13 December 2018

In No Particular Order

by Brian Thornton

In my last post I made the point that our holiday season here in the United States begins not with Thanksgiving, but with the parent-teacher conferences which immediately precede Turkey Day across the nation.

Two weeks on from that post we find ourselves collectively less than two weeks out from Christmas. And I personally find myself less than three weeks out from a New Years' Day deadline on a big project I've been at work on for a good chunk of 2018.

If you're interested, you can read more about it here.

So I find myself pressed for time, and since I have one more post in the works for 2018 (I drew Boxing Day this year: that's a post which writes itself!), I am going to resort to that cliche of end of year cliches: the end of year list.

With a twist.

This won't be one of those lists of the "Best Books of 2018," or the "Best Mystery Books of 2018," or anything like it. I don't understand those sorts of carefully curated (dare I say, "manicurated"?) lists.

I mean, come on. Taste is personal these days. We customize our diets, our vacations, our kids' play schedules, what we watch (or binge watch) on TV, why the HELL would we consume whole cloth the lists someone else made up about books we're likely not ever going to read, or worse still, may well start but never finish?

So here's my completely personalized, absolutely random, deeply meaningful, End of Year List:

(One last note: there will only be positive things here: "Bests," "Mosts" no "Worsts." There's plenty of negatives skulking around out there. I'm sure someone's made a list of them. Just not me.!*grin*)

Most Important Lesson I Learned This Year:

I can never work too hard at listening to people.

Best Book I Read This Year:

Prussian Blue, by Phillip Kerr.

Best Writing-Related Tip I Have For Those Getting Into The Game:

Not to be glib, but "be a pro." That covers a ton of bases: show up, work hard, respect deadlines, accept feedback, don't quit.

Most Welcome Sound I Heard All Year:

My six-year-old's laughter.

Best Writing I Produced This Year:

My novella expansion of "Suicide Blonde," a short-story I sold to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine a decade ago. Down & Out Books is publishing it as part of a three novella collection next fall, so watch for it beginning September, 2019!

Best Friend I Had This Year:

My wife, same as every other year since I met her. Those of you who have the privilege of knowing her get why. I definitely married up.

Most Fun I Had Listening to a "New" Band This Year:

When Greta Van Fleet's album dropped.

Best Movie I Saw All Year:

DeadPool II.  Just typing that made me laugh.

Best New (To Me) Historical Mystery Series I Discovered This Year:

Robert Olen Butler's Christopher Marlowe Cobb series.

Best Book On Writing I Read This Year:

Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman (And yes, I meant to read it earlier, but his recent passing proved the kick in the butt I needed to make the time to read it. And boy, am I glad I did.).

Best Writing-Related Advice I Got All Year:

From my wife: "You ought to ask Libby Cudmore about that..."

Best Long-Time Favorite Book I Revisited This Year:

Ross MacDonald's Black Money. My wife is reading MacDonald's canon based on my recommendation. I've been pressed for time with various writing stuff this year, so I haven't re-read all of them as she's been working her way through them, but I made time for Black Money, as that was the author's favorite of his own work, is an homage to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and we're both fans of that book as well.

Those of you familiar with MacDonald's oeuvre will be not at all shocked to know that his stuff still holds up!

*          *          *

So that's what I've got this time around. Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate it, and see you all with my not-to-be-missed Boxing Day post in two short weeks!

12 December 2018

Skin in the Game

David Edgerley Gates


William Goldman died this past month, the week before Thanksgiving. Predictably, his obituaries led with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He wasn't crazy about his own writing, he admitted, but there were two things he wasn't embarrassed by, the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and his novel The Princess Bride.


I remember reading The Temple of Gold in the late spring of '63, and being knocked out by it. It was a coming of age story - Goldman himself was 24 when it was published - and it had a cocky, mischievous attitude, kind of like Dick Bissell's early book, A Stretch on the River, but Bissell was my dad's age. As lively as his stories were, they had a period feel, a little removed. Goldman's voice was right there, immediate, confiding, intimate.


I liked the next couple of books I read, Soldier in the Rain, Boys and Girls Together, but when I recognized his name in the credits for Harper, my mental ears pricked up. (Goldman adapted a second Ross Macdonald mystery, The Chill, but it never got made. Somewhere in the mists, I hear Sam Peckinpah's name attached to this, or maybe that's just wishful thinking.) And then, of course, Butch and Sundance. You might think, looking back, foreordained, In point of fact, not.


It's obvious Goldman was a movie nut, it's right up front in his first book. The Temple of Gold, the title, comes from the RKO swashbuckler Gunga Din. The two best friends in the novel are just kids when they see the picture, and it becomes a metaphor for their lives. The loyal Gunga Din, in his loincloth, climbing to the top of the golden dome to blow his trumpet and sound the alarm. Yes, it's as corny as it sounds.


Goldman wrote some good novels, but he stopped writing novels altogether after Brothers, in 1986. He'd found his metier in movies. Look at his credits. He's the guy who turned in the script when nobody thought a movie could even be made - the example is Stephen King's Misery. He always gave good weight. Interestingly, he isn't rigidly prescriptive when it comes to writing screenplays. His advice (Adventures in the Screen Trade) is sound. The basic template is three acts, and it's all about structure. But he clearly demonstrates that these conventions don't confine the narrative, they sharpen it. They burn away the inessential.


Are they all home runs? No. Chaplin is long on good intentions. The Ghost and the Darkness somehow just rolls over and plays dead. Hard to say, really, what makes a picture work. There's that ineffable something, and Goldman caught lightning in a bottle more than a few times. A few more times than most of us.


There's a footnote in Bill Goldman's filmography I find striking. Among his unproduced screenplays are several for movies that were later made, but written by somebody else. Goldman's original scripts were discarded. He probably got a kill fee, but that's not my point. I'm thinking more along the lines of what might have happened if they'd used Goldman's scripts. Not that they didn't turn out to be good pictures, in the event. Charly. Papillon. The Right Stuff. Shooter. (And now you're thinking about it, too.) 

11 December 2018

Would You Eat THAT?

by Barb Goffman

All my life I've been a picky eater. When I was very little, my mother tried to force me to eat foods I didn't like in order to encourage me, I'm sure, to not be so picky. But after I vomited beets all over the kitchen floor, she let me make my own choices.

Fast forward to adulthood. I'm still a picky eater--less so than in childhood but more so than many other adults. I know this from dining out with friends, though the point always hits home whenever one of those food quizzes comes up on social media. You know the ones: How many of these weird-sounding foods have you tried? I always surprise my friends (well, maybe not some who know me really well) because I score soooo low. Despite knowing I'm picky, the extent of it always seems to surprise people.

For instance, I once took a quiz about vegetables; how many had I tried? The grand total: 18 of the 110 vegetables listed, putting me in the lowest two percentile for the quiz. (Eighteen was actually a higher number than I'd expected.) I also took a quiz about Jewish food. I'd tried 38 out of 100 of  'em. Friends had thought I'd score higher on this quiz since I'm Jewish, but 38 was pretty darn high for me.

Oh, no! It's Mr. Bill! (You see it too, right?)
But those are specialized quizzes. What about overall pickiness? Here, Buzzfeed came in handy. They had a quiz to look at just how picky I am. All I had to do was check the foods I wouldn't touch, and there were a lot of them: hard cheese, soft cheese, blue cheese, goat cheese, cottage cheese. (You must be thinking I don't eat any cheese, but it's not true. Grilled cheese, good. Pizza, good!) And there were more foods on the quiz that I find it hard to believe anyone would eat, because I sure wouldn't. Bone marrow. Nuh uh. Tripe. No way. Sweet bread. Are you kidding? Blood sausage. Just the name makes me queasy. Bull testicles. Oh, come on! And last, but not least, the evil cilantro. No way, no how. Not gonna happen. At least soap doesn't pretend to be a food group.

Yet even as I write this, I know there are people out there who have probably tried all these foods and asked for seconds. I know this because I am friends with a particularly adventurous eater: author Catriona McPherson. She and I have a game we play. She tries to find normal foods I've actually tried or will eat again. I try to find a weird (at least to me) food she hasn't tried. A round might go like this:

Catriona: "Have you tried a pear?" She's probably thinking, I've got her here; everyone has tried pears.
Me: Buzz. As I do the Rocky dance, I proudly proclaim, "I have never had a pear. That's a point for me."
Now it's my turn.
Me: "Have you tried bull testicles?"
Catriona: "Sure have. Yum! That's a point for me, and the round is tied!"

Actually, I don't recall if I've ever asked Catriona about bull testicles. Catriona, get ready for the next round.

It's usually difficult for me to score any points off Catriona because she is so adventurous. That vegetable quiz, the one where I had tried 18 of 110 vegetables--Catriona had tried 103 of them! I once asked her about a whole bunch of Jewish foods, but she had once attended a seder, so she trounced me in that game. And she's Scottish, so she's eaten all these foods I'd never even heard of before I met her--foods I wouldn't go anywhere near now that I have heard of them. (Tripe. Really, Catriona?) Amazingly, I've found one food she's never tried but I have: candy canes! Not that I like candy canes. I don't think I'd ever eat another one. And I'm sure I only had a bite of the one I tried in the past. But I tried it!

The beauty of being a picky eater is I read a lot of article about food. Not to learn to make them, of course, since cooking is something else I don't do. But I'm fascinated by foods other people will eat that I won't go near with a giant fork. And learning about foods sometimes gives me story ideas. That is partly how I came up with the idea for my most-recent story, "Bug Appétit," which appears in the current (November/December) issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  It involves what I would deem weird food, but not everyone agrees (based on my research), and that makes for an unusual plot (and unusual Thanksgiving dinner!).
Bug Appétit!

If you want to read "Bug Appétit," it's not too late. The current issue of EQMM should remain on sale until around Christmas. I've seen copies at Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million. And you can order digital copies through Magzter. Or you can subscribe to the magazine, in print or electronically, here: http://www.elleryqueenmysterymagazine.com/.

As to the quizzes I mentioned above, here they are, in case you want to try them out. For the vegetable quiz, click here. For the Jewish food quiz, click here. And for the Buzzfeed overall pickiness quiz, click here. But I wouldn't put a lot of stock in the Buzzfeed quiz. After I answered all their questions, they told me, "You're not too picky." They clearly don't know me at all.

10 December 2018

The Fast First Draft

by Steve Liskow

Between about 9 and 10 am Thursday morning, I wrote 1534 words on my current WIP. I'm not bragging because (1) I'm sure everyone else who blogs here can do the same and (2) I'll probably revise everything except the proper nouns over the next nine or ten months. That's my normal approach. But it's worth noting because while it takes me two or three months to assemble my scene list--my version of a storyboard or outline--I expect to write a scene a day, normally in less than two hours. In most of my books, the scenes average around 1500 words. For contrast, in my senior year of high school, my honors English teacher gave us eight weeks to produce a research paper of 1000 words. If we taught children to walk the way we teach students to write, the human race would crawl on all fours.

Years ago, Graham Greene produced 300 words a day. Books were shorter then. Now, the average thriller clocks in at 100,000 words or more. My own books average 83K. I plan on eight weeks (or more) to create the outline, then another six to eight for the first draft. I revise the entire text four or five times with at least a month between drafts, so my novels usually take me about 15 months.

Jodi Picault says that a writer has to learn to write on demand. When you sit down at the keyboard, desk, legal pad or clay tablet, you job is to produce words. Stephen King and Lee Child expect to produce 2000 a day. None of those authors mentions how many of those words change, but that's a separate issue.

How can writers write so quickly?

Well, part of it is being able to type or write quickly, of course. The other part is easy once you know about it. Alas, pretty much everything you learned in school gets in your way.

Back in the mid-80s, I stumbled on a few books that completely changed my way of teaching writing. We had a copy of Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers in our English department bookshelf, but I don't know if any of my colleagues read it. I didn't until about 1990, and I had to blow dust off it. It was a landmark book that few people appreciated when it appeared.

The book I did appreciate (All the books I mention here are available on Amazon) was Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico. She introduced me to clustering or webbing, a quick way of connecting apparently random and disparate ideas for writing. She also pushed free-writing (Elbow's idea first). She offered a series of techniques and writing prompts students could grasp and apply quickly. I was struggling with kids who read five or six years below grade level, hated grammar, and were terrified at putting anything more than their name on paper. For years, they'd known they were stupid because their teachers and their grades told them so.

The following September, I stared using Rico's exercises. By the end of the first semester, many of the kids wouldn't admit it, but they wrote more clearly, more creatively, and with more pleasure and less fear. Rico encouraged them not to worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. I spent the first month of classes encouraging them to write fast for five or ten minutes without worrying about making sense or being correct. If they got something down on paper, we could fix it later.

Remember, a first draft is like the block of marble before you sculpt an elephant. That first few minutes is chipping away everything that doesn't look like an elephant. Rico does that. So does Elbow. The beauty of free-writing is that the only wrong way to do it is to think about it. Just write. If you go fast enough to outrun the constraints, an idea will present itself. That was the hardest sell for my students, but they finally discovered it was true.

Henriette A. Klauser's Writing on Both Sides of the Brain uses many of the same techniques. The left side of our brain is sequential, literal, and organized. It also judges. The right side works in patterns, sounds, and images. It's creative without judging. We're trained from day one to be correct, but we don't learn to let go. Those books showed me how to help my students let go.

Years later, I discovered Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird with her priceless advice on the value of the "shitty first draft." Don't think about spelling, grammar, punctuation or making sense. Just push yourself. If you don't know what you want to say, the cluster or web will help you. If you do know what you want to say, don't worry about how to start. Jump in and listen to the words. Maybe even say them out loud. But turn off the editor.
A character web for my WIP. Over half the names have already changed.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I checked the spelling) published Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience around the same time as the other books, and James L Adams gave us The Care and Feeding of Ideas with the same message. Their findings work for almost any field you can name. Athletes call it being in the zone and musicians talk about finding the groove. Time stands still because you focus ONLY on the task at hand, whether it's shooting the free throw, following the chord changes or staying in the moment without worrying about the result...yet. Very Zen, yes?

For me, once I know what should happen in a scene, I write a first sentence (usually telling where or when it's happening) and keep going. Maybe it's a great sentence, but more likely it's junk. It doesn't matter because I can fix it later. I no longer listen to music when I write (I used to like Baroque Largos because the slow tempo helps concentration) because I have to hear the words. Sometimes I even say them out loud and the scene becomes a dialogue or group discussion. I can type about 85 words a minute and I don't worry about typos or grammar. That's what the next five or six drafts are for. If I get lost, I type whatever comes to me and cut it or move it later. A few years ago, I wrote a scene


that had a half-page of "where the hell am I?" over and over until I found it again.

It's energizing and it's productive. The hardest part is letting go of everything you were taught to worry about in school.



09 December 2018

Part Two: Physician Burn Out and Suicide - The Road She Forged.

by Mary Fernando

Dr. Mamta Gautam developed complications in her pregnancy and, after delivering twins in 1991, she was in a coma for days. She was soon forced to return to work with an open abdominal wound. She realized then and there that, “Medicine doesn't care about the health of their healthcare workers.”

What Dr. Gautam did with this knowledge was to carve out a new way to do medicine. A psychiatrist by training, she became the “Doctor’s Doctor” and, in the 1990’s, began work with individuals and organizations to address burnout and suicide before it was on anyones radar.
A pioneer in the field of Physician Health, Dr. Gautam founded the University Of Ottawa Faculty Of Medicine Wellness Program, the first in the world to deal with physician health issues. She is now an international expert in physician health and leadership. 

So, when I was searching for answers on how to help reduce burnout and suicides in physicians, I reached out to her to find solutions.

Dr. Gautam said, “Before I answer, I want to talk about complexity theory.”

At this point, I had my pen poised. When interviewing people, I always wait for what Virginia Wolfe eloquently asked of them: “…to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece forever.” I was a little disappointed to be sidelined by a theory I hadn't heard of, rather than an actual solution to the serious problem we were discussing.

Luckily, my disappointment was short-lived because that theory, and how it applies not just to medicine but all professions, actually was a nugget of pure truth. So, here it is for you to wrap and put on your mantelpiece. Forever. Whatever your profession.
  • Dr. Gautam explained that some problems are Simple and can be solved by following simple instructions, like baking a cake. There are instructions, and if they are followed, we have a cake.
  • Some problems are Complicated but can be solved by following more detailed instructions and require expertise, like sending a man to the moon. With the right expertise, we can again have a solution that we can replicate.
  • Some problems are so Complex that their solution cannot be boiled down to a list of steps and and expertise doesn't always help, like parenting. If you add people in, we have different outcomes depending on the person (in this case both the child and the parent). So, we are better off with guiding principles, rather than strict recommendations and rules. 

With physician burnout and suicides, prevention is best thought of in terms of guiding principles, at the level of the individual physician, the culture of medicine, and the healthcare system.
One key principle is the need for community. For some this may be implemented by re-creating the doctors’ lounge. This where we can gather and talk about the day; the hard parts, the best parts and the funny parts. It is the ability to break out of the isolation and connect. For all of us, no matter what profession we are in, the trauma of our day can haunt us. For physicians, this might be the patients who died despite our best effort, the metallic smell of the blood that covered the patient, the room and us in surgery as we struggled to save a trauma patient, the young baby who fought valiantly and the breathless sobs of her parents after she died. Those traumas we need to talk about. 

The next part - and the crux of the matter: doctors are human. They should not be so tough that their hearts aren't wrenched when patients suffer. We can and should viscerally feel the often soundless sobs of the families that mourn. That is who we are, and that is the best of us. So, there must be an end to the ‘tough doctor’ and a new opening for the human doctor.

This is a principle for all healthcare workers and for all professions. We have many ideals that we strive towards, never being able to truly fulfil them but always keeping them in mind as we move through life. Many are worthy ideals. However, the ideal of the very strong, very together, never broken and beaten down person is an ideal that many of us hold dear. That person, that ideal, is actually a Trojan horse: if we let it into our lives, it will become stuffed full of all that will defeat us. It will be filled to the brim with the guilt of not living up to this ideal and the feelings of vulnerability that we stuff in it because we are terrified that the feelings are not worthy of the person we should be. It will be filled with the trauma we face, the small and large wounds we suffer but do not speak about. So, it is time to find another ideal and recognize the Trojan horse for what it is. We need to be human, striving to be strong when we need to be and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, weepy and sad, infuriated and needy too. Because our empathy, our compassion, that makes us vulnerable, is actually the true iron in our spine. Wholly and wonderfully complexly human.

So, how to recreate community where we are allowed to be fully human?

Dr. Gautam said, “There is not one answer. If people accept the need for community and allow each person to be human, how they create that community depends on where they are and what they need.” 

So, Dr. Gautam asks for solutions to this, from each of us. The principle matters, the execution of the solution, like all good answers to difficult problems, is written on water and open to life. 

She sees this article, and others like it, as an opportunity to ask each person what they need and how to carve out this solution. It is a beginning of a conversation we all need to have.

08 December 2018

Saying Good-bye, part 2

by Janice Law

I’ve written before about saying good-bye to important characters, but recently I have taken farewells to a whole other level. Let me explain. When we moved into our old farm house thirty years ago, I built book cases. We had already lightened ourselves of several dozen boxes of books before we moved in, but no writer can live in a house without bookcases and our new ones were quickly filled.
My husband had runs of Wisden Cricket Anthologies and Rothman’s Football ( soccer) Yearbooks, as well as rows and rows of reporters notebooks. Our son had a vast comics collection, and I had – well, more or less everything – favorite children’s books, philosophy tomes from my undergraduate days, Norton anthologies, those tools of the trade of English teachers, art books, novels, histories – and a growing number of manuscript boxes.

They went onto the shelves, and since I have more or less a truce with dust, there they stayed until a month ago when the planets aligned, the karma was right and I decided to wash the woodwork and weed the books. If you can possibly avoid such a ridiculous impulse, by all means do so.
Piles of discarded books 
I was not so wise and began emptying the shelves. It is quite amazing how many books can fit onto a ten or twelve inch shelf, especially if one doubles up paperbacks and smaller volumes. It is also surprising and depressing how dirty books get and how even gently-treated volumes begin to fade
and develop foxing. In short, books age like the rest of us and after a number of decades some, even those holding the wisdom of the tribe, are too worn, dirty and depressing even for the library book sale. Say good bye to them!

And then, writers do accumulate paper. Now, of course, everyone stores their novels and short stories digitally. But those of us old enough to have lost manuscripts or who have discovered that word-processing programs can become obsolete will always insist on at least one paper copy. Published novels go off to a university archivist who probably unwisely requested my manuscripts. But the unpublished, even ones close to my heart, are unwanted. There they are, first and second drafts, additions, corrections, second and third thoughts, taking up shelf space in their big white cardboard boxes.

I didn’t have the heart to discard them entirely, although one ancient mystery, the second I wrote and a hard luck book, joined the pile. The day the contract for it with Macmillan was due to be signed, the department was terminated. I am beyond retyping a manuscript decades old!

Otherwise, cheered on by my husband who quite rightly points out that just about everything one needs is available on the web, I was ruthless. Would I ever read Kant again? Highly unlikely. What about Hume? I’d consulted him within a decade, give him a pass. Out- dated atlases and reference books? Gone. Various anthologies, well marked for classroom use? Out. Variorum editions of Shakespeare? Ditto. A paper copy of Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear, dusty with the cracked spine and underlining that I’d studied before writing my first novel? Out, although I was seriously tempted to rescue it at the last moment. I think any book lover will understand my hesitation.

Space for new volumes!
At last, after days of breathing dust, the shelves were washed and clean, and the  reprieved books installed again. Quite a tribute to good housekeeping. My husband repeats that after all, you can find whatever you need on the internet, that the physical book is a thing of the past and that the Kindle is a very nice reader.

All true, but I look at my tidy shelves with their newly freed-up space for family photos and souveniers, and I have another thought: I have space for more books.

07 December 2018

Opening Lines: Best and Favorite

by O'Neil De Noux
OK, we've had a few posts about opening lines but I do not think we SleuthSayers put up a post about the favorite and the best opening lines of a short story and novel we have written. So here is my subjective opinion of mine.

The Best opening line of a novel I've written is:

The wail of bagpipes echoes through the cold fog and silences the men at the earthen rampart behind the Rodriguez Canal.
– from BATTLE KISS (2011)

American breastworks at The Battle of New Orleans battlefield, Chalmette, LA
Photo ©2011 O'Neil De Noux

My favorite opening line of a novel I've written is:

There is no trick-or-treating Halloween night, two months AK – After Katrina.
– from CITY OF SECRETS (2013)


Photo of sculpture Mackenzie by Vincent De Noux used on cover of CITY OF SECRETS

The Best opening line of a short story I've written is:

It was a kiss with promise behind it, as much promise as a good girl would give, enough to make my heart race as we stood under the yellow bulb of her front gallery.
– from "Too Wise" (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Vol 132, No. 5, November 2008 Issue

My favorite opening line of a short story I've written is:

The black German shepherd wasn't a cadaver dog but she found the skeleton in the hideaway closet under the stairs of the unpainted, wooden shotgun house.
– from "Just a Old Lady" (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Vol. 60, No. 9, September 2015 Issue)

Lagniappe. How about a Worst? Here is the Worst opening line of a story I wrote that was published:

It was a dark and stormy night with the wind barking through the mangroves like the voices of angry two-year olds fighting over crayons and I dreamt of a land far away, very far away, a helluva distance away, probably on the other side of the world where it wasn't dark nor was there a storm barking through the mangroves, a place where the mangroves were peaceful and green and I could sit reading Shelley or Keats or maybe Sidney Shelton without the wind whipping the pages of my book or the rain pelting my eyes, blurring my vision of Daphne in a see-through dress with the sunlight streaming through the diaphanous material and I could see all her goodies and make yummy sounds as she slinked up to me like a skank in the night (no, it wouldn't be night because we would be on the other side of the world and the sun would be shining – through her dress).
– from "Like a Stank in the Night" (Hardboiled Sex 2006 Collection)

So what are your favorite and best opening lines? What about your worst?

www.oneildenoux.com



06 December 2018

A Corporate Christmas Carol

by Eve Fisher

It's December, and we've had a lot of news to deal with over the last year, so some things have just gone under the radar.  But it's time to let some of those rats out of the woodwork, and the current scene with nursing homes around the country - including 19 of them here in South Dakota - has enough rats to kill every cat in the country.  That and make Ebenezer Scrooge wonder why he ever listened to the Ghost of Christmas Future when there was money to be made out of starving old folks.

Now I'll admit, I'm fascinated by nursing homes.  My parents lived in a massive retirement center complex in Knoxville, TN, that allowed you to buy a house, then a town home, then an apartment, get assisted living, and then go to their nursing home premises. For ten years, I spent my vacation visiting them and living on-site, and I always found it somewhere between fascinating and scary as hell.  And yes, I've set a few stories in that milieu.  A lot can happen in retirement centers and nursing homes.  In fact, the same things happen there as happen among any other group of people.  Just cause you're old doesn't mean you haven't stopped working on your life, for good or ill.  But it's better when the crazy stuff happens at the instigation of the residents, and not come down from on high.

Back in May, 19 nursing home facilities were going bust in South Dakota, thanks to their (mis)management by Skyline Healthcare of New Jersey. Skyline had gone on a nursing home buying binge between 2015-17:  110 nursing homes in six states at bargain prices, mostly from Golden Living, a large national chain that was sued by the Pennsylvania attorney general in 2015 for providing poor care. Golden Living wanted to lease out a lot of its nursing homes, and Skyline gladly took them over. 

This is the picture you get when you Google
Skyline Healthcare
Now here's one of the problems:  Skyline Healthcare was and isn't a large corporation with the kind of bucks to run 110+ nursing homes. Instead, it's owned by a single family, the Schwartzes (Joseph, Rosie, Michael and Louis), and nursing home industry watchers used to joke about the fact that their office was above a pizza joint in Wood-Ridge, N.J.  

But it wasn't so funny when Skyline quit paying the bills to, among others, nursing home vendor Health Care Services Group in Pennsylvania for housekeeping, laundry and dining and nutrition services. Then they stopped paying in Massachusetts, Florida, Arkansas, Kansas, and most lately, South Dakota. (Kansas City News
According to the complaint argued by Pierre attorney Margo Northrup, Skyline did not pay bills for the facilities, including from vendors and employee salaries. More seriously, “there are hundreds of patients currently residing at the (nursing facilities) who receive varying levels of care and whose health and safety have been put directly at risk by Defendants’ many defaults,” according to the complaint. On April 26, Skyline, the defendants, notified the state health department “that they no longer had sufficient funds to purchase food for the patients.” (Capital Journal)
The former Golden Living Nursing Home in Madison, SD
The result is all the Skyline nursing homes were put in receivership, and most of them are going to close. Where do the residents go? God only knows.

What the hell was the deal? Well, apparently Skyline Healthcare was a classic example of buy, gut, and sell - or outright abandon. And none of the sellers - Golden Living, among them, apparently bothered to check the Better Business Bureau ratings (D+, and God only knows how they got that) or their employee reviews (HERE).   So Skyline Healthcare bought the nursing homes using borrowed money, hosed up all the money in the nursing homes' accounts to repay their debt (and pay themselves, and their investors, of course), and then dumped the nursing homes.  And leaving the residents holding nothing but eviction notes.

And - WARNING, WARNING, WARNING! - this appears to be a (relatively) new trend in elderly care. Witness this article from The Washington Post. Back in 2011, The Carlyle Group bought the ManorCare nursing-home chain - the second-largest nursing-home chain in the United States. The financial deal "extracted $1.3 billion from the [ManorCare] company for investors... Shortly after the maneuver, the company announced hundreds of layoffs. In a little over a year, some nursing homes were not making enough to pay rent. Over the next several years, cost-cutting programs followed, according to financial statements obtained by The Post."

Among those costs were staff, utilities, rent, and patient care:
"The number of health-code violations found at the chain each year rose 26 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to a Post review of 230 of the chain’s retirement homes. Over that period, the yearly number of health-code violations at company nursing homes rose from 1,584 to almost 2,000. The number of citations increased for, among other things, neither preventing nor treating bed sores; medication errors; not providing proper care for people who need special services such as injections, colostomies and prostheses; and not assisting patients with eating and personal hygiene." (The Washington Post


The Carlyle Group is disputing all of these claims.  But the result was bankruptcy and sale, this time to non-profit ProMedica Health.

The Washington Post points out that private-equity firms have been moving - like sharks - into businesses serving some of the nation’s poorest or most vulnerable people, including payday lenders, nursing homes, bail bond providers, low-income homes for rental and prison phone services.

"Ludovic Phalippou, a professor at Oxford who wrote the textbook “Private Equity Laid Bare,” says it is a question of whether private-equity methods are appropriate in all fields. He has praised the ability of private equity to streamline companies but he has also described the firms’ approach as “capitalism on steroids.” (my emphasis)  He said, for example, that while private-equity ownership of nursing homes is accepted in the United States, people in some other countries would be “aghast” at the idea. “People will wonder whether this pure capitalism is appropriate in nursing homes,” Phalippou said. “The health and welfare of the old people who live there depend on them.” (The Washington Post)

But who cares about health and welfare?  That's so oldfashioned!  From The New Yorker:
Ron Shaich, founder of Panera Bread
"Wall Street has embraced the idea that companies exist solely to serve the holders of their stock. Under this way of thinking, managers of companies should focus their actions on driving short-term value for their shareholders, and should pay far less (or no) regard to other constituents who may have a stake in the business, such as employees, customers, or members of the community. [Ron] Shaich... believes that the fixation on short-term profits is jeopardizing the future of American business, and creating social instability that has contributed to our current state of political polarization."

And adding to the fears and worries of a lot of elderly people in nursing homes who literally have nowhere else to go.  Up here in South Dakota, there were 111 nursing homes, so closing 19 of them is taking away 17% of all the nursing homes in this state.  There aren't enough beds left in this state to take all the residents.  Where is Granny going to go for Christmas, this year, anyway?   Does anybody care? 







05 December 2018

Two Guns, No Waiting

by Robert Lopresti

Two guys came through my door with guns in their hands.

Logically I should have been terrified but for some reason I was mostly irritated.

"What the hell!" I said, pushing away from my desk.  "Who are you?"

The first one, a yegg, sneered at me.  "You know who we are.  The great Raymond Chandler said 'When in doubt have two guys come through a door with guns in their hands.'  That's us."

"Yeah," said the other one, a goon.  "That's us."

"I don't care what Chandler said." They gasped. "You can't just come barging into my office whenever you want."

"It's what you want," said the yegg.  He covered a corner of my desk with a corner of his sizable tush. "Obviously you're stuck on what you're writing or we wouldn't have appeared."

"Yeah," said the goon.  "You're stuck."

I frowned.  "What's the difference between a yegg and a goon, anyway?"

The yegg waved his non-gun hand in a professorial way.  "Well, the word 'yegg' comes from the argot of hobos.  It meant a criminal who traveled by train and often preyed on his fellow tramps.  Later it came to mean any low gangster."

The goon seemed fascinated.  "What about me?"

"Goons are muscle men.  Not as erudite or articulate as yeggs."

"Huh," said the goon.  "What do those words mean?"

The yegg shrugged.  "You see what I'm working with here."

"Poor you," I said.  Then I remembered that my work table was a standing/sitting desk.  I pushed a button and the motor tried to lift with the yegg sitting on it.  Irritably, he jumped off.

"Listen," I said.  "I appreciate the trouble you two have gone to but I don't think you can help me much."

"Are you saying you aren't stuck?"

"I am, but I'm writing a love story."

"A love story?" The yegg frowned.  "I thought you wrote mysteries."

"I do.  But a man can try something else."

"Sure, but you risk diluting your brand."

I stared at him.  "Where'd you get your M.B.A.?"

"Oh, a wise guy."

"The point is, having two guys coming in with guns doesn't help in a love story."

"Maybe," said the goon, "maybe you could have two beautiful women come in with... With..."  He went silent.

"Are you blushing?" said his partner.  "For Pete's sake!"

"I don't show up in many love stories," said the goon.

"That's no surprise."  The yegg glared at me.  "So we came here for nothing.  And you have no respect for the words of the great Chandler."

"That's another thing," I said.  "I just looked it up and Chandler was criticizing that gimmick, not recommending it."

"How did you look it up without us seeing you do it?"

"It's a literary device.  And another thing.  He didn't say two guys.  He said a guy."

"So," said the goon,  "you've been quoting it wrong all these years."

"I guess I have."  I did a double-take.  "Where did your friend  go?"

The goon shrugged.  "Turns out there's only supposed to be one of us.  He's probably gone off to harass some other mystery writer."

"You're suddenly much more articulate."

He scratched his forehead with the barrel of his gun.  "Probably more erudite too.  Good luck with the love story."

"Thanks."

Halfway through the doorway he paused to look back at me.  "Personally, I always preferred Hammett."






04 December 2018

Twice Watched Tales

by Paul D. Marks

Some people I know only watch a movie once. Once they know how it ends they have no interest in seeing it again. Other people like to watch movies over and over. I fit in the latter category. If there’s a movie I like I can watch it over and over and over. Sometimes I get new things from it. Sometimes I just enjoy the ride. This list just touches the very tip of the iceberg for me and is also heavily weighted towards classics from the 30s and 40s, with only a handful of more “recent” movies and little or nothing from the last few years, ‘cause I have to wait and see what sticks. There are more esoteric movies that I like, but this is a list of movies that I like to watch over and over and can pretty much do so from any point in the picture. So, here’s some movies I’ve seen multiple times:

Sui Genris:

Casablanca – my favorite movie, bar none. What more can I say, except, I’m shocked. Shocked.


Film Noir: I don’t have the time or space to put them all in here, but almost all classic film noirs would be on this list.

Double Indemnity – The ultimate film noir imho. Covers all the bases.

     —Walter Neff: How could I have known that murder could  sometimes smell like honeysuckle?

     —Walter Neff: Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it’s true, so help me. I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.


Big Heat, The

Big Sleep, The

Blue Dahlia, The

Born to Kill – One of my favorites and has one of my favorite movie quotes of all time. It’s not said by either of the main characters, but by Walter Slezak, a sleazy private eye:

     Delivery Boy: My, that coffee smells good. Ain’t it funny how coffee never tastes as good as it smells.

     Arnett (Slezak): As you grow older, you’ll discover that life is very much like coffee: the aroma is  always better than the actuality. May that be your thought for the day.


Criss Cross

D.O.A. (original) – The ultimate high-concept flick…for my money

Dark Corner, The – Bradford Galt: There goes my last lead. I feel all dead inside. I’m backed up in a dark corner, and I don’t know who’s hitting me.

Dead Reckoning

Detour – Al Roberts: That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.

Fear in the Night

His Kind of Woman

In a Lonely Place – Tied for my second fave movie in any genre (with Ghost World, yes, I love Ghost World):

     —Dixon Steele: I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.

Kiss Me, Deadly – Much better than the book

Lady from Shanghai, The – Mirrors, what else can I say but mirrors?

Maltese Falcon, The – The schtuff dreams are made of.

Murder, My Sweet

Narrow Margin, The

Nightmare Alley

Out of the Past

Postman Always Rings Twice, The (original)

Scarlet Street

Somewhere in the Night

To Have and Have Not (which may or may not technically be noir)

Touch of Evil

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Woman in the Window, The


Thrillers and Neo Noir

Clockwork Orange, A

Devil in a Blue Dress

Die Hard

Final Analysis – Doesn’t get a great rating on IMDB, but I like it.

Fracture – So clever, so good.

Kill Me Again

Last Seduction, The

Malice

Pacific Heights – Creepy.

Pelican Brief

Red Rock West

Sudden Impact – My favorite Dirty Harry movie.

Taxi Driver

Vertigo (and most Hitchcock movies)


Quirky (for lack of a better term)

And Now My Love (Toute Une Vie) – Though I’ve heard horrible things about the DVD version, which I have, but can’t bring myself to watch,

Art School Confidential

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Ghost World – I can’t get enough of this movie.


Lilies of the Field

Sideways – Can’t get enough of this one either.

Soldier in the Rain – Based on the book by the late, great William Goldman.

Tender Mercies


Newer Classics

Chinatown

Godfather Movies – All 3, the third one’s not as bad as it seems initially and if someone besides Sofia Coppola had played that part it would “read” much better.

LA Confidential


Holiday Movies

Christmas Story, A

Miracle on 34th Street

Shop Around the Corner

(since I’m posting on Christmas Day, more holiday movies then)


Where Does This Fit?

Born Losers (John Floyd) – The movie that introduced Billy Jack, before he got too preachy. This one’s just a biker movie. How Billy got his start. When I was younger, I loved going to all the biker movies. That’s how I got introduced to Jack Nicholson before his breakout role in Easy Rider


Screwball/Classic Comedy

Awful Truth, The

Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, The

Bringing Up Baby

His Girl Friday – Classic and hilarious

Holiday

Libeled Lady – This and Love Crazy below, both with William Powell and Myrna Loy are terrific.

Love Crazy

Monkey Business (Marx Brothers)

My Favorite Wife

My Man Godfrey

Philadelphia Story, The

Sullivan’s Travels

Thin Man series

To Be or Not to Be (original) – Proves you can laugh at Nazis, even at the time they were in power.

     —Colonel Ehrhardt: They named a brandy after Napoleon, they made a herring out of Bismarck, and the Fuhrer is going to end up as a piece of cheese!


Westerns

Monte Walsh (both versions)

Shootist, The – I put The Shootist out of alphabetical order because I see it as a pair with Monte Walsh, both about people who’ve outlived their time, a theme I like to explore in my own writing.

El Dorado

Shane – If I had to show one western to a Martian to show them what the genre is it would be this.


Science Fiction/Horror – Not a big science fiction or horror guy these days. Liked them more as a kid.

Dracula (Lugosi)

Forbidden Planet

Haunting, The (original)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (original)


The Beatles

A Hard Day’s Night

Help! – Help me if you can I’m feeling down…

Let It Be


Newer Comedy

After Hours

Can’t Buy Me Love – Even though it’s named after a Beatles song, which is played at the end, it’s got nothing to do with the Beatles, but it’s still fun.

In-Laws, The (original)

Manhattan

My Cousin Vinnie – One of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen and no matter how many times I watch it I always laugh

Reuben Reuben – A treasure!

Sting, The


Musicals/Music:

Ramones: It’s Alive – Okay, maybe it’s not a musical per se, but it is music and ya gotta love The Ramones: “One, two, three, four…



Singin’ in the Rain

Wizard of Oz, The

***

I could go on forever, but I gotta stop at some point. So:

What about you? What movies do you like to watch over and over again?

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

I'm thrilled by the great reviews that Broken Windows has been receiving. Here’s a small sampling:

Betty Webb, Mystery Scene Magazine:  "Broken Windows is extraordinary."

Kristin Centorcelli, Criminal Element"Although it’s set in 1994, it’s eerie how timely this story is. There’s an undeniable feeling of unease that threads through the narrative, which virtually oozes with the grit, glitz, and attitude of L.A. in the ‘90s. I’m an ecstatic new fan of Duke’s."

"Duke and company practically beg for their own TV show."

John Dwaine McKenna, Mysterious Book Report:  "This electrifying novel will jolt your sensibilities, stir your conscience and give every reader plenty of ammunition for the next mixed group where the I [immigration] -word is spoken!"

***


I’m also honored and thrilled – more than I can say – that my story Windward appears in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, edited by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler. I wrote a blog on that on SleuthSayers if you want to check it out: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2018/10/the-impossible-dream.html .

I’m doubly thrilled to say that Windward won the Macavity Award at Bouchercon a few weeks ago. Wow! And thank you to everyone who voted for it.

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com


03 December 2018

Bullies II — Town Without Pity, part 2

by Leigh Lundin

Yesterday, we brought you part 1 of a devastating story. That horrible situation is about to grow considerably worse.

girl crying
Part 2, Therapist, anagram of ‘The Rapist’

The court ordered psychiatric evaluation and therapy sessions. There, Honey Barrette encountered horrendous professional misfeasance.

Realizing the girl’s worst fears, the shrink didn’t bother to mask disapproval and dislike. The fault, she said, was Honey’s. Attention-seeking, she said, manipulative, narcissistic, unconcerned about others. False rape accusations are a nasty problem. Honey, she said, would be lucky to avoid jail time or even prison, which the prosecutor wanted.

Then the court-appointed psychoanalyst twisted the knife in a way the original perpetrator couldn’t approach. She ordered the child to apologize in writing to her so-called victim, the rapist. She instructed the girl to write letters of apology to the police and hospital for wasting their time, to the newspaper for headline grabbing. The therapist had perfected the art of bullying.

Protestations from the Barrette family fell on deaf ears. They pointed out the perpetrator was of age and Honey was only fourteen. At the least, statutory rape had taken place.

No, said the psychiatrist. No, said the police. No, said the prosecutor. The poor man had suffered enough.

Making the most of public shaming, newspapers printed the apology. One paper used the case to highlight attention-grabbing teens. The state’s premier, syndicated newspaper wrote a piece about false rape. It featured the psychiatrist’s assessment of the Honey Barrette case. It’s unclear if the shrink went on to publish it in an academic article.

School descended into a deeper nightmare than before. A delighted, self-righteous Alexis and her gang ruthlessly tortured Honey. The rapist’s best friend Colt organized insidious torments. Students stuffed Honey’s locker full of newspaper clippings. They elbowed, kneed, tripped, slapped, punched, and fucked over their classmate without mercy. Teachers failed to halt the unending hammering assault upon a 14-year-old child.

A numb, despondent Honey felt her life had ended before it’d begun. Dropping out of school made problems worse. She became pregnant by an abusive guy who resolved the pregnancy problem by slamming a 2x4 into her stomach, causing a miscarriage. Honey was falling faster than anyone could stop.

She prized one asset, her family. Parents and grandparents gathered around her. The packed up their precious girl and moved across the country.

It took their damaged daughter years, but she found her way back on track, a testament to her inner strength when it’s amazing she survived at all. She turned a sense of humor dry as the desert sands into a survival skill. She obtained her GED and undertook nursing studies.

Honey Today

She sticks close to family and a couple of close friends. Betrayal and horrible treatment at the hands of others has compromised her ability to find a decent man and forge a loving relationship, but she’s working on it. She’ll do it.

Recently she’s been awarded a well-earned promotion. Hard work and responsibility moved her up the ladder professionally. She started at ground level and worked her way up to management, now number three in line from the top. Any company would be lucky to employ her.

Living well is the best revenge, and Honey Barrette makes every effort to make that happen.

Afterword

The actions of the psychiatrist horrified me, a medical professional convinced of one’s own infallibility. Because of her evaluation, authorities forewent a slam-dunk case of statutory rape. Even if the judgmental shrink didn’t believe the girl, she should have considered the tiniest possibility rape could have happened, given the child the minutest benefit of the doubt, and not forced her to write those letters.

After Honey related her story, I spoke with her mother who filled in a couple of details.

Long after the court-ordered psychiatric sessions, the Barrette parents sat down with the court’s appointee to discuss issues. Too late to retract her words and reverse the fates, the psychiatrist revealed she’d misinterpreted the girl’s hostility toward her. She’d belatedly come to believe Honey and further concluded her rapist should have been prosecuted.

The shrink would have done well to remember the words of Omar Khayyám:
The Moving Finger writes and having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
Honey at least, is beating the odds.



NB: Except for a single reference to the rapist, I've avoided the word ‘victim’. Honey didn’t use the term and I followed suit.

02 December 2018

Bullies II — Town Without Pity, part 1

by Leigh Lundin

As I was writing Bullies Part I, my dear, dear friend told me her story. I feel humbled she shared it with me and has given me permission to share it with you. Like the original Bullies article, the names have been changed as a condition of publication.

girl crying
Part 1, A Town Without Pity

In middle school it started verbally, the wrong shoes, a lack of designer labels, boobs that were taking their sweet time to present. Honey Barrette was only fourteen, a waif, a wisp, small for Bad River Junior High.

Classmate Alexis, oversized in attitude and altitude, had been held back a grade, then held back again. She wasn’t stupid. She’d mastered a cruel vocabulary of peculiar biology beyond the ken of 7th and 8th graders, phrases to gobsmack an adult.

Honey did her best to avoid her in the eddies of students swirling through the halls, but Alexis glided the currents like a shark. A head taller than her classmates, she sought prey unerringly, She found little Honey Barrette easy pickings and confronted her.

“What you staring at, slut?”

“Uh, nothing. You lunged into me.”

“Retard, you grabbed my jacket, bitch.”

“I-I didn’t.”

“You calling me a liar?”

“N-no. I was calling you mistaken.”

Alexis stabbed the girl’s chest with a hard finger.

“You’re the mistake. Christ, I had more tits when I was two. What’s with this sweater? Is this a fashion statement from your granny?”

“You two, break it up.” The hall monitor approached. “Alexis, get to class. You, whats-your-name, move it. Don’t cause trouble with Alexis.”

The bully honed her hunting instinct to a science, cutting victims out of the herd like a rodeo cowboy, especially Honey. She upped the ante in violence, secretive judo chops, rabbit punches to Honey’s kidney, slams and slaps to the back of the head.

“What’s the matter, little twat? You gonna cry? Want your mommy? Jesus, I can’t stand touching… what do you call them? Clothes? You never heard of Tommy Hilfiger? You steal them from Goodwill?”

The biggest girl in the class escalated to hair grabbing and tripping, hard shoves, hard punches, hard nipple yanks. One morning Honey couldn’t take it. She lashed back, throwing the bigger girl into the lockers. Naturally the hall monitor spotted them.

“You two, stop. Whats-your-name, you’re on report. Alexis, you’re suspended for the day.”

“Great. I can catch up on General Hospital, which is where this little bitch is headed.”

Seeking protection, Honey began to hang out with older kids from Bad River High School. They acted more mature and less mean. One hanger-on was no longer a student. Dick was a bit older. High school students looked up to him, a cool guy. Dick grew interested in the group’s youngest, Honey.

Later the Barrette family determined Dick must have stalked her, learned Honey’s schedule and route home from school, and found a lair to stage an assault.

The rape wasn’t spur-of-the-moment, it wasn’t accidental. It came as a blatant, broad-daylight attack in the middle of town. One afternoon Dick walked with her, then lured her into a copse beside the courthouse.

When Honey realized his full intentions, she fought back, but his height, weight, and strength dwarfed hers. Afterwards, he threatened to kill her and her family should she tell. With that, he abandoned her.

Honey gathered her wits and her clothes. She stumbled toward home, crying.

En route, a woman sat on her veranda, rocking, looking out upon the world. She noticed a slight girl hopelessly sobbing.

“My dear, what’s wrong? Come, come here so I can see you.” She drew the young one to the porch. “Dear, why are you crying so hard?”

Honey didn’t want to talk, she merely wanted home with her family. When the woman pressed her, Honey improvised the first of a series of devastating, spur-of-the-moment lies.

“Nothing’s wrong. I’m late, missing my curfew. That’s all.”

“My child, yours aren’t tears of a girl missing curfew. Your shoulders are shaking like… What’s that on your back? Is that blood? How did that happen? Oh my, oh my. I’m calling an ambulance.”

As they waited for paramedics, the woman, no mean amateur detective, drew the essentials from the girl’s trembling lips. Honey admitted she’d been raped, but refused to name her attacker.

By big city standards, Major Hospital was minor, but for three quarters of a century, it had served rural residents in three counties. They were expanding their facility and the small physician group, but the Women’s Health Center wouldn’t be completed for another two years. Whether the staff was trained in rape analysis isn’t clear, but they couldn’t state with certainty Honey had been sexually assaulted. They treated scratches and bruises separately before releasing her to reluctantly talk to police.

With Dick’s threats ringing in her ears, the last thing she wanted was to speak with authorities. She simply wanted to go home where it was safe, where she could curl up with a blanket over her head.

Not wanting to get anyone in trouble, she made up a pretend name for the rapist. The police ran with it, unsurprisingly not finding a perpetrator. Eventually, they figured out the real rapist and questioned him.

Naturally, Dick denied assaulting her. He opted for the consensual sex fiction, claiming she was all in and all over him. Afterwards, he implied, she suffered buyer’s remorse.

Life was about to grow far worse. She’d been raped by an amateur; now she was about to be gutted by a professional.

Tomorrow: The rapist, anagram of Therapist

01 December 2018

Two Strand Stories: Behind the Scenes


by John M. Floyd



I always find something to like about SleuthSayers posts, whether they stick to the subjects of mysteries and writing or veer off into something else--but some of those I've enjoyed the most are the ones where an author talks in detail about specific stories or novels he or she has written. Sort of an insider's view.

With that in mind--and hoping others might feel the same--I'd like to look at two of my recent stories, one of them in the previous issue of The Strand Magazine and the other in the current issue.

A quick peek

The first story, "Foreverglow" (original title "The Foreverglow Case"), appeared in The Strand's June-Oct issue. It's the story of a regular and not-overly-bright guy who meets and falls for a young lady who, as it turns out, has what she feels is a brilliant plan to steal a fortune in diamond jewelry from the store where she's employed. They manage to work together to pull off the heist--but what happens next was not in their original plan.

The second story, "Lucian's Cadillac," appears in the current (Oct-Jan) issue, which they're calling the Twentieth Anniversary Collector's Issue. It's a tale about three lifelong but unlikely friends--a genius, a "little person," and an ex-football player--who happen to witness a double murder. They testify against the killer, and later wind up on his payback list when he escapes from the state prison. It's sort of a High Noon/Cape Fear kind of story, with three over-the-hill seniors as the targets of revenge.

What's interesting, to me, about these two stories is what I found when I started comparing them. At first glance, they have a lot in common. Here are a few of the

Similarities:

- Both stories have protagonists with common, everyday lives and jobs. I find myself doing this a lot. Heroes don't have to be superheroes.

- Both are about 2500 words in length. This is actually a little short for Strand stories; I think the guidelines still say between 2K and 6K.

- Both are mysteries. This just means a crime is central to the plot.

- Both have characters who are romantically attracted to each other. The two thieves in the first story, and the viewpoint character and a female sheriff in the second. A romantic element, even if minor, can add a level of interest and/or conflict.

- Both are told in past tense. (I probably shouldn't have listed this, since all my stories are past tense. But it is a similarity.)

- Both are standalone stories. One of the two could conceivably become a series, but I have no plans in that direction.

- Both, except for some violence, have family-friendly content. Hell no, the priest and the Republican senator are NOT having an affair.

- Both are set in the present day, and in fairly small and unnamed towns. In one of the stories I mentioned that Atlanta was nearby, but otherwise I didn't see a need to use real, it's-on-the-map locations.

Both have only a few named characters but a LOT of dialogue. (One story has two speaking roles, the other has three.)

- Both include major plot reversals. I find this hard to resist when I write, because it's the kind of thing I like to encounter myself in the stories and novels I read.


But . . . here are some things about those stories that aren't alike at all.


Differences:

- In one story, the protagonists willfully break the law; in the other they don't. Asking the reader to root for the bad guys doesn't always work--but sometimes it does (Get Shorty, The Godfather, Butch Cassidy, etc.).

- One is written in third person, the other in first person. This wasn't even a conscious decision on my part--it just seemed the right way to tell these particular stories.

- One has several different scenes; the other has no scene breaks at all. A factor here is that in one story the action includes different places at different times, and in the other story everything happens at the same location--a neighborhood bar owned by the protagonist--in the space of only an hour or so.

- In one, the romantic element drives the story; in the other it's incidental. What can I say?--Love is mysterious.

One's a heist story; the other's a tale of revenge and survival. As a result, one of the stories has no specific named antagonist, while the other does.

- In one story, the characters are fairly "average"; in the other there'a a lot of diversity. The group of close friends in the second story includes a brilliant scholar, a dwarf, and an overweight former linebacker. Plus a lady sheriff.

- One contains no violence; the other does. This makes sense because one's a try-to-escape-without-getting-caught story, and the other's life-or-death, do-whatever-you-must-to-stay-alive.

- In one, the main characters are young; in the other they're old. The ages, here, are appropriate to the plot: the jewelry thieves are confident but inexperienced, and the three old men facing a deadly enemy are experienced enough not to be confident--besides being physically challenged.

- One has a surprise ending; the other does not. Although I hope both endings are satisfying.


So the two stories have many things in common, including some style/structure elements, but they're vastly different. I think that's to be expected with my stories, and probably with yours as well. If they're too much alike--even those that are "series" installments--they'll be boring to write and boring to read. This applies to novels as well as shorts.

Advice and opinions

For you writers out there, how different from each other are the stories you create? Are most told in the same viewpoint? Do most have the same kind of geographical setting? The same time period? The same tense? The same length? Complex plots? Happy endings? Surprise endings? How about the amount of dialogue? Violence? Sex? Profanity? Humor? Is there any one thing that you find yourself always including, or always avoiding?

Here's some sage advice from Elmore Leonard, and supposedly from Alfred Hitchcock as well: Leave out the parts that people skip.

Easier said than done.