25 May 2020

What Are We REALLY Doing?


Warren Zevon's song "The Hula Hula Boys" features the Polynesian refrain

"Ha'ina I'a Mai ana ka puana." It means "Sing the chorus," or maybe "Get to the point."

In other words, just tell the damn story.

A few days go, I forgot to charge my Kindle and couldn't order another book. Obviously, in the time of Covid-19, I've had lots of time to read, but some publishers are still figuring out how to get digital copies to reviewers like me.

I went to my book case and pulled out a massive short story anthology I assigned when I taught English. This was a newer edition, but I like it because it has a mix of classic (Poe, Hawthorne, Chekhov, Hemingway) and new and multi-cultural authors (Sherman Alexie, Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, Gish Jen, Leslie Marmon Silko). I read some stories either I'd never read before or forgotten (Yes, that does happen).

I enjoyed them all, but I'd hate to explain what a few of them said to me or "meant." Remember getting that question on standardized tests? My first reaction then was, "Hawthorne's dead. How the hell do I know what he was trying to tell me?"

Then I made a terrible mistake. I looked at a few of the questions following stories. Some of them were so esoteric I suspect they became thesis topics when the author's first 75 better ideas were either taken or got rejected by his advisor.

Teaching literature is an odd occupation. We don't teach our students to read, we force them to read "critically," and while I was accused of being good at it a long time ago, I no longer think I could explain what it means in a way that would justify it. I thought I was teaching kids to read for "ideas" and "themes" (A term I still avoid as much as possible) and techniques. Now, I think all that matters is that we have the tools to appreciate a story and can explain why that did or didn't happen. If you're a writer or potential writer, we should understand how the choices and techniques make a story more or less effective, but that's about it.

Remember Zevon's song?

Maybe that's all we should worry about.

Does the setting help bring out the story's ideas? would it work better with a different point of view or voice? What would happen if the writer changed the gender of the protagonist/narrator? What about a different time period? Would more or less humor help? I'm not sure we can really teach any of these except by wide reading and lots of experience, much of it through failure.

Last week, the University of Connecticut announced that they are abandoning the SAT as an admission requirement. In the age of Covid-19, many students don't have access to various preparation sites and workshops, which gives other applicants a big advantage.

Wouldn't it be great if we went back to reading for pleasure and a wider vision of the world without having to take multiple-choice and essay tests to pigeonhole the great works, or even the not-so-great ones? Let Shakespeare, Dickens, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Cervantes, and Dorothy Allison stand on their own merits instead of trying to find a sometimes arcane or non-existent common denominator?

Let young people rediscover the miracle of those funny little marks on the page, like when were were younger parents and we held our kids on our laps before bedtime, watching Paddington or the Poky Little Puppy or Curious George discover how the world worked...

24 May 2020

The Murder of Me, part 2


Narrows Gorge Underwater
Narrows Gorge Underwater

Last week, a boating companion left Leigh trapped upside down in an overturned canoe in surging waters, fighting to free his ankles. If Leigh didn’t smash face-first into boulders rising from the depths, a whirlpool lay ahead.

He had been targeted for murder.

We return to the story…
— Editor

gorge map
Upside down in churning, freezing glacier melt, I fought to free my ankles. Threaded under the seat, my long legs proved difficult to extricate from a crevice not made for anyone over six feet. One foot pulled free… tug, twist… then the other. Still submerged, I yanked off my boots so I could swim.

My life preserver popped me to the surface. To my right, a ledge extended. I climbed like a wet rat, reaching that shelf, momentarily safe.

At a distance below, Jeff clung to the capsized canoe, orbiting the whirlpool. He screamed up at me, violently swearing.

Only one way off the ledge presented itself. I needed to plunge back into the freezing waters. It seemed a twelve-foot drop, but was probably half that.

I jumped. I swam for the circling canoe.

One of my boots bobbed there. I never knew hiking shoes could float. The other came within reach. Jeff cursed me the entire time.

“Shut it,” I said. “We need to empty the canoe.”

“How?”

“Give me the paddle,” I said.

“No.”

“The paddle, else stay stuck in this spin cycle.”

“No, you’ll leave.”

“I’ll leave if you don’t.”

He didn’t know how to get out of the predicament. He swore and tossed me the paddle.

“Rock the boat like this,” I said. “Slosh the water out.”

He followed instructions until we emptied much of the water. I stretched across and pulled myself into the stern. Jeff followed suit, clinging to a thwart. I ruddered the canoe until it separated from the grip of the whirlpool. It bounded down the rapids battering the hell out of the hull.

We spotted the portage. Bill, Sandy, and Lauren huddled there, stamping their feet against the cold.

“Where were you?” they said. “What happened to you?”

“Leigh fucked up,” said Jeff before I could speak. “He tipped us over. Leigh lost one of the oars and he’s fucking paying for it.”

The women hovered over Jeff, cooing and cawing. “You poor thing."

“Let’s hike,” I said. “Hypothermia. We need to get warm and dry.”

Moments later, Scott appeared. As the others climbed the trail, he and I hefted the canoe over our shoulders to portage it. In relative privacy under the shell, he spoke quietly.

“Weirdest thing, Leigh. I inched along the cliff face and kept you in sight.”

“You picked your way across that bluff?” I was impressed.

“Yeah. As the canoe aimed at those rocks, I remembered the stern guy steers. When Jeff started rocking the boat. I’m convinced he deliberately capsized it.”

I said, “Pretty much what happened.”

“Why do that? You could have been killed.”

“I don’t know, Scott. I can’t explain it.”

Jeff Summerfield's Malfoy sneer
The Malfoy sneer
The Cool

Back at camp, the only warmth arose from the fire. Jeff held court, regarding me with his down-the-nose Malfoy gaze.

He might have been practicing the campfire tale of my misfortune for hours, days, even weeks. His dramatic recounting horrified a sympathetic audience. He held my incompetence forced the canoe into the rocks. I panicked, lost my paddle, and needed rescuing.

“The great canoeing expert man,” he said. “Good thing no one else trusted lives to him. Guy can’t hold onto a paddle.”

Bill glared at me accusingly. “You almost got Jeff killed.”

A childhood defect often renders me speechless against untrue accusations.

Scott remained silent. I imagined he’d filled Sandy in as they glided back to camp, but her eyes showed doubt as Jeff told and retold his story. Who would deliberately capsize a canoe in dangerous waters?

The Cold

Lauren took my protests as churlish and unfair to Jeff. On the drive back to Minneapolis, she hovered under a blanket with him, not me, signaling the beginning of the end of a lengthy relationship.

Thereafter, she brooked no criticism of him. The more I sullenly avoided Jeff, the more Lauren cozied up to him. Except for curt, one-word replies, she stopped speaking with me.

The day came when Lauren called it quits over the phone.

Next morning, Sandy rang me. She couldn’t contain the breakup headline news update.

“We barely got her stuff moved into a condo and in waltzed Jeff with his backpack and ski poles. He sat in the easy chair and ordered the rest of us around, where to put this, where to arrange that. We can’t believe her. Can’t you stop this?”

“Not any more, Sandy. Not any more.”

The Ice

During those moments of the river ‘accident,’ I didn't have time for fear. The real impact came later, shock and internal pain… Once upon a time Lauren caused my world to revolve. Then the planet tilted, stopping dead in its tracks.

No way. I’m a tough guy, big, resilient, not gutted, not hurt, no bruised soft tissue, no seared scars, no brutalization of betrayal, nothing to see folks. No jagged spear tore out a wretched pulsing, pumping organ that couldn’t be mine. No salty water blinded my eyes, no unending oceans of agony, no treacherous waves hammered soft shoals, no dark tunnels flooded with torture and torment, no anguish, no fiery cauldron of pain, no. No problem, nothing, nothing at all, just a… just a fourteen-digit number on the Richter scale of heartbreak.

General Armstrong Custer, Jeff Summerfield look-alike
Custer, Jeff look-alike
Casting Stones

In the time I’d known him, Jeff had become an expensive acquaintance. The never-ending lending for lunch or dinner was the least of it. Around him, things broke, things disappeared, things died.

The year before, he’d mysteriously blown up the new engine in our little Triumph Spitfire. I never let him drive another car, but he persuaded Lauren to let him try out our newly purchased Dodge– an hour after midnight– while I was at work, when good little children should have been sound asleep. Claiming he hit a patch of ice, he’d slammed it into a guardrail on Interstate 494… at one in the morning.

Jeff manifested a couple of peculiarities, especially compulsive lying. Our expanded circle of friends merely wrote that off as Jeff being Jeff. But the cash bag from Lauren’s shop vanished in Jeff’s presence. And animals… critters left in his care curiously died.

The women in our larger circle noticed something else. They remarked how Jeff exhibited a penchant for dating young widows.

Lauren had nearly become one– a young widow.

Constant nightmares haunted me. With difficulty, I caught my breath and began to recover. I threw myself into my work.

That should have marked the end of the saga. It didn’t.

Sherburne County Sheriff
Castle Breached

A freezing January day found me consulting out of state. An emergency phone call rang in from Lauren, she was visiting the house. My peaceful home in the woods– a state forest– had been burglarized and badly vandalized.

Sherburne County’s Sheriff might have presided over a frozen rural fiefdom, but he was no slouch. While his fingerprint maven dusted enough powder to mount a community theatre production of Chim-Chim Cher-ee, the sheriff explained the situation over the phone.

Wood chips from the supposed point of entry were scattered inside, not outside the back door. The sheriff found no footprints in the snow, none, nor footprints anywhere around the house. The only trail was tire tracks straight into the garage. A large screwdriver left at the scene suggested a burglary tool used to break into the house, except… it had come from my toolchest… already inside the house.

“Kinda strange, doncha think?” the sheriff said.

“Very.”

“Anyone besides Lauren have access to your garage opener?”

I unloaded suspicions that had built from the moment she phoned. She’d mentioned Jeff acted particularly odd when she announced her intention of checking the house. Normally Lauren defended him tooth and nail. Now she hesitated.

The sheriff promised to call me back. He did, sooner than I expected. Deputies had picked up Jeff skulking along country roads… in January… in subzero Minnesota.

The sheriff said, “Thirty minutes after question one, our boy painted himself in a corner so tight, he confessed to crimes we never asked about. FYI, this guy hates your guts.”

I said, “Why? I gave him work, I lent him money for lunch and dinner.”

“That’s the problem. You need to pick better pals. He pretended to be a friend while he hung around your companions and targeted you. He invited himself into your group, into your shop, and into your home. He gave the women little gifts stolen from others, robbing from Petra to pay Paula.”

The sheriff continued. “This boy profiled you. He asked innocent questions, gathering personal ammunition. On your previous canoe trips, he said it was goddamn hard to get you talking about yourself, getting you to reveal the private you, but he managed.”

“Why so much effort to come after me? I never did anything against him.”

“He admits that. You gave him lifts when he didn’t have a ride. You often paid for his meals. What you considered generosity and sharing, he took as deliberately showing off and humiliating him. Jeff envied you, he hated you. You had material things he wanted: lovely woman, house, and a couple of cars. Your occupation allowed you to travel. What did you do with your advantages? Nothing, by his reckoning. You didn’t buy fancy stuff, you just kept working. It wasn’t fair, he thought. You didn’t deserve it, he did. So he set out to destroy you and take what he could.”

“Sheriff, did you ask about the canoeing accident?”

“Clearly no accident. He didn’t give us a thing to charge him, but he enjoyed mocking us. It was like he challenged us to prove anything. He fed us cocky TV dialogue and cute tidbits like, ‘An accident couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.’”

“Sheriff, I never intended him ill.”

“Son, you do not understand evil. No one believes you wronged him. He’s a total narcissist. His world has a population of one. He gets what he wants manipulating innocents. For him, screwing others is more rewarding than working. In the future, try not to be so damn trusting.”

Farmers Insurance
Castle Defence

Jeff’s game wasn’t over.

The sheriff’s office filed burglary, theft, and property damage charges. However, the state attorney wouldn’t prosecute until my insurance company weighed in, and Farmers Insurance hadn’t obliged. For months, they refused to pay for the damage and destruction.

My insurance agent resembled a red-bearded Hagrid. Two metres tall, 6½+ feet of Midwestern muscle, my rep sumo wrestled professionally in the US and Japan. He could have shaded Jesse Ventura, but he proved no match for Jeff. When he sat down with me, he looked morose.

He said, “Farmers won’t pay, they won’t subrogate, they won’t prosecute. This guy’s going to walk.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Jeff persuaded the company investigator you masterminded the burglary of your own house and snared innocent him in your scheme.”

“I’m the guy who wants to see this case go to trial. The sheriff wants to try him and so do I.”

The agent shook his massive Hagrid head.

“The adjuster’s convinced the sheriff got it wrong and you’re the bad guy.”

“How? On what evidence?”

He drummed fingers the size of hammers on his desk.

“The company investigator turned in dinner expenses for two. She said she needed to get Jeff to open up.”

“Why does she…? Oh, no, no. She wined and dined Jeff? He played her?”

“In-depth investigation, according to my secretary.”

“That’s a pun? They’re dating?”

“Who’s to say? Who investigates investigators?”

Farmers’ confidence in their private detective cost them. After I hired counsel, the underwriter realized their statutory window of time to sue Jeff had run out and they could no longer collect. The company begrudgingly paid my attorney and sent a check for replacement and repairs.

The investigator’s position caused further fallout. Because Farmers Insurance contradicted the findings of the sheriff, the prosecutor didn’t indict. His office explained the defense would simply call Jeff’s tame insurance investigator and undermine their slam-dunk case.

After mere days in jail, Jeff skated. A homicidal grifter now walked free.

Case Closed

For a year, nightmares haunted me. They didn’t stem from fear of Jeff, but fear of my inner rage. In my violent dreams, he died a hundred imaginative deaths. That wasn’t me, not the person I wanted to be. During waking hours, I clamped down my anger, but when freed to roam dreamscapes, my nightmares would have terrified him; they certainly horrified me.

For my own well-being, I needed to escape. I stravaiged around Europe, working, consulting, trouble-shooting. A couple of times, word drifted over from the States.

Lauren entered the hospital for a couple of weeks. Her parents confided that absent a meal ticket, Jeff promptly moved in with a younger girl, and then another, always another.

Last I heard, he married a wealthy widow. No word if Jeff was involved in her premature widowhood.

Leigh Lundin
Final Word

It’s taken years to write this, mostly because of my difficulty talking about myself. My words sound all wrong, I can’t properly document my emotions. Please, my apologies.

Ultimately to a writer, everything is fuel or fodder. I experimented, crafting nightmares into a story, which I might yet finish. In my version, the bad guy finally gets his comeuppance. Perhaps that dark chapter inside me could yet open to the light of day.



Years later, another man– this one a pillar of his church and the Orlando community– would tell me those same words, “You don’t understand evil.” Thirty days later, he and his wife would die violently.

23 May 2020

The Oh-So-Glam and Very Public Life of an Author
(aka Park your Ego at the Door)


John Floyd inspired this column with his recent post Strange but True, describing the things that have happened to him as an author.   I probably have another column of zany experiences to tell, but we'll start with this post.  Raising a glass to you, John!  (Amarone, in my case.  And a case of that would be welcome.) 





The Good:

“Sixty-two people signed up!” said the perky librarian. “We’ll have to move rooms. It’s a record.”

That was last February, at a branch of the Toronto Public Library. I was on stage talking about crime writing and my seventeen books, with Joan, another writer gal-pal. We’re both college teachers, so we know how to hold an audience. And we write humorous books, so we had the audience rockin’.

Photos went up on Facebook; 59 people chimed in with comments. And the most common comment was – Wow! That’s a terrific turnout. How did you do it?

Frankly, I have no idea. Yes, there were several Goddaughter series followers there. But it’s a mystery (sic) to me why some events fill up and others flop like a long-dead lake trout. And believe me, I’ve been in that pond too.

I’ve had events where only three readers show up. Where the number in the audience matches the number on stage. And where you don’t sell a single book.

The Eh…

Yes, well, about book sales on Wednesday night. Here’s the irony. The library brought in over 30 of my books for attendees to check out. I laughed when I saw the table. Everyone picked up the library books. I think I sold two.

Was it worth it? We do get paid in Canada for our books in libraries. So yes, it’s important to keep my books there, and keep people checking them out. But also, meeting my audience is hugely important for inspiring me to keep going.

But glamorous? Just remind me to park my ego at the door. Here’s why:

If you are an author, your life becomes somewhat public. People feel they have the right to comment on your looks, your age, your weight, your clothing, as well as your books. I began to realize last year that people believe celebrities – even terribly minor ones like mid-list authors – belong to them in some strange way.

The Bad:

I’ve had events where audience members come up after the event and thrust their virgin manuscripts into my hands and tell me to read it “for free.” I’m supposed to be grateful. And if I like it, which I definitely will, could I show it to my agent. Plus, I inevitably notice that they don’t buy even one of my books, or even admit to having read one.

That part is funny and frustrating, but it’s not all fun and games. Sometimes it’s even scary.

I’ve had a stalker, who couldn’t tell me apart from Rowena and Gina Gallo (the protagonists in my two series. You would think he would be disappointed upon meeting me. I’m almost 30 years older than my sexy protagonists!) Age didn’t turn him off. I felt hunted and haunted. It got to the point where whenever I was teaching at night or speaking in public, I would make sure to be accompanied by a male escort (not the hired kind. Although that would make for a better story…)

The Ugly:

I’ve had an ex-con confront me at a public event to write his ‘story’. I tried to explain that I was a fiction writer, not a true crime writer. Didn’t convince him. He followed up with angry emails. Things got tense. What DID convince him was explaining who I was related to, and why they wouldn’t be at all pleased to see me writing true crime. (He knew of The Family. That convinced him. He vamoosed.)

The Funny:

We started off this post with a good news event. But those are balanced by the ones that simply devastate the already fragile ego.

I was invited by a downtown Hamilton library branch to come on out for a Monday afternoon to speak about my bestselling fantasy series, Rowena Through the Wall. The event was open to the public, but the main audience would be a very keen grade twelve creative writing class from the local high school. Fantasy rocked with them, apparently.

Now, it just so happened that this Monday, the teachers were in contract talks, and they went work-to-rule. That meant no field trips. Librarian calls me with this news, but says “Don’t worry. Come anyway. I’m sure people will attend.”

When I arrived, instead of 34 eager students, there were exactly six elderly women, all with walkers.
But we’re troopers, right? We perform even if there is an audience of one. So I started reading. And half way through my five minute reading, at the most exciting part, one old dear yelled out, “When does the movie start?”’

And such is the glamorous life of this author.


That sketchy gal, and her friend Joan O'Callaghan, in Feb.
Hey - a candid photo that doesn't make me want to kill myself!

THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS is a finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award, sponsored by CRIME WRITERS OF CANADA!  You can pick it up at all the usual places.  Of course, Gina - the protagonist - would probably steal it...

22 May 2020

Sleuth$ayers Government Loans Are Here!*


Gosh, uncertain times are destroying main street businesses the world over, aren't they? But here in the United States, the spectacle of the public and private sector working together has been downright heartwarming. In recent weeks, the U.S. federal government has made available a giant pool of money that “small” businesses can tap into to pay their payrolls and stay afloat.

Boy howdy, the first round of money went fast! The feds kicked in some more. The pot now stands at $660 billion, give or take a few billion.

And excitingly, the definition of what constitutes a "small" business is refreshingly fluid. If you follow the rules, the "loans" don't have to be paid back. (Among the rules: Please do not buy a Rolex or lease a Rolls Royce.)

But where does that leave you, the professional or semi-professional mystery writer? You might be left asking such questions as, “Gee, America, I don’t operate a multi-million-dollar chain of overpriced steakhousesI am not the owner of a major basketball franchise. Nor am I a scrappy up-and-coming private equity firm, hedge fund, publicly-traded software firm, international cruise line, or globally-known high-end resort chain. What if my business is too small to be considered ‘small’? Who do I turn to for my bailout?”

You’re in luck. SleuthSayers Bank & Trust has joined forces with the U.S. federal government to develop a series of exciting loan instruments for the small-town American mystery writer. Loans are backed by the full faith and credit of the American government, and allow crime fiction writers the same flexibility as the package offered in recent weeks to “small” American businesses.

Loans are only available to those proposing to create a work of mystery fiction, defined as “a literary work in which a criminal act or the threat of a criminal act plays a major role in the plot.”

Please refer to the following before contacting our staff via email or phone. Our bankers are burning the virtual midnight oil to help writers complete their online applications swiftly and collect their sweet, sweet bags of cash.
We are hard at work printing your money.Photo by Celyn Kang on Unsplash

* * * 

FAQ

I’m currently writing my first book, a cozy mystery about a plucky amateur sleuth who operates a bed and breakfast AND bookstore AND antique shop in an adorable town in rural Maine, within sight of the roaring sea. Does this subject matter qualify me for a small “small” business loan?

Sweet monkeys, yes! This is exactly the sort of project the SleuthSayers Bank & Trust hopes to fund. However, there are some concerning issues. Since this is your first book, we’re afraid we cannot be encouraging about your chances of receiving a dime unless your protagonist is a cat owner. Please indicate on your application your willingness to tweak your content in this fashion, and we are sure we could back this project for the modest sum of $1 million. If you satisfy the U.S. government’s requirement to use 75 percent of the funds for your payroll, the money does not need to be paid back.


I am a single American male entrepreneur who has led a robust, exciting life, resulting in some unfortunate issues with the SEC and U.S. Department of Justice. While I feel certain that all the fines have been paid, there may be some unflattering mentions of me on so-called “white-collar-crime” watchdog sites. Will this jeopardize my ability to get a loan? On the upside: I hope to make a clean break with my past, and pen a dark, sobering noir in which things go from bad to worse.

My good man, the U.S. federal government cares not a whit if you have had financial issues in your past, or have run into trouble with various government agencies. In fact, your business acumen may qualify you for our top-tier, $1.8 million loan package, which ensures you will not run afoul of pesky federal auditing issues. Please be certain that the finished work does not appear to glorify the criminal lifestyle. Noir it up! Rewatch Double Indemnity and you should be good to go. Kindly inform your banker if you will be requesting a check, or bound bricks of small, unmarked bills.


I’m a Canadian writer, and—

Let me stop you right there. $500,000 in U.S. dollars. Take it or leave it. And yes, you will have to pay it back over 97 years at the tune of 1 percent interest. Unless you marry an American. The above applicant is available.



I’m actually a writer of science fiction and fantasy. I was turned down for a small small business loan offered by the Bank of Interminable Series Fiction, and am now hoping I can find a home in the mystery community since my as-yet-unfinished 200,000-word sci-fi space opera devotes 30,000 of its words to a shocking series of corporate murder-and-reanimation experiments at a penal colony on a moon of Dendur 57-X-Bleu. Do I qualify?

Unfortunately not. To satisfy our requirements, your plot must be overtly perceived to be part and parcel of the mystery genre. At the present time, we are urging all our SFF would-be clients to consider adding a robot (i.e. “mecha”) who wears a trench coat and fedora, and speaks exclusively in crackling, snappy repartee. This will increase your chances, but please remember that cross-genre fiction is a tough racket. We will only consider funding such a work up to $800,000.



I am an artisanal practitioner of highbrow-cum-lowbrow literary fiction. My current WIP is a tome that posits that the “solution” to so many of life’s “mysteries” result in subversive sops to the long-suffering proletariat. To prove this theory, I am in part deconstructing a public domain work of Agatha Christi’s and purging all instances of the letter “e” from her work. The result will be a mash-up of locked-room meets commercial domestic suspense. Is this an acceptable project under your program?

You had us at commercial domestic suspense. Stick an unreliable femme fatale narrator in it, and the million’s yours.


* * * 

* The foregoing does not constitute a bonafide offer of a single damn thing. There is no SleuthSayers Bank & Trust. But Double Indemnity is a cool movie, and you should really, really check it out if you haven’t already. Alas, there are no government loans for mystery writers, but isn't it pretty to think so?

21 May 2020

Tales From the Waffle House and other 24/7 Adventures


by Eve Fisher

Once upon a time in Hollywood - my Hollywood - I spent an awful lot of time with an old black bluesman named Solomon at a place called Ben Frank's on Sunset Boulevard.  I just looked it up, and it's listed on Rock and Roll Roadmaps, and it still exists, only now it's Mel's Drive-In.  (???)  But I liked it the way it was, a 24/7 place where Solomon and I could meet over coffee and cigarettes and sometimes a little food and endless conversation.  We often got kicked out, not because we were there too long - there was no such thing, at least not late at night - but because Solomon would have a tendency to eventually go off on a rap about how the only religion that embraced the full erotic aspect of God's love was Hinduism (and he waxed very poetic), and then hit on the waitress, who usually thought he was a dirty old man.  Maybe he was, but he was a damn good friend - in fact he saved my life one night at a place called the Free Church, which is a whole 'nother story, that maybe I'll tell another time.  And I love a good long conversation on something besides the weather and politics. 

That - and recovery from hangovers - is what 24/7 restaurants are for. 

Check out Waffle House.

Everyone who's ever lived in the South has eaten at Waffle House more times than they can count.  Open 24-7, there's no where else in many towns open at 3 AM where you can get coffee, breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  If they ever add beer to the menu, no one would ever leave.

The motley assortment of people at a Waffle House at any time must be seen to be believed - Sunday churchgoers and the local homeless all chowing down together - but there are those who only walk by night, and they know where they can come.  Granted, the glaring lighting and 3 sided floor-to-ceiling windows are hard on the hung over.  But that's the price you pay for pecan waffles and an accessible bathroom.

And then there's the floor show:  how many places, other than Benihana's, have their chefs in constant view of the clientele?   I've sat there many a time, feeling a little rocky, watching the master chefs of Waffle House flipping burgers, eggs, and hashbrowns all the while tapping, singing, dancing to the radio and/or joking with each other, flirting with the waitresses, and (in olden days) smoking like chimneys without dropping ash anywhere but the floor.  Amazing.

I remember when the local Waffle House in Bristol, TN was taken over by a Yankee manager.  The guy - young know-it-all type - came in and started giving everyone hell about all kinds of stuff.  Not that anyone was paying attention.  They figured he'd move on sooner or later, and if they had anything to do with it, it would be sooner.

"He wants me to go out and chip weeds in the parking lot," said our favorite late-night waitress.  "Now I ain't doin' that.  And I let him know it.  He said he'd fire me.  I said, when do you think I'm gonna find the time to do that?  He say, you can do it when things are quiet 'round here.  When does he think that is?  Four a.m., and it's pitch dark?  I'm not going out there.  And at five, all them people from the factory come in, they shift over, and I'm running the counter like my ass is on fire?  I don't think so."

Another order he gave - to our favorite day waitress - was that she quit putting raw rice in the salt-shakers.  "Where is that boy from, anyway?  Don't he know that if you don't put rice in the salt-cellars, they gonna turn into Lot's wife?  How else you gonna made that salt flow?  He ain't never been here in July or August, that's for damn sure.  You want your hash browns smothered and covered?"  Hell yes.

There was also the time when the carnival came to town, and apparently one of the carnies made off and made hay with the girlfriend of one of the cooks.  The cook didn't take it well, especially when the carnie showed up at the Waffle House for sustenance before the carnival took off on Monday morning.  Let's just say that no one was chipping weeds in the parking lot that day but the carnie, and it was mostly with his teeth, as the cook bounced him around the asphalt.

And there were always drug deals in the parking lot, the homeless / wino regulars taking a snooze in that back booth that's almost out of sight of the windows, the constant gossip, and the police who ignored all of it, because they wanted a pecan waffle, too.

And we were all snobbish with it.  A Waffle House in Wytheville, Virginia.  Everyone's smoking, including us.  It's raining outside.  Inside, a nice thick haze of cigarette smoke, frying onions, waffle batter, burgers, grease, and coffee.  Perfect.  A car pulls up outside, New York license plates, and a couple gets out.  They walk in, and the woman looks around and asks, "Where is the non-smoking section?"  The waitress didn't miss a beat:  "In New York City."  The couple left, and the entire restaurant clientele stood up and applauded.

Of course, I enjoyed 24/7 restaurants more back in the day when I was apt to be up and around 24/7.  (Now I consider 9 PM seriously late and generally don't answer telephone calls after 8.)  When I was in my early 20s in Atlanta, in between Waffle Houses, the go-to places were the Majestic Diner at Plaza Drugs and Doby's, both on Ponce De Leon.  (Photo at right thanks to GA State Library Digital Collections.)

Doby's Good Food restaurant exterior on Ponce de Leon, 1980Back then the Majestic was just known as Plaza Drugs, and was known for its drugged-up clientele.  We Doby's customers liked to think we were a little more normal, but come on, when you have people walking other people in on a leash at midnight, there's nothing normal going on.  Except for the fact that the walker and walkee were both just showing off.  But at least we knew it was abnormal, and we showed our disapproval by ignoring them, despite their doing everything they could to get our attention.  The waitress' attention.  Somebody's attention.  Anyone's attention.

NOTE:  The worst thing in the world is to be deliberately, flamboyantly shocking and depraved and have no one pay attention.  ๐Ÿ˜‰  That is the tragedy of adolescence - temporary or permanent - in a nutshell.

Anyway, I was a Doby's fan, because they had better food.  And it was cheap.  Back in the mid-70s, you could get a vegetable plate (four veg and cornbread or biscuit) for probably $2.00, and breakfast with meat for $2.75.  A 3-piece chicken dinner would run you about $3.25.  I remember this, because we were all poor, doing our starving artist thing in the Little Five Points and North Highlands areas.  Mary Mac's (which is still around) was too expensive for us.

But again, the real purpose of 24/7 restaurants is a place where a group of people could sit over coffee and conversation for hours.  Face to face, laughing, talking, gossiping, arguing, exchanging ideas and dreams, plans and artwork, for hours.  It was great. 

And I think that's what I'd have missed the most if I'd been born in, say, 1990-2000.

Because before the pandemic, the smart phone arrived and ate up the entire attention span of a multi-generational group that apparently had had enough of people, and wanted to spend all their time texting.  From grandmothers to kids, it's been all eyes and thumbs on screen, for years. 

So, why are they suddenly hungering for other people's live company?  I mean, we've all seen it:
  • the people in a restaurant, everyone on their own smartphone, no one talking;
  • the people in a park, on their smartphones, while their kids played and occasionally begged for their attention;
  • the people walking, on their smartphones, never looking up (one walked into our parked car at the grocery store a few years ago, looked at us, shook his head, stepped to the right, lowered his head, and kept going).
Smartphones destroyed riding on subways and buses.  The sights you used to see!  I'll never forget Rughead in Atlanta, who spent all day long riding MARTA, wearing the worst wig in the world, stapled to his head...  Or all the tags of conversation, which I would note down in my little scribble book.  "Ain't no way I'm gonna tell my sponsor everything, even if I am working my program.  I'm not going to prison, even for my sobriety."

Smartphones destroyed the old coffee shops.  Starbucks is simply a vendor of hot liquid; nobody sits and talks there, they're on their tablets or smartphones or laptops, but no one talks.  And coffee shops, from the 1600s on, were all about talk.  That's what they were for.  Ask Samuel Johnson.

Anyway, you'd think the smartphone crowd - like the militia / survivalist types - would be the last people to be bugging out during this time of social distancing.  But no.  Joni  Mitchell was right.  "You don't know what you've got till it's gone."



Maybe some day we'll all get talking again.  And make some new tales to boot.

Stay well, stay safe, stay home.

Meanwhile, Blatant BSP:

Check out stories by yours truly:

"Brother's Keeper" in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, May/June 2020.

"Pentecost"  in Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology, SleuthSayer Elizabeth Zelvin, editor

"Embraced"  in Startling Sci-Fi.

Startling Sci-Fi: New Tales of the Beyond (The NEW Series Book 3) by [Adam Sass, M. P. Diederich, Eve Fisher, Mike Algera, Brian T. Hodges, Charlotte Unsworth, Jhon Sanchez, Scott Lambridis, Stefanie Masciandaro, Casey Ellis]AHM_MayJun2020_400x570



20 May 2020

Irish Stew and Alphabet Soup




Roddy Doyle. Photo by Christoph Rieger
I have mentioned before that Roddy Doyle is my favorite living Irish writer.  He doesn't write crime fiction - although he has come close.  He does write contemporary fiction, historical stuff, children's lit, and an amazing biography of his parents.

For several years he has also been recording conversations about current affairs between two mates in a pub.  When we were in Dublin last summer we saw the play version at the Abbey Theatre.  Now, thinks to Irish Radio RTE you can hear those same actors performing the Two Pints as they cope with the lockdown.  (And they seem to have anticipated a suggestion made by our own president.)

Recently on Facebook, Eamon Doyle (I don't know if they are related) had a complaint about the three published books of these conversations: The stupid alphabet dictates that I shelve Roddy Doyle's TWO PINTS, TWO MORE PINTS, and TWO FOR THE ROAD in reverse chronological order. It drives me nuts. If only I had some choice in the matter.

As a recovering librarian, Eamon, I feel your pain.  But that got me thinking about putting books in proper order.

Take Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy.  It was once voted the greatest series in science fiction history.  The books belong in the same order whether you put the titles alphabetically or chronologically, and yet people often file (or even read!) them in the wrong order.  Can you see why?






Decades later Asimov wrote more Foundation novels which ruined the alphabeticalitude, so we shall ignore them.


What about our own field?  Are there examples of mystery series being published in alphabetical order?

Yes, of course you are right.  Sue Grafton has that covered.


Poster by CountofManifesto

But don't forget the very first series of mystery short stories:


And the series below is listed in chronological order.  (Keep in mind that in libraries initial articles are ignored.  A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four both file under S.)

The Big Sleep
Farewell My Lovely
The High Window
The Lady in the Lake
The Little Sister
The Long Goodbye
Playback

Raymond Chandler started another Marlowe novel which was finished by Robert B.Parker and published as The Poodle Springs Mystery. So even that one kept the pattern up.

Can you think of other examples of mysteries  where the alphabet and chronology match up?

   

19 May 2020

Where To Start?


"You're starting in the wrong place" is something I've told many an editing client. Sometimes authors start their books or short stories too early in a scene, trying to show too much of the normalcy of the world we're entering. It's a good goal, but you can't do too much of it or else you risk the reader becoming bored, waiting for something interesting to happen. So if you start your story too early, you might need to chop off the first few pages. Or chapters.

I recently told a client when I read her sample pages that I didn't know where her story started, but I suspected it wasn't in the first two chapters I had read, which were all backstory. I told another short story author a few years ago that the reader didn't need to see the main character growing up. Let us learn about the relevant parts of her life when they become necessary to the story, but start the tale where the action is. She lopped off the first seven pagesthe first seventeen years of the character's lifeand the story was all the better for it.

Starting in the wrong place is not a problem I usually have myself. I just looked at all my published stories, and in none of them did I ever have to cut off the beginning pages to start the story in the right place. So imagine my surprise when I realized that in the story I'm currently trying to writethe story I began a couple of weeks ago, but the opening scene just hasn't been workingI'd started in the wrong place. I hadn't begun too early in the scene or in the main character's life. I'd started in the wrong place literally. I had the wrong setting.

It was a lightbulb moment. The opening scene hadn't been working because I'd felt the need to show several aspects of one of the main character's personality because of where the action was happening. In that setting, he definitely would be reacting by thinking several thingstoo many thingsand that was causing the pace to be too slow. But now that I've figured out a better setting, I can trim away all those extraneous thoughts and allow the meat of the story to come so much sooner. By starting in the right place literally, I am allowing the story to start in the right place for storytelling purposes too.

As SleuthSayers columns go, I know this is pretty short, but I hope my insights will be helpful to you as you write. And I'd love to hear your thoughts about starting out your stories, both how you decide where in the storytelling to start as well as where to set that opening scene.

18 May 2020

Promoting Anthologies


Jan Grape So many of my fellow SleuthSayers are appearing in anthologies I thought it might be a good time to talk a bit about promoting them. It's been many years since I owned a bookstore and promoting has changed a lot but maybe a few tips here can help.

Some of us are a lot better at promoting than others. Many of us sit in our cubical and write and write and never give a thought to promotion, We really don't want to think about that now. We have to finish this book OR our publisher will promote it, right?

Sadly, NO. Unless you're already a best selling author, your publisher sends your book out with very little promotion. I never could understand that reasoning. They'll spend $500,000 on X's book when you have two other very fine books coming at the same time, say one new and one mid-list. Why not spend $400,000 on X and $50,000 on the other two. You get the idea but most publishers don't. Could be why so many indie presses are doing very well, thank you.

Okay, I digress. Back to anthologies. No one is really going to push an anthology you happen to have a short story in so, it's all really up to you.

But Jan, I don't like to promote my short stories and I have no idea how to do it and really could care less about it anyway. Fine, go back to your computer and work on your next story or book. But if you want just a tip or two, please continue reading.

I was blessed because the majority of my stories were in books edited by Ed Gorman and Marty Greenberg (RIP both of you) and books they edited sold very well. Even to markets like Japan and Germany and to audio book publishers. But to promote your own stories in wonderful but somewhat unknown anthologies you have to always include them on your Facebook page or twitter account. And also on your own author page.

Okay, but I already do that, you say. Great, then this is just a gentle reminder for you. But when you do signings for your books, promote the heck out of your stories in an anthology, too.

You will meet people who'll say, "I never read short stories. I'd much rather read a whole book." I really get into the character of someone like Jack Reacher or V.I. Warshawski or Charlie Harris and Diesel. Remind them that an anthology is a great way for them todiscover new writers. Or even to discover their favorite author namely YOU, just happens to write other characters or even in other genres.

The other reason people say they don't read short stories is they don't have time. Everyone is still pressed for time even though they might be working from home now. They have children to teach or occupy them with things to do or meals to cook or laundry to wash. Remind them that short stories are great for them because, each story is only a few pages long and it starts and ends in those few pages. You won't have to stay up past your bedtime to finish. It only takes 30 minutes so so to read a short story.

Tell them the geniuses behind the anthology or behind your story. Time Travel edited by Barb Goffman. If you have a story there, find out why Barb did this anthology or tell why you found the idea so fascinating you just had to write a story for it.

I wrote stories edited by Robert J. Randisi for Lethal Ladies I & II, because they were to be Female Private Eye Stories. For his Deadly Allies I & II, they were stories by members of Sisters In Crime and members of Private Eye Writers of America. Of course, all the Cat Crime anthologies all feature a cat. I loved doing those because I had two cats, Nick and Nora and could relate.

I'm sure each of you can come up with a good way to promote your own short stories in the great way you also promote your books but maybe I've sparked an idea or two with you for your short story.

Now start Promoting.

17 May 2020

The Murder of Me, part 1


Leigh Lundin
Once upon a time, I became a murder target. This is the story.

Intent

Scott volunteered his garage for staging the trip: three canoes, three tents, sleeping bags, air mattresses, backpacks, and supplies. Sandy had purchased a chuckwagon of victuals to feed six for a three-day weekend.

Five of us had met a couple of years earlier as part of a larger wildlife and zoological collection of friends. We often lunched or dined together.

Scott, a serial obsessor, was currently learning film-making and canoeing. His self-professed ‘political lesbian’ girlfriend Sandy invited Bill, her grip, gaffer, and gofer to join us. They asked my inamorata Lauren and me to participate in their fledgling film-making. Their high-energy projects were social and entertaining once we learned to tune out Scott and Sandy’s bickering. Sandy and Scott argued about nothing– all the time.

General Armstrong Custer, Jeff Summerfield look-alike
Armstrong Custer
Jeff slipped into the group late, at 23, the youngest among us. Women admired his flowing blond hair and beard, a General Custer look-alike in three-quarter scale. He always wore white, even after Labor Day. Due to an East Coast work commitment, I didn’t meet him right away. When he discovered I enjoyed canoeing, he suggested the two of us canoe the upper Mississippi.  We made it a sixty mile run from Monticello to south of the Twin Cities.

When news of the jaunt reached Scott, he suggested Jeff and I guide our group on a camping-canoe trek in the northern part of the state. Major consultations ensued, debating whether to venture onto the Cloquet River, the St. Louis, or the St. Croix.

“They’re too bourgeois,” said Jeff. At times, his lip curled like Draco Malfoy.

Sandy perked up. Marxist memes got her blood pumping. Her capitalist man Scott rolled his eyes.

I was curious. “Too bourgeois?”

“Especially the St. Croix, touristy, everyone does it, even Cub Scouts. Let’s run the Vermilion, I know those rivers super well.”

Super well won out over ordinary well. Lauren checked the weather. I gathered maps and charts. Sandy and Scott bought enough food to feed a village through a long winter. Jeff borrowed three canoes. Bill provided an oversized SUV with a roof rack.

According to a hidden agenda, one of us wouldn’t return– ever.

Me.

Frank Lloyd Wright Service Station, Cloquet, Minnesota
Frank Lloyd Wright Service Station
The First Strike

Scott recommended a historical stop, the Frank Lloyd Wright Service Station, Cloquet, Minnesota. Up close, it resembled a diminutive airport control tower, well worth visiting. Jeff said he’d keep an eye on the car while the rest of us took advantage of the restrooms.

As we walked back, a gold glint flashed in the sunlight. My brass lensatic compass lay crushed on the pavement. It was quite old and I was fond of its craftsmanship. Now it lay broken on the tarmac next to our tire.

“It must have fallen out of your pocket,” said Bill, “and someone drove over it.”

Confused, I said, “It was in my pack, not my pocket. How could a vehicle maneuver this close?”

“Sorry, Leigh,” said Scott. “Let’s have the maps.”

“They’re on top of…”

The canvas map case had been stacked on top of our gear within easy reach. Where the hell was it? We dragged out packs and bedrolls without finding it.

Jeff said, “Christ. You were responsible for one thing, and you left it at home.”

“No. No, I didn’t.” I frowned, thinking back. “I bundled it with my radio…”

“Your what? The great outdoorsman brings a radio on a camping trip?”

“Shouldn’t you? Weather band, AM direction finder?”

“Jesus. Leigh can’t get enough dance music, but he forgets maps and charts.”

The others tittered. I gritted my teeth.

“I’ll get us there.”

“Sure you will.”

Matters had only begun to go awry.

Strike Two, Three, Four…

After an hour of old-growth, deciduous forest, we entered Kabetogama where we found an ideal campsite on the lake shore. Sandy, Lauren, and Bill built a fire for dinner. Scott and I trenched a latrine and erected tents.

I unrolled our down bags and… What the hell? Mine was soaking wet. Unzipping it revealed my canteen missing its cap.

Sandy laughed. “Leigh, you shouldn’t roll your canteen in your sleeping bag.”

“I never do.”

“Clearly you did. Guess who’s sleeping in the wet spot?”

I spread it near the fire and returned to inflate the air mattresses. Mine had been slashed open.

“With a knife,” I said. I stared at Jeff. “Why are you screwing with me?”

“Me!” He chuckled. “You’re paranoid, man. Some people can’t take the wilderness.”

Bill’s forehead wrinkled. “Why are you picking on Jeff?”

Scott said, “Stay cool, Leigh. There’s probably a simple explanation.”

“Like being gas-lighted? Lost maps, broken compass, uncapped canteen, sopping sleeping bag, and a slashed air mattress?”

“You’re acting really weird,” said Lauren. She moved away from the fire and merged into the shadows, soon giggling with Jeff.

Scott sat beside me. “What’s the deal with Jeff?”

“At the gas station, he chose to stay with the car. That compass was no accident. He had plenty of time. I just don’t understand why.”

When Lauren finally parted the tent flaps, she unzipped her bag from mine and turned away. Scott and Sandy fared better. Their daytime sniping softened into a shut-up-and-fuck-me aphrodisiac in the still of the forest night.

canoe parts
Daybreak

The lonely wail of mournful loons awoke us. Practical joker Jeff kicked loose the pegs, collapsing my dew-soaked tent over me. Lots of yucks. Jeff acted oddly testy as I cheerfully washed up. Although I started the morning cold and wet, we’d soon be on the water, which I loved.

After breakfast, I gave a twenty minute summary of my superb canoe training:
The strokes: forward cross, the back stroke, and the J-stroke. A bowman powers, the stern steers. Life vests, always. In rough churn, down on your knees. Don’t get stupid. Don’t get killed.
“Fuck man, they get it,” said Jeff. “Let’s hit the trail. They’ll learn on the way.”
canoe Scott and Sandy

Sandy and Scott’s trademarked squabbles affected their steering. They spiraled downstream, paddling in circles, entertaining the wildlife. Otherwise, the first couple of hours went smoothly.

Midmorning, the current quickened. We approached a canyon walled by sheer cliffs. The gorge plunged downward and narrowed until it forced the river into an abrupt 90ยบ L. We glided to the left bank so Jeff and I could study it.

gorge map
Midstream, boulders spaced over a hundred yards peeked above the thrashing water line, canoe-killers centered in the rushing turbulence.

A few feet past the rocks, channeled by vertical palisades, the river thundered headlong until it swept into a whirlpool at the heel of the ell. From there, the swirling maelstrom emptied down stair-step rapids. Beautiful and challenging, it demanded respect.

Although Jeff and I gauged it navigable with competent handling, we couldn’t be certain until we’d run it once. If we succeeded, he and I would thread each canoe one-by-one through the gorge.

If we found it too perilous, the gang had located a downstream portage trail through the woods. Steep, rough, and given the limited strength of half our party, portaging appeared much less attractive than canoeing the whirlpool and rapids.

Cast Off

I handed my wallet and keys to Lauren. Until that point, I’d worn my life vest loosely. Now I cinched it tight.

Jeff laughed. “What, Leigh? You scared? Are you a pussy?”

“Prudent. It’s called prudent.”

Since he’d collapsed the wet tent over me, Jeff had grown more and more belligerent. As the only other member with experience, he should have known better.

I selected the sleeker of the three canoes. I started to step into the stern when Jeff stopped me.

He said, “I’m going to steer. I want the back.”

“Not a good idea, Jeff. No offence, but you’re what, one-forty? I outweigh you forty, fifty pounds. We need the bow light and the weight aft. Going in prow-low adds needless risk. There’s no 911. People can die out here.”

Jeff’s lip curled. “Back up, man. We got only your word you’re experienced. I’m responsible for the boats, not you. I drive or it’s your fucking fault this trip’s over.” 

The women rolled their eyes. Sandy said, “Christ. It’s just a stupid canoe. Who cares who sits in first class?”

Lauren glared at me. “You’re ruining our trip.”

Damn. Jeff had expertly manipulated the situation and I was losing. He said, “You, the great white canoe instructor, just a control-freak.”

“Yeah.” Sandy just couldn’t keep quiet. “Canoeing is a lot easier than you let on.”

Bill said, “Give Jeff a chance to show what he can do.”

I protested but…

Five people glared at me, thinking me unreasonable. Reluctantly, I acceded. I’d lost their confidence, but with care, I could still guide the canoes through the turbulent gorge.

canoe bow bulkhead and seat
bow bulkhead and seat
Cast the First Stone

An unexpected problem arose, kneeling in the bow to lower the center of gravity. The pointed ends of our canoes housed a secret compartment, a little wedge of flotation foam hidden behind a bulkhead, right where my knees needed to be. The bow was not made for people well over six feet tall. Jamming in my long legs locked my ankles under the seat.

We’d planned to return a hundred yards upstream and line up the canoe for the run. Now in charge, Jeff bounded directly into the ravine. The low-lying boulders dominating the center of the river loomed ahead.

“Rocks,” I yelled. I plunged the paddle deep, using it like a rudder to edge the prow aside.

Inexplicably, the canoe swung back, aimed toward submerged stone giants that’d resisted the river long before early man walked its shores. I seized advantage of the momentum to force the canoe toward the other side.

“Sheer off!” I shouted over my shoulder. “Veer off, man! Veer!”

The response defied comprehension. The nose swung back toward the rocks. Disaster raced toward us.

“Jeff…!”

We hit the first boulder. To my astonishment, the force of the rushing current swept us up and over it. Eons of gushing water had polished the granite smooth. It thumped our ass, but the little canoe survived.

For the moment.

I couldn’t fathom the actions behind me. As the second set of buried boulders sped toward us, I thrust to offset the trajectory– to no avail. Speeding toward us…

Instead of the boulder tearing out the canoe’s bottom, the river yet again launched us to safety over the hazard. We didn’t deserve it, but the rushing turbulence repeated its magic trick a third time.

The little craft and I breathed a moment’s respite until hitting the whirlpool. Before I could process events…

Rummmph! The canoe rolled violently to the left.

Instinctively, I rocked the other way. The battered hull righted.

Rummmph! It rolled to the right. No rocks. We hadn’t struck anything.

I twisted around. “Jeff! What the hell’s going on?”

The words barely left my lips before I felt it rock left again.

We’re going over, I realized. Oh, no. The bulkhead held my knees trapped, locking my ankles and hiking boots under the seat.

Tossing away my paddle, I tucked and carried through the roll, not fighting the canoe as it capsized. Upside down in foaming, freezing Canadian runoff, at risk of slamming face-first into a boulder rising from the depths, my life hung on a thread.

Minnesota Narrows Gorge
Minnesota Narrows Gorge

Next time…



Don’t know, never asked.[1][2][3]

16 May 2020

Let's Get Cozy


Welcoming Kate Fellowes…
I'm pleased today to welcome my friend Kate Fellowes as a guest blogger. Kate is the author of six mysteries, most recently A Menacing Brew. Her short stories and essays have appeared in several anthologies, as well as Victoria, Woman's World, Brides, Romantic Homes, and other periodicals. She recently won the San Diego Public Library's Matchbook Short Story contest, meeting the challenge to craft a story only 50 words long. (I mentioned this in my column Super-Short Stories a couple of months ago.) A member of the national organization Sisters in Crime, Kate is a founding member of the Wisconsin Chapter. Her working life has revolved around words--editor of the student newspaper, reporter for the local press, cataloger in her hometown library. A graduate of Alverno College in Milwaukee, she blogs about work and life here and shares her home with a variety of companion animals. Kate, it's great to have you here at SleuthSayers!

— John M. Floyd

Let's Get Cozy

by Kate Fellowes

Working in a public library is the best day job for a writer, if you ask me. Every hour of every day, I'm surrounded by inspiration, in the form of successful authors, past and present. Each writer offers me a lesson on craft, character, and structure, and I'm an eager student.

When our book deliveries arrive and I slit the tape on each box, I wonder what new treasures I'll find to add to my to-be-read list. What have our patrons requested? What's on the bestseller list? Or the Book Club's?

Only one thing is guaranteed.

Every fiction order will contain a host of cozy mysteries.

Time was these were usually paperbacks but more and more authors are being published in hardcover now, a permanent commitment to life on the public library shelves. And almost always the books are part of a series. Indeed, publisher and distributor catalogs sometimes have multiple pages filled with nothing but listings for the newest installments in cozy series. I've dried up more than one yellow highlighter circling selections, especially wanting to try the entries that say "first in a series."

What was it, I wonder, about the manuscript that made an agent take on the author? What made a publisher extend a contract? What brought the book to the marketplace?

And will it be a hit with readers?

From my years at the Reference Desk, I know mystery readers are a loyal bunch when they find a favorite author. Thanks to authors' newsletters, patrons frequently know the next title and release date before I do. Their requests help us determine what to purchase, and their desire to read series books in chronological order helps point out holes in our collection.

A year ago, my library won the Sisters in Crime "We Love Libraries" contest and received $1,000 to put toward the purchase of books. We bought cozy mysteries and plenty of them, including many new-to-us authors and firsts in series. They made a dazzling display with their colorful spines and intriguing covers. It was an interesting exercise to see which authors took off and which languished on the shelf. Some authors who might write multiple series had one series prove popular while another did not. This phenomenon especially interested me.

Cozies have specific hooks related to the story's geographical location, main character's occupation or hobby, presence of cats and/or dogs. Which of these most influence readers? I will always reach for the book with a cat or dog. If it's set on an island or seashore, even better. Add a bookstore or a library to the mix and that title goes to the top of my stack. Every reader has a similar list of requirements, I'm sure.

I can only hope I manage to tick off a few of their boxes when my own first cozy mystery joins the new bookshelf in May. There's a library, but no bookstore, a river but no island, and the cat won't show up until Book #2.

A Menacing Brew (Fire Star Press, May 2020) introduces Barbara York and her daughter Amy, the most amateur of sleuths. If Barbara hadn't found her old friend from college dead when she and Amy arrive at his house upstate for a visit, these two women as different as chalk-and-cheese would never have relied on or trusted one another. But knowing the police think the death is murder and that Barbara, the heir to the estate, is in the picture as prime suspect, they set aside their differences and work together to solve the mystery.

During their investigation, they meet many residents of the small town, Kirkwood. (Small towns are a cozy staple, of course.) Some of the citizens are happy to talk, while others remain tight-lipped.

Does the mysterious death of a student decades ago factor in to this latest crime? Does another death a century ago also play a part? And will Amy's parents, divorced for years, reunite in their grief over their lost friend?

Eventually, all these questions have answers, and finding my way to those answers was a joy.

I have sometimes read irritating articles about authors who have had plots spring to them complete, in a dream. Why does this never happen to me? I always think.

It still hasn't, but with A Menacing Brew, I can honestly say both Barbara and Amy showed up fully formed. They are so different from each other and so different from me that every writing session was an entertaining revelation. Having finally overcome my pantser instincts, I had actually made an outline. Even so, we were soon off track, and I was reduced to watching the action unfold while I took dictation.

Does writing get any better than that? Those magical, aha moments when some incidental little something added on a whim is revealed thousands of words later as a linchpin. The twists in a plot I swear my conscious mind never produced. The spark of life created by characters interacting in genuine ways, like real people I know. This is why I write, and why I always will.

I'm looking forward to seeing more of Barbara and Amy as I give them a second puzzle to solve. It will be fun to see who joins them, there on the shores of Pulaski Lake, and how their lives unfold in their new hometown.

When I began my job at the library, newly graduated from college with a degree in English and several failed novels in a box under my bed, I dreamt of the day the library shelves would hold my own work.

A Menacing Brew is my sixth novel, following five romantic suspense titles, so my books have actually been in our stacks for a while now. But to me, every book feels like the first one. In a way, this one really is. My first cozy will be there beside those of my own favorite authors on the new book display!

Then, before we know it, the publishers' catalogs will arrive, full of fall releases, ready for librarians to order and patrons to read. I'll wear out another highlighter circling titles of cozy adventures, wishing I had time to read them all. Could there ever be such a thing?

15 May 2020

Craziness


Craziness

Thanks, John Floyd, for inspiring this posting with your May 2nd SleuthSayers posting Strange but True.

On vacation after my second novel The Big Kiss was published, a friend spotted a pretty woman reading my book as she sat in a beach chair next to the pool. My friend goaded me into going over and talking to her. After all – I wrote the book. I swam over and got close to the woman who continued reading with a smile on her face. I waited until she looked up to ask, "How do you like the book?"

She narrowed her eyes and said, "Preferably without interruption."

I swam away.


Pool without a pretty woman.

On another trip, I stopped at a truck stop for gas, went inside the gas station and spotted a rack of paperbacks which included my book Blue Orleans. As I moved close, a large, burly man picked up my book and read the back cover. I volunteered, "That's a good book."

"You read it?"

"I wrote it."

"The fuck you did."

I walked away.

Oh, my God. The nightmares at book signings. First thing I learned was to not dress up, don't wear a coat and tie because customers think you work there.

"Where are the Ann Rice books?"

"I don't know. I don't work here. I wrote this book."

"All by yourself?"

"No. I have elves. Like Santa."

No sale.

"You're not O'Neil De Noux. I went out with him and you're not him." This from a lady at a signing. Thanks goodness my brother was there because he remembered her. She had the wrong De Noux. Strange because my brother is 6" taller than me and looks like my father's side of the family (French) while I look like my mother's side (Italian).

"Hi, I'm your second murder victim," said the nice lady at a signing for The Big Kiss. She had the same name as the second victim in the novel but she never went for walk without her Doberman pincher. "If your victim had a big dog, she would be alive today, wouldn't she?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Got flashed at a signing. A buxomly blond woman opened her blouse and asked me to autograph her breasts. She worked on Bourbon Street. My brother hired her. A friend's wife became angry, said her 4-year old son saw the breasts and would be scarred for life. He grew up to be an opthalmologist.

At a signing in Eugene, Oregon, for my book Crescent City Kills, a man scooped up a copy and said, "Who the hell's dumb enough to write about Crescent City? Nothing happens there." I didn't realize there's a Crescent City, California.

Yet another signing a big man wearing a cowboy hat waved to the stacks of my different titles on the table and asked if I'd written all those books.

"Yes."

He picked up one, turned it over and said, "Then why haven't I ever heard of you?"

I shugged and asked his name then said I'd never heard of him.

He dropped the book and said, "You should. I'm the sheriff in this county." He snarled and walked off.

Uh, we don't have counties in Louisiana. We have parishes.

The 64 parishes of Louisiana. We had to memorize them in grammar school.

Sometimes, it isn't so crazy. At another signing, a young couple came in and I'm serious when I say they were the best looking couple I've ever seen. Both in their early twenties, both slim, both with long hair and soft tans. Newlyweds, they said, from the Seychelles. They were surprised I knew the Seychelles were in the Indian Ocean near Africa.

"Few Americans know this."

"Few Americans can locate Europe on a world map," I said.

When I autographed the book the woman spelled her name and I put it in my notebook. Never forgot it and she became a main character twenty years later when I wrote my novel USS Relentless – Ljilluana.

The Seychelles

The Seychelles

Finding humor during this pandemic is hard. Lost a friend and a distant relative to it. Both were younger than me.

That's all for now.
www.oneildenoux.com