11 June 2018

Motivation or Get Outta That Rut?




Jan Grape and daughter Karla J. Lee
by Jan Grape

I think all writers sometimes feel in a rut. 

I think all creative people sometimes feel in a rut.

Maybe even a lot of people sometimes feel they're in a rut.

My daughter and I were having this conversation the other night.

She works eight or nine hours a day in an office, spending a lot of time staring at a computer screen. Then there's the 20-30-40 minute drive home depending on  the traffic. By the time she walks into her house and put on her comfortable shorts and T-shirt, pours a glass of wine and walks outside to her deck overlooking a river, all she wants to do is chillax. She makes a quick dinner and vegges out in front of the TV until bedtime.

She's a songwriter but has trouble getting motivated to pick up her  ukulele and creating a song. "I think I'm in a rut," she says.

Do y'all know that ukuleles are very popular again? When I was a young girl I would go visit my dad and bonus mom in the summer. I would beg my dad to play his uke and sing. And he would often agree. He played songs like "Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue" or "I Wanna Go Back To My Little Grass Shack" or "Lazy Bones." I love it. Now there are little pockets of uke players all over the country. Think I even saw a singer/player on THE VOICE tv show. (but I digress.) 

I understand being in a rut. I'm retired and have time to write, but I've often listened to my lazy self and after doing a few chores or trying to get my allergies or arthritis pain under control, I wind up vegging in front of the TV and never manage to get a word written on my next story. It seems that I'm in a rut.

It's all about motivation.

 How do you get motivated? What works for me may not work for you but I have to sit myself down and realize that I am in a rut with my life and decide to do something about it. 

Calling a good friend I haven't seen in months and inviting she and her daughter to meet me at a new Tex-Mex restaurant I've been wanting to try. 

Signing up for Yoga class. Signing up to volunteer someplace: meals on wheels, local library, visiting a children's hospital or nursing home each week, helping out at a soup kitchen. Just something to make it out of that rut.  Take a daily walk, learn to quilt or paint or to play piano. You can fill your days with something different.

If you're retired like I am, when you get up in the morning, fix your hair and make up if you're female, shave if male and dress if going to an office. Check your day planner then go to your writing work space.

Several years ago I was at a Bouchercon and Sue Grafton was giving a talk to four or five hundred people and she said if you have sat down at your computer and your writing time is three hours, stay there for three hours. Even if you stare at the computer screen and only write the word THE. Sit there for the full three hours.  Write something, anything and once you do this, hopefully, only one time of three hours with a blank screen, your creative muse will kick in. Because who wants to sit writing nothing for more than one day?  

If you are still working, it's a little different. And you are the only one who can decide what works best for you. Get up an hour earlier to write each day or three days a week. Or set your goal to write four hours a day on Saturday and four hours a day on Sunday. Whatever works for you. 

Just do something during the week that gets you out of your rut. Pack a sack lunch and go outside to eat in the park. Buy a ticket to a concert on a Friday night. Spend Sunday afternoon in a museum. 

You can decide to make your own happiness and to get out of your rut, JUST DO IT. 





10 June 2018

Uninsured Caribou


by Leigh Lundin

Here in Gunsmoke, eastern Arizona, temperatures plummeted to a Pleistocene low of 104°F (40°C). Residents claim it’s not real hot yet, but Tripod, the town dog, got stuck peeing on a Jeep tire. Folks now call him Bipod.

Part of Gunsmoke’s Main Street started bubbling. Hot asphalt seeped like syrup into the canyon floor, revealing a full-grown Triceratops or perhaps only a 1927 Ford pickup. No one’s sure because the local fire & ladder truck sent to rescue it sank into the tarpit, providing some sort of metaphor.

Last Drop in the Bucket List

Lest you think Arizona is one huge, silicon-to-glass furnace, it does offer varied terrain. With that in mind, I opted to visit the Grand Canyon. It was then I became a killer.

After pumping a tankful of petro-chemicals, I crossed the San Carlos Apache reservation and threaded the switchbacks to connect with Arizona 188. About 3am with my Hawkeye Pathfinder GPS locked on Flagstaff, I headed north into the Tonto National Forest, where the deer and the antelope play.

Deer and elk were plentiful. I slowed for a doe and fawn here, a couple of yearlings there, and numerous adults. Think of elk as a cross between deer and moose. Bull elks average 700 pounds and top 850 (320/340kg). Cow elk weigh in about 500 pounds and max out at 600 (230/275kg). I mention this because…

There in my side of the road stood a doe. I shifted to the left lane and slowed to 40… 30… 20… As I was about to pass, she leaped dead center into my path, taking out the grill and shattering the windshield.

In the headlights of the car, I got out, knelt, and inspected her. She gave a confused little bark and lay quietly. She had to be in great pain. From time to time, she tried to struggle to her feet, not understanding when her hindquarters didn’t cooperate. She was beautiful and brave. My heart broke for her.

elk
photograph courtesy Layna Fields

My rough ’n’ tough, not-so-little brother Glen would have murmured soothing words to her, stroked her, and held her head in his lap, telling her it was okay to let go.

While I'm good with animals, I'm no match for him. Me, I squatted and talked quietly, keeping a healthy distance from elk teeth in case she misinterpreted my words. I needn’t have worried as she poured out her story.

As young bucks are wont to do, her boyfriend had left her. Despondent, she’d thrown herself in front of the train, or rather lacking a railroad, in front of the nearest car.

A couple of hours later, a Coconino County deputy arrived. He combined a good mix of empathy, sympathy, professionalism and practicality. He put down the girl with a solid-slug shotgun. He dragged the elk from the road and down an embankment. “Good meat,” he said regretfully.

The Deerslayer

Following him, I limped toward Flagstaff as daybreak dawned over the forest. A couple of dozen more elk emerged from the woods to glare accusingly at me.

“Damn,” said a friend. “That’s Rambo Bambi.”

“Her name tag said Bambo.”

“My bro asked about the meat, as if a rooftop could carry a quarter-ton elk.”

Providing no night or weekend service, Bo’s Insurance Agency was smaller than average. When finally connected, much parlance ensued about the top priority, glass replacement.”

“Why exactly do you need a new windshield?”

“An elk went through it.”

“There’s no elk in it now?”

“Nope.”

“So it’s not a real emergency since you don’t no longer got an elk in your front seat.”

“The deputy said not to drive until the window’s replaced.”

“Oh. Our job would be a lot easier if police didn’t offer advice like that. I reckon you got to take it to a glass shop and get an estimate.”

“What about a come-to-your-door windshield replacement company?”

“They have those?”

“Sure enough, Bo.”

“You don’t got deer insurance. That’s a $500 deductible.”

“Thanks for reminding me.”

“Listen, you find a game butcher to cut up the meat?”

Without mentioning minor details about the previous car, I rented a another. At Williams, Arizona, I took the train to the Grand Canyon.

Elk of all ages wandered through the Canyon village. They gathered around me and unnervingly stared. Spooked tourists cautiously backed away.

“What’s with you and the deer, buddy?”

“Elk,” I said. “I killed one.”

“He killed Bambi!” screamed a child.

“What calibre you use, buddy? Them’s good eatin’. Where do ya dress the meat around here?”

To my surprise, my phone picked up Virgin and AT&T cellular signals, all the more satisfying when those smug Verizon customers scratched their heads in frustration.

My friend Thrush had suggested I visit Sedona. After four days of waiting for a windscreen, I was free to leave Flagstaff. Knowing its lonely AT&T cell tower would fade at the city limits, I phoned to let him know I was on my way south to Yavapai County. I told him about hitting the elk.

“Don’t ask me about meat,” I said.

“I was just gonna suggest…”

Sedona blew me away. Is it sacrilegious to say its craggy red cliffs and chimneys of Sedona impressed me more than the Grand Canyon? Ignoring all the touristy stuff, God put on a great show. For once, I was able to get elk out of my mind.

The Verde Valley disappeared in the rearview mirror. I turned southeast into open desert toward Gunsmoke in Holyshiteitshot County in the southeast corner of Arizona. Evening set in. While fueling up, an RV owner eyed the car, still with tufts of fur.

“Bear?” he asked.

“Nope. Elk.”

“They make good jerky. What did you do with the meat?”

09 June 2018

On Making a Notebook


by Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore
Many writers, myself included, suffer from a terrible affliction known as "Pretty Journal Panic." Well-meaning friends and family buy us beautiful journals as gifts, and, once unwrapped, they languish in a drawer, their pages too pretty to be scrawled with half-finished poems and false novel starts. It easier to make mistakes on yellow tablets or battered composition books, and some of us have even abandoned the notebook completely in favor of sleek keyboards and digital drafts.

But a notebook is a safe space. Opening up a new .DocX final betrays a certain finality, a final draft feel that can crush the early blossoms of creativity. There's an intimacy of pen to paper that cannot be matched by the tap tap of fingers on a keyboard. It's easier to make mistakes, to take risks on stories or poems that might never be finished, when the page doesn't look so formal. You can't doodle in the margins of an Open Office document.

 It wasn't until I started making my own notebooks that I discovered how intimate a process it could be. Creating something from raw materials has a certain magic to it -- taking a pile of paper and thread and building a sacred space.

08 June 2018

Today El Guapo is... 33 Years Old!


by Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck


Tomorrow I will turn 47. Yeah, I know. Not really old, these days. I remember when forty was the onset of the "mid-life crisis" brought on by the dread of mortality, which launched a thousand literary novels about boring men rubbing suede-patched elbows (and more) with women half their age, or women going on pilgrimages to Mediterranean countries to colonize young male flesh.

Me, I started writing again. Admittedly, it helped that a few months before my fortieth birthday, I married Sarah, ten years my younger, the Louisiana firecracker who I met in Manhattan and bonded over German beer and raunchy movies. She kicked me in the ass to write the novel I kept talking about. I wasn't ready, so I started small. Flash fiction came easily, and I wrote a dozen or two short stories that year, as November approached.

November, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, the elder god who strikes fear in agents and editors everywhere, who know the beast will unleash a horde of unedited young into their slush piles come the first of December. If you don't know it, the challenge is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, about 1670 words a day. A terrifying prospect to a new writer, but an afternoon's walk in the park to some pros. I jumped in and completed a novel of 115,000 unwieldy words in January called Beat the Jinx, the title a nod to Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper, a delightful over the top crime novel that I'd finished reading recently.

That novel went through several drafts and rewrites over the years. I wrote another novel, Blade of Dishonor, in a blazing (for me) six months from first to final draft, while avoiding edits. I edited three charity anthologies to benefit Protect, one larger than the other, to avoid editing the novel. Until my buddy Josh Stallings told me to stop talking about the damn novel and get it into shape. 80 queries later, I received some good notes from agent Elizabeth Kracht, and having submitted it to just about every agent I could think of who might be interested in it, I approached Eric Campbell, the publisher of Down & Out Books, and Bad Boy Boogie was born on March 29th, 2017.

And in May, it was nominated for an Anthony Award for best paperback original.

Seven years. I can't believe it took me that long. I know others who took longer with their first novel, never giving up and moving on. Jenny Milchman took ten years, I think. I know I'm getting old because it feels like yesterday, building the character of Jay Desmarteaux with short stories like "Gumbo Weather" which is now out of print, because it would require retroactive continuity. But who knows? Maybe it will find a home when I edit Riff Raff, the second Jay novel, which I'm finishing up this month.

The projects I used to lollygag weren't all wasted. The editing and copy-editing skills I learned for the Protectors anthologies are invaluable, and Blade of Dishonor showed me that I can blast through a novel if I have an outline and a vision. But I find it a lot more enjoyable to bushwhack through the forest to find the story, because I don't always know what it's really about. Riff Raff is set in Louisiana, and I wanted to confront the criminal justice system there. It's different than any other in the nation. "Angola," Louisiana State Penitentiary, houses 5800 lifers who will likely never walk free. It costs the state $700 million a year to keep them in there to die. Until recently, lifers were stewards at the Governor's mansion, proving that the state doesn't consider them dangerous. When that irony was made public, they canceled the program. Angola also hosts a rodeo, "the Wildest Show in the South," where inmates get tossed around by broncos and bulls with zero training, for the entertainment of the audience. The inmate who snatches a poker chip taped between the horns of a mad bull can win $500 in commissary money.

Not to slam Angola. They are ahead of many other prisons in craft programs and training, partly to keep the population occupied. The Angolite, the prison newspaper, written and edited by inmates, I've mentioned many times. It is an eye-opening read. Its former editor Wilbert Rideau recently won himself a retrial and was released after serving 44 years, nearly more than I've been alive.

It puts things in perspective. He wrote his first book after his release. I wanted to have Riff Raff completed before Saturday, my birthday, and it may happen and it may not. No matter what happens, I'll keep writing, and that's the important thing.

I'm reading the excellent essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee, and as a teacher and student of Annie Dillard, he says the the writing is what matters. Some have talent, some sharpen a skill, but they have seen both sputter and sink. The perseverance is what matters.

Next month, Sarah and I are going to Alaska. Partly as research for another novel I've avoided writing, based on my story "The Uncleared," about a volunteer firemen who finds a dark secret when his childhood home burns down, and goes into the Alaskan wilderness to get answers from his father. Right now that's called The Fire Inside, because I like having names for unfinished books, and soon it will be finished. And cleared.

07 June 2018

The Horse-Off


by Eve Fisher

"Baseball is something like a war."  - Ty Cobb (1886-1961)
And so is politics.  That or the most dysfunctional family reunion ever.  Certainly that's the way the Republican Primary has been here in South Dakota.  In case you didn't know, South Dakota is red, red, red, red, and more red.  We have Democratic candidates, but there are never any Democratic primaries, because rounding up just one per position is pretty much all we can do.  Anyway, the primary had two huge sections:

FOR GOVERNOR:

Attorney General Marty Jackley v. US House Representative Kristi Noem

US District Attorney Marty Jackley.pngImage result for kristi noem on horseback
(Notice the horse.  This is going to be
important.)


FOR UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES:

Dusty Johnson v.              Shantel Krebs v.                          Neil Tapio

Johnson and Krebs     Neal Tapio in Watertown, South Dakota.jpg 

a/k/a the nerdy Chief of Staff to the governor, the beauty queen SD Secretary of State, and the State Senator/South Dakota Trump Presidential Campaign Director.
(Others, not so kind, have referred to them as Howdy Doody, Clarabelle, and Phineas T. Bluster.)

Now before I get started, you need to remember that all of these people know each other, have worked together, have gone to the Governor's Annual Pheasant Hunt ("if you're not there, you're nowhere", and it's invitation only, my dears, invitation only) together, attended Republican conventions and fundraisers, annual ALEC meetings, etc., etc., etc.  South Dakota is one big small town, and there aren't six degrees of separation between anyone - more like two.  Three at the most.

So the campaign started off slow and respectful.  Dignified, even.  The first political ads were exclusively for Jackley, Noem, and Krebs, and I swear each and every single one of them all showed the same words: "Experienced.  Conservative.  Tested."   And then someone would ride a horse.  And load / carry a gun.  Also lot of shots of cattle, hay, farms, and rolling hills.

Now Kristi Noem has always made her horse riding central to her campaigns and she does look damn good on one.  Marty Jackley stuck with just having almost every sheriff in the state sing his praises, after which he'd go pheasant hunting, and then lead his daughter around on a horse.

And then, the local newspaper came out with a poll that said Jackley and Noem were neck and neck, and things got nasty.

Kristi Noem launched ads about the EB-5 scandal (which yours truly has spoken of at length in these blogs).  No mention of my favorite question, "Who killed Richard Benda?" but she did raise the missing $5 million.  (The reason why the United States Customs and Immigration Service letter of September 28, 2015, found South Dakota too unreliable and incompetent, if not downright corrupt, to handle EB-5 visa investments any more. Thanks Dakota Free Press!)

Marty Jackley, who talks about EB-5, the missing millions, Richard Benda, or the missing Gear Up! millions about as often as I request a colonoscopy for fun, ignored all questions of corruption and fired back with ads about how Ms. Noem hadn't kept any of the promises she made on going to Washington.  Even more shocking he appeared in the ad below, talking about balancing the budget.  Locked and loaded indeed!


(My first reaction was, "First they had to drug the horse, right?")

And then Kristi hammered away with ads about Jackley holding up a $1.5 million settlement payment for a DCI employee (sexual harassment; and I can assure you that it was serious, and seriously well-documented, for her to actually win in this state) after Jackley saw said ex-employee sitting with Noem at a Republican fundraiser.  (Argus Leader)
So Jackley retaliated with photos of Noem shaking hands with (gasp!) then-President Obama back in 2015...

Back to our candidates running for our sole House seat.  Dusty Johnson was the odd one out, with quiet ads illustrating fiscal responsibility at dinner out with the kids.  Shantel Krebs ran pheasant hunting ads (it's a theme up here) and urged South Dakota to send her to Washington to help Donald Trump make America great again.  Neal Tapio's ads were a combination of lies about his opponents (Shantel Krebs, for all her faults, certainly did not make South Dakota the 3rd most Obamacare-compliant state in the nation - for one thing, our Governor never expanded Medicaid) and his passionate loyalty to Donald Trump.

Then the aforementioned poll also said that Dusty Johnson was leading (which surprised almost everyone, including, perhaps, Dusty), and things got nasty:  Shantel approved ads that claimed Dusty flew on private planes on government expense to the tune of almost $10,000.  A private Ohio group accused Shantel of raising taxes - and her salary - whenever possible.  Johnson swore he wasn't behind the ads, and I believed him.

Remember, all these people worked together for years.  I see them cousins at a 4th of July reunion, who smile at each other and then hiss gossip about the others to everyone as they load up on baked beans and potato salad.  And Mr. Tapio, who is the crazy Alex Jones fan at the picnic.  You think I'm kidding?  Back in January Tapio gave a speech and said that "one more terrorist attack between now and then [the election] and I will be the … just by the ‘Trump effect,’ I will be the candidate. That’s the way I look at it.”  (Listen here.)  But then Tapio is an anti-Muslim zealot.  He accused South Dakota Lutheran Bishop Zellmer of aiding and abetting terrorism, and "taking away the Christian fabric of our nation" by holding an Interfaith Day at the Capitol in Pierre (Argus Leader).  Above all, Mr. Tapio ran on Trump.  110% pro-Trump.  Send him to Washington, so he can help Trump.  Period.  And then he decided to up the ante by calling for an end to tribal sovereignty, and to rewrite all the treaties between the United States and Native American populations.  (Argus)
And another SD Representative, Michael Clark, applauded the recent SCOTUS decision about cake-baking by saying that business owners should be able to discriminate based on race.  (Argus)

So it was a Republican Primary, and all the dogs were howling.  Literally.

So what were the results?
Kristi Noem is our new Republican candidate for Governor, 57%-43% over Marty Jackley.  (Proof that negative ads work, especially if they're 100% true.  And the question has already been raised of who's going to run against Jackley for AG in November - the sharks smell blood.)
Dusty Johnson is our new Republican candidate for United States House of Representatives, with 47% of the vote (Krebs got 29%, Tapio 24%).

Who'll win in November?  Danged if I know.  But I can guarantee you we'll see a lot of horses.

Anyway, that's all from South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, act like Goodfellas, and the crazy just keeps on coming.

 

PS:  Oh, there was also one non-partisan item on the ballot, an Amendment to modify Marsy's Law.  I went and voted, and even the polling people agreed that this was ridiculous:  any amendment should be on the November ballot, not a Republican-only primary, where as few Democrats and Independents would vote as possible.  As a friend of mine said, "they did it as dirty as they could."  It passed.


06 June 2018

Holding tight or Letting Go



by Robert Lopresti 

Warning: I am going to quote/paraphrase a lot of authors from my own memory.  You are hereby warned that such lines may not be reliable.

Let's pretend that you are an author.  For some of you that will be easier than others.

Congratulations!  A big Hollywood studio just called you.  They are interested in one of your books.  They are excited, even.

And now you're excited too.  Large checks with many zeroes are magically floating over your head.  You tell them you are eagerly awaiting their contract. 

Wonderful, they say.  And then they happily tell you about their plans for your masterpiece.

Remember your main character, the brilliant Native American nuclear physicist?  Well, in the movie she will be a Swedish man who makes balloon animals for a living.  And the cancer cure everyone is hunting for?  In the flick it will be a box of honey-glazed donuts.  It's a creative thing.

Are you still eagerly waiting for that contract?  Will you sign it when it arrives?

Different authors take different views on this, naturally.

Sue Grafton (herself a reformed screenwriter) refused to let Hollywood take a shot on her Kinsey Milhone books and claimed that, for that reason, she was highly respected in that town.

J.K. Rowling allowed movies of her books but, as I understand it, kept a pretty tight leash on Warner Brothers.  The studio wanted to combine her first two books into one movie. and she refused.  Considering how much money they made off those flicks they should send a million dollars a year to her favorite charity.

At the other extreme you have James M. Cain.  Supposedly someone tried to sympathize with him about what Hollywood did to one of his novels.  He replied: "They haven't done anything to my book.  It's right there on the shelf."

On a similar note Elmore Leonard once complained about the film version of one of his novels and his friend Donald Westlake asked: "Dutch, did the check clear?"

The problem with Westlake's philosophy, alas, is visible on his IMDb page.  A lot of the movies  based on his books are terrible.*

One more author example.  When William Gillette was preparing to write a play about Sherlock Holmes he asked Arthur Conan Doyle what he was allowed to do with the character.  The author repled: "You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him."

And the mention of murder brings up our next topic.  How would you feel about someone writing new adventures for your character after you have passed on to your reward? 

When asked that question by his biographer, Rex Stout famously said, "Let them roll their own," meaning other writers should come up with their own characters. 

Lawrence Block said: "I’d prefer not having anybody mucking about with my characters after I’m gone, but when I’m gone it’ll no longer be any of my business. And, in the unlikely event that there’s an afterlife, I can’t imagine it’ll involve my caring much one way or the other."

On the other hand, we have the science fiction great Connie Willis, who said: "Other people have 'Do Not Resuscitate' orders.  I have 'No One Edits My Manuscript.'"

And that brings us to Charles M. Schulz who, arguably, is the teller of the longest single tale in known history.  He never let anyone so much as ink or letter the Peanuts strip, which was intensely personal to him.

When he was a wealthy old man his children gave him one gift money could not buy: the promise that once he chose to put down the pen no one else would ever write or draw the Peanuts comic strip.  And they stuck by their word.  The cartoons that have been running since his death are repeats, all straight from the master's hand.

And that's enough to make Snoopy do his happy dance.

*Yes, two movies Westlake wrote, The Grifters and The Stepfather, were very good.  But they weren't based on his books.

05 June 2018

Getting the Details Right in a Police Procedural


by Barb Goffman

Police officers' guns are always loaded because they never know when they're going to need them.

This was one of the great tidbits I picked up this past Saturday at my local Sisters in Crime meeting. Our speaker was Mark Bergin, who served on the Alexandria, Virginia, police force for twenty-eight years, retiring in 2014. While on the force, he was twice named his department's officer of the year for drug and robbery investigations. Bergin shared stories and answered questions for over an hour to help us authors get our police details right. Here's some of what he told us. (Any mistakes are mine.) Some of this information I already knew, and maybe you do too, but it's always good to get a refresher:
  • Police work involves a ton of paperwork that you often don't see in novels and short stories.
  • Patrol officers wear twenty-three pounds of gear, such as a radio, gun, extra bullets, a bullet-proof vest.
  • Every cop has extra bullets, handcuffs, radios, pens, and more on them while on duty. 
  • While fictional officers seem to work on one case at a time, real cops are always juggling cases. In the Alexandria police force, the average was six to eight cases at a time, and the officers work each of them as much as they can.
  • Officers always like to sit with their back to the wall, especially when on duty. They want to see the whole room. Bergin called this "hyper-vigilance," and said it especially comes into play when you are in uniform.
  • Cops have a presence that's different from that of other people. Cops look at other people's faces. They give off the impression of being knowledgeable, which is why people often ask them for information such as directions.
  • Ninety percent of an officer's job is maintaining control of a situation. That's done mostly by walking in and being "a presence." Officers also gain control of situations through using a commanding voice, which they're taught, as well as through control holds.
  • Police officers have short hair, look bulky, and are strong. They're not always physically fit because so much of the job is sitting and driving. While on the force, Bergin worked out a lot to have big arms so he'd look like he could win a fight, which was designed to make people not try to fight him.
    Mark Bergin
  • Officers receive extensive training so that they get "muscle memory." In times of crisis, this memory kicks in so they will automatically do things the right way without having to think about it.
  • Cops typically stay in the same police department throughout their career because--unless you are a chief or deputy chief--if you switch departments, you always have to start at the bottom. This is true even of homicide detectives. If an officer moves to a new city and thus a new place of employment, the officer starts out on patrol and has to work his/her way up the ladder again. 
  • Ninety-five percent of the time, prosecutors don't get involved in police cases before an arrest. The exceptions can be for homicides, bank robberies, and when there is a series of crimes that seem to be by the same perpetrator. 
  • Preliminary investigations of most crimes are done by patrol officers. The exceptions are rape and homicide cases, which go to detectives right away.
  • Police investigate missing-person cases immediately; the twenty-four-hour waiting period often portrayed in TV and movies is a myth. However extensive resources may not be immediately available for a search.
  • Patrol officers are strictly controlled in what they are allowed to do. For instance, they must ask for permission to do follow-up work on cases they're interested in that have already been handed off to detectives. 
  • Most cops don't worry about fear interfering with their ability to do their jobs because the hiring process/training program weeds out potential officers with this problem. Potential officers with fear issues either are trained to overcome them or they leave the program.
  • While fear isn't a problem for most officers, stress is. They think they could be attacked at any moment, and thus are always on guard.
  • Ninety to ninety-five percent of police officers never fire their gun at another person.
  • In Alexandria, Virginia, the police department has three shifts of officers working each day. Officers work ten-hour shifts. Eighty-five to ninety percent of each shift is spent on the street. (I didn't get the chance to ask if this information is representative for most departments.) 
I hope I got all these details right. I asked Bergin to drop by today, so if I made any errors, he hopefully will weigh in in the comments. And if you have any questions, please pose them in the comments. I hope he will be able to answer them.

Now that he's retired from police work, Bergin has turned to writing fiction. His first novel, a police procedural titled Apprehension, is scheduled to be published this fall by Inkshares/Quill. More information about the book is available here.

Thanks very much, Mark Bergin!
 

04 June 2018

Songs of Love and Death


by Steve Liskow

Not long ago, Leigh Lundin discussed the Hollies' "Long Cool woman in a Black Dress," so today I'm carrying the idea of crime songs off onto an abandoned siding.

I saw a wannabe rock 'n roller PI as a series character from the count-off, so I started a list of song titles that might work for mysteries, too. It wasn't a new idea. Ed Gorman used several rock and roll gems, including "Wake Up, Little Susie" and "Save the Last Dance For Me." Sandra Scoppettone punned on big band classics: "Let's Face the Music and Die," and "Gonna Take a Homicidal Journey," among others.

That first novel collected over 125 rejections. During those several years, I changed the PI's name three or four times before he became Chris "Woody" Guthrie and major plot points even more often. The title went from Death Sound Blues (Country Joe & the Fish) to Killing Me Softly With His Song (Roberta Flack) and at least one other title before it became Blood on the Tracks, a Bob Dylan album. The biggest surprise came when I hit on an idea for a major clue: an unreleased song by the now defunct band.

That song had to tie several plot threads together and connect female lead Megan Traine, the killer, the victim, and the recording session itself. Amazing though it may seem, no such song existed. My music theory is spotty and I read music slightly better than the average squirrel, but I wrote lyrics that connected Megan to the dead singer. Writing words was fairly easy, especially when I remembered that the song didn't have to be very good. But why would a trained session rat like Meg mess up playing it?

I pulled out a guitar and experimented with chords until I found one that sounded so awful that anyone would spot it as a mistake. Then I figured out how that mistake could appear in a session with excellent musicians. That song became a turning point in Blood On the Tracks. I never wrote the music down (too difficult for my limited skills), but I still know what it sounds like.

A few weeks ago, Brian Thornton talked about the fine art of Making Shit Up. As crime writers, we only have to know enough to sound convincing. Then we make shit up. That's what I did with the song. And I'm a repeat offender.

"Hot Sugar Blues" gave its name to a short story in the MWA anthology Vengeance, written around the theme of revenge. I had recently written a guest blog about plagiarism in rock, artists "borrowing" or worse from earlier sources, and the idea was still fresh in my mind when I wrote the story. I modeled the song on a combination of Skip James, Charley Patton, and Robert Johnson, all of whom often used alternate guitar tunings. The story involved a white rock star who stole his breakout hit from a forgotten blues player in the deep South and got away with it...until years later when Karma came calling. That story was a finalist for the Edgar and one of only two stories that sold the first time I sent it out.

In the early 70s, the New Seekers covered Melanie Safka's "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma," which suggested another plagiarism story. I never worried much about the melody, but I had far too much fun inventing lyrics with every line ending in the same rhyme or half-rhyme. I finally backed off on that idea and added other rhymes, but an early demo version of the song in progress leads Woody Guthrie to the truth again...and harmony is restored.

I have another story making the rounds now that tells a dysfunctional family story the heroine thinks is simply an old folk song until she discovers a tape cassette. She figures out that her relatives wrote the song about a local murder. More or less a parody of an Appalachian ballad, the five-verse song still sleeps in a pile of random scribbling on the corner of my desk.

I never wrote out the music, but, again, I know what it sounds like. If the story ever sells, I may ask one of my more accomplished musician friends to help me finish the darn thing. They'd end up doing most of the work, though. I'd compare them to George Martin working with John and Paul, but humility tells me that wouldn't float either.

Christopher Moore's great take on research is something like "How vague can I get before people know I'm making it up?" Every writer has a few topics he or she knows just enough about to fake his way into deep woods. Maybe it's music, painting, or photography. Maybe it's cooking, theater, or computers. Maybe it's lacrosse or bridge.

Who cares? When we're talking about mysteries, we all become the sorcerer's apprentice. We know just enough to get ourselves into trouble.

The real fun comes when we're trying to get back out.

03 June 2018

Hot Spot


by Leigh Lundin

I’ve fallen off the grid. Unintentionally. No T-Mobile, No AT&T, no Virgin Wireless, no voice mail, no cell phone. Also no email, no web, no internet access. Neither of my phones nor my computer work. Both fruitlessly scan for radio signals, not picking up even a blip, not even alien static from distant Roswell.

phone, no bars

I didn’t plan it this way. I’m spending five weeks in Arizona. Tomorrow I visit the Grand Canyon, but here in the town of Gunsmoke in Holyshiteitshot County in eastern Arizona, the telegraph bypassed the town, never mind Pony Express and the telephone. When I enquired about a hotspot, bemused residents said, “It’s 109°F in May. How damn hot do you want it?”

109°F… Here F, usually preceded by a plosive ‘holy’, stands for a word other than Fahrenheit, usually heard when sliding into a rental car seat. I never knew leather could melt. Steering wheels appear inspired by paintings of Salvador Dalí. Truthfully, the steel door handle of a downtown restaurant is wrapped with pipe insulation and electrical tape, presumably after a few people involuntarily left skin samples.

Century Link is establishing a presence in the county seat. When I enquired, they said, “Congratulations, you qualify for high-speed internet.” They went on to define ‘high speed’ as 3Mbps, the approximate walking speed of a one-legged dog. Computers think data rates that slow mean the internet is broken. Compare 3Mbps to my suddenly much less despised Spectrum/Brighthouse ISP at 100Mbps or even optional 1000Mbps if that’s too slow.

100-1g Mbps

At 3Mbps, news can take a long time to crawl through copper wires. Folks asked about rumors a black man had been hired in the White House. They seemed politely dubious when I said more like a weird orange.

As for my computer, I plugged it into a socket. The wiring exploded with a shower of sparks, barbecuing my power supply. This is what we call a ‘challenge’.

Knowing I had a SleuthSayers article due, kind people came together to help out. One lent an old laptop. When connected to the internet for the first time in eons, it launched into mass Windows 7 updates taking most of a 24-hour day and burning through the data allocation of that person’s telephone hotspot. At that point, another person stunned me by buying a new cell phone to provide a fresh hotspot. Folks are asking around for an old cell to lend me. Life is good.

But wait, there’s more.

FedEx delivered a new computer power supply. As before, neither of my phones can pick up a signal, this coming from a guy who for years refused to own any phone. The nearest AT&T tower is thirty miles in one direction, fifty in another. An internet solution remains questionable, but I’m not yet out of options. SleuthSayers’ Dixon Hill has invited me to stop in, and Scottsdale definitely has internet and phone service.

Life is good.

02 June 2018

The Twilight Zone, Revisited



by John M. Floyd



I've often told my writer friends that one of the things that inspired me to write short stories was probably my love of "anthology" TV shows when I was a kid in the fifties and sixties. You might remember some of those: One Step Beyond, Death Valley Days, The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, etc. Unlike series presentations, these featured different stories with a different cast every week--stories with definite beginnings, middles, and endings that could be told in half an hour or so, start to finish. And many of them included surprise endings. Who could forget Hitchcock episodes like "Lamb to the Slaughter" and "Man From the South" (both written by Roald Dahl)?

But the most popular of all those genre anthology shows was about . . .

". . . a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of an's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone."
--Rod Serling, opening narration from Season One


The Twilight Zone ran for five seasons, from 1959 to 1964. I liked it so much that a year or two ago I ordered the complete series on DVD--156 episodes--from Amazon, and last month I finally watched the last of them. Now that I'm done, I think my wife is secretly thrilled to no longer have to listen to that theme music every time she walks through the den, or hear Rod Serling's strange and instantly recognizable voice announcing each episode or giving the audience a teaser for the one "coming up next week."


Having rewatched all five seasons, in order, I've taken the liberty of listing what I thought were the 25 most entertaining episodes, with #1 being the best and scaling down. These are available in many formats, some of them on YouTube, so I've not mentioned any spoilers in case you ever choose to dive back into those shows. I've also included a short description of my top 25--especially my top ten. If you are or were a Zoner, you might recall some of these:



1. "Time Enough at Last" -- Written by Rod Serling and adapted from a short story by Lynn Venable. Burgess Meredith is a man who loves to read, but those around him (his wife, his boss, etc.) allow him no time to do it. One day after he's sneaked into the vault at work to read during his lunch hour, a nuclear blast destroys his building. Protected by the vault walls, he emerges to find that he seems to be the only person left alive in the world. He soon discovers, though, a library with its books still intact--a paradise for a booklover. Or so it seems . . .

2. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" -- Written by Richard Matheson. A pre-Star Trek William Shatner is a nervous passenger on a commercial airliner who looks out the window in mid-flight and sees a hairy monster standing on the wing, trying to rip out one of the plane's engines. But no one else sees it--or believes him. (This show became one of the segments featured in Twilight Zone: the Movie, starring John Lithgow.)

3. "The Grave" -- Written by Montgomery Pittman. Lee Marvin is a gunman hired to track down an outlaw, but before he can catch up to him, the outlaw dies and makes a deathbed vow: If his pursuer ever comes near his grave, the dead man will reach out and grab him. (This episode also features later western stars Lee Van Cleef, James Best, and Strother Martin.)

4. "Walking Distance" -- Written by Rod Serling. Frustrated executive Gig Young travels back to his hometown and discovers that he's also traveled back in time, to when he was a child. He meets his parents, a younger version of himself, etc., and learns that no one can ever regain his youth.

5. "Steel" -- Written by Richard Matheson. In a technology-dominated future, former boxer Steel Kelly is the owner and manager of a robot prize-fighter named Battling Maxo, who's scheduled to fight another robot boxer named The Maynard Kid, for a badly needed $500 payoff. But Maxo breaks down at the last minute, and his owner decides to try to fight Maynard himself.

6. "One for the Angels" -- Written by Rod Serling. Salesman Ed Wynn is told by Mr. Death that he's scheduled to die at midnight. He makes one last sales pitch and convinces Death to let him live, but then finds out someone else must die in his place.

7. "Kick the Can" -- Written by George Clayton Jackson. A resident of a retirement home has decided that the only way to stay young is to try to think and act young. After convincing all but one of his fellow seniors to join him in a game of "kick the can," he and the other players in the game discover they actually are young again. (A variation on this episode also was included in Twilight Zone: the Movie, with Scatman Crothers as a transient nursing-home resident.)

8. "The Last Flight" -- Written by Richard Matheson. A World War I pilot turns tail and deserts his best friend and fellow pilot, leaving him behind to die in an aerial dogfight. The coward then lands at an American air base in what turns out to be modern-day France, and learns that his friend all those years ago--who somehow survived--is scheduled to appear at the base later that day for a visit.

9. "The Hunt" -- Written by Earl Hamner, Jr. After an old man and his dog go on a coon hunt, he returns to find that he has died and now no one can see him or hear him. Soon he wanders into a choice between whether to enter Heaven or Hell.

10. "Third From the Sun" -- Written by Richard Matheson. As their world approaches the brink of nuclear war, a scientist and a test pilot steal an experimental spaceship and make plans for a last-minute escape for them and their families.

11 "Night of the Meek" -- Department-store Santa Claus Art Carney finds a magic gift-bag.

12. "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" -- Suburban residents prepare for an alien invasion.

13. "The Masks" -- A millionaire's greedy family waits impatiently for him to die.

14.  "Mr. Denton on Doomsday" -- A town drunk is forced into a gunfight with a sadistic bully.

15. "The Jungle" -- An engineer scoffs at a curse placed on him by a group of witch doctors.

16. "The Lonely" -- A convict on a remote planet is given a woman robot as a companion.

17. "The Eye of the Beholder" -- An outcast undergoes surgery to try to make herself look normal.

18. "The Odyssey of Flight 33" -- A jet airliner travels back to prehistoric times.

19. "Jess-Belle" -- A backwoods witch puts a curse on two lovers before they can marry.

20. "Little Girl Lost" -- a small child disappears into another dimension.

21. "Living Doll" -- An evil Telly Savalas finds that his stepdaughter's doll is out to get him.

22. "Mr. Garrity and the Graves" -- An Old West trickster promises to resurrect dead people.

23. "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" -- A wagon train's leader stumbles into the 20th Century.

24. "The Changing of the Guard" -- A professor forced to retire remembers his former students.

25. "The Long Morrow" -- An astronaut falls in love a month before leaving on a 40-year flight.



A few observations, after watching all 156 episodes:

Most of them were written by Rod Serling, but some of the best came from the imaginations of Richard Matheson (Duel, Somewhere in Time, etc.), Charles Beaumont, Earl Hamner, Jr. (The Waltons), and others. One espisode--"I Sing the Body Electric"--was written by Ray Bradbury.

I thought all five seasons contained some fine stories, but the first season probably had more quality shows than the others, and the final two seasons had far more poor ones. It's been said that by that time the writers and producers were beginning to run out of ideas.

Seasons one, two, three, and five featured only 30-minute episodes. For season four they went to hour-long episodes, which proved to be a mistake. Viewers can easily see that there's a lot of padding in many of those fourth-season shows.

Serling loved stories that taught a lesson of some kind, usually about social issues, and many of the episodes that he wrote contained a "message."

Jack Klugman and Burgess Meredith were (I think) the actors most often featured in leading roles on The Twilight Zone. They starred in four episodes each. Other actors included Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Dennis Hopper, Charles Bronson, Dean Stockwell, Robert Duvall, Cliff Robertson, Donald Pleasence, Martin Landau, Roddy McDowall, Ted Knight, Agnes Moorehead, Buddy Ebsen, Dennis Weaver, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, Dick York, Elizabeth Montgomery, Don Rickles, Mickey Rooney, Carol Burnett, Martin Milner, Bill Bixby, Claude Akins, Jack Weston, Anne Francis, James Whitmore, Martin Balsam, Ida Lupino, Vera Miles, Shelley Fabares, James Coburn, and Jackie Cooper.

One episode, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," won an Oscar. It was a French film that Serling bought for $10,000 as an effort to cut production costs, and was the only one not written by him or his team of writers.

Serling's on-camera introductions didn't start until the second season. In the first season it was his voice only, and he appeared on camera only at the end of each show, to introduce the next week's program.

I found it interesting that not many of the episodes were truly scary (in my memory a lot of them were), and almost all the "funny" shows--the ones that were intentionally humorous--were not well done at all. My opinion only.

I also realized that there's a lot to be learned from TZ--especially if you're a writer of short fiction--about plot, characterization, etc. If you're at all interested, there are two books on the show that I found fascinating: The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree, and Everything I Need to Know I learned in the Twilight Zone by Mark Dawidziak.


And now a word from our sponsors . . .




01 June 2018

300 and counting ...


by
O'Neil De Noux

On Wednesday, May 7, 1718, the city of La Nouvelle-Orléans was founded by French explorer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, on land inhabited by the Chitimacha. It was named for Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, regent of France at the time. On May 7, 2018, we celebrated the city's 300th Birthday.

Known for her musical and culinary heritage as well as her laid-back lifestyle, New Orleans has a literary heritage. Don't have room here to list all the writers who were born here or lived her or came here for inspiration or for po-boys and muffuletta sandwiches – I took a morning to go around and photograph some of the places I could locate where some writers lived and worked.


UPPER PONTALBA BUILDING

The long red-brick Pontalba Buildings on either side of Jackson Square house shops and restaurants along their first floors and apartments along the upper floors. They are often referred to as the oldest continuously-rented apartments in the United States. The Pontalbas were the first buildings to use lacework wrought iron balcony railings in the city, now a prominent feature of New Orleans architecture.

Along the Upper Pontalba Building a door bears the address 540 Saint Peter Street. A Literary Landmark plaque next to the door reads: Residence of Sherwood Anderson, author of "Winesburg, Ohio." While living here, Anderson hosted literary salons that powered the careers of guests William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Carl Sandburg and John Dos Passos. Anderson lived in Apartment B where he wrote his best selling novel DARK LAUGHTER.



Where William Faulkner wrote his first novel, Soldier's Pay, is easy to locate on Pirate Alley, just across from Saint Anthony's Garden at the rear of Saint Louis Cathedral.


FAULKNER HOUSE - pale blue doors

Built in 1840 as a French colonial prison, the narrow three-story building at 624 Pirate Alley now houses FAULKNER HOUSE BOOKS, an antiquarian bookstore specialzing in southern writers. Sitting on the second-story balcony, Faulkner wrote newspaper vignettes to support himself as he wrote his first novel SOLDIER'S PAY .



Built in 1842, the Avart-Peretti House at 632 Saint Peter Street was the residence and studio of Italian-turned-American citizen artist Achille Peretti who was also a sculptor and anarchist. In 1946-47, Tennessee Williams lived here and wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning play A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.


TENNESSEE WILLIAMS Apartment - white door



Tennessee Williams later bought a townhouse a 1014 Dumaine Street, still in the French Quarter and lived there on-and-off from 1962 until his death in 1983. In his MEMOIRS, he wrote, "I hope to die in my sleep ... in this beautiful big brass bed in my New Orleans apartment, the bed that is associated with so much love ..."


TENNESSEE WILLIAMS TOWNHOUSE

Just up the street at 1054 Dumaine, George Alec Effinger wrote his critically acclaimed science-fiction Budayeen books (WHEN GRAVITY FAILS, A FIRE IN THE SUN and THE EXILE KISS) and his Hugo and Nebula Award winning short story "Shrondinger's Kitten."


GEORGE ALEC EFFINGER lived upstairs, right apartment

Still in the French Quarter, at 1113 Chartres Street stands the Beauregard-Keyes House (erected 1826) where Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant de Beauregard lived after the Civil War. Nearly a hundred years later, author Frances Parkinson Keyes (pronounced like 'skies') purchased the house and wrote numerous books there. Her famous New Orleans novel DINNER AT ANTOINE'S is a "least likely person" murder mystery, notable for playing fair with the reader with clues embedded in the novel to solve the case.


BEAUREGARD-KEYES HOUSE

Across narrow Sixth Street from uptown's Lafayette Cemetery at 2900 Prytania Street stands a two-story yellow frame house with four square columns along its front gallery. Here F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in 1919-20, where he wrote his "Letters to Zelda."


FITZGERALD HOUSE


After the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Dutch engineers and scientists came to New Orleans to examine the levee system. They made suggestions on how to keep the water out of the city. After all, they've done a good job keeping the North Sea out of the Netherlands. Their suggestions were not implemented. Too expensive. So the levees were patched up and with rising ocean levels and future storms, we'll see if New Orleans will be around for another 300 years.

Our writings, along with photos and films, may be all that's left of New Orleans in the future.

That's all for now.
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