18 March 2020

From the Smithsonian With Love


Some of us bloggerinos and bloggerettes are always looking for public domain pictures to illustrate our words of wisdom.  And boy, we just scored big time.

In February the Smithsonian Institution announced they are releasing almost three million images to the public domain.  Contents from 19 museums plus libraries, research centers, and the National Zoo.  All free for the download.

And, unlike the British Library illustrations that are free on Flickr, searches seem to work pretty well.  (Except that whatever I search for I always get some plant diagrams.  What's that about?)

Here are a few examples related to our favorite subject.  Enjoy.










17 March 2020

When Extroverts Must Stay Home


Sometimes current events coincide with stories you've already written. This is one of those times.

A friend asked me this morning how I was dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. I said that since I work from home, I don't go out much anyway. Consequently, self-quarantining so that I don't inadvertently catch this newest strain of the virus and pass it on to someone with a compromised immune system is not a big problem for me. As the joke goes, I'm an introvert, so I've been preparing for this moment my whole life.

I've seen increased focus in the media and social media over the past decade on us introverts. How we do better working solo than in groups, how we need alone time to recharge, how the world is often so oriented toward extroverts that we introverts sometimes are penalized for not excelling at activities geared toward extroverts. I'm grateful for this focus on introverts, which hopefully has helped open some people's eyes.

We don't usually see people worried about extroverts because much of society is geared toward them. Until now, that is, now that people are being asked to self-quarantine the best they can to slow the spread of the coronavirus. I've seen people post on social media that they don't want to self-quarantine because spending more than a day or two at home makes them anxious, that they need to go out and be among people. If not, they get depressed.

Depression is no little thing. It can affect your emotional and physical health. As someone who understands how the need to be alone can suddenly feel urgent and overwhelming, I get how being cooped up might affect someone who needs to regularly be among people, especially someone who doesn't have family or roommates to spend time with at home. It's something I was thinking about last year as I wrote a story called "Man to Man," whose main character is an extrovert who becomes socially isolated.

This story is coming out in a new anthology, The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell, which will be published on April 7th by Untreed Reads. The anthology, edited by Josh Pachter, has all of Joni Mitchell's albums represented. My "Man to Man" story is inspired by the song of the same title from her 1982 album, Wild Things Run Fast.

In my story, my main character, Cecelia, ends up effectively self-quarantined at home. She's not physically ill, and there's no virus at play, but Cecelia is cut off from her social network. So she starts staying home, which makes her depressed. Her lack of connection with others makes her depression grow, and her negative feelings spiral, especially regarding her husband, the only person she sees anymore. It doesn't help that Cecelia is spoiled and self-centered. Here she is, thinking about her situation:

"I had nothing happening in my life. No social groups. No events. No trips I was planning. I could barely pay attention to what was on television. No one ever called me, and I had no one to call.

"It felt like I was in solitary confinement. Sure, I was in an upscale high-rise, but the isolation was overwhelming. And things didn't get better when David came home at night. He made me so angry sometimes, I wanted to scream."

Before I wrote the story I'd been thinking that the world is largely geared to extroverts, so I could understand that if an introvert couldn't get alone time, it might make her feel edgy and unhappy and might result in her acting out. (Not excusing bad behavior, just understanding what might prompt it.) Then I started thinking about the other side of the coin. What if an extrovert lost all her outings and interactions, the things that energized her and made her who she is? How might she react? I thought this would be an interesting approach to a character. That's how Cecelia came to be.

I never imagined that my scenario might be playing out all over the world around the time the story was being published. I hope all the Cecelias out there can safely resume their regular lives soon. In the meanwhile, for all of you looking for something to do while stuck inside, you can pre-order The Beat of Black Wings. It will be coming out April 7th in e-book, trade paperback, and hardcover. Pre-ordering of the paper versions is only available from the publisher. You can do it by clicking here. Pre-order of the e-book version is available in the usual places. One-third of the royalties will be donated to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation in Joni Mitchell's name, which means you can get a fine book of short stories for you and help a good cause at the same time.

So are you under self-quarantine? If so, how are you spending your time? And to my fellow authors with stories in the book, please tell us about your stories.

16 March 2020

Talking About Dialogue II: Dialogue and Character


Last time, we talked about linking dialogue so the characters interact with each other, and that's especially important in drama because it helps actors remember their lines. But dialogue isn't just "people talking." It enhances your story-telling by deepening your characters and enriching your plot.

Today, we'll look at characterization.

Screenwriter Tom Sawyer, who oversaw Murder, She Wrote among other projects, says that if you can give a line of dialogue to a different character without rewriting it, it was badly written anyway.

I use what I call the CAWS test (Hey, everybody's got to have a gimmick):

Would this CHARACTER, speaking to this AUDIENCE, say these WORDS in this SITUATION?
If the answer to any part of the question is "NO," you need to rewrite the line.

Each character talks like himself or herself, which enables readers to "hear" them. Think of old radio plays, where an actor may have been chosen to play a role because his voice sounded appropriate for the character.

That means each CHARACTER needs specific images, rhythms and vocabulary (Another good reason to keep your cast in a play as small as possible) to create his or her voice.

If you treat the person as an archetype (Hero, Warrior, Magician, Temptress, Mentor, Lover, etc.), his purpose in the story will help you find his speaking style. Reformers want to improve things, so they often give advice. Leaders want to appear strong and self-reliant, so they give orders. Mentors/Coaches/Teachers usually start with the good news and move to the problems that need to be addressed.

Shakespeare demonstrates this for us. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice uses more aggressive verbs than other characters, and Portia and Nerissa discuss marriage in terms we might use for a business deal.

Romeo & Juliet presents five teen-aged males. Tybalt always has the subtext, "Wanna fight?" Mercutio is funny and often bawdy. Benvolio reports and tattles. Paris is polite and courtly, the kid moms all wish their daughter would bring home. Romeo constantly moans about love, so over-the-top you want to smack him until Juliet makes him grow up.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Nobles (Blank verse and very logical), Mechanicals (Prose, except for the hilarious Pyramus & Thisbe farce), Lovers (Rhymed couplets and cliches about love), and Fairies (Blank verse with images of power [Oberon] or nurturing [Titania]) all have different speaking styles.

Think about your character's goal, too. If you understand what she or he wants--money, power, love, answers--that can help you decide the tactics she will use, such as demanding, pleading, lying manipulating, or threatening.

Now think about the AUDIENCE. Maybe your character will curse or discuss sex, but not in front of his grandmother. Maybe a child won't understand the issue so he has to simplify his language. Maybe the stockholders want the bad news delivered in a positive way.

WORDS are all we have, and we need to get them right. A character's vocabulary shows his education level, religion, family, ethnicity, socioeconomic level, occupation, and maybe biases.

Many people have favorite expressions or jargon from their jobs: computer, sports, medical, business.
Think of regionalisms. Margaret Maron's Knott family often uses the expression "might could," which has a rhythm that slows the pace and captures their Southern drawl.

Be careful with dialects or accents, though. Most editors tell you to avoid phonetic spelling and think what you're doing. I encountered "oncet" in a speech and it stopped me cold. The better spelling would have been "wunst." I grew up in an area where under-educated people referred to their relative as a cousint, with an audible final "T." Your best bet is to use a few key words to suggest everything, or mention that your character has a French accent and go on about your business.
To Kill A Mockingbird needs the accent and mind-set of the characters

You can give the impression of an accent by avoiding contractions or changing word order, too. American English is all about rhythm, so putting an adjective after a noun or using a participle instead of the verb makes the sentence sound foreign, like Yoda. I have an Eastern European character in one series, and I compare her consonants to scissors snipping paper. Blue Song Riley in my Woody Guthrie series is half-Asian, and when she uses a long word, all her syllables have equal stress. I only mention this once or twice in her first scene and let people fill in the blanks.

Maybe your character has a speech problem. A stutter, lisp, or spoonerism is fun, but don't over-do it. Ellery Queen wrote a short story decades ago ("My Queer Dean," if you can find it) in which the solution depends on the victim inverting initial consonants ("My Dear Queen").

Maybe the character has favorite expressions or cliches, or mispronounces words. I grew up struggling with "Refriger-E-ator," and my cousin (No "T") called those things with two slices of bread "Smitches."

Mangling cliches can be fun, too.

A few novelists and playwrights use profanity well. Years ago, my local theater presented Glengarry Glen Ross and referred to the writer as "David Effing Mamet," minus the euphemism. If you're not comfortable with cursing yourself, don't try it. It will sound fake. If you have to use it, emphasize the NOUN, not the participle. It's an effing FORK, not an EFFING fork.

Remember your SITUATION or setting, too. People talk differently at a funeral, job interview, a first date, or in a bar. Are there props at hand: a pool cue, salad bar, golf club, or AK-47? Setting involves mood, too. Someone might be excited, remorseful, sad, jealous, terrified, or confused. Let their words convey this. Situation or setting involves time, too, so beware of anachronisms. Servants in Regency England did NOT say "No problem."

Lastly, dialogue can help you show how a character grows or changes. This is common late in a story, maybe in one long scene. If you want to show it with minimal narration, try having your character paraphrase, change, or even contradict something he said earlier in the story. If her opinion has changed, she has, too. Louise Penny does this in her Inspector Gamache novels, where certain characters will repeat a line, often a literary allusion, that gathers or changes implications throughout the story.

Next time, we'll look at how dialogue can advance your plot.

15 March 2020

Child Conspiracy


Recent SleuthSayers posts have taken a autobiographical turn. I don’t have any new great anecdotes, but I was talking with Haboob about early childhood recollection.

Early memories vary considerably. Ray Bradbury said he could recall his moment of birth and pretty much everything since. Another friend says she remembers almost nothing before the age of ten or twelve.

My memory falls in between, mostly significant events that rocked my infant world. I recall my first step, probably because of my parents’ fuss. Contrary to vicious rumors, that occurred well before my teen years when repairs necessitated exiting my beloved car.

The Rumor Mill

Long ago on Criminal Brief, I wrote about getting into trouble, mainly by being a good student. Weird, huh. I mean me.

Perhaps the most telling of those anecdotes occurred in the first grade. Miss Ruth, a fixture when my mother attended school, trotted us down to the gym. She sat us on the floor arranged in an alphabetical line. She explained how rumors couldn’t be trusted. We’d discover this, she said, playing a game of Telephone.

As a reader, you know Telephone: Into Amber Abelard’s ear, she’d whisper a story, who’d whisper it to Becky Bart, seated next to her. At the end of the line, Walter Younger would relate the story as he heard it. The teacher would then compare it to the original, lesson learnt.

Except… Even in the first grade, there was something of an investigator or junior scientist in me. (Adults usually called it other names.) Alphabetically, I sat dead center in the row of little whisperers. When it was my turn and the story about a cuddly bunny’s bicycle reached my ear, I realized I could run a double experiment. I whispered to the girl next to me my own fabrication about an ice skating duck.

After the words left my lips, I panicked. Miss Ruth was bound to investigate who’d sabotaged her tale. Our teachers believed in corporal punishment. They believed in capital punishment. I was done for, my life over barely into the first grade.

Walter duly stood and story-forthed the legend of a duck on roller skates.

The expression on Miss Ruth’s face… I can’t describe the despondency, somewhere between gaping and gasping.

Her hundred forty nine years of teaching (Did I mention she’d taught my mother?) fled before her eyes. Surely she wondered where she’d gone wrong. What had the Good Lord inflicted upon her?

She never finished the lesson, but packed it in for the day.

I had sold my first story.

Childhood Theory of Evolution
Childhood Theory of Evolution

The Grand Conspiracy

In retrospect, my weirdest early memory was the irrefutable evidence grownups lied to children. Nope, not like most kids. My parents didn’t believe in misleading toddlers about St Nicholas aka Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy. Instead, they adopted sort of a conspiratorial approach, said many parents deceived their kids about Santa Claus, winked, and told us the truth. We fully enjoyed Christmas without the obfuscation. It puzzles me today when outraged parents scream when someone pulls aside the curtain of truth.

Nope, my parents played holiday games and the Tooth Fairy, but always let us know it was a game of make-believe.

But still, I knew adults lied. Specifically about growing up. I didn’t believe kids grew bigger or adults had ever been small. I need look no further than myself. On a remote farm, there were no other children to compare.

Childhood time moved so slowly, I never appeared to grow bigger. My next birthday seemed impossibly far off and anyway, birthdays were just numbers the people who controlled the world made up.

Obviously, getting bigger was an illusion promulgated by dishonest adults. Clothes shrank so how could a child judge whether he was growing bigger or clothes were getting smaller?

Old photos of grownups supposedly as children weren’t proof, all grainy and unrecognizable. They were just snapshots of other kids lost in the distant past.

Moreever, I knew things. I was raised amid farms and forests. Baby animals grew up in a matter of weeks or at most, months– mice, rabbits, chicks, and puppies. In less than a year, a calf would grow into a heifer or young bull. I didn’t grow at all during those weeks and months.

Who were they kidding? I’d exposed a dastardly plot to subjugate children and prevent them asking too many questions.

Without realizing the creeping evidence, I gradually became subverted. Or perhaps the adult nightly brain-washers laundered my thoughts.

But I was right about one thing. I never grew up.

14 March 2020

How It All Happened For Me


After work and dinner one night, I sat down in my bedroom, door closed, and wrote in longhand for one hour on a novel I’d begun years earlier. Several months later, when I wrote “the end,” it came out to 105,000 words. I transcribed it onto a computer, and then did nothing for a couple of years.

Finally, I decided to try writing some more, this time directly onto the computer. I also decided to write short stories because they were short. And for me, a lot easier and more fun to write. I also thought it would be a good way to try out different types of stories, using male protagonists as well as female, occasionally even stepping away from mystery to write a speculative story, or even something “literary.”

The local newspaper had a short story contest—1,000 words. I wrote one, submitted it, and didn’t win first place, but was one of four other authors out of fifty submissions who won a dinner at a fancy local restaurant. To say I was surprised and pumped is a huge understatement.

Next I decided to look for a critique group. I ended up joining two. One had three short story published writers who had all attended a community college class together and then started the group. I ate up all their knowledge about point of view, adverbs, other good advice, and specific thoughts about my stories.

I ended up placing a few of my stories, all work-shopped by either or both of the groups, and started on another novel. That also went through one of the groups, and within eight years, I had many short stories and three novels written.

I tried getting an agent for each of the novels. No luck. Then my husband retired, and we hit the road in a motorhome to travel to the United States lower 48. In eleven years, we hit all but four.

And I hardly wrote at all.

But in 2004, I decided to submit one of my novels to a new, small publisher. Several people I knew had signed with the press and were raving about it. I was given a contract for three novels. They first published Sara’s Search on time and with a cover I loved.

Sara's Search
When the month of June came around to publish the second novel, though, it didn’t happen. Several months went by. Promises were made to publish it in October. It had a cover (I didn’t love it as much as the first one, though), it had been edited, and the galleys had been proofed. Christmas came and went, and all of January. I found out that several other writers with the same publisher were having problems. Royalty checks stopped. The publisher no longer answered phone calls or emails.

We all, about fifty of us, became quite concerned. And unfortunately, as a group, we decided to pull our books and ask for the rights back to those already published. Of course, the publisher’s reputation was ruined, but he did the right thing and gave us the rights back, and even gave me the rights to the cover for Sara. All but one author left, sadder but wiser.

Some writers went with other small presses, and several had bad luck with them, as well. I wrote some more novels. I sent them to NY agents. Nothing happened. I was reluctant to try another small publisher. (Another one, WriteWay, had shown interest in another of my books before I placed Sara’s Search, but they went bankrupt before any contracts were signed, so I was leery—authors there, as far as I know, never got their rights back. If they ever did, it took years.) By this time, I had the one published novel and over fifty short stories as publication credits. Didn’t matter.

Revelations
Then something unexpected happened. Electronic books, thanks to Amazon, started to become popular. Writers who had no luck with NY publishing decided to strike out on their own and get their books up for ebook readers. This was not too difficult to do. I watched and waited. I saw that some readers were unhappy with the books coming out because they were poorly written, had glaring spelling and grammar mistakes, and were badly formatted. I also noticed that many of the covers did not look very professional, and many were too dark to be able to read the title and/or authors’ names on the tiny thumbnails used online. So I decided to hire a professional cover artist, and between us, this is what we came up with:

I still like it. Next, the authors I read about who were successful hired professional editors and proofreaders to go over their manuscripts. And finally, if they couldn’t do a good job themselves, they hired yet a third person to format the work for them.

Someday I may change the cover for Sara’s Search because it’s too dark to show up well in a thumbnail. I also want a new paperback version, so that would need to have a back cover

Now I have eleven novels published and over seventy short stories (only one of those self-published). Beginning is the hardest part. After that, persistence and patience will do the job.


And that’s how it all started. I’m open to questions, and if they’d need a long-enough answer, that could become another blog post. So, ask away.

My website: www.janchristensen.com and find me on Facebook: https://bit.ly/2QfNNIr

13 March 2020

Go Tigahs!


Go Tigahs!
A football story.

My first memory of LSU football was listening to the LSU-Ole Miss game on All Saints Day, November 1, 1958. I sat with my father at our kitchen table with his transister radio and he explained about the LSU Fighting Tigers and their arch-rival University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) Rebels, how both were undefeated, both in the top ten. Ole Miss had defeated LSU the previous year 14-12. The Tigers scored first but we fretted as Ole Miss was a excellent team. LSU scored again and won 14-0. On New Years we watched LSU play the Clemson Tigers at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans and the Fighting Tigers won 7-0, cementing their first national championship. I was hooked for life.

The next year we sat at the same kitchen table and listened to the same transister as Billy Cannon raced 89-yards with a sizzling punt return in the 4th Quarter, breaking seven tackles, to put #1 LSU ahead of #3 Ole Miss. The Rebels weren't finished, driving to the LSU 4-yard line. First and goal. With 18 seconds left, Billy Cannon and Warren Rabb stopped Ole Miss quarterback Doug Elmore on the 1-yard line on fourth down for a 7-3 win. It was electric. The following week, LSU lost to Tennessee 14-13 and lost a rematch with Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl, 21-0.

Cannon won the Heisman Trophy that year.

Billy Cannon, 1959

It took 45 years for the Fighting Tigers to win another national championship. January 4, 2003, at the Sugar Bowl again. LSU 21 Oklahoma 14. They won the championship again in 2007, at the Sugar Bowl once more. LSU 38 Ohio State 24.

A near-perfect season followed in 2011, only to be dashed in the national championship game with a re-match with Alabama in the Sugar Bowl once more. Alabama 21 LSU 0. Alabama was coached by Nick Saban who was LSU's coach when the Tigers won the championship in 2003.

Few expected what happened last season. Magic. Perfection. Nothing is perfect in sports. With a new Cajun coach Ed Orgeron and a quarterback from Ohio, a new pass-happy air-raid NFL-stye offense, the Fighting Tigers went 15-0 and beat defending national champion Clemson Tigers (again) for the national championship. In the New Orleans, of course. LSU 42 Clemson 25. LSU scored the most points of any team in a single season in NCAA history. An unstoppable force.


A perfect season. In the small town where I live across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, fireworks echoed after the game. People leaned on their car horns. It was perfect. No season could be better. Quarterback Joe Burrow (who wore a jersey with the French spelling BURREAUX before the SEC championship game) won the Heisman Trophy sixty years after Billy Cannon won.

A magic year:
National Championship
SEC Championship
Coach of the Year Ed Orgeron
Assistant Coach of the year Joe Brady
Heisman Trophy Joe Burrow
Biletnikoff Award for Best Receiver Ja'Marr Chase
Jim Thorpe Award for Best Defensive Back Grant Delpit
Joe Moore Award for Best Offensive Line

Quarterback Joe Burrow's emotional acceptance speech when accepting the Heisman Trophy showed the pride brought to Louisiana and this young man's appreciation of the opportunity. His remarks about growing up in an impoverished area touched many people. As he wiped tears from his eyes, Joe said, "I'm up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County (Ohio) that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys can be up here too." Those impactful words resulted in the food bank in Athens County receiving donations exceeding $500.000.

This Fighting Tiger team was special.

It was a pleasure watching these young men and women achieve what is nearly unachievable, see the joy in the faces of their families, fell the good vibrations run through our little state. Pride. I said women because when they won the national championship, Joe Burrow reminded everyone it wasn't just the players who won the trophy. It was the coaches, trainers, medical personnel and so many other workers responsible for putting the team on the field, many of them women.

Coach Ed Orgeron, from the small town of Larose in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana, is a fiery leader with a heavy Cajun accent. He ends every interview with the new montra of LSU – "Go Tigahs!"

During games, when they run, they look like streaking tigers, especially at night. Purple, gold and white.




Outside Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

For a little while, it's the best of times.

I know, this is a writer's blog and what does this have to do with writing. Well, a SleuthSayer wrote it.

Thats all for now –
http://www.oneildenoux.com





12 March 2020

Welcome to The Zo


by Eve Fisher

I'm involved in a variety of things at the penitentiary these days.  There's the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), that I've been doing for 10 years.  We're doing a training for facilitators (T4F) workshop in April for that, getting more inmates trained as inside facilitators.  AVP is going strong.  Our main problem is that we always need more outside volunteers.  In case you haven't noticed, volunteerism has gone down over the last few years.  Most of the service organizations I know of (Kiwanis, Elks, Lions, etc.) are seeing a dramatic drop in membership.  And the people who are interested in helping aren't that interested in doing a weekend-long workshop inside a prison, even though it's probably the most interesting, educational, entertaining, and safest place you can be.

Allan and I are also supervising the Lifer's Group, for the third fiscal year, and the achievements are beginning to really show.  There's Toastmasters, which the Lifer's Group hosted for almost 2 years, and now is a full-fledged group of its own at the pen.  There's the suicide watches, which the Lifer's Group has taken on (with, of course, permission and approval from prison mental health and prison administration).  We just hosted our 2nd Talent Show, and it was great.  Music, jokes, poetry, and a production of yours truly's "The Scottish Play", a five-minute rendering of Macbeth, complete with cheerleading weird women.  (Great laughter and applause.)  We have a few other on-going projects, and a lot of ideas.

Over the years, I've gotten sort of used to prison ways, and idiosyncrasies, because working with the inmates is worth it.  But I can go home.  Every night, I get to go home.  What about those who don't?  What is life really like for them?  Well, I'm presenting for your information and (?) entertainment, a series of videos (each runs about 5 minutes) called "Welcome to The Zo" presented on the website The Marshall Project.







And for the last episode, "Retaliation", see here:

Life in prison.  

Meanwhile, let's talk - for a brief moment - about disease.  The coronavirus may never reach the South Dakota prison system, but colds and influenza go around swiftly and frequently and it often seems that everybody in the unit catches it.  They isolate prisoners - with their cellie (whether the cellie has it or not at the time) - in their cells, which is a 6 x 8 space with a window that does not have a view or access to fresh air but does have a toilet right in the front, at the door.  Toilet paper (which must also serve as tissues) is rationed.  Hand sanitizer is considered contraband (alcohol content).  There's a lot of bleach, and a lot of cleaning, but I've seen an awful lot of prisoners hacking and sneezing while cleaning.  See this article in the Marshall Project for more info:  (Marshall Project)

As I said, at least I get to go home.  And I always keep hand sanitizer in my car.  

Meanwhile, South Dakota - as of today - has 5 coronavirus cases, and 1 death.  As Daniel Defoe would say, not a high weekly bill of mortality, but has turned our eyes to the potentialities.  









11 March 2020

Agent Running in the Field



Like a lot of people, I always looked forward to the new John le Carre. I admit I found The Looking-Glass War unconvincing - for very specific reasons: it was my old operational area, as it was le Carre's, and I thought the premise was faulty. As for The Naive and Sentimental Lover, I've never managed more than the first fifty pages. But in general, what an astonishing run.

Then, after The Little Drummer Girl, we have (dare I say?) a falling-off. I don't buy into A Perfect Spy, despite the amazing portrait of Ronnie, and how clearly the book resonates with le Carre himself. He roars back with The Russia House, but follows up with three more duds. Tailor of Panama is a full-on score, and then four, or even six, passable novels that limp in. I know we're holding him to higher standard, but that's exactly the point.

So, let go of your apprehension. I'm here to tell you that Agent Running in the Field (one of his more clever titles, by the by) hits it out of the park. The old boy definitely isn't hanging up his spikes just yet.

I like the way he's been telling his stories, lately. The impatience with exposition, when he used to be more lapidary. Dutch Leonard once said, skip all that crap the reader is going to skip. It's unnecessary. If you trust you're in honest hands - and who more honest than Dutch or John le Carre? - oh, wait. Either one would cheerfully lead you down the garden path, and you know full well you'd follow along without a moment's hesitation.

Agent Running is in many ways a return to form, although he mercifully leaves out the domestic betrayals this time around, the defections in place, and concentrates on the operation, its collateral, and the product. The scope is necessarily tight. The guy himself isn't some old soldier, turfed out and weary, but mid-career and restless. You might wonder, in the moment, why he so credulously accepts a challenge from a younger self, when the kid so generously telegraphs his own disaffection, but the weakness here is vanity. In fact, when Nat, our hero, takes on the job he's offered, he clearly thinks it's beneath him.

Agent Running is really more Smiley's People than any of the recent books. For all that Karla used Ann to blind Smiley to the serpent Haydon, the narrative spine of Smiley's People is always Eyes On The Prize. Karla is looking for a legend for a girl. This is the single detail that drives the story. Smiley fills in the context. In the new book, context appears in the foreground, but of course misleadingly, because as always, the devil is in the details.

I don't know if you'll find this as interesting as I do. Legacy of Spies was elegiac and regretful, a swan song, the old boys revisiting past triumphs over a snifter, and not liking their history revised - although George Smiley had a bracing cameo, still with all his buttons and most of his teeth. Agent Running revisits not just Smiley's People, but Call for the Dead, le Carre's first book. It's a story about treachery, how not? That's le Carre's stock in trade. What's refreshing, oddly, is the very retrograde approach: sources and methods.


10 March 2020

Paperback Writer


Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
It took me years to write, will you take a look?
It's based on a novel by a man named Lear,
And I need a job,
So I wanna be a paperback writer…
            — John Lennon / Paul McCartney


I always wanted to send a query to an editor and start it off with those words. Probably would have worked better a while back when more people would have recognized it than today. It still seems like a fun thing to do.

But that’s not what I’m writing about today. I am, however, writing about the Beatles.

Most people who know me for more than five minutes or more than just on the surface know how much I love the Beatles. I could run on and on here about just how much. But the main point is that, even though they’re music and I’m a writer, they had (have) a great influence on me.


The main thing they gave me (along with many other things) is a desire to be the best. I do play some music and if I had my druthers, if I could ever figure out what the hell a druther is, I would have wanted to be a rock star. Who wouldn’t? But as much of an ego as I might have—or had cause it’s shrinking all the time…—I knew I didn’t have the chops to make it in music. I had some fun. I played in some bands. See the home made, or should I say artisanal, card here from our first band. It might be artisanal, but I’m almost embarrassed to show it—very DIY. Anyway, I knew enough to know I couldn’t be a professional musician.


So I had to figure out something else to do with my life. Hmm? Astrophysicist. Architect. Archeologist. Anthropologist. Astronomer. Astrologer. You see whatever it was it had to start with an “A”.  Well, actually one of those might be something I considered. It might have had something to do with designing buildings. But I never really pursued it.

My parents, of course, always wanted me to have a “real job” and something to fall back on. But being the rebellious sort I went my own way. And that way took a left turn at Hollywood and Vine, especially since I was born the proverbial hop, skip and jump from there. So maybe it was fate that I wanted to try my hand at writing.

It wasn’t an easy row to hoe. And without going into specifics, it took lots of persistence, many rejections, some chutzpah (and if that isn’t a Hollywood word I don’t know what is). But eventually I carved a niche for myself doing rewriting. And the day I got into the (screen) Writers Guild was one of the best days of my life. However, my father never really understood what I did because I got no screen credit and without something tangible like that he didn’t quite get it.

From there I branched out to writing short stories and novels. And again started with many rejections and lots of persistence. Each rejection made me angry. After all, wasn’t I the greatest writer since Charles Dickens, or in our field, Hammett and Chandler? These people who kept rejecting me clearly had no taste. But after my little tantrums I would go back to the drawing board and either rework the rejected story or work on something new. I wanted them to be good. I wanted them to be good enough to sell.

And the Beatles, because I love them so much, and because they were so good and always pushing the envelope and trying new things, made me want to be better every time out…like them. I’m not putting myself in the same rarified air as them, just saying that they inspired me. Of course, they weren’t the only thing that lit the fire in the belly, but they were certainly part of it.

The time I made a producer cry after leaving him a treatment because it touched him so much was a highpoint for me—to get that kind of reaction meant I was doing something right.

There’s a bit in the movie As Good As It Gets, where Jack Nicholson says to Helen Hunt:

Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson): I've got a really great compliment for you, and it's true.

Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt): I'm so afraid you're about to say something awful.


Melvin: Don't be pessimistic, it's not your style. Okay. Here I go. Clearly a mistake.


(shifts in his seat uncomfortably)


Melvin: I've got this, what, ailment? My doctor, a shrink that I used to go to all the time, he says that in fifty or sixty percent of the cases, a pill really helps. I hate pills. Very dangerous thing, pills. Hate. I'm using the word "hate" here, about pills. Hate. My compliment is, that night when you came over and told me that you would never... all right, well, you were there, you know what you said. Well, my compliment to you is, the next morning, I started taking the pills.

Carol: I don't quite get how that's a compliment for me.


Melvin: You make me want to be a better man.


(pause)

Carol: (stunned) That's maybe the best compliment of my life.

And just as she made the Nicholson character want to be a better man, the Beatles (and others) made/make me want to be a better writer. A better paperback writer.

I’m not saying I’m the greatest writer in the world, far from it. But listening to the Beatles, and reading great mystery and fiction writers made me strive to be the best that I could be. And when I’d get rejections I’d be upset, but it would also make me try harder with an “I’ll show you” attitude. I’m still not where I want to be, but I keep working on it. And what I am saying is shoot for the stars and maybe get the moon or even just a mountain top. Shoot for nothing and you get nothing. But while you’re shooting for the stars, hone your craft.


And I’m writing this not to talk about myself per se but to share my experiences for others who may be on the same path and might need a little encouragement. I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Coming June 1st from Down & Out Books - The Blues Don't Care:

“There are all the essential elements for an engrossing read: good guys, bad guys, gangsters and crooked policemen, and through it all, an extremely well written sense of believable realism.”
            —Discovering Diamonds Reviews, Independent Reviews of the Best in Historical Fiction (https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com/)



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

09 March 2020

I See Clearly Now


I can't find a childhood picture of myself in glasses, although I wore them full time from the age of eight. I learned at my mother's knee that when the cameras came out, the glasses came off. That's because girls and women who wore glasses were considered hideously ugly. A much used Hollywood trope was the young woman, a secretary or some other kind of subordinate, who was invisible to the hero until she took off her glasses and was transformed like Cinderella. I remember the day I first got my glasses. I hated them. I hid in the bushes in front of my house, afraid a passing neighbor might lay eyes on my spectacled ugliness.

Nonetheless, I needed my glasses. Remember that giant E on the eye chart? I couldn't see it. I saw white with a slight gray smudge. Here's a rare sighting: Liz (standing, left) in seventh grade with girlfriends.
Glasses have changed, and so have attitudes toward women as well as our perception of ourselves. I get constant compliments on my current specs. More important, I think I look adorable in them. Anyhow, I've worn glasses more or less all my life. Every year I've dutifully visited the eye doctor and gotten my prescription changed.

A year or two ago, my glasses stopped working. I had to peer at the computer screen to distinguish an 8 from a 6. But changing the prescription didn't help. No matter how the ophthalmologist flipped the lenses in the refractor as I stared and even squinted at the chart, the numbers kept dancing around. What was wrong?

I had cataracts.

Fact: 100 percent of people get cataracts. Once I decided to have the surgery, I discovered that everyone I know from junior high and high school had either had it last year or were about to have it. It's one of those age-appropriate things we all have in common, like memory lapses and hearing loss.

Once I started asking questions, I learned that there are choices involved. There are lenses the insurance pays for vs those they don't. You can end up not needing glasses in general but be unable to read without reading glasses. Or you can go on wearing glasses, but you'll still be able to read when you take them off. Or if you survive the Apocalypse but there are no glasses in the dystopian future. The surgeon can use a laser instead of a knife, but it costs extra.

Does it hurt? Not at all. The eye is numbed with dozens of drops so there's no sensation of invasion. Is the patient awake and aware? It depends. The anesthesiologist explained that I'd be sedated, but not too much, since the surgeon might need my cooperation. Yes, yes, I knew what "disinhibition" meant.

The first time, I did experience time passing. It took half an hour for the surgeon to remove the cataract and the natural lens and install the implant that replaced it.

At one point, when all I could see was gray, I said, "I don't have vision right now, do I?"

The doc seemed disconcerted. Maybe I should have explained writers always want to know every detail. We never know when it might come in handy.

Other eye, two weeks later. I asked to be sedated a tad more heavily. I didn't sleep through it, but before I knew it had begun, I'd already forgotten it. Just like a colonoscopy, another age-appropriate...but I digress.

Next came a regime of eye drops: four weeks daily in each eye. The drops contained tiny quantities of several heavy-duty meds, including the steroid prednisone. I was prescribed some of that for an ear infection once and was manic for two weeks. I wrote two brilliant short stories in ten days, though. But I digress. Again.

While I was taking the drops, my eyes were healing and the implants settling into place. I had to wait six weeks for glasses for my new eyes. But even with my distance vision too blurred to drive, I saw better than I had since I was eight years old—maybe ever. Throughout the recovery period, I could read, watch videos, and use the computer.
And now I can see everything, from the fine print on a label to a street sign a block away. I love my new eyes.

My grandmother, who was born in 1878, was blind in one eye. It was just a cataract. In spite of everything that's wrong with the world right now, in some ways I feel very, very lucky to live in the twenty-first century.

08 March 2020

Coronavirus COVID-19: The Heroes and the Culprits


Dr Mary Fernando
Mary Fernando, MD
Every time a patient goes to a doctor with a new illness, the story of chasing down the diagnosis is like a mystery novel with one difference: everyone works hard to make the story short with as little excitement as possible.

In medicine, no one wants a long, twisted plot line and the best stories are the boring ones where the culprit is found quickly.

This desire for a short, boring story line has done what nothing else has been able to: it has united the world because citizens of every country want the story of the new coronavirus, #COVID-19, to end before they get a starring role in the tale of a new epidemic.



On December 30, 2019, Dr Li, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist in Wuhan, posted on Weibo that he had seen 7 cases of a SARS-like virus and warned fellow doctors to wear protective clothing to avoid infection. This sensible and medically appropriate suggestion resulted in Dr Li being summoned to the Public Security Bureau four days later and he was made to sign a letter confirming he had made false statements. Before his death from Coronavirus on Feb 7, 2020, Dr. Li explained why he warned people initially despite the fact that he knew he might be punished for it: “I think a healthy society should not only have one kind of voice.”


Like the Chinese government who tried to put a lid on information about COVID-19, we have had many others who have tried to do the same for political and financial reasons. There’s nothing wrong with trying to protect businesses, however, there is a great deal wrong with stifling information. The only thing that protects people and saves lives is the truth: if certain activities or places are unsafe, people should know this.

Through the evolution of this disease, there have been many kinds of voices speaking out and, just like in any mystery novel, each new crises reveals a great deal about the character of those involved.

There are some people who want everyone to stay calm – as if one smidgeon of worry will muck up their world. They came out in force at the beginning of this epidemic grabbing every straw they could to dampen down concern. I’m a huge fan of calmness but not when it is coupled with misinformation such as: this is only spread by animals, only spread by people who are symptomatic, the virus doesn’t live on surfaces for days and it is no more lethal than the flu.

Not one of those statements is true and people cannot protect themselves if they don’t know the truth. 


While some grasp at anything to calm people down, others have done the opposite and developed theories to fan all sorts of flames and even to start fires on their own. One theory floated around that this new virus was developed in a lab to destabilize the world. Right on the heels of this is another, very malignant theory that this is a virus that largely infects people of Chinese origin and that they are responsible for the spread of this. This has resulted in racist attacks on people around the globe.

There is another set of characters that have been emerging and speaking loudly: those who take a great deal of reassurance if they know things and even more reassurance if they know everything. Now this person who knows everything is a purely fictional character who has never existed but this doesn’t stop some people from emulating them. If this person who believes they have all the information has a large pulpit, they can spread information that is inaccurate and possibly dangerous.


Who is the biggest, baddest, scariest culprit in the saga of #COVID-19?
 Misinformation, spread by people whose need for calm, chaos or personal brilliance blinds them to the new facts emerging about this virus daily.

Some of those new facts are reassuring, some are worrisome and not one of us knows them all because it is an evolving story. For example, there has been some evidence that gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea may precede respiratory symptoms during infection with this new coronavirus– this is crucial information that could lead people to seek medical attention earlier and therefore limit spread of the disease. Since we know that people without symptoms can spread the disease – unlike with SARS – we can’t assume we haven’t been exposed because no one around us was ill. 


Just like in any mystery novel, we should remain suspicious of all the characters - any one of them could spread misinformation – often not from malice but because their character compels them to engage in certain behaviours that increase misinformation. Bottom line – the only thing that will keep you and those you care about safe is information on how to avoid getting infected with coronavirus.

The heroes of this story? The first hero was Dr. Li  because he had a simple mission: to inform those around him with whatever information he had to keep them safe.

Inspired by the heroes in this coronavirus story, I recently told my children who were traveling with me that – given the fact that this disease can be spread by people who have no symptoms and the virus can live on surfaces for days – they could stay safer if they assume their hands are infected and not touch their face and food without disinfecting them first. This simple set of instructions was the best way I could summarize this disease to the people I care about the most in this world. I also keep telling them that we are in the midst of learning about this disease so I’ll keep them updated. My children must have confidence in me because they grin every time I say this.

As of the 7th of March, 2020, the World Health Organization reported that the number of confirmed cases of COVID19 has surpassed 100K. The doubling time of this disease appears to be around 7 days but the numbers, just like this disease, are fast moving. A peek at that study along with with data used gives an idea of why we need to take a deep breath and keep learning.

07 March 2020

Pure Goldman





The name William Goldman might or might not be familiar to you. It's probably familiar to me only because I watch, and have always watched, a lot of movies. All of us are familiar with Goldman's movies.

I intended to write this column more than a year ago, shortly after I heard about his death, but I just never got around to it. There is general agreement that screenwriter William Goldman was a man of incredible literary talent, and I've long been a fan of not only his screenplays but his novels and memoirs. (I think Adventures in the Screen Trade should be "must" reading for all writers of fiction.)

Very quickly: William Goldman was born in Chicago in August 1931 and died in New York in November 2018, and over the course of his long career he won two screenwriting Oscars (for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men), won two Edgars (for Harper and Magic), and received the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writer's Guild of America.

I won't go into a lot of detail about his life; if you want that, there's plenty of information available. What I'd like to do here is give you a list of some of his accomplishments. He was the author of the following screenplays, novels, and books.

Note: I have not included any of his plays, TV scripts, unproduced movie scripts, or short stories. And--not that it matters--the asterisks indicate my favorites in each category.

Movies:

Masquerade (1965)
Harper (1966)
*Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The Hot Rock (1972)
The Stepford Wives (1975)
The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)
*Marathon Man (1976)
*All the President's Men (1976)
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
*Magic (1978)
Heat (1986)
*The Princess Bride (1987)
Twins (1988)
*Misery (1990)
A Few Good Men (1992)
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
Year of the Comet (1992)
Chaplin (1992)
Indecent Proposal (1993)
Last Action Hero (1993)
Malice (1993)
Maverick (1994)
Delores Claiborne (1995)
The Chamber (1996)
*The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)
Fierce Creatures (1997)
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Absolute Power (1997)
The General's Daughter (1999)
*Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
Dreamcatcher (2003)
Wild Card (2015)

Novels:

The Temple of God (1957)
Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow (1958)
Soldier in the Rain (1960)
Boys and Girls Together (1964)
No Way to Treat a Lady (1964)
The Think of It Is . . . (1967)
Father's Day (1971)
*The Princess Bride (1973)
*Marathon Man (1974)
*Magic (1976)
Tinsel (1979)
*Control (1982)
The Silent Gondoliers (1983)
*The Color of Light (1984)
Heat (1985)
Brothers (1986)

Nonfiction:

The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway (1969)
The Story of A Bridge Too Far (1977)
*Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983)
Wait Till Next Year (1988)
*Hype and Glory (1990)
Four Screenplays (1995)
Five Screenplays (1997)
*Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade (2000)
The Big Picture (2001)


William Goldman was, along with screenwriters like Kubrick, Sorkin, Wilder, and a few others, one of the very best in the business, and the three movies he adapted from his own novels--Magic, Marathon Man, and The Princess Bride--are, in my opinion, among his finest. There are things about all three (ventriloquists' dummies, dentists' chairs, giants who like rhymes, etc.) that'll probably stay in my head forever. And his nonfiction was especially interesting to me because of the way he wrote. He presented facts as if he were sitting in the chair next to you, chatting instead of lecturing. Those of you who've read him know what I mean.


Goldman once said, of himself: "I don't like my writing. I wrote a movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I wrote a novel called The Princess Bride and those are the only two things I've ever written, not that I'm proud of, but that I can look at without humiliation."

Author Sean Egan once said, of Goldman: "He was one of the late twentieth century's most popular storytellers."

I know which I'd rather believe.

All of us, writers and moviegoers alike, can learn from his work.








06 March 2020

Crime Scene Comix Case 2020-03-009, Underground Comics


Our criminally favorite cartoonist, Future Thought channel of YouTube, doesn't disappoint. We love their sausage-shaped Shifty, a Minion gone bad.

Our non-too-bright criminal breaks out of prison. It's Groundhog Day of a different sort.

𝄞 ♪♫ Not much wood a woodchuck chucks… ♬♩𝄇


That’s today’s crime cinema. Hope you enjoyed the show. Be sure to visit Future Thought YouTube channel.

05 March 2020

Adventures With Book Clubs


Greetings from the House of It's March And I'm Feeling So Damn Much Better!

So, this one.
As you may recall, a couple of weeks back I talked about those of us who write because we have no other choice, and gave an anecdote about someone who talked about writing a book, but was likely never going actually going to. I also mentioned that I met this guy at a party thrown by my friends Tara and Chad. And I wrapped up by mentioning that Tara invited me over to talk with her book club, who had all read the first of the two books of crime stories I collected and edited last year, both of which included stories inspired by the music of jazz-rock legends Steely Dan.

And a great time was had by all! Turns out I already knew most of the members of her book club (go figure, they're Tara's friends, and Tara has excellent taste in people!). The wine flowed, we laughed and talked, and not just about my latest published work.

At one point I fielded a question about how long it took me to get something done. I said (of course) it depends on the project and what I've got going on outside of writing.

And then there came the interesting follow-up: "How organized are you now, as opposed to when you started writing?"

Well I started writing in 1998 (I was 33. Late bloomer.). I didn't sell my first book for six years, and I wrote and wrote and wrote during that time before my stuff started selling.

So I'll tell you what I told them: I am incredibly efficient in my writing. In all the years I've been wrestling with the written word, I have a single unpublished novel (what many authors call their "mistake novel.") and a single unpublished short story.

Every single other thing I've written has gotten published and I've gotten paid for it. This is not to say that I've always sold what I've written to the venue for which I initially intended it.

In fact (as I told Tara's book club) the first short story I sold Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine was a story I originally wrote for a proposed anthology entitled City Crimes, Country Crimes, with the unifying theme of setting serving so prominently as to almost be considered a character in its own right. The publisher lined up to print this anthology folded, and the editor (now-fellow Sleuthsayer Michael Bracken) graciously released me from my contract so I could try to place it somewhere.

I sent it in to Alfred Hitchcock, and that was how I broke in with AHMM.

Speaking of selling projects, the one I just finished? The one I still can't talk about? That one I didn't start working on until I was asked to submit something. And that seems to be the way it works with me. I usually don't really sink my teeth into a project until I've got a potential publishing partner lined up for it.

Another project I've been hard at work on is expanding three previously published short stories into full-length novellas. Finished the first drafts of the first two before New Years', and the third one during the last couple of weeks of February.

So nearly done with these, which is a good thing, because I already have a publisher lined up there, too. More on both of these projects later this year, once things are finalized around them.

Oh, one last thing? That mistake novel? The one I'll never publish? It's set in a law school based on the one I attended back in the '90s, which also happens to be where I met and became friends with Tara.

And spoiler alert: Tara's literary doppleganger?

She's the killer.

*BOOM*

See you in two weeks!

04 March 2020

Today in Mystery History: March 4


This is the fifth installment in my series on the history of mystery fiction. Don't worry; I have 361 more to go before I run out.

March 4, 1881.   According to William S. Baring-Gould's  The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, it was on this date that one of the most famous fictional relationships began, when Dr John H.Watson's new roomie invites him to participate in a case.

March 4, 1881. On the same day, but thousands of miles to the southwest, T.S. Stribling was born in Tennessee. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Store, but we are more interested in his mystery stories about psychologist Dr. Henry Poggioli.  

March 4, 1931. This date saw the publication of John Dickson Carr's The Lost Gallows. It is one of his novels about Henri Bencolin, a French police detective referred to as "Mephistopheles with a cigar."  Where there's smoke...  (By the way, you may notice a French theme in today's entries.)

March 4, 1959.  On this day somebody started leaving severed hands around the streets of Isola.  So begins the plot of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novel  appropriately entitled Give The Boys A Great Big Hand.

March 4, 1982.  The premiere of Police Squad.  It only lasted six weeks because you actually had to watch it to get the jokes.  Fortunately movie-goers pay more attention so the spin-off Naked Gun movies were more successful.

March 4, 2003. Jean-Baptiste Rossi died on this day. His first novel, about a schoolboy who fell in love with a nun, was published in the U.S. as Awakening in 1952 and sold 800,000 copies.  A decade later, running into money problems, he started writing crime novels  under an anagram of his name: Sebastien Japrisot.  He won several awards for these books and most were made into movies.


March 4, 2014.  The publication date for Murder in Pigalle, Cara Black's fourteenth novel about Aimee Leduc.  In it she is five months pregnant and her neighbor's thirteen year old daughter goes missing.


03 March 2020

Goodbye, Joe


Introduced by Hasbro in February 1964, when I was 6 years old, G.I. Joes were 12-inch action figures—not dolls—created for boys, but I was a few years older when I began playing with them.

Original G.I. Joe lineup.
Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G.I._Joe
Though my own Joes may have suffered their share of pre-adolescent-induced combat trauma, they remained physically intact because I did not have pets to chew on them or siblings to tear them apart. My friends’ Joes were not so lucky and, because my interest outlasted theirs, I soon had a collection of damaged Joes—action figures that had seen too much action and were missing hands, feet, and other body parts.

The many Joes I collected allowed me to create a variety of scenarios, such as battle scenes and MASH units, where the crippled Joes were the star attractions. They had nicknames based on their afflictions—Lefty, Peg-Leg, Spike, Napoleon Blownapart*—and they accepted their roles with nary a complaint.

I didn’t limit my action-packed scenarios to my Joes. I recruited Barbies belonging to my friends’ sisters to serve as nurses and girlfriends, and the Barbies would kick poor Ken—4F and unable to articulate any of his critical body parts—to the curb whenever the Joes were on leave.

STORYTELLING

I had been exposed to storytelling from birth. My mother read to me and, because we did not own a television until I was in third grade, we listened to radio dramas rebroadcast from earlier decades.

But playing with G.I. Joes may be where I first developed my storytelling chops. I created characters with backstories and had them interact with other characters who had their own backstories. I developed inciting incidents or had them forced upon me—the Germans have broken through the line! Lefty’s been captured! The poodle of doom has run off with Peg-Leg!—and my characters and I faced hard choices: whether to stand our ground or retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, rescue Lefty or let him fend for himself, chase the neighbor’s poodle or risk the loss of Peg-Leg’s remaining leg.

During inclement weather, my Joes and I could spend an entire day indoors, fighting battles that raged from my bedroom across the hall into my mother’s or down the hall to the living room and kitchen. An early morning inciting incident would lead to rising action, setbacks, false climaxes, more rising action, a climax, falling action, and resolution. And all before bedtime.

In those heady times, before the reality of adulthood taught me that some fairy tales end with unhappily ever after and I learned to appreciate noir, all of my G.I. Joe stories ended with the heroes vanquishing the villains.

GOODBYE, JOE

I don’t remember when my Joes and I fought our last battle, but they were no longer part of my life by fifth grade. Having grown too old to play with dolls (no matter how they were labeled), I had moved on to other things. Even so, the storytelling skills I first toyed with back then became the foundation of my writing career.

And if I ever get stuck writing a story and need an unexpected twist, the poodle of doom is always lurking in the shadows.


*You really thought I was this clever in third grade?


Mid-Century Murder (Darkhouse Books, edited by Andrew MacRae) contains “Where’s Sara Jane?” a story I co-authored with Sandra Murphy.










“See Humble and Die” by Richard Helms, published in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods, which I edited and Down & Out Books published, has been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2020.