18 February 2021

"Clarice, Don't Be A Naughty Girl..." Or, Fun With Dialogue


Happy Presidents Week! 

It's time we talked. You know, a real back-and-forth. A rap session.

A dialogue.

You know you're a writer if you're having them with yourself. And the more often you're having them, the more likely you are to be having a productive stretch at the ol' keyboard.

(And don't believe the alarmists. Shrinks overwhelmingly cite conversations with oneself as a sign of robust mental health.)

I have them everywhere. All the time.

Sometimes they're dead ends. Sometimes they're the start of something. Snatches of conversation. Bits of overheard dialogue.

A friend of mine (also a writer) has a popular and long-running series of snatches of other people's conversations overheard in public places and immortalized in his social media platforms. They are engaging, bizarre, and usually unforgettable. At times for their "quip" factor. At times for their sheer mundanity. 

And always for their utter humanity.

The best dialogue is not that written by the likes of Aaron Sorkin (whose work I admittedly love), because there is no situation arising in real life where everyone you work with comes armed with a knapsack full of relevant facts, a closet full of debate trophies, and barks at each other like an auctioneer who has just drunk their tenth Red Bull. Love it on the screen and can suspend my disbelief there, mostly because Sorkin's work is fun to watch. However, it doesn't translate well to the written page. 

For that you need realistic dialogue.

You notice, I didn't say, "real dialogue." "Realism" and "reality" are not exactly the same animal. We're staging something when we're writing, not memorializing it.

And that's in part because of the utter mundanity of most human conversation. Let me give you an example:

"The Costco order is here," my wife said.

"Okay, I'll be right there." And I got up to go help bring it in.

Real? Yes. It happened today, in fact. But it's mundane. It serves no other purpose than to let you know that my wife and I got a Costco order today. As such it's not so much written dialogue as it is a snatch of memorialized conversation.

And written dialogue must do much more heavy lifting than memorialized conversations. Like every other part of the story, dialogue must work in service of the plot. It must advance it. Realistic dialogue, when employed correctly, reveals character, ratchets up the tension and advances the plot. Otherwise, no matter how artful, no matter how witty, no matter how poetic, it must be (and in the best writing, is) cut.

When I'm trying to get dialogue to work, I try to keep in mind two maxims, each laid out by one of the best writers of the last century or so: Elmore Leonard and John Le Carré.

Leonard once famously said: "My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip."

As for Le Carré, he said of a plot: "The cat sat on the mat is not the beginning of a story. The sat on the dog's mat is."

The best dialogue obeys both of these dictums.

Leonard's is key because (of course) the best writing does not bore the reader. Le Carré's because it points up how essential conflict is to advancing the plot.

And that is what separates realistic dialogue from real dialogue. "Realistic" writing is a construct, not a transcription. It's a tool intended to convey the writer's message. As such, it works in service of the message, rather than serving as the message itself.

As such it can and must be massaged, worked and reworked, tweaked, larded with subtext, whatever it takes to get your point across.

Someone a lot more success than I am once said, "There must be conflict on every page" of a work of fiction, otherwise it's wasted writing. I'll take that one step further. There must conflict in every conversation the writer choose to employ, otherwise that writing, too, is wasted.

And where a playwright or a screenwriter has collaborators: actors to speak their words, lighting directors to set the mood, cinematographers to make effective use of the best camera angles, fiction writers tend to be solo acts (editors and beta readers are not only helpful, but essential, but they play their parts in the process once a draft is completed). We are the writers, the directors, the scene-setters, the dialogue coaches. We play all of the parts.

And oftentimes that includes having conversations with ourselves. Out loud.

I've never been lucky enough to hear a snatch of conversation so inspiring that it led to my creating a work of fiction. My ideas tend to spring from something I read, or, as I've laid out above, from conversations I have with myself.

My incredibly talented wife, however, is currently putting the finishing touches on her first novel, the germ of which story came to her in an overheard snatch of conversation. In fact, it was a bit of conversation we both overheard, a decade ago, while honeymooning in the U.K.

We were driving from Edinburgh to York, and stopped at Housesteads, an archeological site featuring a partial restoration of one of the many Roman-built mile castles which dotted the length of Hadrian's Wall. While touring the site we happened upon a British family: a father and mother, and two small girls, somewhere between the ages of 6 and 8 or so.
The rock wall in question looked a lot like this.

Just as we advanced within earshot, the mother, in a tone uncannily similar to that of one of the members of Monty Python in drag, called out to one of her daughters, "Clarice (pronounce "Clair-Iss."), don't be a naughty girl!" In reply to which the younger of the two girls, at that moment perched atop a two-foot high rock fence, stood straight and protested bitterly that her sister was climbing on the rocks too.

And just like that, my wife had an idea for a main character with a life-defining relationship. Sometimes it happens that quickly, that completely. Like the story about how car trouble on New York's George Washington Bridge led to Donald Westlake creating both the amoral thief Parker, and the pseudonym under which he would populate Parker's world, Richard Stark.

I'm not so talented as either my wife or the late Mr. Westlake (to say nothing of the late Mssrs. Leonard and Le Carré). So, for the time being at least, I'm going to continue having conversations with myself.

See you in two weeks!



17 February 2021

Brand New Cliches


 


Yesterday the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine hit the newsstand, assuming such institutions still exist.  I am delighted to be making my 33rd appearance in those distinguished pages.  "Shanks' Locked Room" is the eleventh showing there by my grumpy crime writer, so he stars in one-third of my tales  in that market.

You may notice the "locked room" in the title.  It is a subgenre of the mystery story, of course, going all the way back to the very first: Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue."  I thought it might be fun to play around with the old gimmick and I wound up turning it inside out.  The puzzle Shanks has to solve is not "how did the villain get into a room without a key?" but "why did the villain steal the key and not enter the room?"

I enjoy turning a cliche around.  I had written what I thought would be a follow-up called "Shanks' Last Words," involving the famous dying-message clue, but it turned out that technology had gotten ahead of me and made my story outdated.  Such is life.


One master of the upturned cliche was Jack Ritchie, a genius of the comic short story whom John Floyd and I have praised to the sky on this page.  He wrote a book about Henry Turnbuckle, a Milwaukee police detective.  Henry loved mystery fiction and was constantly being disappointed that reality cruelly ignored the cliches and motifs of the field.

For example, in one story two of the suspects are identical twins.  Alas,  in violation of every rule of mystery fiction that turns out to have nothing to do with the solution.  In another tale Henry gathers all the suspects and dramatically reveals the killer - only to have the suspects point out a fatal flaw in his logic, which involved a fact no one had bothered to mention to him.  Why is it in crime fiction the detective always gets all the necessary information?  Doesn't happen in real life.  

 By coincidence I was reading a story today and gave up on it because it stuck to a very tired cliche: The villain was about to kill the hero but first gave him a detailed explanation of his plan, and damned near a blueprint of the house where he was being held.  

This peculiar generosity on the part of some bad guys was brilliantly skewered in the movie Austin Powers.  


So, which cliches of the field bug you the most?



16 February 2021

When Red Herrings Stink


I'm going to go out on a limb and say something that may be controversial, at least among writers: Readers should understand why a red herring (something that is said or happens in a novel or story that leads the reader to a false conclusion) was not the solution to the puzzle by the time the tale is over.

Until recently I didn't think this was a controversial opinion. I thought it was a standard approach to writing mysteries. Sure, I'd sometimes heard authors say before that they didn't need to explain by the end of their stories why Character X said Y because Y was a red herring, but I thought they were mistaken, and since I wasn't their teacher, it wasn't my place to correct their misguided notion. But recently I edited a story by an author I respect, someone who's a solid writer, and the issue arose. Since I was this person's editor, it was my job to say my piece.

I'm going to talk about the story, but I'm completely changing the names and plot so that you can't identify the author because who this person is doesn't matter. In the whodunit story, Princess Consuella tells Annie the Amateur Sleuth that murder suspect Bad Bad Leroy Brown lied about something, based on personal observation, and therefore, it seems, Leroy must be the killer. Princess Consuella was believable and seemed absolutely certain, so I suspect most readers would have finished that scene believing Leroy had indeed lied and thus must have been the killer. It's what I thought. Yet at the end of the story, I learned I'd been fooled. Leroy may be bad, but he never killed anyone--at least not in that story.

I raised the problem with the author--that no explanation of Princess Consuella's statement about Bad Bad Leroy Brown was provided by the story's end. Either Leroy did lie (which by the story's end didn't seem right, since we never learned any reason Leroy would have lied about the issue in question) or the princess had been wrong (but how could that have been true, since she had seen with her own eyes the thing she was certain Leroy lied about, and it wasn't the type of thing that could have been misunderstood, and she had no reason to lie, either). The reader would be left wondering how to reconcile this situation, so some  explanation should be provided, I said. The author pushed back, saying that no explanation was necessary since it was a red herring designed to fool the reader into thinking the wrong suspect was the killer. The reader learns who the actual killer is by the end, and that's what matters, the author said; we don't need to revisit the red herring. 

That response prompted me to do some research about red herrings. Had I been wrong all these years? Did red herrings, by their very nature, not require explanation? To my surprise, I found nothing addressing this issue. There are a lot of articles about crafting solid red herrings, but I found nothing addressing the idea that red herrings should be explained by a story's end, that the reader should be able to understand how she got fooled. Even now, some time later, I remain quite surprised, because if authors can toss in red herrings without eventually providing an explanation for them, it makes writing too easy. It feels like a cheat.

In the case of Bad Bad Leroy Brown, sure, he could have been lying for reasons the reader never learns, despite seeming to have no reason to lie. Alternately, Princess Consuella could have lied for reasons the reader never learns about or she could have been wrong, despite being so certain and giving the reader no reason to explain how she could have been so mistaken. It certainly would make life easy for authors if they could write red herrings that didn't have to be explained in the end, but I think it would leave readers with a bad taste in their mouths. That is why I believe such scenarios need to be resolved. Did Leroy lie and why? Or did the princess get it wrong and how could that be? Without an explanation, the red herring feels contrived. It makes me feel like the author was playing games with me. 

This is why I recommended the author use a little misdirection when the red herring was introduced. More specifically, I suggested that when the princess called Leroy a liar, the author should use the wiggle word "recall" in the dialogue. Notice the slight difference:

Scenario A: The princess slams her hand on the table, its sound echoing throughout the castle. "Bad Bad Leroy Brown is a liar! I was sitting right next to him in the dungeon cafe last week, and he didn't leave money for his meal on the table when he left. I wonder what else he's lying about. I bet he rips off restaurants throughout the kingdom all the time. He's a rip-off artist."

Scenario B: The princess slams her hand on the table, its sound echoing throughout the castle. "Bad Bad Leroy Brown is a liar! I was sitting right next to him in the dungeon cafe last week, and I don't recall him leaving money for his meal on the table when he left. I wonder what else he's lying about. I bet he rips off restaurants throughout the kingdom all the time. He's a rip-off artist."

In Scenario A, the reader ends the story shrugging, thinking Leroy (who has a reputation for honesty, despite his name) had no reason to lie when he said he paid for his lunch, yet the princess's adamant accusation against Leroy remains unexplained. (She too had no reason to lie and her certainty indicated she hadn't made a mistake.)  In Scenario B, the reader can go back and reread the language of the princess's accusation and think, "Oh. The author fooled me."

Here's why Scenario B works: Because (1) the reader has no reason to think the princess lied; (2) the princess seems so certain, so the reader will believe her account; and (3) the princess distracts the reader by slamming the table, muttering about what else Leroy might have lied about, and declaring that he's a rip-off artist, the reader easily could read right past the key words--the princess didn't recall Leroy leaving his payment. When the reader gets to the end of the story, she could flip back to reread the princess's accusation and think, "Oh! It was right there. She merely didn't remember it. I was distracted by her certainty. I was fooled fair and square." That's the way to make a red herring work. That's the way to make the reader feel satisfied rather than feeling played.

Alternately, the reader could learn by the story's end that Leroy did lie for reasons unrelated to the murder. If there was a good reason for his lie, especially something that worked well with the plot, then revealing both the lie and the reason for it could have elevated the story. It also could have left the reader feeling satisfied because, while she was fooled, she wasn't played for a fool. Distracting the reader into missing a key word is playing fair with the reader. In contrast, dropping a lie into the story to fool the reader without any ultimate explanation isn't playing fair,  not to me, at least.

So that's my advice about red herrings. If you're going to use them,  make sure they're explained by the end so they don't seem contrived. Otherwise, you're taking an easy way out and you're not playing fair with the reader. Just like fish that sits out too long, that approach stinks.

I welcome your comments on this issue. And if I'm wrong and there are tons of articles addressing this subject and I need to brush up on my research skills, please share that information too.

***

In other news, here's a little BSP: I recently had a new short story published. "An Inconvenient Sleuth" appears in issue eight of Black Cat Mystery Magazine. In this whodunit, Kendra Silver, Dogwood Valley's celebrated amateur sleuth, is murdered. Who saw that coming? Certainly not anyone who thought  Kendra was invincible because she led a cozy life in a cozy town. But now that someone has killed Kendra, her best friend, Whitney, feels compelled to help the police unmask the culprit.  

Black Cat Mystery Magazine is available in trade paperback and ebooks from all the usual sources. You also can buy it directly from the publisher, Wildside Press, by clicking here.

15 February 2021

More About First Person


 by Steve Liskow

I've discussed point of view before, mostly about the unreliable narrator. That's someone who tells the story but whose word is suspect. That person my be lying to cover his own guilt over some event, or maybe he is biased or misunderstands a situtation. Nelly Dean, the caretake in Wuthering Heights, hates Heathcliff and glosses over her own responsibility for many of the things that go wrong in that book, including the elder Catherine's death. Lockwood, the twit who rents the estate and listens to her account, is too self-centered and dumb to understand the significance of what she says. 

Huckleberry Finn was raised by an illiterate drunken racist, so he doesn't recognize his own racist attitude toward Jim.


He comes to understand through the adventures he and Jim share. Critics often compare The Catcher in the Rye with the emotionally shattered Holden Caulfield to Huck. Others point to Chief Bromden, the paranoid schizophrenic Indian in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. All these books gain their power from a narrator who doesn't tell us the truth, expecially since he doesn't lie on purpose.

Many other books, both classic and newer, continue this tradition: The Great Gatsby, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Gone Girl...

But what about books where the narrator tells us the truth? That's a staple of the classic mystery story. I remember being told that a mystery should always use first person point of view, a dictum I tossed as soon as I read The Maltese Falcon, which uses third person through Sam Spade. 

Poe used an unnamed narrator to highlight the brilliance of C. Auguste Dupin. Maybe that's where Conan Doyle got the idea for Dr. Watson, who narrates all except one of the tales of Sherlock Holmes. Captain Hastings, who sounds a lot like Watson, shares his own awe of Hercule Poirot.

Once challenge of using first person point of view is that the narrator needs an interesting voice or persona to keep the reader engaged. If we're going to listen to someone tell an entire book, they have to be interesting, right?

That's true of the unreliable narratiors I mentioned above, but Watson and Hastings are, frankly, boring. They're nice, dull, unimaginative men of a certain age and class, and that narrow mindset exists to make their sleuths seem even more brilliant and dynamic. It also allows us to forgive (as they do) those detectives' personality quirks and shortcomings. Poirot is an arrogant ass, more concerned with his moustaches and his little gray cells than with anyone around him. Holmes is an off-again-on-again cocaine (or morphine, it changes from story to story) user who practices his marksmanship by shooting holes in the wall of his London flat. Apparently, zoning laws were different then.

Another advantage of having these characters as narrators is that Christie and Conan Doyle could hide clues from the reader because Hastings and Watson didn't recognize their importance. It's not really cheating. It's more like slight of hand where the magician makes you look at the wrong hand while the other one palms the ace. 

But Hastings and Watson and a whole generation of Golden Age narrators were dull. Their only reason to exist was the genius of the character solving complex plots that resembled higher calculus. I read a lot of those books and tolerated them, but at some point I lost interest because the characters were incidental to stories that were little more than the word problems in my math book. 

Rex Stout came along, too. I haven't read all the Nero Wolfe stories, but I don't know which ones I missed.


Stout realized that Nero Wolfe was insufferably vain. He weighed "a seventh of a ton," bred orchids, drank innumberable bottles of beer daily (keeping track by the bottle caps on his desk), and never left his brownstone residence. The traditional dull sidekick would have disappeared in his ego and rendered the books unreadable.

But Stout gave us Archie Godwin. Archie is a good PI in his own right. He's charming, loves the ladies (And Lily Rowan and others reciprocate), and can take care of himself in a fight. He's smart. He's also funny and constantly needles Wolfe and deflates him. The relationship between the two characters has more depth and complexity than their predecessors, and it makes for more interesting reading

.After World War II, Lew Archer and Phillip Marlowe came along to relate more character-driven stores with more complex people as narrators and investigators. I don't know if it's significant that they're both American while Christie and Conan Doyle were British. I do remember Chandler's snide comment in "The Simple Art of Murder," though. "The English are not necessarily the best writers, but they are unquestionably the best dull writers." 

In the seventies, Sara Paretsky gave us V. I. Warshawski. A few years later, Linda Barnes gave us Carlotta Carlyle and Sue Grafton gave us Kinsey Milhone. Three feisty, intelligent women PI narrators.

It's probably simplistic to give Stout credit for the rise of the detective teams who appeared in the 1990s, but I'll do it anyway.


Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are smart and damaged. They explore the dark depths of the human condition and come away even more deeply scarred. They finally married between the last two books in the series, and Patrick left investigating for a nine to five while Angie became a terrific mom to their daughter.

Robert Crais's Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are both military veterans (Vietnam, which would put them both at 70 now) and their youths were littered with emotional fallout that give them a deeper understanding of the people they both help and hunt. Elvis can be funny, too. 

I appreciate them more because I grew up with Archie Godwin's voice and vision coloring my own tastes and guiding my reading. When I started writing seriously (who writes frivolously?), Stout was one of my biggest influences.


14 February 2021

The Pandemic: Babies and Stories


With so much time together with our lovers, many expected a pandemic baby boom, but it is looking more like a bust.

I get it.

My writing fantasy is to have stories - the ones that reveal the places we live and breathe, the dark places, the places of joy - and also the time to write them. 

I now have the time but the onslaught of stories is just too much. The edits on my book are not a boom but a bust. A total bust.

Normally, when I work I shut out the world. Ignore it. However, this is a time in history when absorbing what is going on in the world is needed.

When I sit down to write, my head swirls from the page outward. Perhaps my characters are talking on the phone - I think of all the people isolated by #COVID19 who can only talk to those they love by phone. When my characters sit for coffee, I think of all the lonely people unable to gather and the small coffee shops struggling to survive in this pandemic.

Then there are the elderly in long term care homes, isolated and at times suffering with dementia - how do they make sense of the long days when no familiar faces come? Do they forget them? Do they remember them in their dreams?

The children who once rushed up to playgrounds to do what we have forgotten to do - play with abandon with children they have just met. Now, they are masked and are asked to keep their distance. Will they play with abandon when the virus is gone or will they grow up too soon into the far more distanced adults that surround them? Hell, we are asking them to keep their distance so it would be a small wonder if they don’t.

The lovers, the ones that had planned romantic trips, weddings and parties - what happens when none of that is possible? Do they put that spontaneous side - the most romantic moments - on hold. Can they return?

And then there are those who don’t return at all.  Their families watch them disappear into the bowels of an ambulance or hospital and then can’t see them, hold them before they die. 

I’m bombarded by stories of my colleagues in the #COVID ICUs. They have so many tools to save people but now, their tools are often useless against Covid-19. Death after death. It's everything they've been trained to fight and yet they lose the battle constantly. They are tired and demoralized when one patient dies, the numerous deaths are just too much for them.

And, perhaps a few blocks from these ICUs, people are gathering without masks, perhaps in homes, to have a drink, laugh and spread this damn virus around another room.

Will all the pandemic stories raging around demanding attention finally settle when the worst of this pandemic is over? Will we have time to write them when life returns to normal?

My hope is that these stories will be written and we will take the time to pay tribute to each person we can. There have never in my lifetime been so many stories crying out to be told. There are also so many people who are now no longer with us to tell their story and we need to honour them by telling it.

I have practiced medicine. I have written. Both involve a similar process.

In medicine, the key to a diagnosis is always the story - the more fulsome the story, the more likely the diagnosis will be accurate. And after diagnosis, following the story allows us to assess the treatment and, more importantly, how the patient is doing. 

With writing, the key is always the story and the more fulsome, the more accurate. 

With the pandemic stories that will be written, I hope that that they will be about how we recover, or don’t, from this terrible time in our history. Like a medical story, we need to follow this up. 

At this point in time I have no idea how the story ends for us all.

Oh, and babies. We need to see more babies please. We need a new generation to whom we pass on our stories, because this has been a time of such important stories. But until we pass on our stories, we need the joy of a new beginning.

13 February 2021

How It's Done These Days


napping red panda

It’s 8:00am Saturday, writing day, and I’m so not ready to write. I’d been up late watching That Space Action Buddy Movie That Is Always On. TSABMTIAO sucks me right in. That’s what I do now on weekend nights, stare at a screen and not think much because I’ve been staring at smaller screens all damn week and thinking my brain into mush. I’m Zoomed out. A year now—a year—since home became not just the retreat and writing space but also the day job desk and social distancing fort. I’m still seeking balance.

Anyway, I can’t just dive into “That Flash Idea Thing,” no matter what the schedule pressure and creative guilt says. Have to get my blood pumping first. A pre-writing walk has launched the process since forever. Core to the ritual. Writing itself is an endurance feat, right? Hard to push through mentally if the body isn't primed.

Step 1: Walk and think; Step 2: Buy cold Diet Coke at the convenience store. Step 3: Go home and write. Works every time– except when it doesn’t. But I can’t skip the warm-up, that’s for sure. Off I go, and hey, what if I walk another block to the grocery? They sell Diet Coke at the grocery. Variety of route, the spice of life.

munchies

I walk to the grocery. Buy that Diet Coke. Hang on. You know what would make for top snacking later? A bag of Munchies. You know the mix, with like everything Lays swept off the packaging floor jumbled together feed bag-style. I buy the Munchies and of course sliced mangos. Writers need vitamins. Now I’m walking back home, and I should be mulling over outline problems with “Flash Thing,” but iTunes keeps playing the Stones and seriously, here is a car with legit U.S. Virgin Island license plates. Anyone alive would wonder what other fantastic license plates are in this parking lot of curiosities.

I get home with a decent U.S. state count and the Diet Coke gone. I’m totally getting my steps in, y’all. I secure the Munchies and check the phone for the usual grim news and English football scores. Start the laundry. It doesn’t start itself, does it? Done, done, and done, and folks, it is time to write. No, wait. Pollen season. Important to shower off the sinus fiends. That also done, the writing session has arrived, except how did it get to be 11am already? I can’t get going on “Flash Thing” with lunch time looming around the corner. I’ll feel distracted, disjointed. I’ll make hangry choices sure to summon rejections and the eternal silence of the hard drive. What I’ll do, I’ll outline a few goals for the day’s session as an intentionality exercise.

And bam! A key decision appears on my scratch pad. The POV will be the son. Bam! No, the mother. Bam! No, a surrogate mother figure. I decide that the piece will be about 700 words. 800 sounds longish. So, 700 hundred words and a mom-like person. I’ve earned my tuna salad, thank you very much.

writing desk

I have the tuna salad. No Munchies yet. Those are for special snack occasions like big game watching or nine o’clock. I check the news. Switch the laundry. Here we go. I’m at the computer, and I write a working title. Add the by-line. Seven words already. I try a first sentence. It stinks, but I move it around and then I move that around, and after the moving stops, there is a paragraph. There may not be another one, though. I’m stumped, and no amount of staring at my shelf inspiration deals seems to help. I’m downstairs again fetching more Diet Coke, and my path takes me past the TV. They play football in England like all Saturday long. Also, I haven’t doom-scrolled the news since the tuna salad. I have a few mango slices because the struggle is real.

It used to be, back when, I wrote in morning flurries. By afternoon, I faded into this same grind, except with victories already notched. I could recharge and hit it again later. Now, I have the grind. But hey, my word count is showing 220 words, and “Flash Thing” is tracking the general idea on the general pace. The story is leading me more, and I blow past my old 2pm hard stop and then past 3pm, and at some point, and with a spin on the treadmill, it’s dark out and I blow past my old evening stop time. Then there is a full draft right here on this monitor screen. As if the writing gods have spoken, the word count is 702.

I break open the Munchies. Turn on the TV.

There was an old process, and I’m managing through a rebalanced one, mainly to bear down and make it work. Plus, I get major laundry done.

12 February 2021

The Covid-19 Year


2020 and the beginning of 2021 in review.

The damn Cover-19 Year. I've been on lockdown (except for occasional armed excursions to grocery stories and doctor's offices). Armed with mask and face shield and avoiding the non-maskers. Got a lot of writing and reading done in my home office.

Looking back, I wrote one and a half novels in 2020. Wrote six short stories. Had one novel published. Had five original short stories published and two stories reprinted. Sold four new stories. One of my stories was awarded the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award for Best Private Eye Short Story.

It was a good year for my writing but Covid-19 overshadowed everything. A number of my former police buddies succumbed to it, so did a few of their wives. We're all up in age. Other friends have died that horrible death as well.

On the blog front today, I have nothing.

I'm tapped out of writing advice for the moment. I looked back at my previous postings on SleuthSayers and think I've said just about everything I know about writing. But I could be wrong. I've been wrong before. But for the moment, I'm tapped out.

Gave y'all the one about the dead woodpecker and the riverfront expressway and the confederate statues (which I'm still catching flak over). I did one on cemeteries and American police and a number about other writers and books by other writers.

On the ficion side, I just finished writing a novel and already started on a short story with another novel waiting impatiently to be written. Wait, I still have to do the final read-through of the novel set to be published in spring. So I'm busy. It's a process.

Maybe, by writing so much fiction, my mind doesn't have room at the moment to write a piece of non-fiction, a blog. So I'll fudge along and try to think of something for the future. The way my mind works at the moment is – if I think about something to write, it defaults to fiction.

Oh, I just thought of something to mention. My dislike of social media. Not all social media, just the mundane, repititious junk (like I care what someone's birthday cake looks like). There I go. I'm being a jerk. That might be the most important thing in that person's life at the moment. Just scroll down and GET OFF SOCIAL MEDIA and write or read or go around and pet all the cats (which annoys most of them as they are sleeping).

Hey, I do have a piece of advice for beginning writers.

Daydream. Daydream and turn your daydreams into stories. This sounds trite but it works.

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

Old Audubon Park Zoo, New Orleans, ©1976 O'Neil De Noux

www.oneildenoux.com


11 February 2021

Notes from the Wild West


First up, I noticed that there's a new Axes and Ales place opened up on 57th Street in Sioux Falls.  A long pandemic, a bitterly cold February, and a lot of booze.  As long as they wear masks, what could possibly go wrong?  

Second:  No determination yet in what charges (if any) AG Jason Ravnsborg is going to face for hitting and killing Jason Boever on that dark September 12th night.  

"Beadle County State's Attorney Michael Moore were also assisting Sovell. Both Vargo and Moore confirmed Friday that they continue to assist in the investigation. Moore said Friday that it's not unusual for accident investigations such as the one involving Ravnsborg taking as long as a year to complete. In the Ravnsborg case, prosecutors are still waiting on biological evidence and cell phone data. "From my experience dealing with a case where you're looking at possible criminal charges, it takes awhile to make sure you have all your information before you make a decision," Moore said. "You don't want to make a decision when there's still relevant information that we don't have. That's why it takes awhile."  (Argus Leader)

[Ahem]  There's a lot of South Dakotans (and other US citizens) who have found themselves in jail the very same night of the accident, but...  We all know what's really going on here, and a whole lot of South Dakotans are well and truly pissed off by it.

Including our Governor.  Kristi Noem has finally spoken out against something other than Amendment A (in which we, the people, of South Dakota legalized marijuana), and said “I share South Dakotans frustration about the amount of time this has taken,” Noem told Black Hills Fox News Wednesday. “To have more than 100 days go by without resolution on this is a disservice to the victim’s family.”  (KEVN News)  

Meanwhile, our Governor is apparently worshipped from afar by followers on Twitter and Facebook over her stalwart anti-lockdown, anti-mask position regarding COVID-19:  "I believe in our freedoms and liberties... I'll continue to trust South Dakotans to make the right choices for themselves and their loved ones."   

BTW, it's not working out that great.  We're 2nd in the country for per capita COVID-19 cases - 1 out of every 8, folks! And 6th for per capita COVID-19 deaths - 1 out of every 494.  In other words, for all you tourists that have been here, are here, and planning to come here - we're a great place to party (everything's open!) but be warned, most people are packing, and I'm not talking just about guns.  

Anyway, there's a change in the political weather now that we passed Amendment A (legalizing marijuana both for medical and recreational purposes) and also another Initiative that legalized medical marijuana. Both measures passed by a landslide, and so now Noem is using our taxpayer $$$ to try to get the South Dakota court system to find them unconstitutional.  So far, a judge out of Hughes County has found Amendment A unconstitutional.  And Noem says (all on her own) that it's going to take an extra year to set up medical marijuana, so there.  

And a lot of South Dakotans are well and truly pissed off by that.  Including people who loved her pandemic lack of response.  (It didn't help that she spent the pre-election season gone for 2-3 months, campaigning for Trump.  And she's still gone most of the time, fundraising for her future campaigns.)  The basic argument is simple:  So, Kristi, you trust us to make the right choices for ourselves and our loved ones in a life-threatening pandemic, but you don't trust us to make the right choices about anything else?  (ARGUS)  

Prediction:  Based on the industrial hemp flap, which she opposed both before and after it passed, saying at the time, “I remain opposed to industrial hemp in South Dakota because of the impact it will have on public safety and law enforcement’s ability to enforce drug laws.” ( ????  Really?  Works in almost ever other state in the country. )  Anyway, the legislature couldn't quite get the votes to override her veto.  So it came up the next year, and passed again, and this time she didn't veto it.  I can guarantee that striking down Amendment A will be challenged in court, and if the challenge is lost, then it will be back on the ballot in November in a cleaner, simpler form.  And eventually, Kristi will give up and let us have our childish way.  

But let's move on from doom and gloom to more exciting things.  Another mother in the freezer story!  This one from Japan:  
Japanese woman hid mother's body in freezer for 10 years over fear of being evicted
                (The Guardian)
Hey, it was Mom's name on the lease, and we all know that real estate is tight in Tokyo.  

Did you know that in South Dakota, you can join in mashed potato wrestling? Clark, South Dakota celebrates its main crop with Potato Days and boasts potato decorating contests, recipe competitions, and yes -- mashed potato wrestling.  Read more here at the Clark Chamber of Commerce:  https://www.clarksd.com/potato-days/ 

For those of you who don't know, SD is full of corn, from the Corn Palace, to the endless fields.  But back in August, 2020, a lone cornstalk in Sioux Falls made news - and not just here. It came up through a crack in the concrete at the intersection of 57th Street and Minnesota Avenue on Sioux Falls’ south side.



Dubbed the 57th Street Corn [a/k/a Cornelia] complete with its own Twitter accounts during its brief lifespan, the plant was a symbol of resiliency and hope as the pandemic rages on, Mayor Paul TenHaken said." And then some a-- pulled it up. What followed was sadness, protests, hopes that humanity is on its way out, and t-shirts. (See Argus Leader)

But fear not!  Cornelia was rescued and replanted in front of City Hall.  As for what happened next - I have no idea. Corn that is born of seed hath but a short time to live. Still, it was fun while it lasted. 

Tales from SD from Not Always Right :

Story #1:

I live in one of few states not under full quarantine yet. Many restaurants are closed except for drive-thru, including ours. A coworker of mine is taking orders through drive-thru.

Customer: “Do you read the Bible, [Coworker]?
Coworker: “No, I’m not religious.”
The customer starts ranting.
Customer: “This disease is a punishment from God! Repent while you still have time!”

She simply took his order and then he went to the next window asking the same question, again ranting when given the same answer. A few minutes later, the same customer went through the drive-thru again, this time blowing a trumpet. We still don’t know what the deal was but everyone was talking about “trumpet guy” by the end of the day.

Story #2:

(The defendant has been found guilty of public urination. After a police officer was requested to make him leave an event at the local community center, [Defendant] insisted on taking a long piss out of his wheelchair in the community center parking lot, all captured for posterity on the officer’s body camera. This is his fourth arrest — and conviction — on misdemeanor offenses in the last six months. [Defendant] is representing himself.)

Judge: “Ready for sentencing? Does the State have any recommendations?”

State’s Attorney: “Well, Your Honor, [Defendant] is a frequent flyer in the criminal justice system. Over the years, he’s been found guilty of…”

(The list the State’s Attorney reads from has 48 convictions that range from public drunkenness to felony possession and ingestion of controlled substances, with forays into disorderly conduct, various levels of theft, violation of a protection order, simple assault/domestic abuse, and driving while intoxicated.)

State’s Attorney: “…recommend [maximum jail time for the crime].”

Judge: “Do you have anything you’d like to say, [Defendant]?”

Defendant: “People can change, Judge.”

MY NOTE:  I swear we had that defendant in court up in Madison.  He might have been the one who showed up drunk and looked like he was going to puke all over the judge's bench...  As the attorneys backed off in perfect V-formation...

Happy February!

10 February 2021

Mr. Holbrook & Mr. Twain



I saw Hal Holbrook do Mark Twain Tonight when I’d just turned fourteen, and it was life-changing.  Holbrook himself was thirty-four, playing Twain in his seventies. 

The venue was Sanders Theater, at Harvard, inside Memorial Hall.  I don’t know if Twain actually appeared there, but the building was completed in 1875, so it’s possible.  Sanders has terrific acoustics, and Holbrook took the stage unamplified, as Twain may well have.

 


I caught the show twice, a matinee performance and then again the next day.  I had to go back and see it a second time; it was that jaw-dropping.  Nor did Holbrook repeat the shows word-for-word.  He had a lot of material, and he shifted gears, depending on the audience reaction, the time of day, or how the weather was.  He played the room. 

The real game-changer came in the second act.  He screwed his voice up a notch, higher-pitched, an old guy pretending to be a boy speaking, for the opening of Huckleberry Finn.

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.  That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”  This is characteristic of Twain, and of Holbrook’s canny delivery, a slight pause or stutter, before the punchline.  Mainly.  What’s also characteristic of Twain is the reversal of expectation, which can be a matter of comic timing, or the sudden chill of menace.  The first act of Mark Twain Tonight is full of laughs.  It’s a kind of bait-and-switch.  Holbrook moves the goalposts when he reads Huck’s story.  He slips in the knife, with the inexorable slide from the burlesque of Stephen Dowling Bots to the murdered Grangerfords.

This is part of the skill of the novel, the juxtaposition of horror and farce, but it’s very clear choice on Holbrook’s part to give us the Grangerford feud, or the lynch mob, or the time Huck outwits the bounty hunters by telling them Jim – hidden in the tent – is his Pa, infected with smallpox.  It balances on the edge of darkness, the consequences if his deception is found out, the entire narrative in fact a feverish pretense, an infection boiling just below the skin, a dose of sulphur with the molasses.

Holbrook put out two LP’s, performing live, and the 1967 TV show.  All well worth seeking out.

I think, however, that the immediate effect of my seeing Mark Twain Tonight in person wasn’t astonishment with Holbrook’s skill at transforming himself (astonishing as it was), or an appreciation of the writer as celebrity (Twain following in Dickens’ footsteps), but the experience of invention.  Holbrook becomes Twain, yes, but Twain becomes Twain, before your eyes.  You see him in the act of picking and choosing, deciding what to reveal, and what to hold back.  I suddenly realized that it wasn’t accidental, and Twain was actually the author of these engines, that he could invent these outcomes, he could turn these corners, he could lift the edge of the curtain, and in so doing, he could shape my emotions, terror, or elation, or wonder.  In other words, he was doing it on purpose. 

This was a revelation.  It demonstrated to me that writing was conscious, that you laid down a beat.  It had somehow not occurred to me.  This is one of those startling things, the before and after.  Before, you didn’t get it.  After, you can’t imagine how you didn’t always know, the knowledge foundational, necessary, built into your muscle memory. 

This is the strength and power of the story-teller.  Given a place by the fire, blind Homer tells again the tale of the heroes on the windy plain of Troy.  His listeners lean in.  A beginning, a middle, and an end.  Or not quite an end, but a tease, the promise of tales yet to be told.  The poet sings for his supper; he needs to give good weight. 

Mark Twain takes a last bow and exits the stage, leaving us hungry for more.  Hal Holbrook gave good weight. 



09 February 2021

The Fountain Pen of Youth


As writers we are always looking for ways to expand our readership and obviously sell more books. One way to do that is to try to reach younger readers. When we’re young we never think we’re going to lose our cool, but inevitably it happens. The music and other things we once thought so cool have little relevance for young people today.

As many of you know I’ve spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital in the last few months. And in that time I came across a lot of different nursing teams. The people on these teams are from everywhere and in all age ranges. But almost all of them have one thing in common as compared to me. They’re young. The vast majority are in their mid-twenties to early thirties.

I had a lot of pleasant conversations with them, but in talking to them I realized they don’t relate to the same cultural touchpoints that I do. And I don’t think it’s because of our different ethnic backgrounds, I think it’s because of our ages. For me the Beatles are everything. Most of them can’t relate to that. Some of them may even like the Beatles, but it’s not the same for them as it is for me.

I watch movies from the 30’s and 40's on Turner Classics and think of them as “old” movies. They think of movies from the 90’s as old. And black and white movies are ancient to them—might as well be cave drawings.

The point here is that if you want to reach this audience you have to write about things they relate to not only what you and your peers relate to. We need to include references to the things that are important to them. The music they like, the movies they like, the characteristics they admire or despise in a hero or villain.

They say write what you know but sometimes you have to write what you don’t know. 

In The Blues Don’t Care there’s a lot of stuff that I don’t relate to personally as it’s set in another era, World War II, but I found myself relating to more and more of it as I got deeper into the subject. If we can do that with stuff from a previous generation then we should also be able to do that looking toward the future too. And hopefully pick up some new readers along the way.


~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

I just sold my short story "A.K.A. Ross Landy" to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Stay tuned for more.




Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

08 February 2021

Writing to the Don'ts


In an era when short crime fiction has far fewer and more specialized markets than in the great days when writers could actually make a living writing it, oldtimers give aspiring authors some wise but contradictory advice: "Don't write to the market," and "Don't ignore the guidelines of the market you're submitting to."

If you can't do six impossible things before breakfast, you have no business writing fiction in the 21st century. But lately, the directives of journals and e-zines have become so demanding and exclude so much that one begins to wonder how the struggling authors can find anywhere to place their stories.

Here are excerpts from a few of my favorite sets of guidelines.

Needs: cutting edge, hardboiled, horror, literary, noir, psychological/horror. No fanfiction, romance, or swords & sorcery, no fantasy and no erotica. We no longer publish erotica, but if your story contains graphic sex that is essential to the story, that's fine. Absolutely nothing glorifying Satanism!
*No stories involving abuse of children, animals or dead people.
*Seriously folks, animal abuse is our number one no-no! It will get your story kicked back quicker than anything else. Nothing so sick or perverted that even I can’t read it. Nothing racist or bigoted, anti-religion, nothing blasphemous or sacrilegious. Nothing strongly Conservative or blatantly Liberal or so politically correct the ACLU would love it. Seriously, keep your politics to yourself or at least low-key. There’s a happy medium somewhere: Write straight from the heart; call it like you see it, but show some control. Also, no published song lyrics or poetry or quotes from other stories. Material from texts or academic books may be quoted, but must be properly footnoted.
Yellow Mama

We do appreciate clever and poetic turns of phrase, but first and foremost we want a story readers can sink into late at night before they go to bed. We want to stretch people’s minds, but not give them a headache.
*We receive so many brilliant but depressing stories that we must pass on all but the best gems. We strive for emotional balance in each of our issues, and want our readers to leave feeling challenged yet refreshed.
*We love to publish works featuring fiery feminism, a rainbow of LGBTQIA+, skin colours that don’t begin with the letter ‘W’, indigenous and immigrant experiences alike, and people of varying shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities.
*We like some action along with those intriguing personalities, and we want to see characters that grow and change throughout the story arc.
Pulp Literature

We go for stories that are dark, literary; we are looking for the creepy, the weird and the unsettling.
*We do not accept stories with the following: vampires, zombies, werewolves, serial killers, hitmen, excessive gore or sex, excessive abuse against women, revenge fantasies, cannibals, high fantasy.
LampLight

We don’t do cozies. We don’t do procedurals. We’re not a literary magazine, and we don’t do other genres. We like strong characters, and good story telling, and we will not reject anyone based on mainstream morality. Amoral protagonists are encouraged. As the world's only no-limit criminal culture digest magazine, we will consider any twisted/taboo storyline, or deplorable protagonist.
*We want stories featuring the criminal as a protagonist. Legbreakers, hookers, drug pushers, porn stars, junkies, and pimps welcomed. We do mob stories. Keep them original. Write what you know.
SwitchBlade

It's a rare journal that doesn't lose its sense of humor in such a thicket of stipulations, so I want to give a shout-out to Crimeucopia, a UK quarterly whose submission guidelines are generous and include the priceless one-liner, "We’re usually pretty relaxed in regard to manuscript presentation, but please don’t take the piss." I wish the other zines quoted above were taking the piss.

I don't do the kind of story in which a PI who needs therapy and an ending that's a bummer are de rigueur. I don't do horror. Sometimes I do traditional murder mysteries, sometimes police or part-police procedurals, sometimes historicals. I mix them up. I weave in social issues. My standalones can be literary in tone and execution. Sometimes I write about theft instead of murder. A few of my crime stories qualify as urban fantasy, neither gore nor fairy dust involved. Twice, I've written a serial killer, one not quite human.

The net result is that I read these guidelines, throw my hands up in despair, and don't submit. Whenever I've risked going with the positive elements—"we like strong characters and good storytelling," "we want to see characters that grow and change"—I've been told my story is "not what we're looking for." I know the issue is not the quality of my work. Magazines that don't have a lot of restrictive guidelines, like EQMM, AHMM, and Black Cat, have accepted enough of my submissions to reassure me. It really is the don'ts.

07 February 2021

Florida News – Cold-Blooded Edition


Florida postcard

While you’ve been social distancing and avoiding the coronavirus. Floridians have been going about their usual madness– alleged madness– it’s all alleged. I know you’ve been paying attention, so at the end, you’ll find a quiz to test your knowledge.

Capitol Rioters

Kissimmee, FL.  Police Officer Andrew Johnson reportedly got himself fired for racist and seditious remarks posted on Facebook supporting the Capitol riots. “Day one of the Revolutionary War!! Hang on, it’s only just begun. … Civil War is right around the corner. It’s coming.”

It’s not known if he’s any relation to Adam Johnson of Bradenton who stole the House Speaker’s lectern.

Casselberry, FL.  Commissioner and Vice Mayor Mark Busch is all about free speech after riling up a crowd prior to 6 January, telling them Vice President Mike Pence had “better do the right thing” or he'll face “pitchforks and torches” for failing to overturn a legitimate presidential election. Leading from the rear, the commission members exhibited less guts than our Kissimmee crowd. Casselberry couldn’t bring itself to reprimand Busch, who vowed to “continue the fight for freedom of speech,” like shouting, “Fire!”

Sanford, FL.  Claiming to still be investigating, Sanford FD has yet to acknowledge reporting to federal authorities the probable involvement of fireman Andy Williams.

St. Augustine, FL.  Florida Capitol riot arrests include John Anderson of St. Augustine, Matthew Council of Tampa, and Michael Curzio of Marion County, geniuses all.

Katie, Disbar the Door

Tampa, FL.  You know that softcore trope of the good-looking police officer who handcuffs and strip-searches the arrestee whilst suggestively wielding a nightstick? No? Ahem, I don’t either, of course, but Andrew Spark, esq, wrote the script. Working in two different jails, he managed to film scenes for a porn flick. Bad attorney! Bad!

Sarasota, FL.  Two women pretending to be police officers live-streamed themselves screaming and swearing at detainees during fake traffic stops. Word has it attorney Andrew Spark (above) has volunteered his legal services for the two ladies.

Good Cop / Bad Cop

New Port Richey, FL.  A man leaving a bar mistook 911 for Uber and called the police for a Lyft, then swore at the poor 911 operator. A kind officer gave him a ride to a place with lots of bars.

World’s Worst Marksman

Orlando, FL.  Or perhaps he’s damn good if he was trying to miss after firing a hundred shots at his romantic rival. Count everyone lucky.

Lift and Separate

Miami, FL.  An annoying box marked ‘CENSORED’ makes it difficult to tell exactly what went down, but you be the judge.

cartoon trash bag
Hi! I'm Trashy.

Unbagged

Pompano Beach, FL.  Trashy, the animated rubbish bag, leaped off Saturday morning cartoons to torch evil garbage trucks… Okay, I made up Trashy, but a man dressed in garbage bags mysteriously set fire to a number of garbage trucks. If you or your trashy friends know anything, you may collect a $10,000 reward.

Bagged

Bradenton, FL.  One woman guaranteed her own stimulus check of sorts. It’s not clear how her man died, but she stuffed him in a trash bag inside a rubbish bin and collected his social security check. I’m thinking she got the bags from Trashy.

Self-Inflicted Wounds

Tampa, FL.  An arsonist tried to torch a house. Instead, he set fire to himself. Ouch.

Lehigh Acres, FL.  A burglar executed himself climbing through a window. You may want to skip this one.

In the Name of Jesus

Orlando, FL.  Mention Florida in the same breath as evangelism, you can comfortably assume we’re talking scam. Drill down to ministries in Orlando, and you’ve hit a dead certainty. Now, along comes the Church of Florida, Aslan International Ministry, operated for and by the Edwards clan who, according to authorities, sucked approximately $9-million out of the federal coronavirus Paycheck Protection Program. Don’t worry, they weren’t spending it foolishly. They were using part of it to purchase a $3½-million house at Walt Disney World.

The Ugly Floridian

Pensacola, FL.  You can dress ’em up, but you can’t take ’em anywhere. Gloria Lancaster carved out a Florida Hall of Infame niche all to herself for chomping camel testicles… still part of a live camel, see, at a Louisiana truckstop. And there was this deaf dog and her husband Edmond and the camel is currently being treated with antibiotics and… It’s complicated.

Leave Them Balls Alone

Coral Coral, FL.  As you know, Albert the Alligator kept salesmen from the door for 25 years. He was a loyal pet that would come when a family member whistled. Treat animals with respect, man. This idiot in this episode has no clue how fast gators can turn.

lionfish

Snakey, Snakey

Miami, FL.  Less reprehensible than our reptilian politicians is our wildlife. Not long ago, Florida paid a bounty for lionfish, a colorful invader in Florida waters. Them’s good eatin’.

Now Florida is suggesting we snack on python meat. Mmm, tastes like chicken and they are plentiful.

Almond Joy

Tampa, FL.  Remember the scene in Jaws where Brody tells Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat?” Erika Almond said something like that when a great white chomped on it.

The SleuthSayers Florida News Quiz

Take the pre-Superbowl Florida Madness Challenge. It’s easier than you think!

06 February 2021

Aussies on Hossies


  

I like Australian Westerns. I think the first one I ever saw was The Sundowners, which I've always remembered because of its music--I'm a sucker for movie soundtracks--and since then I've seen a lot of 'em, some good and some not so, and several of them many times. These oaters from Oz have also been referred to as Kangaroo Westerns, or--in a play on the term Spaghetti Westerns--Meat Pie Westerns. 

Something I've found interesting about all this: The first in the genre was The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), but after that there was a 30- or 40-year gap in the production of Australian Westerns, because of a law there that banned the depiction of so-called "bushrangers" in films. The down-under horse-opera industry picked up again in the forties, and the one I remember most from that time period is The Overlanders--it was filmed before I was born, but I've seen it several times, most recently on YouTube this past week.

Anyhow, here are a dozen of my favorite Australian Westerns, with, in my opinion, the best ones listed first:


1. The Man from Snowy River (1982) -- I'm crazy about this movie. Great acting (especially Kirk Douglas in a double good-guy/bad-guy role), a good coming-of-age plot, and maybe most of all a good love story. And I know I get hung up on this sometimes, but it has a fantastic musical score.

2. Quigley Down Under (1990) -- Mostly American and British actors in an Australian Western, but it works. Who in our universe doesn't like watching Tom Selleck, or Alan Rickman? There's even (spoiler here) a final stonefaced showdown

3. The Sundowners (1960) -- Dated now, but still fun. I liked a lot of movies made in the sixties, and this is the only Australian Western I remember from that decade. Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr.

4. The Proposition (2005) -- A different kind of story, ultra-gritty and violent. Interesting plot and great characters, but don't expect many pretty faces. (I'll watch Guy Pearce in anything, ever since L.A. Confidential.)

5. Mystery Road (2013) -- More of a contemporary mystery than a Western, but it features Old West themes and values, and an interesting plot.

6. The Tracker (2002) -- The title character is a Native Australian hired to help a posse of white men find one of his countrymen who killed a white woman.

7. Australia (2008) -- This movie tries to be an epic and falls a bit short, but with native sons and daughters Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman it worked anyway, for me. Not that it matters, but it has one of the best trailers I ever saw.

8. The Overlanders (1946) -- A story about a cattle drive across the Northern Territory from Wyndham to Brisbane. A very old movie but still fun to watch.

9. Ned Kelly (1970) -- Probably not as as good as some of the later movies about the Kellys (I haven't yet seen 2019's True History of the Kelly Gang), but I enjoyed it. Mick Jagger, believe it or not, in the title role.

10. The Legend of Ben Hall (2016) -- More bushrangers and their mites. Everybody in this movie looks like Jason Robards in Once Upon a Time in the West.

11. Sweet Country (2017) -- Another story of Aussie racism: A Northern Territory Aborigine shoots a white man in self-defense in the 1920s and then goes on the run. (Sort of The Tracker from a different perspective.)

12. Mad Dog Morgan (1976) -- Dennis Hopper in Australia, which is interesting in itself. Low-budget and a little sloppy at times, but enjoyable.


As for other genres, I usually also like Australian comedies (Crocodile Dundee, Muriel's Wedding), mysteries (Dead Calm, Animal Kingdom), war movies (Gallipoli, Breaker Morant), drama (On the Beach, The Dish), and the uncategorizable (Mad Max, Picnic at Hanging Rock). There's just something about Australia.


If you have any favorites--or any I should steer clear of--please let me know. My Netflix queue needs updating.


And that's that. Be safe, keep writing, and help me pray for an early spring. See you in two weeks.



05 February 2021

Crime Scene Comix Case 2021-02-013, Up and Away


Let’s enjoy a cartoon from the Future Thought channel of YouTube. Check it out.

In this episode, Shifty, a none-too-bright crook who looks like a Minion in zebra stripes, takes flight. This time poor Shifty meets meets the truly cold-blooded. See you later, alligator.


That’s today’s crime cinema. Hope you enjoyed the show. Be sure to visit the Future Thought channel on YouTube.

04 February 2021

Setting as Character


In my previous Sleuthsayers post I promised that with this post I would leave off talking about politics and get back to talking about the craft of fiction writing. I'm returning to this topic by dusting off one of my first posts on this blog, wherein I explore the use of setting as another character in your story. This originally ran in 2013. I think it holds up, and hope you get something out of it.



Setting. Everyone knows about it. Few people actively think about it.

And that's a shame, because for writers, your setting is like a pair of shoes: if it's good, it's a sound foundation for your journey. If it's not, it'll give you and your readers pains that no orthotics will remedy.

Nowhere is this more true than with crime fiction. In fact strong descriptions of settings is such a deeply embedded trope of the genre that it's frequently overdone, used in parodies both intentional and unintentional as often as fedoras and trenchcoats.

Employed correctly a proper setting can transcend even this role–can become a character in its own right, and can help drive your story, making your fiction evocative, engaging, and (most importantly for your readers) compelling.

Think for a moment about your favorite crime fiction writers. No matter who they are, odds are good that one of the reasons, perhaps one you've not considered before, is their compelling settings.

Just a few contemporary ones that come to mind for me: the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. The Chicago of  Sara Paretsky, Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey. Boston seen through the eyes of Robert B. Parker. Ken Bruen's Ireland. Al Guthrie's Scotland. Carl Hiassen's Miami. Bill Cameron's Portland.

And of course there are the long gone settings highlighted in the gems of the old masters. These and others read like lexical snapshots from the past.Who can forget passages like:


The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.

                                                       —Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest


Or this one from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely

1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poinsettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.



And no one did it better than Ross Macdonald:

The city of Santa Teresa is built on a slope which begins at the edge of the sea and rises more and more steeply toward the coastal mountains in a series of ascending ridges. Padre Ridge is the first and lowest of these, and the only one inside the city limits.

It was fairly expensive territory, an established neighborhood of well-maintained older houses, many of them with brilliant hanging gardens. The grounds of 1427 were the only ones in the block that looked unkempt. The privet hedge needed clipping. Crabgrass was running rampant in the steep lawn.

Even the house, pink stucco under red tile, had a disused air about it. The drapes were drawn across the front windows. The only sign of life was a house wren which contested my approach to the veranda.

                                                 — Ross Macdonald, Black Money

In each of the passages excerpted above the author has used a description of the setting as a tip-off to the reader as to what manner of characters would inhabit such places. Even hints at what lies ahead for both protagonist and reader.

With Hammett it's the stink of the corruption that always follows on the heels of a rich mineral strike. With Chandler, it's a life worn-out by too much living. And with Macdonald, it's a world and its inhabitants as out of sorts as those hedges that need clipping.

Brilliant thumbnail sketches each. If you haven't read them, you owe it to yourself to do so. And each of them was giving the reader a glimpse of a world they had experienced first-hand, if not a contemporary view, then at least one they could dredge up and flesh out from memory.

With the stuff I write it's not that simple.

In his kind note introducing me to the readers of this blog, our man Lopresti mentioned that when it comes to fiction, my particular bailiwick is historical mystery. In my time mining this particular vein of fiction I've experienced first-hand the challenge of delivering to readers strong settings for stories set in a past well before my time.

How to accomplish this?

It's tricky. Here's what I do.

I try to combine exhaustive research with my own experiences and leaven it all with a hefty dose of the writer's greatest tool: imagination.

"Counting Coup," the first historical mystery story I ever wrote, is about a group of people trapped in a remote southwest Montana railway station by hostile Cheyenne warriors during the Cheyenne Uprising of 1873. I used the three-part formula laid out above.
  1. While pursuing my Master's in history, I'd done a ton of research on the western railroads, their expansion, and its impact on Native American tribes in the region, including the Cheyenne.
  2. I've visited southwestern Montana many times, and the country is largely unchanged, so I had a good visual image to work from.
  3. Imagination!

An example of the end result:

Wash and Chance made it over the rise and and into the valley of the Gallatin just ahead of that storm. It had taken three days of hard riding to get to the railhead, and the horses were all but played out.

The entire last day finished setting their nerves on edge. What with the smoke signals and the tracks of all the unshod ponies they'd seen, there was enough sign to make a body think he was riding right through the heart of the Cheyenne Nation.

Stretching away to north and south below them lay the broad flood plain of the Gallatin. The river itself meandered along the valley floor, with the more slender, silver ribbon of rail line mirroring it, running off forever in either direction. The reds of the tamarack and the golds of the aspen and the greens of the fir created a burst of color on the hills that flanked the river on either side, their hues all the more vivid when set against the white of the previous evening's uncharacteristically early snowfall. 

"Suicide Blonde," another of my historical mystery stories, is set in 1962 Las Vegas. Again, the formula.
  1. I did plenty of research on Vegas up to and including this time when Sinatra and his buddies strutted around like they owned the place.
  2. I lived and worked in Vegas for a couple of years and have been back a few times since. I am here to tell you, Vegas is one of those places that, as much as it changes, doesn't really change.
  3. Imagination!
Which gets you:

Because the Hoover boys had started tapping phones left and right since the big fuss at Apalachin a few years back, Howard and I had a system we used when we needed to see each other outside of the normal routine. If one of us suggested we meet at the Four Queens, we met at Caesar's. If the California, then we'd go to the Aladdin, and so on. We also agreed to double our elapsed time till we met, so when I said twenty minutes, that meant I'd be there in ten. We figured he had a permanent tail anyway, but it was fun messing with the feds, regardless.

The Strip flashed and winked and beckoned to me off in the distance down Desert Inn as I drove to Caesar's. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference the combination of black desert night, millions of lights, and all that wattage from Hoover Dam made, because Las Vegas looked so small and ugly and shabby in the day time. She used the night and all those bright lights like an over-age working girl uses a dimly lit cocktail lounge and a heavy coat of makeup to ply her trade.

Howard liked Caesar's. We didn't do any of the regular business there, and Howard liked that, too. Most of all, Howard liked the way the place was always hopping in the months since Sinatra took that angry walk across the street from the Sands and offered to move his act to Caesar's. Howard didn't really care to run elbows with the Chairman and his pack, he just liked talking in places where the type of noise generated by their mere presence could cover our conversations.

You may have noticed that in both examples used above I've interspersed description of the setting with action, historical references and plot points. That's partly stylistic and partly a necessity. I rarely find straight description engaging when I'm reading fiction (in the hands of a master such as Hemingway, Chandler or Macdonald that's another story, but they tend to be the exception), so I try to seamlessly integrate it into the narrative. Also, since I'm attempting to evoke a setting that is lost to the modern reader in anything but received images, I try to get into a few well-placed historical references that help establish the setting as, say, not just Las Vegas, but early 1960s Las Vegas. Doing so in this manner can save a writer of historical mysteries a whole lot of trying to tease out these sorts of details in dialogue (and boy, can that sort of exposition come across as clunky if not handled exactly right!).

So there you have it: an extended rumination on the importance of one of the most overlooked and powerful tools in your writer's toolbox: setting. The stronger you build it, the more your readers will thank you for it, regardless of genre, regardless of time period.

Because setting is both ubiquitous and timeless. Easy to overdo and certainly easy to get wrong. But when you get it right, your story is all the stronger for it!