16 June 2018

Conference Memories

I haven't been to a writers' conference in a while, although I'm scheduled for at least three in the coming months. But I've been reading a lot of blogs and other posts by writer friends who have been attending conferences regularly. Besides making me want to go also, it's reminded me of things, good and bad and ugly, that have happened to me at conferences in the past.

Here are some that stand out in my memory:

- Ten or twelve years ago, at "Murder in the Magic City" in Birmingham, I wound up sitting beside author Harley Jane Kozak during a presentation. We chatted awhile, and even though I didn't recognize her name I said, "Don't I know you? You sure look familiar." Neither of us could figure out where our paths might've crossed before, and I couldn't help noticing--and being puzzled by--the amusement on her face. Only later did I realize why she had looked so familiar: she was an actress as well as a writer, and I'd watched her on TV the night before, in Arachnophobia.

- Highs and lows: At Bouchercon in Baltimore several years ago, two different ladies approached me after seeing my name tag and said they loved Angela Potts (one of my series characters). Music to my ears. Later at that same conference, a guy asked me if I was famous. I said, "No, sadly, I'm not." He said, "Can you point me to somebody who is?"

- Before my first and only trip to the Edgar ceremony in New York, the publisher of my books told me to try to get a photo of me with Stephen King, who was up for Best Novel that year. At the reception, I reminded my wife Carolyn of this, and she pointed to King and said, "Well, there he is--go talk to him." I gave her my cell phone to take the picture with, walked over to SK, and he was kind enough to chat with me for a minute or two. When I got back to our table I saw Carolyn looking at my phone and said, "Did you get it?" She looked up at me and said, "Get what? I was texting with Karen [our daughter]."

- When I spotted Otto Penzler in the midst of a huge crowd in the lobby of the conference hotel at the Raleigh Bouchercon I asked him, "Do you know everyone here?" He smiled and said, "No. But everyone here knows me." I loved that. And I bet he was right.

- I was once invited by author Steve Hamilton, who was a fellow IBM employee at the time, to a private screening of a short film adapted from one of his stories. The story was "A Shovel With My Name on It," and the resulting movie was retitled "The Shovel," and starred David Strathairn. That gathering remains one of my most enjoyable experiences at a writers' conference. This was at another "Murder in the Magic City"--Jan Burke and Steve were the guests of honor that year, and two of the kindest writers I've ever met.

- I think I mentioned this in a SleuthSayers post awhile back, but I happened to meet Lee Child at a Bouchercon in Cleveland not long after he had served as guest editor for Otto Penzler's annual Best American Mystery Stories anthology. That was one of the years when one of my stories' titles was mentioned in the appendix of the book, a story that made the top 50 but not the top 20. I remember babbling my thanks to Child for that mention of my story, even though the story itself didn't get included in the book. Only later did I learn that those top 50 are chosen by Otto, and then the guest editor picks the top 20 . . . so what I had done was thank Mr. Child for NOT choosing my story. (Sigh.)

- At a Bouchercon several years ago I was crossing a hotel lobby when I was hailed by unnamed Editor #1, who informed me that they'd decided to publish one of my submitted stories. While I was thrilled to hear that news, I was a little worried too, because Editor #1 had held onto that story for a long time and hadn't responded to my inquiries about its status--so I had since given up and submitted it elsewhere, to unnamed Editor #2. After leaving Editor #1 (on one side of the lobby), I quickly searched out and reported to Editor #2 (on the other side of the lobby) that the story I'd submitted to their publication was now no longer available. Editor #2 accepted my apology and graciously agreed to withdraw that story from consideration, and all was well, but I went to bed that night resolving to never again send a story someplace before being absolutely certain that it was no longer being considered elsewhere. (Have I mentioned that this is a crazy business?)

- I attended a writers' conference four or five years ago that was held at one of he big casinos on the Gulf Coast. I had a good time and attended some educational and informative panels, but I must tell you, attendance at some of those sessions was sparse. That happens, when gambling and/or sun-and-sand are close by. I was reminded of the IBM banking conferences I attended in south Florida in the Good Old Days. I specialized in finance at IBM, so I went to a lot of those conventions, and anytime questions arose about a particular banker's absence from a particular session, the answer was always "He couldn't be here--he had to go study float management." In other words, he was outside at the pool. Another memory of conferences and conventions held in casino locations: my clothes always smelled like tobacco-smoke afterward.

- At one conference reception, I took what I thought was a sausage ball from a tray of hors d'oeuvres (in Mississippi we call them horse divers) and it turned out to be a piece of liver. I chomped down on it just as someone behind me, with a lady's voice, said, "Excuse me, aren't you John Floyd?" I am usually unknown to anyone outside the walls of our home, so I turned to say hello--at the very same moment that my taste buds sent a red-alert message to my brain that this was liver and not sausage. I remember gagging violently and squeezing my eyes shut, and when I finally opened them again whoever was behind me had disappeared/fled. To this day I hope she just chose to wander off before she saw my look of agony, but I doubt it. (Another sigh.)

- One of the sessions I attended at a writers conference in Mobile a few years ago featured a young woman teaching writers how to set up their own websites. I wasn't really interested, but I sat down and started listening to her anyway. The following weekend, after getting back home, I used what I had learned to create my own site, from scratch, and it went live that Sunday night. I can't remember the name of the presenter, but I owe her a great debt. Sometimes those panel sessions and presentations pay off!

- At the top of my "bad" list is an experience my wife and I once had at a conference hotel: the alarm clock was set wrong and couldn't be changed, the closet-rods were mounted too low to allow normal clothes to hang properly (much less those as long as mine), the shower head couldn't be adjusted, the bedside radio turned itself on in the middle of the night and couldn't be reset (or unplugged), a shelf immediately above the sink was too large to allow us to bend over and spit after brushing our teeth, our view from the window was a brick wall ten feet away, every single light in the room was too dim, the peephole in the door was set at waist-height, etc., etc.--we counted almost two dozen aggravations and inconveniences. And most of these weren't things that were malfunctioning--they were just designed that way. A week earlier we'd been to one of my class reunions, where we had to stay at a Super 8 Motel (the only lodging in that town); its nightly rate was several hundred dollars less than this conference hotel, and it was ten times more guest-friendly. Just saying.

- At the top of my "good" list for conferences are meetings at the bar (or dinner or elsewhere) with some of my heroes, heroines, and online acquaintances. I won't list names here for fear of leaving someone out, but you know who you are. Seeing and talking with and getting to know other writers is, to me, by far the best reason to attend any of these conferences. Great memories!

And that's my pitch, for today. What are some of your highlights and horror-stories about conferences you've been to?

Inquiring attendees want to know…

15 June 2018

Story & Structure: "English 398: Fiction Workshop" in EQMM

By Art Taylor

Writers often get questions about the weight of character and plot in their works, the balance between them—which they start with when sitting down to write or which ultimately drives the story as it unfolds.

For me, another element seems both inseparable from a story's success and the key, for me, in figuring out how to write it in the first place: structure.

My fiction workshops at George Mason University focus on narrative structure first and foremost. While we obviously discuss character and plot and dialogue and setting and... well, everything that goes into making a story, the semester itself is divided into two assignments: first, write a linear story (chronologically driven start to finish, rising action leading scene by scene to a climax, Aristotelian really), and then write a modular story... which may require some explanation. In class, I assign Madison Smartt Bell's Narrative Design, which likens modular design to the mosaic—bits and pieces of narrative adding up to a more complex whole—and then analyzes modular stories by breaking them down into various vectors, looking at how those vectors interweave and interact.

At its most basic level, there are several ways to understand vectors as they contribute to modular design. Imagine a story that shuttles section by section between two different time frames—exploring how past events impact the present. Or a story with several different narrators, interweaving various contrasting/conflict points of view to reach a clearer truth (I did this myself in my story "The Care and Feeding of Houseplants," navigating the points of view of all three characters in a love triangle.) Or perhaps two seemingly unrelated tales which dovetail on some thematic point. Bell's Narrative Design is also an anthology, and one of my favorite stories is Gilmore Tamny's "Little Red," with one of the vectors narrator the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the other providing commentary from the narrator herself, analyzing the fairy tale, fretting over the themes and implications, even arguing with Little Red herself at various points.

I'll admit that I thrilled by experimental structures. Robert Coover's "The Babysitter" is one of my favorite stories, whose short sections swoop through various perspectives, fears, fantasies, and possibilities all centered on the title character. And then there's Joyce Carol Oates' "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again: Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School; Poking Around in Debris; Disgust and Curiosity; A Revelation of the Meaning of Life; A Happy Ending..." which plays with chronology and perspective so magically. It's a story I teach and reread regularly, I just find it so endlessly fascinating.

Both of these stories were among the inspirations for my new story in the July/August issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine—and its full title shows a clear nod toward Oates' story: "English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More."

As the title promises, the story is an amalgam of bits and pieces—with those "note from class" providing the overall framework, punctuating the story with the kinds of advice and guidance that are common to creative writing courses: show, don't tell; use sensory detail; escalate the conflict in as many ways as possible; that sort of thing. A draft from one of the workshop's students is submitted, along with her own notes about other characters, other potential plots twists. Students comment on the draft. And then comes a discussion with the professor—that conference being a required part of the whole process. The "& More" is basically an article from the student newspaper (and I anticipate that last element is part of what prompted Kristopher Zgorski at BOLO Books to comment on the kinds of "contemporary social issues" I'm weaving into the story; thanks again, Kris, for the kind words).

The structure here may not be to everyone's tastes, I recognize that, but I hope that the plot itself will prove interesting and those characters at the core of it—basically, as one of the workshop participants comments, "James M. Cain relocated to a college campus," charting a dalliance between a college professor and one of his top students and then the fallout from that relationship.

(Though I actually teach "English 398: Fiction Workshop" at George Mason University, the story is, um, not autobiographical. Just feel the need to point that out (again and again (and again)).)

Finally on this story, I want to say how pleased I am that EQMM not only gave me a shout-out on the cover but also top billing there—even above recent MWA Grand Master Peter Lovesey, which kind of astounds me. I've already been sampling other stories in the issue—including "The Mercy of Thaddeus Burke," a terrific tale by former SleuthSayer David Dean—and look forward to reading more, with another SleuthSayer in the mix as well, Janice Law with "The Professor," another academic mystery! Looks like a great issue, and I'm honored to be part of it.

14 June 2018

Dark Side of the Sound: Seattle Through 21 Crime Novels

(My buddy Jim Thomsen is something of a connoisseur of Pacific Northwest literature, and that includes crime fiction. As such his insights are not to be missed. See you in two weeks! –Brian)

by Jim Thomsen

Elmore Leonard advised crime-fiction authors to “never open a book with weather.” But Dutch never wrote about Seattle, and the problem with his half-serious advice when it comes to depicting the dark side of the Emerald City — a sunny marketing term usually used here with a smirk and the sour pump of a thumb-covered fist — is that, well, there’s still the rest of the book. And even for those of us who have lived in the Puget Sound region for large stretches of our lives, the impulse to slather large page spreads with thick knife-sides of rain-jellied atmosphere is all but irresistible.

(In my work-in-progress, I caught myself writing, with a smirk, if not the other: “Pacific Northwest rain is the passive-aggressive drizzle of a middle-aged man with prostate problems.” I didn’t feel great about it but I kept it, which is an eminently Seattle attitude toward anything and everything from shopping on Amazon to buying $22 hipster cocktails in Belltown to installing Microsoft software updates.)

“Passive-aggressive” might also describe Seattle’s presence in the global eye as a crime-fiction capital. The Pacific Northwest is often called the serial-killer capital of the world, and while that’s true in a true-crime sense, given Green River Killer Gary Ridgway’s prolific slayings of prostitutes — he was convicted of 48 murders, mostly just south and east of Seattle, but claims he was responsible for at least 80 — fictional killings here have only fitfully captured the national imagination.

It seemed like Noir Seattle might have more than a moment in the mid-1980s, when Microsoft was on the ascendant, Starbucks had a frothy head of syndicated soy-milk steam and Boeing had roared back to rocket-fueled health after its “Will The Last Person Leaving Seattle Turn Out The Lights?” low point in the 1970s. All of that stood in contrast to the fishermen and boat builders and other blue-collar types who built the city, and the conflict between those who aspired to be world-class and those aspired to maintain middle-class standing proved to be fertile ground for fictional murder.

J.A. Jance had made a big splash with 1985’s Until Proven Guilty, starring J.P. Beaumont, a tough-but-tender alcoholic Seattle police detective who could have stepped from the pages of a Spillane novel; that same year, Earl Emerson came out with The Rainy City, featuring bicycling private eye Thomas Black (Emerson would win the Shamus Award for his second Black book, 1986’s Poverty Bay.) Soon after came attorney Fredrick D. Huebner with a series featuring lawyer Matt Riordan; suspense and cozy novels from K.K. Beck and Mary Daheim; police, P.I. and newsman procedurals from G.M. Ford and Ridley Pearson; all well-received, all findable on the drugstore paperback racks of flyover America.

But, just as grunge music came and went in the national consciousness in the space of a few years, so did the sense of Seattle as a fictional crime hub.

With the release of Jennifer Hillier’s Jar of Hearts, a big-buzzy Seattle-set thriller, Jet City may see another moment in the national consciousness as a symbol of disruption and reinvention. Jar Of Hearts is getting strong reviews (“There’s no denying her page-turner’s grab-you-by-the-throat power,” says Publishers Weekly) and a pricey, high-profile push from her publisher. In onetime Big Pharma exec Georgina “Geo” Shaw’s attempt to reinvent herself after a prison stretch for a moment of teenage horror, Seattle-watchers may see parallels in the city’s rapid, rapaciously rich transformation from isolated backwater to techbro paradise.

Seattle’s economy may be booming, but it’s become diminished in many ways that matter to readers. The city is down from two daily newspapers to one. More than a dozen bookstores have closed in the last dozen years, including the beloved Seattle Mystery Bookshop. And a lot of Seattle’s crime authors have been washed out with the tide — Earl Emerson, for one, hasn’t had a publishing contract in nearly a decade, and today the retired Seattle firefighter, now 70, quietly self-publishes a new Thomas Black novel every few years from his home at the extreme eastern edge of the Seattle sprawl, in the burg of North Bend (a.k.a., the setting of Twin Peaks).

And we can argue forever about whether Amazon, which has been taking over large organs of the body of downtown Seattle like a metastasizing tumor, has been good or bad for readers. (The short answer: Both.)

Also, many of the greater region’s most successful genre authors, such as Aaron Elkins, A.J. Banner, Urban Waite and Daheim, seem to prefer to set their works comfortably outside Seattle, in the Cascade foothills and amid the Salish Sea’s shoreline hamlets and secretive islands, buffered from the cacophonous bluster of what might as well be called Construction City. And others (Alan Furst, Robert Ferrigno, Ingrid Thoft) have called Seattle home but set their stories outside Washington state altogether.

Jennifer Hillier
A lot of the young energy filling Seattle comes from elsewhere, and in 2007, so did Jennifer Hillier, a Toronto native who spent a decade of living on the outer edges of Pugetopolis before moving back home last year (on the strength of her Jar of Hearts advance!). Yet, she’s set all five of her thrillers in and around Seattle, including Jar of Hearts, the tale of a serial killer, his onetime teenage love, and a body count rising on a wave of manipulation and obsession in scenes and settings that straddle the greater Seattle economic continuum.

I asked Hillier about how Seattle showed itself to her through her outsider’s eyes.

“I moved to Seattle in 2007 not knowing very much about it at all, other than what I learned from binge-watching the first two seasons of Grey’s Anatomy (in hindsight, I could have done better research),” she said. “But I fell in love with the city almost instantly, and something stirred creatively during that first winter.

“While not remotely the coldest I’d ever experienced, my first winter in Seattle was by far the wettest and darkest. Yet the trees stayed green. People still went outdoors as usual, even when it was raining, not even bothering with an umbrella. Folks were friendly, but not welcoming, and it was difficult to make friends.

She added: “Everyone seemed to drink a ton of coffee, which I now realize is the best way pep up in the constant absence of sun. I didn’t realize I was severely deficient in vitamin D, and the months from October to April were more depressing than I could have imagined. But a few months after surviving it, my first serial killer novel (Creep) was born.

“Maybe metaphorically the clouds provided the perfect cover for my villain to commit heinous crimes. Maybe the cool-yet-distant personalities of Seattle folks made them easier to fictionally murder. All I knew was that hunkering inside my house to write on dark, drizzly days—when I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything in the outside world—was not only perfectly acceptable, but comforting.”

Something in Jennifer’s words stirred an interest for me in seeing how crime-fiction authors have depicted Seattle over the last few decades. The list below is not meant to be Seattle crime-fiction canon, or even a survey of the novels I’d suggest to others. But it does touch on just about every subgenre, and each title shares a willingness to not just set a story in Seattle, but to interpret it to some degree for those who have never been here.

And, maybe, make you understand why we who grew up with metaphorical webbed feet like to marinate in its miseries.

The Butcher, Jennifer Hillier (2014)

Quote: “He had initially wanted an inground pool, but Jason had put the kibosh on the idea, reminding Matt that the weather in Seattle was only conducive to swimming between July Fourth and Labor Day. Eight weeks of summer was hardly worth the thousands it would cost to build a pool.”

Note: This was Hillier’s third thriller, with a powerhouse premise: an 80-year-old serial killer who’s still got the urge … and happens to be retired as Seattle’s chief of police. The novel didn’t sell well, and Hillier’s next title, Wonderland, was demoted to her publisher’s ebook-only imprint. Jar Of Hearts represents a rare comeback in a world where poor sales numbers often create a death stench that few careers can escape.

Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca? G.M. Ford (1995)

Quote: “Somebody once said that living in Seattle was like being married to a beautiful woman who was sick all the time.”

Note: Wanda Fuca is the first of ten (so far) private-eye novels featuring Leo Waterman. Ford, now 73, lived in Seattle for more than two decades but has since moved to San Diego. The series continues, through Thomas & Mercer, Amazon’s crime-and-thriller imprint. Wanda Fuca (a pun on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the body of water that separates Western Washington from British Columbia and Puget Sound from the Pacific Ocean), was nominated for Anthony, Shamus and Dilys awards.

Until Proven Guilty, J.A. Jance (1985)

Quote: “Seattle is used to the kind of gentle drizzle that lets people walk in the rain for blocks without an umbrella and without getting wet.”

Note: Jance, now 74, splits her time between Seattle and Arizona. Part of standard Jance lore is that she used a gender-neutral pen name because a publisher told her that readers wouldn’t buy books written by a woman about a male detective. Quite the opposite of today, when male authors (A.J. Finn, Riley Sager, S.J. Watson, et al) routinely adopt androgynous pseudonyms to break into the suspense subgenres now dominated by women.

Nervous Laughter, Earl Emerson (1986)

Quote: “Two angry rain showers doused us on our short journey, but the street was dry when we parked on Third Avenue. Seattle was like that. If you don’t like the weather, stick around five minutes.”

Note: The Thomas Black mysteries were the ideal blend of Seattle aesthetics and snappy-shamus wordplay, and over 33 years, Black has aged little but grouses much. In the latest Black mystery, 2018’s Jackson Street, Black grumbles: “I hated what growth was doing to the city, but nobody was asking me.”

A Man's Game, Newton Thornburg (1996)

Quote: “The next morning was a little too perfect for an old Seattleite like Baird. There was a stiff breeze blowing out of the north, holding the temperature in the high sixties and scouring the air so vigorously that the city’s streets and buildings seemed to sparkle in the brilliant sun. Flags spanked and trees shimmered, and down the hill the Sound was a lake of blue fire rimmed by the green of the peninsula, above which the Olympics soared snowcapped and jagged, as if they had been placed there by the Chamber of Commerce.”

Note: Thornburg is revered by hardcore crime-fiction fans for his 1976 novel Cutter and Bone, which became an equally fetishized 1981 film, Cutter’s Way, starring John Heard and Jeff Bridges. But he lived in Seattle for the last 31 years of his life, dying in 2011 at age 82, and set a couple of novels there, including 1990’s The Lion at the Door. He published fewer than ten novels in a career cut short by a 1996 stroke.

Have You Seen My Son? Jack Olsen (1982)

Quote: “Far across the Sound, Seattle’s new buildings shimmered in the April sun like rock candy. A row of cormorants rode serenely past on a gravel barge; an auklet pecked at a slick. The lovely light-struck scene made her smile. She shut her eyes and sucked in the salty air with a sybaritic hiss. She asked herself if there was life after separation and decided that the answer was yes, provided the weather held up.”

Note: This was the last of six novels written by Olsen, the author of nearly forty books who was known for decades as “the dean of true crime” (though he despised the term). Olsen, a Philadelphia native, lived in Western Washington from the early 1970s until his 2002 death. Many of his books, including this one, were reissued by Crime Rant Press, run by Gregg Olsen, another Western Washington author of fiction and true crime — and yet, no relation.

Thick as Thieves, Neil Low (2008)

Quote: “Ballard is old town, Swede town, fishing town. It is a quiet, unflashy place of plain old houses on plain streets, where people still just do their jobs and raise their kids and hope for a decent break. It’s probably the last neighborhood in Seattle where you can light a cigarette in a bar without immediately being placed on the same social scale as, say, a child molester.”

Note: Low, who set this debut novel in the 1940s, is a Seattle Police captain. He also leads walking tours of some of downtown Seattle’s “most notorious crime scenes.” His love of old-school Seattle is evident in this bit of praise from the late Seattle true-crime author Ann Rule, who said: “Reading it is akin to stepping into a film noir, shadowy, smoky and shocking.”

Picture Postcard, Fredrick D. Huebner (1990)

Quote: “In his later years, influenced by Asian art and postwar abstract expressionism, his work had become officially abstract, but I thought I could still see in his later canvases the dark waters and green rocky forms of the Pacific Northwest landscape, the pellucid oyster light of the Northwest sky.”

Note: Huebner, a mediation attorney, appears to have given up on publishing novels; apart from a little-noticed thriller in 2015, his last mystery was published in 2001. In an interview that year, he said: “I’m finding it harder and harder to maintain the intensity of focus needed to write, sitting on the terrace with my wife, looking over the flower garden.” Not sure there’s a more Seattle-area attitude than that.

Greywalker, Kat Richardson (2006)

Quote: “As we headed south to Pioneer Square, mid-April was doing its spring fake-out of good weather. Seattleites seem to forget that it usually starts raining again in May; they were out without jackets, enjoying the beginning of an unexpected clear evening that would probably turn cold by nine and produce more fog by morning. In spite of its capriciousness, this was usually my favorite time of year.”

Note: As far as I’m concerned, Seattle is its own dystopian setting, but Richardson took it up a notch with a nine-volume series about a Seattle P.I. who drifts between the gray and the Grey — a parallel world of ghosts, vampires, witches and magic. For many years, the California native lived “in the Seattle area with her husband and a pit bull named Bella aboard an old wooden boat haunted by the ghosts of ferrets,” according to her website.

Night Strike, Michael W. Sherer (2015)

Quote: “Seattle was a backwater, a city that would have been an afterthought had it not been for Boeing first, and Microsoft later, huge companies that had kept the economy alive and attracted other businesses. Yet she’d been called to these boondocks four times now because things happened here, world-changing events. Its proximity to the Pacific and all the countries along that ocean’s rim made it a gateway for commerce, technology and criminal enterprise in both directions. Maybe the other Washington was passé. Maybe this was where the action was.”

Note: As Ford’s career was revived by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer, Sherer’s was hurt by it; the imprint dropped him a couple of books into his thriller series about Blake Sanders, a newspaper deliveryman who tends to get swept up in high-stakes geopolitical horrors. The Illinois native, who broke in as an author of Chicago-based mysteries, has shifted to young-adult thrillers with a female protagonist.

Murder One, Robert Dugoni (2011)

Quote: “Summer in Seattle, Sloane had concluded, was the reason people in the Northwest tolerated the nine miserable months of gray and rain. God must have chosen Seattle to spend His summers; there was no other way to describe the beauty that befell the place almost immediately after July Fourth. The snowcapped Olympic Mountains to the west looked close enough to touch, and the water brightened from a bland gray to a sparkling blue, with everything beneath a great dome Michelangelo could not have painted better.”

Note: Dugoni is an energetic and prolific presence on the Seattle-area literary scene and the crime-fiction conference circuit. He pivoted from legal thrillers with a well-received series of procedurals featuring Seattle Police Detective Tracy Crosswhite, published by Thomas & Mercer. This year, he crossed over into literary fiction with The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell.

The Silence of the Chihuahuas, Waverly Curtis (2015)

Quote: “An umbrella would have helped me defend myself against that parrot, but no one in Seattle ever uses an umbrella. We view it as a sign of weakness. But it helps us identify the out-of-towners.”

Note: Waverly Curtis is the pen name of author friends Waverly Fitzgerald, who writes historical fiction, and Curt Colbert. Colbert is the author of Rat City, a well-regarded noir novel about Seattle after World War II, among other hardboiled offerings. Their accent-heavy readings at Seattle’s quarterly Noir At The Bar series, at the Hotel Sorrento, are not to be missed.

The Edison Effect, Bernadette Pajer (2014)

Quote: “Seattle was a city in perpetual motion, with destruction and construction happening side-by-side, above and below, and all the while business continued uninterrupted at a feverish pace. Like ants detouring around a leaf dropped in their path, the people of Seattle found ways around the messes and just kept going.”

Note: Pajer’s Professor Bradshaw science mysteries — four in all — take place in the Seattle of the early 1900s. She’s a Seattle native who traces her interest in writing to a chance encounter on Orcas Island with Richard Bach of Jonathan Livingston Seagull fame.

Deadline Man, Jon Talton (2011)

Quote: “Soon Daylight Saving Time will be gone and Seattle will slip into the winter months when night comes early. It’s suicide season and the time of year when distracted drivers run down black-clad pedestrians and people complain about the dark and the rain. I like it.”

Note: Talton is the longtime economics columnist for The Seattle Times, and Deadline Man is about a columnist at a Times-like paper propelled into escalating geopolitical heinousness. Like Jance, most of his mysteries are set in his native Arizona.

Past Crimes, Glen Erik Hamilton (2015)

Quote: “They drill politeness into the Seattle cops with six-inch galvanized screws.”

Note: Hamilton, who was raised on a sailboat all over Puget Sound, now lives in Southern California. But, as he says on his website, he “frequently returns to his hometown to soak up the rain.” Past Crimes, the first of three (so far) in a series about Iraq War vet Van Shaw, won several awards.

Bound to Die, Laurie Rockenbeck (2017)

Quote: “Court checked to see if the mountain was out—a phrase locals used as an overall descriptor for the weather as well as their passion for Mount Rainier, the most prominent feature around. After a few seasons of living in Seattle, he’d learned how deceptive the clouds made the landscape. Months could go by by when the rain and low-lying clouds completely hid Rainier—a fourteen-thousand-foot glacier-covered volcano sticking up out of nowhere. When the weather cleared, and you could see the mountain, it was like a goddess appearing to the world, the foothills like arms spread out for an embrace.”

Note: This debut, self-published novel was a first: a police procedural featuring a transgendered Seattle police detective (who identifies as male) with a special instinct for solving crimes involving exotic sexual cultures and practices. (Full disclosure: I was Rockenbeck’s editor.)

Bound to the Truth, Lisa Brunette (2016)

Quote: “You don’t understand. This is Seattle. You don’t actually meet anyone in person here. You waste a lot of time and energy petting each other for days until it escalates into brief but vague text-messaging. We’re at that stage. I’m sure the excitement will fizzle out before we reach the coffee-date stage.”

Note: Brunette segued to mystery novels after writing mystery scripts for video games as a “narrative designer” for Seattle-area mainstays Nintendo, Cat Daddy, Big Fish and a number of other game companies. She now lives in her hometown of St. Louis and runs her own gaming firm. (Full disclosure: I was Brunette’s editor.)

Assault and Pepper, Leslie Budewitz (2015)

Quote: “Throwing decent flowers in the trash is universal bad karma. It’s seriously bad karma in Seattle, where recycling is religion. Even our sample cups have to be recyclable or compostable. Putting ‘green waste’ in the wrong container violates more rules than you could shake a cinnamon stick at.”

Note: Budewitz’s Seattle Spice Shop cozies are set in the must-visit Pike Place Market. She went to Seattle University and later worked in Seattle for several years as an attorney before making her current home in her native Montana.

The Other Romanian, Anne Argula (2012)

Quote: “The idea of going six hundred and fifty thousand in debt, if I could even find a bank to lubricate that, for the joy of living in a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment with a view of Pioneer Square and a slice of Puget Sound was hard for me to get my graying head around. My parents paid nine thousand for their house. Even now, for what I would have to pay for a small apartment in Seattle, I could get a horse ranch in Kentucky, including the nags.”

Note: Anne Argula is the pen name of Darryl Ponicsan, the novelist and screenwriter best known for The Last Detail (a 1970 novel that became a 1973 film starring Jack Nicholson), and Cinderella Liberty, a set-in-Seattle film from 1974 starring James Caan and Marsha Mason. Ponicsan, now, 80, has since relocated from Puget Sound to Palm Springs. The Other Romanian was the last of four novels starring female P.I. Quinn (no first name).

A Hopeless Case, K.K. Beck (1992)

Quote: “She’d remembered Seattle as a relentlessly dull town, far away from anything else; but, walking to Montcrieff’s office this morning, she’d found it quite charming, full of espresso carts and window boxes with flowers and interesting-looking people on the streets, and The New York Times on sale. Had she changed, or had Seattle changed? Both, she supposed.”

Note: Kathrine Beck writes lighthearted mysteries, most recently 2015’s Tipping the Valet, about a Seattle parking valet who’s “a master of bad timing.” A Hopeless Case is the first in a series about a lounge-singing female private eye in 1940s Seattle. Beck, now 68, was married to the late Seattle mystery author Michael Dibdin.

Black Hearts and Slow Dancing, Earl Emerson (1988)

Quote: “A rust-brown smudge ballooned over Seattle, end to end, a thousand feet thick. Mac knew the locals were telling themselves that if they were getting headaches and their eyes were bloodshot and their noses ran, it must be something else. Seattleites had a stunning town, but it grew dirtier by the minute. It was only Northwest vanity that kept people calling it fog.”

Note: There are so many good Emerson snark blasts about Seattle that I couldn’t resist one more. This one comes from the first of five novels about Mac Fontana, a small-town fire chief who’s often called to investigate cases with strong Seattle connections.


Jim Thomsen is a writer and book-manuscript editor who lives in his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington, a 35-minute ferry ride west of downtown Seattle. He was a newspaper reporter and editor for 25 years, including stints at The Seattle Times and The Kitsap Sun. A longtime board member of the Mystery Writers of America-Northwest chapter, his crime fiction has been accepted for publication in Shotgun Honey, Pulp Modern, Switchblade and West Coast Crime Wave. He can be reached through his webpage: jimthomsencreative.com

13 June 2018

Guilty Secrets

I was invited by my Santa Fe pal Johnny D. Boggs, a terrific Western writer, to post a list of ten favorite movies on Facebook, one a day, in ascending order from #10 to #1, with the title and an original theatrical poster, if possible, but without explaining the choices. Every day, nominate somebody else to follow your lead. Sort of like a movie fan chain letter.
Now, this is a serious responsibility - no irony intended. For example, Johnny's choice for his Number 7 was The Grapes of Wrath, and he attached my name to it. (When we got to his Number 1, it was The Searchers.) My point being that you couldn't risk being frivolous. I had to really think about it. My first instinct was to follow Johnny's lead, and do Classics, my personal Ten Best list. The Wild Bunch, Seven Samurai, Letter From an Unknown Woman. But then I thought, No, wait. Why not Guilty Secrets? What if the criteria were, you're sitting down to dinner, you're gonna watch a movie, and saying you had the DVD on your shelf, or you could stream it live, which pictures would be your defaults? Any night, or every night?

So here's the list, which is utterly arbitrary. The only unifying conceit is that I've watched these movies over and over, and would again, tonight or any other night.

[NOTE: I put these upon Facebook without explanation, per the rules. I've added my own little cheats.]

Red Dawn (1984)
Ridiculous, knuckle-dragging claptrap, of the highest order. Then again, if you stop for a minute and consider that Milius meant it as a metaphor for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Wolverines as mujahideen, it actually makes sense. Ravishingly shot, in New Mexico locations, by Ric Waite. Powers Boothe steals the movie.

Juggernaut (1974)
It's been suggested that we're fascinated by the nuts and bolts of how to do things. Heist pictures, Rififi, or here, an ocean liner in the mid-Atlantic wired with high explosive, the bomb disposal team parachuting in, the clock winding down. Dick Lester directed. Enough star power to sink the Poseidon. Clifton James and Roy Kinnear blow them all out of the water.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The opening shot, as the credits fade. The camera dollies down, past the snowbound railway platform, and then a car drifts by, at ground level. You can almost see the string pulling it along. The fact that the entire scene is a model only ingratiates it to me. It's an innocent artifice, an invitation. When you catch sight of Charters and Caldicott in the waiting room, you can't help but smile in anticipation. You fall into the familiar rhythms.

In Harm's Way (1965)
Enormous, clunky, overwrought. All of the above. It gets a terrific, muscular punch from Wayne, who delivers a thoughtful, considered character that the other people in the movie seem to think is easy to read. The dramatic mechanics of the picture are pure Preminger, the formal checks and balances, but Wayne demonstrates a gravity of purpose that subverts it. You're all too aware of the labor involved, the engines and devices, the undertaking itself. Wayne doesn't struggle to be convincing. he gives his guy weight, without ever being ponderous.

The Train (1964)
Frankenheimer. What else do I need to say? The disorienting montage of Manchurian Candidate, the pulled focus of Seven Days in May. An integrated technique in this picture. The inertial, iron force of the locomotives. The fact that there's no CGI (oh, and Burt Lancaster does his own stunts). The truly amazing dolly shots, Labiche crossing the freight yards to the boat moored by the canal towpath; the colonel at Wehrmacht headquarters in Paris, the camera finding him in the chaos; the scene with Labiche casting the damaged engine part. I bow to genius.

Charade (1963)
Please. I can't imagine I have to say anything at all.

Two Rode Together (1961)
You knew there was going to be a Ford, right? This is here. of course, because of the scene by the river. "I thought she had something stuck in her teeth." For all its comedy - and 'comedy' isn't really the right word, it's burlesque - Two Rode Together is terrifically dark, much more so than The Searchers, which for all its darkness ends on a note of hope. Two Rode Together is despairing.

The War Lord (1965)
Meditative, although on paper it must have been pitched as a swashbuckler. A guy whose devotion to duty is inflexible throws it all away for love, both carnal and idealized. A very old-fashioned conceit. Terrific art direction. I love the fact that the keep is nothing like the castles in Ivanhoe, say, but a brute stone tower, damp, smoky, the horses stabled below. Guy Stockwell gets all the good lines. Richard Boone's forlorn devotion to Heston commands genuine heartbreak. Haunting score.

The Night of the Generals (1967)
Not much of a mystery, not when the biggest headliner in the cast is twitching like he's got St. Vitus' Dance. but the way they tell the story, the fractured narrative and the unreliable narrators. And the main device, a murder in wartime, where killing is every man's trade. In a movie top-heavy with brand names, the lively presence of Charles Gray in support is like a whiff of ammonia, piercing and astringent, a master class in the pursed lip and the cocked eyebrow. You want supercilious? This is ur-supercilious.

The Duellists (1977)
Ridley Scott's first feature. You're joking, right? Nope. He'd done commercials and TV, but The Duellists is his first movie. People talk about Ridley's eye. The cinematographer on The Duellists is Frank Tidy (and it was his first feature film), but Ridley is his own camera operator - he's the guy looking through the lens. Think about it. The next picture is Alien. Where did this astonishing, feverish, specific gaze come from? It seems to have simply sprung into being, already fully found. The Duellists is hallucinatory, but transparent as glass.


Ten runners up.
  The Professionals
  On the Beach
  Night Train to Munich
  Extreme Prejudice
  The Dogs of War
  Rio Bravo
  Midnight Cop
  Hour of the Gun

12 June 2018


Paneling at ArmadilloCon 2012
I have participated in panels at several science fiction/fantasy conventions and a few mystery conventions, and I’ve noticed a distinct difference in approach. I have only once participated in a panel at an sf/f convention in which the moderator contacted me in advance, yet I’ve had pre-convention contact with the moderators of every mystery convention panel in which I’ve participated.

On several occasions, the moderators of the sf/f panels didn’t realize they were the moderator, and on more than one occasion the moderator didn’t bother to show up, leaving panelists to draw straws for the task. While a panel in which none of the participants is prepared can be, and sometimes is, wildly entertaining, more often it consists of five writers saying variations of, “I don’t know why I was selected for this panel. I don’t know anything about Transsexual Taiwanese Tyrannosauruses” and one blowhard spouting variations of “Look at me! Buy my book! Look at me again! Buy my other book!”

Gathering the masses before starting the “Make it Snappy
panel at Malice Domestic 2018. L-R: Me, Gretchen Archer,
Barb Goffman, Debra H. Goldstein, Gigi Pandian,
and Art Taylor.
(Photo by Eleanor Cawood Jones)
When offered the opportunity to moderate “Make it Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees” at Malice Domestic 2018, I followed the best-practices example set by all the mystery convention moderators and one sf/f convention moderator with whom I have paneled: I contacted all the panelists in advance, introduced myself, and sought information that would help me formulate questions. Once I had the information I needed, I developed questions specific to each panelist (though I did not have time to ask them all), shared with them my plan for the panel and, once at the convention, had the opportunity to meet all of the panelists prior to gathering onstage.

I think the panel went well, but I’m not here to tout my skills as a moderator. I’m here to share some tips for successful paneling from the perspective of someone who has attended many panels, participated in several, and moderated a few.


1.  While you may be there to promote yourself and your work, the audience is there to be entertained and informed. So, entertain and inform.

2. If you have never been told by a parent, teacher, or significant other to use your “inside voice,” practice projecting. Use any provided microphones, especially if the panel is being recorded.

3. If you’re a moderator, know your panelists. At the very least, read their bios in the program.

4. If you’re a panelist, know your moderator. At the very least, read her bio in the program.

5. Asking generic questions and having each panelist answer in turn is a lazy moderator’s approach. So, prepare questions specific to each panelist and try to foster a dialog among the panelists.

6. Share the limelight. For moderators, this means ensuring every panelist has the opportunity to speak. As a panelist, this means speaking up if you’re shy, and it means curtailing your tendency to bloviate if you’re not shy.

7. Allow time for questions. If the audience is engaged, they will ask great questions. For the benefit of the rest of the audience, repeat or paraphrase questions before answering.

8. Start on time, end on time, and clear the stage for the next panel. If you are lucky enough to have fans swarming the stage afterward to ask questions and seek autographs, encourage them to follow you into the hall.

I have also participated in panels at writing conferences. The audience—primarily writers and would-be writers rather than genre fans—expect more information and less entertainment, but otherwise all the tips apply.


One writer whose paneling skills deserve emulation is Bill Crider. Every time we paneled together, he was the most knowledgeable, most experienced, and best-known writer on stage, and many of us would have sat at his feet in rapt attention while he talked for the entire 50 minutes. Yet, he never took advantage of his stature. He shared the limelight and regularly used his time to tell the audience something they might not know about one of the other panelists, or to direct a comment toward or ask a question of one of us.

That’s in direct contrast to several authors so enamored of their own voices that other panelists might as well not exist, and when moderators—either unable to unwilling to interrupt—let the blowhards take over, everyone suffers.

I’m not much good with small talk, but put me on a stage and ask me about writing, and I can bend an ear with the best of them. So, if you’re ever paneling with me and I start to bloviate, please kick me under the table and remind me to channel Bill Crider.

We’ll all be better off.

My romance “Too Close to School” appears in the anthology A Wink and a Smile (Smoking Pen Press), released in May.

11 June 2018

Motivation or Get Outta That Rut?

Jan Grape and daughter Karla J. Lee
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

Here in Sunstroke, 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 Sunstroke’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.

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. “You hit Rambo Bambi’s sister Bambo. My brother 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 priorities, glass replacement and meat.”

“Why exactly do you need a new windshield?”

“An elk went through it.”

“There’s no elk in it now?”


“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 a butch…”

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 the first time, 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 Sunstroke 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

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.