06 January 2021

When History Went Up In Smoke


 

 
Anniversaries are interesting things.  Sometimes you see them coming, but sometimes they sneak up on you.  I have known for decades about a historical event that affected tens of thousands of people, but I just learned last month that its centennial is this coming Sunday.

It was the evening of January 10, 1921, in Washington D.C.  An employee of the Commerce Building saw smoke in an elevator shaft.  No one ever figured out how the fire started - although it led to the first rules against smoking in federal buildings.  the firefighters poured water into the basement for hours, even after the flames were out.

What was in the basement?  Only the records of the federal Census.

There are two kinds of data associated with the decennial Census of Population.  The statistics are published as soon as they can be crunched; they are widely available.  But the individual data - those forms you fill out - are stored safely away, kept strictly confidential, until seventy-two years have passed.  Then they are available for scholars, historians, and genealogy buffs.

It was those forms that were locked in a fireproof vault in the Commerce Building.  Alas, the forms from the 1890 Census did not fit in the vault and were sitting on wooden shelves outside.  They burned up in the fire.

And that is why, as any genealogist knows, the data from the 1890 Census is a big gaping hole in American family history.

Except, the full story  is a lot more complicated than that.


First of all, there were actually two fires.  Way back in 1896 some of the records from the most recent Census were being stored in Marini's Hall and the rear of that building caught fire on March 22.   What was damaged then were the so-called special schedules with data on mortality, crime, philanthropy and poverty, and transportation.   

So the general schedules survived until they were destroyed in the fire of 1921, right?  No, it's still more complicated than that.  Only 25% of the records burned in 1921.  However, the rest were too water-damaged for current technology to salvage.  Sometime in the early 1930s the government gave up and destroyed the unreadable pages.

One more layer of complication: That fireproof vault, as it happened, was not water-proof, and some of the records from other censuses that had been stored on the lowest shelves essentially drowned. 

If there is a positive result from the disaster it is this: it forced the government to change the way it dealt with our precious records.  The day after Congress authorized the destruction of those damaged files, the cornerstone for the National Archives building was laid. 

But if you  wanted to trace your family history and wondered why you run into a huge hole in 1890, it all goes back to a fire that took place one hundred years ago this Sunday.

05 January 2021

Birthplace of a Story


Most anyone who's had their fiction published has likely been asked this question: Where do you get your ideas? It's a common enough question that it's spawned a standard joke answer: The Plot Store. My real answer most of the time is, I have no idea. Ideas just pop into my head. I expect that's true with many (perhaps most, maybe all) writers. But sometimes I can point to a story's inspiration.

That's the case with one of the stories I had published in December, "A Family Matter." While driving a few years ago, I passed a house with a clothesline. They certainly aren't uncommon, but for whatever reason it made me remember a story my mom once told about moving into the neighborhood where I grew up. This was in 1962, years before I was born. One day shortly after my parents and siblings moved in, my mom was in the backyard hanging up the laundry on a clothesline when one of the next-door neighbors hurried over to tell my mom that drying laundry on a clothesline just wasn't done there. My mom needed to get a dryer to fit in. I don't know if this story is true or not (my mom sometimes told tales), but seeing that clothesline evoked that memory, from which grew "A Family Matter," a story set in 1962 suburbia about what happens when new neighbors violate the unwritten social code. The story is published in the January/February 2021 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

That story isn't the first one to spring from me mining my memories. An elementary-school teacher who humiliated me in an attempt to get me to be a better public speaker was the impetus for my story "The Wrong Girl." (If you've read that story, you'll know never to tell me I speak too quickly--even if I do.) "Stepmonster" sprung from anger over my father's perhaps preventable death. "Whose Wine is it Anyway" was the result of my incredulous comment to a work colleague: "I have to plan my own goodbye party?!" An elementary school librarian calling me "an evil little girl" resulted in the story named, no surprise, "Evil Little Girl." And my first published story, "Murder at Sleuthfest," is about a mystery writer who has a ring stolen at a mystery conference, which is just what happened to me. I vowed to make something good come from that bad event, and I did.

The other main source of my story ideas (when I can figure out the source) is the news. It feels bad to say that I hear about someone else's misfortune and think: I can use that! But I'm sure I'm not the only author who does it. "Compulsive Bubba" grew out of a terrible accidental death in which someone waited in a car while it warmed up, not knowing the car's exhaust pipe was covered with snow and the carbon monoxide was backing up into the car. I got the idea for "Ulterior Motives" after reading about an Oregon county whose residents voted down a bond referendum to fund the police department, which resulted in them having police only part time. "Have Gun, Won't Travel" came about after reading about an Ansel Adams print worth a lot of money that sold at a garage sale for practically nothing because the seller didn't realize who created it. (The story was later debunked, but it gave me my idea nonetheless.) "Alex's Choice" was prompted by the horrific death of a family after one of them went into the ocean to save their dog, and when that person didn't come out, the next person went in to save him, and it went from there.

I have other published stories I could add to the sparked-by-the-news list, but since those events figure into story twists, I'm not going to mention them lest someone out there hasn't read those stories yet.

A side effect of admitting you used a real-life event as a story springboard is having people ask if everything in the story really happened. That's a big no. That's why it's called fiction. But just in case you're wondering:

I never tried to kill my fifth-grade teacher.

I never tried to get revenge on the person who found and kept the ring I lost at Sleuthfest (the fact that I don't know who it was is irrelevant, I assure you).

I never tried to kill the woman who was dating my father when he died.

I never tried to kill my boss (none of them, really).

Nothing in "A Family Matter" is based on real life except that clothesline incident (in case anyone has read the story and is wondering).

And I really was not an evil little girl, despite what that school librarian thought. But if you think otherwise, well, it might be best not to tell me. It's always better to be safe than sorry. After all, you wouldn't want to end up on the news, giving someone else a good story idea, would you?

****

If you want to read any of the stories I mentioned above, you can find them listed on my website, along with where they were published. Just click here. And in case you missed my last post, I had three stories published recently: "A Family Matter," discussed above, in the January/February AHMM; "That Poor Woman," a flash story in the January/February Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine; and "Second Chance" in Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir.

Happy reading!

04 January 2021

Blurbs Too


by Steve Liskow 

If you read John Floyd's discussion of blurbs a few days ago, you found his usual Fort Knox worth of wisdom. Since we have so much in common (We went to different high schools together), I was thinking about blurbs, too.

Does a blurb really help your sales? I don't know. But if a well-known writer says nice things about one or two of your early books, it gives you more street cred, and that shouldn't hurt, should it?

John and I agree that it's best to ask friends for blurbs, especially if they're well-known and you have compromising photographs. But John prefers email, and I like to ask people in person on the theory that it's harder for most people to say "no" face-to-face than it is to send an email. 

Usually, that well-know writer and I have a common theme in our writing. Sometimes, the connection is a little more arcane.


Jeremiah Healy and I met at Crime Bake in 2006. I admired his books, but I also read his blogs about his diagnosis and treatment for prostate cancer. I was diagnosed with the same condition only weeks before the conference, and we spent time at the hotel bar discussing his experience and the options. When I sold my first novel a few years later, he remembered the drinks I bought and asked for my outline and first 30 pages. Then he wrote a blurb I have recycled at least twice.

After that first novel, for reasons that don't bear discussion here, I decided to self-publish, and that made getting blurbs more difficult. Many established writers are forbidden by their contract from blurbing a self-published writer. At least, that's what they told me. Luckily, I was a member of MWA and SinC and often appeared on panels or at workshops, so I could make other connections.

Chris Knopf and I did a panel together in White Plains, New York on the night of an Old Testament cloudburst. 85 people signed up to hear the four-person panel, but only 7 showed up. Chris and I both drove about 80 miles from Connecticut (He got detoured by a washed-out road), and the four of us didn't sell a single book to the small audience. The shared misery brought us together, though, and Chris agreed to blurb my first self-published novel, The Whammer Jammers. He used to work in advertising, so he wrote me a blurb so good I even put it on my bookmarks.


I only have two blurbs from writers I didn't personally know, and their books shared a theme or subject I was writing about, too. 

Cherry Bomb is about teen trafficking on the Berlin Turnpike, a notorious stretch of Connecticut blacktop that connects Hartford and New Haven. Another writer had written books about troubled teens, and she gave me a blurb that showed up on three of my books.

I got the other blurb for that book through sheer synchronicity. Browsing at Border's (Remember them?), I discovered a nonfiction book about trafficking on the Berlin Turnpike. Even better, author Raymond Bechard was going to do a signing the following week. I bought the book and burned through it so we could discuss it later. When we met, I discovered that his girlfriend's cousin was one of my English-teaching colleagues. Sometimes, it just works out...

By the time I wanted to publish Blood on the Tracks, I'd run out of famous writer friends, and a few others declined my request for a blurb because I was still self-publishing.

Then I remembered Raymond Bechard and the friend connection.

Blood on the Tracks is about a rock and roll cold case in Detroit. By happy coincidence, a high school classmate became a session musician in Detroit. When I met her at our reunion, her escort was the former drummer from Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band. She had been married to the drummer in a band fronted by Dick Wagner, who later played behind Lou Reed, Aerosmith, and a host of other stars. He also wrote many of the songs that became hits for Alice Cooper. Susie said I could drop her name into the discussion, so I asked Wagner, Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, and Mark Farner (Who briefly played bass in Wagner's first band). Wagner, who had recently published his own rock and roll memoir, said sure.

Deborah Grabien also writes mysteries involving a musician.
She's one of only two strangers I've asked for a blurb.

He had serious health issues at the time, and he was preparing for what he probably thought would be his last tour. I dedicated the book to my classmate for all her help and published the book with Wagner's shout-out. Two days before I received my first copies so I could mail him one, Susie posted on Facebook that Dick's health problems caught up with him and he passed away.

That was the last time I asked someone for a blurb. Reviewers said a few nice things about me and spelled my name right, so I re-cycle those comments, too.

I don't get asked to write a blurb for anyone very often, but it always thrills me. 

Golly, someone actually thinks I'm famous.

03 January 2021

The Skating Mistress Affair, Part IIII


bank vault

Parts I-III provide the background of a unique bank fraud investigation.

In Part II, negotiations soured and in Part III, legal action failed miserably. The bank thought they were done for, but I wasn’t.


The Commentator

To continue developing and enhancing the software, I needed to understand it at least as well as the author. Nothing would do that like immersion in it, and nothing would aid in immersion like having to document the programs line by line, block by block, section by section.

Tedious. Refill the Ritalin, oil the exercise bike, and absorb.

Data Corp set up a pair of desks for me, not with their programming group but in a large room staffed with accountants, bookkeepers, and clerks. That made me the only guy amid thirty-some women.

pink office chair
 
pink Princess phone
Princess phone
 
boobs coffee cup
a slightly less risqué model
 
latex fingertip protectors
latex fingertips

Flirtatious and fun, the data center girls delighted in playing pranks on me. Some tricks were small, such as when they glued a dozen water-cooler cups together and hid the rest. Others were more ornate. They ordered a pink and gold chair for my desk, and installed a Playmate screen saver. My black office phone found itself replaced with a princess phone also in pink. A welcome gift box on my desk contained a coffee cup shaped like breasts.

My office mates flattered and flirted. Once, I asked a supervisor why the girls believed they could get away with such outrageous behavior. “You look easy to tease,” Shelly said. They read me like a Power Point slide.

They were also kind, sharing lunch with me. I never knew who installed a bud vase on my desk and kept its rose and water fresh.

One afternoon, the VP stopped by to pick up a couple of data cartridges. I opened my desk drawer… and immediately slammed it shut. I’d caught a glimpse of something lavender and lacy. Every eye was riveted upon me, watching what I’d do next.

“Er, maybe this drawer,” I muttered, only to spot another item, pink and frilly. The women had filled my drawers with, well, drawers, lingerie at least. I could feel the back of my neck burning.

“Er, I have to dash down to the computer room,” I said. “I’ll drop them off at your desk.”

“But…”

He peered after me suspiciously, knowing something was up. As I took off, he glanced around at the women who were all staring at him.

One morning I arrived to find a fat pink envelope on my desk decorated with hearts and cupids. Inside was tucked another plump envelope with a calligraphic message on it: “Shelly, Julie, DiDi, and Roxy invite you for the weekend. Necessities enclosed.” Heads craned my way as I slipped my thumbnail through the seal.

Out fell a dozen of the tiniest condoms. They’d filled the envelope with the thin latex fingertips clerks slip on when flipping through sheaves of checks and currency. Their cleverness cracked me up. When I stopped laughing, I took out a ruler and carefully measured one of the latex rings. Nodding judiciously, I placed one in my wallet. The lasses laughed, hooted, and jeered and cheered.

We Leave Our Light Off For You

At night, I pretty much lived at the data center, starting on the computers as soon as one was freed up from the work day. To snatch a few hours’ sleep, I holed up in a small motel near the bank’s Data Corp office.

During my extended stays, hotels generally grew used to me, A low-key and seldom demanding demeanor made the maids happy and sometimes pampering. Managers were pleased to X-out a room from their unrented list for a month or six, sometimes more. Across many states and a few countries, hotel life worked efficiently for me.

But deep in the Shenandoah Valley…

This local motel operator wasn’t used to a nomad like me, out all night, sleeping during the day. He glowered at my arrival each morning, frowned as I departed in the evening. Chambermaids reported reams of secret code documents in my room. Learning I skulked down to the bank building each night convinced him I was up to no good. He grew suspicious nefarious activities were afoot.

He telephoned the bank. They routed him to the Data Corp center and wound up with an operator who told him, “Oh, that’s the guy involved in the computer fraud.”

He’d heard enough.

Next morning, exhausted from a long and grueling bout of decoding and debugging, I arrived to find the motel manager in the lobby, arms folded, glaring at me. My haphazardly packed suitcases stood by the door.

Stiff-lipped and obviously fearful of a disheveled guy my size, he said, “Pay your bill and leave. I’ve called the police.” Activity in the motel stopped as a gallery of employees gathered at the balcony rails to witness their innkeeper deal with his dastardly guest. I disappointed them by producing my American Express.

With no internet at the inn, he refused to lend me a phone book to look up alternative hotels. The manager got his final satisfaction by ordering his bellboy to toss my bags outside.

Theirs was an independently owned franchise of something like Motel 7. An hour later, cheek buried in a Howard Johnson’s pillow, I sleepily fantasized complaining to Motel 7’s corporate office… and drifted off to sleep. Just another hazard of the road.

Reanimation

Here I delve into technical details of Sandman’s cryptography and computing. Feel free to skip ahead to The Flash Gorden Super Decoder Ring.

The first hurdle required overcoming a lack of tools, even a lack of tools to build tools. I needed to develop solutions on the bank’s computers, and they weren’t geared for deep-level development. The answer was to invent parsers in assembly language, the language of the machine itself, not meant for the type of character analysis and manipulation I needed. That filled the early days and then came the heavy lifting.

David Edgerley Gates previously brought to our attention substitution cyphers called cryptogramsfound in Sunday newspaper puzzles. Each encrypted letter translates or maps to a plain text letter. For example,

CryptoQuote Encryption Table
↪︎ ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ0123456789 ↪︎
JXOHY28RGUPB1WA736SLZQF5MD40CN9VTKIE

In the ‘Adventure of the Dancing Men’, Sherlock Holmes took on a secret society’s messages that differed from cryptograms only in the ‘letters’ represented as pictographs. The Dancing Men glyphs corresponded one-to-one with letters of the alphabet.

Sherlock Holmes Dancing Men translation table

Sandman didn’t resort to half measures. I realized he’d built multiple tables that made decoding a multiple more complex. I had to figure out the mirror image of what he’d devised. The American Civil War saw the use of hair-yanking two-dimensional cyphers. Sandman hadn’t made decryption impossible, merely difficult.

Toward that end, I built a translator to fill holes in the reconstituted tables, gaps where uncertainty failed to reveal which letter represented what. The translator checked for errors, refined and reran the process repeatedly until the blanks filled in.

The process was a variation of stepwise refinement: shampoo, rinse, repeat. I’d decrypted so much, I no longer doubted the plan’s viability. The more I decoded, the smaller shrank the unknowns list.

As Sir Conan Doyle pointed out, the frequency of letters we use in writing varies considerably, useful to know when solving puzzles and Wheel of Fortune. In many examples, ETAOIN occur most frequently in ordinary writing and KXQJZ appear least often. In my code tables, I’d cracked the ‘E’s, the ‘S’s, the ‘T’s and most of the other letters. Here and there I might not know the occasional Q or J, but that decreasingly mattered. Over time, I could plug holes as the solution became clear. I was going to whip this thing.

Ironically, if Sandman had simply treated labels as serial numbers, e.g, No52000, No52010, No52020, etc, he would have robbed them entirely of meaning, making decoding moot. He probably avoided that path, thinking it went too far and might set off alarms within Data Corp’s programming staff.

In the days before I’d realized the labels were encrypted, I wrote a program to extract a sampling from 25,000 lines of code, sort them, hoping they’d point a way to patterns. The harvest yielded 3600 unique names, not one of them a recognizable word or abbreviation. That clue alone suggested something bogus. Programmers might omit vowels, might use peculiar abbreviations, or sometimes use slang drawn from popular fiction like grok and borg, foo and plugh. In 3600 labels, I found not one meaningful word. Patterns, yes, but nothing recognizable surfaced.

I built frequency counters, applets to show how often characters appeared. I had to be wary of vowels since labels were limited in length and the first thing people jettison when abbreviating are vowels. The tables from the frequency counters not only revealed which letters were the most crucial, but also helped zero in on likely character replacements.

The first pass turned out better than expected. A thousand labels suddenly appeared readable. A few unknowns became obvious, but in one table I inadvertently mixed M with N. Correct and rerun. Rinse and repeat. Letter by letter, the coded alphabets unmasked.

Discovering how Sandman selected which table to use helped narrow the focus. The first character of a label served as a table selector. If that letter fell within the first third of our thirty-six alphanumeric characters, he used table 1, or within the second third, table 2, and so on. That mapping didn’t immediately jump out from the encryption, but it could be deduced as labels revealed themselves.

Sandman’s Encryption Table
  ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ0123456789
selector

↪︎ JXOHY28RGUPB1WA736SLZQF5MD40CN9VTKIE
↪︎ 5FXABTS2V71K9Y6G048HUOLEIPQJNZCDMWR3
V52KGBXSLOM7TIWH6P18Q03NYDJZCEUFR94A

7-of-9 and Other Figures

An important issue I had to deal with was context. If you’ve ever glanced at raw HTML, you saw that formatting tags were mixed in with common text. You might see something like:

<html><head><title>Student Body</title></head><body>

This page discusses who shall head the student body.

</body></html>

Imagine searching and replacing the keywords ‘head’ and ‘body’ without affecting the HTML tags in a hundred-thousand lines and upwards of a million words without making a mistake. The solution is to comprehend meaning, to grasp when head is part of a formatting tag and when it isn’t.

Much like a human reader, the translation program needed to comprehend context. It parsed the text, distinguished actual programming statements, formatting commands, comments, and assorted runes in what technical people call a non-trivial exercise.

The smart enough parser had to recognize if “7,9” referred to two registers, two memory locations, a mix of the two, coordinates, formatting, a decimal number, part of a comment, or an actress in a television show.

To minimize errors as I restored the code, I borrowed a programmer to help check expansions. Late into the night, our flat conversations sounded like alien air traffic controllers:

“… Hex two-five-five, nought, bang paren dog-easy minus splat…”

“… Xor var fox fox, double word, two-seven baker niner able, no deltas.”

A splat meant an asterisk, bang an exclamation point, a delta implied a difference, and much of the rest was hexadecimal. You’re following this, right?

Deltas had to be identified and dealt with. A final pass matched the assembled output of the original and my newly created decrypted version.


The Flash Gordon Super Decoder Ring

It took a shade over two months, but finally I could inform the vice president he had viable source code, better documented than the original. Since most people couldn’t tell assembler code from alphabet soup, he awarded me congratulations with a vague smile. After all, he had to trust what I said it was.

More satisfying was a phone call I made, one to Sandman.

He said, “I don’t believe it. Impossible. You could not have done it. I couldn’t have done it.”

“It’s true. Got a fax number? I’ll send you a couple of pages plus a cross-reference list of labels.”

“Wow, that’s stupendous. Awesome. I didn’t think it could be done. I respect you, you know. This has been extremely satisfying in a way, a battle of brains. Thrust and parry. Check and mate. You’re as good as they say.”

“You could be a contender, Dan. Do the right thing, join the universe on the side of the angels.”

I thought it was end game, but it wasn’t over yet. When no one was looking, perhaps influenced by his corrupt skating Queen, Sandman slipped another rook onto the board.

Computer Associates

I continued development, expanding the product’s capabilities. Some time earlier I had invented Fx, a technique to carve out an independent partition tailor made for such a product to run in. I refined it for Data Corp, which pleased the customers.

On the sales side, matters were not going well. Sandman was right about one aspect. The business model Chase maintained in his head did not match the reality of the market. Australian Boyd Munro had managed to support a high-flying international sales organization– literally high flying– Boyd and the top officers flew their own private planes. Their salesmen personally visited companies to sell a product that leased for a thousand dollars and upwards a month.

Chase owned a Cessna, but with a product that sold for a fraction of Munro’s in an increasingly competitive and changing market, flying half way across the country to make a sales pitch wasn’t feasible. Although we’d solved the technical and legal catastrophes, the board eyed the bottom line, and S&M– sales and marketing– loomed in their gunsights.

During my break in Boston, the vice president phoned. Another situation. Couldn’t he time dramas to occur when I was in Virginia?

“Leigh, what is your opinion of Computer Associates?”

“My opinion? They have staying power, can’t argue that. They change with the times. The company has a chequered reputation, though, considered shady. Rumors persist about a clash with Tower Systems out in California and that the D-fast and T-fast products were cloned. Supposedly the president’s brother is the corporate attorney, so one story says they bully smaller companies in court, grind them down with legal fees, Software Darwinism, the beast with the biggest claws.”

“Computer Associates expresses an interest in buying the rights to our product. They want to send a software specialist to look over the programs. Can you fly here to show it to him?”

“You want to show a competitor our source code? In light of what I just explained, if only a small part is true, does this make sense?”

“Did I mention they are talking a five with a lot of zeros after it?”

“Five hundred thousand dollars? You are joking.”

“I do not joke.”

“Have them sign a non-disclosure agreement, maybe an MOU. Protect yourself.” I could tell from his reaction he wasn’t listening to anything but a five followed by five zeroes.

Bankers, hard-nosed but so naïve.

CA’s software guru turned out to be a Jersey guy with an enviable excess of kinetic energy. The bank’s coffee klatch girls studied Matt, sizing him up.

“He looks like the Leverage TV actor, you know, Christian Kane without the smile, don’cha think?”

“I picture that bad boy flying down the road on a motorcycle, long hair flattened back by the wind.”

“You hear how he talked to the receptionist? He gives me the creeps. You ever see Andrew Dice Clay?”

“Girlie, we got a male who fogs a mirror. What more do we need in a testosterone drought?”

Matt communicated mostly in monosyllabic grunts and nods, then dove head-first into the programs. The vice president hung about, all but wringing his hands before deciding his presence wasn’t contributing. Chase on the other hand, sat down prepared to answer questions. When Matt opened his notebook and began to make copious notes, I shot a questioning look at Chase. He merely shrugged and motioned me outside the room.

“The VP said anything goes. They want to sell it and don’t want us to throw up barriers.”

“What about the non-disclosure? Your bank had me sign one.”

“You are a consultant. This is an established company.”

“I don’t believe it. You wouldn’t give me a hint about the program until I signed sixteen documents. This guy waltzes in, they open the vault?”

“Pretty much. Look, they know your feelings; they just don’t see it your way.”

The VP returned and offered lunch, a largess almost unheard of. Barbecue, Southern buffet, Chinese… Matt waved them all away. “Cold pizza will do.”

Folks in the Shenandoah Valley like to get to know people they do business with. Matt did his best to keep a distance. Chase was clearly uncomfortable with this, but the vice president took it to mean Matt was all business and above frivolity while the rest of us worried about job security. The fact Matt saved the vice president forty bucks for lunch didn’t hurt either.

The afternoon turned into more of the same. Matt pored over the programs, taking extensive notes, filling page after page. He asked to use the phone in private a couple of times. About 5:30, we shut down for the evening, unusual for us. We invited Matt out to dinner. Chase suggested bluegrass, but Matt declined both.

We met again at nine the next day. Mid-morning Matt turned his attention to my Fx routine and his interest picked up, so much so that he was copying actual bits of code. How did this advance negotiations, I wondered. I closed the binder cover and excused myself, taking it with me.

I stopped in the VP’s office, and reported I didn’t like the way this was going. I’d developed this routine on my own, already had it purloined once, and I didn’t want it stolen again. Because I benefited from royalties, I allowed the bank to use it but they didn’t own it– I did. My holding out for a signed agreement did not make the vice president happy.

Lunch saw subs delivered. By mid-afternoon Matt said he was ready for a meeting. Even I wasn’t prepared for the audacity of his announcement.

“You know a guy named Daniel Sandman? We bought rights and title to the package from him. After minor changes, we shall bring it to market. We’re willing to pay you $10,000 for whatever rights you think you have and you turn your source code over to us.”

The blatant gall stunned us. Finally, Chase said, “The offer of a half million plus was just bullshit?”

The vice president, never one to forget proprieties, frowned at Chase but said to Matt. “You viewed our source under false pretenses?”

Matt shrugged. “You were under no obligation to show me a fucking thing. I suggest you consider this proposal quickly and unemotionally. I have no idea how long my bosses will keep the offer open. With or without you, we’ll bring the product to market within months.”

“What offer?” said Chase. “This is blackmail.”

“It’s actually extortion,” said the vice president. “It won’t fly here. We own the product. We have taken steps more than once to defend it. I cannot imagine what Sandman led you to believe, but the product is not yours. Now I’d appreciate it if you return the notes.”

“Forget about it. The notes are mine, freely allowed by you. You know Charlie Wong, the guy I work for? And his brother, their lawyer? Believe me, before this is over, we’ll own it, Fx and all, and you’ll be wishing you had the $10,000 to cover your first week of legal fees.”

“Fx is not for sale,” I said flatly.

“You think you can stop us?”

The vice president leaned in. “Our customer base monthly revenue is worth more than you’re offering. I suggest you leave, before Southern hospitality comes to an end.”

Matt tapped his fingers a moment and said, “You’ll regret it. Call me a fucking cab.”


The after-conference turned dismal. We had been humbled, deceived, threatened, misled and misused. Only our refusal to be bullied gave us the least comfort.

Matt’s feint and his company’s bluff corroded the bank’s confidence. Computer Associates’ audacity must surely have some credence, mustn’t it? The vice president sent out a tendril of query, tried a civilized probe into Computer Associates, which was met with stony implacability. Gradually, the cold acidic silence ate through the bank’s certainty and sense of justice. They decided to invest no more in the product.

I was retained for the time being because Data Corp still had customers who depended on the software and they would not abandon them. As manufacturers introduced new devices and operating system changes, our package continued to adjust and adapt.

Loose Ends

Chase departed, moving on to sell elsewhere. He reported an industry insider rumor that Computer Associates concluded Sandman either screwed them or they found him too volatile to work with. Either way, they killed off their project. But sadly, they’d also killed ours.

CA’s retreat came too late for us. With sales and marketing shut down, the die had been cast. Within a year or two, requests for updates to the software slowed and then tapered off altogether. The bank ceased billing the last few customers, letting them continue to use the product if they chose or migrate to a competitor’s offering.

Sand Castles

Sandman induced mixed feelings. He possessed a brilliant, if sadly injudicious mind. Like a Greek drama or a Russian novel, the characters and the outcome were doomed from the start. I thought of Sandman less a bad guy and more a pathetic protagonist hemmed in by a distorted perception of the world.

As a result, he acted vengefully and criminally. He’d defrauded a bank and its most important business clients. goaded by his lover, he blew every chance, every opportunity to get it right. When the blunders of a cigar-chompin’ deputy gave him a get-out-of-jail card, he attempted one more dishonest end-run, reselling a product he no longer owned. It shouldn’t have turned out a tragedy, but characters seldom get to decide the plot.

I confess I relished the contest. Like a novel’s protagonist, I had to see it through until its end. A friend noted I would have fought the battle even if I hadn’t been paid.

As a freelancer, jokes surrounded me about riding into town, smiting a problem, and riding out again as winsome daughters clasped their hands to heaving bosoms and cried out, “Who was that masked man?” Even the industry slang of a hired ‘code-slinger’ evoked the image of a geekish gunfighter. We each enjoy our illusions, but the challenge felt exciting.

Although a resoundingly happy ending didn’t materialize, the case looms in my past with a sense of satisfaction, of skirmishes won and a job completed. One could argue otherwise, but I like to think it a shadowy victory for the good guys.

As much as I enjoyed the battle of wits, the world would have been a happier place if Sandman had executed an ethical U-turn into the righteous lane. But if the ungodly, as The Saint was wont to say, always did the right thing, we’d have no story.

02 January 2021

A Blurb in the Hand


  

For several weeks now, writers have been blogging about their 2020 accomplishments and whatever writing goals they might've set for 2021. I had intended, for today's post here at SleuthSayers, to continue that discussion . . . but right in the middle of preparing that column I was asked by a fellow writer to supply a blurb for an upcoming project. I dutifully stopped and did that, and afterward it occurred to me that blurbism was a topic I'd never before approached here at SS. Besides, it sounded like a lot more fun than looking back through my writing records for this year. So . . .


Blurbs. Whatchoo talkinbout, Willis?

I've never given much thought to the definition--and the many misdefinitions--of a blurb. To me as a fiction writer, a literary blurb is NOT jacket copy, a teaser, a synopsis, or a review. It is a sentence or two praising a writer or his/her writing, which often appears on the cover of a book written by that author. Blurbs are always positive and hopefully brief, and are especially helpful if the name or reputation of the blurber is recognizable (in a good way) to potential readers. In other words, they're promotional.


Do blurbs really help an author or project? I'm not sure they always do, but they certainly can. Supportive comments and opinions are a good thing, and--who knows?--they might be enough to sway an undecided reader/buyer to take a chance on your writing. At the very least, a few blurbs on the back cover of your book are a better use of space than, say, a larger author photo. I've often seen them used on writers' websites as well.

According to Wikipedia, the history of the blurb began with Walt Whitman's poetry collection Leaves of Grass. Apparently Ralph Waldo Emerson sent Whitman a letter congratulating him on the publication of LoG's first edition, and included the phrase "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." Whitman later had those words printed on his second edition.


How to find one, in the wild (Blurbwatching 101)

So let's say you need, or your publisher tells you they need, a blurb to grace the cover of your upcoming book or for some other marketing endeavor. How do you--or they--get this done? In my experience, there are two ways. You either (1) choose an excerpt from something written about you or your project (in the newspaper, online, in a magazine, etc.) or (2) ask someone to read your manuscript or ARC and contribute a few words to the cause. For me, it's usually option 2. Like most things worth having, blurbs rarely show up on your doorstep; you have to put on your overcoat and boots and go hunting for them.

As for who to ask, I think people you know are the best targets, because you're asking a big favor and they're the least likely to say no. (If you have writer friends like that who also happen to owe you money, that's better still.) And although it sounds a bit snooty, if you have a friend or acquaintance who is widely known--at least in your genre--that's especially good.


Blurbs and sub-blurbs

For each of my seven collections of short mystery fiction, I found out from the publisher how many blurbs they thought were needed and I brazenly asked that number of people to do me the favor of contributing one. These testimonials were usually placed on the back cover of the book, and for the last several of those short-story collections an extra blurb--sometimes shortened a bit--was also featured at the top of the front cover. I continue to be grateful to each and every one of these truly generous writers, because pestering folks for a blurb is asking a favor that requires both time and effort. (You're also sort of asking them to say good things, which in my case might be even more of an effort.) In every instance, I recall being reluctant to make the request--all of us are busy, and blurb-begging is an annoyingly close cousin to BSP--but I bit the bullet and asked anyway. Usually in the form of an email, so if they decided not to, they wouldn't have to tell me to my face (or ear). Thankfully none of the writers I've approached so far have turned me down, and I will always be in their debt for their kindness.

 

Now put the shoe on the other foot. What if someone asks you for a blurb? Like most of my fellow writers, I have occasionally found myself in this position, and every time that's happened I have accepted the request and provided what I hope was a blurb that would help the author and his/her project. The unasked question that always pops up here is Must I read the whole thing in order to write a satisfactory blurb? The ideal answer would be Yes, and it's what I try hard to do . . . but let's be honest, that's not always possible. To read an entire book on request, out of the blue, takes a lot of time. I do make it a point to read a reasonable amount of the material, but--especially in the case of a story collection or anthology--I think it's also acceptable to read a certain number of pages or chapters or stories and write the blurb based on that. If the parts you choose to read are written well, chances are the rest will be good also.

Bottom line: To receive a blurb by someone you respect and admire is always an honor, and to supply a supportive blurb to someone else can make you feel great also. Possibly the best of all blurbs are those that come unbidden from people you don't know (from reviews, articles, anthology introductions, etc.). For those, too, I am forever grateful.


A case of blurbed vision

Again, how much value do they add? I'm not sure anyone in this universe totally believes every piece of glowing praise contained in blurbs--some of them are surely sincere, and some are not--but good words are always better than bad, and better than none. Even though we all recognize that a blurb might be no more than a kind gesture by a friend or colleague, it's still positive promotion. As for me, I have been fortunate in the blurbs (solicited and unsolicited) that my publisher has selected to print on the covers of my short-story collections. Whether all the words were deserved is indeed another matter--I hope they were, but I'm a little biased.


How much weight do you place on the blurbs you've read, about others and their writing? Does rapturous praise from a big-name writer influence your own thinking about either the author or the work? As a reader, have you ever made a purchase based solely on a blurb? As a writer, have you asked others for blurbs? How did you go about doing that? Have you often blurbed the work of others?

English author Neil Gaiman once said, "Every now and then, I stop doing blurbs . . . the hiatus lasts for a year or two, and then I feel guilty or someone asks me at the right time, and I relent."

Good for him.


And good for you, for hanging in there, throughout the minefield that was 2020.  

By the way, to those of you who have asked, my final count for 2020 was 43 stories published. The only good thing about the whole year. I wish all of you a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2021!





01 January 2021

Debris


Sometimes it all falls together, like debris kicked up in a sandstorm falling into the places missing in the story. Sometimes, in the middle of a novel or in the middle of writing a short story as you go along, the little nuggets, the little twists and turns of plot, the little comments of characters, the smart talk brings it all together so the story becomes neatly packaged like a Christmas gift.


Most of the time writing a short story and especially a novel, it’s like working in a rock quarry, chiseling blocks of granite into something recognizable. If you hammer long enough, if you stick to it – never give up – it’ll come. Maybe not the way you originally planned but the characters, storyline, setting, dialogue, conflict will come together.


But the debris which comes along and fills the piece with a touch of dialogue so right for the piece, a touch of unplanned drama, the brush of an eyelid against a face when they kiss, a passion which grabs you, a pain which grabs your heart because Robert Frost was right when he said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”


It works in mysteries as well as mainstream fiction.


Been noticing the debris the older I get, the more I write, like my subconscious peeking in and whispering to my fingers as I type and there it is, the debris collecting, the little nugget in the story.


Wrote a story a few months back as a Christmas present for my wife. Been doing that for the 29 years we’ve been together. Sold most of them. The one this year is the best I’ve written, maybe one of the best I’ve ever written, a mystery. We’ll see if a magazine editor or anthology editor agrees. If not, we’ll put it up on Amazon Kindle.


Back to the novel, back into the quarry. It’s coming together as well. In slow motion, like everything in 2020.


Happy New Year, everyone. 2021’s gotta be better than 2020.


No words necessary
 
 






 


www.oneildenoux.com


31 December 2020

We Hate to See You Go


I'm willing to bet that there will be songs written and sung about 2020, but none of them will be as sweet as this one by John Mayall (backed by Eric Clapton):

Still, I'm sure that when 2020 showed up, clean and neat as a newborn baby on January 1st, it had no idea what kind of Frankenstein's monster it was going to turn into.  If we had, we'd have showed up with torches and pitchforks on January 21st…

Now I never make New Year's resolutions (never make promises in the dark of the moon…) but I do look back and say what the hell was that?  The nicest way I can put it is that this year, as the old-timers of my youth would say, was "sent to try us", and it certainly showed everyone what they were made of. I learned that I still know how to wait, which keeps on being handy, year after year - and this year more than any other.  I also learned I can be a total news junkie, and that is not a good thing.

Meanwhile:

To all the health care workers and front line workers, whoever and wherever you are and were – you knocked it out of the park!  You're still knocking it out of the park.  We can never thank you enough.  We can never honor you enough.  And we really need to provide mental health care for the PTSD that is coming once this pandemic is over.  And it wouldn't be a bad idea to forgive / pay for all their student loans as a small thank you.  

Meanwhile, here are the gifts I wish for our country - and the world - for 2021:

(1) Coronavirus vaccines for everybody.  100% everybody.

(2) Resocialization.  From children to adults, we're going to have to get used to being around each other again, not ducking across the street or to another aisle in the store, etc.  It's been a long time.  No one except Allan and myself have been in my house since April.  We haven't gone to a restaurant except to get takeout since March.  In person meetings of any kind ended when winter came in and it was too cold to sit on the socially distanced on the porch.  We're gonna need some help.  And a lot of mental health care and counseling.  Even for those of us who have been fortunate enough to not have lost loved ones, there's a certain level of PTSD that's going to rise like an ocean once we can get around to feeling things again.  

(3) Civility, negotiation, conflict resolution and nonviolence.  Because this has been a year of frightening selfishness, disguised as freedom fighting.  From the "militia" that plotted to kidnap and kill at least one governor over lockdowns, to the (still on-going) threats to election officials for not providing the desired results, constant anti-mask protests and general COVID defiance, it's enough to make even Thomas Paine say it's time for a reboot.  The worst, to me, were the anti-maskers who actually protested health care workers:  

To the protester wearing scrubs: “This is a free country. This is the land of the free. Go to China!” (The Guardian

(4) You can't have a country - or even a family - without rules, respect, and personal sacrifice for the greater good.  We need to relearn that on a national scale.  So, a return to teaching kindness, compassion, and empathy in schools, churches, families, and media is definitely needed.  

BTW, to all the anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, etc., one of the best articles I read was written by Martin Luther in 1527, and reprinted in Christianity TodayWhether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague.  An excerpt:

"Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? You ought to think this way: “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God."  HERE  (my emphasis added)

(5) Civics classes for all!  We have a great Constitution, and it's amazing how little people apparently know it.  Or how willing some are to make it optional.  (Senator Mike Lee: "Democracy is not the objective." – WRONG)  Teach it in schools, beginning in grade school and repeating the lessons over and over again through college.  Use the texts that immigrants have to study and learn from.  And for the adults in the room, here's the beginning of a refresher course:
  • The Constitution. (HERE)
  • The Declaration of  Independence. (HERE)
  • You could also do worse than read George Washington's Farewell Address. (HERE)
    • That set a high bar for Presidential farewells, didn't it?
  • Frederick Douglass' (What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?)   
(The above is only a start - don't give me crap about who got left off.)

(6) A stake through the heart of racism and the trickle-down theory of economics, which is just another name for the war on the poor (as opposed to the war on poverty), and which is often only another name, yet another cover, for racism.  The trickle-down theory has been thoroughly disproven, time and again, and most recently scientifically.  (Bloomberg)  The truth is, when the rich are given large tax cuts, they're more apt to buy another yacht or stash it off shore for themselves.  But give the poor some money, and they will spend it in their community on food, clothing, rent, etc., which really does create jobs for all.  Give the children of the poor a free, good education, and they will increase the wealth of family, friends, and neighbors.  Give the poor a chance, and the whole world will change, and for the better.  


And now, for something completely different:

Last year, I made Fearless Predictions for 2020.  Most of them - surprise! - did not come true.  But some did: 
  • President Trump will continue to tweet at the same rate most of us breathe.
  • "Xi Jinping will remain President for Life of China. Vladimir Putin will make himself President for Life of Russia. (Russian government resigns) Major pissing contest follows.
  • Brexit will happen. Almost no one, including Brexiters, will like it.
    • Future quote: "It isn't what I expected it to be. I thought everything would be cheaper, we'd have more freedom, and all those foreigners would be gone."
And, still possible: 
 
Speaking of Brexit, even money that:
  • Scotland will vote for independence.
  • Northern Ireland will vote to join the Republic of Ireland.
  • Scotland will join Northern Ireland and Wales in a Celtexit from Great Britain.
  • Normandy and Brittany will consider joining them. The beginning of the Great Celtexit from Europe will begin. Catalonia will try to join, but will be told to cabrear.
Fake news and deepfakes will receive their own category at the Grammys, Emmys, Tonys, and Oscars. No one will ever know who truly wins.

Wildly improbable, but I still want one:

Woolly mammoths will be cloned, especially the last of the species from St. Paul Island, Alaska, which were pgymies - they stood 5'6".  I wonder how they sounded when they trumpeted?  


"May the best of your past be the worst of your future."

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!

30 December 2020

Which Came First? The Title or the Egg?


 I belong to the Short Mystery Fiction Society. In fact, I am the current president.  I imagine you can figure out what we discuss there. (And, hey, if you want to join, go to this page and look for Subscribe.  It's free.  But do it by tomorrow or you have to wait until the spring when the Derringer Awards have been decided.)

Recently I sent the following note to the Society's list:

I am about to do something that truly irritates me: starting to write a story with no idea what the title will be. 

How about it?  Do you need a title before you start writing?

And that started quite a discussion.  I am going to reduce a lot of interesting comments to four generalized categories:

Inspiration.  Writers who said their stories were often inspired by titles.

Start. Writers who usually know the titles before they begin.

Later. Writers who don't know the titles until the story is mostly or completely finished.

Varied.  Writers who are all over the map.

And speaking of maps, this chart shows the results.

A number of people agreed with me that it is annoying to start without knowing the title, if for no other reason than: what do you call the file?  When I started the story I was complaining about I called the file "Tunnel," which I absolutely hated.  The next day I changed it to "Underpass," which I like so much it may wind up being the actual title.  A subtle difference, perhaps, but huge to me.

I can think of only two times when the title inspired the plot:

"My Life as a Ghost." This was the first story I sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  They changed it to "The Dear Departed."  They have never changed another title on me, even when I invited them to do so.

Too Dead For Dreaming. I was listening to "Mr. Tambourine Man" one day and that line leapt out as a perfect title for a crime novel. So I wrote a book set in Greenwich Village during the Great Folk Scare of the early sixties.  Alas, Bob Dylan's publishing company wouldn't permit me to use the line as a title so it became Such A Killing Crime, a line from a traditional song, long out of copyright.  

My story about the Plainfield, New Jersey riots was originally called "Bullets in the Firehouse Door," but before I finished it I changed to "Shooting at the Firemen," which covers the same ground but is shorter and more active.  First readers suggested I drop the "the" so it appeared in Hitchcock as "Shooting at Firemen."  

Do you need a title before you start?  Do they stay the same or change their identity mysteriously?

29 December 2020

Winter Counts


Everyone wants justice. 

Courtroom dignity with an impartial jury or the dark delights of vengeance. The injured and grieving want restitution of one sort or another. Given that justice is so often partial, economically based, or capricious, the mystery novel and its sibling the thriller, have spread across the world, bearing as they do, the promise that the scales can be evened up and right might prevail.

For this reason, the detective, whether PI or cop or, as in David Heska Wanbli Weiden's Winter Counts, something less official and more ambiguous, shows up in nearly every culture and subgroup. Weiden's hero, Virgil Wounded Horse, operates on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, in an impoverished, if culturally rich, community that is seriously lacking in trustworthy law enforcement and reliable justice.

Weiden has said that one motivation for writing this novel was to bring attention to the difficulties of a community that cannot prosecute serious crimes. These are turned over to federal authorities, who are chiefly interested in drug crimes, often declining to prosecute rape, assault, child abuse, and even murder. The results have been particularly pernicious for Native American women.

 Virgil Wounded Horse provides an answer. For a modest fee, he will administer justice in the form of a violent attack and threats of more unless the perpetrator changes his ways. It's not exactly a respectable career path but it's a living and, arguably, an essential service.

The skills Virgil has developed come into full play when Nathan, his fourteen year old nephew, grieving his dead mom and bullied at school, samples some heroin. The boy nearly dies, and Virgil finds himself hunting for the drug dealers and trying to protect his ward, who eventually becomes entangled in a federal investigation.

The novel is strong on place, atmosphere, and action, maybe less so on dialogue. Winter Counts is particularly interesting on the tension between tribal ways and the often-threatening outside world and between loyalty to the people and culture of the rez and the opportunities for advancement elsewhere.

 If the solitary, super-competent hero is a staple of mystery/ thrillers, Virgil Wounded Horse has much that is distinctive in his attitude and outlook and a good deal to say about tribal life, federal stewardship, and white bias.

Winter Counts is one of a number of mysteries by Native American writers, and if you only know the non-Native American Tony Hillerman's stories of the Navaho Nation, Weiden has a fine list on the Strand Magazine website : https://strandmag.com/seven-essential-native-american-crime-novels/.

Interestingly, one of the novels mentioned is The Round House by Louise Erdrich, who is rarely thought of as a mystery or crime writer.  I haven't read that particular novel, but I can certainly recommend her splendid LaRose, which gives a distinctly Native American solution for recompense after a terrible accident.

Weiden ultimately opts for a less spiritual solution to the dilemmas his enforcer faces, but throughout Virgil has a strong sense, not only of justice but of the necessity for healing psychic as well as physical wounds and of restoring community. That gives him a distinct perspective and gives Winter Counts, despite its conventional features, something new in the genre.

28 December 2020

Sister to Sister



In Casablanca at Sid's (Rick's) just short decades ago,  I met this mysterious lady who has more names than I can usually remember, but the one which finally showed up in my '90s bookstore more often was Toni L.P. Kelner. I actually fell in love Sid, her skeleton character. Humphrey Bogart could have carried the part off masterfully.

This wonderful interview with my friend, by Hank Phillippi Ryan, has been reprinted here with permission from Toni L.P. Kelner and the New England chapter of Sisters in Crime. 

-Jan Grape

If you want to find Toni L. P. Kelner, go where the laughter is! For so many years, she’s been such a stalwart to Sisters in Crime in every way. Full of fun and jokes and a marvelous sense of humor, sure. But behind all that is the hardest-working woman in showbiz – – with a pedigree of bestselling mysteries and short stories, an Agatha win, an RT Lifetime Achievement Award, an acclaimed partnership with Charlene Harris, and a glorious and talented and loving family. (Including her wonderful husband Steve, another pillar of the SinC community.)

 She’s never afraid to take a writing risk, including one super successful series (written as Leigh Perry) starring…a skeleton. Yes, that’s the brave and brilliant brain of Toni Kelner.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Do you remember the very first time you thought: I’m going to write a book, and I can do it. What was that moment?

TONI KELNER: I first started trying to write when I was in junior high school, and wrote short stories and even a novella along the way, but the first time I really felt pretty confident that I was going to finish a novel would have been late 1988 or early 1989. That’s when I really got going on my first book-length manuscript, and I was sure I’d finish. I didn’t know if it would sell, but it would be an actual manuscript gosh darn it!

HANK: Wow, that’s thirty-two years ago! That’s astonishing. Did that first book sell?

TONI KELNER: Eventually. I wrote it, shopped it around for a year or so while writing another manuscript, then got some great feedback and rewrote the first one. Once I’d finished the rewrite, it only took a few months to get an agent and then a publisher. (I’ve never rewritten or sold that second manuscript, but I will someday.)

HANK: I have no doubt!  And that’s so inspirational. How many of your books have been published since then? What do you think about that?

TONI KELNER: Seventeen novels, seven co-edited anthologies, and one collection of my short stories. So I guess that’s 25.

 I’m astonished and pleased, but not ready to stop yet!

HANK: Well, of course not!  Gotta know, got to ask. Do you outline? Has your method changed over the years?

TONI KELNER: Only if I have to. I do write outlines when editors require it, but find it constraining. Plotting that works in outline just comes off as contrived in the actual writing. When an outline is required, I write it and get it approved, but then stick it in a drawer and ignore it while I write the book.

HANK:  That’s wise advice. But I wonder if it gets your brain going, you know? Gets the muse listening? Even if the final book is totally different. Getting that core idea is the hardest for me—how about you?  What's the hardest part of the book for you?

TONI KELNER: Getting my tail end writing to get up to speed. Once I’m going, I’m quite fast, but it’s hard to get going. 

Once I’m writing, I try not to repeat myself in terms of plot lines and bits of business. That gets harder each book.

HANK:  Well, yeah, since you’ve been wring for 32 years! (No pressure.) Is your first draft always terrible? Has it always been?


TONI KELNER: My first drafts are much better than they used to be. With the first few, I started too early. I had to cut out a whole first chapter with my first book, then half a chapter with  my second, a few pages with my third… Now I start pretty much where I should start.

HANK:  I love that you learn from yourself.  Very reassuring.  How often in your process do you have doubts about what you’re doing?

TONI KELNER: Almost the entire time except for when I’m rolling down the hill toward the very end.

HANK:  What do you tell yourself during those moments of writing fear?

TONI KELNER: I whine to my husband Steve, who reassures me as best he can.

 I did recently see something inspirational on Facebook. Another writer—and I can’t remember who—quoted something a friend told her. “You’ve written X number of books and stories. Trust yourself to be able to do it again.”

This came at just the right time, because I’ve got a short story due and have been having a hard time writing during Plague Times.

HANK:  Oh, I hear you. If ever there was a time to tune out reality while in the manuscript, this is it. But it’s always safe inside your pages, right?  Do you have a writing quirk you have to watch out for?

TONI KELNER: My characters used to grin all the time, but I’ve gotten better at that one. Now I develop a new one per book that I have to catch while editing. Thank goodness for beta readers.

HANK: True. And so funny. Mine shrug and grin. And it’s hilarious--no one in real life does that, right? What’s one writing thing you always do—write every day? Never stop at the end of a chapter? Write first thing in the morning?

TONI KELNER: I write in the wee hours of the morning. I don’t want to—I’d rather get my work done earlier in the day—but for some reason, I usually can’t settle into work until the world quiets down.

HANK:  Well, you understand your brain, and let it lead you.  How do you know when your book is finished?

TONI KELNER:  If I’m editing and change “said” to “asked,” then in the next pass change “asked” back to “said,” I know it’s time to let it go.


HANK:  Perfect. Has there been one person who has helped you in your career? (I know, it must be difficult to choose just one, but...)

TONI KELNER: So many, but I’m going to say Charlaine Harris. We had been beta reading each other for a while when she invited me to co-edit anthologies with her. That led to a new very visible stage of my career, a new agent, introduction to an editor and publisher, and so many other opportunities. Thank you, Charlaine!

HANK: Well, she’s a total rock star. And so many sisters have her to thank!  Do you think anyone can be taught to be a better writer?  

TONI KELNER: I do. I’ve always liked this philosophy from Gideon in All That Jazz:

"Listen, I can't make you a great dancer. I don't even know if I can make you a good dancer. But, if you keep trying and don't quit, I know I can make you a better dancer.”

I think if a writer keeps trying and doesn’t quit, they’re going to get better. Maybe not great or even good or publishable, but better.

HANK:  Bird by bird, right?  How do you feel about…stuff? Writing swag handouts giveaways that kind of thing. Do you think it matters? Do you have it?

TONI KELNER: I really like creating it but I’m not convinced it works, so I try to restrain myself. I hand out bookmarks, and I’ve got a bunch of microfiber wipes that have original artwork and my book cover on them. Neither are expensive, and both can be mailed with regular postage, so I can still use them during the Plague Times. 

Since lots of conventions and charities ask for auction donations, I also buy skeleton-based items on sale to have on hand so I’m ready to do a gift basket at short notice.

HANK:  You’ve seen so much change in the publishing industry, what do you think new writers need to know about that?

TONI KELNER: Expect change! Keep an ear out to try to predict what that change will be, but don’t assume the experts are going to be right.

Years back, I was at a Berkley Prime Crime dinner when everybody was buzzing about those new-fangled electronic books, and the editor-in-chief told us that we had nothing to worry about. Ebooks were going to settle down and just be a small part of the field, like audio books. Not only was she wrong about ebooks, but she didn’t expect audio books to become a huge market because of downloading services. 

That’s the scary part. On the good side, every change can lead to opportunities. I’ve got books that were long out of print in physical editions, but which are available as ebooks and audio downloads.

HANK:  Yeah, you never know.  You've been so successful, why do you think that is? What secret of yours can we bottle up and rely on?

TONI KELNER: I don’t think of myself as overly successful, just moderately so, but thank you. 

My only secret is being ornery. I just won’t leave. When a series dies, I start a new one. If one story doesn’t sell, I write another one. If I have a dry spell—and I’ve had them—I stick around until it ends. Winning awards, big sales, high-profile deals—those are all great, but staying in the game is the real way to win.

HANK: Yes, yes, yes! We should all print out your advice. (And yes, you are successful!)  What are you working on right now?

TONI KELNER: I’m writing my first Family Skeleton short story for an anthology of mysteries inspired by the Marx Brothers, edited by Josh Pachter. 

HANK: Oh, Josh is great. He has such perfect ideas! Eager to read that!  What book are you are reading right now? 

TONI KELNER: The Art of the Con by R. Paul Wilson, which is research for a new series I’m playing with.

HANK:  Oh, cannot wait to read that, too! You’ll have to keep us posted. Until then, give us one piece of writing advice!

TONI KELNER: Especially in these times, when sales are sparse because of the world at large, write what you’ve always wanted to write. Even if you don’t sell well, you’ll have a great time.

HANK: Aw, that advice is perfect. Thank you! And sisters, how are you doing? My writing went off the tracks a bit at the beginning of the plague times, as Toni so wisely calls this. Did yours? How did you regroup?   

Leigh Perry/Toni L.P. Kelner is two authors in one. As Leigh, she writes the Family Skeleton mysteries, featuring adjunct English professor Georgia Thackery and her skeletal pal Sid. The sixth, THE SKELETON STUFFS A STOCKING, was published in 2019. As Toni, she’s written eleven mystery novels and co-edited seven urban fantasy anthologies with Charlaine Harris. She’s won the Agatha Award and an RT BookClub Lifetime Achievement Award. Her most recent publications were short stories in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and in the Nasty Woman Press anthology SHATTERING GLASS, and forthcoming is a contribution to an anthology inspired by the Marx Brothers.   

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the USA Today bestselling author of 12 thrillers, winning five Agathas and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and 37 EMMYs for TV investigative reporting. THE MURDER LIST (2019) won the Anthony Award for Best Novel, and is an Agatha, Macavity and Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee. Her newest psychological standalone is THE FIRST TO LIE. The Publishers Weekly starred review says "Stellar. Ryan could win her sixth Agatha with this one."

27 December 2020

A Weird Christmas Tale for Writers


Terry Pratchett gave us the character of Hogfather to replace Santa Claus in his best-selling fantasy series. And, since it is only fair that Hogfather, like Santa, should have his own minions, I give you Blind Pig as a potential candidate for one of his elves.

Having worked the motorcycle gangs for several years, it did not take long to find a real-life representative for the character of Blind Pig, a hulk of a free-thinking biker who sees the world around him through a different filter. But, he does love his customized Harley.

So, here's your Christmas gift from me for this year.

A Weird Christmas Tale for Writers
Having been severely encouraged by his new old lady Patricia to acquire a modicum of culture and perhaps broaden his literary interests at the same time, the Pig made the momentous decision to write his memoirs and give them to Patricia as a Christmas present. He perceived himself as the only proper expert for this endeavor, seeing as how he was the sole person that truly understood himself.
Patricia for her part, was suitably impressed that the Pig was going to write anything, much less his autobiography.


Having now heard the term autobiography banded about for the first time, the Pig was stymied for a minute or two. He had been so caught up in the idea of drafting his memoirs that he hadn't even considered the words auto and biography in the same sentence. Ambling off to the kitchen for another beer, he contemplated the two words and decided they wouldn't do at all for his project. In the first place, the Pig refused to ride in one of them steel cages known as an auto, that was for civilians in the straight life. And in the second place, he decided that most auto biographies must have been written by race car drivers, which obviously left him out. Therefore, being a motorcycle enthusiast, he decided to refer to his memoirs as a motor-cy-ography.

Thus having rendered that turning-point decision, he proceeded to gather up his writing materials. Lacking the immediate possession of either a computer or an old-fashioned typewriter, the Pig adjusted his mind to write in longhand. He promptly located the stub of a carpenter pencil and an almost dried-up ballpoint pen bearing the logo of his local bail bond agent. Finding no clean paper to write upon, Pig then moved on to cut up a stash of old brown-paper grocery bags that he'd forgotten to throw in the trash over the last several years. As he labored, Pig thought he had now acquired a glimpse into the demise of the modern writer, seeing as to how most grocery bags had gone from paper to plastic, thus depriving the writer of a convenient source of free paper material.

All set to begin with carpenter pencil in hand, the Pig suddenly found himself plagued by Writer's Block, which pleased him immensely because he now knew that he was on the road to being a real writer, otherwise he wouldn't be blocked. In order to break through this barrier, the Pig thought about what other writers talked of at times like these and knew immediately what he needed to do. Turning to the Z's in the Yellow Pages, he punched a phone number into his cell and waited for someone to answer.
  "Hello. This is the zoo. How may I help you?"
  "Do you have one of those Bullwinkle things?"
  "Excuse me."
  "You know, one of those big brown, grass eating things from the north woods."
  "Oh, you mean a moose?"
  "Yeah, can I borrow one for a while?"
  "I'm sorry, sir. We only loan our animals out to other zoos, not private individuals."
  "Just for a couple of weeks. I'll take good care of him."
The line went dead.
Incensed at his first rejection as an author, Pig retired to the bedroom and commenced rooting through the closet. In quick order, he extracted his black, ninja, steal-at-night clothes, a red Santa hat trimmed in white rabbit fur, several lengths of rope and two pair of old sweat socks from the laundry hamper. As the sun went down, he loaded all his gear into an old pickup he had borrowed from an unsuspecting neighbor. He also threw in a case of Jamaican Red Stripe beer, ten peanut and jelly sandwiches and three Moon Pies, just in case he got hungry during the coming escapade.
#
Early the next morning, as a heavy metal version of Jingle Bells played on the truck's radio, Pig returned to the house where his new old lady Patricia was waiting on the front porch. In the back of the pickup, Pig had one dazed, bound, gagged and blindfolded moose. With an apparent perception of the problem, Patricia then proceeded to explain to Blind Pig the difference between the large, antlered herbivore he had kidnapped from the zoo, ie. a moose, as opposed to the spiritual inspiration for a writer, ie. a muse.

Undaunted by this minor mistake, Pig asked if he could keep the moose in the backyard at least until after the Christmas holidays were over.
The moose, still gagged by the two pair of old sweat socks, had no say in the matter.
- not the end -

PS~ there is a Part Two, but we'll save it for maybe another time. In the meantime, keep on writin'.

Merry Christmas to all !!!
or if you are a Pratchett fan, then
Merry Hogwatch Night to you !!!