26 July 2018

Nightmen


by Brian Thornton

I used to have a girlfriend who believed in reincarnation.

Neither Hindu nor Buddhist, she was actually "New Age" back before it was a cliche. She practiced astrology (Jungian archetypal astrology, not that parlor trick stuff) and tattooed her sun, moon and star signs over her right kidney.

She also read Tarot, dug crystals, studied gnosticism and read a lot of stuff by Rosicrucian religious scholars.

So she took her "New Agism" seriously.

Now, I've always been very "live and let live" when it comes to spiritual beliefs. I sincerely believe that there are many paths to God/Jesus/Buddha/Muhammad/Shiva/Flying Spaghetti Monster/Head-of-Lettuce-Named-Bob, and am uninterested in proving anyone wrong. In other words, we all have our path to tread.

So I kept an open mind about her New Age beliefs, and after a good six months, had been unmoved by any of them. They didn't work for me, but they seemed to make her happy, so I discussed them with her on a fairly frequent basis. The resulting greater familiarity with this subset of spiritual beliefs only served to harden my indifference.

It couldn't last.

The beginning of the end came one day when she was talking about past life regressions, and how she felt there was untapped value there.

I tried the old riposte: "Everyone I've met who believes they've experienced a past life thinks they were someone famous: a Napoleon or an Eleanor Roosevelt. No one ever seems to think they were Eleanor Roosevelt's tailor, or Napoleon's nightmen."

I mean, come on. I have to use my history degree for something. And if I've learned one thing over a lifetime of studying humanity's shared past, it's that most people who lived on this planet before the mid-20th century likely lived short lives filled with drudgery and misery and unending, back-breaking toil. Usually on farms. And they tended to die mostly from disease, starvation, childbirth, or some frightful combination thereof.

So what are the odds that any single one of us was Julius Caesar or Fu Hao or Madame Curie, assuming there actually is any such thing as reincarnation?

We're all more likely to have been a dung beetle.

But my girlfriend wasn't having any of that. Instead she keyed on: "Nightmen. Sounds mysterious."

"Does it?" I said, amused.

"Edgy," she went one. "Like the name of a rock band."

"Or a group of superheroes," I said helpfully.

"Or a secret society!" she enthused.

"Or a shadowy government agency!"

And from there the conversation veered in another direction. I quickly forgot about it.

Until, that is, a couple of weeks later, when my girlfriend said to me apropos of nothing; "I did a past life regression last night. My mom helped me with it."

Her mom worked "professionally" (Okay, more like "semi-professionally") as an astrologer. Also bear in mind, at this point the internet was still in its infancy. Google hadn't even been invented yet.

When I asked what her past life regression had told her about her previous selves, she said that she'd had glimpses of two distinct lives: as a Japanese fighter pilot in World War II (all she really saw was his moment of death, she said, just pieced it together from the things she saw in her dream state.).

The other, she said, had been that of a "nightman."

I immediately recalled our previous conversation, and was positive she had never heard the phrase "nightman" until she met me. So, trying not to smirk, I said, "Oh? You? A nightman?"

She said yes.

"Never-ending quest for nightsoil, eh?"

She nodded sagely.

"It was a select breed of men who went out at night in search of 'nightsoil.'"

"That's where the name comes from," she said.

"'Nightmen'?"

She nodded again, even more sagely this time.

"We think," I said.

"I know," she said, this time more smugly than sagely.

"What did the nightsoil look like? Smell? I've always been curious," I said. "Did you get a chance to taste it?"

"Looked like verdigris, tasted earthy."

"'Earthy,' huh?" I said. "And that's odd. Nightsoil is almost never green. And you've said nothing about the smell."

"Pungent," she said, smiling. Neither sagacity nor smugness touched this smile. Just pure enjoyment of the experience.

I smiled back, and then agreed that "pungent" was one way of describing the stuff in which nightmen trafficked.

And then I called her on it. I just couldn't help myself.Told her what nightsoil really was, and what nightmen really did. Even sent her to Alta Vista (again, pre-Google!) to confirm it with a highly targeted search.

(For those of you who have not already flipped over to Google to see what the underlying joke is here, you can find out more than you ever really wanted to know about "nightmen" and "nightsoil" here and here.)

She broke up with me on the spot. (As you may be able to grasp, we weren't that serious. It was a long time ago, and we were both very young, terribly callow, and possessed of little of the generosity of spirit that seems to only come in the wake of decades of life lessons. All that said, it was still totally worth it.)

Serves me right for letting the facts get in the way of a good story!

See you in two weeks!

25 July 2018

An Upstart Crow


David Edgerley Gates

Bernard Cornwell's newest book, Fools and Mortals, is a romance about Elizabethan theater, in particular about Shakespeare and the first production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. A lot of Cornwell's books are swashbucklers, the Sharpe novels, the Last Kingdom stories, and this one has its share of derring-do and hair's-breadth escapes, but much of it is theatrical in the literal sense, how a play was staged in 1595, thirty-seventh year of Elizabeth's rule.



Shakespeare isn't uncharted waters. He's had leading parts and cameos before. The yardstick is the Anthony Burgess novel Nothing Like the Sun. Burgess himself calls the period "a word-drunk age," and his novel is a headlong rush of language, told in Shakespeare's own voice, both confident and sharing confidences. (One of my personal favorites is Bitter Applesa novel within a novel, John Crowley's reimagining of that tiger's heart, wrapped in a player's hide, in the first book of his Aegypt quartet, The Solitudes.)


Cornwell gives us a convincing and fully-realized world, the rivalries between the acting companies, the politics of religion, the sexual opportunism, and the internal dynamics of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, onstage and off. In their petty intrigues and their generosity, their authenticity and pretense, a mirror of their betters, and the audience.  Cornwell does his homework, and his careful detail pays off. He always gives it flesh and bone, smoke and odor and tallow. It smells, and not of the lamp.


Which leads to a different question. Using real people in fictions. It's one thing if they're a walk-on (Hitler overheard in the next room, say), and we've likely got more freedom of invention the further off they are from us in history, but whether in the wings or front-and-center, they still have to ring true.

Gore Vidal in Burr, to take an example, confounds our expectations of the Founding Fathers. It's a poisoned-pen letter, but a salutary corrective to the hagiography of Parson Weems. Mary Renault, The Last of the Wine. Socrates is entirely plausible, and no doddering old fart or department store Santa, either. Cecelia Holland. Robert Harris. Philip Kerr. Janice Law's sly mystery series featuring that unapologetic dissolute Francis Bacon. Here lurks a clue, perhaps.


If we don't know for certain what Francis Bacon was doing on a particular Monday morning (although we know he was an air raid warden, during the Blitz), we can make it up. The same goes for Shakespeare or Socrates. Or if we do know, we can fit that into the timeframe and fabric of the story. The trick, it would seem, is putting them in a plausible circumstance. I've used real people, although not in the lead, as a rule. Gen. Leslie Groves has a bit part in "The Navarro Sisters," which is about the Manhattan Project. Owney Madden makes an appearance in a couple of the Mickey Counihan stories, and so does Bumpy Johnson. It's local flavor. I've even hired Elfego Baca as a lawyer, once upon a time, to get a kid off a murder rap in El Paso.

You don't spoil a good story for lack of the facts. Then again, you can't bend the facts to suit yourself. The best case is when you can fill in a few cracks in the existing narrative. There's a famous deleted scene in Ford's movie Young Mr. Lincoln, when Abe Lincoln first rides his mule into Springfield. Another young man steps out of a doorway, onto the plank sidewalk overlooking the street. There's a playbill on the wall next to him, advertising an upcoming theater performance. The two young men make eye contact briefly, and then glance away from each other. The second guy is of course the actor John Wilkes Booth.

*

Best wishes and Godspeed to Art Taylor, who's taking a sabbatical from this forum, picking up the reins of the blogsite First Two Pages, as well as becoming new assistant director of creative writing at George Mason University.  

24 July 2018

Just Like Starting Over


Beginning August 2003 and ending May 2018 I had one or more short stories published each and every month. That’s 14 years and 10 months (178 consecutive months), and I know of no living short story writer who has come close to accomplishing a similar feat. (Edward D. Hoch accomplished something similar—and far more impressive—with a story in every issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine beginning May 1973 and continuing through March/April 2009.)

The streak began with the August 2003 Hustler Fantasies, which contained “Married vs. Single” and “Slice of Heaven,” and ended with the May 2018 publication of the anthology A Wink and a Smile (Smoking Pen Press), which contained my story “Too Close to School.”

During this run, my stories were published in nearly every genre; in anthologies, magazines, and newsletters; electronically, in print, and in audiobooks; in several countries and in at least three languages. They appeared under my own byline, under a variety of pseudonyms, and, in the case of confessions, without any byline at all.

Excluding self-published work and those months when I had collections released, my best months were April 2008 and June 2012 (nine stories each); July 2006, December 2010, and November 2012 (eight stories each); and April 2011, May 2011, September 2011, November 2011, January 2012, and August 2014 (seven stories each).

During this multi-year streak, 132 stories appeared in True Story and 125 in True Confessions. My longest single-magazine run was 29 consecutive issues of True Story, which is only slightly longer than a previous run of 26 consecutive issues of the same magazine.

Thirteen times I had three stories published in a single issue. This happened most often with True Confessions (May 2012, July 2012, March 2017, and April 2017). I had three stories in three issues of Ruthie’s Club (June 19, 2006; July 17, 2006; and April 28, 2008); three stories in two issues of True Love (April 2011 and May 2011); and three stories in single issues of True Romance (March 2005), Black Confessions (August 2006), True Story (January 2012), and The Mammoth Book of Uniform Erotica (Running Press, 2015).

My wife can attest that I grew nervous as month-ends approached without anything published, and at least twice I had single-story months in which that month’s lone story was published only a few days before the month ended.

HOW I DID IT

If I can trust my personal blog, I first noticed this streak at the three-year mark in May 2006, and I began to pay attention to what was happening.

Because editors determine which stories to accept and which issues to put them in, this is a publication streak over which I had little control. Even so, there are a few things I did that helped maintain the streak once it began:

Maintained high productivity. The more stories I wrote and submitted, the greater the odds that I would publish regularly.

Targeted multiple genres. There aren’t enough paying markets in most genres to support a highly productive short story writer. So, I wrote in multiple genres.

Targeted multiple publications. Even within genres, I spread my work among multiple publications.

Wrote themed and seasonal stories. I wrote several stories tied to themes or seasons, thus producing stories most suitable for specific magazine issues. For example, I had good luck with New Year’s Eve stories (published in January), Valentine’s Day stories (February), St. Patrick’s Day stories (March), Halloween stories (October), Thanksgiving stories (November), and Christmas stories (December).

NOW WHAT?

As the streak lengthened, I began to believe I had control over it. I believed the sheer momentum of my achievement would propel it forward, and writing to the streak (themes and seasons!) would ensure its continuation.

It didn’t.

Editors changed. Markets disappeared. Anthologies tanked or missed scheduled publication dates. My productivity faltered. I can identify any number of reasons why the streak ended, but rather than assign blame for its end, I prefer to be amazed that it happened at all.

And now that the streak has ended, the pressure’s off. I no longer feel driven to write to the streak, and I wonder how that will impact my writing going forward.

The count starts over. With the July publication of “Good Girls Don’t” in Pulp Modern (volume 2, issue 3), the publication of “Decision” in the Summer 2018 Flash Bang Mysteries, and the release of “Fissile Material” as a stand-alone audio release, I have now had one or more short stories published for one consecutive month.

23 July 2018

Why Workshops?


I loved teaching. If it were still about interacting with the kids and helping them grow and develop--as opposed to getting them ready for a pointless standardized test that keeps getting dumbed down and is only used to gauge a teacher's performance instead of the kids it pretends to test--you'd still find me in the classroom, funky tie loose and sleeves rolled one turn below my elbows, 183 days a year. But it isn't and I'm not.
That's why I still conduct writing workshops. Sure, I get paid almost enough to cover my gas to and from the event, but the truth is I still have a major teaching jones. It took me a long time to learn this stuff, so I want to help other people learn from my mistakes.

When I turned in the key to my classroom for the 33rd time, I knew how to write a decent sentence and even a passable paragraph. But I didn't know how to tell a good story. That's harder than it sounds. You probably have at least one friend or relative who can mangle a knock-knock joke or put everyone to sleep telling about something that happened to them, don't you?

Once my writing collected enough form rejection letters to make the point, I went back to what my adviser on my sixth-year project (A novel, by coincidence) told me years before. He directed me to the paperback racks in the local drug store (If you're under about forty, you may have to Google those terms) and read the first chapter of ten or twelve books at random.

 "Don't read Austen and James and Conrad," he told me. "Read Arthur Hailey and Irving Wallace and Jacqueline Susanne and Mickey Spillane. Read Michener (He hated Michener). Figure out what they do in those first few pages that you don't. You don't have 'first-chapterness.'"

Plumbers, carpenters and electricians all train apprentices. So do doctors and teachers. People take dancing lessons, music lessons, golf lessons and painting lessons. We know that one-on-one training works. How do fish learn to swim and birds learn to fly? You can buy a bunch of books and read them, but a good writing workshop is even better.

Many writing conferences offer sessions by writers who are also excellent teachers. They may even feature a one-on-one manuscript critique. At the New England Crime Bake, Kate Flora analyzed an early version of my own Blood On The Tracks and turned problems into opportunities. At the Wesleyan Writers Conference, Chris Offutt looked at an even earlier draft of that same book.

When I met him over coffee (We both wanted beer, but we were on campus), he said, "You write excellent dialogue, and you probably know it. But that's both good and bad."

"How can that be?" I asked.

"Well," Offutt said, "it's good because it is good. But it's bad because you know it, so you try to make that dialogue do too much of the work. Have you ever done theater?"

At that time, I was acting, directing, producing or designing for four or five productions a year.

"You need to learn to write better exposition and description. Even plays aren't just the dialogue. The other stuff is the context that gives it meaning. And that's even truer in novels and stories."

My bookshelves sag under the weight of fifty or sixty books on writing, including a few on dialogue. None of them ever said that. The fifteen-minute chat helped more than all those books.

Now I pay it forward. I have five workshops scheduled through mid-November, and I'll share handouts with examples, both good and bad, and leave lots of time for people to experiment with them and ask questions. We do group activities, too: creating characters, punching up plots and premises, sharpening dialogue. Every time we encounter a problem (Which I often recognize in my own stuff, too) we figure out how to fix it. Mistakes are the best teachers I know, and I'm still learning every time I teach.

Most of the venues invite me back, which is great, but I don't do it for the money. Fortunately.

I do it because I still love it.

22 July 2018

Dis Content


Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Long Wilder Winter

The Little House
A couple of weeks ago, friends Darlene and Sharon sent me articles about the literary fall of the author of the Little House series. One column was titled ‘The Savaging of Laura Ingalls Wilder’.

That sums up my attitude, that and a rift of anger. Maybe the family trace of Indian blood runs too thin to take exception to Wilder’s writing, but what the hell. I wrote back:
“Bah! Humbug! Political correctness has always been so stupid that even the name says serves as a warning like rattles on a diamondback… and still people embrace it. … Some people look for excuses so they can say, ‘Look how woke I am.’”
When questioned about the last sentence, I replied:
“‘Woke’ is the most annoying, grammatically poor, pompous, self-inflated, politically correct term to brag about how socially conscious and aware one is. ‘Look how “woke” those who trashed Ingalls be! They be woke!’”
A Cold, Cold Prairie

My thoughts rushed back to Soviet era renunciations. Politically suspect, out-of-step authors, artists, actors, and poets found their lives erased not merely from the rolls of the living, but from the public record as well. At the other political extreme, they followed upon the Nazis and fascist committees.

This is nothing new. Ancient Egyptians chiseled names and cartouches (personal seals) from walls and tombs. We know of one pharaoh only because ‘political editors’ happened to overlook a single instance of his name.

The Lost Years

An unforeseen consequence of bowdlerizing works or ripping literary accomplishments from public view is that we also edit history. Obviously that’s a goal when striking public enemies from the record, but consumers of saccharinized works lose touch with that distant historical landscape. A snowball effect causes desensitized to the thinking of the era.

Both sides of the issue often cite Huckleberry Finn. The one issue they agree upon is that words exert power.

Fahrenheit 451 flamers trip over the N-word, completely losing the fact that Twain was anti-slavery and sympathetic toward the disadvantaged. We can be thankful the bonfire folks haven’t discovered Pudd’nhead Wilson, sort of a Prince and the Pauper in colorful black and white.

Wilder Rose
Out of the Big Woods

SleuthSayers have written about Wilder and I doubt most have taken kindly to the Library Association’s attempt at rewriting history. However, credit for our most interesting Little House article, the solution of a mystery, goes to author Susan Wittig Albert.

Within our own ranks, Eve Fisher and Bonnie Stevens have expressed deep fondness, even love for Wilder’s Little House series. Eve in particular gives the impression the books for her proved formative, perhaps transformative.

Politically correct me if you will. What is your take? Was the ALA right or wrong to purge Wilder’s name from the ranks of American literary greats? And where does a sensible society draw the line?

21 July 2018

Full Disclosure



by John M. Floyd



One of my former students asked me a good question the other day. It was a question I've heard before--all writers have--but it's still an interesting one: How much backstory should I include in my work?

As it turned out, she was asking about short fiction, and that's a whole different animal, but the answer's the same. My take is, you should include enough backstory to explain to the reader why your characters might later act the way they do. Sometimes it's a lot and sometimes it's not. Done well, backstory can give depth to the characters and make the plot more believable and strengthen the reader's connection to the story. Done poorly, it's a prime example of telling instead of showing.

My favorite definition of backstory comes from Story author Robert McKee. He says it's "an oft-misunderstood term. It doesn't mean life history or biography. Backstory is the set of significant events that occurred in the characters' past that the writer can use to build his story's progression."


Spelling it out

If you want to see backstory galore, read almost anything written by almost any old-time author--Daniel Defoe and Edgar Rice Burroughs come to mind. Not only was there a ton of backstory, it often happened at the very beginning of the tale--something contemporary writers are warned not to do. (Remember the first chapter of Hawaii?) But that was a different era, with very few things competing for one's time and attention. A reader was more apt to hang in there and wade through pages and even entire chapters of a character's (or a setting's) history before anything really happened. Today, it's a good idea to have the dinosaur eat one of the scientists on the first page.

(Maybe it's a sign of the times. When my 92-year-old mother meets someone, she likes to know (beforehand, if possible) where he's from, who his parents were, where his parents were from, and what church he attends. Folks of my generation, and certainly of our children's, don't worry about all that. Just the facts, ma'am.)

While there are many, many authors who prepare and forewarn readers with a lot of character history (the first page of The Great Gatsby was almost all backstory), I can also think of many who don't. My most recent SleuthSayers column discussed two of these. The late Fredric Brown and Jack Ritchie both had a spare and straightforward style that included almost nonstop action and not much exposition or description (or backstory). For them, that worked well. Also, of course, they were short-fiction writers as well as novelists--Ritchie wrote almost nothing but short stories--and most shorts don't need much in the way of backstory.

Motivation, anyone?

How much, one might well ask, DO short stories need? And I think the answer's still the same: enough to make it clear why folks later take the actions they do. If your protagonist experienced a traumatic event during her childhood, or has lived his entire life in an Eskimo village, or recently won the state lottery, or lost both legs in Desert Storm, or was just released from a mental institution, etc., those things are important to the story. They influence the way that character thinks and acts and reacts in certain situations. (And this goes for the antagonist as well as the hero.)

Again, though, this doesn't have to be revealed in an information dump at the beginning. It can be filtered in later, when needed, as a part of the narrative or via dialogue. A question from one character to another, like "How's Joe doing, since his wife passed away?" can be considered a piece of backstory.

One more thing: properly-timed backstory can be one of the tools that allows the writer to increase the suspense of the plot.


True confessions

That student I mentioned earlier also asked me how much backstory I use in my own stories, and cornered me a bit when she suggested I give her some examples. Before sending those to her, I pulled out my story file and did some quick research, and what I found surprised me a bit. Most of the recent stories I've written that somehow went on to achieve at least a bit of after-the-fact recognition did include backstory.

Some of the examples I gave her, from my own creations:



"Dentonville," a story that appeared in EQMM and won a Derringer Award, featured a full page of narrative backstory about the main character, although not at the beginning of the story. First, I introduced the three main characters and got the plot going. (And while one page doesn't sound like much, it amounted to about five percent of the story.)

"Molly's Plan," written for The Strand Magazine and later chosen for Best American Mystery Stories' 2015 edition, included maybe half a page of detailed narrative backstory about the two main characters--and pretty early in the story.

"200 Feet," another Strand story--it got nominated for an Edgar that same year--had a fair amount of backstory, but all of it was injected via dialogue between the two lead characters throughout the first half of the piece.

"Driver," yet another Strand story that won a Derringer and was shortlisted for B.A.M.S., crammed all of its backstory into the opening two pages, as soon as the three main characters were introduced, and it was mostly revealed through their dialogue.

"Gun Work," which appeared in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes last year and is upcoming in Best American Mystery Stories' 2018 edition, included substantial backstory about its protagonist, but this was sifted in through both dialogue and exposition throughout the story.

But, having said that, I've also had several earlier stories (four shortlisted for B.A.M.S., one Derringer winner, and two nominated for the Pushcart Prize) that included no backstory at all. What the reader saw onscreen, happening right then, was all he got.



One size seldom fits all

Bottom line is, I think backstory can be useful but isn't always necessary. Too little can be confusing and too much can be boring. Because of all that, this whole discussion is one of the more subjective issues in writing fiction, and especially short fiction.

What are your thoughts on backstory, in both novels and shorts? Do you find it difficult to write? Tedious to read? Do you welcome it because of the clarity it provides? Do you think editors do? Any examples from your own works, or the works of others?

Speak up--don't be shy.  Full disclosure!







20 July 2018

Summertime Writing, A Semester Looming, and Bidding Au Revoir (for now)


By Art Taylor

As I've said before (too much likely), I'm a slow writer—and I think that my inclination toward writing short stories stems in part from that slow writing pace as well. While my process can vary somewhat from story to story, across the board I generally write in a piecemeal fashion—letting plot and character percolate in my head, sketching scenes at various points in the story rather then working through the draft in order, filling in bits and pieces of scenes as I discover myself what's needed or what's missing, slowly urging the whole mess into shape until it looks like something complete. (And then trying not to read it again after it's published so I won't be reminded of all the spots I should've done better.)

Earlier this summer, I worked on drafts for two stories—one possibly finished (a collaboration with my wife, Tara Laskowski; we'll see what our editor says) and the other set aside yet again because of aspects of it I couldn't figure out to my satisfaction (this one, a novella, has been lingering for years, sadly). Over the last few weeks, I've turned my attention more fully to a novel I've been working on intermittently over years as well—promising myself to dive into it deeply, immerse myself in it, push through a full draft, try to finally get it done.

Applying my approach to short stories to this novel is... well, part of my problem maybe, though I think it's probably still truer to how I work than what I've tried before with this manuscript. In my previous attempts to draft the novel, I've attempted to write through scene by scene, chapter by chapter, building it one block at a time—and lost both perspective and steam. Lately, I've just given myself over to writing it like I write short stories, crazily all over the place. The scene I wrote yesterday, for example, is from probably two-thirds of the way through the book, and I don't have the scenes or chapters immediately before it or immediately after it written in any form. But in my head, I know what needs to happen in this specific scene, and so I got it down on paper—one piece in a bigger jigsaw, and I'll find/make the other pieces later.

Keeping track of a book-length story in my head, though.... well, that's tough sometimes. (Thanks Scrivener, for giving me space to pin things down, placeholders to figure out later.) And the scattershot approach to writing this isn't just about figuring out the order of plot points, but also discovering the full depth of characters, sharpening voice and style, then going back and fixing the disconnections between plot points, the slips in character, the imbalance of voice and style and....

And again, doing that for a 25-page short story is different from doing that to what's likely to be a 300-plus page novel manuscript—a bigger mess. How much of a mess? Well, that scene I wrote yesterday is in third-person, while everything else I've written is in first person, and I found that I like third-person better. Much to go back and rework already.

Still, my wife Tara—who  recently completed her own novel, now on submission to publishers through her agent—has told me time and again to push through, get it all down, that it'll work out in the end.

I'm trusting that she's right.

But I know it's gonna take time and focus and persistence, and while summer has given me a more flexible schedule to explore and indulge, I've also agreed to lead sessions at two big programs in August—the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival and Deadly Ink—and the new semester is looming just beyond those events. In a little over five weeks, I'll be back in the classroom and I've already been taking on new responsibilities over the summer, having recently been named assistant director of the creative writing program at George Mason University—more admin duties ahead on top of the schedule I currently keep. And as many folks here know, I've also been maintaining another weekly blog, having taken over the First Two Pages blog series after the death of B.K. Stevens, long a part of this group as well.

All that said, I'm recognizing that I need to streamline commitments in other areas... and so I've told Leigh and Rob, our fearless leaders here, that I need to step away from SleuthSayers, at least for a while. While time is part of the issue, the other is that too often I've found myself struggling to come up with ideas for new posts. When my week looms on the calendar, I often end up asking Tara "What should I write about this time? I've got nothing new to say, nothing to offer"—and that too takes a lot of mental energy, energy that I might need to keep in reserve a little for my slow slog through writing this novel.

I feel like this might come across as complaining; it's not meant that way. Just recognizing that I've kept a couple of projects on the back burner for too long and need to give the novel at least some less-divided attention.

Leigh and Rob have been kind enough to say that I could come back for guest posts, and maybe once I finish up the book, find myself on firmer footing, I might ask to get back in the rotation as space allows. And in the meantime, I'll still read regularly the posts by my fellow SleuthSayers—always a highlight of each morning.

See you in the comments sections! And at Bouchercon in a couple of months too, celebrating the award attention that Barb, Paul, and I have received this year on the Anthony, Macavity, and Shamus slates—hooray!

And in the meantime, thanks so much for letting me be a part of this fine community of writers.Y'all are the best.

19 July 2018

Yet Another Innocent Abroad


by Eve Fisher

I got back from vacation June 28th and walked straight into the arms of grocery shopping, laundry, mail, e-mail, and jet lag.  It took me a good week to climb out and start getting on top of things again.  We've all read that Americans take less vacation time than anyone else in the industrialized Western world.  Well, I think it's because we all know we're going to have to work twice as hard when we get back to catch up.

We went on a European cruise, and it was great.  I'm not going to give you all a travelogue, other than the fact that I won
"Stump the Tour Guide!!!" 
in Ghent, when I asked where John of Gaunt (medieval pronunciation of "Ghent") was born.  The son of Edward III of England and Philippa of Hainault (medieval Belgium/ Netherlands), John of Gaunt fathered eight children by 2 wives and 1 mistress (Chaucer's sister-in-law, you might remember) who became his wife in old age.  Anyway, the guide had no idea where he was born, but the answer is in the abbey that used to be behind the St. Bavo Cathedral church on the right in the photo.

Actually, it was a John of Gaunt kind of trip:  I also saw the tomb of one of his sons, Cardinal Beaufort, in Winchester Cathedral in England (see photo at right).

Just as exciting, Winchester is where Jane Austen is buried, and I paid my very deep respects to her.  Let us never forget that, at heart, "Emma" is a mystery story, and "Northanger Abbey" is a satire of a Gothic thriller.  Add in the fact that Miss Austen practically invented the romantic comedy, and you have an incredibly versatile author who is still a delight to read.

And read I did:  "Emma" was my traveling companion this vacation, mainly because of something someone, somewhere wrote (and I cannot remember where), that if you really want to know what's going on in this novel, you need to listen to Miss Bates.  I thought I'd double-check.  And they were right.  Tucked into all those garrulous monologues is the absolute truth, rarely found anywhere else.  Everyone else is an unreliable narrator.  Witty, but unreliable.  After a hard day's sightseeing, it was the perfect vacation novel.

All in all, it was a great trip, and my only real moments of horror involved people with smart phones.  At least in the old days, when cameras required expensive film, there were fewer photographers, less photos were taken, and most people bought postcards instead.  (Believe it or not, the postcard and calendar manufacturers can still produce better photographs than the average person with a smart phone.)  Now, everyone has a smart phone, and they cannot put it away for one second, but have to snap 100 shots per minute of anything and everything that is directly in front of them, and don't even think of trying to see around them or asking them to move.

And the selfies!  I now truly realize that, to many people, if they don't have a selfie of it, they weren't there.  Now I know that egomania has never known any bounds, but I still think that selfie sticks should be declared hazardous to everyone's health. For one thing, sooner or later I'm going to wrest one out of someone's hands and start beating them with it.

And, finally, the video games.  We were on a nine-hour bus tour of the Scottish Highlands:

Ben Nevis (Wikipedia)

Fabulous.  Beautiful.  I saw deer.  We saw Loch Ness.  We saw Ben Nevis and other "Munro" mountains.  And, in front of me, was a lady who spent the entire 9 hours on her cell phone, playing Tetris.  At one point she wanted to close the bus curtain, so she could see the game better.  Her husband (thank God!) objected, so I didn't have to, and she moved across the aisle, where she continued doggedly with her game.  Whenever we stopped, for photo ops, a little walk, comfort, lunch, etc., she got up and went outside and posed as if she were thrilled to be there - including taking endless selfies! - and then went back to her seat, and back to Tetris.


Image result for head pounding meme


Meanwhile, in keeping with Miss Austen's wit, a few common phrases heard on cruises:
"The food was better last year."
"I've never told anyone this before."
"It looks smaller in real life."
"I think they're cheaper in ___"
"When's happy hour?"


BTW - Breaking news tells me that Mariia Butina has been indicted and arrested for being an unregistered Russian agent, i.e., a spy.  For those of you who have followed my blogs on South Dakota politics, you may remember that I talked about her in Just Another January in South Dakota.  I'll be talking about her South Dakota speaking tour, and her arrest, and who knows what else in my next blog post on August 2nd!

18 July 2018

The Big Neurotic meets the Big Easy


O'Neil De Noux and I at the Cafe Abyssinia for lunch
by Robert Lopresti

In June my wife and I visited New Orleans for the first time.  It was great fun and quite a change from  my Northwest home where we were still celebrating what we call Juneuary.  (As I write this it is Febjuly.  The temperature is 64 degrees and it is drizzling.)

One of the highlights was meeting O'Neil De Noux in person for the first time after years of digital friendship.  O'Neil was kind enough to take us on a tour of the city where his family has lived for hundreds of years.  Boy, was that great.  He is quite a raconteur.

But here was the best part.  O'Neil stopped the car in front of one building and announced that this is where Lucien Caye had his office.  Caye is one of O'Neil's series characters, a post-war private eye.

Just beyond the building there is a park and I immediately remembered the beginning of O'Neil's Shamus-winning short story "The Heart Has Reasons."  Lucien Caye looks out his window and spots a girl sitting in the park.  And that was the  park.

I actually shivered.  It is weird how fiction can do that to us.  It explains why fans have put up marking locations of Baker Street, West 35th Street, and the Reichenbach Falls.

Several friends assured us that the best thing about New Orleans was the music so when my wife and I had a free  evening we decided to see what was on offer.  I'm not a big fan of jazz or Cajun (sorry) but there was one performer listed as folk.  Through the miracle of Youtube we were able to check her out and I would say she was more Bonnie Raitt than folk, but that was fine.

So we strolled over to the French Quarter to the bar where she was playing.  There was nobody and nothing on the stage.  Not so much as a piccolo.  We were greeted by a man at the end of the bar who appeared to be the owner.

"When is the music supposed to start?" I asked.

He smiled.  "Eight thirty."

"And what time is it?"

"Eight thirty."

"But she's not here yet, huh?"

"Nope."

So we strolled about the Quarter for half an hour.  No sacrifice, I assure you.  Coming back at 9 PM we found the stage was still empty.

I looked up the singer's Facebook page and found a notice to her fans that the gig had been cancelled.  I showed it to the apparent-bar-owner who was quite astonished by the news.

So, on the whole, I was not that impressed by the music in New Orleans.

Resident of the Audubon Zoo
I have to get serious now.  That weekend was the 45th anniversary of a famous crime in the city: the UpStairs Lounge arson.  A gay bar was burned and thirty-two people died horribly.  While no one was ever convicted, it is considered pretty certain the culprit was a gay man who had been thrown out of the bar earlier.  (He killed himself a year later.)

A tragedy without doubt.  But the main reason it might be of interest today to those who knew no one involved was the response.  The news media generally ignored that it was a gay bar.  Radio shows made jokes about it.  No government officials mentioned the death of thirty-two citizens.

Many churches refused to hold funerals for the victims.  One Episcopal priest did and was criticized by his parishioners and bishop.  (Unitarians and Methodists stepped up too.  More power to 'em.)  Some families never claimed their deceased's remains.

If there is a positive side to that story it is comparing it to how the nation reacted to the Pulse massacre of 2016.  Looks like we had matured a little since then.

I haven't mentioned the actual reason we were in New Orleans, which was the American Library Association conference.  That's the topic for next time.



17 July 2018

Find Your Perfect Editor


Introducing Mary Feliz…
When I invited Mary Feliz to blog at SleuthSayers today I gave her wide latitude. I didn't ask her to focus on why she chose to write a cozy mystery series involving a professional organizer in Silicon Valley. I didn't want her to feel obligated to talk about why she made a golden retriever her main character's sidekick or how a wildfire factors into her newest book, Disorderly Conduct, which was published last week. All I asked was she blog about something related to writing. Anything. Little did I know she'd send me a column about how to find a great editor. Let me assure you that Mary is not my client, and this is not a subtle push to sell my services. But Mary does give some good advice here, so get ready to take notes. And without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I present Mary Feliz!

— Barb Goffman

Find your perfect editor

by Mary Feliz


To start a rumble among writers, try asking “Would you pay an editor?”

Personally, I think great editors are priceless gems. Lousy editors are a waste of time and money. But how do you tell the difference, especially when the perfect editor for your best pal could be the worst one for you?

Make sure you’re ready

Writing advice abounds in low-cost classes, seminars, critique groups and manuscript swaps. Exhaust these options and hone your skills before considering an editor. Jumping the gun means shooting yourself in the foot.

But how do you know you’re ready? Have you polished and submitted at least one manuscript to agents and small publishers, received several requests for full manuscripts, but weren’t offered a contract? An editor might help boost you over the last barrier. Have critique partners given you conflicting advice, but you can’t think of a third solution that will take your baby to the next level? Objective professional editorial advice could help.

If the price tag seems like a good use of your money, you’re either ready or stinking rich. Great editors are pricey ($1,000-$2,000). If you’re prepared to take a second job to pay for the extra help, go for it.

Ask for the right thing

Editorial services have a specialized vocabulary. Make sure you’re asking for (and paying for) only what you need.

  • Developmental editing is what most writers need when they consider hiring an editor. Are your characters strong and individualized? Is your dialogue crisp? Is your plot tedious or full of holes? Developmental editors won’t touch grammar, spelling, or punctuation, but can point to places your submission lags. They won’t make changes for you. Developmental editors are teachers, coaches, and guides. Working with one can be like taking a master class in literature with your own work as the topic. My favorite editor typically nails me on elements of the manuscript I knew were problematic, but that I somehow thought I could get away with. She frequently has to remind me that I'm writing a mystery, not a dog book.

  • Line editors and copy editors scour text for typos and other problems. Line editing may include fact-checking and searching for problems like echo words, clich├ęs, and expressions you use too often or don’t need. I think of them as employing a fine mesh filter to weed out small problems I might not notice on my own, but that are easy to fix. For example, in my latest book, (Disorderly Conduct, which released from Kensington Lyrical on July 10th), a copy editor suggested that I take another look at a segment in which Maggie, who is fiercely protective of her teenaged boys, calmly allows them to climb on a helicopter with a guy who, up to that point, she has suspected was a drug lord. It was a quick fix to have someone point out to her that the boys were well protected, it was an emergency, and well, the dogs weren't afraid of the guy, so maybe there was more to his story. That story is laid out as soon as Maggie has a chance to learn more about the mysterious stranger.

  • Proofreaders come on the scene after all the editing is done to make sure you didn’t install new errors while taking out the old ones. They’ll look at formatting, too. I think of them as quality-control technicians. In Disorderly Conduct, a final proofing after several rounds of edits revealed the presence of a "rattle snack." A quick change of a few letters changed something that sounds like a cat treat back into the dangerous creature the tense scene required.
The 4th book in the
Maggie McDonald series.
Book 1, Address to Die For,
was named a Best Book of
2017 by Kirkus Reviews.

Define your search

If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to know when you’ve found it. I outlined my parameters by saying I wanted an experienced developmental editor, preferably one with publishing experience who had worked in my genre with authors I enjoyed reading and respected.

Shop carefully

I asked every writer I knew to suggest editors. Some of them asked agents or publishers. I measured each suggestion against my pre-established criteria, starting with the editors’ websites. If I a website seemed unkept, out-of-date, or sported spelling or punctuation errors, I put a line through their names. I also nixed anyone whose website just didn’t sit right with me, even if I couldn’t put my finger on why. Editing is as personal a professional relationship as you’ll ever have. Trust your gut.

Ask questions

You need be sure that you and the editor are literally on the same page, so you’ll need to ask questions. So will they. Ask how long the process will take, how fees are calculated, when the editor can start, and how they like to communicate. I recommend working with someone who includes follow-up questions in their fees, and who will provide an editorial letter along with any line edits they may also do.

Some editors became prickly when I asked for client names. I crossed them off my list. I needed to feel free to ask any question of my editor, without worrying that it would offend them or make them think less of me.

Samples

Most good editors will ask for a sample of your work. This step is their way of evaluating your writing. If an editor suggests you take more classes before trying again, soothe your hurt feelings with the knowledge that she’s saved you money, time, and frustration. Even the priciest class is less expensive than editorial services.

The perfect match

Ultimately, I found a great editor who fit my genre, writing style, and me. Her suggestions helped catapult my work forward. Her experience as an acquisitions editor for a top New York publisher meant she had contacts among agents to whom she willingly referred me. (Not all editors will offer this surface to all writers.) With her help, I nabbed my initial three-book deal with Kensington. It has expanded into a six-book series with audiobooks.

The not-so-perfect

Why do some writers curse editors? Maybe they had a bad experience. Or maybe they hold the outdated belief that publishers nurture newbie writers, taking a spark of imperfect creativity and fanning it into a conflagration of book tours, movie deals, and celebrity status. It’s a nice fantasy, but if it ever existed, it no longer does. Possibly, these writers believe their non-fiction expertise is sufficient for them to professionally publish their novel without help. I’ll bet my breakfast that they’re wrong. Self-publishing is a misnomer. No one succeeds alone.

Golden retrievers give unconditional
love. Editors, not so much.


Whether you’re hoping to nab a traditional publishing contract or produce a polished project under your own imprint, development editors can help. But only if you do your homework. A bad developmental editor, or one that you chose badly, is worse than no editor at all.

Under what circumstances would you pay an editor? What criteria would you look for?

16 July 2018

No More Mr. Nice Guy


by Steve Hockensmith

Being a slim-ish (off and on) white dude (always) with a mild disposition (usually) and a closet full of cardigans, I've been compared to Mr. Rogers more than once over the years. Even in my early twenties, when I picked up the cardigan habit thanks to a frayed maroon sweater inherited from my grandfather, I didn't take this as an insult. My mom likes to tell the story of my older brother's reaction to the first episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as a 3-year-old -- he turned to her at the end and said, "He's a nice man" -- and I always felt the same way about the guy after I came along. He was a nice man, and Princess Leia and I are simpatico on them.


As an American dude, though, I didn't always get the feeling I was supposed to like nice men. Nice guys finish last, remember, and the guys who came in first, the culture sometimes seemed to say, where macho hard-asses. Your football players, your professional wrestlers, your no-nonsense businessmen, your posturing politicians, your tough-talking pundits, your action heroes, your Mike Hammers, your Batmans.

All the same, I tried to Han Solo it.


And like Han, I can't always pull it off. For him, being "nice men" is tough because he's actually a lovable scoundrel (and, let us not forget, a scruffy-looking nerf herder). For me it can be tricky because even though I have Fred Rogers in my heart I have Larry David in my head. As much as I try to do the right thing, like the anti-hero of Curb Your Enthusiasm I often put myself on that road good intentions are known for because I'm paranoid I've done something very, very wrong. At least once a month I find myself giving some exchange on Facebook or Twitter the patented Larry David Look because I can't quite tell if I was rude, someone was rude to me or everything's hunky dory.


And sometimes it's not paranoia. As a writer, I agonize over every word. But that's not an option when you're dealing with people who aren't figments of your imagination. In the real world, everything that pops out of your mouth is a first draft you had to write on the fly. Many, many, many times I've wished I could go back and edit something I said -- give it a polish so it's not so, you know, stupid -- but c'est la vie. Or c'est my la vie anyway. Hopefully yours doesn't feel so fraught.

What would Mr. Rogers have to say about all these neuroses? "It's alright," probably. "I like you just the way you are." Or maybe "Meow meow chill out, man, meow meow" (if he had his Daniel Tiger puppet with him). He'd keep it positive, in other words. No matter what.

I think that's why Mr. Rogers is having a bit of a cultural moment. There's a new documentary about him, for one thing, but even before that came along I was seeing him pop up in my Facebook feed at least once a day. If it wasn't the clip of him testifying before Congress it was a meme about him suing the KKK or meeting Koko the gorilla (a big fan -- literally). Forget Joe DiMaggio. Where have you gone, Fred Rogers? Our nation is turning its lonely eyes to you. Woo woo woo.

Like painter/zen master/squirrel enthusiast Bob Ross, who had his own moment a couple years ago, Mr. Rogers represents a gentleness, kindness and all-around goodness that seems so rare these days -- so diametrically opposed to the current zeitgeist -- it's practically revolutionary. And "Viva la revolucion!" I say. I know the moment will pass, but in my own small, flawed way, I hope I can help it last just a little bit longer.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go finish my latest book about theft, blackmail and murder.

14 July 2018

Arizona Hills


by Leigh Lundin

Seven years ago, a coterie of writers banded together to launch SleuthSayers. In his first column, Dixon Hill introduced his fedora. I think I met that fedora recently.

Dixon Hill
Dixon Hill
To be sure, I also met the storied Dixon Hill and his equally legendary wife, Madeleine. You may remember reading about her, the very charming lady who drove fuel tankers in Iraq.

Dixon has written about his own military training, parachute jumping, explosives, and special ops. Yet in his writing and in real life, he displays quiet confidence and an utter lack of braggadocio. What you read, what you see, is what you get.

But fair warning: Around him, women get a gleam in their eye, that “Yum, Teddy Bear” look, which the rest of us males envy.

I’ve wanted to meet the man behind the writing. A few months ago, it looked like that might happen, but life intervened. Finally I set foot in Arizona only to meet an elk in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then a death in the family followed. Finally, though, I was free. Dixon squeezed me in.

Despite lack of sleep, he proved the most consummate host. Being raised by a professor shows. A natural teacher, he’s written about the history and geography of Greater Phoenix. I found myself racking up mental notes everywhere we visited.

First, at my request came a brief introduction to automatic sidearms, this from a guy who’s living (in multiple senses of the word) depended in part upon knowledge and skill of weaponry. Who better to learn from?

Hole-in-the-Rock
Hole-in-the-Rock, Papago Park
Dixon followed with a tour of Phoenix. He drove through Papago Park to point out the Hole-in-the-Rock, an elevated cavern open at either end. He named the surrounding mountain ranges. He noted bridges that ran high over dry river beds, waiting like a boxer for that blow that never comes… until it does.

Questions had been gathering in my mind about desert plants, mesquite, ironwood, and especially cactus. With Dixon’s wide-ranging interests, I was almost unsurprised to discover he’s a member of the Desert Botanical Garden. There, they combine education with beauty.

Dixon shared a story about his father and the infamous ‘jumping’ cactus, AKA Teddy Bear cactus. His dad experimented, risking his own flesh. He hypothesized cactus pods store up kinetic energy, until the slightest touch sends them exploding off their host plant. Me, I think that’s a damn clever theory.

Dixon had another surprise up his sleeve, a visit to the Poisoned Pen Bookstore adjacent to Poisoned Pen Press. Loaded with signed mysteries and science fiction, it’s a drool-worthy shop in Scottsdale that seems both packed and airy at once. Independent bookshops could take lessons from them.

I introduced myself to the owner… not too crudely I hoped. Dixon and I made quite the prickly pair.

Setting aside his own fatigue, Dixon showed me his writing cabin set in a corner of the garden. There he retreats to write, coaxing the computer from his arm chair. The fedora there… was it the same Staff Sergeant Hill traveled with around the world? I suspect so.

The visit turned out entertaining and educational, everything and more I expected from a man I learned about through his writing. One day, Dixon, let’s do it again.

The Flight of the Phoenix

So…

At Phoenix airport, I gathered my kit around me, my wits and my tickets. Hot as it was, I found myself strangely reluctant to depart. Turned out United had the same notion.

“Whoa,” said the ticket agent. “You’re too late to board.”

“What? No, I can’t be.” How many times had she heard that story? “Really, I received a confirmation email telling me to check in, like now, I’m on time.”

Anxious to put in her propeller, a United supervisor strolled over. Her snoot lifted into the air like my soon-to-depart plane.

“We closed boarding and no, you could not have received such an email.”

“I did, I did,” I said plaintively, thinking I must have read it wrong. Wait… Although I’d had poor luck finding phone signals in Arizona, five million people populated Phoenix. Surely AT&T had a presence here, didn’t they?

I pulled out my dusty iPhone and… Yes! A signal! Moreover, an email! The right one. I held out the phone like a child showing homework to the teacher.

“Ma’am, here’s the email. It spells out the details and I’m here on time.”

She read it once. Not quite believing it, she peered closer. I could almost hear the chips in her brain going, “Oh crap, he’s right.” Then she glanced at the clock ticking away on her computer terminal and lit up. “NOW,” she said with immense satisfaction, “now you’re too late.”

The counter agent gave me the most carefully neutral look. She managed to convey a measure of sympathy.

“I’ve booked you tomorrow. If you don’t mind a hint, lose a couple of pounds in your suitcase.” Again she gave her patented neutral look. “Thank you for choosing United.”

No hurry. Good company, good food, good night’s sleep. Orlando could wait another day.

Phoenix Rising


The personality of all cities depend upon geography and geology. More than most, the Copper State’s very existence depends upon Mother Nature’s good nature.

It’s bedrock is literally laid bare. River beds lace hither and yon, empty and dry… most of the time. Water, when it comes, can rage rapidly, as colleague Susan Slater has expressed in her novel, Flash Flood.

Unlike Eastern states, water rights are bought and sold. So are mineral rights. A few strip mines in the Copper State have left behind unnatural terraced hills, white not from rime but extraction chemicals. Arizona has been fortunate in other metals that begin with the letter A in the periodic table: Au, Ag, Al… gold, silver, and aluminum.

NASA used selected places in Arizona for lunar mission training. It’s not difficult for an outsider to think of Arizona as a beautiful planet in itself, one where pioneering humans have dug in, stubbornly nesting amongst its fabulous rock structures, a landscape hospitable to the hardiest among us.

Just avoid uninsured elk.

Yacht Rock Badasses


Libby Cudmore
I used to joke that I was going to write a series of novels where Donald Fagen and Walter Becker would use their time off of touring with Steely Dan to solve mysteries. Can’t you just picture it? They’re a perfect detective pairing; they’re snarky and sardonic, with a clever patter and a long history of writing songs around lowlifes. It would have been amazing and the most on-brand Libby Series of all time, combining my well-honed talent for writing mysteries with my deep and passionate love for the Dandom.

Tragically, Becker’s death last September put an end to this and many of my other Steely dreams (like getting to hear them do “The Second Arrangement” in concert again) but it did get me thinking about the core of hardboiled noir that runs throughout a lot of Yacht Rock.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, (coined by J.D. Ryznar in his eponymous and, frankly life-changing Channel 101 series) “Yacht Rock” generally refers to a style of smooth, often jazz-inflected music from the late 1970s and early 80s, bolstered by studio musicians (Jay Graydon, Steve Porcaro, Jeff Porcaro, etc) and, if you want to get hyper-specific, containing the word “fool.” Think Michael McDonald. Think Christopher Cross. The Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” is Yacht Rock. Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” is not. Do not try to fight me on this, I swear to God, I will mess you up.

13 July 2018

Bookstores I Visited on My Vacation This Summer, By Little Tommy Pluck, Age 47


by Thomas Pluck

The title of this post is a reference to a Harlan Ellison story you can find in Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled, one of his many collections.

Oh, Harlan. I learned of Ellison's passing while away on vacation, and while I can't say I didn't know it was coming, it affected me more than I thought it would.

He was 84 years old, hardly young, but some live twenty years longer. And someone as driven as Ellison was, you thought they'd have a shot. His health had deteriorated after a stroke, but he kept the fire burning, working with an editor to release long-lost stories and essays, and to finally put together Blood's a Rover, the collection of stories related to his classic post-apocalyptic nightmare, "A Boy and His Dog."

That book was waiting for me when I returned home, and brought back the sadness. HE as he was called in correspondence--it has a delightful outlandish godliness to it, doesn't it, like H. Rider Haggard's She or his own creation, AM, the malevolent artificial intelligence that destroys nearly all of humankind--and I met once, corresponded "infamously," once, but it made Letters of Note and appears on the internet now and then, most recently shared by Neil Gaiman.

The story is mundane, but like most things involved with science fiction fandom, was blown out of all proportion and made to seem epic and shocking, which is why I don't write speculative fiction anymore, or at least when I do, I don't call it that. I found the fandom toxic. I can't remember if I wrote him first or met him first at I-CON, held out in Stony Brook college on Long Island. I drove my silver '65 Mustang convertible out on the LIE to see a few literary heroes, illegally blasting through traffic cones blocking my way out of the Lincoln Tunnel. This was before GPS, we had the Rand-McNally Road Atlas and faith, and when I saw no police around, I swerved around those cones and hoped I wasn't heading into a parade.

The con was one of my first. I'd met Jimmy Doohan and Tom Baker at a Creation Con once, dressed as Arthur Dent in my bathrobe, but this one was bigger and different, more book-centric. Dan Simmons was there, and he'd just written the excellent Summer of Night, which is better than It, in my estimation, but not better than Boy's Life, for horror bildungsroman. Worth a read. Anyhow, Harlan was generous to me, and all in the signing line. To be fair, I'd plunked down a bunch of green for Again, Dangerous Visions, a t-shirt, some records of him reading his stories. He signed them all and shook my hand. It was a rough, knobby, workman's hand, probably from his early days as a carnie roustabout, or from hammering at his manual typewriter. But he was gracious to my flabbergasted young self, and I walked away like I'd met J.C. and had my bunions cured.

I'd heard the stories. And he's far from innocent--what he did to Connie Willis was indefensible, and he doesn't get a pass for it--but I found it hard to believe that he was irascible to innocent fans, as I was told by fan gossip. At that particular convention he was well behaved when I was in his presence, which is all one can say. We don't know anyone, really. That's why we love books. We get to know the people in them better than anyone we meet. But I digress. Harlan got up on stage for his one-man panel, decked in a bomber jacket complete with a blood chit from the air campaigns to liberate China from the Japanese Empire. Sure, he was full of himself. He liked to tell stories, and given an audience, he knew how to work it. He was never boring, for sure. I don't remember what he said, because what sticks out, was when the mic was malfunctioning, he asked "can you hear me?" and a woman sitting near me bellowed, "we can't see you!" to great applause, mocking his short stature.

Now that's hardly much of an insult, and he took it in stride, but the heckling from the crowd bothered me. What did they want? Were they fans, or did they come to watch the show, get him riled up, which he would gladly do for them? In the old days they brought rotten vegetables to throw on stage. Anyway, just a memory, hardly even a "Harlan story" worth telling. The letter, well, to my shame, I wrote it because I couldn't find a story by Gerald Kersh that he'd quoted. Now I could Google it and identify it in seconds. Back then, I re-read and skimmed all his books looking for the epigram, and came up blank. (It was in a graphic novel, which is why I missed it). So, I fired up my daisy wheel printer and sent him a letter. I wanted to use the same quote in a story I was writing in college. I didn't mention that, or send my work to him. (The story, "Phoenix," is about a Vietnam Vet haunted by a comrade who shows up like Mr. Hyde, it's preachy and garish, he goes to a Mothers of Invention show for no good reason, and my professor was very generous with his grade.)

Harlan wrote back, and while he starts off justifiably angry for me wasting his time, he can't help but praise Kersh, who became one of my own favorite writers. He's most famous for Night and the City, which was adapted as a film noir, but read anything you can get, he's a master of the short form and the novel. Fowler's End is wonderful, and his stories can be better than Roald Dahl. He captured humanity like insects in amber, magically kept alive. Here is the letter.



I was later honored to anthologize Harlan in Protectors 2: Heroes. Once again I summoned the chutzpah to write him, asking for a story for the charity anthology that helps PROTECT train wounded vets to hunt online predators. It's hard to say no to that. He offered up "Croatoan," but holding to his mantra of Pay the Writer, we settled on an honorarium of one dollar, and two copies of the book for his library, which I gladly shipped on publication. And yeah, I sneaked a copy of Blade of Dishonor in there. I doubt he read it, but he doesn't seem the type to throw a book in the trash. Hopefully it's in Ellison Wonderland, or donated to the Sherman Oaks public library. Or a doorstop in his shithouse, for all I care. He called me to seal the deal, and answering the phone to hear "Hey, kiddo! It's Harlan!" nearly gave me a heart attack. He had more energy at 80 than most have at 20. Which is why his death seems unfathomable. He was the Harlequin, but he ran like the Ticktockman, a wind-up clock that was never supposed to run down.

I'll miss him. He left us a legacy of fiction and stories and fights and slights that will be hard to forget, whether you lionize or loathe him. He had a cadre of toxic fans of his own, who Googled his name and posted anything said about him on the Internet on his website for him to read and respond to. I forgot that we traded posts on one of his forums, too. That was when I compared the movie Fallen to his novella Mefisto in Onyx. I thought they'd stolen his idea, but obviously he didn't, or he would have sued. (Watch the end of The Terminator and see the note that it was indebted to his works, specifically the Outer Limits episodes "Demon with a Glass Hand" and "Soldier," and the short story, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." I wasn't sure until I watched "Soldier." I thought he was overreacting. But hunt it down, and you'll be damned if the post-apocalyptic low budget future doesn't resemble the post-SkyNet nightmare in Terminator way too closely. Harlan didn't write very much in his later years, and it would be tragic and ironic if it was because of the internet, answering fan queries and taunts online instead of by mail.

Anyway, I was supposed to mention bookstores, wasn't I?

I really liked Writer's Block in Anchorage (Spenard, technically) Alaska. A town once infamous for rough bars is now a tourist trap with a couple of nice local ginmills such as Darwin's Theory, which hipsters call "dives" nowadays because working people drink there. But they do have a few good bookstores, and The Block is one of them. It's also a music and reading venue, a cafe, and a bar. So it's one of the few bookstores you could truly hold a Noir at the Bar at. (I enjoy attending readings at bookstores, cafes, hotels, and yoga-kombucha spaces, but call it something else maybe). Writer's Block has a nice selection, if small. I noticed horror by John Langan, a lot of Edwidge Danticat, somewhat light on crime, heavy on well-curated literary. They had Rene Denfield, James R. Benn, and Luis Alberto Urrea. The used bookstore is Title Wave, and enormous. I picked up a first edition hardcover of Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley there (such a beautiful cover).

Washington had more bookstores. Elliott Bay Book Company is wonderful, a big selection, good staff. Eagle Harbor Books out on Bainbridge Island is smaller but keeps a good selection, new and used. Overall, the trip to Bainbridge on a ferry was a waste. The ferry trip is nice, but there's not much to do on the island if you don't live there. It's some place old people go to walk to wine bars and buy crap. Vancouver has a ton of bookstores, but I only visited one, White Dwarf. They absorbed Dead Write books, and it was a time warp to the '90s, walls of mass market paperbacks in the old display shelves. It made me wish those affordable reads were more plentiful. A nice crime selection, and a friendly owner, Walter. I'm told there's a Jill as well, but I didn't meet her. Owen Laukannen clued me in to the shop, and it's worth a visit if you're in town. The used store there is Pulpfiction Books, which I'm glad I didn't visit because I spent a couple hundred bucks on books this trip and brought home a duffel full.

I also read several books on the trip thanks to long plane journeys. One was I Hear the Sirens in the Street by Adrian McKinty, a treasure. The Sean Duffy books are wonderful, set during the '80s in Belfast, when the Troubles burned hot. He knows how to tie a mystery together, and they remind me of Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr books in tone, in that they are just plain fun to read, full of repeating characters you care about, and they paint a detailed portrait of the city and time they are in. Luis Alberto Urrea's House of Broken Angels was incredible, epic in scope but under 300 pages. He continues to amaze. I finished The Bobby Gold Stories by Anthony Bourdain on the plane before takeoff. I had heard about his novels Bone in the Throat but wasn't grabbed by it. but Bobby is a great character and you can read the book in one sitting. Find a copy. It is shamefully out of print. It had a British edition, we didn't respect him enough over here. Sort of like how McKinty isn't published in the U.K., which is downright criminal. The last book I opened was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, who lives in my town, and a book that Roxane Gay called her favorite of last year. It is, as the blurbs warn, addictive. A family saga that begins in Korea before World War II, it is paced like a thriller and written with deceptively cozy prose, in third person omniscient, masterfully. I am 200 pages in, and I have to force myself to put it down to write.

I'm nearly done with the messy first draft of Riff Raff, the second Jay Desmarteaux yarn. I have a duty-free bottle of Bruinladdich Octomore scotch waiting to celebrate when I type "The End." I thought that would be a better incentive, I bought it after Bouchercon in Toronto last September! But alas, you can't rush the work. It takes what it takes. I'm having fun with it. I hope readers will, too.