26 August 2020


From March through August is a long time to have a void in your socializing. It's enough to make you start talking to strangers in a park, regardless of what your mother told you about not doing that sort of thing.

The situation finally got so bad that one morning the wife and I decided to hit the drive-up at Starbuck's for coffee and lemon bread snacks. Of course, the people in line behind whoever is being served at the window tend to get a little perturbed if you pause for very long to converse with the window employee, so we soon knew it was time for us to move along. Now, we needed a place to enjoy our morning coffee. This led us to a nice, little, hidden-away park with some elbow room and a beautiful view of nature. A place called Fox Run.

We had barely settled in at a metal picnic table, sipped our coffee and opened our sealed packets of lemon bread, when a young fellow with camera and long lens walked up and inquired if he could use the far end of the table for a short while. Well, I had my large, red, Harley bandanna down around my neck and my wife had her surgical mask off so we could eat and drink in comfort, but it was a large table with plenty of room for social distancing, so we told him to go ahead and use it.

Naturally, one thing led to another and a conversation ensued. It started with cameras and photography. On this particular day, he was shooting photos of the turtles in the upper lake. That led to the usual where are you from, where did you go to college and what kind of work do you do. After all my years of subtly interrogating people as a Special Agent, I don't mind asking questions, and I've found that most people like talking about themselves if you can once get them started. Strangely enough, they get so involved talking about themselves that few of them ask questions back.

We soon found he was an artist painting in the abstract style and had also tried his hand at a little writing. We then had an interesting conversation on such topics as creativity and inspiration. At the end, we swapped get-in-touch information and went our separate ways.

Michael DePalma is his name.

WALKS -in the Goddess series
Over the next couple of weeks, I went to his two websites:http://www.waveformexpressionism.com/and http://www.thewaveformexpressionist.net/ . And, while I know very little about painting and the techniques involved, not to mention the various styles, I do know if something is pleasing to my eye. If we had the money to buy paintings, the wife and I would now be owners of a couple of Michael's paintings which spoke to our artistic interests one way or another.

In some of Michael's blog articles, I found pieces on inspiration, writer's block, creativity and other topics of interest for writers. For myself, I have always found it interesting and motivating to discuss creativity with someone in one of the other branches of the Fine Arts. It seems that the inspiration and creative process in other branches is often comparable to what writers go through for a completed manuscript. It is all art in different forms.

But, like all in the Fine Arts, success is a pyramid with limited room at the top for only a few artists (writers/musicians/actors/etc.) to make big money. Artists are lucky if they can even be high enough on the pyramid to make a living. Some don't become successful and their works valuable until after they are dead and gone, as if they were just then discovered. For many of us writers, it's a good thing we have a steady income, or 9 to 5, or even a retirement pension to pay the bills while we create. For those who don't have that safety net to fall back on, it can be an insecure world.

So what we have here, is a graduate from a prestigious university who is trying to exist on his creative talents, but still needs to live on more than thin air. What he is looking for now, is a job in the graphic arts field where he can put his creative talents to good use.

Check out his two websites, observe his artistic talent and read some of his blog articles. Then, if you like what you see and happen to know of an opening in the field of graphic arts, e-mail him through one of his two websites. Or, if you wish to remain anonymous, send the info to me and I'll pass it on to Michael.

In the meantime, keep on creating.

25 August 2020

The Next Best Thing to Being There

We’re all hunkered down these days under house arrest. Some people are binging on Netflix, others catching up on all the cute cat videos they’ve missed. Others still are too anxious to do much of anything productive. I’m lucky in that my life hasn’t changed all that much on a day to day basis since I’ve worked at home for ages. I still walk the dog/s. Do my writing. Listen to music. Watch the old black and white movies that I love. Read. The one big change is that my wife’s been working at home since March. Luckily we seem to get along. Blame that on her more than me 😉.

But, as writers there have been some changes, most notably that in-person events have been cancelled. Most of the conventions and conferences that we enjoy have been zapped, Bouchercon, West Coast Crime (right in the middle of the actual convention), and others. In-store book events and launches have largely disappeared for now. But we live in an age of new-fangled thingies, an amazing age, an age of the internet, Zoom, Skype and other modern marvels.

My virtual acceptance speech for Ellery Queen Readers Award

So, the other day, as I was doing a Zoom panel for a writer’s conference, it dawned on me how cool it is to be able to do this. Not all that long ago it couldn’t have happened because the technology wasn’t there. With something like the Covid pandemic the event would just have disappeared. But with Zoom, Skype and others they just sort of morph into something virtual.

Since the lockdown began I’ve done several Zoom events. I haven’t yet hosted one though I’m thinking about doing that for the Coast to Coast: Noir anthology that I co-edited that’s coming out in September. That will be a new learning curve. But before that I had to learn how to Zoom as a guest. It’s not hard – and it’s really cool and fun. I also did a short (non-Zoom) video for Ellery Queen on coming in second in their readers poll since they, too, cancelled their in-person event in NYC. And I’ve done several panels and interviews and even virtual doctor appointments. As I write this a bit ahead of its posting date just a few days ago I did a Skype interview for a radio station in England. Could we have done that even twenty years ago? Maybe by phone, but with much more difficulty and expense.

E-flyer from Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles first House Arrest virtual reading
Remember long distance phone calls (and long distance could virtually be just across the street in some cases). They were ridiculously expensive. You’d call the operator before your call and request “time and charges,” then when the call was over the operator would call you back and tell you how long the call lasted and how much it cost. And you’d get sticker shock.

The "good old days".
In the near last minute my wife suggested doing a virtual launch for The Blues Don’t Care in June since there were no in person events happening. So we had to scramble to figure out how to do that. We weren’t sure if we should try Zoom or another service or stick to the old standby (yeah ‘old’ standby) of Facebook, which is what we ended up doing. And it turned out better than I had expected. We had a big group of people and questions flying back and forth. Plus I’d toss out tidbits of info on various things related to events that took place in the novel, like the gambling ships that lay off the SoCal coast back in the day. It was fun, if a little hectic, and I think people enjoyed it.

So we make do as best we can. And we don’t have to shower or drive to get to our meetings 😉. It’s also kind of cool to just see someone when you’re talking one to one with Zoom or Skype or other services. My wife’s family reunion was cancelled this year because of Covid but her and some of her cousins get together semi-regularly with each other via Zoom. Like they used to say, it’s the next best thing to being there.

So what’s next? Virtual reality meetings? Holograms? Mind-melding? Beam me up Scotty! There seem to be no limits to technology, but there is still something to be said for meeting people face to face. Standing close enough to whisper something, closer than 6 feet apart. Laughing, talking, sharing good food (and drink!) and good stories. So until we can do those things again, at least we have the virtual world, which is the next best thing.


And now for the usual BSP:

I want to thank Living My Best Book Life for this great review of The Blues Don’t Care. Here’s an excerpt and a link to the full review:

"The Blues Don't Care by Paul D. Marks is a mysterious historical fiction set in the WWII time period. It tackles topics like corruption, racism, and many others that we are still facing today. I was taken aback by Paul D. Marks's talented writing style. This story is powerful and Paul did a wonderful job developing his main character, Bobby Saxon...

…I was captivated from the very start. This author tackled so many subjects that few care to bring up. The detail of the story gave me an insight on all the injustices in the 1940's. I appreciated the heart of the story; a person chasing their dream and never looking back. Bobby Saxon is a well-developed character that was able to learn, grow, and hone in on his craft. There is a main secret of Bobby's that I didn't see coming. This is such a fascinating historical fiction that I thoroughly enjoyed!”


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

24 August 2020

The Joys of Writing Alone

Some writers do their best work on their laptops in busy coffee shops. You can see them keyboarding away, latte, chai, or simple tea or coffee forgotten at their elbow as they take dictation from those voices in their heads that we all love to hear.

I am not one of them. I need silence and better than silence. I need solitude, and the more absolute the solitude is, the more easily I write.

I know I’m lucky in that I have ample access to privacy for writing. It’s not exactly Virginia Woolf’s “room of her own,” but in some ways it’s even better. It’s been twenty years since my last day job, and my other career is online and intermittent in nature. My husband still goes off to work every weekday, or did till the pandemic. And when he’s home, he’s usually at the computer in his room of his own with his headphones on. The rest of the apartment is mine.

In the summer months, I have the country house. The whole house, because my husband hates the country. It’s a tiny house, eight hundred square feet total. But it’s all mine.

As for children, that perennial drain on women’s writing time especially, my little boy is fifty with a family of his own. So when other women writers yearn for writing retreats and time alone, rejoice in a week or even a weekend away from the everyday lives that make writing such a challenge, I know how lucky I am.

Am I complaining anyway? Not exactly. I’m blogging. Complaining entertainingly is one of the basic categories of blogging. To complain entertainingly about one’s spouse (in case you’ve never heard this priceless writing tip) is to mine a particularly rich vein.

My husband and I have been together for almost forty-five years. He knows that interruption breaks my concentration. He’s been told that once a train of thought has been broken, that particular thought, that exquisite turn of phrase, that connection—especially crucial in plotting a mystery or building an emotional scene—may be lost forever.

And yet he interrupts. He asks me if I have clothes for the laundry. He’s a good man. He doesn’t ask me to do the laundry. He asks me what I want for dinner. Again, good writer’s husband that he is, he doesn’t ask me to make dinner. He knows I’m writing. But he’s still interrupting. Sometimes, what he interrupts to tell me isn’t practical at all. It’s something he’s brimming over with that he simply has to share. He’s so filled with the fascination of it that he forgets I’m writing and mustn’t be interrupted.

“Do you know that Frederick the Great called Maria Theresa the only mensch in Austria?”

Yes, dear, you’ve mentioned it before. You’re an original, and it's lovable, but I need you to control it when I’m in the midst of transferring a brilliant thought that no one’s ever had before and that I’ll never have again from my brain to the computer.

He’s gotten better at not talking to me when I’m writing. Unfortunately, this isn’t good enough. He tiptoes past. Tiptoeing is still interrupting. Sometimes he stops halfway through the room. He breathes. Doesn’t he know how disruptive breathing is? I’ll throw out a hand and bark, “WRITING!” My fragile and irreplaceable thought is already at risk. But if he’ll just go away, maybe I can retrieve it. No way. He says, “Sorry!” In other words, he finds a way to exacerbate the interruption.

When he’s out of the house, I can get some serious writing done. But the hours are limited by his schedule. First, I have to wait for him to get up. My creative thinking time in bed used to be nil because he thought 9 am was “the crack of dawn.” He’s had a major lifestyle change, so he now gets up at 5 am and goes for a power walk in the park. This helps. But I still have to wait till nine or later for him to leave for work before I can focus on my writing. And once he comes home, that’s it. There’s the key in the lock. The big sigh. And my Woolfian “apartment of my own” is gone for the day.

I know it makes a difference because the 24/7 solitude I get when I’m alone in the country has an entirely different rhythm. If I wake up at 4 am and find I’m still awake at 4:15 with Bruce or Rachel talking in my head, I turn on the light and find my slippers and go turn on the laptop and and let them take over. No one interrupts the flow by saying, “What time is it?” or “Are you okay?” Sometimes having an idea at four in the morning is like carrying a basket of eggs. You don’t want anyone to jostle your elbow until you’ve had a chance to set it down.

It’s the same for the rest of the day. I’m not talking about the time I’ve already set aside to write. But if I think I’m done, and then Bruce or Rachel starts talking again, I can reorder my priorities and go back to the computer without consulting anyone. If it’s 6 pm and I’m about to put dinner in the preheated oven, I can turn off the oven. No one says, “What about dinner?” If I’m still going strong at 11 pm, no one says, “Come to bed.”

I don’t need this unlimited freedom all the time, especially since I’m writing short stories rather than a novel these days. But it’s heavenly to have it for three months. And it’s wonderful—I do know this!—to have a husband whose wife the writer drives him crazy—the secret of a successful marriage is knowing that it's a trip for two, not one, to the loony bin—but who also understands.

23 August 2020

Small Claims 1

Leigh in pod capsule
“Open the pod door, Hal.”

“I’m sorry, Leigh. I can’t do that.”

“Hal, open the door.”

“Nope, sorry, no can do.”

“Hal, open the ¡@#$%£¢†€‡ door!”

“D’accord, Dave. It’s open.”

“Name’s Leigh, and no, it isn’t.”





“You can’t make me. Nyaa-nya-na-na-nah-nahhh.”

Geek Chic

This was not a conversation from 2001, but one in my own house in 2019. The name Hal has been changed to protect the guilty.

I’ve been upgrading my house with security features and smart home automation. Devices hooked up thus far include several lights and lamps, entry locks and garage doors, ceiling fans, air conditioner, water heater, thermostats, entertainment center, security cameras, a robot, a NAS storage device, and a number of talk-to-the-pod gadgets and displays.

My friend Thrush and I installed most of these as inexpensive, tinker toy, erector set, do-it-yourself doodads. I’ve avoided big, brand name products, which are less fun and très cher. They’re also proprietary– they might reject third party add-ons or charge you subscription fees to maintain connectivity to your products after the first year.

But, for a critical component, I deviated from the DIY rule. It was not cheap. I bought the latest name brand thingamajig from a well-regarded manufacturer, the latter part of a $2.2-billion conglomerate with $2.5-billion in home automation and security sales. Also, *gasp* I paid for dealer installation instead of assembling it myself. I had to wait two months for the initial product to roll off the assembly line. I’m also well aware of ‘bleeding edge’ technology, but with an engineer and a couple of software gurus on the premises, how risky could it be?

As it turns out… there’s a reason I’ve not mentioned the product and brand name– I signed a settlement agreement not to. After a multitude of ‘Hal’ interactions not unlike the above, I sought remedies.

What Could Go Wrong? Wrong? Wrong?

The device would not obey Apple, Android, or Google demands. It often reported contrary information, e.g, it claimed the device was on when it wasn’t, and vice versa. Worse, I couldn’t tell it to turn on the doohickey because it thought it already on, and I couldn’t tell it to turn off the box because it was already off. The only solution was to reboot.

Mashing the on/off buttons often proved fruitless. I pictured some poor schlep in California helplessly watching his kitchen devices cycling on an off, his lights flashing, and his garage door bouncing up and down thanks to a signal routed from Florida.

Meanwhile, lights would go on and doors would unlock and open at three in the morning. Picture Captain Kirk slamming face first into Enterprise doors that abruptly open and close. Fortunately the blast from the rudely awakened entertainment center frightened away any curious burglars.

Internet capability either wasn’t installed or it refused to work. Even if internet had been fully functional, it was poorly designed. If the internet was down (as mine constantly is!), their version of software couldn’t operate the device. You’d have to get out in the rain to open doors and turn on lights, even if you had electricity.

I’d purchased battery backup that of course spectacularly failed. I’m hard pressed to think of anything that did work. Believe me, the situation was so much worse than I’m allowed to describe.

The Consumer’s Fault School of Customer Support

So call tech support, right? Exercise my warranty and call the installer too?

The first techie admitted they didn’t yet have manuals and guidelines, but agreed the unit wasn’t behaving as promised in promotions, including expensive video ads. He'd request a replacement.

Then the second guy I’ll call Dan, but his real name is Butthead. He aggressively began by insisting nothing could be wrong with the device. He said I expected behavior it wasn’t intended to do. Dan dismissed the lack of functionality as a misreading of their advertising. This ‘gentleman’ (Sarcasm cleanup on aisle 4) told me I was annoying, nasty, and abusive. (I never was, but we’ll return to that.) Joining in with the installer, Dan accused me of cheating his company and trying to get something for nothing. From there on out, he fielded subsequent incoming calls and refused to forward me to either the original tech guy or their boss.

People's Court Judge Marilyn Milian
Wow. Not only did I pay out $2500, but failure of the device was sucking $100 a month out of my (personal) micro-economy. Details might violate the settlement confidentiality agreement, but the point is that the device was slowly bleeding me.

Believe me, I’ve understated the problems. So what’s an American boy to do? I sued. I took the $2.2-billion conglomerate to small claims court.

Wait! What is she ➡︎ doing here?

In a subsequent article, I’ll explain my experience and offer tips to anyone considering this route. See you in two weeks!

22 August 2020

The Case for Award Juries (why checklists are not enough)

I was once on a jury for a major award with the late, great Ed Hoch.  We did the usual thing; each of us read the entries and came back with a longlist of 10 and a shortlist of 5, and then met by phone and email to discuss our choices.

I was shocked to find that my number one story - the one I thought was a shoe-in for the award - was not even on Ed's top five list.  (It was on his top ten.)

When I stated my dismay about this story not making his shortlist, Ed said two words.

"Convince me."

And so I did.  I pointed out the brilliance of the setting - a near perfect depiction of a famous train - The Canadian - racing through the Rocky Mountains.  You could feel the train moving, hear the squeal of wheels on track.  I pointed out that the plot was unique.  No, it didn't have car crashes like the typical thrillers that win. This was a locked door mystery - one of those clever, quiet stories that led to a smiler at the end.  I had never read that plot before, and neither had he, he admitted.

"You've convinced me," he said.  And it went on our top five list.

A similar thing happened when my book, The Goddaughter's Revenge, won two major awards in 2014.  After the Arthur Ellis ceremony, one of the jury members told me that there was some discussion about whether a caper with no gravitas should be considered for the top spot, even if "deliciously unique."  But one of the jurors pointed out there was indeed a darkly deeper theme in the book:  You are supposed to love and support your family, but what if your family is this one?  How far do you go, and no farther?

It's true that Gina Gallo, a mob goddaughter, struggles with this in every book.  She won't cross a line.  But what is that line?

After jury discussion, it was a unanimous decision.  The book won the award.

We can argue that a book shouldn't need to be serious to win awards.  There are numerous subgenres of crime writing, and surely heists can be written as well and be as entertaining as noir thrillers.  If not, why do we even bother to let them enter?

However, my point is this.  In both cases, jury discussion was necessary for these two stories to reach the podium.  If we went strictly by a checklist point system, with no discussion by juries, we risk the chance that some excellent stories would be lost to consideration.

Ed Hoch reminded me that jury discussion is valuable.  In discussing the merits of a story with others, we see things we may not have seen before.  This is a huge reason why we discuss stories in schools and universities.  Why have profs like me, in classrooms leading discussions, if sending everyone my lecture notes would accomplish the same thing?  Discussion is where the magic happens.

I would say the same for award juries.  Just like in a classroom, discussion adds richness to our comprehension.  Our appreciation of an entry can increase ten-fold by listening to what other jurors find in a story that we might have missed.

Checklists alone can never do that.

Melodie Campbell writes seriously funny capers that have won some awards.  She didn't even steal them.  Available at all the usual suspects.    www.melodiecampbell.com

21 August 2020

Travel Bug

You always want what you can't have.

When it comes to this old adage, I'm no exception. There's a lot that we can't have right now:
  • Hugs.
  • A morning spent writing in a cafe surrounded by the cheerful din of other coffee-drinking patrons.
  • The concert-on-the-lawn that I had tickets to attend tonight, but is now rescheduled for August 2021.
  • Browsing the book collection inside my local library.
  • Even a day so normal, that before last March I would've found it downright boring. Now, I'd consider it blissful.

I'm guessing I'm not the only one missing the old ways. Am I right? But, do you know what I really miss most?

Travelling abroad.

Back in my take-on-the-world twenties, I was bitten by the travel bug. Big time. There was something about wandering unknown-to-me streets, meeting new people, eating exotic meals, and exploring a country with my backpack, a map, colorful currency notes, and my dogeared multi-language translation dictionary that gave me a rush. I thrived on the adventure.

Four continents, thirty-seven countries, and countless foreign cities, towns, and villages later, I'd collected so many border-control stamps, the American Embassy in Prague added pages to my passport. Those were heady days.

Then came grad school back across The Pond, a mortgage, and kids...you know the story. My urban-trekking days became a thing of the past. I'd traded schlepping my backpack for a diaper bag.

Until...I started writing suspense fiction.

While I didn't fully resurrect my globe-trotting days again (I wish!), I've learned to virtually immerse myself in a new culture without leaving my town. I nerd-out on combing through satellite images of foreign cities, watching subtitled/dubbed movies, checking out documentaries, eating--and sometimes even attempting to cook--the traditional foods, reading travel books, blogs,  fiction written by local authors, and regional history books to learn historical context and evolution. I've listened to language-on-tape lessons and interviewed people from there and friends who recently traveled to my setting.

For the most part, I've conducted my travel research with a potential crime story in mind, usually contemporary. A few years ago, though, I wanted to write a story depicting the intoxicating days of Prague Spring, which restored freedoms to an oppressed people. It didn't last long. At midnight on August 21, 1968 (exactly fifty-two years ago today!), 5,000 Soviet tanks rolled across the borders to occupy then-Czechoslovakia and reinstate hard-line communism. The Czechoslovakians took to the streets to protest. Unsuccessfully. It would take another twenty-three years before they would finally free themselves from Soviet rule.

Despite having lived in Prague for three years and cultivating an understanding of a people who had suffered generations of oppression, I had much to learn about the circumstances surrounding Prague Spring. I'd only been an infant that summer of 1968, so even my Czech peers didn't have a living memory of the invasion or the soul-crushing aftermath.  So, I dug in hard to learn as much as I could. In all of my Prague Spring research, two videos I found online were particularly influential in helping me shape my story:

Thus, my short story of historical suspense was born. It was Romeo and Juliet set amid the crushing events that ended Prague Spring.  "Czech Mate" was published in Malice Domestic's MYSTERY MOST GEOGRAPHICAL (Wildside Press, 2018).  You can read my story here.

My current crime fiction research is taking me to Italy and Russia.  Where would you like to visit (virtually or in real life)?

PS ~ Let's be social:

20 August 2020

It's Better to Travel, Part Deux

Those who hold the highest posts under the Sultan are very often the sons of shepherds and herdsmen, and, so far from being ashamed of their birth, they make it a subject of boasting, and the less they owe to their forefathers and to the accident of birth, the greater is the pride which they feel. They do not consider that good qualities can be conferred by birth or handed down by inheritance, but regard them partly as the product of good training and constant toil and zeal. Just as they consider that an aptitude for the arts, such as music or mathematics or geometry, is not transmitted to a son and heir, so they hold that character is not hereditary, and that a son does not necessarily resemble his father, but his qualities are divinely infused into his bodily frame. Thus, among the Turks, dignities, offices, and administrative posts are the rewards of ability and merit; those who are dishonest, lazy, and slothful never attain to distinction, but remain in obscurity and contempt. This is why the Turks succeed in all that they attempt and are a dominating race and daily extend the bounds of their rule.

                                                                  — Turkish Letters, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq

Turkish Janissaries

Last time around I posted about the potential good travel writing has for providing writers of historical mystery with background material capable of providing color, flavor and context. In this post I highlighted the work of such storied "modern" travel writers as William Dalrymple and Patrick Leigh Fermor. This time around I would like to introduce you, the reader, to a man born nearly five hundred years ago, and the letters he wrote home from a diplomatic posting. These were more than letters, though. Travelogues constituted a popular literary form in sixteenth century Western Europe, and as such, they sparked public interest and consistently sold well. Especially those written about places far from the reader's home. And in the 1590s, when these letters were published in book form, the Ottoman Empire and its capitol city of Constantinople (Modern-day Istanbul) might as well have been the Moon, for all the familiarity most Western Europeans had with them.  Thus, these letters form nothing short of a treasure trove of background info for writers interested in exploiting them as a resource.

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522—1592)
Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522—1592)
Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq was born in 1522 in Flanders, which nowadays is split between the countries of Belgium and France, but at the time was a part of the Holy Roman Empire (which, as the philosopher once said, "was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire." Discuss!).  He was the illegitimate son of Georges Ghiselin, Seigneur ("Lord") de Busbecq, a Flemish nobleman who, like his own father before him, had a long and distinguished career as a diplomat.

Busbecq quickly showed an aptitude for languages which resulted in his father sending him to study in the Netherlands, with an eye toward a career in diplomatic service. Busbecq's illegitimacy did not seem to particularly hinder his career, although reading the quote which leads this post with the knowledge that it was written by someone who only became his father's legitimate heir at the age of 25, by act of the Austrian Habsburg emperor whom both men served, Ferdinand I does provide context as to his feelings about the then-uncontroversial notion of blood mattering more than ability amongst Europe's ruling elites and the nobility which served them.

Charles de l'Ecluse
In fact, Busbecq goes on to favorably contrast the Turkish court emphasis on advancement through meritwith the European obsession with favoring certain bloodlines over others. He wrote:

Our method is very different; there is no room for merit, but everything depends on birth; considerations of which alone open the to high official position. On this subject I shall perhaps say more in another place, and you must regard these remarks as intended for your ears only.

These remarkable statements were originally written as part of a series of long letters addressed to his friend the doctor and botanist Charles de l'Ecluse, while Busbecq was serving the emperor as his ambassador to the Ottoman Turkish court in Constantinople for two separate periods during the 1550s and 1560s. And while he writes about these statements being "intended for your ears only," it is difficult to square this statement with the fact that Busbecq himself saw to it that all four of these very long, highly detailed letters were published in a single volume over two decades later, towards the end of his life, and after he had retired from Habsburg service.

Statue of Suleiman the Magnificent in Trabzon
The Habsburgs and the Ottomans were at war during much of Busbecq's sojourns at the Sublime Porte, struggling over Hungary and Vienna itself, which the current Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, very nearly captured at the beginning of his forty-six year reign. This rendered Busbecq's position in the capitol precarious at best, and he spent most of his time there as a virtual prisoner under house arrest, only attending at court when called to do so.

But Busbecq's writings reveal him to have been an intelligent man with a deep and abiding curiosity both about the Turks and about the culture and natural history of the region they ruled–a region most Europeans only ever heard about. So he wrote about it.

Busbecq wrote about everything. Housing, clothing styles, the rampant corruption and culture of acceptable bribery which greased the skids of the "meritocratic" society he so lauded elsewhere in his writing. And Busbecq is credited with importing both the tulip and the angora goat back to his homeland (his friend l'Ecluse is credited with acclimating the tulip bulb to Northern Europe's colder, wetter climate). There is also some suggestion that Busbecq is responsible for exporting the lily to Northern Europe as well, but it's unclear whether that is true.

Tulip Festival at the Sultanahmet Mosque Park, April, 2008

Busbecq's writing is also replete with descriptions of the animals he acquired and kept with him at his house in Constantinople: bears, wolves, mules, weasels, deer, monkeys, and a pig. There are also countless stories which detail the workings of the Turkish capitol, such as the one he tells of how sailors would set parts of the city on fire so that they could get paid to work as firefighters run throughout his narrative.

Modern view of Istanbul (Constantinople) from across the Golden Horn at Sunset

He goes into some detail describing the city (modern day Istanbul) itself, saying of it: 

As for the site of the city itself, it seems to have been created by nature for the capital of the world. It stands in Europe but looks out over Asia, and has Egypt and Africa on its right. Although these latter are not near, yet they are linked to the city owing to ease of communication by sea. On the left lie the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, round which many nations and into which many rivers flow on all sides, so that nothing useful to man is produced which cannot be transported by sea to Constantinople with the utmost ease. On one side the city is washed by the Sea of Marmara; on another side with a harbour formed by a river which [the ancient Greek geographer] Strabo calls, from its shape, the Golden Horn. On the third side it is joined to the mainland, and thus resembles a peninsula or promontory running out with the sea on one side, on the other the bay formed by the sea and the above-mentioned river. From the centre of Constantinople there is a charming view over the sea and the Asiatic Olympus, white with eternal snow.

Not on the menu in 1550s Turkey

In writing of Turkish customs Busbecq gives the reader wonderfully useful details such as: "I may mention in passing that a Turk would rather have his tongue cut out or his teeth drawn, than taste any food which he looks upon as unclean—frogs, for example, and snails and tortoises." And this about Turks and alcohol: "The drinking of wine is regarded by the Turks as a serious crime, especially among the older men; the younger men can commit the sin with greater hope of pardon and excuse. They think, however, that the punishment which they will suffer in a future life will be just as heavy whether they drink much or little, and so, if they taste wine, they drink deep; the punishment being already deserved, they incur no additional penalty, and they count their drunkenness as all to the good."

Busbecq's curiosity led him to ask probing questions everywhere. On his journey through Ottoman territory in the Balkans on his way to Constantinople, he noticed that many of the buildings had vast quantities of wadded up pieces of paper stuffed into the chinks in their masonry. 

Another of Busbecq's exports to Western Europe: the Angora Goat

So he asked about it, and after being put off repeatedly, several of his Turkish guides confirmed for him that the Turks held a great reverence for paper, because "the name of God may be written upon it." And further, "so they never allow a scrap of paper to lie about, and immediately pick up any that they find and thrust it into some hole or cranny, in order that it may not be trodden underfoot," because they believed that on "the day of the Last Judgement, when Muhammed summons the faithful to heaven from the purgatory where they are being punished for their sins, in order that they may partake of eternal bliss, the only path on which they can tread will be a huge white-hot gridiron, over which they must pass with bare feet."

White Lily

Paper, Busbecq relates, can save soles (pun intended), because, "all the paper which they have preserved from being trampled underfoot in the manner we have described will suddenly make its appearance and adhere to the soles of their feet and serve them well by preventing them from receiving any hurt from the hot iron." How such paper will avoid bursting into flames upon contact with said white hot gridiron, Busbecq does not tell us.

There is much more to say about this riveting account of the life of a 16th century Flemish diplomat during his sojourn among a truly alien culture. And it's well worth a look. You can find it here or in a free online version (which is a pain to read: you're better off paying for it), here.

And that's all for me this time. See you in two weeks!

19 August 2020

Heard Any Crimes Lately?

About three years ago (back before retirement and COVID, when time still had meaning) I discovered a very cool service available through my public library.  LIBBY provides access to thousands of ebooks and audiobooks.  Quite possibly your local library offers it or a similar service.  What I want to talk about here are some of the audiobooks I have listened to; specifically examples where the performance by the narrator improved the experience with the books for me.  I have listed the first book in each series.

Joe Ide, IQ.  Narrated by Sullivan Jones.  At the New Author's Breakfast at a Bouchercon each writer had two minutes to explain their new book.  The most memorable performance was by former screenwriter Joe Ide whose entire speech was: "IQ is Sherlock in the hood.  Thank you."  That's what the movie business calls "high concept."

 The IQ series stars Isaiah Quintabe, a brilliant young African-American man in LA who serves as an unofficial private eye.  They are excellent.

The novels have dozens of characters with different accents and vocabularies.  Sullivan Jones makes them come alive.

Alan Bradley,  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Narrated by Jayne Entwhistle.   Flavia de Luce is an eleven year old girl in 1950, the youngest daughter of a landed (but no longer wealthy) family.  She drives her sisters crazy because she is brilliant, curious, inclined to pranks, and obsessed with her chemistry lab, left over from a long dead relative.

Jayne Entwhistle perfectly captures Flavia's gleeful and dangerous enthusiasm - especially when she is describing poisons in loving detail. 

Dorothy L. Sayers.  Whose Body?  Narrated by Ian Carmichael.  I don't think I need to explain who Sayers is.  Carmichael played Lord Peter Wimsey on television and he doesn't so much read these books as perform them.  Delightful.

John Le Carre.  Agent Running in the Field.  Narrated by the author. At age 87 Le Carre has not only provided a new tale of espionage but also gave us his own reading of it.  The hero is an over-the-hill spy, freshly returned from decades of managing agents overseas.  As he is trying to adjust to running a small hatch of not-very-good analysts in London, he  meets Ed, a gruff, antisocial young man who shares his passion for badminton.  We know Ed is going to get tied up in the spy business but don't know how.  This is not one of Le Carre's best, but it has a few moments that are utterly jaw-dropping.

Anthony Horowitz.  The Word is Murder.  Narrated by Rory Kinnear.  Horowitz created Foyle's War and wrote many episodes of Midsomers Murders.  In this series he is the narrator, and gets invited to serve as Watson to Daniel Hawthorne, a truly annoying ex-cop, now serving as a consultant to the police on difficult cases.  The plots are truly mindboggling and Rory Kinnear does a good job of distinguishing between Anthony and Daniel. 

And a few different experiences available from Libby...

Raymond Chandler, the BBC Radio Radio Drama Collection.  Sure, Chandler spent some of his developmental years in Britain, but that's no excuse for us depending on Old Blighty for creating this excellent collection of radio plays based on all seven of the Marlowe novels, plus The Poodle Springs Mystery, which was finished by Robert B. Parker. 

Biggest surprise for me was Playback, which I had never read, because I had heard it was terrible. I enjoyed it more than The High Window.

Toby Stephens stars as Phillip Marlowe.  I assume that, like him, the rest of the cast is British. But, boy, they have the accents perfect.

Black Mask Audio Magazine.  Stories from the classic hardboiled periodical.  Some are read, some are acted out.  Great fun.

And one more I highly recommend, although it is not crime fiction.

Hilary Mantel.  Wolf Hall.  Mantel's trilogy of novels tells the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's bag man.   It is a stunning tour de force.  On Libby each of the three books has a different narrator.  I prefer Simon Slater, who did the first. 

18 August 2020

The Rocky Writing Process

As I write this a few days before it appears, I have five full short-story manuscripts atop my desk. This is unusual. A full manuscript is usually only a thorough proofreading away from being finished and submitted, and I rarely let more than a few days pass before that happens.
I completed full drafts of all five stories within the past month, and they remain unfinished due to some small, niggling doubt about each one. I’ve been struggling to determine what it is about each story that suggests it isn’t ready, or I’ve pinpointed the problem but not the solution.
For example, the first story is set in the 1940s, and I glossed over an event late in the story that deserves more than the few sentences I devoted to it. It deserves a complete scene, but to write the scene I need to research train engines of the time period and I need information about a specific train station. So, I am at the moment stymied by lack of research.
Another story is set partially in the 1930s and partially today. The portion set in the 1930s is fine as is; the portion set today reaches an unsatisfying conclusion. I’m uncertain if my lack of satisfaction in the conclusion is because it isn’t properly set up, because it’s poorly written, or because it’s the wrong conclusion.
The other three stories have their own problems: flat characters in what is, essentially, a gimmick story; missing information in a tale-with-a-twist story that would make the twist more satisfying; and a horror story my wife doesn’t “get,” and I can’t tell if the problem is in the story or if Temple—who doesn’t read horror fiction and doesn’t watch horror films—is the wrong audience.
Instead of working to resolve the minor issues with these stories so I can send them out to visit editors, I have, instead, kept plowing forward with the completion of new work. I have several partially written stories—all begun before the world turned upside down—and most of the stories I’ve completed the past several months came from this pile of partials.
I often work this way, with multiple short stories and other writing projects in progress, and I bounce back and forth between them. Already today—it’s pushing four o’clock—I’ve completed a full draft of a story, made progress on a second story, and wrote most of this.
I have a handful of other stories in progress that I touch frequently, sometimes adding only few words or notes about scenes to come or plot points that need to be incorporated. I have another dozen or so that I touch less frequently, and I have hundreds that I haven’t touched in a while. All of these could, and likely will—should I write fast enough or live long enough—become stories that I ultimately finish and submit.
I don’t recommend my process to anyone, and I’ve lately attempted to alter it given how life has changed during the past several months. Early in my writing career, when I juggled family, full-time employment, and all that comes with each of them, I often wrote in short bits of time. For example, I wrote during my lunch hour, and the story I worked on during lunches was rarely the same story I worked on before or after work.
Recently, I’ve had a few day-long blocks of time. At first, I didn’t know how to effectively utilize such large blocks of time. So, my attention bounced from social media to writing to household chores to writing to errand running to writing and I wasn’t accomplishing near as much as I desired.
So, I tried to intentionally structure a few of my days. I ensured that I had no chores or errands, intentionally avoided social media, and planted myself in front of the computer shortly after breakfast. I selected a single story each day and worked on it until I had a full draft or had gone as far as I possibly could. If time remained in the day, I then began work on a second story.
This has worked spectacularly well the few days I’ve been able to structure my days in this way.
On the flip side, I now have five full short-story manuscripts that require something more than a final proofreading pass before heading out the door.
Perhaps I need to select one day and proclaim it as a problem-solving day. Perhaps I’ll structure it much like the writing days I’ve had recently—no errands, no chores, no social media, and at the computer right after breakfast—except that my goal will be to select a full manuscript, wrestle with it until I’ve solved its problems and, if there’s time, do the same with a second story.
Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.

August 1 was a good day. My story “Bone Soup” appeared in the August issue of Mystery Weekly and “Jalapeño Poppers and a Flare Gun,” which I co-authored with Trey R. Barker, was released as the eighth episode of the serial novella anthology series Guns + Tacos.

17 August 2020

Comedy Is Hard

I've often been accused of being funny, except by my former students. I've directed comedy in theater, too, both contemporary (Christopher Durang) and classical (Several Shakespeare including The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night), and my stories and novels always include some humor.

A few years ago, someone suggested I add another workshop to my repertoire: writing humor. I hedged. Then I visited libraries, bookstores and the Internet to find books on writing comedy. I found only a few, and none of them helped me.

Drama is easy. Melodrama is easy. Comedy is eff-ing hard.

Comedy comes from two sources. One is the situation, the basis of slapstick humor. Shakespeare's drunks and fools usually followed this tradition, which goes back to the Greek and Roman playwrights (Remember, Will lifted The Comedy of Errors wholesale from Plautus). This often becomes farce, where the characters become puppets in service to the plot.

The other source is more intellectual or verbal. Puns, wordplay and irony replace the pratfalls, and some people appreciate this more than others. If you tell the same joke to ten people, a few will roar, some will chuck, a couple will smile, and at least one will say, "Oh, that's it?"

Like American English, comedy relies on rhythm. Years ago, I attended a one-day workshop on directing comedy, and the instructor stressed "The Machine," the progression and rhythm that make a scene or play "funny." He said if you change the order or any component, you'll kill the joke. I agree. Years ago, my wife played the fussy roommate in the female version of The Odd Couple, and the other actress insisted on adding "uh-huh, oh really" and other ad libs to the famous exchange about "It's not spaghetti, it's linguini." She never got a laugh. Ever. Not one single night.

The only other specific hint I remember about directing comedy came from my directing mentor in grad school: Gorgeous is not funny...unless she slips on a banana peel. 

My first drafts aren't funny. Humor grows out of revision, usually from a character's reaction to the situation, more ironic than slapstick. If it doesn't feel like part of the character and the whole milieu, it doesn't work for me. I try not to reach for it because if it emerges, it's a pleasant surprise for me, too, and that's how punchlines work. They deliver what the audience expects, but not the way they expect it. 

My favorite authors write humor better than I do. Maybe that's one reason I like them. Louise Penny uses twisted literary allusions and puns, usually as responses from the residents of Three Pines, whom we've grown to know and love over the course of her Armand Gamache series. 

Dennis Lehane's irony--karma comes to town--often involves character, too. Don Winslow can use irony, but he can also go slapstick. His recent novella "The San Diego Zoo" builds on an outrageous situation seen through the eyes of a cop who becomes a laughingstock on social media. The opening line is "Nobody knows how the chimp got the revolver," and the story races to the logically absurd conclusion from that premise. Elvis Cole, the PI of many Robert Crais novels, loves self-deprecating throw-aways. 

Several romance authors write great comedy, too. Look at Jennifer Crusie's dialogue, especially late in a book where her characters paraphrase earlier speeches and turn them on their heads.

None of these writers could steal another's joke and make it work in their own stories. Comedy is personal, and that's what makes it so hard.

You really do reveal yourself on the page. 

16 August 2020

Professional Tips – The Deadwords

graphic of the word 'deadword'

Facts and Artifacts

Deadwords, like deadwood, take up space but offer little useful. In the negative space graphic above, your eye thinks it sees a word or two that aren’t there. Deadwords introduce noise, dim and distracting dreck that shouldn’t be there. Authors want to move from empty words to more powerful, robust, descriptive writing.

I find it useful to review deadwords and weak words, those bits that clutter writing and dull the senses. I manage to avoid the usual suspects, e.g, some, very, nice, etc, but not so well at others appearing on recent lists: as, like, then, and so on. My bad habits need reminders. Professional colleagues know these tips, but beginning writers might find some of the following useful.

As mentioned before, I know no other crime writers in Central Florida– most are too sensible to congregate in a coronavirus hotspot. Without fellow mystery enthusiasts, I exchange editing with local romance writers. (Hi, Haboob and Sharon.) Whew! I bet my instruction in anatomy is more fun than most mystery authors.

Romancing the Own

Haboob drew my attention to a word not in the list below, ‘own’, as in ‘my own writing’. I used it everywhere– his own, her own, their own instead of simple his, hers, and theirs. In ordinary conversation, I seem to use it as an intensive, an unnecessary one. While that guy Shakespeare got away with, “To thine own self be true,” ‘own’ sucks the lifeblood out of my sentences.

In turn, I found the words ‘breath’ and ‘breathe’ cropping up far too often in the ladies’ romance works. They have good reason– the thesaurus suffers from a paucity of alternative non-technical words. Consider:
She breathed in his scent. Her breath stopped when his fingertips traced her bare skin.
Other than the words ‘pant’ and ‘wheeze’ (Feel the romance!) what substitutes can they use?
She aspirated into her lungs the molecules of his scent. Her inhalation and exhalation respiration terminated when…
Nahh… What’s a girl writer to do? (Leave brilliant suggestions in the comments so I can look like a genius at the next editing session.)

In the following list, I’m not including verbal tics and the clichés in current conversations, such as store clerk acknowledgements, “Perfect,” instead of “Thank you.”

be/is/are/was/were/will be
down/up on/in
(have) got
(a) lot
of course
one of
start/begin to
used to


Many words made the list because they’re weak or indefinite. Further to this…
Down/Up, on/in/into
This refers to extraneous coupling of prepositions. “She climbed up into the attic before descending down into the depths of the basement.” Simply: “She climbed into the attic before descending into the depths of the basement.”
Quite, rather
Victoria and Edwardian literature dominated our home library, so both ‘quite’ and ‘rather’ sound normal to my ears, but virtually no one else’s. *delete*
See, saw, look, think, feel
“When she began to look at some of his writing, she felt certain words could weaken sentences, but she couldn’s see how to find a solution.” Simply: “When she looked at his writing, certain words weakened sentences, but she couldn’s find a solution.”
It/there, is/was/were/will be
“There are many examples in literature,” can be reworded “Examples abound in literature.” Jane Austen came up with the cleverest opening line in romance literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” She pulled it off. Me, I should stick to basics.
Shakespeare, Jane Austen… who knew where this was headed! Colorful writing… did we achieve it?

graphic of the word 'word'

John Floyd would be proud of a SleuthSayer coining a compound— ‘deadword’.