21 August 2021

Surviving in a Woman's World


This is a topic I've covered before here at SleuthSayers, and even at the Criminal Brief blog before that, because writing stories for the weekly magazine Woman's World seems to be one of the things I'm often asked about, at meetings, signings, conferences, etc. With all the ups and downs in the publishing universe, WW has somehow kept a big circulation over the years, and the part of the magazine I'm most interested in--its short mystery stories--still has a lot of readers.

The occasion for my writing this post today is that I recently sold my 120th story to Woman's World. Not a usual milestone, I know, but since I have no idea how long this lucky streak will last, I decided not to try to wait until 150 or 200 or something equally round.

Also, for those interested in writing for WW, some things about the magazine have changed since my recent columns on this subject, so I'll try to cover those, along with a summary of WW's content preferences, regarding their short mysteries. And I'll include some story statistics, in case that helps.

First, the changes

Over the years, there have been a lot of adjustments to things like story length, format, and payment for the stories in Woman's World. When I first started submitting to them in 1999 (via snailmail) the maximum wordcount for their mini-mysteries was 1000 and the wordcount for the romance stories was 1500. Eventually the romances went down to 1000 words and then to 800, where it remains today. The mysteries went down from 1000 words to its current max of 700, BUT the last two dozen or so mysteries I've sold them have been even less than that; those stories were all between 500 and 600 words each, which is what the editor seems to prefer. (Don't blame me if you write a 550-word story and they reject it--but that length has worked for me.)

The format of the mystery stories is the biggest change, though this happened a long time ago and you probably know about it already. My first mysteries for WW were traditional stories with regular beginnings, middles, and endings, like the romances--but in 2004 the head fred at the magazine, whoever that was at the time, decided to go to an interactive format in which the reader is invited to solve the puzzle. In fact, the mysteries now don't include the solutions at all; there's a separate "solution box" at the end of each story, which usually appears printed upside down on the same page. Note: the wordcount of your manuscript should include both the text of the story (not the title and byline) and the text in the solution box. Also note: the romances have not changed format. They're still traditional short stories, which many feel are easier to write than the solve-it-yourself format of the mysteries. I don't agree. I think the romances are harder to write and harder to sell, but that's just me.

As for payment, the romance stories once paid a flat rate of $1000 each (thankfully, the only two romances I've sold them were in that era), but that payment has since been lowered to $800 and then to (I believe) $720. That's not as big a reduction as it sounds, when you consider that the required wordcount is now only around half what it used to be--so the payment per word has actually increased. Payment for mysteries was once $500 each, and remained so for many years, but was recently lowered to $450. Still almost a dollar a word, though, so it's hard to complain.

The final change I'll mention is that WW now has a different fiction editor than the last time I visited this subject. The first editor I really knew and worked with was Johnene Granger, who held that position for a long time and was one of the most capable and professional editors I've ever known. After Johnene retired Patricia Riddle Gaddis--also a wonderful editor--took over, and recently the reins were passed to Alexandra Pollock. Alex and her colleague Maggie Dillard have been great to work with as well.

My WW statistics:


Number of mysteries: 118 

Number of romances: 2


Series stories: 112

Standalones: 8


Titles changed by the editor (aargh): 59

Titles unchanged (yay!): 61


Third-person stories: 119

First-person stories: 1


Past-tense stories: 120

Present-tense stories: 0


Female protagonist's POV: 37 stories

Male protag's POV (male member of a male/female team): 82 stories

Villain's POV: 1 story


Multiple protagonists (team): 98 stories

Single protags (for standalones, or when the other partner is sick, out of town, etc.): 22 stories


Whodunits: 33

Howcatchems: 85

(N/A for the two romances)


Single villain: 114 stories

Multiple villains: 4 stories

(N/A for the two romances)


Stories in which the good guys win: 115

Bad guys win: 3

(N/A for the two romances)


Stories involving murder: 25

Robbery/burglary: 72

Other crimes: 21

(N/A for the two romances)


Stories changed at editor's request: 9

Stories accepted unchanged: 111


Local/familiar settings: 113

Other settings: 7


Holiday-based stories: 10

Regular stories: 110


1999: 3 stories published

2000-2009: 28

2010-2019: 80

2020-2021: 9

WW mystery hints & tips

NOTE: These are mine, not the magazine's.

  1. Don't go over the max wordcount.
  2. Use a lot of dialogue.
  3. Don't include sex, excessive violence, or strong language. Aim for PG, or light PG-13.
  4. Use humor whenever possible.
  5. Include a female protagonist. If on a team, she should either be there or assisting from afar.
  6. Include a crime--not just the hint or threat of a crime.
  7. Your mystery does not have to involve a murder and it does not have to be a whodunit.
  8. You do not have to have three suspects. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that you do.
  9. Avoid religion, politics, and anything controversial.
  10. Avoid technical jargon.
  11. Don't put pets in jeopardy.
  12. Play fair with the clues.
  13. Make the good guys win in the end.
  14. Use domestic/familiar settings, not international/exotic.
  15. Keep the solutions short. WW sometimes edits mine to be longer, but they start out short.

This column started out short, too. I know this was a lot of info and a lot of numbers, but the requirements set by Woman's World are a bit different from most of the stories we write. FYI, I don't submit as many mini-mysteries as I used to--I write mostly longer now--but the short-short ones are still fun now and then, and WW remains a good market. If any of this helps any of you to sell a story to them, I'm thrilled.

Let me know!

20 August 2021

Photography


My father, a police detective and photographer bought me a camera when I was fifteen and taught me how to use it, as well as how to develop the film and print the pictures. Black and white, of course. We had to send color film to labs back then.

He bought me a Yashica twin-lens reflex camera which took 120 mm negatives (four times the size of the standard 35mm negatives). It opened a new world to me and I've been taking pictures ever since.

Yashica was the inexpensive version of the wonderful Rolleiflex German camera

Snapshot turned into still life photos and candids pictures of family and friends moved to portraits. My MOS in the army was Photographer: Still (opposed to Photographer: Film. There were no video cameras in 1971). I gave up the little Yashica for another twin-lens camera, one with interchangeable lenses and the ability to use 120 mm film with 24 exposures (rather than 12 as in the Yashica). I moved to the Mamiya C330.


Japanese Mamiya cameras were well-made, durable with excellent lenses

In the army I perfected my lab work, developing and printing and thought I would be a professional photographer when I got out only there were no jobs, so I went back into law enforcement and later discovered my calling to be a writer.

But photography was always there. Eventually, I moved to the Mamiya RB 6x7 single-lens camera. A real gem, only large and bulky. Along the way I bought a Nikon 35mm, which was more portable and produced sharp images.

RB 6x7, similar to the greatest camera in the world, the Hasselblad


Taken with Yashica



Taken with Mamiya C330


Taken with RB 6x7

Taking photos in St. Louis Cemetery #1 with RB 6x7 in 1975

Digital photography is much easier but I miss the craft of focusing the camera and setting the f-stop and speed and the smell of the developer and glacial acidic acid and fixer. I miss washing the negative and hanging them up, making sure no dust got to them while they dried. I miss printing the pictures, seeing the images come to life in the developing tray in the dim, yellow light of the darkroom.

I still have my C330 but rarely use it. I don't like having others develop the film and print the photos. Digital photography is much easier and I'm a writer now.

www.oneildenoux.com

19 August 2021

More Fun With Plagiarism — Led Zeppelin Edition


In case you were wondering what this post will really be about.

On August 2nd, fellow Sleuthsayer Steve Liskow posted a wonderful piece on plagiarism (Take a moment and go read it here.). And like all of Steve's well-written pieces on this platform, it really got me thinking.

As a fellow writer with a long tenured day-gig teaching at the secondary level, I too have a ton of stories about plagiarism. And with the advent of the internet, the instances of student plagiarism that pop up and slap me in the face when reviewing their work have, if anything, increased tenfold. 

And half the time these days, kids don't even bother to change the font of what they lift from other sources. It's literally just a search/highlight/double right-click deal.

Part of my job (I teach 8th grade) is to help students wrap their heads around the notion of original versus plagiarized work. And in their defense, they start my class aged around thirteen. Most of them have rarely, if ever, heard the "P" word before. So I spend quite a lot of time working on it with them. And as I point out over and over and over throughout the year: I am MUCH more interested in reading their original, unfiltered thoughts on what we're studying than those of someone they copied and pasted (usually wildly out of context).

After using his experiences catching out plagiarizers as a teacher for an introduction, Steve pivots and does a terrific job of laying out the case that former First Lady Melania Trump heavily (and notoriously) plagiarized a speech from her predecessor, former First Lady Michelle Obama. 

Robert Plant (left) and Jimmy Page (right) of Led Zeppelin

From there he moves on to rock band Led Zeppelin and the case for their having plagiarized the intro to their most famous song, "Stairway to Heaven" from "Taurus", an instrumental piece by American rock band Spirit, who toured with Zeppelin right before they recorded Led Zeppelin IV, the album on which "Stairway to Heaven" appears. Spirit these days is probably best known as the band that produced singer/songwriter Jay Ferguson, who went on to compose the theme music for hit TV comedy The Office.

Did Spirit steal from The Duke?
Steve is convinced by the argument that Zeppelin ripped off Spirit. I have to respectfully disagree, and I cite music producer and YouTube giant Rick Beato, who does a better job than I ever could of defending the notion that while the two pieces are written in the same key, if Zeppelin stole their intro from Spirit, then Spirit stole from a whole bunch of writers who came before, including the Beatles and Duke Ellington. You can hear his argument here. It's worth watching. Beato even makes the case that employing this standard across popular music would mean insisting that Eric Clapton stole from bluesman Robert Johnson, who in turn stole from Mozart.

As a long-time fan of Zeppelin’s work, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Steve charitably neglected to mention many of Zeppelin's other cases of outright thievery, both proven and unproven. There's no question that musically (and especially lyrically) these guys were thieves. Just a few of the more egregious cases:

1. “Whole Lotta Love”/“You Need Love” by bluesman Willie Dixon who gets co-writing credits on the song after suing in 1985 (The linked version above is Muddy Waters' classic version of Dixon's song.).

2. “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” - this one is Joan Baez’s fault. The folk-singer covered it on a 1962 live album (I think her version is too showy, with her voice on it too high and "bright." If you'd care to judge for yourself, you can listen to it here), and rather than crediting the original author Anne Bredon, Baez credited it as “traditional.” So Zeppelin did too. Years later, when Bredon got wind of the cover (apparently she didn’t listen to hippie psychedelic blues-rock in 1969) she and Zeppelin agreed to splitting the royalties 50/50. I like to think she got a nice fat royalties check when Pink released her own scorching live cover of the song. Bredon only just recently passed away (aged 89 in 2019).

3. “Dazed and Confused” - Steve cited this one, and rightly, so, but I feel like it needs expanding upon. Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page clearly stole this song from folksinger Jake Holmes after Holmes opened for Page’s then-band the Yardbirds in 1967. The lyrics were reworked, but it was clearly Holmes’s song. And what's more Page stole it twice. Here's an earlier version he did with the Yardbirds live on French TV shortly before they broke up. Listening to both versions in order makes it painfully clear how much Robert Plant's voice is an upgrade over Keith Relf's. Holmes never bothered to seek damages or a co-author credit. He repeatedly said that he enjoyed their new take on his original.

English folk singer Roy Harper
4. "Hats Off To (Roy) Harper" - Where to begin? The final song from Led Zeppelin III is a bouillabaisse of lifted influences. It's intended as a tribute to English folk singer and friend of the band, Roy Harper. Harper is probably best known either for serving as a frequent opening act for Zeppelin, or for subbing in for Roger Waters and singing lead on Pink Floyd's classic song "Have a Cigar", from their 1975 album Wish You Were Here. According to Jimmy Page in an interview with Melody Maker, "This came about from a jam Robert and I had one night. There is a whole tape of us bashing different blues things. Robert had been playing harmonica through the amp, then he used it to sing through. It's supposed to be a sincere hats off to Roy because he's really a talented bloke, who's had a lot of problems."

Bluesman Bukka White
But the song itself is a hodgepodge of bits and pieces lifted from country-blues classics, mostly Bukka White's "Shake 'Em On Down", (from which Plant pulled the majority of the lyrics) and another version of the song (same name, similar refrain, different verse lyrics and different melody) by Mississippi Fred McDowell, whose melody Page used for the bottle-neck guitar part he played for this song. Other influences include a verse from Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me", and two verses lifted verbatim from "Lone Wolf Blues", by Oscar Woods.

5. "In My Time of Dying" - Zeppelin's longest studio recording, and the centerpiece of its masterpiece Physical Graffiti, this song is pretty much another case of outright theft. The website for the psychedelia-based podcast "Turn Me On, Dead Man" lays out the least confusing lineage for this blues classic, including Zeppelin's crediting the song to its four members as the writers:

Led Zeppelin’s recording of “In My Time of Dying” bears all of the hallmarks of the band’s best work and it stands out as one of their greatest moments. The problem here is that the songwriting credits on this track are listed as “John Bonham/John Paul Jones/Jimmy Page/Robert Plant”. While Led Zeppelin may have recorded a great arrangement of this tune, “In My Time of Dying” is not an original song. It has long been common practice to list songwriting credits of songs from the folk tradition as “Traditional, arranged by…”. “In My Time of Dyin'” is credited as “arr. Bob Dylan”, the credits on the Fear Itself LP read “adapted & arr. by Ellen McIlwaine”, and [Lovin' Spoonful frontman] John Sebastian cited [Bluesman] Josh White as the arranger of his 1971 version of the song, entitled “Well, Well, Well”. But, of course, there were others took full songwriting credit for their recordings. Guitarist Robbie van Leeuwen took songwriting credit for Shocking Blue’s version of “In My Time of Dyin'”, and though Harry Belafonte listed a few songs on Ballads, Blues & Boasters as traditionals, arranger Bill Eaton claimed songwriting credit for “Tone the Bell Easy”.

The legendary Robert Johnson
The above examples (and there are many others) demonstrate that, as with many popular music acts during the mid-to-late 20th century, Led Zeppelin indulged in the all-too-common mindset of it being "easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission." And the notion that "everyone was doing it" doesn't really wash. 

Again, I say this as an unabashed fan of the band's stuff. They did amazing work. I just wish, as someone who generates original ideas, writes them down, and (occasionally) gets paid for them, that they had gone about crediting where credit (and dollars) was due in the right way.

What's most frustrating is that Zeppelin was not incapable or, in some cases, unwilling, to credit their original sources. Their scorching 1969 BBC Session live cover of Robert Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues", carries the correct credits. Many of their other songs, which ought to, do not.

And now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go watch Celebration Day, the concert film of Zeppelin's one-off reunion at the O2 Arena in London back in 2007. Hey, they're thieves, but I'm still  a fan!

John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, Jason Bonham (original drummer John Bonham's son), Jimmy Page–2007

Thanks again to Steve Liskow for the inspiration for this post!

See you in two weeks!

18 August 2021

A Trend, An Anecdote, and an Exhibit



Sometimes I get a story idea in one nice neat package, a blast from the muse.

More often it comes in pieces.  I call some of those tales mash-ups.

It isn't that one type is necessarily better than the other.  Two brands of cars, but they both get you to the same place, if you're lucky.

Take "Taxonomy Lesson," my story in the September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which was published yesterday.  It is a definite mash-up of three elements:

A TREND.  I worked as a librarian in academia for more than three decades.  Like any other field, higher education has its trade publications that talk about what's new in the biz.  

And one trend I've been reading about for a decade has been sexual harassment.  The reports started long before the #Me Too movement. 

The classic scenario is a male tenured professor pressuring a female grad student with promises of support if she gives in and threats of punishment if she doesn't.  The power differential between, say, a Ph.D. student and a professor on her dissertation committee is extreme, the ability to make or break a career.  

There has long been a whisper network in academia (as in many other fields) in which women warn each other not to do field research with Professor X or, if you must go to a conference with Professor Y, don't go to his room for a chat, or even get in an elevator with him.

Dr. Karen Kelsey created a website called Sexual Harassment in the Academy: A Crowdsource Survey.   She eventually closed it to new entries due to trolls and hackers, but you can read enough to spoil your lunch.

I was ignored in meetings when I was the most knowledgeable about the content (in favor of a male new hire with less experience/education); inappropriate comments made about my body while pregnant; a female colleague was called a slut by our chair when she reported a job candidate had stalked her while they were in school.  When issues were reported to HR/Title IX/ Dean's Office, grossly inept responses were provided (Female Dean invited me to meeting to talk about these issues and then said "do you want to hear my stories? It could get worse" and proceeded to suggest that I do not fit in at my institution.  Ultimately, I was denied a promotion on the grounds of my pregnancy.

I knew I wanted to write about  this sort of thing in fiction someday.  But a premise is not a plot, and I needed more.  It turned out I needed...

AN ANECDOTE.  Back in 2015 Bouchercon was held in Raleigh, North Carolina.  A tiny but riveting  event happened there which I witnessed and the moment it happened I grabbed my notebook and started writing.  "That's going to go into a story!" I announced.  Amazingly enough, I was right.

I can't tell you what happened that day, but when you read my story you will probably have a pretty good idea.  

But I still didn't have my story yet.  That required...


AN EXHIBIT.
  My family enjoys visiting the Pacific Science Center in Seattle.  One of the parts we always explore is the Butterfly House which has live insects from around the world.  The last time we visited I noted an exhibit just outside on scientific names.  Homo Sapien. Helianthus Annuus.  Gorilla Gorilla.

And bingo.  That was the one missing piece.

My story is about a taxonomy professor - that is, an expert on how species are biologically related to each other, and on  scientific nomenclature.  He is at a conference where he will receive a major award for his work.  But alas, his relationships with  students haven't been as excellent as his research.  And that is about to become a big problem...

I hope you enjoy it.

 


17 August 2021

Jail 101


    As I've mentioned before, I think of myself as a writer with a magistrate hobby. Magistration, however, is how I pay the bills. I venture over to the basement of the jail, sometimes in person and sometimes virtually. There I meet my county's most recently arrested individuals. I cover their rights and review their bail. With that, I'd like to share a few introductory thoughts about the jail process. Should you decide to get yourself booked into jail in my county to make your writing authentic, here are a few things you might want to know.

    1. Dress for it.

It's cold in the jail. If you had to manage a population of inmates who might be aggressive and smelled bad, you might like them to be a little cold too. That makes good administrative sense. But if you were arrested coming home from the sorority party in your little black dress, you might be miserable. Plan for it. Wear a sweatshirt. It's a jail, not a flight--they won't give you a blanket during the booking process.

They will take your shoelaces, belt, and necktie. Loafers are a good choice for men planning on jail. Cowboy boots are another option. You don't want to keep walking out of your shoes. And the spike heels that paired with the little black dress will get really painful. There is a lot of standing during the book-in process. (I'm the only one who gets to sit during magistration, for instance.)

    2. Prepare to be uncomfortable.

Andrew Bardwell from Cleveland, Ohio USA
CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/

They build the jail's booking unit for safety and not comfort. The jail offers as little as possible that can be broken, pulled loose, or used as a weapon. What furniture the jail provides is metal and bolted to the wall. It's smooth so that it can be sprayed clean, if necessary.

The jail is noisy. All the doors bang. They clang shut with a metallic certainty. At various points, there are security crossovers, small vestibules through which one must pass. The door on one side must close and latch before the door on the opposite side will open. If the crossing guard gets distracted, you might wait for a moment before he or she opens the second door. Standing in that steel and glass aquarium always feels like a long time.

Lots of people are detoxing. They have a drunkard's certainty that if they just yell long enough, the jail's staff will attend to their situation. The squeaky wheel does not always get greased. In jail, it presents as a test of wills. Assuming you're not in jeopardy, the jail staff usually wait until the wheel wears itself out. 

The jail does feed you during the booking process. The trustees deliver a bologna sandwich and two cream sandwich cookies. Water is available in the holdover cells. Take it when you can get it. The food won't come around again for eight hours.

    3. Be Clear on your Politics.

If you want to be an anti-vaxxer, that's a choice you're making. But a TB test isn't an inoculation. Refusing to take one will get you isolated. The jail has strong feelings about contagious diseases running loose among its population. COVID-19 jokes are not funny, and they won't get you released any faster. 

Shouting "I can't breathe" for an hour or more undermines your claim. There may be many things wrong with you, but your airway is not occluded. 

    4. Dress for it #2.

At some point, you'll transition from street clothes to a jail uniform. You'll wear coveralls. They won't fit. For men, green uniforms signify general population. Trustees wear black and white stripes. Red denotes high-risk. (for women, it is beige for general, yellow for high-risk). Inmates at risk of self-harm wear a poncho of padded green. It is held closed with wide straps which cling to the poncho. It is almost impossible to tie the poncho into a knot or to look good while wearing it. The jail will substitute orange plastic slides for the shoes you walked inside wearing. Some inmates wrap their toes in toilet paper. It makes them look like they're wearing socks. When the first inmate does it, others quickly follow. We have influencers in the jail. 

    5. Give your real name. 

The jail checks your fingerprints. They'll figure out who you are. Then you'll catch a new charge for failure to ID. If you're on parole, the charge won't matter to you. If your visiting jail with a misdemeanor, you've likely made your troubles worse. 

    6. Memorize a Number. 

When I go to jail, I don't get to bring my phone. You won't have access to yours either. The jail will collect your property early in the booking process. They won't give your phone back once your bond is set so that you can find someone's number. Memorize it in advance. 

The holdover cells have phones in them. You'll get to make calls. But the jail shuts off the phones at night. They didn't deliberately put you in a cell with a broken phone. A surprising number of my defendants are certain that they've been singled out. That leads to the final point...

    7. It's not a Conspiracy. 

The jail books in defendants. That's what they do 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week. Today's high-profile case will be displaced quickly enough by the next attention grabber. Although it is the most important case in the world for you, booking is a process to the jail staff. They are not out to get you. They are out to get your identity established, and to collect your fingerprints, your photograph, and the other biometric bits they need to keep track of the people who move in and out of their facility every day. Roll with it. 

Until next time.

16 August 2021

Trash Talking: When Dialogue Goes Wrong


 by Steve Liskow

In the summer of 2004, I attended the Wesleyan Writers Converence. I'd written five unpublished novels in the 70s and thought one of them could still sell--if I could figure out how to fix a few problems. I began a completely new novel in the fall of 2003--actually a sequel to that long-buried MS--and sent the first two chapters to the conference for a critique. I was lucky because Chris Offutt looked at them. He turned out to be a terrific critic and mentor, and his fiction-writing class was packed.

We met over coffee and a Danish, and he held up my chapters.

"You write good dialogue," he said. "And you probably know it. That's both good and bad."

"I did a lot of theater," I told him. "Maybe that has something to do with it. Why is it bad?"

"Well," he said, "you know you write good dialogue, so you try to use it too much as if you're writing a play instead of a novel. But it can't carry the whole load in fiction. You need narration and description and exposition, too."

In theater, that usually means stage directions, set description, and lights or sound for mood. 

I remembered that conversation a few days ago while I pumped away on an elliptical trainer in front of a TV at my health club. A soap opera was on, and I don't follow soaps, so I don't know what it was. Eight or ten men and women were in the scene, all well-dressed, and ranging from  early 20s to about 50. From reading the subtitles, I figured out that one attractive young couple was going to marry soon, and the groom's mother, the older woman in the tasteful ensemble, had a history including enough dysfunction to serve in the Former Guy's cabinet. She arrived unbidden (like the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty) and threw the meeting into a quandary. I couldn't decide if she was violating a restraining order or not.

The conversation among these people consisted of seven or eight sentences that they repeated over and over with a few variations. The older woman had some culpability in the deaths of two other people. Everyone else loathed her. I could tell by the gritted teeth and tight expressions in all the close-ups (Soaps love close-ups). The gist was "We don't want you here," and "I don't care. I had to come." There were vague references to past misdeeds, and if there had been any real content, I would have accused the writer of using "As you know, Bob," dialogue. Since no real information was passed, I guess it was OK. Except for one issue.


Even dialogue needs conflict

I was on that elliptical trainer for twenty minutes, and that conversation was in progress when I started. It lasted through two commercial breaks and finally concluded with the older man putting his arm around the mother's shoulders and firmly escorting her out. The exit happened thirty seconds before I finished my workout. 

Nothing was settled, nothing new was introduced or revealed, we got no characterization or backstory, but they filled most of a half-hour program. The dialogue was so artificial and unbelievable that none of the actors could do more than grimace or look stern, what my director buddies and I used to call "Actors' Studio Angst." The story may have to move slowly because the writers are only a few episodes ahead, but this was excruciating. 

Sometimes, actions say enough

In real life, the woman would have appeared, been told she was unwelcome, and either left or refused to do so. If she refused, a security guard would have removed her or someone would have dialed 911 and police would come to do the same. The dialogue would have used more vernacular, too.

This is the lesson Chris Offutt gave me. Sometimes, dialogue is the wrong choice, and when it is, you can't make it work. The scene would have been more effective with about 90% less talk and some mild physical action. That would also eliminate the talking head problem. 

"Clytemnestra tried to crash the pre-wedding supper, but Orestes kicked her out."

See how easy that is?

Dialogue is like everything else in your story. If it doesn't matter, it doesn't belong there.

An epilogue: The chapters I showed in 2004 went through dozens of revisions and several title changes. The book appeared in 2013 as Blood on the Tracks, with little except the basic premise and onc character name intact. The book I wanted to salvage also changed title three times, emerging as Postcards of the Hanging in 2014. Between them, the books received 162 rejections.

Thanks, Chris.

15 August 2021

Certifiable – Arizona Elections Corrections 201


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Arizona election fraudit recount, Doug Ducey, Mark Brnovich, Karen Fann, Wendy Rogers, Kelli Ward, Katie Hobbs, Amy B. Chan, Stephen Richer, Jack Sellers, Clint Hickman, Allister Adel, Benny White, Ken Bennett, Randy Pullen, Doug Logan, Ben Cotton, Bryan Blehm, Larry Moore, Tim Halvorsen, Christina Bobb
convenient list of political players

Back with you now, this is OAN’s Blanca Mujer reporting from Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. Faces are lit with ultraviolet expectations, waiting for our amazing and wonderful Cyber Nunchucks to issue their final report, without doubt declaring the election void.

Later today, we’ll interview all six Democrats in the state of Arizona to get their views. Right now, I’ll take a moment to answer viewers’ questions. Miss Sylvia Plait of Long Island, New York tweets, questioning how I pronounce my name. It’s moo-jer, Sylvia, rhymes with stooger. Why on earth would you think otherwise?

The probe continues as our Senate subpoenas the swivel chairs at the Maricopa County Elections Board’s nearly empty office, threatening arrests for refusal. Last week, Senate Leader Karen Fann asked a judge for arrest warrants when election officials balked at turning over wifi staplers.

If by chance something goes wrong as happened on January 6th, white supremacist fangirl State Senator Wendy Rogers, the Leona Helmsley of Arizona politics, has declared the election so hopelessly compromised and corrupt that the Senate must decertify the 2020 election, recall electors, and hold the election again.

To paraphrase Wendy, “Deep, deep fraud must have occurred, buried so far down, it can’t be discerned, necessitating we negate the election.”

Aren’t recounts exciting! Stay tuned. This has been Blanca Mujer on OAN…

Arizona world interference conspiracy map

Conspiracies 201

Math and logic aren’t Arizona’s strong points. But wait, you say, OAN and Fox have been rife with stories about discovering 74,243 mail-in votes more than were mailed out.

You heard that and it’s wrong. In fact, of 2,364,426 requests for mail-in ballots, 1,918,024 were returned. Turns out the inexperienced Cyber Ninjas (which perhaps should be called Cyber Ninja) confused early voting numbers with mail-in numbers. Confusion has happened a lot during this odd recount of the recount of the recount of the recount.

Despite a glaring lack of election experience, Cyber Ninjas has asked the legislature and courts to keep secret their super-secret trade secrets for detecting secret fraud. While failing to keep doors locked and preventing unauthorized people off the counting floor, Cyber Ninjas has restricted independent observers.

not a genuine ballot
messy ballot

Also, Cyber Ninjas sought to disqualify ballots that were folded, those with smudges or stains, and one with a suspicious Cheetos dust fingerprint. Arizona election professionals explained people do human things and some may be a little grubbier than others. A coffee ring or a booger on a ballot shouldn’t invalidate the entire ballot.

More than 75,000 Maricopa and Pima Republicans did not vote for Mr. Trump, and officials want to know why. The Arizona Senate debated and Cyber Ninjas demanded door-to-door ‘verifications’ of citizens voting. Arizona Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward threatened jail for ‘obstruction’, saying, “There could be arrests of people who are refusing to comply.” Perhaps fearing lawsuits, the Senate has held off, but it’s indicative of the lengths they are willing to take.

Conspiracy 202

I’d expected to update the previous article about the Arizona recount x 4, but I hadn’t anticipated the boatloads of new conspiracy theories. The updated map hints at new wrinkles.

blue thermostat
Thermostat (D)

red thermostat
Thermostat (R)

Odd Bedfellows

In addition to China, South Korea allegedly shipped freshly marked ballots directly to Arizona. Supposedly China, coordinating with Iran, targeted Maricopa and Pima Counties. South Korean ballots are particularly sought after because Seoul developed offset printing capable of filling in circles with genuine graphite, making them particularly difficult to detect except, presumably, for the absence of the secret watermark.

News of yet another European operation is attributed to disgraced Michael Flynn. Italian operatives altered Arizona tabulation in real time via satellite. Belgian Deep Fake video altered Fox News coverage, misreporting that Biden was winning.

When Maricopa officials denied voting machines were connected to the internet, conspiracy businessman J Patrick Byrne, attorney L Lin Wood, and others argued they linked wirelessly through Nest™ thermostats. Cyber Ninjas argues they can prove connectivity when Maricopa turns over their routers and remaining servers.

Chickens Come Home to Roost

With millions of excess ballots floating around the country and the Colonial Pipeline clogged like a Soho apartment toilet, operatives desperately needed to dispose of genuine ballots, those imprinted with the telltale watermark. To date, not one secret watermark has appeared in the 2.1-million ballots, proving the scale of the scam.

The CIA, working against interests of the American people, flew military transports loaded with planeloads of real ballots into Abu Dhabi. There they arrested Inaugural Chair Tom Barrack as he bravely attempted to videorecord election shenanigans. From United Arab Emirates, ballots were trucked into the Saudi Arabian desert and dumped, where the evidence remains today.

For those taking notes, Riyadh openly admits disposal trucks journeyed into the Saudi wasteland, but claim they were discarding carcasses of frozen chickens possibly tainted with salmonella processed and packaged during the coronavirus outbreak. Pallets of ballots or sickened chickens? You be the judge.

But chickens weren’t yet off the meathook. On 6 March, gazillions of shredded ballots were reported in dumpsters behind the Maricopa Tabulation Center. Two hours after the ballots disappeared, a suspicious fire broke out at the state’s largest poultry farm owned by Maricopa County’s District 4 Supervisor. The origin of the mysterious fire remains unknown, but it incinerated 166,000 hens out of four million chickens. According to multiple web sites, an investigation into this ‘convenient’ fire will prove the birds were stuffed with ballots.

Disqualification

Election workers are trained to look for a voter’s intention based on America’s vision that every citizen has a constitutional right to vote and have their vote count. Arizona and Cyber Ninjas have taken the position that only the clearest, unambiguous, absolutely certain vote should be tallied. Only a fully, filled-in circle, firm enough to indent pristine paper unsullied with grubby hands should count… if it doesn’t violate their predetermined mathematical model.

Extremist web sites including ProWhiteParty, FrankSpeech, and InTheMatrixxx podcasts leaked that the powers that be propose disqualifying up to half of Maricopa’s 2.1-million ‘counterfeit’ ballots, arguing Maricopa election clerks were far too lenient accepting ‘suspicious’ and ‘spurious’ votes. Various technologies brought to bear on the challenge include alternate source UV light, quantum physics side-scanning, and Commander Jovan Hutton Pulitzer’s proprietary particle kinematic artifact detector™ (PKAD), effectively a 21st Century update of dowsing technology.

Whatever the ultimate count, proponents say suspect and counterfeit ballots should be discarded based upon ballot characteristics. Their rejection mechanism has been compared to a vending machine spitting out a worn dollar bill.

Reasons for rejection may include:

  • ballots containing bamboo fibres
  • ballots containing rice paper
  • ballots containing improper ‘feel’
  • ballots containing stains
  • ballots with improper Q-codes
  • ballots with personal identifying info
  • ballots with incorrect color luminosity
  • ballots with incorrect moisture content
  • ballots with torn or missing corners
  • ballots with ‘kinematic artifacts’
  • ballots failing UV-A/UV-B examination
  • ballots of suspect thickness
  • ballots of suspect weight
  • ballots mailed in unfolded
  • ballots folded the ‘wrong way’
  • ballots folded (non-mail-in)
  • ovals partially filled in
  • ovals filled in with toner
  • ovals without depressions or indentations
  • ovals not filled in by human hand
  • precinct-printed offset registration marks
  • inconsistency between national, local votes
faux watermark
watermark
Proponents consider this last item especially critical as it mathematically ‘proves’ fraud, according to a number of sources. The idea questions split tickets– cases where the bulk of a ballot’s votes go to one party, but the presidential vote was either for the other party or absent altogether. In other words, if down-ballot votes went Republican, then a vote for Biden must be erroneous. Exposing this fraud is a primary reason Cyber Ninjas fought to conduct door-to-door investigations.

Note that no ballots have been found bearing the secret FEC watermark.

Note this is an opinion piece and it contains i-r-o-n-y. Don’t shoot the messenger– I just report it.

14 August 2021

I've Watched The Long Goodbye 3 Times Now


It's a middle distance squint, and I get like that during every watch. Here's how it happened this round.

Recently, Killer Nashville asked me to review Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye (1953). The second-to-last Marlowe outing is Chandler's best, for my money. The detective story, truly elevated. No mean feat, given the high standards of his earlier novels. Doing the essay lured me to re-confront Robert Altman's 1973 film version starring Elliott Gould. I'd seen it twice before. I'd been left in that squint both times.

Wikipedia
Full disclosure: I'm no cinema expert. I do, however, understand a few things about the genre and this novel in particular. So, freshly inspired, I ventured again into Altman's film. 

Same squint. 

Advance critics in 1973 seemed to have a similar reaction. They were confused whether they'd just watched a detective movie or not. The hardboiled posters didn't match the semi-noir, semi-satire delivered. The Long Goodbye got pulled ahead of mixed reviews. In came the studio marketing folks, and several months later it was re-packaged more honestly, as a subversive take on Hollywood tropes. These reviews praised a nose-tweaking of the genre. Fifty years later, the film is now well-studied and the critical consensus ever-more favorable. 

Altman's take has much going for it. Casting faded star Sterling Haywood as alcoholic novelist Roger Wade is spot on. In the novel, Wade is Chandler himself stuffed into a part Michener, part Hemingway persona, but the film wisely cranks up the Papa factor. Nina Van Pallandt plays wife Eileen Wade with deftly-concealed femme fatality. The soundtrack is evocative and playful, mostly rearrangements of the same Johnny Mercer song to fit each scene. The cinematography is gorgeous. Altman's L.A. is up all hours but not doing much, a glossy pit of decay and casual violence. Malibu is just higher-end decadence with beach access. It's Chandler's noir SoCal– left twenty years to rot. Altman drops Marlowe smack into the cesspool. Above it, more precisely, observing L.A. from an improbably affordable top-floor apartment at Hollywood Heights' iconic High Tower enclave. 

Your essayist just down the beach, 2016
Which may be the initial squint-maker. 

Altman wants to make a point how L.A. vibe and P.I. stories were outdated. He does this by– beautifully– repainting the '50s Marlowe scene as a neo-noir, only-in-the-'70s moment. The style of it, like Chandler's, helps the work age pretty well (there is a violent moment that either wouldn't happen in a modern film or else would be answered on-screen later). Still, rebinding one tired era with what would surely become another? That message and its disconnect, though, comes off as part of the satire. But a story lost in time doesn't necessarily make for a timeless story.

Or maybe I get stuck on a half-reimagined Marlowe, one foot in both worlds. The task fell to Elliott Gould, attached to the project before Altman and the screenwriters came onboard. Gould is terrific, his characters never quite sure what the hell is going on but muddling through anyway. He does schlubs to perfection and plays Marlowe that way. There is a certain genius to this. Chandler's Marlowe is tough but not the toughest. He's forever outmuscled and often outsmarted. Gould takes this to another level. He's lost in a beyond rumpled state. He loses or avoids every fight. As for women, Gould's Marlowe is oblivious even to Eileen's flirtations. Early in the film, he's trapped in a disassociative mumble about L.A. passing him by. We get it. But Elliott Gould is funny. He can't help it, the schlub. His best Marlowe is when Gould eventually drops the sleepwalk and just does Gould. 

From your
essayist's collection
Next, there's that Edgar-winning masterpiece novel. Altman seizes on aspects of Chandler's world– the backdrop, Marlowe's sense of morality, the outsized characters against the smallness of their crimes– but abandons much of the actual story. Some of this is necessity.

Chandler's The Long Goodbye is intricate, often contemplative, and hefty– almost 400 pages. The inciting murder happens forty pages in, give or take your edition. A hyper-faithful film version is a marathon with too many moving parts. In trimming things, the screenwriters left Chandler's premise– Marlowe wants justice for a friend in a jam--but glossed over the motivations driving that premise. Marlowe doesn't make friends. Allies and lovers, yes. Never true friends.

So when in The Long Goodbye Marlowe and ruined socialite Terry Lennox strike up an odd friendship via drinks and loyalty tests, Marlowe is as surprised as anyone. Resolving this inner confusion is as much what Marlowe is after than justice for Lennox's suspicious death. Lennox never fit right, in any sense.

The film almost immediately finds Marlowe and Lennox chumming it up playing liar's poker. Sure, we've already seen Marlowe living alone but for a finnicky cat. His quick chumminess with Lennox suggests Marlowe has a wider circle of chums. Add in that the film's Lennox is stripped of complications. He's a common crook who married well, and it's pretty clear he committed what inevitably surfaces as the murder. In Chandler's world of rough justice, one murder must lead to a next. Altman doesn't need the same body count. Murders are cut or cleansed as suicides, clues are sparse, the solution a bit easy. The crime elements are, like Marlowe, scaffolding to Altman's larger statement. 

© Wikipedia
Look, no big-name director agrees to get lashed to a novel they can't re-envision. The screenwriter in Chandler would've gotten that better than anyone. Altman made the movie he wanted to make, and he made a sleek one. 

Altman reportedly said that Chandler fans would hate this take. I don't hate-watch a movie three times. There's plenty to admire in this film.

Altman reportedly also never read the novel cover-to-cover. If true, I wish he had. He might've found Chandler's novel had risen above the noir tropes in these crosshairs. With more study of his source material, Altman might've made one hell of a noir update or the best kind of crime comedy. He might've made a great movie, not just a weird one.

And at least I could stop squinting.

13 August 2021

Mystery in the Library


Virus? What virus? It’s a bit like that here in New Zealand. We had a couple of lock downs and our share of mandatory mask wearing, but we’ve gone several months now without any further trouble.

The point is: public gatherings here (sans masks and distancing) are fine, and lately there’s been a bunch of them in libraries around the country, where panels of mystery authors have talked about their books and the craft of writing in front of an audience.

I moderated one recently at the Takapuna Library on Auckland's North Shore. 

The Mystery in the Library events began at the Takapuna library in back in 2015. Conceived by Craig Sisterson (more on him in a moment). The format is your basic author panel: a handful of authors, and a moderator to guide a low-key, coffee shop type of conversation about the craft of crime and mystery writing, with an audience eavesdropping on the chat. Book signing afterward. Refreshments (wine, juice, snacks) provided.

Each year since 2015, more and more libraries around the country have hosted MITL evenings, with this year (April, May, June) seeing more than a dozen scheduled. So many, in fact, that each event has now gotten its own subtitle. Ours was BLOOD BY THE BEACH. Because the Takapuna library is right next to Takapuna Beach.

At our event, we chatted about what makes a mystery compelling, tools of the trade, do you plot or pants, advice for aspiring writers, and so on (with digressions into writing as meditation and how do you 'write what you know' when the know is murder?). I was blessed with four authors who were happy and eager to chat, and a captive audience of about 100 who had lots of questions. We all had a thoroughly pleasant evening. I've said it before, I'll say it again: Mystery writers (and readers) are the nicest of people.

(L-R) Me, Ben Sanders, Patricia Snelling, Madeleine Eskedahl, SL Beaumont

The authors on the panel, in alphabetical order:

SL Beaumont is the bestselling author of eight books, all of which are set in her native England. Shadow of a Doubt won the 2020 Indie Reader Discovery Award for Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, and her latest, Death Count, has been long listed for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel.

Website

Death Count (at Amazon)

Madeleine Eskedahl's recently released debut novel, Blood on Vines, is already a bestseller and is set in the wine growing region of Matakana (about 30 minutes north of Auckland).

Website

Blood on Vines (at Amazon)

Ben Sanders is the bestselling author of eight books (three have been short listed for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel). His first three were set in Auckland and the following five in the US; American Blood was optioned by Warner Bros. His latest book is The Devils You Know.

Website (appears to be under construction)

The Devils You Know (at Amazon)

Patricia Snelling has written nine books, all set here in New Zealand, and her latest,

Last Ferry to Gulf Harbour, has been long listed for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel.

Website

Last Ferry to Gulf Harbour (at Amazon)

A decade ago (time flies), I wrote an article for Criminal Brief about New Zealand's crime/mystery writing scene, and I had to really scratch around to find any local authors to mention. Now there are lots. The scene is growing. We don't have an MWA type of organization here yet, but the roots for one are in place. The Auckland Crime Writers group (a private group on Facebook) has 60+ active members. We hang out, real time, in coffee shops or on Zoom meetings. The local scene is growing and lively; we even have our own local label for it: Yeah, Noir (a play on the Kiwi slang expression, "yeah, nah").

About Craig Sisterson. Craig is New Zealand mystery writing’s Wizard of OZ; he’s the man behind the curtain. He’s the leading reviewer, blogger, interviewer, and authority in the field. His book, Southern Cross Crime, is the definitive guidebook to NZ and Australian crime fiction. As I mentioned, Craig set up the very first MITL (and every following years' events, including all of this year's). Craig was also the principal instigator and administrator of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, which is New Zealand's highest (and only) award for mystery writing (sadly, gripe, no category for short stories). 


I won't leave it another ten years before I write about New Zealand crime writers again. Promise.

Stephen

www.StephenRoss.net

12 August 2021

Back Inside


I spent the July 31/August 1st, 2021 weekend inside the pen doing an Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop for the first time since January, 2020.  (Allan couldn't join me, because of his health.  He's doing fine, but the long walkways and those damn stairs would kill him.)  

A lot's happened at the pen since March, 2020, when the pen was locked down:

  • The warden, deputy warden, and a few other officers were "walked out" in July, 2021 after an anonymous complaint about numerous problems at the penitentiary, including nepotism, sexual harassment, shoddy equipment, lack of safety regulations, etc., reached the Governor's desk.  (HERE)  "The investigation is on-going" is what we hear from Pierre.  What we hear on the ground is "no one here knows what the hell is going on, or what the investigators are looking into or for, the place generally has the air of a hornet's nest that was just kicked wide open, and no one knows how/when this is going to end."  I believe the technical term for what's going on is a shitstorm.  
  • But they're hiring.  Send in your application today!
  • On July 27, Governor Noem ended the mask mandate at the pen to "improve staff morale".  Not surprised, not thrilled, but also wish she would remember that the virus came into the pen in the first place through the staff.  And the Delta variant is here and about to be everywhere (see Sturgis, below).  Of course, our Governor doesn't believe in any of that.  
  • On August 5, Sturgis officially began, although the bikers started arriving way before that.  Over 700,000 are expected.  Since our state's population is 880,000, Sturgis almost doubles the entire population of South Dakota for the duration.  Our Governor appeared for a press conference on Monday (Aug. 9) in Sturgis, riding her horse, wearing her cowboy hat and carrying a flag.  Rode that horse up on stage and said, “Welcome to South Dakota.  Welcome to freedom.”  So there's that.  Sigh. 
    • NOTE:  Actually, the last thing you should probably say to 700,000 bikers is "feel free to do anything you damn well please", because some of them are Bandidos, Diablos, Hells Angels, etc., and they will take you up on it, and you probably won't like it.  But of course, I'm sure Noem has a security detail...
    • Anyway, yeah, since we're already in a surge, we're all expecting a Hokusai of a wave coming in, and sooner or later, masks are going to be back at the pen.  

Meanwhile, back at the pen, I'd forgotten how young many new prisoners are.  And I'd almost forgotten how bouncy young meth-heads are.  Somewhere along the line, someone had bought a bunch of "Light Up Silicone Squishy Chicks" to use as giveaways at one of the prison family pow-wows to the little kids.  There were leftovers, and they got stashed in with the AVP supplies, and when they were found - well, they are cute, fun, and hilarious, and they hypnotized at least two of our attendees.  Which might have been the point.  I looked them up on Amazon:



And I quote from the ad:

Balls light up when squeezed, also helps relieve stress and develop child’s motor skills.
☛:A soft stretchy puffer ball that lights up, easy to use and easy to play, good for kids and adults.
☛: Amazing Flashing Puffer Ball Chickens, super fun to play with!
☛: Great stress reliever for adults and children: Release all of your tension at once!
☛:This product can be used as a stress relief toy, it can also be used as samples for display. It's durable and can [be] used for a long time.  [My emphasis.]
 
Depends on who's using it.  One of our participants played so hard with his - Gollum and The Precious had nothing on him - that it deflated, and all its lights went out, and he was known as "chicken killer" for the rest of the day.  However, sweetness and light returned when - lo and behold! - the next morning the chick had re-inflated to light and life and squishiness.  Amazing stuff.   

Seriously, it takes a long time to get a boy's brain back into some semblance of order after meth, and it doesn't help that there's no real treatment at the pen.  They have drug/alcohol classes, but only an hour a day.  And often nothing until they're 6 months away from being released.  Then it's back to the cell-halls where they're bouncing off walls again.  More and earlier would be helpful.

BTW, right now there's no AA / NA at the pen, (1) because Covid disrupted everything, and (2) also partly because you have to be able to pass a background check, and there is a certain percentage of AA / NA attendees who are prison graduates and so unable to host them.  Ironically, they would be the best at it, because they would understand the situation right down to its core.  (Zoom meetings aren't allowed, for security reasons.)  

But the workshop went really well.  There's hope.  A lot of hope.  And many of the graduates came back for the Refresher the next weekend.  

I'm also back doing the Lifer's Group.  We're currently working on trying to get some new legislation written before the next session begins January 11, 2022.  (South Dakota has, I believe, the shortest legislative session in the country - 38 working days - and I'm still making up my mind as to whether that's good or bad.)  Here in South Dakota, all life sentences are life without parole, and you can also get a life sentence for first degree manslaughter.  So the Lifer's Group is working on: 

(1) Ending life sentences for first degree manslaughter - remember, manslaughter is "the unlawful killing of a human being without express or implied malice." (Merriam-Webster)  So why should they get life without parole?  
(2) Changing life sentences so that only certain crimes would get life without parole:  first degree murder, certain criminal sexual conduct, terrorism, etc.  

Wish us luck.  And if you know any good constitutional lawyers who would like to volunteer their time, send me their names. 

On a more fun note, the Lifer's Group has a Religious Enlightenment Conference and a Talent Show to plan.  

Oh, and for those of you who might be in the neighborhood, the Lifer's Group will have a lot of artwork in the Tallgrass Recovery Art Show at the Post Pilgrim Art Gallery, 2121 E 10th St, Sioux Falls, SD.  The Opening is on Friday, August 27th at 7:00 PM.  Come on down and join me!


It's good to be back.

11 August 2021

Shuffle Off


I was invited to submit a story to an anthology, and there were specific requirements for setting and length.  But writing it, I was reminded yet again that you really can accomplish more with less.  There are economies of scale in every endeavor, modest or grand.

An illustration.

If you’ve seen the Russell Crowe version of 3:10 to Yuma, released in 2007, it’s very much opened up to horizons and vistas.  It’s shot in color and widescreen, with an eye for landscape.  The characters have the context of place.  Oh, and it runs two hours.  In contrast, the 1957 picture, with Glenn Ford as the outlaw, tops out at an hour and a half, in crisp and beautiful black-and-white, and it’s more claustrophobic, pulled in tightly to the people, the arid terrain a hostile backdrop.  But thirdly, going back to the source material, a Dutch Leonard story published in Dime Western in 1953, the outside world doesn’t feature much at all; the “action” of the story, if you can even call it that, takes place mostly in the hotel room.  It’s about the shifting dynamic between the two men, in the dialogue. 


The story I wrote, titled “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” is in fact about a couple of guys waiting for a train, and I kept circling back to 3:10 to Yuma, not because I wanted to conjure it up, particularly, but because I was after that economy.  You didn’t need an encyclopedic back story, if you have the odd convincing detail.  I wasn’t even sure you needed to know why they were waiting.  Was it enough that you (and they) understood it was necessary?  I decided that was a little too artful, Vladimir and Estragon.  But the essential rule, per Elmore Leonard, remained: don’t explain when you don’t have to, it simply generates clutter. 

I also used another piece of tried-and-true, courtesy of Raymond Chandler.  If in doubt, have a guy come through the door with a gun.  I wasn’t in doubt or at a loss, by any means, but I needed a catalyst, and the shortest distance between two points was a gunfight.  I was spare with detail here, as well.  It took all of five lines. 

Another thing is that many of the Mickey Counihan stories, of which this is one, have a reverse at the end.  Not necessarily a twist, or an O. Henry, but a deadpan finish, a throwaway line by Mickey that turns the story back on itself.  Mark Billingham – who started out doing stand-up – once remarked that writing suspense has a lot in common with a comedy routine.  There’s a set-up and a punchline, and in both cases, the punchline depends on the reversal of expectations.



Lastly, you simply get a lot of satisfaction from stripping out the inessential.  Not that you shouldn’t drift into eddies and pools, or allow for moments of stillness.  It’s often its own reward, for me, the grace note, the dropped stitch, something caught out of the corner of your eye, but in this instance, there were no DVD extras.