11 January 2021

When An Explorer Is Not Equipped With A Vocabulary


 

Quadrant. Check.
Charts. Check.
Quills and ink. Check.

Before setting sail on his voyage of discovery in 1492, Columbus had to make sure he and his ships were well equipped.

EVA suit. Check.
Pistol grip tool. Check.
Safety tethers. Check.

As you can see, the equipment of a 21st-century astronaut differed greatly from that of a 15th- century navigator. But the purpose of explorers across history is always the same: not only to go out and see, but to report back to the rest of us who can't go and see for themselves.

I found a list of the "ten best" real-life adventure books, nominated by a panel of explorers, in esquire.com. The five written by the explorers themselves were:
The Kon-Tiki Expedition (1950) by Thor Heyerdahl
The Worst Journey in the World (1922) by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Lost In the Jungle (2005) by Yossi Ghinsberg
Touching the Void (1988) by Joe Simpson
Into the Heart of Borneo (1987) by Redmond O'Hanlon

And how about literary figures like the 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton? This fascinating man was a soldier, a diplomat, a spy, a translator of the classic Indian and Arabian erotic texts, and more, tarnished only by anti-Semitic beliefs. (Honestly, Sir Richard!) Isabella Bird, the first woman admitted to the Royal Geographical Society? T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, not an explorer but an articulate participant in a culture not his own? In fact, a vast body of travel literature appeared in the 19th century, when exploring became a fever and publishing one's journals and observations a goal for those who made it back. Since then, we've been able to read all about the world beyond our own experience.

But what about explorers who have no gift for describing what they see? What use are their travels to the rest of us?

This is not merely a modern problem.

Samuel Eliot Morison, the hallowed biographer of Columbus, won a Pulitzer for Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Morison, who replicated all the Admiral's voyages in his own sailboat, raves about Columbus's skill as a navigator and creator of charts a modern sailor could still use. Morison doesn't mind that Columbus was no naturalist nor complain that there was no naturalist aboard to describe the abundance of unfamiliar flora and fauna the Europeans saw.

But Kirkpatrick Sale, in Christopher Columbus and the Conquest of Paradise, complains: "To convey the lush density and stately grandeur of those tropical forests, he had little more than the modifiers 'green' and 'very.'" He goes on to quote from the Admiral's journals and letters back to Spain in late 1492: "'very green trees,' 'trees very green,' 'trees so green and with leaves like those of Castile,' 'large groves very green,' 'trees beautiful and green'..."; as well as his inarticulate expression of diversity: "'trees of a thousand kinds,' 'a thousand sorts of trees,' 'trees different from ours,' 'trees of a thousand kinds'...".

It wasn't only Columbus. Sale quotes Oxford scholar J.H. Elliott as saying that in general, "'the physical appearance of the New World is either totally ignored or else described in the flattest and most conventional phraseology [by 16th-century European explorers].'" Sale says: "This lack of interest was reflected in the lack of vocabulary, the lack of that facility common to nature-based peoples whose cultures are steeped in nature imagery."

It makes perfect sense, right? But it wouldn't happen now, we think. Twenty-first century exploration, whether to the few wild places left on Planet Earth or into space, has or will have all sorts of experts and the equipment to measure minutely and report accurately what they observe.

But who will receive this information? Our spacegoing scientists report the details to NASA, which, depending on the details, usually means the government and/or the military. The rest of us get the media-grabbing highlights. And what are those, these days?

In 1969, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, we got a few words to inspire:
"One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

On May 12, 2017, the way I heard it, when astronaut Jack Fisher was asked for his impression of space on his first spacewalk, he said, "It was awesomesauce."

When I checked, it turned out what he actually replied to, "What's it like?" was "A ginormous fondue pot, bubbling over with piping hot awesomesauce.” Let that be a lesson to me and all you writers out there. Always check your sources! But that's beside the point.

If all we, the people, learn from our explorers is that what's out there is "green" or "awesomesauce," will exploration eventually be deemed not worth the effort? More likely, our culture will conclude that since pictures do the job and words do not, words have no value whatsoever.

We don't want that, do we?

Liz's Jewish historical adventure novel, Voyage of Strangers, offers an alternative perspective on Columbus's explorations. The sequel is Journey of Strangers, set partly in São Tomé off the coast of West Africa and partly in the Ottoman Empire.

10 January 2021

B2020 and A2020: How 2020 has influenced what we want to read and what we will write.


As we are bombarded with news of COVID-19 deaths, the rising unemployment and the latest attack on Capital Hill - many of us wonder how this can happen and why do some people not care?

More and more we are hearing stories from the frontline, from the unemployment line, from lines at food-banks and, from homes where seniors live. We are hearing about policies that thoughtlessly harm others and we ask - didn’t they even think about these people’s lives?

After living through 2020 – and face it, 2020 might just be a prologue to the book  “The Horrors of 2021” - we will never be the same and I suspect that what we want to read is forever changed. 

Literature changes because readers change. 

When I was a child, I would often rummage through my father’s extensive library. I remember some old books, where the room would be meticulously described, from the sun dappled curtains to the chair with slightly worn arms. These descriptions would often be a page long. I remember wondering if I was simply less observant than most people or if these descriptions were simply overdone. Being a curious child, I watched my friends and family carefully. I decided that none of them spent enough time observing to be able to write a page of details and that the people in these books had a different life, were different people or the author just made up stuff. I would still read some of those books but with a stern skim over the sun dappled this, the intricate patterns of that and any other such useless info. 

There are many takes on the immense suffering we have seen in 2020, but I suspect many readers will be drawn to different writers. Just as none of us have patience for a page long descriptions as characters enter a room, I believe we will have less patience for characters who wander the world doing things, noticing things but failing to empathize with people. Let’s face it, Sherlock Holmes was delightful, but who is going to write a book today where the characters notice the hair, that came from a rare species of cat, owned by only two families in the city, coupled with a smudge of brown dust from a particular type of stone, found in the statues of lions that sit by the doorway of one of those families? Yep. No one. Most of us read it, but we don’t write like that anymore. 

I think that many readers who have lived through this year - and the worse year that is coming - will demand characters with empathy. Not sympathy, but empathy. 

The definition of empathy is: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

This stands in contrast to sympathy defined as: sympathy implies sharing (or having the capacity to share) the feelings of another, while empathy tends to be used to mean imagining, or having the capacity to imagine, feelings that one does not actually have.

If 2020 has made many of us yearn for anything, it is for people who have empathy and can imagine and feel what someone else is feeling - without having to be explicitly told and without having to have felt it themselves. Why? Because we are not all 90-year-old women, living alone in a care home, unable to see anyone. We are not all a single mother, with children to feed but with no money to feed them after we lost our job. We are not all ICU doctors, struggling to cope with losing patient after patient nor are we those who have to transport body after body to refrigerated trucks. We are not any of these people but we want someone, any one, to care about these people and tell us about them. 

What about sympathy – understanding the feelings that we actually have? This feels a little self-centred and, these days more than ever, the self-centred are at best unpopular and at worst, the villains of 2020: from anti-maskers to those who care only about staying in power.

I suspect many of us, who read voraciously,  and who have lived through this time , will want books with more characters who understand and feel what others are feeling and put us in their shoes. Detective novels highlighting not merely action but also empathy might become much more popular. I suspect this is true for all types of writing, from news stories to medical writing. I suspect we might have had our fill of self-centred characters, and I also suspect that they will often be cast as villains because, goodness knows, it feels ugly now. I have found that news stories, articles and - one could argue - political choices seem to already incorporate empathy more than before this dreadful year.

One could argue that good writing has always put us in the shoes of others, immersing us in their worlds. Somewhat true - but it is about the weight one gives to certain things. Do we devote pages to describe a room when a character enters it? Not anymore. So writing may have many elements in common but weight given differs. Weighting empathy heavily would change what we read. 

This may just be my new perspective but I doubt it. However, from a personal point of view, I am eager to read the new types of articles, books and characters born from 2020. I also look forward to new ways of telling the news, writing medical articles - any type of writing that tries to reach people who have lived this terrible year and await, with some trepidation, the unveiling of 2021. 

Whatever happens with various forms of writing, I believe that there will be fundamental changes in what writers write and readers read because we will never be the same after 2020.

09 January 2021

Nashville Strong


Years from now, when the good movie versions and bad movie versions are made, when the true crime shows have examined witnesses and motives, we’ll have a fuller picture of Nashville’s Christmas Day bombing. As your man in Nashville, I’ll reflect on the incident now. I think I should.

credit: © Forbes.com

No apartment residents died, no cops or other first responders. The injured will heal. That’s a blessing. The bomber died, and I don’t cheer that. I don’t cheer what haunts anyone struggling with behavioral health issues. But I won’t be working up unconditional sympathy for bombers any time soon.

Full disclosure: I live in Franklin, twenty-ish minutes south with no traffic. I was nowhere near the explosion. You’ll hear people say they heard it a county away. They didn’t. I didn’t. Not one friend who lives downtown suffered more than a boom and a scare. No damage to me or mine. Nashville's damage, though, is real. It could’ve been horrific.

Early news reports called the bombing site “a residential block off downtown” or “on the fringe of the entertainment district.” The hell it is. Second Avenue--Market Street before 1904--has always been at Nashville’s core. That Cumberland riverport vibe still hangs in the air. The old warehouses and trader shops are today’s clubs and restaurants and tourist traps stores. At a peak time, hundreds of people would’ve jammed that block. If this stretch is “quiet,” as the national news said, it’s because just to the south begins Lower Broadway’s Nashvegas honky tonks lately of the boom years.

We’ve seen what truck bombs can do, as with Oklahoma City. That was what we locals talked and texted about in those first few days. Why pick a block largely shuttered for the pandemic? On a holiday at the least crowded time possible? Why blare that weird recording to force cop attention and an evacuation? If you really wanted to avoid casualties, why not go another block north? It’s mostly parking.

As I write this, we still have only a sketch what the bomber wanted. Politics, of its warped kind. In letters mailed shortly before his suicide, the bomber raved conspiracy theories and crackpot ideas about lizard people and aliens taking over Earth. He’d even been fingered as big trouble brewing by his then-girlfriend, though the FBI and local law enforcement missed the signals.

His possible target feels a little clearer. That block has a hidden something special. You wouldn’t even notice the telecom hub if you walked past. Its tasteful brick is well-designed camouflage against the nightspots across the street. Nashville tip, y’all: Honky tonks are loud, inside and out.

Wait, you say, Nashville has a major telecom hub smack in your commercial district?

Let’s rewind to those riverport days. Nashville’s importance was real– ask the Union Army and many a railroad baron– but as a regional transport crossroads and state capital. This place was no one’s metropolis. For proof: You don’t find many Nashvillians of a certain age who were actually born in Nashville. In 1950, the MSA notched 322,000 folks. Any day now, Nashville passes 2,000,000 souls. When you boom like that, a lot of things are stuck where they used to be, including infrastructure. Where could you move them when the center city is piling up with gentrified housing?

It was weird in that aftermath. Frustrating. Much cell service was out for days. People couldn’t get a hold of each other. They couldn’t call 911. Air traffic was grounded. Residents for blocks can't get into their homes, maybe ever. These old buildings could collapse. Friends mention bad dreams and psychological impact. That’s more than understandable. It’s natural. Second Avenue is a place many of us fight the bachelorette parties and conventioneers to take in riverfront concerts, or we embrace the throngs and relish some truly spectacular people-watching. We’ve eaten in those bombed-out restaurants. And where there’s one bomber, there could’ve been more bombs and the inevitable lame copycat.

credit: © WKRN.com

Nobody had a great 2020, and COVID-19 initially hit many regions much harder. Still, Nashville had us a year. In the bleak March days of the early shutdown, an EF-3 tornado ripped a swathe just north of downtown. The storm system leveled neighborhoods as it moved east. In May, a derecho made it double the wind damage and left an extended power outage. A few weeks later, those Nashvegas bars self-inflicted a wound by opening up too soon and with token enforcement of social distancing restrictions. A reckless house party of the super-entitled made national news. Then came the case spikes and hospitalizations, and those boot-scootin’ bars ended up with a black eye and deeper money hole. Folks who work or gig in those bars are getting crushed financially.

Then a downtown bomb on Christmas morning.

But Nashville is already stronger for it. That’s been true everywhere a bomb goes off. The fever-dreamed among us get so caught up in their own noise that they lose a simple fact: The world is full of good people. Resilient people. Years from now, that’s what the best movie versions will show: We won what they started. We pushed forward just fine.

08 January 2021

Sherlock Holmes: Brilliant on Paper


Fate or William S. Baring-Gould hath decreed that the January of every year must be devoted to the pursuit of Sherlockiana. So maybe it’s worth sharing that I made the acquaintance of Mr. Sherlock Holmes sometime in the mid-1970s, when he appeared under the tree one Christmas, dolled up in cheap wrapping paper. He resided in a curious boxed set containing six paperback volumes that probably set Santa back $7.50.

To be honest, I had tried to make sense of Holmes when I was even younger, paging through a heavy hardcover I’d found in my school library. I didn’t enjoy my first rodeo with the gentleman from Baker Street. Back then, I was under the sweet impression that one read books by starting at page one, and proceeding thenceforth until you reached the final page. Page 1 of that musty, water-stained hardcover meant starting with A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes novel. Critical to the canon, to be sure, but probably not the best jumping-off point for a fourth grader. Bored and overwhelmed, I returned the book to the library and promptly forgot about Holmes.

But years later, I was older and had begun consuming Ellery Queen novels like they were bags of potato chips. It helped that the covers of the Holmes paperbacks were enticingly illustrated by an artist identified only as ANDERSON. The Holmes in these images was a pale, hatchet-faced genius. But if I had started at A Study in Scarlet again, I probably would have given that genius a pass for the second time. I was saved by the mostly unlikely component of a book that a kid would ever care about: the introduction.


Each of these books bore a short intro by a famous mystery writer. Ed McBain, for example, introduces A Study in Scarlet by pointing out how often in this maiden adventure Holmes (that is to say, Doyle) mocks policemen and police work. McBain hilariously describes what would happen if the men of the 87th Precinct took Holmes in for questioning, and charged him with defamation.



Joe Gores, who introduces The Memoirs and who spent a dozen years as a real-life private investigator, lovingly pokes holes in Holmes’s skills as a private consulting detective.



P.G. Wodehouse, who made a career out of skewering the British upper crust, theorizes in his introduction to The Sign of the Four that Holmes must have deep pockets since no one ever seems to pay him very much to solve their little problems. Wodehouse riffs on this for a while before revealing his theory about the source of Holme’s filthy lucre: Holmes was in fact Moriarty all along!



All great stuff, by great writers, but it was all lost on me, because in 1975, I had yet to enter the squad room at the 87th precinct. I knew nothing of Jeeves and Bertie. I sure as heck had not read a single adventure of The Executioner (author Don Pendleton intro’d The Hound of the Baskervilles), nor The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (written by Nicholas Meyer, who introduced The Return…).




No. The only introduction that caught my eye was the one opening The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It was a now-famous essay by Frederic Dannay in which he tells how a loving aunt presented him with a library copy of The Adventures to pass the time when he was a bedridden with an ear infection. I had no idea that I was reading the words of one-half of Ellery Queen. I was utterly clueless about the nature of their authorship. The name on the cover of the book said Ellery Queen, and in my ears I heard the voice of the late actor Jim Hutton:

I opened the book with no realization that I stood—rather, I sat—on the brink of my fate. I had no inkling, no premonition, that in another minute my life’s work would be born…

***

I started on the first page of “A Scandal in Bohemia” and truly the game was afoot. The unbearable pain in my ear…vanished! The abyss of melancholy into with a twelve-year-old can sink…forgotten!
The rest, of course, was history. “Ellery” reads the book in a single night, wakes the next morning, drags himself to the library with a throbbing ear, and begs a librarian to let him have more Holmes, even though he does not yet have a library card. He leaves with The Memoirs, A Study in Scarlet, and The Hound, and devours them each in turn. Well, this was promising, I thought, diving into the very first adventure myself.

I enjoyed that fogbound world a good deal, perhaps not as much as the young Dannay. I just didn’t grasp a lot of the finer plot points. Some of the endings struck me as ambiguous, as if the world’s adults had conspired to leave kids in the dark at every turn. Even today I don’t think the Holmes stories make ideal reading for kids. (A future column on this assertion is in the works.)

But still, I treasured that little boxed set and its colorful covers. It never occurred to me until years later that I had not read every single Holmes adventure. For some reason, probably having to do with cost, Ballantine had omitted three further books—The Valley of Fear, His Last Bow, and The Case-Book—from the set. I didn’t discover them until college, and it was a delight to find that the hansom cab had kindly consented to stop for me one more time. This time around, I understood the nuances of Holmes’s world far better. I loved the prickly old coot.

My childhood boxed set was lost during one of my moves, and I had to wait for the Internet and online bookselling to be invented before I could be reunited with another version of them. This set lives face out on the top of my living room bookshelves. All I have to do is glance up to see Holmes sneering down at me. “You will not abandon me again,” he seems to be saying, and I swear that I shan’t, ever.

* * * 

By the way: Years ago I acquired Baring-Gould's Annotated Holmes and, slavishly, the newer annotation by Leslie S. Klinger—though I have to admit that they are more suitable for bench-pressing workouts than long nights reading in front of the fire, all the while cutting off circulation to your femoral arteries.

However, by far the best ebook version of the Holmes canon I’ve found is the one published by Top-Five Books, which includes all the stories and all the illustrations that appeared when the stories were first published. Check it out here.

See you in three weeks!


In these pandemic times, two of the three volumes in my Annotated Sherlock Holmes (Klinger edition) serve as Denise's laptop stand in her Zoom corner (seen through her ring light).




07 January 2021

A Day We'll Not Soon Forget (Plus New Year's Resolutions)


 Phew. 

A reminder and a marker laid down for our future

Let me take a breath.

What a day.

Lucky me, getting my turn in the rotation on the day after armed insurrectionists mobbed our national capitol.

And here I was going to talk about New Year's resolutions.

Well, if the past few years have taught me anything, it's that flexibility is a big part of a life well-lived. So let's be flexible.

Like many of our readers, I have been eager to put 2020 behind me and embrace a new year, one with the promise of vaccination against this horrendous, never-ending pandemic, a restoration of some semblance of "normality" to our daily lives.

As part of this enthusiasm for a change, I made the New Years' resolutions I intended to share in today's blog post. Mine are pretty basic:

1. Sleep more (at least eight hours per night).

2. Eat better.

3. Cut out diet soda.

4. Exercise more.

(And a week in, so far, so good.)

That's it. No writing resolutions. As I laid out in my Christmas Eve post two weeks ago, I had a host of 2020 writing resolutions, and I knocked them out of the park. Overwhelmingly successful on that front, with the single exception of finishing my current novel. But that's going to get done this year. No resolution, just a statement of fact, because I cleared all of my other existing writing projects and published a three novella collection in November!

And, because I am both a student and a teacher of history, I would like to take a moment and briefly address what took place in the U.S. Capitol today.

Let me begin to saying how utterly horrified I was to serve as a remote witness to the violence visited upon our capitol and our republic today. There is no getting around the facts: a mob, whipped into a frenzy by our current president, marched to the Capitol and interrupted Congress' confirmation count of the 2020 election results. They chased the Congress into lockdown. They took selfies all over the Capitol (and published them on social media. Evidence much?). They smashed. They stole. They burned. They dropped at least two explosive devices in their wake. Four people lost their lives.

For some context, the Capitol has been the scene of violence a number of times before. The British burned it in August of 1814

In May of 1856 a South Carolina congressman named Preston Brooks entered the Senate Chamber, and
broke his cane beating the stuffing out of New England anti-slavery firebrand senator Charles Sumner
. Brooks insisted he was defending the honor of his kinsman, a South Carolina senator Sumner had just insulted in a speech on the Senate floor. Brooks was censured in the House, resigned, and was reelected to his open seat in the House. Members of Congress went to the Capitol heavily armed for months afterward. The incident was just one more step on the road to the Civil War. 

In March of 1954 a group of four Puerto Rican separatists opened fire in the House of Representatives and wounded five congressmen. They languished in jail for years before being paroled in the late 1960s.

If I had to guess, I would say that the thugs who took pictures of themselves sitting in places like Speaker Pelosi's office today, who looted the Capitol, who shattered windows and broke down doors, and left their trash heaped in their wake are far more likely to come suffer a consequence similar to the one suffered by those Puerto Rican separatists (arrest, prosecution and imprisonment) than the lack of them Preston Brooks experienced. They're already being tracked and identified on Twitter.

So while I am disgusted and horrified by the events of today, I remain hopeful for the future. Congress certified the Electoral College results this evening after a five hours delay. We bounce back. And we have gotten through worse.

Like that time at his inauguration afterparty when Andrew Jackson had the Executive Mansion staff set up bowls of (alcoholic) punch on the White House lawn to lure the thousands of trespassers who had just completed trashed the "People's House," celebrating his inauguration.

So finally (Remember this number!): See you in two weeks!





06 January 2021

When History Went Up In Smoke


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

05 January 2021

Birthplace of a Story


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

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

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

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

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

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

I never tried to kill my fifth-grade teacher.

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

Happy reading!

04 January 2021

Blurbs Too


by Steve Liskow 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Then I remembered Raymond Bechard and the friend connection.

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

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

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

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

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

Golly, someone actually thinks I'm famous.

03 January 2021

The Skating Mistress Affair, Part IIII


bank vault

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

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


The Commentator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…”

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

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

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

We Leave Our Light Off For You

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

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

But deep in the Shenandoah Valley…

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

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

He’d heard enough.

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

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

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

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

Reanimation

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

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

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

CryptoQuote Encryption Table
↪︎ ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ0123456789 ↪︎
JXOHY28RGUPB1WA736SLZQF5MD40CN9VTKIE

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

Sherlock Holmes Dancing Men translation table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandman’s Encryption Table
  ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ0123456789
selector

↪︎ JXOHY28RGUPB1WA736SLZQF5MD40CN9VTKIE
↪︎ 5FXABTS2V71K9Y6G048HUOLEIPQJNZCDMWR3
V52KGBXSLOM7TIWH6P18Q03NYDJZCEUFR94A

7-of-9 and Other Figures

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

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

This page discusses who shall head the student body.

</body></html>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Flash Gordon Super Decoder Ring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Computer Associates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Five hundred thousand dollars? You are joking.”

“I do not joke.”

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

Bankers, hard-nosed but so naïve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fx is not for sale,” I said flatly.

“You think you can stop us?”

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

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


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

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

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

Loose Ends

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

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

Sand Castles

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 January 2021

A Blurb in the Hand


  

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


Blurbs. Whatchoo talkinbout, Willis?

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


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

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


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

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

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


Blurbs and sub-blurbs

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

 

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

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


A case of blurbed vision

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


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

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

Good for him.


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

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





01 January 2021

Debris


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


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


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


It works in mysteries as well as mainstream fiction.


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


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


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


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


No words necessary
 
 






 


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