16 November 2021

Making characters come alive


I was once asked to explain voice, and I thought it was kind of like the Supreme Court's definition of obscenity: You know it when you see it. Voice is attitude. Voice is how characters come alive off the page. Voice is making characters' feelings so real that readers feel like they know them and understand them.

Knowing who characters are deep down and being able to show it through their voice is important to writers because when you throw your characters into whatever you've cooked up for them, you want readers to believe the characters do what they do, even if they disapprove of the characters' actions. It's even better if you can get readers to feel like they're wearing the characters' shoes, to essentially become them. One way to accomplish this, to make a character feel that real, is to use detail to pull readers in.

I attempted this in my newest short story, "Out of a Fog," published last week in issue ten of Black Cat Mystery Magazine. The story opens with a college senior who is blindsided by her boyfriend of three years when he breaks up with her. I wanted the reader to feel her pain and dismay, how she's shocked to her core when the relationship she'd built her world around is ended with such suddenness, like an unexpected death. Here's how the story opens:

My boyfriend dumped me a week before Thanksgiving. It felt like a Mack truck slammed into me, and after I skidded across the pavement, leaving behind torn flesh and what remained of my heart, it kept on coming, rolling right over me. First the front tires, huge and heavy, their treads filled with razor-sharp pebbles. Then the back ones, too, ensuring I was good and flattened.

I then take you right into the breakup, showing it happening, how the boyfriend tries to make things better but every word is a twist of the knife. And the main character is left at the end of the scene emotionally destroyed and capable of doing ... well, who knows what? Pushed to her limit, she now can do things that the reader would condemn but also understand at the same time. 

That was my goal at least, to make the character's anguish so real that readers get why she does what she does as the story progresses, despite knowing it's wrong. Did I succeed? That's for readers to decide. 

If you'd like to read the story (as well as ten other new stories, including ones from fellow SleuthSayers Janice Law, Steve Liskow, and Elizabeth Zelvin) you'll need to pick up issue ten of Black Cat Mystery Magazine. Click here to download it directly from the publisher in epub and Kindle formats. You can pick it up in paper and Kindle formats from Amazon by clicking here. The issue should also show up soon in other online bookshops. 

Thanks to editor Michael Bracken for publishing the story. And, authors, if you have other voice tips, feel free to mention them in the chat.

15 November 2021

Making An Impact


It may take me a while to respond to comments on today's blog for the best of reasons: I'll be hanging out with readers. The readers are students in Professor Ken Wishnia's Intro to Lit class at SUNY Suffolk, and we'll be talking about my story, "Never Again," in Me Too Short Stories, an anthology I edited. Ken is himself an accomplished crime fiction author, whose anthology, Jewish Noir II, including my story, "The Cost of Something Priceless," will appear early next year. The students are a truly diverse group in age and socioeconomic status as well as ethnicity, race, and gender. Some come from troubled families; many must struggle to achieve a community college education.

"Never Again" is a challenging story. We learn on the first page that Valerie's father abuses her sexually from the age of four. For ten years, her attempts to speak out and get help fail. We also meet Frances, abused by the preacher's son at age nine in her close-knit churchgoing community. She hides her pain in compulsive overeating and obesity and marries an alcoholic who abuses her physically, verbally, and emotionally. Two intolerable situations, one girl, one woman who say, "Never again!" and embark on a collision course. What will happen when they collide?

I've visited Ken's classes, whose students have not only read the story but written a one-page paper on it, several times, both virtually and in person. Ken has said, "These stories [in the Me Too anthology] are the first pieces of fiction to truly come alive on the page for some students." He and I have discussed how academic assignments had changed since our own youth, when Shakespeare and Victorian novels were the norm, and how the first wave of "relevant" reading material, beginning in the Sixties, ran to books like Catcher in the Rye, whose protagonist these students would see as a bored rich white kid with no problems worth mentioning.

Last year, to illustrate the students' visceral response, he shared with me some comments from their papers.

Not a lot of literature has really brought me to tears, but her story had me close to fully crying.
This story had me genuinely tearing up and putting the book down after the first few sentences, which is something that has never happened before.

Sometimes the writing in a story is so good that you physically react and that’s what happened.

Never Again demonstrates the lack of voice that women have when speaking up about sexual abuse. People question why victims exposed to any abuse cannot speak up. These victims want to tell someone that they are suffering, but it is hard for them to confide themselves to someone who will listen to their story.

Do I write in the hope of moving readers this powerfully? You bet I do. Did I write "Never Again" to make an impact? Absolutely. I'm awed and grateful that these young readers were so receptive.

One more comment, from a young man whose opinion I'd rather have than a New York Times reviewer's:

I cant even compare this short story to the others because this one is by far my favorite. By the end of the first page i was instantly hooked, the darkness of this story is absolutely wild. The way how the author describes so specifically the dark twisted things that go on in Valerie's household puts me on the edge of my futon that i was reading this on. The fact that i wanted to rip the father out of the pages and beat him up for touching and treating his daughter like that was a feeling Ive never felt before reading a story.

I can hardly wait to find out what this year's crop of students have to say.

14 November 2021

Fear and Silence


A little while ago, I was asked by a reporter to speak about the escalating threats against doctors on Twitter. Since then, that conversation has been meandering, and at times galloping, through my mind. It’s kept me awake at night.

I have written previously about attacks against others and myself on Twitter while advocating for simple things like wearing masks and getting vaccines. However, attacks and threats are very different things. It’s far more worrisome when people tell me they will find me and ‘make me pay’ because that makes me look at our wall of windows overlooking our backyard and wonder who is in the woods looking in. What I said to the reporter is just that: ordinary people have no security so threats are worrisome. There are escalating threats against doctors but the real problem is far worse. Nurses, professors, psychologists and journalists have all had threats made against them, including death threats for speaking factually about COVID-19 and measures to help save lives.

From what I’ve observed, it’s often journalists who get the largest number of threats. Writing factual information on the pandemic isn’t the only thing that engenders threats, but it certainly begins large pile ons from the anti-science groups. Imagine having death threats or threats of violence against you but also having your face well-known, because it’s published with your articles or seen in TV appearances. Then imagine taking said face downtown, into stores, out walking with your dog or, worse, walking with your children.

While people are asking why people are becoming more violent, one very important piece of information needs to be brought to the table. Canada’s intelligence service, CSIS, has warned that foreign actors are using COVID-19 to sow discord in Canada:

“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.”

Anything that sows discord in a democratic country weakens that democracy. The free press, as a cornerstone of our democracy and threatened in authoritarian countries, would certainly be a target. As would doctors, nurses and scientists who can speak in our country unlike in others, and stand as a testament to the freedoms we enjoy in a democratic nation. This is not to suggest that foreign bots are the only ones attacking journalists or others, but we must remember that their purpose is to inspire domestic threats with the volume and character of their attacks.

Regardless of who begins or escalates these threats, the consequence remains the same: fear, possible physical harm and silencing.

The avenues of help when you’re threatened are somewhat convoluted. A successful report to Twitter results in a thank you. Not sure what that means.

Wandering through the internet looking for help led me to Cybercrime that helpfully suggests “To report abusive behaviour, such as harassment, cyberbullying, threats, and impersonation, or other incidents that occur on social media, contact the social media provider directly through their help centre.”

Tried that.

Then there’s the labyrinth that take you to a report to your local police - but can they do anything from threats coming outside your local region?

One of my late night thoughts: could there be an avenue to create new methods of reporting threats made on social media, that allow quick reporting and maximum impact, like immediate and permanent bans from Twitter and quick attempts to find and prosecute these people?

The reason I’m bringing this up as a solution is that those who threaten are emboldened because they rarely pay a price for their actions. Some are actually dangerous, some are not, however, their threats have an impact of silencing or frightening people. What if they knew that people are quickly banned, quickly found and prosecuted? That would send a chilling message to them.

It would also reduce the sense of helplessness we all feel in the face of these threats.

Mind you, these are the late night thoughts of someone who never studied law and law enforcement. They are also the simple thoughts of someone who sees a new and large problem emerging that urgently needs new solutions.

Certainly, what we have now is not sufficient, because those threatened are increasingly frightened and those who threaten are increasingly emboldened. Why not do something to turn that pattern around?

If we don’t find innovative solutions to nip this growing problem in the bud, we’ll have a larger problem. If scientists, doctors, journalists, nurses and others fear speaking out factually on this pandemic, their increasing silence will just make our society much more dangerous by yielding the information space to those who will not keep us safe in a pandemic.

It is unequivocally a public safety issue.

13 November 2021

The Writer As Necromancer


The Fever Throes of NaNoWriMo

2011. The one-month sprint is way on. In my thing, this European crime lord wants his painting back. Main character Clio doesn't want him to have it. I have like 25K words of that already. Thieves, hidden agendas, switcheroos, the whole shebang. I suppose--such as one supposes anything sleep-deprived and deep into the Diet Coke--the reader might need some history, the bigger why that set this caper in motion. Time for the backstory chapter.

I pound it out, a chapter where Clio learns how her boss Natalia out-swindled the crime lord guy for a newly-confirmed Goya. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game, with super-rich socialite Natalia coming out on top--or at least with temporary possession. The backstory clocked in at a thousand-ish words, and when my daily word budget is a caffeine-enriched 3,000, I go with what comes. I'll make it work later.

Later

It doesn't work. Can't, the whole novel. Too slapped together. My right brain coroner locks the manuscript in the creative morgue.

Later Than That

And yet.

Some days, I scan that hard drive and wonder. One thing the dearly departed had going for it was a groovy cast of characters, if too over-the-top. The deeper problem was a seat-of-my-pants overdrive plot. 

What's eating me is that critiques didn't like any main character the best. Take resourceful Clio, a grad student pulled into Natalia's influence orbit. Clio is smart and attractive, sure, but not as smart and attractive as her self-image. Wounded pride and hijinks ensue. Or Natalia, as close to a Moriarty-style intellect as I'm likely to try. A challenge to do a mastermind, and she's droll fun on the page. If I'm going Dr. Frankenstein, shouldn't I resurrect the headliner?

No, the standout feedback was for a bit-part skeevy lawyer readers weren't supposed to like. Went by Vernon Stagg. I'm writing short stories now, so why not dig out old Vernon, let him loose on the world. I do, in "The Cumberland Package," and in 2015 the story lands in AHMM. Readers like him. A series is launched. Thanks, NaNoRiMo Fever Throes.

Meanwhile, I'm still cruising past the head stones from 2011. The characters aren't feeling dead yet. For proof, here's Clio wormed a mention in a literary humor piece ("Whorling," The Oddville Press, 2014). 

Maybe that backstory could make, you know, its own story.

Later Still

Autumn, the cold part. I'm still wondering if Clio and Natalia's graves are worth robbing. Hey, it worked for Vernon.

I grab that chapter and a Diet Coke and summon the characters back. Clio, Natalia, and the crime lord guy. No, this isn't done with candles and sage, etc. It involves staring at walls and out windows, and the chants are your curses that this idea doesn't stay dead. Because this isn't working as a story, either. It lacks a heart, a sense of place, a completed arc. I've created a zombie. 

Again, I say my goodbyes.

Reasonably Current Now

2018. Bordeaux, France. Sun, wine, tout le tralala. Seriously, a writer could set a story here. 

And I have just the one. Goya lived out his last years here. 

Life Intervenes

Cue intermission music and go for snacks. Not much writing happening here.

Because 2020

Weaverville, North Carolina. My
summer writing retreat, as rescheduled and in a rented house turned social distance fortress. Things start grim, with an Egyptian dust cloud nicknamed Godzilla and a flash piece warm-up that must never be grave-robbed. I sit. I stare. Finally, words come. A head of steam builds, and I get through top priorities with a few days to spare. 

Maybe it's my remembering sunnier times. Maybe it's my sinuses clogged with Saharan grit. Whatever it is, I spend those bonus days resurrecting Clio and Natalia after their Goya. It's better. A quasi-caper plot and four-part arc give it structure. I work in an abandoned submarine base, because Bordeaux has those and it's awesome. Clio gets added depth from a fleshed-out parallel character, and her struggles as ad hoc amateur sleuth bring her down to earth better than zingers ever did. There are hijinks, of course. 

The draft has a distinct zombie whiff.

Like Almost Now, People

April 2021. Tybee Island, Georgia. Morning beach walks, evening drinks, and in between it's hard drive necromancy. A crime humor anthology call beckons. Clio, it's now or never.

I sit. I stare. Because problems surface at once. I have the wrong famous historical artist. Goya was much too dark in tone and topic for my romp story, even his Bordeaux period. Changing artist means changing painting subject. And setting. I mourn my doomed submarine base. I slam a Diet Coke and change things top to bottom. 

Wait. There's a word count situation now, what with this new layering and switching. It isn't pretty for darlings that week, is what I mean. In that wake, something is stirring now.

I polish and submit the thing.

Okay, Now Now

"Pandora, Haunted (Or, In Which Natalia Hartlowe Bids on a Delacroix)," as excised from its slab, is happily included in Mystery Magazine's Die Laughing, published this summer. I've read each story but one, and the collection is incredible fun. 

The but one? "Pandora." Give me a minute. Having stirred a story so long, I'm stirred myself. Lost sub bases and surrendered exotic locales and no end of Godzillas? Necromancy is a long, strange trip.

12 November 2021

Random Thoughts


In a brief sojourn on social media, I spotted a post where a reader sat crying as she said, "Why did you write this book? It's hard."

The book was A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, a name I'm not familiar with. The woman's sadness at reading the book reminded me how one of the lessons in writing fiction is to elicit emotion in the reader. Looks like Hanya Yanagihara nailed it.

I have felt that way before many times. Not driven to tears but choked up. I got choked up when I finished reading Lonesome Dove the first time because I wanted 700 more pages. Felt that way when I read Adriana Trigiani's Lucia, Lucia and especially when I read Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale.

Got a little choked up when I finished writing Battle Kiss and USS Relentless because I was no longer going to be with those characters. I saddens me when I finish a Lucien Caye private eye novel because I'll miss him and Alizée and Jeannie.

Weird.

Found a quote from Thomas Harris about characters and thought I'd share it –

"Sometimes you really have to shove and grunt and sweat. Some days you go to your office and you're the only one who shows up, none of the characters show up, and you sit by yourself, felling like an idiot. And some days everybody shows up ready to work. You have to show up at your office every day. If an idea comes by, you want to be there to get it in."

Thomas Harris and cat
Thomas Harris and friend

Random thought about using active voice. I see a lot of passive voice in stories. It works but it bothers me, almost as much as a short story which begins with telling and goes on and on before the writer gets around to a scene. I know, there are many excellent stories which do this but many do not.

Active – Jimmy shot Eddie three times.

Passive –  Eddie was shot three times by Jimmy.

In a biography on PBS, I saw how J. D. Salinger followed Hemingway (and others) in saying a writer should write what he/she knows, has observed, has felt, otherwise there is no passion in the writing. "There is no fire between the words."

A friend saw this online and wondered if I wrote it because it was about me. No. I did not write it, but it's me all right.


cat

        I'm not anti-social, although I don't socialize
        Most people annoy me
        I don't like what many find as fun
        I'm happy with inexpensive things
        I like affection on my terms
        I enjoy solitude
        That's right
        I'm a cat


www.oneildenoux.com

11 November 2021

Working With A Timeline


I have written before about the importance of a believable timeline to your work-in-progress, especially to your longer pieces. The rule of thumb I have consistently followed is "the longer your piece, the more detailed your timeline needs to be."

There is an inherent logic to this maxim. The longer your piece the easier it is to lose track of pieces of your plot, either details or entire subplots. It's easy for things to get away from you over the course of a 90,000 word novel. And while it's also possible to lose the thread in a short story with a length of a few thousand words, you're less like to do so because you're juggling less words, less scenes, less characters, and less action.

Author Nancy Christie lays out a lot of great guidelines for getting the most out of your respective timeline in a blog post on her website. You can read it here.

For today's blog post I am going to offer up a detailed timeline of actual events as they occurred during a pretty emotionally charged (for myself, and my family, at least) event: my nine year-old son's recent surgery. Okay, here goes.

Tuesday, September 28th:

Doctor's appointment with a specialist regarding my son's persistent health condition. Discussion of options, including surgery to correct the condition. Decided on surgery and scheduled a call from the specialist's support staff.

Every day for the next two weeks:

Played phone tag with the specialist's support staff, who seemed unable or unwilling to call on our primary number (my wife's cell) rather than our home number. Calls to the support staff's number in response to the messages they left on our home voicemail went unanswered, requiring the leaving of multiple voicemails consisting of detailed requests for information/guidance on our part.

Tuesday, October 12th:

Finally made contact with specialist's support staff, Scheduled surgery for Tuesday, November 2nd. received instructions for pre-surgery preparation, including a flu shot and a COVID test for our son on the Sunday before his surgery. Also informed that contact via our HMO's website could sub in for actual phone contact going forward.

Every day for the next three weeks:

Played another round of phone tag with the specialist's support staff, who, yet again, seemed unable or unwilling to call on our primary number (my wife's cell) rather than our home number. Calls to the support staff's number in response to the messages they left on our home voicemail went unanswered, as did repeated email requests for information/clarification as to what other information the specialist's support staff required in addition to everything we had provided thus far. This again required the leaving of multiple voicemails consisting of detailed requests for information/guidance on our part.

Friday, October 29th:

Finally made contact with the only member of the specialist's support staff able to understand the phrase, "Please contact us on our primary number, rather than the secondary one listed in our patient profile." Very knowledgeable, and very helpful, EXCEPT when it came to setting the actual time of the surgery on Tuesday, November 2nd. Knowledgeable support staff member assured us that these schedules tended to firm up the day before said scheduled surgery. And that "someone from this department will definitely called you on Monday, November 1st, with your son's scheduled surgery time, as well as with detailed instructions for when/how to get there."

Sunday, October 31st:

Our son receives both his flu shot and his COVID test. Went trick-or-treating that night as planned. Still wading through the pile-o-candy he plundered from the willing hands of our very generous neighbors.

Monday, November 1st: 

Waited all day by the phone for the promised final call from specialist's support staff. No call was forthcoming. Finally at 3 PM called support staff number and waited on hold until after 5 PM. Finally hung up and called the 800 consulting nurse service. The consulting nurse got into the HMO's system and looked up our son's scheduled starting time for the next. Said that according to the system, our son was scheduled for surgery at 7:40 AM the following morning. We asked whether that was when he went in to surgery, or when we needed to have him there. Consulting nurse assured us that according to the information available in the H MO's system, 7:40 was when we needed to have our son there. We also received pre-surgery dietary instructions (no food after midnight, etc.).

Tuesday, November 2nd:

6:45 AM: Putting on my shoes preparatory to driving our son to the hospital, we received a call from specialist support staff. Luckily this time the call came on my wife's cell, and she was able to catch it before it went to voicemail. "Where are you?" the caller demanded. "Surgery is in an hour, and you're supposed to be here an hour before!"

My wife explained that we never received the promised call from specialist's support staff on Monday, and further how we called the consulting nurse service just to get his surgery time at all. "Nevermind that!" the caller fairly shouted. "You need to get here NOW!"

7:25 AM: After breaking the sound barrier to get to downtown Seattle in heavy early commute traffic and in the middle of a driving rainstorm (I know, heavy rain in Seattle, in November? Who'd have thought?), my wife directed me into the first available parking structure labeled with the name of the hospital where our son was scheduled for surgery. Wrong building. After several wrong directions from well-meaning employees, found the right building, and trudged 5 long blocks to it in a pouring rainstorm.

7:38 AM: Checked in at surgery front desk.

7:50 AM: Checked in by surgery staff, escorted to pre-op prep room. Quick side point: everyone on this hospital staff was friendly, professional, kind, and compassionate. From the point we checked in we were in the best of hands. In fact, the exact term we heard over and over again from the staff who took part in our son's surgery was, "We'll take good care of him." And they were as good as their word.

8:25 AM: After meeting the anesthesiologist, the surgery nurses and meeting again with the specialist who would perform  the surgery, our son was wheeled into the surgical station and placed under anesthesia. We adjourned to the waiting room to do just that.

Wait.

And wait.

And wait.

(The surgeon had assured us that the operation would take anywhere from an hour to to two hours, based on when she found when she made her incisions. Two days after this surgery, a voicemail from the surgical staff with date/time stamp of 11/2/2021 at 9:32 AM popped up on my iPhone. In it the staff member who called-my phone never rang- stated that our son was fully anesthetized and going in to surgery at that time.)

11:25 AM: My wife's cellphone battery dies. She returns to the car to both charge her phone and move the car to the parking garage for the building where our son actually had surgery.

11:28 AM: Surgical staff come find me in the waiting room after being unable to raise my wife on her cell. I go upstairs to where my son is coming out of surgery.

11:32 AM: I get a seat next to the bed where my son is being brought out of anesthesia. The specialist informs me that our son did very well and we talk about follow-up procedures and scheduling, etc. The anesthesiologist enters and begins to remove the tubes connected to my son as he's coming out of anesthesia. She and the attending nurse anesthetist cheerfully dodge my son's flailing arms as he's beginning to be aware of his surroundings, all while deftly removing every tube connected to him. It's clear that this is not their first rodeo.

12:15 PM: My wife meets us in a recovery room on the 9th floor, where we're informed that our son will need to eat something and keep it down before we can take him home. When asked what he would like to eat, our nine year-old repeatedly responded: "Nothing, I just want to go home."

2:00 PM: After repeated attempts to order food for our son (no reply to several calls to the dietary department), the recovery room nurse succeeded in contacting our specialist, who told her what she had told me when our son was coming out of anesthesia: he didn't need to eat. He could just go home. I had assured the nurse of this, but she did her job properly and, since it apparently wasn't recorded that way in our son's chart, she followed protocol until able to contact our specialist for confirmation.

2:30 PM: Our specialist, thinking she was doing us a favor, arranged for our son's post-surgery medication to be available at the busiest downtown Seattle pharmacy our HMO runs. We parked there and forty-five minutes later my long-suffering wife emerged from the building with our son's prescription in hand. At this point we realized none of us had eaten that day.

3:10 PM: After making our way out of downtown Seattle during early rush hour traffic, we pull in to a Burger King to get something in our stomachs.

3:17 PM: We order.

3:20 PM: We pay at the window.

3:35 PM: We FINALLY get our order. Which all three of us wolf down.

4:00 PM: We arrive at home.

4:03 PM: It stops raining for the first time all day. Because of COURSE it does.

4:15 PM: Our entire family crashes. Thank God for California King beds!

*************

And that's it for this particular timeline. See? If it's detailed enough, the resulting story will be the richer for it, am I right?

And on that note, that's all for me this time around.

See you in two weeks!

10 November 2021

Asking for Tea


Stanley Tucci tells this story:

     An actor complains to his director, “I’m not getting a laugh when I ask for the tea.”

     And the director says, “You’re not asking for the tea, you’re asking for the laugh.”

The audience has a nose for insincerity. You can get away with a lot, but you can’t get away with the pretense of feeling. Readers accept the necessity of researching ballistics, or migratory birds, or the sex habits of the Trobriand Islanders; they won’t accept faking it or phoning it in, not if it’s dishonest, or worse, condescending.

John D. MacDonald said that sentimentality is unearned emotion. I remember breaking down at the end of Old Yeller – the Fred Gipson book was on my summer reading list – and for good reason. You were invested in the story, even more so in the dog. (I was never a fan of the Disney movie. Spike, who played Yeller, was terrific; Tommy Kirk, not so much.) Of course, a few years later I had a similar reaction to the ending of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. I didn’t burst into tears, mind, I threw the book across the room. Again, a matter of investment. We’ve come to believe in Leamas, and have every confidence in the mission. Who would expect him to climb back down?

Here’s something. You don’t tell people how to feel. You give them a resolution that’s authentic, or persuasive, and allow for a visceral response.

You get the laugh when you ask for tea, whether it’s in character or not, because it develops naturally out of the context. You get the tears for the same reason. You don’t milk them. Oscar Wilde’s remark comes to mind: “A man would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell.” Wilde certainly didn’t mind mocking convention or having fun at someone else’s expense, but he usually pays you the compliment of assuming you’re in on the joke. True, here, of Dickens. He’s reaching for the effect. It’s all too obviously manipulative. You can hear the gears creaking.

In fairness, with all due respect to Wilde, you can find a lot in Dickens that’s genuinely chilling, or funny, or just plain sincere. That’s a tricky adjective, damning with faint praise, the way we might say a piece of art is naïve, the execution rough but its heart in the right place.  My point is that Dickens can work amazing sleights when he imagines himself into a place of his own sympathies, and writes – you guessed it – from the heart. When he tries to fake it, skilled as he is, he can’t spin gold from flax.

You can no more talk somebody into liking something – a movie you’re crazy about, say – than you can talk yourself out of being in love. Some things are simply impervious to reason, or persuasion. By the same token, you can’t make the reader believe a story by wrestling them to the mat with the brute weight of detail, not if you don’t believe in it yourself. The reader’s going to notice. You have to wear the clothes, or it’s just an empty suit.    

The word I’m looking for here is inhabit. You want a lived-in kind of conviction, a sense of the familiar, a confidence that gains your trust. Years ago, Matthew Bruccoli and Richard Layman bought one of my first mystery stories for an anthology, and in their introduction, they quoted Hammett, from “The Gutting of Couffignal.” The Continental Op is settling in for the night with a borrowed book, and he describes it like this.

The book was called The Lord of the Sea, and had to do with a strong, tough and violent fellow… whose modest plan was to hold the world in one hand. There were plots and counterplots, kidnappings, murders, prisonbreakings, forgeries and burglaries, diamonds large as hats and floating forts larger than Couffignal.

It sounds dizzy here, but in the book it was as real as a dime.


Now there’s a nice turn of phrase, as real as a dime.  I’ll leave it at that.  

09 November 2021

Walking With Your Head Up





 To no one's surprise, the booking section of my local jail does not have any windows. My office is in the basement of the criminal courts building. No windows there either. As a COVID precaution, I usually see prisoners these days using a video camera. When I am required to visit in person, the most efficient route is a tunnel running between the two buildings. 

    The point of all this detail is that in the course of my regular duties, I don't see the outside world all that often. To keep me conversationally relevant, I will try each day to break away between dockets and take a walk. I'm told it's healthy. From the courthouse, a short hike downhill brings me to the banks of the Trinity River. A bike path hugs the south bank. There I can choose east or west. I make decisions for a living. I can handle it. 

    Many days, I choose east. A branch of the community college is that way. They have an open-air plaza. It is pretty. A set of long, granite stairs brings me from the riverbank back up to street level. I usually walk along Belknap Avenue past the historic courthouse and return to my building. 

    The short walk passes by businesses, through nature, and beside the buildings of government. On a good day, I'll encounter joggers and cyclists. I pass by the homeless, sometimes carrying on conversations with people only they can see. I watch litigants and tourists. The walk provides a rich mix. I routinely meet one rollerblader. He flies by with a smooth stroke and graceful elegance. He reminds me of a Dutch speed skater in the Winter Olympics. I look forward to watching him flash by me. 

    The other day, there was a freedom rally on the steps of the old courthouse, the picturesque one. The assembled mass was against vaccine mandates, against stolen elections, and against allowing freedom to wither. They were, however, decidedly pro-flag. The lawn in front of the courthouse was bedecked with American and Texas flags, the yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags and the white "Come and Take It" flags also added some diversity. 

    Sadly, I had to leave before the speeches really got going. 

    In a talk, I once referred to myself as a "life collector." I gather up tidbits of encounters. If I'm fortunate, I can slap them into a collage and send them out as the occasional short story. These walks and these people provide great opportunities to work on my collection. 

    The other day I encountered a homeless man. He was wearing a green t-shirt with a silhouette of a dog on it. Above the dog, the shirt said, "I Shih Tzu not." He got tucked away in my mental file. I don't know where he'll resurface, but rest assured, he'll find a place in a story someday. 

    On Belknap, there sits an old jewelry store. It's closed now and the windows are boarded with plywood. A coffee shop operates out of the back end of the building. The building predates many of the government buildings which surround it. If you imagine the jewelry store as the center of a compass, to the west is the criminal justice center, my building. About the same distance to the east sits the family court building. Walk one block north and one arrives at the county's adult probation department. Living at the center of all this divorce and criminality, it's a small wonder that the jewelry store relocated to a more commercially viable part of town. The building, however, remains
(Coffee shop is the small sign on the right)

    Somedays I pass by and imagine the proprietor hanging on to his small piece of real estate, making his living off desperate lawyers who realized that today was their anniversary. Other times, I think about the odd juxtaposition of the coffee shop/jewelry store. I imagine patrons stopping by to pick up a cappuccino and impulse buying a Rolex. More often, I think about all those criminals and alleged criminals spilling out of the jail, courthouse, and probation departments walking by the storefront and seeing those attractive temptations, the glittering gems in the unboarded windows. 

    Many of the pedestrian musings about the Credit Jewelers coalesced in Dry Bones, my story in the current edition of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Where do story ideas come from? This one has a specific address, the corner of Belknap and Houston streets in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. 

    The story centers on the characters and their interactions within and around that place. Back in September, DoolinDalton ran a column on using setting as a character.  Because of the strictures of length in a short story, I didn't do much to bring the store into the story. I didn't bog the narrative down with smells or sounds or many other details to give a complete sense of place. The location isn't a character in the story, it is an inspiration. 

    Dry Bones exists because of a walk I took and the things I noticed along the way. On my rambles, nearly everyone I see wears headphones. I don't like to. They miss out on opportunities to collect the odd tidbits which might make up the next tale. Walk with your head up, you might be surprised what you'll collect. I Shih Tzu not. 

    Until next time.   

08 November 2021

Halloween: The (Literary) Flip Side


 by Steve Liskow

As crime/mystery writers, we've all probably written our share of Halloween-themed stories. Even if they don't sell, they're a convenient writing prompt when the cuboard is otherwise bare. Halloween, a week before Guy Fawkes Day for the British and only another week to Veterans' Day. Halloween and Samhain have become the autumnal duet, the night before All Saints' Day.

But what about the B-side, exactly six months earlier? Many writers have used that one, too, even though we may not notice it as readily.

Christianity has borrowed (Okay, stolen) from other religions since the beginning. Christmas and the Winter Solstice have merged. The vernal equinox, the myth of Mithras, Beltane, and various fertility rites have become Easter. But the writer's favorite may be Walpurgisnacht, April 30. Walpurga (various spellings) was a Polish priest canonized by the Catholic church centuries ago. Tradition asserts that the supernatural forces roam free on that night, and celebrants in parts of Europe light bonfires to keep the evil spirits at bay. And many writers have mixed the elements into stories we all know.

In the early English calendar, "Midsummer," which we'd expect to be in early August, was actually May first, a fertility rite (As in Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"), with the Maypole that Nathaniel Hawthorne erected in Merrymount for one of his short stories.


Midsummer day followed Walpurgisnacht (April 30, remember?) and A Midsummer Night's Dream chronicles the night on which Shakespeare's young lovers get lost in the woods outside Athens so Oberon, Titania and Puck can cast spells upon them and the rude mechanicals. It all leads to a happy ending, though. Theseus marries Hippolyta, Lysander marries Hermia, and Demetrius marries Helena, all on May 1, presumably fruitful unions. I directed  the play in 1993 and played Wall in another production in 2001.

Sometime between those two productions, I worked with a director and a co-producer to wrestle Goethe's Faust, the two-part epic, down to a manageable length for a one-night presentation. The work is over 11,000 lines, nearly three times as long as Hamlet, Shakespeare's longest play, and we managed to cut over half of it and remain coherent. Goethe names a scene in Part I  "Walpurgisnacht," and a scene in Part II "Classical Walpurgisnacht." It was appropriate for our production, a summer show in a non-air-conditioned factory. With the stage lights, it was hot as hell. 

That same Walpurgisnacht is the day Bram Stoker sends the unsuspecting Jonathan Harker to Transylvania to visit Count Dracula's castle. Several beautiful women approach him with bad intentions, but the Count stops him before they can enjoy the fresh young blood he wants for himself.

More recently, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has three acts, and Albee called the second one "Walpurgisnacht." It follows "Fun and Games," in which Geroge and Martha welcome the unsuspecting Nick and Honey into their home. It's where the brutal psychological battle takes place, leading to "The Exorcism," in which George finally gets the upper hand on Martha and demolishes their own life of lies and delusions. The first act has lots of humor, but people tend to forget that when the demons come out to dance later on. I directed the play in 1996, one of my favorite projects. 


Last, and probably least, a case I only discovered last week when I was researching this post, Black Sabbath's perennial FM hit "War Pigs" was originally titled "Walpurgisnacht." I'm guessing they changed it because Ozzy Osbourne couldn't pronounce it.

Have you ever tried a Walpurgisnacht story? What other tales have I missed?

07 November 2021

Professional Tips – Kindle Edition


e-reader spilling books

Blatant Teaser

If you’re a Kindle owner and avid consumer of ebooks, today’s hottest tip will more than repay the price of your SleuthSayers subscription. This article includes a startlingly simple way to open your Kindle to the vast library of ePub titles available to everyone… except Kindle users.

Most of my comments are directed toward the Kindle PaperWhite. The Kindle Fire is a different machine with different capabilities. For example, you can ‘side-load’ Android apps to read formats and read aloud that the Kindle e-Ink tablets won’t allow.

But first…

Self-editing is at best problematic. Once a draft is completed, we must first rid a text of errors and then refine and smooth the writing. I’m not alone in this, but I may be more prone to skid-reading than many of my colleagues.

In latter stages of the editing process, I read a story aloud and have the computer read it back to me. I’ve discovered reading from different platforms (laptop, desktop, tablet, even a printed page) often reveals bugs that may have lurked for ages, defying me to spot them.

I like to take a break from the computer, load a document on my tablet, put my feet up on the sofa, and either read or let the tablet read to me. Android and Apple app stores offer several free programs that will do this. Most accept the world’s most common format, .ePub, but not the proprietary Amazon formats, AZW, AZW3, KF8, KFX, MOBI, and so on. Likewise, Kindles refuse to read ePub formats, locking readers into the Amazon ‘eco-system’.

One of the early Kindle models would read aloud documents, but what Amazon giveth (albeit for lots of money), Amazon taketh away. When Amazon announced that functionality had returned in later PaperWhite models, they limited it to Kindle commands for the visually impaired and Audible™ books.

Proprietary formats have been a problem throughout the ereader industry, following the same history of word processors, the first practical programs for personal computers. Companies would throw up fences around their products, refusing to write to ‘foreign’ file types and making it as difficult as possible for others to read theirs. The most common ebook format is ePub, the open technical standard published by the International Digital Publishing Forum, a standard Kindle will not read.

eReaders

  • Amazon Kindle dominates about 80% of the North American market, much less so in other parts of the world. Its native formats are .azw and .mobi.
  • Rakuten Kobo (Kobo is an anagram of book) is the only major global competitor to Amazon. They sell worldwide, everywhere except the US. That may change with their partnership with Walmart.
  • Pocketbook is sold mainly in Oceania and states of the former Soviet Union.
  • Barnes & Noble Nook (and Samsung Nook) was one of the first ereaders on the market, quickly steamrolled by Amazon. They have a spotty market mostly in the US.

eFFective (not)

I have a relatively recent Kindle PaperWhite that I occasionally use, but its strict limitations on what I can load onto it usually leave it on the shelf. Seldom do I bother to create .mobi files just for the Kindle. It’s far easier to use an iPad or Android tablet with free third-party apps to read free ebooks.

eAuthors?

I’ve been experimenting loading on Microsoft Word .docx and .rtf files. Using the eReader, I can mark up manuscripts by pressing a word, expanding the range of the word if necessary, and then typing in a note of the text I want to change. Unlike a Word-type app on a tablet where I might change the text directly, I’m restricted to marking up text, but that can be useful.

In-Line Markups
  List of Markups
Kindle screen with notes and highlights
Kindle screen with notes expanded

Usually I note the change, which I then effect when I return to my computer. Initially, I keyed in ‘Del’ for deletion of a word or phrase, but now I simply highlight the words (using the same mechanism), which serves to remind me what has to go.

Kindle notation number in box

The main visual difference is that a note will contain an identifying superscript number in a tiny box. When tapped, the note pops up in a window.

Amazon.com can display Kindle notes and highlights in a browser window, which would be wonderfully convenient for editing but… forget that route for now. Once again, Amazon permits browser viewing of notes only for books purchased from them. Amazon giveth, Amazon taketh away.

In case you’re wondering, that special URL is

SleuthSayers Auto-Magical, Tremendous, Stupendous,
Super-Fantastically All Powerful, Fabulous Kindle Tip

You have a Kindle PaperWhite and would like to read an .epub file on it, one that Amazon won’t allow. If you email it to your kindle.com address, you’ll receive a message like this:

Dear Customer,
The following document, sent at 11:04 PM on Sat, Nov 06, 2021
GMT could not be delivered to the Kindle you specified:
    * ExoticEroticRomanceNo54.epub

Uh-oh. But try the following additional step, which might be a programmer’s ‘back door’. I have no other logical explanation why this works… it just does.

  1. Rename your ebook extension from .epub to .png … that’s right, the graphics format. For example, rename your novel
     ExoticEroticRomanceNo54.epub
               to
     ExoticEroticRomanceNo54.png
  2. Email it to your kindle.com address as usual. You do have one of those, don’t you? It’s mentioned in your Kindle settings.
  3. Transfer should take only moments, but grab a coffee, then see if your story is on your Kindle.

Did it work? Thank us later!

e-reader spilling books

06 November 2021

Hooked on Crime(ucopia)


  

It's not often that a publisher produces crime anthologies one after the other in a very short period of time. One did, though, this year: John Connor, at the England-based Murderous Ink Press. I found out about them this spring via a routine Google search for mystery anthology calls, and wound up submitting a story for the third in their series of Crimeucopia editions--The Cosy Nostra. They responded with an acceptance, and the publication of the atho was as prompt as the acceptance had been. Since then, they have published five more books, and there'll probably be another one upcoming before the editor, who's had some health problems, suspends publication for six months.

As it turns out, I have partners in Crimeucopia: the work of some of my fellow SleuthSayers has appeared in the pages of these anthologies. Stories written by Eve Fisher and Michael Bracken were featured in We're All Animals Under the Sun; stories by Eve and me appeared in The Cosy Nostra, and stories by me have been published in three more since then: Dead Man's Hand, As in Funny Ha-Ha or Just Peculiar, and The I's Have It. If I've left any SSers out, please let me know in the comments section below and I'll update this post to include your names.

Here's a complete list of (I think) all the Crimeucopia anthologies this year:

The Lady Thrillers, Feb 2021 -- 16 crime stories by women authors

We're All Animals Under the Sun, March 2021 -- 18 stories of motivations, actions, and reactions

The Cosy Nostra, June 2021 -- 17 mostly-cozy crime stories

Dead Man's Hand, July 2021 -- five western novellas

As in Funny Ha-Ha, or Just Peculiar, July 2021 -- 21 humorous or odd (or both) stories

Careless Love, Sep 2021 -- 15 affairs of the heart

The I's Have It, Oct 2021 -- 12 detective/private-eye tales (and a mucho-cool bookcover)

It's Always Raining in Noir City, Nov 2021 -- 16 noir stories

Tales from the Back Porch, coming in Dec 2021 or Jan 2022  


Have any of you read these? If so, please let me know what you think. By the way, many of my writer friends besides Eve and Michael have been published there as well (or soon will be), including Jim Doherty, Adam Meyer, Joan Leotta, Judy Penz Sheluk, Robert Petyo, Bern Sy Moss, M. C. Tuggle, Jan Christensen, Brandon Barrows, and Wil A. Emerson.

I must mention here that John Connor has been great to work with, and I've also been pleased with all the stories I've read in the three paperback Crimeucopias that I have on my shelf (I've not yet received my author copy of The I's Have It). I think Eve and Michael would agree with me there, and I'm sure I can speak for all of us in wishing John a speedy recovery. I hope there'll be more Murderous Ink crime anthologies to come.

I'm also hoping we'll continue to see more books of this kind by other publishers as well. If so, good luck to all of us in getting our stories into them. Keep writing!

Back again in two weeks . . .





05 November 2021

James Bond: What Now?


I just saw No Time to Die at the theater with my two stepsons. It'll probably be the last such outing. (Until Matt or Austin or both approach me about one of the bigger Marvel movies in the pipeline.) Not the greatest Bond, but probably in my top 10 (a post I'll save for my own blog.) As it stands, it's a fitting end for Daniel Craig's Bond. Aside from being a much better Bond than Sean Connery in some people's minds, mine not one of them, Craig and those responsible for his movies redefined the character. By the time Pierce Brosnan hung up the Walther and called it a mission, we were supposed to believe that the guy Sean Connery played in a Hitchcockian thriller set in Jamaica in 1963 was the same guy Brosnan played in a silly, overblown explosion-fest in 2002. Craig's Bond exists in one self-contained story.

Now some franchises can stretch out over decades, possibly a century. One can see Doctor Who or Star Trek going that long. But both are science fiction, and Trek, with occasional revisionist backstory, sprawls across centuries. It's even spawned its own sitcom, Lower Decks. But Bond?

The self-contained story arc probably saved James Bond from the cultural scrap heap. Connery's Bond somehow survived across four decades and five actors. While adjustments were made - Moore eventually fought evil corporations, Dalton the war on drugs, and Brosnan anyone wanting to crack the post-Cold War peace - Bond was essentially the suave manly man who bedded half the women who crossed his path. Craig's was a guy who realized he was good at two things: Finding threats and killing people. His Bond is angry, quickly worn out, and paranoid by the end of his tale. His James Bond will not return.

But James Bond will return. The question is: In what form?

Obviously, after the events of No Time to Die, a new continuity is called for. The new Bond will be in his own storyline.


Or maybe her. While I don't think a female Bond would work - the name is James Bond - a female 007 might. Some have even suggested moving Naomie Harris front and center and giving Moneypenny the iconic codename. After all, we first see Harris's Moneypenny shooting Bond. She is, after all, a field agent in the beginning and occasionally goes out to assist. Plus Harris has the gravitas to carry a Bond movie. At the same time, should they decide carry on the current continuity, Bond has already been replaced as 007 with a female agent as aggressive and rebellious as any of the Bond's. A female character stepping in for a missing Bond addresses two issues: Some want a female Bond despite the character being unapologetically male, and there really is a dearth of female characters in roles like these. EON considered spinning off Wei Linn (Michella Yeoh) and Jinx (Halle Berry) but could not get the Hollywood calculus to work. A new character - or elevating Moneypenny's position - would fit nicely in this scenario.

But rebooted continuity, as done in 2006 with the real Casino Royale (1967's version doesn't count. It was a parody.) opens up all sorts of possibilities. Already, Idris Elba was considered to do a new Bond when Craig's return was in doubt. Fun fact: Elba's costar on The Wire, Dominic West, was considered for Casino Royale. A black James Bond? If he's English. (Except where he was played by a Scot, an Australian, a Welsh man, and an Irishman.) That's opened the door for Bridgerton's Rege-Jean Page to don the tuxedo.

Of course, more traditional choices remain in the running. Henry Cavill and Tom Hardy are the frontrunners. And why not? They look like Bond as Fleming described him. Richard Madden of Game of Thrones fame also is in the running. It's likely the new Bond will be in the Timothy Dalton mold, which Craig was in personality though not looks. But even a racial change will probably still require some resemblance to Bond, something Elba could have pulled off a few years ago. (And actually, now that I think of it, wouldn't Elba make a great M? Or Q? There is nothing scarier than Stringer Bell, in an almost cockney accent, warning Bond, "And bring back the equipment in pristine condition.")

So, it's not what the new Bond will look like. There are more options now than when Brosnan stepped aside. The question is what is Bond? When Craig stepped in, the Cold War still echoed in our ears, the "special relationship" between the UK and US still held, and Brext wasn't even thought of. Now Britain is not only on its own, Scotland still threatens to bolt the union. The special relationship is dysfunctional, and the EU is now "those other people." The climate is a bigger enemy than any country, terrorist organization, or company. Some may dispute that, but countries find it more profitable to trade than to invade. Terrorist organizations often find themselves exposed by the very Internet platforms they use to coalesce. And corporations? Some might say they're the real enemy, but just as often, they're the targets. How do I know? I often go into Walmart's book section, see something I want, and order it off Amazon out of spite. (I've done this in Target, but only because they ran out of something I needed. That, and their vinyl section sucks.)

Bond has to exist in a post-pandemic world connected by toxic social media where traditional alliances have frayed. By the end of the next Bond's run, Blofeld might not be some angry WWII refugee or Bond's long-lost foster brother. He - or she - might be an AI. Another virus could sweep the world. And let us not forget who the Q in QAnon is - some hacker in his mom's basement. (Why I only made it ten minutes into that HBO series before I had to choke the urge to throw my laptop across the room. It's a nice laptop.) Bond may no longer be blowing up hidden lairs in hollowed-out volcanoes. Instead, he'll be blowing up server farms, labs full of ebola and small pox, or even a two-bedroom house in New Jersey.

Bond will look very different in his next outing. 

But James Bond will return.

04 November 2021

Nature's Bounty?


One of the great things about this time of year is that, even after Halloween, people are racing to give you new ideas on ghosts, goblins, and how to kill people, with or without Nature's little helpers.  Two articles from Atlas Obscura leapt out to me:

First of all, consider the Manchineel Tree*.  Related to poinsettias, it's a nice looking tree, with fruit that looks kind of like the "little green apples" of the old Roger Miller song (older than dirt). 


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manchineel#/media/File:Hippomane_mancinella_(fruit).jpg

BUT:

You might be tempted to eat the fruit. Do not eat the fruit. You might want to rest your hand on the trunk, or touch a branch. Do not touch the tree trunk or any branches. Do not stand under or even near the tree for any length of time whatsoever. Do not touch your eyes while near the tree. Do not pick up any of the ominously shiny, tropic-green leaves. If you want to slowly but firmly back away from this tree, you would not find any argument from any botanist who has studied it.  Supposedly it killed Ponce de Leon.  (Manchineel Tree)

Gives new meaning to the Genesis admonition "if you eat of the tree you will surely die."  Now I think that the average mystery writer can think of a couple of ways of utilizing the Manchineel Tree, with the help of say, some rubber gloves and mass disposal of all cooking utensils, and I'll just leave that idea simmering away in the back of your minds.

The Manchineel tree (Hippomane mancinella) is found in the Caribbean, Central America, the northern edges of South America, and south Florida. Florida, of course, is host to other toxic plants, including the spotted water hemlock, (Cicuta maculata, a/k/a spotted parsley, spotted cowbane, and the suicide root) which looks like this:


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cicuta_maculata#/media/File:Cicuta_maculata.jpg

Occasionally mistaken for parsnips, this is considered to be North America's most toxic plant. "A quarter-inch of the stem is enough to kill a person" according to naturalist and botanist Roger Hammer, a naturalist and botanist. Unfortunately for us all, the range of the spotted water hemlock is the entire freaking United States, and I can show you a lovely crop growing up along the Big Sioux River here in Sioux Falls.

Or perhaps it's actually cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum), which grows everywhere, and is tall, herbaceous, and looks like a much larger, taller, thicker Queen Anne's Lace (daucus carota, a/k/a wild carrot).  According to Alaska's Poisonous Plants

"The sap of this plant contains various phototoxic chemicals that can make the skin (especially light skin) extremely sensitive to sunlight and more prone to sunburn. Skin contact with juice from the plant followed by exposure to sunlight can cause dermatitis, which can range from a mild, red rash to severe skin blistering."

Well, I'm not going to wade in to find out.  But people actually ate cow parsnips and lived.  From Wikipedia:

"The young stems and leafstalks were peeled and usually eaten raw, while early American settlers cooked the plant.[25] In terms of taste, texture, and nutrients, the peeled stalks resembled celery, which gave rise to the common name "Indian celery". The natives were aware of the toxic effects of the plant, knowing that if the outer skin were not removed, one would get an "itchy mouth" or blistering skin.[4][26] Pregnant women were warned away from the flower bud stalks to prevent newborns from asphyxiating when crying."

And this leads to (me, at least) the eternal question, how in the world did humans learn to eat some of this stuff?  

Take ginkgo seeds, from the ginkgo tree.  The ginkgo is the oldest living tree species on earth, an actual “living fossil” that's existed in their current form as far as the Middle Jurassic Period, or 170 million years ago (my emphasis added).  And they're very popular.  Their green fan-shaped leaves are aesthetic and pleasing, and turn a beautiful gold in autumn.  They can grow anywhere, through anything.  But a lot of people are severely allergic to their pollen, and their fruit stinks - "like vomit-laced poop" - and is inedible. (I would strongly advise against ginkgo supplements, no matter how hard they're pitching you.)  What you can eat is the cooked nuts - after a long, involved process requiring gloves and other precautions. And even then, the nuts contain trace amounts of a neurotoxin that can cause nausea and headaches, so you should only eat 10 nuts a day.  (Atlas Obscura)

But ginkgo is a more or less a garnish food.  What's even more fascinating to me is when people take something that is absolutely poisonous and transform it into edibility through a long, involved process of grinding, boiling, rinsing, leaching, etc. - how in the world did they survive to find out that the product would be edible?  Think about acorns and cassava.  

Acorns have bitter tannins, which interfere with the ability to metabolize protein. In order for humans to eat them, they have to be chopped and then soaked in several changes of water, until the water no longer turns brown. This can take several days. After that, they can be ground up and used like flour.

And there's manioc, a/k/a cassava.  Cassava root has cyanide in it, so it obviously has to be prepared carefully. Sweet cassava should be peeled, chopped up small, boiled until very tender, and the cooking water discarded. Bitter cassava (which is often grown because the animals won't eat it) has to be soaked in water for 4–6 days, boiled until tender, and then all the cooking water discarded.

Well, people aren't eating many acorns anymore, but cassava is the main carbohydrate for much of Africa and South America.  And people are still getting poisoned by it:  In 2017, 28 people died in Venezuela from cyanide poisoning from being sold raw bitter cassava roots instead of sweet cassava roots.  (They look alike, apparently.)  (El Pais)

Either way, whether it's ginkgo seeds, cow parsnips, acorns or cassava, what runs through my mind is a Monty Python routine:  

"Nuts, roots and seeds! Nuts, roots and seeds! Come and get your fresh nuts, roots and seeds!"

"Hey, there, my husband tried that root.  Took one bite and dropped dead, he did."

"Well, madam, we don't guarantee safety. You could try cooking it."

"Cook it? You didn't say nothing about cooking it."

"Haven't you heard? Everything's better if it's cooked. Or ground up a bit."

"My Aunt tried that. Ground it up cause she'd lost all her teeth. Took one bite and she dropped dead, too."

"Well, I've heard that some people are chopping it up, and rinsing it a few times first."

"How many times do you rinse it?"

[Shrugging] "Trial and error. Depends on the root. You got any relatives you don't like to try it out on?"

"Well, there's me husband's crowd from the shore. Bunch of clam eaters."

"And if that doesn't work, you could boil the hell out of it, and then drain it all off."

"It all sounds like an awful lot of work. Don't you have any potatoes?"

"Not for another three thousand years. Meanwhile, you get this right, and you could have a nice bowl of tapioca pud for your tea."

"Well, I suppose it would make a change...  I'll take two. But mind, if this doesn't work, I'm sticking with cattails."

Happy post-Halloween!




*Political Sidenote - the Manchineel tree is so toxic I propose calling Joe Manchin "Manchineel Joe".


03 November 2021

Welcome to Avram Davidson's Universe


Avram Davidson was an unusual writer.  He won two Edgar Awards (mystery), a Hugo Award (science fiction), and three World Fantasy Awards.  Some of us haven't won any of those.

Born in Yonkers, NY, he was a Marine medic during WWII. He first published as a Talmudic scholar .He ghost-authored two of Ellery Queen's novels. He edited the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. 

He was a shepherd in Palestine just before the birth of the state of Israel.  He spent part of his life in Mexico and Belize, and lived in Bellingham, WA, a few years before I got here, alas.

Eccentric or protean don't begin to cover the guy.

My favorite of his works is a novella called "The Lord of Central Park."  I once described it like this:

... the simple story of a young lady from New Jersey and her encounters with a pickpocket, the Mafia, the NAFIA, an Albanian Trotskyite who wants to blow up the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Hudson River Pirates, and, of course, the Lord High Keeper of the Queen's Bears, who lives in a cave in Central Park.  Okay, maybe I lied about it being a simple story.

Davidson tended toward the baroque in language and he had a ton of historical and geographic knowledge to add detail to his fiction.


I was recently contacted by Seth Davis who has started a podcast called the Avram Davidson Universe and he invited me to  be his guest on an episode to discuss my other favorite Davidson extravaganza, "The Necessity of His Condition."  You can hear a very professional reading of the story in the podcast, by the way.  That episode went live this week and it is available ffree.

Seth was kind enough to answer a few questions for me:

What is your connection to Avram?

Avram was married to my mom.  They divorced but remained very close. They continued to collaborate on many books.   Avram became my Godfather and for a variety of reasons his literary estate passed to me.

Favorite memories of Avram?

When I was 13 Avram was very involved in helping me through my Bar Mitzvah.  He made the best soups!  Later when he became wheelchair bound we had a grand time as I pushed him down Clement street in San Francisco.

Did you meet any mystery writers through him?

It wasn’t until Covid hit that I really had time to start reading his stories and understanding what an incredible writer Avram was. I knew him more as a doting Godfather than as a writer. Since my mom was a writer as well we had all sorts of authors who came by our house.  Philip K. Dick, Robert Silverberg, Greg Benford certainly came by. I never met any writers who were solely focused on mystery. Dick Lupoff was very sweet and he helped my mom publish The Investigations of Avram Davidson which is an anthology of Avram’s mystery stories.    Avram did live with us when I was younger and I know Harlan Ellison came by and I have vague memories of meeting Harlan. Michael Kurland was probably the writer I remember the most. He was and still is such a kind man.

Tell us about your podcast.

The Avram Davidson Universe Podcast is dedicated to keeping Avram’s legacy alive. In each episode we perform a reading and discussion of his works with a special guest

Plans for future publications?

Most exciting right now is Beer! Beer! Beer! will be going live on December 14.  It is a historical fiction/crime/mystery novel based on the true story of the crime boss Dutch Schultz who was piping beer under the streets of Yonkers during prohibition.  I am actually looking for a handful of avid readers especially Davidson fans for my ARC team who would get an early copy of the book to review. If folks are interested they can contact me at www.avramdavidson.com

One of my beta readers described the story as an amazing glimpse of Americana, beautifully told and that the way the characters converged with all their short stories reminded her of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

Unfortunately when my mom passed Avram’s literary estate was disorganized. My goal over the next 10 years it to make sure everything is organized. I want to make sure every story Avram wrote is available.  This includes some incredible unpublished stories like Beer! Beer! Beer!.  We recently published Skinny which was a semi-autobiographical short story about Avram’s time as a medic in China post World War II.  In 2022 we will be publishing Dragons in the Trees which is Avram’s exciting Belize travel journal. In 2023 we will be publishing AD 100 - 100 of Avram’s unpublished or uncollected short stories in honor of his 100th birthday.