12 September 2020

Sign Here, Please

Fran Rizer was one of the original SleuthSayers, going all the way back to our origin in 2011.  She went on sabbatical from our little asylum a few years ago, making occasional guest appearances since then, and she passed away last Christmas.  I think this is the first time we have mentioned that event here, so I apologize for our tardiness.

Fran was a proud South Carolinian.  She took up the pen after twenty-five years of teaching.  She is best known for her Callie Parrish mystery series, about a "mortuary cosmetologist."  She was a winner of the Porter Fleming Fiction Award, and a nominee for the Agatha.  Fran also wrote country music!  

Thanks are due to Barb Goffman who was kind enough to point out that this piece was waiting in the SleuthSayers wings and we are delighted to run it. There is one more that will show up at an appropriate time.

— Robert Lopresti


A favorite online dictionary defines "autograph" as "a signature, especially that of a celebrity written as a memento for an admirer." Now, I am far from a celebrity even if a lady did run up to me in Target one day excitedly asking, "Are you Fran Rizer?" For a moment I was afraid she was about to serve me with legal papers of some kind. Then she said, "I read your books," which turned it into a pleasant encounter.

This is NOT what you think. I'm never bored during a
signing. This was made while waiting for a book
festival signing to open the doors and begin. When
there are customers around, it's best to have a
more pleasant demeanor.
For my purposes today, "autograph" will be limited to writing one's name in a book written by that person. When my first book was released, a friend advised me that I would have to do signings, which, according to him, would frequently mean hanging out behind a table in a book store and being ignored.

It hasn't worked out that way. To me, signings provide an opportunity to meet and visit with readers, not only of my books, but also others. Some folks get personal during those visits. A reader in Asheville, NC, took off her socks and shoes to show me how straight her toes are since her bunion surgery. We're now friends on FaceBook.

Several years ago, educational Core Curriculums stopped including the teaching of cursive handwriting. "It's no longer needed," they said.  "Everything is done electronically these days," they said. "Use that time to teach keyboarding or other electronic skills," they said. To former elementary teachers and probably to most people my age, this was distressing. I also wondered how much time the people who made that decision had spent in the classroom.
Many teachers disagreed with those decision-makers.  I acknowledge that most people write fewer checks these days. They pay for things with computers, plastic, and their telephones. A lot of communication is electronic and can be signed electronically.  There are, however, times when a real signature is needed.  My first thought is for a driver's license or a marriage license. Come to think of it, divorce papers require signatures, also. Anyone who has had a spouse who refused to sign those papers can testify to that.

I'm pleased to announce that many states and school districts reversed that decision in 2019. Cursive writing is again to be taught in elementary classes beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.. 

Cursive alphabet as taught in elementary schools.

Authors are generally handed a book or magazine to autograph. Those in other arts have been known to sign a wider variety of items. Many stories tell of rock stars who have signed their female fans' body parts. Occasionally those fans will have the signature tattooed before it's allowed to be washed away. Athletes sign equipment like footballs.  Musicians will sign instruments such as guitars, sometimes for a fan to keep, often to be auctioned.

As a child, my dad took Mom and me to many musical performances. At age ten, I had autographs from Ray Charles and Patsy Cline as well as numerous other country artists.  I threw them away when I decided I was too "grown-up" to do that. I didn't realize that an autograph is a way of preserving a special moment or event, a way of gaining pleasure from owning something of a person that is admired, but it might also be worth money.  Several of the ones I had would command good-sized payments from collectors.

Harper Lee's signature on a first edition of To Kill a
is probably worth even more now.
The autograph of a famous author can be worth a lot. Value is determined by several factors including rarity, such as the few existing signatures of William Shakespeare. One of the more recent ones is Harper LeeShe did not like to sign books which makes some of hers even more valuable. In 2016, a first edition copy of  To Kill a Mockingbird, with Lee's signature sold for twenty-seven thousand dollars.

A lot of modern writers almost scribble their autographs. (Perhaps they never learned cursive either.) Two that attracted my attention for their embellished style are:


Note that Fitzgerald signed his "Sincerely." Charles Schultz generally added a little cartoon sketch beside his autograph. Most of my readers want their names personalized with the signature though I keep telling them that if I'm ever in the news for any reason, signature alone is more valuable.  I tend to write something like, "Reader's name, Welcome to Callie's world, Fran Rizer." My stand-alones are usually signed with "Reader's name, Enjoy! Fran Rizer."

I've never had the nerve (or the inclination really) to follow what Tamar Myers (author of the Belgian Congo and the Den of Antiquity series as well as Penn-Dutch Magdalena series) advised me:  "If they buy a paperback, sign it with "Best wishes;" if they buy a hardback, sign it, "Your friend"; if they buy a complete set, sign it "You were wonderful last night." In the event you don't know Tamar, she as funny in person as her character Magdalena.

How about you?  Is your signature legible? What do you usually write?  What's the funniest or most interesting anecdote from your signings?

Until we meet again, please take care of… YOU.

11 September 2020

Share the Love

Always remember. Never forget.
 ~ September 11, 2001 ~


Hi. My name is Kristin Kisska, and I am a book-aholic.

By book-aholic, I mean that I love all things bookish: shopping for books, the smell of books, the heft of a book in my hands, the satisfying turn--or swipe--of a page to start one-more-chapter-before-I-go-to-bed kind of books.

By design, I don't even know how many books I have in my possession. I have three different to-be-read piles all triaged by the amount of guilt I'd quash if I read them before any others, a collection that I keep proudly displayed of authors I've met, and my signed books. And then there's the pile of books that have been passed along to me. Sure, I also have an e-reader loaded with  good, unread content vying for my attention, but there's something special about a stack of paper ready to transport me to another world.

But my biggest (and growing!) piles by far are the books I've already read. My bookshelves would agree as they groan with each new addition squeezed onto the double- and triple-stacked mounds and even crammed over top, too.

Normally, when my piles take up too much of my floor's real estate, I'll haul a box of books over to my local library to donate so that they can sell them in their next fundraiser. But--no surprise--things aren't exactly normal these days.  My library has been closed these past six months due to the pandemic, and even though they are offering limited access to their collection, they are not accepting donations.

What's a book-aholic to do now that I have extra time to read?

Option A. Let my book piles invade every nook and spare corner of my home in a manner that would inspire Marie Kondo to host a decluttering intervention.

Option B. Pack up my books in shopping bags, then ding-dong-ditch them on my quarantining neighbors' front steps. They need entertainment too, right?

*** Or, better yet  ***

Option C. Drop my already-read (and sanitized!) books off at a Little Free Library.  Why?  Glad you asked.

In most areas of the United States, local libraries and schools are closed, and way-too-many people are experiencing financial hardships from layoffs and/or reduced income. Purchasing books is a luxury many in our communities may not be able to indulge in for the foreseeable future. People of all ages still appreciate entertainment. What better way to spend free hours than in a good, time-treasured paperback.

Share the love. Share the adventure.

If you loved a particular book you plan to donate, add a sticky note to the cover saying why. Even if you didn't enjoy the book and could barely eke through the first few chapters before giving up, it could become someone else's favorite read.

In case you haven't already noticed these dollhouse-looking structures planted in neighborhoods and school grounds, you may be surprised how many are nearby your space.  Here is a link to the Little Free Library sharing box map: https://littlefreelibrary.org/ourmap/ . Especially if you are donating books during the pandemic, please follow the CDC's sharing guidelines, which can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/index.html .

But what if you live in an area without a Little Free Library nearby? You can open one yourself.  Instructions are on their website. Or you can take a page from best selling author, Michelle Gable's playbook and host your own temporary free bookshop right in your own front yard.  PS - Dog not included.

Are you a crime or mystery author? Use your local Little Free Library network to increase your readership. If you write and have extra copies on hand of your novels or anthologies, consider strategically placing one or more in your neighborhood and share the news on social media, like author Tessa Wegert did. Include a bookmark with your website, or even a hashtag. A few fresh reviews, photos of your book in the wild, and the publicity may be just the boost your platform could use while in-person book events are discouraged.

What do you do with your already-read or extra books?

PS ~ Let's be social:

10 September 2020

The Self-Destruct Button

If Beale Street Could Talk film.png

I was talking to someone who shall be nameless about "certain people" who harp on how the Central Park Five should still be in jail.  Now the Central Park Five were falsely accused, and convicted, based on coerced confessions and a lot of cover-up of things like the fact that none of their DNA matched the DNA in the case.  But to "certain people" they should be still in jail because (1) if they were innocent, why did they confess in the first place? and (2) "These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels."

My response to #2 is, "Who does?" and give them a steady stare.*

My response to #1 is, there's a long list of reasons.  The obvious reasons that they were juveniles (four were 15, one was 16), interrogated for hours, without counsel, without food (Dylan Roof was given Burger King takeout), and violence.  (One of the defendants said, "I would hear them beating up Korey Wise in the next room", and "they would come and look at me and say: 'You realize you're next.' The fear made me feel really like I was not going to be able to make it out."  Wikipedia)

And there's also the reason that (in my experience) young adolescents have a self-destruct button built into them which is inexplicable, unpredictable, and always hits at the wrong damn time in the wrong damn way.  Adolescent males are of most notorious for a tendency to direct their violence outwardly, as in every freaking school shooter we've ever seen.  But the self-destruct button hits both sexes in self-harm (cutting etc.), running away, running off with the absolute wrong/worst person possible, and/or suicide attempts, all of which are different ways of giving up on life.  Because they don't see any way out and / or they no longer give a damn.  Confessing to a crime you didn't commit is another way of doing it.

One example of this was done by Agatha Christie in Towards Zero, in which two characters - Sergeant Battle's daughter (a minor character) gives up and confesses to a crime she didn't commit, which stumps Battle.  Why would she do that?  Why?  He cannot understand - but because of his daughter, he can see and believe someone else…

And of course, in James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk, Fonny is falsely accused of raping a woman, and arrested and jailed before trial.  It's a slam-dunk case for the prosecutor, because a cop places him at the scene of the crime, Fonny has priors, as does his primary witness to his innocence, and he is black. The result?  He ends up accepting a plea deal and serves time - years of time - for a crime he didn't do.

Sometimes the law works against you.  Sometimes life works against you.  Drugs, hard knocks, poverty, and other disasters - "If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all" - can easily lead to a hopelessness that can be summed up in "What the hell."  Whether it's confessing, killing, suicide, or cutting yourself to the bone.

Or running away:  99% of runaways leave home because home is a lousy place to be.  Most of them leave broke, with the clothes on their backs, and all the self-worth of a sandflea.  It makes them very vulnerable, easy targets for drug dealers, pimps, cons, gangs, cults, and anyone who shows them a hint of attention.  "What the hell.  It just doesn't matter."  To anything anyone does to them or with them.
And it's not just inmates and runaways.  I've seen a few college students hit a crisis and literally sandbag their entire lives.  One I knew was making straight A's, and then something happened (I never did find out what), and he literally quit coming to class the last 2 weeks.  I chased him down and told him if he'd come take the final, he could probably pull out a "D" (as in "D" for "done") or maybe even a "C".  And he said, sure, he would - but he didn't.  And so he flunked.  My class, every class, and dropped out of school.  No idea what happened after that.

I think the self-destruct button is far more common than any of us like to think.

Isn't that what most mid-life crises are?  Figuring, "What the hell", and going out and doing some incredibly stupid crap - from drugs to crime to skeevy relationships - that you may well be too old to survive?

And then there's long-lasting trauma.  I can't tell you how many people I'm talking to who are worn out, exhausted, and struggling with depression and even despair because of 2020 - I mean pandemic, politics, wildfires, hurricanes, and the economy all wrap up to make it hard to stay always cheerful and bright.  Not to mention the constant gaslighting.  Check out this wonderful article by DS Leiter: 

Not to mention some of our politicians.  Our own Governor, Kristi Noem, said last week at a Rotary event (after we passed the 14,000 case mark), that "I won't be changing my recommendations that I can see in the near future. I think this is where we expected we would be. None of this is a surprise. Originally, based on modeling, (our) peak day in June, we would have up to 10,000 people in the hospital in South Dakota that had COVID-19."  (Argus Leader)  In other words, until we have 10,000 people in the hospital in South Dakota, life will continue to go on as normal.  Of course, with only 880,000 people in the entire state, 10,000 hospitalized would mean the whole state has it, but what the hey.

Meanwhile, our Governor is having a great time.  Here she is at September 4th's South Dakota State Fair Bull Bash (Huron Plainsman)  Photo from Twitter:


Anyway, I'm certain that a lot of people are hearing [one of] the voices in their head** saying, "What the hell.  Maybe we should just go ahead and catch the damn virus and get it over with."  Except that the prognosis for 100% recovery from COVID-19 is decreasing rapidly with every new batch of information we get.  Or "What the hell.  Maybe we just won't vote - it won't do any good anyway."  Well, you can figure out your own reasons why that's bull.

All I can say is that this year, this pandemic, and life under almost any circumstances is a marathon, not a sprint.  Don't let the voices in your head get to you, and don't hit the self-destruct button.

“Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum”***

* If you have lived an angelic past, God bless you and keep you, but we're going to run out of things to talk about.  And I probably won't believe you.

** Someday I should write a blog post about the voices, but don't expect it to be coherent.  As I tell my fellow Al-Anons, that I don't call mine "the committee" because committees are organized.

*** Yes, I know that isn't proper Latin.  😎 I like it anyway.  

09 September 2020


I’m not sure what started this train of thought.  I might have been thinking about portrayals of the Raj, or the relationship between colonials and Empire, A Passage to India, Shakespeare Wallah, The Man Who Would Be King, and I drifted into more personal reminiscence.

My dad grew up in the wilds of Elyria, Ohio, and was sent East to boarding school when he was fifteen.  He was the youngest of five boys, and followed in his brothers’ footsteps.  I think plainly my grandmother Ada thought they’d get a better secondary education; it almost certainly helped them get into a good college.  My own experience with boarding school started at the same age, but I didn’t profit from it nearly so well.  I’m bringing this up because it has a parallel in Rudyard Kipling’s exile and return – you could definitely do something with this as metaphor, but I mean it literally, Kipling at five years old, uprooted from the heat and light of Bombay, packed off to the damp south coast of England, abandoned to the rigid torments of an unyielding Evangelical orthodoxy.

I don’t in any way mean to suggest my experience, or my dad’s, was anything like Kipling’s.  I idealize my father’s childhood, in fact, as some sunny upland of innocence, an unshadowed place out of Booth Tarkington or Don Marquis, gigging for frogs and going barefoot and swimming nekkid in the turbid shallows of the Black River, but this is utter nonsense, nobody’s childhood is unshadowed.  As for his years at Milton, he remembered them with enough affection to encourage me to apply there.  I wound up going somewhere else, and I wasn’t crazy about the whole prep school formula, either, but it was a long way from Dickensian horror.  Kipling wasn’t so lucky.  The years in Swansea, in the care of a retired Merchant captain and his wife, were manipulative and abusive.  Kipling’s own account, sixty years later, in Something of Myself, unflinchingly conveys his bewilderment and terror, the House of Desolation, he calls it.  “Often afterwards, [my] beloved Aunt would ask me why I had never told anyone how I was being treated.  Children tell little more than animals, for what comes to them they accept as eternally established.”  The despair is absolute, a lifetime after, the injury never forgiven.

Kipling says a couple of very interesting things about this period.  First off, remember that he was imprisoned there for six years, aged five to eleven.  He says, Turn a boy over to the Jesuits, for that time of life, and they’ll own him for the rest.  He also says, There were few books in that house.  But when they found this out, his parents sent him books, and they were rescue.  Lastly, he talks about his strategies for combating abuse.  “If you cross-examine a child of seven or eight on his day’s doings (specially when he wants to go to sleep), he will contradict himself very satisfactorily.  If each contradiction be set down as a lie and retailed at breakfast, life isn’t easy.  Yet it made me give attention to the lies I soon found it necessary to tell, and this, I presume, is the foundation of literary effort.”  Well, yes.  This is a very sly admission on Kipling’s part, that the cruelty he encountered here was an engine for his imagination.  You don’t have to be a survivor of domestic dysfunction to recognize the coping mechanics; even a pretty healthy family dynamic can require navigation.  Kipling is saying that the habit of secrecy, of concealment, of lies, is a survival mechanism, it’s protective coloration.  Oh, and he sings for his supper.  He begins to make up stories. 

Happily, this isn’t taking place in a complete vacuum.  He doesn’t have close relatives in England, but there are a few close enough to see the kid’s miserable, and his mother shows up finally to effect his escape.  (He never seems to blame them for this, by the way, Alice and John, his parents.  They identify as Anglo-Indian, overseas English, and it’s common practice to send your children home to Great Britain so they don’t go native.  The problem being that the foster family Kipling and his sister Trix were lodged with are opportunistic scum.)  We can all too easily imagine the twelve-year-old boy’s apprehension that he hasn’t broken free, that this is all a cruel joke, that the House of Desolation will open its jaws to him again, but no, this isn’t an imaginary release, they spend a careless spring and summer near Epping Forest, and we can’t help but think this is remembered in Puck of Pook’s Hill.

(One of Kipling’s gifts, it seems to me, is his enormous sympathy with childhood.  He re-imagines it.  Reading his children’s stories - or having them read aloud to you - The Just-So Stories, The Jungle Book, Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies, Stalky & Co., you can hear how each of them are pitched for a different ear.  The Just-So Stories are clearly aimed at four to six, Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies aimed at a slightly older audience, say  seven to ten.  But he’s never condescending.)

Kipling was twelve going on thirteen when he went to public school at Westward Ho!  It was of course a curriculum that emphasized muscular Christianity, but the boy, Beetle in the Stalky stories, got his growth.  We imagine it was tough at first – did they even have hot bath water? – and there was caning, and institutionalized bullying by the upperclassmen, and for all of that, he pulls up his socks and soldiers on.  This isn’t the torment of Swansea, it’s a discipline he can embrace. 

He wasn’t, however, a terrific academic success.  His grades weren’t good enough to get him a scholarship to Oxford, and his parents didn’t have the means to pay his tuition, so John lined up a job for his son back in Lahore, assistant editor of The Civil and Military Gazette.

Kipling docks in India in October, 1882.  He’s just shy of seventeen, and he’s been away for eleven years.  “I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving again among sights and smells that made me deliver in the vernacular sentences whose meaning I knew not.  …My English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength.”

These next seven years account for Plain Tales from the Hills, Soldiers Three, Under the Deodars, The Phantom Rickshaw, and Wee Willie Winkie, along with poetry and six days a week of newspaper content.  The boy, once bereft and cast out, is home again.  His engine burns furiously.

Kipling was always full of industry, and his energies never deserted him, even if age slowed him down a little in the last five or so years of his life, but nothing matches the fever of that time in India. Both the Gazette and its sister publication, the Pioneer in Allahabad, were dailies, and he refers to the newspaper work as Seven Years’ Hard. He clearly wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything else.
     Try as he will, no man breaks wholly loose

          From his first love, no matter who she be.

     Oh, was there ever sailor free to choose,

          That didn’t settle somewhere near the sea?

I admit I have a real weakness for writers like Kipling, and Sir Walter Scott, and Dickens, or for that matter John O’Hara, who just pour it on.  Their invention, their freshness, their sheer concentration, is astonishing.  I’m sure they have their moments of despair and doubt.  But they lace up their God damn game shoes, and go out to play, with the score against them.

Kipling is one of those guys who’s anything but transparent.  In disguise, he takes on other voices, he protects himself.  He’s still in a boxer’s crouch.  Restless and forlorn.  The boy, abandoned, finding refuge in stories, a larger fate, a secret destiny.  Kim.  Kipling the spy.  The writer as double agent, infiltrating his own narrative, reporting back to us at great personal risk from an occupied country, where the real enemy is trust. 

Famously, he says of Bombay:
     The cities are full of pride,

          Challenging each to each –

     And she shall touch and remit

          After the use of kings

     (Orderly, ancient, fit)

          My deep-sea plunderings.

This is a man who put regret aside, but regrets color his life.  He forgets nothing, and forgives less.  Kipling absorbs, and apologizes.  Not even Dickens is less himself, or more.  Hidden, he rings true, as clear as water.

08 September 2020

Playing the Numbers

I like to think the process of getting a short story published is a numbers game—submit enough stories to enough publications and sooner or later at least one of them will be accepted—but it isn’t.

The stories in these publications beat the odds.

The process starts with the story, which must be well-written, competently proofread, and appropriately formatted. Accomplishing this is difficult enough, but additional factors impact a story’s salability.

For example, genres run hot and cold, with markets expanding and contracting. A pretty good story might sell if there are a dozen potential markets, but likely not when there are only two potential markets and all the top writers in that genre are also submitting to them. In that case, pretty good might not be good enough.

Additionally, targeted stories—stories written for specific open-submission calls—have an advantage over old manuscripts tossed into the submission queue just because they vaguely meet the requirements. On the flip side, though, a story written for a specific open call that doesn’t make the cut may be more difficult to place elsewhere if it’s too obviously a reject from that project.


Still, the numbers are important, so let’s look at a few.

Stories currently under submission: Seventeen.

Stories not currently under submission: Thirty-five.

It frustrates me to have so many unsubmitted stories lounging about the house doing nothing to entertain readers, pay bills, and advance my career, but there are good reasons why some of them keep hanging around. They can be classified into three, easily identifiable groups:

1) Stories I wrote for the confession magazines. For much of my writing career I was a frequent contributor to magazines such as True Story, True Confessions, True Love, and the like, and when the last two confession magazines ceased publication a few years ago, I was left with about two dozen unsold confessions. Though I placed a few of them in romance anthologies, most of the stories that remain are not romances. I also placed a few with small-press pulp magazines, but most of the small-press pulp magazines want crime fiction, science fiction, and the like, not confessions/women’s fiction.

2) Stories I wrote for Woman’s World. Several years ago I made a run at Woman’s World but failed to sell WW any of those stories. When I stopped trying to break into the magazine, it was purely a financial decision: I was selling every confession I wrote, and I calculated how many WW stories I would have to sell relative to the number I wrote to earn as much as I was earning when I spent that time writing confessions. I don’t remember the exact number, but it was somewhere around one in ten, and I wasn’t selling any. Over the years I’ve placed a handful of the unsold WW stories, but, as with confessions, I’ve not found many markets open for the short romances I wrote.

3) The last group of unsubmitted stories is a mish-mash. Some were written for specific open-submission anthology calls and didn’t make the cut. Some were written for once-hot genres that have grown cold. Some were written with no specific market in mind. Some were written in genres where I’m not as familiar with the markets. So, they lounge about the house, taunting me with their failure to connect with the right editor.

What all of these unsubmitted stories have in common is that I haven’t given up on any of them. Every few weeks I spend quality time with my favorite search engine, seeking markets—open-call anthologies, new periodicals, webzines, and so on—looking for potential homes for one or more of the unsubmitted manuscripts. When I find potential homes, I send my darlings off to visit editors. It’s their job to convince editors of their worth.


Of the seventeen stories currently awaiting decisions from editors, eight are on first submission; four on second; one on third; one on fourth; one on sixth; one on seventh, and the final one is a previously published story being offered as a reprint.

Of the thirty-five stories awaiting submission, thirteen have been out and back once; twelve have been out and back twice; seven have been out and back three times; and three have been out and back four times.

Based on past experience, most of these stories will sell...eventually. And this is where the numbers game comes back into play: The only way to sell a story is to put it in the hands of an editor who wants to publish it, and sometimes that means putting the story in the hands of many editors before finding the perfect match.

Because, if your stories are well-written, competently proofread, and appropriately formatted, and if you submit enough of them to enough publications, sooner or later at least one will be accepted.

My story “I Would Do Anything For You” was published August 31 at Pulp Modern Flash. This is one of the shortest stories I’ve ever written.

Breaking News! I will soon open for submissions to two new anthologies: Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties and Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir Vol. 3. Learn more at http://www.crimefictionwriter.com/submissions.html.

07 September 2020

The Boy From The Woods

I met and became friends with Harlan Coben several years ago at the first Private Eye Writer's Conference in St Louis, MO. He'd just had published his first Myron Bolitar, private eye, Play Dead. Through the years he has written thirty-plus mystery and thrillers, becoming a New York Times Best Seller and an International Best Seller, in the process. His books have also been made into Netflix Original Series, beginning with The Stranger. His most recent novel is The Boy From The Woods and just released in paperback.

From the North Jersey Gazette,
                April 18, 1986

Abandoned "Wild Boy Found In The Woods"

Huge Mystery Surrounding Discovery of "Real Life Mowgli"

Westville, NJ --In one of the most bizarre cases in recent history a wild-haired young boy, estimated to be between six and eight years old was discovered living on his own in the Ramapo Mountain State Forest near the suburb of Westville. Even more bizarre, authorities have no idea who the boy is or how long he had been there. 

"It's like Mowgli in the Jungle Book movie," said Westville Police Deputy Owen Carmichael said.

The boy--who speaks and understands English but has no knowledge of his name--was first spotted by Don and Leslie Katz, hikers from Clifton, NJ. "We were cleaning up from our picnic and heard a rustling in the woods." Mr. Katz said. "At first I worried it was a bear, but then we caught sight of him running, clear as day."

Park Rangers, along with the local police, found the boy, thin and clad in tattered clothes, in a makeshift campsite three hours later. "At this time, we don't know how long he's been in the state forest or how he got here," said New Jersey State Park Police Chief Tony Aurigemma. "He doesn't recall any parents or adult figures.  We're currently checking with enforcement authorities, but so far, there are no missing children who match his age or description."

In the past year, hikers in the Ramapo Mountain area have reported seeing a "feral boy," or "Little Tarzan" matching the boy's description, but most people chalked up the sightings an urban legend. 

Said James Mignone, a hiker from Morristown, NJ., "It's like someone birthed him and left him in the wild."

"It's the strangest survival case any of us have ever seen," Chief Aurigemma said, "We don't know if the boy has been out here for days, weeks, months or  heck, even years."

If anyone has any information on the young boy, they are asked to contact the Westville Police Department.

"Someone out there has to know something," Deputy Carmichael said. "The boy didn't just appear in the forest by magic."

Thirty years ago, Wilde was found as a boy living feral in the woods, with no memories of his past. Now as an adult, he still doesn't know where he came from, and another child has gone missing.

No one seems to take Naomi Pine's disappearance seriously, not even her father--except Hester Crimstein, a criminal TV attorney. Her grandson, Mathew tells Hester that Naomi was bullied at school relentlessly and although he had one time tried to take up for the girl, back in elementary school, he was beat down and never tried again. This time he wants to stand up for her. 

Wilde can't ignore an outcast in trouble, but in order to do that he has to  walk back into the community where he was never accepted or fit in.  A community that harbors secrets that Wilde must uncover before the girl's disappearance brings them all disastrous consequences.

Jan's extra note: These days Harlan is an extra busy young man, with his multiple projects for Netflix, next spring will see the publication of the first novel featuring Windsor Horne Lockwood lll, seen many times in the Myron Bolitar Novels, titled If You Lose You Die. He of the "Articulate Baby" way of answering his phone. 

I also had to know if we would ever see Wilde again? Harlan wrote me this morning that book was in progress. I'm thrilled by that news. Wilde is a wonderful character and there is still much we don't know about him.

06 September 2020

Small Claims 2

Hal 2001
Home Automation Interface
The goal of going to court is to be ‘made whole’. If you were injured, either physically or financially, you seek redress. Don’t try to profit, don’t attempt to win the lottery.

If you proceed to Small Claims court, you might find a few useful hints in the following. Otherwise, feel free to skip my scintillating prose and entertain yourself with 9gag.com or that old favorite, Wimp.com, whereupon farewell and I’ll see you in two weeks.

9Gag Wimp

Meanwhile, on to the article!

05 September 2020

Prepare to Launch

Here's the deal. If you're a writer of short stories, you probably use a certain process. Mine is as follows: I come up with an idea (usually a plot), heat it up in my head until it's fully baked, sit down and write the story and rewrite it several times, and when I think it's as good as I can make it I find a market for that story and I send it off. Then I start all over again, with another idea.

For some folks, whatever the process, the hardest part is not the creative phase. It's trying to put what they've created into the hands of a reader. And that part is critical. The rocket's been built, but nobody'll know how good it is until it gets off the ground.

Let's back up a minute. Almost twenty years ago, after I had achieved some modest success at publishing short stories, I began teaching night classes at a local college, on the subject of writing and selling short fiction. It was fun, but I figured I'd do a few classes and that would be that. As it turned out, I was no better at predicting the future than I was at predicting the stock market--I kept teaching those short-story courses for seventeen years. And during that time I found that writers have just as many questions about getting their stories published as they do about writing them. Even after I quit teaching, a couple of years ago, I continued to receive emails from beginning writers telling me they had written a story but didn't know how to format it for submission or where to send it.

I still get those emails, and the first part of the question is fairly easy. For formatting submissions, Shunn's manuscript guide remains one of the most helpful resources, so long as you realize that Times New Roman--not Courier--seems to have become the preferred font. I've also posted some columns here at SleuthSayers--here's one of them, from April of last year--that cover some of that.

As to where to submit the stories, well, that's another matter, and sort of a moving target.

For those who wrestle with trying to get their beloved stories up and flying--and all of us do, to some degree--here are some market links and other information that might help.

Submission guidelines for magazines

NOTE: I've listed only those publications that (1) are still in business, (2) have featured my own stories (so I know they're legit), and (3) will consider short mystery/crime fiction. And, whenever possible, the link goes directly to the guidelines page.

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine
Paying market, no reprints
Print publication
Editor: Linda Landrigan

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
Paying, no reprints
Editor: Janet Hutchings

The Strand Magazine
My apologies, here. I've not been able to find any official guidelines online, but if you'll let me know in the comments section or send me a private message via Facebook, I'll fill you in on what they like and require. Also, here's a recent SleuthSayers post about the Strand that mentions some of their preferences.
Paying, no reprints
Editor: Andrew F. Gulli

Black Cat Mystery Magazine
Paying, no reprints
Editor: Michael Bracken

Mystery Weekly
Paying, no reprints
Editor: Kerry Carter

Flash Bang Mysteries
Paying, no reprints
Editor: BJ Bourg

Shotgun Honey
Non-paying, will consider reprints
Editor/Publisher: Ron Earl Phillips

Paying, no reprints
Online only
Editor/Publisher: Rusty Barnes

Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine
Paying, no reprints
Print publication
Editor: Marvin Kaye

Kings River Life
Non-paying, receptive to reprints
Online only
Editor/Publisher: Lorie Ham

Non-paying, will consider reprints
Online only
Editor/Publisher: Joseph DeMarco

Woman's World
As with the Strand, I couldn't find any links to current guidelines, especially for WW's mystery stories. Let me know in the comments section or contact me via FB and I'll send you a file. There are also some WW submission tips in this SleuthSayer column from a couple of years ago.
Paying, no reprints
Fiction Editor: Alessandra Pollock

Magazine/anthology markets in general

Publishing . . . and Other Forms of Insanity
New listings are posted monthly, and sometimes more often.

Novel & Short Story Writers Market
Available in both print and Kindle

This site lists anthology calls as well as links to pro, semi-pro, paying, and non-paying magazines. Most are speculative fiction markets, but some mystery publications are also included. I've sold a lot of stories using this resource.

New Pages

Freedom with Writing

Everywriter: Top 50 Literary Magazines

Poets & Writers: Literary Magazines

Used to be free, is now a pay site. I'm not a subscriber, but I know a lot of writers who are.

The Grinder

Literarium -- anthology calls

I'm sure there are many other resources out there, but these are the ones that came to mind. General searches work, too--I often Google phrases like "short story markets," "short mystery markets," "anthology calls for submission," etc., and find new links that way. (I still miss Sandra Seamans' blog on story markets, My Little Corner, which I consulted regularly for years to find targets for my stories.)

One misconception is that writers who've been at it for a long time send stories only to markets that they know and have dealt with. I certainly do that, and will continue to, but I'm also on the lookout for new places to try, with both original stories and reprints. In preparing for this post, I did some looking into my own records, and I found that about half the stories I've submitted since the first of this year went to familiar markets and about half to publications that were new to me. Some of those new submissions were to anthologies, some were to beginning markets, and others were to places that have been around for a while but that I'd just never tried.

What are your favorites sources of information about current markets, and how often do you actively try to find new places to send your work?

Best wishes to all of you, with your writing and marketing. May all your stories find good homes.

04 September 2020

Horses, Booze, and the Great Mint Julep Cup Conspiracy

Athlete with a taste for water only.

(Photo by Sheri Hooley via Unsplash)

It never fails that in the presence of galloping horses, human beings become parched and feel the need to drink heavily. At least, they do in the South, birthplace of the legendary icy-sweet mint julep. The julep is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, which is normally held in May but was postponed to September 5—tomorrow—because of the pandemic. Historically, 120,000 juleps are mixed, served, and drunk at the Derby each year. This year, the horses will run without the presence of fans, so the legions of thirsty humans will have to fend for themselves.

Drink me.

(Photo by Adam Jaime on Unsplash)

As it is mixed today, the cocktail calls for four essential ingredients: a heaping mound of crushed ice, simple syrup, bourbon, and mint. And that cup. Without the cup, the drink is tasty but unremarkable. A kind of Slushee, or snow cone, for grownups who favor bowties, seersucker suits, and wacky hats. But when that sprig of mint is tucked into the top of a copper, pewter, or silver cup frosted with condensation, suddenly we’re in food porn heaven.

A few years ago, I went looking for a (cheap) pair of those cups at the local mall, but struck out at every store I visited. I did find many of those copper Moscow mule cups that are all the rage these days. Finally, after searching in vain amid her employers’ stock, a very nice sales woman shook her head and told me, “You know, I think mint juleps are a really Southern thing, and we’re just not very Southern here in Asheville.”

That would be Asheville, North Carolina, the so-called “Paris of the South,” and the Appalachian hometown of Thomas Wolfe.

But I received her meaning. There’s South, and there’s SOUTH.

Compelled to take my investigations elsewhere, I was surprised to find that there was an entire body of lore surrounding the beverage, not to mention the cup. Ponderous food encyclopedias informed me that “julep” is derived from a Persian word, gūlab, meaning rosewater, and refers to a syrup made from that infusion. One must always endeavor to hold one’s julep cup by the bottom or top rim, never the sides, lest your sweaty mitts hasten the drink’s inevitable melting.

Since the 1940s, the quintessential Derby accoutrement has been a pricy sterling silver cup made by Wakefield-Scearce Galleries, out of Shelbyville, Kentucky.

How it came about: Times were tough because of WWII. Seeking a way to make his particular Derby cup irresistible, Mark J. Scearce the Elder hit upon the idea of producing ones marked on their undersides with the initials of the current U.S. president. He got the idea from a tradition that dates to 1300 CE and the reign of Edward I, when British silversmiths were required to stamp an official “hallmark” on the bottom of their pieces to indicate the degree of the silver’s purity.

True, at the time Scearce was developing his cups, FDR may have seemed like he’d been appointed for life, but most presidents had only served eight years, max. On that basis alone, Scearce’s cups would theoretically be limited edition items—and thus highly collectible.

LBJ so loved this tribute that he bought tons to give as gifts.

The first ones Scearce offered for sale were stamped with an American eagle and the initials of one HST. From that moment forward, each new White House occupant received a Shelbyville cup of his own. If an incumbent was reelected, Scearce added the Roman numeral II to that president’s initials.

Roman numeral II, indicating Clinton’s second time at bat.

The Scearce family continues the tradition to this day, and other firms such as Tiffany have gotten into the act. A new Scearce sterling silver presidential cup will currently set you back $850. (A $65 pewter option bears the initials of the current governor of Kentucky.) People collect Scearces and trot them out—see what I did there?—for their own annual Derby parties. Scearce cups that show up in estate sales or on eBay are often a few hundred dollars cheaper, and are snapped up quickly by people starting their own collections. The most desirable ones are those whose sides are not monogrammed with the initials of the previous owner. The least desirable are ones that are dinged, tarnished, or no longer watertight, possibly due to julep-induced fracases.

I’ve never seen an HST online, but DDE, LBJ, and JFK are surprisingly common. I have a theory about this. The older the cup, the more likely its first owner has sipped his or her last julep, and the lonely cup is seeking a new quaffer.

When it comes to “collectibles,” I typically follow a look-don’t-buy approach that has served my wallet well. But, based on my bourbon-infused research, I can say that if you’re a big spender and spy a RMN or JEC or GRF, grab it. For some reason, they are scarcer than RWR or RWRII. Right now it’s tough finding an GHWB, WJC, or GWB. I presume the original guzzlers are still knocking those back.

Of course, since this is 21st-century America, even innocuous things such as mint julep cups have become heavily politicized. I’ve read stories about people who will only collect cups denoting presidents of a particular party. Or, if their host is an equal-opportunity collector, a reveler will pounce on the president who aligns with their politics, even if that president espoused policies the current party would disavow. The more recent the president, the hotter the emotions. Thank goodness the mint julep is a cold drink.

Now. Everyone needs a conspiracy theory, and this is mine: I believe some heavy-hitter eBay vendors occasionally obscure a certain president’s name, possibly for fear that 50 percent of their potential American buyers will not consider buying the cup on offer. I have no proof of this. I just find it odd that a seller will occasionally explain that the initials on the bottom of a particular cup stand for Better Hold On. If someone is buying a vintage Scearce cup, wouldn’t they know better?

Better Hold On, my horses fanny.

I look forward to the day when the second-sip market is rife with cups paying tribute to Don’t Just Tipple, Daily Jowls Tremble, Dastardly Joke Tool, or something equally clever. That would be sweet, gūlab-flavored justice, indeed.

As summer’s days wind down, I wish you all the frostiest of cocktails. Let us depart on the words of author Frances Parkinson Keyes, whose most famous book, Dinner at Antoine’s, was a mystery set in New Orleans. Elsewhere in her oeuvre, she wrote:
“I have heard it said that the last instructions which a Virginia gentleman murmurs on his deathbed are, ‘Never insult a decent woman, never bring a horse in the house, and never crush the mint in the julep.’”
Go and bruise gently, friends.

(Photo by Ari Augustian via Unsplash)

* * *

See you all in three weeks.

03 September 2020

Is It Live Or...Is It...


We've all been there: reading a great piece of fiction, cruising through it happily, only to find ourselves tripped up and taken out of the scene by something that just doesn't strike us as "realistic."

It could be the scene is too "fantastic," in the "shares a root meaning with 'fantasy'" sense, not in the "We just won the lottery!" sense. It could be that the writer got some of the details wrong. My dad flew Huey gunships in Vietnam, so watching "Apocalypse Now" with him pointing out the details Coppola got wrong was quite the eye-opener.

For what it's worth, this is the reason I couldn't be bothered with the TV series "Jag." Having served in the Navy, I was painfully aware of the dozens of things that series got wrong. My military service also kiboshed any enjoyment I might have derived from any or all of the "JAG" spin-off "NCIS" series, the original or its three spin-offs. I simply know too much about how the Navy works to be able to overlook the things the writers of these shows so often get wrong.

So, you know, it's just not (as I said above) "realistic."

I've heard it said before that "realism" and "reality" are not the same thing. If anything realism is intended to ape reality, to give the appearance of it without the actuality of it.

And then there are scenes you write off because "that would never happen." The ones where you go:

Which leads to scenes like this one.

I was driving my wife to work last week, and we stopped at a Starbucks on the way to get her coffee and a quick breakfast for both of us. Our order included a bottle of water. That will be an important detail later.

We were greeted at the drive-up window by a nice capable woman who informed us the S'bucks crew were in the middle of shift change and that the new window person will be right with us.

What we got was Peppermint Patty come to life. So it goes without saying that with every question she asked she really didn't  really listen for the answer. 

She did everything but call me "Chuck."

It went something like this:

"Hi, what are you guys up to today?"

"Going to work," I said.

"Both of you?"

"No, I'm taking her in," at this I inclined my head in my wife's direction.

"Oh, that's nice. Wish someone would drive ME in to work. Are you working today?"

"I work from home."

"So does my mom. Works right there in the living room, on the phone all the time, gets in the way of my watching Sportscenter. I just love sports. Seahawks especially. Don't you guys love sports?"

By this point we had both been reduced to silently smiling and nodding.

She looked into the kitchen, likely checking on our order. "It's gonna be a few minutes," she said. "So excited for the Seahawks season to start, aren't you guys?"

We both nodded and smiled again. Silently.

She had me run my card. Then again. And a third time. Never once did she stop talking long enough to draw breath. 

She asked whether I liked working from home. I nodded and smiled. She asked why I was driving my wife in. I shifted to a smiling shrug, since a nod would be a non sequitur, and although—as I said above—I was pretty sure she wasn't really listening, I wasn't prepared to take the chance.

Then it was back to her mom, and what a pain it was to not be able to watch Sportscenter while her mom was working in the living room. And for us, more silent, smiling nods, and wondering whether we were ever going to get our order.

After several excruciating minutes of listening to her prattle on about (you guessed it) the Seahawks and her mom and Sportscenter, she finally produced our order. We checked it to make sure it was complete (we've been burned at this particular Starbucks before—human error, nothing nefarious. You know how it is.).

No bottle of water.

So she keeps us there while she checks on why there's no bottle. So we wait.

And wait.

And wait.

My wife, ever the wit, murmured just loud enough for only me to hear, "Do you think she's going to mention Sportscenter again?"

"Smart money's on either the Seahawks or her mom cramping her style by setting up between her and the living room TV," I said.

She finally got back to us, and her demeanor had completely changed. "So we're out of the bottles of water." Which fact she seemed genuinely dejected about. "If you put your card back in the reader, I'll refund you the price of the bottle."

Three tries again. Like a charm.

She offers water in one of their big cups. I accept in spite of myself. And while she's waiting on that she says, "Who's your favorite Seahawks player?"

"Russell Wilson," we both say, immediately, nearly in unison.

As she hands me my long-awaited water, she brightens and says, "Bobby Wagner for me, all the way."

And then we're free of that Starbucks and Peppermint Patty at the window.

So that's it. "Reality" or "Realism"? Too weird? Too dull? Too much of both? Is it a Slice of Life or a funhouse reflection of it?

Or, as they used to say when I was a kid:

02 September 2020

Who is Guarding Your Threshold?

Years ago I explained that the creative process requires two parts of your brain: the Miner (who digs up ideas), and the Jeweler (who turns them into something pretty, or at least sellable).

For the last few days the Miner has been screaming in my ear.  I'm not sure what he wants but it does not pay to ignore him.  (He gets lazy if he thinks you are ungrateful.)  So I am going to use this space to  talk about the subject that seems to be fascinating him at the moment. 

It began when I had the privilege of speaking to Malice in Memphis, a writer's group in New Hampshire.   (Okay, it's in Tennessee.)  You can watch it on Facebook The subject was short stories.

Our own Michael Bracken was kind enough to attend and during the Q&A he mentioned Blake Snyder's Save the Cat Beat Sheet, a template for plot structure.  I had never heard of it but I have since looked it up and it is quite interesting.  I recommend it.

Not surprisingly, Snyder's template reminded me of another plot outline with which I am more familiar: the Hero's Journey, as explained in Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces, which I also recommend.  (And when you finish it you will want to buy The Hero With an African Face, by my friend Clyde Ford.  It fills in a part of the canvas Campbell left mostly blank.)

Campbell uses mythology from around the world to synthesize the key elements of the hero myth.  It is important to realize that virtually no story will have all the elements; the variations are part of what makes them so interesting.  All the stations of the journey are worth pondering, especially for a writer, but  the part that the Miner has been obsessing over since Saturday is the Threshold Guardian.

So what the hell is that, you may ask.

Well, it's like this.  The hero (and it could be male or female.  I'm going to go male throughout because most of the examples that popped into my head are boys) is summoned to adventure (by a client knocking on the office door, scavengers selling droids, a white rabbit with a pocket watch...).  But in some stories before his journey can truly begin there is an obstacle in his way, guarding the threshold he must pass.  This may be a person, an object, or even an emotion (like self-doubt) but until he defeats it, the hero is stuck.

To get metaphysical, the threshold guardian is the champion of the unchanging world which the hero is destined to change.  The guardian's mission is to stop the quest before it even begins.

In Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, think of Vernon Dursley trying to keep Harry from reading an invitation to attend Hogwart's School of Magic (what Campbell would label the Call to Adventure).


My novel Greenfellas is about a Mafiosi who decides he needs to save the environment.  The first obstacle he faces is his boss, the capo dei capi,  who forbids his getting involved in such a ca
use.  "We aren't the good guys," he insists.  Before my hero can proceed he needs to find a way to work around the head man.

By the way, if the hero defeats the Guardian he may turn into a strong ally.  Think of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride.

I am currently working on a short story which begins with my hero (literally) stumbling over a corpse.  I think the threshold guardians are the police detectives who don't want him screwing up their investigation.  But maybe things will turn out differently.

Is that story what the Miner is trying to talk to me about?  Dunno.  Sometimes he provides the answers years before I find the question.  But the important thing is to keep listening.


01 September 2020

The appeal of epistolary stories

I have a new short story published this month: "Dear Emily Etiquette" in the September/October issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It's a story told in a series of letters between an increasingly annoyed woman who's invited to her cousin's wedding--but only if she brings a date--and advice columnist Emily Etiquette. This was my first attempt at writing an epistolary story, and I really enjoyed it. I thought I would talk about why.

First it was nice to work with an unusual structure, at least for me. Every letter was akin to a scene, and time could easily pass between each one. A letter was only written when something aggravated the woman enough to put pen to paper, and then Emily Etiquette sent a reply. That resulted in every scene not only moving the plot forward (as they should) but doing so in an interesting and fun way.

It was also fun to tweak a stereotype. Etiquette columnists have a reputation for doing things in a proper manner. Some might even call them prissy. Well, not my Emily Etiquette. Although she gives advice about what she thinks the letter writer (and others) should do in particular situations, she's not above getting a little down and dirty in her comments and her suggestions--they might even seem a bit naughty to people who are willing to read between the lines.

Writing a story in letters also allowed me to make use of an unreliable narrator, not because my letter writers lied, but because the reader only saw the things that were written in the letters. Usually in fiction you'll see a lot of the point-of-view character's thoughts, but with a story told via letters it's not cheating to leave out some thoughts since letter writers are not expected to share all their thoughts. And things that aren't mentioned--at least at first--can end up being important. So epistolary stories are perfect for lies of omission. They allow the POV character to surprise the reader with plot twists.

The final and perhaps most important reason writing a story in letters appealed to me was because I thought readers would be particularly enticed to read those letters. Why? Because it feels wrong. Even though it's fiction and the reader knows the story was designed to be read, there's still a voyeuristic aspect to reading fictional letters. It's like peeking at your older sister's diary (not that I ever did that). You get to learn someone's thoughts and all their dirty little secrets. While this happens with fiction in general, when a story is structured as letters between two people, and you're not one of them, it feels sneaky to read them, as if you might get caught at any moment, and that can be tantalizing--at least for some people (am I revealing too much?).

Here's the wonderful drawing created by Jason C. Eckhardt that accompanies 
my story in the magazine and in the preview on the EQMM website.

Have you ever written or read epistolary stories or books? What did you like best about them?

If you'd like to read an excerpt of my story, you're in luck. Ellery Queen has put one up on their website. You can read it by clicking here. And if you enjoy it, I hope you'll pick up a copy of this issue. EQMM can be found in bookstores (brick-and-mortar ones as well as online) and at newsstands. You can subscribe or buy individual issues in print or electronic copy. Learn more from the publisher here. And since I have a friend who had trouble finding the issue on Amazon, here's that link too.