12 March 2021

The Joy of Monotasking


When my wife and I hang out in the backyard at the end of a day, inevitably our conversation turns to productivity. How can we get more things done without driving ourselves crazy?

Over the years, we’ve devoured a number of books that promise to help their readers crack this nut. Two of our favorites are books that have, in a certain sense, sparked mini-movements. Getting Things Done, by David Allen, inspired legions of developers to create software that embodies Allen’s principles: religiously collect all your to-dos in one place so you can routinely process things in one go; if a task can be done in two minutes or less, freaking do it now and don’t waste time adding it your to-do list!


Deep Work, by Cal Newport, is more of a manifesto. He argues that human beings do their best work when they think deeply about a project, and ruthlessly keep their workplace and time free from distractions. His official definition:
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
The challenge facing any professional today, he says, is fighting to accomplish this deep work. It’s bad enough that we all have to contend with mindless admin or household tasks, but now we’re bombarded with ceaseless emails, the promise of “free promotion” if only we’ll become slaves to social media, and the fatuous lie that is multitasking.

In contrast, Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, famously responds only to emails he thinks are worth it. (We know this from personal experience. Denise and I have tried to lure him into doing an interview. No response.)

He did, however, talk to a reporter for the New York Times. It’s a wonderful chat, archived here. In trying to explain why ceaseless interruptions by social media and email are making us miserable, he says,
“…the culprit here is network switching. Human brains take a long time to switch. If you’re going to put your target of attention on one thing and then switch it to a new target, that takes a while, right?”
And later he adds:
“And then if you wrench your attention back to what you were trying to do, it creates this whole pile-up in your brain, which we experience as a loss of cognitive function. We also feel frustrated. We feel tired. We feel anxious. Because the human brain can’t do it.”
I greatly enjoy Deep Work’s opening anecdote. Newport describes how Carl Jung got some of his major books and academic papers written. Jung built a Spartan, two-story stone tower in Bollingen, in the woods overlooking Lake Zurich, and used it to escape from the obligations of clinical practice, academic lectures, and the temptations of Zurich’s coffeehouse scene. (He later enlarged the house, but you can see the original design here.) He conceived that tower not as a vacation home, but a place to which he escaped to get work done. Alone, away from others, Jung walked in the woods, thought deeply, and managed to get a lot of writing done. The ideas born at Bollingen are today regarded as the strongest counter-arguments to Freudianism. 

If you want to write, you need to think. Sometimes deeply. Even if what you’re writing is playful. I have heard of some people who can write while playing classical music, or jazz, or whatever, in the background. I’ve heard of a mystery writer—was it Stanley Ellin or Robert L. Fish?—who could bang away happily on his typewriter while his kids were inches away, playing in their pool. I believe all these stories, but I can’t say I necessarily admire such skills.

Some of the best advice on writing is sitting on the windowsill facing Denise’s desk. She describes them as a “A list of do’s, a list of don’ts.”


One, as you can see, is Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 Rules of Writing, which I don’t need to go into, because it’s sparked tons of other columns in the mystery world. (One of my favorite follow-up essays half-joked that Leonard probably had forgotten he had a deadline for a piece for the New York Times, so he sat down the day the piece was due, and quickly banged out those 10 rules, machine-gun-reporter-style, never expecting that so many other writers would later obsess about them.)

The other little list Denise treasures is culled from the work of Henry Miller. It’s a work schedule Miller hammered out in the 1930s to help him get one particular book done. I’ve made the image big so you can read his rules, but you can find the complete list at numerous websites, like this one.
 
 
It’s worth thinking about how Miller’s approach might apply to your own work. If you want to get a task or specific project done, you work on it until completion. You resist the urge to do all the other Bright Shiny Ideas that are bouncing around your brain, and which always seem so much more exciting and promising than the piece of crap you’re trying to write right now.

And yes, Miller’s rules may not apply to the one big project you’re working on, nor are they for every writer. This is, after all, Miller’s list. But still, when I read his rules, I feel seen: Work on one thing at a time until finished. Start no more new books. Work joyously. Go out and see friends. (Boy, so I miss that in the long malaise that is 2020-21.) But also: when you cannot create you can still work. Yes, yes, yes! Man, is he right about all of that.

I don’t know if Professor Newport has ever seen this list, but I think he would approve. At the end of Newport’s interview with the Times, he’s asked for book recommendations, and he tosses off a few, observing that by necessity literary work is the epitome of deep work:
“there’s really no way to produce real insight in writing at that level without actually just having the ability to be alone with your own thoughts and observing the world, and just letting that percolate and letting that move, and trying to craft and move and work with it.”
I like that. Also, for some reason, writing this post reminded me of our man Curly, played by Jack Palance, in the 1991 movie, City Slickers. Remember his genius piece of advice?


I recently watched another sort of clip; an interview with one of John Steinbeck’s sons. Thomas Steinbeck said his father would take time every morning to sharpen 24 pencils because he hated the distraction of having to stop his work and sharpen them in the middle of whatever he was working on. I suspect that anyone who’s ever written knows the real reason Steinbeck sharpened those pencils. He was procrastinating, because sometimes writing is terrifying, especially if you have struggled with depression and self-doubt, as Steinbeck did.

Nevertheless, I went out that day and ordered a box of 24 pencils. They’re (relatively) local-to-me pencils, made by the good folks at the Musgrave Pencil Company, in Shelbyville, Tennessee. They’re made of cedar, come in a fragrant cedar box, and smell marvelous when you take the time to sharpen them.

So I guess my advice this week is to take the advice of other writers and thinkers. Stay safe. Work joyously and recklessly. Work on one thing that freaking matters to you right now. Heaven help you if you start a novel or story with the weather! And take the time to smell the pencils.


 
____________________

See you in three weeks!

— Joe

11 March 2021

Notes from the Culture Wars: Heartland Edition


1 - Nomadland

Of course I watched Nomadland on Hulu.  Beautiful, and yes, I've been everywhere in South Dakota that they filmed. My favorite park is the Badlands and always has been. (But, while Wall Drug has the best maple donuts in the country, it is never, ever, ever that empty of people.)

Nomadland

At the same time, I found the movie depressing, and not just because of the economic fact that there are lots of people who cannot earn enough working full time to live on, nor have enough retirement from working full time to live on. I already knew that. There are people who work full time in every major city in America who can't afford an apartment. It is a scandal, a shame, a horror, and something should damn well be done about it.

But you know, the battening of the rich upon the poor has been going on for millenia. What really bothered me was the social isolation.  Everyone wandering around on their own, meeting at the various job sites around the country, gathering at the places out in the desert, etc., where they can live off the grid, but separate mentally, separate emotionally, separate financially.  A fierce independence and determination to not be "beholden" in any way.  A toxic independence, in my book.

Now I'm not talking about the people who love travel, and are in perfect health. And perhaps that was Fran.  But most people would like to settle down and stay put, especially as they get old and creaky.  And the only way you do that is by banding together. That's how the poor have survived the predation of the rich for millenia. That's how I survived 2 years on the streets of L.A. That's how the peasants survived Calvera's constant depredations in The Magnificent Seven.  That's how [almost] everyone lived through The Grapes of Wrath, Cross Creek, and the entire Jim Crow South.

At one point in the movie a few people mentioned that they couldn't actually live on their retirement (me, too).  And the obvious answer is - live together!  Whether you want to call it a boarding house, a commune, or a house sharing, a bunch of people can rent (or even buy) a place and all have their own room, share the facilities, the rent, the chores and the expenses of life a lot easier than one lone widow /widower can do it all themselves.  Dickens is full of boarding houses.  In It's a Wonderful Life, after George has wished himself out of existence, he finds a world where his mother is running a boarding house.  I've lived in 2 communes in my day, one in L.A. and the other in Atlanta.  I still think it's a damn good way to live.  And I know I'd prefer it any day than living in Nomadland.  

2 - State of South Dakota v. AG Jason Ravnsborg

On February 23, Governor Kristi Noem released videos of Ravnsborg's two interviews with law enforcement late Tuesday. I think the highlight that sickened entire state was this:

An investigator asks Ravnsborg how he retrieved his insurance card, which was in the glovebox. Ravnsborg describes leaning in from the driver seat, trying to avoid glass in the passenger seat. He denies seeing a pair of glasses. “They’re Joe’s glasses,” an investigator says. “So that means his face came through your windshield.”  (Argus Leader)

And he repeated - again - “I never saw him.  I never saw him.”  

Anyway, the Governor and practically the entire state is calling on Ravnsborg to resign, and the SD Legislature said they'd impeach him.  But then the legislature decided to postpone any impeachment proceedings until after Ravnsborg goes to court over his 3 misdemeanor charges.  Gov. Noem - who obviously wants Ravnsborg GONE - weighed in today, saying they don't need a special session for it, and don't have to wait.  (Argus Leader)  Obviously Gov. Noem wants him gone - the only speculation is why.  What surprises me is that Ravnsborg hasn't grasped yet that if he is impeached he'll lose his law license.  We'll see what happens.  

3 - South Dakota Legislature, Where Bad Bills Never Die

Every legislature has its quirks. We have a little feature called "smoke out", which allows legislators to force committees to deliver failed bills to the chamber floor if they can secure the support of 1/3 of the chamber’s members.  And of course it's just been used for three of the damnedest bills:

HB 1212, which says, in part, “A person who unlawfully enters or attempts to enter a person’s dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle is presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit an unlawful act involving force or violence.” So much for innocent until proven guilty.  It's also, basically, a "stand your ground" law, because if you think they're doing something unlawful - you can shoot them and claim immunity.  NOW ON THE GOVERNOR'S DESK FOR SIGNATURE!!!

HB 1075, which says “Any federal statute, federal regulation, or executive order of the President of the United States, and any order of a federal or state court is null, void, and unenforceable in this state if the purpose or intent is to impose or enforce, against a resident of this state, an extreme risk protection order, including such an ex parte order, under which the resident, in order to reduce the risk of physical harm to himself, herself, or another, is: (1) Required to surrender any firearms or ammunition in his or her possession; or (2) Prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm or ammunition.”  Because God knows that owning a gun matters more than the health and safety of anyone around the person, even if they are so freaking dangerous the whole town avoids them and a judge has declared them a threat to themselves and others.  This one FAILED, thank God.

HB 1217 which seeks to ban transgender girls from participating in high school sports, and would require student athletes to fill out a form each year, proving biological sex from a birth certificate.  NOT ONLY PASSED BUT SIGNED BY THE GOVERNOR, SO...

4 - Speaking of the Transgender Culture Wars, Here's My Take:

As many of you know, I once worked for Medical Genetics at Emory University, where, among other tests, we did sex tests on newborns. One of my regular jobs was to sort out the chromosomes (from a photo taken on an electron microscope) to determine what the sex of a baby or child was, because the physical genitalia were anything from unclear to deformed to nonexistent. 

IMPORTANT NOTE:  One out of every thousand children is born with "indeterminate genitalia". 
The doctors, nurses, and parents literally could not tell, looking at the baby/child, what sex it was. In the past - and apparently it still happens today - they would simply assign "sex" according to their own preference - and a lot of times they were wrong:

Two examples of wrong assignment are Mokgadi Caster Semenya, a South African runner, who was assigned female at birth (b. 1991), but has either XXY or XY chromosomes, and Foekje Dillema (1926-2007), a Dutch runner, who was assigned female at birth, but after her death was determined to be a "mosaic", or a "46XX/46XY woman."  Both were raised as girls.  So which, my dear culture warriors, should everyone go by - what was/is on her birth certificate, or the genetics?  Or is it her own damn business?

SECOND IMPORTANT NOTE:  Conservatives (?) keep trying to say that sex chromosome abnormalities are very rare.  WRONG.  Actually, sex chromosome abnormalities are the most common there are because they are rarely lethal (unlike many other chromosomal abnormalities).  And the variations of genetic results can range from the normal XX or XY to XXX, XYY, XXY, as well as mosaics, and many many more. Nature is not "always right" or "always perfect".

For example: "Klinefelter syndrome has been reported to be between 1 in 500 and 1 in 1000 male births." (That's XXY or XXXY or a mosaic.) "In severe cases, they have relatively high-pitched voices, asexual to feminine body contours as well as breast enlargement, and comparatively little facial and body hair. They are sterile or nearly so, and their testes and prostate gland are small. As a result, they produce relatively small amounts of testosterone. The feminizing effects of this hormonal imbalance can be significantly diminished if Klinefelter syndrome boys are regularly given testosterone from the age of puberty on." These are very apt to be confused as girls at birth, unless sex tested, which may or may not happen. And they may very well "feel" that they are girls.  And without a lot of testosterone, they will be girls.  (Palomar Article)

And then there's the Guevedoces, a classic study which I read for the first time back on the job at Emory, about a community in the Dominican Republic, where some males are born looking like girls, are raised as girls, and only grow penises at puberty, at which time they become male.  Yes, you read that right.

"When you are conceived you normally have a pair of X chromosomes if you are to become a girl and a set of XY chromosomes if you are destined to be male. For the first weeks of life in womb you are neither, though in both sexes nipples start to grow.
Then, around eight weeks after conception, the sex hormones kick in. If you're genetically male the Y chromosome instructs your gonads to become testicles and sends testosterone to a structure called the tubercle, where it is converted into a more potent hormone called dihydro-testosterone This in turn transforms the tubercle into a penis. If you're female and you don't make dihydro-testosterone then your tubercle becomes a clitoris.
When Imperato-McGinley investigated the Guevedoces she discovered the reason they don't have male genitalia when they are born is because they are deficient in an enzyme called 5-alpha-reductase, which normally converts testosterone into dihydro-testosterone.
This deficiency seems to be a genetic condition, quite common in this part of the Dominican Republic, but vanishingly rare elsewhere. So the boys, despite having an XY chromosome, appear female when they are born. At puberty, like other boys, they get a second surge of testosterone. This time the body does respond and they sprout muscles, testes and a penis."
(BBC

BTW - it doesn't just happen in the Dominican Republic; it's also been found in Papua New Guinea and Turkey.  And probably elsewhere, just not reported.  Or believed.  



10 March 2021

The Language of Thieves




My pal Carolyn first noticed this story in Psyche.  It’s popped up in some other places, and eventually made it into CrimeReads, so it hasn’t been flying under the radar.

Martin Puchner is a linguist who teaches at Harvard, and his book The Language of Thieves is a about a slang going back to the Middle Ages, called Rotwelsch.  It borrows from Yiddish and Romany, but it mostly seems to be German in origin.  It’s a language of the road, of tinkers and other itinerants, people who were mistrusted by folk who lived in housen: Gypsies and Jews, hoboes and fugitives.

The secrets of Rotwelsch make for a fascinating history, but there’s another thread, which is the determined effort to stamp it out.  The first part is that it’s regarded as a criminal argot, and the second is that it’s tainted with Jewishness.  You won’t be surprised that the Nazis have a cameo.  The point is that clannishness (and hiding in plain view) is protective coloration.

Here are the links.  (I bought the book.)

https://psyche.co/ideas/how-a-secret-european-language-made-a-rabbit-and-survived

https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/brexit-news/the-story-of-rotwelsch-6890538

https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/12/professor-shares-his-familys-secret-language/

https://crimereads.com/on-rotwelsch-the-central-european-language-of-beggars-travelers-and-thieves/

 

09 March 2021

Saying yes when you want to say NO!


I'm a person who has trouble saying no, at least in professional situations. In private, no problem:

"Want to come visit?" No! Why would I do that? I love being home.

"Want to try this meal made of foods you've never heard of before?" No! Perhaps you've mistaken me for an adventurous person.

"Want to go to a club?" (This was back in my twenties.) Oh God, do I have to? I mean, I know I should. I'm not meeting single men sitting at home with a book, but I like sitting at home with a book. So ... no. (Actually, back then the answer probably would have been "sure," in a frak-why-did-I-answer-the-phone tone. Then, as the minutes would tick closer and closer to the time to head out, my introverted side would say, "What the heck were you thinking? You're not going anywhere." And I'd cancel.)

But for professional matters, no is much harder for me. When you just start out as an author, you'd do anything to be invited to be on a panel or to edit an anthology or write a story for one, or any number of things like that. So whenever opportunities come, I feel like I have to jump at every one. You never know when the offers will stop coming. 

But time is finite. So is energy. Often something has to give. Sometimes you just have to say no. 

I have said yes to too many things lately, so I've started saying no (and feeling really bad about it). The thing I'm saying no to today is writing this blog. I don't mean I'm leaving SleuthSayers. I'm talking about today's entry. It was going to be about coincidences, but I just don't have the time it would take to craft the kind of column I would want it to be. The mere thought of trying to fit it into my schedule is exhausting. That blog is going to have to wait for another day.

For those of you out there struggling with the feeling that you have to say yes to everything, I hear you. The struggle is real. It's okay, though, to say no at times, to put yourself, your sanity, your need for sleep and less stress, first. 

So there is no blog on coincidences today. Instead there's emotional support for those who need it. If you want to say no, just do it. And if you need backup, tell 'em: Barb said it's okay. 

Because it is.

08 March 2021

Revisiting Early Work


Does a novel I wrote at age 28 count as juvenilia? It certainly does by the definition in Collins English Dictionary: "works of...literature...produced in youth...before the ...author...has formed a mature style."

I recently dug out the unpublished manuscript of my first mystery novel, A Friendly Glass of Poison, which I started writing more than fifty years ago, to mine it for material for a short story. It had been gathering dust on a shelf since I withdrew it from a respected agent who failed to sell it in three years of trying.

I finished Poison and wrote two more mysteries in the early 1970s, all marketed unsuccessfully by the same agent, still well known today. Here are the Edgar Best Novel nominees from 1970 to 1974 as examples of good mysteries at that time.

1970
• Dick Francis, Forfeit
• Chester Himes, Blind Man with a Pistol
• Shaun Herron, Miro
• Peter Dickinson, The Old English Peep Show
• Emma Lathen, When in Greece
• Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Where the Dark Streets Go
1971
• Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman
• Pat Stadley, Autumn of a Hunter
• Margaret Millar, Beyond this Point Are Monsters
• Patricia Moyes, Many Deadly Returns
• Donald E. Westlake, The Hot Rock
• Shaun Herron, The Hound and the Fox and the Harper
1972
• Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal
• P. D. James, Shroud for a Nightingale
• G. F. Newman, Sir, You Bastard
• Tony Hillerman, The Fly on the Wall
• Arthur Wise, Who Killed Enoch Powell?
1973
• Warren Kiefer, The Lingala Code
• Martin Cruz Smith, Canto for a Gypsy
• John Ball, Five Pieces of Jade
• Hugh C. Rae, The Shooting Gallery
• Ngaio Marsh, Tied Up in Tinsel
1974
• Tony Hillerman, Dance Hall of the Dead
• Francis Clifford, Amigo, Amigo
• P. D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
• Jean Stubbs, Dear Laura
• Victor Canning, The Rainbird Pattern

I was reading Moyes and Marsh. I eventually read Dick Francis, Emma Lathen, Sjöwall & Wahlöö, Millar, Westlake, and Ball, and Peter Dickinson and PD James became great favorites. But when I wrote my novels, I hadn't yet met most of these authors. I had recently read my way through all of Agatha Christie, and I structured my mysteries as Christie did many of hers: by beginning with a passage from the POV of each of the characters who would become murderer, victim, and suspects before proceeding to the murder. I had read Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey, and Margery Allingham. But how do you model yourself on the greats when you don't yet have a voice?

The novel, as I read it over at age 76, is embarrassingly clichéd and overwritten. The parts I thought were funny are painfully "humorous"--a word I don't mean as a compliment. It's quaintly typed in Courier with the italicized words (many, as the novel was set in France) underlined and page numbers added by hand. I did it on an old Royal manual typewriter, starting a new sheet each time I made a revision and making carbon copies on onionskin. I feel compassion for my younger self, who always wanted to be a writer. And I'm so glad that novel never got published!

Many years later, I was invited to submit a short story to a proposed anthology on the theme of bars, pubs, and taverns. All who know me know that my contemporary fiction is all about recovery from alcoholism. Many also know that I've been an alcoholism treatment professional for the past thirty-five years. That makes this theme a challenge.

My protagonist in the Bruce Kohler Mysteries is a recovering alcoholic. Readers met him in detox on the Bowery on Christmas Day in the first novel, Death Will Get You Sober. Four novels, a novella, and eight short stories later, he hasn't relapsed, and he never will. He has better things to do than hang out in bars or spend his time thinking about booze. A Bruce story was not the solution.

Then I remembered A Friendly Glass of Poison. Why not go back to an era when not only didn't anybody know about alcoholism (except a few drunks reading the Big Book in a few obscure church basements with complete anonymity), but I knew nothing about alcoholism? Why not set a story in my, ahem, mature voice in a medieval village in the South of France in 1962, in a bar called the Chat Gris that I'd already invented, and let everybody there get drunk and have a jolly good time--until someone gets poisoned? I found I could write such a story without a single pang of conscience. I called it "A Friendly Glass."

I hope the story works. I hope the structure will satisfy modern editors. I hope the redesigned motives are plausible to modern readers, though they still reflect the culture and values of the early 1960s. I had great fun writing it. I learned to be profoundly grateful that my first novel was published not when I was in my twenties and desperately wanted it, but in my sixties, when I was ready. I am even more grateful that since that first novel, and as I have gone on to write more novels and dozens of short stories, my craft and voice continue to mature.

07 March 2021

Murder Books, Blogs, Bullets, Buffett


The Great Filling Station Holdup anthology colourful cover

You’ve been hearing about Josh Pachter’s Jimmy Buffett anthology, The Great Filling Station Holdup, released mere days ago. SleuthSayers is represented by three of your favorites– John Floyd, Michael Bracken, and Leigh Lundin. But one blog scored four crime writers in the anthology’s lineup, Murder-Books.com . Since we’re modest to the extreme (ahem), we invited Murder-Books to introduce themselves within our hallowed pages.

Of their stories, I confess a favorite, M.E. Browning’s ‘Einstein Was a Surfer’. Its vengeance is proportional and appropriate. James Lincoln Warren pointed out I tend to write about justice. That and Micki’s lateral, trail-along-with-me storytelling technique no doubt color why I particularly enjoy her story. It’s also why she leads off today’s perp walk.

(Non-geeksters: In her story, Browning’s casual reference to a “man in the middle” might sound contrived, but MiM is an actual network hacking technique. The lady knoweth something whereof she speaks.)

— Leigh

And now, Murder-Books

The Music Fits the Crime

Music has always played an important role in crime fiction — both in the lives of authors and the characters they create. Hieronymus Bosch, the eponymous detective of the Harry Bosch novels by Michael Connelly, enjoys jazz. Legendary blues guitarist and singer Robert “RL” Johnson inspired both author Walter Mosley and his character Soupspoon Wise in the novel RL’s Dream. Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes—a character with a penchant for German operas and a facility for playing the violin (a Stradivarius acquired at a pawnshop, no less). Alexia Gordon built an entire series around her classical musician protagonist in her Gethsemane Brown Mysteries. The list goes on.

The nexus between crime fiction and music isn’t surprising. Music, much like story, is built on a foundation of conflict. The dissonance and consonance of music is akin to the disruption and resolution of story. One never knows exactly when inspiration will strike or where it will take you.

M.E. Browning Einstein Was a Surfer [ music | lyrics ]
M.E. Browning

I was a Jimmy Buffett fan long before I lived in the Florida Keys. When I learned that Josh Pachter, author and editor extraordinaire, was rounding up a group of crime writers to submit stories to an anthology inspired by the songs of Jimmy Buffett, I knew I wanted to be included.

Each story in the anthology shares a title with one of Jimmy Buffett’s original songs and each song had to come from a different one of his seventeen albums. My first and second choices had already been claimed by two of my cohorts. So, I did what any self-respecting Parrothead would do. I flipped on Radio Margaritaville.

The first song that played on the radio, I heard in its entirety. The opening stanza refers to a photograph of Albert Einstein standing on the beach in Santa Barbara staring across the waves. I knew immediately this was the song for my story. Not only was I familiar with the photograph, but I’d spent fourteen of my twenty-two-year law enforcement career as a cop patrolling the streets of Santa Barbara. By the time Jimmy sang about the Channel Islands where I used to scuba dive, my mind was racing. When he mentioned surfing, well, I was all in. “Einstein Was A Surfer” comes from the 2013 album, Songs from St. Somewhere and is the song that inspired my short story of the same title. The somewhere is Santa Barbara, the song comes from the sea, and Einstein is a surfer. The rest? I hope you’ll read for yourself.

Lissa Marie Redmond If I Could Just Get It On Paper [ music | lyrics ]
Lissa Marie Redmond

I chose the song ‘If I could just get it on paper’ because it was vague and open to so many possibilities. Who hasn’t had an unexpected, wonderful night and wanted to remember every second of it?

I got the email about the anthology on Super Bowl weekend and a group of us had rented a house. Most of the guys were more worried about their football pools than who won the game and that got me to thinking. And we all know what happens when crime writers get to thinking.

The whole way home from the rental house my husband and I listened to music and I threw ideas at him. I know that out of every short story I’ve ever written, this one was the most fun to write. Jimmy Buffett is more than a musician. He’s a storyteller. And his stories inspire other stories. I can’t wait to read what his music inspired in all the other authors in this book.

Isabella Maldonado Smart Woman (in a Real Short Skirt) [ music | lyrics ]
Isabella Maldonado

I never use music to facilitate my writing because I’m too easily distracted by the lyrics, or even the melody if there are no lyrics. Each piece tells a story that sometimes conflicts with the one I’m trying to build. I do, however, listen to white noise while I write. Being at home with my family means loud noises and other distractions that I must tune out!

Regarding the anthology, I chose “Smart Woman (In a Real Short Skirt)” from the 1988 album, Hot Water. Buffett’s lyrics describe a man in search of his ideal woman: one possessed of both beauty and brains.

I decided to create a story about a man named Donovan Snell, a weapons smuggler based in Miami who laments that he cannot use a margarita shaker to blend his gorgeous girlfriend with his brainy female accountant to create the perfect woman. Snell’s hubris–and his contempt for the law–ultimately land him in very Hot Water indeed!

Bruce Robert Coffin Incommunicado [ music | lyrics ]
Bruce Robert Coffin

I chose the Jimmy Buffett song “Incommunicado” as the impetus for my short story of the same name largely because I fell in love with the references to mystery author John D. MacDonald, his famed character Travis McGee, and Cedar Key. Also mentioned in the lyrics is the Duke, John Wayne. How could I have chosen anything else?

While I do listen to music while writing, generally I stick to instrumental artists like Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, or the occasional symphony soundtrack. I’ve even been known to put Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Riviera Paradise on repeat. Basically, anything melodic, sans lyrics, works for me.

A Finny Thing Happened on the Way to the Bookstore

The Great Filling Station Holdup contains fiction by sixteen highly regarded mystery authors edited by Josh Pachter. Released on 22 February, the anthology represents the literary world's tribute to the musician's evolution.

If you love Jimmy’s music or crime fiction or both, you’ll love The Great Filling Station Holdup. Mix yourself a boat drink, ask Google Home to put on a buffet of Buffett tunes, kick back, and enjoy!

06 March 2021

Cover Me--I'm Going In



As if we haven't seen enough blog posts lately about how to sell our fiction . . .

My topic today is cover letters. It came to mind after a Zoom session I attended recently about marketing short stories. We discussed everything from publications to guidelines to editors to contracts, but when we got to the Q&A part, a surprising number of questions were about cover letters. I guess that makes sense: these letters are our first contact with someone who might actually publish what we've written.

Bear with me, here. I realize you probably know most of this already. But if you don't, or if--like me--you sometimes need reminding, here are some essentials about cover letters for short-story submissions.

The first thing to remember: they're not query letters. A query letter is generally sent to (1) a publisher or agent of novels or nonfiction books or (2) an editor of articles, and its purpose is to ask those gatekeepers to allow you to submit something to them for consideration. A cover letter is for short fiction, not nonfiction, and it doesn't ask the editor if he/she wants to see the finished product; it accompanies the finished product, and serves as an introduction.


Having said that, here are some do's and don'ts:


1. Always send a cover letter unless guidelines tell you not to. Think of it as a courtesy. I've submitted a lot of short stories, and I can recall only a handful that were not accompanied by a cover letter.

2. Keep it short. Usually several brief paragraphs, and certainly less than a page.

3. If it's snailmailed, use a single-spaced, business-letter format.

4. If it's emailed, use your cover letter as the body of the message. I single-space mine, with no indentions, one space between paragraphs, and a less-formal comma instead of a colon after the salutation. If you're using an online submission system, type or copy your cover letter into the submission box at the publication's website. 

5. Use the editor's name--"Dear Ms. Martin"--and not just "Dear Editor." If you don't know the name, you can usually find it under "Masthead" or "Staff" or "About Us" at the publication's site.

6. Use Mr. or Ms. before the editor's last name. If you're not certain of the gender, use the full name with no Mr. or Ms. ("Dear Lee Bennett," "Dear Pat Cooper," "Dear Chris Anderson," "Dear J.T. Brown.")

7. Don't address the editor by only her first name until she has already addressed you by your first name in correspondence OR has signed correspondence to you using only her first name. After that, feel free to use first names only. The publishing business is pretty laid-back in this regard.

8. Mention any previous contact you might've had with the editor at a conference or elsewhere, especially if she suggested you send her a manuscript.

9. Include at least two paragraphs in your letter. I think the first should say "Please consider the attached story, 'Story Name,'" or "I have attached the short story 'Story Name' for your consideration," or words to that effect, followed by something like "I hope you'll want to use it in a future issue." The second paragraph is usually a short bio listing several writing credits and awards. If you don't yet have publication credits, mention instead any kind of writing experience you do have. If you include a third paragraph, just say something like "Thank you for your time."

10. Customize your bio to fit the publication you're submitting to. For example, Asimov's probably wouldn't care that you've been published in Woman's World, and literary magazines might not be impressed with genre credits of any kind. If I send something to a lit journal, I mention previous publication in places like Writer's DigestThe Lyric, and Pleiades; if I send to mystery magazines I mention AHMM, EQMM, Strand, etc.

11. Be honest in your bio, but give it the best possible spin. If the only things you've published are two short poems in obscure magazines and a tiny essay in The Paris Review, your bio should probably say, "My previous work has appeared in several publications, including The Paris Review." Truthful without being confession-booth revealing. 

12. Don't try to be cute or witty in your cover letter, or use funky fonts.

13. If submitting via snailmail, don't use fancy stationery. In fact, regular white copy-paper is fine.

14. Don't include a synopsis of your story, or say anything at all about the story or its plot, unless instructed to in the guidelines.

15. Don't mention anyplace else that might've rejected your story, or anything anyone else has said about it (good or bad). 

16. If you don't yet have any writing credits, don't point it out. Instead say something briefly in your bio about your job or your location. Before I'd published any stories, I said something like "I'm a former Air Force captain, I live in Mississippi, and I work for IBM." Bios, at any stage of your career, shouldn't be too wordy.

17. Don't mention how thrilled you would be to see your work in print.

18. Don't ask for comments, criticism, etc.

19. Don't say anything not relevant to your submission. The editor won't care how many cats you have, or that you belong to a quilting group, or that you enjoy hiking in the mountains. (Unless that's an integral part of the story you're submitting.)

20. Don't say anything about rights unless your story's a reprint. If it is a reprint, include in the first paragraph the date of previous publication and the publication's name and issue. ("This story previously appeared in the March/April 2001 issue of AHMM.") The only exception to that is if I'm trying to sell a story that I've already had published more than once. In that case I mention only its first publication and not any subsequent publications. ("This story originally appeared in the March/April 2001 issue of AHMM.")


NOTE 1: These "rules" are not set in stone. I'm well aware that there are other ways to get the job done. But I know this works.

NOTE 2: Something I used to always include in the third paragraph of my cover letters (it's laughable, now): "I've enclosed an SASE for your reply. If my story doesn't interest you, there's no need to return the manuscript itself." Let's hear it for electronic submissions.



In closing:


Dear SleuthSayers Reader,

Please consider the above blog post, "Cover Me--I'm Going In." A modified version appeared in the May 1999 issue of Byline Magazine. I hope you can use its information in your future submissions.

Current bio: John M. Floyd is the author of mostly short stories and SleuthSayers columns. His greatest recent accomplishment is receiving his second Covid vaccination.

Thank you for your time.

Best regards,

John Floyd 

www.johnmfloyd.com




05 March 2021

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a personal inspiration


Freshman year at Loyola University in 1969, I took Photography 101 from a prof who was into Beat Generation writers (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Carr, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and others). For our final grade he asked us to do a photo essay of a poem. Any poem. He pointed to the books in his office and told us to look through them. As other students picked up Ginsberg and Patchen and Para and Rexworth, I found the collection A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, thumbed through it and the title of poem #22 on page 37 stopped me – Johnny Nolan has a patch on his ass.


I was juiced and put together a dynamite photo essay, illustrating Ferlinghetti's images:

  • "kids chase him" – easy, I went to City Park and photographed kids running after each other.
  • "screendoor summers" – a photo of an open screen door with the sun in the sky above.
  • "through the back streets" – illustrated by a photo of Antoine Alley at night (Antoine Alley runs along the downtown side of Saint Louis Cathedral).
  • "a man laments upon a violin" – visited several jazz halls until I found a man playing a violin.
  • "a doorstep baby cries" – wasn't hard, we had a few babies in the family.
  • "a ball bounced down stairs" – I used a tennis ball and a tall staircase at Loyola's Marquette Hall.

The hardest step was how to illustrate Johnny Nolan with a patch on his ass. Never found Johnny Nolan or a lookalike but I found pair of blue jeans with a patch on the butt at a thrift store and hung them from an old clothes line.

Man, I was proud of my essay. Nice, sharp black-and-white images.

Bought a copy of A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND and other books by Ferlinghetti and have read them so many times over the years. His poems inspired me, still do. The economy of words, the precise images.

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged our city, I lost most of my photos and negatives, including my photo essay of Johnny Nolan has a patch on his ass.

Recently, I read the poem to someone who have never read it and got teary eyed. Comes from being an old man. Comes from realizing how many things you loose in life.

"Johnn Nolan has a patch on his ass

kids chase him

thru screendoor summers ..."

Lawrence Ferlinghetti died on February, 22, 2021. He was 101 years old.

www.oneildenoux.com

04 March 2021

Rum Rows & Rum Runners


There were no floodlights on the seaward side of the ship. Red cut his motor to half of nothing and curved in under the overhang of the stern, sidled up to the greasy plates as coyly as a clubman in a hotel lobby.

Double iron doors loomed high over us, forward a little from the slimy links of a chain cable. The speedboat scuffed the Montecito's ancient plates and the sea water slapped loosely at the bottom of the speedboat under our feet. The shadow of the big ex-cop rose over me. A coiled rope flicked against the dark, caught on something, and fell back into the boat. Red pulled it tight, made a turn around something on the engine cowling.

He said softly: "She rides as high as a steeplechaser. We gotta climb them plates."

I took the wheel and held the nose of the speedboat against the slippery hull, and Red reached for an iron ladder flat to the side of the ship, hauled himself up into the darkness, grunting, his big body braced at right angles, his sneakers slipping on the wet metal rungs.

After a while, something creaked up above and feeble yellow light trickled out into the foggy air. The outline of a heavy door showed, and Red's crouched head against the light.

I went up the ladder after him. It was hard work. It landed me panting in a sour, littered hold full of cases and barrels.Rats skittered out of sight in the dark corners. The big man put his lips to my ear: "From here we got an easy way to the boiler-room catwalk. They'll have steam up in one auxiliary, for hot water and the generators. That means one guy. I'll handle him. The crew doubles in brass upstairs. From the boiler room I'll show you a ventilator with no grating on it. Goes to the boat deck. Then it's all yours."

"You must have relatives on board," I said.

"Never you mind. A guy gets to know things when he's on the beach. Maybe I'm close to a bunch that's set to knock the tub over. Will you come back fast?"

                                                                           — Raymond Chandler, "The Man Who Liked Dogs"

As with so many things, when framing this scene of his early detective Carmady sneaking aboard a "gambling boat" anchored out in Santa Monica Bay, Raymond Chandler was writing from life. There were a number of such "gambling boats" that sat anchored in international waters, off the coast of Southern California during the 1930s.

I was reminded of both this story and its basis in fact earlier this week, when I heard the sad news that fellow Sleuthsayer, the great Paul D. Marks had passed away. In addition to being one hell of a writer, Paul was quite the student of history, including a stated obsession with Southern California's historic gambling boats. And a few months back, he wrote one of his best Sleuthsayers posts about them.

So, in honor of Paul, in today's post I'm going to riff on his wonderful piece about the gambling boats by harkening back even further—to the 1920s—and a similar enterprise of questionable legality: Prohibition-era rum runners, and the so-called "Rum Row."

Background

In 1919 the U.S. Congress passed the Volstead Act, ratifying and enforcing the 18th amendment to the Constitution, and for the next fourteen years the production, importation and distribution of alcoholic beverages was against the law. Not until the act's repeal in 1933 would Americans be able to buy a drink legally again.

Of course, this meant big money was out there for the taking, as long as you didn't have any qualms about breaking the law. "Prohibition," as it quickly became known, helped bankroll a massive expansion of organized crime syndicates in both the United States and a host of other countries.

Why?

Simple. Turns out most Americans liked to have a drink every now and then. And since it wasn't illegal to drink or to possess alcohol you had "bought before Prohibition," flouting the Volstead Act turned into something of a national pastime.

Americans taking the 18th Amendment about as seriously as you'd expect them to.

And with the Mafia and a host of other criminal gangs locking down the terrestrial trade in illicit hootch, that left sea-borne smuggling. And so-called "rum rows."

Rum Rows

A "rum row" was, quite simply, a line of ships anchored outside of U.S. territorial waters, holds full of liquor, waiting to do business with smugglers who would come out in smaller, faster boats, take on cargo, and run it in to shore. Rum rows sprung up almost overnight, on both coasts, and especially in the Caribbean. But for the purposes of this post, we'll focus on the Canadian liquor runs down the West Coast generally, and on the "Queen of Rum Row," a former timber schooner called the Malahat.

The Malahat

We have remarkable documentation of the Malahat's operations, both because the son of one of its captains wrote a book about his father's exploits, and because the engineer on one of the small boats buying booze from rum row ships including the Malahat recorded "home movies" of a number of his boat's runs on an early Kodak camera. AND one of HIS descendants (a grandson) digitized and uploaded whole portions of them to YouTube. Take a look. Fascinating! According to the grandson, his grandfather "had many, many great stories to tell us as kids of his colourful life rum running and other adventures on the coast."

According to author Jim Stone in My Dad, the Rum Runner, ships like the Malahat didn't have to be fast, and they didn't have much to fear from the likes of the Coast Guard. Unless there was criminal activity the Coast Guard left the rum rows alone in most of the spots where they congregated along the West Coast (The Farallon Islands, fifty miles off the Golden Gate, were supposedly a popular spot for the rum row ships to set up shop for months at a time). The speedboats, trawlers and other smaller craft used by local smugglers to load up at rum row were their preferred targets.

On a typical run south from her homeport in Vancouver, the Malahat would carry “200 cases of well-known brands of scotch whiskey, gin, champagne, and liqueurs, followed by 1,000 cases of Old Colonel Rye and Corn Hollow Bourbon.” It could often take months for her owners to sell off all of their stock and return to Canada for another load.

And they made money like they were printing it in their mom's basement.

And on that (bank) note, that's all for this go-round. More on rum rows and rum runners next time.

And lastly, God bless you, Paul Marks.

03 March 2021

Digging Shirley Jackson


 


During the last year I have developed the habit of reading humor at bedtime.  I find this better than  perusing the latest volume in The Man Who Chopped Off People's Heads For Brunch series, which  tends to give me nightmares.

I just finished reading a book by Shirley Jackson, who handed out plenty of nightmares with her novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, not to mention her classic story "The Lottery."  (Although, as I always say when bringing up this author, I prefer her "The Possibility of Evil.")

Raising Demons (1957), in spite of its title, is not horror.  It is domestic humor, describing the joys and miseries of taking care of a home and raising kids.  See Jean Kerr, Erma Bombeck, etc.  (Two obvious questions: Are there any books like this written by men?  And are any women still writing them?)

I finished the book but I didn't think it was wonderful. (I have heard that her previous memoir, Life Among The Savages, is better.)  I found the parts about the children cloying, but  there were occasional moments of brilliance.  Take this scene at a party given by some  of the students at the girls college where the husband of the nameless narrator is a professor.  A student addresses her:

"Listen, when you were young - I mean before you kind of settled down and all, when you were -- well, younger, that is - did you ever figure you'd end up like this?"  She waved a hand vaguely at the student living room, my "nice" black dress, and my glass of ginger ale.  "Like this?" she said.

"Certainly," I said.  "My only desire was to be a faculty wife. I used to sit at my casement window, half embroidering, half dreaming, and long for Professor Right."

"I suppose," she said, "that you are better off than you would have been.  Not married at all or anything."

"I was a penniless governess in a big house," I said.  "I was ready to take anything that moved...."

"And he's lucky too, of course.  So many men who marry young silly women find themselves always going to parties and things for their wives' sake.  An older woman--"

"He was only a boy," I said.  "How well I remember his eager, youthful charm; 'Lad," I used to say, fondly touching his wonton curls, 'lad, youth calls to youth, and what you need--"

""He's still terribly boyish, don't you think?"

And so on.  There's a lot going on there, and it all cracks me up.

But the reason I am bringing Ms. Jackson up at all is that at one point in the book her oldest child, a boy of perhaps twelve, starts speaking in slang, and gets fined by his father for doing so.  Here are examples of the slang:

Crazy mixed up daddy

Dig her

Dig me

Real cool

Real gone

Tipped (meaning crazy)

Later in the book the father has to fine himself for using the word "cool."  Slang does slip in, doesn't it?   Although the term never appears in the book I would call those examples of beatnik slang.


This is of particular interest to me because of something I'm working on.  Back in 2012 I won the Black Orchid Novella Award for "The Red Envelope," which was set in 1958 and starred a beat poet named Delgardo.  Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine recently purchased the sequel, "Please Pass The Loot."  I am presently editing the third in the series.

Now, Delgardo is definitely beat.  Don't call him a beatnik.  But the language overlaps.  I have found a fascinating glossary of beatnik slang from the time period, some of it so bizarre that I imagine that either the informant or the compiler was pulling our legs.  Here are some definitions that are "wild" and others that are just "graveyard."

Bread: Money

Far out: Weird, exciting

Gooney Roost: Library

Handcuffs: Parents

Mickey Mouse: Watch

Shades: Sunglasses

Squatchel: Lovemaking

Whistleburg: Corner where many girls pass by

You get the idea.  The question for me is: How much slang can I put in Delgardo's mouth to make him sound authentic without making him sound like an idiot?  Because as our own John Floyd noted: "An overdose of dialect can kill your story deader than Billy Bob Shakespeare."

Mostly I have settled for letting Delgardo end sentences with "man," and the occasional "cool" or "groovy."

Unfortunately, Shirley Jackson is not around to help me.


02 March 2021

Entering Modern Publishing with Madame Selina



I entered the modern age of publishing this week when I pushed the publish button and committed ten Madame Selina short mystery stories and her only novella to Amazon Kindle. It was not a terribly difficult process but it would have been easier if I had not decided to simultaneously make an ebook on Apple's Pages, lured by the thought that the Pages file could be easily converted to an ePub file. Not exactly easy was my experience, although I did wind up making the ebook cover for Kindle on Pages.

That was an interesting experience, too. A number of years ago, I sketched Madame Selina, New York City's premier spirit medium in the years after the Civil War. While the many fine illustrators who depicted her have stressed youth or eccentricity – flying hair being a favorite device –  I drew her as she usually saw herself, as Mrs. Hiram Bingham, respectable widow and business woman. However, even someone as poor at promotion as I am realized that this image would be a selling point. 

I tried making her younger and Nip a tad weirder but that didn't suit either, although he does frequently get to carry her baggage. Finally, thanks to my new iPad and Procreate, a fine paint program, I reworked the original sketch, making Madame younger, darker, and more exotic and giving her an elaborate hat and an inky backdrop. I hope she'll do!


Madame Selina is a favorite character of mine, although she was not the focus of the original story which is narrated by Nip Thompkins, formerly resident in upstate New York orphanage. He is sprung from this sad and unhealthy institution when she comes looking for a likely boy, small, smart, and agile. Nip, underfed but otherwise healthy, is declared suitable. Whisked away to the city, he assists in creating Madame's theatrical illusions and narrates what became her many adventures.

It is popular now to have unreliable narrators. I've tried that and it can be fun, but in writing the Madame Selina stories I realized that my real preference is for the innocent eye that, lacking adult preconceptions, appreciates wonders and spots pretension. Nip, clever, practical, and definitely lacking any mystical bent, proved to be ideal for describing Madame, who, as Nip tells us, is 'willing to lie in small things' such as special effects to enhance a seance, but who absolutely and completely believes in Aurelius, late emperor of the Romans, her spirit contact in the other world.

All this was not pure invention on my part. Victoria Woodhull, pioneering feminist, candidate for president, advocate of both free love and votes for women, conducted conversations with Demosthenes, the great orator of Ancient Greece, and, like Madame Selina, advised the bulls and bears of Wall Street. In Woodhull's case, the clientele included Commodore Vanderbilt. Apparently gentlemen who gamble are not averse to spiritual guidance.

The period immediately after the Civil War with its staggering death toll, ghastly injuries, and traumas of all sorts for troops and civilians alike, was the great era of spiritualism and of mediums, as the desperate bereaved sought to know their loved ones' fates. That was the setting for "Madame Selina" and there she would have stayed if Rob Lopresti had not suggested she would make a good series character.

I was skeptical – or maybe Nip was – but I came around to the idea and made use of many years of teaching romantic and Victorian literature to find plots for Madame in inheritance tangles and vulnerable child heirs, the politics of the Irish immigration, the difficulties of Freedmen post war, the new Italian arrivals, and the suffrage movement. 

Madame proved fit for all until changing times and the vulgarity and avarice of the high Gilded Age weakened the public's appetite for spirit communication and led to the final entry in my little book, " A Fine Nest of Rascals", where Nip, grownup and a cub reporter on a paper aiming "not to instruct but to startle," proves to have learned a lot about investigations from assisting Madame Selina. 


Madame Selina, The Complete Stories is available as an ebook on Amazon.


01 March 2021

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes


by Steve Liskow

Between the ages of about six and fifteen, I spent my Saturday afternoons at the Court Street Theater, five blocks from my house. I watched at least 1000 films. Back then, network prime time featured films both Saturday and Sunday nights, and I saw a lot of them, too.

I discovered fairly early that I seldom liked the film version of a book as much as I liked the book. Later, I became heavily involved in live theater. Over the course of 30 years, I acted, directed, produced, designed, and helped build over 100 productions throughout central Connecticut. On those rare occasions when someone tried to turn a novel into a play, that tended to be a bad idea, too. 

Why?

Because the three art forms rely on different elements. Stories use words, which create images and emotions in the reader's mind and often rely on their style to make their point. Plays use movement or behavior, often in the context of time and space (the stage). Films function through images.

The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels, and I've seen five or six film adaptations, none of which satisfied me. Fitzerald's use of biased narrator Nick Carroway doesn't translate well to the screen. I know there is a stage version of the novel, a musical, no less, and I have avoided it. That concise little book, barely more than a novelette, doesn't need heavy-handed jazz production numbers to convey its ideas. There's also an opera, but let's pretend I didn't mention it.

A story with a distinctive or idiosyncratic style doesn't translate to film or the stage (the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a glaring exception, and I loathe the play). I've seen several bad attempts to put Wuthering Heights on film (The famous Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon version clearly does not understand the book). Both Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird have successful film versions, probably because even though they are also 1st-person POV, the characters relate events that happen outside themselves. Horton Foote took liberties with Mockingbird, but they relied on words AND IMAGES. When I showed the video in class, I knew at least one student would tear up when Gregory Peck walked out of the courtoom and a black spectator told Scout, "Miss Jean Louise, rise. Your father is passing."


If that didn't get them, Scout's greeting Robert Duval in his film debut as the shattered Boo Radley always did. "Hey, Boo." Cue the tears. Both  powerful IMAGES supported by words.


When I advised the high school yearbook for several years, I trained myself to be a decent (never more than that) photographer. You can learn composition and cropping. I could never write a screenplay because I'm not visual enough to tell a story through what the audience SEES. I never designed sets back in my theater days because I can't visualize space. Since plays use movement ("Blocking") to help tell the story, you need to translate ideas into motion. By directing 20 plays in as many years, I got better because I figured out how to choreograph movement, but it was a huge weakness in my early work. I learned to move people with the rhythm of the lines and scene, often on a beat change or to emphazise a particular speaker or line. Camera angles do that on film with a good director or editor, but can you connect the visual rhythm to the story's pace? Only if it's mundane writing.

Sometimes, the unreal quality of a play gives it its power, and a film image is too literal. John Pielmeier's play Agnes of God has three characters, one who is both narrator and protagonist. The entire set consists of two chairs and a standing ashtray, and the theatricality makes it all work. My daughter gave me the film version on video years ago, but I never watched it. I'd seen my wife play Agnes on stage and I didn't need to see Hollywood put the bloody wastebasket where the baby was supposedly found in a close-up. 

A theater I worked with for years presented an early STAGE version of High Noon.


Thankfully, I never saw it. Imagine trying to put on stage that series of jump cuts as the film reaches its climax: The clock's pendulum swinging, Grace Kelly waiting for the train, the bartender and other men in the bar, the bad guys waiting for their leader, Gary Cooper writing his will in the Marshal's office, the clock, the bar, the bad guys, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, the church congregation, all with that orchestrated version of the title song, the beat synchronized to the pendulum...and then the train whistle that freezes your heart in your chest.

The two final visuals. Grace Kelly embracing Gary Cooper, the wedding ring on her finger. Then Cooper staring at the towsnpeople who refused to help him while he drops his badge in the dust.

The film is based on a story called "The Tin Star." I've never read it.

Cornell Woolrich's short story "Rear Window" has many built-in problems, but Hitchcock figured out how to make it less static with camera angles on film. Alas, a few years ago, a play version was commissioned, or should I say, "committed." My wife played one of the apartment dwellers in the world premiere at Hartford Stage (maybe the only production ever), with Kevin Bacon as the photographer. He was excellent, but he was stuck in a wheelchair on a large stage. The star of the show was the computer-operated back wall that moved up and down so the audience could peer into the neighbors' apartments. It cost $300,000 to build that set, and I don't think anyone has produced the show since...and rented the set so HSC could recoup some of the cost. 


If you want to write a screen play, do it. If you want to write a stage play, do it. If you want to write a novel or short story, absolutely do it. But remember that they're different animals, and mixing species leads to scary mutations. Like the Island of Dr. Moreau. 

28 February 2021

Come Along for the Ride


So, I'm sitting with my buddy Mike(Huey pilot and one-time deputy sheriff) on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, treating ourselves to rum and Cokes while brainstorming storylines for mystery short stories. I know what you're thinking. If I could make more money from writing and selling short stories, then I could try writing some of those cruise expenses off on my income taxes. Unfortunately for me, those deducted figures would probably fall into the category of real fiction. Truth be known, only  a small percentage of  these brainstorming sessions ends up becoming a completed and salable story.

Anyway, if I'm going to write a standalone or what I hope will be the first story in a series, I prefer to pick a setting or an idea that hasn't been done before or at least, to my knowledge, not very often. Because of my two years, nine months and twenty-nine days in the Army, plus more than twenty-eight years in federal law enforcement,  I tend to enjoy the antics of incompetent criminals. Most of these characters seem to be knocking on the prison door screaming, "Let me in," while their screwups generally fall into the category of "What were you possibly thinking?"

So, when the wheels start turning, it's easy to reach into the past and find characters and/or events and put them in a what if situation. It was circumstances like these on that cruise ship brainstorming session that produced "The Clean Car Company," published in the January 2021 issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine.

It went something like this. What if a junior league criminal is sitting in the back booth of a very dark bar waiting for his partner in crime to show up, so they can figure out how to make some money. And, while he is nursing the dregs of his drink, three males slide into his booth and don't realize that someone else is sitting in that booth. These three new arrivals commence to continue planning the heist they have in mind.

Time to give these characters some names in order to avoid confusion with who's doing what. Danny is our protagonist and the alleged brains of his junior league criminal partnership. Leroy is the slim killer sitting beside Danny in the booth. Caps, nicknamed for his penchant for knee-capping people who get sideways with him, is sitting across from Leroy. The Kid, sitting across from Danny and beside Caps, is Caps' teenage nephew and a screwup when it comes to crime.

When Caps suddenly realizes they have an unwanted visitor sitting in the darkest corner of the booth, and that this visitor has just listened in on their heist plans, he becomes noticeably upset. Leroy takes out a switchblade and offers to take care of the problem. 

Faced with a dire situation, Danny must quickly come up with a solution to everyone's problem. Working with the facts available to him:

  1. Danny has just inherited his Aunt Rosie's car
  2. The car's license plates are now registered to a deceased person
  3. He and his partner are trying to figure out how to make some money
  4. The heist gang's 4th member, who was to steal a getaway car and be the getaway driver, is currently in jail on a different charge
  5. The gang can get an other driver, but they still have getaway car
  6. Danny has to think fast else his lifeless body will be left behind in the booth

Danny tells the gang that he is starting a new business and the heist gang can be his first customers. He offers them Aunt Rosie's car as a "rental getaway vehicle." As he explains it, it is a "clean car," much the same as a criminal could obtain a "clean gun" from a clandestine weapons dealer on the street. It's a cash only and no paperwork deal. 

The heist goes forward, but there is no honor amongst criminals. Danny and his partner end up with an unexpected problem when they are double crossed by one of the gang members.

To see the problem and read the outcome, obtain your copy of the January 2021 issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine. There's some good reading in that issue.

27 February 2021

Writing is Hard


 A long time ago, back when video stores were kind of a cool new thing, I was whooping it up in the Toronto Press Club with some eminently more famous Toronto columnists and reporters.  One of them, Scottish he was, asked me this:  "Tell me, lass.  You have a syndicated humour column, you've written comedy, you've had over two dozen short stories published...so why aren't you writing a novel?"

After much deliberation, my exceedingly clever answer was:  

"Because they might want me to write
another one?"

That got a round of applause (actually make that a round of scotch) from the somewhat sozzled guys at the bar.

No really.  Even then, I knew that writing a novel would be a rat-poop load of work.  It wasn't that I was allergic to work.  I had honed the art of writing 650-800 words every week, and making them passably funny.  But writing 80,000 words for one project?

That was 1995, I think.  Since then, I've written 17 novels, and 50 more short stories.  And let me tell you.

Writing is WORK.   Holy hell, is it work.  It is a freaking black hole of work and time and bloodletting.  Time suck, soul suck, give your life over to the keyboard for MONTHS.

I've heard other authors say they can't wait to sit down to write the first page of a new novel.  That they get so excited when they start something new.

That isn't me.  After 17 books, I know what's coming.  Months of hunkering over the keyboard, doubting myself, loving, then hating my characters (Jesus Murphy, WHY is she such a whiny nincompoop?)  Finding the Black Moment.  BECOMING the black moment.

So to illustrate, my starts are more like this:

Me:  "Sob!" (hits head against desk)  "I don't want to.  Don't make me.  I can't do it again..."  (reaches for scotch with head still on desk)

Working-class Muse, possibly from Jersey, the wrong side:  "Listen sister.  Sit your fat bippie down and get a move-on.  These things don't write themselves."

Me:  "But it's so HARD."  (slurping puddle of scotch sideways through a straw.)

Muse:  "You think THIS is hard?  Remember before you were published?  Remember all those rejection letters from publishers?  We insulated the walls of the cottage with them."

Me (sniveling):  "Too bad the place caught fire."

Muse:  "Maybe if you hadn't written BURN IN HELL on all of them..."

At about this time in the ritual, W-C Muse says the magic motivation words:  "Sit up sister.  YOU GOT A CONTRACT."

Me:  "Oh right. Move over, and pass the scotch."

And so it goes.

I'm at that stage right now.  staring the page in the face, knowing I have to start book 2 in a new series, thinking I'd rather jump out this picture window into the lake below (even though I'm 4 stories up and about 50 feet from shore.  So it would be quite a leap.)

I started life as a columnist, so I know I should wrap up on positive note.

Writing is hard.  But it's my life, and I suspect it's yours too.


Melodie Campbell has won ten awards, including the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis, the Hamilton Reads Award, and a city of Toronto award for best children’s book in high school, which is probably as far away from The Goddaughter mob caper series as you can get.  

 

 



 


26 February 2021

All That Jazz


T.S. Hottle aka Jim Winter
T.S. Hottle aka Jim Winter

Hello, yes! I'm back. The Artist Occasionally Known as Jim Winter…

I did the formerly bit, but then Down & Out liked something I wrote, so here I am.

And what have I been up to? Well, I've gotten on a bit of a jazz kick, which is interesting. Because Robert Parker, Lorne Estleman, and to some extent, Michael Connelly all got static for having their primary protags – Spenser, Amos Walker, and Harry Bosch – into jazz the way 15-year-old boys in the 80s knew what the lead singer of Motley Crue had for breakfast.

A little background on how this came to be a topic, aside from Miles Davis blasting off my new turntable as I write this. (Yeah. I'm into vinyl now, too.)

In the beforetime, in the long, long ago,  when I first wrote crime fiction, I needed a way to differentiate my PI character, Nick Kepler, from every other PI character out there. He wasn't a bookstore hound like Tess Monaghan or a loud dresser like Elvis Cole. And he didn't have a minimalist lifestyle like Kinsey Milhonne. And forget the psycho sidekick. That trope needed to die a long time before Northcoast Shakedown saw the light of day in 2005.

The one thing I could do was make his taste in music parallel to my own. So, I put him in a blues band, had him blast Metallica on his way to lay the smack down on someone who killed one of his best friends, and even had him still using cassette as late as… Well, 2004. So, a blues guy. I didn't even bother listening to jazz. Why? I wasn't writing about it.

Fast forward to 2019. For my wife and stepson, our vacation would be the trip of a lifetime. They had wanted to drive Route 66 all the way to Santa Monica since years before I came into the picture. I could only get a week off work, but I hit on an idea. I would fly to San Francisco where we would spend a weekend, then Matt and I would drive back to Cincinnati in a rental.

While I waited for my family to show, I went to see Haight-Ashbury. Never went on two previous trips. This being San Fran, I Ubered everywhere. My very first driver taking me to Haight-Ashbury played jazz. I told him I, too, drove Uber and asked if the jazz was for him or for the passengers. "Oh, the passengers. I've had maybe two complaints since I started. You should play it. Watch your tips go up."

I took his advice, and lo, and behold, the passengers loved it. And I loved it. Why? Because like the 15-year-old boy named Jim Winter (OK, named TS Hottle) in the 1980s, I could tell you what Keith Richards had for breakfast this morning. (Corn flakes and a cup of black coffee.) I knew nothing of jazz but those wonderful sounds coming out of my speakers.

And then the pandemic hit. We are all now working from home, and my commute is down a flight of stairs. My wife bought me a turntable two years ago. Last year, she bought me Miles and Coltrane. And damn, but it sounds good on vinyl.

So, my days are spent now listening to either curated lists on Spotify, CDs of Frank, Tony, and Ella, or even some vinyl I got my hands on. Oh, the classic rock and grunge and even some punk slip in there And my wife has me listening to country, though not as often as she'd like. But the change reminds me of when I made Bouchercon annually. In the mid-2000s, many of the denizens then opened my ears up to Tom Waits, had me rediscover Johnny Cash, and dive into some of those latter-day blues guys like Rory Gallagher. Jazz has so many overlaps it's crazy. I heard it on albums by Kelly Clarkson, the Foo Fighters, and even Tom Petty (whom I'm still mourning.) So, how does that affect my writing?

I'm coming off an 18-month scifi writing binge, and 2/3 of my output was written to playlists that went from Bird Parker to a salsa princess from the 90s named Basia back to Sinatra and forward a bit into Weather Report.

And oh, the stories I could tell about the here and now driving people around the city to the sounds of Herbie Hancock.

It's been like a rejuvenation of my brain these last 18 months.

My ever-growing, very eclectic playlist is called Jazzhole.

Because I'm sometimes still a 15-year-old boy.