01 August 2020

Recognized and Tuckerized




Tuckerization (or tuckerism) is the act of using a person's name (and sometimes other characteristics) in an original story as an in-joke.
--Wikipedia


It occurred to me, after I started writing this, that I'd done a SleuthSayers piece on this topic almost four years ago, called "Namedropping." If you take the trouble to go back and read that post, be sure to read the comments also, from readers--I think those are more interesting than what I wrote in the column.

Anyhow, I want to say a little more about the subject, especially because I have since discovered that this practice has a name. The term tuckerization is derived from the late Arthur Wilson Tucker, an American writer of science fiction who--that sly dog--made a habit of using his friends' names for minor characters in his stories. (Most of you probably know this already. I think I was the last writer on earth to find out.)

Mr. Tucker would've been proud of me, because I've been merrily plugging the names of friends and fans into my short stories for a long time. (Well, at least friends; the word fans might be overstating things a bit.) The satisfying thing is, every time I've tuckerized someone, I've been encouraged to do it again because the tuckerizee seemed so tickled by it. I would assume that's probably one of the rules of this practice: Do it only if you're fairly sure the person being mentioned will enjoy seeing his/her name in your writing, rather than want to sue your ass off.

My tuckerizing has so far consisted of the following:

As mentioned in the earlier SleuthSayers column . . .


- Teresa Garver, a childhood friend who now lives four hundred miles away, became an English teacher in "Gone Goes the Weasel," Woman's World, June 27, 2013.

- Chuck Thomas, one of my banking customers at IBM, was a mischievous high-school student in "Not One Word," Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, July/Aug/Sep 2002.

- Cheryl Grubbs, a classmate of mine at Kosciusko High School, was featured as a deputy sheriff in "Trail's End," AHMM, July/Aug 2017, which became the first story in a series.

- Charlotte Hudson, a friend and former writing student, appeared in "A King's Ransom," Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue #19, 2015; and both Charlotte and her husband Bill were characters in "Ball and Chain," Woman's World, July 27, 2015. (I said in the previous SS post that Charlotte was in two Woman's World stories, but I later discovered it was one in WW and one in SHMM.)

- Charles Heisley, a fellow engineer and old Air Force buddy, became an officer in the Louisiana State Police in "The Blue Delta," Blood on the Bayou anthology, Sep 2016. Chuck lives in Hawaii now, but he's originally from Florida, so Louisiana wasn't too big a reach.


Since then:

- Deputy Cheryl Grubbs has made additional appearances in two more of my Sheriff Ray Douglas series installments--"Scavenger Hunt," AHMM, Jan/Feb 2018, and "Quarterback Sneak," AHMM, Mar/Apr 2020--and will be featured in two more stories already accepted and coming up at AHMM and one at Down & Out: The Magazine.

- My friend Terri Fisher was a physician in one of my Law and Daughter series stories, called "Doctor in the House," Flash Bang Mysteries, Spring 2017.

- Donna Fairley (the maiden name of one of my IBM colleagues, now Donna Huebsch) was a teenaged genius in "Ace in the Hole," Flash Bang Mysteries, Summer 2017. In real life, I can easily believe Donna might've been a teenaged genius.

- The first names of our oldest son's three children--Lily, Anna, and Gabe--were the first names of my three main characters in "The Music of Angels," The Saturday Evening Post, Sep/Oct 2018. In fact those were that story's only three characters. I didn't tell the kids about it, so when I sent them the magazine and they read the story, they thought that was a hoot.

- My old DP friend Alan Collums (we used to call the computer business Data Processing instead of Information Technology) will make an appearance as a cop in the Jackson, Mississippi, police department in "Friends and Neighbors," a story that AHMM has accepted but hasn't yet published.

Also, I've worked a lot of friends' last names into the names of story titles and fictional locations, over the years: "The Dolan Killings," "Driving Miss Lacey," "Knight Vision," "Purple Martin," "Dawson's Curse," "The Three Little Biggs," "Field Engineering," "Merrill's Run," "Byrd and Ernie," "The Barlow Boys," "Remembering Tally," "An Hour at Finley's," "The Pullman Case," "Dooley's Code," "The Zeller Files," Hardison Park, Chavis Island, Dentonville, etc. This kind of thing is mostly self-serving, because certain names from the past can sometimes just "sound" right.


On the other side of all this, I have found my own name in two stories--both of them written by my SleuthSayers co-conspirators Robert Lopresti and Michael Bracken. I knew about Rob's story beforehand--and blogged about that one in my "Namedropping" post--but I didn't know about my role in Michael's story until I happened across it while reading for pleasure, in the 2017 anthology Passport to Murder (which included stories by both of us). That was a pleasant surprise. O'Neil De Noux and I were both featured in Michael's story--O'Neil as a policeman (which he once was) and I as a systems engineer (which I once was).



What are some of your own experiences, with this crazy practice? Have you tuckerized friends' names in your fiction? If not, have you considered doing it? Have you discovered your own name in the writing of others? If so, were you told about it beforehand? Did you sue 'em? (Just kidding.)

As you might imagine, part of the fun of writing this post was the research it required: I went back and checked most of my stories (not all--there are a lot of 'em) to try to remember the times I had mentioned friends and colleagues and family members as a part of the plot. And that in itself brought back some fond memories.

Lately, though, nobody's been lobbying too much for it--which might be a good thing.

Maybe I'm all tuckered out.






31 July 2020

Dying Message


Earlier this month, fellow SleuthSayer Joseph D'Agnese blogged about USA's founding father and Declaration of Independence signer George Wythe's famous last words, "I am murdered!" before he died from having been poisoned.

In my humble opinion, as far as last words go, Wythe won.

So, over mugs of coffee a few mornings ago, when my crime writer friend, Josh Pachter, first mentioned the use of "Dying Message" as a literary device, I wanted to know more.

Take it away, Josh...

KK: Can you explain the "dying message" trope for us?

Well, sure! But let me start by explaining why Kristin is asking me this question.

In mid-July, she drove down to my new home outside Richmond, Virginia, to pick up a piece of furniture my wife Laurie and I no longer needed for her daughter's first college apartment. I made a pot of coffee and, while Laurie teleworked, Kristin and I sat out on our new deck and talked. I don't remember exactly how it came up, but I asked Kristin if she was familiar with the old "dying message" trope, she said she wasn't, I explained it...and her eyes lit up. "Can I interview you about this for SleuthSayers?" she asked.

So here we are.

I suspect that many of the Sayers of the Sleuth are already familiar with the dying message, and some are probably far better versed in its history than I am, but, for what it's worth, here's what I have to say on the subject.

Ellery Queen may not have invented the concept of the "dying message" clue, but Fred Dannay and Manny Lee--the cousins who wrote as EQ--were certainly its most active proponents, and many of their novels and short stories rang changes on the concept.

Here's a basic description of how it works:

Person A murders Person B and leaves the scene. But--sacre bleu!--Person B is not dead yet, after all, and regains consciousness long enough to want to tell the police who killed him. Unfortunately, there's no working phone at hand, so Person B can't simply call the police and tell them who did the dirty deed.  There is, however, a piece of paper and a pen, so Person B leaves a cryptic note, identifying his killer.

"But," you say, "why a cryptic note? Why doesn't Person B simply write Person A's name?

Ah, well, because, despite the fact that he's dying, Person B has the presence of mind to realize that person A might return to the scene of the crime--and, if she does, she'll see the piece of paper with her name on it and destroy it.

And that's the "dying message" trope, resulting in a story the heart of which is the protagonist's mental struggle to figure out the meaning of the cryptic clue.

Far fetched? Certainly.

Realistic? Perhaps not.

But I'm reminded of something my buddy Les Roberts--the author of 20+ novels featuring Cleveland PI Milan Jacovich--once did.  In one of Les' books, Milan trails a suspect to a Monday-evening performance of the Cleveland Symphony. When the book came out, Les received hundreds of letters from irate Clevelanders, pointing out that the Cleveland Symphony  doesn't play on Mondays. Les printed up a form letter he sent back to every complainer: "The Cleveland Symphony might not play on Mondays, but my Cleveland Symphony plays whenever I damn well tell them to."

His point? This is fiction, folks, and in fiction an author can do whatever the hell he wants to do. He is the puppet master, and the puppet master gets to pull the strings.

So Ellery Queen wrote lots of dying-message stories, and the question of whether or not such a thing would ever happen in real life is frankly irrelevant.

To keep the device from going stale, the cousins eventually began to come up with variations on the theme, such as oral dying messages (in which only part of the victim's dying words are heard, or the victim's last words are misunderstood, or the victim mispronounces a key word or words) and the "accidental dying message."

I'll give you an example.

In "GI Story," which first appeared in EQMM in 1954, Clint Fosdick is murdered, and it's clear that he was killed by one of his three stepsons: Linc Smith, Woody Smith, or Wash Smith. Before Clint expires, he scrawls the letters "GI" on a piece of paper, but all three of the Smith Brothers--:::cough:::--are former soldiers, so the message could apply equally well to any of them.

Ellery, however, finally realizes that Clint had no intention of leaving a cryptic message. In fact, "Fancy verbal acrobatics are the pleasant preoccupation of detective fiction," Ellery says, poking fun at his own trademark trope. "In real life, they don't happen...Clint Fosdick, in writing those two letters...was trying to do just one thing: name his killer."

The three brothers, Ellery realizes, were named after American presidents--Abraham Lincoln Smith, Woodrow Wilson Smith, and George Washington Smith--and the dying man was beginning to write the word, "GEORGE" when death took him immediately after he completed the down stroke of the second letter of his murderer's name. Et voila! 


KK: Have you used the "dying message" trope yourself, Josh?

Why, yes, Kristin, as a matter of fact I have!

My second published story--"E.Q. Griffen's Second Case," which originally appeared in EQMM in 1970 and will be reprinted in The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen, which I co-edited with former SleuthSayer Dale Andrews and which will be published by Wildside Press later this year--is a dying-message story, in which a guy is murdered outdoors and pulls loose a chunk of the tarry stuff that sort of grouts sidewalk panels together and writes a clue to the identity of his killer on the sidewalk.

After Dale and I co-edited our original Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside, 2018), I started writing a series of pastiches of EQ's "Puzzle Club" stories, and the first three of them are all dying-message stories: "A Study in Scarlett!" (EQMM, May/June 2019), "The Adventure of the Red Circles" (EQMM, Jan/Feb 2020), and "The Adventure of the Black-and-Blue Carbuncle" (EQMM, forthcoming).

I also had two dying-message stories appear in print in 2018: "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Murder" (Mystery Most Geographical, Wildside) was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and "50" (EQMM, Nov/Dec 2018), in which my E.Q. Griffen character returns, finished second in the magazine's Reader Award balloting. You can download and read both of those stories for free at this link.

Dale, by the way, has published  four Ellery Queen pastiches in EQMM, and all four of them are dying-message stories. His latest, "Four Words," will appear in the Sep/Oct 2020 issue, on sale August 13.

And for those who'd like to read more about the "dying message" trope, there's an excellent discussion at the Ah Sweet Mystery blog, and another (filled with spoiler-protected examples) at Fandom website.


KK: Thank you for letting me put you in the hot seat, Josh.  Oh, and by the way, check out this little gem I found while preparing my post...a signed copy of our co-contributed Malice anthology.  C'est magnifique!


Josh Pachter is an author, editor, and translator. More than a hundred of his short stories have appeared in EQMM, AHMM, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He has edited and co-edited a dozen anthologies, including The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed Reads, 2020), The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe (Mysterious Press, 2020) and The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffett (forthcoming from Down and Out Books in 2021).  His translations of stories by Dutch and Flemish authors appear regularly in EQMM. Earlier this year, he received the Short Mystery Fiction Society's Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for Lifetime Achievement and became the first person to win both the Golden Derringer and a competitive Derringer in the same year.

PS ~ Let's be social:

30 July 2020

Man's [Dubious] Search for Meaning


Right before the 2008 election, I was present when a Southern father told his sons to go out and buy guns, right now, because if Obama got elected, there would be black people (my terminology, not his) banging down their doors to "get them". It didn't happen. Then or in 2012. I'm sure it's been a great disappointment to him ever since. And I'm sure he continues to hope.

I thought of him the other day when I read a comment on a conservative web site - and I quote:
"Whites, Traditionalists, Conservatives and small o Orthodox Christian's are being treated by the mob the same way the Nazis treated the jews in Nazi Germany, it only a matter of time they throw us in gas chambers."
And I almost felt sorry for the guy. Really. Because I could tell that deep down the commentator wants - no, NEEDS this to happen. Well, probably not to him: but to somebody, to prove how evil the other side is, and how important and righteous he and his must be, to be so savagely persecuted.

As Fred Clark, one of my favorite bloggers, wrote "You probably don’t hope that millions of your neighbors are secretly cannibalistic pedophiles who worship Satan. Because that would be bad. But some people really want that to be true."

In case you're wondering, the existence of a large number of cannibalistic pedophiles who worship Satan is one of the central tenets of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and this came up because it's being professed by a number of GOP candidates for public office. (See NPR)

Lauren Boebert, owner of Shooters Grill, Rifle, Colorado
Lauren Boebert, owner of the Shooters Grill, in Rifle, CO, QAnon supporter, and
Republican nominee, Colorado's 3rd District. © Lauren Boebert campaign web site

Anyway, back to Fred as to why people believe this stuff:
"If it’s not real, after all, then where will the true believers find anything else so exciting to provide meaning for their lives? If there isn’t a massive secret global network of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles, then what’s even the point of anything? They hope that it is real. They want it to be real. They desperately need it to be real...

"But there’s the problem. Once you’ve given yourself over to a pack of lies like QAnon or any other variation of the ancient Satanic baby-killers libel, you belong to those lies. You become those lies. And having become a lie, sincerity and genuineness are no longer available to you. To be a true believer in such outrageous lies makes you incapable of truly believing. So do even the “true believers” really believe this stuff? Not quite, because they can no longer “really” anything.

"I think this also captures what it is that those Second Amendment cultists Boebert feeds at her restaurant “really believe” about all of their delirious fantasies about persecution and confiscation and imminent tyranny precariously kept at bay only by their sidearms pew-pew-pew! You can’t “really believe” such fantasies when you’re sitting there at Shooter’s Grill, eating your Swiss & Wesson burger imperturbed by the evil forces of gubmint tyranny. But you can hope that it is real, because that would be exciting and thrilling and it would mean that you mean something no matter how much you’ve begun to suspect that you don’t." (Slacktivist: "I hope that this is real") (my emphasis)
To put it more simply, as Toby Keith wrote, "Let's Get Drunk and Be Somebody."

This, my friends, is why people join cults and/or believe in conspiracy theories (although all cults are founded on conspiracy theories, imho), and why it's so damned hard to get them out of them. They let people, who believe deep down that they're nothing, be somebody important enough to be wanted. Even if it is only by the law.

One of the many reasons I love Spike Lee's BlacKKKlansman is the KKK guys. Felix, Walter, and Ivanhoe are true believers in the "Lost Cause", "whites are more persecuted than anyone else", "they're comin' after us!" fantasy that apparently started right after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. In between drinks, they blab, shoot pool, whine, shoot guns, and plan to blow up a dorm of black women for being mouthy and black. They think they're mysterious and powerful and deeply important, but in reality, like Sally Bowles, they're about "as fatale as an after dinner mint." (Or, in their case, a Tic Tac.) But they are, also like Sally, dangerous to themselves and to others.

There really was a time when people didn't seem to need to find meaning in cults and conspiracy theories or much of anything because they were engaged in an existential struggle to stay alive for another year. Or month. Or day. Some of it was that a 95% preindustrial agricultural society has too much work to do to stay up late at night wondering if the Illuminati are real. And they knew they were important - they had families to take care of, crops to raise, clothing to make, food to cook, etc. For that matter, Ma and Pa Ingalls weren't sitting around DeSmet, South Dakota, discussing how many people in President Grover Cleveland's cabinet were Reptilians.

So why did things change? Maybe it's because we have more time. Maybe it's because in industrial societies humans have to work according to machines instead of seasons. Maybe it's because we're a celebrity consumer culture nowadays, and there's too many of us for everyone to be a celebrity, and we're drowning in stuff, and we have no idea what's going on.

Anyway, cults / conspiracy theories provide temporary Meaning:

  • The Inner Knowledge: There is a secret cabal of entities who are manipulating everything around us because they're evil and want to. Which means, of course, that all the bad stuff happening around us and to us? None of it is our fault. (Otherwise known as "magical thinking", very addictive, and the center of most racist ideologies.) Anyway, the Inner Knowledge gives us
  • The Inner Certainty: By knowing this we are in the "inner circle", a specially chosen person to know the truth which everyone else has distorted or denied. (At last! At last!)
  • The Inner Excitement: By knowing it we've you have made an enemy of evil powers - mighty, earth shaking / earth gobbling powers. And the stranger, weirder, more perverted, more horrific, more completely impossibly evil the enemy/enemies is/are the better. You know: Satan-worshipping cannibal pedophiles. Or the Reptilians. Or… Cthulhu.
BTW - the puzzling thing about Jim Jones, Cthulhu, and other death cults is that in the long run all they offer their cult-members is a quicker death than the rest of the world, and that apparently is enough. (Head shaking emoji.)
But most cults offer a constant frisson of fear, anxiety, apprehension, but with
  • The Inner Assurance: We will survive and trumph! We will go into spiritual and physical warfare against these demonic alien powers and get to do an awful lot of slaughtering. And probably not suffer at all, because we've all seen the movies, and only the extras get killed. And we're no longer extras, we're among the chosen. One of us might even be the lead! Like me! No, me! No, me!
(And this is how the Pisgah Church becomes the Reformed Pisgah Church becomes the First Reformed Pisgah Church becomes the First United Reformed Pisgah Church becomes the Redeemed First United Reformed Pisgah Church...)

Another aspect of cults / conspiracy theories, etc., is, of course, that they aren't always religious. They can be political, dietary, economic - whatever takes you away from the present and wafts you to an often earthly paradise, like the Marxist "dictatorship of the proletariat." (Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao should have put the kibosh on that dream.)
Or the idea that if you just cut your calorie intake low enough, you will live hundreds of years. (But who wants to live hungry forever?)
Or high colonics (if you haven't seen it, go out and rent, right now, The Road to Wellville, and find out how much of a crackpot John Harvey Kellogg really was). (Oh, and bicycle smiles, everyone!)

Road to wellville ver1.jpg
Here in America the primary economic cult is a combination of
  • Unfettered Capitalism (as opposed to capitalism with checks and balances, i.e., regulations) and
  • Grover Norquist's "drown government in the bathtub" and
  • Trickle-down economics (which started way before Reagan**)
  • The American Work Ethic: 1 week sick leave, 1 week vacation, and a bonus for those who don't use either, and why do you need a weekend off anyway?
Which is why, in the middle of battling a pandemic with no cure, treatment, or vaccine, and statistics like these staring us in the face:

COVID-19 cases in America
It took 97 days to reach 1,000,000 cases
                 (January 21-April 27)
41 days to reach 2,000,000 cases
                 (April 28-June 7)
29 days to reach 3,000,000 cases
                 (June 8-July 6)
14 days to reach 4,000,000 cases
                (July 7-July 21)

the current message from many politicians and pundits is "We must save The Economy at all costs!"

Back to work, back to school, and rewrite the CDC guidelines to match the need to get everyone back to work. And if it costs some lives (the old, weak, disabled, and now children), well, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, and they were probably gonna die anyway, but now they'll have died in a good cause. For the good of The Economy.
  • The Economy needs us.
  • The Economy will save us.
  • The Economy lives forever.
And the survivors are going to live in a booming economic paradise! It'll all be worth it! You'll see.

Or not.


**From WJB and Will Rogers:
"There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it." - William Jennings Bryan, "Cross of Gold" speech, 1896
"This election was lost four and six years ago, not this year. They didn’t start thinking of the old common fellow till just as they started out on the election tour. The money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes that it would trickle down to the needy. Mr. Hoover was an engineer. He knew that water trickles down. Put it uphill and let it go and it will reach the driest little spot. But he didn’t know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night, anyhow. But it will at least have passed through the poor fellow's hands. They saved the big banks, but the little ones went up the flue." - Will Rogers, 1932
MY NOTE: Now this is an idea that really should be drowned in a bathtub. Hasn't worked almost 100 years, and it's still being proclaimed as if it's the magic cure to everything.

29 July 2020

Welcome to the Crime Club


Last year a book by James Curran came out, entitled The Hooded Gunman.  It covers 65 years in the history of Collins Crime Club, a British mystery imprint (not to be confused with the American Doubleday Crime Club).  It tells a fascinating story and it shows that story as well, because it provides the cover of each of the more than 2,000 books published in the series (and even the blurbs from all the covers).

One thing that leaps out is that a lot of the covers were, well, awful.  There were dozens that used the exact same design, just changing the words and the type color.  See Rex Stout below as an example.  No wonder Agatha Christie complained about her covers!

Below are some of my favorites, covers or titles I chose because they were so good or so bad.  Sometimes it was the title/cover combination  that won my heart.  Enjoy.
























28 July 2020

Writing Squirrels


“Squirrel!”

In the movie Up, Dug is often distracted by squirrels while in the midst of conversations with Carl and Russell in much the same way writers are often distracted by new ideas while in the midst of writing something unrelated.

Writing squirrels are now delivered to the
Bracken household by the barrowful.
I certainly deal with my share of writing squirrels. This, in fact, is one of them. I was writing a scene about a woman in a convenience store when she looked out the window and—Squirrel!—I thought this might make for an interesting SleuthSayer post. I jumped over here, wrote the opening two paragraphs and then—Squirrel!—jumped into another file and noted the title and premise for a humorous horror story I might never actually write and then—Squirrel!—thought of a way to respond to a difficult question in an email, but even before I opened Outlook—Squirrel!—I imagined an opening scene for yet another story, quickly opened a new file, and made some notes.

By then I was exhausted, so I gave up chasing squirrels and wandered off to watch another episode of Foyle’s War.

I still haven’t returned to the scene about a woman in a convenience store looking out the window.

WHERE DO THEY COME FROM? WHERE DO THEY GO?

Writing squirrels are random ideas that hover at the edge of our subconscious, just waiting for a moment when we are deeply engrossed in writing to skitter across our consciousness and divert our attention from the project in front of us. They’re exciting and new—not the drudgery we’re slogging through—so we look away. We make notes, we write snippets of dialog, we draft scenes, and then the writing squirrel disappears. The idea abandons us mid-thought, or it truly is a good idea and we begin work in earnest, turning the writing squirrel into a project that requires our attention. We become deeply engrossed in our new project, certain this is the story that—Squirrel!—and then we’re off chasing another idea.

I think writing squirrels breed in our subconscious, sneaking meals from the mental bird feeder we fill with the random assortment of facts, images, turns of phrase, smells, tastes, news reports, snippets of conversation, dreams, and other detritus. When the squirrels have feasted sufficiently—when they have consumed and digested this smell and that news report and that overheard bit of conversation and that turn of phrase—they dart across our consciousness, letting us know that they have brought us an exciting, new idea.

Writing squirrels are our best friends and our worst enemies. While they often distract us from the task at hand, they often bring us our best ideas. We can neither tame them nor avoid them, we can only—Squirrel!


In addition to The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down & Out Books, 2019) receiving an Anthony Award nomination, several stories from the anthology have also received recognition: “Lucy’s Tree” by Sandra Murphy received a Derringer Award; “See Humble and Die” by Richard Helms was nominated for a Derringer Award and was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2020; “West Texas Barbecue” by Michael Chandos was nominated for a Macavity Award; and “Weathering the Storm” by Michael Pool was nominated for a Shamus Award. Even though there are four other excellent anthologies nominated for an Anthony Award this year, I’m partial to this one.

27 July 2020

Adverbs: A Legitimate Aspect of Voice


A couple of months ago, I participated in a lively discussion over at the Short Mystery Fiction Society e-list on the role of adverbs in good writing. The highly respected Stephen King's most pithy writing advice is, "Read read read. Write write write. And lose the adverbs." A 2014 New Yorker article reports on an app called Hemingway that analyzes text and promises “[to make] your writing bold and clear.” Among other things, "the program calls out adverbs ('newly,' 'famously,' 'seemingly')." Most of the Short Mystery folks said that an occasional adverb might pass muster, but that the great majority, like Gilbert & Sullivan's "society offenders," never would be missed. One group member took what I consider an easy out, saying:

 The perfectly correct subject-verb-adverb construction strikes me as generally clunky and prone to increase clutter. 

"He walked quickly" could be "He hurried." 
"He talked quickly" could be "He yammered."  
"She ate quickly" could be "She wolfed."   
As above, adverbs tend to be less descriptive—added to modify verbs in a more abstract, conceptual way—than choosing more descriptive verbs. 

This argument stacks the deck against adverbs by using as an example "quickly," a verb as dull and overused as similar manner verbs—"suddenly," for example—and degree verbs such as "very," "almost," "quite," and "totally."

That's not the kind of adverb I'm talking about. In the hands of a writer who happens to have an adverbial narrative voice, adverbs can be as lively and evocative as verbs like "yammered" and "wolfed" and a lot more fun to read than "hurried." Eschewing adverbs is a fashion, albeit one that has lasted a considerable amount of time—almost a century, if you want to count from Hemingway's first two novels, both published in 1926.

My very favorite adverbial voice is that of L.M. Montgomery, author of the beloved children's classic Anne of Green Gables. I’m fond of Anne, but my favorite is Emily of New Moon, first published in 1923. Like Anne, Emily is a little orphan girl transplanted to Prince Edward Island. She’s also an aspiring writer.

Here are some delicious examples of adverbial writing in context that have stuck in my mind for almost seventy years. Not only do they add color to the narrative voice. They build character just as well as the other parts of speech in the passages in which they appear.

“It was one of your mother’s aprons when she was a little girl, Emily,” said Aunt Laura comfortingly, and rather sentimentally. 
“Then,” said Emily, uncomforted and unsentimental, “I don’t wonder she ran away with Father when she grew up.” 

Emily gasped. It seemed very dreadful to be called a little cuss. But Ilse had said it quite admiringly. 
“Well, where are you going now?” asked Ilse. “There’s a thunderstorm coming up.” 
So there was. Emily did not like thunderstorms. And her conscience smote her. 
“Oh,” she said, “do you suppose God is bringing up that storm to punish me because I’ve run away?” “No,” said Ilse scornfully. “If there is any God, he wouldn’t make such a fuss over nothing.”
 
“My epic,” said Emily, diligently devouring plum cake, “is about a very beautiful high-born girl who was stolen away from her real parents when she was a baby and brought up in a woodcutter’s hut.” “One av the seven original plots in the world,” murmured Father Cassidy. 

  If Montgomery had written, “said Emily earnestly,” the adverb could have been deleted with my blessing. But “diligently devouring plum cake”—how can the reader fail to be enchanted? This passage, by the way, was my introduction to the concept of the seven original plots. Writers may disagree on the list, but we all suspect it exists.

“What do you think of us?” demanded Aunt Nancy. “Come now, what do you think of us?” 
“That isn’t a fair question,” cried Emily. 
“You think,” said Aunt Nancy, grinning, “that I’m a hideous old hag and that Caroline isn’t quite human. She isn’t. She never was—but you should have seen me seventy years ago. The men were mad about me. The women hated me, of course--all but Caroline here. You worshipped me, didn’t you, Caroline? Caroline, I wish you didn’t have a wart on your nose.” 
“I wish you had one on your tongue,” said Caroline waspishly. 

 I’ve cut some of the passages for the sake of brevity but not a single adverb.

Note also that Montgomery’s adverbs are not Tom Swifties:

“Get into the refrigerator,” he said coldly, “or I’ll shoot.
“Do you think you’re going to walk across this desert,” he said drily, “without your boots?”

It's easy to make fun of something, in this case adverbs and adverbial writing, that it’s trendy not to respect. But as writers, we owe it to ourselves not to dismiss them without investigating what they’re like when they’re done well by a master writer whose work has sold in the tens of millions and survived for more than a hundred years.

26 July 2020

With Social Media the Past is never Far Away



A few years ago, on this same blog site, I posted an article which briefly touched on losing a friend of mine by the name of Tom Whitehead. Tom and I had run together during our high school and early college years in Wichita, Kansas. After a couple of years of college, Tom joined the Army. He went to the 25th Infantry near Cu Chi several months before I went to the 1st Air Cav at Ankhe up in the Central Highlands during the Summer of '67. Before I rotated home in mid-'68, I heard from friends that Tom got caught in a mortar attack, came home as a statistic and was buried in Oklahoma. Like I said at the beginning of this paragraph, I had briefly mentioned Tom in a SleuthSayer's blog article. Shortly afterwards, I received a surprise e-mail in response to that mention.

It seems that Tom had a half-brother in Texas and this half-brother was reaching out to me to learn more about the relative he had never met and knew very little about. I gathered photos and information about Tom from friends we had in common and e-mailed these items to Tom's half-brother in Texas to help him fill in the gap he had in his family tree.

At the end, I was surprised at how easily the past could reach out through the ether and touch the present. And now, it's happened again.

A few days ago, I received an e-male from a female I did not know. Her e-mail had been directed through my author website, which told me she did not have either of my direct e-mail addresses. In her e-mail, she told me that she had been going through her father's belongings and had found my old (DEA) business card. She was hoping to learn more about her father and implied that I knew what had happened to him. From her words, I was fairly sure her dad was deceased, but not only did I not know him from his name, I also had no idea what had happened to him.

With luck and a calculated internet search, I learned her father had been a police officer in a western Nebraska town near the South Dakota border and that he had died (a one-line obit) in July 1992 at the age of 32. No other details seemed to be available about his death. I had made a fair-sized cocaine case in that border town during the late 80's/early 90's, but I did not recall meeting the man, nor giving him my business card. I subsequently provided her with the skimpy information I had and then asked a few questions in return.

In her reply e-mails, I learned that her father had gone to work as an undercover operative in central South Dakota to buy drugs on and off the Indian reservation. The day he was to come out of the cold and meet with his handlers in a specific South Dakota city, he was found dead in a small Nebraska border town. Allegedly, he had committed suicide. Also allegedly, there were inconsistencies in the reports.

Three things came to my mind. First, small Midwest towns usually don't have the best forensics and their county coroners may not have any training for their position. Situations are often taken at face value. Second, the undercover game is a tough mental and emotional stretch. Not everyone is suited to the tension of being in a deep cover situation where backup can't get to you in time if circumstances suddenly go south. Maintaining cover as a different personality can be nerve-racking when the other side has guns, but no rules to restrict them. And third, when an operation goes bad, people start distancing themselves, especially those career officials striving to climb the promotion ladder. Take your pick.

Turned out, according to the daughter, that her father was working with the FBI and a regional drug task force to buy drugs and get evidence on some corrupt officials. That was a time period when the FBI had decided they had concurrent jurisdiction on drug cases. Naturally, they did not tell us about their operations. As a matter of fact, they kept the information so tight, that even though it occurred in the eastern part of my territory and just over the river from my first line supervisor's territory, neither one of us heard even a whisper about it when the operation was ongoing, or afterwards, until the daughter e-mailed me. I still don't know how her dad got my business card.

They say the past is history. In truth, it is often seen in terms of dust and death. But, in those times when the past squeezes through the ether to peer over your shoulder and raises the short hairs on the back of your neck, that's not dust reaching out to touch you.

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...
www.melodiecampbell.com








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.