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


Previous   PREV Arizona ‘fraudit’ Conspiracy Theories NEXT   Next

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.

10 August 2021

Pay It Forward


I owe the existence of one of my recurring characters to the kindness of a famous mystery writer.

Dennis Lynds, writing as Michael Collins, received his last Edgar Award nomination for “The Horrible, Senseless Murders of Two Elderly Women,” which I published in my first anthology, Fedora: Private Eyes and Tough Guys (Wildside Press, 2001).

Not long after the release of Fedora, in a letter dated April 17, 2002, Jeff Gelb wrote, “Dennis Lynds suggested I contact you to see if you’d like to submit a story in consideration for the erotic mystery anthology series I co-edit with Max Allan Collins, Flesh & Blood.” (I already knew of Gelb from his work on the Hot Blood horror anthology series he co-edited with Michael Garrett.) Gelb provided some general guidelines as well as the pay rate and deadline. Toward the end of the letter, Gelb notes: “I’m sorry to say I’m unfamiliar with your work, but if Dennis recommends you, that’s a pretty strong nod in your direction!”

This was, shall we say, a big break. A famous mystery writer had recommended me to the co-editor of an anthology series published by a major publishing house.

I submitted “Feel the Pain,” a private eye story featuring Morris Ronald “Moe Ron” Boyette, and, after making minor revisions at the request of Gelb and Collins, the story appeared in the third book in the Flesh & Blood series: Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin (Mysterious Press, 2003).

“Feel the Pain” became the first of my stories to be selected for a “best of” anthology when Maxim Jakubowski included it in The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 4 (published in the UK by Robinson, 2005, and in the US by Carroll & Graf, 2005).

I followed up with “Pumped for Information” (XL Girls, 2004), a sequel to “Feel the Pain” that put more emphasis on erotica and less on investigative work, before writing a string of Boyette stories where the erotic content was significantly reduced in favor of solid private eye work: “My Client’s Wife” (Thrilling Detective Web Site, Summer 2007), “Breaking Routine” (Hardluck Stories, Winter 2007), “News Flash” (Untreed Reads, March 2011), and “Yellow Ribbon” (Needle, 2012).

Then, nothing. I moved on to other characters and other stories...until a Boyette story I’d been toying with since 2003 caught my attention again. “Itsy Bitsy Spider” (Tough, April 2018) was named an “Other Distinguished Mystery Story” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2019, and I followed up with “Dirty Laundry” (Tough, April 2020).

I have notes written in 2003-2004 for three additional Boyette stories, but they don’t catch my attention when I reread them. So, I expected Boyette to again go quiet.

Then Michael Pool contacted me about his new publishing venture. I had previously contributed to his Crime Syndicate Magazine, and he received his first Shamus Award nomination for “Weathering the Storm,” a story in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down & Out Books, 2019). Pool has started P.I. Tales, a new book publishing venture dedicated to private eye novels and the Double Feature series of paired private eye novellas.

Pool invited me to contribute to the second volume of the Double Feature series, where my novella is paired with Hallmarks of the Job, written by Frank Zafiro, a writer who contributed to and played a key role in the launch of Guns + Tacos, the serial novella anthology series I co-edit with Trey R. Barker.

I considered creating a new private eye and then thought better of it. So, Morris Ronald “Moe Ron” Boyette returns in Aloha Boys, the longest story I’ve ever written about him.

In Aloha Boys, Boyette is still adjusting to his new digs above Millie’s Tattoos and Piercings when a homeless woman hires him to find her missing half-brother. Searching for the young man sends Boyette through the depraved underbelly of the local university, reunites him with a mob boss best left in his past, and leads him to question everything he thought he knew about families.

Hallmarks of the Job/Aloha Boys releases August 17 but can be preordered now.

Is this the end of the road for Boyette? I doubt it, but I don’t know when or where he will next appear.

RELATIONSHIPS

Though I originally intended this post to be about a series character and how I continue to write about him, while researching Boyette’s history I was reminded of something more valuable: The importance of relationships within the writing community.

Boyette exists because Dennis Lynds connected me to Jeff Gelb, and the new Boyette novella exists because Michael Pool and I have worked together on other projects. In between, I’ve worked with editors such as Rusty Barnes of Tough, who once suggested I write a novel about Boyette, and his suggestion was on my mind when Pool approached me about writing a private eye novella for Double Feature.

While I’m loath to conclude that who you know is the key to success, it certainly plays a role in the opportunities that come your way.

Most of us break in the same way: by submitting manuscripts via slush piles, submitting our work on spec, hoping that editors will select our stories from the dozens/hundreds/thousands of other submissions. But once that happens, it’s up to us to act professionally, to develop relationships, and to share opportunities with one another.

And always, always, always, pay it forward.

Morris Ronald Boyette and I are forever grateful that Dennis Lynds did.

09 August 2021

Charlotte Salomon, Her Book, Her Mystery


I have always been fond of people who accomplish things they are not supposed to be able to do. Jacob Lawrence was not a historian but that didn't stop him from painting a history of the Great Migration and along the way, reviving history painting, which, incidentally, was not supposed to be done in water based paints, either.

So I was intrigued by the case of Charlotte Salomon, who was murdered, unknown to the art world, in 1943 at Auschwitz. Hiding in exile in the south of France, she had deposited her major work, Lieben? oder Theater? ( Life? or Theater?) with a supporter a few months before her arrest by the Gestapo. 

The work, comprising 769 gouaches ( \out of a total of around 1000 done between late 1940 and early 1942) and including a number of painted texts and textual overlays on transparent paper, survived. The images are now available at Charlotte.jck.nl, thanks to the Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam that owns the collection.

I came across this remarkable work via a piece in the New York Times which led me to the immense Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory by Griselda Pollock, a scholarly work with some heavy theorizing but also many insights and, most important from my point of view, an excellent selection of Salomon's work.

Very nice, you're probably thinking, but how is that even remotely relevant to SleuthSayers. Here's the interesting bit. Just as Jacob Lawrence had to invent or reinvent a form to tell the history of his people, Salomon, or CS as she signed her paintings, used her art to tell what wasn't supposed to be told in a way that wasn't supposed to work.

Lieben? oder Theater? is in part a family history, told as a painted novel with fictionalized characters, including Charlotte Kann, a stand-in for its creator. The family history is grim – and not just because it spans the Great War and the rise of the Nazis. The work opens with the depiction of a young woman, Charlotte Kann's aunt, who flees her home in the middle of the night and drowns herself in one of Berlin's lakes.

Female suicide becomes a leitmotif of the work as the aunt is followed in death by her sister (Charlotte's mother) and later her mother (Charlotte's maternal grandmother). Crime writers with their suspicious minds will no doubt detect the reasons for these deaths ahead of the careful academics. 

The middle section of the work concerns Charlotte, inheritor of suicidal tendencies – or a person reacting to the forces that drove the others to their deaths. She is saved by the philosophy of a traumatized war veteran, who, unfortunately, is really in love with her glamorous opera singer stepmother. The triangular relationship plays out against the rise of the Nazis, whose rallies and pogroms are depicted in vigorous paintings.

The work ends with all safety lost in the previous sanctuary of Nice, France. Her grandmother dead, Charlotte and her grandfather are arrested and released to a precarious temporary freedom, which she paints to quite devastating effect. 

What brings this immense, eccentric, and remarkable work into the mystery orbit, however, has been the recovery of the postscript to the work. Like the texts in Lieben? oder Theater? this was originally done in painted letters. But part of the document only exists now in typescript, the original having been lost or more likely destroyed by her surviving family,  since it appears to be a confession that the writer murdered the grandfather by poison.

Around this there are doubts. The death certificate for Salomon's grandfather lists heart attack as the cause. The postscript claims he was poisoned by Veranol, incidentally the same drug Freud gave his daughter when she was endangered by the Gestapo. Charlotte Salomon's grandfather was a physician, as was her father. The drug was certainly available. 

The fascinating question is what precisely was this postscript. A confession by the historical figure Charlotte Salomon, who I suspect would have had her reasons for homicide? Or a confession by Charlotte Kann, the lead character in the painted novel/memoir? Or a wish in place of act by either the character or her creator?

We are unlikely to know the truth. What we do know is that even the substance of the book, minus the postscript, was explosive. One only has to read Freud's accounts of  'hysterical women' and delusional girls to see how firmly the professional class of the times closed ranks when anything threatened male dominance and bourgeois respectability. Without professional standing or specialized education, Salomon had to use her art for her indictment.

In exile, short of supplies (CS reused the backs of rejected paintings), burdened by a lethal family history, and living in most dangerous times, Salomon created a document of great complexity and sophistication out of a modest medium and such paper as she could acquire. 

Denied training as a painter (unfeminine) she was channeled as a student into the more acceptable illustration. Ironically, this course was perhaps her artistic salvation, because it gave her the tools to incorporate the new ways of looking at narrative available via the movies and comic strips into her work as well as a mastery of the water -based medium. 

The earlier paintings tend to be multi-scene like comics or Renaissance works. The later ones become more expressionistic, simpler and more powerful, under the pressure of intense lived emotion and the terror of the inevitable that arrived when she was 26 and newly married.

Although as Pollock notes Salomon was healthy, blonde, German speaking and a skilled draftsperson, she was killed on arrival because she was pregnant. The young woman haunted by deaths and tempted by suicide died when she had the most reason to live.




My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.

08 August 2021

Chasing Healthcare Workers Off Twitter: Who are these people?


Those of us advocating for vaccines and masks on Twitter during this pandemic have had some rather interesting replies.

Here is one:


As you can imagine, many of my colleagues are asking- who are these people?

Certainly not the kind people you would meet at a dinner party - for those of us old enough to remember these much loved pre-pandemic events.

CSIS, the Canadian organization responsible for protecting us against security threats, has given one answer about who some of these people might be and by whom they may be influenced.

CSIS has accused “Russia, China and Iran of spreading COVID-19 disinformation to promote their strategic ambitions…COVID-19 misinformation has flourished since the start of the pandemic, fuelling what has been called an “infodemic” of conspiracy theories and falsehoods amid efforts to contain the coronavirus.

“Declassified documents obtained by Global News under the Access to Information Act show that CSIS has been monitoring the national security implications of the phenomenon.

“Threat actors have used the pandemic as an opportunity to spread disinformation online,” CSIS spokesman John Townsend said, “It is important to note that disinformation, originating from anywhere in the world, can have serious consequences including threats to the safety and security of Canadians, erosion of trust in our democratic institutions, and confusion about government policies and notices including information on the COVID-19 pandemic.”

It makes sense that undermining democratic institutions during a deadly pandemic includes undermining any health department both provincially and federally and their attempts to administer vaccines and make mask mandates. To be clear, this is about diminishing our government and nothing diminishes a government like portraying them as responsible for worsening deaths, providing inadequate solutions and flat out lying to the public. 

It would be wise to assume some of the social media misinformation comes from these foreign actors. It would also be wise to assume that discrediting healthcare professionals is one of their aims.

Some accounts on Twitter are influenced by this misinformation - created by foreign actors or concocted by people from our own country who genuinely believe it.

On Twitter, I have watched colleagues deal with anti-vaccine and anti-mask accounts, most of them anonymous. Some appear benign at first. An anonymous account will start with simple questions or tweet things that are incorrect but relatively innocuous. When you respond, it starts a long back and forth and at the end they accuse you of vile things - like killing patients.  This experience is like following a little bunny and getting your foot caught in a trap. 


Personally, I like to answer them with sassiness and I also block these accounts quickly now. Blocking is an important weapon against misinformation - these accounts can’t appear on your tweets and don’t have access to your followers. If more people blocked them, we would diminish their reach substantially. There have been days where even my sassiness fails me and I’m not amused at all. These unpleasant experiences have exhausted and chased many healthcare professionals off Twitter. There is only so much abuse one can take.

There are accounts that are also dangerous in many ways. I worry about my colleagues because of them. Some people behind these accounts spend a great deal of time reporting doctors, nurses and other professionals to their licensing bodies and filling rating sites pretending to be disgruntled patients. Also, some colleagues have had threats against them and their families.

There is nothing that enhances the spread of misinformation like chasing healthcare professionals with accurate information off Twitter, by bothering them, damaging their professional reputations and forcing them to defend themselves to their colleges.

Perhaps we should return to why this is happening. It’s simply healthcare professionals asking people to get vaccinated and wear a mask. If these healthcare professionals get chased off Twitter, who remains to educate and help? During a pandemic the most precious commodity is scientific information - this is what keeps people safe. Distributing false information endangers people’s health and may even kill them.

Everyone tries to figure out, for themselves, how to keep advocating during this pandemic. Personally, my Twitter account - you guessed it - is largely about stories. Not just stories about the pandemic, but stories about many aspects of peoples' lives - I try to highlight the stories others tell and, occasionally, tell my own. 

For the pandemic advocacy that I do, I try to keep my sense of humour, lift up colleagues by highlighting their work, and use my block button. Who knows if any of us individually makes a difference, but I do know that chasing reasonable, science based voices off Twitter is a bad thing during a pandemic.

07 August 2021

What the Characters Do


  

Some writers have told me they don't give much thought to the plot of a story. They say they just come up with great characters and then give them something to do. Well, here's the thing: What they do is the plot.

Building Blocks

Putting together a story always starts with an idea. As mentioned before at this blog, these ideas can come from anywhere and can be anything from a beacon that lights up the entire story in your head, all at once, to a tiny spark that you use as kindling to build on. And most writers say those ideas, big or small, begin with either a character, a plot, a setting, or a theme.

My writing process always starts with a plot. The first thing I picture is what's happening, and once I have that firmly in my head I start thinking about characters, locations, etc. I don't do it that way because it's the best way--it might not be the best way. I do it because that's the way my mind works. As I said in the first paragraph, a lot of writers seem to start with interesting characters and only then come up with what the characters do. I start with something that has to be done, and only then plug in the characters that I need to make it happen. That's probably the reason I write genre stories instead of literary stories. Stephen King once said that literary fiction is about extraordinary people doing ordinary things, and genre fiction is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I relate better to ordinary people and I like imagining wild situations to put them in. 


Story vs. Plot

Years ago, I read a good discussion about the difference between story and plot--I think it was by Ronald Tobias, in his book 20 Master Plots. If I'm right about who said it, he said something to this effect: A story is a series of related events. His example: The king died and the queen died. (Not a great story, but it's still a story because it meets the requirements.) Then he said a plot is a sequence of related events that introduces an element of tension or anticipation or suspense. Example: The king died, and the queen died of grief. Or the king died and the queen spit on his grave. Or the king died and the queen rushed to Lancelot's quarters. (I'm not only paraphrasing, here, I'm inventing my own examples--but you get the drift.) 

Another example of a story: Susan drove to Walmart, bought a wheelbarrow, and drove home. A plot: Susan drove to Walmart, bought a wheelbarrow, drove home, and buried Jack's body in the back pasture. A plot needs to be something that grabs the reader's interest. 

And yes, I know: short stories don't have to have plots. A vignette, a slice-of-life, a character sketch--none of those have plots, but they still qualify as short stories. An often-used example of a plotless story is Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River." Beautiful description and interesting symbolism, but mostly it's an account of a sportsman going through the motions of camping, fishing, cooking what he's caught, etc., and nothing really happens. It's still a story, and a famous one at that, but I think the best stories do have strong plots. Even when I'm reading and not writing, I find myself focusing mainly on the plot. I understand that the characters have to be good and effective and interesting in order to have a quality story, yes, but what I often seem to remember most is the plot.

Closer to home . . .

What are these plots that pop into my own head? As examples, here are mini-synopses for some of my stories published so far this year. If you've read any of my recent creations, some of these might ring a bell. Or not.


A man fleeing from loan sharks gets help from a female alligator-hunter

Two friends attempt to steal from a small-town business that's secretly connected to the mob

A fortune-teller in a New Orleans voodoo shop discovers a customer planning a robbery

A woman's scheme to murder her husband takes a wrong (and explosive) turn

A pool hall in Alaska is the scene of a showdown between townspeople and a trio of killers

In a raging storm, an outlaw happens upon a family in the high plains of west Texas

A new employee at an accounting firm meets a mysterious stranger in the elevator

A farmer wakes up to dreams of terrifying creatures in his cornfield

A veteran con-man's efforts to trick a young lady have unexpected results

A Mississippi sheriff helps his ex-lawyer girlfriend reclaim a stolen inheritance

A legendary gunfighter sides with a prospector and his sister against evil claimjumpers

Two amateur thieves in southern Italy battle an unexpected enemy

The maid for a recently deceased elderly lady becomes the prime suspect in her murder

A hitman walks into a local honky-tonk and hits the wrong man

A small-town sheriff tries to find the prankster who poisoned the mayor's punch

An inmate being transported to a new prison escapes--and interrupts a robbery in progress

A man on the run from the mafia is trapped in the restroom of a neighborhood bar

Members of a movie club help catch a thief at a local soup kitchen

Mob bosses and hitmen show up in a small southern town

A visiting police chief assists D.C. cops in solving an art-theft case

the search for a killer leads a sheriff and his former schoolteacher to a roadside cafe

An anonymous riddler provides the only clue to the robbery of a local Homeowner's Association

A police chief and her sister track two scammers who've emptied a woman's bank accounts

A Bigfoot hoaxster winds up in the middle of a crooked and deadly real-estate scheme

A politician and a gambler in southern Texas find themselves in a desperate situation

A boy receives otherworldly messages in a suburban mailbox

Two strangers who met on a plane flight meet again under far different circumstances

The kidnapping of a prominent businesswoman goes wrong, in almost every way

A wealthy rancher and his mistress plan to bomb a train in the Arizona desert

A year after a nuclear attack, a peaceful settlement must fight an army of armed scavengers

A unknown assistant helps the law solve a case of boat theft

An Old West private eye faces his past when hired to find a cattleman's missing daughter


I'm not saying these are great or ideal plots, but they worked, in terms of getting sold--and if any of them happen to serve as a prompt or catalyst for your own plot ideas, so much the better. (What does their subject matter say about me and my mental health? Let's not go into that.)

Most of these plots are mysteries, and when I listed them in this post I was a little surprised by how many of the mystery/crime stories involve a theft, a kidnapping, etc., instead of a murder. Also, relatively few of the mysteries were whodunits--they were more howdunits or whydunits or howcatchems.


Questions

What's your storytelling process, with regard to first ideas? Do you usually start with a character? A plot? A scene or setting? A theme? Are your plots usually short? Long? Simple? Complex? Twisty? Lighthearted? Violent? What are some of your recent plots?

Whatever they are and however you create them, I think plots are all-important. To me, they're what makes stories fun to read . . . and fun to write.

Let me know what you think.