28 August 2021

Chekhov's Gun - Why It's Important to Fiction Writers


Melodie here.  No one writes a more entertaining and informative blog than my pal Anne R. Allen.  If you only read one post on writing this year, make it this one. And if that last example doesn't put a smile on your face, I'm not Bad Girl.  (Which I am.) 

 Chekhov's Gun - Why It's Important to Fiction Writers

by Anne R. Allen



 Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, also wrote short stories, essays and instructions for young writers.  Probably his most famous writerly advice is this admonition:

"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.  Otherwise don't put it there."

In other words, remove everything that has no relevance to the story.  If chapter one says your mild-mannered reporter heroine won a bunch of trophies for archery which she displays prominently alongside her handmade Mongolian horse longbow, she better darn well shoot an arrow before the story is done.

"Mood and Setting"  Details vs. Chekhov's Gun

Yeah, but what if that longbow is there to show us what her apartment looks like?  It's good to show her decor, because it gives an insight into her character, right?

It depends.  Yes, we do want to use details to set tone and give depth to our characters, but the key is how you stress those details when you first present them.

If there's a whole paragraph about those archery trophies, or the characters have a conversation about the Mongolian horse longbow, you need to shoot some arrows.  But if there's just a cursory mention, "her apartment walls were decorated with an odd assortment of personal trophies and exotic weapons" then you can leave them on the wall.

So not every lampshade the author mentions has to show up two chapters later on the head of a drunken ex-boyfriend, but you need to be careful how much emphasis you put on that lampshade.

What about Red Herrings?

Wait a minute - what if you write mysteries?  Mysteries need irrelevant clues and red herrings.  Otherwise the story will be over before chapter seven.

This is true.  But mystery writers need to manage their red herrings.  If the deceased met his demise via arrow, probably shot by a Mongolian horse longbow, then Missy Mild-Mannered Reporter is going to look like a very viable subject to the local constabulary.

Only we're sure she didn't do it because she's our hero!  Okay, that means the longbow and the trophies are red herrings.

But they still need to be fired.  Maybe not like Chekhov's gun, but they need to come back into the story and be reckoned with.  Like maybe the real killer visited her apartment earlier when delivering pizza, then broke in to "borrow" the longbow in order to make Missy look like the murderous archer.

The Chekhov's Gun Rule Applies to Subplots

I've been running into this problem in a lot of fiction lately - both indie and traditionally published.

That's what inspired this post.

I sometimes find myself flipping through whole chapters that obviously have nothing to do with the main story.  That's because the subplot isn't hooked in with the main plot.  It's just hanging there, not doing anything.

The subplot has become the unfired Chekhov's gun.

For instance, one mystery had the protagonist go through endless chapter of police academy training after the discover of the body.  The mysterious murder wasn't even mentioned for a good six chapters.  I kept trying to figure out how her crush on a fellow aspiring policeperson was going to solve the mystery.

I finally realized it wasn't going to.  None of the romance stuff had to do with the mystery. When I finally flipped through to a place where the main plot resumed, the hot fellow student didn't even make an appearance.  He'd already gone off with a hotter female recruit.

It's fine to have a romance subplot in a mystery - in fact, that's my favorite kind.  But that romance has to take place while some mystery-solving is going on.  And hopefully it will provide some hindrances to the proceedings, and maybe some comic relief.

But if that romance doesn't "trigger" a new plot twist or reveal a clue, then it's an unfired gun on the wall.  It's just hanging there, annoying your reader, who expects it to be relevant.

Naming a Character Creates a Chekhov's Gun

Another "unfired Chekov's gun" situation often comes up with the introduction of minor characters and "spear-carriers."

You don't want to introduce the pizza delivery guy by telling us how he got the nickname "Green Arrow" followed by two paragraphs about his archery expertise - unless he's going to reappear later in the story.  And he better be doing something more archery-related than delivering another pie with extra pepperoni.

This is a common problem with newbie fiction.  In creative writing courses we're taught to make characters vivid and alive.  So every time you introduce a new character, no matter how minor, you want to make the memorable.  You want to give them names and create great backstories for them.

Don't give into the urge, no matter what the creative writing teacher in your head is saying.

If the character is not going to reappear or be involved with the plot or subplot, don't give him a name.  Don't even give him a quirky outfit.  Just call him "the pizza guy" or "the Uber driver" or "the barista." 

A named character becomes a Chekhov's gun.  The reader will expect that character to come back and do something explosive.

Beward Research-itis

A lot of unfired guns come from what I call research-itis.  That's when the author did a heckuva lot of research, and goldernit, they're going to tell you ever single fact they dug up.

You'll get three chapters on the historical significance of the Mongolian Longbow...and how Genghis Kahn used a smaller bow...which in the 17th century was replaced by the Manchu bow...And how the Manchu bows have larder siyahs and the presence of prominent string bridges...

None of which has anything to do with the dead guy in the living room with the arrow in his back.

If the reader doesn't need to know it to solve the mystery and it's not a red herring, keep it to yourself. 

Although a lot of that research will come in very handy for blogposts and newsletters when you're marketing the book, so don't delete all those research notes!

Beta Readers and Editors Can Take Chekhov's Gun Off the Wall

It's tough to weed out all those unfired guns in your own work.  You're sure you absolutely need to tell us that our heroine won those trophies when she was on her college archery team where her nemesis, Renee Rensinger, once stole her glasses before a meet...and she found out she could shoot better without them and didn't need glasses after all, which was great because her glasses made her look so dorky and after she stopped wearing them, Jake Hawkins noticed her for the first time.  Jake turned out to be a creep, but...

Your editor will tell you different.  And eventually you will thank her for it.

So will your readers.

BIO

Anne R. Allen (@anneallen) is the author of ten humorous mysteries, plus the bestselling writing guides The Author Blog - Easy Blogging for Busy Authors, and How to Be a Writer in the E-age, co-written with Catherine Ryan Hyde.  Anne blogs with NYT bestselling author Ruth Harris at

Anne R. Allen’s Blog…with Ruth Harris.

The Author Blog

Named one of the “Best Blogging Books of All Time in 2019, and “Best SEO Books of All Time in 2021” by Book Authority, this is an easy-does-it guide to simple, low-tech blogging for authors who want to build a platform, but not let it take over their lives.

An author blog doesn't have to follow the rules that monetized business blogs do. This book teaches the secrets that made Anne R. Allen a multi-award-winning blogger and one of the top author-bloggers in the industry.

And you'll learn why having a successful author blog is easier than you think.


 

 

27 August 2021

What Every Author Should Be Carrying in Their Pockets


I read a post once by the author Joe Konrath in which he went off on bookmarks. He started confronting authors at conferences who were pressing bookmarks into his hands. He says he finally asked them, "Have you ever bought a book because someone gave you a bookmark?" Their eyes boggled, the wheels turned, and maybe he changed a few authors’ minds about the wisdom of spending money on a marketing tool that doesn’t perform the way you’d like it to.

I’ve got two drawers in our office filled with bookmarks. The publishers print ’em up for my wife’s books, so I dutifully mail them to people whenever we send out a book or a bookplate. And if I’m anywhere near the table when Denise does signings, I always slip a bookmark into the reader’s book before they leave the table. Why? Because I hate the damn things, and I can’t wait to get rid of them. Thanks to my efforts, I predict we will finally finish them all by 2063.

I don’t like them because I don’t know how to carry them easily. No matter what I do, they end up crinkled, bent, or worse in the backpack I carry to book events. Or, if I do carefully preserve them in a little cardboard box toted for this purpose, that box and backpack are usually not on my person when I need it most.

If I do have them with me, I am treated to the same dispiriting spectacle every time. Immediately upon being handed a bookmark, people hesitate, trying to decide what to do with it. If a purse or backpack is handy, the person will stuff it in there. If not, I watch them fold the bookmark to fit it into their pockets. So much for trying to keep them pristine.

In my non-pandemic life I spent an inordinate amount of time sitting at bars, coffee or otherwise. Which, let’s face it, is where people schmooze. Just as often, we’d get invited to neighborhood potlucks, musical concerts, art showings. Places where people stand around with little plates and guzzle alcohol and talk.

Inevitably, you strike up a conversation with people, they discover you write books, they’re impressed, (yes, I think that’s funny, too), and upon leaving the venue they promise to go right home and immediately order your book.

But before they depart, they say things like:

What’s your name again?

How do you spell that?

What’s the name of the book you mentioned? The one for kids? The mystery one? The one about rutabagas?

Where can I buy that?

Can I get it on Amazon/B&N/the place where I buy batteries?


(Seriously, they really ask where they can buy it. It’s a wonder books are bought at all in this country.)

In those moments, sweet Joe Konrath help me, I wish I did have a damn bookmark with all that information on it. These sort of encounters happen so often that they are beat-by-beat predictable.

Good example: I’m writing this in Charleston, South Carolina, where we are on a research/vacation trip. Before we left home, I reminded Denise to bring along her stash of bookmarks/bookplates/business cards. She balked, but brought them nevertheless. The first afternoon in town, we explored the city and ended up at the bar of a restaurant.

Somewhere between the she-crab soup and the fried fish platter, Denise naturally struck up a conversation with a woman who is fascinated with writing, and has recently begun journaling her heart out. Just before she and her boyfriend settle their tab and go, the woman asks Denise for a card, or something, so she can check out Denise’s books. And Denise laughs. Why? She left all that crap in the hotel because she didn’t think she’d run into someone on the very first night of our trip. But she did. She always does. Like I said, beat-by-beat predictable.

To get around the Dilemma of the Inconvenient Bookmark, here’s what I did pre-Covid, and what I hope to start doing again. You see these here? They’re business cards.



On one side is my name, contact details, website, and social media details. On the other side is the cover of one of my books. I got them printed up by a company called Moo, and no, I don’t get a kickback. I’m just a stationery geek, which in my book is preferable to being a bookmark geek. Moo has a special customized business card option that allows you to print up to 50 different images on the backs of your business cards for one fixed price. (The link in this paragraph will take you right to that page.)


When I ghost-wrote a book for a restaurant guru, 
I had these cards made up for the launch event.

Moo says that they envisioned these cards as portable portfolios for creative types. And while Denise and I were researching in Charleston, I noticed that the librarians and archivists at the place we were working every day also used Moo for their business cards, which showcase the sort of one-of-a-kind artwork and printed ephemera from books the library holds in its collection.


If this sort of card makes sense for librarians, photographers, artists, designers, and maybe engineers or architects, why not writers?

Because they’re business cards, they fit in my wallet or a business card holder. I don’t hand them out promiscuously, so they feel more cost-effective than bookmarks, he said hopefully.

Sure, there’s no guarantee that the person to whom you give these cards will ever buy the book. But who cares? Because they’re business cards, they don’t weigh on my mind like those damn bookmarks. I don’t ever feel compelled to use them up. They don’t feel like a waste of money because in certain professional situations, I actually do still need business cards. At least, I did before the world crashed and burned.

Now: Sometimes you don’t want to give complete strangers your contact details. Fine. That’s why I print up a second, “blind” batch; no address, phone number, or email, just name, website, and social. That’s all the person needs anyway. That, and the title and cover of the book you somehow happened to mention in your chat. My “blind” stash is always readily available in my wallet, the “full” version less so. You can color-code the cards if you want, but why make yourself crazy?

I probably don’t need to say this, but the book cover image you print on the card should absolutely be the version that people will most likely encounter in a store or online. So if your publisher recently issued paperbacks with a new cover, print that cover. Ditto if you, the self-pubbed author, recently changed the cover of the book. (I recently changed the covers of some of my books, so I need to update the cards.)

Lastly, despite my lovely cards, I was sad to hear that in-person Bouchercon was canceled again this year. But please, feel free to mail your bookmarks to the home address not printed on the obverse of my card.

* * *

See you in three weeks!

Joe


26 August 2021

One Dark Night


Vanity Fair has done a damn good job of summing up the situation with regard to South Dakota's Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg (pronounced Rounsberg), who on September 12, 2020, more or less at 10:22 PM, swerved over on the side of the road and hit what he is still claiming he thought was a deer.  Instead, it was a man:  Joseph Paul Boever.  Mr. Boever went flying into the air and into Ravnsborg's windshield, leaving his glasses in the front seat of Ravsnborg's car.  Which Ravnsborg never noticed until investigators told him about it. 

Hyde County Sheriff Mike Volek came out after Ravnsborg's 911 call that night, checked the area over, found nothing, and then gave Ravnsborg a ride to his home. There he loaned the AG one of his personal vehicles to drive to Pierre. At no time that night did the sheriff give our AG a sobriety test. The next day an alcohol test showed no alcohol in Ravnsborg's system, which is exactly what you'd expect from a test given 15 hours later.  



(Above:  The Highmore Road at night.  BTW, the victim was carrying a lit flashlight.
Vanity Fair)  

Five months later, Ravnsborg was finally charged with 3 misdemeanors: careless driving, driving out of his lane and operating a motor vehicle while on his phone. Maximum sentence $500 fine each and 30 days in jail, and we all knew that there was no way he would ever, ever, ever serve a day in jail. The obvious thing to do was plead guilty, pay the fine and go on his merry way.  

But he wouldn't. And nobody in South Dakota has been able to figure out why.  

Instead, his attorneys - as you may remember - tried to defend the AG by saying that the victim was attempting to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of Ravnsborg's car. A number of people quickly pointed out that this plotline literally came straight from the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, where a man threw himself in front of one of the heros in order to send him to prison for murder.  (Soap)  

And his trial started tomorrow.  Except!  Ravnsborg is going to take a plea deal tomorrow, according to his attorney, and put an end to the whole show.  (News)  So why now?  Why not before?  Who knows?  

But:  The gag order ends after the plea deal. Back in February, Governor Noem had called on Ravnsborg to resign and then the investigators' interviews with Ravnsborg were released by the South Dakota Department of Public Safety (undoubtedly with Noem's permission).  Ravnsborg's attorneys, understandably enough, were furious at this tainting of the pool, and got a gag order on any further information, interviews, evidence, that might be in the record. After the plea deal, all of that can come out in a tsunami.

And:  In 2022, Governor Noem and AG Ravnsborg's are up for reelection.  Marty Jackley, the former AG, has already announced his plans to run against Ravnsborg.  And I'm willing to slap a five on the table right now saying Jackley will win.  

Because:  Let's just say Ravnsborg doesn't have that many friends in South Dakota. Each and every one of us knows that he got special treatment all the way:
  • The Sheriff himself came out, and gave him a ride home, loaned him a car, and gave no alcohol test on the night of the crash.  
  • The investigation took almost 5 months, during which Ravnsborg was never arrested, booked, or had to post bail.  
  • Three misdemeanors.  Three misdemeanors.  Three misdemeanors.  There are people sitting in prison for vehicular manslaughter.  
(Yes, there are people who say, "Well, he's innocent until he's proven guilty", but if you ask them what would have happened if they'd hit a person and left them for dead, almost all say, "Oh, I'd be in jail.  If I was Native American, I'd be in prison right now."  We know how the deck is stacked.)

Also:  Boever's widow has filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Ravnsborg.  (See above about the tsunami of evidence waiting for the end of the gag order.)  (Argus)

Also:  There was a significant cry in last year's legislature for Ravnsborg's impeachment. But the result was a 57-11 vote to suspend further impeachment action until the criminal case against him is resolved.  Well...  

Meanwhile:  Right before Ravnsborg hit Boever, he'd been reading an article on a right-wing website about Biden and corruption and China.  The cell phone data proved that.  Now last I heard, you're not supposed to read while driving even if it is a dark night on a lonely road where you really don't expect anything but deer to be.  And we all know that.  So, from the very beginning, if Ravnsborg would have been willing to admit that he had been driving distracted, and missed seeing Boever on shoulder and hit him.  Or if he'd at least given a press conference at any time saying "I cannot express my sorrow and my heartbreak at the death of Mr. Boever.  It was not deliberate, it was a horrible accident, and I will always regret that night," etc. - if he'd done that, he just might have kept his reputation and his career.  But I think it's shot.  He ran away.  He kept his mouth shut.   He admitted nothing.  

All it takes is one dark night to ruin everything.  And Mr. Boever is still dead.



(Memorial on Highway 14 for Joseph Boever.
Vanity Fair)

25 August 2021

A Song for the Dark Times


How come Inspector Rebus gets better and better? Lee Child asks on the dust jacket of A Song for the Dark Times, and the plain fact is that the books have only gone from strength to strength.  Rebus doesn’t get stale, because for thirty-odd years Ian Rankin has never phoned it in.

The trick, if we can call it that, is that Rebus isn’t a static character.  He’s thickened, over time, and fleshed out.  He’s also failed, in significant ways.  The chief dynamic in A Song for the Dark Times is his relationship with his daughter, but more to the point, the damage done.  He’s haunted by the very real possibility that he can never make it right.

Then there’s the atmosphere, the environment.  Rebus isn’t a solitary, although he’d give you an argument.  The people around him are no more generic than he is.  The gangster, Big Ger Cafferty, back for another go; Siobahn Clarke, the dogged junior partner, now DI; and Malcolm Fox, first given space in The Complaints.  The departure, literally, in A Song for the Dark Times, has Rebus taken out of Edinburgh and dropped on the windswept coastline of the far North, in sight of the Orkneys.  Not remotely his turf.

There is, yes, a parallel investigation back home, under the watchful eye of Siobhan Clarke, and there are tempting overlaps and odd confluences – how not? – but the engine of the story is Rebus out of his element.  Displaced in the physical world, and on shaky legs, emotionally.  He’s never been demonstrative, our John, but he’s self-aware, and his melancholy here is a sort of bass note, pitched low, not so much heard as felt, as if to name it would give it power.

The story is very much a suitable tangle, the buried past, an uncertain future, a climate of anxiety our only constant in the present.  Rankin remarks in a note at the end that the book was begun before COVID, but the process carried forward into lockdown.  There’s a sense of those dark energies in the novel, a lingering PTSD, something I doubt we’ll shake anytime soon. I don’t think A Song for the Dark Times is meant as a fable, but it can’t help absorbing the oppressive forces of psychic quarantine and illness. 


24 August 2021

The Best Characters are Desperate Ones


Would you ever frame someone? Rob someone? How about kill someone?

Here's hoping the answer is no. Yet I bet a lot of people who have framed, robbed, or killed others would have answered "no" to that question earlier in their lives, before they actually did it. You never know what you'll really do until your back is against the wall.

I discussed this with an author friend a few years ago. I asked her if she would ever embezzle from her employer. Of course, she said no. Then I said, what if your child was really sick and she needed medicine, and you wouldn't be paid for five more days and needed the cash now. What if you could borrow the money from the cash drawer at work without anyone noticing and then repay it next week? Would you take it? She allowed that she might in those circumstances, because the crime was non-violent, because the money would be repaid quickly and no one would have missed it.

Time to up the pressure, so I said, what if your child was really sick and you would have to kill someone to get the money for the medicine. Would you do that? Of course, her answer was no. Okay, I figured, let's ease up on the pressure. I said, imagine you did take the money from the cash drawer and then you realized there was going to be an unexpected audit at work before you could repay the money. The only way to not get caught--and getting caught would mean losing your job and thus the very health insurance your sick child depends on--would be to sneak into your rich neighbor's home and steal from her purse. Would you do that? Yes, my friend allowed. She probably would.

Then I asked, what if your neighbor caught you and was about to call the police? If you  were arrested, you'd lose your job and health insurance. Your ex-husband, who can charm anyone yet, privately, is emotionally abusive and unreliable, would sue for custody. So, not only would your freedom be in jeopardy, but your child's health and well-being would be too. What would you do to stop your neighbor? 

The series of questions went on and on, with me upping the pressure, until my friend said that in certain gut-wrenching circumstances, maybe she could kill someone.

And that was my point. You never know what you'll do until you're desperate, until the thing that matters most to you is threatened. I find it helpful to think about scenarios like these when writing crime stories. Writing about a bad guy who commits a crime simply because he enjoys it is far less interesting than writing about a guy who reluctantly commits a crime because he feels he has no other choice. 

It's good to think about what kind of strain you can put your characters under and how they'd react. To me, creating a story involves mixing character and conflict. Put your character under pressure, and your plot evolves from there. Every character will react differently to a particular conflict, so the plot will unwind differently depending on who is put in each pressure cooker.

In my newest story, "Ice Ice Baby," I put my protagonist, divorced-mom Melissa, under a lot of pressure. (I choose these words carefully. I listened to David Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure" on repeat as I wrote the story.) It's summertime and Melissa is driving an ice-cream truck to make ends meet. She needs those ends to meet or else she could lose her rental cottage. That would be disastrous. Her son has a learning disability, and her school district is the best one to help him. To make matters worse, her landlord has been sexually harassing her. She'd love to move, but the local rental market in her price range is currently non-existent. Talk about pressure. With her options limited, Melissa searches for a sweet solution to her sticky situation. 

What would you do in these circumstances? What does Melissa do? To find out, you'll need to buy the September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which went on sale last week. You can buy the magazine at bookstores and newsstands, including Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million. To buy a digital copy of this issue, click here. To subscribe (in paper or digital form), click here

One reader has called "Ice Ice Baby" "even more satisfying than ice cream on a hot summer day." I hope you enjoy it just as much.

***

A little BSP: My short story "Dear Emily Etiquette" won the Agatha Award last month and the Ellery Queen Reader's Award in the spring. It's currently up for the Anthony and Macavity awards, the winners of which will be announced this Saturday. Fingers crossed! (Fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor is also up for the Anthony and Macavity awards in the short story category, as well as for the Anthony for best short story anthology or collection. Best of luck, Art!)

23 August 2021

The Pandemic—A Touchy Subject for Writers


I wrote the following piece at the end of the first year of the pandemic, and I've had to rewrite this introductory paragraph twice—once when large numbers of Americans got vaccinated and were repopulating restaurants and flying across the country to visit their grandchildren and now, again, when the Delta variant of the virus has forced those of us who thought the pandemic was almost over to realize it's on the way to becoming chronic.

Some writers took the year of freedom from distraction the lockdown provided to hole up and write prolifically. Others were so distressed by the isolation human contact and the global ambiance of fear, death, and chaos that they couldn't write at all. Fiction writers were certainly in no hurry to tackle the pandemic in their work, whether as theme or primary subject or as the fabric of reality in "the present."

Poets were not so hampered. Waiting to have something to say, I came up with my only pandemic poem very late, just in time to be included in the anthology When the Virus Came Calling (Golden Foothills, September 2020). I read a significant number of 2020 short stories, including entries for the Derringers, and only a couple mentioned it. As for novels, I don't remember seeing any references in 2020. When Donna Leon's latest Commissario Brunetti book, Transient Desires, came out in March 2021, it referred delicately to the pandemic as if it were already over:

For years we Venetians had wished the tourists to disappear and give us back our city. Well, we'd had our wish, and look at us now.

At around the same time, a mystery reader who happens to be a writer posted on DorothyL:

I’m curious as to what folks are thinking about the intrusion of the pandemic into our reading. Are any of you welcoming it (maybe as a way to process)? Are we all avoiding it?

I responded, as is my wont, truthfully and without thinking of looking around for the thought police:

I've been working on a short story that takes place in New York during the pandemic. Everyone wears masks, and the amateur sleuth investigates via Zoom, phone, and walks in the park with witnesses and suspects, keeping social distance. The case looks like an accident and is given short shrift—no autopsy or further investigation—because the morgues are full and law enforcement has more important things to do. It's been fun to write, but I don't know that I'd want to do it for the length of a novel or even additional stories.

No one criticized my comment, but when I heard someone say they didn't want to read anything about COVID-19 because it evoked pain and suffering they had no desire to dwell on, it made me think twice about my use of "fun." Next, I saw submission guidelines to a journal that stated pandemic stories, like erotica or sword & sorcery, would be a "hard sell," just short of "hard passes" like torture or child and animal abuse.

Hey, wait a minute! How can we veto a whole category of literary work that writers' imaginations have barely begun to process? What assumption does avoiding the whole thing make about what pandemic stories will be about?

The analogy that leaps to my mind is the child abuse story, which is so easily banned unseen by editors trying to appear "correct." The flaw in their reasoning is that they can only imagine stories in which children are being graphically and disgustingly abused. As my anthology Me Too Short Stories amply demonstrated, abused children can have a voice, a chorus of voices. They can even survive and grow into women who fight back without becoming the pulp-fiction fantasy action figure with a big bust, two guns, and a skimpy bathing suit.

I think the stories of courage and loss, pain and survival we saw in 2020 need to be told by those who need to tell them, and only those who want to read them have to read them. But illness and death were not all that happened during the pandemic. The part of 2020 that I used, the part I dared call fun to write, was how we New Yorkers went about our business under abnormal conditions—wearing masks, maintaining social distance, using Zoom to congregate, and somehow making the best of it. For the purposes of crime fiction, I asked myself: How would that affect an investigation, both official and unofficial?

One more example of how many different ways writers may find to explore the pandemic: A masterful short story I read blind, so I can't tell you who wrote it, but it was a puzzle story in which an amateur sleuth solves the crime without leaving her house, because the extended lockdown has left her agoraphobic. I could appreciate how brilliantly the author rendered the agoraphobia, because I've been in lockdown too.

So far in 2021, I haven't observed much more willingness to address the pandemic in fiction than in 2020. But on DorothyL, readers, many of whom are writers, have been discussing a shift in their reading habits. Some of them are reading less crime fiction—and these are hard core lifelong mystery lovers. They are turning to other genres for a variety of reasons. I can't help wondering if I'm the only one for whom crime fiction is too dark for these dark days.

22 August 2021

Certifiable – Arizona Elections Corrections 202


Previous   PREV Arizona ‘fraudit’ Conspiracy Theories         

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

Hello once again from Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. This is Blanca Mujer, OAN reporter. It’s exciting end times amid threats to arrest RINOs of the Maricopa Election Board as we wait breathlessly for Cyber Nunchucks to release their report that the fraud conspiracy was so huge, people couldn’t see it because of its sheer size.

Liberal Republican judges have forced the audit to reveal its secret funding. So yes, I blushingly admit your One-America Network has pumped more than $600 000 into this beautiful experiment to overturn the election. You too can continue to donate as we near $6-million given to that darling one- or two-man company, Cyber Ninjas to ensure the answer we want.

A shout-out today to my mother. Mom, you said I’d never amount to anything as a journalist, so look where I am now! OAN! Bet you’re sorry now!

This has been Blanca Mujer, OAN News.

When Dem Cotton Balls Get Rotten

In May, the so-called auditors raised a very public stink that files had been deleted (an accusation repeatedly mentioned in fund-raising rallies). This was put forth by Ben Cotton, another fraud theorist, a subcontractor with precious little election experience, when the grown-ups went out to lunch.

The County Recorder famously said about the files, “I’m looking at them now.” Maricopa election officials gently suggested they look in the folder labelled something like Election 2020, where the ‘missing’ SQL files magically appeared. The recorder may also have suggested they hire an average 13-year-old to help with their computers.

As Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella might say, “Never mind.” Stung by the Maricopa Recorder’s suggestion of ineptitude, Ben Cotton insisted he had to ‘recover’ the data, letting implications of erased files remain in the public’s mind.

But wait, there’s more. From the US Department of Justice, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Pamela Karlan sent a letter to the Arizona Senate expressing concerns about (a) the door-to-door interrogations and voter intimidation and (b) serious breaks in the chain of custody and security of ballots, which should always remain in the control of election managers. At the time, a defiant Senate President Karen Fann told Federal Election officials to ƒ off, Arizona would do things her way.

Cabin Fervor

Ignoring local and federal concerns, subcontractor Ben Cotton disappeared out of state while ‘trucking’ election material to a ‘secret lab’ 18 hours and 1300 miles (2100km) distant from Phoenix. The involvement of a truck suggests something seriously large and heavy was removed far from the jurisdiction of auditors, the Arizona legislature, and law enforcement.

Bizarrely, outside of Salon and an Anderson Cooper 360 clip, this has received little press. No one supposedly in charge in Arizona seems certain of what, where, when, and why. Audit Director Ken Bennett and Cyber Ninja Doug Logan vaguely ‘thought’ unspecified election items were taken to a CyTech ‘secure laboratory’ in Montana. If any of this is true, it strongly suggests Arizona has lost the last remnant of control of the situation.

Being the curious sort in a criminally curious blog, I dug into the secret lab location, coming up with a cabin– a very fancy cabin to be sure– in the middle of the woods in Montana. If by chance I’m right, this is what it looks like:

Definitely legit. Notice the high tech secret lab equipment, the scientific secret laboratory ion proteolyser barbecue grills, the secret laboratory grade vertabrazier lounge recliners on the secret lab veranda, and the NASA-approved secret laboratory Adirondack chairs. Yep, looks like a hi-tech lab should look.

Minutes Instead of Months

Meanwhile, back in Pima County, a gentleman named Benny White ran for Pima County Recorder on the Republican ticket and unfortunately lost. His loss became our gain.

Curious about the statistics of his race, he accessed the public records database (like the one the ‘auditors’ claimed was deleted) for analysis. Once he had the statistics in hand, he realized he could extrapolate the larger federal election.

Clear Ballot logo

He reached out to a pair of retired federally certified election auditors, Tim Halvorsen and Larry Moore. Their federally credentialed firm, Clear Ballot, had bid to handle the Arizona re-audit. Unlike Cyber Ninja’s juvenile web site, Clear Ballot laid out their experience, summarizing with the lede, ‘Clear Ballot Completes Successful, Transparent Elections Nationwide’. Um, transparent… successful… complete… Not what Arizona was looking for.

Halvorsen and Moore said their firm could do in minutes what Cyber Ninjas and CyFIR were taking months to complete. They offered a challenge: Give them any still sealed box of ballots, and within five minutes they could tell exactly what was in it.

White, Moore, and Halvorsen determined 60,000 Republicans in Maricopa County and 15,000 in Pima County did not vote for the presidential incumbent. These are the ballots Cyber Ninjas and CyTech have desperately perused with ultraviolet lamps, alternate angle lighting, DNA analysis, ink/toner inspection, and psychic readings, hoping to prove the votes fraudulent or at least too suspicious to use.

Mr White shared Moore and Halvorsen’s conclusions with Senate audit director and liaison, former Arizona Secretary of State, Ken Bennett. Bennett confirmed the Maricopa audit results were nearly identical to Clear Ballot’s, both significantly different from Cyber Ninjas.

Sharing professional opinions enraged Ninja’s Doug Logan who called it ‘sharing data’ (albeit public data), and demanded the Senate remove Bennett. Logan later said Fann made the decision to terminate him on her own. Thus we saw Bennett fired and then unfired, quit and then unquit, and after considerable gnashing of teeth, reinstated to oversee what little can be seen.

Maricopa isolated election schema
Maricopa isolated election schema

Stripping in Public

Among the plethora of ‘R’s in the list of involved political personnel, you’ll notice a single ‘D’, Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s Secretary of State. The Arizona legislature has moved to strip her of powers and limit her access to legal advice and finances, so that the audit may speak with one voice. You know, one party, one voice, like fascist and communist countries. Those powers of the Secretary of State will be turned over to Attorney General Mark Brnovich who has lobbied hard against Hobbs and has himself been accused of improprieties.

Brnovich, who’s a few vowels shy of a pronounceable name, should have questioned the legitimacy of a secretive, partisan, opaque Roman spectacle to set aside the careful and considered approval of the Maricopa election by members of his own party who’d already held three (or four) recounts and audits, coming up with nothing but a pristine election. Instead, he became part of the legal genius successfully persuading a judge to allow the magic show to proceed.

It’s worth wondering if Brnovich, the subject of ethics complaints as recently as a year ago, seized upon the ‘fraudit’, as locals on both sides say, as a legal distraction. Instead of backing the Secretary of State, he has opposed Katie Hobbs at every turn, maneuvering for control over the election process. As one observer noted, Brnovich is giddy with the prospect of subsuming the Secretary of State’s powers and budget.

It’s BOGO– Buy one office, get a second one free. From there, it’s a small step to the governor’s seat.

The Price is Ripe

Arizona Senate President Fann and Doug Logan have fought hard against revealing how Cyber Ninjas was funded for the immensely secretive process. The Senate’s donations agreement with Cyber Ninjas calls for no limits, no restrictions, no accountability. A judge rebuked Karen Fann for attempting to evade Arizona transparency regulations, and ordered funding information to be released. Among the larger contributions were:

group founded by J Patrick Byrne   $3 250 000
group founded by foreign agent Mike Flynn   $1 000 000
group founded by OAN’s Christina Bobb   $600 000
group founded by lawyer Sydney Powell   $550 000
group founded by lawyer Matthew DePerno   $280 000
group founded by lawyer L Lin Wood   $50 000
donations by My Pillow’s Mike Lindell   unknown
Arizona taxpayers, courtesy of Legislature   $150 000
other (approximately)   $250 000

Karat and Schtick

Big money is riding on one outcome. Here is a key question: If you were paid $6-million by backers expecting one answer, how would you respond?

This spurious, secretive, and frankly bizarre recount befuddles professionals. Experts point out a true and valid recount and audit could have been conducted in hours, not months. Further, ballots should not be dismissed if they’re folded the wrong way or smudged with Cheetos dust.

Senate Presient Karen Fann deliberately dodged federally certified audit firms and backed a conspiracy theorist. No fraud hypothesis was too wild not to be taken seriously.

Sellers letter to Senate

Meanwhile, Maricopa Board of Elections supervisors have received orange jumpsuits along with messages that they, individually, and their family members will be executed. One voice indeed.

Maricopa Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers sent a sharply worded letter to the Arizona Senate telling them to get this farce done and be prepared to defend it in court.

The Six-Million Dollar Man

True investigations, whether criminal or scientific, begin with an open mind. Never should an investigation lead with an unchallenged premise fraud had occurred, but here, Cyber Ninja’s job was to prove the premise.

From the beginning, this so-called ‘fraudit’ has never been about proving if the election was in doubt, but how doubt could be cast upon it. As Katie Hobbs pointed out, real audits are conducted under three unbreakable rules. The Senate and Cyber Ninjas have broken all of them.

Maricopa Republicans deserve admiration and credit for withstanding often brutal attacks upon their hard work, integrity, and physical safety, resisting the slide toward a one-party state. It’s a pity the rest of the state can’t learn from them.

Cyber Ninjas has promised to release their report tomorrow (Monday). Considering Doug Logan revealed the results before the ‘audit’ commenced and he’s been paid $6 000 000 to take his conspiracy theories mainstream, the outcome probably won’t be surprising.

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.