25 July 2020

The Best Thing about Writing Short Stories (and it's not the money...)

Beyond the delight of creating a story that swings on a single plot point/twist...

Beyond the excitement of putting together a really professional product in just a few weeks...

Beyond the satisfaction of mastering the craft of the short story in another tautly written tale that speeds along with the impact of a runaway commuter train...

Here is the real reason I love writing short stories.

My 17th book is done.  Sent to agent in New York.  I sit back, awaiting the inevitable comments, rounds of edits, during which I will alternately cry, fume and laugh hysterically.

Then off to the publisher it goes.  After which there will be more edits, more crying, fuming, and possibly, more drinking.  (Okay, that's a cert.)

Which is why I love writing short stories.

To Wit:
I've been a novelist for over 15 years now.  My 16th book came out this February (yes, possibly the worst timing in the history of the human race, with the possible exception of the invasion of England by William the Conqueror, but I digress.)

So I've had two traditional publishers and three series, but believe it or not, I got my start writing short stories.  In fact, I have over 50 of those published, and 24 of those were in print before I even gave a thought to write a crime novel.

Why do I love writing short stories so much?  Short stories come with less stress than a novel because...

Short stories are all mine.

In order to get a novel contract with a medium to big house, you really have to keep the audience in mind.  Sure, you write what you want to write, but with the publisher's audience always in mind.  Then your agent gets hold of it, and makes comments and suggestions.  Next, your house editor will be asking for changes to the manuscript, and possibly even to the story to make it most appealing to their audience. 

All good.  All with the purpose of increasing sales, which I'm sure it does.  All tedious as hell.

Yesterday, I sent my 17th book to my agent.  She really liked the first 30 pages sent months ago.  I probably won't sleep until I hear she likes the next 200.

If she does, it's a sparkling vino moment.  If the publisher does too, then break out the Bolly.  (I do love Ab Fab, by the way.  Just call me Eddie.)

But then the fun starts.  I have to wait for the inevitable tinkering.

I can see now that one of the great joys of writing a short story is there is no interference.  It's MY story, just the way I want to tell it.  I've been published in AHMM, Star Magazine, ComputorEdge, Canadian Living Magazine, Flash Fiction, and others, and no editors have ever suggested substantial changes to the stories they've published by me, or even requested minor changes.

Writing a short story is a more independent project than writing a novel.  I love that.

But back to the title (and it's not about the money):  I have actually made more per word with some short stories, than I have with some novels.  Mind you, if I'm making a dollar per word for short stories, that would translate to $80,000 per novel, and I don't reach that with every book.  

So although we say you can't make a living writing short stories anymore, it is possible to make some Bolly money.  Usually hobbies cost you money.  This is one that allows you to make some!

I've always said that when my novel career wanes, I will continue to write short stories with gusto.

It's true what they say:  you never forget your first love.

Melodie Campbell has won the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis and eight more awards.  She didn't even steal them, which will be explained if you look up her wacky Goddaughter books...

24 July 2020

Live from the Basement: My new book!

One of the most challenging aspects of publishing a book is promoting the darn thing. I am told that in the days when triceratopses took long three-martini lunches, publishers did most of the heavy lifting to get a book noticed by its target audience. But as long as I’ve been dealing with book publishers—an appalling twenty or so years now—books have sunk or swum primarily based on the efforts of their authors.

Call me nuts, but I feel that as authors have learned to do more of the publicity and marketing, the more professional publicists and marketers at various houses have unlearned their jobs. A few years ago I was stunned to hear a freelance publicist—someone one of my ghostwriting clients had hired to help him promote his new book—say with utter seriousness that it was hard to get a journalist to return her phone calls. If you’re charging an author $100 a hour, you shouldn’t be telling them how hard it is to do your job, nor raising the faint possibility that other professionals don’t take you seriously.

But that’s the world we live in. Twenty years worth of publicists in the book business believe that they have fulfilled their responsibilities once they have fired a press release into the ether. They never need to get a response to succeed at their job or collect a paycheck. They just have to email it. Which is wonderful, if you have been trained to do your job without ever picking up the phone.

Now, thanks to the crazy apocalyptic world situation, the world’s book publicists and marketers are about to unlearn even more of their jobs. Authors of all stripes are trapped at home, unable to do even the most basic of book tours. They can’t visit bookstores or libraries. They can’t do those book lunch things that local authors are always being invited to do. (“We can’t pay you, but you can sell copies of your books—and we give you a boxed lunch!”)

So authors are turning to the next best thing. It was already fairly easy to do Skype visits with far-flung book groups. Now virtual events via Skype, Zoom, or Crowdcast are becoming the norm. I had my doubts that a virtual event would bring in crowds, but I realize now that I’m jaded, and prejudiced in favor of live bookstore events. When my wife recently told a friend in Boston about a virtual bookstore chat an author friend of ours was doing for her nonfiction book, Boston Pal became excited to share this with her friends via social media. “Everyone’s crawling the walls,” she said, “and they are desperate for things to do while the kids are watching TV.”

This is probably something I don’t appreciate since I don’t have kids. But virtual bookstore visits and chats are really helping book lovers right now cope with the weirdness of enforced family time.

Here’s what I’m also realizing: The potential is there for authors to reach an even bigger audience than they ever could before. Back in the day, when my wife’s publicists put together her book tours, they’d be very selective about which stores they sent her to. Some stores could be relied upon to sell lots of books, but they didn’t have the floor space to host a visiting author. Every Big Five publicist who books authors knows which stores have the space or the resources to book a larger one, and they steer their top authors to those stores almost exclusively.

But these days, literally any entity—big, small, or in-between—can host an author if they have access to a Zoom account. So book tours in 2020 are limited only by the patience of the author. How many days, afternoons, or nights are you willing to sit in front of your computer and talk about your book? Can you team up with other authors to present an hour of readings, à la Noir at the Bar?

Here is what these authors are learning: They’re learning how to present themselves in front of a camera, which is a different animal than doing a live performance. Some are learning how to set up a camera, and record and edit videos on their own.

I saw two videos recently—from well-known authors in the mystery genre—that showed me just how much the publishing world is changing. The first one appeared in my Instagram feed, marked “Sponsored,” which is code for advertising.

Who was this author who was advertising on Instagram? John Freaking Grisham. I’m linking to his videos here, in case Blogger decides to stop embedding Instagram videos. In the one I’m sharing here, Grisham talks about his writing shed from the backyard of his home in central Virginia. In subsequent videos, he’s speaking to us direct from his garage. And he’s openly telling his fans that he’s “hiding on the farm.”

The videos are not high-tech, not slickly produced. And why would they be? Like everyone else confined to their home these days, Grisham cannot risk having an army of filmmakers traipsing through his house and yard. He’s shooting these chats himself, and possibly passing the footage on to someone else to edit them for him. But I kinda doubt it.

David Hewson, author of the Nic Costa mystery series and other books, has always impressed me with his technical skills. Two of his self-pubbed books teach writers how to use the word-processing software, Scrivener and Ulysses. One of the videos on Hewson’s recently launched YouTube channel employs slick animation to discuss the principles of storytelling.

Recently I stumbled upon this video of Hewson’s, promoting his newest book, Shooter in the Shadows, and found it utterly delightful.

That’s all I’ll say about it. I don’t want to spoil it for you.

“Tough times in the writing business,” Hewson told me via email from the UK, “but my feeling is you have to do what you can to stay out there. It’s a real problem how to keep in touch with people at the moment...”

Just watch a few minutes of Hewson’s video, and see if you aren’t charmed at the notion of a writer walking around his neighborhood in Kent, wielding a selfie stick and talking about his book. Notice how the humorous asides break up his monologue, and how he manages to make his protagonist’s dilemma feel compelling. He knows his plot well, and he knows just how to hit the points that will resonate with mystery fans. This is a book I would definitely read. And I’m not too sheepish to say so. Pun intended.

Bottom line: If Hewson and Grisham are doing it, maybe I gotta try it too. Stay tuned.

23 July 2020

About Those Supreme Court Justices...

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Supreme Court of the United States shall hereafter consist of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight associate justices, any six of whom shall constitute a quorum; and for the purposes of this act there shall be appointed an additional associate justice of said court.

                                                                                                     — Judiciary Act of 1869 § 1

So, yeah, these guys again.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about the controversy surrounding the potential removal of a bust of a U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice from its perch on a wall in the U.S. Capitol by giving some background on the breath-taking racism exhibited during his lifetime be said chief justice: Roger B. Taney of Maryland.

In that post I referenced President Andrew Jackson's stunning feat of appointing five justices to the Supreme Court over the course of a mere eight years in office. I promised to revisit and expand upon this feat in the course of a future blog post.

Well, here it is.


Here is the most important part: there is nothing in the United States Constitution regarding the size of the Supreme Court. All the Constitution does is provide for the existence of the Court, and establish its primacy among the country's federal and state judiciary systems–it's literally the Court of Last Resort.

The Constitution leaves the rest up to Congress, including the power set the Court's size.

Americans collectively tend to think that playing politics with the Supreme Court is a relatively recent development. Not so.

Initially a six-member judicial body (Five associate justices and one chief justice), the Court found
John Adams during his presidency
itself reduced in number by one (Four associate justices and one chief justice) as part of John Adams' attempt to overhaul the federal judiciary on his way out of office as president with the Judiciary Act of 1801. Also known as the "Midnight Judges Act," this law helped spawn the ground-breaking court case of Marbury v. Madison, which the Supreme Court used to establish the precedent of judicial review (literally the power of the Court to serve as the final arbiter of what is and is not "Constitutional"–and therefore "legal.").

Adams' successor Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Congressional majorities quickly restored the Court to six seats upon taking power in March of 1801. They further expanded the Court in 1807 by adding another seat (bringing the number of justices to seven) as part of an overhaul of the federal judiciary that included expanding the number of federal circuit courts to seven (At the time each Supreme Court justice was also expected to hear cases on a particular federal circuit).

The Court stayed at seven for thirty years. Justices came and went, vacating office either through retirement or death.

And Then Along Came Andrew Jackson:

Up until his final week in office, Jackson (1829-1837) filled three Supreme Court vacancies, including that of the chief justice, upon the death of his long-time nemesis, John Marshall.  This was the seat Jackson awarded to his long-time supporter Taney (whom he had tried and failed to place on the high court earlier in his administration).

And THIS guy again
On his way out of office, Jackson's loyal Congressional majorities forwarded to him a bill expanding the federal judiciary by an additional two circuits, and concomitantly expanding the Supreme Court by an additional two justices, raising the number serving on the Court to an unprecedented nine.

And of course Jackson filled those two additional slots. No president before or since has played such an outsized role in the formation of a coequal branch of the federal government. Not surprisingly, the majority of Jackson's choices reflected his political instincts and values: these were in every important way, "Jackson men."

The results were, frankly, disastrous.

As stated above, Jackson's court majority reflected his choices and his prejudices, not those of the developing nation. And they did so well into the 1860s.

The irony is that the pro-slavery, anti-central treasury majority Jackson succeeded in placing on the Court helped bring about the civil war Jackson himself worked so hard during his presidency to stave off. Talk about your law of unintended consequences!

And get this: Congress actually further expanded the Court during the Civil War to ten justices. Then the war ended, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated shortly thereafter, and his vice-president, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, took office as president.

Andrew Johnson–Man Out of Time:

The problem for Johnson was that he was thirty years too late to be an effective president. This is not
The Last Jackson Democrat
to say he was too old. It's that Johnson, the sole Democratic senator to oppose secession in the run-up to the Civil War, had been added to the presidential ticket as a "Union Democrat." In truth, he was really anything but.

Johnson was, in fact, the final relic of Jacksonian Democracy. Like the antebellum Supreme Court, Johnson, who had come of age during Jackson's presidency, resembled the post-Jackson Supreme Court in that both he and the Court reflected Jackson's beliefs and prejudices. Thus Johnson found himself president, but was completely out of touch with both the times and with the Radical Republican politicians who controlled Congress with massive, mostly veto-proof majorities.

And once these firebrands realized what they had on their hands with Johnson, they set to work rendering his presidency irrelevant and enacting their Reconstruction agenda over his vetoes and his furious protests.

This included especially input on the composition of the Supreme Court. In order to keep Johnson from adding justices to the Court, Congressional leaders passed legislation (The Judicial Circuits Act) lowering the number of federal circuits from ten back to nine, and the number of Supreme Court Justices from ten to seven.

These "removals" were intended to come about through attrition: as justices retired or died, they would not be replaced until there were once again only seven justices on the Court. The sole intent of this move seems to have been to deny Johnson a Supreme Court nominee, and in that, the Republican Congress was wholly successful.

In fact the Court didn't actually reach seven again. In the years between the law's passage in 1866 and the end of Johnson's term and president in early 1869, only two justices (John Catron and James Moore Wayne) vacated their seats (both by dying), and so the Court sat at eight when Congress passed the law quoted at the beginning of this post. And it was back to nine.

And it's pretty much stayed that way in the hundred and fifty-one years since.  Except...

Roosevelt & Court Packing:

During the 1930s President Franklin Delano Roosevelt actually floated a proposal to pack the Court with six more justices, bringing the total number up to fifteen. He hatched the plan out of frustration with the Court's frequent rulings against aspects of his New Deal, and the plot went nowhere, with Roosevelt abandoning it in the face of fierce criticism from conservatives and liberals alike.

But the Court got the point. Rulings against Roosevelt's legislative agenda tailed off after his "Court Packing" escapade.

In the end, it was just more playing politics, which is something the American political system has been doing with a supposedly apolitical federal court system at least since the 1790s. And in the current climate, with a conservative majority on the Court despite the fact that only one Republican presidential candidate has won a majority of the popular vote out of the last seven elections, there is once again talk of expanding the Court to make it as an institution less anti-democratic.

And if that actually happens, well, it wouldn't be the first time.

See you in two weeks, when we will get back to talking about historical fiction!

22 July 2020

Charlotte Gray

My sister gave me Charlotte Gray, and I left it lying about for a while. I wasn't familiar with Sebastian Faulks, nor was I terrifically compelled by the jacket copy,  and when I did start reading it, I resisted. It seemed too domestic, it didn't appear to have much urgency, but then I fell into the rhythms of the story, and it caught me up. Charlotte Gray isn't a thriller, quite, although it has thriller elements, and it isn't a romance, either, although it's enormously romantic, in its own way. It's more of a meditation on those themes. Which doesn't mean Faulks is trying on literary costumes, or condescending to the genre; he's feeling his way into it, as if it were new to us.

The story is about a young Scots woman who's recruited to the Special Operations Executive during WWII and dropped into Occupied France to service a Resistance network. SOE did a lot of dodgy stuff in the war, some of it marginal, some of it extremely effective, and they had no problem using women for clandestine work. More than a few of their number were compromised, tortured, and then executed by the Germans.

As with an Alan Furst novel, or a le Carre, we learn about tradecraft, and the threat environment, and the strengths and flaws of character, but there's an interesting simplicity about Charlotte herself. As she inhabits her French cover story, she uses 'Dominique' as a counterpoint, one step removed, a frame of reference at right angles - not an alibi, but a different narrator, somebody else telling her own story. Charlotte is herself well aware of the ironies, but as a device, it allows her to hold the story up to the light and reexamine it. This isn't studied or self-conscious: the author isn't breaking in, it's the character who wonders what part she's playing. I found it compelling, and more than that, completely convincing. You might think, Jeez, c'mon, the SS and the Vichy milice are hot on your trail, you don't have time to second-guess your place in all this, but it makes Charlotte real.

There's an authenticity of feeling, throughout the book. I think what threw me, in the beginning, is that the story isn't told as a narative of event. The episodes are emotional, which just sounds unlikely, coming from a male writer. You're used to the idea that a guy is going to present building blocks, a structure, rising action. It took me by surprise to realize the story lay, not in what was happening, exactly, but in how people engaged with what was happening. Even a fatal hinge point, the moment where Charlotte and Julien realize they have to assassinate a collaborator, is necessary because of who they are, and its inevitability lies in their sympathy for one another.

Of course, the book is not entirely interior, and there's more than enough razzle-dazzle, as it develops, but I'm still struck by the method, the lack of the literal, even though the story is full of concrete, obdurate detail. There is, as it happens, a movie adaption. The novel came out in 1999, and the movie in 2001. I'm now curious to see it. Movies are nothing if not literal, in the sense that you see an object presented. I can't quite imagine how this reconnaissance of a story, this narrative of suggestion, would translate. Charlotte Gray isn't dreamlike, it's in fact very specific, but not specifically about the visible. It's specific about the heart.

21 July 2020

The Problem with Writing about Mean Girls

Funny how you can write a story, revise it, edit it down to a certain length, read it again before submitting it, proofread it before it's published, and even read it once more after it comes out, but when you read it yet again five years later, you're surprised by what you see.

That's the position I found myself in last month when I prepared to read my story "The Wrong Girl" at an online DC Noir at the Bar. The story was published in October 2015 in the anthology Flash and Bang: A Short Mystery Fiction Society Anthology (Untreed Reads Publishing). It was a finalist for the Derringer Award in the flash category in 2016. I had been proud of the story. I still am, but there was a bit of language in it that caught me off guard when I read it fresh last month.

The story is about a fifth-grade girl in a private school who's humiliated by her teacher, so she and two friends decide to make her pay. Little do they know when they're planning their revenge that they're not the only ones in the girls' bathroom. A custodian is in there too. Here are her relevant thoughts:
It wasn't the first time I'd heard kids plot against their teachers. Usually they were simply blowing off steam. But sometimes, like now, I could tell the kids meant it. In the past, I'd reported them to the principal. The result every time: parents were summoned, the children pleaded they'd been joking, and the incidents were swept under the rug. No punishments. No consequences. 
Not this time. Mean girls who faced no consequences grew up to become mean women who thought they could bully everyone and get away with everything. I couldn't let that happen again. This time, I'd let the plan move forward far enough that the authorities would have to act.

Finally, justice would be served.

Did you catch the wording that bothered me when I read it fresh last month? Maybe not. Maybe you were swept away by my story and the words blew right past you. But I caught them: "Mean girls who faced no consequences grew up to become mean women who thought they could bully everyone and get away with everything." The italics are added here for emphasis.

When I read this sentence last month I was struck by how sexist it sounds. Are there no mean boys? No mean men? Why hadn't I written the following instead? "Mean children who faced no consequences grew up to become mean adults who thought they could bully everyone and get away with everything." The story certainly would have worked just as well with those substituted words, and that's how I read it at the Noir at the Bar last month.

But the original version, with the "mean girls" and "mean women" language, is still out there. I've tried to think through why I used wording that makes it sound like girls and women are the only ones who can be mean. Did I use those words because this is a story about girls who are mean, as well as a female teacher who is mean, and I was just being very focused? I hope so. But maybe I had gotten lazy and relied upon a stereotype.

We hear all the time about mean girls. They're in the news. On social media. Heck, there's a movie called Mean Girls and a Broadway show based on that movie. I did a Google search for the term, and got 14 million results. But a search for "mean boys" only yielded 171,000 results. I did a more specific search for news articles about mean girls and got 141,000 hits versus one about mean boys, which got 1,100 hits.

What does this all mean? Are girls meaner than boys? I doubt it. I would think all children and adults have the same capacity for cruelty, regardless of their sex. So why is there so much focus on mean girls throughout our society? I'm sure sociologists have probably studied the phenomenon and could give an answer. I don't have one.

I also don't know for certain why I used those words: Mean girls. Mean women. I would hope, as I said above, that I chose those words because my story was about a mean woman and mean girls. But that raises the question: Why did I write a story about mean girls instead of mean boys? And not just this story. I've written several stories involving mean girls or women.

Another one of my
stories about mean girls,
"Evil Little Girl," can
be found in my collection
These stories often sprang from incidents in my life, and since the incidents involved women and/or girls, I was probably more inclined to create related stories about females. I likely also made these choices because I once was a girl and now am a woman, so I probably have a better grasp on how women think than how men do. My decisions to write stories about mean girls and women also probably stemmed from the fact that we hear so much about them, as I also said above. Maybe the more I hear about mean girls, the more I'm inclined to write about them. All of these reasons probably played a part in my choices.

All of the "mean girl" stories I've written are good (I hope). They're entertaining while also making good points about societal issues. But I fear that by making these storytelling choices (choices of character, plot, and language) I may have helped perpetuate the sexist idea that it's girls and women who are mean far more often than boys and men.

I'm not going to stop writing about mean girls and mean women. It's a topic I'm too interested in (apparently), and I do enjoy writing from the female perspective. Besides, there are mean girls and mean women, so stories about them are realistic. But women don't have a corner on the meanness market. So I'm going to try to take a better look at my choices when I'm writing to see if a mean woman could instead be a mean man, and if it might be appropriate to refer to "mean kids" instead of "mean girls" and make other similar choices. If a story is written well enough, the reader may not notice one way or another. But words can have power, seeping into our psyches, even when we don't notice them. So I'm going to try to do better.

If you're interested in reading "The Wrong Girl," you're in luck. The ebook version of the anthology it's in, Flash and Bang, is half off this month at Smashwords as part of their Christmas in July ebook sale. Go to https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/583654, where you'll be able to pick up the ebook for $2.50.

And before we get to the comments, a little blatant self-promotion: My story "Alex's Choice" from the time-travel/crime anthology Crime Travel was nominated last week for the Macavity Award for best short story published last year. And Crime Travel (which I also edited) was recently nominated for an Anthony Award for best anthology/collection published last year. If you'd like to read "Alex's Choice," it's on my website. If you'd like to read the whole of Crime Travel (which I recommend), you can find the book in trade paperback, hardback, and ebook from lots of bookstores. Stories in Crime Travel have been nominated for the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Macavity, and Shamus awards, so clearly there's a lot in there for you to like.

20 July 2020

Plot versus Character

by Steve Liskow

When I conduct a writing workshop, one of the questions people frequent ask is about the importance of plot versus character. I tell them that it depends.

If you're writing a novel, or maybe even a series, you need to know your main characters very well. These imaginary friends and co-workers need a biography that's complete enough to flesh them out and show what makes them who they are. You need to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and the lines they won't cross well enough to know what they want enough to risk dying for it. If you write mysteries, you need to understand how your protagonist's mind works so he or she can solve your mystery, too. You probably won't bring all this information on stage immediately, and some of it may never show up, but you need to know it. It's how you give your character depth.

If you're writing a series, this bio is even more important because some stuff may not matter until the third or fourth book, or even later. Publishers and agents love, love, love a series.

Lately, I've been moving from novels to short stories, and my thinking is changing, too. Maybe my attention span is waning, or maybe I'm just trying to go faster, but for short stories, it's all about the plot.

Remember, instead of 80K words or more, my short stories average about 4K, roughly 15 pages. Get in, get dirty, get out again. There's less room to present a complex and fleshed-out character. Unless you're trying to sell a story featuring a character from your series--which I've only done two or three times--you rely more on your premise, and that's more apt to guide your plot.

You need a character who will logically find herself in a particular situation. For a short story, once I have a premise, I start typing with generic names and see where those given circumstances lead me. I characterize the protagonist with action and his or her goal instead of with lots of description and back-story (both of which I tell my writing workshop students to leave out). If I go quickly and don't censor or force things, they will lead to the detail I need, and that often provides a plot twist, and maybe even a solution.

Let's say you're writing about a woman who qualifies as a "crazy cat lady." She has eight cats and has hidden her will somewhere in her enormous house. Cats suggest certain ideas: mice, purring, dogs, people who like or dislike them, people who are allergic to them. What if a supporting character loathes cats? What if she likes them but is allergic? Can you use that as a plot point, or even a clue? Maybe. It's a character detail, but it steers your plot. More and more, I discover details that flesh out the plot at the same time they delineate character, and when you get two for the price of one, it's even better.

As I re-wire my brain for short stories, I find that I'm writing them more quickly and maybe having even more fun. I'm fond of a few stories that have rich and complex characters, but several of them have never found a home except on my hard drive. The newer plot-premise stories seem to have more potential markets, so I can send them out with higher hopes.

That's a happy ending.

19 July 2020

Florida… Oh No, Not Again!

Florida postcard
Florida’s bizarre politicians overshadow our usual weird news. But let’s take a stab at the strange.

Gator Cater

West Palm Beach, Florida.  No, I am NOT the guy who reads and sings to calm alligators not receiving their share of tourists. Everyone knows I can’t sing.

Marathon, Florida.  I also deny knowledge of the iguana that wrestled a guy and his bicycle to the ground. A spokesman for the bicycle said…

Tampa, Florida.  Nor do I have anything to do with neighbors preventing access to a landlocked bird sanctuary. (I have sympathy in this case. Orange County politicians turned over a county road to a private cattle company, preventing property owners access to their land.)

Head Honcho

St. Petersburg, Florida.  A jogger found a human head on a grassy knoll. Police confirm it is not that of Governor DeSantis, who is known for having lost his mind but not his head. Yet.

Softball Questioning

Jacksonville, Florida.  A hard-hitting woman batted eyelashes at her police detective boyfriend, who gave her a pass during a murder investigation. They made it beyond third base but not quite home when they were called out.

The Mother of All Gifts

Clearwater, Florida.  We missed reporting on Mother’s Day that a spitting, angry Pinellas County wife beat her husband for remembering and giving her flowers. Uh wait. I’m guessing she didn’t want flowers.

Clearwater, Florida.  Another woman attacked her man with a candy cane. And a brick. And a pen. Somehow after a brick and a yard-size candy cane, a pen doesn’t seem all that much.

Micanopy, Florida.  So her boyfriend, see, well, she was on her phone, actually, and her boyfriend, just sorta, kinda, tripped on air and fell on a knife, twisted it in maybe, and writhed and stabbed himself umpteen times or not and raccoons attacked… No flowers for her Mother’s Day.

Sanford, Florida.  Lest ye think it only women who’ve gone corona-mad, there’s the crazed man who stabbed a roommate then turned on police, screaming something about Satan and worms and… You see? Some normal Florida things still happen.

Deltona, Florida.  We mustn’t forget another man who attacked a roommate who’d kindly made him breakfast. Oh wait. The breakfast chef woke him at 5am. That’s like the middle of the night. Last time someone woke me at 5am, police found me sharpening my teeth.

Another Reason to Close the Bars

Indialantic, Florida.  She just spread the love or a message or coronavirus. Just because she kissed strangers without a mask, was that any reason to stop a sunny welcome?

Try as I might, I can’t seem to get away from COVID-19 stories.

Taking the Cure

Bradenton, Florida.  The Genesis II Church of Health and Healing continued selling their Miracle COVID Cure after a judge ordered them to stop selling industrial bleach for human consumption. This is the same chemical their leader wrote about to President Trump who subsequently claimed this wonderful detox would knock out the coronavirus in one minute. Side effects include heartburn, death…

Fort Myers, Florida.  That guy in Costco, you know, the dude who felt threatened by a 60-some year old lady who asked him to wear a mask… from Florida, of course. He’s a star insurance salesman; you’d think he’d want everyone to masque up.

Holly Hill, Florida.  The Costco guy wasn’t as nasty as the woman who spit into Walmart’s fruit and vegetable bins ruining $350 or so of foods. Because of the corona hoax, of course.

Homestead, Florida.  A couple wanted soooo bad to visit the Florida Keys, but those stupid Keys officials didn’t want to spread that hoaxy COVID and like all illegally tyrant-like keep non-residents out, which is soooo Naziish. Anyway, this freedom-loving couple took a teenager prisoner and forced her to drive through the checkpoint. They struck such a blow for freedom, not the terrified girl’s, of course, but theirs. Except they’re locked up.

Cadillac atop cars
Hernando, Florida.  Local drivers might not be as bad as Boston’s, but how do you drive backwards and park atop other cars? And we don’t even get snow?

Reedy Creek Control District, Florida.  One guy decided to self-quarantine in Walt Disney World. He shacked up on Discovery Island, Disney’s former zoo of sorts before Animal Kingdom.

Gainesville, Florida.  If you live in Florida and someone removes your testicles, you might be a politician. Or an adopted kitten. Who knew a stuffed dragon might not protect you?

Full Blown Politics

Tallahassee, Florida.  At the same time the White House blames poor coronavirus response on the media for too much coronavirus reporting, Florida’s governor blasts the media for too little reporting. Indeed, Governor DeSantis says the press reported nothing about COVID-19 until April, so he assumed all was okay. Which is weird, because like a kidnap hostage, I can hold up copies of the Orlando Sentinel and Miami Herald dated back in January. Doesn’t he know the Keys have been off limits to visitors since 22 March?

Grim Reaper on Florida beach
© Tampa Bay Times and Shorty Awards
Florida is famous for costumed characters and since February, the Grim Reaper has patrolled Florida’s beaches warning visitors about the virus. In March, that Grim Reaper, revealed as Daniel Uhfelder, Esq, sued the Governor’s office to require face masks. So apparently our Governor doesn’t check the news, he also pays no attention to lawsuits.

Earlier this month when I wrote about Florida landing the sad position of Nº 1 and setting new pandemic records every day, I hadn’t expected the Sunshine State to continue setting new records. As one observer put it, if Florida was a separate nation, it would rank among the worst countries on the planet for infections.

Governor DeSantis calls that ‘a blip’. Because, you know, the Black Plague was ‘a bump’ and reporters ‘a bleep’. Such ingrates! Florida has done soooo much to keep the numbers down. Like firing our heroine, Rebekah Jones, the state’s database administrator who revealed Florida’s government was grossly under-reporting cases. And sheriff offices complain that as infection hotspots soared, the state cut off critical information to police agencies including addresses of known outbreaks. And the state ordered medical examiners not to release autopsy data. Because no info, no problems.

Milledgeville, Georgia.  Above our border, Georgia’s Brian “Screw ’em” Kemp is posing a challenge to Florida’s Ron ‘Who Me?’ DeSantis for dumbest governor, but I’m afraid Georgia will have to settle for Miss Uncongeniality. Kemp is suing cities that require masks in public. Because no masks, no problems.

Oh God, the clowns! We’re all gonna die! But keep shaking your head and laughing.

18 July 2020

Stranded During the Pandemic

It's been 22 years since editor Andrew Gulli launched the rebirth of The Strand Magazine, which was originally published in London and turned out 711 monthly issues from 1891 to 1950. The new version is quarterly instead of monthly and published in the U.S., but still includes short fiction by some of the world's best-known writers.

And, occasionally, by me. My latest story there, "Biloxi Bound," is my 19th in The Strand, and its path to publication turned out a little different.


Everything started off as usual. I wrote it the way I write most of my stories: I came up with a plot, I then created a few of what I hoped were interesting characters (six, in this case) to do what needed to be done, I plugged in a couple of storyline reversals (I can't resist that, no matter what), and during the rewriting phase I tried to smooth out any problems that popped up. The whole thing took about three weeks--two weeks of brainstorming and a few days of writing and editing. The writing itself went pretty fast, as it usually does, because I'd spent so much time putting together a mental outline beforehand. As I've said before at this blog, I admire the seat-of-the-pantsers who don't have to bother with all that planning, but this is the way I do it, and the process is actually fun for me.

Anyhow, when I was done with the story I started looking for a place to send it. Stories of mine don't sit around the house long--I kick them out and tell them to go try to make something of themselves. The embarrassing thing is, I always advised my writing students to let their work cool off for a few days or weeks before submitting it . . . but I rarely do that, myself. I probably should. I also told them to do as I say and not as I do.


My first mystery-market choices for this story were the same as always: AHMM, EQMM, The Strand, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, Down & Out: The Magazine, maybe two or three more. There weren't any current anthology calls that seemed to match my story, and Woman's World wasn't a possibility because of the story's length and format. I should mention also that those half-dozen publications that I listed meet all the requirements I think are important. They pay their writers, they reach a lot of readers, and they have editors I know and respect.

If I remember correctly, I chose Strand Magazine for this story because I thought it might be a good fit for them in a couple of ways: subjectwise, it was a modern-day urban crime story with all kinds of gangster involvement and plot twists, and lengthwise, it was about 4800 words (their sweet spot is between 2K and 6K). But one never knows. I had sent The Strand several other stories over the past months that seemed to fit also, and I'd never received any word back about those. In military terms, they were deployed but MIA. Regardless, I had a pretty good feeling about this one, so one morning in mid-February I sent it in and crossed my fingers.


I was pleasantly surprised. The editor emailed me only a few days later, saying he wanted to publish it. The quick turnaround was unusual, but not quite a record; I once had a short story accepted via email two hours after submission to an overseas market (but that's, literally, another story). Record or not, I was pleased. I did find myself wondering, though, which issue this story would wind up in. The acceptance note didn't say. I figured it was too late for it to make The Strand's Feb-May issue (sometimes called the Spring Issue), which usually comes out in early March. The truth is, it didn't matter a lot--I was just happy that the story had found a good home.

As fate would have it, the editor emailed me a day or two later to tell me they had decided to rush my story into the Spring Issue, so it would be on newsstands shortly and I would be getting my contributor's copy right away. Another fast and unexpected turnaround.

And then everything changed.


As the Covid-19 cases appeared and began to spread here in this country, I kept writing and sending out stories as always, but I started noticing delays across the board, at several markets--delays in payments, responses, contributor's copies, subscription copies, anthology edits, and publication of already accepted stories. Especially in the case of my Strand story. I heard nothing more about it or the issue or the magazine for several months. Throughout March, April, May, and most of June, their website and Facebook page continued to say the "current issue" was still the Holiday Issue (Oct-Jan). Once I thought about it, though, I realized the silence wasn't that surprising--The Strand is published in Birmingham, Michigan, and nearby Detroit was hit fairly early and fairly hard by virus outbreaks. I could picture a mostly empty building and a staff struggling to do their work from home.

I certainly didn't inquire about it. I figured the folks at the magazine, and everyone else too, had more to worry about than listening to the whining of an impatient author. I just kept writing other stories and sort of forgot about it.


So I was all the more pleased to see a post at the Strand Facebook page in late June announcing the publication of the delayed Spring Issue. Shortly afterward, from its description on their website, I found that the issue also contains stories by Irish author Eoin Colfer and The Papers of Sherlock Holmes author David Marcum, and a previously unpublished story by Louisa May Alcott. There's also an interview with Alan Furst. I've not yet seen anything except the cover, but I expect my subscription copy and contributor's copy will be here soon. The issue might be on the shelves of my local bookstores right now, for all I know, but I haven't darkened their doors since early March.

As for my story itself, "Biloxi Bound" is a tale about two brothers, Mitch and Danny White, who own and operate a small diner called the White House in an unnamed northeastern city. The problem is, their cafe's neighborhood has become a hotbed of violent crime, and there are even rumors that a Chicago mobster has recently moved into the area. As their business steadily declines, one of the brothers, Danny, comes up with the idea that they should relocate to the relatively obscure (and considerably warmer) Mississippi Gulf Coast, a region that he's heard features wealth and casinos on the one hand and regular old country folks on the other. Mitch agrees; it sounds like a plan. But there's also a growing romantic relationship between Mitch and a mysterious customer at the diner, and--as you might guess with this kind of story--crime arrives in a big way at the White House before the two can make good their escape.

So that's the lowdown on this story and the strange trip it took to get into print. Have the rest of you experienced similar delays or other problems at the markets you work with? Are they still ongoing (the problems, not the markets)? How has that affected you and your literary output? How has the pandemic in general affected your output? If you're isolating yourself, and I hope you are, are you treating that isolation as a rare break from work or a chance to produce even more? I've heard some writer friends say they're writing like never before, and others say they've had writer's block ever since all this began.

In closing, I have a piece of good news. Yesterday afternoon The Strand accepted another of my stories, this one submitted several months ago. Once again they didn't specify when it'll be published, but I'm not complaining. I'm just pleased it got a thumbs-up. I wish all my stories did, the first time out.

As for "Biloxi Bound," if you happen to read it I hope you'll like it. With the world as it is, you might see it before I do.

Wait a second. Was that the mailman I just heard . . . ?

17 July 2020

Excessive Force

I've see it since the 1960s when I first went into law enforcement. Cops beating up people. How did Steinbeck put it in The Grapes of Wrath? – "Whenever there's a cop beatin' up a guy."

During the 1968 Democratic Party Convention, we witnessed Chicago police attacking demonstrators. It became known as 'The Chicago Police Riot'. Recently, demonstrations in the streets have triggered more police rioting. It is a horrible sight.

When you assemble heavily-armored police officers and put them in direct proximity with protestors, the cops adopt a mob mentality. They act like a mob and used the tools provided to intimidate and attack with tear gas, pepper spray, tasers, nightsticks, pepper balls, rubber bullets, while uttering the mantra taught in police training classes, "Quit resisting." They will use deadly force uttering their other montra, "I was afraid for my life."

When will police chiefs see this? When will mayors and governors see this? When will they see the videos of officers beating unarmed protestors and immediately identify these officers, fire them and arrest them? When an officer beats an unarmed and peaceful protestor with a nightstick, the officer is committing a crime and should be arrested. Excessive force is a crime. Excessive force with a weapon is aggravated assault and aggravated battery.

We've all seen it on cell phone cameras. If you doubt me, go on twitter, go on facebook and other social networks and see the brutality of heavily armed police officers beating people.

Police officers are allow to use force to overcome resistance but not to punish people, torture people. They are torturing American citizens with no accountability.

It is not just bad cops. It's systemic. It's a terrible mindset, a deep exaggeration of US against THEM. Not US against law breakers, but US meaning the police and THEM meaning everyone else.

I joined law enforcement twice in my lifetime. In the 1970s, I went through an excellent police academy which taught us the laws were were to enforce and how to be peace officers. In the 21st Century, I became a police officer again, joined an American law enforcement community far more akin to the military training I received in the US Army than any prior police experience. No longer peace officers, these law enforcement officers were trained to punish people, hurt people.

And now, I'm retired and look back and –

silence is not an option
I feel a great sadness
sometimes, tears well in my eyes as I see my fellow officers beathing people unmercifully
with nightsticks
hitting them with tear gas and pepper spray and tasers
eager to inflict pain
on peaceful protestors who are in someone's way
we are the police
we are not Nazi storm troopers
we are peace officers
take off your riot gear
dress like a cop
you're not in the military
if someone gives you an illegal order
don't do it
if the streets get blocked, go another way
let them demonstrate
they don't live in the street
they will leave
if someone breaks things
move in and stop the breaking
if you can
go an apprehend
you don't beat them
don't commit a crime against a person because of a crime against property 
let them say, "horray for our side"
don't automatically take the other side
we're not supposed to take sides
we're supposed to keep the peace
not attack nonviolent citizens
these are our people
they are us
Americans like you and me
if this was 1775, would you be so eager to wear British red
would you attack Americans pulling down a stature of King George III
if this was 1861, would be eager to wear gray
would you attack men in blue
men fighting under the star and stripes
how could you fight to keep people enslaved
how could you wave their flag, wear their paraphernalia, think of them as anything but traitors
I feel a great sadness
sometimes, tears well in my eyes

Since this is a writer's blog, I'd like to report how I am still asked, "Where do you get your ideas?"

My new answer is this –

"I hear voices. In my head. Female voices. In Portuguese. I have to get an interpreter."

That's all for now.