the middle. Cut asunder. You begin to seek an explanation.

So you could say: there was this elephant, flying through the sky, whistling a happy tune. It decides to have a little rest and lands SHEBANG! onto the poor tree, which breaks in two. The elephant falls to the ground, swears 'Oy vay!' and flies off again.

Now that is one explanation of why the tree is broken. Trouble is it unexplains everything you previously thought you knew about elephants. So, instead, using Ockham's Razor, you say simply, the tree was hit by lightning!*

I love that 'Oy vay!' Clearly a Jewish elephant.  Of course, Asimov has pointed out the problem with Dr. House's obstetrical stork.

So one issue about the razor is that people will disagree as to which explanation is simpler, and what 
is left unexplained. Therefore I am going to end with my favorite quotation from the philosopher 
Ludwig Wittgenstein. (And by the way, Ludwig was a huge fan of crime fiction; not the logic puzzles of the golden age, but the messy thinking of hardboiled tales.)

Supposedly he asked a friend: "Why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the Sun went round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?"

"Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going around the Earth."

"Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?"

*I found this parable in Asimov's Elephant, edited by Robyn Williams. It is a collection of essays from an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio program called, yup, Ockham's Razor.

01 May 2018

The Buddy System


Over the course of a writing career, we develop business relationships, gain acquaintances, make friends, and acquire critique partners, but how often do we find that one writer who becomes our writing buddy?

If I attempted to list all the writers I consider friends, I fear I would fail to mention someone, so forgive me in advance for naming only a few writers whose friendships have colored my writing career before I describe what qualities define the writing buddy relationship and introduce my writing buddy.

BEST FRIEND

Joe Walter was my first writer friend. By no coincidence, Joe was also my best friend in high school. We enjoyed reading science fiction, dreamed of careers as science fiction writers, and co-founded a science fiction fanzine when we were high school juniors as a way to see our stories in print.

We read and critiqued each other’s work, collaborated on a few projects, and goaded each other into submitting our stories to the professional science fiction and fantasy publications of the day. Joe broke through first, selling a story to Vertex. Unfortunately, Vertex ceased publication before ever publishing Joe’s story.

We lost contact after high school, reconnected briefly several years ago, and then lost contact again. To the best of my knowledge, Joe never pursued a writing career beyond high school.

WRITER FRIENDS

Knights, the science fiction fanzine Joe and I co-founded, brought me into contact with real writers, several of whom wrote articles and letters of comment for Knights once it outgrew its earliest incarnation as a place for Joe and me to publish our short stories. Three of those writers—Charles L. Grant, Thomas F. Monteleone, and Grant Carrington—became columnists and, by extension, writer friends. In a variety of ways, both implicit and explicit, they taught me what it means to be a writer.

All three read some of my work and gave me feedback. Charlie published one of my stories in his anthology Midnight; Tom rejected a story for an early edition of his Borderlands anthology series, but provided feedback that helped me place the story elsewhere; and Grant actually read and provided feedback on one of my earliest novel attempts. More than that, though, they demonstrated, through their generosity of time and by example, how writers pay it forward.

Our lives and careers took us in different directions following the demise of Knights, in part because Charlie, Tom, and Grant were well into their careers, while I was in the early stage of mine and did not understand the value of maintaining relationships with other writers.

Charlie has since passed away; Tom and I are Facebook friends; and Grant spent an evening with Temple and me a few years ago when he was passing through Central Texas on a multi-state road trip.

As the years passed, other writing acquaintances and friendships developed—some were short-term, some have lasted years, and the length of a few friendships can be measured in decades.

WRITING BUDDY

Laird Long
Finding a writing buddy, though, was like learning the secret handshake that we all deny exists. The relationship provides a second line of access into the world of publishing and a second perspective about the writing life from someone traveling the same writing path.

A writing buddy is not a business acquaintance, a friend, or a critique partner, though the relationship may develop from such inauspicious beginnings.

A writing buddy is a writer with whom you share inside information, complain about low pay and long response times, celebrate each other’s successes, and commiserate about each other’s failures. You write in the same genre or genres, place work in many of the same publications, and owe more than one sale to a tip provided by the other. You don’t read one another’s work until it is in print because neither of you needs the other’s approval nor wants the other’s writing advice. Perhaps most importantly, you know each other’s closely guarded pseudonyms.

My writing buddy is Laird Long, a Canadian writer half a dozen years younger than me.

Mystery readers may recognize Laird’s name from stories in Cricket Magazine, The Forensic Examiner, Mystery Weekly, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Woman’s World, and various anthologies. (And look for one of his stories in an upcoming issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine.)

Unlike some of us who tout our productivity through websites, blogs, Facebook posts, and Twitter tweets, Laird avoids the limelight, preferring to let his work stand on its own, and he makes those of us who think we’re prolific look like slackers. Since his first short story sale—“Dirty Work” (Blue Murder #19, Summer 2001)—Laird has sold more than 1,700 short stories, and for more than 16 years he’s supported himself primarily by writing short fiction. He supplements his short story income by writing greeting cards, and in 2013, PageTurnerEditions released his only novel to date, No Accounting for Danger.

Laird and I have never met and have never spoken. In the early 2000s, we encountered one another through posts on the Short Mystery Fiction Society Yahoo group, and in 2005 he contributed a story to one of three anthologies I edited that never reached publication.

Though our initial contact was via the Short Mystery Fiction Society, our relationship developed and is maintained entirely via email. Rarely does more than a week pass without contact, and some days we exchange several emails. Our discussions are rarely about writing, but often about the business of writing—who’s buying, what they’re buying, what they’re paying; which publishers pay promptly, which ones have started dragging payments, and which ones have stopped paying; which anthologies and publications are open to submissions only to those in the know and how to become a writer in the know.

I’m not certain how or when our relationship morphed from writing friends to writing buddies, but it came with the dawning realization that our writing paths are similar, our writing goals are similar, our willingness to explore a diversity of genres is similar, and that while neither needs the other, we benefit in ways that we do in no other writing relationship.

While trying to explain the nature of this relationship to my wife Temple, she wondered if other writers have writing buddies. I felt certain they must—though they may have different terms for the relationship—but as I pondered her question during the following days, I began to doubt my conclusion.

A writing buddy is a rare gift, something found rather than something sought, and it transcends all other writing relationships. I don’t write better because of my relationship with Laird, but I’m a better writer because of it.

WRITING COMMUNITY

Whether we touch base once a week or once a year, I cherish all my writing friendships. We swap emails, connect via Facebook and Twitter, respond to one another’s blog posts, hang out together at conferences and conventions, and sometimes even visit one another’s homes. Though the act of writing is often a solitary event, the writing community will embrace us if we let it.

So, cherish your writing friends, and if you’re lucky enough to have a writing buddy, realize that you’ve received a gift. Don’t squander it.

Speaking of writing friends: Fellow SleuthSayer and long-time writing friend John M. Floyd and I will be among the speakers and workshop leaders at A Bridge to Publication, a one-day writing conference October 13, 2018, in Lake Charles, LA.

In other news, my alternative history mystery story “Harlot Road” appears in Weirdbook #38.

30 April 2018

Smile and Be a Villain


By sad coincidence, two of our cats died several years apart on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday. Last week, the Bard turned 454 (I didn't send a card) and his plays still merit constant performances the world over. Shakespeare thought he would be remembered for his poems (except for the sonnets, only slightly better than John Dillinger's) and retired at age 47 a relatively wealthy man, especially for a writer.
It's easy to talk about his brilliant images and use of symbols and all that high-school-worksheet stuff, but his plays would live on anyway because he wrote brilliant conflicted characters, especially his villains. He constantly reminds us that everyone needs a goal or motive, especially the bad guys. They aren't just "bad by nature"--although Don John claims that he is in Much Ado About Nothing.

In King Lear, Edmund tells us he's standing up for bastards,
but he's jealous because his little brother Edgar, born of married parents, will inherit Gloucester's estate even though he's younger than Edmund. Jealously and sibling rivalry are powerful forces. Look at the women in the same play: Goneril and Regan want their father Lear's estate, but the younger Cordelia is daddy's favorite...until she can't flatter him enough and he kicks her out with the tragically incorrect proclamation that nothing will come of nothing. Actually, it will lead to at least eight deaths.

The older sibs in both families are monsters, but we understand why they lie, stab servants, commit adultery, scheme against each other, plan to murder their spouses, and tear out Gloucester's eyes. The sins of the fathers live on in the children. Lear may be my favorite Shakespearean play and I'd love to direct it if I thought I could find fourteen strong actors in community theater. Unfortunately, age is a factor for at least three men, and the women are stuck as Goody Two-Shoes and the Bitches, a darker version of Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Macbeth is the only other Shakespeare play still on my directing bucket list (I've directed six)--if I could find an appropriate time period that hasn't been recycled into cliche and decide how to present the witches (I've considered young, nubile, scantily clad and dimly lit because they personify temptation, Macbeth's loss of innocence). Macbeth is a war hero who goes to hell in blank verse because those bearded sisters offer him a tempting look at the future and he makes the mistake of telling his wife. His fall gives us two of my favorite monologues, the "If 'twere done when 'tis done" speech as he contemplates murdering Duncan and the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" tour de force while the walls buckle around him. That speech also gives us "it is a tale full of sound and fury, told by idiot, signifying nothing."

Lady Macbeth is a difficult role to play (I've seen it done badly more often than not), but the actors or directors miss the point. Lady M is the forerunner of the modern groupie, and power is her aphrodisiac. Listen to the rhythms of her "come you spirits of the night" speech and you'll hear her bare her soul.

Iago feels Othello has unfairly passed him over for promotion, so he vows revenge, always a clear motive. He sizes up Othello as a man who loves his wife so much that he will believe the worst, and turns innuendo into high art when he "suggests" that Desdemona and Cassio are intimate. His attention to a handkerchief makes Professor Moriarty and Snidely Whiplash look like Boy Scouts.

I've played Claudius, the adulterous uncle/step-father in Hamlet. He loves Gertrude so much he kills his own brother to be with her, but his futile prayers ("My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./Words without thought never to heaven go.") show he knows he's still going straight to hell.
Hamlet stabs him with the envenomed epee and pours the poisoned chalice down his throat (talk about overkill) to hasten him on his way. His "Oh, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven" speech is  as powerful as his stepson's monologues, but seldom quoted.

Technically, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice isn't a villain so much as a victim, but he makes his case to Antonio and Bassanio when they "cut" the deal for Antonio's pound of flesh. "You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog, / And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine..."
Rehearsal shot (note unpainted floor) from my 2006 Merchant

They don't write them like that anymore.

'Tis true, 'tis pity, and, pity 'tis, 'tis true.


As a footnote, tonight is Walpurgisnacht, the night the demons walk. It's the night the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream wander in the woods before getting everything sorted out for their weddings along with Theseus on May Day.

And, as BSP, my story "The Girl in the Red Bandanna" appears in the latest issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, along with a story by our late blog partner, B. K. Stevens.

29 April 2018

Informants 201


Never completely trust an informant. Things go wrong.
If you can, verify everything an informant tells you before you act on the information. One, he may be in error. Two, he may be in error on purpose. In the first case, accidents do happen. Periodically, you will hear in the news about some police outfit hitting the wrong residence during a search warrant. If the police are really unlucky that day, someone dies or gets injured during the entry into that wrong address. True, the informant could have transposed a couple of numbers in the address, or maybe he got confused and mentioned the apartment on the wrong side of the hallway. It happens and the news media plays it up. But, the officer obtaining the search warrant should have done his homework better. He should have checked the names and the address to ensure a match.

In the second possibility, the informant may have an agenda you don't know about, in which case you'd best be very careful. And even when an informant and his information check out this time, you should stay aware for the future, because the future can quickly become flexible.

"Herbie" was a hard core street dude. he came over to our outfit as someone else's informant and anyone in the group could use him. One night, he introduced me undercover to a heroin dealer and I bought a spoon of smack. In those days, dealers would sometimes measure their coke and smack with a spoon from their silverware drawer. Depending upon its size, the drug weight could range from 1/6th of an ounce to 1/2 an ounce. Of course, while they're sitting on their front porch watching traffic and waiting for the next customer, they would get bored and start whetting the top edges of the spoon on their cement porch. As time went by, the volume measured became smaller, but the price always stayed the same. Anyway, by the time we arrested the dealer and his trial came up, Herbie had already been arrested for killing a guy and was facing the death sentence. When he found out we couldn't do anything for him on the death part, his story in court changed to one of entrapment. Now, according to Herbie, the man, not a dealer at all, was only handing over a package to me and was doing it for Herbie because Herbie allegedly owed me money and couldn't pay the debt. That was a fun trial, but as it turned out with Herbie, it was either help him or look out.

Informants also have a way of backsliding.

We had a white, 300 pound gang member for a C.I. who was really friendly and fun to be around. You couldn't help liking him. And, he was good at his job as an informant. He made informant buys for us, he introduced me to the bigger suppliers to make large buys, and he worked his way in so he could travel with dealers when they went to their suppliers to re-up their inventory. The guy was a pleasure to work with. And then we found that he was bringing back his own purchases of drugs when he went on these trips, drugs for sale on the local market. So much for trust and good times. In the end, he joined some of the people he'd made cases on who were by then lodged in the grey-bar hotel. Separate institutions of course.

Naturally, there's more than one form of betrayal.

My partner signed up an overweight Hispanic dude as a cooperating individual. His criminal occupation had been as a pharmacy burglar, but no one ever caught him at it. We ran him off and on for about three months, but somehow none of the deals he set up ever went down, so we cut him loose. Two years later, I walk into a different C.I.'s apartment to make a prearranged buy. Who's sitting in the living room with barbiturates (reds) for sale? Right. Our rather large Hispanic who indulged in pharmacy burglaries. He did not appear to recognize me, so with some apprehension on my part, wondering if the light bulb would suddenly come on, I made the buy. As soon  as I got to a radio, I called my partner, filled him in, and mentioned that the guy still had more drugs for sale. my partner met me in the hallway and I took him inside. I introduced my partner undercover to the dealer and my partner then made a buy of other barbiturates (yellows). At the time of trial, the dealer testified he was working for the FBI and was merely trying to find some criminals for them. Oddly enough, no FBI agents showed up to testify on his behalf. This was one of those situations where a bad guy had pretended to be a cooperating individual so he could scope out law enforcement agents and thus avoid them in his future criminal endeavors. Too bad his memory failed. However, had he possessed a firearm and remembered my partner or me, it could have gone badly for us.

I can tell you from several personal experiences, there's nothing like walking into a dealer's house or into a bar to do a deal and then finding a previous informant sitting there. You never really know what's going through his head. Has he gone back into the business? Is he part of this deal? Will he sit there and feign ignorance? Will he walk away? Will he give you up to protect himself? What is he doing here? That's when you split your mind, focus half on the dealer you're negotiating with and half on the potential danger of that previous informant. You just hope the deal goes down quietly and you can walk away without an incident, cuz if things go wrong and you're counting on surveillance to ride to the rescue, you don't have enough minutes on the clock. By the time they get inside, most everything that concerns you has probably already happened.

After enough years of working with various kinds of people, it can cause you to look at your fellow man and woman with a jaundiced eye, even when you're out in the general public. That's one reason why cops like to sit with their back to a wall when out in a public place. It gives you a chance to see what's coming at you, a chance you don't always get when working informants.

Bottom line, CYA as best you can. And, the next time you're sitting in a bar, picture yourself in one of these types of situations. How would you handle it?

In the meantime, ride easy, my friends.

28 April 2018

When is a Mystery not a Mystery?


Homeless. Not me, luckily. I still have four walls and a roof plus dog on the couch. But my kick-ass story, A Ship Called Pandora, that had a wonderful future and clear economic security is now homeless.

The genres are tricky things. If I write a mystery and set it in the past, it’s considered a historical mystery. So, if we are classifying it, we would call it a Mystery first, and then Historical, as a subgenre of mystery genre. Everyone’s happy.

But what if I set it in the future?

This is exactly what has happened to me recently. For the very first time, I was asked to write a crime story for an anthology, without going through the usual submission process. The anthology had the delightful premise: anything goes. That is, I could write any subgenre, and set it anywhere, anytime. *rubs hands in delight*

A particular story had been percolating in my brain for weeks, pounding to get out. My friends and readers know that I like writing from the other side of the crime spectrum. In The Goddaughter series, I write from the point of view of a mob Goddaughter who really doesn’t want to be one, but keeps having to pull off heists to bail out her family. The books are fun, and weirdly, justice is done by the end, regardless of her family connections.

So this new story was going to feature a kick-ass female marshal from the witness protection program. Her job is to arrange the ‘hide’ after someone has testified in court. Thing is, the transportation is by space travel, because the plot is set far in the future.

I sent it to the anthology editors. They loved it. One of my best twists ever, they said. They liked the fact that it was hard-edged – unusual for me. I breathed a sigh of relief. And then two months later, they came back. The publisher was having second thoughts. He thought the science fiction setting would not be a good fit for a mystery anthology. *author reaches for gun*

So they asked if they could reprint one of my award-winning stories instead. I gave them a favourite (Hook, Line and Sinker) that was also hard-edged. This is the one that had me sharing a literary shortlist with Margaret Atwood (Atwood won.) It would have a second life, which is always nice.
Meanwhile, I had this story on my hands, one that everyone loved, written especially for an anthology, that was now homeless. *pass the scotch*

This was the time of Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto. I was hanging with the AHMM gang, who were recording me reading my own work, Santa Baby, for a podcast to go up on their site. (It’s there now *does happy dance*) So I asked if they would be interested in reading it.

Sure, was the answer. Sometimes they publish stories set in the near future. I didn’t think this one would qualify. I was right.

They didn’t take it. But they did suggest sending it to their sister Dell mag, Asimov’s Science Fiction Mag.  I might. But I'd rather have a mystery market.

My point is this: Usually, we classify a story as a mystery if the plot is a mystery. The setting comes second. A historical mystery is still classified as a mystery. A mystery with a strong romance element is still a mystery if the plot is a mystery plot. But in the case of a future setting, it doesn’t matter what the plot is. The setting is key to the classification.

I probed a bit among my author contacts. One said that he had written a series billed as sci-fi mystery, and this was his baffling and witty conclusion: he managed to alienate the mystery readers, and confuse the sci-fi readers. Sales were a lot better when they reclassified the thing as sci-fi only

So to answer that initial question: When Is a Mystery not a Mystery? When it’s set in the future.

What about you? Have you come across this before? Any suggestions?

UPDATE:   The intrepid editors at Mystery Weekly Magazine say they love A Ship Called Pandora.  It comes out soon. 

CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
on AMAZON


Here's another fun scifi crossgenre book: CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
It isn't easy being a female barkeep in the final frontier… especially when you're also a spy!
(Good thing I had a traditional publisher for this one. Because I have NO IDEA where to promote this.)

27 April 2018

Revise, Revise!


by Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck



Last night I attended a reading at the local Red Eye Cafe in Montclair, organized by Apryl Lee of Halfway There NJ. Poet Traci Brimhall, novelist Joan Silber, and short story writer Kem Joy Ukwu read from their latest works, and it was a good evening, except for when this old professorial dude accidentally spilled his hot coffee on me and Watchung Booksellers' stash of books for sale, because he was too stubborn to use the coat rack. I've hosted and read at dozens of Noir at the Bar events full of liquored-up writers and readers and never had a drink spilled on me, or thrown at me, even when I read "that gun story" in D.C. (it's called "Gunplay", and satirizes the American love affair with firearms, and you can read it in Life During Wartime).

So, coffee shops are more dangerous for writers than bars. I'd write at McSorley's every night if I could. Only thing in danger would be my liver, and perhaps my skill at revisions.

At the Q&A after the readings, one of the audience asked about when the writers knew when they were done revising, and if they still wrestled with doubt. And of course they wrestled with doubt. Silber said that doubt was a good sign, when you are cocksure about your work, it is usually a sign that you haven't revised it with a critical eye. Or as Joyce Carol Oates might say, you aren't writing daring enough, if you aren't concerned about how it will be received. The newer writers, Brimhall and Ukwu, both admitted that they could revise until the end of time, and even confessed to editing as they read their stories aloud!

And yes, I've done that as well. Revised on the fly when a line didn't parse well. And that's after giving it a read at home before an event, and editing with a pencil to make the words flow better. We're always trying to improve our work. Writers are much more likely to pick up an old story and grimace than marvel at its genius, though sometimes you do get a surprise and think, "I wrote that?Damn. Not bad." I'm relatively young and have only been writing regularly for about eight years--I wrote from adolescence until a few years after college, then stopped until 2010--so my experience is limited. While my voices have changed little--I have a couple of them--I'm happy to say that I have improved somewhat, and learned a lot from listening to other writers, editors, readers, and copy-editors.

That's an important lesson. If you think of editors as your enemy, you're going to have a rough time. I was privileged and fortunate to make friends with some solid editors who helped me with my earliest stories. And some of my latest. Matt Funk was one of them, he helped me with edits on "Gumbo Weather," which made it into Bouchercon's Blood on the Bayou anthology. Jimmy Callaway helped with "Lefty." Holly West, Lynn Beighley, and Elizabeth Kracht all helped with Bad Boy Boogie and then Chris Rhatigan edited it again after Down & Out Books accepted it. It ends when you have the best possible story within whatever constraints of time are set. Which is one reason that some writers only finish a book every seven or twenty years. Everyone works differently. Walter Mosley and Johnny Shaw both admit to dozens of drafts, and Mosley is prolific as hell. He just puts the time in until the book is what he wants it to be.

But how do you get better at revising your own work? I can't answer that for you. I can only say what helped me. I'm still learning. But an easy one is read your work aloud. You don't need an audience. You'll find the clumsy sentences and superfluous lines. Typos pop out, too (best way to catch all those "from" / "form" mishaps and the like). And your inordinate fondness for annoying dialogue tags, using the same word multiple times per paragraph until it seems like a fetish... those are easily corrected. You'll learn just how often your characters grin, nod, snort, shrug, and communicate with their eyebrows like they are conducting an orchestra using only their foreheads.

The other "trick" that I've found applies to me is "start with chapter three." In my case, it is often "start with act 2." In a first draft, I start too early. You want to start as late as you can with as little backstory as possible, and salt that in later if it's absolutely necessary. Even in a literary story, if you want to write about how someone's childhood makes them freak out at the car dealership when the salesperson pulls the old undercoat scam, you don't start with when her mother was teaching her to drive, and when she swerved to avoid a deer, mom stomped so hard on the rusty passenger floor well that her foot went through and broke her ankle. You start at the dealership, among the cars, peering under the frame and saying she dropped her phone when the pushy salesman asks why she's on the pavement.

There was a lot less action in the beginning of the previous draft of Bad Boy Boogie. It always began with him walking out of prison, but the hired muscle didn't show up until Act 2. I wanted Jay to "avoid the call" like in a James Campbell myth, but that didn't fit. He had to want something, and feel wronged. That's why we commit violence, after all. So he immediately heads to Tony's--after some Rutt's Hut hot dogs, to sate the appetite he built up clobbering the operators--and demands his birthright, the Hammerhead, the '71 Challenger they worked on in high school. And we not only see that he is dangerous as hell, taking out two armed veterans, but that no matter how much he hates bullies, he can be a bit of one himself, which sets up the internal struggle of the novel versus the external one, which is do right by me.

That's a lot to keep in your head at one time. I joked online when a writer complained about how hard it was to keep all the structure of a novel in his head: That's why we write them down.

It's true. Homer may have been able to recite The Odyssey at will, but ask a writer what she did to the protagonist in her third novel and she may look like a deer in the headlights. (Yes, the same deer that she almost hit on her first driving lesson, above). I make extensive use of temporary, very descriptive chapter headings, and occasional Post-It note outlines on a big piece of foam board, to keep track. I am very thankful that Scrivener has a strong search function that highlights all the chapters with a character's name, or how many times Jay calls someone "shitbird". It really helps. But you don't need a laptop or apps to write. Pen and paper still works, and you can write little 3"x5" cards with notes, tag pages with different color Post-Its, or simply scribble in the margins for notes. I know one writer with a couple novels published and dozens of stories, all written on his iPhone during breaks from work. Many writers swear by writing in longhand and editing as they type it up. You need to find what works for you. George Pelecanos writes for four hours in the morning and edits what he wrote every night. Others write at night, sleep on it, and edit it in the morning before they plunge on to the next chapters.

But how do you know what needs revision?

Well, that's a skill you pick up by reading. I mentioned the editors who sent me great notes. Those stick with you. If you find yourself critical of stories and books that you read, you have to learn to turn that eye on yourself, Dr. Lecter. It's difficult to be objective about your own work, but the usual advice is to sit on a story for a month or two, until you have the proper perspective. Meaning you look at it like something other than "the greatest story I have ever written or that can ever be written, that will make me rich enough to hire James Patterson to write for me."

Because that can be a thing. Enthusiasm is great, it can be infectious. Sometimes you need it to blast out a certain story. One that I wrote for Holly West's upcoming Go-Go's themed anthology is from the perspective of a sixteen year old high school girl, and I wrote it not long after four high school graduates crashed at our apartment. I remembered how they interacted, some of the slang they used, what they talked about. I wrote that story mostly in a hotel room in New Orleans with the flu, instead of going to a wedding. Fireworks were going off over the Mississippi for the city's 300th anniversary celebration, I was learning that even room service food in New Orleans is better than most food anywhere else, and I had the idea for my story, so I stayed up chugging Mucinex and taking Tamiflu and made the best of Flu Orleans.

And I edited the hell out of it later when I got home and wasn't sick. It was pretty clean, but I made it less confusing, cut out the tangents, and tightened up the jokes. Holly loved it. And I am grateful. A tougher edit was for a story for Down & Out Magazine, edited by Rick Ollerman. He is a tough editor, but he knows how to write a damn good story, and how to improve yours. I wanted to write something original for the first issue of Down & Out, because I was excited. But I was also in the middle of a novel. I had an idea I'd been kicking around that was for a flash story, and figured I could stretch it out. I didn't edit it as strongly as I should have, and Rick made that clear. He caught a bunch of sloppy writing and helped me clean it up. Now it's one of my favorite stories, and we got a lot of great feedback about it when the magazine dropped. And I have some even better news that I will save for later, but Rick helped make that one striking story.

It can be tougher when you get rejections and don't know why. But that's another story. If you can be professional and polite, you can always ask. But be warned, editors are used to getting hate mail for rejections, so mind your tone. I wouldn't ask unless it gets rejected by multiple markets, or the market you are sure is perfect for it--because you read every issue, don't you?--because sometimes the answer is "it just didn't grab me." A good story won't sell everywhere. The flip side to editing is the old "writer's curse." When you can't read for pleasure because you find yourself picking the book apart. I find most of that to be personal, projecting your own anger at the tough work of editing your own writing onto others. "This book isn't that great! I would've done this! and they overuse the word 'murmur'!" Sure, it may have been improved by another edit, and I've read plenty of published novels that would have, but sometimes you have to understand that it's the best book they could come up with, and forgive their trespasses. And your own. Writing is a skill and an art. You may have natural artistic ability, but skills are improved upon with hard work and experience. Which means failing sometimes. And it happens to all of us.


26 April 2018

April Miscellaney


Between April 14th and April 18th we got 22-24" of snow.  This led to a lot of eating, drinking, and calling April a drunk who wouldn't go home.  But now it's almost 70 degrees, and 99% of the snow has melted, and people are back out in t-shirts and shorts, and if you think we're all back in a good, trusting relationship with April you're crazy.  We're just humoring her until May gets here...

It did give me plenty of time to catch up on the news:

Don't you wish these baboons succeeded in their escape from a bio-medical research facility?  They baboons moved a large barrel, climbed over a wall, and ran for it:  (See  Baboon Escape).   Apparently, the facility has been cited "multiple times for animal welfare-related issues, including some deaths".   

Calling Caesar - it's time to show up and rescue.

Caesar, with a rifle and Nova behind his back, on a horse with the film's logo and "Witness the End July 14" at the bottom.And, while he's at it, if he'd take care of Mr. Slager, who is horrified to find out that he's in the middle of the first case of someone testifying at their own murder trial, in which a Woman Burned to Death.  (Well, not quite - there's a Renaissance Italian lady who did, but that's another story, for next time).  Anyway, Mr. Slager and his girlfriend, Judy Malinowski, were arguing on Aug. 2, 2015, when he doused her with gasoline and set her on fire outside a gas station in Gahanna, a suburb of Columbus. “I never knew that a human being could be so evil,” Malinowski said in a videotaped interview on her deathbed. “He just stood there and did nothing. God, please, please help me.”   I hope they hang the bastard. 

Domestic terrorists went on trial in the town of Liberal (you can't make this stuff up), Kansas, before an all-white jury.  The 3 militia members plotted to detonate a bomb at a housing complex in western Kansas where Somali immigrants lived and worshiped.  The men stockpiled guns and composed a manifesto about their anti-Muslim motives.  “Their rhetoric and their speech have revealed a hatred for Muslims, Somalis and immigrants,” an FBI agent wrote in affidavit related to the case, and that is an understatement, to put it mildly:  you can read some of it at the Huffpost Article here:  Domestic Terrorism.  None of it is fit to print.  Thank God, they were convicted.

The tragic part, the absolutely totally completely EFF-ED UP part of it is that they got all their ideas from conservative news:  Ben Carson, HUD Secretary, raving on Breitbart about "civilizational jihad"; Fox News' Monica Crowley raving about the same on The Washington Times; Ben Shapiro, Frank Gaffney, and John Bolton all have spread at least some of what got these men to decide that they had to blow up every Somali in sight.  (See Charles Pierce for further links here:  Right Wing Paranoia.)  And that's without going to the kool-ade crazy Alex Jones...

But there is good news:  The New York Times reported that on April 18, 1930, the BBC's evening bulletin was surprisingly brief: “Good evening. Today is Good Friday. There is no news,” and followed it up by 15 minutes of piano music.  (I'd wax nostalgic and all that, but I know what came next.)

No news was NOT the case for the United States on that date:

The BBC may have had no news on April 18, 1930, but The New York Times did.

Once the snow was melted enough to get out of the driveway, we took a few days off from the daily grind and spent the weekend visiting the kids and grandkids in Colorado.  We also left behind our cell phones, and totally ignored the news, on or off the internet.  It was great.  We played endless games of "Settlers of Catan", and I only won twice.  We went for walks.  We ate a lot.  We saw the sights.  And we talked, talked, talked, talked, talked.

That's what an early spring vacation, or a long summer vacation should be.  That's the way it was when I was kid, when we played Canasta, Sorry, Chinese Checkers, and Gin whenever it rained or got too dark to run around capturing fireflies in glass jars.  Even back then the news loomed large and seemed dangerous, but it faded over a couple of days, and we had time again to talk and run around getting mosquito bites and grass stains everywhere, and then back for more lemonade and beer (for the adults, of course) and more talk.

Very relaxing.  Days where nothing much happens, except you're there, together.

And now we're back, and I've caught up on the news.  Most of it is the same old wars and rumors of war garbage we've been dealing with since Cain decided that Abel was dissing him and his vegetables.  But there's also the shining moments:

Image result for duchess of cambridge

The Duchess of Cambridge had her baby boy.   Most of my friends are amazed that she walked out of the hospital 6 hours later in high heels and a dress, but apparently an entire team of hairdressers, make-up artists, and a maid were there to make her look good, and I suspect drugs to give her the ability to walk while feeling that most of her is inside out.  And I'll bet - and I don't blame her a bit - that she went home, handed baby to a nanny and had a stiff drink in bed.   

There's a great article on the NYTimes about "The Synchronized Swimming of Sea Monkeys". The video of them is absolutely hypnotic, but then my husband always dreads it when we go to the zoo in Omaha and I stand in front of the transparent jellyfish exhibit and watch them floating, up and down and up and down and up and...

And, from the NYTimes, this man saved God only knows how many lives at a Waffle House in Nashville, TN, from yet another mass shooter with an AR-15.

James Shaw, Jr., 29 year old electrician, saw the shooter, scuffled with him, and grabbed the rifle, and hurled it over a countertop.  He was grazed with a bullet, and the barrel was hot, and it burned his hand, which is why it's bandaged in the photo.

In classic asshole style, the shooter cussed him out.

Mr. Shaw:  “He was mad at me.  I was just trying to live. I wasn’t trying to get no money from him, I wasn’t trying to do anything from his standpoint. I just wanted to live, and he was, like, astonished, that I wanted to live.”

Typical:  the shooter couldn't understand why his victims wanted to (or should) live.

Wonderful:  Mr. Shaw was there to stop him.  God blessings, and a speedy recovery!  I hope you get all the electrician work you can handle in Nashville, and may you be blessed in your children and grandchildren forever.

Meanwhile, for those of you who are still tense, jellyfish.














25 April 2018

Trouble (Ben Affleck's "The Town")


In between his two Dennis Lehane adapations, Ben Affleck made a picture called The Town, which feels like a Lehane story, but it's based on a book by Chuck Hogan, yet another Boston guy.

I admit I've never been a big Ben Affleck fan. I liked him in support, Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love, didn't like him in leads, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor. (Reindeer Games is Frankenheimer's last feature, so I'd overlook Troy Donahue if he were in it.) But then he surprised me as a director, with Gone Baby Gone. Very solid picture. Lehane was well served the first two times around, with Mystic River and Gone Baby. He wasn't third time lucky: Live by Night went flat. I think Ben Affleck miscast his own film. He wears the clothes beautifully, the drape's to die for, but his character's an empty suit. And after Brendan Gleeson exits the first act, the pacing limps to the finish line in cinderblock shoes.


So, that being said, I didn't have the highest expectations going in, but The Town is a knock-out. It begins with a bank job in Harvard Square, which is my old stomping ground (Ben Affleck was raised in Cambridge), and that got it on my good side. Speaking as a local boy, too, there's an interesting visual consistency in the movie, not strictly necessary, but reassuring - they'll use an establishing aerial shot, and then drop into the neighborhood, and they match. This isn't always the case, and it's obvious that Ben the Director, as distinct from Ben the Actor, is going the extra distance. Fenway Park from a chopper, Fenway Park backstage, under the stands. Bunker Hill Monument? On the ground, the streets around Monument Square. From above, the Old North Church. The chase after the armored car robbery is in the North End. They don't fake it. They don't fake it when they could, when most people wouldn't know the difference between Coolidge Corner and Savin Hill. It shows a genuine appreciation for the right landscape.



There's a vocal landscape they get right, as well, the cadences. And easy to get wrong. It's not just Ben Affleck, who slides familiarly into the voice, but Jeremy Renner and Blake Lively, not a Valley Girl locution between them. Not that she gets a lot to do, but she does a lot with what she gets. Renner seems to do even less, with more. It's not the accent, quite, as much as it is usage and speech patterns, the mouth feel of the language. He's got the St. Vitus Dance, ants in his pants, a delivery that's one step behind, as if he's puzzling out his own train of thought. He stretches his hesitations and clips his words short, the silences are eloquent and threatening.



Speaking of Jeremy Renner, the two serious relationships in the picture are between Renner's Gem and Affleck's Doug, and between Doug and Rebecca Hall's Claire. Gem is a silent partner in Doug and Claire's relationship, besides, not that she knows about it, because if there's the slightest chance of Claire ratting out their crew, Gem will cap her without a second thought.



Which brings us to what Jon Hamm's FBI guy calls, "Your fuckin' Irish omerta." The Town is a heist picture, and the town in question isn't Boston at large, but Boston in small, specifically Bunker Hill, Charlestown. It's a movie about clannishness, about class loyalties, about family in the larger sense, of immersion, of race memory. It's specific about place, and place experienced as density. A sudden phrase beings it back, a sharp smell, a retinal afterimage. The place of heart's desiring. The fact that these guys are a criminal family, a crew, a marriage of convenience, misses the point. This is the air they breathe. This is what they know. This isn't something you can change out of, like a pair of pants.

The robberies themselves are set pieces, kinetic and tense, adrenaline and endorphins, wound up tight. The personal scenes have a dark energy, what's said, what's held back, a dangerous edge. Here's a for instance.
Doug goes to see Gem. "I need your help. I can't tell you what it is. We're gonna hurt some people."
Gem waits a beat, looks up. "Whose car we gonna take?"

Ray LaMontagne's Jolene plays over the final credits. It's a killer.
  Held you in my arms one time
  Lost you just the same

24 April 2018

When an Amateur Writes a Police Procedural


I'm not a sheriff, and I've never played one on TV. So when it came to writing mystery short stories, for a long time I avoided writing police procedurals. There were too many ways I could screw things up. Too many important details I'd need to research, and more important, things I might not even realize I was getting wrong. And that's still the case today.
But a few years ago, I heard a fictional sheriff talking to me in my head. So, with misgivings, I started writing her story. To try to ensure I didn't make any mistakes, I imposed some rules on myself. The most important: the story had to be solved quickly through interviews and observation, not using blood work or DNA or other modern investigative methods with which I could easily make mistakes. In this way, my sheriff would operate kind of like an amateur sleuth, relying on her wits, but with the benefit of knowledge the sheriff would have and the power of her badge to induce folks to speak with her and to get warrants when needed.

This approach worked well and resulted in my first story about Sheriff Ellen Wescott. "Suffer the Little Children" was published in 2013 in my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even. I've now brought Sheriff Wescott back for a second case in "Till Murder Do Us Part," which was recently published by Wildside Press in the new anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies.

In this new story, a man who runs a business putting on weddings in a converted barn on his farm is murdered. The body is discovered on a Sunday morning. The day is important. I didn't want to have to deal with the sheriff getting phone records and other CSI-type evidence to help solve the case. While a judge's warrant could be secured on the weekend, I figured it would be harder to get a phone company to act quickly on a Sunday. I also wanted all the characters I needed to be believably and easily available. On a weekday, some of them would be at work, but on a Sunday, it would be much easier for them to gather.

So my story is set on a Sunday, and my sheriff and her deputy--through interviews and investigation of items found at the crime scene--try to piece together what happened. That's the basics. I don't want to reveal any more for fear I'll give away too much, but I will address one point: Does this tale sound a little dry to you? It does to me, just explaining it. I don't like dry stories. I like to introduce pathos or fun (maybe both) into my stories to make the reader want to turn the pages. So it helps that law enforcement officers often enjoy black humor, as I do.

That's where the cows come in. You see, every story in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies involves crime and critters. We have several stories involving dogs. They were the most popular animal in the submitted stories and in those accepted. But we also have animal diversity. We have stories with crows, cows, crickets, and cats; rabbits, ferrets, an octopus, and rats. And fish. Mustn’t forget the fish. My story is the one with the cows.

As I said above, "Till Murder Do Us Part" involves murder in farm country. It also takes place during the worst heat wave since the state began keeping records. What happens when it's really hot and there are cows around? Yep, they explode. Or they can. But don't worry. I don't just use the cows for black humor. They play a role in the plot. I won't say more because I don't want to give things away, but I will add with delight that New York Times bestselling author Chris Grabenstein--who kindly wrote the introduction to the book--called my story "extremely clever," and I think it's because of how I used the cows.

To read my new story, and the twelve other great stories in the book, pick up a copy of Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies. It's available in trade paperback or e-format directly from the publisher by clicking here or through Amazon or independent bookstores.

If you'll be at the Malice Domestic mystery convention later this week, the book will be available in the book room. In fact, most of the authors with stories in the book will be at the Wildside Press table in the convention's book room at 3:30 p.m. this Saturday to sign books. And if you'll be in the Washington, DC, area on Sunday, May 20th, please come to our launch party from 2 - 4 p.m. at the Central Library in Arlington, Virginia. But you don't have to wait until then to get some goodies. If you see me at Malice, ask me about my cow tails. I might just have some candy on hand for you.

And speaking of Malice Domestic, let me get in one last plug for the five short stories nominated for this year's Agatha Award. I'm honored to have my story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet up for the award. You can read it here. The other finalists include my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, who is always stiff competition, and three other authors I'm proud to call my friends: Gretchen Archer, Debra H. Goldstein, and Gigi Pandian. You can read all their nominated stories here through the Malice Domestic website. Just scroll down to their story titles. Each one is a link. You may not be able to get a lot of reading done before the voting deadline this Saturday, but I hope you can read all the short stories.

I'm looking forward to seeing many of you writers and readers at the convention, which starts in just two days. Malice or bust! But in the meanwhile, getting back to police procedurals, I'd love to hear about your favorite authors writing police procedurals today, especially ones who don't have law-enforcement background but still get the details right. Please share in the comments.

23 April 2018

Living on the Wild Side:
Or, How to Create a Believable Villain


I met Charles Salzberg last October when we were on a panel at Bouchercon in Toronto.

Charles is the author of the Shamus nominated Swann's Last Song, as well as Swann Dives In, Swann's Lake of Despair and Swann's Way Out. His Devil in the Hole, was named one of the best crime novels of 2013 by Suspense magazine. His novella, "Twist of Fate," is included in Triple Shot, a collection of three crime novellas, and his novel, Second Story Man, was published in March by Down and Out Books. He teaches writing for the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a Founding Member and he is on the board of MWA-NY. He also has my undying envy because he co-wrote Soupy Sez: My Zany Life and Times, the memoir of the late great Soupy Sales.

Usually when I invite a guest to write for us I give the following example: "Don't write 'Buy my wonderful book.' Write 'How do you make a convincing villain? In my new book…'" When I read the terrific piece below I was afraid Charles had taken my example as a command, but he assured me it was what he wanted to write about anyway.

— Robert Lopresti

by Charles Salzberg

I’ve spent most of my life trying to stay out of trouble. As a kid, I left that to my brother, who spent a good part of his life in the principal’s office. Periodically, my mother would be called into school and presented with a list of my brother’s wrongdoings. Nothing serious, you understand. Just enough to get under the teacher’s skin.

Me, I coasted through under the radar. I was the good one. The one who never got into trouble. The one who spent his time trying to please adults. Obeying the all the rules. Speaking only when spoken to. Keeping my nose clean. Yeah, that was me.

On the social scene, I was a dud. It was the “bad boys” who got the attention, especially from the girls. The only thing that prevented me from disappearing completely into the woodwork was that I was good at sports.

I always wondered what it would be like to be one of the bad boys. You know the type. James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Marlon Brando in The Wild One, who when asked, “What are you rebelling against,” answered, “What’ve you got?” Paul Newman in Hud. Sean Penn in just about anything.

Trouble was, I didn’t think I’d ever find out, because that obey the rules thing seemed to be branded into my DNA. I couldn’t be bad, even if I wanted to.

But, as it turns out, I was wrong. I can be bad. All I need is someone else’s name and a blank sheet of paper.

That’s probably why I take so much glee in writing villains. But anyone who’s tried, knows it isn’t easy. What I mean is, anyone can write a villain, but to write a good one, one that isn’t the stereotypical bad actor, like Hannibal Lector, for instance, one that jumps off the page and haunts your dreams, takes skill.

You’d think it would be difficult for someone who was the “good boy,” all his life. But it’s not. In fact, it comes surprisingly easy and, I should be ashamed to say this but I’m not, it’s fun.

Writing villains isn’t easy. A true villain isn’t just someone who does bad stuff. A true villain, one that stays with the reader, is a complex character and the evil he or she does emanates directly from that character. I’m not talking about the “I’m gonna blow up the world” guy who hates everyone. Or the guy who cheats and steals for personal gain. Or the woman who betrays every man she comes in contact with.

Look, no one gets up in the morning, stretches his or her arms, rubs his or her chin, and says, “You know what? I think I’m going to be a badass today. I’m going to step all over anyone who gets in my way.”

That’s not a villain, that’s a stereotype.

A true villain, or at least a believable villain, thinks he or she is justified in whatever he or she does. It’s more about self-interest, I think. Greed. Selfishness. A blatant disregard for the feelings (and rights) of others because, you’re more important than everyone else.

I like to think I write complex and flawed characters. Probably the baddest character I ever wrote is Francis Hoyt, the master thief of Second Story Man. He’s brilliant, manipulative, athletic, arrogant, and mean. He uses people, then tosses them aside. But he’s got a history and it’s that history that helps explain who he is and why he does what he does. Don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t justify what he does. It explains it. You can tell from the first line of the novel when he utters, “Where’s my fucking money?” Right away, you peg him as a bad guy. He doesn’t say, “You know, you may have forgotten about that money you owe me, and I could sure use it now.” Nope. He says, “Where’s my fucking money?” There’s a threat implied in those four words and from those four words you know he’s not kidding around.

The other two characters in the book, Charlie Floyd and Manny Perez, are far from perfect, but they’re certainly not villains. They, too, are complex human beings capable of doing wrong. But Francis Hoyt, well, he’s in a whole other league. I’m proud of Francis Hoyt and I loved writing him and hearing him speak. But I certainly wouldn’t want to meet him.

And so, finally, after all these years, I’ve managed to be the “bad boy,” even if it is only on the page.