30 March 2021

What Drives Me ... And Maybe You Too


Why do people write fiction?

  • For enjoyment? That seems likely. 
  • For money? I guess that could be true, although except for a lucky few, writing fiction is certainly not the road to riches many people probably presume it is. 
  • Because they feel compelled to? I've heard people say that.
  • Because they are good at it (or fancy they are) and are driven by the need for praise and validation? Ding ding ding, we have a winner. 

If the question is why I write fiction, my answer is enjoyment and, I'm embarrassed to say, the need for praise. That became glaringly clear last week when something happened--I'll keep the details to myself--and I realized that far too much of my self-worth is wrapped up in the need for positive feedback on my work.

I would think that this far into my writing career, especially considering that I have had a fair amount of success, the joy I derive from the act of writing should be enough. I shouldn't need validation on top of that. But I do. 

No matter how much I enjoy writing (yes, sometimes it's a slog, but sometimes it's not), when I'm finished, I immediately crave feedback. That's why I used to send stories out more quickly than I do now, often too quickly, because I couldn't help myself. Thankfully, in the past few years I've become stronger, giving my stories time to cool so I can give them a good edit before I send them out, but it's a struggle each time I get to the end. I probably still send some stories out too quickly, resulting in unhappy rejections.

This is why I am much more excited on a day a story is accepted for publication than on actual publication day. A story's acceptance is direct feedback that someone I respect liked it enough to decide to publish it. The acceptance email might even have some comments about what the editor liked about the story. Publication day likely doesn't involve that same kind of feedback. Sure I might hear from people who congratulate me on the publication--and I'm not knocking that feedback at all; bring it on!--but such words are different from someone reading the story itself and telling me that they liked it and, even better, why. Some stories are published and I never hear any feedback from readers regarding whether they liked it. I may never even know if it's read. It can be a bit of a letdown.

That's why I read my reviews. It's why I search for them. Some of you reading this are probably shaking your head at me. "Never read your reviews!" I've heard the advice more than once. But still they pull at me like a drug. I seek them out. I bet some of you reading this column do too.

As someone who was raised in a home that emphasized academic achievement, I can understand how I ended up this way. A good primary-school student does homework that is returned regularly, often with check marks or stars. As the student gets older, there are tests and report cards that hopefully have the expected high grades, which result in praise or acknowledgement that you met familial expectations. I was primed my whole life while growing up to want the positive feedback that comes from doing a good job. And that desire hasn't disappeared now that I'm an adult who writes fiction. Instead, I'm like Pavlov's dog. Whenever I've put in the work and written what I believe is a good short story, I crave corresponding (hopefully positive) feedback.

I recognize that I shouldn't place so much power over my self-image in the hands (and the words) of others. I should derive joy from the act of writing, especially since I have enough experience to know when my work is good. I should not need external validation. But I do.

Perhaps others do too. I likely am not alone in this. This is why I urge readers to let authors know if you read their stories or books and like them. Public reviews or comments are good, but even a private email would be fine. It doesn't have to be detailed like a book report or written well enough to get an A. An email that said, "I just read X and it made me laugh. Thank you," would make me float all day long.

And now I open this blog to your (hopefully kind) comments. You know how much I love feedback.  

 ***

But first, a little BSP: I'm delighted to share that my story "Dear Emily Etiquette" was named a finalist last week for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story published last year. (Talk about external validation!) It appeared in the September/October  2020 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Also nominated in my category are my fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, as well as Shawn Reilly Simmons, Gabriel Valjan, and James Ziskin. 

The Agatha winners will be announced in July during More Than Malice, this year's online Malice Domestic convention. You can learn more about the convention (and register at an early-bird price) here. And if you'd like to read my nominated story, you can read it by clicking here. Or you can listen to me read it to you on the Ellery Queen podcast by clicking here. The story runs for 32 minutes. Enjoy!

29 March 2021

Where Did THAT Come From?


The debate between plotters and pantsers is as old as writing itself, especially in the mystery field. I used to list all my novels' scenes and changed the order as I figured out where I was going, usually creating a dozen chronologies to get the cause and effect right. I seldom outline short stories because they don't have subplots and are short enough so I can keep track of everything. I revise as I go along and, once I have a complete draft, I go back and fix the discrepancies.

But whether it's a short story or a novel, I have one constant problem.

I've written a few stories where the sleuth solves a mystery with deduction and detection (Both Black Orchind Novella Award winners had to pay homage to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe tales), but they're hard for me because I have trouble plotting.

I generally start with an idea of who the bad guy is, especially when he or she is also the protagonist. I write many stories from the bad guy's POV, and many stories where someone gets away with a crime in the name of chthonic revenge rather than legal justice. Those stories are me compensating for my big weakness. It's why I don't write many traditional "Whodunnits."

Even if I know who the bad guy is and how he did it, I almost never know how the sleuth will figure it out.

I've been known to reach page 275 of a 300-page manuscript without knowing how I'll cross that last bridge. When I figure it out, I have to go back and add or change something earlier in the book, sometimes almost at the very beginning. It might be a descriptive detail, a bit of dialogue, or a scene. Maybe someone's story changes a little. Once, I had the clue in there and hadn't spotted it myself.

"Stranglehold," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award in 2009, was like that. I had a short story that wasn't selling, and I realized it was too rushed and had too many characters. When I expanded it into a novella, I added more character background and discovered that I had everthing I needed. I just had to have a character reinterpret something. When I did that, the story became very "Golden-Age" mystery.

"Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma" was different. I'd struggled with a novel off and on for months, but the subplots got in each other's way and the characters wouldn't work together. I abandoned the project twice and wrote other stories, but kept coming back to that one because I wanted to write a sequel to "Stranglehold." When I realized that it should be another novella, I dumped the contradictory subplots and saw a possible solution right away. I know several musicians who also record their own work and know the technology well. I asked on of them a few questions, and as soon as he told me the shortcomings of recording technology circa 2009, I wrote a complete draft in a few days.

One of my few other puzzlers, "Death and the Dancing Bears" actually got its solution from the theme an anthology was looking for. I knew the solution before I even started writing. The anthology didn't take the story, but it fit the guidelines for another market.

I knew my solution for "Afternoon Delight," too, a story I conceived while sweating on an elliptical trainer at my health club. When I was leaving for the day, I asked the guy at the reception desk a few questions about how their server worked, and he gave me the answers I needed. Voila. 

Those two stories are the only ones where I knew the solution to the mystery, so I remember them well.

The Whammer Jammers had a clear ending until I was about 80% through the first draft and decided that ending was too obvious. But all I had to do was add one more scene at the end and about a hundred words of dialogue in an earlier scene to take the book in a completely different direction. Even better, that change made it possible to write a sequel, Hit Somebody, with most of the same cast of roller girls I'd grown to love. 

Right now, I have fifteen stories submitted to various markets, and only two of them involve a puzzle the sleuth has to unravel. The clue/solution was even my inspiration for writing one of them.

I was about two-thirds through the first draft of the other day when I saw what I needed. I went back and repeated a detail from the beginning and it all worked out.

Well, maybe it worked out. That story still hasn't sold…

What gives you the most trouble?



28 March 2021

Support and Dedication


As writers, we all know how important it is to receive support from those around us. And that is why I am dedicating this day's blog to my wife Kiti.

So here's what has been going on. As some of us may have already found out, Old Age can be a Bitch, especially when she comes for you with a vengeance as body parts start wearing out. You see, for part of December through part of February, I had hip pains and upper thigh pains down to my knees.

X-rays and an MRI showed bone degeneration and collapsed disks pinching the nerve bundle. Surgery fused L-3, L-4 and L-5, grafted the appropriate bone and built a metal cage to stabilize it all.

It took incision cuts fore and aft to get there. Nor, with my limited movement during healing, I can't even get out of bed by myself to go to the bathroom without the assistance of my wife. Currently, that is an every two to four hour test of devotion in each twenty-four hour period.

And when I think about it, she was already here as my First Reader, writers conference guide, secretary, best friend, emotional supporter and all those other things, besides being my wife. And, she did this while working as a federal credit union Vice-President and raising four kids, two hers and two mine, plus eleven grandchildren.

Anyway, I think you can see why I'm dedicating this blog to her. And, I hope you have someone this supportive in your life.


27 March 2021

Three Good Suspects: The Five Things you need for a Mystery Novel


~~~Three Good Suspects~~~ (as opposed to the usual suspects...)

Many of you know that in addition to being a writer of mob heist novels, I'm also the past Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. (For my sins. Of which I've lost count...) I'm just coming up for air after serving as a judge for the Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence.  So this post is timely.  It is also cathartic...which may prevent the consumption of too much scotch.  (I know, I know.  There can never be too much scotch.)

In the crime fiction world, most books fall into two categories:  mysteries or thrillers.  (Note that in decades gone by, we used to call thrillers 'suspense novels'. Same thing.)  I write both and find them very different to write.  I'm not alone.  Lots of readers who have a preference for one or the other tell me they wonder why mysteries and thrillers are shelved together in libraries and bookstores.

So to start, let me offer one commonly held description of each, as accepted by Crime Writers of Canada, via many publishers.  Like so many things in life, it has to do with goals.  (And of course, we'll add the usual disclaimer that there may be exceptions.)

Mystery fiction is a puzzle story.  It starts with a murder (or crime) and the goal is the solving of the crime.  The protagonist's job is to discover who committed the crime and why.

In contrast, suspense fiction is driven by a character in jeopardy.  A suspense novel or thriller is one in which the main action (crime or murder) has not yet taken place, and in most cases, the goal of the protagonist is to prevent it from happening.  The emphasis is on the tension built by the anticipation of the outcome.

Of course, there will always be suspense in a mystery novel too.  I don't want to discount that.  But let's focus on the puzzle that a mystery novel presents.

In many ways, mystery novels are like chess games.  They are to some extent a cerebral experience.  I would argue that no other type of novel invites the reader to engage in such an involved way with the protagonist.  

Why? Mystery readers like to pit themselves against the fictional detective to uncover who committed the crime.  The reader and the detective both receive the same information at the same time (anything else is not playing fair.)  

In a great mystery novel, you will hopefully come to the same conclusion as the protagonist, at the same time.  It's the challenge that intrigues us, the joy of the intellectual chase, which leads to a supreme high when you compile all the puzzle pieces together in your mind in such a way as to unveil the antagonist. In fact, the ultimate letdown in a mystery novel is when the killer is easily detected before the half way point in a book.

So why do I occasionally find murder stories where there is only one suspect?

Jeeze Louise, people!  A mystery must be a mystery!  If you go light on your suspects, what challenge is that?  

Thirty years, seventeen novels, fifty short stories, three agents, and six publishers have taught me the essentials of writing mysteries.  I'd like to pass this list on to several entrants to the awards this year, who seemed to have missed the memo.  But as anonymity is our credo (always good to remain mysterious) I will present them here instead.

1.  Three good suspects.

Every mystery novel needs at least three good suspects that you can't dismiss out of hand.  Three suspects with good motives (more on that below.)  Five is even better, particularly for a full length novel.  Make it a challenge for the reader!  That's what we're looking for.

2.  A believable motive for each suspect

A suspect must have a motive for murder.  Yes, really.  Serial killers aside (and even some would argue them too) people don't murder each other for no reason.  The motive for each suspect must be believable.  So many times, I have read books (and particularly, watched television shows) where the motive for murder is simply too trite.

There's an expression we use in romance writing:  TSTL.  This translates to Too Stupid to Live, and refers to that particularly daft female protagonist who get herself into predicaments so stupid that a chimp could have figured out how to avoid it.  The ditz factor is simply off the charts.  This is how books get thrown against walls.

Murder is risky.  If caught, you'll go to prison for years and in some countries, lose your life.  With a mystery novel, the reader must believe that the murder is worth the risk.  Don't slack on this!  Make your motive so rock hard that no one will question it.

 3.  A believable motive for the protagonist

Most amateur detective series start with a personal reason for the protagonist to become the detective in the first book.  Either she is a suspect wishing to clear herself, or a possible 'next victim' - but some reason why it is imperative the main character become involved in the solving of the crime.  Of course, if your book is a police procedural, or PI subgenre, the detection is part of their job and requires no explanation.

But if your amateur detective has no stake in the outcome, why the heck would they chance going head to head with someone who has already murdered?  Silly, if not stupid to put yourself at that risk.

This is what becomes unbelievable in many cozy mystery series.  The gal who runs the bakery shop solves the first murder, and then goes on to solve many more, for no reason other than it becomes a hobby.

I demand more than that, of my mysteries!  There must a valid motive for the protagonist to become involved.  Give her a good motive each and every time.

 4.  Risk for the protagonist

Remember I mentioned putting oneself at risk in the above point? Here's what I'm talking about.

You know that crazy device in so many television shows where the two leads are in a deserted warehouse, and one says to the other, "You go that way, and I'll go this way, and we'll save time" … and you, the viewer at home are going, "NO!!!!  Don't be so stupid - you need to stick together!"

Well, there's a reason for doing that.

In my "Nine Steps for Writing Suspense," step seven talks about 'Isolating the protagonist.' Because even in a mystery novel, we need to put the protagonist at risk.  The climax of your book should be accompanied by a black moment, where all seems to be lost, where the protagonist isn't going to get what she wants (safety, money, love, the identity of the killer…)

Any mystery that doesn't put the protagonist at risk in the end is a bit ho hum, in my books (sic).  Go hard on your protagonist.  Make it risky for them to search for the killer.  Make it do or die at the end.  And hopefully not die.  Which leads to point 5.

5.  A Clear Resolution

Don't kill your protagonist in a mystery novel.  Please don't.  Countless readers have told me that they absolutely HATE to read for four hours, and then discover that their beloved protagonist kicks the bucket in the end.  Readers want the protagonist to win, in a mystery novel.  They want justice to prevail.

At the same time, we also need a clear resolution to the story.  Nothing will get people storming your publisher's website than an ending to a mystery novel that isn't an ending.  We don't know whodunnit in the end.  

That doesn't mean you can't have the bad guy escape to play another day.  Even Arthur Conan Doyle did that regularly.  My point is: we need to know Whodunnit by the end of a mystery.

WE NEED THE MYSTERY SOLVED.

It will be possible to find novels billed as mysteries that don't play by the rules above.  They may even be bestsellers.  So I'll leave by saying, here are some clear guidelines I offer to help writers tackle their first mystery book and look like a pro.

With any luck, readers will also mine gold in the above, as we've demonstrated how much thought must go into creating a really good mystery story.

Melodie Campbell writes mob heists as well as mysteries.  Crime Club is her latest mystery.  The pug is not a suspect. www.melodiecampbell.com

26 March 2021

The Zone can be elusive


In October 2017, I put up a post here entitled In The Zone, where I spoke about The Zone, a sort of Twilight Zone, a separate existence, a Zone where I wrote stories and novels with such focus the story flowed like a swollen river.

My wife bought me a T-shirt which read: Poor Listener. It had taken her a white to realize I wasn't listening to her because she talked too much, I wasn't listening because I was somewhere else. I was in The Zone.

The pandemic changed so many things, including making The Zone elusive to me for the first time. The scenes still play out. I still watch and listen to the characters but the distraction of living in fear keeps intruding. I still daydream but they are shorter and grow unfocused. At least I know it and can bear down and still write but I miss The Zone.

When I wrote my epic historical novel BATTLE KISS (320,000 words) and the follow-up USS RELENTLESS (234,000 words) I could step in and out of The Zone at will and everything was there.

The deaths (relatives, former co-workers, old friends) take a toll.

OK, the vaccines are here but every time I go out so many people, too many people, are unmasked and not following distancing protocols. It's frustrating.

So I rarely leave the house, which should help me to enter The Zone. And I do, but not as easily. The election took a lot out of me, the great anxiety fearing we were slipping into a fascist state.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I don't see it yet, but it has to be there.

The lessons I learned when I started writing have taught me how to narrow my focus and to keep writing, no matter what. I hope beginners listen to the lessons we sometimes give here on SleuthSayers. I learn something new here all the time.

Y'all take care. Gotta go Zoning.

www.oneildenoux.com

25 March 2021

The Movie was Better


It is a universal truth that a novel is always better than any movie made of it.  Except when it isn't.  These are rare.  There is an endless list of bad movies made of excellent books, from every freaking version of Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and other classics.  I would include The Great Gatsby, but I liked the original - I thought Redford was as opaque as Gatsby should be, Bruce Dern sufficiently rough, etc. - the only problem, as always, was Daisy.  It's my belief that the only way to make a "perfect" Gatsby would be to pull a Bunuel and have two different actresses play Daisy:  one actress for every time we see Daisy through Gatsby's eyes (romantic, beautiful, etc.) and another actress for the real, shallow Daisy everyone else knows. 

But there are a few movies that are equal to if not better than their source material.  My list:

  • The African Queen - novel by E. M. Forster, movie directed by John Huston and starring, of course, Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.  
  • Speaking of Bogart, there's Casablanca - has anybody ever actually read the play, Everybody Comes to Rick's?  
  • The Third Man - Graham Greene wrote the novella at the same time he wrote the screenplay, but just keep watching the movie, okay? 
  • Lonesome Dove - I infinitely prefer the miniseries, with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, to the book.  But, to tell you a deep dark secret, I think a lot of Larry McMurtry's books make better movies than the books themselves.  Including The Last Picture Show.
  • In an opinion that could get me banned from Australia, I think the miniseries Cloudstreet is better than the book.  
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock.  Trust me.  
  • Miss Marple, as played by Joan Hickson, in Nemesis is fantastic, and the script as a whole is as close to a perfect transmutation from the page as I've ever seen.  
  • Any movie version of Ivanhoe.
  • 2001:  A Space Odyssey - pretty good sci-fi novel, iconic movie.

So, what are some of your choices?

BTW:  I would have done more of these, but my husband had a medical emergency and I've spent the last 3 days at the hospital with him.  He's back home now, for good hopefully, so… sort of back to normal.

24 March 2021

Catalysts


An odd thing happened, the other day.  This last Saturday, in fact.  I went down to the frame shop to do a delivery, a set of mirrors.  I loaded the van, and then when I started it up, it sounded like a demolition derby underneath.  I climbed out, and got down, and there was four feet of pipe missing, between the manifold and the muffler.  I’m like, Who drove this vehicle last, and why didn’t they say something about the exhaust?  But on closer inspection, I see the pipe wasn’t rusty or corroded; it’s been cut with a hacksaw.  Somebody’s ripped off the catalytic converter. 

 

The odd thing isn’t that it happened.  It’s a common enough crime of opportunity.  The odd thing is that I didn’t snap to it right away.  My first thought was that a section of pipe had just fallen off.  I was even ready, for about two seconds, to go on with the delivery.  But then I thought, A, what if some other loose part falls off while I’m driving, and B, what about the cab filling with carbon monoxide?  The realization that it was a crime took me more than those two seconds. 

 

Here’s where I’m coming from.  We, collectively, spend our time imagining mayhem, or at the least mischief.  I even began a story with the hook of fencing stolen catalytic converters (“The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” 2016), and I missed the obvious, in real life.

 

You see what I’m driving at.  You do a story that starts with burner phones, and it turns out to be about human trafficking.  You begin with counterfeit stamps, or rare butterflies, and it develops into personal betrayals, screwing your best friend’s wife, being the father of his child.  (I did this once, but Ross Macdonald did it dozens of times, and made it fresh every time.) 

 

The mystery isn’t so much what you come up with.  The burner phone story, for example, was almost twenty years ago.  An editor turned it down because she didn’t think her readers would get it.  The phones were beside the point.  It could have been drugs, or guns.  I used phones because I thought they were hip.  Now, they’re a commonplace.

 

It’s not the gimmick.  Chandler once said that “Pearls Are a Nuisance” was an inside joke.  He came up with the silliest possible resolution.  But the fish in the aquarium hold water, so to speak.  He convinces us.

 

The thing is that we miss the clues.  Not you, maybe, but me.  I can do pretend, and at the same time turn a blind eye to my own personal history.  At the least, I treat it as a glancing blow.  I suppose, without getting to the thicker part.  The interior, the unknown.  The catalytic converter got stolen.  It’s a market-driven theft.  What am I missing?

 

I think this is more than a metaphor.  We’ve had a lot stolen from us, this past year, but I don’t want to hit it too hard.  The thing is that a physical and literal loss is so felt.  We’ve been cheated of so much.  Fuck that.

23 March 2021

Fare Thee Well, Paul D. Marks


Paul D. Marks joined SleuthSayers in 2015 and has been a treasured member of the gang ever since. He died on February 28th of this year. His wife Amy Marks wrote on Facebook: "He died peacefully listening to Beatles and cowboy music. He loved sharing his film noir alerts, his dog walking pictures, his love of writing and his thoughts on life with you. He used to boast that he could go anywhere in the country and would have a Facebook friend he could have lunch with." Some of us had a few thoughts to share:

Eve Fisher: While I never met Paul, I loved his SleuthSayers posts, because they were always centered around L.A. Often the L.A. of the past, which was my stomping grounds back in the very early 1970s. His writing was so time, place and music centered that it enveloped you in the past: time travel for pedestrians. I remember reading the 8/3/20 interview with him on Mystery Playground, where he said, interestingly enough, that, "My favorite book of all time isn't a mystery. It's The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham. It's about someone trying to make sense of the world and where they fit into everything, which is something I relate to and which also comes through in Bobby's character. Another favorite book is Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. I like revenge stories and that's the revenge story to end all revenge stories. My favorite mystery would probably be Chandler's The Long Goodbye. Just so good." I love all three myself, which are set in a very specific time / place / mood. At the time I thought, I'll have to talk / write to him about that some time. I never thought that time would run out.

Melodie Campbell: I didn't know Paul well, but I always enjoyed his posts. And he was kind in his comments when responding to my posts, which I always appreciated. I feel so sad. We've lost one of our own.

David Dean: Paul's death affected me far more than I thought it could. After all, we'd only met briefly in NYC and corresponded through email and Facebook for a few short years. Yet, the words we shared revealed him to me as a kind, supportive presence that, over time, became a welcome part of my life. He had an honesty, an integrity, that was palpable even in the virtual sphere of our relationship. Paul seemed to me a quietly passionate man. He was a superb writer, an historian of both noir films and the gritty, decadent Hollywood that produced them, and a proud father to his "boys," the dogs he and Amy raised, both past and present. I'm proud to say that I made him happy once when I wrote a story that featured a relationship between a boy and a dog. They prevailed over adversity, of course, and that pleased him very much. I still have the email he wrote me about it. I miss you, Paul, but I, along with so many others, will remember you.

Janice Law: I am so sorry to hear about Paul. We all knew he was very ill but had hoped that he would recover. I never met him but enjoyed his glimpses of Hollywood old and new and respected him as a fine editor. He will be very much missed.

Leigh Lundin: Paul impressed everyone and me in particular with his historical knowledge of Los Angeles and his childlike love of Hollywood. I couldn’t watch an episode of Bosch without remembering what Paul said about Angel’s Flight or the Bradbury Building, or wanting to ask him something about Gehry’s concert hall. His memory seemed encyclopedic and detailed, knowing who attended which famed restaurant when and where. Paul, loyal to the core, cared about us and worried he might miss an article. His attitude was so positive, I thought he was going to make it and, if it was up to will alone, he would have. I’m grateful he had Amy by his side. Somewhere in old Hollywood, a young Paul still strolls those streets.

Barb Goffman: When I first got to know Paul over Facebook we bonded over our love of dogs. I loved when he shared photos of his dogs, walking them, playing with them, just being with them, especially Pepper, who I think held a special place in his heart. You could see the joy they shared spending time together. When my prior dog, Scout, slowed down with age, Paul was often ready with words of encouragement and support, which I'll never forget. It's often said that if dogs like you, it's a sure sign you're a good person. Paul was the ultimate good person. He'll be missed.

Lawrence Maddox: I met Paul in 2014 after reviewing his short story collection L.A. Late @ Night for All Due Respect Magazine. It was written with the voice of one who "got" L.A., who lived it from the inside out. I gushed about it in my review. Paul and I bonded over our shared Native-Angeleno status. We often reminisced about the city we loved, the places we remembered, and the vagaries of the movie biz. One of my favorite memories of Paul is bringing him to the set of Santa Clarita Diet, a TV show I edited. He was so excited to be there. He'd worked in production years earlier, and all the new tech fascinated him. "A lot is different, but a lot is the same, too," he said. I can still picture him grinning like a kid as he watched the crew shoot a scene. I was looking for the craft service table to get some coffee when Paul grabbed my arm. "Larry, is that her?" He pointed to an actress getting ready for a scene. "Is that Drew Barrymore?" Paul had told me about his own experiences working in Hollywood with weariness, but there he was, in awe. "I can't believe I'm practically standing next to Drew Barrymore! Do you think I can meet her? I can't wait to tell Amy." He was genuinely thrilled. The Drew sighting became a goofy joke between us. It would pop up in our conversations until some of our last emails together while he was fighting cancer. Paul could have a jaundiced view of L.A., as he expressed in his unforgettable novels and short stories. That day on set he was as star struck as any tourist at Grauman's Chinese Theater. It was uncharacteristic, which made it even more endearing. Besides remembering him as a dear friend, as someone who championed my own start as a writer, I'll remember Paul like he was on set that day. Smiling. Happy. Caught up in a dream.

Steve Liskow: I never met Paul, but I loved his stories, especially the ones about "old" Hollywood and L.A. His posts on Sleuthsayers were always both informative and entertaining, and they showed how much he loved and respected writing. Even though I never "really" knew him, I feel like I've lost a great friend. My thoughts and sympathy go out to his family and friends.

Travis Richardson: If you had the opportunity to meet Paul Marks for the first time, you would not have any idea that he had once directed movies and played in a rock band. Humble and soft-spoken, Paul was genuinely kind and caring. He always asked about my wife and daughter, and it was always a pleasure to see him at conferences, book launches, and SoCal MWA and Sisters in Crime meetings. As a crime writer, he wrote compelling stories with a spotlight on his hometown, Los Angeles. His award-winning stories captured various parts of LA, highlighting the city’s beauty as well as its warts. Whether he wrote about the LA riots, wandering ghosts solving murders, or a PI living in a bomb shelter, Paul’s stories always made a lasting impression. I wish his wife, Amy, strength in this time of sorrow. As his constant companion, she knew Paul better than all of us and saw his full greatness while we only caught glimpses of it. Rest in peace, Paul.

John Floyd: Like so many others, I never met Paul face-to-face but felt I knew him from his blog posts and emails. That was especially true for me because of the many notes he and I exchanged over the past few years about our mutual love of movies. I was always amazed and impressed by his firsthand knowledge of film and filmmaking, and we sometimes agreed that NO one else would probably be interested in the kinds of things we talked about. Which somehow made it even more fun.

Paul and I had planned to meet at the Dallas Bouchercon in 2019, and when he was unable to make it and then the pandemic came along we resolved to get together somehow after all this is over. Who could’ve known? it’s still hard to believe that this friend to so many of us was lost so early and unexpectedly. My heartfelt condolences go out to Amy and all of Paul’s family—he will be sorely missed. I’m grateful at least that we will always have his writing—both his novels and his short stories—to enjoy and to remind us of his great talent.

Art Taylor: While I was honored to share space with Paul here at SleuthSayers, we first “met” on another group blog, 7 Criminal Minds, where he and I alternated the Friday posts, batting clean-up each week. Even before I knew Paul as a gifted short story and novelist, I knew him as a dedicated and thoughtful blogger, and his posts there and here were always a marvel to read—whether he was writing about writing and reading or about music or film noir (an enthusiast and expert in both) or about more personal matters or more. Many Fridays at our first blog, I not only left a comment on his post but also reached out by email with an extra note. Over time, those occasional notes became a regular correspondence—and not just a correspondence but a friendship too, one of my best in the mystery community. He was a great supporter of my work—both when it was going well and when it was going poorly—and I was thrilled with every success he had, both at novel length (we talked often about his works-in-progress) and especially with his short stories, which I loved so much. He and I were both finalists for the Macavity Award for Best Short Story in 2018—both of us for stories from the second Coast to Coast anthology he edited—and as Janet Rudolph was on stage announcing the finalists, I kept thinking, “Paul’s story, Paul’s story, please.” An absolute joy to see him win that night, a writer who deserved all honors that came his way, and I just wish there were more books and stories ahead.

Stephen Ross: Paul and I were Facebook friends, but I knew him better through his writing and his posts on Sleuthsayers. We had a mutual love of noir. He will be missed.

Robert Lopresti: I thought Paul might enjoy my reprinting this from Little Big Crimes: "There's an Alligator in my Purse," by Paul D. Marks, in Florida Happens, edited by Greg Herren, Three Rooms Press, 2018. The latest Bouchercon anthology is all about that most interesting state in our southeast. This tale is by my fellow SleuthSayer, Paul D. Marks. Our narrator is Ed, a cheerful professional. He likes to satisfy his customers, so he takes lots of photos of the corpses. Corpses the clients wanted dead, obviously. In this case that client is Ashley Smith - the lady with the titular pocket book reptile. She had expected to inherit a lot of money when her elderly husband died happily due to her enthusiastic ministrations. When she found out the dough was going to the first wife, she went looking for someone with Ed's skill set. It wasn't really his photographic skills that she was interested in… A breezy tale of multiple conspiracies.

Elizabeth Zelvin: I'm shocked to hear about Paul's death. I met him several times in person at New York events—where he was usually getting an award—and both face to face and in cyberspace, he struck me as such a bounce-back kind of person that I fully expected him to beat his illness and get better. He's a great loss to the crime fiction and short story communities and to everyone who knew him personally. I went over to his Facebook page when I heard the news. Tributes hadn't yet started appearing, but a couple of weeks ago, Paul posted, "Don't give up," with a gallery of "famous failures" including Einstein, Michael Jordan, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Oprah, and the Beatles, who'd all been fired, demoted, or told they wouldn't amount to anything at some point. The tag line was, "If you've never failed, you've never tried anything new." What a heartening message to leave us with.

22 March 2021

Little Library Heist



We have a special treat today.  Jeri Westerson is best known for her critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir novels, the latest of which is the penultimate in the series, SPITEFUL BONES. See more about Jeri’s LGBT mysteries, and two paranormal series at JeriWesterson.com. And…don’t mess with her library.  -Robert Lopresti


Little Library Heist

by Jeri Westerson

Little Free Libraries are just what the name implies. They’re free. You might have seen them on various street corners, little boxes of varying designs with books to borrow. Residents install them and register to the non-profit network LittleFreeLibrary.org and get listed on a map. Strangers with kids come up to it. Joggers stop by. People walking their dogs are frequent browsers. The motto of the Little Free Library—that is also posted on a little metal plate LFL will send you—says, “Take a Book, Leave a Book.” Owners of the libraries are “stewards” and it’s a literacy benefit to one’s community, a visible symbol of the good that is still in the world, free of charge.

I have one too. A little medieval cottage-looking thing, since I write medieval mysteries. It’s just at the front of my property, situated on a corner of a busy street that leads up to an elementary school. I can see it from my front window.

Take a book, leave a book. 

But not…all…the books!

It was not too long ago that I saw a car pull up and a woman get out with a bag that looked filled with books. This is a common enough thing. I see it all the time. My husband and I were having lunch on our porch. We can’t be seen from the street but we can see out. I assumed that the woman was dropping off, and she also grabbed a few for the inhabitants of the car. I figured they were kids. She never left the bag but kept on taking books (my library usually holds about forty). When she started tossing some toward the open passenger window of her car, I started getting suspicious. I stood up—now easily seen—and shouted to her, asking what she was doing. She ignored me. 

For anyone who knows me, they are well acquainted with my loud and projecting voice. There was no way she couldn’t hear me. Her tossing of the books was getting hurried and sloppy. Some were bouncing off the car and hitting the gutter. It was time to confront her. Instead of grabbing my phone, I grabbed a mask and marched over there. 

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

She continued to ignore me. She and her maskless driver, an older man—overweight, smoking a cigarette, possibly her father, with a day-old salt and pepper beard—just stared at me. She was between thirty and forty and looked fed up with what she was—to my eye—being asked to do. 

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked again, because she was finally done taking books and got into the car. “Just drive off,” she told the driver. They were there so long I was able to walk behind the candy apple sedan several times and get the license plate—a handicapped plate—and a good thing, since the number was shorter. “I’ve got your license number.” Didn’t matter, because they had driven off. When I looked at the library, every single book had been taken. 

I was incensed. Enraged. And…curious. Why would anyone steal used books? If you sold them online, you’d get next to nothing for them (let’s face it, some of them were pretty rugged). My first thought was drugs. They needed the money for drugs. Then my next thought was, were they owners of used bookstores? I had heard some of these guys would steal books from Little Libraries to stock their shelves. 

Whatever the situation, you don’t get to pull that crap on me. Yes, I’m an eye-for-an-eye kind of gal, for sure. 

My husband was equally shocked that someone, in broad daylight, would be so bold. I told him I was calling the police.

He scoffed. It was a Little FREE Library, after all. Truth to tell, I figured the police wouldn’t do much, but, with vengeance in my heart, I called.

Of course, when they answered, the situation hit me. “Uh…I don’t know if this is actually a crime. But I’m going to report it anyway.” My thought was, if they did this, maybe they were doing other more unsavory things. I told the dispatcher my info, tried to remember enough about the people to give a decent description of them and their clothes, had no idea what kind of car it was, but did tell them the license plate. “An officer will get back to you.”

Sure they would.

Actually, it was a few hours later. The officer was polite, took more information, and informed me that it wasn’t a theft. After all, it was a Little FREE Library. “Yeah, I get that,” I said. But it was the spirit of the thing. I had gotten their license plate so the police retrieved their local address. He was just going to give it a looksee. 

He called me back not too long thereafter. He had talked to his captain. Turns out the “book lovers” had a warrant out for them. She for a drug charge, he for driving without a license…which he was doing again. And then he asked me what I wanted to do.

“Well, I’d like my books back, if possible. But if that’s out, I’d love for you to put the fear of God into them. That would be enough.”

He chuckled. “I’m going to arrest them anyway.”

“That’s even better!”

Did I get the books back? Will I be called upon to testify? Only time will tell. 

I guess the moral of the story is, don’t mess with Little Free Library stewards…and definitely don’t mess with me.

ADDENDUM

A week later, the books were surreptitiously returned to my porch by the officer. The "theft" wasn't technically a theft. So by returning the books he was just doing me a favor off the record.

 _____________

For info on these neighborhood libraries, go to LittleFreeLibrary.org.


21 March 2021

50+ Troublesome Words and Phrases


Leigh Lundin

My friend/editor Sharon sent me an article titled ’43 Embarrassing Grammar Mistakes Even Smart People Make’. I’ve become complacent about these lists– Velma says smug. Most of the usual suspects were there, but to my surprise, I found a couple I hadn’t given thought to.

Unthawing Foreign Relations

One was the word unthaw. I’ve heard others use it without setting off my grammar alarm. I don’t think I’ve used it, but now it’s on my radar. To unthaw literally means to freeze. Yikes!

Emigrate (which I’ve included in the list below with immigrate) requires the preposition ‘from’, although we can optionally include the destination ‘to’. Likewise, immigrate necessitates the preposition ‘to’, although we may choose to include ‘from’. For example,

  • She immigrated to Canada (from Angola).
  • She emigrated from Angola (to Canada).

Nonplussed

I’ve long been nonplussed and dismayed and, yes, gobsmacked that the Oxford English Dictionary insists that silly Americans misuse ‘nonplussed’ (surprised) to mean its opposite (unperturbed). In my unscientific polls amongst uneducated citizenry, I’ve met only one person who hit upon the wrong meaning, but admitted he didn’t actually know what the word meant. Chew on that, OED!

juvenile flounder
juvenile flounder © Wikipedia

mature flounder
mature flounder © Wikipedia

Bagging the Question

I attended a Latin school where rhetoric, logic, and debate were taught. One of the trickier concepts to master was ‘beg the question’, which assumes an assertion as fact without laying the foundation for it. I’ve notice more commentators and newscasters using ‘beg the question’ to mean ‘ask the question’, including the acme of academia, the world-renown BBC. Recalling my schoolhood efforts to pin down the original concept, I have some sympathy for those without the benefit of rhetoric, logic, and debate, but I recommend avoiding the phrase altogether. Eschew on that, Miss Arthur!

Prostate

À propos of nothing, my Aunt Rae noted the difference between prostitute and prostrate was the difference between a fallen lady versus one who temporarily lost her balance. And then we have the serious matter of prostate. If nothing else manages to kill a man, his prostate will!

How to Catch a Flounder (without Baited Breath)

Too often when people speak of a person or project that stumbles or sinks, they say it ‘flounders’ (a fish) instead of ‘founders’. This particular fish is unusual. When it’s young, it swims upright like most other fish. But when it matures, it sinks into the bottom, blending in with the sea floor. There it performs a slow-motion magic trick, distorting its own head and body to suit its environment. Its eyes migrate to the new upper surface and its mouth usually twists in the opposite direction. It may look like it’s about to founder, but it’s only a flounder.

50+ Often Misused Words and Non-Words

Confused Words
    Words in the left column of this first group aren’t necessarily wrong. They bear review because they’re often confused with those in the right column.
adopt (take up, take on, assume) adapt (change to meet conditions)
adverse (unfavorable) averse (opposed to)
bemused (confused) amused (entertained)
disinterested (impartial) uninterested (uncaring)
enormity (evil, wickedness) enormous (huge)
flounder (a fish) founder (break down, sink)
i.e. (id est: that is) e.g. (exempli gratia: for example)
infer (deduce) imply (intimate)
inflammable (burnable) nonflammable (not burnable)
jive (dance, talk) jibe (match)
literally (actually) figuratively (metaphorically)
nauseous (sickening) nauseated (sickened)
prostrate (prone) prostate (gland)
review (examine, reassess) revue (theatrical entertainment)
sympathy (understanding) empathy (intuiting another’s feelings)
trooper (soldier, state police) trouper (persist uncomplainingly)
under way (moving along, travelling) under weigh (lifting anchor)
Apostrophes
  • Never use apostrophes for pronouns: mine, yours, his, hers, theirs, its.
  • Omit apostrophes in collective proper nouns such as family names, as in “the Kennedys”.
  • Either use double apostrophes or omit them altogether for nouns that might be confused. “She dotted her ‘i’s and crossed her ‘t’s.” Alternatively, “The third measure of the musical score contained three Gs and an A.
  • Omit apostrophes when specifying an era such as a century or decade. “The most popular song of 1929 was Makin' Whoopee and 1930’s was ‘In the Mood’, but ‘Over the Rainbow’ topped the 1930s.”
its (possessive) it's (contraction: it is)
Smith’s (possessive) Smiths (collective noun)
VIPs (plural) ‘A’s and ‘B’s (plural)
1960’s (possessive) 1960s (era, decade)
Redundancy
    These phrases concern superfluous wording, excess verbiage that add nothing and dull their sentences. I’ve probably used “tenth-year anniversary” without realizing it.
first-year anniversary ✘ first anniversary
hot water heater ✘ water heater
red in color ✘ red
large in size ✘ large
political in nature ✘ political
Prepositional Requirements
    Discussed above, these two words require certain prepositions. Emigrate implies leaving one’s country and generally requires ‘from’, especially if ‘to’ is present. Immigrate implies entering a new residency and requires the target ‘to’, particularly if ‘from’ appears. Some uses require no prepositions at all: “He plans to emigrate.”
emigrated to ✘ emigrated from
immigrate from ✘ immigrate to
Incorrect Usage
    The following common nonsensical words and incorrect phrases include misspellings and misunderstandings. That said, many of us would like to apply “nipped in the butt” from time to time.
baited breath ✘ bated breath
boldface lie ✘ baldface lie
chalk full ✘ chock full
chock it up ✘ chalk it up
could care less ✘ couldn’t care less
dark-complected ✘ dark-complexioned
deep-seeded ✘ deep-seated
do diligence ✘ due diligence
expresso ✘ espresso
extract revenge ✘ exact revenge
free reign ✘ free rein
honed in on ✘ homed in on
irregardless ✘ regardless
jerry-rigged ✘ jury-rigged
make due ✘ make do
mute issue/point/question ✘ moot
nip in the butt ✘ nip in the bud
peak my interest ✘ pique my interest
per say ✘ per se
perview ✘ purview
piece of mind ✘ peace of mind
shoe-in ✘ shoo-in
should of, would of ✘ should have, would have
slight of hand ✘ sleight of hand
sneak peak ✘ sneak peek
through the ringer ✘ through the wringer
tie me over ✘ tide me over
tow the line ✘ toe the line
unthaw ✘ thaw
wet the appetite ✘ whet the appetite
worse comes to worse ✘ worse comes to worst

Do you find any of these troublesome?

What addition would you make?

20 March 2021

Hitched and Posted


  


Lately some of my SleuthSayers colleagues have been discussing their recent short stories and the way they were written--either the ideas that spawned them or the genres involved or the styles used, etc.--and I've found every one of those posts fun to read. Like novels, every story is different, to both the writer and the reader, and behind-the-scenes glimpses can be interesting.

At the moment I have stories in the current issues of (I think) six magazines, but I'll talk about two of the most recent: "Friends and Neighbors" in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and "Fool's Gold" in The Saturday Evening Post.

"Friends and Neighbors" (March/April 2021 issue) is my 21st story in AHMM, and the fifth installment of a series I've been writing about Sheriff Raymond Kirk Douglas and his ex-lawyer girlfriend Jennifer Parker. In this one, which is about 3300 words, Ray is struggling with two different mysteries--one at the request of an old friend who's a police officer in another town and one involving Jennifer and a cousin who's trying to cheat her out of part of an inheritance from a recently-deceased aunt. There are no murders in this particular story, but plenty of misdeeds: thefts, break-ins, forgeries, impersonations, lies, betrayals, etc. (Welcome to small towns and dealing with relatives.)

A lot of this story is dialogue, which is always a treat for me as a writer, and it has a fairly lighthearted mood. And, like the other stories in this series, it's set in the contemporary south and written in first-person, from the viewpoint of the sheriff. A quick note, here: I write in several different genres and time periods and most often write in third-person POV (either single or multiple). Anytime I choose to use first-person, the story is usually present-day and the viewpoint character is a male. I'm not saying I would never write a first-person story that's set in the distant past and has a female protagonist, but I don't think I would feel as comfortable and confident if I did. I'm not sure I could relate closely enough to, say, a princess in medieval England to try to tell a story in only her voice. What do some of you think about that issue? Is it even an issue?

One thing I've been experimenting with, in the Ray Douglas series, is occasionally incorporating multiple mysteries into one story. Here's how that's going, so far:


Story #1 of the series, "Trail's End" (AHMM, July/Aug 2017), involves only one plot: trying to solve a murder with four different suspects. Three of them are circus performers, which might say something about my mental state when I dreamed up the story.

Story #2, "Scavenger Hunt" (AHMM, Jan/Feb 2018), is the first to include more than one mystery. This story includes three: a con-game attempt that starts things off, a department-store robbery in the middle, and a murder at the end.

Story #3, "Quarterback Sneak" (AHMM, Mar/Apr 2020), features one mystery, involving a murder disguised as a drowning and a unique way of hiding the victim's body.

Story #4, "The Daisy Nelson Case" (Down & Out: the Magazine, Dec 2020), also has only one plot--a locked-room murder mystery--but is still one of the longer stories in the series.

Story #5, "Friends and Neighbors" (AHMM, Mar/Apr 2021), includes two different mysteries, as discussed above.

Story #6, "Going the Distance" (accepted by AHMM but no pub date yet), involves only one mystery: a dead body discovered on a snowy highway.

Story #7, "The Dollhouse" (accepted by AHMM but no pub date yet), has two mysteries: a school bullying/intimidation incident and the murder of a local lawyer.

Story #8, "The POD Squad" (submitted to AHMM but no verdict yet), features three mysteries: a jewelry-store heist, the theft of a cellphone at a science fair, and a home robbery/assault.


My point is, I've had fair success lately with blending several different cases, puzzles, and plotlines into the same story, at least now and then, and making them somehow tie together. It's sort of a juggling act, but it feels right. Have any of you tried doing this?

Another story out right now is "Fool's Gold," in the March/April 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. The print edition of the Post publishes six short stories a year, one in each bimonthly issue. This is my ninth story there, seven of which have been in the mystery/crime genre. (With the exception of some strictly literary magazines, I think most publications--whether they say so or not--are receptive to stories with some mystery/suspense elements. How could anyone not like those, right?)

"Fool's Gold" is a mystery only if you apply Otto Penzler's generous definition, which says (and I'm paraphrasing) that any story with a crime central to its plot can be categorized as a mystery. Truthfully, this story is more of a Western. I could say that it's historical crime fiction, which would also be true, but let's be honest: it's a story set in the Dakota Territory in the late 1870s with gunmen and horses and saloon girls and prospectors. And if a story looks like a Western and quacks like a Western, that's probably what it is.

I will also say this, though. It's one of my favorite stories ever, and one that I had a great time writing.

As for specifics, "Fool's Gold" is a standalone story of about 3800 words, it includes (again) a great deal of dialogue, and it's told in third-person limited. Part of the fun, for me, was that one of the main characters and four or five off-screen characters are real historical figures who lived in that place at that time. Fitting those people into the story was enjoyable as well as challenging, and I suspect that might've been one of the things that helped the Post decide to buy it. Maybe "historical fiction" or "period piece" was in their minds at the time, rather than "Western."

Other stories I have in current issues of magazines are "The Big Picture" in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, "Nobody's Business" in Strand Magazine, "The Daisy Nelson Case" in Down & Out, and "Twenty Minutes in Riverdale" in Pulp Modern. All these are mysteries, with others of several different genres coming up in Mystery Weekly, AHMM, St. Anthony Messenger, the Strand, Woman's World, BCMM, Sherlock Holmes MM, Hoosier Noir, and others. I also have a story, "Tourist Trap," that went up this week at Pulp Modern Flash. If you happen to come across any of these, either sooner or later, I hope you like them.

Please let me know, in the comments, if you have any stories in current or upcoming publications, and where I and our readers might look for them. And how about non-mystery markets like SF, horror, fantasy, romance, Western, and literary? Do any of you write for those, or are you considering it? 

Whatever kinds of tales you're creating and wherever they appear, congratulations to all who are writing, submitting, and publishing, and thanks to those who are reading. Keep it up!

I hope you're having as much fun as I am.




19 March 2021

Thank God for the Man Who Put the White Lines on the Highway


 

Every city has its sound. That's part of what goes into the setting. There are jazz towns like New Orleans, Chicago, and San Francisco. Memphis is all about country and roots-based rock. Nashville owns country. I won't call Seattle grunge, but Seattle still burns the punk torch.

Living here in Cincinnati, I sometimes lament that I moved to a "wedding singer" town. The bands here all play cover tunes, although my former spouse is married to a guy who plays some tasty Southern Rock originals. (Link at the end of the article, with a few others you might like.) Some cities are like that, content to have bands that do nothing but cover tunes. Which is sad because I really think rock would benefit from hearing originals from the Rusty Griswolds, Naked Karate Girls, or the Menus, all highly regarded Cincinnati bands that sometimes sound better than the ones they cover.

But, if I haven't beaten you over the head with it recently enough, I grew up in the multi-county empire known as Cleveland. And Cleveland gave us not only the name "rock and roll," it gave us Kansas transplant Joe Walsh, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and the spell he put on you, half the members of The Cars, and Nine Inch Nails. (Yes, they started in Cleveland as an offshoot of another band Trent Reznor played in, the Exotic Birds.) Unfortunately, it also gave us Eric Carmen with the song that caused a million wrists to be slit, "All by Myself." (Thanks, Eric. The makers of prozac, Xanax, and Paxil thank you.)

It also gave us one Michael Stanley Gee.

Who?

Better known as Michael Stanley. Of the Michael Stanley Band. Those of us of a certain age will remember three of his songs. Those of us from the Midwest of that same certain age will remember quite a few more. (Working from home, his last regional hit, "Shut Up and Leave Me Alone" gets put on heavy rotation on Spotify whenever the sales team has a "crisis.") The first is that early eighties guilty pleasure, "He Can't Love You Like I Love You." Michael doesn't sing on this one, but he is memorable.




As you can see from the video, the city's blue-collar, manufacturing ethic is on full display here. "He Can't Love You..." was a fun song and a breakout hit for MSB (as we know them). Joe Walsh and Eric Carmen left town to make it big, as would Trent Reznor when NIN gained traction. MSB insisted on staying put. After all, you can travel to New York to record and tour anywhere. Why should they abandon their hometown? Over on the country side, Willie Nelson did not really gain success until he went home to Austin, Texas. That might have contributed to their difficulties breaking the charts.

The second song is Cleveland at heart, a jilted boyfriend making the long, lonely drive home during a snowstorm. "Lover" has a line that, if you're from that area, you hear over and over every winter. "Thank God for the man who put the white lines on the highway." Even before I knew what noir meant, I thought the song was noir as hell.




It's companion song, "In the Heartland," is pretty much their signature tune and explicitly mentions local spots, including the "boys on Mayfield" looking for a fight. Readers of Les Roberts's work will recognize that particular street as the turf of Cosa Nostra off-shoots, the Mayfield Road Mob, purveyors of fine illegal booze from 1920 through 1933.





Of course, I wax nostalgic about one of my graduating class's high school heroes as Michael Stanley pass away a couple weeks ago. After he called it a career, Stanley joined local classic rock station WNCX as an on-air personality and worked in television. He was a natural, an affable, down-to-Earth guy who refused to surrender his blue collar roots. We still love him for it.

So, perhaps it's fitting that I leave you with MSB's final hit, an ode to his hometown that should have been the state rock and roll song. (I still haven't forgiven Governor Celeste for picking "Hang on, Sloopy." Jerk.) Because like Michael Stanley, Cleveland is still very much "My Town."




For that tasty Southern rock I mentioned, check out the Russell Jinkins XL Band on Facebook.
 
And for more Northcoast rock, check out Northcoast Shakedown. No, I had nothing to do with the band. Except sharing DNA with the oh-so-talented lead guitarist, Chris Hottle. That, and I might have signed off on the name.

18 March 2021

A Kinder, Gentler...Bootlegger


Roy Olmstead
 Two weeks ago I wrote about rum runners and the ships that anchored out into international waters anddelivered illegally imported booze to them. This week I've decided to move ashore and talk about the guys who offloaded the hootch and ran the considerable risks (at equally considerable profit) of delivering to a thirsty nation.

And one guy in particular. Ex-cop and "gentleman bootlegger" Roy Olmstead.

Born and raised in Nebraska, Olmstead moved to Seattle in 1904 (aged 18) and worked in a shipyard before joining the Seattle Police three years later, in 1907. Within ten years, Olmstead was a lieutenant. That lasted for three years, because once Prohibition kicked in Olmstead realized the massive amount of money to be made supplying illegal liquor to the masses, and began a side business running hootch. 

And this very week in March of 1920, Olmstead was nearly caught in a raid. He escaped, but was recognized by one of his fellow officers, and was arrested at his home the next morning. The whole escapade cost Olmstead a $500 fine and his job.

Rather than be discouraged, Olmstead threw himself whole-heartedly into the illegal liquor distribution business, and over the next five years became one of the most successful 'leggers in America. By 1925 his operation was one of the biggest employers in the Puget Sound region, had started up his own successful radio station (which his wife largely ran out of their home, and which he used to help get coded messages to his contacts in the liquor business.).

He delivered to such infamous speakeasies as the "Bucket of Blood" (actual name: the Hong Kong Chinese Society). He put cops (LOTS of them) on his payroll to act as lookouts for his operations. He eventually had his own boat, the "Zambesie," which he sent to pick up shipments in the Haro Strait.

Olmstead always seemed able to either stay one step ahead of or buy off both the feds and local law enforcement. This included the Canadian authorities, who taxed liquor bound for the States at a higher rate than booze bound for places like Mexico (after all, it was only illegal to bring liquor into the U.S. In Canada there was no law against exporting to the States.). So Olmstead would hire ships in Vancouver, fill them to the gunwales with booze, forge papers saying they were bound for Mexico, then have them sailed down into Puget Sound and offloaded with no one the wiser.

And he managed this without resorting to the varieties of violence so common everywhere else in America that Prohibition ran up against organized crime only too willing to break legs to get what it wanted. And no prostitution, racketeering, no other illegal activities. Just running booze. The best booze money could buy. Olmstead didn't cut his liquor with furniture polish. Only the best for his customers.

And it worked. Eventually he was profiting to the tune of $200,000 a month. 

It couldn't last.

The Seattle Police tapped his phone. In 1925 Olmstead got hauled before a federal grand jury on two counts of conspiracy to violate the Prohibition Act. He was convicted, sentenced to four years in prison, appealed all the way to the Supreme Court (Olmstead v. United States), claiming that the wiretap evidence was inadmissible. (The Supreme Court disagreed.)


Olmstead went to jail at McNeil Island in 1927, once his appeals had run their course. He was a model prisoner, served his entire four years, converted to Christian Science and even testified on the government's behalf on a number of subsequent federal cases. 

He learned carpentry in prison and once he was released in 1931, he began volunteering in a number of prison outreach programs, focusing specifically on dealing with alcoholism. He taught Sunday school. For the remaining thirty-six years of his life (he died aged 79 in 1966), Olmstead remained popular with the community, never losing the famous charm that had stood him in such good stead while he was the so-called "King of the Bootleggers."

Roy Olmstead on his way to jail in 1927. Smiling.


17 March 2021

By Way Of No Explanation



  I'm working on a story with a twist ending and I am trying to figure out how much to explain.  It's a tricky thing.  Wherever I draw the line there will be some people who are baffled and others who find it blindingly  obvious.

All twist endings are surprises but not all surprise endings are twists.  Have you ever read a story or watched a movie and immediately wanted to start it over to see if  the author played fair, or notice what you missed?  That is a twist ending.

Ideally you want the twist to happen with a bang.  You don't want to have to spend pages and pages explaining it.  It should be a self-evident flash of lightning, not a lengthy stretch of exposition.  There is a reason everyone loves the end of The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects, but people complain about the last few minutes of Psycho (after the shocking climax).

And so it is with my story.  I could end by taking five hundred words to say: "Years ago Character A did x to Character B.  And, in the present day, because Character C is related to B, he chose to do y."  

Instead I pared it down a single sentence nine words long.  They are carefully chosen, fully foreshadowed words, but only nine of them.  (By the way, I generally get paid by the word.  See the sacrifices I make for my art?)

If this thing gets published I am sure some readers will get frustrated.  Some will go back and read the story again to see that it all makes perfect sense.  And some will be delighted.

Or maybe the editors will hate it and I'll have to start over.  Wouldn't that be a twist?

By the way, yesterday Trace Evidence, the blog of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, published a new piece of mine about the difficulties of writing a series about the same character.  Enjoy.


16 March 2021

Drafts? I Don’t Keep No Stinking Drafts!



When Eve Fisher wrote “I’m so relieved to hear that I’m not the only one with 50 versions of the same damn story on my hard drive” in her response to Bob Mangeot’s SleuthSayers post “Don’t Make Me Turn This Car Around,” I spit my drink across the room. Then I reread Bob’s post and realized I’d missed his mention of having “75 versions” of a story on his hard drive.

Clearly, Bob, Eve, and writers like them live in a different universe than I do. I only ever have a single draft of a story—the current draft, which, when I finish fussing with it, becomes the final draft.

I’ve found that keeping multiple versions of a story encourages me to look backward while I’m working—How did I handle the second scene in version three? Was the dialog in the fifth scene more pithy in version twelve? Why did I insert so many exclamation points in version twenty-seven?—when what I should do, and what I try to do, is constantly look forward.

Perhaps part of the reason I don’t keep multiple versions of stories is that I never actually have multiple versions. I write and edit as I go so that my first complete draft is my final or near-final draft. Often all that’s required at that point is a serious, in-depth proofreading.

Not all writers work as I do. Some pound their way through a draft, dumping everything into it as they go. Then they create a second draft, rearranging scenes, rethinking their characters’ motivations, revising so many bits and pieces that the second draft may actually be a different story. Then they do the same again for a third draft.

DRAFTED

Okay, I lied. There are two exceptions to my having only one version of a story:

1) Early in my career I wrote for men’s magazines. Many of the stories were equally appropriate for genre magazines with one exception: graphic sex. So, I sometimes created two versions of a story: one with graphic sex intended for men’s magazines and one without graphic sex intended for genre magazines. Sometimes the version with sex sold; sometimes the version without sex sold. (And sometimes I sold first rights to the version with sex and later sold the sexless version as a “slightly modified” reprint.)

2) When I receive a copyedited ms. from an editor, I maintain my original version until we’ve completed the editing process and the story’s been published. Then I delete my version and retain only the published version.

DO YOU FEEL A DRAFT?

So, one-and-done or multiple versions? Is one method better than the other?

Nah.

Whether you’re a one-and-done writer or a 75-versions writer, the end result is likely the same: a publishable story.

And that’s what we’re all striving for.