07 September 2018

Bye Bye Burt... the lesson of a good bad example.

by Thomas Pluck

Bye, Burt.

Not commemorating his role as a human being, but on film he was inescapable during my formative years. My father admired him, probably saw himself in him. His Gator McClusky from White Lightning was an inspiration from Jay Desmarteaux, and the abrupt change in character and quality from that first movie, pre-mustache, to the abysmal sequel Gator, where he chewed gum and cackled the entire time, is a warning to us all of the dangerous power of fame and hubris.


He became a joke in his later years after a string of overindulgent stinkers, and was roundly mocked by comics Robert Wuhl and Norm MacDonald. He had a comeback in Boogie Nights, under the direction of Paul Thomas Anderson. But one wonders if he needed to have a comeback at all, if he hadn't let his fame and Playgirl centerfold go to his head. See, I had to watch a lot of those stinkers. He was saved very often by his friends, such as Jackie Gleason in the Smokey & the Bandit movies, and the ensemble casts in The Cannonball Run films. I liked him, mimicking my father, until I watched the "blooper reel" credits of Cannonball Run 2 where he constantly abuses his co-star Dom DeLuise for flubbing his lines, smacking him in the face.

 


I guess that was okay because Dom was fat? DeLuise was more of an icon and hero to me after that than Burt ever was. Burt could act when he wanted to, but he never really accomplished anything other than being there in the era of his career when I first saw him. When I was old enough to watch Deliverance and White Lightning I saw some of his promise, but it never erased the smart-ass full of himself jerk that he was in Smokey, Gator, "The End," Stroker Ace, and countless other turkeys I was forced to endure on Sunday afternoons with Dad. I mean, I wanted to like him. He was irresistibly, effortlessly cool. What young boy doesn't want that? I'm thankful those blooper reels showed me what an ass he was, because those two things became inextricably linked in my young mind: People who are full of themselves turn out to be full of shit.


I think it's fitting that most young people today remember him being mocked on Celebrity Jeopardy on Saturday Night Live by Norm MacDonald than for his iconic roles. Let's face it, in the drive-in days of the '70s, we had a lot of auteur masterpieces but also a whole manure load of overly long celluloid excretions meant to keep kids off the streets and in movie theaters. I spent a year rewatching some of my old favorites and while many hold up, a hell of a lot of them don't. I think we'll find the same thing with a lot of these three hour long computer video game movies with spandex superheroes punching each other for twenty minutes straight. They're a novelty now, but looking back, some will be intolerable. (I think some, like Black Panther and Wonder Woman will hold up).

Most of Burt's prime years were wasted on crap like Gator, which is like watching a home movie of Burt on a swamp air boat for 120 minutes. But that doesn't mean his life is wasted. He made some memorable films and posing in that centerfold was daring. One of my favorite lines in fiction was written by Christopher Moore in his second novel, Coyote Blue, about an aging trickster: "Don't underestimate the value of a good bad example."

Burt was Mr. Bad Example. Don't let his regrets be in vain.

RIP, Mr. Reynolds. Thanks for the grins and the lessons in feet of clay.

06 September 2018

Hearing and Listening and the Difference Between Them

by Brian Thornton

– G. K. Chesterton

I've written before about my struggles with the scourge of tinnitus (if you're curious, you can find a discussion of it here). And for those of you who regularly follow this blog, I've found an ambient noise link that masks my tinnitus even more effectively than my previous favorite: a twenty-four hour loop of the noise made by the warp engines of the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation. This new link is (supposedly) "10 Hours on Mars with Delta Waves and White Noise Sounds for Relaxation and Sleep."

Whatever you call it, it works. Cuts my tinnitus down to nothing. A true boon while I'm working.

That update aside, I have no intention of using this turn in the Sleuthsayers rotation to rehash the challenges that suffering from tinnitus raise in my professional and personal life. Instead, I'm going to do my best to speak to what my life with tinnitus has given to me, not what it has taken away.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying there is anything good about having tinnitus. There isn't. It's a plague. I don't actually know what silence sounds like. And in addition to the ringing, I have significant hearing loss in my left ear.

So when I talk about the positives which my life with tinnitus has brought me, I am speaking directly to the benefits accrued as a result of my struggle to live as normally as possible when living with a constant distraction.

Think of it as training to listen.

Quick reminder: my day gig is teaching. Wanna know what makes an effective teacher? An effective listener.

And that's the upshot.

You see, I can't hear unless I listen. In order to follow a speaker, a conversation, a concert, a baseball game, what have you, I have to be focused, locked in, attentive, listening, or, frankly, the old one-two punch of tinnitus and hearing loss will simply drown out what a person with normal hearing might well pick up on with little or no effort.

Imagine spending most of your waking hours with a certain set of muscles constantly flexed. That's my day every day. Except the flexed muscle is my attention span.

And like any over-worked muscle, my attention span has been known to cramp up!

This is especially true when dealing with large groups of teenagers.

Why?

Because teenagers (and stop me if you've heard this before) are loud. Get them together and they tend to prattle and jabber and carry on like a regular murder of crows. Imagine that sort of background noise and the hell it plays with an already loud ringing ever-present in one of your ears.

It's exhausting.

Listening, that is. Going through your day doing it.

Frustrating, too.

Because to "listen" is to be "attentive," to "pay attention" (in French, the verb "attendre" literally means "to listen"). And in a world rife with constant distractions (social media, video games, texting, smart phones, etc.), to be a "listener" is sometimes a lonely thing indeed.

But there is power in attentiveness; a strength not readily apparent to those caught in a postmodern half-life where distraction is the reality. My disability has forced me to pay attention to others in ways I am not inclined by nature to do.

And my life is so much the richer for it. Nuance and subtlety are difficult things to focus on when you've got a constant claNging in your ear. In order to grasp them, to understand them and to celebrate them requires the ability, the discipline to focus. That doesn't just happen and it sure doesn't come easy. Being attentive forces choices on a person, and yet for all that it pays handsome dividends to those who embrace it.

I am a better husband, father, son, brother, friend, colleague, teacher, and yes, writer, not because of my tinnitus, but because of my efforts to manage, and where possible, to transcend it.

I didn't ask for this burden, and I am not above complaining about it.

But I'll be damned if I'm going to let it isolate me.

No matter the cost.

No matter how exhausting.

No matter how maddening.

No matter how trying the sheer effort required to focus becomes.

I'll be damned if I'm going to let it beat me.

See you in two weeks!

05 September 2018

Lost in the Stacks for 41 Years


by Robert Lopresti

Gonna get a little off the main track here today.  I hope you forgive me.  You see, as of the first of September I am retired. I am going to tell you about some of my most memorable moments in forty-one years in the library mines.  Most have nothing to do with crime or writing.  So indulge me or go read something else.  I hear they have a lot of terrific stuff at MySpace.

                                                                         
When I was getting my Masters in Library Service degree the school urged us to call them as soon as we got our first jobs and tell them the salary.  So when I did I called them and gave them the big number: $10,300 a year.

"That's great," said the clerk.  "It will bring up the class average."



That first job was at a public library.   I was the government documents librarian but occasionally  I worked in the children's room.  I was at the desk there one day and two women walked in.  Obviously mother and grown daughter.  The mother marched up with a determined expression that said: I am going to get the answer if it takes all day.  Librarians love that look.

She fixed me with her steely gaze (why aren't gazes ever aluminumy?) and said "There's this book."

"Okay," I said.

"It's about a tree."  

 And that was clearly all she had.  No author, no title. Just a subject, a memory, and a burning desire to share it with her daughter.

I stood up.  "Follow me."  We marched to the Easy Readers.  I pulled out The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.

Her eyes went wide.  "That's it!  How did you know?"

I shrugged.  "I'm a librarian."




My assistant was Sue.  Between us sat a file cabinet and by the time I left every drawer had been neatly labeled with a misspelling of my name she had clipped from an envelope received in the mail: Robert Lopreski, Roberta Lopresti, Robert LoPresti, Robert Loparesti...

When my first short story was published I brought the magazine in and plopped it down in front of her open to the right page and pointed to my name.  "That's by me."

She tossed it back on my desk.  "No, it isn't."

Oh ye of little faith.

                                           

One day at the reference desk I got a phone call from a woman who wanted to know if we had The Power of Positive Thinking by Phyllis Schaeffer.

Now, a librarian is supposed to rely on sources.  If you ask me to spell cat I am supposed to check the dictionary.  But in this case I said "The Power of Positive Thinking  is by Norman Vincent Peale."

"No," she said with complete confidence.  "Phyllis Schaeffer."

So I checked the card catalog.  (Yup, that's what we had back then.)  Peale, yes.  Schaeffer, no.

Then the penny dropped.  The Power of the Positive Woman, by Phyllis Schlafly.  Well, the woman had been positive, all right.

                                                     

One of the longest-running science fiction fan organizations in the country used to meet at that library.  They held a special event to celebrate an anniversary and I graciously volunteered to be the library's representative.  Possibly this was because the guest speaker was Isaac Asimov.

He was, naturally, great.  His subject was a recent editorial in the New York Times saying that setting up a system to watch out for asteroids was a waste of money because, as I recall, no huge meteor hit the earth for many thousands of years, and therefore another wouldn't hit for thousands more.  Follow that logic?

Asimov gleefully reported on past NYT editorials on science.  One was an announcement that rockets wouldn't work in outer space because there was a vacuum.

This library was the largest in our part of the county and when one of the small libraries had a reference question they couldn't answer they bounced it to us.  One of those smaller institutions had a director named Miss D.  Her main characteristic, as far as I could tell, was that she was terrified of the members of her library board.

One day she called up and asked for the government documents librarian.  It seemed one of her  board members was looking for some government statistics about drug abuse.

I wrote the questions down. "Some of these I can answer," I told her.  "Some of the data I don't think is available."

"Well, do what you can."

I did.  This was long before the Internet and I had to dig through a whole lot of books.  Finally, after several hours of toil I called her up.

"I was able to find most of your answers, but not all of them."

"Oh," she said.  "Then never mind."  And hung up.



One day a patron (that's what librarians call customers, by the way) wanted to know what the phrase "the beast with two backs" meant.  I knew but I damn well wasn't going to tell her off the top of my head.  Fortunately Shakespeare's Bawdy by the brilliant Eric Partridge was at hand.



My next job was at a college library.  It was there that I found a report from the government of New Jersey that mentioned that the name of a small community in the southern part of the state, Mauricetown, was pronounced the same as a larger city in the northern half, Morristown.

Hmm...  That's the sort of thing my Atlantic City private eye Marty Crow would definitely know.  The result was "The Federal Case," Marty's first appearance in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

                                                           

Each librarian worked as a liaison for an academic department.  The acquisitions librarian told me there were several openings.  Naturally I chose English.  An hour later she was back with a file the size of a phone book.  "Read it and tell me if you still want the English Department."

Turned out two professors had come almost to the point of suing each other over an argument that involved the library.  One had written to the school paper complaining about the library and his colleague had written back, as I recall:  "Pay no attention to him.  We in the department have all had to hear him banging his spoon on his high chair before."  They eventually signed a joint statement agreeing that academic disagreements should be settled out of court.

I did take on the responsibilities for the English Department.  Didn't get sued.


                                                   
One night a college student came up to the reference desk and asked: "Is Nicaragua in Europe?"  This was during the Reagan administration when it looked like we might be invading that country any day.

I think I kept a straight face.  "No, Nicaragua is in Central America."

"Oh," she said.  "Is Central America in Europe?"

                                            
It was my Sunday to work at the reference desk.  It was snowing like crazy.

I was thinking about the next day.  I was the head of the search committee and we had a candidate coming in for a job interview.  In fact she should be flying in around now.  I hoped that the driver sent to pick her up got to the airport on time.

Then I remembered who had been given the job of arranging her transport.  Uh oh.
 
                                           
Speaking of search committees, I once went to lunch with a candidate.  He asked who was paying for the meal.  When I told him it was the college he ordered the most expensive thing on the menu.

I told the search committee: "Don't offer him the job.  He won't take it."

They did.  He turned it down.  We lost the position.

Nobody likes Cassandra.



One day the boss called me and another librarian into his office.  "I've been thinking about that meeting we had on Monday," he said.  "I want you two to run the project."  And then he spoke for several minutes about what he wanted, while we nodded solemnly.

Outside his office I turned to my colleague.  "Boy, I hope you were at that meeting on Monday, because I have no idea what he was talking about."

She said: "I was hoping you knew."

We went to the assistant boss who was outraged.  We soon got an apology for the confusion.  I never did find out what the project was about. 
                                                          

This was the time when computerized databases were first trickling into libraries.  One of the first we got (on a free-standing computer) was a list of all doctorate dissertations.  Another librarian, Barbara, and I both wanted to check out our father's PhDs.

"My father always insisted on people calling him 'doctor,'" I said.

Barbara is African-American.  "My father never cared whether people called him 'doctor' as long as they called him 'mister.'"

Which rather  put things in perspective.

                                                          


Most computer databases were expensive and you paid by the search.  Therefore only librarians were allowed to do the searches.  I remember one student asking me to search PsycInfo for peer-reviewed research articles that tested the theory that mental illness was caused by demonic possession.

I didn't have much luck.                            

One day I was at the reference desk and the president of the college walked in.  I had never seen him in the library.  He looked around, spotted me at the desk, and walked over.

I sat up straight, ready for action.

"Do you have a waste basket?"  By gosh, I knew the answer to that one.


The first computerized databases (i.e. periodical indexes) we got came from a company called Silver Platter and were literally on shiny discs, larger than LP records.  One day I was showing them to a group of adults (i.e. not college students) who seemed quite awed by the new technology.

The database froze.  I knew what that meant; a static electricity build up.  I also knew how to fix it.

While they watched I opened the case, took out the disc (by the edges!) and shook it vigorously.

"Do you know why I am doing this?"  Head shakes.

"I'm chasing off the evil spirits."  Nods.




The director of that library was Dr. Robert L. Goldberg.  He could be insanely frustrating but I learned more from him than any other boss.  For example, he told me approximately this:

"A good manager shares credit and hoards blame.  If the college president tells me he likes something in the library I always tell him who  did it, because it's important he doesn't think  this is a one-man operation.  But if he hates something and wants to know who is responsible, the only answer he gets is: me.  Because whoever did it, I am responsible."
                   

And that was the first ten years of my career. Tune in on September 19th when we will cover the remaining thirty-one years.

In the mean time, please save your files as the computers turn off automatically.  Please bring material to the circulation desk to borrow.  Safe travels.

04 September 2018

Prolific Slacker

by Michael Bracken

When Brian Thornton described one project for which he wrote an average of 1,425 words/day (“La Joie de l’Écriture,” my heart palpitated with anxiety. That’s almost 2.5 times greater than my production rate during the best year for which I have records.

In 2009 I wrote 216,310 words, an average of 593 words/day. In 2017, my worst recorded year, I produced only 130,600 words, an average of 387 words/day. Neither average comes close to Brian’s assertion that “most of the working writers” he knows “cite a thousand words per day as a healthy goal.” My writing production isn’t healthy; it’s anemic.

That’s because I’m a slacker, never producing near as many words on any given day as I know I’m capable of producing. I allow myself to get sidetracked—by research, by other story ideas, by Twitter tweets, by Facebook posts, by blog posts, by new online forms of solitaire—and I look up later to discover I’ve only produced a paragraph or two.

And yet, I wrote 75 short stories in 2009 and 32 in 2017, so even my least productive year resulted in a significant number of completed works.

SKEWED NUMBERS

Maybe the way I track word counts skews my numbers. I don’t track words as I produce them; I only count the words in completed, submission-ready manuscripts.

In any given year I produce an ungodly number of partial manuscripts, stories I’ll finish one of these days, if I live long enough.

I set the stories aside for a variety of reasons. Some are beginnings without endings. Some are story doughnuts, missing the all-important middle that gets readers from beginning to end. Some are rough outlines. Some are stories beyond my current ability to write. Many, though, are stories without markets. For example, I continue generating story ideas for confessions, even though the last two confession magazines ceased publication more than a year ago.

SETTING GOALS

As a short-story writer (and, likely, as with any other kind of writer), what matters most are finished manuscripts, so I’ve never set writing goals that involve number of words or number of pages or amount of time spent at the keyboard.

My annual goals, ever since setting them many years ago, are 52 acceptances and 52 new stories each year, or an average of one of each per week. Reprints carry the same weight as originals when counting acceptances, so the six reprints I placed a few weeks ago brought my total acceptances for the year to 32, which put me exactly on schedule as I write this. My production of new stories this year to date totals a paltry 13.

I have several stories near completion, but even were I to complete them all before month end, I would remain behind schedule. There are several reasons for the reduction in output, some of them, perhaps, the subjects of future posts, but the net result is that I am unlikely to meet my writing goals this year.

As a prolific slacker, I don’t chide myself for failing to meet my productivity goals nor do I allow myself to slip into a woe-is-me funk that further erodes my productivity. Instead, I do my best to deal with the things that sap my creativity or keep me away from the keyboard. Then, like now, when I am at the keyboard, I spend a little less time playing solitaire and a little more time stringing words together.

I may never join the ranks of the thousand-words-a-day working writers Brian cited—heck, this post won’t even reach a thousand words!—but I’ve found that my slacker’s approach allows me to produce an ever-growing body of work.

So, no matter how you set your goals—by the word, by the page, by the manuscript, or by the length of time at the keyboard—realize that you may not always meet those goals.

Whether you do or you don’t, the most important thing you can do is to keep pressing forward. As my youngest son recently said, you don’t fail until you quit.

Released at the end of August, Blood Work (Down & Out Books), edited by Rick Ollerman, celebrates the life of Mystery Writers of America Raven Award-winning Gary Shulze, long-time owner of the legendary Once Upon A Crime bookstore in Minneapolis. Gary left an indelible mark on the crime fiction community across the world before he passed away in 2016 due to complications from leukemia. The anthology includes my story “Backlit.”

If you’ll be at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg this week, stop in on “This Ain’t Your Mama’s Orange Juice—Writing Pulp,” a panel in which I’ll join Frank De Blase, Kate Pilarcik, and moderator Steven Torres. We’ll start squeezing oranges at 4:00 p.m., Saturday, September 8.

And I’ll be speaking about “Short Stories: From Concept to Sale, How This Form Can Satisfy,” at the noon MWA-Southwest luncheon, September 15, at Carraba’s, 1399 South Voss, Houston, Texas.

03 September 2018

Write What THEY Know

by Steve Liskow

One of the time-worn chestnuts about getting ideas is "write what you know," and many people point out that staying on familiar ground will limit you. Obviously, it depends on what you know. It certainly didn't hurt Tom Clancy, did it? Or maybe Xaviera Hollander. If you have the right experience, you're golden.

The shared experiences some people think are mundane will be fresh if you put YOUR slant on them. And if they're shared experiences, you already touch a shared nerve that will affect many readers.

Everyone has a first job, first day of school, first date, first heartbreak and dozens of other rites of passage. One of the great literary themes is loss of innocence, which fills a lot of the high school literature reading list. "The Girl in the Red Bandanna," which I published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine last spring, revisits a summer job I only held for one night.

I've played guitar since the mid-sixties and one of my favorite stories was inspired by seeing the
Muddy Waters Blues Band when I was still heavily into the Monkees and Paul Revere & The Raiders. My musical world changed that night, but the story has had over 20 rejections and I've run out of places to send it. Oh, well...

Most of my titles are also song titles because Woody Guthrie, my wannabe rock & roller PI, came from meeting a classmate at my high school reunion. She was now a full-time session musician in Detroit. Blood On the Tracks, Woody's first adventure, was a long time coming, but he now appears in four novels and a few short stories, all of which take their names from songs.

My wife insists that Hell is really middle school. WE all have nightmares about it except the kids whose voices never changed, never had a growth spurt, or never went through puberty. Judy Blume is one of many writers who turned the angst into a gold mine. My own Postcards of the Hanging grew out of a scandal that rocked my school senior year.

Bel Kaufman had a huge bestseller recounting a first year of teaching in Up the Down Staircase, and Braithwaite fared nearly as well with To Sir With Love. My own Run Straight Down comes from my teaching, too, but has a little darker perspective.

Several of my friends (well, two. I don't have many) ask when I'm going to write a story revolving around theater. Well, Linda Barnes wrote an amateur sleuth series featuring Michael Sprague as an actor who solved mysteries. She gave the series up because, as she pointed out, if people got killed in every production Sprague joined, eventually nobody would cast the guy anymore. Barnes and I both grew up in Southern Michigan, moved to New England, and taught English and theater. She's younger and taller than I am, and much nicer. She also went back to theater for her standalone The Perfect Ghost a few years ago. If you have any familiarity with Hamlet, you might check it out.

Three days ago, I finished a first draft of my first attempt to use theater as a background for a story. I  only had to look up one detail that I no longer remembered after several years. It was fun to write, too, a refreshing break from my usual rock and blues.
My favorite poster from when I was directing...

Everybody knows something nobody else does. And maybe it's so obvious we don't even know we know it.

Now for the BSP. John Floyd and I both have stories in the newest issue of Mystery Weekly, now available at your favorite website.

02 September 2018

Women in Peril

by Leigh Lundin

Janice Law’s article inspired today’s column…

Just the facts, ma’am.

Nancy Drew’s fan base loved women in peril. Encouraged by old man Stratemeyer, Mildred Wirt Benson (aka Carolyn Keene) wrote Nancy as an independent, impulsive, and headstrong 1930s girl. I'm not sure how this factors in, but when Edward Stratemeyer’s daughters took over in the 1960s, Harriet rewrote the first three dozen novels making Nancy less impetuous, less independent, and women-in-peril continued to attract readers. Why?

Evidence suggests we become more engaged and outraged when a pretty girl is killed. Outrage sells movies. It sells books. It stirs our emotions. Could The Virgin Suicides have been written about five brothers?

M-F homicide deaths 7:2
Besides violence toward women tearing at our hearts, we may take extra notice because, despite a plethora of movies and television shows to the contrary, female homicide victims are considerably less common. Of every nine people murdered, seven will be male. [2010] Perhaps it isn't fair to suggest Poe’s and Clark’s women-in-peril stories ramp up violence or actual homicide.

Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Higgins Clark apparently scored emotional bullseyes. They knew how to play upon our fears, male and female. Protectiveness of loved ones is hard-wired in male DNA. So often when one gender feels strongly about something, the opposite sex experiences the mirror image.

What if political, patriarchal, anger-against-women motives don’t drive the industry? Could something deeper be going on?

Our Inner Cave(wo)man

An explanation offered by psychologist Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, offers spellbinding insight. She asserts the innermost mind is anything but politically correct. She articulates it in talks and texts better than I, but she says the secret pleasures that turn us on at night are the same we protest during the day.

Perel’s field centers upon our hidden, primitive, self-subversive psychology. When the lights go out, we change. We revert.

Biological components have been recognized since forever. Danger… fear… jeopardy fuel concupiscence. The underlying theory goes that great risk of life ignites a need to procreate, to ensure survival of the species.

Once in an agony column, a husband wrote in, worried about his wife. Immediately following a car accident, she wanted to rush home and make love– cuts and scrapes be damned. Had the accident damaged her mentally? Of course not. Faced with mortality, her survival instinct kicked into gear, a strong, healthy response.

Wars embody the most frightening fears. They’re irrational, society has gone mad, the rules have shattered. Death could arrive in an instant. Population figures show a leveling of growth when heading into a war, but once existence is somewhat assured, survivors mate— often. The term ‘Baby Boomers’ wasn’t idly selected.

US population growth chart

Movie makers discovered early on a simplistic formula: fear=aphrodisiac. Teens didn’t flock to drive-in horror movies for the production qualities, but reproduction qualities.

My friend Crystal Mary, the staunchest feminist I know, loves slasher films, flicks I, God help me, can barely watch between my fingers. Her eyes brighten, her neck flushes, and she bounces home in an ebullient mood. Never for a second would she approve of violence toward women. What’s happening? Me, a diet of slasher movies would give me nightmares, but Crystal Mary’s able to connect with an uncomplicated, elemental part of her being. The premises of Mary Higgins Clark and Edgar Allan Poe she could understand.

What is your take? Could Clark and Poe have stumbled upon the secret that our fears drive the most rousing plots? Can you stomach blood-n-guts horror films better than Leigh? Are you able to serve as designated driver?

01 September 2018

POSTed, STRANDed, and BCMMed


by John M. Floyd



Situation report: It's been a pretty good summer, writingwise. I worked with my publisher to finish the manuscript of my new story collection coming later this year, I participated in two panels--and moderated one--at our annual Mississippi Book Festival (6400 people attended panels that day), and I've written some short stories, sold some, and had some published. At the moment, I have stories in the current issues of three publications: The Saturday Evening Post, The Strand Magazine, and Black Cat Mystery Magazine. And since I couldn't come up with another topic for my column today, I decided to give you a few "stories behind the stories" for these three shorts.

Of these three, my story in The Saturday Evening Post (the September/October 2018 issue) is the only one that's not a mystery. It's probably more of a drama/romance. It's also the only one that was inspired by actual events. It's called "The Music of Angels," the meaning of which will become clear if/when you read it, and it's short--about 2000 words. (The print edition of the SEP features one piece of fiction in each two-month issue, and so far my stories there have ranged from about 1500 to about 5500 words.)

The first half of this story is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and many years pass. What happens next I won't reveal, here, but since I've told you it's essentially a romance you can probably figure it out. What I hope is entertaining about it is the process, and a surprise or two. I will say that the opening scene, which features two college students who meet at the information desk of their Student Union, happens almost exactly the way it happened to me, in real life. The rest is fictional, but the final part of the story is based closely on my mother, who's 92 and still lives in the house where I grew up.

Another unique thing about this story is that I once promised our oldest son's three children, who all love to read, that I would one day include characters with their names in one of my stories. So the main characters in this one are named Lillian, Anna, and Gabe. It's a small and silly thing, but I think those three kids'll get a kick out of that when they read it.

My story in The Strand Magazine (the June-October 2018 issue) is called "Foreverglow"--original title "The Foreverglow Case"--and was one that I dreamed up while sitting in our backyard swing a few months ago, before the temperature and the humidity and the mosquito population rose high enough to send everyone screaming into their houses. I must've been in a noirish frame of mind that day because the idea that popped into my head was of a blue-collar guy who lets his smarter girlfriend talk him into robbing the jewelry section of the department store where she works. They devise a plan by which she can smuggle a display case of samples of their new Foreverglow collection out of the store to him while she remains inside, and then they can make their getaway the following day after things have calmed down. I hope what happens will be a surprise to the reader, but you probably already suspect that things don't work out exactly as planned. Do they ever?

The third story I have out right now is "Diversions," which appears in Issue #3 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, alongside stories by my SleuthSayers colleagues Eve Fisher and Michael Bracken. This one is also a mystery/crime story, but it's a western (how could I not want to write a western after watching all those episodes of Have Gun--Will Travel?), and features a bank robber who's been caught in the act and is now in custody in a temporary jail and under guard by a female (and also temporary) deputy. The most unusual thing about the story is that the entire plot takes place in less that an hour's time and inside those four walls, and the fact that the inspiration for one of the characters' names came from a road sign on State Highway 25, about forty miles northeast of where I live. On the sign were--and still are--the names of two Mississippi towns, one above the other: LENA, with an arrow pointing west, and MORTON, with an arrow pointing east. One day when my wife and I were driving past on the way to visit my mother, I noticed the words on that sign, and made a mental note. Now, about a year later, the deputy's name in this story is Lena Morton.

I find myself doing that kind of thing occasionally just because it's (1) fun, and (2) different. Which, now that I think about it, is a good way to describe (1) writing, and (2) writers.

So those are my current publications, and a few facts about how they came to be. Upcoming are stories in AHMM, EQMM, BCMM, Woman's World, Mystery Weekly, Flash Bang Mysteries, The Best American Mystery Stories 2018, and nine anthologies, including one that also features my heroes Joe Lansdale, Bill Pronzini, and Max Allan Collins. Here's the cover of that anthology, Pop the Clutch, which'll be released on November 1.


Do any of you have stories out, or coming up soon, in magazines or collections or anthologies? Any novels recently released, or scheduled? If so, let me know what they are--and keep up the good work. I hope your story ideas--and mine--keep coming.

See you in two weeks.





31 August 2018

The Most Poetical Topic

by Janice Law

A recent spell of hot weather has sent me to air conditioning and the tube, particularly to an older series of DCI Banks and the first installments of this season’s Endeavour. The episodes are nicely done, but as the body count of attractive young women piled up, I couldn’t help thinking of our macabre poet and theorist, Edgar Alan Poe.

Poet, author, theorist,
Edgar Alan Poe
Poe presented his work as highly calculated, rational, and premeditated. All those psychopathic killers, ghastly diseases, mouldering castles, and subterranean vaults were not the inspiration of an all-too-accessible subconscious. Oh, no, according to the poet. They were selected rationally and carefully calibrated to produce the required effect on the reader.

Which brings us to his very much pre-Me Too Movement quote: “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” Stated so baldly, it’s an idea that should properly give us pause, but transferred to a big – or little - screen it appears to be money in the bank.

Even as more and more women appear on screen as detectives and police administrators, and female killers prove to be very nearly as deadly as the male, popular crime flicks are still littered with dead girls. Abandoned on the moors, shut up in basements, found dead in alleys, they are sometimes wild, indulging in drink, drugs, sex, and that perennial moralist obsession, unsuitable clothing. Other times they are innocents, popular, intelligent, genuine sweethearts, but all wind up on the mortuary table.

In the bad old days of pulp fiction, girls (they were always girls) were either good (virginal) or bad (experienced). Our enlightened generation congratulated ourselves when that dichotomy began to break down, when young women could have a sex life without depravity.

Young Inspector Morse & Constable Trewlove
But recently it has struck me that, at least on the crime shows, we have exchanged one set of boxes for women for another: the savvy, highly competent, emotionally complex investigator versus the pretty, possibly capable, but still inevitably doomed, victim.

Consider that a recent episode of  DCI Banks that featured not one, not two, but five nubile young things who came to terrible ends plus a much-abused female accomplice, also had two prominent women officers. Even Endeavour, realistic for the 1950’s and 60’s, with an almost entirely male police force, features the smart Constable Trewlove, who is pretty and pretty tough, too. But murder happens often in Oxford and attractive young – or youngish – women remain a prime target.

Many years ago, I went to a mystery writers program featuring Mary Higgins Clark, who remarked that the reading public loves “women in jeopardy,” a sub genre that became one of her specialities. It’s an old favorite, going back in modern times to the Perils of Pauline that my mom remembered in the silents and before that, to Richardson’s famous Clarissa, whose eponymous heroine would have had plenty to contribute at #MeToo.

DCI Banks & DS Annie Cabot
So was Poe right? Are females in danger and the deaths of especially pretty ones just the modern version of the ancients’ dramas provoking pity and terror?

I’m not so sure. Pity and terror, yes, but given the omnipresence of dead teenage beauties in our popular entertainment and the often graphic depictions of their demise, I cannot help thinking about another strain in our culture, a deep and seemingly irradicable dislike of feminine independence. The gaudy feminine body count suggests a more complex function: to provide at once the emotional kick start for the investigators and, on another level, perhaps to court the darkness that all too commonly underlies interaction between the sexes.

For every action, Newton said, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Detective fiction illustrates this on a psychological level very nicely. Modern female detectives, pathologists, even police superintendents are balanced by a plethora of sadistic crimes against women, and often to be young and pretty is to be one step from being a victim.

30 August 2018

Safety: A Woman's Perspective

by Eve Fisher

You'd have to be under a rock for the last month to not know/hear about the tragic story of Mollie Tibbetts, the Iowa college student who went missing a few weeks ago, and whose body was found in an Iowa cornfield, stabbed to death.  Her killer turned out to be an illegal immigrant from Mexico.  President Trump, Senators Chuck Grassley, Joni Ernst, Tucker Carlson and most of Fox News wasted no time weighing in about how the "broken immigration system" led to the tragic murder of an innocent young girl, and that we need to build a wall NOW.
NOTE that all of these ignored the fact that her killer had been living and working at a local Iowa dairy farm for years (which farm later admitted they hadn't used the E-verify system), and before that had gone to high school in the same town.  
And the pundits didn't even bother to hide the fact that they're going to use Mollie's death as a major campaign talking point:
"Personally, I don't believe that the Cohen and Manafort story really moves the meter in one direction," said Fox News contributor, former GOP congressman Jason Chaffetz. "But what will touch the hearts, what does touch people's emotion, is what happened to Mollie Tibbetts because they can relate to her and she was murdered. All the polls are showing that the No. 1 issue is immigration." (quote)
This despite the fact that the Mollie Tibbetts case is a murder investigation, not an immigration issue.  And nothing they do to him, or to "secure our borders" by walls or anything else, will make women any safer in America.  Because here's the deal:  Women are kidnapped, raped, beaten, murdered all the time in America.  90+% of the time by Americans.  Most of the time it doesn't even make the news.  And the silence around that is overwhelming.

Image result for men are afraid that women will laugh at them. women are afraid that men will kill them

The same week that Mollie Tibbetts' killer and body were found was the week that Chris Watts was arrested in Colorado for killing his pregnant wife Shanann and their two preschool daughters Bella and Celeste.  But once someone said "illegal immigrant," Chris Watts - who premeditatedly killed his entire family - was off the news.  (NYT

The Watts Family
And in the Watts case, the pundits certainly weren't being very hysterical about the perpetrator.  Before the Watts family murders was drowned in the dark hole of racial hysteria, a motive appeared:  Apparently Shanann found out that her husband was having an affair with a co-worker.  And so a psychologist on Fox News made it seem (almost) perfectly logical that he killed her and the children:  “Most [murders] were done — 60 percent were done — by rage, the other 10 percent they don’t know the cause, and the other 30 percent were spousal revenge. I’m pretty surprised he didn’t kill himself, too. Oftentimes, it goes in a pattern,” said Mowder, who said in this case, there could be another reason for the murders. “I think he had a vision of another life with this other woman — carefree, no responsibilities,” she said. “Two children and another on the way, that’s a big responsibility.”  (Fox)

So, the husband was overburdened and couldn't cope, so of course he killed them all?

It could be worse:  I was in a church, once, where the pastor said from the pulpit that Nicole Simpson deserved what she got because she was an adulterous woman.  I got up and walked out, but a lot of people were nodding their heads.  (In case you've forgotten, the Simpsons were divorced when Nicole was murdered, and even if they weren't - adultery is an unacceptable reason to slash someone's throat.)
Nia Wilson

And I doubt that many of you heard about Nia Wilson, an 18 year old black woman who was stabbed to death by a white man on July 24, 2018, as she stood waiting on the platform of a Bay Area Rapid Transit train.  Her sister, Lahtifa, was also badly wounded.  The attacker was John Cowell, an ex-felon, transient, perhaps schizophrenic, an Aryan Brotherhood member, who apparently laid in wait for the "right" people to attack.  Nia was a student, too, who planned to become a paramedic - or maybe a music producer.  Like Mollie, she had her whole life ahead of her.  (NYT2)

And then there's Tyler Tessier, currently on trial for killing his pregnant girlfriend, Laura Wallen, back in September of 2017.  He took her out to a rural, grassy hill in Maryland - supposedly to show her where they'd build their dream home - and then shot her in the back of the head and buried her.  (Washington Post)  Because, as Ms. Mowder said above, a child on the way, "that's a big responsibility."

Tell you what, if you want to do a really depressing Google Search, google "man killed pregnant girlfriend" or "man killed entire family" and see how many hits come up.

Here in South Dakota, we had Scott Westerhuis, who (after being informed that his embezzlement was going to catch up with him) in 2015 shot his wife and four children, torched his house, and then shot himself.  But nobody ever says we've got to have strict background checks or psychological testing on potential and current domestic partners.

And when Robert Leroy Anderson was tried and convicted for kidnapping, raping, torturing, and killing women in South Dakota back in the 90s, nobody ever even mentioned psychological testing or regular searches of pudgy white men who work at meat-packing plants, and nobody brought up deportation.
NOTE:  in that case, the only person's immigration status that was ever brought up was that of one of his victims.  Yes, I'm serious - Larisa Dumansky was a Ukrainian immigrant, and when she first disappeared, a rumor went around that she'd either gone back home or dumped her husband because they had a green card marriage.  It took a while for people to accept that she'd been kidnapped and murdered.
Elizabeth Smart Speaks About Overcoming Trauma.jpg
Elizabeth Smart
And when Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped at 14 by a man who claimed to be purifying and restoring the true Mormon church - who kidnapped her and raped her daily for nine months - there was an almost unbreakable silence about the various Mormon (and other) polygamist compounds in America whose leaders routinely marry child brides, i.e., rape children, live off of government welfare, and drive off their male kids so they won't be their fathers' rivals for all the child brides.  There was no crackdown, and most of those compounds are still in existence, including in South Dakota.

Then there's Caroline Nosal, 24, shot and killed by a co-worker after he was suspended after she complained he was sexually harassing her. 

And Lakeeya Walker was 22 and pregnant, whose attacker choked and kicked her because she hadn’t thanked him after he held open the door.  


And let us never forget Jaelynn Willey, the 16 year old who was shot in the head by her ex-boyfriend.  Her killer was called by many news outlets "a lovesick teen" and a "heartbroken homecoming prince".

Look, there's a reason for women to be afraid in this country, but it sure as hell isn't because of undocumented immigrants.
  • It's because half of all female homicide victims are killed by intimate partners, and more than 98% of those partners are men.  (CDC Data
  • It's because 82% of women who have been raped were raped by someone they knew; only 18% by a stranger.  (See Rape Statistics here)  
  • It's because 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
  • It's because 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
  • It's because 1 in 7 women and 1 in 18 men have been stalked by an intimate partner during their lifetime to the point in which they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.  
And then there's the fact that women always, always, always have to be on their guard in public spaces, because way too many men have an unbelievable sense of entitlement about what they can say and do to women.  Mollie Tibbetts' murder unleashed a wave of reminscences:
A woman I know was 53 years old the last time she rejected a stranger’s advances, and it went badly. A man on the New York subway kept asking her out, complimenting her breasts and butt, though he used more vulgar terms. When she told him she wasn’t interested, he pivoted to yelling, “I’m going to f--- you up, you fat bitch,” until she asked the other passengers to take out their cellphones and document what was happening. This was just a few days ago.  (The Perils of Being a Woman Who's Just Asking to Be Left Alone
Alanna Vagianos wrote a series of tweets about the perils of running while female in America:
"I found out a few years after that first break in that my sister was almost abducted by a few guys in a van while she was on a run in college. Thankfully, she was able to fight them off. I've never seen her go on a run since."
"Yesterday, my friend told me her mom stopped running after dark & bought an elliptical machine after her best friend was kidnapped & murdered while she was on a run."
“The lengths that women have to go to protect themselves from being alone in public spaces is restrictive, exhausting, f***ing terrifying.” (Twitter)
Women hear these stories ― from our friends, from our mothers, from the news. We internalize the threat and act accordingly, going places in groups, or holding our car keys between our fingers when we walk through a dark parking lot, or looking down an alley before running past it to make sure no one is going to jump out at us, or wearing headphones without actually playing anything through them, or avoiding streets and places and activities altogether ― even activities that, as Vagianos put it, are “so integral to [our] well-being.”  (Emma Gray, HuffPost)
I understand.  I take long walks alone, and have for years.  But I'm older, I have my keys, a cell phone, and I, too, watch where I go.  And I haven't always been lucky.

I can guarantee you that every woman you know has a story.  Every woman you know has been afraid for her safety, her life at one point or another.

Incel movementBecause you can't avoid them.  The self-entitled assholes are out there.  "Why don't you smile?"  "What's the matter, you don't like me?"  "Quit being such a bitch."  "So, you're not going to talk to me?"  "Hey, I got something for you."  "You trying to ignore me?"  "Who the hell do you think you are?"

And now, of course, we're also dealing with the incel movement, which believes that women do not ever have the right to say no, and which has already provided the world with a number of mass murderers (see Wikipedia, The Guardian, The New Yorker).  Because life as a woman has never been dangerous enough.

What do women want?
We want to walk, move, sit, run, play frisbee, etc., in public and be left alone.
We want to get on with our day without having to pander to someone else's ego.
We don't want to have to smile, talk, laugh, or otherwise respond because of someone else's demand.
We want to live our lives with the freedom from even the thought of harassment, assault, rape, and murder that men consider normal.

BTW, I found very interesting is that on all the above posts I've cited, and quite a few more, there is always someone - yes, some guy - who commented, essentially, well, whatcha gonna do?  Round up all the white males and get rid of them?  A few reactions:
(1) Thanks, "some guy", for proving that we're touching a nerve.
(2) Thanks, "some guy", for letting us know that changing male behavior isn't a viable option in your world.
(3) Thanks, "some guy", for blindness to irony, considering that our President, Fox News, and most GOP politicians are calling for, basically, rounding up all the Hispanics and getting rid of them to solve the problem.
(4) Thanks, "some guy", for proving that the enemy is us.








29 August 2018

Coming Down With Something

by Robert Lopresti

I have to apologize.  This is not going to be the long masterpiece you have every right to expect, based on my past performance.  I seem to be coming down with something.

You know how it is.  You stroll blithely along, minding your own business, looking both ways before crossing the street, washing your hands regularly, buttoning up when you feel a chill.  Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it hits you like a tsunami and leaves you wondering what the hell happened.

Lawrence Block said that he wrote even when he wasn't feeling well and afterwards he could never tell the sick-day pages from the healthy ones.  But we aren't all Larry Block or there would be a lot more Matt Scudder novels. would there not?

Too bad, because I was prepared to write something brilliant for you today.  I had the theme for my essay worked out, had done some research, come up with a couple of bon mots.  The mots were bon by my standard, anyway.

And what I had written, well, I don't like to brag, but Charlie, my writing partner, was mightily impressed.  And he is a tough customer, I'll tell you.  Just look at him.

But all that is gone now, put aside for another day.  There's no way I can concentrate on that now. I've definitely got a bug.

I'm showing all the symptoms: plot outlines, character sketches, a few experimental snatches of dialog.

Damn it.  It looks like I'm coming down with a novel.

28 August 2018

Rounding Things Out

by Barb Goffman

A few nights ago as I was brushing my teeth, I glanced at the calendar hanging on my bathroom door. It was about eleven p.m. As I focused on the date, a memory flashed through my mind, and I realized to my horror that I had one hour left of being young.

You see, when the clock struck midnight, I was to turn forty-nine-and-a-half years old, which meant I would be entering ... my rounding years. You've never heard of rounding years? Well, allow me to enlighten you.

It was December 1978. I was nine years old and had been working on a family newspaper all that autumn. It was filled with juicy stories including:

  • Was there some sort of connection between my father and maternal grandfather besides marriage? After all, they both had a growth on their nose in the exact same spot. I know--it's spooky right? Or was it nefarious?
  • One of my brothers had been banned from Idaho after being caught speeding there. In a response to the editor, the subject of the story claimed he had been misunderstood, but this reporter stands by her story. His exact quote: "I can't go back there."
  • My mother was always rushing around. She would always know if she had somewhere to go and could get there without stress if she left early enough. But she always left late so everything was a big rush. This was more a feature piece, since it certainly wasn't news to anyone in the family. Everyone knew.

I typed the newspaper on a typewriter just like this one.
 And then there was the story that sparked this trip down Memory Lane. The article about my dad entering his rounding years. You see, when I was young I was a black-or-white kind of girl. You either lived in the city or the country.  You either were rich or poor. And you either were young or old. I clung to this worldview despite that we lived in the suburbs, were (upper) middle-class, and my parents were middle-aged. As Dad was approaching age fifty, I knew that old age was coming for him. But it felt odd to me that one second you could be young and the next second you could be old. Since I didn't grasp the concept of middle-age, I came up with my own idea: rounding years.

Here's how it works: Up to age forty-nine and a day less than six months, you are young. (Woo-hoo!) Then bam! You hit forty-nine-and-a-half and you've entered this period where your body starts wearing out. (I was nine and didn't really think this through, but let's say that during this time your hair turns gray, your bones start to creak, and you start saying "oof" when you sit down.) You get two full years to slowly turn old. Then when you reach the ripe age of fifty-one-and-a-half, bam again! You are old. It's all down hill from there.

Why did I choose a two-year period from forty-nine-and-a-half to fifty-one-and-a-half? Beats me. I was nine years old and clearly had way too much time on my hands. Plus an active imagination.

So you'll have to bear with me from here on out if I start getting nostalgic for an earlier time or begin doing things that are quirky. (Okay, fine. Quirkier.) I'm no longer young, you see. I'm rounding things out.

But I stand by that Idaho story. It was spot on.

*******

And now, for a little BSP:

Next week I'll be heading to the Bouchercon mystery convention in St. Petersburg, Florida, along with several other SleuthSayers. If you too will be there, I'd love to see you. Here's my schedule:
  • I'll be participating in a mass panel/signing for the new Bouchercon anthology, Florida
    Pot roast, anyone?
    Happens
    , on Thursday, Sept. 6th at 1 p.m. The book is scheduled to be released next Tuesday, the 4th. It includes stories by fellow SleuthSayers John Floyd and Paul D. Marks, as well as my newest story, "The Case of the Missing Post Roast." The reviews coming in have been excellent. Publisher's Weekly said in part, "These 21 tales are testimony to the wealth of notable crime fiction rooted in the Sunshine State." The amazing Hank Phillippi Ryan called the book, "As crazy-unpredictable as a Florida vacation! These short-story gems are quirky, surprising, original and irresistible. It's a collaboration of mystery rock stars that's absolutely terrific." You can pre-order a copy now by clicking here. Or if you'll be at Bouchercon, you can buy a copy there and come to the signing. 
  • At six p.m. on Thursday, I'll be at opening ceremonies, where (among other things) the winners for this year's Macavity Award will be announced. My story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" is a finalist in the short-story category, along with stories by fellow SleuthSayers Paul D. Marks and Art Taylor, as well as stories by Craig Faustus Buck, Matt Coyle, and Terence Faherty.
  • On Friday the 7th at 1 p.m. I'll be on a panel with my fellow nominees for this year's Anthony Award in the short-story category. I'm honored to share finalist honors this year with Susanna Calkins, Jen Conley, Hilary Davidson, Debra H. Goldstein, and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor. If you haven't read the six nominated stories, it's not too late. They're all online. Click here and you'll find links to reach them all. Read before you vote!
  • On Saturday the 8th at 7 p.m. I'll be at the presentation for the Anthony Award.
Fingers crossed on multiple fronts! I hope to see you there.