11 November 2020

The Ipcress File

 One of my Facebook groups, The Deighton Dossier (link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/deightondossier), put up a flare that The Ipcress File was newly available on a KL Studio DVD, and I immediately snapped it up.  I’m happy to report that it’s a fine color transfer, with nice, deep blacks, something the picture requires - and it’s a deal at $14 ($20 for the Blu-Ray).


It’s worth remembering that this was a ground-breaker when it was released.  Dr. No had dropped in ‘62, From Russia With Love in ‘63, and Goldfinger in ‘64.  The Ipcress File slipped in just ahead of Thunderball, in late 1965.  Bond was a huge phenomenon – and Thunderball was the picture where Bond turned the corner toward eye-popping FX set pieces: stunts and spectacle.  Not to diminish how flat-out terrific they were, and the vigorous confidence that Sean Connery brought to the table.  I was just as ga-ga for Bond as anybody, and Bond set the bar high.


The Ipcress File is sly.  It has the confidence of the ordinary, of homely detail.  It begins with Harry making coffee.  He’s a little fussy, and fastidious.  He wears a pair of rather thick-framed glasses.  You’re not thinking some smoothie at the baccarat table, you’re wondering if he’s wandered into the wrong movie, or you did.  And then the focus begins to skew.  Otto Heller’s camera angles and Sidney Furie’s fey direction, a sort of oops, we led you to think one way, when actually you should have been looking at the fish tank off to one side (this is a rhetorical device, there are in fact no fish tanks, for which we could be grateful), and we begin to pay closer attention.


The device that Ipcress File uses is to make the ordinary sinister.  Simple details seem to gain weight.  And then they don’t.  Bluejay writes a phone number down for Harry, but it’s disconnected.  Harry’s aggravated.  Dalby takes the scrap of paper, and turns it over.  It’s a program for a musical recital.  Not the number, Dalby points out, but the piece of paper it’s written on.  The tradecraft isn’t a mystery.  It’s elemental. 


All of Ipcress is like this.  Half the time, it seems like everybody’s scoring points on each other.  The class issues are worn on their sleeve.  “You’ve got a good job for a passed-over major,” Ross tells Dalby.  “A word in your shell-like ear,” Dalby says to Harry, putting him in his place.  This fuels the whole story.  Ross and Dalby are offering Harry a place above the salt, and both pretending it’s of no consequence to them.  Dalby and Ross wear regimental ties, but Harry, in the end, really doesn’t give a shit.  One of them betrayed him. 


The Ipcress File made Michael Caine a star.  I know, Alfie, but that just confirmed it.  He’d done Zulu, a couple of years earlier, and he’d read for the part that went to James Booth, the slyboots lower-class enlisted, private Hook.  Cy Enfield, the director, cast him as Bromhead, the aristocratic officer.  Only because Enfield was a Yank, and didn’t know any better, Caine later said, because a Brit director would never have cast me.  Class is cast in stone.

Accent is destiny.


The sound of Bow Bells.  Caine is a Cockney.  So is Roger Moore, point of fact.  He had to pretend to a kind of generic mid-Atlantic, that wouldn’t fool a Brit, but might work on the rest of us.  When the two of them worked on Bullseye! together, they were clearly having a lot of fun.  Bob Hoskins once remarked that Michael Caine opened the doors ‘for the rest of us.’  I think you might go back to, say, Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.  It was a time coming.  Rita Tushingham in A Taste of Honey.

I don’t think there was any one single moment.


The Ipcress File comes close to that single moment.  It doesn’t date that badly.  The brainwashing parts are pretty lame, but the personal and political tensions are vivid.  It gives us immediate difficulties.  We might make fun of those contrived shots through the cymbals, but the revealed accidents are sudden and genuine.


In my opinion, a great movie. 


10 November 2020

The Best American Mystery Stories

November 3, 2020, was the official release date for The Best American Mystery Stories 2020, the last edition with Otto Penzler as series editor. Beginning next year, Steph Cha will be the series editor of the renamed The Best American Mystery & Suspense, and Otto Penzler will helm The Mysterious Bookshop Presents: The Best Mystery Stories of the Year.

My relationship with The Best American Mystery Stories began with the 1998 edition—the second—and I read it and every subsequent edition upon release. A few years ago I found a used copy of the 1997 edition, so I’ve now read every edition save for the current one, which, as I write this, has yet to arrive.

Through email, John Floyd and I recently shared some thoughts about those early editions of BAMS. We discussed how we read in them the work of our literary heroes, imagining what it must be like to have one’s work selected as among the year’s best, and only dreaming of our own work someday being included.

To say that BAMS has since made our dreams come true is an understatement. Including the current edition, John has had three stories included in The Best American Mystery Stories (2015, 2018, and 2020) and another five listed among the “Other Distinguished Stories” of the year (2000, 2010, 2012, 2016, and 2017).

The Best American Mystery Stories has also been good to me, with one story included in 2018 and three listed among the “Other Distinguished Stories” of the year in 2005, 2019, and 2020. It has also been good to me as an editor: The 2020 edition includes a story first published in an anthology I edited, and four stories from anthologies I edited have been listed among the “Other Distinguished Stories” of the year (two stories in 2002, and one each in 2005 and 2020).


The science fiction/fantasy/horror genres are awash with annual best-of-year compilations, but for the past several years BAMS has been the mystery genre’s only best-of-year anthology, and some writers have questioned whether we can support more than one.

I think we can because we have in the past.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch and John Helfers edited The Year’s Best Crime and Mystery Stories 2016, and, beginning in 2000, Ed Gorman (alone at first but later with Martin Greenberg) edited twelve editions of an annual best-of series, originally as The World’s Finest Mystery and Crime Stories but with later editions under various titles. (One of John’s stories was named an Honorable Mention in the 2001 edition and a story from an anthology I edited was named an Honorable Mention in the 2002 edition.)

Other best-of-year compilations pre-date these, including The Year’s Best Mystery and Suspense Stories series edited by Edward D. Hoch 1982-1995, and Best Detective Stories aka Best Detective Stories of the Year, edited, at various times, by David C. Cooke, Ronald Knox, Brett Halliday, Anthony Boucher, Allen J. Hubin, and Edward D. Hoch.

So the mystery genre can clearly support two annual best-of-year collections, and maybe the new writers of today will read them and have the same dreams John and I had. With any luck, twenty years from now a few of today’s new writers will share with readers how they saw their dreams come true when they had their work recognized in one of the annual best-of-year anthologies.

Publishing has been good to me the past month:

“Woodstock” was published in the November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Bicycles” was published in the October 21 issue of Pulp Modern Flash.

“Bet Me” was published in the second issue of Hoosier Noir.

Today is the official release date for Peace, Love, and Crime (Untreed Reads), edited by Sandra Murphy, which contains my story “Jimmy’s Jukebox.”

And “The Town Where Money Grew on Trees” (Tough, November 5, 2019) was named one of the “Other Distinguished Stories” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2020.

09 November 2020

Sin & Syntax

by Steve Liskow 

I encountered Strunk and White's The Elements of Style in my senior year of high school, and have worn out several copies since then. Practically every writer I know quotes its advice about active verbs and various other nuggets, and that's both good and bad. Strunk geared the book to students writing expository essays for college (He taught at Cornell). It's not good for writing fiction because it encourages a stripped-down style that makes for strong concrete statements at the expense of a unique voice. All writing should sound like it comes from a human speaker, especially fiction writing.

The adults who read to me when I was young included teachers, actors and journalists who loved words and language. Because of them, I hear what I read (and write), and I hear bad writing instantly. It's like having perfect pitch and listening to someone playing a piano that's out of tune. Jack Kerouac said, "It ain't whatcha write, it's the way atcha write it," and he's right. I can name several best-selling authors who tell good stories in prose that would not have survived my tenth-grade comp and lit class. Sadly, some of them label themselves "literary."

These are the books on writing that I've KEPT

Facebook and various websites often present lists of the best books for writers (I even distribute my own list at workshops), and they generally mention the same handful of books.

I disagree with several of the choices, and one book that should top them off like a good head on a beer never shows up.

Go-to books for editing 

Here it is.

Hale published it in 1999 and produced this revised edition in 2013, updating examples and adding exercises and activities that expand your ear and your mind. It's a rare book that examines style concretely and completely. It's fascinating, funny and tough.

Hale divides the book into three parts: Words, which discusses the eight parts of speech; Sentences, which explains subject, predicate, phrases, clauses, length and tone; and Music, which examines melody, rhythm, lyricism and voice. The last section matters because I can't name another book that touches on these issues.

Each chapter has five parts. "Bones" talks about the essential grammar and the logic it's built upon. "Flesh" gives lessons on good writing and offers examples of creative and effective prose. Hale's examples come from mythology, "great" literature, advertising, children's stories and almost anything else you can name. "Cardinal Sins" points out real errors in usage and shows why and how they are bad. "Carnal Pleasures" shows how to break the rules and make language beautiful and effective. The "Catechism" section is new to this edition. It provides exercises, activities and writing prompts that force readers to think about what the words on paper or on the screen are supposed to do.

The book offers five over-reaching rules that encourage flexibility and critical thinking. 

Relish every word. Aim high, but be simple. Take risks. Seek beauty. Find the right pitch. 

The rest of the book shows how to follow them without becoming a drudge.

This is from "Cardinal Sins" discussing pronouns:

Speaking of whose, the one truly unforgivable sin that haunts the use of pronouns is the confusion of whose with who's and its with it's. Pronouns, when they get possessive, act weird. We do not say I's, you's, he's, or she's to indicate possession, so why would we write who's or it's? Possessive pronouns are all apostropheless: my, you, his, hers, its. Who's and it's are contractions of who is and its (or who has and it has). Learn this or die.

Her adverbs discussion includes what she calls "Valley Girl trash adverbs" that "reflect the mindless banter of surfers, Valley Girls, and adolescent mallmouths." "Unless you want to sound like a lightweight," she warns, "stay away from them."

She then quotes "Casino Kaiser Donald Trump" (Remember, this was written in 2013) turning on New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman during her reelection campaign. "I was totally a good friend to her, and she showed totally no loyalty."

Hale's treatment of Cardinal Sins with interjections is both brutal and hilarious. She wreaks havoc on "like," among other verbal tics. She cites British comedian Catherine Tate's entire monologue built from Valley Girl one-word interjections. It's on YouTube, so check it out for yourself.

The section on Music goes where most writing books fear to venture, and it's worth the price of admission all by itself. Written language should sound pleasant or unpleasant to help convey the ideas and meaning, so these chapters show how those devices we learned when studying poetry (alliteration, onomatopoeia, etc.) can carry the ball in prose, too. Her examples and exercises raise the bar on prose writing to new highs.

If I had time for 50 rewrites, I might be able to get there.

08 November 2020

Protect your eyes from COVID19 infection.

There’s a saying: if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. I recently found myself in the right room—a masked, backyard get-together with close friends.

My husband mentioned he’d added a face shield to his mask in indoor public places, to protect his eyes during the second wave of COVID-19. One of our friends, Brian Foody, said that using a face shield with a mask wouldn’t protect eyes from airborne COVID-19 but goggles would.

This statement was very surprising. Public health experts have been clear, given the airborne transmission of COVID-19, that face shields and goggles protect the eyes equally.

For the public, Dr. Anthony Fauci said in an interview, “. . . you should protect all of the mucosal surfaces, so if you have goggles or an eye shield, you should use it.”

In healthcare settings, face shields are irreplaceable to protect against splatter during procedures, but face shields and goggles are recommended by public health as interchangeable eye protection.

For protection during aerosol-generating medical procedures, Canadian Public Health recommends, “eye, nose and mouth protection (mask and eye protection, or mask and face shield, or mask with attached shield) that fully covers the eyes, nose and mouth and ensures that no part of the face is exposed.”

The CDC states, “The PPE recommended when caring for a patient with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 includes the following . . . Put on eye protection (i.e., goggles or a face shield that covers the front and sides of the face) upon entry to the patient room or care area.”

If face shields don’t protect the eyes from airborne COVID-19, the definition of “adequate PPE” changes and this may save lives. A large study of healthcare workers showed that they accounted for 10% to 20% of COVID-19 infections and, even more worryingly, “even among frontline healthcare workers reporting adequate PPE, the risk for COVID-19 was increased . . ..”

Given the importance of this issue for the public and for healthcare workers, I interviewed Brian Foody, president and chief executive officer of Iogen Corporation and an MIT-educated mechanical engineer, who specializes in fluid motion.

The movement of COVID-19 infected air is at the heart of this issue.

“Imagine two people wearing face masks, one has on a face shield and the other is wearing goggles, walking into a closed room where the ambient air contains COVID-19 infected aerosols,” Foody explained. “Whose eyes are better protected? For our wearer of the face shield, with every breath, the clean air behind her face shield is ventilated and exchanged with the contaminated ambient air. Because of this ventilation, the air behind the face shield will have the same concentration of aerosols as the rest of the room within a matter of minutes. On the other hand, for our goggle wearer, the clean air behind her goggles is sealed off from the ambient air.”

The mixing of air behind a face shield is based on the basic scientific principles of fluid dynamics: if there are COVID-19 particles, they’ll be drawn into the face shield and up to the eyes.

This behaviour of aerosols is supported by a 2014 study. “Face shields can substantially reduce the short-term exposure of health care workers to large infectious aerosol particles, but smaller particles can remain airborne longer and flow around the face shield more easily to be inhaled,” it noted.

A review of the literature in March, 2020 stated that, “There is a lack of research on the effectiveness of different forms of eye protection.”

And yet, certainly the public health recommendations consider goggles and face shields as equivalent.

I am reminded of the early days when many of us recognized the pattern of airborne transmission of COVID-19 infections and advocated for masks, contradicting public health recommendations. Now the widespread use of masks is recognized as an important tool to limit COVID-19. This information on face shields is just as important: face shields protect from splatter but do not offer eye protection and public health recommendations for the public and healthcare workers must change.

Then Brian asked a crucial question: “What are the chances of getting infected through your eyes?”

To begin to find my way through this issue, I had to enter the right room, so I unabashedly called my friend, Dr. Sherif El-Defrawy, at his cottage on Thanksgiving.

Dr. Sherif El-Defrawy is an ophthalmologist who’s chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Toronto, before which he held a similar position at Queen’s University. He’s also president of the Canadian Ophthalmological Society and of the Association of Canadian University Professors of Ophthalmology.

In short, Dr. El-Defrawy knows eyes.

“If COVID-19 infects the conjunctiva of the eye, it could travel to the nose via the nasolacrimal duct and colonize the nose or throat,” he explained. “However, we would expect to see conjunctivitis. I find it highly unlikely that there would be enough COVID-19 to cause illness without seeing conjunctivitis.”

He explained that the number of COVID-19 infected patients with conjunctivitis wasn’t that large but it was unclear how many patients were checked for this. Finally, he expressed surprise that goggles were not universally recommended in healthcare settings along with face shields.

So, first things first, I’m not a fan of primate studies but there was one that answered many questions about COVID-19 infection via the eyes, so with great regret I present it here.

Three rhesus macaques were infected with COVID, two via their conjunctiva and one via intratracheal route. The conjunctival swabs were positive for the first day only, “indicating that the inoculated virus may transfer from conjunctiva to respiratory tract and other tissues . . . specific IgG antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 were detected in the rhesus macaques, indicating that the animal was indeed infected with SARS-CoV-2 [showing] that conjunctiva is a route of SARS-CoV-2 transmission.”

A literature review concluded, “The overall prevalence of ocular symptoms in patients with COVID-19 was 11.2%, which is not a common finding. Nevertheless, this reported prevalence might be an underestimation because patients with COVID-19 present with life-threatening clinical scenarios, which may preclude a detailed ocular examination or relevant history.”

Speaking of ophthalmologists, we should acknowledge with deep gratitude that it was the ophthalmologist, Li Wenliang, who was one of the first people who warned the world about the new disease we now call COVID-19. He later succumbed to the disease after contracting the virus seemingly from an asymptomatic glaucoma patient in his clinic.

So, how does eye protection play out on the ground in healthcare settings? Here I turned to information from Dr. Rick MacDonald, a community paediatrician on staff at Halton Healthcare hospitals where he takes call seeing paediatric patients and works in the NICU.

When many other physicians’ offices were largely doing virtual visits, “we decided early on that if we were going to be a useful resource for our paediatric population. . . .We needed to see patients [and] to provide this service, PPE is the most important first step without which it could not be done.”

Dr. MacDonald spent hours sourcing PPE for his office, opting for an N95 and a face shield but now also wears goggles as well. “To [keep our office open] we need full protection. No skimping, no cheating, full attention to detail. . . . Overkill is better and no government official or cloistered ID staff will convince me otherwise.”

He’s correct: protection, including eye protection, is crucial. Doctors are often in closed examining rooms, crowded emergency departments or intensive care units, with potentially large volumes of COVID-19 aerosols. So are nurses, paramedics, respiratory therapists and many others.

Certainly, we could benefit from research on the fluid dynamics of COVID19 aerosols with people wearing face shields and masks. However, we are in the second wave of this pandemic and there are a frightening number of infections in the public and healthcare workers.

I’m asking public health, in light of the basic science of fluid dynamics of aerosols, to change their recommendations:

The public should wear eye protection if they are indoors with others.

Healthcare workers working with patients that are potentially COVID-19 positive, should use face shields for splatter alone. Goggles are the only safe eye protection for aerosols.

07 November 2020

Pay to Play -- Yea or Nay?

I have often said, at this blog, that I believe writers--novelists. nonfictioners, poets, short-story writers, whoever--should expect to be paid for what they write, and should never have to pay anyone else to get it published. I especially don't like the concept of "reading fees" for those who submit their work to publications. And I practice what I preach: I have submitted many, many short-story manuscripts, and I have never paid a submission fee, and I don't plan to. As the high-school troublemaker once said when asked why he didn't like school, "It's the principal of the thing." The spelling's different, but that's my explanation too.

But … I took part in a discussion about a month ago that offered a look at this issue from another perspective. It wasn't enough to make me change my mind, but for the first time I could at least understand why some publications choose to charge writers for their work.

Hear me out, here. I'd like to see what you think.

The argument against submission fees

For the past several years, it's become common for some publications, mostly literary magazines, to charge writers from two to five dollars or more to submit a short story for consideration. It goes without saying that most of those stories will be rejected, but even if they're accepted, their authors will usually be paid very little, and sometimes nothing at all. What a deal, right? Pay for a chance to win, and even if you win, you lose. Or at least you lose money. I guess what you would gain is prestige, but I find myself wondering how much prestige is involved in an arrangement like that.

As pointed out in the excellent Atlantic article "Should Literary Journals Charge Writers Just to Read Their Work?" by Joy Lanzendorfer, this kind of thing is often scorned in all other areas of publishing. If a literary agent even hints at charging reading fees, writers are cautioned to avoid him or her, and the same goes for the publishers of novels and almost anything else except short fiction. But the editors of more and more magazines are doing just that.

And this is happening at a time when everyone's trying to make publishing more diverse, and more accessible to underrepresented groups of writers. I have to ask myself, How does the charging of reading fees fit in, there? The first thing that comes to mind is that the folks hurt the most by submission fees are the ones who might not be able to afford them. If you're already an outsider to publishing, and/or probably aren't among the wealthiest of writers, isn't this kind of thing going to do more to discourage your literary efforts than to encourage them? By the way, the more established authors are often not asked to pay these fees, which makes me wonder if the lesser-known writers are having to foot the bill for everyone else.

The argument FOR submission fees:

The magazines that charge these fees make what might be an understandable point. They say it's not so much about money; it's about the huge volume of submissions they receive. The electronic age has made it easy, maybe too easy, for writers to submit stories. No longer do we have to pay for stamps or paper or printer ink or envelopes or trips to the post office. We either email our stories to editors or use the online submission process via their publications' websites. It's all free, and convenient. As a result, more writers are sending in stories, some of them stories that should never have been written in the first place, much less submitted for publication. So part of the reason for reading fees (also called "processing fees" or "administrative fees") is to cut down on the number of submissions by--supposedly--weeding out the writers who might not be serious about their writing. I'm not sure if that's working, but that's the idea. 

The fees also generate money for the magazines. After all, many of these publications, some of which are college literary journals, don't have full-time people on staff and are struggling to make ends meet--so three or four dollars per submissions can give them some much-needed funds, they say, to do things like hiring more readers to handle the volume. 

So those are the two pluses, for the magazine: fewer unworthy submissions and more cash to pay the bills.

Back to my own views:

To quote Mr. Biden, "Here's the deal." I don't like the concept of submission fees, and by God I won't pay them. On the other hand, I do realize that these underfunded publications need some way to stay afloat. One answer to this, I would think, is for writers like you and me to support the magazines we want to write for in other ways. It would seem that the best of those are either donations or subscriptions. Sure, subscriptions can be expensive, but at least you'd be getting something back from an investment like that, while helping the publications themselves. (I admit that I'm exempt from some of this, because I read--and write for, and subscribe to--mostly mystery magazines, who don't charge reading fees, and not literary magazines, who often do. But I believe the argument stands.)

Now, having said all that, what do you think? Should magazines charge submission fees? Do you, or would you, pay them? Have you done so, in the past? Do you see, as I think I finally do, the reason these publications feel the need to charge fees? Do you think those reasons are valid? What would your solution be, if you were one of those editors? Are you a writer who subscribes to the magazines you submit stories to?

The whole matter is a volatile issue, and to some degree it still irks me when I think about it. But in my old age, I'm trying to be more understanding and more receptive to things I don't like and things I don't agree with. I'm not all the way there yet, but I'm trying.

And that's it. I'll be back in two weeks with a cheerier subject. (I don't know yet what it'll be, but it sure better be cheerier than this.)

Meanwhile, take care, and keep submitting those stories!

06 November 2020

"We Gather Together" with Denise Kiernan

This week, rather than do actual work, I am ceding this space in part to my lovely and brilliant wife Denise Kiernan, a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book, a narrative nonfiction history titled We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, A President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace, arrives in stores next week.

Denise was given 50 minutes to complete this short survey, and permitted access to a No. 2 pencil, a cup of coffee, and a large glazed doughnut to assist her in nailing down her answers. And yes, the doughnut was local and organic. We’re not animals.

* * *

The publisher says this book is “the biography of an idea.” What’s the idea? I thought it was about Thanksgiving. I’m so confused.
What is thanksgiving, really, but an idea? How’s that for vague? The book looks at American history through the lens of our culture’s relationship to giving thanks. But first, obviously, we stop in Ancient Rome. The idea is one of communities and cultures coming together in gratitude, and how that timeless practice evolved into the American holiday of thanksgiving and how that, in turn, has changed over the years. And guess what? That holiday is primed to evolve again.

At the heart of the book is a lady in black. (Sorry, this is a mystery blog, and I just wanted to make her sound mysterious.) But she does always wear black. And she edits a magazine. And she has opinions, causes, crusades. Many of them, in fact. Can you tell us about her?
Sarah Josepha Hale was the O.G. influencer. She was a widow (hence the black wardrobe—not much mystery there) with five kids and no formal education who went on to edit Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the most influential magazines of the 19th century. She wrote about what to wear, how to cook, who to read. The Lady’s Book “editress”—as she called herself—wielded a unique kind of power and influence at a time when she didn’t even have the right to vote. But she didn’t do so only to sell copies of her magazine. She created anthologies of the writings of other women, highlighting and sharing their talents. She gave invaluable boosts to some men as well: Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow. She used her media pulpit to raise funds for libraries, veterans and their widows, monuments to their memory, and more. In doing so, she encouraged others to follow her lead. Her influence—despite the limits put on her at the time by her gender—has carried through to this very day. So yes, she is and was one of the most prolific writers I’ve ever encountered: poems, novels, recipe books, hostess manuals, anthologies of notable women, book reviews, you name it. Reading about her made me seriously question what the hell I’ve been doing with my time.

What are some of the newfangled ideas Hale promoted—and are any of them still in practice?
Despite her noir attire—see what I did there?—she promoted the idea of brides wearing white, à la Queen Victoria. She wrote a little ditty called “Mary’s Lamb” (i.e., “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) which remains one of the most-sung rhymes in all American kid-dom. She also thought Christmas trees would catch on, and promoted them to her readership. Jury’s still out on that one, I suppose.

You’re writing nonfiction, so there’s research involved. Can you tell us about some of the cool stuff you found as you were digging? And please brag about what a great little shopper your husband has become in pandemic times, buying strange old magazines online for your researching pleasure.
Learning about how Hale published a lot of people before they were “big” names—Washington Irving, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne—was fascinating. Oh, that reminds me: My husband, who is constantly bragging about his online shopping prowess, somehow neglected to pick up a very specific vintage copy of a certain little magazine for me. [That original copy of Hales magazine is very expensive, and rare book dealers are chiselers!—Ed.] My husband does, however, buy white and brown rice by the ton, and invests in various Harry Potter miniatures for our Christmas village. I, on the other hand, insisted on the North Pole-dancing elves in the seedier part of our planned holiday burg.

Everyone knows the story of how Lincoln grew his beard because 11-year-old Grace Greenwood Bedell wrote and told him to Go Forth and Be Hirsute. Why don’t more people know of Hale’s connection to Honest Abe?
Well, I wouldn’t agree with you that everyone knows the Abe-Grace-Beard story. But I hear you. As far as Hale and Lincoln are concerned, all I can say is that there are many people throughout history who played integral roles in key events of the American story who get little or no credit. Starting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the fictionalized version of thanksgiving took hold and caught on. An ebon-clad widow who edited a women’s magazine and wrote letters just didn’t catch on. However, Hale is the reason we celebrate this holiday at the same time year after year.

We here at Sleuthsayers burn candles at the feet of our patron saint, Edgar Allan Poe. What can you tell us about his association with “The Editress,” Mrs. Hale?
Hale and Poe (and his small family) resided in Philadelphia at the same time. He was editing Graham’s Magazine in the same period when Sarah Josepha Hale was editing Godey’s. Hale was one of the very first publishers of Poe’s work, and arguably not only introduced him to a much wider audience, but also enjoyed the best relationship of any editor with this rather troublesome writer. Before Hale ever ran any of his work in full, her magazine reviewed one of his first books, and though describing his prose as “boyish,” nevertheless said the then-unknown author showed “genius.” Shortly after publishing that assessment, Hale received a letter from her son, David, who attended West Point with Poe. David asked his mother to consider more of Poe’s work, and she willingly did. Poe also proposed to write—and Hale accepted to edit—a long-running gossip column that poked fun at several literary figures in New York City. That scathing column immediately stoked controversy among the literati and forced the publisher of Hale’s magazine to issue what we would today consider the classic disclaimer: “the opinions expressed herein are those of the author, not the publisher.”

[Okay, Joe, just FYI: I’m done with the coffee. Switching to wine. –DK]

Is it true that several women in the Midwest, upon reading a certain story of Poe’s in the pages of Godey’s Magazine, either a) had their hair turn green overnight, or b) systematically walled up their husbands in farmhouse walls?Okay, yes, the most famous of Poe’s works that appeared first in Hale’s magazine before achieving much greater acclaim was “The Cask of Amontillado.” [Oh yeah—my intrepid online-shopping hubby also failed to find that particular publication for me as well. But hey—I have a fun Borgin & Burke’s replica to set up in my village next to the “Elf”-inspired Gimbel’s department store that stands around the corner from our Scrooge & Marley’s counting house.]

Your book spans (literally) the dawn of time to the present day as it contemplates the power of myth and the benefits of embracing gratitude. Can you tell us anything more about Hales magnificent obsession?
What can I say? The woman liked a well-cooked bird. Sarah Josepha Hale accomplished much in her lifetime, but her crowning achievement was convincing a president, Abraham Lincoln, to establish a national day of thanks after writing to ask four of his presidential predecessors—as well as numerous governors, ambassadors, and the like—to do the same. Her fascination with the idea of Thanksgiving started early and first appears in her novel, Northwood, published in 1827, in which she describes a “Thanksgiving supper surrounded by a large family” and an indulgent meal in which … “The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of the basting.” And, and, and. On it goes. The woman liked a fancy meal and the table setting to match it. She never relinquished the idea, and in the 1852 reissue of Northwood, there is a pointed update. One of her protagonists announces that although Thanksgiving was not yet a national holiday observed throughout America, he felt certain that … “I trust it will become so … When it shall be observed, on the same day throughout all the states and territories, it will be a grand spectacle of moral power and human happiness.” At a time when the country was deeply divided, nothing seemed more important to Hale than officially recognizing gratitude. It took her decades, but she is the reason this nation celebrates a day of thanks.

Which figure in your book would you love to invite to Thanksgiving dinner and have a socially distant beverage—or share a greasy little drumstick—with?
Poe. No question.
Wait—Frederick Douglass.
No, scratch that…Sojourner Truth.
Oh! Oh! Oh! M. F. K Fisher.
Never mind. Will you leave me a drumstick this year?

All this talk is making me hungry. What’s for dinner?
You can have the rest of my doughnut.

Can you tell the nice folks about your tour in closing?
I hit the virtual road on Tuesday, November 10, talking about We Gather Together with different interviewers for every event. Autographed bookplates are available from a variety of independent bookstores, and I am available on the interwebs for the foreseeable future, such as it is.

Website: Denisekiernan.com

Instagram: Instagram.com/iamdenisekiernan

Twitter: Twitter.com/denisekiernan

Facebook: Facebook.com/DeniseKiernanAuthor

* * *

Join me in three weeks, when I will blow your minds about that magical, wondrous holiday, Christmas!


05 November 2020

Dark Hollow

[NOTE:  This story was originally published in Space and Time Magazine, Fall Issue, 2000.  It's the first of my Crow Woman stories.  I hope you enjoy it!]


Silver light, hot pine.

When I first came there was a brook over there, swift as a white hawk over grey stone.  But it dried long ago.  Down to a small still pool, dark as a doe's eye, in stones fawn-flanked with lichen.  Still water makes silent air.  I never used to hear my footsteps.  Now even pine needles have a sound, like slick sand sliding.

The cornfield is new.  I remember the first planting.  The green spears came up, all rowed and blocked like an army setting camp.  Right there.  Dark That Rides called:  "Crow Woman!" and we flew to trees' edge and stood gaping in their shadow, the turned earth strong as blood in our nostrils.  The rabbits crept out first.  First the blade, then the ear - then the mice, then the deer.  That was the summer of sleek bellies.  And those thick green waves, dusted gold under a bowed blue sky.  Food and beauty.  Each defended the other.

In winter, we said.

Winter came. 

Bleached sticks under a whipped grey sky. Order wind-shredded and it won't take much to wipe it clean. We stood at the end of the path of trees and watched as hard slaps of cold burst across the field to rattle the stalks like bones -- and then I heard the water. "No," I said, just as Dark That Rides began to step outside. He stopped. I could feel him looking at me. "Listen." We listened as the wind played that tattered harp in runs and rills and splashes. The white hawk back. Water and food and beauty. He sighed. "If it pleases you," he said. The field's still there. 

There's a man at the edge of it, looking. Right now. 

Norm sat in the car while Stan stood outside, smoking a cigarette, staring intently across the field. Stan was looking for the perfect spot, and Norm had nothing better to do than to go along. Norm wasn't too bright, but Stan was brilliant in his own way. Stan talked and Norm listened. Stan said "Let's go"; and Norm hopped in the car. It was a man and his dog kind of relationship which suited them both. Lately, they'd been coming out here a lot. Stan figured that right here, or rather, over there, was what he was looking for. The field was open, but behind it was brush piling into thicket into rock into the whole tangled mess of Dark Hollow. 

The wind rattled a handful of ice against the windshield, jerking Norm awake. They worked nights, and hadn't slept yet. Stan opened the door and got in, letting a blast of cold air into the car. 

"Yep," Stan said, driving away. "That's the place." 

Silver light, cold dawn. 

When I first came, the tall grass hid the thin dirt path as if it were something shameful. Later it grew wide and rutted. I can still smell the dust from when they poured out a river of gravel and made it level. I thought the wind would never wash the air clean again. That night I lay in Dark That Rides's arms and dreamed they had broken up the moon and sent it spilling in white shards upon the earth.

"Hush, beloved," he said. His arms strong and gentle, cradling me in the night. "You're safe." His kiss like a breath on my hair. "All things are safe." 

In his arms, it was true. It is true. 

But I wonder when I see a man, the same man, standing on that road, looking across the field, time after time. 

Stan was sure now. He had the plan, he had the victim, and now he had the place. Norm sat sleeping in the car, as usual. Stan flicked away his cigarette and something fluttered on the ground, catching his eye, stooping him over. Just an old plastic grocery bag, dirty and empty and stiff with sleet. When he straightened back up, the field had changed.

He'd seen it before, in some book, maybe in school. A painting. He didn't remember who did it, but he remembered it clearly. An endless field of bleached dry corn bowing under a dark gray sky, two thick planes of color, with a handful of black arcs that were crows, cawing their way through the storm. The only thing missing was a figure walking in its heart. 

And then there it was. Walking away from him, through the corn. His heart pounded, waiting for it to turn. It didn't. The wind died. The crows had sunk back down into the corn. Everything was quiet, except for a sound like water. The figure kept walking away from him. It was a woman. It was Val. His desires took him so fast he didn't even think before he started running after her. 

In the car, Norm saw Stan run off and sat up. The crows rose from the fields, cawing wildly, and then something darted past the car, huge and brown. He ducked without thinking about it, and a tap at the window nearly made him jump out of his skin. 

"Are you all right?" 

An old woman, wrinkled and bent and brown, was standing on the road by the car, looking in the window at him. She tapped again at the window, and he rolled it down. "Are you all right?" she repeated. 

A coughing fit shook him speechless, but he managed to nod. 

She waited until he finished. "You need to go back to your home. Now." Her eyes, bird clear, bird bright, bird cold, scanned the earth and the sky, and ended with him.  "It's not safe out here." He just nodded, as if she was making sense. "Not safe for you," she said, without emphasis, but with certainty. Then she walked away, down the gravel road. He finally managed to call out the window and ask her if she needed a ride, but she said, without turning, "No." And walked on. 

He watched her disappear around the curve. Suddenly he felt cold and afraid. He had to get out of there. Where the hell had Stan gone, anyway? All the old tales about Dark Hollow rushed through his mind. Crow Woman. Her lover, Dark That Rides. Dark That Rides. Get out now! his mind screamed. But Stan had the keys. Get out! Get out! 

Silver light, silver leaves. 

When I first came, it was night and there was no moon. A river of stars spilled down into the trees, to where I lay on oak leaves starting with every sound. Late, late, so very late, Dark That Rides passed by. He made no sound to wake me, no touch to move me. But I knew that he was there. In the dark. Watching me. And I was terribly afraid. I did not know him then. I did not love him, then. 

Stan came back, panting, clutching his side, furious. It must have been a trick of the light, or his imagination, or just that he wanted it so bad. There was no way it could have been Val, she'd still be at work. He should have known that. He relieved himself of a string of profanity before Norm could get his attention. "All right. What is it?"

"We got to get out of here," Norm said. "Now."

"What are you talking about?"

"Just, we got to get out of here. This ain't no place to be, Stan. Believe me."

"What's got you so riled up?"

"Just give me the keys!" Norm shouted, and lunged at him. Stan's eyes gleamed. 

Silver light, dark light. 

I stood up and called out to the night, "I am Crow Woman. Whoever is out there, I am here. Waiting. Come and meet me."

His voice filled the night, warm and dark and strong. "I am Dark That Rides. And I swear no hurt shall touch you."

I believed. But I was so tired. "You do not know," I said. "My enemies are many. They want my life. I am ready to give it to them. I do not care any more."

"Care," he said. "Tomorrow they will come, and I will rid you of them. Now sleep until morning. You are safe." 

That night I lay on oak leaves beneath an obsidian sky and slept on warm dark wings that rose and fell and rose and fell and rose and fell.

Stan looked down at Norm's body. Shock and fright leached all the pleasure out of him. The bloody rock fell from his hand as he looked around. No one anywhere in sight. He felt Norm's pulse. Nothing. The back of Norm's head was a mat of blood. He had really killed him. Then the triumph surged. It wasn't the plan, but it proved that he could do it. Now all he had to do was finish it. He hoisted the body on his shoulders. 

Silver light, hot fur. 

The men found me in the morning. They had been hunting me for days. Their dogs sniffed me out. They ran up the slope, baying at me. I clung to the oak tree and waited. The dogs made a circle, snarling and growling, their teeth sharp and white and hungry. The men were smiling. Their teeth were sharp and white and hungry. In their hands gleamed sharp knives. They were so close I could smell their sweat. Their blades were high above my head. Their hands reached out to pull me down. And then they stopped. Fear tore them apart, cleaved mind from body, soul from flesh. Fear of my beloved. Fear of Dark That Rides. 

Stan bundled Norm's body into the deepest part of the plum thicket in Dark Hollow, dragged brush around it, and stood back. No one could see that anybody had ever been there. It was sleeting, rasping all around him. That would cover up any tracks he might have left. And who would be looking for tracks? If it was only Val, and not Norm, not that he was going to miss Norm, but - Val. Yeah, well, her turn was coming. He stood there, at the edge of the Hollow, dreaming it, all of it:  her fear, her pain, her death. 

The crows were silent. Nothing moved except the sleet tapping the ground and the wind in the trees, stirring them, bowing them, clapping them together like cold and brittle hands. There was no wind, but suddenly he felt very cold. 

"I warned him," a voice said. He looked up and saw a young woman standing among the trees. She was very beautiful, very alone. He smiled, his teeth white and sharp and hungry. Her eyes were steady as she said, "There is no sense in warning you." She made a signal with her hand. Stan grinned wider and moved towards her, then stopped. Behind her, beside her, was something else, something that grew retchingly fast, retchingly dark, retchingly hideous... He tried to turn, to run, to wrench himself away, but his mind had lost its body, or his body had lost its mind, or - 

A pillar of molten darkness lifted itself up above a forty-foot cottonwood and clove it in two. One whole half of the tree came crashing down to the ground, into him, leaving the other half upright. Its torn heart, raw and open to the wind and sleet, was, mercifully, the last thing he saw before he died. 

Silver light, warm night. 

We watched as they came and took away the bodies. Dark That Rides had made a blood trail they could not ignore, though they would have liked to. I could hear them whispering about me, about my beloved. "Strange things happen in Dark Hollow." Here, where all is safe. The only strange thing here is this: 

My true love has my heart and I have his, but I have never seen his face.


04 November 2020

Table for Eight?


Writers talk a lot about inspiration, that miraculous moment when you get an idea for a book, or a plot twist, or a bit of dialog.  And those moments are amazing.  The writer's mind is a strange and wonderful thing.

But what I want to talk about today is something different: the moment of insight, when a writer sees their own work differently.  I actually wrote about one of them a few months ago.  And here we are again.

Back in 2012 I won the Black Orchid Novella Award with "The Red Envelope."  It was set in Greenwich Village in October 1958 and starred an eccentric beat poet named Delgardo.  The narrator (Archie Goodwin/Watson character) is a coffee shop owner named Thomas Gray.

I had always hoped to write a sequel but it took me damn near a decade to finish it. But fictional time is a different phenomena so "Please Pass The Loot" takes place only a month later, during November 1958, and is rooted in actual events from that time.  Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine accepted it in August.

And that happy event caused me to get serious about Delgardo #3, which I had been tinkering with for years.  I had known for a while that it would take place in December 1958 (are you seeing a pattern here?) and involve a dinner party.

But after AHMM bought Delgardo #2 I suddenly figured out the murderer and the motive.  Progress!

When I started writing the key scene I realized that the arrangement of personnel was too complicated to keep in my head.  So using my vast graphics skills  I drew this diagram of the dinner table:

Perhaps not the most exciting bit of art you have seen today.  But it had an electrifying effect on me.  I suddenly had a tangible, palpable sense of the place and people I was writing about.

And that got me thinking about other times that an image made my own fiction more real to me.  When I was writing Greenfellas, I wanted to have illustrations of my major Mafia characters.  And I found photos of them, but oddly enough they were in The Sixth Family, Lee Lamothe's book about the mob in Montreal.  How did those Canadians get to look so much like my New Jersey mobsters?
I am working on another story which may or may not get finished.  The working title is "Underpass," and it was inspired by the trail under a major highway in the city where I live.  So I went and took some pictures of it, which are now installed in my draft for inspiration.

Do other writers use these physical cues in their writing?
The novelist Diane Chamberlain is my sister (or should I say my sister   is the novelist Diane Chamberlain?) and she gave me permission to tell you the following story.  

Diane started writing her first novel back in her thirties.   Most of the characters in Private Relations  lived in a house in Mantoloking on the New Jersey Shore.  As part of the writing process she went there, found an appropriate house, and took some photos, which she used for inspiration.

Later, at our parents house, she found this photo of herself, age sixteen, sitting on the beach in front of the same damned house.

Like I said:  The writer's mind is a strange and wonderful thing.

So, how about you?  Do you use images or objects to make your fiction more real?

03 November 2020

When News Gathering and Entertainment Values Collide

It seems appropriate on this Election Day to end all Election Days to write about a short story I have in the current (November/December) issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine: "Eat, Drink, and Be Murdered." It's a whodunit. Not what you'd call a political story at all. But it involves a newspaper and its role in our democracy, and, sadly, these days that has become a political topic.

The story is about the owner of a small city newspaper and the lengths she'll go to try to save the paper because she believes in the important role journalists play in our society as a check on government--national and local. I grew up believing in that role. While reporters sometimes make mistakes, because that's what humans do, I believe most of them are good people who strive for accuracy and fairness, sometimes risking their lives to share the news. It breaks my heart that so many people these days think otherwise, that they don't believe what reputable news organizations report and repudiate journalists as the enemy. They are anything but. Journalists play a vital role in our democracy.

This negative mindset toward journalism is not the only reason many newspapers are struggling these days and so many others have closed. The advent of the internet has, as we all know, led many people to seek their news online, often without wanting to pay for that privilege. But news gathering isn't free. Even if all newspapers went completely digital so that the cost of paper and printing could be saved, there still would be reporters to pay, as well as editors, graphic artists, photographers, the people who work in advertising and composition and circulation and probably other departments I'm not thinking of right now. 

I appreciate the newspapers that offer online editions and allow people to check out the occasional article for free. But I also understand why newspapers have firewalls and only allow you to view a limited number of stories per month without paying. Democracy has its price, and one way to help keep democracy going is to support newspapers, which shed sunlight on government and remind politicians that they work for us, not the other way around. You support newspapers by paying for your news. And you support democracy and the First Amendment by treating journalists with respect.

Now I'll get off my soapbox and tie this back in to my story. In "Eat, Drink, and Be Murdered," Meghan, the owner of that newspaper in a small Virginia city, is facing the same financial crunch that so many papers are these days. She's come up with what she hopes will be a great solution: running snarky restaurant reviews. She thinks they're all in good fun, that there's no such thing as bad publicity--for the newspaper or the restaurants. The reviews will encourage readership and advertisers, she predicts, who'll be attracted by the increase in circulation. And she's right. There is an increase in circulation after the new reviews start to run, and advertising grows too. But there are also some things Meghan didn't expect: angry restaurant owners, a bomb threat, and ... of course, murder. It's a difficult lesson for Meghan to learn, that easy solutions can have steep, unexpected costs, especially when news gathering and entertainment values collide.

This issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine can be purchased from the usual sources, including bookstores and newsstands. If you subscribe to the print version, they'll mail a copy to your home every other month. You also can read the magazine digitally. Individual copies and subscriptions can be purchased for your Kindle and other types of e-readers. Magazines need support these days, just like newspapers. So if you have some dollars to spare and would like to bring some regular entertainment into your world, I encourage you to consider a subscription to AHMM and/or its sister publication, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, for yourself, a friend, and/or family member this holiday season.

If you've read "Eat, Drink, and Be Murdered," I hope you loved it. If you haven't, I hope you get the magazine and read it right away. But not before you vote. If you haven't voted yet, please do that first. Then tomorrow, go buy your local newspaper, read the election results that have come in so far, and maybe even take out a subscription to the paper. Newspapers need your support to stay afloat. Our democracy needs their spotlight to stay afloat too.

02 November 2020

The Digital Detective: Pay Your Debtors

bank vault
This continues a series of earlier articles about computer fraud. Originally I practiced a career of systems software design and computer consulting, but I sometimes came upon a more shadowy world, that of computer crime. I seldom sought out fraud but I sometimes stumbled upon it, picking up undetected clues others missed.

This episode doesn’t deal with crime, per se, but it includes a banking con, minor as it is. The scheme required a little ‘social engineering’ and, though the word might be Yiddish, no one can schmooze like Southerners.

The story came to my attention while consulting for banks, this one deep in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. My landlord for part of the stay was an eccentric but colorful codger. He talked about a neighbor who leased farm land from him but failed to pay his rent. Outsiders might expect he pulled on a jug of rye whiskey as he talked, but all he did was lean back in his recliner, sip beer, and twirl a never-lit cigarette while a cheerful woman less than half his age clattered in the kitchen. I jotted down his story long before I became a writer, so kindly forgive error and stylistic issues as I strove to capture his dialogue.

John Deere corn picker
Corn picker © John Deere
Damn Ernie. I hounded that man all summer long for the rent. Finally last fall, I hooked up my corn picker and started up the corn rows. Now a corn picker ain’t a quiet machine, and lo and behold, neighbor Ernie come dashin’ out of his farmhouse yellin’ and cursin’ that I’m stealing his corn.

I said to him I couldn’t possibly be stealing corn off my own land, unrented land at that. He steamed and stormed and said the seed and planting labor had been his, and anyway he was just a little late with the rent, three or four months, maybe four or five, weren’t nuthin.

I told him that I was just going to keep picking corn for myself until someone showed up with rent money. He dashed off like banshees themselves chased him. Pretty soon he comes back waving his checkbook.

I said, “Ernie, are you sure there’s money in that account?” Oh yes. He told me twice there was, so I said there’d better be, and he said he wanted the corn I’d picked. I told him to consider the already picked corn interest and collection fees. Fact is, I finished the rest of that row, which he just hated.

So the skinflint S.O.B. hustled off to hitch up his combine and wagon, and I find myself a few bushels better off than I was before. I cleaned up and headed in town to the bank, right past Ernie who’s racing his machinery through the fields.

At the bank, I always get in Molly’s line. She’s a sweet, buxom lass, and I’d been thinking about asking her out.

Anyway, I get up to her teller window and she said the account’s a bit short to cover the check. I asked her exactly how short, and she said she wasn’t allowed to tell me that.

So darlin’, I cajoled, is this check completely worthless, or did Ernie at least come close? Looking at her computer, she said he was purty close.

Well, I says to her kind of reflectively, I want to tell my neighbor Ernie how much he needs to cover my check. Like would he have to deposit only $10? No, she said, ten dollars wouldn’t cover it.

Well, says I, would $20 or $30 do? No, she smiled at me, it’s not quite enough.

Hmm, says I, I wonder if $40 or $50 would suffice? Um, she said to me, that first amount ought to cover it.

Thank you, I says, I’ll tell that rascal he needs to put $40 in the bank. By the way, sweet thing, can I have a deposit slip? And you think maybe I can call you up? For, uh, you know, maybe dinner Saturday?

So I walked out of there with a bounce in my step, a deposit slip and her phone number. I was feelin’ purty good. What I did was get in my car and circle around through the bank’s drive-thru. I already had Ernie’s account number on the check, so I just filled out the slip and shot it through the air tube with two $20 bills. Sure enough, the receipt came back showing $1002.39. Good on Molly.

But wait, I say, I almost forgot to cash a check. This time I send over Ernie’s $1000 check and this time I get back a thousand dollars.

Fair enough. I probably had $40 in shelled corn and a lesson I ain’t gonna rent to Ernie no more.

Ernie got stupid, though, and instead of being grateful I didn’t bounce his worthless ass along with his worthless check and turn both over to the sheriff for collection, he raised holy hell at the bank yelling someone manipulated his account.

I took Molly to the horse show that Saturday. Now I tell you personal like, you want to get a lady in a receptive mood, bein’ around horses will do it. Something about women and horseflesh– can’t explain it– just a word to the wise.

Anyway, Molly, she confided the bank said it was apparent someone had taken liberties, but they couldn’t blame the teller who took the deposit and they couldn’t blame the girl that cashed the check. They just gave everybody a stern reminder warning.

Molly said Ernie wanted to call the authorities, but the branch manager told Ernie he’d be the one in trouble for writing bad checks. He didn’t mention Molly could have fallen in the soup too if they’d figured out her role.

Molly said she knew I’d manipulated her and wanted to know if I’d asked her out from obligation or guilt. I said I didn’t want to sully a relationship thinking I used her. She needed a lot of reassurance about that, and so Friday nights and Saturday nights we just get romantic and I give her plenty of reassuring. Been about a year now. Figure we can go on with this for a long, long time.
And he winked at the cheerful lass in the kitchen doorway.

John Deere cornbine
Cornbine © John Deere & Farming Sim Mods

This essay had originally appeared 19 May 2013 on SleuthSayers for a matter of hours, when a magazine editor asked me to unpost it with an eye toward publishing. A check never arrived, so I now return the article for your enjoyment.
Commonly in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, ‘out’ sounds are pronounced like a Scottish ‘oot’. Thus he really said, “I’d been thinking aboot asking her oot.”

01 November 2020

From Pauper to King

Stephen King
Stephen King,
serious disguise
’Tis the day after Halloween, and I wanted to share a nugget I learned about our favorite modern horror-meister, Stephen King. As a reader, I never considered much about authors except their alphabetic location on my library’s shelf. I didn’t know about that bleeding vein, I thought writers magically appeared fully formed like Botticelli’s proverbial Venus.

Certainly I encountered bad books and terrible tales, but libraries and the book market filter and curate. Same with museums, that’s why we don’t see early sketches of Botticelli’s Birth of Karen.

Not to compare myself to either Botticelli or Stephen King, I had grave doubts about my first story. Who wants to read about alligators and mosquitoes? Only after it was nominated for an award and I found myself sitting in traffic, I finally internalized it, saying to myself in awe, “They liked it! They really liked it.”

Carrie poster
Thus I was surprised to learn about the Master of Misery’s angst about his first novel, Carrie.

The Story Behind the Story

Raised by a single mother, King understood hardship. He earned and then unwillingly returned money in school by selling stories to other students, but eventually a short story, ‘I was a Teenage Grave Robber’, was professionally sold.

Stephen King
Hippie disguise
King matriculated at the University of Maine. To finance his studies, he took on odd jobs including laundry worker and school janitor. That turned out a blessing in disguise.

He witnessed a girl relentlessly bullied, an impoverished girl in a holey, worn-out dress. King speculated what it might be like if the girl had abilities, supernatural superpowers to fight back. On his bride’s typewriter, he tapped out a few pages of a bildungsroman featuring a poor girl, Carrie White. Her first menses terrified her. She thought she was bleeding to death while other girls laughed. Annoyed with his own work, he tossed it in the trash.

His wife discovered it in the wastebasket, read those few pages, and wondered what happened next. King didn’t like his own writing, but he was out of sorts and out of ideas. Tabitha urged her husband to take up the story again and, with her help and encouragement, little Carrie became King’s first novel, twice made into movies.

Stephen King
Clark Kent disguise
Tabitha and Stephen were living in a trailer, their phone cut off, so the King’s were surprised by an acceptance telegram and $2500, which they used to purchase a true horror, a Ford Pinto. Weeks later, paperback rights earned him another $200,000.

King still had doubts about his novel, but that sad schoolgirl and Stephen’s spouse made them a very rich couple, not merely monetarily.

Possibly not quite believing their fortune, King continued teaching. You can’t say Boo to that.

31 October 2020

Themed and Tailored


No, I'm not talking about fall outfits. My question is, How open are you to being prompted, guided, or otherwise steered, in determining what you write about?

A little background, first. As I've mentioned before at this blog, I have for the past few years been sending almost as many of my short stories to anthologies as to magazines. The reason is simple: There seem to be more anthologies out there now, than in olden days. Or maybe I'm just getting better (and luckier) at being able to locate their calls for submissions.

A buncha stories in one book

Those antho announcements, when I do find them, are usually a hit-or-miss deal. Either I already have a completed story that might fit the anthology's theme (or not) or I believe I can write one in the time remaining before the deadline. Or not. If I'm extra lucky, it's an anthology that's receptive to reprints and I happen to have one of those that fits the theme sitting there snoozing in the waiting room. If so, I wake it up and send it off, which--if my luck holds and the story gets accepted--is the easiest way in the world to get something published. 

Sometimes, though not often, I'm fortunate enough to get invited to submit a story to a particular anthology. When that happens it's usually because the editor is someone I've worked with before. On half a dozen of those recent occasions, two were requests for a PI story, one was for a time-travel story. and three were for stories based on songs of a certain era or by a certain performer. And even though I didn't have any work already finished or in progress that fit any of those bills, I did have a lot of time before the deadlines and all six were for the kinds of stories I enjoy writing, so for each of those requests I sat down and created a story from scratch. All of them turned out to be fun to write--but truthfully, half of those particular theme-prompts were just for mystery subgenres, and nothing more specific.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it . . .

The fact is, I'm usually not too enthused by suggested themes and topics. I generally prefer to come up with my own story ideas rather than get prompts of any kind, from others, about what kind of story to write. I'm not sure why that is. I certainly know a lot of writers who welcome those kinds of suggestions, and are particularly good at working to a predetermined theme. Some have said they actively seek out submission calls with detailed themes, or even websites for publications that require pre-set titles or content, like the story's opening or closing lines. They feel that those prompts provide the needed inspiration to kickstart their creativity.

There are several of those sites/publications/markets out there. I think one of the better known is called The First Line. Your assignment here, Mr. Phelps, is to use, verbatim, their suggested opening line as the first line of your story. For me, that wouldn't be an impossible mission, but it would be difficult. I can only conclude that my stories work better when the first line is my own and not someone else's. (Another conclusion might be that I'm just not clever enough to come up with a story to match one of those force-fed lines.) A similar market is called, appropriately, The Last Line. They give you the ending sentence, and it's up to you to put together the rest. I haven't yet tried them, but I suspect I'd have a tough time.

Hitch up the team

A close cousin to this subject of writing-to-a-theme or writing-based-on-a-prompt is collaborating with other writers. This is something I've tried but that I've, again, found hard to do. Stated another way, it was fun but didn't result in a sale. (My fellow SleuthSayer R.T. Lawton told an interesting story about collaboration as a part of his column here last weekend.) I'm well aware that this has worked well for some, and I applaud them for it. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the Michael Gregorio team, the Ellery Queen team, Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey, and many, many others, including my friends Frank Zafiro and Jim Wilsky. The process itself varies, of course. I once heard that for each of their two novels together, Stephen King and Peter Straub would each write a chapter, back and forth, throughout the project.

As I mentioned, I think working together that way is demanding. Each of us has his/her own style of writing, and for any two authors to agree enough for the result to be successful can be hard. When it does work, though, I think it's great, because you have a built-in editor/critic/sounding-board as a part of the deal, and two heads are often better than one. The fact that it hasn't worked for me is probably my own fault. (Sorry, Mrs. Floyd, little Johnny just doesn't seem to play well with others.)

My questions for today

Anyhow, class, having said all that . . . Are you one of those writers who are inspired by the challenge of a predetermined theme or prompt? Does that help your productivity? How detailed do you like those prompts to be? Have you sought out markets that provide that kind of thing? Have you submitted stories to them, and if so, how'd you do? Have you written many stories for themed anthologies? Do you do that regularly? Have you been invited to contribute to themed anthologies? Have you collaborated with other authors on either short stories or novels? How did that go? Did you survive with sanity and friendships intact? Would you do it again?

The beautiful thing about this is that we're all different--plotters, pantsers, team players, loners. There is no one correct way of doing it. The right way is (1) whatever is satisfying to you and (2) whatever results in a good story.

Either way, good luck, Happy Halloween, be sure to vote, and set your clocks back an hour. I'll see you in a week.