23 July 2019

The Future of Writing


Many of us have nostalgic, warm feelings of curling up with a book in the rain. For a lot of us here at SleuthSayers it’s more than likely a mystery or a thriller, though I’m sure we all read many different kinds of books, mainstream fiction, non-fiction, a little of everything.

But how many of our kids have that warm feeling? How many of our kids enjoy reading just for the pleasure of it? How many people read paper books anymore? And are young people reading these days? They do seem to read YA books, maybe on Kindle and iPad but not often in paperback. But they are reading less than previous generations and spending more time playing games on their phones, texting and watching movies instead of reading. More distractions and shorter attention spans. They’ve grown up with everything being faster and getting instant gratification. Do they ever read classics or history or something that’s a stretch for them? And how many never read anything longer than a  Facebook post or Tweet?


My wife, Amy, who takes the train to work, says, “I notice on the train a lot of people staring at their phones. Some are reading, but the really serious readers have paperbacks or Kindles and don’t read on their phones. Most are texting or playing games. And it’s time that could be spent reading but they don’t. And that’s scary. I understand wanting to do something mindless and entertaining for a little while, but we also need to exercise and stretch our brains and imaginations sometimes, too.”

It seems to me that, while there are still some places to buy books besides Amazon, and that people still read, I’m not sure how many people read or what they’re reading. So the question is, is fiction a dying art? And how does that affect our writing?

Many people, of all ages, would find Don Quixote slow to come to a boil. Nothing happens for too long. That’s the way it is with a lot of books from earlier times and not even all that earlier. Hemingway was known for his “streamlining” of the language, but many people these days find his books slow going.

The same applies to movies. Even movies made 20 or 30 years ago are too slow for many people today. And when they watch movies they often watch them on a phone with a screen that’s five inches wide. How exciting is that? And many movies today are of the comic book variety. I’m not saying no one should read comic books or enjoy comic book movies, but it seems sometimes like that’s all there is in the theatres.

And novels have become Hollywoodized. I like fast paced things as much as the next person, but I also like the depth a novel can provide that movies or TV series often don’t. And one of the things that I liked about the idea of writing novels was being able to take things slower, to explore characters’ thoughts and emotions.

In talking to many people, I often find there’s a lack of shared cultural touchstones that I think were carried over from generation to generation previously. That also affects our writing. Should we use literary allusions, historical allusions? If so, how much do we explain them? And how much do we trust our audience to maybe look them up? The same goes for big words.

Way back when, I was writing copy for a national radio show. Another writer and I got called on the carpet one time and dressed down by the host. Why? Because we were using words that were “too big,” too many syllables. Words that people would have to look up. So, we dumbed down our writing to keep getting our paychecks. But it grated on us.

But in writing my own books and short stories I pretty much write them the way I want to. I’m not saying I don’t stop and consider using this word instead of that. But I hate writing down to people. When I was younger I’d sit with a dictionary and scratch pad next to me as I read a book. If I came on a word I didn’t know I’d look it up and write the definition down. And I learned a lot of new words that way. Today, if one is reading on a Kindle or similar device, it’s even easier. You click on the word and the definition pops up. That’s one of the things I like about e-readers, even though I still prefer paper books. But I wonder how many younger people look up words or other things they’re not familiar with.

And what if one wants to use a foreign phrase? I had another book (see picture) for looking those up. But again, today we’re often told not to use those phrases. Not to make people stretch. I remember seeing well-known writers (several over time) posting on Facebook, asking if their friends thought it was okay to use this or that word or phrase or historical or literary allusion because their editors told them they shouldn’t. That scares me.

So all of this brings up a lot of questions in my mind: What is the future of writing? Are we only going to write things that can be read in ten minute bursts? And then will that be too long? What does all this mean for writers writing traditional novels? Will everything become a short story and then flash fiction?

In 100 years will people still be reading and writing novels? Or will they live in a VR world where everything is a game and they can hardly tell reality from fantasy?

So, what do you think of all of this?

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Past is Prologue is out in the new July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Available now at bookstores and newstands as well as online at: https://www.alfredhitchcockmysterymagazine.com/. Hope you'll check it out.




Also, check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus Award-winning novel, White Heat.



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

22 July 2019

When to Enter


Many moons ago, I discussed why I enter so few writing contests. If there is a hefty entry fee, I stay away. If I don't know the judges or feel comfortable with the criteria, ditto.
But sometimes, dumb luck gives you an advantage, and it's true of both contests and submissions to anthologies. If you're in the right place at the right time, there are ways to get an inside track.

Several years ago, I learned about the Black Orchid Novella Award. I had a short story that never sold, and I expanded it into a novella and won. Yes, writing a good story helps, but the Black Orchid Novella Award pays tribute to Rex Stout and his detectives Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. My parents liked Stout, so I read many of his novels and novellas when I was young. We were both raised in the Midwest, so his voice and rhythm and characters influenced my own writing. In other words, writing a story that fit the contest's requirements was definitely in my skill set.

I've entered two stories in that contest, and won both times. Since it's an annual event, the submission dates are standard, which means I know when to have a story ready and have a whole year to come up with an idea (or not) and rewrite until it's worth sending. That means no rushing, important because I can't rush. I've written on demand, but it always takes me several revisions, which means lots of time.

My titles should tell you I like blues and rock and roll. Several years ago, I wrote a blog about plagiarism in rock music. Among other performers, I mentioned Led Zeppelin and their frequent "borrowing" from blues artists. That idea was fresh in my mind when the Mystery Writers of America posted a submission call for an anthology with the theme of "Vengeance," to be edited by Lee Child.

Well, Child's first novel is Killing Floor, a title taken from an old Howlin' Wolf blues classic. Led Zeppelin milked it dry for a song they called "The Lemon Song" on their second LP. Child has another novel called Bad Luck and Trouble, a line that appears in both "Born Under a Bad Sign" by William Bell and Albert King and "Double Trouble" by Otis Rush.

I figured Child was a fan of American Blues. What if I could write a story about a blues songwriter who stole a song and the results caught up with him? I called it "Hot Sugar Blues" and hoped the title would help the story get through the gatekeepers to Child himself. It appeared in the anthology and was later named a finalist for the Edgar Award.

Yes, I think it was a good story, but it still needed the right audience. You can help that happen.

Several years ago, I joined four other writers judging submissions for the Al Blanchard Story Award, sponsored by the New England Chapter of MWA. Let me share what that five-month stint taught me.

The submission time was three months, and we received 142 stories of 5000 words or less. Only a dozen came in during the first several weeks, and only 41 through the sixth week, so I read them all, Because I was used to reading lots of papers, I read EVERY story (even though I only had to read every fourth one) and took notes. (Some people have lives. I'm not one of them). I graded them all from 1 to 10 and made a spread sheet of my comments.

I didn't award any story a 9 or 10, but I gave NINETY-ONE stories a 1 or 2. That's right, nearly 2/3 of the entries earned that score, and for the same reason(s). They started with turgid--often unnecessary--backstory and most of them wallowed in description. They tended to tell rather than show, had little or poor dialogue, and a few had endings that came out of nowhere.

Don't do those things.

A whopping 41 stories came in the last day of the contest. Don't do that, either. By then, judges are in a hurry. They're looking for a reason to dump you and move on, so a typo, a badly-chosen name, or a cliche may be enough to knock you out on page one.

If a contest takes submissions for three months, I like to wait about six weeks. That gives readers time to go through enough entries to establish a personal standard of their own. They still have enough time to be flexible, though, so they'll give leeway to something a little different. When the time crush kicks in (the last two weeks), they may already have their personal favorites locked in and it's hard to dislodge them. Hit them when they're still comfortable.

Keep in mind that judging is ALWAYS subjective, no matter how specific the criteria, and no matter whether it's for a contest, an anthology, or a standard submission. Three of the five stories I rated the highest in the contest I judged didn't make anyone else's short list, but seventeen of the stories I rated a 1 or a 2 DID.

Not long ago, an editor turned down my submission because he liked the story but didn't like the golf that was essential to the plot. He never explained why. I sold the story elsewhere in two weeks. Maybe if I'd used tennis or Jai alai, it would have sold the first time out.

You never know. But some guesses are better than others.

21 July 2019

A Public Service Announcement


Florida politicians are as environmentally sensitive as Jeffrey Epstein at Scott Pruitt’s Mar-a-Lago bachelor party. In the eighty years since Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Florida hasn’t exactly become a hotbed of environmentalism.

“Drain the swamps” is the rallying cry of misguided developers. Wetlands are Nature’s kidneys, filtering polluted water before it enters ever-depleting aquifers, shrinking underground rivers supplying the state’s water.

“Chop down the forests” isn’t heard quite as often these days, but I encountered a guy who still believes trees cause pollution and environmentalism is a dastardly plot. He forgets William F Buckley Jr mentioned conservation and conservatism share the same root words and meanings.

Imagine my pleasant shock when I began seeing posters and postcards from some Orange County government subversives with tips to save the environment. Bless their hearts. Here is an example:

Orange County Public Service Announcement Nº 4

Orange County fertilizer brochure

However, those icons in the left middle of the page reminded me of a guy with a gun to his head and then possibly a gas pump. Nah. Eventually I settled upon pesticide sprayers in the land where roaches are the size of rats, rats are the size of cats, and a mouse the size of humans. But for fertilizer? At least their hearts are in the right place.

Florida panther
Florida housecat
Naturally my next thought concluded SleuthSayers would be remiss not to create its own public service announcement. But what should a criminal PSA include?
  • It should pay homage to its inspiration.
  • Orange County’s orange inexplicably went missing above, but we can fix that.
  • It should respect the work the county put into theirs. After all, they should know what a PSA looks like.
  • Therefore it should look attractive.
  • Maybe it should be informative. Or not. But yes, let’s.
I considered a bit of humor made especially for the occasion:
Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.
Give a man a puffer fish, you feed him for a lifetime.
Too subtle, huh? Maybe if I copyrighted it…

So after much head scratching, I came up with the following.

SleuthSayers Public Service Announcement Nº 1

Florida crime craft poster

What do you think? Have we succeeded in alerting the public? If not, it’s the fault of, uh, Orange County, yeah, that’s it.

20 July 2019

A Saturday Post About The Saturday Evening Post


A few years ago I discovered a new market for my stories--or, more accurately, I was told about it. It wasn't a mystery market (those are the ones I usually look for), but one that is occasionally receptive to mysteries as well. It was a magazine whose name I recognized, but I had never considered submitting a story there.

When I think of The Saturday Evening Post, the first thing that comes to mind is probably Norman Rockwell's covers. But they do publish one short story in every bi-monthly print edition, and the one in the current issue is mine. (I would prefer they make things easier by just using one of my stories in every issue, but they might not agree with that idea.)

A little Post history

Like me, the SEP has been around awhile. It began in the 1820s, and I'm told it did pretty well until the 1890s, and then sank to a circulation of around two thousand. Then--under new leadership--it rose to around 250,000 in 1900 and a million in 1908. Apparently it continued to flourish until the 1960s, reaching a circulation of around seven million. In the late sixties, though, the Post had another downturn, and by 1982 it had become, according to its website, a non-profit entity focusing on health, medicine, volunteerism, etc. In 2013 it underwent a do-over, returning to its original policy of celebrating the storytelling, art, and history of America. I am now a subscriber and I truly enjoy the magazine.

One thing of interest to folks like me is that the Post--as I said earlier--features one piece of fiction in every print edition, and then makes those stories available online about two weeks after their appearance in print. My story in their current (July/Aug 2019) issue became available online this past week. I understand the SEP is also a market for strictly online stories, where a new story is featured every week. I have not investigated or sent anything to that venue, but I know several fellow SleuthSayers who have submitted and have been published there, and I would welcome their comments and information on that piece of the market.

What does all this have to do with mystery writing? Not much. Only three of the eight stories I've had published by the SEP are mysteries--or at least mysteries in the sense that a crime is central to their plots. (That remains the criteria by which Otto Penzler selects the content for his annual Best American Mystery Stories anthologies.) That of course means that more than half of my SEP stories are not mysteries. But most writers like to dabble now and then in other genres anyway.

My Post history

Looking back at the past several years, here are the short stories I've been fortunate enough to sell to the SEP, along with a mini-synopsis of each:


1. "The Outside World" -- 2600 words -- March/April 2013 issue. A mysterious old woman helps a
young man who's been blinded in an accident regain his hope for the future. I remember that I wrote this non-mystery story really fast, after the idea first entered my head.

2. "The First of October" -- 1600 words -- Nov/Dec 2013. Fate brings two college sweethearts back together after many years of hardship and separation. This was sort of a romance story with a twist, and one that I was surprised (but happy) that the Post accepted.

3. "Margaret's Hero" -- 5300 words -- May/June 2014. A white child, her beloved horse, and an African American foreman create an unlikely and strong alliance. This was fun to write because it was done in a familiar southern setting and about the kind of folks I grew up around.

4. "Saving Grace" -- 4500 words -- July/Aug 2015. A grown son estranged from his mother returns to his hometown to find that an unfortunate (and illegal) incident in his past has miraculously affected later events. The plot for this story, which includes some fantasy elements, came to mind after one of my many viewings of It's a Wonderful Life.

5. "Business Class" -- 1500 words -- Nov/Dec 2015. A confrontation between an executive and an employee shows a planeful of office workers what's really important in life. No crime in this story, just issues of professionalism and power and corporate ethics. A few memories of my IBM career in this one.

6. "The Music of Angels" -- 2000 words -- Sep/Oct 2018. A home-healthcare nurse visiting an elderly patient in a rural area makes a discovery that will change the lives of two people. A lot of this story was based on real events, both at the college I attended and in my hometown. Also, not that it matters, I gave the three main characters the first names of our oldest son's three children.

7. "Calculus 1" -- 4000 words -- March/April 2019. A wealthy engineering student convinces his cash-poor roommate to help him cheat on a college exam. Again, no crimes committed here, just dishonesty and deception.

8. "The A Team" -- 2300 words -- July/Aug 2019. A drugstore employee and her five-year-old daughter find themselves in the middle of an armed-robbery attempt. This is one of those "framed" narratives, where everything starts in the present, goes into the past to tell the story, and ends in the present again.


If anyone's interested in this kind of thing, six of those stories were written in third-person, two in first-person, all of them feature very few named characters, and all were written in past tense.

Editorial stuff

One odd thing that I've noticed about these stories: the SEP editors like to use numbers instead of spelling them out. My policy's always been to spell out numbers from, say, one to ten--"I'll pay you five dollars at two o'clock"--but when I do that, they always change it to "I'll pay you 5 dollars at 2 o'clock." From an editing standpoint, I think that's the only thing I've differed with them about. (They won.)

Contentwise, I usually try to send stories to the SEP that are family-friendly. Most of those I've seen in the magazine seem to be geared to a wide audience and have sort of a down-home, "all-American" flavor. If I do a crime-related story and it's at all gritty or controversial, I usually target one of the mystery magazines with it instead.

The SEP also tends to publish accepted stories almost immediately, unlike many other markets.

Questions

How many of you have read the Post lately? Have you ever submitted a short story there? A nonfiction piece? How often do you venture away from mysteries and into the other genres? Where do you usually choose to send those other-genre stories? Do you occasionally try the literary journals? Have you had success there? How often are your stories influenced by novels or movies or other shorts you've read?

Whatever the case, keep up the good work! I'll be back in two weeks.

19 July 2019

Dubious Attractions


by Janice Law

I am sure I am not the only writer to be attracted to subjects or genres that I’d be better to leave alone. I write books and stories heavier on character and atmosphere than clever plotting, and my favorite protagonists share a humorous skepticism and a propensity to chat.

Rex Stout
The rational puzzle mystery in not my natural terrain. Sure, I know enough to avoid the locked room. I know my limitations. But just the same I have twice been seduced by the siren song of the Black Orchid Society’s contest. And this, despite the fact that I’m not even terribly fond of Nero Wolfe, however much I may admire Rex Stout’s ingenuity.

Both times, however, I was convinced I had worked out the format. My first attempt, A Taste of Murder, set immediately after WW I in Providence, RI, did have a great logical mind and various errands and investigations that had to be carried out. Just like Wolfe and Archie, right?

AHMM illustration for Taste of Murder
Or not quite. My detectives, and I realize now I had never intended to give one priority, were Professor Hodgkins, a good-natured and erudite history professor with an interest in historical mysteries, and his Aberdonian housekeeper, Jean Galloway. Widowed during the war, Jean has much less education than her employer but a much tougher and more logical mind.

She is a bow to the domestic servants I grew up among, many, like her, women whose men – or potential men – had been lost in the Great War. Hardworking and clever, they were underpaid “help” who, in fact, had all the skills necessary to run the equivalent of a boutique hotel with a demanding set of residents. Put together, Jean and her professor have the Nero Wolfe mind and, depending on the errand, either separately or together fulfill Archie’s evidence- gathering function.

Probably you can already see why A Taste of Murder did for fit the contest requirements, although it turned up in Alfred Hitchcock later. A Fine Nest of Rascals, my next attempt at one of the classic forms, met a similar fate, although I am happy to say it is the cover story of the current July/August issue of  AHMM.

July/August 2019 issue
This time, I believed that I was a closer to the mark, employing my series characters Madame Selina and her apprentice Nip Tompkins in what I’d decided would be their final outing. Readers like to know what happens to characters, and this was a way of showing the resourceful Nip thriving as a cub reporter on the New York Herald and Madame contemplating retirement in the face of the vulgarities of the Gilded Age.

Madame would be the Nero Wolfe character, the brains of the operation, and Nip, who narrates, would run errands for her just as he used to do back when he was operating the bellows and creating the “ectoplasm” that enhanced her seances. I had the lines of authority and command down this time with no subversive ideas about class or gender.

Alas, I had ignored two little difficulties: Nip’s initiative – especially evident with a young woman as charming as Lucy Devereux in jeopardy – and Madame’s signature resource, the seance with Augustus, her pipeline to the afterlife. However intelligent Madame Selina, however careful her ( and Nip’s) researches, a Madame Selina story has to dim the lights and summon the Roman emperor. I can hear Nero Wolfe snort!

Oddly enough I did not see any problems at the time, showing that writers can be blind when an idea is upon them. In both cases, I congratulated myself on constructing a big reveal scene before the assembled suspects and in a variety of small ways developing plots without the chases and action that I usually find so helpful in fleshing out a story.

In retrospect I have to admit that my Professor and Madame Selina, Jean Galloway and Nip Tompkins are maybe best described as Stout-ish characters. They’re doing their best but they are not really suitable for a traditional form relying strictly on logical deduction and, I suspect, most comfortable with clear social hierarchies.

18 July 2019

Miscellany


by Eve Fisher

If you're looking for a logical sequence of events, this is not the blog for you.  The title means what it says.

So, to begin with,

My Masterpiece PosterThe other night we streamed Mi Obra Maestra (a/k/a My Masterpiece) on Netflix.  You gotta love a movie that opens up with a guy saying, "I'm a murderer".  And then - what a delight! - every time I thought I knew where it was going to go... it didn't!  Dead pan, very black humor, slapstick, a maniac artist, plus the fun of seeing Buenos Aires and the World Heritage site of Quebrada de  Humahuaca.  (And yes, I had to look that up all for myself.)  You can't ask for much more than that.

Quebrada de  Humahuaca
Those are real, folks!!!!

I've also been thinking about mysteries / thrillers / etc. written by non-mystery writers.  Most of these are short stories.

There is, of course, also the classic The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.  Who really did what, and was/were there ghost(s), and if not, was the governess mad, or is it all one big fantasy, have been argued up one side and down the other for decades. (BTW, it's available on Project Gutenberg HERE.)  Personally, I've never cared for The Turn of the Screw.  If you want horror - albeit of a different kind - I recommend James' The Beast in the Jungle (HERE).

But Henry James is a bit literary for a lot of people, so try Haircut by Ring Lardner.   (Read it HERE)   I keep re-reading it, and each time, new questions:  How funny did Lardner's contemporaries think it was?  Was the scene in the movie Pleasantville, where the mayor comes in and takes the barber's chair away from someone else, taken from Haircut?  I do know that Grant Tripp's brother, Barry, is kind of based on Paul.  I also know that there are still a lot of Jim Kendalls around, especially in small towns.

The Meyerowitz Stories.pngMeanwhile, I'm a big Maeve Binchy fan.  Most people know her from her Irish novels, but she wrote a number of short stories.  I just reread "Queensway", an absolute gem from the anthology London Transports:
When Pat saw something like "Third Girl wanted for quiet flat.  Own room, with central heating" she had dark fears that it might be a witches' coven looking for new recruits.
But sometimes a coven would be better.  And "Queensway" provides a wonderfully subtle, terribly accurate depiction of a manipulative sociopath.  Check it out.  (No e-text available.)
"It's like their apartment is full of everything we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it." - Cornelia in While We're Young.
Speaking of manipulative sociopaths, I've been working my way through the films of Noah Baumbach ever since seeing The Meyerowitz Stories, and Dustin Hoffman certainly nailed the manipulative narcissistic sociopath in that movie.   Goodbye, Tootsie, goodbye...  As did Adam Driver in While We're Young.  Both are available for streaming on Netflix.

Meanwhile, looking forward to the Lodge 49 season 2 premiere on AMC, Aug. 12, 10 p.m.!  Watch the Season 2 Trailer HERE.


Finally, thank you, David Edgerley Gates, for mentioning John Crowley's Little, Big in your blogpost The Art of Memory.  I had never read that book, and I did, because I'm always fascinated by memory houses.  I have one, mostly for books, because I figured out early in the day that if I really was going to read all the books I wanted, then by God, I was going to have to set up some sort of mental filing system.  And I did, although I'm not sure how, but it works.  It supplies me the title, author, plot, major characters, most minor ones, and specific scenes of almost every book I've ever read.  (Which is a lot.)

Anyway, Little, Big stunned me.  Among the notes I wrote in my journal were "A fever dream of immanence."  You see, I've always been and still am the person - girl and woman - who walks looking for the path through the forest, the door in the tree, the cottage under the stones, the opening in the sky, knowing that some day it will be there, and I'll get to go through.  (Yes, I'm a huge fan of the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock.)  This will definitely go on the shelf of those books I reread, breathlessly.

BTW, a few others that have provided me similar fever dreams:  The Once and Future King (T. H. White); Centuries of Meditation (Thomas Traherne); La Morte d'Arthur (Thomas Mallory; the oldest translation you can stand); all fairy tales (believe it or not, the Hans Christian Andersen ones get better as you get older); Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; Piers Plowman; The Old Ways (Robert MacFarlane) and Meeting the Other Crowd:  The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland (Eddie Lenihan)

And FINALLY finally, next blog post - the mystery and challenge of Little Shrimp Factory on the Prairie - because if you thought everything was going to go swimmingly <groan> to bring shrimp farming to the high prairies, you really have a lot to learn.

and FINALLY FINALLY FINALLY, just for the information soundbite, from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

What you should know about National Origin Discrimination under Title VII

The law protects people against employment discrimination on the basis of their national origin. Following are some examples of employment discrimination based on national origin.

Harassment Based on National Origin

  • Ethnic slurs and other verbal or physical conduct because of nationality are illegal if they are severe or pervasive and create an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment, interfere with work performance, or negatively affect job opportunities. Examples of potentially unlawful conduct include insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person's foreign accent or comments like, "Go back to where you came from, " whether made by supervisors or by co-workers.
Read more HERE.

Granted, this is probably another government agency that will soon be gutted, renamed, rehelmed, and/or dismantled, but there you are. For right now, that's the law of the land.

17 July 2019

Because It Isn't There


by Robert Lopresti

I'm going to give in to peer pressure and follow Steve Liskow, Michael Bracken, R.T. Lawton, and O'Neil De Noux in addressing the question: Why write?

* When I was in second grade I brought a pencil and notebook to school determined that I would write a new Winnie-the-Pooh story.  I remember my shock in realizing that I had no idea how to do that.  Why did I want to write?  Because there were only two Pooh books and that clearly wasn't enough.

* In sixth grade our English teacher encouraged us to write short stories.  I wrote a few spy stories (in slavish devotion to The Man From Uncle)  and Mrs. Sonin, bless her heart, would let me read them to her after school while she graded papers.  I hope to heaven she didn't listen because they were uniformly awful.  Why did I write?  Because I loved to read and wanted to add more stories to the world.

* While living in a dorm at graduate school I found time to write a novel, which I had the good sense not to submit anywhere.  I still have the handwritten draft but, as Robert Benchley said about his diary, no one will see it as long as I have a bullet in my rifle. Why did I write? Because I wanted to be a writer and I needed something to do other than study cataloging.

* At the same time I started submitting terrible short stories to magazines.  Why?  Because I thought I might have a career as a writer.

* After three years of trying I sold a story to Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine. The rush I got from seeing my name in print gave me a reason to write for many years.

And other stuff happened, but that's enough.

Let's sum things up, shall we.  Why do I write?

As Thomas Berger said: "Because it isn't there."

16 July 2019

Community Standards


This year’s Malice Domestic in North Bethesda, Maryland, provided ample opportunity to spend time with several writers I count among my friends and with many more who became friends during the convention, and I realized how different life is when a large group of like-minded writers live in close proximity.
With Josh Pachter and Art Taylor at Malice Domestic 2019.
At some point during the convention, Josh Pachter and I discussed how the mystery-writing community in and around Washington, D.C., contrasts with the mystery-writing community in and around Waco, Texas. Many of the writers attending Malice see each other several times a year—at readings, book signings, Noir at the Bar events, library presentations, and the like—and they see each other so often that they rarely have reason to email one another. The mystery-writing community in and around Waco consists of, well, me.

Several romance writers live in the area, as do a few literary writers and poets of one type or another, but the only mystery writer living near me isn’t producing much new work these days. Because I don’t comprehend poetry or poets, and because literary writers don’t tend to hang with us genre types, I feel as if I live in a writing desert.

So, I’ve little opportunity to spend time with genre writers (of any genre) other than at conventions, and only in the past few years have I had the financial resources to travel more than a few hours from home to attend Bouchercon and Malice Domestic. Prior to that I attended some regional science fiction conventions (ArmadilloCon and the now-defunct ApolloCon), Bouchercon when it came to Austin many years ago and Left Coast Crime when it came to Santa Fe several years ago.

A gaggle of wordsmiths at Malice Domestic 2019.
Yet, I always remembered what life was like when I lived in Southern Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri. I was a young, barely published writer, and several times my then-wife and I had dinner with John Lutz and/or Francis M. Nevins, Jr., and their wives. And at least twice I attended the Nevinses’ Christmas party, where I met, among others, Elaine Viets when she was still a newspaper columnist.

I wondered if such a thing were possible in Waco, in a state where writers may live hundreds of miles apart, and Temple and I had several conversations about how we might duplicate those Christmas parties. Rather than a holiday event, when everyone is juggling family and work obligations, and rather than an evening event, which would cause guests to drive home in the wee hours of the morning, we decided to try a Saturday afternoon event in the spring.

Texas writers crowd the Bracken/Walker living room
during the 2019 Spring Writer Gathering.
We hosted our first Spring Writer Gathering the Saturday after Mother’s Day 2016, and we’ve hosted it the same weekend each year since. Though the event is open to all writers and their significant others, and most genres are represented in one fashion or another, we tend to draw a significant number of mystery writers from all across Texas. A few of our guests have joined us every year, a few only once, and many have attended two or three times.

This isn’t a critique group, and there’s no agenda. It’s just writers hanging out, talking about whatever strikes their fancies. Sometimes it’s writing, but the conversation is just as likely to cover dozens of other subjects. Sometimes we sit in a large group in the living room; sometimes we break into smaller groups that drift into the kitchen or the dining room.

Some of our guests are writers I’ve known for at least two decades, while others are recent acquaintances, and some I’m meeting in person for the first time when they arrive at our doorstep.

In doing this, my writing community is growing. Though it may never reach the size of the writing community in and around Washington, D.C., and even though our gathering may never draw the number and diversity of attendees as the Nevinses’ Christmas parties, I am quite pleased with the event’s success.

So, if you’re a writer living within driving distance of Waco, Texas, or think you might be traveling through our area the Saturday after Mother’s Day, drop me a line. Temple and I would love to have you join us next year for our annual Spring Writer Gathering.

My story “Oystermen” appears in the July/August issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and “Three Brisket Tacos and a Sig Sauer,” the second story of season one of the Guns + Tacos serial novella anthology series, releases August 1. Subscribe to season one here and receive six novellas—one each month beginning with July—and receive a special bonus story at the end of the season.

15 July 2019

Man of Many Names and Faces


by Fran Rizer

A person who is two-faced and has used an alias many times sounds sketchy. Why would I want to interview him and introduce him to SleuthSayer readers?

Let's call this fellow "Lenny." Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he left home at eighteen, spent some time in Miami, and then joined the U.S. Army. After completing his service, Lenny attended Michigan State University and earned a degree in Social Science. He wound up in a place he still loves--New York City.

Nineteen-year-old Lenny in Miami.

In 1970, Lenny began working as a press agent for Solters and Sabinson, a show biz publicity agency near Times Square. Solters and Sabinson's clients included big-time names such as Frank Sinatra and The Beatles. At age thirty-five, Lenny made a giant leap by quitting his PR job and becoming a full-time writer without a "day job." During the following years, Lenny had eighty-three (you read that right--eighty-three!) novels released by major publishers--all under pen names.

Photo by Ray Block in his photography
studio. The hat, gun, and unlit cigarette are
all props, creating an image indicative of
what Lenny was writing at the time.
Some of Lenny's books include:  The Apache War Series, six as Frank Burleson; The Pecos Kid Series, six as Frank Bodine; The Rat Bastards Series, sixteen as John Mackie; The Sergeant Series, nine as Gordon Davis, as well as other series and standalones -- all published under pen names.

Now in his eighties, the man of many names and faces refers to himself as "the crazy old dude."  In the past twelve months, this dude's published novels have increased to eighty-six, and many previous works are now available as e-books.

Throughout his career, Lenny was acclaimed under twenty-two pseudonyms as an excellent writer who takes his readers through adventures with such characters as cops, cowboys and soldiers. What's different about these three new books?

They're released under Lenny's real name.



The three new books released recently are: Cobra Woman, Web of Doom, and Grip of Death.  I reviewed Cobra Woman and Web of Doom on Amazon.  When I told Levinson I planned to read the re-release of The Last Buffoon next, he said that I might not like it because it's "raunchy, really raunchy." I replied that a review I'd found said, "The Last Buffoon" is the funniest thing I've ever read." Guess what Len Levinson book I'm now reading.

Levinson says, "That's me during my
younger days, standing in a trash barrel in
Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village, New York City."
Photo by S. H. Linden, around 1971.


Photo of Len Levinson standing beside a portrait of himself
 by Ari Roussimoff. Yes, Roussimoff  painted Levinson with
two sets of eyes. Levinson and Roussimoff were neighbors
in the Hell's Kitchen section of New York. To see more of
Roussimoff's work, check him out at roussimoff.com.

Researching Len Levinson, I learned a lot about him even before I began asking him questions.Some of the things he loves are evident.  In addition to people (he has grandchildren), it's obvious that Len Levinson loves New York City, art museums, beautiful women, and music. He's a familiar figure at blues festivals in the Chicago area--probably the only bopping dude in his eighties.


Levinson's FaceBook pages feature pictures of
him "bopping" at numerous festivals.

A real Man of Many Names and Faces -- the real face of my friend
 Lenny, AKA Len Levinson in 2019.

Until we meet again, please take care of … YOU!

14 July 2019

Undercover: Covert Work of Consular Officials


If you’re on vacation and get arrested and thrown into a foreign jail, how do you get word out about your situation and how do you get released?

There are stories in the news about attempts by governments to get their nationals back home - with more or less success. We usually hear Prime Ministers or Presidents discussing the progress of these cases. 


The names you will never hear in the news are the names of the people who will be informed of your arrest, arrange visits to ensure you are well treated and, often, will broker you release. These people are consular officials.

I had the privilege of interviewing one of these individuals – an experienced consular official who has worked internationally. Since her name is unknown to most people except those who work with her, I’ll call her Undercover. Many of Undercover’s stories – told over a leisurely dinner – can’t be shared. The details can be recognized and many are secret.

Undercover pointed me to a document, The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, that is a multilateral treaty that codifies consular rights and obligations and is the cornerstone of consular relations. “The treaty makes it possible for [your country] to assist its nationals abroad while respecting the sovereignty of other countries”

Undercover points out that “You are subjected to the local laws in foreign countries.” This is a statement that one should not take lightly. The laws in foreign countries may be quite unexpected.

Take Singapore for example:

“Tourists that visit Singapore are allowed to bring chewing gum with them, but only a maximum of two packs per person. Any more than that and they will be susceptible to be charged with "gum smuggling" which carries the penalty of one year in jail and $5,500 fine. People that are caught with leaving chewing gum remains in the public space can be charged with the monetary fine, community work, or often - public beating with the bamboo stick.”

So, what happens when someone is arrested in a foreign country, when they may not even be aware of the local laws? “When a foreign national is arrested in a country, the country that detains them has to inform the embassy and request consular access. If there is no embassy, they have to inform an accredited embassy in the region.”

“Someone in the region has to start the process of consular access.” This is to verify the nationality of person and to determine whether the person is being treated properly and it is no small matter. We have heard of detainees in foreign countries who have been tortured and raped, so, consular access - and the knowledge that these people will be visited and watched over, is important protection for them. This access can be daily, weekly or monthly.

How is someone’s release negotiated? This is negotiated by consular officials, often based on relationships, with police and the officials of the host country. Many times the consular official will point out how this will cause bad publicity and it would be preferable to have the person released into their custody.

“Sometimes it is just saying ‘This is not a bad kid, let’s get this person out of your country’,” says Undercover. “Sometimes, there is another dimension to the crimes committed and the authorities are angry. In some countries, someone may be arrested for the human rights work they are doing but they are held onto because they are angry the person is gay.”

“A country can also take someone into custody on spurious charges like espionage, but they are using this person to achieve some political end. This could even be to get their companies considered for contracts.” Or to make a political point.

Lack of consular access and consular negotiations can be extremely dangerous. Take the case of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old student who was arrested in 2016 in North Korea for taking a poster from his hotel room and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour. After 17 months, he was medically evacuated from North Korea and returned home “in a state of unresponsive wakefulness” and died within a week.

So, when we travel, what keeps us safe, what saves us at the worst of times, is so often laws – in this case international laws. But it is the also personal relationships and contacts consular officials have in the host countries that are crucial. Without these personal connections on the ground, more travellers would spend more time in difficult situations. The people who find us and keep us safe and often negotiate our release are people whose names the public will never know.

After our long dinner hearing Undercover’s stories, I was left pondering how these consular officials and their often covert work has the making of a great novel. I was also left wishing that I could share some of the stories I heard. I hope one day these stories are written.

13 July 2019

A Morning in Conan Doyle Land


I woke up on Saturday morning not feeling well (this was a month ago, I'm all better). I was resting on the sofa and doing the swipe through Netflix's recently added and currently trending lists, looking for something new and interesting to amuse, entertain, maybe even enlighten. Finding nothing that "grabbed" me, I moved over to Amazon Prime. Flicking down through the rows, I passed the children's section, and a title in that row reached out and took hold.

A Study in Scarlet. 

An animated telling of a Sherlock Holmes tale? For kids!? Seriously?!? I selected the program and let it start playing, the cynic in me chortling, this will be good for a laugh. I went in with zero expectations; in fact, minus expectations. I expected Dr. Watson to be played by Scooby Doo.


The opening shot is a moonlit set of rooftops; a dark and stormy night in Victorian London. A police constable is on the street, patrolling with a lamp. He winds up on the Brixton Road. He's joined by another bobby. There's a light on in an empty house. They enter. In a dilapidated drawing room, there's a dead body of an elderly gentleman on the floor.

Two and a half minutes in, and I'm thinking, this ain't too bad. The animation isn't going to win any awards, but the storytelling seems to be faithful to the source, and it has mood and atmosphere.
The opening credits started, and I was about to turn the thing off, when the following credit appeared: "With Peter O'Toole as Sherlock Holmes." That got my undivided attention. Naturally, I let the program keep playing. I could happily listen to Peter O'Toole read aloud from the phone directory, or recite the Periodic Table (have I mentioned My Favorite Year is one of my favorite movies?). I had no idea he had ever played Holmes. 

For the next 50 minutes, I was away (once again, happily) in Conan Doyle land. The program did indeed prove to be a reasonably faithful telling of the story, Watson was not played by an exuberant Great Dane, and nothing in the story's telling was "watered down" or "rendered appropriate" in any way for children; my biggest fear while watching.

And it's funny, when you think about it: an adult tale of murder, forced marriage (i.e., rape), revenge, and justice filed away for children's viewing pleasure alongside the likes of Anne of Green Gables, the Cat in the Hat, and Spongebob. I presume this was because it was animated. There persists (in some minds) that quaint notion that if something is animated, it must be for kids, that all animations are simply "cartoons" and should be dropped into the "Kids and family TV" box. (I gleefully await the addition of Fritz the Cat.) Had the exact same script of A Study in Scarlet been filmed as a live action drama, then it would have gone straight into the adult drama box. No questions asked.

But I'm glad it did, one way or another, wind up in front of kids. They seem to get so much rubbish in their TV diet. Let them find this quiet little doorway into the world of grownup mystery fiction.

Peter O'Toole did four Holmes animated stories. They were all made in 1983, they're all 50 minutes long (with the exception of Baskerville, 70 minutes), and they're all on Amazon Prime (here in NZ, at least).
  • A Study in Scarlet 
  • The Baskerville Curse 
  • The Sign of Four
  • Valley of Fear
I've watched all of them. And as I said, there's nothing overtly special about the animation. The specialness of the telling lies in the stories themselves, and in this instance, the actor playing Sherlock Holmes (not that the films' imagery bears any resemblance to the man). If it's a wet Saturday morning, and you're unwell, I can recommend this medication.






www.StephenRoss.net

12 July 2019

Weed Meets Greed in Matt Phillips' Countdown + Interview


In 2016 many saw the passing of Proposition 64, which finally legalized the recreational use of marijuana, as the dawning of a new day in California. It seems like ancient history when Robert Mitchum saw jail time for toking a little Mary Jane in Laurel Canyon, but consider this: in 2003 Tommy Chong was sentenced to nine months in jail for selling bongs through his California company Nice Dreams. Prop 64 reflected how the Golden State had, at long last, mellowed out about getting high.
The full force of the new law didn't happen until last year, when legal sales for non-medical use were allowed. Licenses for dispensaries were granted. Everything was supposed to be chill for those in the bud business.

All that went up in smoke when the harsh reality of local, state and federal taxes hit legal dispensaries. According to a McClatchy article, between state and local taxes, weed could be taxed up to 45 percent. The IRS has gone after state-legal dispensaries for a tax rate of up to 70 percent.

The result hasn't been the well-regulated pot industry Californians voted for. Instead, illegal underground marijuana dispensaries are everywhere in California.  According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 200 illegal marijuana businesses operate in Los Angeles alone. Illegal dispensaries are attractive because their untaxed kush is up to 50 percent cheaper than what you'd buy from a licensed dealer. What becomes of all that untaxed ill-gotten revenue?

Matt Phillips' Countdown (All Due Respect), a timely, gritty tale of weed and greed, is the first novel (Please correct me with other titles if I'm wrong!) of what I'll call Prop 64 Noir. It takes the plight of underground dispensaries with a lot of illegal cash-on-hand and chases it to a bloody and riveting conclusion.

Donny Zeus Echo and Abbicus Glanson are two ex-soldiers, tweaked by their violent combat experience in "Eye-Rack," trying to make their way in a seedy San Diego that has literally gone to pot. Jessie Jessup is a transplanted Texan who uses aquaponics –"that's right, fucking fish"–to grow some righteous weed. LaDon Charles is her unlicensed dispensary's muscle, providing street smarts and neighborhood connections.

With dispensary robberies on the rise and forced to keep their black market money from the prying eyes of the I.R.S. Jessie and LaDon turn to Abel Sendich, another vet. Abel runs a one-man security operation that stashes illegal cash under lock-and-key, safe from the I.R.S. and armed robbers. When Sendich and Glanson bond over their military background after a chance encounter, Sendich recruits Glanson to help him in his faux Fort Knox operation. Glanson has other plans, and his former "battle buddy" Echo is only too glad to help. When LaDon suspects that Glanson and Echo are targeting Jessie's shop, a suspenseful countdown to mayhem begins.

Though Countdown marches to its inexorably violent end, Phillips takes time with his characters. Jessie pursues a crush. LaDon plays a cat-and-mouse game with a pimp. Glanson agonizes over a physical trait that dooms his chances at romance. Echo, suffering from PTSD, unravels. You get to know Phillips' characters so well, you almost feel sorry for them when the bad things start to happen.

Phillip's San Diego isn't the sunny, upscale enclave it's often portrayed as. It's not the San Diego of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. It's a pit filled with mini-malls, dive bars, and shabby apartment complexes.  Iraq vets at loose ends roam strip joints, pimps run hookers. Marijuana is the drug of the moment, but heavy drinking is the order of the day. Like the weed and booze, the money is a means to one end: escape. Countdown is a sunny SoCal postcard in negative; an invitation to get out of the Golden State before the good times turn deadly.

Author Matt Phillips
Lawrence Maddox: Countdown is the first crime novel I've read that tackles the failure of Prop 64 to fully regulate California's marijuana dispensaries, which were licensed last year. I'm officially naming it Prop 64 Noir, and you may have invented it! How did you jump on this in such a timely way?

Matt Phillips: Prop 64 Noir-I freaking love it! It's about time somebody created a new genre. I agree with you that Prop 64 has failed in some ways. There's no doubt this legislation has failed when it comes to fair "regulation." Lot's of small growers are losing out to corporate folks.  And, yeah, that means growers and sellers are forced to stay in or resort to the black market. Another paradox is that now I can stroll into a dispensary and buy whatever I want.  Tell the truth: I kind of miss the mystery of texting a guy I slightly know to get in touch with a hookup he slightly knows for a dime bag of weed. I think they call that nostalgia.

Anyhow, I was interested in the money behind the herb. If these growers, sellers, etc, can't put it in a bank, what do they do with it? After speaking with some law enforcement folks I know, I had a pretty solid idea for a great story. That's how Countdown began for me.

Beyond that, right near where I live in San Diego–a pretty hip neighborhood–an illegal dispensary was raided and shuttered. That pretty much solidified the idea for me. I just ran with it.

Speaking of Prop 64 noir, check out the novel 101 by Tom Pitts. He did Prop 64 Noir before I did.

LM: I highly recommend Pitts' 101 too. 101 depicts the weed biz before Prop 64, though.  Your book deals with the aftermath of 64. Countdown is about the illegal dispensaries, the need to hide the money, the tax burden that forces the sellers underground. 







A crime novelist in the making. Matt Phillips training to be a journalist at
North Carolina Central University.
How much does your journalism background influence your crime fiction?

MP: The biggest way journalism has impacted my fiction is through dialog. There is no substitute for listening to people speak and trying to write it down as they say it. That helps a writer learn the shape of a person's speech. It means getting into rhythm and cadences and the musicality of speech. Dialog, to me, is about capturing language.

From a weed-perspective (Been waiting for that one!), I wrote a story for the food section in The Denver Post a few years back. I interviewed a chef who makes cannabis edibles. The whole idea was to treat cannabis like any other ingredient. We published a recipe and everything. Gave it the regular food writing treatment. The story got a lot of pushback from readers, but the editors defended it heartily and it got me interested in marijuana as something natural that–and I'm being blunt here–has a major impact on the power dynamics in our society.

Make no mistake, what we're seeing with marijuana now is still about power. Who will own this "thing" that everybody wants (and some people need)? Who gets the profits? Who calls the shots? And even worse:If we can't put a bunch of people in jail for using it, how the hell can we make money off it? That's pretty much the way things are, though I've purposely avoided the nuances here.

LM: San Diego used to be considered LA's sunnier, better-behaved sibling. You vividly depict it as a pit. What's going on with San Diego?
"No awesome surfing to be seen here."
San Diego's Pacific Beach

MP: Ha! Maybe I'm just trying to lower housing prices, right?  "San Diego is the absolute worst! Close your eyes if you see our tourism commercials on your TV! Stay in the midwest! DO NOT VISIT! Stand-up paddle boarding sucks. So does surfing. You do not want to catch a giant tuna! We do not have as many palm trees as you think! The beer is not great!"

Okay, fine. Truth be told, San Diego is exactly what you describe. More sun. More chill. More fun, for chrissakes. We've even got more beer. But like any American city, we've got our gutter punks and our hookers and our pimps and our drug addictions.

I'm writing noir, not a tourist commercial or a convention proposal. I need to find what's really out there...And pass it along to thee.

Important note: I love that I can "vividly depict" my home city as a pit. I'm sure those fine scholars who make selections for the National Book Awards are well-aware of my excessive accomplishments as a prose stylist.  I await their accolades!

LM: Do you think California will ever be able to regulate marijuana sales? There are around 200 illegal dispensaries in LA alone. I drive by many of them daily.
I like to take pictures of dispensaries that have the same names as
people I know. Grace got a kick out of this one.
Grace Marijuana Pharmacy, totally legit, located in
Santa Monica.

MP: Simple Answer–no. This is something I could grow in my house. And I could do it well. Marijuana is more than a product.  It's a cultural object that carries with it lore beyond what can be bottled by some shit-ass corporation. I remember a drifter I met while working at TGIFriday's. He worked with me about a week. Crappy busboy. But he had a tiny cedar box wrapped in a purple ribbon. He kept his weed inside with a small pipe. He talked about how it wasn't the high that drew him into weed, but the pleasure of its secrecy and subculture and "funny little conversations." Not exactly sure what he meant, but how do you regulate that?

Talking about those illegal dispensaries: The first thing that needs to happen is the federal government needs to remove its tweed sweater vest and put on a freaking t-shirt. Legalize it. It'll be like the craft beer industry. People flying to cities and taking weed tours.  It'll solve some money problems and it'll make life more simple. After that, I think cities and towns need to make sensical regulations about where and how a dispensary can operate.  The fees need to be akin to any other upstart business fees. Make sure every operation is up to health and quality standards and tax them based on revenue. I'm not an economist, but it seems like common sense is part of the answer here.

LM: What's next for Matt Philips?

I have a new noir novel slated with Fahrenheit 13, the rebels who published my noir novel Know Me from Smoke. The new one is called You Must Have a Death Wish and follows one of the characters I introduce in Countdown. No solid news on a publication date, but that's on the horizon. I've got a brutal PI novel written and I need to put on the finishing touches. That'll be a series (I think) and I have the second novel underway to about 20,000 words.

What else? A small town noir novella nearly finished for a super-secret project plus I'm banging away at a short story collection. And the day job, right? My production has slowed over the last year with some day job stuff, but I keep plugging away at my stories. Fingers crossed that people like them...

Matt Phillips is the author of numerous crime novels, including Accidental Outlaws and Know Me From Smoke.  I highly recommend Chris Rhatigan's interview of Matt Phillips at ADR Interview w/ Matt Phillips . For more Matt Phillips, check out MattPhillipsWriter.com.



As for me, I'm currently writing my sequel to Fast Bang Booze. On a related note, know of anyone in the LA area good at recovering lost data from busted hard drives? More to follow.

If you have any cool photos of dispensaries with funny names that you'd like to share, tweet em my way at LawrenceMaddox@Madxbooks.