19 December 2020

The Second Time Around


I'm a writer who's been fortunate enough to publish a fair number of short stories. And one of the best things about that is something that never occurred to me until after I'd been doing this for a while: a lot of published stories means a lot of opportunities for reprints.

Unlike novels, short stories can be sold over and over again, if you take the time and trouble to find places receptive to previously published work. There aren't a huge number of those, but there are probably more than you might think.

It's easy to understand why some publications are interested in reprints. After all, "used," in this context, doesn't mean damaged or substandard. The words in stories remain the same--although they do occasionally show their age. And some of the best stories I've read are those that I wouldn't have seen at all if they hadn't been discovered by others and republished in another place. Sure, I enjoy opening up an issue of AHMM or EQMM or The Strand and reading a story that's never been seen before. I think everyone does. But I also like finding and reading anthologies of previously-published tales, some of those written by authors I know and some not. I've even met a few folks who say they prefer to read that kind of book because they know an editor considered those stories good enough to republish and redistribute.

Reborn identities

On the marketing side, authors are aware that they usually can't sell a reprint as easily as an original story, or= expect to be paid as much when they do. But that's not always the case, and when you do sell one and get paid for it, you can certainly look at it as found money. How much were you making from it while it sat forgotten and aging like tobacco leaves on your hard drive? And even if you don't get paid again, you might consider it worthwhile just to get the extra exposure a reprint provides. Different writers have different opinions, on that.

As for publication rights, if the only rights a market has bought to your story is "first rights"--sometimes specified as FNASR (First North American Serial Rights)--then you automatically own and keep the reprint rights. I've also heard reprint rights referred to as "second rights," even though I understand that term also applies to its third or fourth or fifth reprint as well. I've had several of my short stories published more than half a dozen times after their original appearances, and every time that happened, my contracts stated that the publication was acquiring one-time "reprint rights."

Info from the sales manual

The usual way to sell reprints is to find possible markets, decide whether your already-pubbed stories might be a good match, and submit them for consideration. Some of these markets are magazines--especially online zines receptive to stories previously published in print only--and some are anthologies for which your story might fit the theme. Sometimes there's no way to know whether a market--mag OR antho--will consider reprints, but their policy on this is usually indicated in their guidelines. They might say "unpublished stories only," "original stories only," "no previously published work," "reprints considered," "reprints encouraged," etc. Strangely enough, most of the places to which I've sold reprints don't seem to care whether the original story appeared in a high-profile market or a lesser-known market. I suppose the assumption is, most people will not have seen the story, period, and if they did they probably won't remember it. In any case, if you submit a reprint you must be sure to include in your cover letter the fact that your story was previously published, and when and where. I usually include these two sentences: "This story was originally published in the July 1998 issue of Gone & Forgotten Magazine. Since they acquired first rights only, I hope you'll want to use it in a future issue of Here & Now Magazine."

One of the best ways to get a story reprinted, of course, is to have it chosen for inclusion in one of the annual "best-of" anthologies. That's something you can't control, but when it happens it's dancing-in-the-street time, and it's great in several ways: (1) It often gets your story wider exposure than the first time around, (2) it often earns you more money than you were paid for the original, and (3) it requires no effort on your part. But those out-of-the-blue bonanzas don't happen that often. When they do, you thank your lucky stars and hope it'll happen again someday.

Old or new?

One question that was usually asked by those in my writing classes was How much do you have to change in a story to make it an original story instead of a reprint? Opinions vary on this, but I'm pretty strict about it. I think you have to do far more than just change a title and character names and place names, etc., to call an already published story a "new" story. I think the plot, as well as those other things I mentioned, must be substantially different in order for it to be considered a new and original story. In fact I have never even attempted to change an already-published story to the extent that I could call it an original. I once tried changing the names of all the male characters in a published YA story about a bunch of boys to names of female characters so I could market it as an adventure story for girls, and changed some things about the plot as well--but I still called it a reprint, and presented it that way. In my cover letter I said something like "A modified version of this story first appeared in . . ." To do otherwise would be unethical, if not dishonest, and I suspect that if you're ever caught doing it, you will have peed in your Post Toasties when it comes to future dealings with editors. In other words, don't do it. Write a truly new story instead.

For what it's worth, I've recently found several links that will consider reprints, and these have resulted in the sale of quite a few of my older stories. The first link is a bit outdated but still useful and the second is current. Both are good resources. I also occasionally find reprint markets merely by googling "short story reprint markets," "calls for reprint submissions," and so forth.

One more thing. I regularly visit the ralan.com site when I'm looking for reprint markets. (It's geared to SF/fantasy stories but also includes info on AHMM, EQMM, and other mystery markets.) After choosing one of the categories at the top of the page (pro, semipro, anthology), I type the word "reprints" into the search field so it'll highlight that part of every publication's guidelines as I click through the entries. They'll say either REPRINTS: NO or REPRINTS: YES.

What do YOU think?

So . . . If you're a writer, what's your advice and what are your observations on this subject? Do you actively seek out targets for your previously published stories? Do you know of some publications that regularly feature reprints? Are there websites you visit regularly that can help you find reprint opportunities? Have you had any good or bad experiences when getting your stories reprinted in other publications? Have you had many stories selected for renewed life in "year's-best" anthologies? Let me know.

And that's that. Main thing is, don't just let those stories you've worked hard on sit idle after publication and become one-hit wonders. When the exclusivity period in your contract runs out--it's rarely longer than six months--get those stories back out there and into circulation.

Remember: short fiction is 100% recyclable.

18 December 2020

The Greatest Christmas Mystery, Ever, Part II

The thing every author creates that marks a work as their own is also the very thing they cannot see. Fans and critics might well rave about a writer’s “style,” but those writers have no clue what these mad people are talking about. A writer can try to imitate another writer’s style, but not for long. Inevitably, the thing that makes a writer unique eventually outs. That’s why those Sherlockian pastiches never really nail Doyle. Close, but no meerschaum pipe.

Writers love to lament quirks of their style. But when they do that, they’re really moping about defects that are painfully obvious to them. When I edit my work, I try desperately to excise the stuff I hate about my writing. I know, for example, that I overuse words like “concoct”—not to mention “desperately” and “excise.” And sure, there are tons of junk words I search for during an editing pass that have been culled, I might as well confess, from previous columns on that subject right here on the Sleuthsayers blog. (A tip of the hat here to Messrs. Lopresti and Floyd.)

But let’s face it: no matter how much I tinker with my paragraphs and sentences, the Joe-ness within me inevitably spills onto the page. I have no idea, for example, how my use of definite and indefinite articles differ from some other writers. And I have no clue how my use of phonemes (don’t ask) punctuate the Joe-itude. For every quirk I prune away, I lay down a thousand more tells that taint the prose with what can probably be described as a sort of invisible literary fingerprint.

And modern scientists can lift those prints.

Toward the end of the 19th century, descendants of a man named Henry Livingston Jr. went public with the shocking truth, as they perceived it: Clement Clarke Moore had claimed authorship of a poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, written by their ancestor.

Livingston (1748-1828) was many things in life—a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a surveyor, a justice of the peace, and an inveterate poet. When Livingston’s first wife died, he married and fathered children with another woman. It was to this second crop of kids that Livingston—who lives in the literature as a light-hearted, jolly fellow—is believed to have first read his Christmas poem sometime between 1807-09. The family suspected that a visitor to Henry’s estate in Poughkeepsie brought a copy with her to New York City, where it somehow ended up in Moore’s household.


Of course, there’s no proof of any of this. Livingston’s original text, with numerous cross-outs—was said to have been preserved in the family for decades, until it was lost in a house fire in Wisconsin in the 1840s.

But we do have those marvelous words. If Livingston wrote the poem, his invisible fingerprints would be all over it, wouldn’t they? In 1999, a descendant convinced a Vassar professor to begin a textual analysis of the poem, comparing its signature quirks to other known examples of Livingston’s and Moore’s poetry. After a long study, the first prof, Don Foster, said yep, Livingston did it!(1) If that weren’t enough, a second professor—MacDonald P. Jackson, professor emeritus at the University of Auckland—subjected the work of the two men to numerous tests, producing a 2016 book in the process, ultimately finding for Livingston.(2) I urge you read Professor Mac’s work, if long asides on phoneme pairs, attributive adjectives, and high- and low-frequency words—and the syllables that love them—run to your taste.


The thing is, we should have known all along. I can’t help imagining Hercule Poirot or Ellery Queen or even the aforementioned Mr. Holmes pegging Moore as the malingerer after a long weekend in the country with him.

On paper, the dude looks temperamentally incapable of writing such a poem.

Item 1: In 1799, New York passed a law allowing for gradual emancipation. That meant that all enslaved persons in the state had to be freed by 1827. Clement Clarke Moore—a biblical scholar, a man of the freaking cloth—held onto his enslaved persons till the very end. The year A Visit from St. Nicholas was published, 1823, Moore owned five human beings. They had to be pried from his grip at the very last gasp of the manumission law. To make matters worse, Moore was rabidly against abolition and went to his grave in 1863 objecting to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Item 2: When Moore sold his Chelsea property in Manhattan, he did it in such a way to exclude working class New Yorkers, and did everything in his power to create an atmosphere modern Americans would associate with a gated community, banning everything from stables to factories to retail shops within the confines of Chelsea’s boundaries. When city fathers announced they wanted to run Ninth Avenue through his estate, he railed against it, saying it was a plot to appease the working class.

Item 3: When scholars speak of Moore, they use words like stodgy, stuffy, elitist, narrow, unplayful, or curmudgeonly. His other writing, especially the other poems he wrote, express a weirdly moralistic tone. He doesn’t really seem to like children. In one of the Christmas poems in his ouevre, Santa comes off like a dick—mocking the children for whom he has left a sackful of coal. As you read this poem, Moore appears in your mind’s eye, sadistically flexing a switch, as if prepping to whip a naughty child’s backside. In 1995, when the New-York Historical Society mounted an exhibition devoted to the poem, the museum’s curator confided to the New York Times, “He was clearly a prig. He had a very closed mind.”

I don’t have to tell you that scholars, academics, and museum curators choose their words very carefully.

Does this sound like the kind of man who could effortlessly write about sugar-plums and dozing tots? In the poem we all know and love, Santa comes to life as a pipe-smoking, soot-covered, working class hero, i.e., a “peddler just opening his pack.” That is not a portrayal you’d expect from the pen of a man who hated filthy tradesmen and their tobacco with equal venom. Could a guy like this really breathe life into a right jolly old elf?

If the modern academics are correct, suddenly tiny bits of the story surrounding the writing of the Christmas poem make a whole lot more sense.

No wonder Moore didn’t want his children and guests to share the poem he read them in 1822. No wonder he downplayed his “creation” for two decades, claiming the poem as his own and inserting it into a published collection of his poetry only after his children pushed him to do so. No wonder he claimed the poem was easy to write. (Trivial works usually are, aren’t they? Compiling a Hebrew-English dictionary, as Moore had, is far more mentally taxing.)

I might add that before Moore published the poem in his collection, he wrote a strange letter to the editor of the Troy, New York, newspaper that first pubbed the poem anonymously. Moore asked if editor Norman Tuttle knew who the author of the poem was when Tuttle first released it in the pages of his publication in 1823. Speaking as a writer myself, that is a very weird question for a writer to ask of his own work. As Livingston descendants and researchers point out, such a query only makes sense if Moore was trying to suss out if the coast was clear before he formally claimed the poem as his own.

Maybe it’s time for us to face facts. Maybe Moore wasn’t a brilliant-but-humble genius at all, as I hinted three weeks ago. Maybe he was just another hypocritical, moralizing, enslaving churchman. A man who willfully perpetrated one of the most outrageous thefts in the history of U.S. literature.

Not the “Poet of Christmas” at all. More like the plagiarist who stole Christmas.

Signed first edition? I think not.

Happy New Year to you all! See you in three weeks.

* * * 

(1) Author Unknown, by Don Foster (New York: Owl Books/Henry Holt, 2000). Chapter 6, beginning page 221, on the Santa Claus poem analysis.
(2) Who Wrote The Night Before Christmas?: Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore vs. Henry Livingston Question, by MacDonald P. Jackson (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016).
See also:
* Henry Livingston, Jr.: The Poet You Always Loved, by Mary Van Deusen (Wrentham, Massacusetts: Val Alain Publishing, 2016).

17 December 2020

Christmas Gifts and Christmas Coal

by Eve Fisher

Christmas Stocking Stuffer

Been watching a great show on Amazon Prime called Around the World in 80 Faiths.  The presenter, Pete Owen-Jones is straight out of central casting for an almost New Age Anglican vicar with a wicked sense of humor.  And it covers all kinds of faiths that you might never have even heard of.  Any show that talks about Cao Dai works for me.  Oh, and did I mention the scenery?  I had no idea that the Ethiopian highlands were so beautiful...

Also the latest season of Death in Paradise, which changed Chief Inspectors mid-way, but was very entertaining. 

And if you like Rowan Atkinson - The Thin Blue Line is a lot of fun.

Christmas Fruitcake - 

Well, technically Thanksgiving fruitcake; Thanksgiving evening I lost my footing somehow and fell down the flight of stairs leading to the basement.  Good news:  I was dressed to go out, with down coat, etc., which served as my bubble wrap, and the stairs were carpeted.  Better news:  Nothing broken, nothing sprained.  Bruising about as expected.  Bad news:  It made my arthritis / bursitis flare up.  Good news:  Cortisone shots work.  

It's looking like it's going to be a warm(er) dry Christmas.  30s and 40s.  No snow.  This means that I can walk outside (because there's no way I'm going to a gym until the vaccine has trickled down to me) for a lot longer than usual!  But... it's a lot less picturesque.   

Christmas Coal - 

John Le Carre died.  Granted, I didn't expect too many more novels from him at 89, but still...  

Still no charges or end of the investigation in the South Dakota AG Jason Ravnsborg accident in which he hit and killed a Jason Boever and claimed he thought he hit a deer.  Boever was carrying a light, and walking on the side of the road. And it happened back on September 12, so WTF???  Anyway, AV Ravnsborg held a little press conference on Monday, where he said:

“I believe I have not committed any crime. I believe that we will--when we have all the facts, not a selected amount of facts--we’ll know the full story and we’ll make a full statement,” he told a KOTA Territory News reporter. (KOTA News)

Two points:  

(1) Most criminals don't believe they've committed any crime.  And

(2) It's not - it should not be - a matter of your beliefs, Mr. Ravnsborg.

Meanwhile, Governor Noem and the Pennington County Sheriff (Rapid City) would like the Amendment legalizing pot that 2/3 of the voters voted "Yes" on to somehow go away.  Their attempts - and we all know they're gonna try - is going to cost South Dakotans a lot of money.  And most of us - in our rapidly aging state - would love at least some gummy bears before bedtime.

More Christmas Presents - 

Christmas mystery short stories!  

For some OLD golden oldies, try this list provided by East of the Web, complete with links to on-line reading.  Including, among others:

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle
How Santa Claus Came To Simpson's Bar by Bret Harte
Markheim by Robert Louis Stevenson
Bertie's Christmas Eve by Saki
Captain Eli's Best Ear by Frank Stockton

Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe - A Christmas Party:

I also love Maigret's Christmas, Hercule Poirot's Christmas and many others.  

Or, if you're in a grim holiday mood (and hey, it happens), there's a major compedium of Edgar Allan Poe at Free Short Stories UK.

Christmas Pudding - 

I'm not a big fan of Hallmark Christmas movies.  But I do love good Christmas TV episodes.  Here are some of my favorite Christmas episodes (in no particular order):

A Charlie Brown Christmas
The Waltons: The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (1971 - pilot movie)
The Waltons: The Best Christmas (1976)
Twilight Zone:  The Night of the Meek (1959)
The Big Bang Theory: "The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis" (December 15, 2008)
Blackadder's Christmas Carol

Speaking of the British, they're also really good at making things called Christmas Specials which may or may not even mention the Christmas season (other than a party).  But they're hilarious.  From Only Fools and Horses "Heroes and Villains".  


See also Only Fools & Horses "Modern Man" and "Time on Our Hands."
Last of the Summer Wine (1973):

Christmas Cookies - 

My favorite non-religious Christmas story, EVER, is still Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales.  The entire story can be found at the Australian Gutenberg  HERE.  From Mr. Prothero's fire 

"Do something," he said.

And we threw all our snowballs into the smoke—I think we missed Mr. Prothero—and ran out of the house to the telephone box.

"Let's call the police as well," Jim said.

"And the ambulance."

"And Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires."

But we only called the fire brigade, and soon the fire engine came and three tall men in helmets brought a hose into the house and Mr. Prothero got out just in time before they turned it on. Nobody could have had a noisier Christmas Eve. And when the firemen turned off the hose and were standing in the wet, smoky room, Jim's Aunt, Miss Prothero, came downstairs and peered in at them. Jim and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she would say to them. She said the right thing, always. She looked at the three tall firemen in their shining helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs, and she said: "Would you like anything to read?"

to Auntie Hannah, "who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush"; from the endless snow to the "close and holy darkness" - the sheer language gets me as drunk as Auntie Hannah's tea-laced rum.  

Best Christmas Gifts - 

We're still safe and healthy, as far as I can tell, but we have stayed masked and socially distanced, and will continue to do so.  

Meanwhile, the vaccines are being shipped, delivered, and injected!  Huzzah!  My nurse goddaughter got her shot yesterday!  Double Huzzah!

16 December 2020

Today in Mystery History: December 16

This is the seventh in my occasional series on the history of our illustrious field.  I chose this date for an entry because of a couple of weird coincidences.  Read on and be illuminated.

December 16, 1927.  Peter Dickinson was born on this date in Livingstone, Zambia. He won prizes for children's books and mysteries such as Skin Deep (1968) and A Pride of Heroes (1969). Two of his crime novels, beginning with King and Joker (1976), were set in an alternative timeline in which Prince Albert Victor (sometimes suspected of being Jack the Ripper) lived long enough to become king.

December 16, 1930. William Brittain was born on this date in Rochester, New York.   He wrote two successful series of short stories: one about science teacher Mr. Strang, and a very odd set connected by only one element: each tale features a character whose actions are directed by their fondness for one famous mystery author.  The first was "The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr."  (1965)

December 16, 1933.  Louis Joseph Vance died on this date in New York City, having fallen asleep while smoking.  His rogue-turned-crimefighter, The Lone Wolf, appeared in eight books and 24 movies, plus radio and TV shows.

December 16, 1951.
  We just want the facts, ma'am... Today the classic cop show Dragnet premiered on NBC TV.  It had started on radio in 1949 and kept going until 1957.  The TV show lasted until 1959 and, like the proverbial bad penny, returned in 1967.  All versions starred the creator, Jack Webb.

December 16, 1965.  The movie The Spy Who Came in From the Cold premiered on this date.  Based on John Le Carre's great espionage novel, it collected two Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Richard Burton.    Who can forget that last scene?  By the way if you want to win a trivia point: Who was the first actor to play Le Carre's master spy, George Smiley?  Rupert Davies, in a small role in this flick.

December 16, 1965.
  As the spy was coming in from the cold, William Somerset Maugham was exiting this world of trouble.  He wrote tons of famous novels and plays but the important one for us is Ashenden, a collection of short stories based on his own experiences as a British intelligence officer.  Two of those stories were reworked into Alfred Hitchcock's movie Secret Agent.

December 16, 200?.  This date begins the plot of The Girl Who Played With Fire, Stieg Larsson's second runaway hit novel about Lisbeth Salander.  

December 16, 2011.  Remember William Brittain, who I mentioned near the top of this page?  He died on his birthday.

 December 16, 2015.  And so did Peter Dickinson. Spooky, huh?


15 December 2020

Four New Stories, Three This Week, Two Out Today, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

This is a good month for me writing-wise:

  • I had a new story published yesterday: "Second Chance" in the anthology Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, edited by my fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken. 
  • Today is the publication day for two more stories: "A Family Matter" in the January/February 2021 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and "That Poor Woman" in the January/February 2021 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
  • A fourth story, "An Inconvenient Sleuth," is scheduled to be published later this month in issue eight of Black Cat Mystery Magazine
Except when I had five new stories published at once (when my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even, came out in 2013 with five new stories and ten reprints), I've never had so many stories published in one day, one week, or one even month. I've also never had stories published in AHMM and EQMM at the same time. It's a nice way to end a year, especially this year.

I generally like to talk about stories when they're available for purchase. So here's information about the three new stories that are already out:

"Second Chance" is a tale of twin brothers who were placed in separate foster homes at age ten. Now eighteen, one finds the other, but the reunion is not the stuff of Hallmark movies. I hope you'll consider picking up a copy of Mickey Finn. It's published in ebook and trade paperback, with twenty stories perfect for the noir reader on your holiday gift list. You can buy it from all the usual sources, as well as from the publisher here.

"A Family Matter" in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine is set in 1962, the closest I've ever come to a historical story. In this tale, Doris and her neighbors are determined to move up the ladder of success together. When a new family that moves in next door doesn't know the unwritten social code, Doris makes it her business to help them conform. This story was inspired by something that happened to my mom when my parents and siblings (years before I showed up) moved into a new neighborhood.

"That Poor Woman" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine is a flash story about a crime victim who takes the law into her own hands.

You can find individual issues of AHMM and EQMM at bookstores and newsstands. For a paper subscription of either magazine--or both, they make a great holiday gift--click here for AHMM and here for EQMM. As of 11 p.m. last night (Monday night), the new issues scheduled for publication today (Tuesday) aren't up yet on the AHMM and EQMM websites, but they should be soon.

You can also get electronic individual issues as well as subscriptions for your Kindle, Nook, iPad, and other readers. Learn more here about EQMM and here about AHMM. (Because I've had friends unable to easily find the Kindle pages before, here's the EQMM Amazon link and here's the AHMM link.)

I'll talk about "An Inconvenient Sleuth" next month, after the issue of BCMM comes out.

It's interesting that these four stories are all coming out in the same month because I didn't write them all around the same time. I wrote "Second Chance" in 2014, "A Family Matter" in January of 2018, "An Inconvenient Sleuth" in February of 2018, and "That Poor Woman" in October of 2019. As you can imagine, some stories take a long time to sell. (I submitted "A Second Chance" five times before Michael Bracken took a chance on it. (See what I did there?)) Other stories sell on their first submission. But no matter how long it takes for a story to sell and then be published, I'm always glad when a new story comes out. So that makes this week--and this month--a good time for me.

I'll be back in 2021. In the meanwhile, happy holidays and happy reading.

14 December 2020

My Musical Hallucinations

Speaking of books, one of the things that well-meaning people say when I mention that I have musical hallucinations is, "It's too bad Oliver Sacks is not alive." Sure, I'm sorry the the celebrated popularizer of neurological oddities is dead. But not as sorry as I am that Mozart is dead. Or Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, for that matter. The author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat could have written The Woman Whose Right Ear Played "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik." But I'd rather have the composer of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" itself or the guys who wrote "Over the Rainbow."  

Sacks could have told my story entertainingly. But I don't need a ghostwraconteur, thank you. I've got one in my head, as every storyteller does—along with the entity I call the Maestro, who's been giving me private concerts since June 2019. 
Don't worry, I'm not nuts. It's simply the name I've given the neurological phenomenon they call musical hallucinations. They’re not in my head, like an earworm, but more like a radio playing close by or sometimes like earphones in my ears. They come from the unconscious, from the musical archives of the person experiencing them. People who have MH have reported hearing a range from nursery rhymes to Chinese opera. Mine are particularly rich, because I have been listening to and making music since early childhood: Girl Scout campfire songs, Broadway show tunes, union songs, and Appalachian ballads on the one hand, classical music on the other. Mozart in, apparently, Mozart out. 
Musical hallucinations sit at the crossroads of neurology, otology, and psychiatry. I already have migraines and partial hearing loss, and I'm a therapist myself. And I’m Jewish. So doctors, I’ve got. They’re on it, they’re on it. And so am I. Having combed the Internet for the literature, we know a few things. It's not as rare as all that, just poorly studied and reported. The causes vary, and there are no treatment protocols. Not only older women get it as usually reported, but also "youts" (don’t you love that word?) who've been playing too much Super Mario. And not a single expert can tell us how to make it stop.

Why would I want to make it stop? you may ask. It sounds fascinating, I hear you say. At any moment, my private concert may be a  baroque string ensemble improvising theme and variations, a world class symphony orchestra, a cello cadenza (right ear) or a coloratura aria (left ear) in the shower. The stimulus of whirling fans or a humming refrigerator may elicit a choral work, eg the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth to Christmas carols in six-part harmony with pipe organ. A brisk walk may summon up a Scottish ballad with bagpipes or a marching band with tuba and bassoon. Sometimes there’s no special stimulus. The Maestro has been known to burst into a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” for no reason in particular. Everyone wants to hear the song of the Sirens, don’t they? I get them for free. So what's the catch? 

The catch is that the Sirens have no Off button. As you may remember, Odysseus had to be tied to the mast so that unearthly beckoning wouldn’t lure him to his death. Lovely as the music is,   it eventually becomes frustrating, even agonizing. The proverbial Beethoven ending of one of those world-class symphonies can become the Chinese water torture as it goes on and on and on and on and on. And while I can sometimes influence the playlist with a nudge of the mind, I don’t get to choose it. I’ve had to endure “My Grandfather’s Clock” and “Turkey in the Straw” over and over and over. And the most intractable moment is every night when my head hits the pillow and the music won't shut up.  

For many months after the MH started, I heard it nonstop throughout my waking hours. Then I started getting periods of respite. It was less intrusive if I didn't treat it as a concert, however tempting. Eventually, my neurologist started prescribing small amounts of scary medications. The neuroleptics, meant for schizophrenics (no, I am not now and never have been), didn’t work, but Aricept, for dementia patients, is beginning to.

So now, I no longer get world-class free entertainment, but only occasional tinny humming. On the other hand, because I don't have dementia, the Aricept doesn't have to fix reality for me. Instead, it's straightening out my unconscious. As a result, I'm having excessively coherent dreams. My husband says I'm making speeches all night long. When I step off a ledge, I wake to find myself with my feet on the floor. There's only the thinnest veil between dream and reality.

But I'm not complaining. I was afraid I'd never have a moment free from music I couldn't control for the rest of my life. In general, I still appreciate music. But please don't invite me to a concert any time soon.              

13 December 2020

The Skating Mistress Affair, Part II

bank vault

Part I provided the background of a unique bank fraud investigation.

No one had any notion of the unreal turn negotiations would take.

Monster energy drink slash logo

Centuries from now, post-civilization archeologists will discover deep, mystifying gouges in the concrete walls of a skating rink in Greensboro, North Carolina. Those ragged furrows came about this way…

The Queen Unseen

Previously I’d uncovered an unusual fraud perpetrated upon a Virginia bank. The bankshares officials sent me to Greensboro to negotiate with the unlikely scammer.

I was willing to bet the miserly VP had booked the motel. It smelled like cheap motels everywhere, a musty mix of stale food, sex, and disinfectant. It featured two beds, a TV remote control bolted to the nightstand, and lots of cardboard stand-ups advertising the dining room, deals for my next visit, Dillard’s Rent-a-Car, and dial 6 for room service. The cardboard junk I swept into a drawer so I could open up my suitcase. Tomorrow, the maid would redecorate the room with new cardboard stand-ups.

I hung shirts on stupid hangers that featured nubbins instead of hooks. Someone had left two wire coat hangers behind. Thanks to cable television, frequent travelers no longer needed to use one as a TV antenna, but having one to keep the toilet from running helped in the middle of the night.

I sat on the bed and dialed Sandman’s number. Another cardboard stand-up informed me local calls cost 75¢. That would bring a frown to the face of Data Corp’s very tight vice president.

“Yo, this is Dan Sandman. We’re ready. Be there in fifteen minutes. Oh, I forgot– I’m bringing my girlfriend, Justine.”

Before my speaking with Sandman, Chase had filled me in about Justine, and Sandman revealed more in our conversation not long ago. Some years older than Danny, his girlfriend was married to an oblivious husband.

She certainly annoyed the hell out of Chase and not because of morals. Chase intimated she involved herself as more than a mistress. She interfered with the business he and Sandman put together. She interjected herself in the middle of discussions. Chase also thought she was a little too flirtatious.

Another hypothesis was developing.

A knock rapped on the door.

Sandman stood nearly a foot shorter than me with an average build, neither athletic nor chubby, barely a slight pudginess around the edges from Moon Pies. His sandy hair was short, but he kept brushing an invisible lock away from his eyes. He bore a pale complexion not from sun screens, but computer screens.

His girlfriend constituted another matter altogether, a dishwater blonde with blonder streaks, slender, pneumatic push-up cleavage, and skirt by Saran-wrap. In heels, she stood a couple of inches taller than Sandman. A lupine awareness hovered about her, a feral aura of a Jerry Springer guest loose on the veldt. She looked pretty in a tough, Tonya Harding way.

I found it difficult to picture her with a didactic like Sandman, a guy who listened to Shostakovich and read whenever he wasn’t writing. Well, maybe not so difficult to figure out– she insistently molded bulging parts against him.

From under her lashes she locked her gaze on me. My hypothesis was becoming a theory. They’d brought a shopping bag heavy enough that Sandman carried it in his arms rather than by its handles.

He said, “We were supposed to go out to dinner, but maybe we could order in pizza. Eat it here and talk.”

“Sure. What do you like on yours?”

We ordered a large artery-clogger with extra cholesterol, bound to be tasty. Recalling Sandman’s preference, I added two litres of Pepsi.

I got down to business. “The bank authorized me to verify the source code– no more tricks– and pay you a final fee.”

“I brought a listing.” He patted the shopping bag like a baby’s tummy. “Let me show you the program.” From the bag, he reverently pulled a binder of old-school perforated green-bar, 14×11, six inches thick. Definitely large enough.

Sandman held it in his lap for a moment longer, a young mother not wanting to put her baby in someone else’s hands. He said, “Let me show you the code now, so we don’t pizza smear it later.”

Involved with his own self-centered agenda, Chase had come off insensitive to this guy’s inner needs, missing the essential clues.

Danny opened the listing on the motel coffee table and gently smoothed a page with evident pride. Few people could appreciate his accomplishment and he desperately needed a professional and, better yet, a cognoscente to validate his work.

I scanned it. Titles, section headings, comments, labels now made sense. It stopped short of my persnickety standard of documentation, but the code was excellent, even brilliant. I told him so.

He hovered over me, pointing out snippets he was particularly proud of. Perhaps a hundred people in the world could appreciate his creation and he was not wasting this opportunity. A willing audience, I effusively praised his masterpiece.

Justine hovered by his side, watchful. Like hearing foreigners speak, she followed the buzz if not the intricacies. Throughout, she kept some part of her body touching his, not so much affectionate as proprietary. When her eyes turned on me, they gave the feeling of being x-rayed.

Tap on the door. Pizza man. Sandman carefully closed the listing and, with unconscious veneration, placed it back in the shopping bag. I noticed external drives, mag tapes, and a second, thin listing. “My encryption program,” he said.

The pizza was a social convention, a bonding device for minds and ribs. When Sandman and Justine turned to their shared enthusiasm for roller skating, she grew animated. “I love skating,” she said. “It’s where we met. My, ah, husband doesn’t skate. Do you like skating?”

“I like the Dire Straits song.”

“Have you ever tried it?” Danny asked.

“Me? Never. I’m a klutz and a menace. Klutzes that value their skin and bones don’t skate.”

Oh hush! Anyway, it has 4 feet.
© Inside Edition

“You never learned?”

“I suffered a deprived childhood. It happens when you’re raised by wolves.”

She sniggered. “Competition we like best, skate dancing. You’d have fun chasing a girl in a very short skirt, wouldn’t you?”

“I’d need to master the art of standing up.”

Sandman finished his pizza. He dabbed his mouth with a paper serviette. His eyes flicked to the shopping bag with the goodies.

He said, “About the fee, you know we want serious money.”

We. He kept using plural pronouns.

I said, “Don’t get too ambitious. The company isn’t in a mood to be trifled with.”

“You know the software is worth at least a couple hundred thousand, probably two-fifty, maybe more. They could make millions off this.”

“What I know is that they feel hijacked, Dan. You put their investors and customers at risk. They’re upset. You have their attention, but don’t overplay your hand.”

“The obfuscation was just a joke on Chase,” he said petulantly. “Why else would I sell it so cheap?”

“Their contract doesn’t have the word ‘joke’ in it. They’re not laughing. Chase was acting for the bank. Sending me here is an expediency. They figure you owe them, but they’re willing to pay a ransom if they can put this mess behind them.”

I owe them?

“Dan, you miscalculated. Sure, Chase might lose his job, but involving bank investors, you lost hearts and minds. You viewed it as getting a bonus $5000 to screw Chase, but you put Data Corp at risk with bank  customers. At worst, they perceive Chase as naïve, trusting a deceiver, a fraudster who lies, cheats, and steals.”

He turned paler. “Jesus, I never looked at it that way.”

“They don’t like negotiating with a gun to their head, but they’ll ransom the package if they can.”

“How much?”

“How much are you asking?”

Sandman glanced at Justine. Some silent communication transpired.

“Listen,” he said, “let’s go our own way this evening. We’ll reconvene tomorrow. We want to invite you skating. Let’s get to know each other better and then we’ll talk. OK? It’ll be fun. OK?”

It wasn’t okay, but options were limited. I nodded. “Sure.”

Sandman put his hand on the shopping bag. “We’ll, ah…” He seemed strangely uncertain. “We’ll take the program with us for now.”

I looked at them– Sandman timid, she suddenly tense. I realized each person in that room thought the same thing. I was considerably taller, broader, with more muscle mass. I could physically seize the listings and tapes from them, heave their asses out the door and leave them nothing.

For a moment they feared they’d misjudged, but the instance passed. They got me right the first time. Not an enforcer, never a bully, that’s not my style. I wouldn’t thump someone over computer code no matter how justified it might be. Doing the wrong thing wouldn’t accomplish the right thing. He’d placed himself and others in a precarious legal and ethical situation, but he nevertheless deserved compensation for his product.

Relieved, clutching their package, they backed out of the room, waving and saying, “Tomorrow, lunch time, we’ll pick you up.”

Reporting 1

I phoned the vice president at home and filled him in. He was a man of rectitude. He didn’t approve of a Sunday spent in a roller rink negotiating a shady deal with, in his view, a whoring shyster, but he understood the necessity.

“What’s your take on the situation?” he asked.

“Not positive. This girlfriend of his, she’s the wild card, the real problem. What do you know about her?”

“Almost nothing. Just that she’s, ah, a married woman of doubtful moral character. Why?”

“I think she’s running him. Behind the scenes, she calls the shots.”

“Like he’s the mistress? How do you make that out?”

“My theory, she fancies he’s Bill Gates and she’s Melinda without that pesky desire to rescue starving people on the other side of the world. Maybe it’s the skating thing, but I keep thinking Tonya Harding. Together, they’re a salad of Bud and Lou.”


“It wasn’t strictly Sandman’s idea to scam us. She figured they could wring out more money this way. If Sandman has ceded the decision-making to her, I doubt we can reach a deal.”

“Much as it goes against my grain, this one time we’re offering him a chance to do right.”

“She thinks everyone is unscrupulous like she is. Her idea of business conduct entails screwing the other guy first. Given a path of crooked or straight, her twisted instincts choose crooked. Then after driving the bus off a cliff, she blames others. Sandman realizes they screwed up. She doesn’t.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“They assume their goals are the same, but I don’t think she cares all that much about him, just the money he represents. Sandman lashed out at Chase, but he’d prefer to settle this with minimal fuss. The woman seeks to screw as much money as possible out of the bank, and that’s still her goal. Making more money playing it straight wouldn’t occur to her.”

“If they’d been truly smart, he would have negotiated an optimum price, not a token amount. Then charged us again for continued maintenance and development, which we probably would have agreed to do.”

I said, “Instead of giving value and getting rewarded for it, petty spite and greed guides them.”

“Hmmm. Ever skated before?”

“No. The thought of me skating represents a danger to society.”

He surprised me by chuckling.

“Good luck. The person most agile remains standing at the end of the day.”

The Great Roller Skating Caper

They dropped in at noon on the dot. Her skating skirt covered most of both cheeks. She twitched her bottom against him as we walked to their car. On the ride over, she tucked a hand high inside his thigh.

The front third of the skating complex sported a store and rental shop, plus a snack bar on the left. The rest of the building encompassed a low-walled oval– the rink. Rock music and kiddie shrieks and squeals echoed off the concrete walls.

Sandman helped me pick out skates. Justine knelt to lace them on me, her breasts nearly tumbling out of her top. She momentarily rested my socked foot against her bare thigh before giving my sole a covert caress and slipping it into the boot. Truly a woman of subtlety and international distinction.

One at each of my elbows, they led me like a doomed gladiator into the arena. If given roller skates, many more Romans would have fallen on their swords.

They left me standing and backed away, leaving me on my own. Standing was the key word, because I didn’t know how to move. I shuffled my feet. Zoop. Zoop. Nothing, nothing happened.

I moved one foot, then the other, only to find I was still standing in the same place. Wait. I’d studied physics, mechanics, the science of momentum. I should be able to figure this out. Balance on one wobbly leg and cautiously push away with the side of my other skate.


Twelve-year-olds hoisted me off the floor. They knew naught about physics, but they’d cultivated a sense of their bodies on wheels that had escaped my edification.

Jurassic Park III logo

Clinging to the low wall, I tugged myself along by my fingernails. The waist-high barrier circled only half way around. The rest of the rink was enclosed by the building’s cinder block walls, walls I hugged with intimacy.

I clawed my way around the perimeter. I dared not venture more than two feet from the wall so I could pull myself up. My fingers left gouges in concrete blocks still embedded today. A thousand years hence, archeologists will conclude the scarred oval housed a circus of unmanicured Jurassic Park III raptors.

For some reason, girls helped me to my feet but not guys. Possibly it was a center of gravity thing, or maybe if guys stopped to help, they couldn’t get going again. Or perhaps I’d proved an embarrassment to the male population.

Meanwhile, Sandman and Justine whirled and twirled, skating away to the music. Legs outstretched, his fingertips lightly on her waist, hands clasped, they gazed blissfully toward the stars. On skates, he appeared a whole lot taller. Not taller than her, just taller than me struggling to rise from the floor.

Every time I face planted, this toddler on skates and sucking a knuckle stared eye-level at me. Why was a munchkin two Lego bricks tall judging me? I had a lot farther to fall than he.

A charming skater, the kind that prompts males to upshift mass from their abdomen to their chest, hovered over me. With gorgeous padding in all the right places, she offered advice. “Lean forward and stick your bottom out.” Easy for her to say, she was beautifully counterbalanced.

I made one and a half circuits to my hosts’ twenty-three thousand or so, when I realized I needed to visit the restroom. “Behind the food court,” the charming advice chick said.

roller skating rink
Typical roller rink after too many tumbles. Note slight incline of floor. © Huffington Post

I worked my way to the gate and pulled myself hand-over-hand along the rail toward the snack bar. There I encountered an insurmountable problem. The floor suffered a sight incline, imperceptible to anyone but a novice on skates. To me, it sloped 160° uphill, and I didn’t have ropes and pitons to master it. I churned skates, but stayed right where I was.

Spotting the problem, two teenage girls took pity on me. Still on skates themselves, they towed me upslope to the restroom door. O sweet rescuing girls; had they been older, I might have proposed out of sheer gratitude.

The men’s room was laid out with ‘the facilities’ on one side, sinks on the other. I clomped over to the porcelain and discovered another problem. Curse the contractor, the floor’s slope continued in the loo. I found myself rolling away from the urinals. Damn. For a meticulous guy, this wouldn’t do; no one was going to mop up after me.

I angled the skates and locked my heels together, but the muscle tension discouraged kidney participation. Finally, I did the obvious and grabbed the pipe like a carousel horse and held on. That allowed me to ‘complete my business’ as my grandmother might have said. Someone more sensible would have simply entered the toilet stall.

I turned my attention to the sinks. There I encountered the opposite problem where the floor sloped toward the basins. Angling toes trying as I might, I kept rolling into them. I’d soap my hands, push off, lather, push off, rinse, push off… at least in theory. The front of my pants looked like the accident I was trying to avoid.

For once those warm air hand dryers proved useful. I aimed their nozzles at the front of my jeans and held the buttons on. A couple of locals wandered in, eyed the disheveled madman, the blow dryers, and the saturated floor, shot each other looks and backed out again.

Outside, the two girls smiled at me, waving me over. “How did you make out?”

“Trust me, you don’t want to know. I looked like a poster child for poster children.”

That brought more giggles. They steered me toward a food court plastic chair where I collapsed.

Sandman and his woman had just finished their final pirouette et pad-á-deux of the entire Swan Lake ballet. They glided out of the enclosure and up to my table. Unlike me, they barely broke a sweat.

He affectionately brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. She glanced sharply around. “Not here,” she hissed, but she covered her rebuke by surreptitiously squeezing his thigh.

Sandman pulled out a chair for her and she sank gracefully into it. I was envious of their ease on wheels, but if my awkwardness charmed teenage girls, maybe there was still hope for me.

Sandman laughed. “We’ll say one thing for you. You’ve got guts.”

We sipped coffee and Cokes for a few minutes.

“Tell me,” Sandman said, “what the numbers are.”


“The numbers… how much they’re offering. A quarter million?”

I had a horrible feeling the bank radically underestimated these two. Or overestimated, depending on how one looked at it. No number was going to satisfy them.

“They authorized much, much less. I’m talking what you can walk away with this weekend, no questions asked. Name high numbers like that, I have to call in and they debate whether or not to accept. Good chance you could get half your quarter mil, perhaps a little more if you’re willing to wait through the week, but odds drop if you try to wring out much more.”

Justine’s face clouded. Sandman flicked a glance at her but all he said was, “Let’s drive back and change. We’ll pick you up for dinner.”

I looked forward to famed North Carolina slaw and barbecue, but their palates weren’t adventurous. Instead, we visited a family restaurant. Sandman and I chatted technical trivia, operating system internals, stuff of interest only to computer geeks. Were the circumstances different, I might have hired him to work for me.

Justine crushed her breast against his arm while shooting me feral looks. Her leg brushed mine twice, hard to say if it signified more than accidental contact. My instinct suggested it did.

“One twenty?” said Sandman.

“Yes, can do.”

“One twenty-five?”

“Quite likely.”

“It’s worth more than that.”

“It was worth more than that, but they’re wounded, embarrassed, made fools of. Your shot across the bow at Chase injured them and damaged your credibility. You placed their bank and reputation at risk.”

Justine placed her lips against his ear and whispered something.

“So they should be willing to pay more, shouldn’t they?”

“They’re willing to pay less. Don’t get greedy, Dan. Pigs go to slaughter. I can’t impress upon you enough you’re not dealing from a position of strength. Mess around further and you’ll blow the deal. Be timely about it. I can’t advise you any more seriously.”

“You have his interests at heart?” Justine asked me, but the message was for him.

I said, “I have our interests at heart. The company has a limit how much they’re willing to deal, how much they’re willing to risk, and how much they’re willing to tolerate before cutting their losses.”

“That would leave the product up in the air.”

“No, that would leave the product dead and buried. You sold it to them; they own it.”

Wheels turned, though I couldn’t track where they headed. These two lived in a land of make-believe with no notion how the business world operated.

As I left the tip, they ambled out with their heads together. In the car, they pointed out features of Greensboro as he drove toward the motel. They stayed in the vehicle as I walked around to his window.

“Dan, what do I tell the executives in the morning?”

He waited an uncomfortable half minute before answering. “Tell them we’re in no hurry to accept.”

Did my not-to-tarry warning trigger a contrary response? Trying to keep exasperation out of my voice, I said, “What does that imply? How close or far apart are we?”

“It means… It means go home and think about it and we’ll go home and think about it. Then perhaps we’ll talk again. Perhaps not.”

“Don’t try their patience, Dan. They’re already put out.”

He shrugged, smiled, and offered his hand. I shook it. Pressed tightly against him, she reached out and shook mine too. I turned and strolled back to my room.

Report 2

Despite the late hour, back in Virginia folks waited to hear from me. The vice president asked if I thought I could resolve this impasse in the next day or so. I had to say no.

“Go home, man. We’ll be in touch. Thank for trying.”

Over the next two and a half weeks, I spoke with Chase every few days. He’d ask clarification of some detail; I enquired about the situation’s progress. Twice I casually reached out to Sandman. He enjoyed talking tech, but steered away from closing a deal.

The notice came unexpectedly, a call from the bankshares president himself. He instructed me to fly once again to Greensboro. No one expected we would witness an entirely different battle of wits in Part III.

12 December 2020

Inspiration Isn't Everywhere

It was July 2017, and I needed to write a story. Sure, we writers have our creative urge, but I mean I really needed to write a story right darn then. An anthology deadline loomed, and you can’t get in if you don’t submit. That’s how it works. I’m a low-volume writer, due in shifting parts to life demands, a snail’s pace process, and inspiration deficits. Result: I’m rarely sitting on a hard drive stockpile of stories. What I would do, I would wrangle a long weekend off, drive the short hop to Muscle Shoals, and lock myself away to produce something. Please, something.

I’d planned to leave Thursday after work. Get settled in, steal a march on drafting the first pages. To paraphrase the great Satchel Paige, get the juices jangling. The problem was, I didn’t have one story inspiration. Not even a terrible one. For clarity, I’m not meaning story ideas. Those are premises or plot strands. Those come and go like gossamer, and like gossamer, most are best left alone. I’m meaning processed idea plus motivation, that sweet challenge worth the chase.

But premises can be great starting points, as can oddball headlines, personal experiences, deep sayings, and so on. Leading up to Muscle Shoals, I’d journaled lists of possibilities. Nothing jangled or did jumping jacks and shouted “Me! Me!” Writing by any method is grueling. Layer in not having a starting point. With three days to pull it off. Time pressure is usually a writer’s friend, my great clarifier. But time plus quality pressures do me in, the waiting for that perfect golden ticket. Gossamer in reverse, or how it felt in 2017, a ticking creativity bomb keeping inspiration from blast range.

I don’t believe in muses. I do believe in process. That Thursday departure rolled around, and I determined to grit it out, come hell or high water. Or I guess not high water because, if you’ve been to Muscle Shoals, the TVA keeps the river level majorly locked down. All that impended ahead was the writing hell part.

The old saw goes that inspiration is everywhere. Well, if that was true, why was I leaving empty-handed?

Because the old saw is wrong. Inspiration is not everywhere. I’ve been lucky enough to spend several weeks across France. Those trips inspired me such that I have seven published stories that riff off those very places, especially the southern badlands. I’ve been equally lucky to spend similar time in the U.K and score life experiences while there. No stories even attempted based on those trips. I adore my pets but have never looked at them and felt a bolt of writing inspiration, only Facebook posts. I grew up in Louisville, but I rarely write about the town and never about basketball, which is pretty much what Kentuckiana talks about except the Derby or to ask where you went to high school.

I’m guessing you also draw inspiration from your own nature and nurture. If any of you are under constant inspirational avalanche, well done. Let’s hear your tricks. I operate more through slow build, the dreaded “having a project in view.” As an example, I have this story about Louisville and horse racing “in view.” It’s not forming together with any Secretariat-like speed.

When I’m stuck on micro specifics, I try the opposite direction: universal themes and human questions. Mortality and the fear thereof, order versus mayhem, why people choose to commit crimes, obsessions and compulsions, the supreme ridiculousness of life, all that. Which I also did in July 2017, and still I had zero grip on a story as I packed for Muscle Shoals. Zip. Zilch, Nada. The ridiculousness of life grinned my direction.

Stupid old saw.

Yet I am nothing if not punctual. I show up. So, late afternoon that July, I grabbed my gear and suitcase and headed for the car, that dread of missed opportunity setting in. I would drive that drive to Alabama, sit in that desk chair, and type writing exercises and room service menus until either I had juices jangling or heaved my laptop off the balcony. On my last stop out of town, bam, on the wall there was a half-painting, half-sculpture deal. Huge. Fine work, too, with clear talent that made a guy stop and study. Beneath it, a sign read:


There went my mental gears. By the time I got back on the road, I had a premise about loans and artists. By the time my rear hit that Alabama chair, I had a rough story and an ending to shoot for. By the time I returned home three days later, I had a manuscript. By the deadline, an edited submission.

It didn’t make the anthology.

Such is this business.

But inspiration and my slow process abide, and when both hold, a reject gives me a chance at an even better story version. That re-edit of “Artist” is in the November/December 2020 AHMM. Four other sales to AHMM also were major re-edits of earlier misfires, same with almost half of my published stories overall.

Inspiration. It’s not easy and most definitely not everywhere. But if I keep showing up and plugging away, inspiration can be anywhere.

11 December 2020

The Selectively Social Writer

This blog is supposed to be about writing.  My last posting was about cemeteries, which we sometimes use as settings here in New Orleans, so I got away with the posting.

My wife has been buying me T-shirts with printing in front for the last few years and she manages to nail my quirks and personality traits. Her latest is the most revealing. It is me as a writer today –

"I'm not anti-social. I am selectively social. There's a difference."

Here's a sequel of sorts –

"You read my shirt. That's enough social interaction for one day."

And more – 

"Historical fiction writer: I'd find you more interesting if you were dead."

"My life is based on a true story."

"I don't like going outside. It's too PEOPLEY out there."

"First of all, NO. Second of all, NO."

"Careful, or you'll end up in my novel."

"Where ever ya go, there ya are."

"If I ignore you, will you go away?"

Harking back to my law enforcement days – 

"I speak fluent sarcasm."

"I'm not always rude and sarcastic … sometimes I'm asleep."

"It only takes one slow-walking person in the store to destroy the illusion I'm a nice person."

"I can explain it to you, but I can't understand it for you."

"My people skills are fine. It's my tolerance of stupidity that needs work."

"Sarcasm. The body's natural defense against stupidity."

"People who think they know everything, annoy those of us that do."

"Sometimes I wonder what happened to the people who asked me for directions."

Back to my writing life. Now that I'm retired and write full time in my home office. I take naps.

"I already want to take a nap tomorrow."

"If you love someone, let them nap."

"I have a date with my bed tonight ... and we're totally going to sleep together."

Jeffty showing me how to nap

Lastly, this one is for me, the husband –

"WARNING: Poor Listener." (illustrated below)

Which brings me back to the topic of this posting – the selectively social writer. I tell people I'm not a recluse but I play one in real life. This is why the lockdown and social distancing we're in now does not bother me. When I was young, I was social. When I was young, I went out a lot, even to church. Today I'm selectively social and a non-practicing Catholic. No need to practice. I've got it down pat.

Which is why you don't find me at high mass or many writer's gatherings. Y'all have fun. Do all the things a writer should do. I'm done. I write. That's it. I'm a selectively social writer.

That's all for now. Y'all stay safe.


10 December 2020

Author Fleur Bradley and "Midnight at the Barclay Hotel"

I first crossed paths with author Fleur Bradley well over a decade ago when we were both semi-active in the Short Mystery Fiction Society. We met in person at Left Coast Crime and have remained friends ever since, keeping tabs on each other's work and checking in from time to time.

Fleur has since gone on to great success as an author of middle-grade mystery (ages 8-12), and most recently published what has quickly become my eight-year-old son's favorite book. She also graciously agreed to be interviewed for this blog. First, a bit more about Fleur:

Fleur Bradley is the author of the spooky middle-grade mystery Midnight at the Barclay Hotel (Viking Books for Young Readers) which recently made NPR’s Best of 2020 Books list. She’s passionate about two things: mysteries and getting kids to read. Fleur regularly does (virtual) school visits and speaks at librarian and educator conferences on reaching reluctant readers. Originally from the Netherlands, Fleur now lives in Colorado Springs with her husband and two daughters, and entirely too many cats.

And here's the interview.

Why kids' books? And more specifically, why kids' mystery books?

I actually didn’t set out to write kids’ books… I got my start writing short mysteries, and that was what I did for the first ten years of my writing career. I wrote a few novel-length YA mysteries that almost made it to publication, then my first published book was Double Vision, a middle-grade (HarperCollins, for ages 8-12). You could say I kind of fell into writing for kids by (a very happy) accident. My agent at the time suggested I write middle-grade.

After finishing the Double Vision trilogy, I wanted to write a true mystery for kids, one that would be like the Agatha Christie books I loved growing up, but kid-friendly. I wanted to share the fun of solving the puzzle, how an investigator might gather motive, means, opportunity… All with a bit of a sense of humor, and a lot of heart.

I love writing for kids. It allows a sense of wonder, discovery, and honesty—you really have to bring your A-game as a writer. I also love doing school visits, and hearing from young readers, or parents and grandparents who are reading the book together with kids, especially now that we’re all home so much.

The Famously Haunted Stanley Hotel
There are always challenges with any artistic undertaking, and writing a book is certainly no exception. What challenge about bringing Midnight at the Barclay Hotel to life did you find most out-of-left-field/surprising?

It was having the patience for the idea to come together, oddly. I had the idea for the mystery, but just couldn’t get it to sing… In an earlier concept, I had the story set at a museum. The setting was cool, but it wasn’t working. I shelved the whole mystery for kids idea, and a few years later we visited the Stanley Hotel here in (Estes Park) Colorado and did the ghost hunting tour that I knew I had the right extra ingredient: a cool setting.

I made my own hotel, the Barclay Hotel, so I could have creative freedom to make it and the backstory my own. But it was that mashup of traditional mystery and spooky setting that did the trick. I just had to wait for it.

 As we've discussed, my eight-year-old loves your book (J.J. the ghost-hunter is his favorite character, with Penny the Florida book-worm a close second!). Reading it with him brought to mind Agatha Christie's At Bertram's Hotel, because it involves (at least tangentially) a childhood visit to a luxury hotel, and because you reference Agatha Christie in the book a number of times. Was that intentional?

And here's the proof!
The Agatha Christie references were definitely intentional. As a kid, I was an avid reader, and made my way through the children’s department at the library pretty quickly. There was no YA at the time, so a nice librarian suggested I try Agatha Christie’s books—I started with The ABC Murders, and have been hooked on mysteries ever since.

I didn’t try to reference At Bertram’s Hotel on purpose—I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t read that one yet… It’s going on my reading list now.

I think it’s that theatrical, over-the-top cast of characters in Agatha Christie’s books that lends itself particularly well to children’s books. I had a lot of fun with that as a writer. Plus, I really hope that kids who read my books get that same excitement for mysteries, and want to read more of them, well into adulthood, like I do. Midnight at the Barclay Hotel is my ode to mystery in a way.

Even though the narrative is third person, you do an outstanding job of slipping into the viewpoints of the pre-teen protagonists. And head hopping between two girls and a boy, Phew! Was that difficult for you?

Oddly, no… I thought it would be hard to juggle three perspectives too, since my previous books were first person, one character. But once you start imagining the story through those kids’ eyes, it comes naturally. I think that’s what makes the best children’s book writers: the ability to remember what it’s like to be a kid, what you’re worried about, what excites you… Writing for kids is a lot of fun. Add a mystery to that, and I’m certainly hooked. 


Thanks so much to Fleur for taking the time to talk with us about her new book, Midnight at the Barclay Hotel, and about her journey to writing middle-grade mystery! If you know a young reader who loves mysteries (and not just young readers-we read it together as a family, and my wife and I both loved it too), I strongly encourage you to check out Midnight at the Barclay Hotel!

And for more information on Fleur and her books, visit www.ftbradley.com, and on Twitter @FTBradleyAuthor.

See you in two weeks!